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Teens and young adults are taking on roles as activists

When President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union remarks on March 1, 2022, his speech included a birthday wish to Joshua Davis. The 13- year-old Chesterfield boy was in the audience, having drawn the president’s attention as an activist for affordable insulin. Davis, who has Type 1 diabetes, has met with state and national leaders during his years of campaigning to make life-sustaining insulin more affordable for average Americans. 

Joshua Davis with Rep. Abigail Spanberger
Joshua Davis with Rep. Abigail Spanberger. Photo courtesy of Abigail Spanberger

In Midlothian, Elijah Lee, says he was in first grade when he helped a classmate who was dealing with abuse. Since then, the 14- year-old has been organizing marches, collecting money and raising awareness to stop child abuse. Lee, who is also an ordained minister, has appeared on numerous television talk programs, including the Kelly Clarkson Show.

Elijah Lee
Elijah Lee was featured for his activism on the Disney+ Hero Project. Photo courtesy of Elijah Lee

 And in Charlottesville, University of Virginia student Zyahna Bryant was a teenager when she helped lead a movement to take down the controversial Robert E. Lee statue. Her efforts on this and other racial justice causes from the age of 12 put her on Teen Vogue’s 21 under 21 list of young people changing the world

Zyahna Bryant
Zyahna Bryant in front of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville. Photo courtesy of Teen Vogue

Nancy Deutsch leads Youth-Nex, a U.Va. center that focuses on leadership development among adolescents. She says under most circumstances, young people taking on leadership roles with causes that matter to them is healthy for youth and good for community. 

Deutsch says, “Young people beginning that practice of engaging civically, engaging politically, engaging in their communities, they’re exercising that muscle. That muscle is getting stronger and stronger. And they’re much more likely to continue that practice as they grow into adulthood. So, that’s good for our communities, because that means we have more engaged citizens moving forward.” 

As a young adult, Lawrence Mason was inspired to take his service in the Navy and as a volunteer firefighter and get on the ballot … vying to become State Delegate for the 79th District. In 2021, Mason was the first Republican to run for the seat in 20 years. He championed more support for veterans and for first responders. Mason says it was the need for more responsible, responsive government that drove his campaign.  In a February 2021 Facebook Live session, where Mason answered voters’ questions, he said, “Like most Americans, like most Virginians, I am sick and tired of the party politics.; I’m sick and tired of the fat- cat donors who pump millions into elections to say they have a politician in their pocket. That’s not who I am. I’ve never been in anyone’s pocket. And I’m never going to be in anyone’s pocket.” 

The 28- year-old Mason won 44% of the vote — not enough to win the seat. But his opponent, who did win — with 56% of ballots cast, is even younger. Nadarius Clark became the youngest Delegate ever elected to Virginia’s General Assembly. Clark was only 26 years old when he took office in January 2022. He reflects on a campaign between two young adults. 

"We were both Millennials. We had a great debate one day. We actually agreed on a lot of things. You know, we definitely had some things we disagreed on. But we understood the calling was to make sure that we better serve our community than the person prior to. And that was both of our, you know, our goals at the end of the day. And he ran a great campaign and so that I had, you know, that's why I'm here today. But it resonated with the community. So many young people came out and voted. So many young people was involved in my campaign.” 

Nadarius Clark
Nadarius Clark is the youngest delegate elected to the Virginia General Assembly. Photo by Angie Miles/VPM News

The delegate says it was activism that brought him to this place at such a young age. “I got involved in the political scene because of my love for social justice and activism. While I was at Virginia Union University, me and another one of my great friends co-founded a social justice organization called Generation Now Network, which was, you know, faith, faith-based activism. So we learned how to lobby, how to rally, how to protest.” 

Clark recalls being motivated by meeting with the Memphis Sanitation Workers, the last group to meet with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before King was assassinated. The night before King was killed, the civil rights icon had told the striking workers that they must not stop until the struggle for equality was fully won.  

Clark, who is the first Black delegate to serve the 79th, says he was also spurred to action when the Ku Klux Klan came to Richmond during the debates over Confederate statues. “And, you know, I'm at an HBCU, right up the street. And I was like, this is really happening, like, are we back in a different decade or different time? Like, this is happening in our time now. And the gravity of reality weighed in, and it's like, we have to do something.” 

The delegate meets regularly with young people, like students from his former high school, Portsmouth’s I.C. Norcom, who visited him in February during the General Assembly session. He says they need to know they have something to offer right now. He says the voices of youth belong at tables where decisions are made.  

Apparently, he’s not alone in his thinking. Recent survey work by Tufts University suggests that children and youth are more socially and civically engaged today than at any other time in history. Twenty seven percent, compared with 5% in 2016, of young adults indicated that they had participated in street protests, and more than half responded that they had actively worked to encourage their peers to vote. Eighty three percent said that they believe young people have the power to change the country.  

As the leader of Youth-Nex, Deutsch says the timing is ideal for adolescents and young adults to be involved in civic and social issues, because they are forming a sense of identity, which will stay with them all their lives. “Engaging politically, engaging socially, that is helping them with a sense of purpose and belonging. They belong to this community of activists and organizers who care about the same issues that they do. They have a sense of purpose. They have a sense of meaning in the world and in our society.”

Deutsch points out that youth engagement is not new, citing the Children’s Crusade during the Civil Rights Movement. But what is new is the ability to become informed and to organize through the use of social media. She says that so long as the drive to be active in reshaping the world doesn’t supplant young people’s other important needs, we are witnessing a net positive for young people and for the world.