This teenager wants to fix the world. These are the first three steps he should take.

Advice on how to make the world better.
May 6 2009 6:59 AM

Teen Angel

This teenager wants to fix the world. These are the first three steps he should take.

Teen. Click image to expand.
Teens can act locally to effect change

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Patty and Sandy,


I am a teenager and often feel powerless when I see problems in the world. My monetary resources are limited, and I already volunteer one day a week at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. My social circle is broad but not numerous. I am schooled at home, so I can't even talk to my classmates. Can you think of anything I can do to make a bigger difference?

—Craig in Monterey, Calif.


Unfortunately, feeling powerless about the world's problems isn't just adolescent angst, Craig. Lots of us feel limited by our finances, our location, our time constraints, whatever. But we each have something to give.

Your work at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is great, but it sounds like you're itching to be part of a larger community of teens who seek to make a difference. The city of Monterey has a special program for teens who want to volunteer. I also encourage you to visit Do Something's Web site. Do Something is a national organization that galvanizes teenagers around social issues and provides an online community where teens can turn ideas into action. You can browse different causes and get ideas for how to take action, find volunteer activities in your area, find out about teenagers doing service projects nearby, or even join or start your own Do Something club.

Sometimes we get so overwhelmed by what's going on far away that we forget there's a lot of change to be made in our own backyard. Think about the improvements you would like to see in your own community and figure out what it would take to make them happen. Start attending public meetings, and make sure your opinion is heard. While I don't see a youth committee on the Monterey city Web site, you can certainly contact your elected officials to see what it would take to start an entity to ensure the youth voice is included in your local policy decisions.

Whatever you decide to focus your energy on, tapping into a community of like-minded people can help you feel more connected and more powerful.


Craig, I've seen a lot of very big problems firsthand: the lingering damage of war; failed governments leaving citizens without basic freedoms or security; the terrible cost of AIDS, malaria, malnutrition, and poor prenatal care. But I believe our biggest challenge is not any of those horrendous problems. In fact, I believe our biggest problem is that not enough of us try to do what you're trying to do—match our efforts to our values and use what resources we have at hand to make the greatest difference possible. Why not? I think we get stuck, as you are, and don't realize how much power we have individually and collectively. So here is how I propose you and others just like you get unstuck:

First, analyze three very important questions: What is my dearest value? What is the gap between today's reality and the value I hold dear—and why? What one issue can I work on that could be the "bridge" between the world we have and the world I want?

Second, with this one issue chosen, conduct a personal inventory of your three biggest assets for change—your time, your voice, your money. Even as a teenager, you have far more power than you think!

How can you use your time on this issue? You said you're home schooled, so use your influence over the curriculum to start studying up on the issue you choose. If you aren't already reading the latest articles, blogs, and books on the topic, start doing so. Join an online network or group that discusses and supports those who take action on this issue. Start volunteering (either in person or virtually) for an organization doing great work on this issue. You say you're at the aquarium weekly. Given what you determined above, is that the best way to use your service time to maximize your impact?

How can you use your voice on this issue? This is often the most wasted resource we have. We should be using our voices daily to communicate with others about the issues we hold dearest. Have you communicated with your friends, personal network, church leadership, and local and national elected officials about this issue? It matters. They won't all take up every cause, but in one form or another you have influence. Have you worked this issue through at your dining room table? Little gets solved that doesn't get discussed. (And if you were older, I would tell you to use your vote!)

How can you use your money on this issue? Even at your age, you have access to money. Not just money to give away but the money you and your family spend purchasing basic necessities. If your issue touches anything that relates to your purchasing (free trade, clean water, energy conservation, labor practices, etc.), you can use your money to signal your issue's importance.

At the end of the day—after choosing your issue and spending time to assess whether you are using your money, time, and voice in the most creative and impactful ways—the responsibility to act on those findings goes back to you. You'll end up learning more about how to keep tuning your own life to ensure you are matching your values to your actions. And if we all do that, we'll close some of these gaps that hold us back from living up to the challenge put forward by Mahatma Gandhi: "You must be the change you want to see in the world."

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

In our ongoing effort to do better ourselves, we're donating 25 percent of the proceeds from this column to—an organization committed to raising public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger, and disease and the efforts to fight such problems in the world's poorest countries.

Patty Stonesifer is the chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents and a senior adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she was president, then CEO for 10 years. She spent the first two decades of her career in the technology business, where her last job was senior vice president at Microsoft.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.



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