With a slew of social media platforms at their disposal, Gen Z is revolutionizing activism and making their voices heard.
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and several other unarmed Black men by police officers in 2020, ignited social unrest and sparked heated debates about the systemic racism and inequities pervasive in U.S. society. Corporate America was essentially called out for persistent racial disparities, with several companies donating millions of dollars to combat racial injustice and making changes to the way they operate to ensure inclusivity was at the forefront.
As protests swept the country, the daughters of prominent Civil Rights Movement leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Bernice King and Ilyasah Shabazz weighed in. So did other stalwarts in the fight for social justice, like Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton. The late bell hooks’ work on the intersectionality of race and feminism took on new urgency. But the ongoing turmoil also signaled a changing of the guard in activism.
Generation Z or Gen-Z, referring to those born in 1997 and beyond, has established themselves as a force for good. They come armed with determination, fearlessness, and perhaps most importantly, social media. These are the digital natives who grew up with Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2006) and are fluent in the multiple other platforms that have emerged since then. More than just socializing applications, Gen-Z has recognized the organizational powers of the tools and is using their speed and reach to galvanize and advocate for various causes.
This group is politically aware and engaged on matters related to climate change, gender equality, gun violence, and racial justice. Whether through hashtag campaigns, viral Tik Tok videos, or Instagram reposts, Zoomers are revolutionizing activism and affecting change in ways that are most accessible to them.
And their predecessors are welcoming the shift.
Said King in an interview, “I am so proud of them first of all for the tenacity, the resilience, and the vigilance that they are exercising and the determination to keep the issue of Black Lives Matter before this nation which has called so many people to lean in, in ways that I’ve never seen before in generations past.”
Here are some inspiring young changemakers who are pushing the social justice conversation forward.
The summer of 2020 was life-changing for San Ramon, California native Tiana Day. A social media post calling for someone to help lead a peaceful Black Lives Matter march caught her attention. The teen felt compelled to participate, despite never speaking publicly or leading a protest. Undaunted, she teamed up with co-leader Mimi Zoila to plan the event. Day created a flyer and posted it across social media platforms hoping to attract a few hundred supporters. Instead, over 50,000 people came together to march across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. A spark was ignited, and a passion for activism set ablaze. Tiana, 19, is now the founder of Youth Advocates For Change, a non-profit organization focused on amplifying young voices and supporting their advocacy of intersectional social justice issues.
The organization hosts Amplify Our Advocacy, a youth-led podcast featuring young activists and changemakers in the community.
Amanda Gorman uses her poetry as a tool for activism and to advocate for transformative change. At 22-years-old, she made history as the youngest inaugural poet when she recited “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021. The Los-Angeles born Harvard graduate was also named the First National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017. Gorman is a New York Times bestselling author of the poetry collection “Call Us What We Carry,” lyrical picture book “Change Sings,” and a collectible edition of “The Hill We Climb.”
The young activist was surprised by the response to her inauguration piece, telling The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, “I did my poem, I walked [off-stage], and I kind of expected everything to be the same. And then I opened my Instagram just to look at other people’s posts, and all of my apps had just crashed because of all the followers that were flocking to my channel.”
Jeremy Muchilwa and Michelle Muchilwa
The teen siblings participated in an Ocean Heroes Bootcamp in June 2020. This experience inspired the Kenyan duo’s decision to start a campaign combatting plastic pollution in Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, which is home to more than 200 species of fish. Industrial and municipal pollution have caused the lake’s commercial fish stocks to plummet.
In a 2021 interview, Michelle said, “There is a major issue in Kenya, where the youth are not connected to their natural environment, and I had the same problem. I began noticing the disconnect when I asked my mom about the kind of fish she used to eat, and I had never tasted them. I was wondering what happened in these 15 years that I have been around that has caused these species of fish to go extinct.”
The environmental activists developed an app to eradicate pollution along lakeshores by targeting young people to help collect and recycle plastic waste. They are also the founders of the environmental conservation organization Bring Back Lake Victoria.
A summer program at Princeton University gave Zanagee Artis a lot to think about. Artis had already gotten a taste of environmentalism by starting his Connecticut high school’s Sustainability Committee. The group purchased an aquaponic pond and raised funds for water bottle refilling stations. But after engaging with fellow participants Jamie Margolin and Madelaine Tew that summer, he realized more could be done for climate change outside of his local community. In 2017, they founded Zero Hour, a youth-led climate activist group. Artis was at the forefront of Zero Hour’s international climate justice education campaign: Getting to the Roots of Climate Change and is the organization’s Interim Policy Director.
Mikaela Loach is a medical student, climate justice campaigner, and ethical fashion advocate based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her introduction to activism came via migrant and refugee rights but Loach’s interest in fast fashion piqued after watching the True Cost documentary. She learned about the impact of the manufacturing method on the environment through carbon emissions. Loach has since built a community of more than 132,000 on Instagram. She shows them how easy it is to make sustainable, ethical choices rather than turning to fast fashion.
“Fashion is often connected to empowerment — if you wear a great outfit you feel good, you feel empowered,” said in an interview with Global Citizen. “But if your empowerment is causing the oppression of someone else, is that real empowerment?”
She’s also demystifying the world of activism on her podcast Yikes! together with co-host Jo Becker. The hosts break down terms that may be foreign to newbies in the activism space like ‘intersectionality’ or ‘climate justice.’
As a Black woman who is also a member of the LGBTQ community, Betsy Watson witnessed a few incidents that disturbed her at Central Bucks West High School in Pennsylvania. White students frequently used the N-word in her presence, students at rival school Central Bucks East hung a dead deer on the bleachers with a noose, and a purportedly gay student on the football team received threats from teammates.
The hate weighed on Watson’s heart and moved her to create P.E.A.C.E. (People for Equality, Acceptance, Cooperation & Empathy). The club at CB West works to foster cultural awareness and social justice. Watson has since graduated but continues her activism on social media by engaging in discourse and posting educational content to over 275,000 Tik Tok followers.
“They’re seeing things from different perspectives and they have social media on their side, which shows you different outlooks on the world.”
Jacqueline Azah is a student activist who emigrated from Cameroon, Africa to the United States as an infant. Her activism started with gun violence prevention, inspired by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. She is now a political science student at Clark Atlanta University, and her advocacy work has expanded into homelessness and women’s rights. Azah co-founded J&H New Beginnings with a high school friend to “help people worldwide through various humanitarian activities.” The grassroots organization creates care packages that include essentials like a warm meal, water bottle, and various toiletries; masks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, sunscreen, lotion, chapstick, hand sanitizer, and much more.
Jay’Aina “Jay Jay” Patton
Jay Jay Patton was only three years old when her dad Antoine was sentenced to eight years in prison. But the Pattons maintained their close connection, and Jay Jay wanted to give other kids dealing with parental incarceration an opportunity to nurture the long-distance relationship. The then 12-year-old created PhotoPatch, an app that allows children to send letters and photographs to imprisoned parents for free. Over 70,000 families have used the service, with more than one million photos and letters sent.
Through informational Instagram posts, the company also reframes the conversation surrounding incarceration.
This new generation is passionate about making positive changes. And with social media and smartphones, they might be better equipped than those who came before them. With a simple post, they can start a movement.