The following article was written by Leonetta Elaiho of Students Rebuild.
No one predicted what the past year would bring. The pandemic has impacted how students and educators learn, teach, interact, and connect. But we’ve also seen how sparking change does not require any superpowers. Students have adapted to so many changes over the last year. Contribution and overcoming adversity are not solely reserved for those of us with exceptional qualities such as heroism. We see this every day in our work with Students Rebuild, and young people like Welela Solomon are a great example.
Welela is a 16-year-old student in Seattle. When I look at Welela, I see a young person striving to find meaning, purpose, and goals. “I grew up with the ideology that we have to lift another person up and help others, even if it’s small,” she told me. “Being compassionate, being kind, and being empathetic are super important. By doing service or volunteering, it will reveal a different part of you that you may have not noticed before.”
After a trip to Ethiopia in middle school, Welela realized how medical supplies were in short supply. Returning home, she fundraised to send more than 2,000 medical and surgical gloves to Ethiopia. “With the glove project, I really got to experience that balance of being a visionary — but at the same time being super realistic,” she says.
Welela’s story is just one example of how young people thrive when they find meaning and develop passions and goals. Recent research from the Center for the Developing Adolescent affirms one of the key developmental needs of young people is to contribute — to families, peers, or their communities. With the support of educators and their communities, when young people contribute, they grow developmentally, make meaning, and find purpose.
We took those lessons to create Students Rebuild, a program of the Bezos Family Foundation, which promotes engaged, purposeful learning wherever a young person lives and goes to school.
Using our combination of art and philanthropy as a doorway to greater global understanding, Students Rebuild has brought together students and teachers from around the world for collective action. We’ve been able to develop digital learning for the past decade to focus on issues such as ocean conservation, hunger, and literacy. This year’s Changemaker Challenge honors everyday heroes making a difference in a year like none other. Students make awards, trophies, or certificates for a changemaker in their life with whatever supplies are available, including upcycled materials.
Even though we’re all more isolated right now, our growing community of more than 800 teams globally is banding together to create art for change. We’ve worked to make the process of participating simple: For each award shared with Students Rebuild, the Bezos Family Foundation will make a $5 donation — up to $1 million — to young people and educators leading change around the world.
Our team has also developed curricula, lesson plans, and other resources for educators who participate in the Challenge. Many resources are informed by national standards, and all resources are always free of charge and flexible enough for any setting. Participants learn about the power of change-making and are encouraged to take action, leading to a deepened sense of agency.
There is no handbook for change-making. Young people gain agency when they work together on a cause they care about. This might look like becoming a helper and supporting your neighbors with small acts of kindness. It might also look like stirring up “good trouble,” which civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis modelled so brilliantly for us during the course of his changemaking life.
We all have what it takes to make change, increase youth agency, and contribute to engaged communities. It’s a joy to watch young people like Welela, right where they are, find purposeful work and creatively collaborate to make the world better.
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