The youngest speaker at the March for Our Lives rally Saturday made one of the biggest splashes with an eloquent speech urging the nation not to forget black women, who are disproportionately represented among the victims of gun violence.
Naomi Wadler, an Alexandria fifth-grader, became a hashtag, a meme shared around the world, praised by celebrities who included actress Lupita Nyong’o and comedian Eddie Griffin. The 11-year-old was heralded as future presidential material.
But Wadler hasn’t seen any of that: She’s not on social media.
“I have been accustomed to not Google myself, so I haven’t seen everything,” Wadler said Sunday in a phone interview during her spring break beach trip. “My speech might not have caused a giant impact on society, but I do hope all the black girls and women realize there’s a growing value for them.”
That was the focus of her 3-minute, 30-second speech, which was repeatedly interrupted by roars of applause.
“I am here to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news,” Wadler said. “I represent the African American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential.”
“For far too long, these names, these black girls and women, have been just numbers,” Wadler later said. “I’m here to say ‘Never again’ for those girls, too.”
Many of the young people who spoke Saturday had personal experiences surviving shootings or losing loved ones to gun violence.
The path that took Wadler, who likes to sing, run and play tennis, to a worldwide stage started when the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., inspired her to activism.
Her mother, Julie Wadler, sat her down to talk about the shooting and shared a personal connection: A friend from high school, Fred Guttenberg, lost his daughter Jaime in the Parkland shooting.
Naomi Wadler was thinking about what she could do when she saw reports of high school and middle school students planning walkouts on the one-month anniversary of the Feb. 14 shooting. She and classmate Carter Anderson, a friend since kindergarten thought: Why not elementary school students, too?
So, they organized a walkout at Alexandria’s George Mason Elementary School.
Like thousands of other students who helped organize walkouts, they wanted the disruption to last 17 minutes in honor of the 17 Parkland victims. But they decided to add an extra minute in memory of Courtlin Arrington, a 17-year old black girl who was shot to death at her Alabama high school March 7. That shooting, three weeks after Parkland, received far less national media attention.
Arrington, a high school senior, had been accepted to college and planned to become a nurse.
A study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last summer found that black women were more than twice as likely to be killed, and the most likely of any racial group to be shot to death.
“It’s subconsciously embedded into peoples’ minds that somebody with a darker complexion is worth less and their life isn’t as valuable as a white girl or man’s,” Wadler said.
Wadler also spoke at a gun violence forum hosted by her congressman, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.).
Her walkout garnered some media attention that made the rounds on social media. March for Our Lives organizers also noticed.
While Wadler wanted to attend the D.C. march, her family suggested they go to a sister march instead so that they could proceed with their spring break vacation as planned.
Those plans changed Thursday when a march organizer called Julie Wadler and asked if her daughter would speak. Naomi agreed without hesitation.
George Clooney, one of the celebrities who bankrolled the march, called Thursday, too, and mentioned he watched her interview with NowThis.
“He said he loved how I spoke so eloquently and the message I was trying to get across, and I was kind of like, ‘Yes. Yes. Okay. Yes. Okay,” said Wadler, who hasn’t seen any of Clooney’s movies but has watched him give interviews.
At first, she worried that talking about black women would be off topic. But then she found out other students from all over would speak from their experiences, and she felt comfortable telling her story as a black girl disappointed by how stories about gun violence involving people who look like her don’t incite the same outrage and sympathy. Or garner the same media attention.
Wadler was born in Ethiopia and attends a school where nearly six in 10 students are white, a third are Hispanic and 6 percent are black. Her mom is white, and her dad, a recreational hunter, is black.
“We are a family that watches the news. She wants to know why on the news they identify black people as black, and not white people as white,” Julie Wadler said. “She wants to know why Trayvon Martin was shot. She wants to know why Philando Castile was shot. Her father is black, and she wants to know, does she have to worry about him being stopped and killed?
“She’s an aware kid,” she said. “To listen to the past two years of our world and inside the Beltway, conversations about race are dinner table conversation for us.”
On Saturday, a driver picked up Wadler and her mother to take them to the rally, and she sang “Rise Up,” by Andra Day, during the ride.
Backstage, she met Clooney, as well as director Steven Spielberg and rapper/activist Common. She was more excited to meet the Parkland student activists whom she admired, including Emma González and Jaclyn Corin, who now have her email.
Wadler also bonded with Yolanda Renee King, Martin Luther King’s 9-year-old grand-daughter who took the stage to pump the crowd up. When it was Wadler’s time to speak, nerves were setting in.
“I tend to be a pretty catastrophic thinker when it comes to these things,” Wadler said. “I think, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die, am I going to die?’ I need lifesaving serum.”
She needn’t have worried.
Her presentation went smoothly and drew widespread praise for directly tackling how race plays into society’s reactions to gun violence.
Beyond the substance of Wadler’s remarks, many were impressed by the eloquence and poise of an elementary school student speaking on the national stage.
“Wow wow Naomi Wadler. She is ELEVEN YEARS OLD. And smarter than us all,” tweeted Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti.
After the speech, Wadler gave her mother a big hug and joined her friends Carter, Matt and Lily to watch the rally from the audience. When she got home, she found a note left on the door by a friend telling her she’d done a great job. Teachers emailed her mother with praise.
On Sunday, her mother casually mentioned on the drive to the beach that “Black Panther” star and Oscar winner Nyong’o had given her a shout-out on Instagram. “She screamed so loud that I thought I lost my hearing for a month,” Julie Wadler said.