Origins Rooted in Change: Meet Adrianna & Michelle of SF CHANGE
ABOUT THE FOUNDERS
What is your background? (ex. student born and raised in San Francisco)
Michelle: “My name is Michelle Song. I'm 17 years old. I'm in the class of ‘21 at Lowell High School, so I am a senior. I've always had a devout and deep passion for international relations as well as the community. This was displayed to me in several ways. First, I am [the] president of Lowell United Nations at Lowell. I also helped run San Francisco Model United Nations with a wonderful team. I'm part of the United Nations Association, and as you have previously known from my work with STORM, I'm also the Executive Director of Masks For All CA. Adriana is a wonderful, wonderful person; I met her through MUN and we're very interested in working on the future of education together.”
Adrianna: “Thanks, Michelle. I'm Adrianna Zhang, I'm 15 years old and a junior at Lowell High School. A little bit about me: I've found community in a city of change, where I really got into politics and finding out where my skills would best fit my community and how I can help others. I've been involved with education policy, climate activism, and issues around the government as I'm on the San Francisco Youth Commission. I feel like that is a big part of the opportunities that I'm exposed to, and I'm looking forward to a good year with them.”
What figures inspired you? (ex. family members, teachers, elected officials)
Michelle: “The first one will always first and foremost be my parents. I talked about this in the other interview, but they are the most inspiring figures in my life. They've always considered America to be a land of opportunity, one in which if you truly work as hard as you can, you will, you can and will succeed; that's such a powerful sentiment that's been rooted in my heart and every day is just fostered through their love. It's a sentiment that's been powerful and it grows, so it really proves to me that if I put my mind to something I can succeed. They came here with nothing and to them with their three beautiful children — they now have everything. The second person that I would say I really came to love over this quarantine is [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]. She's representing the [14th District] of New York to the [House of Representatives] and I think she's incredibly inspiring... to be a woman of color, pursuing a white, male-dominated field with such resilience and courage. I think there's no way you can't be inspired by that, right? She really gives me hope that not only will we see the change that we want and need in our society very permanently, but also that young women and people of color can definitely pursue a career in what they may have thought was impossible.
Adrianna: “I echo everything that Michelle said. I love AOC; I follow everything that she does, from all of her political things to her skincare routine on YouTube. Other than I'd say political figures, and my parents, they played such a big role in me growing up, obviously; they've taught me to give back and get involved in places where I can. I think the people who most motivate me are my peers so people in my grade, Michelle, people that I can look up to and follow what they're doing — but also, I just draw inspiration from them so I'm able to be a better version of myself.”
What prior experience assisted you in starting your organization(s)? (ex. ability to code, summer jobs, internships)
Michelle: “A big part of the reason Adriana and I thought that there can be success in this project is I was appointed as the Director of Youth and Young Adult Services, as an intern at [District 1] Supervisor Fewer's office, and [Adrianna] was selected as the District 7 Youth Commissioner. In that, we already had deep ties to our community and we were also committed to the success of the youth in the city, at least for me personally. Before any of that happened — that was quite a whirlwind — I was the Founder and Executive Director of Masks For All CA. What this meant was we had to facilitate national distributions and making of handmade masks through our hundreds of volunteers across the nation. That is no easy task. At the end of the day, it came down to organization, communication, and uniting as a community so that's already the founding missional ground. In a more professional sense, I've also worked with adults, and youth, in a professional capacity — bringing them together. That's why I love the United Nations — Lowell Model United Nations, San Francisco United Nations, and the United Nations Association — I'm sorry, I love the United Nations, in case you can't tell. It provides a platform in which adults and youth speak together and collaborate on pertinent issues facing the international community — really on a global scale. It's through my work and Mask For All CA, in which I started and run a successful organization, as well as through other professional opportunities that I feel like now with SF CHANGE, we are very well equipped to make this successful.”
Adrianna: “With my personal experience, I feel like I've been involved with my community [at] a more local level. I've been volunteering at libraries; I got to know families who live in my district in my city. With GENUp, I've been involved with education policy, and I've used social media to connect with more people around the Bay Area. What I have experience with is just connecting with people, and that's how I feel like SF CHANGE could be so successful is that I love to communicate and meet new people. I feel like presenting workshops in a way that is approachable for youth of all ages is so important for our success. Taking those skills, I can transfer them to SF CHANGE.”
What problem(s) or social issue(s) were you faced with?
Michelle: “First and foremost, we've always believed in the power of youth as well as the role that they have in society; we wanted to see that role bolstered. The very first problem that we noticed is a lot of times — based on socio-economic background, family background, or just really knowledge gained through experience — there are many gaps in our education that are not covered. Our academic curriculum pushes academic vigor, like it pushes math, science, English, history — all very important subjects — but we need to acknowledge at the end of the day, there is more to being a thoughtful citizen than just what you learn in school. You need to learn about bullying, Internet safety, how to file your taxes, your rights as a child, government and politics; there are a lot of things that aren't touched upon enough at school. Depending on the background that you grew up in, you could be heavily disadvantaged for it. That's where we came in; we want to find a system, in which not only could we connect the government with their youth on a social platform, but to also provide workshops to like free workout shots to under resourced schools in subject matters that they may have never learned otherwise. Adriana can touch more upon our committee system; I know she loves that.”
Adrianna: “Going off of that, I think what exaggerates the problem is that we see with every new generation, there comes problems that are not addressed in the old curriculum. For example, Internet safety — nobody would have got 20 years ago that [children in kindergarten] will need to learn about how to protect themselves on the internet; I think new topics like that need to be thoroughly addressed. Just knowing that this is an issue — that people need to learn social skills outside of their standard curriculum — we really felt like that was a place where we could help. For SF CHANGE, we divide our work into committees, which are in charge of their individual workshops. For example, we have committees on bullying and safety, finances, Internet safety, and government — even a storytime workshop for elementary school students. The fact that we cover such broad topics and so many topics, we're able to help youth in a way that no other organization has before.”
What was your vision for your organization?
Michelle: “Our mission statement, which took us four hours to come up with, is creating the future — "Shaping the future we want through the education we need." This is so absolutely true. Like Adriana mentioned, the reason we are shaping the new generation of education because as SF CHANGE stands for "San Francisco Communities who Help Advance the New Generation of Education" is that with every new generation, there are new issues that are just simply not sufficiently addressed. We hope not only to connect youth with youth, youth to their government through stakeholder meetings with the Board of Supervisors and other politicians — more on that later— but we also wanted to make sure that they were equipped with the necessary skills to succeed in society, to be a thoughtful citizen, and to be successful beyond the scope of their way their K-12 education. So to us, our future and our impact will always be making sure that the youth can succeed.”
Adrianna: “More about our future, since Michelle is a senior and I'm a junior... we hope that this project will go beyond just our years in high school. After Michelle goes to college, I would find another person to take into this role, and they would find a new person and take into the role; we really want to create lasting change, and change through allowing youth to have opportunity. One of our committees is on youth civic engagement and opportunity, [where] we really hope to expose more people to their government, to the opportunities around them and help them find opportunities so that they can succeed in whatever field or sector they hope to go into.”
Michelle: “To briefly elaborate, currently, I serve as the Executive Director and Adrianna is our wonderful Executive Director of Operations. We wanted to make sure that this project wasn't simply a project, and it had lasting impact. That's what differentiates us as a youth organization when I leave, Adrianna becomes the executive director and so on and so forth; it's just going to be the cycle that will constantly have a new shift in leadership but in this way our organization can always stay to make a lasting impact.”
Adrianna: “It's really cool that we get to be at the top, or the very beginning of something that we hope will last for a long time. I mean, really crazy to think about. We're just the beginning. Look at us being inspirational models here like… a lot of time people think that we're just youth — I mean, yeah, we are. We're just two people, you know, but if we can inspire or help another person, be ambitious and start their own thing. Like, it's all good. It's all perfect.”
What was your greatest challenge in launching your organization?
Adrianna: “It's taken us a while, because honestly, we've worked hard for everything. So there were huge challenges there. I think the challenge that we're dealing with right now is that we really want to represent more districts of San Francisco. Michelle and I are just, we're both on the westside so we really want to expand that so we encompass more people — more ideas and perspectives — but we've been working on that. There are many other main problems. I think there are little hiccups here and there with timing, but we got through it.”
In difficult or uncertain times, how did you overcome adversity?
Adrianna: “Not just for us, but for everybody is obviously staying in quarantine. I guess how we got over that hurdle was just tapping into our existing networks with the relationships we already have and using those to help SF CHANGE, as well as searching every elementary, middle and high school's website to find all of their admins emails. It took time but patience and hard work definitely because it counteracted the bad sides of shelter-in-place.”
Michelle: “[We’ve worked on this project for] a little bit over a month, which is crazy to think we've had so many community organizations partner with us a lot of politicians members of the BOS. Maybe Scott Wiener that's that was a recent development. Also Our Children, Our Families, which is part of SF Gov. [Department of Children Youth and their Families]; they're working on an initiative with UNICEF and they wanted us to help with that, too. One of our committees is actually teaching the child like the rights of the child in accordance to the UN [Convention on the Rights of the Child] because a big issue is a lot of youth don't know about their rights as a child until after they turn 18 which is kind of counterproductive. It doesn't really make sense to know what your rights were — when you probably should have known them then. That's cool. We get to teach child rights with them. Yeah, each round, it's been a month. That's kind of insane. Yeah, that makes me really optimistic. If you think about what we've accomplished, while staying at home, in a single month — think about the years we would have outside of the shelter in place and how you can actually meet people and get things done.”
Adrianna: “This is crazy — to see how fast we actually went — we sent out surveys to schools and students, parents and teacher advisors responded all around San Francisco with more than 1000 survey responses that sort of helped us shape which workshops we wanted to do, as well as see what they consider to be the most important issues affecting their communities. From then on, we just took that information and ran with it. Like Adrianna said, at the moment, we're trying to prioritize having our board that's diverse in terms of district, which is good, our board applications are looking like they're pretty spread across. A big thing with diversity is we always want the most perspectives possible, because you can't really encompass the new generation of change, if not all of you encompass the new generation, right? That's what we're working on right now.”
Michelle: “Part of the reason things work is we keep each other in check. We have this really big joke between us. It's like, even though I'm technically, I'm literally a grade older than her. I act like I'm infinitely older than her but I swear the way she keeps me in check, you would think our ages were reversed. She's awesome.”
Adrianna: “Thank you. It's been really fun working with Michelle and I think we really bounce off of each other's energies, because we originally thought that we would just solely work together on this project and that's it, but we're actually good friends. We actually can talk for so long, which is a problem—”
Michelle: “I never knew how well we just mesh. Until this one day, when I had I asked her to stay on after a zoom call and talk to her about this… then she was like, 'Oh yeah, totally.' Then I said, ‘What do you want to talk like real quick about this project?’ and she gave me a date and time. We ended up zooming for five hours [but] 10 of those minutes were actually about SF CHANGE. That's when I realized, 'Dang, I'm gonna be really good friends with this girl!' ...and it turned out good.We still work on SF CHANGE but, sometimes it's a little problem that we like, go off our agenda. It's okay!”
Adrianna: “—like Michelle would just speak first, and then she would let me talk, right? So like, we have that dynamic where it's like person will take turns and then as we move on, we're just like, 'No, it's my turn.'”
Michelle: “I was trying to be polite and organized, and it doesn't even matter anymore. I like the direction this is going in; this is fun. In order to have a successful, professional relationship, it definitely benefits to have a successful friendship. That's why I think I get along so much. I've only really, really, really known her for like this month — I feel like I've known her throughout high school with how well we meshed. It's awesome.”
IMPACT & LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
What was the impact of your project on the community?
Michelle: “It's one of lasting results. This is something I wanted, and I can't overemphasize this: it is not a one time solution. We are creating lasting change for an issue that will last forever until we start to value... the unconventional aspects of education — things that you typically only learn through experience. We hope to create lasting impact through our youth leaders. Through our youth in general, there are so many [minors] that don't ever learn these things. Many of them don't really learn how to file their taxes until they're like in their 20s. There's a lot of this "I can do it later" type mentality, and this is especially exacerbated when you don't really know what you're doing later — if you never learned how to file your taxes, you're waiting for like a ticking time bomb to go off, if you never really learned how to stay safe, both online and in-person, that can potentially harm you a lot in the future. What we hope to do is equip youth with the knowledge they need when they're young, so that by the time they're older, they are the future that encapsulates that change because they were younger when they learned it.”
Adrianna: “Building off of what Michelle said, we want to use our platforms in a way that is beneficial to our community. We want to act as liaisons, as Michelle said, between the government and the youth. Additionally, we want to make it so that education can have practical applications and, and emphasizing [practicality] with all the workshops that we'd be hosting. With the kind of impact we want to leave with our workshops, if we can help one person — one elementary school child learn how to be nicer to their peers, or one like middle school on how to deal with racial sensitivities — that will create kind of an exponential effect; one person will teach five other people and those five other people will teach, however many people. Just keeping that going is, I think it really motivates Michelle and I.”
How would you describe your personal growth through the process of starting an organization?
Michelle: “The main personal growth that I've seen through starting this organization is really the sense of community especially during such a troubling and trying — tumultuous time, really — it's so easy to feel like you're very apart from everyone because you're physically distant, or you feel emotionally distant, but emailing, zooming, doing so many things to really try to bring the community together through workshops and for stakeholder meetings. It's really just proven to me that in such trying times, if you put in the effort, you can ignite a community common goal for a brighter future for everyone really. In that sense, it's kind of inspiring. My personal growth has come as a result of the power and strength I get from my community from interacting with them from making sure that everyone is alright and that we're uplifting each other.”
Adrianna: “What I've learned from SF CHANGE is how open people are to helping each other: my original thought coming into this was nobody would fill out a survey, like "Why would they want to do anything that's outside of what they already have to do? People are busy," and then we go ahead and get over 1000 responses. It proved to me that there is some hope that we could get this going — not gonna lie, I was pretty apprehensive about starting this. I had trust in Michelle, but I did not have trust in the organization itself. It's just hard to go outside of your comfort zone — start a completely new thing and hope that it becomes a success, you know. I think we're really fortunate to have the networks that we already have and tap into those so that we have such amazing support from local organizations.
For example, a program that I'm doing this year is called AAMPLIFY, and they really focus on Asian-American rights, college admissions, career choices, and racism. I feel like they encompass a lot of the ideas and same goals that we would have. Using my existing relationship for really enriching and nurturing the wall nurturing the relationship I have with AAMPLIFY, I was able to have a collaboration between SF CHANGE and AAMPLIFY. What I learned is that organizations and people are so much more eager to help, especially while we're in this current pandemic. That was a surprise for me.”
What skills have you gained from starting an organization that will assist you in the future?
Adrianna: “The first skill I've learned is to be open to change, pun intended, as in SF CHANGE, but to really be willing to step out of your comfort zone and take the chance on an idea. Michelle and I met, and we knew that we wanted to do something, but we don't know what. Then we started listing out what kind of resources we already have, where do we already have connections? What can we do? Obviously, we didn't think that we could change the world in one day but we wanted to do our part in helping in the ways that we can so we decided on SF CHANGE.
As Michelle said, we want to act as liaisons between the government and youth because we already have existing connections there. We had the question of "How do we get in touch with our youth?" Aside from that liaison role, we wanted to educate — no, we're not trying to take over teachers' jobs — we want to teach youth something for youth, by youth. It's just a newer concept — we googled "SF CHANGE domain" — nobody had that. We saw that this was an opportunity that we could take, but we had two choices: whether you wanted to take the risk — put in like 30 hours of work for that one week — to maybe be successful; [the risk was] whether that 30 hours would be productive, or if it would just disintegrate after a few weeks. We decided to just do it and put in the work, so here we are. I've really learned to step outside of my comfort zone and pursue something that I think would change my community for the better.
I wanted to add that I think more tangible skills rather than like "having a better hope for our community..." Something that I learned for sure is how to write emails. For everybody who'd read this in the future, I cannot stress to you how important it is to be able to present yourself in an accurate light through writing and talk to adults [without difficulty]. I've learned how to navigate email writing and communicating with a different tool, without using your facial expressions and your voice. [Michelle and I] both are pretty natural speakers, and we like to talk. We bounced off of each other in the way where we can build conversation in real life. But there comes like, it's a bit more difficult to translate that into writing and be personable, like charismatic over writing. so I think that was more difficult for me at least.”
What advice do you have for new founders?
Adrianna: “The most important part is to have an idea and a goal that you would like to see; a really good brainstorming project is to list out things in a world that you would want to see. For example, regarding SF CHANGE, we would have on our list something like thoughtful citizens and caring people — you just list out a bunch of things that you would want in your society and then figure out how you're going to get there. Another piece of advice I would say is start small.
Fun fact about SF CHANGE: we weren't originally SF CHANGE. We were originally "Westside School Project." We thought that we were only going to focus on the schools in Districts One, Four and Seven of San Francisco. We mostly targeted public schools... after we sent the surveys, we sent them to the private schools, but we really didn't think that they would respond or they would think that they wouldn't need it. It's notorious that public schools need more funding, more teachers, more supplies, etc. Michelle and I thought of it as "Students from all backgrounds need the same education to be a good person.” Yes, some private schools may have more materials [or] have teachers who teach advanced math and advanced English, but just because they're private schools doesn't mean that they don't need workshops on bullying, internet safety and racism.
My goal was to start small, [but] out of popular demand, we branched out and sent a survey to Eastside schools as well because we felt like we needed to encompass more people than in our particular situation. Who knows? Maybe a year from now, we'll be all over California. It's important, I would say, for new people to target maybe one community that you have — whether it's their school community, their neighborhood, their city, or whatever affiliations they [have]. One more small piece of advice is to be nice; it's important to acknowledge that everybody has their own struggles and their own situations, and being a good person will help you professionally and in your personal life.
There is a balance, because at the end of the day, you're just one person — you're a human being, like you're not going to be perfect. You can change the world, but you cannot change the world with one day of just thinking that you'll change the world; you have to put in the steps and work for it. It's less of a balance but more of a comparison between what you want to do and what you can do, and seeing how those overlap, then taking bits and pieces of both sides and putting together [as] a project that you can do. They're also parts that you cannot do so that you have something to work towards, and it's important to have goals — however big. For me, my personal goal is to have this project last for years — that's not something I can control, like people after me will be able to decide if they want to keep it, but it's good to still have goals that you may not be able to do or control.
For me, I put together a little Venn diagram of what I like, what I can do and what I already do, then pushed all of those together and created SF CHANGE. For anybody who wants to start an organization, it should be something that you're genuinely passionate about. I've been working with climate activism and [similar issues] with multiple organizations — the one I'm working with right now is the Sunrise Movement — but I've been involved with climate strikes and all that for years. For example, taking that into mind, I created a climate change workshop in SF CHANGE. Just putting together my passions, I was able to create something that I'm actually proud of. I can't imagine if I didn't like this project — putting, you know, hours and hours of work into every week. That's definitely something that's very important to me.”