On October 11th, 2018, Ali Matalon and I attended a conference at Georgetown University, hosted by the International Youth Foundation and Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact. The conference showcased young social entrepreneurs and their stories of creating social change in their corners of the world. The young entrepreneurs also discussed the challenges they faced in trying to succeed in starting up such enterprises and generate the greatest social impact. I learned a lot about the challenges I might face when fighting for social change at a young age, and I was inspired by these stories of young people striving for and achieving change despite many obstacles.
During the program, three of the International Youth Foundation’s 2018 Laureate Global Fellows made presentations. They were all impressive, but one fellow stood out in my mind: Sonal Jain Padamchand, from India. Sonal works in India to change the stigma surrounding menstruation. She spoke about the discrimination and ostracization that girls and women, including herself, face in India while on their period. Sonal’s project, Boondh, works to change cultural attitudes in India and to eradicate the shame attached to menstruation, while also promoting the use of eco-friendly female sanitary products. Sonal’s story was particularly striking to me because, in many ways, she is trying to achieve “the impossible”. When a culture perpetuates a belief for hundreds of years, whether that belief has good or bad effects, it is very hard to shift the norms that evolve around the belief. In Indian culture there is a longstanding attitude that women are “impure” or “dirty” while menstruating, and the powerful myths and stereotypes generated by this attitude get in the way of educating populations about the facts of menstruation. Women like Sonal are fighting against many obstacles to change these cultural beliefs and social attitudes.
In addition to the Fellows’ presentations, the conference also featured speeches by the keynote speaker Sheldon Smith and by board members and staff members of the International Youth Foundation, followed by breakout sessions on a variety of topics. I found the session, Unlocking the Potential of Young People to Create Change, particularly engaging. The panelists discussed the challenges young leaders face when trying to drive change and how to overcome these challenges. They also discussed the potential of today’s youth to start a movement, exert influence, and create change in society. I was inspired to hear that so many people have faith in today’s youth. It is too often easy for people to ignore or shut down young people’s ideas simply because they are young.
The event concluded with a reception in honor of Bill Reese, a WEI board member who is the Chief Executive Officer of the International Youth Foundation. Bill first joined IYF in 1998, when he was Chief Operating Officer. He is now retiring, and the reception was a wonderful way for his IYF colleagues to express their appreciation and gratitude for his influential work over the past two decades.