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Friday List-down: 15 Inspiring Young Female Activists


Feminist writer and activist Shelby Knox, spoke at a Planned Parenthood rally in February 2011.

CREDIT: Flickr / mysticchildz

Women’s History Month often focuses on great leaders of the past, but there are amazing women who are doing inspiring work today. We asked readers for submissions and received dozens of suggestions. Here are just a few of the wonderful young women that are working to change their communities, the nation, and the world through their work.

1. Kanya Balakrishna

Balakrishna is currently the chief speech writer to the Food and Drug Administration commissioner. She is also the co-founder and executive director of a non-profit education start-up called The Future Project, a national movement that empowers young Americans to be extraordinary by pairing recent graduates with nearby high school students. Balakrishna graduated in 2009 from Yale, where she majored in anthropology. While at Yale, she served as managing editor of the Yale Daily News, led a community-tutoring program, and spent three months conducting HIV/AIDS research at with a non-governmental organization in Pune, India. She has also worked at GlobalPost and for a New York-based global health communications and advocacy firm.

2. Alyssa Bisanz

A junior at Arizona State University, Bisanz recently won the Truman Scholarship for her work on college completion for students of color. She told her student newspaper, “I am concerned that more than half of minority youth do not graduate. For me, this is more than a statistic. It characterizes the people I love the most, my family. While I’ll be the second in my mother's family to receive a college degree, I am first and foremost a role model for my young brother and 11 cousins." But like other activists, her work started when she was 15 and she spent her birthday money on disaster preparedness kits for 500 neighbors following Hurricane Katrina. She is also involved with the Governor’s Youth Commission, the Mesa Service Learning Board, and the national America's Promise Alliance.

3. Kari Cooke*

A resident of Harlem and a graduate of University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign, Cooke is a CUNY LEADS Counselor at the Research Foundation of CUNY. She specializes in transition services, focusing on increasing career outcomes for students with disabilities at The City College of New York and LaGuardia Community College. Cooke previously interned with the Institute for Community Living and holds a master’s in rehabilitation counseling from Northern Illinois University. She has worked as a community organizer serving kids in Champaign-Urbana, a student leader and campus activist, and as a mentor for deaf and hard-of-hearing students using American Sign Language. Cooke is the youngest board member for the New York City Chapter of National Black Deaf Advocates.

4. Emilia Dunham

Dunham recently graduated from Northeastern University, where she served on the Gender-Neutral Housing committee. Since graduation she has been a leading advocate of health care for transgender people. She currently works as a program associate for the National LGBT Tobacco Control Network. She has also worked with the National Youth Advocacy Commission and the Fenway Institute, where she worked on transgender health. You can find some of her writing here: She writes at The Network for LGBT Tobacco Control and tweets @Elisetcn.

5. Alexandra (Allie) Francis

When Francis was five years old, she started a petition in her hometown of Montpelier, Vt., to former President Bill Clinton advocating for world peace—and received a handwritten reply encouraging her to keep working to improve the world. Francis took the president’s words to heart and has been heavily involved in the United Nation's International Day of Peace, speaking in front of thousands of young people at the United Nations' International Day of Peace events in New York. Currently a sophomore at Davidson University, Francis is the founding leader of the Davidson chapter of Global Zero, an international movement to eliminate nuclear weapons. Francis is also a founding member of Global Zero's Student Corps, and spoke in front of over 100 world leaders at the Global Zero Summit in Paris in 2010. When studying abroad in Cairo, Francis met with Global Zero Signatory Ambassador Nabil Fahmy about starting a Global Zero chapter at the American University of Cairo before the protests began this year.

6. Sejal Hathi

Hathi started a nonprofit called Girls Helping Girls at the age of 15. The project, which is based in the San Francisco Bay area, is designed to mentor and train thousands of girls from around the world to identify problems in their communities and obtain microloans to implement solutions. Now a sophomore at Yale University, Hathi’s also been involved with Youth Venture, Youth Service America, Girls for A Change, and the World Bank’s Youth, Development, & Peace Network of North America. She’s received awards for her volunteer and academic work from Glamour Magazine, the Coca-Cola Company, the Nestle Corporation, National Merit Corporation, Taco Bell Foundation, Kohl’s Corporation, Discover Financial Services, the National Society of High School Scholars, the U.S. Secretary of Education, and the President of the United States.

7. Steph Herold

Herold started out as a social media and communications strategist at Trust Women and is now the advocacy associate at Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health.** She founded the website to honor the stories of abortion providers and to celebrate the legacy of Dr. George Tiller, the late-term abortion provider from Kansas who was murdered in 2009. She also founded the blog as a space for young people in the reproductive justice movement. She recently graduated from Bryn Mawr College and hopes to pursue a master’s in public health someday. Herold’s writing has been published on blogs such as RH Reality Check, Jezebel, and Campus Progress as well as the online edition of The Nation and On the Issues magazine. She currently serves on the board of the New York Abortion Access Fund and a volunteer at the Haven Coalition. In 2009, she was one of 20 recipients of the first ever Our Bodies, Our Selves Women's Health Hero awards. She tweets from the handle @IAmDrTiller.

8. Beth Huang

Before America started paying attention to the labor dispute, Huang was working on the ground to organize students around labor issues. A sophomore at University of Wisconsin–Madison, Huang was elected to the Associated Students of Madison, participated in the local student labor coalition (nicknamed SLACKERS), and joined the College Democrats. She got the word out about Walker’s plan to destroy collective bargaining and began organizing a protest. As she told The Nation recently, “I could hardly believe my eyes when I got halfway down State St. and saw this mass of students marching towards the Capitol after the rally. I’ve never seen that many protesters in Madison—ever—except in a movie I once saw about 1960’s Madison anti-war activism.” You can follow her on Twitter @BethPHuang.

9. Shelby Knox

Knox is nationally known as the subject of The Education of Shelby Knox, a Sundance award-winning documentary that chronicled her high school activism for comprehensive sex education and the establishment of a gay-straight alliance in her conservative hometown in Texas. Feminist organizer, speaker and writer, Knox is the director of organizing for the women's rights division of

10. Withelma "T" Ortiz-Macey

Ortiz-Macey is the child of addicts; her mother first sold her for sex when she was 4. Most of her childhood was spent in foster care, where she was often sexually abused, and at age 10 she was enslaved by a pimp who is now in prison. Her adolescence was a nightmare of homelessness, prostitution, and stints in juvenile hall—amazingly she was jailed for soliciting even though she was legally too young to consent to sex. Her sister, and only connection to family life, was murdered when she was 14. Meeting with a caseworker during one of her stints in juvenile detention when she was 15 or 16, she began reading books and was encouraged to find a new life. Eventually, she got into counseling and got her GED with the help of her caseworker. Now, at 21, she's taking college classes and working as an advocate for girls in the criminal justice system—she's on the board of the Youth Advocacy Program at the West Coast Children's clinic, and she gets called in whenever they have someone who has experienced sex trafficking. She was recommended by feminist author Michelle Goldberg, who will feature Ortiz-Macey in an upcoming Daily Beast story.

11. Gaby Pacheco

Pacheco came to the United States with her parents from Ecuador when she was 7 years old, and has been excelling as a student ever since. She’s currently pursuing three degrees at Miami Dade College and desires to teach autistic children with music. Pacheco is one of the activists who earned national attention when they set out on their Trail of DREAMs walk from Miami to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the DREAM Act, legislation that offered a path to citizenship for undocumented young people if they attend college or join the military. But even after the walk was over, Pacheco continued to fight for the DREAM Act. She and other activists camped outside of Sen. John McCain’s office (R-Ariz.), demanding to meet with him.*** Ultimately the DREAM Act failed to pass in the Senate last December, but rumor is Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is planning to reintroduce the bill soon. You can follow Pacheco on Twitter @GabyPacheco1.

12. Julia Rhee, Jenny Ton, and Genevieve Wong

These three activists-turned-entrepreneurs co-founded a socially conscious vintage clothing store called Retrofit Republic based in San Francisco. They drew on experiences as activists with their flare for fashion. Retrofit Republic integrates sustainable business practices company-wide to minimize their footprint. They also donate profits to organizations that work with underserved communities. They donated profits to the Lyon Martin Health Clinic and an Asian Pacific American youth organizing group.

13. Emily Schlichting

Few young people can say they have a video on highlighting their activism, but Schlichting can. An advocate for health care reform, Schlichting was diagnosed with a chronic auto-immune disease when she was young, and when she graduates, faces the possibility of getting denied health insurance coverage due to her pre-existing condition. Now, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Schlichting will be able to stay on her parents’ insurance until she is 26. She is also a former Campus Progress intern and student at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln; she blogs here and tweets @easchlichting.

14. Sofia Snow

Snow is a spoken word artist attending the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She was awarded Spoken Word Artist of the Year by the Mass Industry Committee’s First Annual Hip Hop Awards. She has opened up for many national acts, including DMC of Run DMC and Willie Colon. She has performed at several universities and venues throughout the country, from Boston to New Mexico to Florida and beyond. An artist and an activist, Sofia also held a seat on the Mayor’s Hip Hop Round Table as the only youth member, organizing the citywide Hip Hop Fest, which brings legendary Hip Hop artists like KRS-1, CL Smooth, Nice&Smooth, and Rakim. Her composition, Freedom Song, is included on Project: Think Different’s recently released CD, Empowerment: The Power to Break You Free, on emPOWERment records. 

15. Alexis Sturdy

Sturdy is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University, but during her time as an undergraduate she co-founded Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education which offers Wesleyan courses at Connecticut’s Cheshire Correctional Institution. The program offers education for selected inmates. She has stayed at Wesleyan to continue working with the program, which just received approval from university faculty to become a permanent part of Wesleyan. The program will expand to admit additional cohorts of incarcerated students at Cheshire Prison, as well as create a second college campus at York Prison for women in 2012.


* The original piece misidentified Cooke as Julie Blitzer.

** The original piece listed Herold as employed currently at Trust Women, which is how she was identified when nominated. She has moved on to work for Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health.

*** The original piece said Pacheco was arrested after the sit-in at McCain's office. She was never taken into police custody.

We regret these errors.

Kay Steiger is the editor of

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