Victoria Pannell (Photo illustration by Elena Scotti; Image courtesy of Victoria Pannell)

Victoria Pannell has been fighting against child sex trafficking since she was 12 years old. Then, she portrayed “Monica,” a 13-year-old who had been sold into sex slavery by her father, in a public service announcement. That was the moment she realized she needed to speak out.

“I knew that when the director said, ‘That’s a wrap,’ for me, that was the beginning of my action,” she said in August at a TEDx youth talk in San Diego. “I couldn’t believe that there were children being sold for sex and labor.”

CATEGORY: Social Justice/Activism
AGE: 17
HOMETOWN: Harlem
EDUCATION: Democracy Prep Charter School

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Soon after the PSA, Victoria, who is now 17, started a petition with her mother to get the Village Voice to discontinue printing ads in its newspaper from Backpage, where many young girls are advertised for sex and labor. More than 41,000 people signed the petition, and eventually the Village Voice ended its relationship with the ad service. In 2013, she helped the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation put pressure on Mountain Dew to drop Lil Wayne from its advertising campaign after he made a derogatory reference to Emmett Till.

Victoria has also been politically and socially active within her community. In March, the New York branch of the NAACP awarded her with the Phenomenal Woman Award. Victoria, who once led a youth initiative for the National Action Network, also helped people get registered to vote over the summer. Most recently, she was appointed to New York City’s Community Board 1, where she is the youngest member. She can’t vote in local or national elections, but she votes on whether businesses can receive liquor licenses and can demand that new businesses are accessible for people with disabilities. Victoria said she hopes more young people step up in their communities so that this generation’s voice can be heard.

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“People in charge of our lives will not know what we need if they don’t bring us to the table and have open dialogues with us,” she told The Root. “Young people should have a say in what goes on in the community because we are members of the communities. We need to see more young faces in positions of power.”