featured image of Hannah Alper
Courtesy of Hannah Alper.

Activism in the digital age: a conversation with Hannah Alper

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Teen activist Hannah Alper sat down with Emerge to share her accomplishments, struggles and how she uses social media for good.

Imagine this: you’re scrolling through Instagram and see a vivid photo of a forest fire. You keep scrolling and see a photo of a smoke-covered firefighter swaddling a koala bear. You frown at your phone for a few seconds and scroll past. But then something happens. Your entire being is screaming for you to go back up. You can’t just view those photos and not like them, so you drag your finger down and come face to face with the wounded koala again. You double tap your phone and feel a sense of relief. You’re supporting efforts and spreading awareness about the Australian wildfires. You’ve done something good, right?

Well, not exactly. For teen activist Hannah Alper, social media is a powerful tool for raising awareness about issues like climate change. But while it’s great to educate yourself and others through social media, it’s just as important to take the issue offline and be a part of the solution in your own life.  

This high schooler has been doing just that since starting her blog Call Me Hannah at the age of nine. Her online presence has allowed her to create real-world change through initiatives like Me to We volunteer trips and through the launch FeedTO, an event dedicated to raising awareness about homelessness in Toronto.

Alper’s burning eagerness to follow her passion led to her writing her own book Momentus: Small Acts, Big Change while becoming a powerhouse motivational speaker across North America. It didn’t take long for Alper to eventually jump on the social media bandwagon as well. Now with nearly 13,000 followers, the 17-year-old is inspiring others to follow their own passions. 

So what’s it really like to be an activist in the digital age? Hannah shares her accomplishments, struggles and hope for the future.

What’s it like to be a teen activist while still in school?

It’s definitely an interesting experience, and I love it. I really can’t imagine my life being any different. I’ve been a so-called activist since I was nine years old. I first started a blog and then it truly grew to so many different platforms, from my book to social media to public speaking. I’ve been able to talk about so many issues that I’m passionate about, including poverty, education, homelessness, mental health, anti-bullying, the environment and so much more.

So really my whole message is trying to inspire and motivate people that no matter your age, how much money you have, where you live, you can change the world for the better. 

And of course, it has been really hard at times being an activist in school, doing what I do, especially in grade eight. It was really hard. I got a lot of teasing and bullying for it. But I think I try to surround myself with the best people possible who support what I do and who give me the love and positivity I need to keep going. 

It sucks that people feel that way, but I think the world is much more accepting. You look at people like Greta Thunberg and incredible teenagers like the March for Our Lives group and you’re just inspired. So I definitely think it’s becoming more okay and cool to make a difference, which is amazing.

Do you think that could be in part because of social media and how people like you are able to have a platform where you’re able to share your message and, like you said, inspire others? 

One hundred per cent. I’m all for social media for social good. That’s something I really believe in and it’s something that I’ve advocated for since I first got social media when I was 12 years old. I really believe that we can use social media to get our message out there into the world and with a click of a button, we can share whatever we’re passionate about, which is so incredible. 

We’ve never had that kind of power in our hands before, and we’ve never had an opportunity to raise awareness about what we’re passionate about in such a large and quick matter.

I assume it’s because you had the platform of your blog and social media that you were able to create your book and be able to speak at conferences like We Day? 

Totally. I’ve been able to reach so many different audiences. From young people to adults to corporate companies, it’s been very interesting. I think that as you scroll through social media it’s a lot about following and looking for the kind of people who will fulfill and inspire you. You learn about issues that you’re passionate about and then you talk about it on your own pages. 

Using social media or just talking about what you’re passionate about is such an amazing way to make a difference in itself, because you’re not only talking about your passions but also inspiring others to care too. It’s not just about sharing the problem and the issue, but also sharing the solution.  

We’ve been seeing so many posts about Australia’s wildfires recently. I feel like in order to talk about that, you also have to talk about what climate change is and how we can all help solve it individually. That way everyone knows the actions they can take in their own lives to help solve the problem, because I really believe that with every problem, there’s a solution.

Do you think it’s okay to simply like a social media post, but not really take action or be a part of the solution?

I definitely think you should do both. I think you should talk the talk and walk the walk. I think that’s really important and it really doesn’t have to take a lot to make a difference. You can volunteer your time to an issue that you’re passionate about. If you’re passionate about homelessness, take the time to have a conversation with someone experiencing homelessness and then share your experience on social media and talk about why it’s so important.

If you’re passionate about global education and that hundreds of girls around the world don’t have access to education, talk about it on social media and try to raise money to build schools. I think that even with climate change, make the changes in your own everyday life, like shopping from second-hand stores instead of the mall. 

When you talk about what you’re passionate about, you’ll be inspiring people and maybe they’ll be passionate about it too. That’s why social media and words are truly so powerful. They hold so much power and energy that we don’t even realize. 

It’s kind of like a collaboration between all those things:  you’re liking it, you’re sharing it, but you’re also taking steps to apply those solutions to your own life?

One hundred per cent. You have to find how to tackle those solutions, which really isn’t that hard today when there are so many non-profits that are helping you as an individual make a difference. 

Some people have a love-hate relationship with social media. While it can be used for positive content like raising awareness for social causes, it can also be attributed to cyberbullying. What’s your opinion on that? 

I agree. I think that social media can be both really amazing and a wonderful place. But it can also be really bad. You see an incredible amount of bullying happening on social media and it can be a really negative place. But that’s why you always have a choice whenever you go on social media. Will you like the post of a model in a bikini (which is totally okay!) or will you like the post of someone that is really trying to create change? Like March for Our Lives or Zero Hour that’s tackling climate change. 

Will you post about something that you’re passionate about and share it? I think it really is about the choices we make and it’s important for social media not to consume you. I’ve taken a bit of a step back from social media in the last year because it can get very consuming. While it’s amazing that with a touch of a button you can say whatever you want, that’s also, frankly, a really scary thing. 

Each of us needs to make our own choices on how we use social media. It may not be for everyone, but we’ve never been in a time where it’s this easy to share what we’re passionate about. Something I pride myself on is that I love to share the good on social media. I think that’s something you always have to do. Share the good and be positive. If you can’t find anything good to share, be the good. 

If social media wasn’t around right now, how do you think your activism would change?

One of my first role models was this incredible girl, Severn Suzuki, David Suzuki’s daughter. She spoke at the United Nations when she was just 13 years old. She’s nicknamed “the girl who silenced the world for five minutes.”

She spoke at the UN about climate change, the ozone layer and all these environmental issues. The world leaders at the UN listened, but her message could have become much more if there was social media, because at the time her only platform to share it was through a video in the news. There wasn’t anywhere for other people to share it or share their opinions. There wasn’t really a place where Severn’s story and her passions could live on. 

Craig Kielburger, founder of the We movement, formerly Free the Children, founded that when he was 12 years old. I can’t imagine how much quicker the organization’s success could have been if there was social media. Because again, people are able to talk about what they’re passionate about with a click and it makes them an activist—and when I say activist I frankly mean anyone that is making a difference or who wants to make a difference.

It makes our lives so much more reachable for people. I try to post my activism so people think if she can do it, I can do it too. That’s always been my goal. That’s why I believe in social media for social good. I believe it’s the greatest tool we can use to change the world for the better. 

Going back to Greta Thunberg, do you think her success in terms of being able to reach such a global audience is thanks to social media?

Totally. When she started speaking, the only reason she became so well-known is because people shared her story. People shared her incredible words, her fear for the world, her anger, her hope for change.

Because of her speeches, because more and more people found out what she was doing on social media, that sparked “Fridays for Future” climate change marches around the world. That’s thanks to social media.

The March for Our Lives anti-gun violence marches were organized by a group of teenagers who suffered a tragedy in Parkland and then they turned it into a movement. They were able to mobilize a million people in Washington, D.C. and sister marches around the world through social media. 

The power of social media is undeniable. You’re also able to connect with so many people who are passionate about the same things you are who might not necessarily live next door to you, which is also really cool. You can find your community. 

What advice would you give to youth about using social media to promote change?

Use it positively and use it for your passions, whatever you’re passionate about. Just make the right choice. Make the choice to use social media for social good and don’t let this incredible platform we have go to waste. 

We have this platform in front of us where we can create so much change and we can mobilize people around what we’re passionate about. So let’s use it for that. Let’s use it to learn more about what we’re passionate about and to educate ourselves. Let’s use our voice and let’s amplify other people’s voices. 

Anyone can use social media for social good, whether you’re eight or 80, and that’s awesome. So, I think that’s such an incredible thing that we can use to make a difference and we should really all be using, just in the right way. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.