Even in middle school, Anya Dillard was motivated to take action. She recalls realizing back then that she was just one of a few Black girls in a STEM program for gifted students: “Once I started paying closer attention to those things, I realized just how big of a role race played in not just my life, but the lives of people who look like me all over the world.” This Women’s History Month, we reflect on trailblazers like Malala Yousafza, Greta Thunberg and Naomi Wadler, who aren’t letting their age stop them from creating change. Like Malala, Greta and Naomi, Anya Dillard noticed a problem in her community and decided to become the change she wanted to see.
Before Dillard even graduated from high school, the New Jersey native launched a nonprofit, The Next Gen Come Up, to support teens in activism and community outreach efforts. The organization works to connect like-minded Gen Z activists through community service, raising awareness and “creating thought-provoking works of art.”
We often associate activism with older, more established community leaders. Conversely, the West Orange, New Jersey native and Rutgers University freshman didn’t even wait to reach voting age before sitting in meetings with the mayor of her hometown and reviewing ordinances about racial discrimination, anti-bias training for law enforcement, and economic disparities.
Dillard’s work and impact doesn’t stop there. At just 18 years old, the podcaster has also tackled global issues such as period poverty with her annual #MyRedStripe social media campaign. She’s also championed gun violence and climate change awareness. In 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, the third-generation Guyanese immigrant organized an event that attracted over 3,000 people (with only six days to plan and promote). Determined to keep the momentum going, Dillard worked to help organize West Orange’s first-ever Juneteenth celebration in 2020.
The work is far from over for this young and fearless leader — even after organizing Black Lives Matter protests with elected officials and town leaders and forming the West Orange Youth Caucus, she knows there is still more she could be doing. Dillard explained in a recent interview, “Ultimately, my goal is to continue encouraging young Black girls to feel that they have the right to advocate for themselves, to stand up for themselves, to voice their opinions and to take over spaces, to enter rooms and to not feel ashamed.”
What about those Black girls who are in fact doing the work, taking up space and voicing their opinions? Dillard counsels, “Never stop. I know it’s hard, it takes a lot of energy, and I know you sometimes want to throw your hands up and quit. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve circled back from that and been so grateful that I didn’t give up on the fight and give up on myself.”
We are so glad she didn’t give up on herself, either. We need leaders like Anya Dillard.
This Women’s History Month, and every other month, we applaud the young women who aren’t letting age stop them from being the leaders their communities need.