Marley Dias may be 15 years old, but her work ethic could rival anyone’s.

In 2015, when she was 11, all the books that her fifth-grade class read were centered on white male protagonists. “It was frustrating for me because I knew that there were so many other books out there,” said Dias, who was born in Philly and now lives in West Orange, N.J. “Of course, being an avid reader and having access through my parents in my home library,” she said, she was aware of “the experiences of girls that looked like me — Black girls and others.”

So Dias decided to start a book drive to collect 1,000 books where Black girls were the main character. She named it #1000BlackGirlBooks. Since then, she has surpassed her own goal and has collected over 12,000 books. She has also written a book of her own, Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You!

In 2018, she was listed on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. The same year, she spoke at the United State of Women Summit alongside Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

Now, Dias is part of an advertising campaign for Old Navy called “We Are We.” The campaign, which is airing digitally and on television, is designed to celebrate diversity and features five activists from across the country.

The Inquirer talked with the young activist about how her mom’s intentional parenting prepared her to take on the world, other role models for her bravery, and the power of teenagers’ opinions.

Dias said that the Old Navy campaign’s intention aligns with her work in diversity and inclusion. “Having differences and being unique is something that we should value, rather than hide,” she said.

The retail brand has drawn criticism for two racial incidents last summer, one in Philadelphia where two Old Navy employees said a store brought in white workers from other locations for a taping of Queer Eye and in Canada where an Ontario store was accused of racially profiling a shopper. Old Navy has denied any racist intent in Philadelphia and apologized to the Canadian shopper.

An Old Navy spokesperson said “We are We” is part of the brand’s ongoing “pledge for equality” and that “we know we have room to grow. We want everyone in our stores to feel welcome and respected.” Dias was not available to respond immediately to a request for comment on those situations as the new campaign launches.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Who’s been most influential in your journey to working in activism?

My mom. It has to be my mom. My mom encouraged me from such a young age to be observant and to be critical and socially aware — whether that’s me talking about me not liking my school lunches or talking about why this is a girl toy and that’s a boy toy. A lot of the time, she has really important discussions with me.

I get asked often how did I know there was a lack of diversity, but it was through my mom’s intentional parenting and really understanding that me seeing myself would increase my confidence and increase my love of reading.

Given the social unrest we’ve seen over the last few months regarding racism and police brutality, what is the importance of having younger voices being heard?

I think the younger voice is really becoming a part of the conversation for not being fearful of spreading the truth. I think that we obviously don’t know as much as other people, but we are learning every single day. We have individual experiences that are important to conversations, and we can combine that with information from adults and learn from that and create something beautiful.

If we have a mix of both adults and kids in these conversations, we can understand what research is telling us about what’s happening to girls, but also how girls feel about the ways in which they’re treated.

How would you suggest other people your age become involved in their communities?

I think that researching, reading articles, and having opinions is the first step. I think a lot of kids feel neutral toward issues. They don’t have anything they’re passionate about, they don’t think beyond the issues that affect their own lives. So it’s understanding that there are things that are happening in communities that you may not be subjected to that still hurt a lot of people.

Just understanding and becoming informed about just your small portion of the world is really important. If you start small and you start to care about the people you exist with every day, you can grow to care about larger communities.

An Old Navy advertising campaign called "We are We" is shown featuring five activists. From left, Ja’Mal Green, Sara Mora, Marley Dias (of Philadelphia), Dawn Bozeman, and Sharene Wood.
Courtesy of Marley Dias
An Old Navy advertising campaign called "We are We" is shown featuring five activists. From left, Ja’Mal Green, Sara Mora, Marley Dias (of Philadelphia), Dawn Bozeman, and Sharene Wood.
In an article you wrote for Elle magazine last week, you said, “In order for us to be the change we wish to see in the world, we must see ourselves first — in fact and in fiction.” Could you explain what you meant by “in fact and in fiction.”

When I say, “see ourselves” I mean to identify and understand our possibility. I think for a lot of people, whether you may recognize it or not, you didn’t know you could be something until you could see it. I did see people like Angela Davis. I did see people like Shirley Chisholm. I saw people that, although their missions and goals were different from mine, the core of their work was about being brave, being yourself, and affirming messages about who you are.

But when I say, “in fact,” it’s about understanding the history of people who have gone beyond and stretched the limits of what people were believed to do and be capable of. And “in fiction,” I mean essentially what I do with the work of collecting books — seeing that there are possibilities of Black girls being alien fighters from outer space, being a paleontologist that discovered the first dinosaur.

What do you think is the world’s biggest wound?

I think the world’s biggest wound, at large or maybe just one of them, is ignorance. A lot of us just don’t learn enough of what we need to know about other people. And I can say, even within myself, I’m not always cognizant of the ways in which I have privilege over other people.

By taking every day to work on changing curriculums, work on reading more articles, listening and learning from other people, and being willing to change our opinion once we have more information, all these things are super important to me and, I believe, can solve a lot of larger issues.