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, “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.
Zawadi Sankofa (she/her), 17, is a member of the class of 2022 at the Bryn Mawr School. A leader in the school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, Zawadi is the president of the Community Advocacy for Equity organization as well as the Black Student Union. She is passionate about education, dismantling rape culture, and uplifting marginalized voices through intersectional advocacy and justice work. Zawadi is also a skilled visual artist who works with traditional and digital media as a means of social commentary and personal expression.
Laura Shovan: How did you get interested in activism? Did an event or person inspire you to “repair the world”?
Zawadi Sankofa: My experience of attending a PWI [Predominantly White Institution] since kindergarten, that’s definitely impacted my identity. My mom told me on the first day of school… I asked, ‘Why doesn’t anybody look like us?’ When I was in kindergarten, people didn’t look like me on an objective level, but couldn’t I articulate why it felt icky.
It wasn’t until eighth grade that Zawadi began to be more vocal about these issues at school. After some racially charged incidents at several schools in the area, Zawadi felt that the brief community discussions offered by her school were insufficient. She also noticed pushback from white students who didn’t want to talk about racism.
Zawadi: I sought out different equity and inclusion organizations. These things that are happening directly affect my identity. Some people have the privilege to not have to talk about them… to not acknowledge that other people are directly impacted by them.
Now Zawadi works with her school’s diversity director Diane Nichols and with Kaliq Simms, founder of the Baltimore Student Diversity Leadership Conference. Adult mentorship has been instrumental to Zawadi’s activism.
Zawadi: The whole idea of kids needing to speak up for themselves, ‘Be the change that you want to see’ is important. Having adults who I know I can trust and can work closely with.
Laura: Why is it important to include literacy and access to books in your social justice efforts?
Zawadi: I think books and literacy and reading [are] so important… They are how we learn about society, how we learn values. We need to show kids diversity in the world. So many books and not nearly enough of them center on people of color, people with disabilities, nonbinary characters. It’s so affirming to have a character in a book who looks like you because it validates your experience.
In eighth grade, Zawadi conducted a focused book drive, with some support from WNDB co-founder and author Ellen Oh. The collected books, all featuring Black girl protagonists, were gifted to a school in Philadelphia.
Zawadi: Giving kids books and media that’s affirming is really crucial.
Among Zawadi’s own favorites are Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and the Sugar Plum Ballerinas chapter book series by Whoopi Goldberg.
Zawadi: On the cover, there was a girl who had dark skin and she had locs. It was so awesome to see people who looked like me and looked like people in my community.
Laura: What have you learned from your activism?
Zawadi: It pays off to be unafraid to speak up. Even if you’re the only one speaking, speak up, share your experience… There will always be someone who’s watching. Someone’s always listening. No matter how small, your impact is valid and valuable.
Zawadi recognizes that young activists must learn to balance mental and emotional health with school, homework, and community work.
[I’ve learned about] prioritizing yourself in all of it. This work can be really draining.
Laura: What are you working on now?
Zawadi: I’m doing a lot of work at my school right now.
She is a member of the Black Student Union and vice president of CAFÉ, the Community Advocacy for Equity group. CAFÉ’s current project is a series of videos that will teach younger students about diversity in an age-appropriate way. Zawadi loves to draw and create characters through her art, so she hopes the videos will use animation. The aim is to build children’s conversation skills, giving children a foundation in how to disagree respectfully, how to have in-depth conversations on topics like xenophobia and homophobia.
After high school, she hopes to major in a field related to social justice work.
Zawadi: You can work on systems and policies, then another thing is working on mindsets and values and that’s where I think the education piece comes in.
Laura: What is your dream project?
Zawadi: Being able to create curriculums that center diversity equity and inclusion. And having it as a fundamental part of the curriculum, so that kids are having these conversations and learning that vocabulary I didn’t have when I was in first or second grade in how to talk about big things.
Part of that project would be children’s literature.
Zawadi: Books play a huge part in setting kids up with a foundation to understand societal issues, injustices, inequities and to understand how that affects their own experience.
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.