9 Young Activists On How They Want To Change The World

A short time ago, we couldn’t possibly have imagined how the world looks right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare what we value in our lives – our health, our homes, our family and friends – and how important those things are. The summer of 2020 also showed us the breadth of change we seek in the world, perfectly demonstrated by the thousands of people who took to streets across the globe in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and to demand lasting and meaningful change. All the uncertainty and unrest of this year has left many of us wondering not only what we want from the future but what exactly that future looks like.
Young women all over the country have been asking that question – and taking steps to improve their future worlds – for some time. They are girls quietly building not only their communities and paths to safer, fairer futures but also their own self-esteem. By investing in activism, from period poverty to body confidence to elevating the deaf community, they’re empowering not only themselves but others, too. 
Refinery29 UK teamed up with Dove to meet some of these girls who are making necessary changes to their environments and futures, one day at a time. The Dove Self-Esteem Project aims to empower girls by strengthening their body confidence and self-esteem, because empowered young women can effect real change on both a local and global scale. The girls featured in this article are certainly empowered but they’re also kind, empathetic and incredibly strong. They are forging connections, shattering stereotypes built to limit us and refusing to give up. What does self-care look like for young women today? Perhaps, like this…

Sophia Badhan, 19, an award-winning mental health advocate from the West Midlands.

"I’ve always been quite a high achiever. I felt I had to maintain an image as a perfect child, no matter what. So when I started struggling at school aged 10 or 11, it felt like the end of the world. 
"I would never talk to anyone about how I was feeling. It felt like, between school and home, I was living two different lives. Outwardly I was still the same person – confident and strong – but out of view I’d started restricting my eating. I carried on pretending everything was fine until, eventually, I couldn’t hide it anymore. 
"By the time I was 15 I couldn’t cope anymore. I was hospitalised for seven months on a specialist eating disorder ward and everything was suddenly laid bare. I had an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, OCD. For a long time I resisted treatment – I was so unwell that I didn’t want to get better. 

"I wanted to be the person I needed when I was ill." 

"My friends and family were perplexed. It wasn’t until the summer, when my friends were going out and having fun and living their lives, and I was stuck in hospital, that I had a realisation: I deserve to be happy. I started working on my recovery.

"Since I was discharged in 2017, I’ve managed my mental health well enough to stay out of hospital and go to work. I wanted to be the person I needed when I was ill. My teachers supported me endlessly and gave me the confidence to speak about my illness in front of the rest of the school. For that 10 or 15 minutes I was scared and stressed but the response from my peers was worth it. They were phenomenal. I realised that I could help others reach out for support and see that they are cared for. 
"I continued speaking out and trying to raise awareness, through events, campaigning and social media. I started going to schools with my workshop, Self Care Isn’t Selfish, to encourage young people to look after themselves and help make them aware of what support is available. In 2019 I received the Diana Award for my work, which is given to people who are advocating and mobilising their communities. 
"Even during lockdown I continued to work on advocacy and, importantly, to look after myself. There’s more to do but now I know I have the strength to do it."

Amy Meek, 16, and Ella Meek, 14, from Nottingham, founders of Kids Against Plastic.

"What sort of difference could picking up a couple of pieces of litter make, really? That’s what we asked ourselves four years ago in February 2016, when we started to learn about plastic pollution. At the time, it wasn’t really something a lot of people were talking about and, at the beginning, we questioned what we could really do about it. The thing is that we also couldn’t ignore it.
"At the time we were being homeschooled and learned about the UN’s Global Goals for sustainable development – goals urging world leaders to take action on particular issues. The more we looked, the more pressing the issue seemed – it affects everything. We were 10 and 12 at the time, but we just thought, If we don’t do something about it, who’s to say someone else will?
"So we did something. It was daunting. It’s really easy to see a huge issue like this and think, How could I, as one person, do anything about it? We definitely felt that a lot. We decided to start very small, making sure that in our little world, we’d do something to make it better. We started off aiming to pick up 100,000 pieces of plastic from the streets (we’re at 70,000, four years on), and started talking about the impact of plastic. However, it soon became clear that the solution to this issue isn’t going to be litter picking – this issue needs addressing at the source. So we started encouraging cafés and schools and local businesses to be #PlasticClever in their consumption from the off, and educate others to do the same. 

"It’s easy to convince yourself your little contribution doesn’t count, but it’s not true. We all count."

"One of the biggest lessons – and joys – we learned early on is that no one can do this alone. It was a surprise that other people wanted to join us, to be honest. But that’s when our confidence really started to grow. Suddenly we weren’t the only ones battling for this and worried about our future on the planet. Now, we’ve got lots of volunteers, we’re working with schools and have even written a book – Be Plastic Clever – to get the word out. 
"There’s something very powerful about seeing something change, even on a small scale, and it made us believe in what we’re doing even more. It’s easy to convince yourself your little contribution doesn’t count, but it’s not true. We all count."

Sophie Billinghurst, 17, member of Welsh Youth Parliament and advocate for the deaf community.

"I didn’t have the best time growing up. I had a speech impediment, I was bullied throughout school. I was called all sorts – for my speech and for being bigger than other girls. My confidence was quite nonexistent, being honest. 
"Six years ago I made the first step towards changing that. I started working with a deaf charity called Talking Hands and studied for qualifications in sign language. I have a sister, now 14, who has 80% hearing loss and a 7-year-old non-verbal, autistic brother. First, signing allowed us a way to communicate within our family. But soon it became a huge source of pride, too. 
"When I’m doing sign language I feel like I’m separating myself from the world – one that hasn’t been easy – and immersing myself in one that I enjoy, that I feel part of and happy in. In 2018 I became a member of Welsh Youth Parliament and the first person to use sign language in the Senedd, the Welsh parliament. I’m trying to make a difference for the deaf community and using my position to improve mental health support. I lost my best friend, who was 14, to suicide. I hope that she’d be proud, too. 

"By listening to the deaf community and helping them get heard, I found my voice, too."

"Mostly I listen to other people who are isolated by disability – I listen to them and try to get their voices heard. Especially now, during the current pandemic, their needs are often lost: people wearing masks over their faces means that deaf people can’t lip read, which connects them to the world. I’m trying to help others get masks that are transparent over the mouth to people, to help ease that isolation.
"Along the way, through listening and working with this community, I’ve found an ability to keep going even when things feel hard, and to face things that scare me. Now I’m concentrating on moving forward and building on the confidence I’ve found. I’m proud of how far I’ve come."

Kim Mamhende, 22, advocate for Swansea Youth Entrepreneurs’ Network, part of the Centre for African Entrepreneurship, which provides better support for people from ethnic minorities in business. Kim is also a recent graduate of medical biochemistry.

"Watching the other speakers from the side of the stage, I felt the nerves building up. Soon it was my turn – me, a timid person, historically, who spent school buried in books instead of speaking out loud. I’d ignored the email about this speech for weeks, too anxious to face it. In my hands was a printed copy of what I was to say and in the audience, hundreds of faces waiting to hear it. A thought crossed my mind: What if I can’t do it?
"When I stepped up to the podium, in Swansea, to deliver the words I’d prepared, they didn’t come out. In fact, I didn’t even glance at the paper. Instead I started speaking from the heart, with a swell of confidence. I have never been so utterly surprised by myself. It was a wonderful feeling.

"Just a couple of years before, I’d moved to the UK from Zimbabwe to study medicine and find my place in the world. I came across the Centre for African Entrepreneurship and found it fascinating – despite so many of us having good ideas and passion, few people believe they can make it happen. 

"We’re not taught to be leaders. I wanted to change that."

"There are so many reasons for it – society as a whole, of course, but also the things we’re told growing up, that some jobs are for women and some for men; the roles we play in households and how they play into how we see ourselves. Women are not only underrated but unseen. Societal prejudices put others at a great disadvantage. People are distrusting of Black people, for example, so we are three times less likely to get a loan from a bank. Those who aren’t born here must adapt to existing systems rather than just growing up in them – it creates a lack of confidence. 
"I started out as a communications officer and then turned my attention to an overlooked initiative, the Swansea Youth Entrepreneurs’ Network. Through this scheme we began to educate and encourage young people – especially women and girls of colour – to see and believe in their potential. It isn’t always easy; I’m in my final year as a medical student now and also work 20 hours a week. But hearing people say that because of the network and our support, they’ve been able to achieve what they thought was impossible, or just find what they’re passionate about, is so worth the effort. If someone can see someone who looks like them and has achieved something they didn’t think possible, that’s so powerful.

"Just like me, many of them were unconfident and unsure about what they had to say, what they had to give to the world. My own community – and self-belief – has transformed. Before you can advocate for anything else, you have to start with you, is what I’ve learned. You might even surprise yourself." 

Dominique Palmer, 20, a climate change activist who works with UK Student Climate Network among others. She is also a politics and international relations student at Birmingham University.

"It all started off quite slowly. I’d seen posters dotted around my area in southeast London about air pollution deaths and began taking in a little more of what I saw about climate change online. In May last year I attended my first climate strike – I wasn’t involved in any kind of organisation but I couldn’t shake the curiosity. 
"I left the protest inspired and in awe, not only of the power and tenacity of the community but of the severity of the situation. I attended a meeting the following week and, a few months later when I went to university, I joined groups there, too. 
"Before then I’d stopped speaking in public and engaging in things I used to – I lost a lot of confidence in myself and I found myself suffering with anxiety. It was really difficult. At times I felt quite helpless. Because of that, I never saw myself being able to speak in front of thousands of people. Yet since becoming part of this movement, that’s exactly what I’ve done. 

"Every single one of us has personal power."

"Being an activist has shown me that every single one of us has personal power. Knowing you have that power to do something is a huge confidence booster. Joining this movement and the group and connecting with others fighting for the same thing… Even inspiring one other person to join in and take action for themselves is such an incredible feeling. I’m feeling more empowered all the time. 
"I have a different outlook on the world now. Before, I was really focused on academics. My priorities in life and for myself were very different. This has opened up my world and changed my mindset. The more I take this path, the more perspective I have on what really matters. 
"There are so many intersecting issues we need to work on: class, race, gender… Women are disproportionately affected by the crisis. It makes me anxious to think of what needs to be done at times – I do get overwhelmed. But I’m able to be hopeful now. I believe in what we’re trying to achieve – influencing leaders, protesting and (currently) online campaigning – and I believe in myself. I’ve found a sense of belonging I didn’t know I could."

Victoria Kinkaid, a junior doctor, Girl Guiding Associate and founder of The Real People Project, an Instagram initiative encouraging women to share and overcome their insecurities.

"It wasn’t a particularly striking moment that set me on this path. Rather it was a conversation like so many I’d had before, with a friend as we scrolled through social media. 'I am so done with this,' I told her as the usual 'body transformations' popped up on my screen. It was around Christmas time, and the 'change yourself' rhetoric was louder than ever. 'We’ve got to do something about this,' I said.

"That was two and a half years ago. The same week, we set up a simple idea – to create the sort of body content we wanted to see. And that meant just people, as they are, unapologetically. Real people. Friends started to write their stories and conversation bubbled up. And what came out of it was perhaps not surprising but universal: we are all, in some way, insecure about our bodies. 

"It’s okay to not feel 100% confident about your body all the time."

"I’ve always had body confidence issues but when I was younger, I thought I was alone. Potentially we all do. A huge part of these feelings is just being…a woman. Being made to not feel good enough, about so many things, and not being taught that your voice is worthy but that your body is there to be objectified. It’s also exacerbated by body ‘trends’ we see. Even things like having the ‘right’ shape eyebrows until, inevitably, it changes again. The mould changes and we’re meant to fit, no matter what.
"I’ve learned that it’s okay to not feel 100% confident about your body all the time. Campaigning has given me a better awareness of other people in general and assures me that when I’m starting to feel unsure about myself, other people are all feeling the same. The community we’re building is based on helping others see that too – there is no such thing as perfect and while some insecurities can feel so big to us, often they’re something that other people might love about you. We’re not alleviating insecurities but we’re levelling them out.
"The pandemic is making body confidence a little harder to find for a lot of people – suddenly we’re at home more, sitting with our own thoughts and looking at ourselves with more scrutiny. Little positive boosts and talking about our bodies honestly can really help to fact-check the negative thoughts. So I’m just continuing to post our stories and get the word out, little by little. It’s not a huge campaign but we’ve had more than 50 stories now. I’m grateful for each one – they have all made me feel more confident about my own body. I want every woman to feel like that."

Sandy Ibrahim, 16, a member of Welsh Youth Parliament who utilises her knowledge of multiple languages to help facilitate mental health support for those who don’t speak English as a first language.

"It isn’t easy moving your life from one country to another, to start again. Aged 14, I moved from Cyprus to the UK full of hope for a new life with my mother and four siblings. I had a picture in my mind of how it might be: looking towards a bright future, lots of friends and fun. When we landed at the airport in London in July 2017 and were held there for an entire day with no support, I realised things would be more difficult than I imagined. 
"We first lived in London, then Cardiff and, finally, Swansea. By the time we settled here, I was incredibly shy. As the eldest of my siblings I felt responsible and worried, but also isolated. People were welcoming but I felt intimidated – language barrier aside, I had things in my heart that I wanted to say but they wouldn’t come out. I didn’t have the confidence to say them. 

"I’m no longer afraid of saying what’s in my heart."

"And we suffered difficulties. Access to support for asylum seekers and refugees is not available enough. We don’t have a car in my family so often I’m walking alone, which is especially dangerous for girls. By the time I’d been living in Wales for a year, I realised that discriminations I’d experienced were not being spoken about openly or widely, and so solutions felt far away. I wanted to change that.

"I was so happy to be accepted. Since working with the other Youth Parliament members I’ve also started advocating for better access for mental health support. This is one of the biggest issues facing young people today – and if we can help this improve, so many other issues will benefit, too.
"I say the things in my heart now. I speak out in Youth Parliament, yes, but even with the new friends I’ve made I am confident. Now I feel like I could be a leader, too. I’m using what I’ve learned about myself – my anxiety around speaking – to help others find their confidence, too. I know how it feels. But I also know it can get better."

Molly Fenton, 18, activist and founder of @loveyourperiod, which encourages teens to fight against period poverty, stigma and plastic.

"Somehow, one evening last year I found myself speaking on a debate team. I was 17 and had never really engaged in anything like it before. A teacher asked me to join, so I did, and to my surprise we came second in the competition. We were celebrating until we learned that the judges – all older white men – deemed that we should have come first but lost points because our choice of subject was deemed 'inappropriate'. We were talking about periods. 

"People appreciate you when you speak up. Which helps you appreciate yourself."

"For the six months preceding I’d been quietly finding out more about periods and period poverty. It started with liking a few tweets I came across – then, the more I liked, the more content I saw. I started following more accounts and became invested in the discourse, reading up on why some women and girls were still suffering period poverty in the UK. Amika George, who was campaigning for schools’ access to sanitary products, inspired me. When she was successful in England I thought, Why not in Wales, too?

"By the time we won the debate in March 2019, I was so perplexed by the disparity and misunderstanding around periods that I went straight home and set up an Instagram page called Love Your Period. I started campaigning for better access, better understanding and less stigma. As the page took off, I was sent products which claimed to be eco-friendly. I thought all tampons and pads were but, turns out, they’re full of plastic. In fact, one pack of sanitary towels contains the equivalent of five plastic bags. I realised the stigma surrounding periods is also harming the environment – so I started raising awareness of that, too.
"Before this campaign, I felt completely alone. I had no structure or purpose; every day was just a pointless cycle. I lost connection to the world but now I can see I have a place in it."
If you are struggling with your mental health, support is available. Give Mind a call on 0300 123 3393, text 86463 or visit their website.
Dove believes that no young person should be held back from reaching their full potential – but unfortunately 8 out of 10 girls are so concerned with the way they look that they opt out of important activities. To help empower the young women in your community, you can read more information on The Dove Self-Esteem Project on their website, which includes self-esteem resources for youth groups, parents and teachers.

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