Waverly Zhao, age 18 of Johnston, is one of two winners of the Robert Mannheimer Youth Advocacy Award. She is being honored for leading student protests and school board advocacy efforts for Johnston Community of Racial Equity (CORE).
Reflecting on her advocacy experiences, Waverly vividly remembers a school board member’s response to students recounting incidents like having racial slurs hurled at them in the hallway.
“She said, ‘I see you. I hear you. But I don’t agree with you.’ That was like a slap in the face. It wasn’t something you could disagree with when we were talking about our own personal experiences.”
Adults not listening to or valuing the voices of young community members is something Waverly, a senior at Johnston High School, encounters often. But she is fighting against this mindset.
As a facilitator for the Johnston Community of Racial Equity (CORE), she has advocated for diversity, equity, and inclusion in a variety of forms.
In 2021, she was a volunteer for the election campaign of a school board candidate who ultimately lost, but Waverly’s work continued. She and others were disturbed when new school board members signed the "1776 Pledge," which disputes the fact that slavery has been a central element in American history.
Waverly and other Johnston CORE members showed up to a school board meeting to speak against their actions. Although the school board members didn’t disavow the pledge, Waverly hasn’t stopped advocating for what she thinks is right. In fact, she has been sworn in as a page at the Iowa State Capitol. She is interested in a future in politics.
“The adults in power forget about young people. We are stakeholders. We should have seats at the table. We should be listened to,” she said. "Young people have a lot to say. Be prepared for what’s coming.”
If you know a young person or group of young people in Iowa who should be nominated for the Mannheimer award, click here.