TORONTO — Like most teenagers, Hannah Alper has seen her world greatly shrink under COVID-19. Unlike most teenagers, her pre-pandemic reality included frequent speeches in front of large audiences in North America, where her years of social activism and firm command of topical issues belie her age.
Although only 17, Alper is already a well-established eco-warrior. The high profile activist and motivational speaker also has one book under her belt. Since her first public speaking engagement at age 10, she’s given more than 400 speeches and made numerous media appearances. When she was 14, Bloomberg Businessweek included her in its “Ones to Watch in 2018” list, the only teenager chosen.
On June 5, World Environment Day, Alper figured prominently on a Canadian television program called “Citizen Kid: Earth Comes First.” She was one of four young activists in the documentary that focused on their efforts to raise awareness about climate change and empower young people to take action. Alper is seen at the Nature Based Climate Solutions Summit in Ottawa and at a Fridays For Future event in Washington, DC.
Today, from her home in a Toronto suburb that she shares with her parents and where she’s spent most of her time since her high school closed in mid-March due to the coronavirus, Alper remains as engaged as ever with causes dear to her. With her in-person appearances on hold as long as public health officials prohibit large events, she’s channeling her fight for societal and environmental change online. She has 40,000 followers on Twitter, 13,000 on Instagram, and high traffic on her Facebook page and blog.
On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, she sat in the backyard of her house in Richmond Hill, just north of Toronto, for an interview with The Times of Israel. More than once she cited Jewish values having a major impact on her attitude to activism and social responsibility from a young age.
“Values like tzedakah [charity] and especially tikkun olam [repairing the world] are at the core of everything I do as an activist,” says Alper, who grew up the only child in a secular Jewish household. “It’s about repairing the world, which I believe we must do. That approach shaped me into the type of person I am today, someone who’s also passionate about community, another important part of Jewish life.”
She first gained this perspective from her mother and at summer camp.
“I remember at Camp Gesher [part of the Habonim Dror progressive youth movement], we talked a lot about the whole concept of tikkun olam and making a difference,” Alper says between sips of a banana-strawberry smoothie. “We discussed how everyone has the capacity, ability and responsibility to make a difference, repair the world and do mitzvot.”
“That’s what I keep in my mind now, that everything I do, they’re mitzvot — they’re good deeds — and so in my journey I try to inspire people to, if you will, practice those mitzvot and do good things that will make the world a little bit brighter than when they first found it,” she says.
‘Our world is in good hands’
Alper has been compared to fellow teenage activist Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year from Sweden, who spearheaded a global movement to fight climate change.
She pays tribute to other young people engaged in social change. “I like connecting with other young activists, whether in person or on social media,” Alper says. “It gives me a lot of hope and confidence that our world is in good hands with such young people.”
When Alper speaks, she doesn’t sound like a stereotypical North American teenager. She’s highly articulate, worldly yet uncynical, self-confident without being uppity, and acutely knowledgeable about a wide range of contemporary issues.
As a committed activist and proponent of social change, she watched with great concern as the Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May.
“Right now, I’ve been taking a step back and learning more about this issue,” says Alper, as Charlie, one of her two family dogs — both Shih Tzus — nestles at her side. “I’ve been sharing and amplifying Black people’s voices because that’s really what we need to do now because, honestly, in this fight, my voice doesn’t matter. It only matters in the sense I’m an ally when I say I stand with you and I will fight for you in a non-violent, peaceful way.”
She feels it’s incumbent on her and others to respond to the situation.
“I think especially as Jews we need to stand up for everything that’s going on, whether it’s the fight for Black people or the fight for indigenous people in Canada,” says Alper. “Our duty as Jews, as Canadians, as people in the world, is to make sure every person feels included and feels safe to walk the streets because that should be a right, not a luxury.”
Alper’s entry to activism began at age 9. She had gone with her parents to a digital family summit in Philadelphia that included a workshop on how to be safe in the online world, as well as a three-hour session on blogging at which she joined her father. It left her with a desire to create a blog, despite not knowing what to focus on.
“My parents told me I couldn’t write about myself or how much I loved Justin Bieber,” Alper recalls. “They insisted I make the blog about something I was passionate about. We talked it through. What do you love? What do you care about deeply? What do you want to change in the world? All I knew was I loved animals.”
Her parents began to educate her on animal-related issues, such as deforestation, and gave her resources to learn more. The blog quickly evolved to spotlighting ways people could be more eco-friendly in their everyday lives. Alper started addressing topics such as poverty, homelessness, mental health and clean water.
I realized the incredible change that young people specifically can make when we come together
That led to her first speech before a large crowd, telling 300 students at her elementary school about the lack of clean water in the developing world and its dire consequences. She launched a campaign at three local schools (including her own) which raised funds, providing 37 people in Africa clean water for life.
“That was a huge moment for me because I realized the incredible change that young people specifically can make when we come together,” says Alper. “I’d never seen such a thing before and it motivated me to keep going. That young people can create so much change is something that still fuels me to continue my activism and to motivate people to believe they have the power to change the world.”
On her website, there’s a video of a precocious, diminutive girl delivering without notes a TEDx Talk titled “How to Find Your Spark.” It was Alper at age 10, and it was already clear back then she was a natural public speaker destined to make an impact.
“When I’m passionate about something, I’m really, really good at talking about it, even if it can be stressful to speak before a large crowd,” says Alper. “Every time I do a 45-minute keynote, my hands and knees still shake until I’m about 30 minutes in.
“When I was touring across North America with Martin Luther King III for WeDay, he asked me if I was nervous. I said yes because I was speaking in front of 20,000 people. He told me nerves are a good thing because it means you have adrenaline, which means excitement, which helps keep you going. He said if you’re not nervous, you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing,” Alper recalls.
Three years ago, although by then already an accomplished orator having given numerous speeches for the World Wildlife Fund, the We charity and other organizations, Alper took lessons with a speaking coach.
“His work on my breathing made a difference, especially because as you can see, when I talk, I really, really talk, and I like to talk very fast,” says Alper. “At first, I focused on writing and then I realized I wasn’t bad at public speaking. It’s all about communication to help change the world.”
Ms. Prime Minister?
Given her speaking prowess and political awareness, it’s easy to imagine Alper one day running for elected office.
“A lot of people have asked me that and I’m not sure, but knowing myself, politics might be somewhere down the road for me,” says Alper. “For now, I’m kind of an aspiring journalist because I believe in the pursuit of truth and I’m really passionate about media. Today, more than ever, we have to spotlight the truth and the facts. Journalism is important because when people are aware of current issues, they’re more motivated to do something about it.”
Alper, who’s taking two online courses this summer –one on social justice, the other on Canadian and world politics — ahead of her final year of high school, has learned tough lessons outside of class.
“The worst experience I had with my peers at school was when I was in Grade 8,” she says. “That year, I was bullied a lot by other students for my activism. I was called gay, retarded and told to go kill myself for speaking up for what I believed in. It was really hard, as I didn’t have people who would stand up for me and I’d often call my mom at lunch crying because of what was happening.”
In her 2017 book, “Momentus: Small Acts, Big Change,” which encourages young people to be civically engaged, Alper profiled 19 change-makers, including her biggest role model, Malala Yousafzai, female education activist and youngest-ever Nobel Prize winner. Alper also wrote a chapter called “It’s Not Always Sunshine and Rainbows,” in which she addressed social difficulties she faced at school.
Alper has also experienced anti-Semitism from fellow students, most of whom are not Jewish.
“It’s kind of a reality check for me,” says Alper. “Sometimes it’s just random students making comments and on occasion my non-Jewish friends. Jewish teenagers at our school know they are sometimes the focus of little anti-Semitic jokes and stereotypes. Things like someone dropping a $5 bill in front of me, saying ‘Oh, you’re a Jew, pick it up.’ When it happens, it reminds me that we still have a long way to go in creating the world we hope to live in.”
Alper, who’s been active for several years in the Bnai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO), was elected co-president of its Lake Ontario Region chapter this year. Next spring, she plans to go on the Holocaust-related March of the Living in Poland, followed by a week in Israel, which will be her first time there.
“I’m really excited about going to Israel,” says Alper, who’s traveled to Kenya and Costa Rica to do volunteer community work. “I have highly positive feelings about Israel because I’ve always seen it as a home and the promised land for all Jews. I think it’s an incredible place where Jews can really come together and just be themselves and practice what they love and be safe as a community. Everyone says it’s a completely different world and that the dancing and food are incredible. I love shakshua, so I’m excited to taste it in Israel.”
Coping in a COVID world
For now, she’s still contending with the constraints imposed by COVID-19, spending time with her parents. Her mother works as a marketing specialist at a local Jewish charity, while her father is a music industry publicist.
“I’m coping, but the situation sucks,” says Alper. “I can’t really see my friends and haven’t seen my grandparents in months. I feel badly for my friends in Grade 12 whose graduation and prom had to be canceled. But I feel very lucky to live in a time when even though I can’t physically see my friends or boyfriend, I can still talk to them through Facetime, Zoom or text messaging.”
Clearly, Alper’s boundless exuberance and positivity help her weather this period.
“While the pandemic is the worst thing to ever happen to my generation and my parents’ generation, we can use it for good,” says Alper. “And that’s what we should be doing.”
Like people of all ages, she’s spending more time online, especially with social media, averaging at least four hours a day. She splits her time between issues she champions — including clean water access, civil rights, homelessness, gender equality, and fighting bullying — and raising morale.
I try to share some good on social media to help make people’s days a little brighter
“Every day, I try to share some good on social media to help make people’s days a little brighter,” she says. “I post different things to make them smile because I think that’s what we need right now, such as awesome pages with bright, motivating, this-too-shall-pass kind of quotes and different graphics. I also share tips for people to stay healthy and happy. Sometimes it’s even something as simple as cute dog videos.”
Alper is also looking to expand an initiative she first launched when she was 12. Called FeedTO, it has provided food to homeless people in Toronto (whose nickname is T.O.).
“I want to develop FeedTO on a grander scale,” says Alper. “The goal is not only to distribute more food but help educate people about the issue of homelessness. It’s something I feel isn’t explored enough even though it’s widespread downtown. We can’t solve the big issues in the world without first taking a look in our own backyard. Change starts at home.”
In step with her upbeat nature, Alper isn’t easily discouraged.
“I know for many people, their activism makes them sadder as they learn more about the issues and see the extent of the problems,” she says. “With me, my activism has made me more curious and more optimistic. I love to learn about the solutions and to try to motivate people to work toward the changes that will make these solutions possible.”