Creative Writing

Sit Still, Look Pretty

Sit Still, Look Pretty- Flash Fiction

By Yasmine Bolden

“Yes. Yes, yes yes,” Lillian said.

Snap, snap, snap, encouraged the camera. “Just hold it. Yes. Beautiful.” Lillian changed the camera angle, then crouched, then stood again. Shift, shift, shift.

Cate sat rooted to her seat, limbs seemingly tangled up in a wild rose bush. A stray breeze brushed against her still form. Cate’s lips pressed together as she imagined ice hands rushing over her body and freezing her blood in place. Her spine quivered.

“Gorgeous, lovely! Just be a bit stiller, dear.” The compliments sprinkled across Cate’s flushed face like a humid afternoon summer drizzle, welcoming warming praise. “Tilt your head to the left for me now. Throw your shoulders back.”

Cate obeyed. 

“And now to the right again. Further.”

Cate did. Her lower left rib throbbed. “Maybe candids? I have choreography that I like.”
Lillian peered at her from above the camera as if Cate had suggested they both run naked and willy nilly around the garden. “Why? I’m almost done, be patient.”

“Why don’t you be beautiful?” Cate pouted. She paused and then curled her knees to her chest. “I want to dance.”

Lillian marched over, arms swinging. “That’s not your job, get up.” 

Cate narrowed her eyes but did not move, still at last.
“Get. Up.” Lillian’s eyes flashed. She grabbed Cate’s arm, fingers constricting around already aching skin. Bruises burst into violent violet and rosy blooms beneath her touch.  

The garden stirred.



“Beautiful,” Cate whispered. 

Lillian screamed. The rose bush rushed forward and twisted around her like several jagged organic slanted halos, unraveling from its loose frame around Cate. 

“What do I do?” Lillian cried, her head whipping around in all directions as she stumbled back a few steps. Not a single bird fled from fright, almost as if Lillian had never shrieked at all. Lillian twisted her limbs to avoid the bush’s thorns, but elbows aren’t made to bend backwards and arms can only rotate but so far until bones and flesh protest. Her shoulder popped. Lillian ground her teeth together as the branches closed in.

Fit,” Cate advised, tilting your head. “You’re not very practiced, are you?”

A thorn bit into her shoulder. Blood beaded up around the wound but did not roll or fall or move. Back-biting branches devoured Lillian’s legs and explored her back. Their thorns anchored themselves solidly in the skin between her shoulder blades, rooting her to the spot. A thorn slashed the back of her hand, finding a thick vein and tearing in. Still, the blood did not sail or drip.

“Like watercolors,” Cate breathed, eyes like a child’s. “You’re so stunning. I see what you meant.” 

Lillian dropped her camera. Her chest heaved and she braced against the inevitable sound of crashing and death. It never came. The bush had closed a fist around the camera only a breath away from Lillian’s hand, forever out of reach. The metal crunched under the grip. 

“Help me, it hurts,” Lillian croaked. She remained perfectly still. Maybe the plants would forget she was alive this way. Maybe they’d leave her alone. Maybe-

Rose buds tickled her earlobes. Thorns followed.

“I did,” Cate said. “Do you not like it? This is what you wanted.”

Lillian snapped her free arm towards Cate, reaching for the model’s shoulder, but Cate spun away and punctuated her turns with an arabesque. Her arms slowly extended. Lillian’s mind filled in the blanks- she could almost see Cate’s waist hugged by a tutu and bedazzled with music like an ornate tidal wave.
Branches of the bush, hungry, found Lillian’s neck. She could still breathe, although for every rib she had, a branch was finding new ways to hold and handle and hurt her. Blood sat like jewels across her body. Who knew how extensive the crimson beauty was beneath the fabric of her floral dress?

The garden’s laugh rang out like ice. Lillian shivered in the little way she still could.

Cate giggled as she, Balanchinesque wild thing, bounded away. 

Arts Creative Writing


Samina Parveen is a teen spoken-word poet from India. Below is one of her poems on body shaming.

Midnight eyes mirror the truth,
Dusky brown skin echoes the bitterness
Echos reciprocate the four walls
Adjectives accustomed to the hearing eardrum
Fat, large, obese, big, thick.
eyes drenched in saline droplets
The blurry eye looked towards the hip line

Stomach growled like an acidic monster
Calming the hunger, I gasped in the smell of water
That feeling of having water on an empty stomach
Trying to suppress my hunger
For a perfect body?
Torturing myself to get that
Hourglass shape

Rage quickened my blood
Throwing away those pills, supplements
Moving away from the Scale weight
I stared at the mirror
And my body
Why do I torture it?
To look pretty?
Gazing at midnight eye I mirrored the truth
I want to beautiful, not pretty

Below you can also find her two spoken-word poems. (Both provide closed captions.)

Personal Stories

The Sound No One Hears

By Layla Rudy

The world today is an amalgam of human experiences, but the one thing every person has in common is the presence of coronavirus in their lives. How it manifests and impacts any one person’s life does differ, but the virus is everywhere.

Having hearing loss, wearing hearing aids, and relying on lip-reading to communicate and understand others, means that the way I experience the world is and will always be different from the norm. With that, the reality we now all live in– the reality of Covid-19, social distancing, and wearing masks– has shifted my already-complex relationship with social settings and interactions.

I rely on lip-reading to understand and communicate with others. If I cannot see a person’s mouth, there’s a strong likelihood that I won’t understand what they’re saying. Nearly every person walking down the street, shopping in supermarkets, and working in a store, is wearing a mask. Their mouths are covered.

The stress of this realization– that is, the realization of my new reality, our new reality in the world today– has been weighing down on me since March. I am constantly reminded of it every time I hook my mask around my ears and pull it over my chin to cover my nose and mouth.

Any time I express this to people, whether it’s my family, my friends, or even a supermarket cashier, their realization is cartoonish. Their eyes widen, and a little ‘Aha!” is practically floating above their head.

Of course, there isn’t much they can do in the next moment. No one can or should risk their health to pull down their mask to accommodate me.

Often, when I explain my dilemma, people respond with, “I saw this ad on Facebook for these clear face masks, so you could just buy those.” Every time, without fail, I explain that me buying those masks doesn’t mean that everyone else will; if I’m wearing one, it doesn’t help me. I would need everyone to wear a clear face mask, and that’s an unrealistic expectation.

As much as this is a lonely experience, the little “Aha!” moment I’ve witnessed when I relay my concerns to others has made me think.

There I was, in a supermarket or at the beach or talking to my neighbor, explaining my ongoing predicament navigating the current, Covid-19 world we live in, and people were listening. Sure, I walked away from them with the same weight on my shoulders, but I also walked away knowing that they– the supermarket cashier, my neighbor, a friend at the beach– would now look at the world a little bit differently than they had before I spoke up.

In light of the continuous influx of antisemitism (both over the course of the past few years and over the past few months), I have struggled with knowing when to speak up and when to sit down.

I am a Sephardic Syrian Jew living in North America; my family came from Syria last century and we’ve been here ever since.  I went to yeshiva and I have lived in a Sephardic Modern Orthodox Jewish community for almost my entire life. I know antisemitism, I have experienced and witnessed antisemitism. I love my Sephardic Jewish heritage, traditions and culture; my Judaism is as intrinsic to me as my hearing loss is.

When I think about the rise of antisemitism, I feel frustrated and angry, but also exhausted. The notion of the fight against antisemitism being an endless one constantly lingers in my thoughts. The only people fighting back are Jews.

Jewish people have been talking about antisemitism. We have been urging others to see what we’ve been seeing and experiencing, and stand up and say something. The silence is loud. I can name a few prominent (non-Jewish) individuals who have spoken out and recognized the imperative need for addressing and dismantling antisemitism. The fact that I can name them off the top of my head, or count them with my fingers, is hard to swallow.

When I tell people about my current dilemma with masks, I feel seen. They listen, and while they cannot walk in my shoes or feel exactly what I feel, they know a little more than they did before. Still, they cannot pull down their masks and risk their– and everyone else’s– health in order to accommodate me and my needs, but knowing they walk away with a little more empathy and understanding of how complex the world is, makes a difference.

The difference with antisemitism is that non-Jews can do more than just listen. Listening to Jewish people is the first step, but they can also pull down their masks and start speaking up, making their mouths– and therefore, their empathy– clear for Jewish people to see. By not doing so, Non-Jews are putting Jewish people at risk.

When I ask my non-Jewish friends to speak out against antisemitism, I am not asking them to spew out the history of Jewish people and antisemitism, nor am I asking them to become professional Judaism experts. It doesn’t take a lot to recognize bigotry and hatred. It doesn’t take a lot to condemn an act of antisemitism or an individual’s antisemitic beliefs. It doesn’t take an expert to recognize and call out antisemitism.

Everyone has to start somewhere. That means, they have to start by listening to Jewish people. I recognize the irony of someone with hearing loss telling people to listen, but it’s the truth.

When I explained to a friend of mine that I was having a hard time understanding people when they wear masks, it took her a second, but her mindset completely shifted. She does know me well, and she knows how to accommodate me in regular social settings, so it didn’t take her long to recognize my predicament and adjust. When another person had joined in our conversation, before I could even respond to whatever they had said, my friend jumped in and motioned for me to explain myself to the person (who then had the realization, as well).

In the past, my friend had listened. She knows my history, my ongoing journey with navigating social, educational and work spaces with hearing loss and a reliance on lip-reading. It took her a second to realize my newer difficulty in our Covid-19 setting, then she adjusted accordingly and gave me the space to inform others. She had listened in the first place, years ago when I started speaking out and explaining how my hearing loss impacts every part of my life.

Most people haven’t been listening to Jewish people in the first place, so how can we expect them to speak up now?

De-centering oneself doesn’t mean losing empathy. It means listening when people have something to say, whether it’s your friend venting about their online classes or your mother talking to you about balancing work and health. It doesn’t mean stepping out of your shoes, because if you’re not Jewish, you don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish; if you’re not hard of hearing, you don’t know what it’s like to live with hearing loss.

Listening is a gateway to empathy. It is a necessary tool to use when interacting with others; it doesn’t mean I can’t tell my friend about my annoyance with my online classes, and it doesn’t mean that my non-Jewish friends can’t express their own fears in relation to antisemitism.

When I tell people about my struggle with others wearing masks, I am not offended by them saying, “oh, I also have a hard time understanding people wearing masks.” When people mention the advertisements for the clear face masks, I don’t roll my eyes or shut them down. Why should I? It shows they’re engaged with my experiences; they see I’m struggling with something and they’re trying to empathize.

It’s so easy to flip that narrative. I could say they’re attempting to belittle my struggle by saying they’re also having a hard time understanding people when they speak; I could roll my eyes at the suggestion for clear face masks as a one-and-done solution to my problem. I don’t. I recognize them trying to bridge a gap and make a connection, empathizing with something that doesn’t directly impact them. It means a lot to me, even if there isn’t much anyone can do except wear masks and follow the rules so we can eventually get out of this difficult situation.

Much like my circumstances, there is no one-and-done solution for antisemitism. People listen to me when I explain my experiences with hearing loss, and not just within the context of the coronavirus pandemic. People are capable of listening, of de-centering themselves while still remaining empathetic. I know it because I’ve witnessed it.

Antisemitism is one part of the Jewish experience. It’s most certainly not the defining part of Judaism or the Jewish experience, but it is a concern that impacts all of us Jews. Jewish people have been speaking out for awhile now, for years, and people haven’t been listening. We aren’t asking for non-Jews to hand us the solution, we’re asking for non-Jews to be part of the solution.

Hatred and bigotry cannot be dismantled alone. It starts with listening and empathy, and that doesn’t take much. Think back to the scenario with my friend: she didn’t offer a solution to my hearing loss and reliance on lip-reading (and I never asked for one), she had listened– both in the past and a few moments before– and did what she could do in her position to allow me to speak and feel more comfortable.

While I cannot expect people to pull down their masks and risk everyone’s health so that I can read their lips, I know I’m being heard when I explain myself.

I cannot expect non-Jews to step out of their own shoes and suddenly know what it’s like to be Jewish, but I need to be heard when I implore them to speak out against antisemitism. So, to any person reading this, Jewish or otherwise: it’s time to start listening to Jewish people. Not listening is being complacent and actively harmful. By not listening to Jewish people, you are putting us at risk.

This article was edited by Amirah Khan.

Creative Writing

Asian Representation in the Media

The movie theater was always my favorite place in the world. Growing up, I would long for the days where I could fill my popcorn bucket up to the brim, settle in the red leather seats, and be transported to another world for two and a half hours. I developed a strong adoration for films like Tangled, Mamma Mia, the original Star Wars trilogy, Mean Girls, and the entirety of the MCU. Now, these films vary in genre and theme, but the one similarity between these movies is that the cast is predominantly white. Whenever I stared at the big screen, I never saw myself looking back at me.

My name is Sophia Delrosario, and I am a 16-year old, first-generation Filipina-American. My culture has shaped me into who I am, whether it be growing up watching teleseryes (soap dramas), eating sinigang (savory/sour stew) and halo-halo (mixed dessert), line dancing, and performing tinikling (a traditional Filipino folk dance with bamboo poles) in elaborate costumes. I embrace my nationality with pride and love, and long for the day where someone that looks like me is portrayed largely in mainstream media. Even Asians in general, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, and all other ethnicities and nationalities that fall under the Asian category, aren’t popularized as much as Caucasians.

While I agree that we are coming close to breaking the glass ceiling with the rise of K-Pop and K-Dramas, the 2020 Academy Award for Best Picture going to Parasite by Bong Joon-Ho, and movies like Crazy Rich Asians, it isn’t enough. In fact, the only TV show that comes to mind with the majority of the cast being of Asian descent is Fresh Off the Boat, and that’s it. Asian-Americans are usually reduced to side characters, such as Cristina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy and Tina Cohen-Chang from Glee, and are often subjected to stereotyping. The last TV show I binged was Gilmore Girls. I noticed how Lane Kim was, no surprise, the quirky sidekick that wore glasses, and her mother, Mrs. Kim, was a simple-dressing Christian with extremely strict rules and expected her daughter to marry a Korean doctor. The issue of Asian stereotyping is common throughout Hollywood productions, and it is nowhere near accurate. Every single one of us is different – and we’re not all pale with jet black hair and slim eyes either, a majority of South Asians have a darker skin tone and larger facial features. Not all Asians play piano or some other musical instrument, nor do they get consistent A-pluses, nor do they all work in nail salons and deserve to be ridiculed for their poor English. These generalizations take the diversity and boldness and distinctiveness of each and every Asian, and muddle them into one ideal person, silencing our unique selves.

In addition to Asians being underrepresented in the media and entertainment, there is also the larger, more highlighted issue of Eurocentric beauty standards. For years in history, the preferred look for women centered around traits commonly found in white girls, such as pale skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, and having an above average height and a slimmer figure. It’s unrealistic to strive for a physical appearance that most people cannot obtain, and detrimental to people’s self esteem. People of all cultures, races, and ethnicities, whether you be white, black, Hispanic, Asian, or other, should embrace themselves and their beauty fully, regardless of beauty standards. Girls should be able to see representations that look like them on social media platforms like Instagram, where models portray themselves as the perfect girl. They’re the ultimate goal, with expensive articles of clothing, clear skin, a flat stomach, an hourglass figure, and a perfect, happy, sunshine lifestyle. Influencers and models do an incredibly convincing job of conveying the message that average girls need to look this way and live this. However, it’s unreasonable to long for an influencer’s exact lifestyle and appearance. Although being inspired by their clothes and trends is acceptable, it should only be to a certain extent – when it gets to the point that it causes girls to feel overly insecure, that’s where I feel we must draw the line.

My dream is to see a Filipina Disney Princess on the big screen one day. The magic of Disney films inspired me as a child, and even today, to see my dream come true would be like Fairy Godmother waving her wand, and granting my wish. I’d love to see a teenage girl with long, thick, black hair, someone shorter and chubbier, with brown eyes and a stubby nose, dressed in cultural garb and eating an abundance of mangoes. She’d go on an adventure, and a little Filipina girl in the movie theater, like me all those years ago, would look up with wide eyes, filled with inspiration, happiness, and hope. She’d finally see herself staring back at her, and experience the beautiful feeling that she belongs.

Written by Sophia Delrosario.

*Originally published in May 2020

community outreach

Vape Free

I have this burning desire to make New York vape free. Despite vaping and smoking being banned in public spaces, we all have witnessed smoking and vaping on buses, in subways, parks, schools, colleges, and other public areas. Thus polluting the air surrounding us. This poses not only a hazard to the environment, but a potential health risk to both the person vaping and innocent bystanders who are exposed to dangerous fumes. Medical studies have show that you can contract dangerous lung disease such as Pulmonary Fibrosis, even as a passive smoker.

Frequently there are infants and young children in public spaces who are left helpless when the vaping or smoking addict decides to light a cigarette or vape. This could cause permanent, irreversible damage to their tender lungs.

That’s why I co-founded WINGS OF HOPE, a youth-led organization that helps youth addicted to vaping and smoking.

Youth of today are the future citizens of tomorrow. If we educate the youth about the health risks and danger of smoking and vaping, we could have healthy, productive citizens as adults. We have conducted campaigns in schools and on social media in order to spread awareness of the dangers of smoking and vaping. Beginning our work in New York, we started a petition urging all youth to give up smoking and vaping. To date, we have helped nearly 50,000 youth in New York. Due to our campaigns, 50% of youth that came to us addicted to vaping, pledged to give up their vaping habit.

We also used music as a way to campaign for our cause. We know that youth love listening to music, so we used our talent of singing to compose a song called “Break Free From Addictions.” The song informs listeners of the dangers and risks of vaping and smoking.

Youth feel very comfortable sharing their trauma anonymously. They also seek advice and ask for help in their darkest moments- something they are afraid of disclosing even to their parents, peers, or teachers. Since they usually pay out of their own pockets for vaping and smoking products without the knowledge of their parents, strict confidentiality is maintained at WINGS OF HOPE. Teens and youth receive timely help in some of their most distressing and desperate moments.

Since it is a youth led movement, we have found that youth are more comfortable sharing their problems with us. They are more open to listen to the voice of a youth leader rather than being preached at by an adult. This youth appeal plays a big factor in drawing youth from all five boroughs in New York to WINGS OF HOPE. They are not afraid of being reprimanded or reported to the police or their parents. Every day we receive nearly 500 letters from youth all over New York who are in distress due to smoking and vaping.

Running WINGS OF HOPE from the age of ten, made me realize that I do not have to wait to be an adult to do good. I learned to trust and depend on my mentors to guide and support me in my journey. I learned to rely on the wisdom of my teachers. And most importantly, a team of volunteers from across the globe showed me that without their help, this organization could not be alive today. In order to make my movement work, I had to network globally with the right people. This was the key to success for me.

WINGS OF HOPE has taught me to be a leader who serves, although it has not always been easy. Many times I felt like saying goodbye to my creation, but the joy of doing good surpassed the angst, humiliation, and distrust I faced from people six times my age when I approached them for funding. The door was often shut in my face. These experiences have taught me to be resilient, compassionate, patient, and to never give up.

The greatest lesson I learned is that goodness always pays and that even a young voice matters and can be heard across the world.

Written by Renee Mendonca.

*Originally published in May 2020.

community outreach

Melodies for Math

Melodies for Math is an educational initiative that aims to explain K-12 math concepts through song in order to prepare students for STEM related careers. The 21st century faces some of the worst problems in human history, and understanding and appreciating the power of STEM is critical to solving those problems.

However, many public school educational systems have gaps in their teaching methods that turn people away from math. This is a huge problem across the United States and even worldwide. 60% of 4th graders and 66% of 8th graders did not reach the Math Proficiency Level in 2019(according to the NAEP) and 60% of ACT test takers did not reach math proficiency in 2018. This means that more and more students find themselves unprepared to tackle the biggest problems that humanity will ever face.

Music, a language that binds ideas and cultures together, has the potential to solve this problem. Constantly let down by my own school in the past, I scoured the internet looking for a steady series that explained math musically and quickly. Seeing none, I decided to make my own. To help students understand different math concepts, I write, compose, produce, and then sing original songs that I hope will help students approach the service with an open mind.

This initiative comes with 2 services: a steadily updating calculus series tailored to the College Board AP exams (though we are not affiliated with them) and a personalized service where we give you a song based on a topic that users request. Ever since this project began 1 month ago, I am happy to announce steady growth in following and in impact, with over 240 Instagram followers and positive feedback, as well as 2 requests(from Turkey and Canada). My goal with Melodies for Math is to be of huge assistance to teachers, students, and anyone else willing to learn.

To learn more about Melodies for Math, check them out on Instagram.

Written by Swetha Tandri.

*Originally published in April 2020.

community outreach

The Courage to be Idealistic

6:55 pm. My palms began to sweat as I heard the car stop at the driveway. My parents had arrived. These dinners occurred nightly, but today could be the day I disappointed them. Public service was at the heart of my upbringing. I followed my parents as they made their way through the tightest collection of houses and record temperatures to serve their constituents. Their efforts, as politicians, were so valiant that I vowed to follow their spirit in one of my future selves as possibly a politician or a human rights lawyer.

At 10, I read The Prince and came across political realism. Politicians must only serve their electorate to the extent of reelection. I then saw the contradiction between public service and politics.

When I visited Malagnat National High School in Kalinga after a typhoon, I realized the challenge of applying political realism when faced with the reality of these students’ ordeals. They had to traverse treacherous valleys and raging rivers on single pipe bamboo bridges to pursue their education. They arrived to makeshift classrooms graced only with bamboo benches under mango trees and cardboard computer drawings. Even when confronted with unfavorable circumstances, these students were poised to go to the country’s top universities.

In an effort to help these students, I created “Kahon ng Karunungan” or “Classroom in a Box” in English. These packages contained essential stationery and a workbook summarizing the Department of Education’s yearly curriculum. This allowed students to continue with their education, even if school damages prevented them from returning for several months.

To make this project a reality, I needed my family’s support. My voice quaked as I explained the situation in Malagnat to my parents and how I wanted to help them.

“I don’t know, Anak (child), that area is so mountainous and complicated.” My mom shook her head.

“Anak, why don’t you help in our province instead? Put in the time now; it will help you with your future political career,” my dad suggested. The realization that I wanted to pursue this, not to further my political aspirations, but rather, to act in the spirit of hope that I found in Malagnat hit me. I was ready to challenge the Machiavellian belief that I merely needed to fulfill the bare political minimum. Only by leaving my family’s sphere of influence did I realize that a true public servant addressed the needs of all communities when called to action. I metamorphosed from a political daughter relying on her parents’ achievements to secure power to a novice ready to use her acquired knowledge within the realities of distant provincial villages.

After that dinner, I jumpstarted my fundraising efforts. By connecting with different financial sponsors, a peer and I secured enough funds to produce kits for all the students in Malagnat. By contacting several NGOs, we set up two computers in the school, which enabled the students to experience technology. They no longer have to imagine how a computer works. Furthermore, by posting videos on a website for KNK, an engineering company volunteered to build two classrooms in the school, of which construction is now 50% completed. We have even increased our scope of operations to include three more schools in areas experiencing armed conflict and in areas that are home to indigenous populations.

Realist theories will almost always guarantee success in the political arena. Yet, I realized through this accomplishment that political success should not always be the prime motivation for holding office in government. Power provides fleeting fulfillment. In my case, I find enduring fulfillment in the ability to affect change in societies, especially those who are neglected yet have the spirit to move forward.

Months after the dinner, my dad sent me a text message. “Anak, the Congressman of Kalinga just thanked me for all the work you’ve done in Malagnat. I am proud of you.”

To learn more about KNK, read below.

Kahon ng Karunungan: Bridging Two Worlds Through Educational Equity

Our school field gleams, its fibers glittering under the radiant sun. The area was the centerpiece of an almost antithetical image that lay in front of me. A sea of tightly packed zinc roofing sheets barely connected to disintegrating cement houses enveloped the field. A wall separated the two worlds so deeply intertwined; each side with no glimpse of how the other h
alf lives.

The “squatter” colonies of Taguig City are juxtaposed against the high rise residences of Bonifacio Global City (Business World)

During my short breaks from IB work, I would walk to the floor to ceiling windows of our library and remind myself of the realities that lie beyond. This vision served as a microcosm for educational inequity in the Philippines. As I learned about the writings of Shakespeare, De Beauvoir, Angelou, most of my countrymen did not even learn the basic tenets of English grammar. This, to me, was a sobering thought. As my education bestowed more opportunities upon me to learn about the deep-rooted issues that most plague Filipino society- Islamic insurgencies, the drug trade epidemic, poverty- I found out that most of these issues are caused by educational inequity.

Thus, I learned that to counter these issues sustainably and effectively, one must work to create an educated youth. When Kahon ng Karunungan (from Tagalog meaning “Knowledge in a Box”) was established in October 2018, our focus was to provide individual self-learning kits that simulated the Department of Education’s curriculum. Students affected by a natural disaster or conflict used these to pursue their education while the schools were closed. Prior to receiving the EARCOS grant, we provided 500 students in Malagnat National High School, destroyed by landslides, with our self-learning kits.

KnK’s outreach trip with the students of Malagnat National High School in Kalinga, Philippines

KnK’s outreach trip with the students of Malagnat National High School in Kalinga, Philippines

The EARCOS grant funded our second outreach for the Taal Volcano eruption victims. We connected with the local government units as we believed that they recognized the schools that were most in need. They led us to Venancio Elementary School, the school with the closest proximity to Taal that still remained. We yearned to act swiftly, but PHILVOCS still raised Alert Level 4 in Taal; the possibility of a complete eruption was viable. That resulted in a two-week delay in our response.

On February 22, 2020, we were finally able to go to Venancio Elementary School. The once brilliant, neon buildings attempted to peer through the mound of ash that had taken away their luminance. Nicole, a 6th-grade student, lamented about how the trees had lost their life, stripped of its infant leaves. The principal Ms. Navarro, or affectionately called by her students as “Mommy Elsie,” had told us her stories of panic.

“Never in my lifetime had I thought that our village would experience this. It was an impending reality we had turned a blind eye to. A blanket of ash just fell upon the whole city. It was unimaginable.” I was especially sympathetic about the internal conflict between her two roles. With tears in her eyes, she told us this story. “I had to send my husband and children to the evacuation trucks, hoping they would reach the centers safely. I felt that I was failing my children. But who would take care of the school? I am also the mother of hundreds of children.”

KnK’s outreach trip with the students of Malagnat National High School in Kalinga, Philippines

Even in our distribution, not only did Taal’s legacy live in a sea of children wearing face masks but in the hidden sorrow in their faces. Ms. Navarro also stated that the kids lost their innate gratitude; they lost the usual “thank you smiles” they showed every visitor. The trauma still haunted them weeks later. However, stories of hope still triumphed over sorrow. Angela said that she wanted to be a teacher to help students in their times of need like her teachers. Jester said that he wanted to be a volcanologist to improve warning systems and support the people in his region.

Grade 3 students walk back to class after receiving their KnK kits

During this trip, we were able to provide 1,000 kits to the school through the EARCOS Community Service Grant. It is these stories that drive KnK to pursue our mission in every area of the Philippines we can reach.

KnK is aware of the need for sustainable change. The beneficiaries we have chosen are in urgent need of supplies. Our kits are meant to fill in the gap between the time of devastation to formal schooling. I am aware, however, that our current mandate is resource-intensive. Though we intend to have three more outreach trips this year, we are now revising our mandate to address educational inequity through more sustainable solutions. This year, we aim to reform the workbook to be inclusive of math, science, and social science. We are currently collaborating with DepEd teachers to make this more effective. We are also exploring technological platforms (applications and text messaging) that help us conduct self-learning for more students. Finally, we are starting a publication that elucidates stories and issues of educational inequity in the Philippines.

A grade 1 student smiles after receiving her KnK kit

KnK’s journey towards bridging the gap between the quality of education in the most remote areas of the Philippines and the most excellent schools in its city center is only beginning. Driven by the stories of hope like we have heard in Venancio and generous benefactors like EARCOS, we aim to make these two worlds more intertwined, burst the bubble, and not only have a glimpse but an immersion into how the other half lives. We are compelled to ensure that our countrymen will not only learn the basic tenets of grammar but explore the most profound truths of life as educational equity opens the doors to a new world.

Written by Razel Suansing

*Originally published in May 2020

community outreach

Based in Science

Science. Such a broad topic, but such an important aspect to education and to the way we all live our lives. You would think that a crucial subject such as science would encourage and appeal to many of all ages, and to some extent it does, yet why is it that children between the ages of 9 to 14 find the subject less inspiring and relevant to their lives as they progress further in school? I challenged myself to take up the issue and make an attempt to implement change.

Based In Science was created in October 2019 and is a youth-led project aiming to encourage more children and young adults into STEM-related careers. Being bilingual, I decided to incorporate Albanian into the information I provide on my social media platforms, as the country of my origins, Kosovo, has among the youngest population in Europe – more than 40% of the population being under 25 – and so I am taking the opportunity to also reach out to the youth there, as well as here in the UK. Being a sixteen-year-old sixth form student can prove difficult when attempting to promote ideas due to a lack of being taken seriously, however, I have never doubted my goals for this project and will continue to push for the encouragement of youth in STEM.

Scientific resources, experiments, fun facts and movie recommendations, all aimed at the youth of our generation, are what you will find when you visit either the social media platforms or website for my social action project, Based In Science. Too often, students lose interest in science as a subject as the subject isn’t made attractive enough or isn’t explained properly, which is what Based In Science is committed to change. I strongly believe in incorporating hands-on activities when reaching out to children, in terms of teaching science, as a link between experiments and the importance in our everyday lives can be easily identified.

Science is absolutely everywhere in today’s world. It is part of our daily lives, from cooking and gardening, to recycling and comprehending the daily weather report, to reading a map and using a computer. Technological and scientific advances are transforming our world at an incredible pace, but to continue this development, we need the younger generations to continue pursuing careers in STEM fields. Based In Science will contribute to this by aiming to encourage, teach, and inspire the future generations for careers into STEM.

Written by Ideja Bajra.

*Originally published May 2020.

community outreach

Land of the Pure

Pakistan is a country in South Asia most have little, or no knowledge of. As someone who has lived in some of the world’s most diverse places, my answer to the question ‘where are you from?’ has often been frowned upon. While I constantly made the effort to educate those within my reach, I always wanted to do something more. Pakistan’s mesmerizing landscape, rich culture, and economic potential were in front of my eyes but missed by too many others. I searched for places where I could fulfill what felt like my duty as a Pakistani but struggled to find anything as such.

Eventually, I became tired of the distorted narrative that people had towards my home. So, I decided to make change. A few months ago, I started my own youth organisation hoping to change just a few perceptions. To my surprise, our work had greater power. Today, we have followers from all over the world, with an active website and social media page. Land of the Pure is an organisation changing perceptions and bringing the best of Pakistan to the limelight. Each week, we publish articles by young, passionate writers showing the world the real Pakistan and striving to bring greater attention to what is an amazing place.

However, I still wasn’t satisfied. The fact that I, as a Pakistani, didn’t have the power to make change was unacceptable to me and so, Land of the Pure became more than just a blog. Our site provides budding writers the opportunity to proudly publish their writing and gain a real publishing experience. We want to provide young writers with opportunity, confidence and belief so that they don’t, at any point, feel helpless. As of now, we have featured writing by writers from the UK, the USA and the UAE and strive to publish as many writers as possible. Our work is not limited to Pakistan, but is a movement aiming to help the world break stereotypes and see reality.

Land of the Pure started out as a personal passion project and an outlet, but by putting my work out to the world, I realised that so many people believe the same. The potential in young Pakistanis is exceptional; resilience, determination and passion are all traits we’ve inherited from our soil and each and every one of us will continue to do everything we can to make our country and this world a better place.

Written by Myra Ahmed

*This post was originally published in May 2020

community outreach

Becoming an Entrepreneur

It all started when I was six years old, I had started my first “company.” I created a large amount of artwork and went down to the lobby of my apartment building to sell it. From then on, I knew that I had a love for entrepreneurship and innovation. Over the next few years, I fabricated many other small “businesses”, such as my art-selling company, my nutrition company, and my in-home postal office. Using the money I made, I was able to develop other projects later. In fourth grade I gathered some of my friends and we bought beads and made jewelry to sell at my school’s annual Fall Market. Each year that we participated in the market, we gained more knowledge and connections. I learned how to profit from a company with a limited budget, and how to interact with customers to sell my products.

From sixth through ninth grade, I interned at Alexandria Wills, a leather product company based in New York and Chicago. There, I worked alongside the founder, Alexandria, to create products, sell to customers, and grow her business. This taught me how to put my entrepreneurial drive to good use and discover a network of people who will support the company. By making products from scratch and watching a few strips of leather become a functional object, I was able to track my progress and improvement. This encouraged me to finish projects, try more risky ideas, and incorporate Alexandria’s useful feedback. In seventh grade, I interned at Atelier Rouba Moukadem in Lebanon for a month. Rouba is a fashion designer who taught me how to build a company up from the ground and brand it. She showed me that to build something that you are proud of, you need to push yourself to put your idea out into the real world. Rouba encouraged all of my ideas when we were doing fittings with clients and even guided me through the entire process of creating outfits. I designed an outfit with a shirt and pants and worked with the seamstresses and other designers at the atelier to create it from scratch. This experience allowed me to collaborate with an entire team of people to make a masterpiece. Through this experience I learned how to combine everyone’s strengths on a team to create something worthwhile.

When I was thirteen, I interned at Mashallah, a jewelry store in Chicago. Mashallah Ghouleh, the founder, taught me how to create an online presence to establish yourself. I learned how to design jewelry pieces that fit current trends and even set new ones. During my freshman year summer, I interned with another designer at EM Parker. Emily, the founder, taught me about how she founded her startup and set up her materials suppliers, her clients, and how she branded herself in a way that would sell her products to her customers. My next internship was at Stanford CSR. I was responsible for organizing the content of the camp and making marketing strategies. I provided insight into how to organize the camp and the activities to appeal to students in my age group. I also did the marketing of the camp at my school, Henry M. Gunn High School. I changed the format of the camp to emphasize the teaching of skills in the beginning because that enables more participants to build applications. All of the people who I learned from helped me grow and change in monumental ways. I combined all of the skills that I had accumulated through my different internships and founded a handmade jewelry and clothing brand called Atelier Yara with products being sold on Etsy, at maker markets, and in two retail stores: Cassis and Leaf & Petal. Getting my products into retail stores was a much different process than what I had expected. I was walking down a street when I found myself in front of Leaf and Petal. I started working at Cassis and became in charge of product operations.

In ninth grade, I decided to put all of the information that I had accumulated throughout the years to good use. I founded a startup built around a teddy bear for children with autism whose impact I am passionate about. When I was at a design thinking workshop at IDEO, I connected with a woman called Connie Liu who had created a school program for young entrepreneurs to start their businesses called Project Invent. I asked her whether it would be possible for me to build a business through her program, and she immediately responded with a yes! We began to work on launching this program at my school a few weeks later.

I decided to take things into my own hands and started the program myself because the school was taking too long to approve the program. I set a weekly meeting time at my house and got connected with an incredible mentor who is also a software engineer at Cisco who committed to guiding my team and me through the process of launching our business. Once I had set up the basics needed to start the business, I texted a few friends about the project and created a team of five. Our goal was to attend Demo Day in May, where we would pitch our product to a board of investors in hopes of getting funding so that we could grow our business and have our product reach the maximum impact possible.

We decided we would focus on helping children with autism using a technological solution. We did a lot of user research and even named our startup after the first child with autism who we worked with, Drew. A few weeks later we finished our MVP just in time for Demo Day. We created a teddy bear that helps children with autism understand and identify their emotions better so that they can react to them appropriately before they have an autistic meltdown. I am excited about this project and its potential impact because it can help so many people. Fifteen percent of children are diagnosed with autism and many parents struggle to cater to the needs of their children.

This teddy bear is a companion that educates children about their disability early on in life so that they can be better equipped to live a healthier life later on. It fosters independence and allows children to embrace who they are. The first feature is a pulsing heartbeat generator in the bear to help soothe children before they reach the point of an autistic meltdown. This will teach them to take a step back from situations where they feel uncomfortable to analyze their own emotions. The second feature is the music that the bear plays to help explain to children the emotions they are feeling by relating them to physical symptoms that they are experiencing.

This is essential because often children with autism are only taught about recognizing other people’s emotions but they are never educated about their own. That’s why our invention is giving children the tools they need to help them identify their emotions, reduce the amount of emotional buildup that can cause autistic meltdowns, and foster essential skills that will help the child live a happier life. Our bear is unlike the other toys on the market because it is not stimulating or distracting. In many ways, it is more of a companion to help soothe the child rather than a toy.

My team and I attended the Project Invent Demo Day, where myself and two other team members pitched our product and answered questions about it afterward. We received $1,000 in funding from Google. We are continuing to grow our business and iterate on our product using the money we have earned. The money that Google invested in Drew will be allocated towards the research and development of our product, in addition to user outreach. We will spend $750 on developing our product to become advanced enough to detect children’s emotions using finger temperature, skin conductivity, and pulse. These emotions will then be documented on an app the parents, teachers, or therapists have on their phones. This will be incredibly beneficial to users because the people supervising the children with autism will know before the child has an autistic meltdown. They will be able to see the child’s emotions on their app and pull them out of their stressful situation to help. The other $250 will be used for user testing and other expenses that the business may sustain.

Our product is unique because it teaches children about their own emotions and how they can bridge the gap between themselves and communicate with others. All of the other toys for children with autism teach them how to identify other emotions, while our product teaches kids how to identify their feelings first.

The team and I realized after a trip to IDEO that I organized, there were still things that we needed to improve in our product. Since we started creating Drew late into the game, we didn’t observe any user observations, only interviews. Our empathy process was rushed and incomplete, which led to gaps in our design that did not fit our user’s needs. We are preserving our pulsing feature but iterating upon the form of our toy and changing the song feature. This decision taught us a very important lesson: to never get attached to any single idea because no matter what it is, the idea can always be improved. We learned not to be afraid to start over, which is an essential part of the design process.

Since having made this decision, we have reached out to several people to do additional interviews but most importantly, user observations. A superintendent for special education in nine Bay Area schools offered us the chance to observe students in her classroom and later do user testing with the MVP. We plan on using the feedback we receive from user testing to finalize our product so that it’s completely user-friendly. Many team members, myself included, have been connecting with other entrepreneurs who have launched their products to guide us through the process of user observations and interviews, finalizing our MVP, patenting it, and preparing it for manufacturing.

My advice to anyone who wants to start their own company or create a product is to stop talking or thinking about the idea and just start doing it. Leap into making your vision your reality. In the end, you’re going to be happy that at least you tried. I remember that it was very difficult for me to start the project at first because there was so much work to be done and so many people to coordinate all of the logistical aspects with. No matter how tedious it got, I pushed myself through my next task and slowly all the pieces came together. I celebrated every small victory, every little accomplished task that got me one step closer to making my dream of having a startup come true. Most importantly, I never lost faith in what I was doing. My school principal told me I couldn’t get the district to approve Project Invent fast enough for us to make it to Demo Day, but instead of giving up I decided to host the meetings at my house. Many people told me I was staring too late in the game so I should push the launch till the next year. Instead, I made sure I started the program as soon as I could and pushed myself and my team to work as efficiently as possible. I proved myself not because I wanted to impress anyone else, but because I was genuinely passionate about what I was doing and I believed that I could do it. If you want to start any project, you need to have the drive to push yourself to do it. You can do anything you set your mind to as long as you’re inspired by what you are doing.

Another lesson that I learned from this experience is that the people you work with and your connections are essential to your business. It was connections that allowed me to start the project in the first place. My connection to Connie Liu allowed me to get in touch with our project mentor, who has guided us and allowed us to grow in ways that we had not thought that we could before. It was the bear I helped build due to these connections that opened doors for me and allowed me to connect with more people at Demo Day who gave feedback to my team and me.

Even after Demo Day, the people who we met were still giving us advice and reaching out to us. Connections with other people are the key to growing a business because, without a support system or people to advise our team, we would not have been able to learn from our mistakes or try new things that ended up paying off in the end. Whenever I am at an event, I always go up to new people and introduce myself. Oftentimes, I end up exchanging information with them and get introduced to opportunities that I didn’t even know about! Networking has opened many doors for me and I consider it an essential part of life.

Having a team with people who you work well with and who help foster a positive culture is essential to your project. Without the incredible team of strong girls who I worked with, Drew would be nowhere near where it is today. We all support each other and motivate each other to do our best, and that’s why we were able to get so much done in only a few months and continue to do so today. So remember, whether you’re starting a company or just choosing friends to hang out with, always make sure you’re spending time with people who will support you and bring out the best in you.

Written by Yara Samad.

Edited by Amirah Khan.

*This post was originally published in July 2020.