Education & Family

Voice of a Generation

Teenage activist Jesse Anderson is empowering youth, one blog post a time.

As a child growing up on Guilford Avenue in lower Charles Village, it wasn’t uncommon for Jesse Anderson to find questionable trash littering her yard—rat poison, condoms, syringes—and hear gunshots at night. Her parents, both musicians, worked hard to move to a safer home in Pikesville after finding a loaded gun magazine in the garden. Anderson, an only child, was 6.

“We were a white family who was able to get out of a dire living situation. It was a predominately black neighborhood, so a number of the families living there . . . are still chained to these systems of poverty and oppression,” Anderson says over a coffee at Zeke’s. “That triggered a realization as I got older, especially as a person of privilege within society. Because I’m white and middle class, my voice is more likely to be heard when others are not.”

Anderson’s mother, Lisa Mathews, who fronts the popular kids band Milkshake, says Jesse was never one to lounge on the couch or play video games. But she noticed a turning point in her daughter’s interest in politics during the summer of 2016 after she attended the American Civil Liberties Union’s Summer Institute in Washington, D.C., a program that allows rising high school juniors and seniors to come together for a weeklong intensive on social justice advocacy. “These kids were all opinionated and they would have major debates,” Mathews says. “Her and a few friends went through withdrawal when it was over.”

Wanting to continue that momentum, Anderson created the by youth, for youth website NYAToday (News for Young Advocates) that summer. Kai Pacifico Eng, whom she met at the ACLU camp, joined as an editor shortly thereafter.

Anderson got even more serious about the website after President Trump was elected, dedicating more time to it.

Two years later, more than 40 interns work for NYAToday, and the site includes pieces by writers from all 50 states and more than 50 countries. It averages 100,000 web views per month, primarily from the U.S., India, Kenya, Canada, U.K.

And now, in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting especially, with teenage activism reaching epic proportions in America, NYAToday stands as a testament to this younger demographic taking action and demanding their voices be heard.

As NYAToday CEO, Anderson, who turned 18 in June, has not only made her own voice heard, she’s provided an outlet that gives voice to under-represented youth minorities throughout the world. And she’s becoming a teen celebrity of sorts, garnering national attention by way of Teen Vogue and BUST Magazine for the website.

And while she gets the occasional local fan coming up to her and praising NYAToday, Anderson says she shies away from the attention. “I personally keep a very low-profile presence. My picture’s not on our site—my picture’s not anywhere. I’ve never been the person who likes getting compliments. I don’t really identity myself as ‘Hey, I’m Jesse Anderson, the founder of NYAToday.’ No, I’m like, ‘I’m Jesse, how are you, what’s yourname?’”

While Anderson has the trademark glowing skin and clear eyes of youth, her knowledge of current events, in all their complexity, extends far beyond her years.

“When I first met her, I would’ve guessed she was in her 20s,” says Natalie Christner, who is 22 herself and an NYAToday editor. “She’s great at motivating people and is a constant positive presence.”

In a relatively short time, Anderson has become a passionate—and compassionate—activist, racking up a long list of accolades on top of NYAToday.

She’s a UN Global Schools Ambassador for the U.S., for instance. Through the program, she helps to push sustainable development by creating curriculums and implementing them, with UN backing, in schools across the country.

She was also chosen to become a page at the Maryland General Assembly this spring, and from there a “super page”—one of a select few invited to participate in the final day of the session, which is extremely hectic. During that session, not only was Anderson acting as a page, but she temporarily removed her official page blazer in order to testify against a proposed bill that would allow computer coding to qualify as a language credit in schools.

The session went for hours, from about 1 to 8 p.m., “so she was tired and all that,” recalls Tawana Offer, the Maryland General Assembly page coordinator who was on the Senate floor at the time. “When they finally called her, I don’t know where she got the energy, but she let it rip. She wowed the whole room. A couple senators came over to her afterward. It just kind of energized all of us. She’s someone to be reckoned with.”

Offer says that even among these “all stars,” as she calls them, Anderson stood out.

Anderson also finds the time to regularly attend—and organize—rallies and protests, from women’s rights to healthcare. A lot of this boots-on-the-ground social justice work circles back to NYAToday. When she and her mother took a bus to D.C. for the Women’s March in January 2017, Anderson interviewed young women, recorded it, and uploaded the video to her site that same night, her mother recalls.

“When I was a kid, I was not as aware as she is; I was listening to Linda Ronstadt,” Mathews cracks. “Social media can make things go quicker and bigger.”

This spring, Anderson graduated from Pikesville High School (of course heavily active in the politics club and debate team), and she plans to attend the Global Communities program and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Why journalism and not, say, political science?

“I’d love to be a politician, but I don’t like politicians,” Anderson says with a laugh. “Journalism would allow me to really shine a light on injustice. I also love the humanitarian aspect that you can have as a journalist.”

When Anderson returned from the ACLU program, still flush with ideas and energy, she wanted to use her education for the greater good. She frequented news sites such as CNN and Bloomberg but rarely saw youth voices—especially youth voices of color—elevated. On top of this, the youth news sites that existed often tailored their content to the stereotypical teen—one who primarily cares about gossip and celebrity news, as opposed to what’s happening in places like Yemen.

“There is a clear gap between youth and the news,” Anderson says. “It’s not because youth aren’t interested; they just weren’t feeling their voices were represented.”

“She wowed the whole room . . . she is someone to be reckoned with.”

She created NYAToday because she wanted a news site that both elevated youth voices while giving an objective look at global news.

In the era of fake news, as Anderson says, it’s crucial that NYAToday offer credible sources—and not ones that take sides. Up until recently, they reposted articles from several online sources in addition to providing their own, but now they focus solely on original content, with posts—usually short and to-the-point—ranging from personal essays to breaking news to in-depth articles and even the occasional music review (in May, they featured a short post about the themes of race, gender, and sexuality in Janelle Monáe’s new album, Dirty Computer).

All the world’s problems have a place on the site—gun violence, the environment, disease outbreaks, racial inequality, police brutality, war—but the objective is twofold: to educate and to provide tools for action.

“We want to give everyone a way to act, even if it’s just raising your voice,” Anderson says. “We think the time is always right to do something.”

Calls to action run the gamut from how to recycle plastic bags (and why that’s important) to how to volunteer or support a specific cause. A direct link takes visitors to a site where they can check their voting status or register.

Christner says she was drawn to apply for an internship at NYAToday primarily because it’s “very solutions-based journalism. It’s also very socially-aware and uses marginalized voices,” she adds, pointing out that people of color make up a very small percentage of journalists.

Published writers at NYAToday are from countries across the globe, including Morocco, Kenya, India, and Pakistan.

One submission, translated by an NYAToday editor to English from Arabic, came from what editors assumed to be a child, probably not much older than 8, living in Syria. “That was one of the most amazing articles we’ve ever posted,” Anderson says. “She [the author] said, ‘Just publish my story.’ It was very, very short, but it was also powerful. She talks about how she’s literally starving in Syria. Her family—they don’t know if they’re going to live another day. It was mind blowing.”

You’d think spending countless hours sifting through news about war, poverty, and the latest disease outbreak would eventually take its toll on Anderson’s spirit, but she is undeterred.

“I read at least one headline per day about a bombing, an environmental catastrophe, an event that pains me to my core,” Anderson admits. “But I am confident that what we’re doing is worth it. Despite the numerous times that I’ve cried while writing articles, deeply frustrated especially by those who put profit and self-interest above those around them, I am determined to make the world a better place. . . . I’ve screamed after reading articles about what’s happening to Yemeni children. Nearly all of my writers who have read about the Yemeni crisis have. But that’s what makes our work so important.”

The outpouring of love that she and other writers have received from teens across the world outweighs the emotionally draining job of covering these upsetting stories, she says.

The day after the Parkland shooting, Anderson’s government teacher told his students they didn’t have to feel scared, that they were safe at school. “And I said to him, ‘That’s exactly what the Parkland kids were told . . . before their school was shot up,’” Anderson recalls.

Why the Parkland shooting became the tipping point of the anti-gun movement and the rise of teenage activism, Anderson isn’t sure, but she speculates that it might have to do with the location of Parkland, Florida.

“You can’t deny the fact that they’re coming from this very affluent white background, and that does help. Coming from Baltimore, a lot of students, especially in the inner city, gunshots to them are just like another noise. It’s just normal at this point. Maybe it was different, being in Florida, where they’ve never really had a glimpse of what kids in Baltimore, what kids in Chicago, what kids in Detroit go through. Maybe the Florida kids were just seeing something they’ve never seen before.”

A core group of students, led by Anderson, worked with Pikesville High School administration to ensure the school’s participation in the National School Walkout, following the Parkland massacre.

They led “an incredibly thoughtful, organized, and moving walkout,” says Sandra Reid, Pikesville High’s principal. “Many students and teachers shared what a poignant, peaceful, and unifying endeavor it was.”

More than 600 students poured into the school’s stadium during the walkout to commemorate the victims of Parkland and gun violence everywhere—a major success by all counts but not without pushback. Anderson recalls an unnerving moment just before the event when a Pikesville student used social media to condemn the walkout.

Her spirits were lifted the following week when she went to the March For Our Lives demonstration in D.C. with her mother. “I think it was so heartening for her to see all the kids leading it,” Mathews says.

Sara Reisner, Anderson’s 12th grade AP English Literature and Composition teacher at Pikesville, says she noticed the other students respected and looked up to Anderson.

“She just has these beautiful insights [and] thinks really deeply about the readings and the conversations in class,” Reisner says. “She’s in a class with a lot of really strong students, but when she’s not there, there’s just this big hole.”

As other students got their college acceptance letters and stepped back a bit academically and extracurricularly toward the end of their senior year, Anderson continued to be an active member of the student body.

“She was out of school for a couple of [political] events—she’s involved as you can get—and yet she always has energy; she never slacks off. She is 100-percent there.

“She’s one of those rare gems you get as a teacher,” Reisner continues. “She cares so much about all the things that she does, and how she conducts herself reflects that. She walks the walk.”