5 Girl Activists Tell Us The Greatest Lessons Their Moms Taught Them

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From a resolute Harriet Tubman to Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to Bree Newsome’s climb up a 30-foot flagpole, social movements are rightfully rich with the presence of mighty women. So it’s only natural that behind the current generation of activists is the wisdom and support of arguably the most important women in our lives: our mothers.

My own mother was a freedom fighter, protesting apartheid as a student in 1976. She continued anti-apartheid work for more than a decade and helped reform racist South African policies. By 5 years old, I had learned from her to always fight back against injustice. As I grew older, she taught me that words mattered. I spent much of my high-school years using the power of the pen, sending strongly worded letters to community newspapers, local government, and anyone else who had the position to right a wrong.

Still, as a child of activists, I genuinely believed they had put in enough work that the freedom they envisioned would happen in my lifetime. In my naivete, I thought the major battles were over. My parents’ generation worked hard — organizing, executing, learning from Malcolm X and original freedom rider and civil rights organizer Stokely Carmichael — and yet we still see the evidence of institutional racism worldwide in how Black lives are taken and devalued as the criminal justice system looks the other way.

My mother reminded me that our struggle is systemic. Our fight is to change institutions. That fueled my own activism, which is very specifically about women and reproductive justice.

The struggle is the same, but the methods have changed and will continue to change.

Twenty or so years ago, it was harder for activists like my mom to have their activism and lead a somewhat normal life. We lived in exile much of my childhood. Now, girls can stand on the front lines or wherever they choose to change the world from — and very often they’re doing it with mothers who, like mine, are still fighting their own fights and who unfailingly have our backs.

Here’s what five young women at the forefront of some of the most pressing issues of our time told us about the way their mothers help them take action, and thrive.

— Yolisa Qunta, Cape Town, South Africa

Brianna Chandler, Missouri

Brianna Chandler’s goal is to “normalize some of the ideas people think of as radical.” The 19-year-old’s activism is done mostly by phone and computer, but the work she does organizing events for other young people to learn about racial justice is a critical part of the movement.

“Racism and all other forms of oppression are systemic, and my goal is to make people aware of that and to ultimately galvanize people to work against those systems of oppression,” says Chandler. “It’s not radical to believe that everyone has the right to shelter, clean water, and food.”

Chandler grew up with a proverbial village. With her mother being a single mom and disabled, she says her other family members and grandparents also stepped in to help raise her. Her grandmother was like a second mother, but it was her mother who pushed her and had a major influence on her life’s philosophy.

You have something to offer.

“When I was younger, I would think ‘no one really needs me to do this and no one really needs help from me,’” Chandler says. “But [my mom] would say, ‘No. To whom much is given, much is expected. You have gifts. You have something to offer.’” With that advice, Chandler got together with a few friends in seventh grade and spearheaded a large clothing drive. It became the first student-led initiative in her elementary school. Soon after, Chandler’s mom encouraged her to do something to give young Black girls representation: someone who looks like them leading. She started a day program where young Black girls came together to dance and express through movement and then read books. Now, as she organizes bigger events, like the digital fundraiser she helped put together this June to benefit youth in her town of St. Louis, Missouri, she keeps her mom’s words in mind: “You always wonder why I would let you express yourself so loudly, but it's because the world already beats down little Black girls enough. I don't need to silence you.”

Alexandra Brathwaite, New York

Besides being the social justice coordinator for Queens Defenders — an organization providing legal representation to low-income people, youths charged with felonies, and immigrants — Alexandra Brathwaite, 22, also runs a program in Queens, New York, called Youth Justice Court, which works to expunge low-level misdemeanors from the records of kids in the community.

If you want it, go get it.

Black and Native American teens are overrepresented in juvenile jails and facilities, and restorative justice models like Youth for Justice help stop the vicious cycle of incarceration. It’s work that Brathwaite has been doing for years. Recently, in light of George Floyd’s killing at the hand of a police officer, Queens Defenders held two protests — one with a turnout of about 700 people. Brathwaite’s mother was scared for her to go to the protests, she says, but it was her mom’s long-taught lesson that moved her to do it anyway. “She always told me that if you really want it that bad, you have to go get it,” says Brathwaite. “If you really want justice, you’ve got to use your voice.”

The young activist now helps other teens use their voices to fight racial injustice from within the system — the criminal justice system. “Justice is supposed to be blind. It’s supposed to be fair, and if the government is not ready for us to get justice, well, then you know what? We are ready to voice what we want,” she says. Standing at just 5 feet, 2 inches, the self-proclaimed baby of the family wanted to prove what she was capable of when she stood on the front lines of the protests in June, and that she did. “My mom is actually really proud. A lot of my family’s proud,” she says. “They’re very happy of the fact that at least someone in the family is able to go out there and represent without fear.”

Brathwaite doesn’t plan to stop fighting any time soon. Even once global protests have died down, she’ll still be organizing restorative justice programs and making sure teens get the legal representation they have a right to, so they have a chance at a future. “It makes me feel very empowered,” she says. “It makes me driven, and on top of that, it makes me hungry for justice.”

Haven Coleman, Colorado

“Climate change is going to be affecting all of us for generations,” says activist Haven Coleman.

The 13-year-old recently started her first year of high school and is currently prioritizing her family life and her mental health, but she’s already accomplished a lifetime’s worth in the past few years. In 2019, Coleman co-founded US Youth Climate Strike, following in the footsteps of #SchoolStrike4Climate movement leader Greta Thunberg, to mobilize young people and bring a sense of urgency to the cause.

Coleman started her climate activism at the age of 10. By age 11, she had attended rallies and traveled from Colorado to Kansas and New York to talk to students about issues from climate change to gun violence. “I was using my power to educate kids about it because it’s really important,” she says. “I also empowered them to cite things that they thought were important even if it wasn’t climate change.” And it was her mom who empowered her to follow her passion.

Your voice is powerful — keep using it.

“If [my mom] wasn’t there for me, I might have just not done anything,” says Coleman. “But she kept saying, ‘Your voice is the most powerful thing that you have, and you need to keep using it.’” Her parents, a stay-at-home mom and a dad who works in construction, didn’t know much about climate change. In fact, Coleman says she got her mom interested in it. Her mom saw how important it was to her, and now Coleman says she doesn’t miss an event.

As the pandemic slows down group gatherings and Coleman’s typical activities, she’s starting on another impactful project. “I’m working on starting a multimedia company that gives activists the opportunity to earn money while still helping the climate,” she says. The website would allow activists to offer their creative skills to earn money since, as she puts it, “money is the main thing in our society to even be able to go to college.”

Her mom helps her remember her day-to-day plans while offering the seemingly simple things Coleman needs to keep going. “She’s given me so much support and so much love,” Coleman says. “She’s just been there, and she just understands.”

Mari Copeny, Michigan

Her nickname is Little Miss Flint. That’s because five years ago, at age 8, Mari Copeny took on the clean water crisis, starting in her town of Flint, Michigan.

In 2016, she wrote a letter to then-President Barack Obama, encouraging the president to meet with her and other citizens of Flint who were traveling to Washington D.C. to watch Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s Congressional hearing. “My mom said chances are you will be too busy with more important things,” she wrote. They didn’t connect in D.C., but one month later, President Obama met Copeny in Flint, where the water was so contaminated that the blood lead levels of children were doubling and tripling. Soon after, Obama signed into law the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act of 2016, granting $100 million to fixing the water crisis in Flint. Still, the clean water crisis is not over, and Copeny’s work continues.

Stay humble and grateful.

“I want to make sure that Flint kids have access to everything they need,” the now-13-year-old says, “including clean water, coats in the winter time, school supplies, books, gifts at Christmastime and Easter, and fun things to do throughout the year.” The young activist is fundraising and working with a company to produce filters for other communities with lead-contaminated water. Instead of temporary and expensive fixes like buying cases of water bottles, Copeny says, the filter will “give them immediate relief to a problem that can’t wait for government leaders to step up and fix it.”

Through all of her community work and activism, her mom is her biggest support. “She works to make sure that all of my wild and crazy ideas for events and projects come true. When I feel like giving up sometimes, she reminds me to work through it,” says the new eighth-grader. She credits both her mom and grandma for teaching her to always to give back to the less fortunate; she remembers accompanying her grandma to volunteer at food banks at age 3. In addition to showing her what it means to stay humble and grateful, she says, “They told me to never take advantage of anything that is being given to you.”

Though her accomplishments rival those of most adults, Copeny is not immune to teenage problems. Her mother helps her deal with online trolls and stay true to herself despite what critics have to say. “She also lets me be exactly who I want to be and supports me even when she thinks I am out of my mind.”

Jamie Margolin, New York

The 2016 election was a turning point for Jamie Margolin. “Our leaders are actively making things worse,” she remembers realizing. “They aren’t going to solve this, so we really need to put much more pressure and take action.”

In 2017 at the age of 15, Margolin founded Zero Hour, an intersectional, youth-led organization taking action around the issue of climate change. She’s already a published author, and she just started film school at New York University with the goal of increasing LGBTQ+ representation on screen. As she gets settled into college life, she’s working “full steam ahead to mobilize as many people to vote in the 2020 elections as possible.” Zero Hour’s #Vote4OurFuture campaign is aimed at increasing voter turnout by encouraging people to vote in the best interests of climate action and environmental justice.

Margolin’s mom, an immigrant from Colombia, wants her daughter to have a better life than she did and brings her experience growing up in poverty to her work at a food bank.

Don’t be late.

“She’s a very giving person,” Margolin says of her mom. “She’s proud of me, and she believes in the cause, but she sometimes gets really worried for me and really scared for me.” Even though her mom wishes she would just focus on her studies, she’s supportive of whatever Margolin does.

“My mom really respects my space,” she says, noting that she prefers to have her parents not directly involved in her activism. “When I was living at home, if I was on conference calls for too long or doing too much work she would come bring me papaya or soup. She’s always taking care of me.”

Now that Margolin has left the nest for college, her mom takes a key role in managing her calendar of events and tasks. “She didn’t push me into this all. I was the one who got myself into this, and now that I’m in it my mom is always like, ‘Don’t be late!’” she says. “She’s a very professional person.”

Header Photo Credit: Photos Courtesy of Alexandra Brathwaite, Brianna Chandler, Haven Coleman, Jamie Margolin, Noam Galai/Getty

Image 1 Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Yolisa Quinta

Image 2 Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Brianna Chandler

Image 3 Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Alexandra Brathwaite

Image 4 Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Haven Coleman

Image 5 Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Noam Galai/Getty

Image 6 Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Jamie Margolin