By Lily Wolfson ’21, Ryan Pelosky ’21
Sophie Ming is an eighteen-year-old activist from New York City. She has organized and led some of Manhattan’s largest Black Lives Matter protests, including marches for teens and adults, and a Black Lives Matter chalk art event geared towards younger children.
Ming began her activism work early in her high school career. Though she has considered herself an activist for years, she only recently began applying her leadership skills to activism. “In terms of organizing and actually getting on the frontlines of protests, demonstrations, and events, that kind of started this summer for me, as it did for a lot of people,” Ming said.
Ming lives in a predominantly white neighborhood, and she noticed that there weren’t any community Black Lives Matter protests. She took initiative and set up a chalk art event on Riverside.
After her successful chalk art event, Ming realized that she could host more Black Lives Matter events and demonstrations.
She said, “People would come up to me and ask me, ‘What organization are you a part of?’ or ‘Who are you working with’? And it was just me.”
Ming garnered support from participants of her first event, who told her, “‘Okay, well, if you do any more...I’ll come.’” Ming realized that she had “the ability to lead something as big as a protest or a rally,” so she simply kept organizing and leading.
To rally people together, Ming first used her established platform on Instagram and YouTube. She then realized that “the most effective way is to just find people I know already” and reach out to them so that they reach out to their followers, and then their followers will reach out to their followers. Ming used this rallying strategy to organize a Juneteenth march, the biggest event she’s led yet.
Ming said, “Social media has a lot of influence. You don’t need to have millions of followers to bring people together.”
Her main concern while leading is safety. She said, “I’ll just let people know: this is going to be a peaceful protest because if I’m leading something and somebody gets hurt, it’s technically on me. So far, it’s been pretty successful, and nobody’s gotten hurt on my watch.”
The most rewarding part of leading for Ming is listening to protesters speak. “Normally, after we’re done marching, there will be time for people that want to come up and speak…” she said. “Seeing something I organized and seeing people that I brought together come up and speak is probably the most rewarding part for me.”
Regarding discussions with younger children surrounding racism and police brutality, Ming said, “implementing those conversations into school curricula is the number one thing that comes to mind for me—or just having conversations with your kids at home.”
Her piece of advice for young activists is “to not let anybody intimidate you because of your age.” Ming recounts when she was fifteen years old speaking about politics and race and social reform, “I got shut down a lot because of how young I was.”
“You’re young, but young people know a lot, and young people research a lot, and I think we are underestimated a lot.” Ming urges young people, “Demand that your voice is heard. Don’t ask.”
Ming was recently featured in Elle magazine alongside other teen activists. She is studying biology at Temple University and hopes to become a doctor and practice medicine in Manhattan.
The Iris: What brought you into activism? How long have you been involved?
Sophie Ming: In terms of just starting to do research on the types of social justice and political justice that I’m interested in and the type that affects me being a black woman, that kind of started for me about four years ago. Early into my high school career is when I started doing intensive research, reading, and just learning about what affects me. Then, in terms of organizing and actually getting on the frontlines of protests, demonstrations, and events, that started fairly recently. That kind of started this summer for me, as it did for a lot of people. I’ve always been interested in activism, and I’ve considered myself an activist for the past for years, but I think now I’ve started to take the initiative to do more than just research and actually organize and bring my community together.
TI: You’re remarkably young and have organized large protests in one of the largest cities in the world. Why did you decide to organize and lead as opposed to just attend?
SM: I’ve always enjoyed being a leader more because it’s just a part of my personality. I enjoy putting things together and bringing people together. For me, it started because the neighborhood that I live in is a predominantly white neighborhood, and as far as I’ve seen, they haven’t done anything in regards to events or Black Lives Matter demonstrations, so I took the initiative to set up something in my neighborhood. That was the first thing I did: it was a chalk art event where I went into Riverside, and a bunch of little kids came, and we talked about the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality victims. So, that was the first experience that I had organizing, and once I saw how successful it was and the turnout, I was like, ‘Oh, I could do this again! I could do more of these!’ People would come up to me and ask me, ‘What organization are you part of?’ or ‘Who are you working with?’ And it was just me. I kind of wanted to do this one-time thing, and people were like, ‘Okay, well, if you do any more, what’s your Instagram? I’ll follow you, and I’ll come.’ It kind of just started from there, and I realized that I do have the ability to lead something as big as a protest or a rally, so I just kept doing it.
TI: How did you effectively rally people together?
SM: Luckily, I already had some type of a platform on Instagram and YouTube, so I used that to my advantage. Then I realized that the most effective way is to just find people I know already and use them. So, the Juneteenth march that I did was the biggest one that I’ve organized yet, and the organizers were just people that went to high school with me. I reached out to them, and I was like, ‘Hey. I’m organizing this thing, and I need help. I need as many people to show up as possible.’ So, I just hit up about six people from my high school, and those people reached out to more people, and then those people reached out to more people, and we all posted it on social media, and it came together. Social media has a lot of influence. You don’t need to have millions of followers to bring people together.
TI: What were some of the obstacles of organizing?
SM: I would honestly say trying to keep everybody safe, being that technically protesting right now without a permit is illegal. Nobody is getting a permit right now anyway, but unfortunately, some protests end violently, whether that be that the police show up or protesters get rowdy, or there is looting or rioting, and somebody gets hurt, I guess the biggest obstacle is trying to prevent that. So, normally when I’m at a demonstration that I’m helping organize or that I’m leading, I’ll just let people know: this is going to be a peaceful protest because if I’m leading something and somebody gets hurt, it’s technically on me. So far, it’s been pretty successful, and nobody’s gotten hurt on my watch. I haven’t seen anybody get hurt, and there has been no threat of the police showing up. But it’s definitely a concern, and it’s definitely something that needs to be talked about while you’re organizing.
TI: What is the most rewarding part of organizing and participating in activism?
SM: When I get to see people that showed up come up and talk. Normally, after we’re done marching, there will be time for people that want to come up to speak. If they want to, then they can. Seeing something I organized and seeing people that I brought together come up and speak is probably the most rewarding part for me. I remember I organized this vigil for Oluwatoyin, who was a nineteen-year-old Black girl who was killed, and the people that I had come speak were other Black women. Hearing them speak and getting to watch and listen and know that I brought all these people together, and I get to listen to their words and their emotions and what they’re feeling about everything that’s going on is probably the most rewarding part.
TI: On your Instagram, there are photos of the Black Lives Matter block party that you organized. You placed emphasis on how that was a great way to bring little kids into activism. What are some of the ways you can get younger children involved?
SM: Other than something as simple as writing on the pavement with chalk and initiating conversation, I would like to see Black Lives Matter conversations being implemented into school curricula because that’s the easiest way for young people to learn. I’m not too big on having children come to protests where adults are going to protesting because that can get kind of violent, and that’s never okay if a young child is there, and they end up getting hurt. I think implementing those conversations into school curricula is the number one thing that comes to mind for me—or just having conversations with your kids at home; that’s the easiest thing. If you’re a guardian of a child, and you want to allow them to be part of the conversation, talk to them about what’s going on, teach them about what’s going on. Allow them to form their opinions on what’s going on, and you can definitely do so in a kid-friendly way. I know what I would do when we would have these events is write names of police brutality victims in the chalk, and then if a child asks, ‘Who was Michael Brown?’ or something like that, then you just explain it to them in a way that they can understand—having kid-friendly conversations with them, whether it’s in school or at home or at a chalk demonstration.
TI: You were recently in Elle magazine. How did it feel to be featured alongside other powerful young activists?
SM: It definitely felt really amazing. That was my biggest publication that I’ve ever been in, so the fact that it had to do with my activism and the work that I’m doing and it’s not just about ‘here’s this model’ or ‘this really pretty person’ who isn’t actually doing anything, but it’s about important work and giving young Black teenagers a platform to express themselves and to talk—I was really thankful that Elle reached out to me and interviewed me and allowed me to talk about what it is that I’m doing. It felt really nice.
TI: When it comes to systemic racism in America, what do you feel is the most urgent problem? Which do you think is most pervasive?
SM: I couldn’t choose one that is more important than the others because, for example, I could say police brutality, but then we also have Black and brown kids who aren’t able to go to school, which to me is extremely urgent as well. So, I couldn’t actually tell you which one is the most urgent for me because I know that we have the resources to work on all of them at once, but this country just chooses not to. I don’t think that one is more important than the others; I think that we should be focused on using the resources that we do have work on all of them at the same time because we’re able to.
TI: What are you studying in college? How has your college experience differed from high school in New York?
SM: Right now, I’m studying biology, and I’m a pre-med, so it’s mainly just all science and math for me right now. It’s honestly not too different from New York City. When I was in high school, I definitely had a lot of independence because of where I was: I lived in Manhattan, and I went to school in Queens, so I commuted everywhere. In college, I definitely have a lot more independence because I’m dorming, and I’m on my own, but there are definitely a lot of similarities because I’m in Philadelphia; I go to Temple University. So, it’s just another city. It’s kind of like a smaller New York City, so I wouldn’t say that there are too many differences except my increased level of independence that I have now, and obviously, my course work has gotten a lot heavier, and the content that I’m learning is a lot harder. In terms of my community and my surroundings, it pretty much feels the same because I’m just in a different city.
TI: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
SM: In ten years, I ideally would be a doctor because I’m a pre-med now, and I plan on taking a gap year before med school. So, in ten years, hopefully, I am a doctor, and I’m practicing medicine here in New York City. I don’t really look that far into the future, but that’s just the general hope that I have for myself, that I would be practicing here in Manhattan.
TI: What advice do you have for young activists?
SM: My biggest piece of advice is to not let anybody intimidate you because of your age. When I was a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old talking about politics and race reform and social reform, I got shut down a lot because of how young I was, and it’s something that’s very intimidating: to enter conversations that involve adults and involve politicians, and you’re young, but young people know a lot, and young people research a lot, and I think that we are underestimated a lot. To anybody who’s a young activist, I would say not to be intimidated by your age and to take up space and to make your voice be heard—demand that your voice is heard; don’t ask.
This transcript has been edited for concision and clarity.