by Melanie Zhang ’22
Published Dec. 22nd, 2021
Although still a senior in high school, Denia Smith is a dedicated and vocal advocate for equity and change in communities in and outside of MHS.
Denia became involved in social justice as a sophomore at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South before moving to MHS. “My advocacy began in April 2020 after a racially derogative TikTok incident occurred in my school district”, she says. “Unfortunately, these types of incidents were not new. They would occur, students and teachers would talk about it, but people would move on over time.”
Another factor she cites was the lack of education on diversity and inclusion for children, who, research shows, form racial biases at a young age if they are not taught otherwise. This sparked the creation of WW-P POC Advocacy, an organization that seeks to implement racially equitable modifications in school policy, curricula, and programming. Later that year, Denia hosted a Black Lives Matter march in June with over a thousand participants.
In addition, Denia was also part of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South’s Black Student Union. In particular, she organized a Black History Month series in February with 15+ events and panels and a thousand attendees. “My experiences of advocating for racial justice in my community not only taught me the power of youth voices, but also encouraged me to expand my work”, she says.
A key emphasis of her advocacy is intersectionality. “Lying at the confluence of being black but also being female definitely caused me to re-examine the inequalities [that are] unique to that experience”, she says. Over the summer, she did a study on intersectional invisibility and the way the concerns of black women, which involve both racism and sexism, are often overlooked because of the way racial equity is often analyzed without considering gender.
In addition, Denia is one of 25 Teen Advisors worldwide for the United Nation Foundation’s Girl Up Campaign. In this role, she represents Girl Up through events and panels such as the Sports for a Purpose Innovation Lab on November 19th, in which she served as co-emcee. At WWPHSS, Denia also founded and was president of her school’s Girl Up club.
Despite her numerous leadership roles, Denia still sees herself as primarily a community builder “Something that’s commonly misperceived about youth activism is that it’s a solo thing”, she says. “Really, activism is about community building [and] connecting with other people to work collectively towards a common cause.”
After moving to MHS, she is still getting immersed in clubs such as High School Democrats of America and the Black Student Union, but says that she looks forward to working with students and educators to make change in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). While moving certainly pushed her out of her comfort zone, she says it also allowed her to explore what activism looks like in different communities and that she is “really glad to be a part of this new family.”
In the future, Denia plans to study political science and Africana studies, and to stay involved in education reform and policy research.