"We are paying attention and we are actively calling brands out."
Nialah Edari, 26, is on the front lines of equality advocacy and policy reform. She is an activist and organizer who was launched onto the global stage after cofounding Freedom March NYC, a youth-led civil rights organization focused on policy reform, in May 2020. She has since been named one of 50 young trailblazers from around the world by Vogue as part of its August 2020 Hope issue and has been featured in publications like the Financial Times, New York Magazine, Cosmopolitan and Rolling Stone.
She has been involved in activism and politics from an early age and much of her work revolves around supporting youth voices. She has served as Midwest Youth Director for national civil rights organization The National Action Network and has been involved in Prevent Gun Violence efforts in New York City. She’s also been a speaker on youth activism at the National Action Network’s Annual Conference, Yale’s Black Solidarity Conference, the Black Women’s Roundtable and the March on Washington.
Below, Edari catches up with us on the importance of activism, advice for brands on how to engage in social justice issues and what brands need to know about gen Z.
Why did you decide to launch Freedom March NYC?
Freedom March NYC really came to be at the height of the George Floyd civil unrest in May. My friend was at a protest and she just saw a lot of chaos outside. And I wanted to go outside, I’ve protested before, but it just seemed really really loud and not necessarily safe. So we decided to organize our own march.
The march started off with hundreds of people and the crowd just got larger as we marched through streets and met up with other protestors. And we ended that march with some speeches and people left really moved and they wanted more from us and hence Freedom March NYC was born. Since then, we’ve organized other marches, collaborated with other organizations and hosted vigils.
We also have this thing where we say, “demonstration to legislation.” We’ve worked with local elected officials to push some of the policy changes that we want to see through in 2021, which include getting police officers out of classrooms, redistributing the police budget, the creation of a civilian review board and also the creation of a youth commission in New York City.
What advice do you have for brands on how to engage with social justice issues and movements like Black Lives Matter?
Outside of just working with activists and offering them money, address the internal work that you’re doing. What concerns do your current employees have? How does your board look, how does your C-suite look? What about the senior positions? It’s one thing to pay someone $5,000 to work with you one time so you can say, “this is the work we did to support Black Lives Matter,” or even to make a donation—which is great. But you have to make sure that you’re also doing that work internally. It’s important to show that you have a continued commitment beyond donating funds.
Do you think that digital activism is here to stay?
Social media provides an accessible way for people to digest information and receive information that they haven’t received in their education or elsewhere, and it spreads rapidly. So I don’t see a decline in the use of social media [after the pandemic]. I still see the two—social media and people taking to the streets—working hand in hand.
You’re still going to have people in the streets, and you’re still going to have people very much on social media.
What are the implications of digital activism for brands?
I would say just making sure that you’re on top of your social. Are you showing on your social what your company or what your brand looks like internally, and what changes you have made? If there are any changes to your mission, show how you want to see long term justice and results. That should be on your social media—people should be able to go to your page and say, ok, I get what this brand is about.
Part of your work involves championing youth voices. Why is that important to you?
It’s important because that’s where my activism started, when I was in high school. It actually started because my curriculum in school didn’t include any works by Black people or Black historians and we didn’t do anything for Black History Month. So I led my first protest boycotting the curriculum.
What is one thing brands need to know about gen Z consumers?
We care deeply about a lot of things, and these things impact how we decide to consume—[things like] whether a brand is harmful for the climate, or if they don’t stand for Black Lives Matter. These are questions that brands have to ask themselves and be ready to answer.
Do you have any advice for brands looking to resonate with younger consumers?
The first thing we do is open up Instagram or TikTok, so make sure that your platform and what you stand for is visible on your social accounts.
For example, Aussie—I would never have assumed that it was for hair textures like mine, because that’s not how they marketed their products when I was growing up. But when I go to their page, all I see is people who look like me, and I’m more tempted to test out the product.
Having your social align with what you say you believe in is super important—because we are paying attention and we are actively calling brands out.