Now more than ever, our kids are in need of examples to follow in the fight to combat racism. Here are anti-racist activists from the past and present worth teaching them.

By Kenrya Rankin
October 02, 2020
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One month out of the year, schools across the country introduce students to titans of the Civil Rights Movement, forever etching the names and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks on young minds. But as the nation has a long-overdue reckoning with the ways that racism and anti-Blackness impact all of our lives, it's a wonderful time to acquaint your tweens and teens with lesser-known activists of the past and present whose activism not only has a direct impact on their lives, but can inspire them to identify their own brand of resistance.

Here are five activists to introduce as virtual and brick-and-mortar classrooms welcome our kids back for the year.

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin
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Bayard Rustin (1912–1987), a key adviser to MLK, was the brilliant mind who organized the massive 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where the reverend delivered his famous "I Have A Dream" speech. An unapologetically gay Black man, Rustin passionately advocated for civil rights for queer Black people. As co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), he created nonviolent direct action campaigns and he later helped King develop his own skillset in this area. Rustin's 1947 arrest served as a challenge to the Supreme Court's rulings around segregated travel between states and laid the groundwork for the 1961 Freedom Rides. In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum

Rigoberta Menchú
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Rigoberta Menchú Tum (1959–present) is a K'iche' activist and organizer born in Guatemala. In 1992, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to expand rights for Indigenous people around the word. She began working for liberation as a teenager immersed in the fight for women's rights and went on to join the Committee of the Peasant Union (CUC) and teach Indigenous people how to effectively resist military oppression. After death threats forced her to flee her country, she worked abroad, always centering on the lives of those marginalized by colonization. She was named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 1996. "We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos," she said in a 1992 interview. "We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism."

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson

Born and raised in Southeast Tennessee, organizer Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson (1985–present) is a proud Affrilachian (Black Appalachian). She began her journey as an activist in high school, where she planned a portion of a reenactment tour of the Freedom Rides. But she credits her upbringing with teaching her to not only question everything, but hold people accountable via activism. She went on to work with Project South and the Chicago Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee History Project, and she has organized extensively around ending environmental racism in Appalachia. She is the first Black woman in the 88-year history of the Highlander Research and Education Center to serve as the grassroots movement building group's executive director.

Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs
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The child of Chinese immigrants, Grace Lee Boggs (1915–2015) was a philosopher and racial and social justice activist whose work lifted up the struggles of women and Black people. She joined forces with her husband, activist James Boggs, to create Detroit Summer, a community movement that united people across race, culture, and socioeconomic class to revitalize Detroit. A firm believer that "the only way to survive is by taking care of one another," her philosophy underpins the ethos of the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a community-based charter in Detroit that aims to disrupt the school to prison pipeline and cultivate creative and critical young thinkers dedicated to liberating their neighborhoods.

Ziad Ahmed

Student activist Ziad Ahmed (1999–present) describes himself as an American-Muslim-Bangladeshi. When his application to Stanford University required him to answer the question, "What matters to you, and why?" he wrote "#BlackLivesMatter" one hundred times. He later told NBC News, "It was important to me that the admissions officers literally hear my impatience for justice and the significance of this issue. The hashtag conveys my frustration with the failure of judicial system to protect the Black community from violence, systemic inequity, and political disenfranchisement." Ahmed consults with organizations to help them be more inclusive and runs Redefy, a nonprofit that empowers teens to fight for justice.

Kenrya Rankin is a mama of one and an anti-racism advocate whose work amplifies the lived experiences, advocacy and work of people of color and shifts the narrative around who deserves liberation, justice, joy, and dignity in America. Learn more about the Anti-Racism: Powerful Voices, Inspiring Ideas author and her work at Kenrya.com; she is @Kenrya on Instagram and Twitter.

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