Celebrating Youth Activism: A Conversation with Change-Maker, Hannah Alper

The following is a piece written by Unsinkable’s Jody Carrow from her interview with Hannah Alper

 

At 9 years old, Hannah Alper decided it was time to start making her world a better place. Seven years later, she’s known around the world as an activist, blogger, and motivational speaker. Oh, she’s also an author. And she has a TED Talk. I could go on, because she’s just that awesome (a true use of the word for once), but I’d rather you read our conversation…

I’m hoping the focus of our conversation today can be on celebrating what youth are doing in the world. So, what issues are getting your time and attention these days?

I think one thing that continues to be a priority in my activism is making sure that everyone knows that they are capable and that they have the power and capability to change the world for the better. Regardless of age, how much money you have, where you live, how popular you are – anything – that you have the power to change the world. Anyone can make a difference. Anyone can make positive change in their communities, in their homes, neighbourhoods, offices, the world. And so I think it’s just about giving people the tools and resources and I’m hoping that by showing people what I’m doing on the issues that I’m passionate about, that people will say, “If she can do it, I can do it, too.”

One of the issues I’m really focusing on right now is the environment and climate change because it’s not something we can say that we’ll deal with later. The time has passed. Severn Cullis-Suzuki is one of my greatest role models and she has this quote: “If you can’t fix it please stop breaking it.” She said it when she was 12 or 13 years old when she spoke at the United Nations. And that remains a guiding quote for me in my journey as an environmentalist as much as an activist. We’re already at the point where it’s hard to fix [the environment] so we have to adapt and at least stop breaking it. Part of that is pressuring and urging governments around us and educating everyone, all generations, about what’s going on.

Another issue that I’m super passionate about is homelessness. I think that it’s so important to recognize that every person on the street and everyone experiencing homelessness has a story and that they’re people too. It’s so important to recognize the humanity in each person that we meet. When I say that we need everybody in the fight to change the world, we need literally everybody.

We need to get people out of poverty… there’s so many issues in the world. You can focus on as many issues as you want. Some people think you have to focus on one or two issues at a time, but I don’t believe that. I think you can be passionate about as many issues as you desire.

 

Ultimately – and this is just coming to me as we are speaking – when you orientate yourself to make a positive impact in the world or on a particular issue through activism and empathy, what is actually happening is that you are rising to the call to be better humans.

One hundred percent. One hundred percent! People being better people is activism and we can all be better people. The things that mold change-makers and mold activists is empathy. A few years ago I started using this term, and still continue to use it, and it’s called ‘kind-raising’.

It’s doing those every day acts of kindness, those random acts of kindness, that just make the day better for other people. Because when people are feeling at their best, not only can they take care of themselves, they can take care of the world, too.

 

You’re absolutely right. I like the empowerment built into the Suzuki quote you mentioned as well because some issues – like the environment – can feel too overwhelming and huge to ‘fix’, but as soon as you flip it, like “I don’t know how to fix it, but I know how to stop breaking it,” instantly there’s something you can do to make a difference.

Right! Stuff you can do in your everyday life, especially for the environment. Doing the everyday things in your life really do add up to make a difference and I’ve been saying this since I was 9 years old and I began this crazy journey. I think every individual can do something to take action and a lot of action is just about changing the habits in our everyday lives. Maybe it’s using reusable bags and water bottles; maybe it’s putting a recycling centre in your garage that makes it easier to use…there’s so many things you can do including educating other people. All these things add up to making a difference worldwide.

 

I know you have a huge reach and influence, but I’m sure you must encounter youth from time to time who do feel overwhelmed and who see only obstacles between them and a better world. What is one of the most common misunderstandings that youth have about activism?

The first thing I would say to them is that I get overwhelmed, too. It’s a really scary world with a lot of issues that are so big and they can feel daunting and overwhelming and make us feel helpless. That’s just natural. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel depressed by all of the issues in the world. I think that one of the biggest misconceptions that young people have when it comes to activism is that they say, “I’m just one person, I can’t do anything.” But the thing is, you are just one person AND you can do something.

But it’s just a fact that when we do something together that the impact is far bigger. And that’s why community is so important. That’s what’s so beautiful about having this online presence, and that is what’s beautiful about the internet is that you can find your community. You can find your people, people who are passionate about the same things you are and you can take action with them.

When people think that they’re alone in what they’re passionate about, that’s another big misconception. I don’t have people right here in my neighbourhood or city who are doing the exact same as I am, but I have so many people online that I can reach out to and admire and get motivated by. I have those people in my life I can reach out to when I am depressed or overwhelmed. Also, when people think, I’m just one person what can I do? then they should look at Greta Thunberg – she’s a 17 year old who helped mobilize millions of people worldwide to lobby for climate change. She’s a teenager and she started when she was 16!

You have to look at all the good that young people are doing in the world and look at all the tools and resources you have in front of you because when you get stuck in that misconception, you’re not going to do anything. But when you can see that there are other people doing it then you can do it, too.

 

What do adults misunderstand about youth and activism? What’s one of the most common obstacles you have faced in trying to get adults to pay attention and take you seriously?

I will say I’m not seeing it as much now as I used to. The adult view on youth and youth taking action has definitely changed for the better since I started being an activist. It’s really interesting seeing how much has changed. The biggest misconception adults have around young people making a difference is that we can’t do it. That we’re wasting time on our phones all the time – that’s a huge one – and that we’re just too narcissistic to care about issues and make a difference.

But the truth is that my generation is the generation that’s changed the world more than any other generation. You know, look at Parkland, Florida and all the incredible teens who organized over 600 marches for March For Our Lives and protesting gun violence. They protested in a peaceful way and they got stuff done. And they literally changed laws and most of them couldn’t even vote yet but they managed to change laws by talking to the government and by showing that [gun control] is something that they care about.

So I think there are still a lot of adults who are skeptical about young people changing the world, but the truth is that we’re doing this because it’s our world. And we want our children and our grandchildren to live and thrive in this world and they only way that they can do that is if we fix the problems that we have. And there are an immense amount of problems and the thing is that young people can’t do it alone and adults can’t do it alone. Young people are the leaders of today and tomorrow so we have to team up with adults because we both have different things to offer.

But I do definitely think it’s become a lot better. I remember I did this post during the 2016 American election. I wrote a post about how I’m with her [Hilary Clinton] and it was posted on EP and on Yahoo. I woke up the day after it was published and it had, like, 300 comments and most of them were all negative. It was saying things like, “You can’t even vote so why are you talking about it? You have no voice, you shouldn’t be saying anything.” But that was when I was 12 or 13. So it’s come a long way since then.

But contrasting that with 2017 in December when I was honoured as one of Bloomberg’s “Top 50 To Watch in 2018”. I was the only Canadian, but more importantly, I was the only young person on the list. When people came up to me at the big Bloomberg gala in New York City, they’d ask who my parents were because they would think my parents were on the list. And I’d say, “Actually, I’m on the list.” And it showed the progress that [youth] have made just by me being there. I’m a young person and I got to be there representing all the incredible young people who are out there changing the world.

When it comes to adults saying young people are on their phones too much – we’re using our phones to make a difference. We’re using our phone to change the world.

I’m talking to you right now sharing my story and I’m hoping it will inspire someone to change their world. So yeah, we’re on our phones a lot but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

 

I’ve worked with youth a lot in my life and there’s something different about youth today. And it’s positive. So I wanted to ask you: what is it that you think youth have going for them at this point in history that really positions them as change-makers in a way that we haven’t seen in the past?

I think that part of it is that we are more aware of the issues in the world than any other generation. I think that we just have more of a sense of empathy and compassion and that we see these issues in the world and we go out and we do something about them. We don’t just sit there. When I was 9 and I started my blog, I didn’t think, Oh, I’m just one person, what can I do? I just did it. And I was 9!

That’s how so many of the minds work in my generation when it comes to making a difference and I don’t really know why. We don’t really question making a difference a lot of the time and I think part of that is all the many incredible adults who have paved the way for us, who have put those tools and resources out there for us. We couldn’t be activists if it wasn’t for people like David Suzuki, Gloria Steinem…we didn’t just start it. People like Suzuki and Steinem and Craig and Marc Kielburger and Roxanne Joyal – they’re the people who paved the path and we’re here to build on what they did. And do more.

Something that is really able to amplify us talking about what we’re passionate about is the Internet and social media because with the touch of a button we can reach out to people who live in different cities, provinces, states and countries in a way we’ve never been able to before. The closest thing to that in the past was the newspaper and television. You can’t reach as many people any other way than social media can and that’s just a fact. Unsinkable wouldn’t know about me and I wouldn’t know about Unsinkable if it wasn’t for social media.

We’re living in the perfect time where young people are more empathetic than ever and we have more of a reach than ever (with the help of social media) and we have the amazing role models standing behind us who believe in us. When we have role models and adults who believe in us, that’s when we know we can change the world. We didn’t just start it randomly; it’s been coming for a while.

 

I really like how you said that. That youth today have seen and seized the opportunities that social media offers and you’re running with them and doing incredible things.

Oh yeah. So many of us don’t want to say, “What if?” when the issues get bigger and bigger. We have the opportunities, we have the tools and resources, we have the roles models so we’re not just going to sit here and wait for something to happen. We’re going to be the ones to do something.

 

Who are some youth you are admiring these days and why?

A role model for me in general is Malala Yousafzai – I think she’s probably the most incredible person in the world. When I was 10 and read her book and learned about her, that’s when I saw that as a young person, and as a girl, that I could make a difference. Even after getting shot in the head and getting told by so many skeptics – both adults and young people – that she couldn’t have an education and that she couldn’t advocate and speak up for her education, she still did it. No matter what, she keeps speaking up on what she’s passionate about. She has this drive about her that I love and am so inspired by. She was one of my first role models and I got to interview her for my book, Momentus, and she was just so real…such a powerhouse and just a teenager at the time!

People who are really inspiring me now are all the March For Our Lives youth. Insanely inspiring and motivating to me! I look to them all the time and have been able to get to know a few of them since they’ve started a bit more than a year ago. They inspire me because when the Parkland shooting happened, they didn’t just sit there… A lot of people sat back and relaxed and looked after their own self-care – which is totally okay – but their self-care was doing something about it. And their self-care was not allowing Parkland, Florida to just be another mass shooting. It was so amazing to watch them go from a mass shooting to being a movement… they just believe in the voice and the power of young people even if they can’t vote… I’ve been able to get to know a few of them, especially Lauren Hogg, and she’s incredible and I’m proud to call her a friend… she’s just so educated and [the youth of March For Our Lives] are just so incredible and educated on everything.

Greta Thunberg, of course, and Naomi Wadler who’s 11 years old now and doing so much for the March For Our Lives movement. She’s showcasing the stories that aren’t told. And I think that’s really important because it’s not just the rich cities like Parkland, Florida that matter, all places matter. I learned a lot about intersectionality and racism from Naomi.

Every young person I meet, I learn something from them. And not all of them are super-famous but they’re just doing these amazing things. I know this boy named Jacob Grosberg who started a foundation called The Conan Fund after his father died by suicide because he didn’t get the mental health treatment and help that he needed… I just got to know him recently and I’m super-good friends with him now and he’s just amazing. He took a tragedy in his life and turned it into something beautiful and incredible and he’s leaving the best legacy for his dad. Jacob Grosberg: he’s going to do big, big things.

 

My last question is what advice do you have for all of us – adults and youth?

Support each other. Adults need to support young people; young people need to support adults. We need each other. We can’t change the world and solve all of these issues alone. We have to do it together. It’s going to take all of us, but it’s going to be worth it because we’re going to be able to live in a world that we’re proud of.

Little things add up to a big difference. We can’t do all of these big things in the world just starting out. It’s the little things that are going to make a difference and it’s about changing those habits in your every day life.

We need each other. Find your community. Surround yourself with positive people who will support you in what you do. Some of those people for me are my parents, my teachers, my friends… If I didn’t have them, I couldn’t do it.

 

Thank you so, much, Hannah, for all you do and all your hope in humans (young and old) to make a better future together.

Jody Carrow