Havana Chapman-Edwards may only be 8 years old, but she's wise beyond her years. Talk with this student activist for just an hour, and you'll walk away feeling empowered by her fearlessness when she says more people need to "speak up and speak out."
Her words come from a place of experience. Havana first made headlines in April 2018 when, as a first grader, she was the only student at Fort Hunt Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia, to join the national school walkout in protest of gun violence in U.S. schools.
Her interest in advocating for gun control started after she attended the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., the month before. She watched then-11-year-old activist Naomi Wadler speak, which inspired Havana to want to use her voice, too.
Havana told TODAY Style for our Groundbreakers series in honor of International Day of the Girl that, in the following weeks leading up to the national school walkout, none of her peers expressed an interest in participating despite her encouragement to do so. "I was kind of sad about that," she said. "But that's OK."
According to Havana's mother, Bethany Edwards, Fort Hunt's principal also said the school didn't have enough staff to chaperone the students during a walkout. So Edwards signed Havana out of school so she could participate.
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The day of the walkout, Edwards tweeted about Havana's solo protest. She included a photo of the then-7-year-old outside by her lonesome wearing an astronaut suit, an orange one in honor of gun violence awareness. "I am all alone at my school, but I know I am not alone," the tweet reads.
The tweet took off from there, gaining attention in national outlets. According to Edwards, the viral tweet opened up a door to a network of other young activists. Among them was Naomi, the preteen who inspired Havana at the March for Our Lives.
"She was able to connect with so many amazing other students who were also passionate about gun laws," Edwards said. "It changed her life. It changed the way she saw her ability to make change."
Indeed it did. The attention led to amazing opportunities for Havana, including the chance to speak — in her orange astronaut suit — at a D.C. rally on National Die-In Day in June 2018.
A few months later, in October 2018, Havana was photographed with other activists in TIME magazine's Guns In America issue.
Her newfound notoriety also presented her with a bigger platform to speak out about other issues she cares deeply about. Havana, who's always been a globe-trotter as the daughter of a writer and a U.S. diplomat, has visited a dozen countries and encountered many people with varying socioeconomic backgrounds. She found girls across the globe are in need of a better education. And it starts with reading.
When that tweet from her walkout went viral, Havana's GoFundMe raising money for her church choir's book club (the link to which was in her Twitter bio) climbed from $800 to more than $6,000 in 24 hours. The book club, called Rhymers Are Readers, has a specific mission: to read more stories featuring strong black characters.
The fundraising didn't stop there. Havana teamed with Florida high schooler and fellow activist Taylor Richardson to raise $20,000 to buy books, toiletries, clothing and other supplies for girls at the St. Bakhita Orphanage in Ghana. And Havana is planning a return trip to Ghana this March.
"I wanted to help them (because) I want to them to grow up and reach their goals and dreams like I want to," Havana told TODAY.
Their efforts even got the attention of Misty Copeland, the professional ballerina who became American Ballet Theatre's first black female principal dancer.
"Parenting Havana since she could talk and walk, she has always been the person to look out for others," Edwards told TODAY. "Because of our travels, she saw so much inequality, especially in girls who looked like her. So part of this feels like, of course this was going to happen, this was destined to happen, because she has never felt it was someone else’s job to make that difference."
Ask Havana what's she learned about this whirlwind of an experience, and she'll tell you what she proved from the start: "Even if you’re tiny, your voice is not. The world leaders need to listen to the little girls trying to make change."