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Youth Activist Calculates: Issue + Gift = Change

One person, one action, one moment can make a big difference.

Impassioned youth activist Hannah Alper has been imparting that message for half her young life.

“Little things add up. Anyone can make a difference — no matter how young, how old, where they live or how much money they have,” says Alper, a Grade 11 student at Alexander MacKenzie High School in Richmond Hill, Ont.

Alper, who will celebrate her 17th birthday in January, has been described as an eco-warrior and activist, but she prefers to be known as a change-maker.

“I help raise awareness about the issues I’m passionate about so more people start taking action. I just try to motivate people to recognize they have the power and capacity to make a difference,” explains Alper, the only Canadian and only person under 18 to make Bloomberg’s 2018 Top 50 to Watch list.

“As a change-maker, you can take action on as many issues as possible. I am an eco-warrior and I also fight for education world-wide, homelessness and all kinds of things. There’s so many huge, daunting issues in the world, it seems so big and not doable, but the thing is that when we’re all educated and researched, when we’re all aware of the problem, we can then find the solution when we work together.”

Her book entitled Momentus: Small Acts, Big Change, published in 2017, reflects that belief.

At age nine, Alper was inspired to start a blog after attending a digital media conference with her parents. They approved of her plan but added a caveat — she had to write about something she was passionate about, something that she wanted to change in the world.

Initially, her blog focussed on environmental issues and gained traction by word of mouth. Then came social media.

Those communication channels proved to be a game changer, allowing Alper to extend her reach exponentially via tweets and Instagram posts. (She’s attracted over 50,000 followers combined.) Alper also soon realized she was “not bad at talking and could do this thing called motivational speaking,” affording her another platform to share her message. She’s a veteran of 37 WE Day events, having been both a speaker and WE ambassador.

As her advocacy activities expanded, Alper turned her attention to an ever-growing number of issues including homelessness, bullying, girls’ education and mental health. She’s quick to note that none of that would have been possible without the unwavering support of her parents, friends and teachers.    

“My teachers have been truly the biggest champions in my journey and I truly do believe that an educator is the most important role that someone can play in a young person’s journey of change. My educators have been so incredibly flexible and accommodating, welcoming of what I do. They recognize that me going out and talking to people about how to make a difference might be more useful than learning what y = mx + b is,” says the teen, who advises math is not her strong suit.

“My guidance counsellors are a huge support system for me at school. They always check in on me, not just on my academics but also my mental health which I really, really appreciate, as do all the students at my school. When there are people at your school who care about you, then you feel supported and even more compelled to do well at school and also to share and open up about things.”

Alper’s overarching goal is for more young people to learn about or take action on an issue that they’re passionate about. She’s put forward a formula for that: issue + gift = change. “You find your issue and then your gift, the talent, the thing you’re good at that you’ll use to make a difference. You put those two things together to change the world,” she explains.

Writing and releasing her book was an “amazing, mind-blowing” experience, Alper says. She interviewed 19 of her role models who had inspired her — activists and celebrities such as Malala Yousafzai (Nobel Peace Prize winner), Brad Montague (creator of Kid President) and Lilly Singh (YouTube star and late-night talk show host) – hoping that other young people would be inspired by them, too.

“I really do believe that our generation is the one that’s making a difference. There’s so many amazing examples such as the March for Our Lives kids, or Malala, or Severn Suzuki, so many incredible young people making a difference, but we need more.”

Alper loves what she does and wouldn’t trade it for the world, but as she wrote in a 2018 blog post, being a change-maker is “not always sunshine and rainbows.” A passionate anti-bullying advocate, Alper knows first-hand what bullying feels like. She has been mocked by schoolmates because of her activism, and endured their sarcastic taunts.

“I really do believe the only way that people are going to be able to take care of the world is when they’re feeling their best. No one’s going to be feeling at their best if we’re tearing each other down so we have to build each other up.”

Alper readily admits that she gets overwhelmed at times with all the issues coming at her. She copes by leaning on her support system, and looking at the positive things in the world and at people that are already making an impact on a particular issue. “I’m ready to join them. That’s what it’s really about. The feeling of not being alone is a really powerful thing.”

Despite the competing demands for her time, Alper is not all work and no play. She enjoys an active social life. Hanging out with her friends helps keep her grounded, she says. 

Last year, Alper started a non-profit called #FeedTO (http://feedto.org/) to help people in the Toronto area who are experiencing homelessness. She assembled care packages of donated goods and distributed them personally. “I had true connections and conversations with (the recipients.) That was really incredible and something I want to build on,” says Alper, who hopes that by using the hashtag when she writes about those activities, she’ll inspire others around the world to take action in their own communities.

“I’m really excited to make a difference locally and that’s sort of my goal this year. You can’t change the world without changing your home first,” she notes.

Alper’s newest venture is a campaign with Girls Who Code, an international non-profit working to close the gender gap in technology by promoting computer science and coding to girls via clubs that offer free programs and online resources. https://ca.girlswhocode.com/

“It’s all about getting girls into STEP and also empowering girls to be leaders of the world. They have a really big campaign coming that I’m really excited to be involved in.”

 Alper aspires to be a journalist one day. She figures it’s the perfect career to educate and inspire others to learn about issues in the world and take action on those they are passionate about. “I love talking to people and making those real life connections. That’s definitely what I want to do with my life.”

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