Supporting All Students as Leaders Through Changemaking

Changemaking. It’s a powerful mindset to help us discover our own agency, step into our potential as leaders, and contribute to our communities. The middle level and high school years are a transformational time, but when layered with changemaking, young people are further equipped with the skills that will prepare them for the uncertainty of the road ahead. Consider using these six ways to look beyond traditional student leadership positions and support all students to develop these skills and mindset.

1. Look Beyond Volunteering and Service Hours

Most students in the education system today see two options:

  1. If they want leadership experience, they can try to get elected to an established student leadership position.
  2. If they want to contribute to society (or complete service hour requirements), they can volunteer with an existing organization or join a recommended activity.

At Ashoka, a global leader in systems change and social entrepreneurship, we’ve seen the transformative power that can be unleashed when these intentions are combined within a school culture that supports young people to solve problems and create opportunities for the good of all. We call this changemaking, and we’re convinced that it needs to be a part of every young person’s education—for their personal success and for society to thrive.

Don’t get us wrong—volunteering and service hours are an essential part of the journey, but they can be just the beginning of something truly transformative. Here’s an example: Chander Payne started a community gardening initiative called Urban Beet while in high school. His project engaged his peers to learn about regenerative agriculture through growing nutritious food for his school cafeteria and local food banks.

Beyond the social impact, Payne was able to exercise and build a set of leadership and entrepreneurial skills that will serve him for the rest of his life. Looking back on his journey, Payne credits various volunteer opportunities, such as Scouting for Food, working with a local urban farmer, and helping at a baseball league for children with intellectual disabilities with laying the groundwork for starting his own initiative.

2. Foster a Collective Purpose

To get students thinking beyond service hours, consider framing a shared purpose or inspiring goal. Ask yourselves:

  • What causes are motivating young people to step up right now?
  • Are young people being offered the space to be involved in something they truly care about?

But, with students interested in different causes—or even just uncertain about which issue in their world they can take on—identifying a common theme can be difficult. One solution is offering a schoolwide campaign that could be a guiding post for changemaking.

That is where the NASSP National Initiative can come into play. With a mission to spark action, the current National Initiative involves a partnership with No Kid Hungry, a campaign combating child food insecurity in the United States. Guided by the Student Leadership Advisory Committee, the campaign invites students to increase their community’s awareness of food insecurity, advocate for fighting child hunger in their district, and contribute to positive change within their school or community.

The vision of ending childhood hunger can be the collective purpose your chapter needs to spark action. And this collective purpose can be shared by more than your chapter members; it can also be an engagement tool to bring together every student within the school as well as educators, administrators, parents, and community allies.

3. Cultivate Empathy

One of the first steps to enacting change is learning about a problem more deeply. This learning, which includes engaging with people affected by the issue, sparks empathy—enabling us to be aware of and understand the feelings of ourselves and others.

When we hear the startling fact that an estimated 1 in 4 kids could face food insecurity today, many of us feel unsettled by the magnitude of the problem and empathetic toward children experiencing it. This discomfort and consciousness are common motivators to enact change.

For example, Megan Chen, who founded The Urban Gardening Initiative (TUGI) in high school, was stunned when she learned that 61 percent of households in her state of Delaware live in a neighborhood without a grocery store. So, she formed TUGI to inspire and empower young people to achieve urban sustainability through gardening-based programs. Today, TUGI has student-led chapters around the world running local, urban gardens.

When a group of students at Ross High School in Hamilton, OH, learned that more than 25 percent of people in their region live below the poverty line, they launched JEE Foods to fight hunger, food waste, and poverty. Today, JEE Foods is a student-powered venture that rescues and stores food that would otherwise be wasted, dehydrates or flash-freezes some produce to prolong shelf life, and delivers food to those who are food insecure.

Advisers have a unique opportunity to introduce a social issue, such as food insecurity, to cultivate empathy through different forms of learning. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Are students aware of the role of hunger in today’s world? Play a short video that explains food insecurity in America and discuss what this means for families in your community.
  • Are students curious as to what hunger looks like in your school? Encourage students to talk to school leadership about the meal programs in their cafeteria and the gaps in food access.
  • Are students frustrated by the state of hunger in America? Challenge them to start a letter-writing campaign for all students, not just chapter or council members, to their district representatives.
  • Are students interested in a local solution? Ensure students can volunteer for organizations that address the issue, even in nontraditional ways, such as through public art projects, digital campaigns, and journalism.
  • Are students energized to act? Encourage them to form teams, research existing models to combat hunger, and imagine a solution for their school.

By cultivating empathy—whether through research, dialogue, service, projects, or a combination—this knowledge can be a catalyst for change.

4. Model Changemaking Through Storytelling

Stories can help us translate knowledge into action by looking at others for guidance and inspiration for how they lead change. The more we tell stories about the change we want to see, the more it becomes embedded into the fabric of school culture.

In a year marked by uncertainty, now is the time to tell stories of students and educators navigating ambiguity, overcoming challenges, and solving problems. Some ideas include:

  • Share your own story with students. Why are you an educator? What gives you hope in times of crisis?
  • Spark discourse among students by discussing what issues they are passionate about and why.
  • Provide space during chapter meetings for students working on a changemaking project to share their ideas and solutions with their peers.
  • Invite community leaders who are instigating change locally to share their personal journeys with students.

Regarding the National Initiative, storytelling is key to activating your school in the fight against childhood hunger. Encourage students to write stories for their school newspaper about hunger heroes in their school and community or students standing up against food insecurity. These stories help paint a new narrative—a story of hope and resiliency. We need to discover stories that motivate all of us to see a brighter future for ourselves and others.

5. Create Space to Let Everyone Lead

Traditional leadership is a one-leader-at-a-time model, concentrating responsibilities and formal titles to a select few. But leadership in today’s world needs to be both a skill set and an experience available to everyone. For young people, that can mean creating and owning new roles within their community.

For instance, take the North South Foundation, a nonprofit focused on scholarship, empathy, and excellence for Indian American youth. Within the organization, a group of middle level and high school students and their parents created a Young Changemakers Initiative to cultivate empathy and solve problems in their communities.

A few months after piloting the initiative, the coronavirus pandemic struck. As they adapted to this new uncertainty, the students were shaken by growing digital inequity that prevents many students from accessing the technology necessary for online schooling. The team began to raise money to purchase devices for nearby schools with a technology deficiency. The students designed and led virtual fundraisers, and they raised more than $55,000, providing devices such as laptops, tablets, and Wi-Fi hotspots to over 500 students.

The team accomplished this goal by:

  • Offering space for young people to own the project. They lead the meetings, coordinate fundraisers, connect with schools, and order devices.
  • Not appointing a single leader. Instead, leadership is shared as young people alternate between leading, partnering, and following based on their strengths, interests, and schedules.
  • Dividing responsibilities. Each of their contributions is recognized as valuable and consequential to the shared goal.
  • Shifting the roles of parents from parent leaders to adult allies. As allies, they offer advice, act as a sounding board for new ideas, and provide heavy doses of appreciation and validation.
  • Modeling new skills and shared leadership. Parents introduced different roles by modeling them—such as setting up the first virtual call or putting together an agenda—then they passed on those responsibilities to young people, who then shared responsibilities among themselves.

Through creating space, sharing responsibilities, treating young people as equals, and modeling leadership, adults can provide a framework that invites students to step into their own potential.

6. Promote Peer Activation Models

As empathy, storytelling, and an “everyone leads” culture start to take root in your school, a handful of highly motivated young changemakers will step forward to lead new initiatives. Working closely with this core group to promote peer activation can have a catalytic effect on the number of students involved in changemaking in your school.

Peer activation can happen on two levels. On one level, it involves students recruiting other students to join their projects and initiatives. That should be encouraged, of course, but there’s another level of peer activation beyond team building: Students supporting other students to act on an issue that they’re passionate about.

Here’s an example from Victor Ye, a former NHS student and young changemaker from Los Angeles. The organization he founded, InnovaYouth, was created to “inspire leadership through innovation and enable students to make exceptional contributions in the world as global citizens.” In other words, rather than recruit students to join a specific cause, Victor’s organization supports students from 15 states in the United States to start their own changemaker journey.

NHS advisers can empower every student to be a changemaker and a passionate leader. Change does not require a leadership title; it relies on the student’s drive to seek out ways to make their local community a better place for everyone. The amazing opportunity to be a changemaker is endless and has power within each student.

—Victor Ye, Ashoka Young Changemaker

This type of peer activation is not always considered by students, who are often more focused on identifying with a particular global issue. However, peer activation projects can be highly effective for students who are motivated to create change but struggle to choose one single issue to focus on.

You Are a Changemaker

The skills and mindset of changemaking offer students a new opportunity to learn how to build dynamic teams, share ownership, and enable others to initiate new ideas. By adopting this vision and practice in your school, which activates others to form teams and solve problems, you are a changemaker, too. —


Nick Boedicker and Reilly Brooks work with the nonprofit organization Ashoka, a global leader in systems change. Alongside leading social entrepreneurs, change leaders, and innovators around the world, the group works to build a world where everyone has the skills and opportunity to create positive change.