Kevin: According to the Brennan Center for Justice, student activism is on the rise. Despite long being thought of as politically disengaged, students are interested now more than ever in advocating for the causes that they care about. What drives our students to engage in civic life and create calls for action? What barriers exist for young people pursuing activism, and how can we support students who desire to create positive change in their communities? This is What I Want to Know. And today I'm joined by Mandy Zhang to find out.
Kevin: Mandy Zhang is a high school student in upstate New York and the founder and executive director of Young STEMists, a nonprofit dedicated to reimagining STEM education for all students. As a recipient of the Youth Activist of the Year award by the Dutchess County Democratic Committee, she is passionate about a variety of issues affecting young people. Today she joins us to discuss what civic engagement means to this generation and how they want to be supported. Mandy, welcome to the show.
Mandy: Thank you so much for having me. I love doing podcasts and especially doing What I Want to Know; it's such an honor.
Kevin: Well, thank you very much. Now, first of all, I want to make sure that all of our listeners and viewers know a little bit about you. You're still in high school, correct?
Mandy: Yes, I'm 17 years old.
Kevin: And what's the name of your high school?
Mandy: Roy C Ketcham High School. It's in Dutchess County of New York.
Kevin: Now, you've received a lot of attention and notoriety because of your activism, and by activism I mean that you have found issues that you believe are important, and you've spoken out about them. Now, where did this all come from? Because for a lot of students finding their voice, especially when it comes to issues with adults, sometimes control can be tough, but you have managed to do that. So talk about what drove you to speak out on some of these things.
Mandy: So, basically growing up I had selective mutism, and if you don't know what that is, it's a complex anxiety disorder characterized by the inability to speak and communicate effectively in certain social situations. So for me, I couldn't really talk in the school because I just had selective mutism, and I couldn't get the words out. And I also live in Dutchess County in New York, and a few years ago, nearly half of my village burned down. So I was also inspired to prevent another destruction caused by fire. So I decided to form a Red Cross Club at my school, and that's where I not only started a home fire safety campaign for kids in town elementary schools, that's where I first started, but that's where I also overcame my selective mutism. And I started to get out of my comfort zone, and we also taught 400 kids how to make an escape plan, engaging them and stop, drop and roll and what to do during an emergency.
So on Red Cross Day, we also programmed the Mid-Hudson Bridge to light up red to recognize the people who make our mission possible. And when the pandemic hit, we sewed 300 masks for veterans, and we also hosted bake sales during the Ukraine war. And two years ago, I proposed a comprehensive plan that would make tracking volunteer hours easier, which is also used by the American Red Cross today. So this school year, I'm also planning to make a puppet show in my town and talk about the importance of first aid safety and what to do during a natural disaster. So as the founder and president of my Red Cross Club for the past two years, I've not only learned how to unite a community after a devastating fire, but I also learned the importance of engaging with your community and uniting young leaders that will change the world one day.
Kevin: Now, by the way, it should be noted for our listeners and viewers that you're one of 25 students across the country that has been designated as an ambassador for the Red Cross because of your work. So congratulations on that.
Mandy: Thank you. I was so shocked that I got picked, and I think there were only two kids from New York State that got picked.
Kevin: Wow, that's awesome. So Mandy, let's talk about your challenge in terms of speaking in social settings. Did you find, because I've talked to other students who've had similar challenges, what you described as your comfort zone? Did you find that the more you were able to step out a little bit, then over time you got more and more comfortable stepping out of that comfort zone even more?
Mandy: Yeah, definitely. I think when I was in elementary school, I tried really hard to speak by raising ... I would make a goal in my little planner and I would say, "Okay. Today I'm going to try to raise my hand for two questions," and then my teachers would also reward me with stickers that I get to pick from the treasure box. So I think that really helped, and getting myself more out in the community and engaging with people that I don't know really helped.
Kevin: And I'm sure that as a result of that, not only have you developed some friendships, but you've also developed confidence. Isn't that true?
Mandy: Yes, totally. I remember how shy I was, especially as like a ninth grader. I was still very shy, still very reserved. But then after COVID, I got involved in a lot of activism, and that just boosted my confidence, and I'm still working on my confidence, but it definitely boosted that way up. And studies show that the kids that get involved in their community have a higher self-esteem than kids who don't.
Kevin: Now you have been involved in a number of different other activities. You mentioned the Red Cross and the fire in your county and how you help bring people together. And I want to talk about some of the other things that you've gotten involved in. But I really also want to understand how you pick and choose because there are so many issues out here that are affecting the world, affecting community. How do you decide what problem you want to play a role in helping to solve?
Mandy: So, I think the main thing that is the reason why people get involved in activism is you pick a topic that really, really interests you. So for me, it's climate change because it really hits home for me. I used to go to Chinatown, New York City, and I would see just plastic bags everywhere. So that contributed to pollution, and that's where my mom also taught me about climate change. And that's how it all started, when I learned about what contributed to climate change and the smoke coming off from the factories.
Kevin: Now, when it comes to climate change, as you know, that is a hot political issue. There are folks who feel that there's no climate change. There are folks that feel that, okay, there are some issues that we need to deal with and others that feel strongly that we should be aggressive. How did you figure out the best way to navigate those political waters, because it's such a political issue?
Mandy: Yeah,. So one of my huge role models is Greta Thunberg, and she is very much politically attacked by the right side of politics. And I'm always inspired by her activism and determination, and I think it runs like ocean waves and motivates us, the rest of the youth activists to protest and take action, whether it be hanging out posters or running for office. And I think the main thing is just to ignore the political hate from the sides because I think when you focus on that, it just turns down into a very vicious spiral. And I do have some experience from that, and I learned not only to become resilient, but to learn how to become stronger and just to ignore the hate.
Kevin: You also have taken on the issue of book banning. So talk about that experience and why you chose that issue to lend your voice.
Mandy: Basically, last year there was this huge political wave of book bans, and due to COVID, a lot of parents got involved with their kids because we're all at home and virtual, so with nothing better else to do than get involved in your kids' education, which is great. But it comes to an extreme point where parents are going to school board meetings and becoming violent. So basically, I was watching some, like my school board meeting. I don't think any other kids watch it except me. But I was watching the school board meeting and something weird happened where this lady basically wanted to ban the book. No one noticed it, but our superintendent just with the snap of his finger, just banned it. So that really shocked me. So I did more research about it, and I realized that this was a much bigger issue than I even realized, and I couldn't even believe that it happened in our own district because I've been here since I was in kindergarten.
So I was like, "What is happening?" And obviously, the book Gender Queer was written by an LGBTQ author. So I learned that the books that are being banned are often written by African-American and LGBTQ authors. So I really want to support my peers because a lot of them are part of the community. So what I did was I started a petition, gained thousands and thousands of signatures, and it went viral. And I gained a bunch of support from librarians and teachers and students from across the nation.
Kevin: That's a huge issue, Mandy. And one thing that you said that I'm struck by is that during COVID, a lot of parents were home and they saw what was going on in their kids' classroom because it was right there, the virtual experience. And I've always believed that parents should be involved but also believe that students should be involved. And there has to be a balance in terms of how that involvement takes place. You have seen because of your activism that some adults respond in a positive way, and some do not. Talk a little bit about the support that students need that decide to express themselves. Because I really do believe that more students should weigh in on what's going on in schools because you're the end users; you're the ones who are supposed to be the recipients of the education. So talk a little bit about what would make it easier for young people to feel comfortable speaking about those things that affect them in school.
Mandy: So I think having a coherent and robust program of history and social science throughout the K-12 schools is definitely the first step. It teaches children how our government works and Democrat, Republican, and it develops a skill in our future citizens that will be needed to participate fully in the government. And also the ability to critically use evidence and to support an act, to support an argument. And debate club is also really important to have in a school because it allows the students an opportunity to join that and to argue against opposing views and to learn and listen from each other. It can also impact the student's willingness to participate, to vote, serve a jury, and run for elected office.
Kevin: Well, those things make a lot of sense. In fact, it's interesting because many of us believe that this idea of civics as just a class should be mandatory in schools, to your point, so the kids do understand the importance of participating in the democracy, and also so that parents and school leaders and school board members allow you a forum by which you can speak. You must be proud of Young STEMists. I mean, that's really a cool program. It's a different way to look at STEM education from a student's point of view. So talk about how that got started.
Mandy: So growing up, I was absorbed in the wondrous roles of STEM, but my parents couldn't afford to send me to robotics classes because we're on the lower side of the financial. So instead, as a child, I came up with my own ideas, and I made arcade games out of old boxes, which sparked my creativity and love for learning, and it also sparked my activism and desire to increase STEM resources for girls around the world who are just like me that could attend the classes that I wished I could. So what I wanted to do was start a program where we could provide free programs to kids in the country and globally. So I think I was in 10th grade; I started Young STEMists, and I taught 800 kids in Malaysia and India how to make bioplastic out of seaweed. And I learned how to do that from my chemistry class. So I applied it outside of class globally, which is really cool.
And we also host free monthly STEM classes to kids in the community for underserved kids. And I'm actually hosting one, I think in less than a month at my own local library. And I'm really humbled to share that a parent themself told me how big of an impact it has made on the community and their own kids. And we did have some kids, but the second year it blew up because so many parents talked about how great it was. So the second year when registration opened, the registration was filled in I think one hour. So all the spots were taken, and we had a bunch of fun.
Kevin: I mean, what's cool about this, when a lot of people think of STEM — and that's why this idea from the Young STEMists reimagining STEM education — a lot of people think of STEM, they think of serious classroom work. But when I looked at what you did in your camp, it was clear, and as you just described, it's also all about fun.
Mandy: Yeah, it was so much fun. I've never been so tired and so energetic at the same time, because seeing those kids every day and seeing their smiles just made the entire world for me. And we made, I think, pounds and pounds of slime. We had gallons of glue, and we also had slime solution, and we had confetti and these foam balls that we put inside them, and the kids were having a blast, and it made a huge mess. But that mess was so fun to clean up.
Kevin: That's awesome. Well, Mandy, I have one other question for you, and this is what I really want to know because so many young people are listening to you and just like you were inspired by Greta in the climate change issue. What advice would you give to high school students who want to step out there and speak out on those issues that are important to them but may be hesitant to do so — what advice would you give them?
Mandy: So, I do want to give advice for teachers also. So I'll start with that. So a few of my teachers actually do monthly career event projects like for AP biology. We research the latest news and write about new scientific breakthroughs. And I think that really helps students keep up with the latest topics and stay in touch with the world. And my ninth grade teacher, Mr. Zolotas — he lets us watch CNN 10 on Friday, which features politics, science and community news. And I think it really inspires us to change the world. And in terms of students, I think the main thing is to just find an issue that you really care about and research about it, learn more about it, talk about it with other people, your friends or classmates and teachers. And I think form a community, people that also care about it as much as you do, and then take it from there.
Kevin: Well, I think that's great advice. And Mandy, I tell you what, I commend you for what you're doing and your commitment. And don't lose that. You've got a bright future ahead of you, and obviously, you have the community at heart. So continue to do what you're doing and keep letting us know about your progress. And thanks so much for joining us on What I Want to Know.
Mandy: Thank you so much for having me.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education and write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Mandy Zhang is a high school student in upstate New York and the founder and executive director of Young STEMists, a nonprofit dedicated to reimagining STEM education for all students.
As the recipient of the Youth Activist of the Year award by the Dutchess County Democratic Committee, she is passionate about a variety of issues affecting young people.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.