March 5, 2018

Not just our ‘leaders of tomorrow’—these kids are changing the world today

Renewal Awards finalist LearnServe International gives students the tools to be social entrepreneurs in their own communities and abroad

LearnServe International alumna Gabrielle Lewis spoke about the importance of cross-cultural communication at a recent graduation ceremony. The nonprofit helps students sharpen their leadership skills. Photo courtesy of LearnServe International


Meet the finalists for The Renewal Awards, a project of The Atlantic and Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $150,000 in grant money. Ten winners will be announced March 27 at The Renewal Summit in New Orleans, on, and here, on The Renewal Project.

LearnServe International challenges students to think of the small, medium, and big ways they can change the world. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit gives them the tools—for example, connecting them with mentors—that will help them do it.

LearnServe Development Manager Emma Strother knows what an impact this kind of mentorship can have on students eager to make a change, because she was one herself. Strother has the distinction of being the first full-time staff member who is also an alumnus of the program. She was passionate about the arts and LearnServe helped her develop and launch a music program at her local elementary school in 2010. We asked the 25-year-old to tell us how LearnServe is inspiring the next generation, and how she herself was inspired when she was in high school. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation. Learn more about LearnServe on Facebook and on Twitter at @LearnServe.

Tell us how LearnServe is helping to shape its community.

LearnServe International believes in the power of young people to create change‒and in the power of social change work to shape young leaders. What if every student graduated high school with the vision of a leader, the creativity and tenacity of an entrepreneur, and the passion of a change-maker? LearnServe equips high school students with the business and leadership skills they need to tackle social challenges at home and abroad.

We bring students together from a wide range of academic and personal backgrounds‒across public, private, and charter schools in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia‒through in-school courses, after-school programs, and summer abroad trips. Our first-year, after-school LearnServe Fellows Program guides students in launching social ventures to benefit their communities and schools. Our second-year, intensive LearnServe Incubator supports the most promising ventures in maximizing their impact through lean startup methodology and customer discovery research.

We also train teachers to use our Seeding Social Innovation curriculum during the school day, making social entrepreneurship accessible to students throughout area middle and high schools. Our students have the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of social innovation and human-centered design in global context through LearnServe Abroad summer trips to Jamaica, Paraguay, South Africa, and Zambia.

Since our founding, over 1,500 students have participated in our programs. In turn, they have engaged more than 4,000 people in their social action projects. The ripple effects of their work extend far beyond.

Tell us about the LearnServe community.

The LearnServe community brings together students, alumni, families, teachers, staff, mentors, and volunteers all dedicated to promoting youth-led social change in the Washington, D.C., area. We are intentionally a diverse group in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, country of origin, ability, and socio-economic background. Each year, LearnServe works with middle and high school students ages 12-17 to become thoughtful, impactful leaders in their local communities and schools across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. We believe in strength through partnership, working closely with local organizations and partners overseas. LearnServe is a collaborative part of the larger ecosystem of youth-led social change in the D.C. area.

When did you start your community work?

I have had a unique and incredibly rewarding experience at LearnServe International as the first full-time staff member to be an alumna of the organization as well. As a violinist with a passion for community music, I launched a music program at my local elementary school through the LearnServe Fellows program in 2010. I argued that music education taught essential skills, gave kids a crucial creative outlet, and encouraged community-building to a panel of business leaders who approved seed funding for my social venture.

Adults often focus on young people as the “leaders of tomorrow.” I want everyone to know that young people are the leaders of today.

I was then given the opportunity to expand my knowledge of social action on a LearnServe Abroad trip to Zambia. LearnServe enabled me to channel my passion for the arts as an engine of social change at home and abroad. This passion fueled my research (now published) as an undergraduate on how political economic context shapes public arts policy in Latin America. Now as LearnServe’s Development Manager, I get to tell the stories of all our students channeling their own life experiences and personal passions into community-based social action. I am thrilled to have come full-circle with LearnServe.

What inspired you to do this work?

In a moment when the social problems facing our communities can feel overwhelming, I am consistently inspired by young people making change on the issues that matter to them most. Whenever I am tempted to throw up my hands and say, “the world must just be this way,” I draw strength from my peers, and from every other generation of LearnServe students, who have refused to accept the world as it is and fought to recreate what it could be. From Yasmine Arrington, a LearnServe Fellow alongside me who was looking for a college scholarship because her father was incarcerated. She didn’t find one, so she launched her own fund at 16. Her nonprofit ScholarCHIPS has awarded more than $100,000 in college scholarships to 43 children of incarcerated parents in the past eight years. From Mashaba Rashid, who since launching her LearnServe venture has educated hundreds of elementary school students on environmental issues through her Eco-Schools Leadership Initiative. She presented her work to the Clinton Global Initiative last fall. From Rohan Suri, who developed an app to help diagnose concussions from your smartphone. He’s on the Forbes top 30 under 30 list in health care. From Sebastian Martin, among the earliest of LearnServe’s students who now runs one of the first fair trade coffee companies in Shanghai. He’s teaching social entrepreneurship out of his coffee shops.

All of us have answered the simple question “how will you make a change?” differently. Each of our answers has inspired social action and community growth.

What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?

LearnServe helps young people find their voice‒as empathetic, creative, and confident leaders and change-makers. Our social entrepreneurs gain hands-on experience tackling pressing social challenges in their communities and schools. This process encourages young change-makers to thrive through a combination of business and professional skills, social and emotional learning, and civic engagement. Eighty-four percent of our alumni have shared that LearnServe empowered them to take action, and 86 percent have reported that our programs strengthened their global and social awareness. Two thirds of our alumni remain engaged in their communities beyond LearnServe–and more than half of them in a leadership role.

What do you love about your community?

I love that the LearnServe community is supportive of healthy risk. The looming pressures of grades, test scores, and college often dominated my high school experience. In that time, LearnServe was a place where I could dream big, take risks, sometimes fail spectacularly, and always learn from my mistakes. Today more than ever, young people need encouragement to think outside the box, to tackle problems from unconventional angles, and to adjust and persist when they fail.

What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?

Adults often focus on young people as the “leaders of tomorrow.” I want everyone to know that young people are the leaders of today. LearnServe students are not content to wait to make a change. We are restless and eager to start something now. Most high school students can’t vote. They are years from launching careers. They may compete for jobs that have yet to be invented. But today they can begin as change-makers.

What leader or leaders inspire you?

Generally, I am inspired by individuals who draw strength from their life experiences to lead with integrity, compassion, and justice. Recently, I have been incredibly inspired by the work of Minnesota State Representative Ilhan Omar. Her rise to leadership as a representative of her community succeeded against all odds, while defining and harnessing the power of her own personal narrative. Her commitment to “training the next generation of organizers to create grassroots, progressive change” is urgently needed.

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.