To all the teens in the world who don’t know that they can make a difference:

When I was 12 years old, I never could have imagined that I had the power to change the world in a significant way. I was just an average nerdy pre-teen. Most of my thoughts revolved around Harry Potter, finishing homework, and what might be on the Disney Channel that night. On March 7, 2004, however, that all changed. I mean, I still watched way too much TV and fangirled too much over the fictional boy-who-lived. But I also became a proud changemaker.

So embarrassingly nerdy.

On this day, I participated in a community dialogue for young girls to learn about educational gender disparities in developing countries. I was eager to go to this meeting because of the experience I had in my homeland, Bangladesh, a few years earlier. It was the first time I understood what injustice was. I saw tiny kids in the street begging for spare change and high-rise luxury apartments next to dusty slums. I never got over how profoundly unfair it was. So when my friend called me on our house phone (since not many middle schoolers had cell phones those days!) to tell me that there was an opportunity to learn about why girls in countries like Bangladesh weren’t allowed to go to school, I wanted to know more.

The meeting was at my friend’s mom’s cafe, where me and six of my friends ate croissants around a wooden table. And we listened, in shock, as this woman with bright-colored glasses (and a similar personality!) talked about how 100 million girls around the world were currently unschooled. How can you not feel inspired to do something when you hear stats like that? So when Wendy, the woman with the glasses, asked if we wanted to create a campaign to address this issue, we all jumped at the opportunity. And that’s how we launched Youth Activism Project’s first campaign—School Girls Unite.

Selling pencils for girls’ scholarships in Mali was School Girls Unite’s first activity.

And just like that, I became an activist—even though I didn’t even know what it meant yet! Every Sunday at 4, my friends and I, along with Wendy and a few other adults, met at that beloved cafe and we created and prepared for plans to increase opportunities for girls’ education around the world. We helped launch a scholarship program for girls in Mali. We sold pencils and held events in our community to raise awareness about this issue and fundraise for these scholarships. And—this was the coolest part for me—we lobbied our Members of Congress, in which we were credited for successfully influencing the approval of a $200 million (!!) increase for basic education in the U.S. foreign assistance budget.

And best of all, although the adults played an important role in guiding us through the process, everything was led by us, the youth.

Senator Chris Van Hollen (then Congressman) had the pleasure of seeing us every year!

It was only by the time I was in college that I realized what a transformative experience this all was for me. Being a School Girls Unite leader allowed me to discover something that most kids probably don’t believe—that my voice mattered to society and that people should hear what I have to say. It introduced to me to social justice. It allowed me to make a difference in the world in a truly meaningful way (I mean, technically, my actions impacted millions of girls!). It got me into a place like Harvard for grad school because thanks to School Girls Unite, I had the right combination of skills—teamwork, critical thinking, & communication—and passion that allowed me to succeed. Above all, it gave me the need to keep fighting for justice for the rest of my life.

So, by the time I had to decide what I was going to do as a career, I kept coming back to supporting more youth activism because I know first-hand how important youth activism—YOUR activism—is for this world.

As evidenced by #NeverAgain (and, like, world history), young people have always been at the leaders of social and political change around the world. Yet their input is still ignored by politicians and decisionmakers around the world. And if you don’t have the opportunity to participate in civic engagement today, how are you going to be prepared to do so for the future? It’s time that we stop saying young people are the leaders of tomorrow. You are the leaders of today and tomorrow—the world needs your perspectives and ideas to become a better place.

Me today, soaking in the brilliance of Emma and all the other Parkland activists.

I would not be the activist I am today if it wasn’t for Wendy inviting me to join her despite my young age. So, today, I am leading Youth Activism Project because there is nothing that I’d rather do than to keep extending that invitation to other young people who might not yet know that their voices matter. Wendy and I want to help thousands of youth and adults in the United States—and eventually, around the world—to work together not just to elevate youth demands, but also to take real action for these demands.

So let’s start with you. If you want to learn how to become an activist or a changemaker or whatever you want to call it, then sign up for our e-alerts and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. And if you’re a US-based student, apply to lead a social change campaign with us! Take it from me—you won’t regret it 🙂

Always in solidarity,

Anika