Allow These Young Female Activists to Inspire You Today—And Every Day to Come

From Millie Bobbie Brown to Greta Thunberg and the Rehman twins, here are some names you know—and some you'll definitely be hearing more from.

By Natalie Finn Mar 08, 2021 5:00 PMTags
International Day of The Girl, Millie Bobby Brown, Skai Jackson, Greta Thunberg, Marsai Martin, Rehman TwinsGetty Images; Instagram; Melissa Herwitt/E! Illustration

When it comes to children, maybe there was something to that whole "teach them well and let them lead the way" advice.

Because you can't help but feel more confident about the future when you hear about what kids like Bellen Woodard—she started an important conversation about inclusivity with her crayon box—and Marsai Martin, who became an executive producer at the impressively young age of 13, are doing to not just put their stamp on the world, but to make that world a more fair, more just and more hopeful place to live.

Youth activism is nothing new, but with more avenues available than ever before to get the word out, from social media and deliberate actions that attract global attention to podcasts and writing good old-fashioned books, more young people feel as though they have a voice.

A voice that's going to be heard, whether they're starting out with a celebrity platform or—even more often these days—not.

16 Female Celebs Running Empires

As always, there's no time lie the present to feel inspired, get involved, learn more about an issue or get to know your fellow citizens of the world who have found a cause that matters to them and are doing their darndest to make a difference.And if you don't mind us peeking inside your brain for a second, we can tell that you could use some more uplifting new along with all the...other stuff.

Watch: Celebrate International Women's Day With E!

March 8 marks International Women's Day, so enjoy getting to know these young ladies, all 20 or younger as of today—some you've heard of, some who may be unfamiliar, and all of whom you'll be hearing more from.

Skai Jackson

You may know Skai as Zuri from Jessie on the Disney Channel, or from its spin-off Bunk'd. Maybe you were rooting for her on Dancing With the Stars, on which, at 18, she was the season's youngest contestant.

But a couple of years ago, while finding Disney fame and racking up acting credits, Skai realized that being one's own biggest fan—rooting for yourself, if you will—is incredibly important. And that doesn't come naturally for everybody. Or for most people.

So she wrote a book, as teenagers do, and Reach for the Skai came out in 2019, brimming with guidance about finding your confidence and learning to love yourself, angled toward young people who aren't so sure how to go about it.

"I've always had confidence, but it was much stronger when I was younger, and then it went down when I was preteen, which I feel like is normal for everyone," she explained to Tiger Beat in 2019. "I've had to grow that confidence back, and writing this book helped me do that! So I would definitely say that confidence was always there, but I had to regain it."

Asked what sort of wisdom she'd want to share with her pre-teen self, the actress said, "I wish I could just tell 10 year-old Skai, 'You're going to get a lot of hate on Instagram and you might get a lot of negative comments, but don't be sad, don't let that bring you down. Shine through it and just be yourself!' Everyone gets those negative comments, whether you're a celebrity or not, and at the time, I would let that get to me, get down and really sad. You don't want to let that affect you, and your craft and what you're doing, and it did for me."

Maryam and Nivaal Rehman

When they were 8 years old, the twin sisters—born in Pakistan but grew up up in Canada—visited a school for girls that their grandmother had donated the land to build on in their village in Pakistan. When some of the students told Maryam and Nivaal that they'd probably be dropping out after fifth grade to work, the siblings were shocked—and determined to make sure that as many girls as possible were able to continue their educations.

So eventually was born their nonprofit, The World With MNR, which advocates for causes such as gender equality, inclusivity and climate justice—issues they deem vital for youth today.

Since then, they've traveled all over, interviewing world leaders, chronicling the journey on their YouTube channel and using social media to elevate their message. They graduated from high school in Canada a semester early to return to Pakistan and film Destined to Soar, a documentary about girls' education, in partnership with the UN's Girl Up Campaign and the #DreamBigPrincess Project.

Talking to Canada's Women of Influence in 2019, Maryam and Nivaal said that their age continued to surprise people when they ended up in the room with major players in world affairs, such as Christine Lagard, the president of the European Central Bank. And sure, it was tough being a couple of teens who did have interests outside of changing the world 24/7. 

"Finding the balance between our school, extracurriculars, and our activism," they said. "We wanted to make sure we were giving all of our energy to our school work, the eight clubs we were the leaders of in high school, and our activism work, which often included traveling worldwide or spending countless hours working while we were still in Canada. It left us with little time for self-care and ourselves, which is what made finding the balance between all of these parts of our lives so difficult."

Coco Gauff

At only 16, the up-and-coming tennis player is too young to vote, but she's got a platform thanks to sports and she has been all about using it to encourage others to do their civic duty.

Coco joined protesters in Delray Beach, Fla., in June following the death of George Floyd. Standing in front of City Hall, she told the crowd, "I think it's sad that I'm here protesting the same thing that [my grandmother] did 50-plus years ago."

The teen—who made headlines in 2019 by upsetting Venus Williams at Wimbledon as a 15-year-old—continued, "So I'm here to tell you guys this: that we must first love each other, no matter what. We must have the tough conversations...I've been spending all week having tough conversations, trying to educate my non-Black friends on how they can help the movement. Second, we need to take action. Yes, we're all here protesting, and I'm not of age to vote, but it's in your hands to vote for my future...Third, you need to use your voice."

This summer she joined fellow tennis stars, including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, in the "Racquets Down, Hands Up" campaign, encouraging athletes to speak up about racism and learn from each other's experiences. "It breaks my heart because I'm fighting for the future of my brothers," Coco said at the protest. "I'm fighting for the future of my future kids. I'm fighting for the future of my future grandchildren."

Bellen Woodard

When the third grader in Loudoun County, Va., the only Black girl in her class, kept hearing all of the other kids referring to the peach crayon as the "skin-color" crayon, it made her feel, in her own words, "disincluded."

So, Bellen founded More Than Peach, a nonprofit through which she hopes to inform as many kids as possible that, not only is there a vast array of skin tones in the world, but that no one tone is the "right" or "go-to" color. She started a fund with her own money, hoping to donate crayons to 80,000 students in her community, so that everyone has all the colors of the rainbow to adequately reflect who they are when it's time to draw. Now you can purchase Palette Packets, containing More Than Peach-branded multicultural crayons and sketchpads.

"I was thinking at first it was going to be a small project, that only a few people would know about it at my school," Bellen told the Washington Post. When her friends asked for the "skin-colored crayon," she knew automatically that meant peach, she explained. When her mom suggested to her concerned daughter that she could show her pals the brown crayon when they asked, Bellen went a step further.

"I think I just want to ask them what color they want because it could be any number of beautiful colors," the child said. When Bellen successfully started a conversation between the kids and their teacher, "I felt it should also be in other schools," she said, "because everyone else should know that there is more than one skin color."

Melati and Isabel Wijsen

The sisters grew up in Bali, which, according to vacation Instagram, is simply a paradise on earth, one of the most pristine, photogenic settings in the world. But the truth is that Indonesia is the second-biggest polluter in the world when it comes to plastic waste—and Melati and Isabel wanted to do something about it. When they were just 10 and 12.

"There's no escaping it here," Melati told CNN in 2017. "The plastic problem is so in your face, and we thought: 'Well, who's going to do something about it?'" Inspired by lessons in school, they figured, Well, it may as well be us.

"We had a lesson in class about positive world leaders, change makers like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Lady Diana," Melati said, "and I remember at the ages of 10 and 12 we went home thinking about what we could do as kids from an island. We didn't want to wait until we were older to stand up for what we believe in."

So starting in 2013 they formed the NGO Bye Bye Plastic Bags to advocate for ridding their country of plastic bags, getting other youths involved in cleaning up area beaches and promoting companies that have stopped using plastic bags on their social media platform. They spoke at the United Nations, gave a TED Talk in London and started a petition, collecting more than 100,000 signatures to make the Indonesian government take notice.

Not that that part was easy. It wasn't until the sisters went on a hunger strike (from sunrise to sunset, with a nutritionist's help because they were so young) that Bali's governor Mangku Pastika granted a meeting—where he signed a memorandum of understanding to urge Bali toward banning plastic bags by January 2018.

Storm Reid

The now 17-year-old actress thought that getting cast a couple of years ago in A Wrinkle in Time, the long-awaited adaptation of the Madeleine L'Engle classic, co-starring Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey and directed by Ava DuVernay, was the unbelievable big break of a lifetime.

And it was, but so too came disappointment, when Storm quickly learned that some people actually took issue with the idea that the character of Meg Murry, who's white in the book, was going to be played by a Black girl. "They were uncomfortable to have that shift, but the only way to create change in our world is through people willing to be uncomfortable," she reflected to InStyle, explaining that she intentionally chooses "progressive" roles.

"I see each one as an opportunity to have a progressive conversation and represent people and situations that are underrepresented," she said. "Young girls deserve to see themselves onscreen. Because how can you feel like you're able to succeed when you don't see yourself succeeding?"

Storm said she draws particular inspiration from the late Chadwick Boseman, who played towering real-life figures like Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson, as well as the iconic T'Challa in Black Panther. "He dedicated his life to being part of projects that benefited us as a Black culture, and that's what I want to try to do," she told the magazine. "I'm really happy to be a young Black woman in the space I'm in—to be accepted, to be loved, and for people to appreciate my work—and I want to create opportunities for people who haven't been given them yet."

Though she won't be 18 until this summer, she's using her social media platform to spread the word about the importance of voting ("If I could vote in this upcoming election, I would vote for my community," she wrote on Instagram) and she joined Annette Bening, activist Delores Huerta, Tina Tchen and Michigan Rep. Mari Manoogian for a Women for Biden Training on Intergenerational Conversations in September.

Haile Thomas

This 20-year-old cares about your health, inside and out—and she's been caring for the past decade, giving speeches about the importance of clean eating at 10 and starting the nonprofit HAPPY to bring education about plant-based diets to underserved communities when she was 12.

If you're wondering why it's taken so long for her to release her first cookbook, Living Lively, which she finally did last year, well, she's been busy traveling all over as a wellness and compassion activist, giving talks and changing as many people's approaches to food as she can.

Haile's own concern about what you put into your body arose when she was 8 and her father was diagnosed with type-2 diabetes. She eventually became vegan, and soon realized there were a whole bunch of stereotypes that came with that decision.

"Yet through this internal conflict, I started to realize that I had an incredible opportunity to redefine what being vegan looks like and create entry points for others to learn about the lifestyle," she explained to Food 52 recently. "I believe that compassionate living is the future, and find it essential to speak about white-washed wellness and racism within the food system, but I also love using my platform to reiterate that vegan food is delicious."

She considered her cookbook not just a collection of recipes, but more of a "life guide."

"Over the past decade, I've had to face challenges around finding my voice, understanding the importance of self-care, setting boundaries, and truly trusting in my unique path," Haile said. "I've realized that my well-being is far more beautifully complex than just what I'm eating or my exercise routine—negative thinking, suppressed creativity, disharmonious relationships can all have profound impact. The fantastic thing about this is that my challenges aren't unique! They are what make us human and connect us all with each other."

Naomi Wadler

Naomi was 11 when she spoke at the 2018 March for Our Lives, prompting a rapturous response from the likes of Tessa Thompson and Kamala Harris. But how did a fifth grader end up there, addressing thousands of people united to protest gun violence and demand change?

Weeks beforehand, Naomi and a friend, toting signs reading "#NeverAgain," organized a walkout at their Virginia elementary school, one of numerous 17-minute walkouts that took place around the country in response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Parkland, Fla. Naomi's protest lasted 18 minutes, the extra minute to honor a Black teen named Courtlin Arrington who had recently been killed at her Alabama high school—a shooting not widely covered by the national media.

"I am here to acknowledge the African American girls whose stories do not make the front pages of every national newspaper, whose stories don't lead on the evening news," she said at the march. Not having any social media accounts to her young name, Naomi had no idea how big of a splash she'd made until CNN and others came calling.

Her mother told the Washington Post that, when Naomi cried after hearing about Parkland, she had encouraged her to reach out to other kids to see how they were feeling and if she could help—but otherwise, her daughter was a self-starter when it came to taking action.

Less than a year later—after appearances on Ellen, the Women in the World summitand the Tribeca Film Festival, as well as sharing New York magazine's "Women and Power" cover with Barbra Streisand and being photographed for Vanity Fair with Gloria Steinem—Naomi joined seasoned activists in speaking at George Mason University during their Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration week, telling the audience that you don't have to go big your first time out of the gate. "You can start with local issues," the 12-year-old advised sagely. "Understand that it's going to take some time. Rome wasn't built in a day."

Marsai Martin

The Black-ish star became an executive producer at 13, joining the team behind the 2019 body-swapping comedy Little, which she also starred in along with Issa Rae and Regina Hall. So where does a girl go from there?

Well, at 14 she teamed with to launch the "Treat Yo Friends" campaign, which promoted reaching out to your friends and loved ones and making connections to combat bullying and social isolation. 

Then, at 15 and having worn glasses since she was around 7 (as do her characters), she got onboard with the Essilor 2020 Vision Challenge to get people thinking about the health of their eyes. Parents or guardians could sign up and get glasses for their kids—and pairs for their schoolmates. "I truly think that any health situation that you have gets checked because YOLO," she told Forbes in 2019. "When you're my age you make sure you do it when you're young because it affects how things change. When you start early you can change how you look at things in the future."

Now 16, Martin's got a first-look deal at Universal and will be producing the upcoming comedy Queen

"Growing up, I didn't see a lot of young Black girls that I can look up to in this industry," she told in 2018. "I wanted to create something that no one has ever seen before and to see us Black women in a different light."

Josie Totah

The 19-year-old actress and activist shared in a TIME essay penned in 2018 that she identified as a transgender female—after getting her start in acting with most people (including even an LGBTQ+ rights group that gave her an award) assuming she was living as a gay boy. She played male characters in the 2016 film Other People and on NBC's Champions.

"I understand that they didn't really know better," Josie, then 17, wrote. "I almost felt like I owed it to everybody to be that gay boy. But that has never been the way I think of myself."

She recalled that she was 14 when she finally realized what her true self was while watching I Am Jazz, the TLC show that chronicled the journey of Jazz Jennings, also a trans female teen.

Later in 2018, the college-bound Josie was honored with the Human Rights Campaign's Visibility Award, and the following year received the HRC Upstander Award at the 2019 HRC Time to THRIVE Conference for her continued work advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance.

Named to Forbes' 2019 30 Under 30, she told the magazine, when asked to share something she had learned not in the classroom, she replied, "I am a freshman in college now, but I would say that half the work you do only matters if you make it matter."

Millie Bobby Brown

The British actress became an overnight sensation at the age of 12 thanks to her compelling turn as the mysterious Eleven in Stranger Things, and she couldn't wait to throw her newfound clout behind a cause, or several.

At 13 she opened up about her own experiences being bullied and started the Twitter handle @milliestophate for others to share their experiences, to reach out if they needed help and to offer comfort to others. "We need to stop bullying and cyber bullying," Brown explained to The Wrap in 2017. "It's ruining people's lives. And I think that creating the account was for me and a lot of other people."

At 14, she became UNICEF's youngest-ever Goodwill Ambassador, calling it "a dream come true," with her eye on promoting girls' education and protecting them from violence and exploitation. Not afraid to wade into a controversial issue, at the 2018 Kids' Choice Awards she wore a T-shirt listing the names of the 17 victims of the mass shooting at Parkland High School and used her time onstage being named Favorite TV Actress to speak out about gun violence. 

Talking to fellow Goodwill Ambassador Orlando Bloom about her work for UNICEF in an interview for Glamour UK, she said, "UNICEF is the biggest and best children's organization in the world. I have always been so blown away by what they do for children's rights. I am very passionate about children getting the education they need, providing vaccines for them, protecting children against violence and ensuring they know what their rights are. Being named an ambassador—honestly it was one of the craziest situations. I can't even put into words how I felt, but it was just so exciting."

Greta Thunberg

Look up the definition of "thick skin" and you'll find Greta, the activist who started with a one-person "School Strike for Climate" outside parliament in her native Sweden and within a year was leading a global youth movement. At 16 years old, she spent two weeks traveling by boat across the Atlantic Ocean to New York to raise awareness about climate change and in no uncertain terms demand that the so-called adults in charge start taking the issue seriously.

But her intrepidness and admirable sense of purpose didn't just earn her a speaking slot at the United Nations, an appearance on The Daily Show, a meeting with Barack Obama, and ultimately the cover of TIME as the magazine's 2019 Person of the Year. She also became a lightning rod for controversy and a target for online bullying by people who just didn't want to hear about it—especially from a kid, they claimed. 

"It's a lot of hate, of course, and conspiracy theories, and mocking me," Greta told the Washington Post in September 2019. "I don't really take it personal, because I know they are just so desperate, trying to find something to make me look bad. Because if I look bad, the climate movement will look bad. It's sad to see all these people spending their time doing something like this when they could be doing some good instead."

Greta's parents were concerned that she was too young to be the face of a movement, but they saw that taking action was the only thing making their daughter happy following her descent into a depression over the state of the world.

Now 18, she continues to live life on her terms. While voluntarily social-distancing this past year, Sweden not having imposed a formal lockdown, she caught up on schoolwork after her year-long sabbatical, and a BBC video showed her doing normal stuff like playing with her dog, doing a jigsaw puzzle and watering house plants. And, of course, she kept up with news from around the world.

"It feels like we have passed some kind of social tipping point," she told the BBC, "where people are starting to realize that we cannot keep looking away from these things, we cannot keep sweeping these things under the carpet, these injustices."

And so age continues to be just a number.

If you're wondering how to get started, here's yet another wise-beyond-her-years tip from 14-year-old Naomi Wadler. She told the Washington Post, "If you don't find anything that really reflects and represents you accurately, start your own website. Become an activist. Start talking about it."

The Rehman twins, Maryam and Nivaal, would agree. "Your dreams are worth pursuing," they told Women of Influence in 2019. "If you work hard and stay dedicated, you will find that the universe has a way of helping you realize your dreams. It may take a while, but eventually, you will be rewarded for your hard work with your dreams either coming true exactly how you envisioned them, or in an unexpected, but equally exciting way."

This story was originally published on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020 at 4 a.m. PT. 

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