It Starts With This: A Microsoft YouthSpark Challenge For Change Winner’s Letter To You

I love giveaways.

I have two entire email addresses dedicated just for subscribing to store newsletters and company giveaways & contests.

Even though the whole “luck of the draw” concept gets me excited, I never really expect to win anything. I don’t feel particularly lucky, nor do I know if I really believe in the concept of luck or fate.

But, I do believe in good ideas and the power of sharing those ideas. Maybe that’s what compelled me to apply for Microsoft YouthSpark’s first Challenge for Change competition one and a half years ago.

Or maybe I was procrastinating on studying for final exams and I found myself clicking the sidebar ads on Facebook that led me to the competition entry page.

Maybe it was a little of both.

I’ll just say it was a little of both.

I didn’t always think that sharing your ideas was a good thing. Giving your idea a public platform can put you in a very vulnerable place. You can be criticized, belittled, undermined. Honestly, I really should have been more afraid of applying for the competition. But, I wasn’t due in part to the fact that I honestly did not expect to win.

Fast-forward a month and I had become a finalist. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe that I had captured the attention of a panel of Microsoft employees who believed in my idea to bring peace education to primary school students around the world. Still, I did not think I deserved the attention or recognition that being a “finalist” in anything would bestow on someone. I wondered to myself why on earth anyone would pick me against the other young changemakers that applied.

A couple months later, four others and I won the competition. We were on our way to Kenya through the non-profit organization, Free The Children and their social enterprise, Me to We. That trip was an adventure I won’t soon forget.

After winning and going on an incredible journey, both physically and mentally, I realized several things:

First, it only takes an idea to change your life. Your idea may not give you global acclaim or make your crush like you back. But, if you believe in something strongly enough, you can change your entire world. And that’s something worth celebrating. I had no idea that the tangibility of peace education could impact my entire life, but it has. The idea took ahold of me and allowed me to develop a comprehensive understanding of social justice issues. It showed me that peace could give someone more hope and strength than any oppressive show of force could ever provide. Your idea, whatever it is, believe in it and run with it. You’ll be surprised at how much you grow from that little idea.

Second, the power of believing in yourself and having a supportive group of peers is instrumental for success. You may have doubts about your abilities, especially when there are many projects out there that are impactful and powerfully shifting mainstream narratives. But, I think that (a healthy amount of) doubts are only reminders to remain critical and analyze your ideas so that they can become the best they can be. Small doubts can eventually make you more confident if taken care of healthily. But, if you doubt too much, having a kind network of people that can tell you to relax every once in a while is extremely beneficial.

Third, don’t let competition consume you. If you become a finalist, you’re put up against a great group of changemakers who have equally as great of ideas as you do. Be confident in your abilities, but remember you are not the only person who matters. Remember that you are not special because you are a finalist or because you win something. You are special because you are one representative of the multitudes of people who do good in the world. I think the excitement that comes with winning a competition makes you think that you deserve recognition and praise over other people. Don’t let the idea of “winning” something tarnish your ability to see others’ ideas as something equally as wonderful as yours. Instead, empower others to understand your own goals and work to understand theirs. Solidarity is a strengthening thing. That’s why they call it solidarity.

Lastly, you are young. This competition is for youth, after all. Because you are young and because you now pressure yourself to take on the world, you will become burnt out. It is the nature of being an activist and visionary. That’s what you are, even if you don’t think it. Remember that as a visionary, your idea has the power to impact your entire being if you let it. Winning a contest is just the first step in journey to being all you want to be. It’s a beautiful journey and winning allows you to feel validated, but it can and will get tiring. Take a second and breathe. Let yourself witness all the amazing things that have come from your one idea, but don’t let it overwhelm you. You do not need to accomplish everything in one sitting. Let yourself make some mistakes and make sure you give a little bit of knowledge to someone else that wants their own idea to take flight. Even though you are young, you have a great deal of insight. Share it and do not be ashamed.

We are given great opportunities in this world. Microsoft YouthSpark’s Challenge for Change is one of those opportunities. This competition not only challenges us to think about ways to improve the world, but also challenges us to believe in the power of youth.   We are able to say that youth are not just our future, but also impactful solutionaries in our present. The Challenge for Change forces us to see that good ideas do not just come from traditionally educated adults, but also from children of all different backgrounds. And their ideas are being given a wonderful platform to grow and prosper. I have the competition to thank for my personal growth and fervent belief in peace as a powerful tool of change. I hope that you too will thank it for helping you develop your own idea for change.

If you are thinking about applying for this year’s Challenge for Change competition, do it. Who better to help mold a brighter, more compassionate and equitable future than you?

If you have an inkling of an idea about how to improve this planet we’re living on, share it with the world. We’re ready for you.

With peace & compassion,

Christina

What’s In A Year?

It has been one year since I departed from my home, to Denver, to Toronto, to Kenya and spent an amazing twenty days surrounded by wonderful people in an equally wondrous place.

It is strange to think that it has been an entire year. While it feels like it’s been more than a year, it also feels as if I was just in Kenya yesterday.

When people ask how Kenya was, I still don’t know how to explain everything.
I’ve had a year to contemplate the trip and winning Microsoft’s Challenge for Change competition alongside four driven, funny, talented, intelligent people. I know that the world is full of issues of which I am very aware, but I also know that based on the people I met and people I still keep in contact with, I have a great deal of hope that we can work together to tackle each and every one of them.

Kenya gave me a lot of things.
Courage, mostly.

I thought I was courageous and independent before the trip, but it really took me being away from the US, from my family, from my friends, from everything I had known before, to truly feel the kind of courage I needed to improve some really difficult things in my life.
I thought I was empowered and wanted to change the world before. It took Kenya to push me into really knowing that was what I wanted and needed.

I think a lot of times people get big ideas and huge dreams, which is a great thing. It is necessary to have dreams to accomplish anything in life. But I also think that changing the world can seem like an impossible task. I think that people still see things in black and white–that you either change the world for the better or don’t do it at all.

But everything is trial and error. When people want to improve things, it can’t be immediate. And even the best of intentions do not do what they need to do for the people that need it most.
And admitting that, especially when you have big dreams and big goals, is a really difficult thing. People don’t like admitting the things you’re trying to do to improve things is actually not making things better. Especially humanitarians. Especially people who are seen as selfless, strong, good people. Especially me.

And it has been a year.
A whole year.

A long time, but a short time. And I have realized that I have made contributions, good and bad, to this world. And that the impacts I have on the people around me are large and varied, and important, even if I don’t think they may be at the time.

Kenya gave me courage to cut the things from my life that were holding me back, making me sad, giving me strife. It also gave me the courage to admit my initial goals and dreams may be flawed and self-righteous. It then gave me the courage to look inward and start from scratch.

Starting from scratch can be the scariest thing in the world, but sometimes, a lot of times, it is necessary.

A year ago, I thought humanitarianism and international development were clear cut. I thought if you give things to poor people, it solves everything. I was much more eurocentric, less critical, less understanding of different perspectives. I don’t think I was ignorant, but I was set in my ways because I wanted so badly to do good for the world. And being set in your ways and being convinced of your own do-goodery can be the worst thing for the people you are trying to uplift.

A year ago, I didn’t know or understand that completely.

In Kenya, I saw firsthand how that kind of sentiment can be so detrimental to everyone involved–both beneficiaries and benefactors.
I realized that it is GOOD to be critical, as long as you can supply and work towards a shift in mindset. It is not negative to question structures that are in place, especially in a non-profit, development situation. It is necessary, in fact, to push the envelope, question what people’s intentions are, and give the impoverished a space to use their OWN voice.

A year ago, I was very proud of my accomplishments in terms of Microsoft’s Challenge for Change and my research with a close professor. And it’s not to say that I shouldn’t have been proud or that I am still not proud. But being proud slows down the process. It’s not that you shouldn’t be happy and confident of your skills or abilities. But I think that a year ago, the prize was at the forefront of my mind, not the journey or the process. And the process is a long and arduous one, no matter what social justice issue you’re tackling. A proud accomplishment is just another step on the ladder. You are never done with the work you are doing, and in a way, that is a very nice thing. There is always something to improve, some injustice to battle, some minds to shift. It gives you things to work towards. A year ago, this idea would have been very frustrating for me.

A year ago, I did not know the wonderful people I would come to befriend and grow so much from. Being one of the oldest people on the trip, I did not know what to expect. I thought I would be a mentor and source of guidance. I felt a little entitled, to be honest. But I learnt a great deal from everyone on the trip. I got into so many situations that angered me, from seeing poverty porn in action to the oversimplification of some of social justice issues in the modules we participated in as a group. The anger I felt really showed me how much poverty alleviation and inclusive social justice is a passion for me. And, the best part was that I could air out my frustrations with my close friends on the trip and they knew, understood, and allowed me to have a safe space to engage in conversations about everything that bothered us.
A year ago, I didn’t have these friends.
Now, even a year later, I still do.

Kenya was honestly one of the best trips and experiences in my young life. A year later, and I can still say that. There are, of course, details that are fuzzy in my mind. Sometimes, names blur from my mind, but I have Facebook to assist me with that. But there are very poignant moments from the trip that I don’t think I can ever forget. I will still remember the Kenyan salesman at a gas station that tried to sell me a painting by speaking Chinese to me. I will still remember the multitudes of late nights, laughter, huge bugs, mosquito net mishaps, toilet adventures, and dancing to Shakira. I think some of the most memorable things were those that I could have done anywhere else in the world, but it wasn’t anywhere else in the world. It was in Kenya. It was in the Maasai Mara. It was in Mwangaza, where a part of my soul will constantly remain. And I was thankfully with an amazing bunch of kiddos that I am so glad to have met, befriended, and bonded so deeply with.

Kenya and each person I crossed paths with gave me the courage I needed to do the things I needed and still need to do.

A year later, and I am still and always will be grateful.