This feature is part of a series of articles on youth activists.
By Laura Shovan
There is a concept in Judaism known as Tikkun Olam, or “repair the world.” Right now, our world is in need of repair. During the COVID-19 pandemic, global society has been wrestling with equity issues. In the United States, we are examining how a long history of racist practices has impacted policies and culture. Whenever I come across a news story about children and teens—our readers— finding ways to repair the world, it gives me hope.
I recently interviewed three kids who identify as activists. All three are working on literacy and social justice projects in their home communities and beyond.
Draya Gohagon (she/her) is an eleven-year-old fifth-grader living in Connecticut. Draya is mixed race. She is Black and White and recently learned that her family has Senegalese, Congolese, Ghanian, Polish, Irish, and Italian ancestry.
Draya’s list of recent projects include:
- Wrote a letter to Michelle Obama about Archie Williams
- Chalk the Walk
- Toy Protest
- Spoke at NerdCamp
- Raised $4,000 to give diverse books to schools
- Bought books
- Paid for a speaker to teach parents about how to talk to kids about race
- Spoke to the school board
Draya traces her activism back to a kindergarten project when her class wrote and drew what they would do to make the world a better place. At seven years old, she raised $1,500 in order to donate books about Black children to local schools.
Laura Shovan: How did you become interested in activism? Did an event or person inspire you to “repair the world”?
Draya Gohagon: My parents said I have always wanted to make things better—help kids, fight for what’s right…. My parents taught me that I can write letters, raise money, or talk to adults about things that need to change. But during the past year, I have learned a lot.
I think it started when I watched America’s Got Talent and saw that a man named Archie Williams went to jail for something he didn’t do because people were racist. I felt this spark that I realized this was not right. I saw that the Innocence Project helped him. It made me feel like sometimes if you dig deep enough you can realize that your voice can be heard. So I asked my parents how I could make an even bigger difference. And I started to do a lot of things.
You should give diverse books to everyone, especially to kids who are in PreK because if it’s taught early on, they can definitely defend it [diverse representation] when they get older. If kids heard more about the other side of the story, other than just their perspective, maybe they can … stand up to people in their families, adults, who say racist things.
Laura: Why is it important to include literacy and access to books in your social justice efforts?
Draya: Stories open your eyes to a brand new world. You know what it’s like to be you, but you don’t know what it’s like to be someone else. Books can help you understand and if you understand someone it’s really hard to hate them. When you understand them, you actually want to fight for them. Being a mixed child myself, I realized when I would go to school and I would have library, I would look around for books and there was mainly books about white kids. You wouldn’t really see a lot of books with Black kids on the cover. If we put more books into schools that have Black characters in them then kids won’t act weird around Black people and… they can speak out.
Laura: What have you learned from your activism?
Draya: My activism definitely taught me a lot. It taught me to open my eyes more and not just avoid the things that you don’t want to hear.
I have learned that anyone can make change. I am only eleven, but I was able to use my voice to raise money and buy diverse books for kids all over Connecticut. I was also able to talk to my superintendent and school board about the changes that need to happen, like teaching about how to be antiracist or teaching Black history all year instead of just February… Now they are passing new equity rules to make sure all students feel safe and represented in school.
The other big thing I learned is that other kids and adults want to make change too, they just need to learn how. If you feel something you should say it and not keep it inside. I feel like that’s a message everyone should know.
Laura: How do you get the word out to other teens or community members?
Draya: Well, I’m not a teenager but I talked to teenagers over the summer and kids my own age about what I have done. My friends really want to help. My friends actually helped me make a movie about having hope. Kids just need help to get started.
When adults talk to me, I just tell them why I want to make a difference, especially when it comes to fighting racism and making sure that all kids have books that tell their story. I know what’s like to feel different. I love being me, so I want to make sure adults know that other kids feel that way too.
Laura: What are you working on now?
Draya: I took a little break from my activism because I needed a break, but right now I am working on getting books out to schools in Connecticut since we waited because of COVID-19. I also am working on editing my videos that I have from when I interviewed authors about diverse books. My cousins and I interviewed six authors so far about why they think we need diverse books, and our plan is to turn it into a YouTube channel. I have been learning how to edit videos and add effects, so it’s been taking me a long time.
Being a dancer myself I definitely loved that book. It shows dance from all over the world.
Laura: What is your dream project?
Draya: My dream project would definitely be to work with Amanda Gorman and learn how to be a poet like her so I could talk about activism using poetry! I love how she put her feelings in a poem. I’d love if she would teach me how to do that.
Draya also dreams of working with Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris.
They are people that everyone should see as a role model. They really know how to change the world.
Laura Shovan is an award-winning children’s author, poet, educator, and editor. Her most recent book is the Sydney Taylor Notable A Place at the Table, co-written with Saadia Faruqi. Laura is a longtime poet-in-the-schools in her home state of Maryland.