What Young Leaders Have Learned from Activism and Advocacy in 2018

December 19, 2018

2018 has been quite a year for advocates and activists working to make our communities stronger and more equitable—a year of struggle and progress.

Across the United States, young people are leading movements to effect policy change, spark conversation, and bring attention to issues ranging from education equity to youth justice, violence, reproductive rights, discrimination against the LGBTQ community, and more.

To inspire and remind us of all the good and innovative work being done, we asked young changemakers about the year’s wins and what they’re looking forward to in 2019 Here are some reflections, as we leave one year and head into the next.


Maritza Medina Olazaran, Paralegal, Innocence Project

Maritza is currently a paralegal at the Innocence Project, a non-profit that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted and reform the criminal justice system.  

On what she’s learned from her work in 2018: "There is no form of advocacy that is too small. When you work with people who were just released from prison, advocacy could be stepping aside as they set goals for themselves and supporting them as they work to achieve those goals."

Her hopes and goals for 2019: "I am looking forward to engaging in prisoner reentry work. More specifically, I am hoping to work with formerly incarcerated people on overcoming reentry barriers present in their lives." 

On why prison reentry work is so important: "I was raised in the New York City Housing Authority where it seemed like every family had some form of experience with the criminal justice system, but it wasn't until I got to Cornell University where I took courses relating to employment law, that I found myself researching employment discrimination. People with criminal records were (and still are) having difficulty securing jobs -- a really important facet of our daily lives. My experience conducting this research, led me to coordinate a journaling project with Prisoner Express where I could interact through mail with people across the country. I've since learned so much about what life is like within prisons and how they don't help people, not even those preparing to be released, gain the skills they need to navigate, and thrive in, the world we live today. I should add that I mostly interact with people who were arrested as youth, convicted, and have since spent decades in prison as life on the outside has continued to evolve without them."


Jermany Gray, 19-year-old Human Rights Activist focused on LGBTQ+ health and rights

Jermany is a YouthResource advocate with Advocates for Youth who organizes events on his campus. He’s just finished his first semester of college. You can find Jermany on Twitter here.


On what he’s learned from his work in 2018: “One lesson that I learned about this year is the power of activism. This past fall while at college, I learned about the non-unanimous jury law that was disproportionately affecting minorities in Louisiana for over 100 years, a law that says that only 10 of 12 jurors in a case must agree for juries to convict by nonuanimous decisions. After learning about this issue, my class participated in some efforts to advocate for Amendment 2 which would change this law. We were phone banking, canvassing, and marching to help raise awareness of this issue and Amendment 2. Luckily, on the day of midterms, the citizens of Louisiana voted in favor of Amendment 2 and the law was eliminated. In closing, being apart of this effort taught me that when we all come together and raise our voices, we can do anything!”

On how he’s taking time to rejuvenate for 2019: “To rejuvenate, restore and reflect, I am taking break from everything and just relaxing at home in Mississippi. My first semester of college ended last week so I do not have any class work to do so I am just taking everything day by day. While at home, I am catching up on all of the TV shows that I missed during the year such Empire, Star and The Have and Have Nots and also watching movies. When the weather is good outside, I also go to the park and just relax on the swings.”

His hopes and goals for 2019: “With the new year approaching, I am looking forward to organizing different events on my campus. I want to plan events that will bring the LGBTQ+ community together and also inform them of a pressing issue within the community. I am also excited about continuing my education and exploring New Orleans. I am going to Mardi Gras for the first time and also Hamilton is making a stop in New Orleans so I hope to watch the show. In closing, I am excited for whatever the new year will bring!”


Shamare Holmes, Juvenile Justice Advocate and Justice Advisor with the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance

As a Justice Advisor with CTJJA, Shamare works to provide resources and hope to young people who have had contact with the justice system. She is also employed by the Bridgeport Education Alliance for Public Schools as a Community Organizer.


On what she’s learned from her work in 2018: “I learned that organizing isn't just about single-handedly solving a problem. It's about building a following of people — mainly those impacted by the issue — to address matters as a united front. You'll know when the organizing strategy is a success when people who were never vocal about their concerns build the confidence to advocate for themselves over time  It's a beautiful thing.”

On how she’s taking time to rejuvenate for 2019: “I am ending the year spiritually sound and with a level of gratitude I have never experienced before. December 1st-December 21st is my church's 21 Day Fast and Consecration. At this point, we're in the homestretch and I am blessed to have gotten closer to God through prayer and reading the Word. During these past few days, I would not be able to do this work at the capacity which it is done without God so the least I can do is turn down a plate and disconnect from social media for a few days out of the year to reflect and decompress.


Sarah Emily Baum, Journalist and Student Activist

Sarah is a March for Our Lives activist who recently started college in 2018.

On what she’s learned from her work in 2018: “This year, the most important thing I learned about activism was the importance of building a community. As pressing as an issue may be, be it gun violence or health care or reproductive rights, the way to keep people invested as an organizer is to build a community they want to come back to. If the leadership is too consolidated, if you don't involve people in the decision and make people feel like their voices are valued, too, they won't stick around. It's about encouraging people every step of the way, at all different levels of experience, to bring their skill set to the table in making a change. And to make sure they know that they matter. After all, making meaningful and lasting change in the world is playing the long game. You'll want a solid team beside you to make it happen, people who stick with it even after the initial fanfare dies down and even after you go through some losses. That's what the activism community is all about.”

The way to keep people invested as an organizer is to build a community they want to come back to.”


Jordyn Close, reproductive rights organizer from Ohio

Jordyn works with NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF), Women Have Options Ohio, and We Testify.

On what she’s learned from her work in 2018: “The world is a lot more caring than it presents itself to be."

On opposing the current six-week bans on abortion in Ohio (HB258), Jordyn says it’s been difficult but that, “Fighting these bans is taking every waking moment but it has made me appreciate all of the people I know in this movement even more. They are the reason I always find the energy.”

Her hopes and goals for 2019: “In 2019 there will be more to do under the new Governor Dewine. I'm hoping to focus on growing our local movement in intersectionality and dedicating myself to nonprofit work full time. Increasing access to care, expanding comprehensive sex education and working to end stigma around abortion are on the top of my list for 2019. Community outreach and education is super important to me. I organize fundraisers and events to build access for those who don’t know about all of the resources available to them. I hope to start doing more direct patient advocacy and clinic escorting next year to be even more hands on.”


Ananya Kumar-Banerjee, student activist at Yale

Ananya recently started school at Yale and has found strength in local organizing and fighting for a better world, even in the smallest ways.

A poem Ananya performed at a climate justice rally earlier this year

On what she’s learned from her work in 2018: “I think a big lesson I learned is that everything is about initiative. Prior to this summer, I had felt that it was inappropriate for me to do anything on a local level because I was unprepared or unqualified. All of this is false. The truth is that you have the tools that you have, and as long as you are listening to people, as long as you are willing to make mistakes AND learn from them, you are helping.”

“The truth is that you have the tools that you have, and as long as you are listening to people, as long as you are willing to make mistakes AND learn from them, you are helping.”

Her hopes and goals for 2019: “This winter break, I've been very lucky to have the opportunity to visit my father's hometown in India. I haven't been there in a really long time, so it's bound to be a memorable experience. What I'm really excited about is having the opportunity to do some journalism while I'm there; specifically, I'll be focusing on a piece which dissects the significance of Elihu Yale (for whom Yale University is named) and his holdings in the East India Company. I have a feeling that it is going to be a very emotional process, but I think it will be eye-opening for me. Hopefully, the article I write at the end will be just as intense as I'm sure the experience writing it will be.”