On Jan. 31, 2011, The Root unveiled its first annual Young Futurists list to honor “25 African Americans between the ages of 16 and 21 for being true innovators.”
Echoing the theme set forth in President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, in which he declared “We do big things,” the first year’s list included kids doing plenty of big things, like Tony Hansberry II, who, at 14 years old developed a novel suture technique in 2009 that reduced the risk of complications after hysterectomy surgery. He is currently a second-year medical student at the Morehouse School of Medicine.
Over the next 10 years, the honorees on our list would continue to “do big things.”
Earlier this year, a nation watched in awe as 2019 honoree Amanda Gorman delivered the powerful inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb,” which captured a nation roiled by division but also included a hopeful promise that “we will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.”
“I hope to bring my poetry into institutions, spaces and topics that you would least expect a young Black poet to be,” Gorman told The Root back in 2019. “It’s my way of telling other young poets that they too have a voice and belong at every table imaginable.”
When 2013 honoree Michael Tubbs made our list, he had just become the youngest member of Stockton, Calif.’s City Council, with an assist from the kingmaker herself, Oprah Winfrey. Tubbs then went on to become the youngest and first Black mayor in Stockton’s 167-history, which earned him a spot on The Root 100 in 2017. And though he lost his reelection bid in 2020, one of his signature initiatives, a pilot universal basic income program, was so successful that it is now serving as a model for other cities. (And as a native of Stockton, I couldn’t be more appreciative of the work he has done on behalf of my hometown, where my mother and most of my family still live.)
A fair number of celebrities—Keke Palmer and Chance Bennett, aka Chance the Rapper in 2015; Yara Shahidi in 2016; Zendaya in 2017; Marsai Martin in 2019 and Lil Nas X in 2020—have graced the list, as have athletes (Simone Manuel, 2017; Coco Gauff, 2020). But none have been bigger than Simone Biles (2016), who continues to soar above all others in the field of gymnastics on her way to the Tokyo Olympics, where the greatest competition she will likely face is herself.
A few things have changed with the list over the years—the age range now includes African Americans 24 and younger because we discovered that innovation and leadership aren’t limited by age (and if you’re wondering why the age stops at 24, age 25 lands you on The Root 100.)
And today, the list of Young Futurists gets a new name—The Future 25. But the main criteria for making the list remains the same:
Do big things.
This year’s list includes Darnella Frazier, the teenager whose video showing the shocking last moments of George Floyd’s life shook up the world and launched a movement for racial justice in this country that hasn’t been seen since the civil rights movement of the ’60s.
Kennedy Mitchum knows that words matter, so when she saw that the dictionary definition of “racism” didn’t recognize systemic oppression, she convinced the editors at Merriam-Webster to update the definition.
Julian Bass’ special-effects wizardry captured in a 20-second TikTok clip was enough to wow the chairman of the Walt Disney Co. and earn the 21-year-old Georgia resident some new Hollywood friends like Hair Love director Matthew Cherry.
These are just several of the amazing creators, innovators and activists who make up this year’s list.
Congratulations to the 2021 Class of The Future 25!
MEET THE 2021 FUTURE 25
Sydney Barber | Julian Bass | Miracle Boyd | Morgan Bullock | Genesis Butler | Cartier Carey | Kennedi Carter | Olivia V.G. Clarke | Kayla Foy | Darnella Frazier | Danielle Geathers | Gabrielle Goodwin | Tyler Gordon | Khristen Hamilton | Kylin Hill | Orion Jean | Jaden Jefferson | Christon Jones | Alycia Kamil | Elsa Mengistu | Kennedy Mitchum | Sofia Ongele | Jay’Aina Patton | Bellen Woodard | Michael Wren
On July 2, 2020, Julian Bass tweeted a simple request with a TikTok video: “If y’all can retweet this enough times that Disney calls, that’d be greatly appreciated.” In the 20-second clip, Bass embodied a Jedi complete with light saber and web-slinging Miles Morales was highlighted by impressive visual effects. Within hours it went so viral that Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger noticed and rejoiced, “The world’s gonna know your name!!!!”
Within a week that prophecy was undeniably true when Bass appeared on Good Morning America. Bass’ brilliant technical skill and charismatic performances enchanted the world and quickly racked up over 20 million views. Accomplished filmmakers like Academy award-winning directors Matthew A. Cherry (Hair Love) and Peter Ramsey (Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse) marveled at Bass’ work and potential. He bears such an uncanny resemblance to a live-action version of Miles Morales that fans campaigned to see him in front of the camera, which is where Bass wants to be most.
The theater major’s amazing editing ability evolved to showcase his acting. “The skills that I have as a visual effects artist kind of were born out of me wanting to be in front of the camera and looking good while I’m doing it,” Bass explained to NPR. Bass recently appeared as a Jedi in a Disney TikTok for Star Wars Day this year, and he hopes Hollywood keeps calling. “I feel like I’m ready to take my shot and that’s truly what it’s all about right now.” — Lex Curtis
Irish step dancing usually evokes images of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and Riverdance, but 21-year-old Morgan Bullock is proud to expand that tradition. Trained in multiple dance genres since the age of 3, the Richmond, Va., native found inspiration in viral dance challenges on TikTok. Instead of learning the intricate choreography that accompanied the challenge for Megan Thee Stallion’s remix of “Savage,” Bullock fused it with the high-flying kicks and precise rhythms of traditional step dancing in a TikTok video she posted in May 2020.
Bullock’s mashup caught the eye of millions of people across the world, including Tina Knowles, who has 3 million Instagram followers. “It was really unexpected and it happened really fast,” Bullock told Reuters about becoming an overnight sensation. The dreadlocked dancer was thrilled to represent for other Black girls interested in step dancing, something Bullock lacked when she started the Irish style at age 10. “Initially my parents had reservations just because it was something that we had never heard of and it’s not very typical for someone who looks like me to want to do Irish dancing.”
Before TikTok stardom, Morgan’s dedication and passion earned her a prestigious place in the top 50 at the Irish dance world championships. Aside from a few trolls, Bullock’s appreciation and reinterpretation of step dancing has plenty Irish support. Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, invited her to perform at St. Patrick’s Day, and Riverdance lead dancer Padraic Moyles invited her to perform at their next tour stop in Virginia. — Lex Curtis
Category: Arts & Culture
Hometown: Durham, N.C.
Social Media: Instagram
“It feels like it dropped out of the sky,” Kennedi Carter told British Vogue about the assignment of a lifetime—shooting the magazine cover featuring Beyoncé. “I’m 21…I haven’t really had many opportunities like this.” Queen Bey wanted a woman of color photographer, and British Vogue Editor-in-Chief Edward Enninful helped handpick Carter for the life-changing job.
Beyoncé made history selecting 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell—which landed him a Young Futurist honor in 2019—for her cover of American Vogue, making him the first Black cover photographer in the iconic magazine’s 125-year history. Kennedi Carter broke barriers again as the youngest photographer to shoot a cover for British Vogue. Neither of the Carters (no relation) half-stepped for the occasion, producing a trio of stunning December 2020 covers. Weeks later, she was behind the camera for Rolling Stone’s digital cover featuring Erykah Badu and Summer Walker.
There is an intimacy to Carter’s photos, a warmth and richness that is only rivaled by the radiance of her primarily Black subjects’ skin. The Durham, N.C., native is a fine art photographer whose work “highlights the aesthetics & sociopolitical aspects of Black life as well as the overlooked beauties of the Black experience: skin, texture, trauma, peace, love and community.” Carter unexpectedly got her start in a high school photography class and in the few years since, her work has appeared in Essence, GQ and the New York Times. Her first gallery exhibition, “Flexing/New Realm” is on display at the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh until August. — Lex Curtis
Toys weren’t really Olivia’s thing when she was a little girl. She much preferred books instead of dolls and games, especially favorites published by iconic Black female writers like Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Elizabeth Acevedo. Their descriptive words inspired Olivia to use her own to shape stories of girls who, like her, have lived the experience of being Black in overwhelmingly white places. The result is an Amazon-bestselling book, Black Girl, White School: Thriving, Surviving and No, You Can’t Touch My Hair.
“Until the sixth grade, all of my classmates were Black. It was just normal. So when I went to a PWI [predominantly white institution], it was a big culture shock for me,” said Olivia, a graduating senior at Columbus School for Girls, where students of color make up just 17 percent of the population. “I said, ‘how cool would it be to have a book to help and support other girls who go to, graduated from or are preparing to attend predominantly white institutions?’”
It took a year and a half to shape Black Girl, White School into a 123-page anthology of poems, essays and reflections from 16 contributors, ranging from middle-school to college students, on topics typically pertinent to teenage Black girls—self-esteem, race, friendships, dating and of course, hair. The title shot to the No. 1 spot on the list of Amazon new releases and remained a top 10 bestseller in seven categories. Olivia also created a companion journal to give readers space to articulate their feelings.
“COVID and the Black Lives Matter protests were happening at the same time I was writing the book. The protests were one of the things that really convinced me that this book needed to come out,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that during this time, when I feel like more people are willing to listen to the Black experience than before, I raise the voices of Black girls that often are overlooked and written off.” — Janelle Harris Dixon
Brilliant artists, business leaders and historymakers aren’t just heroes for 14-year-old Tyler Gordon; they are also his clients. His stunning paintings appeared on Little Big Shots, LeBron James’ Time Magazine Athlete of the Year cover and in a viral video of himself painting Vice President Kamala Harris. “I’m overwhelmed with the magnificence of your artistry! You really have a gift,” the vice president said, ABC News 7 reports, thanking Tyler for the portrait.
His gift wasn’t revealed until at age 10, when he told his mother, Nicole Kindle, who is also an artist, “Mom, I want to paint.” Before then, his only experience was sneaking out of bed to watch his mother painting. Soon Kevin Durant, Janet Jackson and Missy Elliott wanted to buy his masterpieces.
Surprisingly, the eloquent teen was born deaf and didn’t speak until the age of 5. A surgery restored partial hearing at 6 and left the prodigy with a stutter. Tyler also had emergency surgery on both legs when his femurs broke due to a vitamin D deficiency. Bullies targeted Tyler for his stutter and wheelchair, but he bounced back, literally and figuratively, as a cheerleader and founder of the Tongue Tied foundation to fight bullying.
Tyler is a Global Child Prodigy honoree, Time Magazine Kid of the Year finalist and one of the youngest artist featured in a Beverly Center exhibition among icons like Basquiat. His first book, We Can: Portraits of Power, is available for pre-order. This is just the beginning for Tyler, who hopes to paint the president and first lady’s official White House portraits. — Lex Curtis
In the mosh pit of political press during the 2020 election, Jaden was a standout. He was prepared. He was poised. He was, at the time, 12 years old.
For years, the multimedia journalist has broadcasted his self-styled local news segments—weather, crime, sports at his school, a nurse’s strike at a nearby hospital—almost exclusively on his YouTube channel, Jaden Reports, as well as crafting print stories on Medium. Then his interviews with high-profile politicos Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Tim Ryan, and sit-downs with big-name celebs like Oprah and Brad Pitt racked up thousands on thousands of views. The exposure expanded Jaden’s coverage to national news, broadened his brand visibility beyond what’s going on in his Toledo community and made him a superstar.
Jaden says his age is an advantage in landing exclusives with public figures because they’re more likely to take time for a kid, but his professional-quality questions get to the core of issues that matter to everyone, like when he asked Warren what she’s doing to create equal opportunities for people of color. As much of a natural when he’s on the other side of the interview, Jaden has been featured on CNN, MSNBC and Ellen.
In the past year of a nationwide demand for justice, Jaden learned a lot about accountability following the death of George Floyd and the arrest of four local city council members. “I’ve been able to tell better stories with purpose,” he told The Root. The dynamic sixth grader is using his growing platform as a jumpoff point for larger social justice issues.
“I believe local journalism continues to take steps to diversify its newsrooms, although I believe broadcast and cable networks still have work to do when it comes to appealing to and spotlighting Black communities across the country,” Jaden told The Root. “I’ve been elevating Black voices and will continue to do so, as many communities across America face a reckoning on race and reopen discussion surrounding it.” — Janelle Harris Dixon
It’s not often that a Twitter rant turns into a thriving business, but that’s the origin story for GaBBY Bows, an innovative hair barrette invented by Gabby and her mom, Rozalynn.
Frustrated by accessories that mysteriously slid off of Gabby’s plaits when no one was looking, the mother-daughter duo developed a better prototype that secured with a double snap and featured sturdier construction. Its unique design helps barrettes stay in the hair—where they’re supposed to be—and not fall out onto the sidewalk.
Gabby was only 7 years old when the entrepreneurial pair started self-manufacturing and selling their revolutionary product, making the enterprising seventh grader, now 14, a veteran business owner and mentor to other young women who aspire to start their own enterprises. GaBBY Bows are sold in 83 retail and beauty supply stores across the country, and the young president and CEO has expanded her signature line to include plant-based styling products, aptly named Confidence by Gabby Goodwin.
“Owning and operating a business shapes my confidence so much. People don’t see many girls like me doing what I do and I’m honored to be an example and inspiration,” she told The Root. “My family and I just purchased a headquarters for Confidence. I feel really good that I have not only grown in my entrepreneurship skills the past seven years but I have also grown in my self-esteem and confidence.”
Gabby is a powerhouse in every part of her enterprise, from assessing online inventory to writing thank you notes to customers. She also hosts an event called GaBBY Play Date to teach girls living in temporary shelters about the benefits and how-to’s of entrepreneurship. Now with a children’s book, Gabby Invents the Perfect Hair Bow, and a schedule of public speaking opportunities to educate and inspire others, the A-student is growing her dream to include retail space, entrepreneurship workshops for girls and a hair salon. — Lex Curtis
The first time Christon realized he was making a difference, he’d just taught a football teammate and his older brother how to invest in the stock market. Christon was 11, maybe 12 years old at the time and the other young men were the same age.
“I remember when they made their first trade, it was on Red Robin. When they eventually made a profit, they got excited and started jumping up and down,” the student-athlete and teen stock prodigy told The Root. “That day they made me very proud not only of them but of myself, knowing I was changing people’s lives and families for generations.”
Last year, the unprecedented fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic inspired Christon, whose nickname is “The Truth,” to set a goal as unique as the times we were living in. He committed to helping 1,000 people learn the principles of investing and day trading, holding classes with that many students to teach them how to trade and purchase stocks through his company, Return on Investment, LLC. And he’s counseled and coached students old enough to be his parents, even grandparents—adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s—to use their pandemic-era stimulus checks to earn upwards of $15,000 a week. His proven investment strategies work, even in troubling times.
The honor roll student and all-American MVP and athlete, who wrote his first book when he was just 8 years old, wants to play in the NFL in the future but his vision extends beyond the field. He also plans to open a sports agency and management business to help other players make the most of the money they earn as professional athletes with smart, timely investments.
“In the last year, I’ve learned how to trade binary options as well as how to advance my trading game. I’m now using these skills to help my students to employ their money and multiply their income, whether that comes from a business or a job.” — Janelle Harris Dixon
When he was just 9 years old, Michael “Mikey” Wren came to his parents with a dream and a business plan; he soon became probably the youngest kid in St. Louis to own his own vending machine. Now, at the age of 13, he has six machines in the St. Louis area and is the owner of his own business, Mikey’s Munchies Vending.
“Owning a business at a young age allowed me to be able to set goals for my life and see that I have more to offer to the world than what the media shows,” Michael told The Root. “My entrepreneurial journey allows me to share the good, bad and ugly of my story and all the challenges, victories and struggles. I know my peers can relate because I am them and they are me.”
In 2019, Michael was featured in Vending Times, which chronicled his journey, not just as a young business owner, but as a young leader who proudly serves his community. In 2018, he was the Honorary Junior Grand Marshal in the Ameren, Mo., Thanksgiving Day parade. The same year, he got organized, and with help from community members in St. Louis, he collected more than 450 toys for kids in the school district after setting a goal of collecting 100 toys. The next year, Michael received the Made Moguls 2019 Black Tie Community Award for youth entrepreneur of the year.
The Hazelwood North Middle School student isn’t keeping his entrepreneurial spirit to himself; he’s helping to educate other young people in the community on things like financial literacy, and he’s helping them to develop the skills and ingenuity they need to start their own businesses someday.
“The past year has been crazy, but one thing I’ve learned is that I am resilient,” he said. “I’m able to show my peers that they are more and that they are born with a purpose.” — Zack Linly
Through her organization Youth Climate Save, Genesis Butler is on a mission to change how we view the connection between animal agriculture and the climate crisis. “I am very proud of Youth Climate Save because it is the first youth-led climate movement that focuses on climate change and its connection to animal agriculture,” she says on her website. At 10 years old, she learned about the devastating effects animal agriculture has on the climate and environment. With all the focus on fossil fuels, many people are unaware that animal agriculture is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.
A vegan since age 6, Genesis is also an animal-rights activist and founded Genesis for Animals, a nonprofit organization to which she has donated close to $5,000 of her own money to fund animal shelters and sanctuaries across the nation. “I chose the name, Genesis for Animals, because my name means a new beginning, and I want to help give animals a new beginning,” she explains on the website.
“It’s so important for young girls to get involved in climate and animal activism because it is so empowering,” Butler told VegNews. “I started speaking up for animals when I was 6, and once I saw that I had a voice and people would listen, it motivated me to keep speaking up for animals. It led me to climate activism, and this has also been a powerful experience for me. It makes me happy knowing I am doing what I can to help the planet.” — Apryl Motley
Khristen Hamilton, volunteer management director at Zero Hour, an intersectional movement of youth activists fighting for a livable planet for all, remembers the moment her interest in climate change was piqued. It was July 21, 2018, the day of the Youth Climate March in Washington, D.C.
On her bus ride there, she read Zero Hour’s guiding principles, which motivated the former local Black Lives Matter organizer to get involved. The group’s inclusive approach especially resonated with her: “On the frontlines of climate change is the global south, people of color, indigenous peoples, youth, people with disabilities, poor people, women, queer and trans people, and people belonging to marginalized faiths.” A year later, she attended the U.N. Youth Climate Summit in New York.
“The world is our home, and we have to protect it as much as we can,” Khristen told The Root. “People of color are being impacted by climate change every day. They are impacted by their environment—which is not just the weather—it’s the water, our food, and where we live. There’s a clear disparity in how people of color are impacted versus others.”
Given the diverse populations climate change affects, the dialogue around climate change should be just as diverse. “A lot of what happens in my work is collaboration, between groups of people and spaces to get different ideas from different people,” she said. “We need to collaborate with our peers to see how we can help each other.”
A self-described “organizer,” her goals after graduation in 2023 include planning cultural events to uplift communities. — Apryl Motley
Category: Green Innovation
Hometown: High Point, N.C.
Education: Howard University
Social Media: Instagram
The face of environmental justice is changing and rightfully looks like 19-year-old Elsa Mengistu. Born in Ethiopia and raised in High Point, N.C., the climate change activist and organizer personifies the phrase “think globally and act locally.” She was already a fierce advocate for racial justice, gender equity and immigrant rights when she discovered the grassroots youth climate organization, Zero Hour. Its platform illuminated how all the oppressions she is fighting against are inextricably linked to each other as much as air and water quality. “If we don’t work on climate justice, then we can’t work on any kind of justice,” she told Green Matters.
At 17 years old Mengistu became Zero Hour’s operation director, helping the group organize a climate summit in Miami and a climate strike in D.C. U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) honored that work in 2019 with an award for climate action. Elsa was also a leader in Ocean Heroes Bootcamp, Young Voices for the Planet, Black Girl Environmentalist and Power Shift 2021.
While attending Howard University, Mengistu met students from the HBCU Climate Change Conference and co-founded Generation Green. The Black youth and womxn-led organization is the architect of the environmental liberation framework that centers Black voices and Black social justice issues. Despite countless honors, she stays grounded and inspired by her community. “Setting up networks and systems of support between your community and those around is the most powerful form of organizing and activism we have,” she told Green Matters. “It’s one of our most useful tools, and it’s how we will win.” — Lex Curtis
Category: Science and Technology
Education: Xavier University (Fall 2021)
Kayla Foy felt certain that trusting “the science” was the nation’s best shot—literally—at returning to some degree of normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2020, she was one of the first people in the Philadelphia area to receive the Pfizer vaccine.
By that time, she had put in hundreds of volunteer hours with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, working as a frontline healthcare worker. According to founder Dr. Ala Stanford, as of April, BDCC has tested more than 25,000 people, and vaccinated over 45,000, in Philadelphia and its surrounding area.
As a volunteer, Kayla gathered demographic information from those being tested. Why take the risk of getting involved? “Black communities in Philadelphia were not getting as much attention as they needed,” Kayla told The Root. “I asked myself, ‘What could I do to be a part of the solution rather than being a bystander?’”
This future doctor knows that ongoing education is key in the fight against COVID. “I found that during the first surge of COVID in May/June, people we were testing were not educated about the virus. Even with vaccination, people were fearful of side effects. It is our job to inform other people. That can go a long way.”
As she heads to Xavier University to pursue a dual degree in biomedical engineering and biology, she remains committed to serving her community. “It is essential that we raise awareness of the socio-economic disparity in healthcare in America. I was blessed to be selected to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in December 2020. It was a time of uncertainty and doubt, but I wanted to demonstrate through example to trust the science.” — Apryl Motley
How do survivors of sexual assault request confidential advice and access resources at their fingertips? In 2018 there wasn’t an app for that.
After a friend’s sexual assault during her freshman year of college, 20-year-old coder, student and activist Sofia Ongele created one, a free iOS app called ReDawn. Launching the app garnered Ongele recognition as a 2020 Swift Student Challenge winner during Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference.
“I have been coding since I was 15,” Sofia told The Root. “Coding is how I create, and I am mindful of how communities will be impacted by what I create.”
If one reviewer’s five-star rating is any indication, the final product reflects her attention to detail: “This app is really simple but effective. The map to locate health and crisis centers is awesome. The hotlines tab is also simple and to the point, which is probably for the best given the target audience – someone dealing with vulnerable feelings and looking for immediate help.”
First introduced to coding through a Kode With Klossy boot camp, leveraging STEM to “do a whole lot of good” is Sofia’s life philosophy. “I’ve always wanted to use STEM to help people,” she said.
She is currently working with a fellow TikTok creator on a project to eliminate Native American mascots nationwide. “There’s always work to be done,” Sofia said. “It’s Important to be at the forefront of innovation that affects us. We need to have a diverse set of eyes in computer science. Our very lives depend on it. The more we have diverse representation in these workspaces, the better off we will all be.” — Apryl Motley
Category: Science and Technology
Hometown: Buffalo, N.Y.
Like too many Black children across America, Jay’Aina Patton had a father in prison. So, at the young age of 12, she developed an app to make it easier for children to communicate with their incarcerated parents.
Jay’Aina was 3 when her father, Antoine Patton was imprisoned and, in the years that followed, she experienced the difficulties of maintaining contact and developing a relationship with a parent who is incarcerated. In-person visits were few and far between, phone calls were often unaffordable and the mail was too slow. But where difficulty grew, so did Jay’Aina’s and her father’s determination.
While in prison, her father taught himself computer coding with the goal of developing a website to make it easier for children to contact their parents behind bars. Before long, Jay’Aina had also developed an interest in tech and the cause. When she was 10, her father developed the Photo Patch Foundation a year after he was released. She practiced coding with her dad, and before she had even become a teenager, she had developed a mobile version of Photo Patch to give families separated by prison bars greater access to the website and to each other. Now, the app has connected more than 30,000 youth to their incarcerated parents.
“Always realize your worth,” Jay’Aina told The Root, as advice to other young people. “Don’t ever make yourself feel less than or that you can’t do something. Build yourself up and remember what you bring to this world.” — Zack Linly
Category: Social Justice and Activism
Hometown: Lake Forest, Ill.
Education: U.S. Naval Academy
Social Media: Twitter
In the U.S. Naval Academy’s 175-year existence—of which women have been allowed to attend for the past 44 years—21-year-old midshipman Sydney Barber made history as the institution’s first Black female brigade commander. As commander in the academy’s top leadership position, Barber represents around 4,400 midshipmen, the nation’s future Navy and Marine Corps officers.
Barber, a mechanical engineering major, has spoken about how the nation being enthralled in a culture war, which revolves largely around racial justice, inspired her rise to her new position.
“It’s definitely been a challenge and it’s definitely taken a lot of courage to…make this step, especially in this time of social disharmony, but these times bring a heavier calling, I feel,” she told NBC News.
Before she was a brigade commander, Barber made quite the name for herself as an athlete in both soccer—where she was the No. 2 scorer for the Dearfield girl’s team—and track and field, where, in Lake Forest, she was part of the Scouts’ 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter relay units, which made it to the 2017 Class 3A state meet.
“I learned a lot of leadership lessons from sports,” Barber told the Chicago Tribune. “I would not be the person or leader I am today if I didn’t have those experiences.”
It’s clear that reaching the milestone of becoming the academy’s first Black woman brigade commander only scratches the surface of Barber’s potential as a future leader. — Zack Linly
Category: Social Justice & Activism
Education: Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, DePaul University
Social Media: Twitter
At 18 years old, activist and youth leader Miracle Boyd is already proving her dedication to the fight against systemic racism in America by being in these streets and serving as an organizer and leader. Miracle made headlines last year during the wave of summer protests when she became the victim of the very type of police brutality she aims to fight. Her spirit was far from broken after a Chicago police officer knocked out her teeth as she stood her ground and demanded her right to film a chaotic protest.
As a member of Chicago youth activist group GoodKids MadCity, Miracle—who graduated from Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy in Ashburn and is an incoming freshman at DePaul University—has organized demonstrations against police violence all over the city of Chicago. But that fight isn’t the only one on her activism resume. In a piece she wrote for Injustice Watch, Miracle recalled how she “served families during this pandemic with my organization, GoodKids MadCity,” and how, among other ways they have served their community, she and her colleagues “have raised over $10,000 with our mutual aid campaign, which provides emergency funds to Black and brown youth.”
At a young age, Miracle serves as an inspiring light in a social climate that often appears bleak for Black people. We salute her as a leader guiding us into the future of the civil rights movement. — Zack Linly
Plenty of kids have earned summer spending money with a front yard lemonade stand, maybe to help finance a pair of sneakers, school clothes or the newest iPhone. In July 2020, when Cartier learned that the COVID-19 pandemic had obliterated baby supplies in local stores throughout his Hampton, Va., community, he used profits from his lemonade stand to buy diapers and wipes for single mothers.
The philanthropic 12-year-old lives with both of his parents and four younger siblings, but he’s seen the struggles of friends’ moms who run single-parent households and he wanted to help. Every day, he sold lemonade for a dollar, chips for 50 cents and candy for 25 cents. Boosted by donations from supportive neighbors and people driving by, he raised $3,000 in his first three days in business. In about a month, he was loading upwards of 22,000 donated diapers onto a truck to distribute to single mothers in addition to the some 25 single mothers in need who stopped by his lemonade stand weekly to pick up necessary supplies for their babies.
“When I first started my lemonade stand, a single mom started crying to me about how she once couldn’t afford diapers and there were no organizations to help her and how she was so proud of me for stepping up at such a young age,” Cartier told The Root. “It made me feel like a great person.”
Motivated by the euphoria of helping someone else and inspired by the hard work and mamba mentality of his hero, the late Kobe Bryant, the sixth-grader’s movement in generosity has since caught on. His siblings and other kids from the neighborhood help keep the lemonade stand going as volunteers and, this past Christmas, he collected hundreds of toys for children living in low-income neighborhoods in the Hampton area.
“When I started my lemonade stand, I thought that I would only be helping out a few single parents in need of diapers,” said Cartier, who launched his own nonprofit organization called Kids 4 Change 757 to get other young people involved in service projects. “Now I’ve helped thousands of parents. I try to help as many individuals in need in my community as I can.” — Janelle Harris Dixon
Category: Social justice & activism
Social Media: Instagram
If Darnella had not been in front of the Cup Foods on Chicago Avenue more than a year ago on May 25, 2020, if she had not pressed “record” to capture the clearest bystander footage of the agonizing final nine minutes and 29 seconds in George Floyd’s life, if she had not persevered through the trauma and anguish of watching the murder of a man she didn’t know but who she acknowledged could have been her father, uncle or brother, the guilty verdict against former police officer Derek Chauvin may have never happened.
The then-17-year-old’s courage helped to spark a racial reckoning that rippled from her hometown of Minneapolis to communities around the world. “With nothing more than a cell phone and sheer guts, Darnella changed the course of history in this country, sparking a bold movement demanding an end to systemic anti-Black racism and violence at the hands of police,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, an advocacy group for writing professionals, who honored Darnella with the 2020 PEN/Benenson Courage Award.
Her courageous act also led the Pulitzer Prize Board—which hands out one of journalism’s top awards—with a special citation on June 11 “for courageously recording the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.”
Darnella, who is looking forward to going to college, sacrificed her own peace and safety to become a hero. She’s experienced anxiety attacks, several moves for her personal security and lost part of her childhood. Praised for her quick action and tenacity by Oprah, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, the NAACP and millions of other conscientious global citizens, the college-bound student persisted as a key witness in the Chauvin trial, which drew more than 18 million viewers on the day the decision was handed down. And she was a key reason why the public-servant-turned-killer was convicted of two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter.
Afterward, on her Facebook page, Darnella expressed her gratitude for the justice she played such a significant part in securing for the Floyd family and Black people nationwide: “I just cried so hard. I was so anxious…but to know guilty on all 3 charges!!! THANK YOU GOD THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. George Floyd we did it!! Justice has been served.” — Janelle Harris Dixon
Category: Social Justice & Activism
Hometown: Miami, Fla.
Education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Social Media: Instagram
“I always valued student government, but I was not pushed to commit so much time to it until faced with COVID-19 and issues of life and death for our student body,” Danielle Geathers told The Root about her decision to run for president of the MIT Undergraduate Association. “As a Black woman at MIT, I represented a small population. Diversity had been lower on the list of priorities for our student government, and I wanted to change that.”
On May 2, 2020, she made history as the first Black woman to be elected student body president in the school’s 159-year history, a feat even more impressive when you consider that merely 6 percent of MIT’s 4,530 undergrads identify as Black. Running on a platform of “Unity, Equity, and Authenticity,” she and running mate Yu Jing Chen won by only 28 votes. First on their agenda was guiding students through their first virtual semester. “We prioritized unity so people didn’t feel alone during our first virtual semester,” Geathers said. “We were focused on how we could bring people together and improve communications channels to be more inclusive.”
In April, she announced her campaign for re-election on Instagram: “Yu Jing and I are excited by the opportunity to continue moving our community forward. We have planted the seeds of a successful UA that works effectively to advocate for students, and we hope to further nurture the growth of our student government in this upcoming year!”
Once again, the pair was victorious. Geathers’ second term runs through May 2022 when she will graduate and pursue a law degree. — Apryl Motley
He already had a lot of folks’ attention. As a premier running back and one of the best players in Mississippi college football with a near-record-setting season in his senior year, Kylin is now a running back for the Green Bay Packers. But before he went pro, the Mississippi State star used his elite power and Twitter platform to push forward a social justice agenda and an overdue change off the field that’s even bigger than him.
In June 2020, when Republican Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted about his rejection of a proposal to redesign the state flag, which featured the Confederate symbol, Kylin’s reply was swift and decisive: “Either change the flag or I won’t be representing this State anymore & I meant that. I’m tired.” His courage at the risk of his own career and consequences ignited a national conversation and increased pressure on the state legislature to finally, finally, finally change the flag, the last in the country to feature the rebel emblem.
Because of his willingness to boycott one of the most infamous representations of America’s love affair with racism and put his future in football at Kaepernick-like risk, Kylin received threats. So did his mom. So did his grandmother. But in a summer of intensified protests against racial injustice, the majority of the response was supportive. In July, he was awarded the key to his hometown of Columbus, Miss., where the honor student is likely the first athlete from his majority-Black neighborhood to reach national renown, and in September, he was featured on the daily cover of Sports Illustrated.
“Kylin is a courageous young man who did a bold and brave thing,” Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen told CBS Sports. “He shared an emboldened belief held by many Mississippians that a paradigm-shifting change needed to be made. It was time for a new flag.” — Janelle Harris Dixon
Category: Social Justice and Activism
Hometown: Mansfield, Texas
Education: Mary Orr Intermediate School
Social Media: Instagram
There’s no such thing as doing too much good in the world or trying too hard to help other people, and that’s especially true for 10-year-old Orion Jean. In July 2020, within 24 hours of his parents telling him about the Think Kindness National Speech Contest, the compassionate fifth-grader submitted what ultimately became the winning entry that year. The victory earned him a $500 prize to seed his own kindness project, and Orion decided to collect toys for kids hospitalized at Children’s Health in Dallas.
And collect he did—the then-9-year-old launched his Race to 500 Toys drive in September and beat his own goal by amassing more than 600 playthings, with the help of $5,000 worth of items donated by toy company Melissa & Doug after Orion’s appearance on Good Morning America. The do-good feeling made him want to do more good, so he did.
“When I delivered the toys to the hospital, the nurses told me how much of an impact my donation was going to make on the kids there,” he told The Root. “It felt rewarding to know that more children would have a smile on their face as a result of this project.”
Months later, Orion kept his philanthropy going by developing Race to 100K Meals to deliver bags of food to people in need, particularly those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, before Thanksgiving. Partnering with local volunteer organizations, he exceeded yet another goal, this time procuring 100,984 meals for folks in his community—and he’s still going. In fact, he’s turned his community work into an entire movement of The Race to Kindness events to spread kindness and offset negativity.
“I learned that if you want to go somewhere or do something, you have to believe that you can. But you also have to put in the hard work it takes to get to where you want to be,” said Orion, who signed his first-ever book deal to release A Kids Book About Leadership in September 2021. “The Race to Kindness has taken hundreds of hours of work but it’s for the greater good, and that’s why I do it.” — Janelle Harris Dixon
At age 19, poet, activist and educator Alycia Kamil drew the adoration and praise of philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who wrote in a blog announcing $4.2 billion in donations about how Alycia, now 20, “sent a group text to her friends suggesting they buy supplies for people in their neighborhood who had lost their jobs.” Just two days later, Alycia and her friends had raised $7,000 for families during the height of the pandemic. With that money, Alycia provided 30 Chicago families with $200 to $300 worth of groceries and gave people in need access to healthy food options.
For Alycia, it all began when she started an educational workshop series called Undoing Our Erasure.
“I wanted to create a platform that was specifically highlighting the voices of black and brown youth,” she told The Root. “We’re constantly erased from narratives, not listened to, and overlooked. So when I started up a platform to hold space for the voices that get silenced, I felt like I was making a change. We don’t have a lot of outlets to talk, to educate each other, and most importantly just exist as youth.”
Between the pandemic and constant unrest over racial injustice, 2020 was a difficult year. For Alycia, the year served as a teaching moment and one where she learned much about herself and her calling.
“I’ve learned to take more space to humanize myself,” she said. “Doing this work can be tiring, it causes so much mental exhaustion, and you start to forget you’re also the person who needs help.” — Zack Linly
The dictionary is frequently deployed to check language inaccuracies but who checks the inaccuracies in the dictionary? Kennedy Mitchum did the heavy lifting when she emailed editors at Merriam-Webster to challenge the existing definition of racism, which, at the time, was described as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
That didn’t sit right with Kennedy, a Missouri native who lives just miles from Ferguson, where the 2014 protests following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer ignited many young Black folks’ activism. In its current state, the entry didn’t account for systemic oppression, she insisted in her message. “I kept having to tell them that definition is not representative of what is actually happening in the world,” she told CNN. “The way that racism occurs in real life is not just prejudice—it’s the systemic racism that is happening for a lot of Black Americans.”
A 2020 graduate of Drake University who complimented her study of public relations with courses in law, politics and society, Kennedy sent the email on a Thursday. By the next morning, editor Alex Chambers sent her a reply. He agreed that the definition needed to be updated, and he credited Kennedy for calling out the language shortfall. “This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem,” he said in his return message.
Because of Kennedy’s insight, tenacity and understanding about the power of words, the second Merriam-Webster definition of racism now reads: “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.” Fresh out of college, the young changemaker has already made an etymological difference in one of the most critical words in the ongoing national conversation about equity and justice. — Janelle Harris Dixon
Like every great story about a changemaker who initiates and implements a major culture shift, Bellen experienced an incident that necessitated a revolution she was called to lead. It happened at school. “My white classmate told me my skin was made of dirt and his was made of sand. My teacher said ‘He didn’t mean anything by it,’” she told The Root, “but I was confused that my skin color would be seen as negative but not his.”
The only Black girl and the youngest student in her school’s third-grade class, the then-8-year-old wanted to do something to help other kids avoid the sting of being what she calls “disincluded.” Not long after that unfortunate confrontation with early-onset privilege, Bellen heard her classmates refer to the peach crayon as “skin-color.” She was insulted, knowing that color didn’t come close to resembling her own brown skin, but after a conversation with her mom, she came up with a solution.
The next time a classmate asked her to pass a “skin-color” crayon, she asked: “Which color would you like? Because it could be any beautiful color.” Bellen, who calls herself the world’s first “crayon activist,” developed The More Than Peach Project in 2019 to supply school-aged children with a beautifully inclusive shade spectrum of beiges, tans, browns and yes, peaches, to color with and, in the process, represent themselves. Now 10, the fifth-grader sells her coloring kits online and has donated more than $45,000 worth of multicultural crayons to classrooms and, most recently, older people separated from their families during the pandemic.
“When I saw them I was so proud,” she said of her one-of-a-kind crayon collection. “Then I began getting letters from people, some even in their 80s, who said that it made them feel seen and heard. And I knew I had done the right thing and that my crayons were really making a huge difference.” An honor student, a member of American Mensa and a finalist for Time’s “Kid of the Year” in 2020, Bellen wants kids to recognize their own brilliance and their ability to create change, just like she is doing. — Janelle Harris Dixon