Teenage activism and the superpower of words

Argentine activist Yael Crupnicoff during a TEDxRíodelaPlata talk

I have spent a great portion of my life trying to harness the power of words in many different ways. For one, I am a writer, something I decided I wanted to be when I first saw someone cry reading a story I wrote. I realized then that words foster empathy, and that, when used wisely, they can bring us closer together. I am also bilingual, so I am constantly switching between English and my native Spanish to convey my thoughts using just the right words. 

And finally, as of late, there is another way in which words have been important to me, since people have started to call me a teenage activist. Essentially, this means I often talk or write about things that make others angry or uncomfortable. These apparently radical notions I've been supporting include "women are individuals who deserve respect", "tearing our planet apart is a rather idiotic way of keeping humanity alive", and "the fact that someone's skin color is different from yours does not make them more likely to be a criminal". 

Those who try to tear me and my friends down also use words as weapons; words that intend to silence us and belittle us. But I've come to believe that the reason why they do this is that they are scared of us, because young people armed with the power of words can be an unstoppable force of change.

Words are a far more powerful weapon than we give them credit for. They are the force behind every movement, the spark that lights the fire of change within each of us and that inspires our actions every day. 

Having words to name things allows us to understand them. I name it, therefore it exists. Therefore I see it. Therefore I can tell you I saw it. When you don't know the words for a thing, or when those words are out of reach, a taboo within your culture or deliberately untaught to you, the things that they mean appear nonexistent too. This denies us the possibility to share them with others or to analyze them. As a result, we can end up believing that the thing we saw isn't real, or that the thing we feel isn't that important, or that it has to do with an isolated incident that only happened to us. So when the thing you are trying to name is climate injustice, or systemic racism, or abuse of power or misogyny, naming can become an act of resistance. 

I've realized that the uncertainty of our era gives us teenagers unprecedented power to shape a better tomorrow. We are being given a chance to rewrite the story with our own words, and, right now, to reimagine the world we want to emerge into when the pandemic is over.

Words, thus, have an incredible power. And I'd like to reimagine a future where we know this, and we use it more. We are lucky that we live in an age where access to writing and education is more democractic than ever. Thanks to social media, everyone can have a platform to write and speak out for what they believe in. It can feel hard to begin at first (after all, isn't your Instagram feed the place where everything is supposed to look polished and perfect?) and it's easy to believe that nobody will care.

But that's what they are counting on, those who would rather keep us from speaking. Making teenagers feel like our voices don't matter is their way of defending themselves against the huge changes that our voices can create when we use them.

So we must use them. The best advice I can give to someone who wants to advocate for change but doesn't know where to start is to read and write as much as you possibly can. Get educated. Take advantage of the countless creators out there sharing important content with the world; content that speaks to their own experiences of oppression and the world they want to reimagine. Hear them out, and amplify their voices.

And then, share your own vision. I promise you there are people out there who want to hear it. People who will benefit from it. Because the more diverse voices that come  up with solutions, the more diverse those solutions will be. You will lead people around you to believe that their opinions matter too, and together you will make yourselves heard.

A large part of silencing diverse voices involves the messaging that quiet oppression is better than an inconvenient fight for justice. But this is why having uncomfortable conversations about change matters in the first place: Staying quiet to avoid a fight does not actually diffuse the underlying conflict. It simply keeps it hidden, as oppressed people suffer in silence and bystanders value their false perception of harmony more than they do the genuine well-being of others. 

So if a relative of yours makes a sexist or racist comment, call them out. If you're friends with a person who uses ableist or homophobic insults, don't stay quiet just to keep the peace. Even if it's a joke. Especially if it's a joke. As I've said before, words have a huge power, and entire systems of oppression and discrimination are often held up by seemingly harmless things like jokes, mean comments, and generalizations.

It's not always easy to confront the people we love, especially when peer pressure makes us feel that we will be punished for speaking, or when, in the case of adults, we are told that we are ignorant and unworthy of attention. But we would do well to remember that words are never just words. They almost always speak to larger patterns of discrimination that can be deeply harmful.

These comments are not just some abstract thing, separate from people's beliefs or actions. The way we speak about others is a direct reflection of the way we treat them, and how we stand regarding these issues shows our sense of morality in action. So we have got to ask ourselves: What kind of people do we want to be? How do we want to feel when we read about this moment in history books? History is never made by those who choose the illusion of comfort, but by those who are willing to do difficult things for the causes they deem just.

"May you live in interesting times" used to be a curse in ancient Greece and lately I've come to understand why. The past few years, not to mention the past few months, have been overwhelming and tiring for most of us, and it's hard to feel optimistic about the future sometimes. But I've also realized that the uncertainty of our era gives us teenagers unprecedented power to shape a better tomorrow. We are being given a chance to rewrite the story with our own words, and, right now, to reimagine the world we want to emerge into when the pandemic is over.

a hand holding a phone up, filming a demonstration in front of the Argentinian congress
A demonstration full of teenagers in front of the Argentinian congress in Buenos Aires.

This new world, however, will not be built by itself. It's up to us to build it, through our words and our deeds, and we can start by naming and discussing the changes we believe are necessary. I, for one, believe in the importance of diverse voices at every decision-making table, in artistic representation that allows us all to believe we can achieve great things, and in an education system that works to empower teenagers in their differences as opposed to making them all the same. There are also a handful of habits from quarantine that I'd like us to keep, like talking openly about our mental health struggles and acknowledging that self-care and safety should never fall second to productivity. 

Above all, I believe in the power of radical changes to inspire people and remind us that our voices matter. Like I've said, I love being a writer because I have learned over the course of my life that words make me extremely powerful. Nothing makes bigoted people as angry as a young girl with a lot to say, because every time someone like me dares to speak or post or write, we come up with different ways to tell the story of our world.

And when we have the power of words on our side, we have the chance to rewrite the role that we've been given. To allocate more dialogue and more space to people who have historically been denied those things. I hope we have the courage to reimagine and rewrite this story. To erase words of hate, replace them with ones like justice and equality and openness, and, since nobody else will do it for us, write our own happy ending.

This article, by 17-year old Yael Crupnicoff, is part of a series of blogs where young people identify and implement innovative solutions for a better future. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, it is normal to feel you are no longer in control of your future, or be uncertain about your next steps in life. We must listen to young people and work alongside them to design a better future. To Reimagine it. 

Yael will join UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Millie Bobby Brown and other young people for the World’s Largest Lesson LIVE! on June 16 at 11AM EST – join the conversation and watch here.