“I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean.” Millions of teenagers and young adults around the world could relate to Greta Thunberg as she addressed the United Nations, earlier this month. Just a year earlier, students all over America walked out of their schools to protest the gun violence epidemic. In the 1960’s, high school students led the Greensboro sit-ins, which led to the desegregation of hundreds of lunch counters. Throughout history, it has been the youth of America who have fought against injustices of the world; yet many of them have been forgotten, or the credit they deserve was given to politicians. Here are five young people throughout history who used their voices to make change.
Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc (or in French, Jeanne d’Arc) was born during the Hundred Years War, a conflict between France and England. England occupied much of Northern France, and many in Joan’s village had to abandon their homes to escape invasion. At age thirteen, Joan began to receive what she believed were messages from God, calling on her to defeat their enemies and restore France’s king, Charles, who had disinherited the throne. As it was a popular prophecy that Joan was meant to save France, Charles provided her with an army to lead Orléans, which was under attack by the English. She was miraculously able to force the English to retreat; a battle she fought at only sixteen years old! Unfortunately, when she attempted to defend a town in Compiégne, she was taken captive by an English commander. At the young age of 19, Joan of Arc was killed by her captors, and yet, her legacy still continues
Louis Braille, born in 1809, injured one of his eyes with a sharp tool at the age of three. Soon, both of his eyes got infected, and he became completely blind by the time he was five years old. Braille would have to learn at school by listening until he was ten, and he was then offered a scholarship to attend the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris. While at the school, he met Charles Barbier, who had created a code using twelve raised dots to represent different sounds (it was meant for the military, but failed, so he thought it could be useful for the blind). Braille believed in the system, but wanted to simplify it. From ages twelve to fifteen, he developed a system with six dots which would be arranged in two columns, ultimately adding to a total of sixty-four symbols. Then, at only nineteen years old, Braille became a teacher at the Institute. However, braille had become controversial at the Institute, and was even banned by the school in 1840. It was clear, though, that braille was becoming widely used and accepted, even after Braille’s retirement in 1850, and death in 1852.
Elizabeth Jane Cochran, better known under the pseudonym Nellie Bly, began her journalism career at the age of sixteen after she was forced to drop out of boarding school due to lack of funds. When the Pittsburgh Dispatch printed a sexist article titled What Girls Are Good For, Nellie wrote a fiery and passionate response which impressed the editor so much, he asked her to write again. Her first article was called The Girl Puzzle and detailed the effect of divorce on women. She even argued for reform on the current divorce laws. After this article, she was offered a full-time job. She wrote a series of articles investigating the lives of female factory workers. Unfortunately, the newspaper began to receive complaints from factory owners, and Nellie was reassigned to the women’s pages, which she quickly became dissatisfied with. At the age of twenty-one, Nellie travelled to Mexico as a foreign correspondent, but was forced to flee after threats of arrest for criticizing the Mexican government. In 1887, at the age of twenty-three, she left the Pittsburgh Dispatch and talked her way into the New York World. She would go on to write the exposé that would define her career; Nellie went undercover at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. After staying there for ten days (only being released at the demand of the World), Nellie would recount horrible conditions, neglect, and abuse which would force reform upon the asylum.
Anne Frank was only four years old when Hitler took power in Germany in 1933. Because they were a Jewish family, Anne’s parents and sister, Margot, moved to Amsterdam, where her father opened a small, but successful business. Anne stayed with her grandmother in Germany until 1934. However, in 1940, the Germans invaded the Netherlands, and created a dangerous life for Jewish people living there. In July of 1942, Margot Frank got a letter ordering her to go to a work camp, which prompted the Frank family to go into hiding in an apartment hidden behind a bookshelf at Otto Frank’s (Anne’s father) business. They were later joined by another family, the van Pels, and Fritz Pfeiffer, the dentist of Miep Geis (Otto’s secretary, who would secretly bring the families food and news of the outside world). A month before the family went into hiding, Anne was gifted a diary for her thirteenth birthday. She would spend much of her time detailing the events that took place in the Secret Annex, as she called the apartment. She wrote about loneliness and frustration, about the others in the annex, about crushes on both boys and girls. Most notably, however, Anne wrote about the war and humanity.
“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals.”
Anne wrote this passage in her diary just six months before her death at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. These words have stuck with millions after Otto Frank, the only survivor from the annex, published Anne’s diary.
Malala began her fight against the Taliban at the age of twelve, as she wrote to BBC under a pseudonym regarding her concerns about the Taliban’s increasing restrictions on women. However, due to a large amount of death threats, Malala’s family began to fear for their lives, and she had to quit writing for BBC. She didn’t quit, though; she was featured in a New York Times documentary and won Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize. Because of her growing fame, the Taliban met and voted to kill her. Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head on October 9th, 2012 on her school bus. As the town prepared for her funeral, Malala fought her way back to life, and was discharged from the hospital in early 2013. Her attempted murder sparked worldwide rage, with over two million people signing the Right to Education campaign. Just a year later, Malala became the youngest person, at seventeen, to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize.