Victoria Pannell sat quietly on a bench as an audience gathered for a student event on gentrification in Harlem, her black heels tightly pressed together. Her gray dress stood out among her classmates, who were still wearing their uniforms of blue shirts and gray slacks. Her lips moved silently as she read over the questions she would present to the panel she was moderating.
But music was blaring, so she swayed and sang along to Mariah Carey’s “Shake it Off.” When her friends asked her to join them in another round of Uno, she smiled and reached for playing cards. She’s 17, a senior about to graduate from Democracy Prep Charter High School in Harlem.
But Miss Pannell is also a member of Community Board 10, which oversees Central Harlem, where she has chaired the Youth Task Force subcommittee since it was founded more than a year ago.
“They needed some young energy,” Miss Pannell said of the board.
One of her most recent accomplishments was to obtain 250 tickets for a free showing of the movie “Hidden Figures” for the community.
As waves of social activism roil the country, and many teenagers are organizing to make their voices heard, Miss Pannell is an experienced hand, setting a tireless pace in Harlem and encouraging other young people to get involved.
As early as 6, she had volunteered with her mother, Mary Pannell, to help with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. When she was 12, she began publicly speaking about growing up without a father.
Last year, she made the Crain’s New York Business list of “20 Under 20,” among other young trailblazers such as the Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez. She also serves on the board of directors for the Black Youth Network, which encourages young African-Americans to contribute to their communities, and works with her mother to raise awareness of child trafficking.
She manages it all while maintaining her high grades at a rigorous high school. That, coupled with her commitment to community service and social justice, earned her Duke University’s Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholarship, which will cover all costs.
Even as she faced finals and prepared to resign from the community board to head off to North Carolina, she agreed to moderate the May 24 panel on gentrification, called Harlem Shaking. The panel was the culmination of a yearlong school project by a friend, Yabundu Conteh, 18, who said that watching Miss Pannell had inspired her to get involved with the community.
The event, held in the Democracy Prep courtyard, attracted about 50 people, most of them her fellow students. Miss Pannell said it was important to her friend, as well as to the community, which Miss Pannell thinks needs to talk about gentrification’s effect on Harlem.
“I realized at a young age that the only way to make real change was, one, to mobilize people, but also to go for legislation and politics,” said Miss Pannell.
Troy Gethers, who has been on Community Board 10 for more than a decade, said Miss Pannell took on leadership roles at age 16 that some adults would avoid.
“She has all doors opened, and most of them she opened herself,” Mr. Gethers said.
She is not shy about speaking up. At the Harlem Shaking event, she asked the panelists what the Harlem community can do about gentrification. But once each one had a turn, she jumped in, offering her opinion that financial literacy and mobilizing can help counter gentrification.
“I couldn’t help it,” she said later with a laugh.
Dan Clark, a member of Community Board 10, described Miss Pannell as a “rising star.” Mr. Clark said that when board members found out she had been accepted to Duke University, the only school she had applied to, it felt as if their own daughter had been accepted.
“And in a strange way, it was,” he said.
Mary Pannell said her daughter is simply following a passion to help those around her. “I just see her using her voice,” she said.
Mary Pannell, who helps her daughter manage her busy calendar, has had to turn down events recently. Victoria Pannell is not paid, and Mary Pannell said people have tried to take advantage of that.
“It was getting to be too much,” her mother said, leading to too many late nights of homework. Victoria Pannell said she averages six hours of sleep a night, but sometimes gets as little as four.
Despite her active schedule, Victoria Pannell said she is not always taken seriously because of her age.
“A lot of people don’t listen to me because they think I don’t know what I’m talking about,” she said. To prove them wrong, she spends time researching topics she’s interested in, which gives her confidence to speak up and defend her beliefs.
Miss Pannell’s activism extends to Twitter, where she has about 3,000 followers, and other social media sites. She is so outspoken that she said she was blocked on Twitter by President Trump, as was her mother. Online, Miss Pannell refers to President Trump as “#45,” retweeting some of his messages with comments of her own.
“I have said this before but here it is again,” she wrote in a tweet on May 18. “Every time #45 says ‘very, very, very’ you know he is lying and trying to believe his own lie.”
At Duke, she plans to study political science to become an investigative broadcast journalist, then transition to politics. That, however, is just a path to her goal.
“We need a woman in the White House,” she said. “I can be that woman. So that’s the goal.” She is aiming for the 2036 election, when she will be 37, two years above the age eligibility for president.
But first she’ll have to graduate from high school.
When the event in the courtyard of her school ended, she took off her heels and got ready to leave.
She was heading home. She had homework to do.