Before she entered middle school, Naomi Wadler had gone viral.
On March 24, the 11-year-old fifth-grader was onstage speaking at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. During her three-minute speech, she spoke decisively about the lack of sustained media attention that girls and women of color receive when they are impacted by gun violence. “I represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential,” she said. “I am here to say Never Again for those girls too.”
Her speech was quickly circulated online, earning her fans like Sen. Kamala Harris, Shonda Rhimes, Tessa Thompson and Ellen DeGeneres. When I spoke with Wadler three weeks after her launch into the national conversation, she said the whole experience had been “weird,” but was still ready to use her new platform to give me and my fellow journalists some strong advice.
“The media can pay attention. I feel that a lot of them are very ignorant,” she told me, stressing that this ignorance is particularly clear when it comes to white journalists perpetuating racial stereotypes about black and brown people. “It’s the racial imbalance in the reporting that starts a chain reaction where then other people start to believe that.”
Wadler is certainly extraordinary. The fifth-grader first made headlines when she and classmate Carter Anderson planned a walkout at their elementary school in Alexandria, Virginia, in the wake of the Parkland shooting in February. (Wadler’s mother, Julie Wadler, who identifies as a moderate Republican according to The Guardian, went to high school with the father of Parkland victim Jaime Guttenberg.) On March 14, more than 60 students joined Wadler and Anderson in an 18-minute protest ― one minute for each victim of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and an extra minute for Courtlin Arrington, a 17-year-old black high school student shot and killed in an Alabama classroom days earlier.
But Wadler is also still a kid. She giggles over the phone, does her interviews with her mother nearby, and has big, beautiful dreams not yet encumbered by the cynicism that so often accompanies getting older.
During our phone conversation ahead the summit, Wadler and I spoke about her newly expansive platform, her hopes for the future, and her advice for us adults ― especially adult journalists. Us olds often forget just how smart kids are in general ― and how thoughtful, knowledgeable and opinionated we might have been at 9 or 11 or 15.
As Wadler explained, it’s on adults to check ourselves, step back and listen to young people. They “see the world through a different set of eyes,” she said.
How does it feel to have so many adults obsessed with you right now?
Naomi Wadler: Weird … I live in my house and I have my two dogs and my sister who I fight with and my mom who picks out dresses with me ― and people don’t know who I am, and now they do. So it’s a little weird!
Do you consider yourself to be an activist?
Julie Wadler: [Laughs] She’s thinking about that one.
NW: Well, I haven’t really thought about it. I feel like I’m just standing up for what’s right. I’m not really, like, “Ah, I’m an activist!” I’m just making the change. I’m not going onto the streets of D.C. and screaming for my causes.
Black women don’t get as much media attention when they’re shot and killed. They don’t get trending Twitter hashtags, they don’t get Facebook posts dedicated to them, they don’t get whole Facebook pages dedicated to them. Naomi Wadler, 11
Did you always believe you had the power to make the world a better place, or did you have a moment where you decided that that was what you were going to do?
NW: I’ve grown up in an environment where I’m told that I can be what I want to be and do what I want to do. And for a period of time, I had a piece of blue duct tape in my mirror that said, “You can do anything.” I’m very thankful to have two parents that encouraged me as much as they did, causing me to probably have more confidence in my voice.
That is very lucky. Your parents sound awesome. Can you talk to me a little bit about how you got involved with March for Our Lives?
NW: Yes, I can. So I organized a walkout [after the Parkland shooting] for my school with my friend Carter. And it was well and good. We did the walkout. And then The Guardian did an article about me and Carter and they wanted to know why we’d added an extra minute for Courtlin Arrington … and our answer was that she was black. And that black women don’t get as much media attention when they’re shot and killed. They don’t get trending Twitter hashtags, they don’t get Facebook posts dedicated to them, they don’t get whole Facebook pages dedicated to them. So I thought this would be a good way to get a message across, and inspire.
And you really have gotten that message across. In your March for Our Lives speech you called out “the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper.” Why was that the message that you really wanted to drive home to people who were listening on that day?
NW: Because, I mean, it’s my story. I don’t think that a white girl could have gotten up there and explained how this was unjust and how this is unfair and that she felt so bad. Because she hasn’t lived it, she doesn’t know what it’s like. So I think it was my story so it was a lot easier for me to put into words.
I’m a journalist, and I work with a lot of other journalists. What advice do you have for those of us who are in the media? How can the media do better?
NW: The media can pay attention. I feel that a lot of them are very ignorant, and they don’t know what’s going on around them. They believe everything they hear. And so that causes them to report that ― they hear that black men are dangerous, so then the next time it just happens to be a black man robbing that bank, they’re gonna say “black” in a concerned tone [when they report on the crime].
I feel that also when they report a story, if it was a black man who shot somebody, they’re animals, they’re barbaric, they’re terrible, they’re dangerous and you should stay away from them. If it’s a white man, he was mentally unstable. It’s gonna be OK, we’re gonna send him to a treatment center. He didn’t mean to. He was a nice man, I don’t know where this came from. So it’s the racial imbalance in the reporting that starts a chain reaction where then other people start to believe that.
What do you say to adults who try to dismiss young people because of their age?
NW: Be the bigger person. I don’t wanna go out onstage and say, “They say I don’t know what I’m talking about so I’m gonna tell them all the ways that they’re wrong.” Because by doing that, I’m the little person and I am proving them right. I’m being immature. I’m not having the mature, strong persona that I’m trying to put across if I go out onstage and start whining about how wrong they are. So I’m gonna go up there, I’m gonna be mature. I’m going to tell my story and I’m gonna make a difference, because that’s proving them wrong without addressing them.
In general, how do you think us adults can do a better job of listening to kids and following kids?
NW: They can realize that ... they’ve made their progress. It’s gotten better, it really has, since the 1950s and 1960s, but there are still these giant leaps that we need to take. So since I feel that young people see the world through a different set of eyes, they can really give a different point of view and say what they’ve been through and adults should listen.
So, I’m 30. You’re 11. What do you hope has changed in this country before you turn 30?
[At this point Wadler’s mother apologized, because they had to put me on mute so she could “hack up a hairball.” They both laughed a lot.]
NW: By the time I’m your age, I would like to hope that we would have made a lot more progress. I know that not everything’s perfect, and even though we might get stricter gun laws, there’s always going to be a problem. And so I hope by the time I’m your age, we would have educated our children, our grandchildren, the children after that on today’s issues and we wouldn’t have kept them in a bubble, so that they can do what we did. So that they can make a difference in the world they live in.
Are there any specific things that you’re like, I want that law to change, or I want to see this happen in our government or in our schools?
NW: I want to see stricter gun laws. You shouldn’t be able to walk into a store and buy an assault rifle without an ID, without a background check, without registering it. And we should make it harder to get the accessories that make semi-automatic rifles fully automatic rifles. And I would like further recognition and awareness of racism in the media.
And also, one other thing ― to help ruin the school-to-prison pipeline, so that black children, Hispanic children don’t go to school thinking “I am less than any white peer, and that I’m nothing more than a criminal.” Since they might drive past all these wealthy white schools that have uniforms and MacBooks and perfectly polished hallways, and so [children of color] think that they’re nothing better than a criminal and therefore that’s what they amount to.
I hope that girls, especially black girls, realize that they have worth and they can do whatever they want to do. Naomi Wadler, 11
Your message has already had such an impact. You’ve effectively gone viral. What do you hope other girls who saw your speech or saw you on “The Ellen Show” take away from seeing you in that position?
NW: I hope that girls, especially black girls, realize that they have worth and they can do whatever they want to do. And they’re not restricted by the lines of poverty or racism, and they can amount to as much and more than I’ve amounted to. They can give speeches, they can become activists if they choose to identify that way. They can read books, they can empower other girls. They should know that they’re worth something. They’re not worthless and they can make a difference too.
I have a feeling that we’re going to see a lot of greatness from you ― we already have. But what do you hope to be and do when you grow up?
NW: When I grow up, I want to be a politician-slash-activist who runs my own business and is an entrepreneur who lives in my giant penthouse in New York City and/or Chicago and has a brown Siberian husky named Sheila. And I want to be executive editor and president of the New York Times ― the first black woman. Or the first Ethiopian woman.
Well, I would love to see you do all of those things.
JW: We’re laughing because she has a lot of options. If there’s already been the first black woman, she can be the first Ethiopian-American.
NW: First Ethiopian woman. And then on and on until we get to Ethiopian Jewish woman. And then I can be the first immigrant.
JW: [Laughs.] There’s a lot of adjectives she could use to be the first.