The youngest keynote speaker at the Washington Area Women’s Foundation’s annual luncheon was also one of its most famous — even if her appearance had changed a bit.
Naomi Wadler, an outspoken 12-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia, whose riveting speech during a March rally on the National Mall for gun control in the wake of the Parkland school massacre made her a national figure, took the stage at the Oct. 30 luncheon, urging voters to hit the polls as the November midterm elections loomed.
“When you are an activist at 12 and it is one week before the most important election of certainly my lifetime, if not all of yours, well, it’s frustrating,” Naomi said. “So I thought my shaved orange hair might motivate all of you [to vote].”
Indeed, Naomi had cut her signature black curly tresses and dyed her remaining hair orange.
“As you may have noticed, I look a little different today than I did when I stood on the march on the mall — it’s true, I’ve gained four inches!” she quipped to uproarious laughter.
Motivating others is something at which Naomi has become quite adept. A few weeks after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, she and a classmate led an 18-minute walkout from their Virginia school in memory of the 17 Parkland victims and in protest of gun violence.
Naomi’s protest ultimately led to her opportunity to speak on the mall during the March for Our Lives demonstration on March 24. She has since evolved into a voice for women’s and minority rights, appearing on the cover of New York magazine with Barbra Streisand as well as “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” and was chosen as one of Glamour magazine’s women of the year.
Founded in 1997 with the goal of advancing women’s issues in the District, both the foundation and its annual luncheon have seen a tremendous amount of growth in the years following. The first luncheon held in 1998 had 139 attendees and raised about $5,000. This year’s luncheon on Oct. 30 had over 1,100 guests and raised more than $872,000.
“For 20 years, we’ve invested in and worked alongside our community to support women and girls,” said WAWF President and CEO Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat. “When I reflect on our 20-year history, two themes come to mind: leadership and community.”
In the two decades since its founding, the foundation’s efforts have taken on a variety of forms. One of its most notable programs is the Young Women’s Initiative launched in 2017 with the goal of increasing opportuniities for young women, girls, transgender women and gender nonconforming youth of color between the ages of 12 and 24.
“There are many women and girls who are afforded open doors and bright futures based on their race, socioeconomic status and other privileges,” Lockwood-Shabat said. “But for our region’s women and girls of color, a complex set of obstacles obscures access to those doorways.”
However, with the help of the Washington Area’s Women Foundation and young advocates such as Naomi, the future for the District’s women seems bright.
“With respect for ourselves and for each other, we can show the world the force of our Black girl power — our magic to make great societal change,” Naomi said.