Moving America Forward

SXSW: NationSwell on the Rise of Online Youth Activists

March 11, 2014
SXSW: NationSwell on the Rise of Online Youth Activists
Our session, "The Kids Are Alright," looked at how young volunteers are using tech to address national challenges.

On the final day of SXSW Interactive (that stands for South by Southwest for the uninitiated), two inspiring student activists joined Greg Behrman, Founder and CEO of NationSwell, and Ronnie Cho, the former Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, to discuss how they’ve successfully used technology to address national challenges.

Simone Bernstein, a senior at St. Bonaventure University in New York, said her frustration from the lack of information for teenagers who wanted to volunteer in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, led her to work with her brother to start a website called St. Louis Volunteen. This later grew into VolunTEEN Nation, a national organization that lists volunteer opportunities for teens while also encouraging organizations to recognize the potential of younger volunteers.

“So many kids wanted to volunteer but there were very few places they could go to find those opportunities,” she said. “A few months after we launched St. Louis Volunteen, we got hundreds then thousands of emails from people who wanted to volunteer in their own cities.”

Bernstein wakes up at 6:30 every morning, runs three miles, then spends six hours each day working on VolunTEEN Nation — all of this on top of her academic work. She says she is grateful for Skype, Twitter, and other online tools that allow her to lead the national team, including 240 ambassadors across the country.

High school senior Charles Orgbon III talked about his work founding and running Greening Forward. The has its roots in a school project that had him picking up litter around the Mill Creek High School campus in Hoschton, Georgia. Initially, his Earth Savers Club only had three members, but the Internet provided Orgbon with a power platform to rally student action. Using a blog called Recycling Education, he shared posts on environmental issues with, as he describes it, “anyone who wanted to listen.”

Describing the transition that led to Greening Forward, which works to provide a diverse group of young people with the resources they need to protect the environment, Orgbon says that he started thinking toward the end of eighth grade about how he might use technology to advance the impact he could have.

“Let’s do more than just post on a website. Let’s build some resources and support tools to help young people build similar projects like the Earth Savers Club in their own communities,” he said.

The audience, many of them working professionals in their 20s and 30s, laughed when Orgbon defined a young person as someone under the age of 25.

This old 26 year old tweeting in the corner captured some other memorable moments from the conversation:

Cho moderated the afternoon session. While serving as President Obama’s liaison to Young Americans and writing the White House’s For the Win blog (which focused on the remarkable initiatives young Americans advance in their own communities) Cho came across many stories of student innovation. He talked about the importance of a platform to “highlight interesting, effective, impactful work” or Americans across the country.

This is exactly where NationSwell comes in, Behrman said, talking about the website’s model of telling stories about individuals making an impact and mobilizing support around innovators like Ben Simon of the Food Recovery Network. He then shared a video outlining the impact of its call to action.

MORE: How Much Food Could Be Rescued if College Dining Halls Saved Their Leftovers?

“The founding impetus is really these guys, people throughout our country who are doing amazing things, and sometimes they’re overlooked and sometimes people who are interested may not know about them, so we want to be a platform for them, a source for their stories,” Behrman said.

Then panel went on to explore the way tools from social media to smart phones have helped Bernstein, Orgbon, and so many student activists advance their causes and achieve national impact. The audience posed questions ranging from the distinction between activism and service to the role of school curriculum in encouraging volunteering. The conversation itself seemed likely to inspire not only more stories about student innovators who have leveraged technology to address national challenges, but strong support for them as well.