“Investing in Young People Is Investing in the Future”: 5 Youth Leaders Talk Social Change

This year’s summer intern class brings rich insights and experiences to the National Geographic Society. We gathered five of its members to discuss their passion for social change and share lessons for other young people seeking to make a positive impact in their communities. The conversation that follows, in which these youth leaders reflect on their storytelling, community-building, and other work on social change, has been edited for length and clarity.

National Geographic Society (NGS): What does social change mean to you, and what aspects of social change interest you?

Jason Lam: I think change is an amazing word. For me social change is about our changing society and world and having a voice in that. What interests me about social change the most is that work still needs to be done. We just celebrated a great Pride Month, but only a few dozen countries in the world have legalized gay marriage, and so many others have legal penalties for being homosexual and in the LGBTQ rainbow, so that means things need to change still, and there’s still so much capacity to change, and that’s what drives me to keep going forward.

Fasica Mersha: One of the biggest reasons why I really like social change and being involved in social change is because it gives individuals the ability to change their circumstances. A lot of times people are born into these really unfair circumstances that they really can’t control, and a lot of times if there isn’t social change people just have to deal with it, and the idea of that is so unfair. I prefer the idea of being able to change circumstances and being able to demand what you deserve, or what all people deserve.

Damanpreet Singh: I couldn’t have said it better myself. I think that’s such a good idea, dismantling those barriers, giving control to everyone so everyone has agency over their lives, as they should. You can also get a sense of belonging through social change. I think that’s something that draws me especially to working with other people, hearing their stories. One thing I like from social change work is the level of empathy you get, and you just keep becoming more and more empathetic, and it makes you a better person in and of itself but it also helps strengthen your communities.

NGS: How has your background and identity influenced the ways you engage in social change?

Varee Saetang: My mom came to the U.S. during the ’70s as a refugee, and she came to a community within Atlanta, Georgia, that had an extremely large refugee population. Growing up in this community and hearing my mother’s stories but also the stories of my community members has helped me see the gaps and the challenges that people in my community face, and especially refugee youth. This relates to my internship as the youth initiatives intern, wanting to work with youth, wanting to work with educators on creating resources and programming that is more accessible to everyone, accessible to people from first-gen backgrounds, refugee or immigrant backgrounds, youth who are Black and brown—identities that have never been able to express what they need in ways that people actually listen.

Nandi Ndoro: Very similar to Varee, my background has definitely shaped my introduction into social change work. I’m a South African immigrant. My family came here when I was four years old, and we’re also Zimbabwean. Those countries right now experience a lot of economic crises and also a lot of gender-based violence. I think growing up knowing that as well as having my experiences as a Black woman in the United States created this overall interest in politics and activism and the potential impact that both of those can have in shaping individuals’ experiences. I think social change was also cool because when I was in high school it was a catalyst for me to figure out what I was interested in doing. So when I was thinking about how I could potentially make an impact in bringing awareness to Zimbabwe’s economy or to the way Black women are treated in the United States, I realized I’m really interested in writing, I’m really interested in media. That was a forum for me to dive into those interests, and I ended up creating a magazine focused on amplifying people’s voices in D.C.

Fasica: My parents actually came to Atlanta, Georgia, too, as immigrants, so Varee and I have a lot in common. I feel like my background and identity has shaped a lot of what I want to do. It’s introduced me to a career, like Nandi was saying, because I started getting more involved in social work when I was in high school, which let me see different opportunities you can have while also pursuing social good and social work.

Damanpreet: I’m someone who struggled at first with my identity. I’m someone who wanted to reject it, wished I was someone totally different, fit the status quo. I think it was actually social work that made me reconsider everything and get my life in perspective. It helped me think about the struggles my parents went through immigrating here and going through 1984 in Punjab in India and all those riots and everything. Seeing the struggles they went through and the global solidarity made me reconsider how I do have power and my ancestors had the power to change their lives, and that’s what they did. They just kept moving forward trying to make a better life for each future generation. I want the same for generations beyond me.

Jason: I identify as an Asian American man, gay, living and growing up in rural California, and with that comes a bunch of struggles of belonging. Both of my parents are from Hong Kong, and just being there during the Hong Kong protests showed we need to be more active and advocate for other people because some of them don’t have the option to have their own voice.

Nandi: If I could say one last thing, earlier I said my identity as a Black woman introduced me to writing and things like that, but later on I felt a little bit pigeonholed, like there were only certain ways to activate for social change. I got into computer programming, and I never thought that that was something I could do because I hadn’t seen people who look like me doing that, and then figuring out ways to use that as social change. There’s interesting dynamics, and it’s not always positive, when it comes to my identity.

NGS: Does Nandi’s comment spark any thoughts in the rest of you about being pigeonholed or feeling like your work on social change needs to take a certain form?

Damanpreet: Yeah, I was going to say that’s so real, everything you said. It’s tough. As someone who’s been the son of a taxi driver, I really never envisioned going to Stanford, even being here in this space with you all. It’s such a privilege. But that’s not to say we can’t be in those spaces. That’s something I tell my parents: I want to be in those spaces. Why can’t I? Why can’t my sister? We can all be in those spaces if we just dream it and work for it.

Jason, Fasica, Nandi, Varee, and Damanpreet participate in a conversation on social change.

NGS: The #GenGeo community consists of young people who are committed to exploring connections, taking action for our planet, and inspiring a sustainable future. How would you describe the importance of young people to solving big problems?

Fasica: Young people aren’t always as stuck in their ways as older people might be. Young people are not thinking about how it’s always been. They’re thinking about what it can be, how to make it better, how to improve, and what the future could be like. I think that is the power of young people. They are the future; that’s the biggest thing about them. It makes sense to give them leadership skills so they can eventually become the better leaders of tomorrow. I think investing in young people is investing in the future.

Jason: I really want to give some attention to benefiting from the activism of the past and the privileges of that. I think that is so important. One of the examples that comes to mind first is Pride and gay rights. We would not be anywhere, we would not even have a Pride, if it wasn’t for the Black and brown people, the drag queens, the transgender individuals, who paved the way and gave everyone a voice and let people all around have something like Pride Month. I think it’s our responsibility as young people to pass the torch. This also goes for the climate crisis, which has never really been at the forefront for older generations. However, we live the realities, the changing climate, the hotter temperatures. I think it’s our responsibility, as people who are going to have power as we get older, to set a precedent for all these other generations, to have a world for them to live in that’s better than what we have right now.

Varee: I feel a lot of young people these days are becoming more empathetic and more open-minded. I also feel the U.S. has been an individualistic society where the focus tends to be less on the wants and needs of the collective, but I think over time, especially over the pandemic, we learned we are all in this together, that something that impacts me also impacts someone else. In a lot of spaces I’ve been in, young people are overlooked because they’re seen as not having the same skills or abilities to engage in social change or engage in meaningful conversations, and I feel like that really needs to change because young people are so creative and have so many different ideas. They have so much to bring.

Varee holds the photobook she designed for #CreateForUNICEF, a campaign of UNICEF’s Houston Regional Office. The graphic book features art designed to foster social change and build community virtually. Photo courtesy of Varee Saetang.
Damanpreet (third from left) poses with peers from the nonprofit they founded together in spring 2020, Operation Helping Hand. The organization ran mutual aid drives to support families struggling to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Damanpreet Singh.

NGS: What advice would you give young people who want to bring about meaningful social change?

Jason: I think the big thing that I want to tell people is don’t lose hope. You will be faced with roadblocks and challenges and people telling you no and systems built against you. Find others online, find others in your community, find others who share your vision, who share your story, and everyone can be more powerful as a whole, and everyone can storytell this bigger picture and get more light on things. Don’t lose hope. The world will be better.

Damanpreet: Adding to that would be to be passionate about it and don’t let go of that passion, and take care of yourself, you know? You can’t give from an empty cup. Take care of yourself. Fill your cup up so you have the energy to do the most effective work you can.

Varee: I would make sure that all the work you’re doing is really intentional. Performative activism, or activism done primarily to increase one’s social capital rather than out of pure support for a cause, has been very prevalent online, so make sure that when you are trying to engage in social change that it’s intentional, that you are working with communities and not trying to speak for them, while also, as Jason said, not losing hope and understanding that your voice is extremely powerful. You may not have the platforms or access that you need to fully engage in the work you want to do, but it will come to you as long as you stay dedicated and motivated.

Nandi: I would also say that, when it comes to activism and this overall desire to make some sort of change in the world, it can be kind of broad, kind of vague, and I feel like some people do put pressure on themselves but are not really sure what direction to go in. I have a lot of different identities and a lot of different causes that I am passionate about, but it took me a while to figure out which ones should I fight for, which ones should I throw myself all in for. If I could give advice to my younger self and also advice to myself now, it would be to take your time and see what really does speak to you. After that, if you figure out a certain organization that you want to be involved in, be specific with your goals. This work is a great way to learn certain skills, like how to really measure progress and how to actually see when you’re making an impact, be it numbers or just people you talk to. So give yourself time to figure out what exactly you want to change, then try to be specific and intentional about what you’re doing.

Fasica: One more thing I would add is that you can accomplish more than you think, especially when it’s young people getting involved in social change or social movements that seem so big, so vast, so complicated, so beyond them, and so intimidating. A lot of times in my experience I didn’t even realize the impact of my actions until after the fact. A lot of work in social change movements doesn’t produce immediate results, and sometimes that’s not an easy concept to grasp when you’re young, because you don’t want to wait. You want to be able to see the change now. I would keep that in mind, and I would echo Damanpreet: It’s definitely important to be kind to yourself, especially in such an emotionally demanding environment. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t solve the world’s problems by the time you go to college.

The National Geographic Society’s growing #GenGeo community of young people is helping to shape the conversation, drive progress, and seek solutions to help protect our planet. Learn more and sign up here!

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