Leadership in Action: The Power of Youth (Part 1)

Meet five youth leaders who are tackling community needs through innovative service projects

An image of a young lady standing in the New Jersey Public Library near a table with white paper bags filled with STEM Kits for children in STEM You Can! virtual camps.
Amanda Zheng, at New Jersey Public Library STEM Kit dropoff. Photo: Courtesy of America’s Promise Alliance

With copper pennies, lightbulbs, agar plates and pipettes for extracting strawberry DNA, Amanda Zheng is finding exciting ways to open the world of science to girls — wherever they are.

Amanda, who is a rising freshman studying Mechanical Engineering and Management at the University of Pennsylvania, is deeply concerned about girls’ access to science, technology, engineering and mathematic (STEM) fields.

“I got my first taste of the STEM gender gap on the first day of my middle school science club,” Amanda said. “Looking forward to learning from fun experiments, I was dismayed to discover I was one of only two girls in the group of 30. I became accustomed to being the only girl in a sea of boys but wanted to work toward introducing more females to the STEM field.”

To help turn the tide, Amanda teamed up with the youth-led nonprofit STEM You Can! In a typical year, STEM You Can! runs 95 free STEM summer camps for girls in 17 states across the U.S. During camp, students carry out hands-on experiments to explore chemistry, astronomy, renewable energy and neuroscience.

Summer 2020, however, was anything but typical. Due to COVID-19, STEM You Can! was unable to hold in-person camps. Amanda applied for a Power of Youth challenge grant from America’s Promise Alliance (APA), a grantee of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, to support their shift to virtual learning. Her project was selected and, with support from Power of Youth, STEM You Can! is sending STEM experiment kits, paired with Zoom-based instruction, to campers who are stuck at home.

Young man wearing a face mask poses for the image while carrying two grocery bags filled with food and other products.
Dhruv, co-founder of Teens Helping Seniors, is ready for grocery delivery to a senior in Maryland.
Photo: Jonna Huseman

Like Amanda, Dhruv*, a high school junior in Maryland, is on a mission. Through Teens Helping Seniors, a volunteer delivery service that Dhruv co-founded, he is connecting teens with their elderly neighbors to help with errands and groceries.

“I could see in my community that many seniors could not get out of their houses during the crisis and had no family around to help them,” Dhruv said. “I realized that I had to get together many volunteers as quickly as possible, as the COVID cases were rising in my area.”

Teens Helping Seniors has grown from a flagship startup in Montgomery County, Maryland, to 27 chapters around the country with over 600 volunteers. With his grant award from the Power of Youth, Dhruv is piloting local meal delivery for seniors and offsetting driving costs for teen volunteers.

Visionary projects like these are at the heart of APA’s Power of Youth model. But the initiative doesn’t begin and end with youth-led ideas. America’s Promise has adopted a holistic, 360-degree approach to empowering youth.

Applicants ages 13 to 18 from around the country pitch proposals for $250 mini-grants.

Proposals are reviewed and selected by members of APA’s Youth Council, and awardees are supported by Youth Council members and youth coaches.

A young man stands i a square with people walking in the background.
Vishnu Karthik is dedicated to youth leadership that addresses community needs and promotes justice.
Courtesy photo

This year, peer support and coaching have played a pivotal role in helping award winners. Many applicants had envisioned projects in a pre-COVID world and needed to retool their strategies to assure that they, and their communities, could address a critical need while staying safe.

Coaches are helping applicants clarify goals and budgets, develop a plan for carrying out their project safely and connect with the wider community of youth service leaders.

Vishnu Karthik is one such coach. A freshman from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who is studying at the University of Michigan, he is passionate about service, science and entrepreneurship. Vishnu’s studies center around his research at the Naval Research Laboratory in Stennis Space Center in southwest Mississippi and his work as a mobile app/web developer. His own service focuses on advocating for quality educational opportunities in his home state and on establishing a foreign language and cultural appreciation club at his school to foster understanding and inclusion.

“Now more than ever before,” Vishnu said, “youth have the power of spreading positive change throughout the world. We’ve seen an extraordinary amount of young people rise to the task and fight for social justice. With the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the current sociopolitical climate, it is vital for us young people to stand tall with what we believe in the most, as what we fight for right now will shape our futures.”

As a coach, Vishnu helps Power of Youth participants solidify their vision, goals and plans for their projects. He helps them focus on safety and sustainability, budgeting and leveraging social media. “The end goal,” Vishnu said, “isn’t just to get the project going, but to see it have a long-lasting impact.”

Young woman wearing a yellow head scarf smiles at the camera as se poses in front of a brick wall.
In Detroit, Mahbuba’s Care Relief Package project helps her peers stay connected to learning.
Courtesy photo

The America’s Promise approach is paying off. This year, more than 100 projects already have been selected for a challenge grant, and winners have begun carrying out projects that are making a profound difference in their communities.

Mahbuba*, a 12th grade student in Detroit, has launched the Care Relief Package project to help students stay connected to learning.

A map of the united states with the outline of states drawn with white lines. Thirty states are shaded in blue to represent where the America's Promise Alliance has awarded over 100 Power of Youth challenge grants.
America’s Promise Alliance already has awarded over 100 Power of Youth challenge grants for youth-led projects in more than 30 states.
Illustration: America’s Promise Alliance

“Many students in my community work seven to eight hours in addition to school in order to fulfill their family’s needs,” Mahbuba said. “Our goal is to provide students with supplies, including healthy snacks, stress balls, canned foods, homework help hotlines, mental health webinar information and a virtual crash course on registration information [in] hopes to motivate more students to do service projects virtually.”

Kyle*, an 11th grade student in Manchester, Connecticut, is partnering with MACC, a local food pantry, ECHN Family Development Center and the Welcome Center for Manchester Public Schools to distribute diapers and wipes to families with infants and toddlers. Through several donation drives, the Gentle Love Diaper Pantry has collected over 30,000 diapers and 26,000 wipes. “My ultimate goal, Kyle said, “is to establish a diaper pantry that will house all sizes of diapers to meet the long-term needs of my community.”

Young man in the back of a small cargo truck loads in baby diapers to be distributed in the area.
Kyle is loading up the truck with diapers and wipes for the Eastern Connecticut Health Network (ECHN) Family Development Center.
Photo: Cynthia Zingler

Kristie*, a 12th grade student, and several of her classmates are creating an educational program, Amigos de México, to counter anti-Mexican racism in their community and promote racial justice. “Growing up in Southern California, in Mexican American families, we have been exposed to the rich cultural traditions of the Hispanic community,” Kristie said. “However, we have also witnessed the struggles many face, from discrimination to harassment and bullying.”

Young woman standing in the summer sun with a green hedge as the background.
Kristie and her classmates launched Amigos de México to challenge bias and foster dialogue.
Courtesy photo

Amigos de México includes an online educational curriculum, site visits and cultural activities. “We hope this will help foster healthy dialogue among youth,” Kristie said, “and form the next generation of activists who can work to negate harmful stereotypes.”

Dhruv said youth-led efforts like these are transforming the lives of volunteers and the communities they serve: “I have witnessed the power of people — young people — coming together, fueled by a shared passion and making an impact on our community.”

* To protect privacy, last names of participants who are younger than 18 are not included in this story.