Naomi Wadler on Raising Youth Voices and Youth Advocates
Naomi Wadler during 2018's March for Our Lives Rally (Photo by Sarah Matheson)
Naomi Wadler captivated the world at a 2018 March For Our Lives event in Washington, D.C. The youth-led demonstration, held in response to a deadliest high school shooting in American history, saw the activist deliver an eloquent and impassioned call for the country to end its epidemic of gun violence against black women. At the time, it was Naomi’s first public speaking engagement — and she was just 11 years old.
Now 15 (though 14 at the time of the interview), Naomi continues to connect with audiences and advocate against gun violence. She has spoken at a number of high-profile events, such as the World Economic Forum, the Women in the World Annual Summit and the Tribeca Film Festival.
In this episode, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Lisa Hamilton talks with Naomi about her rapid rise as a youth advocate, how parents — and politicians — can support young leaders, and what kids should keep in mind as they speak up and seek out meaningful change.
A big thank you to Naomi for chatting with us!
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In this episode on youth advocacy, you’ll learn
- The backstory of Naomi’s famous first speech (complete with a call from George Clooney).
- What parents can do — and shouldn’t do — to support youth advocacy.
- The importance of social media in elevating youth voices and causes.
- Why young people should focus more on being authentic — and less on likes and shares.
- What politicians can do better when working with young people.
In Naomi’s own words…
“I’d never really seen someone who looked like me — or who was around the same age as me — speak out. That wasn’t something that I did. That was something that those weird guys with suits on the television did.”
“There’s this pressure on people who are significantly younger to save the world before they save themselves — before they focus on themselves.”
“We began to realize how important it was to have these conversations because it’s our future, and it’s our lives that are on the line.”
“Being active on social media is very synonymous these days with being active in the political community.”
“The way my mom was so open and honest when having those political and racial conversations with me, I think really shaped who I am as a person. It had always been normalized in my household to have these heavy conversations.”
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About the Podcast
CaseyCast is a podcast produced by the Casey Foundation and hosted by its President and CEO Lisa Hamilton. Each episode features Hamilton talking with a new expert about how we can build a brighter future for kids, families and communities.
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From the Annie E. Casey Foundation, I'm Lisa Hamilton and this is CaseyCast.
Today's guest is someone who has spent years advocating to end gun violence, particularly gun violence against black women. In 2018, she participated in the March for Our Lives rally, earning praise as a next-gen sensation, the girl inspiring America, and the voice of a generation.
It was a remarkable moment and a life-changing appearance, all the more impressive because today's guest, Naomi Wadler, was just 11 years old and publicly speaking for the first time to an audience of millions. Since then, she has spoken about this issue across the country and at a number of events, including the World Economic Forum, the Women in the World Annual Summit and the Tribeca Film Festival.
Now at age 14, Naomi's advocacy efforts continue. She's here today to talk about her work and the role that young voices can play in driving meaningful change. Hi, Naomi, welcome. Thank you for joining us on CaseyCast.
Hi, thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to have this conversation.
Awesome. Well, you speak regularly about the inequality that exists in our society. What gave you this awareness at such a young age? Do you think other young people your age see the same kinds of issues?
I think it had a lot to do with the environment I grew up in. I was adopted so race and how I fit in majority white spaces has always been something that was in the back of my mind constantly. My mother is white, my father was black. In an interracial family, you have to have these conversations, because other people will try to insert themselves and ask you, "Well, why do you look different than your mom? Is she your real mom?" Stuff like that.
The way my mom was so open and honest when having those political and racial conversations with me, I think really shaped who I am as a person, because it allowed me to be more comfortable when I stepped outside of my comfort zone and had to talk about stuff that I didn't normally speak about. I felt like I could do it because I had done it with my mom, and I had done it with my dad. It had always been normalized in my household to have these heavy conversations.
Wow. Well, it certainly seems like you were prepared for these conversations. Do you think that other young people your age are more knowledgeable and able to have similar conversations?
I think the politics is becoming cool again, it was definitely something that was a little Snooze Fest. I don't know, when I was in the third grade, nobody was really interested in that. When Trump ran for office, our school made a rule that we couldn't talk about politics or Trump, or any of the candidates. It was really discouraged having those conversations.
As the kids that I grew up with, as we got older, as we started to see more of the world than what our parents put in our eyesight, I think we really began to realize how important it was to have these conversations because it's our future, and it's our lives that are on the line. I think that politics is becoming a more acceptable thing to talk about in younger generations.
That's amazing. Well, I understand you organize the walkout at your school at age 11. Tell me about that. What made you feel like you needed to take action?
My mom's a friend from high school's daughter was shot in the Parkland shooting in 2018 and she ended up passing away. I feel that I a pretty close connection to that particular incident. It was really hard to spend all night worrying where Jamie was, worrying if she was going to be okay. Worrying if everyone that we knew who had connections was going to be okay.
I remember, hours after it had happened, I saw protests. I saw kids from that school. I saw kids from other schools speaking up and organizing rallies and putting up posters. I felt, even though they were so much older than me, that I could do that too, because I'd never really seen someone who looked like me or who was around the same age as me who shared those common things with me, speak out. That wasn't something that I did. That was something that those weird guys with suits on the television did. I think really what it was for me was being able to see other people that really inspired me. It made me feel like I could do it too.
Well, I'm so sorry for your loss and for your family's loss in connection with Parkland. I'm just really impressed with the way you tried to turn that tragedy into something powerful and to use your voice to speak out. At the same age at 11, you spoke at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. The reaction to your speech was just overwhelmingly positive. How did you decide what you wanted to say and how did you feel about your experience there?
Well, that's a pretty long story. I knew about the March on the 24th, and I had talked about it with a lot of my friends and I really, really wanted to go. My mom said it would be too big. It would be too crowded. We had to go on spring break and I think a day or, no two days before we went right after I had done an interview with a media company, NowThis. Someone emailed my mom and said that they would like me to speak there.
My mom was really hesitant because when a 17-year-old emails, a parent and asks if their 11-year-old child can speak at some obscure rally, it's not really something you would lean into quite right away. Matt told me later, Matt Deitsch, who was the head of March for Our Lives that he had George Clooney call us because he thought that that would convince my mom further.
It worked because who wouldn't that work on? And I spent the entire day after that, I got to stay home from school, just practicing and practicing and trying to figure out what I was going to say. I have spoken off the cuff before, but I had never really written anything or given a speech like that in public. I thought they were going to be 200, 300 people there.
That was definitely not the case. My mom got home that night and she sat down with me and we went over all of that together. Well, she said to me, "What do you start with?" "Well, my name is Naomi Wadler." "How old are you? Where do you go to school?" It was just a series of questions that she asked me and the speech was made up of all of my answers. I owe a lot of me being able to organize all of my thoughts to my mom.
That's amazing. We're going to follow up on about a question about what parents can do in a minute, but tell me how you felt after the speech. What did it feel like to be up there talking to such a huge crowd? Were you surprised at how people reacted to your remarks?
I was surprised. I mean, there were a lot of celebrities there, and a lot of them took the time out of their day to talk to me. And it was so ridiculous. I don't even, I mean, it was, it was crazy. I can't even express myself. I remember thinking while I was up there, "This is really fun."
I'm so incredibly lucky that people responded the way that they did to what I said, because I could be in a completely different place right now. If what I said wasn't received well. People were cheering. Every other word that I said, and it was just so incredibly invigorating. I hope that I get to experience something like that again.
I said that earlier, but I thought that they were going to be like 200 people there and there was actually close to a million people there, which was crazy. When I got home, I people were stealing my identity online, pretending to be Naomi Wadler. My mom was on the phone all night, just trying to figure all this stuff out. That same night I got a call from The Ellen Show saying that they wanted me to come on.
I feel like I blacked out that entire week because I don't remember anything. I just remember being so incredibly, it was so surreal. I pretended to be on the Ellen Show in my room, so many times.
There you were, in real life. That's amazing. One of the things we often talk about at the Foundation is how advocacy helps young people gain skills and confidence. It's beautiful to hear your story and how you thought about putting your remarks together. What do you think you have learned or gained from your advocacy skills? You are obviously an incredibly poised and confident young woman. Do you think being an advocate has helped you build those skills?
I do think it's definitely helped with my writing skills and definitely helped with public speaking, which is something that I'm probably going to need throughout my life. One thing that it's helped with, it's not directly related to the work is self-care and how to focus on myself every once in a while.
I've been in a lot of different spaces with a lot of different young activists and older activists. I feel, I feel as though there's this pressure on people who are significantly younger to save the world before they save themselves, before they focus on themselves. It can seem like you have this hero mentality, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
I feel like I've been in that situation too, but you don't necessarily think to yourself, "Well, I need to take a step back." It's not really my responsibility to speak to all of those people when I need a break. Being able to calm down and take care of yourself is something I've noticed. Once you get swept up in speaking a thousand words a minute.
Wow. How do you take care of yourself? What do you do to decompress from all that’s going on in the world?
I love to read. That's probably my number one thing, and I love writing.
That is awesome. Well, you have mentioned your mom, Julie, several times and the ways that she even set the stage for you to understand the world that you're growing up in and to help you organize your thoughts before you spoke at the March for Our Lives rally. What could parents know and learn from your experience about how they can support their children who are interested in advocating for change? What should they do and maybe what should they avoid?
I truly believe that a lot of parents with younger kids feel this pressure and this need to shelter them and not let them know what's going on. "My kid doesn't need to know about politics, right? Because they're not old enough to understand that stuff and it's not their responsibility."
What that ends up turning into is a child who grows up in this very sheltered environment, goes out, goes to college, goes to high school and is bombarded with all of these different views. All of these different sides that they need to pick. They have no idea what's going on. They have no idea how responsible they need to be. They have no idea what voting is. They have no idea how to register to vote and they're completely overwhelmed.
What that turns into is an adult who does not exercise their right to vote because that was never something that was talked about in their childhood homes. If you want to create a good and involved citizen, what you need to do is raise your children through the eyes of the television screen and through the newspaper.
I know that that seems bad. You don't want your kids to watch TV, but it can be so important. I think part of the reason I'm so comfortable talking about these things is that I grew up with CNN on in the background in the house and my mom would always answer my questions when I wanted to know what was going on.
I was five years old when Trayvon Martin was shot. My mom sat down with me for two hours and explained to me what was going on. Explained to me how this should've made me feel, asked me how I felt. There are so many things that I can credit to my mom, especially how she exposed me to these things at a very early age.
That's amazing. Are there any things that you think parents might want to avoid?
Censoring a lot of what their kids consume. That is reasonable to an extent, but when it comes to, "I don't want you reading on this article website or I don't want you looking at this, or don't talk about politics with anybody that's rude." I think that controlling your child in that manner without explaining to them why they can't do those things can be very, very harmful.
That's great, great advice. Well, as an advocate, how is connecting with young people like your friends and classmates, different from connecting with adults? Do you find yourself changing your message or how you talk about things with adults versus other young people?
When I'm talking to adults who might not necessarily agree with me, I try to bring out a big vocabulary and make myself seem like I know exactly what I'm talking about.
I definitely feel more comfortable when I'm in a situation with kids, because I feel as though they understand what I'm going through, which is why it's so important for young activists to connect with other people, who know exactly what they're going through, which is why social media can be very, very helpful in this situation.
Being able to make those connections with people who understand what you're going through on a daily basis can be so incredibly crucial to your well-being. I decided to say I feel more comfortable talking to a room of kids than I do with adults. In a room of adults, I am constantly trying to prove myself.
Do you feel like adults listen to you when you make your case?
I think that some adults who might not agree with me, listen to me because I listened to me. I haven't really been doing a lot of stuff since COVID because I was a 12-year-old who was 4'11 and had this squeaky voice. I was saying all these big things. I think that's what it was. "Oh, Naomi, you're so eloquent," which is also not something you should probably be saying to a black girl, in any case.
I think it was surprising so they listened to me so that they could see how ridiculous it was. I don't think necessarily that it was, they listened to me and they heard what I said.
How do you feel your ideas have been received? Do you feel like policymakers are listening to you and other young people in the things you're encouraging them to do?
Policymakers, Congressman, Congresswoman, I feel that they can be so incredibly closed-minded sometimes and have a really archaic view of what the world should be, which makes sense. Except the world is constantly, constantly, constantly moving forward. So, not accepting these new ideas.
It shouldn't be so revolutionary when someone says one sentence, "I think that what they're doing at the border is wrong." That should not ignite a gigantic Screaming Fest at the Thanksgiving room table. It shouldn't be so controversial, but it is because people refuse to take in new information. If there's one things that I think policymakers and congressmen, congresswoman, senators can do is to hear us out, which is all I really ask for.
I understand if you don't agree with me on something that may be trivial. When it comes to human rights, I don't really understand if you don't agree, but when it comes to little things, I understand if you don't agree with me, but being able to sit down and have a conversation is a real show of maturity. It'd be really great if people could participate in that.
I think that's great. Great suggestion. You have obviously been developing your skills as a youth advocate for a while. What do you think makes a good youth advocate?
Someone who is authentic. I think that, especially in the age of social media, it can get so incredibly frustrating when you feel that you've just posted something on Twitter and you were talking about an issue that was really important to you and you got 30 likes instead of 1,000 likes, that shouldn't be what's important in that situation.
I know that's important to me sometimes, that's important to everyone who has a Twitter account, but the likes and the amount of shares and the amount of retweets, that shouldn't be what's important. I think when you mix activism and change making into social media, you get a mix of what influencers have, which is striving for likes and money, and all that, while also trying to be authentic.
I wish that I was at a place where I really, I don't care what someone says in the comments about me, but I do, because I'm a kid and it's hard to see someone say something bad about you. So, really take social media with a grain of salt and don't always believe everything you see on there, and don't get too involved in that.
People did they feel like they're taken more seriously when they advocate for a cause using social media? Do you think that's true?
I think that that can be true to an extent. You can be anyone you want on social media, I could have no posts and no one will know that I'm a 14-year-old girl. I could say something and people would think that I'm like 25. I think that social media can seem incredibly juvenile to the people who've been in the activist community their entire lives, but it can also be a very helpful tool.
So, when it comes to making connections with people and getting your message out, it would be a thousand times more productive for me to tweet out to all of my friends that I'm having a rally in my backyard than it would be to put up a poster a couple places around the school and tell them that I'm having a rally in my backyard. I think that it's incredibly helpful when it comes to making connections, but it can be pretty bad in a lot of ways.
I've also seen young people use social media just to share information. It's just an important way for them to share what's going on and to be a news source of sorts and to share perspectives of others, of ways to think about things.
It seems like social media has a variety of tools and that young people just have to think about, "Why am I using it? Is it the best tool for what it is I'm trying to accomplish in this moment?" Do you use social media? Do you have particular channels that you think are more useful for advocacy?
I didn't have social media until sixth grade. Even then, it wasn't on my phone. It was my mom who was managing it. I never really had the app. I like to say I only got social media last year, because I couldn't even see anything on it. I noticed that being active on social media is very synonymous these days with being active in the political community.
I'll have people DM me and ask if I'm following the Chauvin trial and say that I'm not posting anything about it, so I must not be watching it, and I must not care about it. Posting about something should not equate to caring about it or being involved with it, because that's such a superficial concept and it frustrates me. I try to stay off of it most of the time, because like I said, I brought up the idea of being swept up.
I can definitely get swept in the current and just slowly lose my mind when it comes to likes and follows. Who's saying what about me? Who's messaging me this? I actually haven't posted on Instagram in a while and I feel really happy. I've still been doing other stuff, interviews, tapings, but not having to constantly update my life from there. And having a moment to digest what's going on in the world without having to spew out my opinions on it, half heartedly—because I'm not even exactly sure myself what's going on—It has been really important for me.
That's great. You're right, social media is such an immediate form of communication that it doesn't often give you time to think about what you believe, or to formulate an opinion. That's a really good point that not feeling that immediacy gives you a chance to take a lot of information and think about how you feel about it without feeling like you got to say something or comment on what's going on in the world right in the moment.
Yeah, I agree.
What advice do you have for a young person who wants to follow in your footsteps and advocate for change?
I would say don't look to others for your definition of success. You should think about what you want to do and how you want to communicate what's important to you. When I first wrote my first ever speech, I looked up all these different speeches from all these different people. I did my best to emulate them in the couple of first drafts, which is exactly what you should not do.
Just taking time to use your own words. That's what I said earlier about authenticity and being able to communicate your ideals, your views, your ideologies, without sinking back and looking at other people and trying to emulate them, create them, redo what they did, because I find that you will be the most successful if you are truly the realest version of yourself.
Don't look to others for your definition of success. Look for that within you and find what's best for you as opposed to copycatting.
Well, I started off the show talking about your passion for addressing issues of gun violence. A lot of the young people today, their attention shifts from one challenge or cause to the other, because there's just so much going on in the world. Are you still focusing on gun violence issues? Are there other issues that have emerged as important to you?
I definitely focus on gun violence and domestic violence as it specifically relates to black women, because I see people talk about gun violence all day. I see people talk about climate change all day, but we never really talk about the girls who had happened to the most at disproportionate rates.
I truly feel that for me to try to address gun violence as a whole would be very wrong because I am not a personal victim of gun violence and it's not something that I can be authentic when I speak about, because I haven't experienced that so why should I go up in front of a bunch of people and try to pretend that I know what the issue is, and that I know what the solution should be.
What I do know and what I have experienced is violence against black women, so that should be the thing that I talk about.
That's a perfect way to understand how somebody should pick their priorities. Well, I want to know if you could ask our political leaders to make one change, what would it be and why?
I said this earlier, but I would say, I would ask them to act for themselves. There are so many factors when it comes to someone making a decision, "Should I endorse this person? Maybe my party won't like it, maybe they won't reelect me." I think that it should be more of a conversation about what is right, as opposed to what would be right for me personally.
I understand that it's hard to have such a large platform, but when you are constantly only doing what would benefit you, you're not really change-making in that sense. You're climbing that political hierarchy.
That's amazing advice, Naomi, for our leaders to think about what's in the best interests of their constituents in their communities and to put those priorities first over self. I think that's amazing advice. You're an incredible young woman and doing big things in the world. I'm dying to know what you want to do when you finish high school and college? What are your dreams as an adult?
I have so many different roads I could go down. Over the summer, I wanted to be a surgeon because I was watching Grey's Anatomy. I was so convinced that it wasn't just because I was watching that show that I was actually going to be a neurosurgeon.
After that I got into Law & Order. I was like, "No, you know what I like to argue. I could be a lawyer." I was really into that, Yale Law and something like that. I'm saying this out loud, I realized how easily swayed I am. I watched the Devil Wears Prada and for about four or five months, I've been really into fashion journalism. I did a history project on it at my school, how Anna Wintour is synonymous with the working women and women in the workplace.
How when a woman is assertive, women are expected to be submissive in the workplace, as opposed to men who can be assertive and aggressive as much as they want. And I find it really interesting. It's not really something that I thought about because I feel like everyone expects me to go into law or be an author, be a poet, be something academic, which would be great, but what if I could be something that truly does make me happy?
Well, let me be a black girl to tell you, you can be anything you want to be, Naomi. I started off as a lawyer and that didn't end up being the thing that gave my heart joy. What gave my heart joy was working in community and working in philanthropy. And so, though I started in one place, I have found my way to another that really gives me so much more fulfillment and the joy and feeling of contribution than I think I could have had as a lawyer.
It's fine to start wherever you want to start, but there are certainly different roads your life may take you. I'm happy to be an example for that, that it really is important to follow your passion and you don't have to choose one thing. You can go down many roads in your life and you are such an incredibly talented young woman, that I'm sure any path you choose, you're going to be extraordinarily successful at it.
I can't tell you how much I have enjoyed hearing from you. You have been inspiring to me. I am certain that you will be inspiring to our listeners as well. Naomi, thank you for joining us on CaseyCast, and for using your voice in such a powerful way.
To our listeners, thank you for joining us today. You can ask questions and leave us feedback on Twitter by using the #CaseyCast. Also, feel free to follow me at LHamilton_AECF. To learn more about Casey and the work of our guests, you can find our show notes at AECF.org/podcast. Until next time, I wish all of America's kids and all of you, a bright future.