4 ways to make a difference in your community

21573029020_468587fe21photo credit: 2015 National Public Lands Day at Yaquina Head! via photopin (license)

The Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report a few weeks ago on reforming college admissions. One of their first suggestions was to have more students take “collective action that takes on community challenges”

But what is this “collective action”? What are these “community challenges”? And doesn’t that just mean starting a non-profit or doing a ridiculous amount of volunteer work?

Not necessarily. Volunteering isn’t bad, and American high school students make a tremendous impact on the community each year. But it’s not unique. If one person is volunteering, then certainly it’s a good thing. But the marginal utility of each additional volunteer decreases as the same places get flooded with volunteers year after year. Here are some other options.

1) Media and Journalism

Journalism is massively, massively, being undersold to high school students. The media plays one major role in the community: It keeps government and companies accountable. Without the media to expose scandals and update people on things that are happening, corruption can easily run rampant.

Think about the Jungle. Think about the role the New York Times played in releasing the Pentagon Papers. Think of all the investigative journalism that results in policy change. Think beyond the school newspaper.

I learned the basics of journalism ethics in middle school, but I know of very few student journalists who have had ethical conflicts in deciding what to write.

Journalism doesn’t just involve newspapers though. There are many ways :

  • Starting a radio show, a TV show, or a blog, and interviewing influential people. Take advantage of community radio and TV stations.
  • Publishing an op-ed in the local paper or becoming a columnist. If you can write decently well, most newspapers would love to hear a youth perspective. The challenge is in finding the right person to contact.
  • Pitching a story idea to a media outlet about an issue that needs further investigation.

A note on social media: Social media is a powerful medium, but TVs, radio stations, newspapers, have more credibility and can reach a broader audience. With social media, the best bet is to go “viral”, and viral content doesn’t always equal valuable content. (See: Buzzfeed food videos.)

2) Working with a non-profit 

Most of the largest societal issues already have non-profits devoted to them. There are tons of non-profits devoted to hunger, literacy, arts, poverty, already, and the people heading these non-profits are extremely knowledgeable about these issues. Working for a non-profit is just like working for a company, but with more flexibility. You can learn fundraising skills, marketing skills, communication skills, meet people in the community who are doing fantastic work, while learning about a social issue.

To this, Cal Newport offers a piece of unconventional yet valuable piece of advice:

“Students think they have to apply for already established positions,” Kate explained to me when we were discussing her path to innovation.

“For example, I had many friends sign up to be candy stripers at the hospital. But at a huge hospital, they’ve had lots of students work there, they have them answer the phone, they know exactly what their job will be.… There are so many student volunteers there doing the same thing, you won’t be noticed.”

Kate’s insight is sharp. A dangerous trap for a student looking to innovate is entering a community that already has clear roles for volunteers. It’s nearly impossible to stand out when your workday is confined to a rigid structure. To elaborate on Kate’s example, most hospitals have a large student volunteer program. This option might seem appealing because it’s a well-trod path including a clear application process, but as Kate noted, the hospital isn’t going to allow you a chance to innovate. The people in charge already have a useful place for students— answering phones and running errands for nurses—and see no need to change this.

-How to be a High School Superstar, Cal Newport

The best opportunities generally arise spontaneously, and the best chance to grab these opportunities is to be in the right place at the right time. Yet generally, most people I know who work with a non-profit, apply for the same positions and do the same volunteer roles.

Find something interesting, something unique, contact the volunteer coordinator or the president, and ask if they would like a student to help with anything.

3) Research/Service Learning

This can be entering science fair, but it doesn’t have to. What if you were the first person to test the water in Flint? What about measuring energy costs in the city? And then following advice #1 and writing something in the newspaper about it?

There’s a certain excitement and virtue of doing medical research, of doing work that is only accessible to a small elite. But it’s also exciting to do something that’s accessible to everyone but that no one has ever done because they haven’t thought about it.

Even better, what about applying what you learn in school to improve the community? There’s a growing movement in the United States for service learning. This can easily be applied to environmental classes, but the connection isn’t as clear for more academic classes. In the end, the

4) Political Activism

This is generally the thing most people choose to get involved with. And helping with a political campaign is admirable. But the true way to gain political clout is through numbers.

If you can get 5 of your friends to come to something, that’s a good start. But getting hundreds of people to rally around an issue (especially a group of disillusioned high school students)

In the words of Augustus Waters from The Fault in Our Stars:

“When you’re as charming and physically attractive as myself, it’s easy enough to win over people you meet. But getting strangers to love you… now, that’s the trick.”

This is hard. This is insanely difficult.  People are almost always going to resist doing anything because of inertia. I’ve only seen mobilizing people attempted a few times, and it’s rarely been as successful as anticipated. At least in schools, everyone’s free time is at the same time in the same place, during lunch and after school. In that sense, it’s easy to get people to join a club or come to a school event. And extra credit in a class is always a good incentive.

Trying to do this in a larger community, where people’s schedules are more scattered. If you’re still in a school, be thankful for the easy access to this community.

The Biggest Challenge

Frankly, none of these activities require as much raw effort, talent, or time as becoming a nationally recognized athlete,  musician, or scientist. Those people generally start training at an extremely young age, while the 4 things above can easily all be picked up in high school.  I think it’s still remarkably difficult for a few reasons:

  1. There’s not someone telling you what to do. If anything, it’s driven by passion and personal interest, something that can easily be swept aside by a regimented life and deadlines.
  2. These all require finding the right issue to focus on. And often times, it’s hard to find the right issue.
  3. Very few high school students are doing this, and there aren’t many role models.

There’s a certain mindset that you have to adopt, a certain persistence that one needs in order to do these things. But in the end, it’s going to be worth it.

Go out and change the world.


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