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.

community outreach


By Zikora Akanegbu

It’s common for teenage girls to look one another up and down and focus on the exterior: shoes, clothes, face. It’s one reason why teen girls can see each other as competitors, fighting despite a longtime campaign for unity. The question, then, is: how do we break this cycle? How do we uplift teen girls in our age of infinite connectedness and social media. I decided to take the issue into my own hands.

This year I founded GenZHER, a youth-led organization that aims to empower, connect, and inspire Gen Z girls and young women; those born in the mid-1990’s to 2012. Many people are surprised when I inform them I started my own organization as a fifteen-year-old high school freshman. Being a young, female founder involves a lot of resilience, hard work, and being your own champion. And when I began to doubt myself, I reminded myself of the reasons why I started this in the first place. After constantly seeing how Gen Z girls were being cruel to one another in school and cyber-bullied online too, I recognized that a platform like GenZHER was needed. I created this platform to promote an inclusive environment for Gen Z girls to inspire, empower, and connect with one another. In a time of divisiveness and hate, I wanted a space for girls to not be afraid to speak their truth and to build a community. I believe our generation has strengths in both togetherness and diversity because although we can be competitive, we’re accepting. Gen Z sees beyond what a person is at face-value, by allowing people to not only be one aspect of themselves, but rather just be.

I see my organization, GenZHER, as being a place to talk about passions and triumphs, favorite books and movies, have meaningful conversations, but also as a place to ask for advice and unload struggles. I’m doing this so that solidarity and inclusivity can continue to grow between all Gen Z girls. GenZHER has a commitment to societal change. We encourage Gen Z girls to share their stories and creatively write their views and perspectives on a wide range of issues including, social justice, mental health, and more. Through my organization, Gen Z girls and young women from around the world can connect with other, as I like to call, “Gen Z-hers.” I believe in using the power of writing to empower others, shifting culture forward, and driving social change. I know that Gen Z girls are intelligent, powerful, creative, and capable of doing amazing things; the exact opposite of what society says we are supposed to be. As a “Gen Z-her” myself, I am starting young to take a stand for what I believe in and I am inspiring others to get involved.

Our generation has the power to demand that their stories be heard and the power to impact change. Look at climate change activist Greta Thunberg, or UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Millie Bobby Brown, Nadya Okamoto, founder of PERIOD, or social and STEM activist, Yara Shahidi. All of the “Gen Z-hers” I have mentioned have contributed to our national discourse by using their identities to reflect the social issues they care about, consequently pushing the status quo. Society underestimates us because they see us as the generation addicted to our smartphones, procrastinating, constantly scrolling through Instagram and making fifteen-second dance videos on TikTok. But by being connected everywhere, we are also excellent communicators who are entrepreneurial and independent. Our generation is incredibly outspoken and we unfailingly express ourselves passionately, truthfully, and creatively. We are not only shaping the future, we are changing the present.

You can check out GenZHER here.

Originally published in April 2020.

community outreach

The Change is in Our Hands

By Joseph Mel, age 17

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Tweet from President Donald J. Trump in November 2012

Climate change has become a prevalent environmental issue within current day society. The sea-levels are rising due to the polar ice caps melting, there is an increased humidity throughout areas where there shouldn’t be, and oceans are also increasing in temperature. Humanity is one of the causes of such a fast decline in our environment. From large industries such as animal agriculture, or companies that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, to fast fashion, these are all industries that can be both unethical and harmful towards the environment. One may argue that these are factors that we cannot control, however that couldn’t be further from the truth. Every person has a carbon footprint which is a receipt of how they contribute to carbon emissions as well as general waste that enables climate change.

One reason why this is a pressing issue is because people are failing to accept the fact that climate change is real. Greta Thunberg is a teenage activist who began her mission on fighting the climate crisis by sitting outside the Swedish parliament while she was meant to be in school. Even President Donald J. Trump has been vocal about her actions tweeting, “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!” This is a demonstration of how having someone with as much influence as the president, shaming and discrediting someone who is shining light on an issue, can further cause it to be swept under the rug. Furthermore, in popular culture it is common to label people who are considerate about the environment “hippies” and depict them as spaced out personalities that are conservative in this regard. This contributes to the lack of consideration on the climate crisis because it gives the masses who watch the media a false sense of what is actually happening. Moreover, this generates a stereotype amongst people who are trying to bring attention to these issues, which automatically retreats the masses who are already skeptical of the topic. Although, there has been a bit of progression due to protests that send a message to the higher-ups of these corporations that change should come

The real examples lie within the ecosystems that are failing and the people that are suffering on behalf of climate change. An example of this includes the Caribbean coral reefs and how it has a timeline to only exist for twenty more years. While pollution and a case of tragedy of the commons may seem to also play a role in this ecosystem, climate change leads to the warming of ocean temperatures which in turn leads to coral bleaching. Coral bleaching is a process in which corals are influenced by the changes in the ocean from temperature or light. Then the coral turns white due to the change in algae living in the cells of the coral. This then affects the species that live in this ecosystem, leading to a lack in biodiversity. Similarly, humans once again, can be credited for the harm that is coming to society. There are many industries that exploit the environment that as people no one really thinks much about. An example of this is the animal agriculture industry. This industry cuts down hundreds of acres of trees in order to adjust for farming land that will raise livestock. This system is in order to mass produce meat for the consumption of people in the U.S. A problem with this is how in order to produce all this meat it comes at the expense of cutting down trees, which is harmful as it adds to carbon dioxide emissions. Then raising animals such as cows also contributes to the greenhouse gases since they are given specific hormones in their food in order to make them grow large enough to slaughter. They then release gas which contributes to the greenhouse emissions.

Another human contribution to the climate crisis is something that wouldn’t really be expected: the fashion industry. Fast fashion is inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. It takes away original ideas from designers on the runway and makes a knock-off version just two weeks later. Production is cheap and low quality through unethical overseas sweatshops that import this clothing. Fast fashion is typically unsustainable as it now takes “roughly 145 million tons of coal and between 1.5 and 2 trillion gallons of water” to produce fiber. This overuse of material contributes to the tragedy of the commons, a phenomenon that states that the more we use earth’s natural resources, the quicker we run out of them. Additionally since fast fashion is cheap, low quality, and designed to be disposed of once it’s out of style, most clothing items end up in landfills. 80 percent of our textiles are doomed to this fate and can sit on the planet as a pollutant while they take up to 200 years to decompose, releasing methane and further contributing to climate change. Fast fashion overall is another contributing factor to our planet’s demise that only consumers (regular people) can change.

Climate change is a pressing issue that only humanity can resolve through their lifestyle decisions. If society truly invested the time to understand all of these facets to the decline of ecosystems, then we would be on the road to recovery. It is only a matter of time before things become irreversible. On an international scale, we must protect our planet from this exhaust in order to preserve it for generations to come. Finally, I leave you with this, is this going to be a generation that leads to the demise of our planet due to the economic powers and political agendas that completely disregard the safety of our environment? Or are we going to protect Mother Earth the best we can?

This post was originally published in April 2020.