Next Generation Leaders

Ten pioneers are daring to cross boundaries, forge new paths, take their crafts to unexpected places and also improve the world. These are the creators, storytellers and advocates whose work will influence others in generations to come. Their lives reflect the promise of tomorrow.

Above Image | Cedric Arnold for TIME
Apichet "Madaew" Atilattana, Olivier Nsengimana, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Héloïse Letissier, Rubén "El Rubius" Doblas Gundersen, Lotfullah Najafizada, Molly Crabapple, Feng Zhang, Joey Alexander and Janne Saario




If great art can come from the most unlikely places, then so too can great fashion—as the rise of Apichet Atilattana proves.

The 17-year-old, who goes by the pseudonym Madaew, grew up in Thailand's impoverished northeastern region of Isaan, the country's rice-growing heartland. He knew as a young child that he identified as a kathoey, a transgender female sometimes referred to as a "third sex" in Thailand (he prefers to use a male pronoun). His parents never tried to change who he was, he says, letting him dress up Barbie dolls without feeling ashamed. Soon he was making his own dresses, mixing fabrics with everyday objects like chicken wire and dyed cabbage leaves found near his family's market stall. "I wanted people to see that ugly things that don't seem to go together can become something beautiful," he says.

Madaew's breakthrough came when he crafted a long dress from traditional cloth borrowed from his grandmother, photographing it trailing over a bleak freeway footbridge. The image, merging old-country culture, youthful glamour and urban decay, went viral and brought him fame—he even appeared as a guest designer on Asia's Next Top Model.

Thai artist Kongpat "Ong" Sakdapitak—also from Isaan—spotted Madaew's work and asked if he wanted to collaborate on a clothing range. The KOxMA line, launched in September, features rice-sack gowns, overcoats imprinted with banana leaves and shirts emblazoned with iconic board games. It's practical high-street fashion with an Isaan bent.

Madaew has just been awarded a scholarship to study fashion at Bangkok University, and has eyes on the couture houses of Paris or New York City. He owes it all, he says, to his parents. "Parents are really important for kathoey kids," he says. "Their support gives us the courage to be successful." —CHARLIE CAMPBELL




Saving the gray crowned crane from extinction isn't just about preserving an iconic symbol of wealth and longevity in Rwandan culture, says Olivier Nsengimana. It's also about saving us. "Having the cranes disappear means there is something wrong, a balance that has not been maintained," says the wildlife veterinarian. "Conservation is about saving humans as well."

Once plentiful, there are now fewer than 500 of Rwanda's only crane species left in the wild. It is the bird's very symbolism that has led to its downfall. The delicate, meter-tall birds are poached from the wild to become living lawn ornaments for the nation's wealthy, but they won't breed in captivity, and many die.

Nsengimana, 32, originally worked in gorilla conservation but grew disturbed by accounts of the cranes' decline. "I thought, rather than work with gorillas, who already had help, if I could use my efforts to work on the cranes, I could make a huge difference."

Over the past two years Nsengimana has launched a nationwide awareness program to educate Rwandans about the birds. He has set up a crane registry and worked with the government to establish an amnesty program to return any illegally kept birds to his newly founded rehabilitation center, backed by a $7,000 fine for noncompliance. So far, 98 birds have been returned to the wild.

The country's national parks are a source of pride for Rwandans, and Nsengimana is making sure they are restored with birds that symbolize natural wealth as well as environmental longevity. "If we protect animals in their habitats, we are protecting ourselves," he says. "If we fail, we are endangering our children." —Aryn Baker


Xiuhtezcatl Martinez


On an unseasonably warm afternoon this fall, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez addressed his supporters on the battle ahead. He and his co-plaintiffs are suing the federal government over inaction on climate change that they say threatens their right to life and liberty. "This is the moment," he told activists gathered outside a Eugene, Ore., courtroom, "where we decide what kind of legacy we are going to leave behind for future generations."

Many might consider Martinez himself to be among those future generations—after all, he is only 16. And yet the lawsuit is just the latest front in his decade-long war on behalf of the environment. Inspired at age 6 by Leonardo DiCaprio's climate-change documentary The 11th Hour, he has devoted much of his young life to the earth's well-being. At home in Boulder, Colo., he helped lead successful efforts to charge a fee on plastic bags and end the use of pesticides in public parks. He is pushing for restrictions on fracking near homes, schools and hospitals, in the hope of one day achieving a statewide ban. "Straight-out asking for a ban on fracking is not plausible," he says, adding that the question activists should be asking is, "How can we implement real solutions?"

His biggest fight yet, the lawsuit against the government, has only just begun. Although a judge hearing the case hinted in a September hearing that she was planning to rule in his favor, the legal wrangling could last for years. Martinez, at least, has time. The planet might not. —JUSTIN WORLAND



A different kind of voice

It can be hard to know where Héloïse Letissier ends and her onstage persona, Christine and the Queens, begins. She's happy to clarify. "It's really the same thing," she says. "Christine is just me, Héloïse, without the boundaries."

The Nantes-born singer, 28, belongs to a new genre of musicians who eschew the explicit femininity often associated with pop music and instead embrace fluid notions of gender through performance, lyrics and attire; Letissier's go-to outfit is an androgynous two-piece tailored suit. Her catchy synth-pop debut album, Chaleur Humaine (Human Warmth), went seven times platinum in France and is just now getting her serious attention across the pond. In October, she began her first, much anticipated U.S. headline tour, accompanied by male dancers, her "Queens."

It's a lot of attention for someone who says she was a loner as a child. She remembers unsuccessfully trying to fit in with her peers, finding solace in her sense of humor and love of words. "Because I was always writing, people would ask me to help them write love letters, like Cyrano de Bergerac." Often she felt uncomfortable in her own skin. "I was never sure of how to be a man or a woman—even wearing dresses felt parodic."

So instead, at age 22, she began identifying as the persona of Christine, who is neither man nor woman. "Because I felt that being a woman was an obstacle, I wanted to become gender-neutral. It became my way of tricking the system."

Through her powerful LGBT anthems and proud pansexual identity, Letissier has become an inspiration to others who feel they too don't fit in with cultural and social norms. "It's a beautiful thing when people tell me they relate to Christine and it makes them feel stronger," she says.

It might sound strange to anyone who has watched Letissier's wild, unself-conscious performances, but she still considers herself an introvert. She dreads greeting fans and posing for selfies. "Christine is my superhero costume, and when people see Héloïse it's like meeting Peter Parker," she says. Even so, Letissier is positive about others of her generation and what they have to give. "I believe in the energy, the fire of young people," she says. "We need them to take over the world." —Kate Samuelson


El Rubius


Rubén Doblas Gundersen may be one of the most famous people you've never heard of. The man known to his fans as El Rubius is a Spanish-speaking superstar of YouTube whose 20.9 million subscribers outnumber those of Beyoncé's and Lady Gaga's channels combined. The 26-year-old is one of a wave of celebrity YouTubers known for their colorful vlogs and is now the site's eighth most popular user.

Doblas Gundersen began uploading footage of himself to YouTube joking and playing video games at age 16, soon after the site launched. After one gameplay got 600,000 hits in a week, his fan base rocketed not just in Spain, but also across Latin America. By age 21, YouTubing was his career, and his life. But he didn't understand the global extent of his fame until he visited Argentina in 2014. "Three thousand people were waiting at the airport. We hadn't organized security—everyone was screaming and grabbing at me." (You can see the footage on, well, YouTube.)

Aware of his popularity among mainly teenage boys, Doblas Gundersen has vowed never to drink or smoke in the vlogs he uploads every three or four days, and he is wary of the pitfalls of social media. He doesn't think the most popular platforms do enough to prevent bullying and has joined other YouTube stars in urging the company to tackle trolling. Yet he still sees himself as a regular Internet user, just like his avid viewership. "If I am a leader, then I'm the leader of the weirdos," he says. "My videos say it's O.K. to be different. I think they make people feel less alone." —K.S.



Reporting under threat

Lotfullah Najafizada, head of TOLOnews, Afghanistan's largest 24-hour news channel, often sleeps in the station's compound in the Afghan capital of Kabul. "I don't want to take the risks I face to my home," says the 28-year-old. "It's not just about my safety. It's also my family's safety."

A decade and a half after a U.S.-led invasion displaced the Taliban from Kabul, ensuring safety for himself and his 100-plus staff has become an increasingly critical concern for Najafizada, who started out in journalism in 2006 with a small newspaper in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. "I was still a student," he recalls. "We all felt we had to do something to make things better for our families, our society." Soon he got a job in online news at the Kabul-based media group MOBY. In 2010, producers decided to launch Afghanistan's first 24-hour news channel, TOLOnews, "and it was decided that I was the person who should run it," he says.

It has not been easy. As Afghanistan struggles to maintain security following the departure of most foreign troops from the country at the end of 2014, civilian casualties have climbed to record highs, and TOLOnews has been targeted by the Taliban's brutal military wing, in particular for its reporting on alleged rapes by insurgents. In January, a Taliban suicide bombing killed seven employees. The future of the network was in doubt.

Led by Najafizada, TOLOnews decided to stay on the air. "It was a unanimous decision. We said we are going to remain objective, we're going to remain critical. The concerns are always there, but our resolve is stronger." —Nikhil Kumar


Molly Crabapple


In a media landscape of tweets, Snaps and Facebook Lives, Molly Crabapple uses pen and ink—and markers and paint and sketchbooks. That's because Crabapple, 33, is an artist-journalist, sketching from the front lines of conflicts in the U.S. and around the world for publications like Vice, Vanity Fair and the New York Times.

Crabapple first realized the journalistic utility of her sketchbook when she reported for Vice from Guantánamo Bay in 2013. Photographs are heavily censored there, but the guards didn't pay much attention to drawings. "This sketchbook is like a lock pick," she says. "You can expose so many things that can't be exposed otherwise."

Since then, she's sketched her way through the U.S. prison system, across the Syrian border and in Turkey as well as in refugee camps in northern Iraq and Lebanon. When guards wouldn't let her bring a pen into the Rikers Island jail in New York City, she drew with the tip of her fingernail. She documented her own journey, from a goth girl growing up on Long Island to reporting from Syria and Iraq, in her book Drawing Blood last year. For her next project, Crabapple is collaborating with Marwan Hisham, a young Syrian man trapped in ISIS-controlled territory.

If art can give journalism immediacy, Crabapple says, then journalism can give art relevance. "Journalism rips art right out of that ivory tower and brings it back into the mud and the blood and the streets of the world," she says, noting that great artists from Goya to Picasso helped document the events of their times. Her work is a perfect slow-media commentary on our current fast-media climate. At a time when there may be more photos taken each year than in the entire prior history of film photography, drawing offers a different way to reach people, she says. "It's saying, 'I cared, I did this, and you should care too.'" —CHARLOTTE ALTER



Genome pioneer

Big science doesn't always happen with a eureka! revelation. As Feng Zhang, 34, will tell you, the most life-altering technologies often have the least remarkable provenance.

China-born Zhang, now a U.S. citizen, first heard about how certain bacteria can clip out sections of viral DNA during a run-of-the-mill lecture in 2011. The biomedical engineer had been working without success for about a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University's Broad Institute to develop a precise way to cut and paste DNA, in order to gain unprecedented control over any living thing's genome. He quickly realized that the bacteria were on to something.

He gave himself a crash course in the mechanism, known as CRISPR, and got to work on tweaking it to "edit" cells from mammals. It was a risk, since there was no guarantee that a system that works in bacteria, which are far simpler genetically than mammals, would work on animal cells. But within two years he published his milestone report on the first use of CRISPR to snip out, with unprecedented control, specific parts of DNA from both mouse and human cells. His technique helped launch a CRISPR revolution, allowing scientists to splice out everything from HIV in infected cells to genetic mutations responsible for diseases like sickle-cell anemia, schizophrenia and even cancer. The right edits to plant genomes could also create new biofuel sources and more stable crops.

It's changed everything, Zhang says—for him, and for science. "All of a sudden, having the ability to make very defined changes to DNA is having a catalyzing, accelerating effect on everything from medicine to basic biology to plant biology," he says. And it all began with a routine lecture. —Alice Park


Joey Alexander


Don't call Joey Alexander a genius. Yes, the Indonesia-born pianist is already, at 13, a Grammy-nominated jazz artist currently promoting his second album, Countdown. But the teenager says he doesn't like the labels that come with being preternaturally talented. "I really don't think I'm a genius or a prodigy," he says. "I want people to dig my music and not care about who I am."

He was born in 2003 in Denpasar, the capital of Bali, to musical parents who played him jazz as a baby. At 6, he saw an electric keyboard and thought it was a toy. "Then I found the keys, and I just felt the sound," he says. Other than a little tutoring from his piano-playing father, he largely taught himself.

Alexander's potential was obvious to anyone who listened, and plenty did in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, where he played for jazz greats like Herbie Hancock, and on YouTube, where Wynton Marsalis discovered one of his videos in 2014. Marsalis, the trumpeter and artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, invited him to play at the center's gala that year and subsequently became a mentor.

He says his discovery was "God's plan." A devout Christian, he has stayed grounded through his faith. "My music, it's a gift from God, but it's a gift I've had to learn," he says. "It takes hard work and focus."

What's next? Adulthood, for starters, and all that comes with it. "When he really experiences life—when he has his first heartbreak, say—we're going to see his music evolve," his drummer, Ulysses Owens Jr., says. "As he gets older, he'll have even more to say." —NASH JENKINS



Creating spaces for skaters

Janne Saario says his life rarely veers from skateboarding. The breezy 33-year-old Finn has turned skating into a calling. He's become one of the few landscape architects in the world with a practice focused on creating tasteful and well-designed skate parks for young people, breaking away from the brutalist stereotype of blunt concrete slopes and pyramids.

His site-specific parks, scattered around northern European cities, draw heavily from their natural surroundings. Micropolis in Helsinki is a plot more than half an acre large that uses tiny corridors of grass and trees to blend geometric obstacles with the surrounding greenery. In Lulea, Sweden, Saario turned giant ball bearings into boulders, junked-steel beams into benches and a 26.5-ton ladle into the park's centerpiece—a nod to the town's steel industry.

It wasn't money that drove him to design 35 skate parks in the span of a decade, but rather a desire to turn urban spaces into places for teenagers—especially those who don't identify with conventional sports—to express themselves. "Young people are our hope and future, and by offering beautiful and meaningful surroundings to grow, like wonderful skate parks, we can make a positive change on their picture of the world and future behavior," he says.

Saario learned to skate at age 6 on a contraption of plywood and four wheels built from office furniture. Once his parents bought him a real board, his "mind was blown," he says, by the surreal forms of a local skate park he began to frequent that was shaped like a giant footprint. He was asked to join the European pro skateboarding team of Element Skateboards and began skating in parks and cities around the globe.

It was the modernist plazas of Barcelona—known as "skateboard mecca" for their smooth surfaces and architectural details—that made Saario decide at age 18 to attend a landscape-design course in Finland. Around that time he became an apprentice for architects Sami Rintala and Marco Casagrande, who are famous for work that blends architecture and environmental art.

With their guidance and the do-it-yourself philosophy of skateboarding culture, Saario opened his studio at age 23. He is part of a new breed of designers who eschew ego and the "super-consumption" of materials like nonbiodegradable plastics in favor of recycled material and natural elements. Now a father of two, Saario says parenthood has reinforced his philosophy about giving the young spaces to be themselves: "Being a parent opens up the eyes toward thinking about the next generations." —Tara John