Naomi Wadler Is the 11-Year-Old Activist You Need to Know
It isn’t always simple when America discovers you at 11 years old. Suddenly, it’s not just homework that you’re responsible for. Your name becomes a hashtag, and if you’re lucky you might even get invited on Ellen. That happened to me at 11, and now it’s Naomi Wadler’s turn.
While some people become famous because of their parents or because of a scandal, Naomi came to the attention of the world because she chose to speak for the invisible. At the March for Our Lives last month, she stood and demanded that people see and appreciate the lives of black girls, especially those who experience gun violence and often go unnoticed. She spoke not just to the crowd, but to people nationwide, and she insisted that black girls be included in the conversations we have when it comes to who needs protection and who is at risk of harm. At a walk out at her school a few weeks earlier, she’d taken an extra minute to commemorate Courtlin Arrington, a 17-year-old black girl who was shot and killed on March 7. Her murder did not receive much news attention.
For me, Naomi is a kindred soul. Though our lives are different, we share a commitment to a better and more equitable future. Most of all, we agree that ignorance feeds violence, and so we are determined to spread awareness instead. After we each took a break from school and our responsibilities and went on vacation late last month, I called Naomi to find out how she became the activist she is now and what she hopes to do next.
While the world may have discovered Naomi on the March for Our Lives podium, it’s clear from our conversation that protest and demonstration aren’t new to her. Which is good, because we need the most experienced 11-year-olds to lead the fight.
I just wanted to take a few minutes to learn about you and the issues you care about, and I promise not to ask you any questions that I don’t like people to ask me, considering I’m a kid, too. So first, when did you first learn about systemic oppression?
I haven’t really been taught, but I recognized from a very young age that black people were treated differently on the news, and that affected me. We always have CNN playing in the background at home, so I would listen to the news, and I would listen to how reporters would identify suspects as black, but never point out they were white. That seemed like a stereotype to me.
Talking to you now and watching you at the march, I can see that you have a very strong and deep passion. When did you first realize that you could make change, and who taught you that?
All my life my parents said I could be what I wanted to be and do what I wanted to do and say what I wanted to say and believe what I wanted to believe. Because of that, I’ve always known that I could make a difference and I could persevere, no matter what.
Perseverance is essential for anyone who wants to be an activist, and I think there are a lot of young black girls like us who want to speak out. Why do you think that it’s important that the media listen to all people’s voices, especially black girls?
When black girls see themselves on TV shows and in news articles, they’re often oversexualized or made to look angrier than they are. That’s how they lose their self-worth—because they see those stereotypes about themselves every day.
Yes, I agree. Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?
When I grow up, I’m looking into politics or journalism, so I can set the record straight for the young black girls who lose their self-worth and don’t realize the impact they can make. I also want to be the president or the executive editor of the New York Times—the first black girl to do it.
What do you think government officials now need to know about school violence? How can they ensure that students are safe when we feel very vulnerable?
I would definitely tell lawmakers that the money they receive from the NRA is not worth how ever many lives are lost in every school shooting that happens every year.
Have you ever experienced racism at school?
I once had a social studies teacher who made it out to be that black people in the past had more freedom than they did, and I knew it wasn’t true. She said basically they didn’t have to fight in wars, they could run away, and that running away from slavery was so easy. I felt like it made all the white kids around me believe that slavery, segregation, racism were not that big of a deal.
And once, in third grade, a boy and I were playing a game, and he said how I should be the slave or the beggar woman because I’m black, so I can’t have money. I’m Jewish, too, and that same boy told me that I can’t be a black Jew because there aren’t black people who are Jews. It’s a lot of stuff like that. I’ve also had boys touch my butt and tell me that my butt is as big as the solar system and that my hair is unkempt, and it’s weird.
And they touch my hair!
That’s a no-no. That’s the ultimate no. I know that from experience. Triple X. No. What are your hopes for the future of education? What do you hope teachers can do to make school a better place?
I want school boards and elected officials to give all schools the resources they need to have an equal education system, so that young black kids don’t have to drive by really beautiful, huge, rich schools where all the kids are white and everyone gets their own MacBook. You see that and you believe that you will never amount to anything more than a criminal and you will never be anything more than in poverty. It’s not fair and it’s not true.
Those messages can be so toxic. But you seem to have a very clear voice and a very clear point of view, so tell me how you got involved in the walkout and in the March for Our Lives.
The night of the Parkland shooting, when I noticed the reaction from all of the students across the nation leading walk-outs at their school, I decided I wanted to do one too. My mom was friends from high school with Jaime Guttenberg’s dad, and she was shot in the back and passed.
I went to my friend Carter in our science class and I said, “Do you want to go to our principal and suggest a walk-out and gain his permission?” And so we did. He wasn’t quite on board and that was a personal blow, because this was something that we believed in. But we decided to meet every Saturday, with 10 kids at first and more kids every time. We put together a press packet and set ground rules until the principal decided it would be fine. We got permission slips, and we ended up getting over 60 kids to participate.
That’s fantastic. What inspired you to add that extra minute to honor the black girls who’ve been victims of gun violence?
I always noticed how misrepresented black women were in the media and sometimes how they were just forgotten. I noticed how black girls who were raped or killed or committed suicide—they didn’t get trending Twitter hashtags, they didn’t get retweeted millions of times, I would tell somebody I felt terrible about it, and they’d be like, “Who?”
I thought this would be a great way to memorialize and remember one of the lives that would have been otherwise forgotten, like all the other black girls who had been killed. I knew that if I didn’t speak up for her, she would have become a statistic; she would not have been remembered as a real person.
When so many black women are victims, why do you think that we don’t get the attention?
Ever since slavery and segregation, I feel like it’s been psychologically embedded in us. That kind of racism has psychologically embedded the idea that black girls aren’t worth as much as white girls, and they don’t matter and their lives aren’t as precious or special.
I just came out with a book in January, and when I had prepare and write speeches and all that stuff, I would rehearse it and talk it out with my mom. When you were preparing the speech for the March for Our Lives, how was that process for you? Were you nervous or hesitant about anything in the process?
I was very nervous before I went on stage. I was like, “Am I sure I want to do this? Yes, I want to do this.” But there was always this part in my mind like, “Don’t do this Naomi, you’re gonna fail, you’re gonna stutter.” But I really poured my heart and soul into it, and I knew I had to do it. Even with short notice, I thought of everything I could, everything I wanted to say, and I put it down on paper. I also really worked on looking up and looking down at the speech, because I have pretty bad stage fright sometimes. I didn’t want to look down and then never look up at the audience, so I practiced a lot.
My mom always tells me that! She’s like, “Look up, look up, they came here to see you.” I have to practice that. Before we go, can you talk about what you would like to see happen to make it a safer place for black women and girls?
First, raise awareness, so that every time one of the tragedies does happen, we’re not forgotten, and we don’t just become statistics. Second, I want to go to our lawmakers and tell them, “This is a problem,” so they can create the steps alongside the civilians to really be able to fix the problem and do research and not send their words and prayers and say they’re sorry. They can’t keep saying it should never happen again when they know it will happen hundreds of times after if they do nothing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.