Being A Changemaker and Improving Communities
Ten hours before a workshop I was hosting, a speaker on the panel emailed me to cancel. An initial surge of panic enveloped me. I had 45 girls registered to attend this workshop—which would have a Q&A and an activity on making fitness trackers—and suddenly one of the speakers was pulling out. Rather than spending time getting angry (and because I didn’t have the time!), I needed to quickly pivot to find a solution. I collaborated with the other speaker on the panel to alter our format to create a slideshow documenting our remaining speaker’s work. We came up with a practical solution that still resulted in an engaging and educational workshop for the attendees.
My name is Manat Kaur. I’m 16 years old and an 11th-grader in the San Francisco Bay Area. I am an Ashoka Young Changemaker and the founder of Object (www.object.live), a nonprofit empowering young girls to discover their self-esteem, confidence and self-image. We do so by connecting young girls (ages 9-16) with women role models through storytelling, educating girls by examples and stories. The name comes from objecting to female gender stereotypes.
Object hosts monthly workshops with successful women speakers who share their story, lead an activity to give girls exposure to their field of work, and mingle with girls over food. I invite women role models from various backgrounds—an Olympic gold medalist in water polo, a New York Times bestselling and Newbery Medal-winning children’s author, head of pediatrics at Stanford, “the most powerful woman in startups” as named by Forbes, women mayors, women leaders at Google, and others—so that girls can hear their stories and try their hands at different things to discover new interests. Girls need access to women role models because, as one of the moms who brings her daughter to our workshops says, “if she can see it, she can be it.”
My Changemaker Journey
My changemaker journey has allowed me to develop empathy, collaboration, resilience and problem-solving skills, which enable me to face challenges in the moment, like the speaker canceling, and make a difference. These traits, I believe, extend beyond the classroom, and are critical to success in today’s fast progressing world, where storytelling and technology are great catalysts for change.
I’ve always loved STEM. In elementary school, I spent recess in the science lab and enjoyed STEM classes. Enter middle school: I was carrying forward this enthusiasm for STEM. However, as girls around me increasingly focused on their appearance and boys, I soon felt uncool. My nerdy interests didn’t feel like the way to be popular. While my peers pursued newfound crushes, I pursued the bugs in my Scratch code. Trying to be popular, I stopped participating in class, quit robotics and skipped STEM workshops. My confidence had taken a hit.
Looking back at my yearbook, I saw the photos of these workshops and recognized that I had missed out on many wonderful opportunities. After opening up to other girls, I realized I was not the only one struggling with confidence. Instead, today, young girls fall victim to media/social messages that dictate acceptable behavior. Already vulnerable to peer pressure, these can affect girls’ confidence, deterring them from exploring their passions.
I was able to understand my friends’ experiences and step into their shoes. Listening to them taught me that this is a broader issue and pushed me to make a change. These conversations helped me develop empathy—the cornerstone quality of a changemaker—which has significantly enriched my life because it allowed me to vicariously step into others’ shoes and understand their stories.
As a youth reporter for Sports Illustrated Kids and Scholastic News for a number of years, I saw the power of storytelling. For my articles, I interviewed many successful women leaders, who always left me with the uplifting feeling of “if she can do it, so can I.” I wished my friends could hear their stories as well.
Fed up with not being able to be myself at school and listening to my friends’ experiences, I wanted to look for a solution to promote confidence in young girls. I decided I needed to connect young girls with women role models in a variety of fields. Boosting girls’ confidence by connecting them with women role models enables girls to become leaders and changemakers, closing the gender gap.
After doing research and talking to friends, parents and women role models, I realized girls wanted to hear women’s stories, try something new and have the chance to interact with a role model in a casual setting. This inspired the three-part format for Object workshops with the women role models: a fireside chat, an experiential activity and a reception. By working with others and getting their feedback to refine and evolve my idea, I cultivated my collaboration skills.
In today’s world, teamwork and collaboration is vital to make progress. I now have 30 teammates who contribute to leading Object chapters in the United States, India and Palestine. Through collaboration, Object is having a real impact at a local and international level.
As I began to plan our first few workshops, I had to recruit speakers, find a venue, hand out flyers in parks and libraries, find a videographer to film our workshops and, most importantly, ask for help. Each of these challenges helped develop my courage and resilience. Finding speakers was a challenge as a 13-year-old; it required me to step outside my comfort zone by cold-emailing people and asking others for help with introductions. While many women were supportive, I also got a good number of no replies. Similarly, finding a venue was difficult because none of the schools and organizations I reached out to were willing to host my workshops over the weekend.
At first, rejections from speakers and venues made me feel disheartened. But over time, I developed resilience. Now, no is not demoralizing for me. Rather, it provides me the fuel to keep going. Being a changemaker has enabled me to become a risk-taker; I am no longer afraid of failure. I feel comfortable exploring because I know that even if I fail, I can adjust to get to a good outcome.
The activity portion of our workshop allows girls to get comfortable with risk-taking and trying something new. The girls work in small teams on a wide range of speaker-led activities, such as making their city safe for bicyclists, DNA extraction from strawberries, making banana jam and designing wearable devices for fitness tracking. Through teamwork, diving into something new and presenting to their peer group, the girls learn to lean-in by developing resilience and risk-taking skills.
In the last three years, Object has grown in ways I could never have imagined. About 2,500 girls have attended Object workshops. In a survey of Object participants in the United States, 94 percent of girls reported increased self-confidence and 90 percent reported that they were more likely to follow their passions after attending Object workshops. I also learned that 87 percent of girls enjoy the opportunity to try something new. Seeing this impact is really fulfilling because it shows me that fewer girls will share my experience of struggling with confidence.
Through leading Object workshops for three years now, I have learned how to become a problem-solver and think on my feet. I have faced lots of last-minute challenges, such as speakers canceling, videographers being late, more girls registering than anticipated, etc. As a changemaker, I have learned how to think outside the box to brainstorm practical solutions. However, I have also internalized the importance of being kind to myself, since not everything can be perfect.
Every student in every classroom and in every community in America and globally can become a changemaker. Today, more than ever, we need youth to become changemakers because they bring fresh perspectives and motivation to solve global issues. We don’t know the limits. We define what is possible, which is a gift. We believe all change is possible. Being a changemaker is about working, in any capacity, to help others. Change begins with small actions and has a ripple effect. While you change the world, your actions change you. Every small step is powerful.
Manat Kaur, an 11th-grader in the San Francisco Bay Area, is an Ashoka Young Changemaker and the founder of Object, a nonprofit empowering young girls to discover their self-esteem, confidence and self-image.