We Are Family

Akash MehtaOctober 30, 2016Discovery and ProgressFeatures
We Are Family

This past April, I spent a week with the 29 most passionate, inspiring, unbelievable teenagers I have ever met.

Each year, the We Are Family Foundation, founded by Nile Rodgers, the musician behind the song that gave the organization its name, selects 30 teen leaders for a week-long intensive conference in New York City called the Three Dot Dash Just Peace Summit. These teens, dubbed Global Teen Leaders or GTLs, work to make their communities more peaceful.

The 2014 GTLs are involved in many campaigns: raising money to combat pediatric cancer, promoting representation of South Africans in children’s books, fighting for orangutan habitat in Borneo, advocating anti- bullying, helping to fight against hunger. One girl has raised over half a million dollars to supply food to those in need in Hawaii; a 13-year-old-boy’s organization distributed over 500,000 pounds of food to South Florida and Jamaica; another boy founded a girl’s school in Nepal, while another advocates against single-use plastic use in India and works to construct toys from trash. My roommate, also thirteen, has spoken to over 10,000 people about how to save endangered species. I learned more from these incredible activists than I ever imagined possible.

The GTL program was inspired by a peacemaker and poet named Mattie Stepanek. Mattie, who suffered from Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy, a rare, incurable degenerative disease of muscle cells, wrote six New York Times bestselling books of poetry. The poems deal with the issues our world faces — war, hunger, poverty — but ultimately deliver the simple message that peace is possible. Mattie served as the National Goodwill Ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, was interviewed by Oprah and Larry King multiple times, and struck up a close friendship with Jimmy Carter, who called him “the most extraordinary person I have ever met in my life.” In 2004, Mattie passed away at 13 years old.

Within his short life, filled with so much pain and time spent in the ICU, living with the certain knowledge that his life would soon be over, he was determined to work toward making peace a reality. That is a humbling and inspiring gift to us all. We Are Family, moved by the power of someone so young, initiated the GTL program to work with other young peacemakers.

The first Three Dot Dash Just Peace Summit, named after a book coauthored by Mattie and Jimmy Carter, was held in 2008. Altogether, the efforts of all the Global Teen Leaders, who come from more than 40 countries, have affected more than 15 million people in all seven continents.

The efforts of all the Global Teen Leaders, who come from more than 40 countries, have affected more than 15 million people in all seven continents.

The GTLs have, in past years, proved to be quite a powerful bunch. In 2011, a GTL named Mahmoud Jabari was arrested by Israeli police for taking photographs of a Palestinian demonstration. The GTLs of his group were outraged. They wrote letters to their country’s ambassadors and representatives, as well as to leaders of influential organizations, creating as huge an uproar as they could. Six days later, facing international pressure, the Israeli government released Mahmoud.

The Midtown Summit was a short subway ride from where I live; I was the only local GTL, not flown in for the Summit. We all went not knowing what to expect, and showed up confused and jet-lagged (except for me), but excited and ready to make the most of whatever the week would bring. Later that day, after bonding, getting lost and trying to find a Shake Shack, we had our first official event of the week. Thirty of us crowded into a room, soon to be dubbed the “hangout suite,” and met our “hotel mom,” Kim. Kim is one of the most charismatic people I have ever met. The instant we arrived she was cracking jokes and breaking the ice. We introduced ourselves and told each other one unique thing about ourselves. Mine was that English was my fourth language, despite being the only one in which I am now fluent. The session was called “Goals, Ground Rules, and Expectations,” but there was only one real rule (apart from the humiliation we’d receive if we were late) that Kim told us: don’t fall in love.

“Every year,” she said, “every year, on the last day, I have a couple sitting on my couch crying their eyes out. Just, please, don’t fall in love.”

Photo courtesy of We Are Family

Immediately after the introduction we hustled through the rain to the venue area: a huge open space with ceiling to floor-size windows overlooking the city and a beautiful roof terrace. We attended an opening ceremony, were individually introduced to a crowd of the organization’s supporters, and got to know each other a bit better. The next week was one of the most packed and intense of my life. Every day different speakers lectured on ways we could expand our projects. Speakers included a project manager at Facebook, award-winning photographers, and a company called Prinkshop, which advocates positive social causes by printing them on clothes and accessories. Prinkshop personally designed t- shirts for each one of us!

My favorite speaker was Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther member, poet, producer, director, writer, activist, and professor of film at Columbia University. He gave a presentation on how to use video and film to dramatically increase a message’s impact. He spoke about his life and experiences with the Black Panther Party. The little I knew about the Black Panthers was overshadowed by the Party’s militant, sometimes violent, actions. Jamal told us his story and what the Black Panthers hoped to create as part of the civil-rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 70s. He told us about the vital community work the Party had done, and recounted the first Party meeting he attended. He was a teenager, 15 years old, and passionate about securing rights for his community and people.

His friends had told him that every new member had to kill a white cop. At one point at the first noisy meeting, Jamal yelled out, “Kill all dem white folk!”

The crowded room immediately fell silent. The chapter leader, sitting at a large desk in the front of the room, looked at Jamal.

“Come here,” he said, beckoning. Jamal nervously walked to the desk. “You want to join the Party? Serve your people?”

Jamal nodded and recited what his friends had told him.

“Well then. You’ll be needing these.”

The man opened a drawer in his desk, and pulled out a stack of books. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Why We Can’t Wait.

“These,” he said, “These are your weapons. Read up, boy!”

The Summit’s activities were a combination of reflective and instructive sessions, as well as active projects. We spent an entire day at a Manhattan PR firm, where we learned how to present ourselves and our projects from experts who teach large businesses how to do the same. Another day, we went into the city in small groups for an assignment: to photograph inequality, and then voted on the best photograph. The winning picture was a powerful juxtaposition of a homeless man leaning against a giant poster of models from a clothing company.

Throughout the week, we became more than attendees at the same
conference, more than even friends. We became brothers and sisters.

The relationships I formed with my fellow GTLs were far stronger than you’d expect in just a week. It was more than just being inspired by them. Every night, after the long day, we’d go out in small groups and explore the city, eat at cheap restaurants, talk for hours about our projects, our lives at home, our friends, our schools, how the countries we came from were different and how they were similar. Throughout the week, we became more than attendees at the same conference, more than even friends. We became brothers and sisters.

The staff gave us so much, as did the donors who made the Summit possible, the alumni who came back to volunteer, and everyone involved in the Summit. This was an opportunity to invest in the future. We felt a responsibility to carry Mattie’s message as far as we could, to make his dream, all of our dreams, a reality.

I expected I would leave the conference with some concrete knowledge about how to make the work I do more effective. And in a way, I did. I got better at presenting and learned more about social media. But honestly, if that was all I had learned, it wouldn’t have been worth skipping a week of school. The real value was meeting Jamal, hearing Mattie’s story in his mother’s own words, feeling the energy and excitement of all around me, seeing their inspiration, hope, and passion. The staff, volunteers, new and former mentors, alumni, current GTLs, we are all part of something larger than any one of us: we are family.

Akash Viswanath Mehta is a senior at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. He is deeply interested in politics, literature, and mathematics. He’s also the founder of Kids for a Better Future, an organization of teens in New York City, supporting less fortunate children around the world.