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Teenagers that changed the world

As teens in Florida eloquently rise up against gun violence, we look at the young people making political waves across the world

Young people are rising up. We’ve had enough of backwards politics, extortionate student fees and the facilitation of mass shootings in schools. We don’t want our futures to be dictated by elite elders who patronise us, contradict themselves and basically just keep fucking up.

The past two weeks have been a testament to the youth revolution. Teens in the US have been tirelessly protesting against gun violence, while over in the UK on Wednesday Stormzy spoke for a generation when he called out Theresa May’s inaction over the Grenfell fire. But no matter how powerfully we speak or how much of a point we have, youth passion, anger and activism are too often dismissed as young people throwing their toys out the pram.

So it comes as no surprise that grown-up, real-life adults are trolling students from the Florida school shooting on Twitter. Following the death of 17 people at a Parkland high school, US teens have come out in full force to call BS on the country’s gun laws. As well as staging a die-in outside the White House, teens have taken to Twitter to implore the importance of gun control. And it’s here they face ridicule from blue-tick keyboard warriors.

“Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs,” ‘filmmaker, author and speaker’ Dinesh D’Souza replied to a photograph of traumatised teens watching Florida lawmakers continue to support the sale of guns. Not only is this heartless – and a cheap shot – but it echoes the contempt for youth voices that we’re seeing around the world.

Just last month the BES released a report claiming that young people didn’t actually have as much impact in the 2017 UK election as previously thought. Our ‘youthquake’ was merely a youth tremor, they said, and of course the press lapped it up. But young people have been making political waves since the beginning of time. No matter how it’s articulated, whether through social media, strikes or marches, youth activism is a powerful force to be reckoned with. To remind you how boss we actually are, here’s nine activist teens who prove that 16-year-olds should be running our countries.


Subject of the 2015 BAFTA-nominated He Named Me Malala and youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai is undoubtedly one of the most inspiring, and well-known teens that ever walked this earth.

At just 12-years-old, Yousafzai was already an outspoken supporter of girls’ education rights in her Taliban-controlled hometown in Pakistan. After quickly rising to prominence through her campaigning, she received death threats from the Taliban and was shot by a gunman on a school bus in 2012, aged just 15. After surviving the attack Yousafzai moved to the UK, and despite her near-death experience, continued to be an inspiring ambassador for female education, establishing the Malala Fund just one year later.


Jazz Jennings was just seven-years-old when she found herself in the public eye. Regarded as one of the youngest people ever to identify as transgender, Jennings took to the spotlight to campaign for trans rights, becoming an inspirational role model.

In 2007 she and her family co-founded the TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation to support and assist transgender youth. Jennings also went on to be the focus of a documentary and reality TV series, and penned a memoir in 2016. Now just 17-years-old, she continues to be an LGBTQ+ rights activist, telling Dazed in 2016: “Because of me putting myself out there and my family sharing our story, (people have said) we’ve been able to have a huge impact on their lives.”


After being sexually harassed at a gig in Glasgow, 17-year-old Hannah Camilleri shared her story online and was quickly flooded with responses from others with similar experiences. Inspired by the support and outraged at the prevalence of sexual assault at gigs, Camilleri and her friends set up Girls Against.

Launched in October 2015, the collective, who describe themselves on their website as ‘teenage intersectional feminists’, aims to open up a discussion between fans, bands and the organisers of gigs in order to put a stop to harassment. Since launching, the group have interviewed and gained support from numerous bands, been featured in publications nationwide and have an active blog covering everything from album reviews to feminist think-pieces.


Aged 17, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is a climate activist, hip-hop artist and has already made three speeches at the UN. WTF have you been doing? His mother founded the environmental awareness organisation Earth Guardians in 1992, of which Martinez is now Youth Director and spokesperson. Giving speeches around the world since he was six-years-old, the teenager wants to educate his peers about the state of the planet.

The Colorado-based teenager is also one of 21 youths involved in a lawsuit suing the US government and the Donald Trump administration for failing to act on climate change. Addressing the UN in New York aged 15, Martinez said: “What’s at stake right now is the existence of my generation.”


Star of the American sitcom Black-ish and its spin-off Grown-ishYara Shahidi is mobilising her influence as an 18-year-old role model to inspire young people to get involved in politics and activism. Shahidi is particularly outspoken when it comes to representation in Hollywood, expressing the importance of more complicated and layered characters as oppose to one-dimensional stereotypes. As well as promoting diversity the teenager formed Yara’s Club, a young women’s mentoring programme bringing together high school students to discuss social issues. Shahidi believes that young people have the power to make a change in the world, telling Oprah Winfrey: “Our generation realises that age has never been a limit in terms of social activity.”


In November 2017 19-year-old Lily Madigan was the first transgender teenager to be elected women’s officer for the Labour Party, inspiring countless trans youths. Following her election, the party was hit with backlash from people arguing that trans women – particularly trans teenagers – shouldn’t be allowed to stand for all-female shortlists. The teen received so much hate online that she eventually tweeted: “Please stop. I’m so mentally distressed that I can’t sleep or eat or go to school.”

Madigan had already been in the public eye as an LGBTQ+ activist the previous year when she took legal action after her school asserted that she either wear boys clothes or find a new school. After hiring a solicitor, Madigan won her case and the school issued an apology. Remaining strong in the face of the transphobic Twitter army, Madigan continues to campaign for trans rights and has said she wants to make history again as the first transgender MP.


In December last year, 18-year-old Amika George led a march on parliament in protest against period poverty. The teen’s efforts drew support from a host of celebrities including Daisy Lowe and Gurls Talk founder and Dazed cover star Adwoa Aboah.

After seeing a news article about girls in Leeds skipping school because they couldn’t afford menstrual products, George launched a petition called #FreePeriods. Her ongoing campaign is striving to convince the government to provide free sanitary products to all children in the UK, initially starting with girls who qualify for free school meals. George also aims to dismiss the learned idea that periods are shameful, telling Dazed: “The only way we can get rid of the taboo is by talking about them (periods).”


When 15-year-old Gavin Grimm used the boy’s toilets at his Virginia school in 2014, he didn’t expect to become a worldwide campaigner for LGBTQ+ rights. After transitioning from female to male, Grimm got permission from his high school principal to use the boys' toilets, but after complaints from parents he found himself embroiled in a court case and public debate around trans rights. Four years on and the case still hasn’t been resolved, but Grimm remains an outspoken voice in transgender activism.


Sonita Alizadeh is an Afghan rapper and activist working to end child marriage. After fleeing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Alizadeh grew up as a refugee in Iran where her parents tried to sell her as a teen bride when she was 16-years-old. As she was the focus of a documentary at the time, director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami paid $2000 to save Alizadeh from child marriage, and the pair went on to create a music video for the teenager’s song ‘Brides For Sale’.

After the track gained international attention, Alizadeh was able to move to the US where she got a high school scholarship. Working with the non-profit organisation The Strongheart Group, Alizadeh is a vocal campaigner for women’s rights and is determined to educate the world about child marriage.