Not many 14-year-olds have given speeches across the country for national audiences. Not many teens have had conversations with prominent leaders like Former President Barack Obama and Reverend Al Sharpton. Or created a company that inspires young people to dream big. Or taught business and public speaking to adult learners.
Then again, not many 14-year-olds have the incredible gifts that Elijah Coles-Brown has. For the past several years, Elijah has become known as a talented motivational speaker and has traveled the country speaking in front of national audiences while also attending school – he’s a freshman at J.R. Tucker High School this year – and running his organization, Dreamers Imagine.
The Making of an Orator
Elijah first began giving speeches when he was in second grade at Twin Hickory Elementary School, and his teacher required the students to deliver weekly presentations. “That’s how I got comfortable speaking in front of crowds,” Elijah says.
The teachers and administrators recognized Elijah’s oratorical gifts quickly. “I remember Elijah just having a really big personality and big curiosity,” says Michael Dussault, principal of Twin Hickory. “He was always an unbelievable speaker. He had that gift for grabbing people’s attention.” Dussault says it was clear early on that Elijah was a natural leader. Elijah’s abilities to lead and inspire make him seem much older than his years. “He is like a 50-year-old in a teenager’s body,” says Dussault.
Newport News Councilwoman Sharon Scott agrees. A longtime family friend, Scott has watched him develop from a toddler into a teenager. “I look forward to seeing the kind of man he is, because he has already far exceeded any expectations of a normal teenager,” says Scott. “When he gets older, he will really be a force to be reckoned with.”
Around the time that Elijah began giving speeches at school, representatives from Elijah’s church, 31st Street Baptist Church, asked if he wanted to deliver Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic I Have a Dream speech. “That was my first speech to a larger crowd,” says Elijah. “It solidified my comfort with public speaking, and after that, different churches and organizations asked me to speak.”
The pastor of 31st Street Baptist at that time, Dr. Morris Henderson, says he saw Elijah as a child prodigy. “Elijah is keenly astute,” says Henderson. “He asks probing, and sometimes provocative, questions, and he has a keen knowledge of history.” As Henderson explains, Elijah’s understanding of history provides him with an important perspective and enables him to deliver compelling performances.
Soon after his speech at 31st Street Baptist Church, Elijah began performing the I Have a Dream speech at different area churches. Speaking in a church environment came naturally to Elijah, who has several uncles who are preachers in Richmond and in Roanoke.
In 2013, he participated in the national Frederick Douglass Oratorical Contest and was awarded third place, and in 2015, he won first place in the competition at the junior high level. During that time, he alternated between performing Douglass and King’s speeches. “I even had to do Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches back to back in multiple locations,” says Elijah.
His audience grew in 2015, when Elijah, who considers engineering as a potential career path, was participating in a workshop at the National Society of Black Engineers in California. Although he had not planned to speak there, he offered to present part of King’s speech during a workshop, and then afterward, the instructor asked him to perform it in front of all attendees at the convention.
A Speechwriter is Born
Elijah has achieved success with performing these speeches because he doesn’t just memorize the words. He researches the speeches thoroughly so that he understands what every word means. “The point of being able to deliver the speech is to try to channel the power that was used when it was first delivered, and to be able to show that these words are still relevant today,” Elijah says.
Becoming intimately familiar with the speeches written by remarkable leaders like King has helped Elijah grow as a speechwriter. “Learning other speeches has helped me develop clear messages,” says Elijah. “It has helped me learn how to interact with the crowd as well.” While many of his speeches are targeted toward youth, he enjoys talking to people of all ages and demographics. “One of my favorite things as a speaker is seeing the reactions from different people, youth and adults alike, and having them be inspired by some of my messages.”
Elijah’s ability to engage audiences has opened up innumerable opportunities. Though he has just started high school, he has taught and assisted professors with public speaking courses – including a senior-level persuasion class at Old Dominion University – and he has taught business classes at Bryant and Stratton College.
Elijah has spoken to audiences from a variety of backgrounds in a variety of venues, but a notable highlight is speaking via Skype from a watch party to participants at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. The next year, Elijah called into Reverend Al Sharpton’s radio show and offered his services speaking to youth. As a result, he spoke at Sharpton’s National Action Network Convention in New York in 2017, and again in 2018. Elijah describes the civil rights activist as one of his mentors. “He has nurtured my gift as a speaker and allowed me to share that gift with thousands of people,” Elijah says. “It’s such a blessing that I have Reverend Al in my corner.”
Even though Elijah has developed relationships with prominent national leaders, he has not lost sight of his origins. “I feel like a lot of my experience and growth as a speaker has come from my smaller local events,” he says. “Without the churches asking me to do the I Have a Dream Speech, I wouldn’t have been able to speak at the DNC. Without organizations here in Richmond asking me to speak, I wouldn’t have been able to speak at the National Action Network in New York.”
And although speaking has brought him the opportunity to meet inspiring people, like news commentator and author Van Jones and civil rights activist and politician Reverend Jesse Jackson, it has also brought about challenges. For starters, it takes an incredible amount of time to develop a speech. “When he’s called to do a speech,” his mother Brenda Coles says, “he has to do research and write a draft.” She then reviews the draft and guides him on changes. “He probably puts more work into his writing than people much older who make millions of dollars,” Brenda says.
Speaking in public has also brought Elijah some negative attention. “Being able to speak without getting nervous is a gift from God, but it also comes with a price,” the teen says, explaining that he has been bullied at school and on social media. Shrugging it off, he finds it laughable that people have the time – and the heart – to insult a 14-year-old who is trying to share an inspirational message. He uses these experiences to speak out for those who are voiceless. “I have been through challenges, and if other people feel like they can’t speak out, I can speak out for them,” Elijah says. “Those challenges have not stopped me from being a speaker; those challenges have fueled my continuing fight for justice.”
A Drive to Take Action
Elijah considers himself an activist, and he comes by that role naturally. His mother has been a civil rights activist all her life, and she serves as president of the Richmond chapter of Sharpton’s National Action Network. Elijah has been raised with a keen understanding of the history of the Civil Rights movement, as well as current events. “I’ve always paid attention to the news and been aware of what
is going on in our world,” says Elijah. “My mom’s a news buff, so even from the age of six or seven, I watched the news a lot.”
Shannon Taylor, Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney, agrees that Elijah’s relationship with his mother has profoundly impacted him. “He and Brenda have a special relationship,” Taylor says. “To see how supportive she is as a mother and how she wants the best for him is truly amazing.” According to Taylor, that relationship has enabled Elijah to develop a true commitment to what he believes in and advocate for those without a voice. Taylor has seen that firsthand in the work Elijah has done to try to prevent bullying at school. “He is such an awesome young man,” she says. “I want to support him in everything he does.”
Elijah used his skills as a speaker and activist to support Taylor in her campaign to become Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney, and he also helped Councilwoman Scott when she campaigned. “He was like a little mascot for my campaign,” says Scott. “He just loves to hype everyone up.” In addition to campaigning for Scott, Elijah has helped her with holiday food drives and other community events, pitching in wherever needed. “He’s the type of person who goes where he thinks he can make a difference,” says Scott.
Get Out the Vote
These days, Elijah is committed to voter registration. Some readers might wonder why a 14-year-old who won’t vote for four years would even take on such an issue. “I do get asked that question a good bit,” says Elijah. “I might not be able to vote, but I understand that voting determines whether or not the education system will work for everyone, whether or not you will have fair housing opportunities, whether or not you will get medical care, whether or not you will get a fair criminal justice system, and whether or not you will have employment opportunities,” Elijah says. “It is all about the issues that affect my mother, my family, my friends, myself, other young people, and the lives of people in the nation and around the globe.”
Elijah helps underprivileged youth in the community through Dreamers Imagine, a multi-faceted organization he founded in 2014 to give back to the community. At the start of the school year, Dreamers Imagine, along with the Richmond Chapter of National Action Network, Sharon Baptist Church, and the Carol Adams Foundation, conducted a school supplies drive with local churches and organizations. The campaign culminated in a neighborhood event where they delivered the school supplies and brought in non-profit organizations to address the community’s needs. “We’re providing long-term assistance to families who haven’t yet been able to find that help,” says Elijah.
Another facet of Elijah’s organization is Dreamers Imagine Productions, which develops stage plays based on historical figures and events. The company has a stage team – including a director, writer, and producer – and the cast members perform the plays at local venues. Last February, for instance, Dreamers Imagine Productions staged Freedom Day, about Frederick Douglass, at 31st Street Baptist Church. “These plays can be hard to watch, but they’re important to watch,” Elijah says. “They show everyone, no matter their age, what has happened in our past and how we can improve on what happens in the future.” Elijah, who played the role of Frederick Douglass in the production, says he thinks of himself as more of an educator than an actor. “I’m an actor who is trying to educate and show the community our history,” he says.
Both Elijah and his mother credit God for his gifts. “It’s such a blessing that God chose me to be able to speak out and be a voice for the voiceless and be able to encourage youth,” Elijah says. Pastor Henderson describes Elijah as a spiritual person who has a deep sense of morality. “Elijah gives people a chance to see another way of living that is right, good, and moral,” Henderson says.
Elijah’s mother, who has raised him on her own, also deserves credit for his success, and Elijah readily acknowledges that. “I know I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for God, and not just God,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my mom because she’s the person who has carried me through it all, even when times seem hard.”
Brenda Coles, who taught parenting classes in Roanoke and Newport News, is often asked what she has done to raise such an incredible teen. She responds by saying, “All children have a gift.” Brenda recognized her son’s gifts from a young age, particularly when he began reading at age three. “He had only paper and books,” says Coles. “I remember when he got his first toy at age five, he looked at it, put it down, and picked up his books and paper.”
While Elijah has been described as a child prodigy, to his mother, he is still a normal teenager. “I have the same issues as any other parent,” she says. “I’m proud of him, and he is a prodigy, but let me be clear – Elijah is a teenager.” Although it’s hard to believe, she claims “he is just as lazy as any other teenager.” Just like any parent, she has to provide consistent rules and stay on top of his work. “If he doesn’t prep for speeches like he’s supposed to,” she says, “I take his phone. I know what will affect him the most.”
When talking about Elijah, Henderson quotes the scriptural passage, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Elijah has remarkable gifts and talents, including his speaking ability, leadership skills, and desire to advocate on behalf of those who need help. “When you know you’re exceptional, you want to better the world,” says Henderson. “Elijah truly wants to make the world a better place.”