How Moments of Good Transformed My High School
It was a rare sunny day in a stretch of bleary days in Seattle, so most of the Chief Sealth International (CSI) High School students had shed their jackets and were sporting their World Water Week (WWW) festival t-shirts. In the far corner, my team of highly skilled freshmen and sophomores helped some participants don sheets to affix their five gallon water jugs to their backs. Others had already grabbed a jug and started running. I knew this would stop soon when the blisters on their hands started smarting, and the realization of what “40 pounds” really meant had hit them. Some of our Student Body officers had already begun handing out raffle tickets to those students who were taking the exercise seriously, demonstrating good work ethic, or helping others. They would run out of tickets in ten minutes. I watched some of our East African students demonstrate the way that they had carried water when they lived in Ethiopia, and how they kicked it once their arms got tired. I watched our security guard, Jimbo, make his 31st lap of the day, and Mr. Ezeonwu enjoy the points and gleeful shouts that accompanied his first lap balancing the water on his head. In that moment, I knew that I had actually succeeded in providing our community with a small and heavily diluted glimpse of what it is like for millions of children around the world who must carry water to their families every day.
Because of this moment and hundreds like it that were experienced during WWW, and despite all the stress and sweat and coffee, my team decided to put on WWW again. And again. And though I wasn’t there to facilitate after my own graduation, other students (nearly 80 of them!) stepped up to lead what is still a behavior-altering festival three years later.
Let’s be honest, doing good work is not always the number one concern of a high school student. Especially not at CSI High School in Seattle, where I was among the 75 percent that graduated in 2011. Most of us were either focused on graduating on time, juggling part time jobs, or trying to shine on our college applications. In crunch time, my friends were using library computers to finish applications, and choosing between after-school activities and babysitting their siblings. Sacrifices in excellence, engagement, or even ethics occasionally had to be made.
I was lucky. I was surrounded by a network of some of the most inspirational, hard-working, and diverse high school students in the city, and yet I had been raised with massive amounts of support and opportunity that many of my fellow students had not. This combination (thanks Mom and Dad!) granted me the unique ability to apply to the Bezos Scholars Program (BSP) in 2010, a leadership development program that fully funds the journey of 12 rising seniors and their educators from across the country to meet at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Once there, we participated in discussions around the most pressing issues of our time. We also had small group meetings with change-makers from around the world who were doing good work to address these issues.
The most essential part of the Program, however, was the leadership training that equipped me to bring the experience back to Seattle and the halls of Chief Sealth. I was tasked with creating a Local Ideas Festival (LIF) in my own community, and engaging them on an issue of my choosing. My BSP Educator Noah Zeichner and I chose to focus on water (but honestly it was kind of a non-decision, since it encompassed poverty, hunger, education and health – issues we were both passionate about).We put this passion into action by launching WWW, which we hoped would mobilize our school and community by connecting critical needs in our own backyard to water issues around the globe.
As we started planning our festival in August, we set lofty goals. Reality set in around December, when we realized that the to-do list on Mr. Zeichner’s whiteboard covered an entire wall, I was studying for finals and applying to colleges, and Mr. Zeichner was essentially working three jobs with a newborn daughter at home. We relied on the passion of our faculty, the unrelenting energy of our student team, and the faith and support provided by community stakeholders to get us through winter.
As spring and the week of our festival arrived, so too did grant money, nationally renowned speakers, and current Governor Jay Inslee. We ate homemade Mexican food provided by the moms of some of our team, and we (under)sold shirts and water bottles to attendees and students. We painted posters after school, choreographed and chickened out of doing a flash mob, and raised about $3,000 for Water 1st International.
On the final day of WWW, as students cycled through their choice of 17 different locally and globally themed water workshops, I took the time to actually absorb what was happening. I was running the Walk for Water, and I had just finished hyping up the kids and their teachers by pitting them against the other study halls and challenging them to carry more water than 7 year old girls in developing nations must carry every day. I saw variations of this scene repeated throughout the day, in every session I attended, among a demographic that’s usually painted as the most apathetic in our society.
Upon reflection, I don’t think these students participated or stepped up to lead because they were passionate about water – I don’t even think I did it because I was passionate about water. It was a huge factor, obviously, and I’m pretty confident it’s an issue I will work with for the rest of my life. Yet the components of my festival experience that I remember most vividly could have revolved around any world issue. The parts that I remember were truly moments of good work – little moments where high school students, faculty, or community members found themselves in a position to make a difference, and took it. A girl giving up her allowance to help build a well. A teacher breaking from her curriculum of 20 years to do a unit on our local watershed. A parent telling his children stories of his own experience with water scarcity.
So no, doing good work isn’t easy in high school. The structures are rigid, and the models of success are often narrow. Mr. Zeichner and I knew that operating inside of this paradigm wouldn’t impact our students. We knew that in order to inspire we had to produce examples of good that students could relate to across a huge spectrum of interests and passions. In the same way that I had been ignited by my experience at the Aspen Ideas Festival, we wanted to create a ripple effect that would radiate out from WWW.
Most high school students have way too many things to think about, especially in communities of lower socio-economic class. Surrounding them with an environment of positive examples, igniting their interests and capturing their attention made them want to do good. That’s what we did with WWW, and that’s what we think will be successful for other school-wide festivals that want to make an impact.
Molly Freed is a 2010 Bezos Scholar and rising junior at Scripps College in Claremont, CA.
The Bezos Scholars Program @ the Aspen Institute is a year-long leadership development program for public high school juniors and educators to put their education into action. It begins with a scholarship to the Aspen Ideas Festival and continues through the following school year when Bezos Scholar teams return home to launch sustainable, Local Ideas Festivals that transform their schools and communities. Learn more: www.bezosfamilyfoundation.org/Scholars, www.facebook.com/BSPAspen, twitter.com/BezosScholars