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Teenagers Aim at Changing the World

Tackling major issues like climate change and mental illness isn’t easy, especially when you’ve got math or English homework to do. But for the teens who have stepped up to champion social causes that are important to them, the will shows them the way.

As Caroline Smith, a senior at Severna Park High School, puts it, “Volunteering and activism is a great way to add positivity and meaning to your life.” Since last fall, Smith has promoted philanthropy among her peers by working with friends to launch a circle of 100 Teens Who Care, which brings teenagers together to support local charities. She’s also president of the Green Club at school, which gives her a platform to push environmental protection.

Smith is hardly the only high school student in the Greater Annapolis area making a difference. Her sister, Sarah Smith, a sophomore at Severna Park, has used her platform with Girl Scouts of America to promote unity and inclusion among young people.

Meanwhile, their fellow freshman classmate Ella Moulsdale has organized rallies, pushed for legislation and given testimony on a breadth of social issues.

At Broadneck High School, senior Mallory Snodgrass has been a voice for promoting body positivity and eating disorder awareness for teenage girls and young women.

And Annapolis High senior Amelia Farrell has teamed up with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to advocate legislation to protect Maryland’s environment.

For these teens, advocacy started with realizing they were passionate about a cause. But before that, many of them agree they were outspoken, brave, even socially conscious from a very young age.

“I have always been a determined, passionate person,” Farrell says. “In elementary school, when I first discovered that petitions exist, I
lobbied for a pajama day and iPads in the school.”

Farrell (pictured above) found a way to channel this tenacity as a high schooler when her participation in the International Baccalaureate program connected her with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The more she learned, the more she wanted to make a difference. She has since teamed up with Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Citizens Climate Lobby and the Backbone Campaign to fight for environmental protection, including pushing for the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act, which passed in the 2019 General Assembly.

Mallory Snodgrass explains that her advocacy around body positivity comes from a deeply personal place. Through seventh grade and into the early part of her freshman year of high school, she battled anorexia. As she learned and met other people who were trying to push for change, she realized that she could have a voice too. She went with the National Eating Disorder Association to Washington, D.C., to lobby several times, and in June 2019, she spoke at an Annapolis rally organized by the youth-driven mental health organization, Our Minds Matter.

Having grown up involved in the performing arts, Snodgrass found that addressing a crowd came naturally. “Being in front of an audience isn’t something I’ve ever been super nervous about, whether it’s picking up and going to D.C. for a day with the Eating Disorder Coalition and talking to legislators or doing a speech,” she says. “Those skills were derived from singing or speaking to people or being up on stage.”

IMG 5018Snodgrass has also found an outlet for spreading awareness by collaborating on a series of videos and photo shoots with her peers. Dubbed “Curls, Colors, Curves,” the media project presents teenage girls of different ethnicities and body shapes discussing what they like about their appearances—as well as what pressures or insecurities they’ve felt.

Opening up these conversations, Snodgrass says, goes a long way in breaking down stigmas and promoting awareness, two of her main goals as an advocate. “The girls who led this project, we all were super comfortable and wanted young women to be more than willing to have their stories heard,” she explains, “not only in our living rooms or wherever else we had these photo shoots but on a public level as well.”

Even though teen advocates find that standing up for what they believe in comes naturally to them, or has been a part of their character since childhood, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy, especially when there are so many other things a teenager has to worry about.

Moulsdale says she’s had an interest in advocacy from a young age, having grown up participating in protests and rallies, but she didn’t really become entrenched in advocacy until the 2016 election. “I couldn’t just sit around and watch our country get torn apart,” she says. “I knew minorities and poor communities would be affected the most by the new administration, and I knew they couldn’t wait four more years for change to come. So, I decided to take action and fight for those who didn’t have a voice.”

Moulsdale started participating in rallies and protests at national, state and local levels, pushing for issues like immigration reform and LGBTQ+ rights. She testified before the Anne Arundel County Council to push for more counselors in schools and higher pay for teachers, and to call for an end to the 287(g) program, which required county detention staff to screen detainees in custody to determine their immigration status. Her biggest accomplishment so far, she says, has been helping organize Fridays For Future climate strikes in Annapolis.

 

GET INVOLVED

Whether your teen is an avid volunteer who wants to do more, or is passionate about a specific cause, there are a lot of great local volunteer opportunities to carry that desire forward. A great resource for finding volunteer work in the community is the Sarbanes Center for Public and Community Service at Anne Arundel Community College. The center helps people find opportunities from food drives and food pantry work, to making deliveries, mentoring students, etc.

Head to aacc.edu and search for Volunteer and Community Service to find volunteer opportunities and other related resources.

 

Championing so many causes, Moulsdale explains, is every bit as important as the other responsibilities she has as a high schooler. “There have been many instances where I find myself writing a speech or editing a handout for a strike or an AAC Delegation meeting while trying to solve a math equation,” she says. “But why study for a future we may not have, and politicians won’t listen to the science?”

Sarah Smith, who has undertaken projects as part of Girl Scout Troop 2000 to promote unity and inclusion, draws her strength from knowing there are others who support her cause. “I think anything is possible when you team up with people who have similar goals as you,” she says.

She and her fellow troop members have made an annual tradition of writing messages about kindness and acceptance in chalk on the sidewalks around Severna Park Middle School. For her Gold Award, which requires a community-centered project, she is making character trait posters based on the school motto, “Park Pride,” and representing each letter with a positive trait—“perseverance” for P, for example, or “respect” for R.

“I want those younger than me and still in middle school to know that they are supported by a community,” she says. “I want them to understand that although it may seem like they’re all alone, their peers and teachers and everyone around them is there to make them feel loved and accepted.”
Advocacy comes with its fair share of challenges, including moments of doubt.

IMG 5011 1Snodgrass (left) remembers someone telling her she shouldn’t be advocating eating disorder awareness because her experience was not as bad as others. That hurt, but she realized that her story indeed has worth. But she has since come to recognize that her story indeed has worth. For anyone who is nervous about opening up, she says, “You have the absolute power to help your peers and others make a difference. There will be at least one person who comes up to you and tells you that you not only helped them feel more comfortable in their own skin but maybe talk about their problem with someone else or address them in a way they wouldn’t have before, which is really all that matters.”

Farrell, too, recognizes self-doubt as something every advocate has to push through. “Even if people get down on you for it . . . do whatever you can to help others and the world,” she urges. “I 100 percent doubted everything I was doing during the entire process, but it culminated into something truly impactful.” Farrell even admits that she was “baffled” by how many people approached her at climate strikes to tell her that she inspired them.

And even though teenagers are young, they understand that there are long-term effects to the work they are doing. One of the reasons Moulsdale is so passionate about fighting climate change is she knows there won’t be a world for her children or grandchildren to inherit if she doesn’t take action. When she’s older, she wants to be able to say she did everything she could.

For others who have causes they care about, she encourages them to do the same: “Go for it,” she says. “You will regret it if you don’t.”

—Dylan Roche

 Want to meet more awesome teens? Learn about our Standout Students!

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