November 2, 2021

Featured: Anika Manzoor, Youth Activism Project

The key to Sugar Free Kids Maryland’s success since it’s 2014 inception has been the fact that it has always worked as a true coalition. Organizations such as Horizon Foundation, NAACP, American Heart Association, MedChi and so many other key partners have had distinct roles in helping Sugar Free Kids pass policies around the state that make healthy choices easier for Maryland children and their families.

One of these key contributions has come from the Youth Activism Project (YAP), a local organization that has amplified the voice of Maryland’s youth, specifically middle school and high school students, to Sugar Free Kids Maryland campaigns. Members of YAP provided advocacy and testimony that helped pass healthy vending laws in both Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.

YAP is led by its Executive Director and Co-Founder Anika Manzoor, who helped build the now 300+-member organization from the ground up, when she was just 12 years old. The Newport Mill Middle School student joined Wendy Lesko in building YAP into what it is today.

Inspired by instances of child-led advocacy in the late 80s and 90’s, Lesko founded YAP in 2004 as a way to not just teach local youth about advocacy but to help them become part of it. Manzoor was in the right place in the right time. The Kensington native immediately helped Lesko build and grow YAP through her time at Newport Mill and her teen years at Blair High School in Silver Spring.

“Wendy ended our first session with a call to action, making me feel empowered,” said Manzoor. “It was great that an adult spoke to a young person in that way. That really made a big difference. That call to action led me to my experiences engaging in policy advocacy as an adolescent, which is still the most transformative of my life.”

By the time she enrolled to Grinnell College in Iowa, Manzoor understood how important this was and that young people are more than capable of leading and organizing successful advocacy campaigns.

At Grinnell, she majored in Gender Studies and minored in Global Development Studies, which was instrumental in helping her understand social justice issues. Manzoor went to Grad School at Harvard and spent time overseas mentoring young people as a Fulbright Grantee in Malaysia and a nonprofit professional in Nicaragua. All the while, she always knew she wanted to be involved in youth advocacy. She remained on the YAP Board from 2005-15 and kept close contact with Lesko.

In 2016, Manzoor approached Lesko to begin strategizing how to transform YAP from a volunteer non-profit to staff-based to scale their impact. In 2018, Anika became YAP’s first paid employee as executive director and Lesko handed the reigns to Manzoor completely in 2020.

In 2018, Lesko and Manzoor worked with a team of students from Kennedy High School on the Montgomery County Healthy Vending Bill. Afterward, that group continued to do work on sugary drink consumption reduction. They utilized data to convince administration to implement four water infiltration systems throughout the school.

“It is important for us to team with groups like Sugar Free Kids because they have so much experience with the advocacy process and reaching out to civic leaders,” said Manzoor. “Being exposed to hardcore advocacy approaches is really beneficial to our members. We are learning a lot by seeing advocacy from a level that we’re at right now. That’s been meaningful for me. Working with groups like NAACP, a group, that has such grassroots clout, makes me really excited.”

“The Youth Activism Project has been integral to the success of Sugar Free Kids Maryland because legislators, parents and the general public need to hear what our youth have to say on issues that pertain specifically to them,” said Sugar Free Kids Maryland executive director Shawn McIntosh. “Anika and Wendy have been able to help young people find their voice. They offer a point of view that adults can’t duplicate. It has helped our coalition pass important policies throughout the state!”

“The mission alignment we have with Sugar Free Kids is very important to us,” said Manzoor. “Reducing sugary beverage consumption from a public health standpoint is such a critical way to improve health outcomes for students. Being in partnerships with AHA and NAACP is terrific for us. Our goal is to be a connective tissue between young people and important issues. The work that we’ve been doing with SFK has helped us understand how to develop that model.”

As Sugar Free Kids Maryland looks into 2022 and beyond, it knows it can only continue to thrive with significant contributions from organizations like the Youth Activism Project. Thanks to leaders like Anika Manzoor, YAP is uniquely qualified to do just that.