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Yonge Interviews: 10-Year-Old Activist Hannah Alper

Hannah Alper

Hannah Alper

While most fifth graders were counting down the days to go back to school, 10-year-old Hannah Alper was anxiously anticipating her big announcement. "I have a confession to make. I have been keeping a secret for a few months," she wrote in her blog Call Me Hannah, where she writes about environmental activism and social justice. 
On August 28, she finally revealed that she would be speaking at multiple upcoming We Day events, an annual stadium-sized series that takes place in select cities around the world with the aim to encourage youth to become more involved in local and international issues. The events are part of Me to We and Free The Children, a family of international organizations that work to "empower and enable youth to be agents of change." The headquarters are here in Toronto. 
Each year, We Day draws big names and this year is no exception. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Disney stars the Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato, activists Martin Luther King III (the son of Martin Luther King Jr.), and Marc and Craig Kielburger, among many others, will join Alper as speakers and performers at the Toronto event on September 20 at the Air Canada Centre. Twenty thousand people are expected to attend. Alper will also speak at the Vancouver edition of We Day on October 18. Additional announcements have not yet been made. 
Alper is no stranger to the stage. In the past year alone, she was invited to be the Juno Awards' eco-blogger on the ground, was selected by the World Wildlife Foundation as an Earth Hour Team Captain and subsequently spoke at the event in Toronto, and on International Women's Day she posted a video interview she conducted with her role model, David Suzuki's daughter Severn-Cullis Suzuki, on her blog. This only scratches the surface on a long list of the tiny activist's big accomplishments. 
Yonge Street chatted with Alper after school one day last week to learn more about how she combines activism with fifth grade. Alper is an excited yet composed speaker who comes well prepared. She neither hesitates nor stumbles in her answers, possessing a confidence and grace that suggests this young lady's career in advocacy and activism is only just beginning. 
Thank you for doing this interview with us Hannah. First and foremost, what was it like knowing you were going to be a speaker at We Day but not being allowed to tell anyone?
It was really, really hard. I've known since the end of June and I was told not to tell anyone that I'm being invited to speak at We Day and of course without hesitating I said yes and then this August they finally announced it and was so happy. The hardest place to keep the secret was at Take Action Camp (a week-long social justice camp for youth that is part of Me to We) because so many people were there who were just as passionate as me about poverty, animal rights, that kind of stuff. We talk about We Day all the time and they want to be speakers. It was hard then, but I'm relieved the secret is out. 
What will you be speaking about?
I'm not allowed to talk about it, sorry!
Are you allowed to talk about any of your main messages?

I guess my key message is that no matter how young you are you can make a difference and you can be the change. You can find your spark and you can ignite it. 
Why do you think it is important for youth to get involved in local and global issues?
I think it's important to see yourself as part of the community locally and globally. When you look beyond yourself you find that your community has problems – the environment, hunger, education, bullying – and I believe that all young people can contribute to helping someone, somewhere, something. 
You don't always need to help by donating; it's not all about money. You can also give your time. That's what I do. I've done a shoreline clean up and through my blog people heard me and I used my voice. I learned that my voice is the most powerful thing I have if I use it. I think to it's also important [youth are] engaged to find out that they're passionate about something and at the end to have something to do aside from playing video games or just watching TV all the time. Instead they care about something and they're donating their time and it feels good to do good. 
Have you had a chance to inspire any of your classmates? Have they started to become more involved?
My classmates were inspired. I did We Create Change at my school. Twenty-five dollars in pennies equals clean water for one child for life. It was motivating because everything collecting wasn't just making a difference in another country, it was making a difference in our school community too. It really changed us. Students who never spent time together got to know each other more and they became friends. Working towards a common goal, I would say our differences became less important and we became stronger. Together we collected 97,500 pennies and provided clean water for 37 people for life. I never thought that we would collect that many pennies. 
What are some of the issues you feel most passionately about?
Some of the issues I feel most passionately about are social justice, the environment of course, definitely bullying. I wrote a few posts on my blog about bullying. I posted a video. Also I'm passionate about homophobia. I did a post about Matthew Shepard and gay rights. I believe that with bullying and gay rights, people shouldn't be treated that way. People say you should treat people the way you want to be treated and, also, for bullying, if you want to make a friend you have to be a friend. 
What about the environment? How did you get so passionate about that?
I started my blog at the Digital Family Summit. It's a conference and we learned about videos, photography, video blogging and I went to a three-hour Wordpress workshop. I started my blog and I didn't want to do something that was all about me, I wanted to do something that I was passionate about. I knew that I had a love for animals and I learned that animals rely on the environment and they rely on us to help the environment. 
Then I discovered Free the Children. My mom and I were looking online for eco-friendly cleaning supplies, and Marc Kielburger, the co-founder of Free the Children, when he was a grade seven there was a science project that he had to do but he didn't know what to do. While he was doing his chores he found that his cleaning supplies were toxic and he thought why should people use these if they're toxic, so he made eco-friendly cleaning supplies. It was awesome.  
You've had a roster of accomplishments, especially for someone as young as you are. What are you most proud of?
I think We Day definitely. All of the others were awesome, but when I was asked for We Day I was blown away. I am so humbled and honoured to be chosen to do this and I've been so inspired. When I was nine, I went to We Day and being in the stadium full of students that were inspired, empowered and motivated to go back to school and act was awesome. We Day is to celebrate youth and I'm going to be part of that, right there to celebrate it as part of the We Day team, and alongside my role models Severn-Cullis Suzuki, Spencer West, Craig and Marc Kielburger and Molly Burke.
What was it like interviewing your role model Severn-Cullis Suzuki?
She inspired me because she started caring about the environment when she was nine years old and I started caring about the environment when I was nine too. When she was 12 she spoke at the UN and her title now is 'the girl who inspired the world for five minutes.' We're both doing big things and we have a lot of connections. She taught me you don't have to be a scientist like Severn Suzuki or David Suzuki to change the world. 
Are you nervous to speak to all those people?
Not really, I'm very excited. I'm going to keep rehearsing and as I keep rehearsing it, I think I'm going to know how it feels. I keep thinking about what it's going to be like and I see myself on stage doing an awesome job and inspiring the educators and all the people. I'm so confident to do it. 
So how are you going to manage your activism and your schoolwork? I understand you'll have to miss quite a bit of class for the We Day events.
We're thinking about balancing it. We're going to have a lot of support from my teacher and my principal, all of the educators, the superintendent, everyone. We're going to have meetings with them and they're going to send me work and I'll catch up and I'm going to get the help for anything that I need because I will need help. I'm probably going to do work on the road and on planes and I'm definitely going to keep going. There's this Spencer West quote, "No can't. No won't. Only how." I'll just make my way around it, there's always a solution, and I'm going to try to say yes to everything. No saying no. 
What influence have your parents had on your activism?
They're awesome. Whenever I do a post, they always proofread. They inspire me and encourage me to do my posts and they encourage me to do everything that I can and they talk to me about it and they give me life lessons and they always make sure a post is perfect. They promote it. Without them my blog or any of this wouldn't be happening at all. They believe in me. They've encouraged me. They've empowered me to change the world. 
Lastly, what do you want to be when you grow up?
I already thought ahead and have thought about this since I was nine, when I grow up I want to be an activist. I don't know what kind yet, because now I've learned about social justice, the environment, animal rights, so I don't know what kind but I will do everything it takes. I will go to university and I will always use my voice. My voice is the most powerful thing I have in my body and I'm going to use it just like Severn Suzuki, just like Spencer West, and just like Craig and Marc Kielburger.  
Watch this video below of Hannah interviewing her role model Severn-Cullis Suzuki.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Sheena Lyonnais is
Yonge Street's managing editor. This interview is part of an ongoing series profiling Torontonians that are changing the city. 
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