This teenager wants to fix the world. These are the first three steps he should take.
Posted Wednesday, May 6, 2009, at 6:59 AM
Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to email@example.com 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:
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.
Photograph of a teenager by Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Getty Images.