And A Child Shall Lead Them

How 11 Year-old Activist Naomi Wadler is Changing the World

By Marion Hercyl

On March 24, the –year-old fifth-grader was onstage speaking at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C.  During her three-minute speech, she spoke decisively about the lack of sustained media attention that Black women and girls receive when they are impacted by gun violence.  “I represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential,” she said.  “I am here to say never again for those girls too.”

Her speech was quickly circulated online, earning her fans like Sen. Kamala Harris, Shonda Rhimes, Tessa Thompson and Ellen DeGeneres.  In the weeks following her launch into the national conversation, she says the whole experience has been “weird,” but was still ready to use her new platform to give journalists some strong advice.

“The media can pay attention; I feel that a lot of them are very ignorant,” she said, stressing that this ignorance is particularly clear when it comes to white journalists perpetuation racial stereotypes about Black and brown people.  “It’s the racial imbalance in the reporting that starts a chain reaction where then, other people start to believe that.”

Wadler is certainly extraordinary.  The fifth-grader first made headlines when she and classmate Carter Anderson planned a walkout at their elementary school in Alexandria, VA, in the wake of the Parkland shooting in February. On March 14, more than 60 students joined Wadler ad Anderson in an 18-minute protest – one minute for each victim of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and an extra minute for Courtlin Arrington, a 17-year-old Black high school student shot and killed in an Alabama classroom days earlier. 

But Wadler is also still a kid.  She giggles over the phone, does her interviews with her mother nearby, and has big, beautiful dreams not yet encumbered by the cynicism that so often accompanies getting older.

At Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit on Saturday, she reiterated the power young people hold.  “I’m not an 11-year-old girl who they can just hug and kiss,” she said.  “I can deliver a message.” 

During a phone interview ahead of the summit, Wadler spoke with reporters about her newly expansive platform, her hopes for the future, and her advice for us adults – especial adult journalists.  Us old folks, often forget just how smart kids are in general – and how thoughtful, knowledgeable and opinionated we might have been at 9 or 11 or 15.

As Wadler explained, it’s on adults to check ourselves, step back and listen to young people.  “They see the world through a different set of eyes”, she said. 

When asked how does it feel to have so many adults obsessed with her right now, Wadler answered, “I live in my house and I have my two dogs and my sister who I fight with and my mom who picks out dresses with me – and people don’t know who I am, and now they do.  So it’s a little weird?”  That being said, she is well known now and is considered an activist.  But for an 11-year-old, wise beyond her years, she said she really hadn’t thought about it.  “I feel like I’m just standing up for what’s right.  I’m not really, like, ‘Ah, I’m an activist’, I’m just making the change.  I’m not going onto the streets of D.C. and screaming for my causes.”

In the interview, Naomi was asked about her involvement in the “March for Our Lives” rally where she delivered her now famous speech, and why the message she really wanted to drive home to people was the African-American girls, whose stories don’t make the front page of national newspapers.  She answered, “Because, I mean, it’s my story.  I don’t think that a white girl could have gotten up there and explained how this was unjust and how this is unfair and that she felt so bad.  Because she hasn’t lived it, she doesn’t know what it’s like.  So I think it was my story so it was a lot easier for me to put into words.”

Naomi continues to take her message to the public.  In a recent appearance on the Ellen Show where she continued to discuss the role of young people, and took the opportunity to again, advocate for young Black girls.  When asked what she wanted her peers to take away from seeing her in such public profiles, she said, “I hope that girls, especially Black girls, realize that they have worth, and they can do whatever they want to do.  And they’re not restricted by the lines of poverty or racism, and they can to as much and more than I’ve amounted to.”  She continued, “They can give speeches, they can become activists if they choose to identify that way.  They can read books, they can empower girls.  They should know that they’re worth something.  They’re not worthless and they can make a difference too.” 

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