Moving America Forward

How Next-Gen Leaders Are Turning Passions Into Progress

August 20, 2017
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How Next-Gen Leaders Are Turning Passions Into Progress
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For young change agents, the entrepreneurial spirit is stronger than ever.

It’s hard to imagine Ari Afsar ever losing her tune. But the “Hamilton: An American Musical” actor, who plays Eliza Schuyler in the Chicago production, spent several years as a tween, then teen, perfecting her craft at a senior living center. Those long afternoons practicing were filled with lost tunes, forgotten words and cracked notes, but “they wouldn’t care at all,” she laughs, describing them as “the best people to perform in front of.”

Those performances sprang from a troubling insight: “When I would visit my grandma, it seemed like I was the only visitor,” she told a packed audience at the Social Innovation Summit in Chicago. “We’re afraid of getting older, so we put older people in the back of our minds.” A young Afsar decided to change that, and at the age of 13, she started Adopt a Grandfriend, a social club that brings theatrical performances to nearby senior centers. After the curtain closed on productions, the performers would spend time with residents. According to Afsar, the results extended beyond the stage, and several long-term friendships resulted from their work.

In a social media landscape that encourages young people to scroll through endless cause posts and calls-to-action every day, it’s easy to wonder if online exposure translates to actual action. But according to DoSomething.org CEO Aria Finger, the next generation isn’t just engaged — they’re highly engaged: 62 percent of Gen Z and millennial respondents have volunteered in the past 12 months, and roughly half volunteer every single month. And, despite the volume of cause-related content presented to young people, tomorrow’s leaders appear to have a knack for targeting the opportunities that are most relevant to them.

That was true for Afsar, who combined her passion for performance with her desire to improve the quality of life for local senior citizens. It also was true for summit speaker Marley Dias, a diehard bookworm who discussed her frustration at her library’s limited selection of books about “white boys and their dogs.” Dias, then 11, reacted by creating a book drive called #1000BlackGirlsBooks, and turned her passion into social action. The hashtag — and initiative, which focuses on books that feature black girls as protagonists — went viral. Since the launch in 2015, the New Jersey tween has collected more than 10,000 books and landed her own book deal. “I want to raise awareness and consciousness,” she says, about her mission to bring inclusivity to bookshelves. “It’s not about just knowing the problem exists, but having the consciousness to want to make a difference.”

Despite stereotypes that Millennials are lazy, self-involved, digital addicts, there is equal — or more — evidence that positions them as nascent innovators. Millennials are more inclined to launch their own initiatives that align their passions with social, economic and civic good, rather than join older organizations aimed at solving the world’s broadest problems.

For a generation that grew up with technology and access, it makes sense that their ventures are often responding to trending or topical issues. Maria Yuan, a NationSwell Council member, was managing a political campaign in Iowa when she realized that citizens also wanted to engage between election cycles — when the real work that affects our lives is done — but there was no venue to support that need. Yuan launched the nonpartisan platform IssueVoter to give everyone a voice in democracy by making civic engagement accessible, efficient and impactful.

“The focus on issues makes sense because 40 percent of voters are independents and 48 percent of Millennials don’t identify with a political party, according to Pew,” says Yuan. IssueVoter also helps turn slacktivism into activism: Users can read legislation in layman’s terms, check out what both sides are saying, look at a personalized scorecard and also send their opinions to representatives in one click.

The Millennial generation’s proclivity for independence and solution-driven work shows no sign of slowing. Market research firm Millennial Branding found that 72 percent of high school students want to run their own initiative one day. Researchers at Northeastern University dubbed Gen Z the most entrepreneurial generation alive.  

“I’ve realized life is long,” says Hamilton’s Afsar. “Yes, I want to accomplish things in my career in the arts, but I also see other areas that I can be involved in. There’s a connection between being an artist and being an activist, and we have to open our eyes to all opportunities.”

Presented by Social Innovation Summit. NationSwell is a Social Innovation Summit partner.

Social Innovation Summit is an annual global convening of black swans and wayward thinkers. In June 2017, more than 1,400 Fortune 500 corporate executives, venture capitalists, CSR and foundation heads, government leaders, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, activists, emerging market investors and nonprofit heads convened in Chicago to investigate solutions and catalyze inspired partnerships that are disrupting history.

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