Youth Who Matter

Posted by Sonya Surapaneni on Jun 13, 2020
1760 reads  
As an extroverted teenager in quarantine, striving to meet my own goals and expand my skills, I'm constantly looking for opportunities to give back to the community. I'm Sonya Surapaneni, a rising sophomore at The Athenian School. Through the Corona Virus, I have remained positive, trying to shine light on small acts of kindness through the world-wide pandemic. Although I've been researching and writing about things happening at a large scale, I missed my best friends trying to give back to society - right under my nose! Greatly inspired by this, I wanted to share it with the commmunity, in hope of providing light through the events of the world. I FaceTimed each of them, asked them a couple of questions, and took notes on their ideas - quickly putting them in a Q&A format in a Google Doc. I have linked the interviews down below. Enjoy!

INTERVIEW 1
Cailean Fernandes and Arush Medham, co-founder
s of ISM.
Both rising sophomores in San Jose, Arush and Cailean have been best friends for a long time. From trash-talking each other in basketball to crying over girls together, they’ve always stuck by each other - through thick and thin. Both very passionate and dedicated coders, they’ve made many projects that show off their extensive knowledge, and aim for the best. In this interview, they talk about their newest website, a political platform for people to voice their opinions: ISM. They come together with Tejas Polu and Yash Chhatre to create a polished product, accessible to people all over the world.




Arush Medham (top), Cailean Fernandes (above)

What inspired you to start this project?
We were inspired by current events including the protests and rising up against racial injustice in our community. We wanted to create a way for people to share their experiences and spark conversations about these topics that others usually stray away from.

Can you describe the forum/project a bit? Although we began a project for a Hackathon, it quickly turned into something more, In the span of 40 hours, we were tasked to create a project that corresponded to the category: “People’s Choice.” We decided to create a forum, ISM, to let people speak their minds about what was going on in the world right now - including police brutality, racism, the pandemic, and more. It’s a safe space to have conversations about current affairs with no judgment or backlash.

How did you feel when you started to see your idea ripple out? What were your initial thoughts and how did you begin to see it all together?
When our idea started to work, as a group we were all extremely happy. We knew that we could make a difference in the world, one step at a time. Although our initial thoughts were to celebrate that it was working, we knew we had to stay focused and continue building the forum to get a finished product.

Many people have ideas, but you are putting them into action. What gave you the resolve or strength or conviction to take initiative?
There’s a lot going on in the world right now - with the protests, rising cases of Corona, and lockdowns being lifted. Since many people are quarantined right now, some may not have a safe space to talk about how they’re feeling through this stressful situation, and this forum gives them an opportunity to voice their thoughts.

What have you learned from the experience so far?
We have all learned many skills from the coding side: managing, setting up, and structuring a firestore database, to helping people around the world by providing them with resources to speak their mind. As a group, we have learnt to keep our friendships tighter than ever as we collaborate on an app simultaneously.

What's been most surprising or unexpected?
Surprisingly, we made a semi functional app, and had it running in less than two days. Although we might not win the Hackathon, we still made a difference to the world with our hard work and support from others.

What is something that has stayed with you? (e.g. a moment, a learning, a mistake, a person, etc.)
When we first started brainstorming for ideas, we wasted time thinking of the things we couldn’t do, rather than what we could do. We got held back on the logistics, and spent more time worrying about whether we were going to finish, instead of actually putting in the work to finish. If we didn’t do this, we would have a better project overall.

Do you think this would be different if it was organized by adults? What do you think is the strength of something youth-led like this?
Yes, it would definitely be different. Although adults would have done a better job coding and putting it all together, I think it’s important that we did it at a young age. As people of youth in the community, we educate ourselves on current events, because we are the generation that can make a difference to the world. Further, we think that it’s easier for younger people in our community to voice their feelings to people who can understand. As mere fifteen year old boys, we think that younger children would open up to us more than they would to adults in today’s world.

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INTERVIEW 2
Phani Chunduru, teacher at YAPA.
Phani has always been passionate about helping others, and giving back to his community. Along with his resilience and impeccable work ethic, he can make anyone laugh at any time - with his witty sense of humor and quick pick up lines. From a young age, Phani’s always been interested in the teaching field, hoping to teach middle-schoolers one day. Extremely bored in quarantine, he did a quick google search and found opportunities for himself to follow his passion - through YAPA kids. Breezing through the application and interview, he found himself tutoring younger kids sooner than he expected. Now, Phani teaches multiple students from all over the nation, and serves society with his
extensive knowledge.










Phani from 2018 because he apparently doesn’t take pictures

What inspired you to start teaching?
I’ve always wanted to teach younger kids because I find it easier for them to relate to me, rather than people twice my age. Also, it’s inspiring that I’d be part of their journey, and possibly make a difference in their lives.

Can you describe the project a bit?
The project, or YAPA, is a group of students that gather high schoolers to teach younger students subjects that they might not learn at school or give them extra help to achieve the grade that they need.

How did you feel when you started to see your idea ripple out? What were your initial thoughts and how did you begin to see it all together?
I started to feel encouraged and inspired by all the young people that could make a difference in the world later in their lives. Teaching people outside of school helped the students in a more effective and efficient way. Although initially, I was scared that I’d be ignored, I developed confidence in teaching over time.

Many people have ideas, but you are putting them into action. What gave you the resolve or strength or conviction to take initiative?
Members of YAPA gave me the strength by giving me a platform to put my skills to use, and helped me develop a more concrete understanding of what my potential was, and how I could use it.

What have you learned from the experience so far?
I learned to be organized, to be a leader, and build on my communication skills. Further, I developed confidence and self-awareness when teaching younger people.

What's been most surprising or unexpected?
The most surprising thing I’ve learned is that YAPA is mainly student led with not much help from adults - we organize classes, class leads, program leads, and build curriculums by ourselves.

What is something that has stayed with you? (e.g. a moment, a learning, a mistake, a person, etc.)
The YAPA interview was the first I’d ever done, and it was unexpectedly easy. It taught me to not be as scared of people and their expectations, and to trust myself.

Do you think this would be different if it was organized by adults? What do you think is the strength of something youth-led like this?
I think it would be very more strict and not lenient on how we would teach the kids. The strength of youth-led organizations is that we know how we want to be taught like and how we learn the best. We understand the curriculum, and the difficulties younger children have with it, and work on it to make things easier for young people in the world today.

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INTERVIEW 3
Akshay Sahai, Co-founder of Race Voice.
Akshay’s always been the most caring and likeable person around - with his riveting humor and many magic tricks up his sleeve. He studies hard, but parties even harder. Definitely a momma’s boy, Akshay listens and helps everyone with their problems, never leaving anyone out. Since he was young, he’s always been interested in STEM, and picked up coding at a young age. It wasn’t hard for him to learn language after language, and expand his skills even further. Now, he uses his coding knowledge to help the world, and try to give back to society as much as he can - one project at a time. Akshay has developed Race Voice with Rahul Punji and Priya Darsi to create a safe space for people to speak about racism in the world today, and give the community a platform to share their beliefs.






Akshay Sahai (left)

What inspired you to start this project?
Growing up in a world where it’s hard for teenagers to take action, and to speak about their beliefs, we wanted to create a platform for people to talk about racism in the world today. Serving as a different platform than ISM, we offered People of Color somewhere to collaborate, and get to know each other, while staying updated with current affairs. On the other hand, we were also using this task as a way for us to grow and learn as teenagers. We wanted to experience working with other people on a web development project because learning to learn to work with other people is important to us. Collaboration is an important skill to have, as this prepares us for our jobs in the future - when we will be forced to work with others to complete tasks efficiently. We also wanted to put our experience to the test, and apply it to a problem instead of doing a lot of projects on our own.

Can you describe the project a bit?
We were inspired to give people a platform to voice their opinions on current affairs instead of flooding these posts on other platforms - which some people may find annoying. So we created Race Voice, a platform related to reddit where you can post and comment whatever you like related to race/racism. We also have additional resources on how you can support the movement and safely protest.

How did you feel when you started to see your idea ripple out? What were your initial thoughts and how did you begin to see it all together?
We felt that we could help people all over the world, and begin to make an impact with this platform. At the beginning, we were just brainstorming to see where our thoughts could take us, and kept modifying the idea until it directly correlated with the racial discrimination in our world today.

Many people have ideas, but you are putting them into action. What gave you the resolve or strength or conviction to take initiative?
We just wanted to put our skills to the test, and do something that could be useful for the world. This website helps many people support the movement and it could be a key to reducing racism in our society - which kept us motivated.

What have you learned from the experience so far?
Working day and night trying to get this finished, we learnt time management, self-motivation, and cultivated a desire to do good for the world. We also began to empathize with those that were victims of these racial injustices, and strived to give them a better life.

What's been most surprising or unexpected?
Throughout this project, many of us found a part of ourselves that we didn’t know existed - the part that yearned to make people’s lives better. We became more self-aware and appreciating of the world, and tried to understand our privilege while staying compassionate to others at a sensitive time like this.

What is something that has stayed with you? (e.g. a moment, a learning, a mistake, a person, etc.)
On the technical side, we have learnt how to be a leader in times of crisis, how to plan ahead, and time management. A mistake we made throughout the process was not creating a concrete plan for this product, such as an outline of our daily schedules. If we were more organized, the process would have been smoother, and more effective. Overall, we have learnt to appreciate those who are there for us, recognize our privilege, and empathize with those who are being discriminated against - everyday.

Do you think this would be different if it was organized by adults? What do you think is the strength of something youth-led like this?
If the project was organized by adults, it would be more professional and better-looking, definitely. However, a youth-led project like this is an inspiration to many teenage activists across the country, who want to do good for the world. It motivates people to take action, and speak their beliefs.


PS: Thank you to Audrey for helping me with this! Much love! <3

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Comments (1)

  • Leela Kiyawat wrote ...

    Wow Sonya! How amazing to read!