Origins Rooted In Community: Talking with Michelle & Dalya of Masks For All CA
Updated: Sep 19, 2020
ABOUT THE FOUNDERS
What is your background?
Michelle: “My name is Michelle Song. I am 17 years old, and a rising senior at Lowell High School. I, alongside Dalya, am a Co-founder and Executive Director at Masks For All CA. I have a passion for community engagement — especially civic engagement in general. I am very interested in politics [and] public speaking, and I love to help my community.”
Dalya: “My name is Dalya Deuss. I'm 17 years old. My pronouns are she/her. I come from a really unique background; my mom is Polish and my dad is Dutch, so I find interest in exploring new cultures. I am also a senior at Lowell High School and co-founder and executive director of Masks For All CA. Besides that, I also like to bake and read.”
Michelle: “In case you really want to know more about our dynamic, Dalya, tell [the interviewer] how we met or how we became really good friends.”
Dalya: “We're both in the same [homeroom] at Lowell and both went to Presidio for a little bit so we kind of knew of each other. You know, what was very funny is that you know, out of 15 people in the entire US, we applied for the same study abroad program in Moscow, Russia. So basically we ended up being roommates. I thought they would separate us because we were in the same school in the same [homeroom]. Everybody else is in different cities, like we got people from North Carolina or from [Framingham].
It was so weird because I was like, ‘But why did you pair us up?’ Obviously, that was a great mistake because spending three weeks rooming together and making friends with other people — it definitely expanded our friendship more than ‘I know of Michelle’ to ‘ I know Michelle.’”
Michelle: “It really solidified the backgrounds of our friendship because the program we were on was ‘Diplomacy In Practice’ about the politics between the US and Russia. So, that's grassroots.”
What figures inspired you?
Michelle: “Although this is probably an extremely cheesy answer — but I know Dalya can relate — it's 100% my parents. I think what many times people overlook is really the struggle of immigration. So alongside Dalya, both of my parents are immigrants; they're both from China. They had to come to America facing cultural barriers, societal barriers and just general prejudices against people from East Asia at the time. They immigrated around their mid 20s. They've been living here for 25 years and always had this deep mindset that the American Dream is not necessarily getting rich and having all the money in the world to do with what you please; it's about the ability to move somewhere having nothing in your pocket but through sheer hard work and determination achieving what you want. I use that as my guiding light every day."
Dalya: “I mean, Michelle literally said it all for me; my two parents are in the same boat. You know, both immigrants coming here at a young age — not young, but somewhat — in their 30s for work and exploring a new workforce is very different from what they had back at home. I think one thing about my parents is that they're both Iron Men, which I don't know if you're familiar with that race, but they're 18 hour long races… It's crazy athletic ability and they both work very hard. And it just shows that they can do whatever they put their mind to. And I really like to, you know, think about that when I'm exploring other, you know, ideas and other projects just thinking ‘Oh, my parents both ran 18-hour races in their early 40s’. Like that's crazy: if they can do it, I can do it.”
Michelle: “I just want to add onto Dalya. Her parents are awesome. The Iron Man's like this giant triathlon. I was so shocked when she told me they did it! Crazy stuff-”
Dalya: “High expectations to fill but we’ll see!”
STARTING AN ORGANIZATION
What prior experience assisted you in starting your organization?
Dalya: “I'm currently… for about a year now, a Youth Advisory Board member at Youth Art Exchange. From my position there, I'm able to, you know, work on writing grants and organizing events, using some of the grant money that we've come in and planning out certain programs to say because we have a summer program that the YAB, or advisory board, [organizes]. And so, using this experience of this kind of brainstorming, as well as grant writing to earn money for that program — I really transferred all of those skills that I've acquired from being on the Youth Advisory Board to Masks For All CA. Although I'm not as much on the grant writing side as Michelle and her team [are], I think many of the skills of leadership that I've acquired from the Youth Advisory Board, as well as planning out programming and seeing what works and what doesn't work; I kind of transferred all that over to here. Similarly, I'm also a fashion design student at Youth Art Exchange. I transferred [my sewing background] here as well and understanding, ‘Oh, like it's going to be difficult to start with this type of fabric’ or ‘this is the type of fabric we need’ — you know, researching those kinds of things. Those are some of the skills I probably use.”
Michelle: “Dalya has definitely been a lot of help, given her sewing expertise. I, alongside her, have a very strong background in policy and politics. So I'm an absolute fanatic of the United Nations. I helped out a lot with their events. I served on the United Nations Association San Francisco leadership, and most recently, we organized the United Nations 75th anniversary events, people from over 37 countries came. I'm also going to be secretary general of San Francisco Model United Nations of which is hosted by Lowell Model United Nations, for which I'm president of, and you may wonder, ‘How does an interest in the United Nations and in background and politics make you want to start Masks For All CA?’ Well, the answer for me is simple. It's the heart of the community. It's wanting to unite people for a common goal. Dalya, I believe, can overwhelmingly agree with this. It's never necessarily been about us trying to seek out to complete a mission. It's about the relationships we build along the way and galvanizing people to work towards a common goal. So to me, a background in the United Nations has always been about cooperation and communication, and wanting people to shape the future that we want to see. And I think that's exactly what Masks for All CA is.”
What problem or social issue were you faced with?
Michelle: “Originally, Dalya and I were both doing our own separate smaller scale version of Masks For All CA. So at least for me, it was definitely seeing an economic and resource disparity in different communities in San Francisco that are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 — and that's not a coincidence. It's always the lower income areas, the under resourced areas. For us, we felt that a virus doesn't discriminate, so neither should our government. A mask is not simply privilege; it's a right everyone deserves to be protected. Everyone deserves to not be at risk of spreading it to other people potentially. It's really just about making sure everyone was covered. No pun intended.”
Dalya: “That's pretty good. Yeah, to add on to what Michelle said, I think, you know, another reason about starting Masks For All CA is that back in March, the CDC recommended masks, but I remember looking and trying to find them online, and it was just like practically impossible because everywhere was sold out. Nobody has masks. Like everybody's freaking out, right? I thought if, for me, who's relatively — I consider myself middle class — if it's difficult for me, I can't imagine the people who are in a harder situation: people who are in unemployment, people who have low income. I just thought that this is not fair for those people. And obviously, as Michelle said, there is an economic inequality aspect to this, but also it's just if there's a virus going around, people should have access to a simple protection, which is just a piece of cloth with two elastics.”
What was your vision for your organization?
Michelle: “We had a very small vision. Dalya, I’ll let you start this off.”
Dalya: “Yeah, it was just like, I know, when Michelle was talking about how we had two separate projects, my project was initially named ‘Masks For All SF.’ I was thinking, ‘Okay, I'll make maybe like 300 masks for the community — it's going to feel nice… and give back to the community in some way.’ I teamed up with Michelle, and suddenly we're working on a website and I'm like, ‘Oh, this is gonna be cool.’ Then ‘Masks For All SF’ — the name was taken fortunately. So we're like, ‘Okay, Masks For All CA,” then, ‘Oh, let's fulfill the name!’ So we opened up a chapter in LA and started delivering to places in California. We were like, ‘Whoa! Wouldn't it be cool to have a ‘Masks For All New Mexico’ or ‘New Jersey’ or ‘New York’. I guess our vision was very local; our vision was just to be in San Francisco — fulfilling the San Francisco community. Then we realized, obviously, this doesn’t apply only to San Francisco; [Masks For All] literally applies everywhere. We want to do the most that we can. While opening chapters in different states has spread our idea and project, we still have a large focus on San Francisco. For example, I also run the operations team here in San Francisco and still back-to-back delivering masks and organizing volunteer kits. You know, it's not only about what we do everywhere — we also have a special focus in San Francisco, the local community.
Michelle: “So first off, Dalya, I absolutely condemn you telling [the interviewer] as to why we ended up going with ‘Masks For All CA’. It's because the domain name ‘Masks for All SF’ was taken but in a way, largely benefited us because [starting state chapters] made more sense. But going back to what Dalya said, I feel like a huge reason why we get along so well and why our interests are aligned was first and foremost, I cannot overemphasize this — we have the passion. If you don't have the genuine want to help your community, a project like this could never succeed in any capacity. Like Dalya said, I originally saw she had to GoFundMe that she was raising money for so she could use her time to sew masks. You know, I was doing it on the side myself at the time, hand sewing because I didn't have a sewing machine yet — we were later sponsored by Singer so that filled in the gaps. I sort of had this vision of wanting to help with no actual skill or materials. Dalya had all of the actual expertise; she was real, a real guiding light in this. I felt like any weakness strengths that we had really melded in [and] allowed us to fill the gaps for each other. As she said, we started a website later that ended up having us donate to a certain organization. They became our fiscal sponsor, we achieved the benefits of 501c(3) status. We have grants now because of that, and it's never really stopped.”
Dalya: “Yeah, I’d like to just add on — although I had this early vision, I was really thinking about, focusing local, and I think it was Michelle that was the driving force — [she] was like, ‘We can do this in other states!’ So, you know, she's obviously talking great about me, but like, she's the one who's inspiring us to go truly national.”
Michelle: “That's Dalya's way of saying, ‘[Michelle’s] the idealist and without her, we wouldn’t have gotten anything.’”
Dalya: “But yeah, I love working with her.”
Michelle: “We have origins in early mid-March; we officially launched in early April”.
Dalya: “Yeah, it was a few days before my birthday.”
Michelle: “In mid-March, we would have zooms where we would do these website building sessions like hours at a time. Anyway, so I have it all recorded because I was super sentimental about it. Mid-March, I'm serious. There was a two week period where we would call for eight hours a day. It was crazy because you know, we actually knew we did online school because let's be honest, in March, the school had no idea what we were doing for education. So we were just sort of milling about; we had all the time in the world, so why not?
It's one of our, one of the things our organizations thought a lot about, it's like, ironically, though six feet apart, I feel like our community's never been closer. Dalya and I have definitely noticed this throughout the city throughout the country, really with this extra time, youth leaders are taking the initiative to enact the change they want to see. And we were amazed and I love how it's sort of a domino effect where if one organization starts to really inspire others to say ‘I have the time. I have the resources. Let's do this.’ And it's so amazing because you can see like wildfire across the nation. Leaders are taking initiative.”
In difficult or uncertain times, how did you overcome adversity?
Dalya: “There's definitely been multiple things. One thing that I think we found is a struggle in the beginning was finding a fiscal sponsor. I think that [in] many nonprofits, you know, it's kind of risky to bring on a group of, you know, teenagers and high schoolers trying to do something but they're not really big in it yet, although they have the passion, like, “Should we put our time and resources into this possible organization?’ I remember, for a grant, we needed a fiscal sponsor by a certain date. We were calling a bunch of people but I think if we had anybody else [besides our current fiscal sponsor], Richmond Neighborhood Center, it wouldn't work the same. They're truly like the best fiscal sponsor. They support our project; they're passionate about our project. We reached out to a bunch of other people, but in terms of having a fiscal sponsorship, it required a certain payment or some kind of commitment that we weren't able to provide, like a percentage of our income — we don't really have an income. This is completely volunteer-based; Michelle and I are doing this unpaid, you know, spent all our time unpaid. So how can we provide an income for that?
That was a challenge that we saw early in the beginning: nonprofit organizations, some of them just like not believing in us, or if they [did] like, you know, trying to milk us for what we had. That's completely not the case for a neighborhood center. Michelle can talk more about that.”
Michelle: “The reason I sort of had to like pause at the question is because I can think of ways I've personally faced adversity, but in terms of our organization — I know this is sort of going very slightly going against what Dalya said — it could be seen our young age as something that we'd have to overcome because, you know, ageism is very much real; it is prevalent. The reason I can't necessarily say we faced adversity is because of our age… all of these opportunities came pouring in. For instance, the Singer Corporation when I reached out, they saw, ‘Oh, teen-led? Let's support that!’ Same with the Richmond Neighborhood Center — one of the reasons they were super interested in our initiative was because we shared their sentiments of teens and youth taking action in their community. Like Dalya said, we had to hop over a ton to get to them. Oh my gosh, they were the needle in the haystack. We love them so much. We can talk for so long about how much we love them, but we love them a lot.
Like our volunteers, it was a lot easier for us to get them, besides the details of production, we got a lot of volunteers because of our age. We know a lot of these people or people from other high schools and they're like, ‘I want to help!’ Although young age can definitely be intimidating, I would say this was definitely a silver lining in the sense that people should use that as fuel — inspiration. Your age is not a barrier. If anything, it's your greatest advantage. For us, it's what's allowed everything, not to come to us — we definitely have to seek it out — but it's something that makes us unique.”
IMPACT & LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE
What was the impact of your project on the community?
Dalya: “As of now, we almost hit around 3500 masks [in California] distributed within the community. 3500 That's crazy. That's more than Lowell High School, which I'm comparing it to in size.
Even better, in the small three months, we've hit 5000. Just imagine what we can do in another three months, at least from the operations perspective. In the past three weeks, we've continuously doubled our output of masks: we used to have 50 masks a week and then we went to 100, then 200. As of Tuesday, we're going to be getting in 400 masks in one day from our amazing volunteers. I think that one of our impacts in the community obviously is distributing these masks, but also creating, as Michelle was saying, community engagement. I think that we have a lot more people interested in volunteering with us because of everything that's going on. We're creating the sense of giving back to the community but in our program, you don't have to leave your house — you’re sewing masks in your house, but you're still contributing to the community.”
Michelle: “Overall, it's sort of like creating change: one hope-filled mask at a time. We use our platform to unite youth in a common goal. We have over 100 volunteers, and this is nationally, and most of them are centers in San Francisco [which] represent every major neighborhood of San Francisco. That's amazing because people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives… from all over working with us for one common goal — which is to help their community. Dalya touched upon the numbers aspect of our impact, but the second impact that I feel like will always leave a lasting impression is how youth united in such a time filled with hardships to achieve a common goal. We've been focusing on handing out masks in the communities that were most at risk, and it's all San Francisco youth that help us achieve that.”
How would you describe your personal growth through the process of starting an organization?
Michelle: “I can start off, I definitely feel a more deeper rooted connection to the community. Before this project, I definitely thought I had a grasp on what a community was,it's generally a neighborhood. But I've come to find that individuals are individuals, groups of people make a neighborhood; it's when groups of people come together that you truly make a community. So for me, it was the ability to visit a new neighborhood every week, literally meeting hundreds of different unique people every week, getting to see their perspectives — that really makes you reevaluate your place in your city. How do you contribute? How do you help? How do you fit in? For me, that answer was through helping, through assisting, and through giving back. In terms of other growth, [there was] definitely the professional aspect. I feel like Dalya and I — because we started this when we were 16 — had to grow up a lot faster than some of our peers. We had to start doing very professional things. We had to sign into legal agreements: fiscal sponsorships, grants, and contracts. Any word in that realm was just foreign. We grew up really quickly, but I think we did it really gracefully.”
Dalya: “To add on to what Michelle said, you think you know leadership until you truly have to run some kind of organization, or you're running something with people under you, and you're like, ‘This — this is the goal. Let's all work together so we can achieve this goal.’ Going into this, I thought, ‘Oh, I had some leadership experience’ and I did have some, but it's just a completely new realm.
Now that I have a team of operations and talking to people and I'm like, ‘Oh, can you do this so we can achieve this?’ It’s completely different. Another thing is making difficult choices. Obviously in the group, Michelle is definitely more stern, strict, and if somebody is like not working out, you know, she's gonna flat out tell them but for me.
So I'm trying to learn how to make more difficult choices and be stern and strict with my answer. I'm growing — my personality is growing in this as well. Because, you know, for some people, it's just hard to say no. I used to be one of those people, but now I know like, ‘Oh, this person isn't doing this right.’ It's not going to benefit me by telling them, ‘Oh, that's okay.’ It's not going to benefit the organization. I really need to tell them, ‘Look, this is how we would prefer you to do it. Can you please do it this way?’
Similarly, I know it's a whole other level making mistakes. Before you could just make mistakes and say, ‘Oh, I'll learn from them.’ But when you're in such a leadership position, you make mistakes that impact a lot of people. You truly have to find a way to fix that mistake, but also improve what you had before. I know for me because I run the volunteer program there have been so many like, ‘iffies’ here and there. For example, we don't have enough delivery drivers or they’re delivering every day or being overworked. And, you know, there are people who are telling me like, ‘I can't do this anymore. It’s too much for me.’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh, how do I improve this situation, so that the delivery drivers feel less overworked but more working towards a community goal?’ In that situation, I ended up designated two delivery days so people know when they're delivering. Before this, it was more of, ‘This person's ready to go. Pick it up on you tomorrow,’ but now we have two specific dates and a certain number of people per day, and finalized like the little things really benefit the volunteers in the end. Making those hard decisions and also improving from your mistakes to the point where you're somewhat satisfying everybody is something that's come from running us through Masks For All CA with Michelle.
It takes a certain level of like, assertiveness to be Michelle's — it's a great thing. You know, it's really hard for people sometimes it's really hard to say no or I'm afraid that I'm going to hurt somebody, but I realize I'm not going to hurt somebody if I just tell them how we'd prefer it, show them how it's done — how Michelle’s doing it. So definitely I'm learning from Michelle.”
Michelle: “In that context, I would argue the opposite. I think I'm learning from Dalya. I mean, I think she once again, she's definitely glorifying my presence. No, if anything, sometimes I think there's a very fine line between being assertive and low-key just being authoritarian. I really much like how comfortable she tries making personal connections for me. I truly mean it when I say every team member, every volunteer is a part of our MFA family. At the same time, it's also very easy for me to approach that when I say you're not meeting these goals or you're not meeting what we agreed upon. Sometimes I think I do it a bit emotionless, which is why I like seeing how Dalya approaches things because she has a very personal take.”
What skills have you gained from starting an organization that will assist you in the future?
Dalya: “One thing I'm very, very proud of is my spreadsheet abilities. Before I would type in, you know, spreadsheet, but now I know that you can autofill some cells and you can merge cells and I'm like, ‘This is amazing. I'm going to use this in the future for sure.’ I'm already using it for other things as well, like accounting, you can add the numbers in a box. I've never taken a spreadsheet course before, doing inventory and using spreadsheets for deliveries for volunteers for masks and requests. Spreadsheets is really where all the awesome is. The skills that I've acquired from exploring with spreadsheets and trying to make it easier for us to understand — I’ll definitely take that outside of the project and in the future.
Michelle: “I know Dalya is going to revisit this with some personality attributes she's gained. But I first wanted to commend [her for being] a God at spreadsheets now. Like, oh my gosh, she took online classes for it so I'm really proud of her. For me, personally, there are a couple things that I definitely felt like skills I've gained. Once again, this can't be a final answer because we foresee this going for a while. We're only three months in, but I already feel like we've grown so much as people. The biggest difference between a project and an organization is, as the name implies, organization.
Dalya and I had to make many, many edits throughout this process, sort of like an ‘adapt and evolve’ type-of thing. As she said before, our system was very small scale, we would just pick up from volunteers whenever they were ready. That's when we realized that is not preferable because there was so much disorganized chaos in that sense. It was constantly on call; everything felt rushed. We never even really set deadlines for the volunteers. So sometimes materials would end up with people for weeks on end. It was really when we reorganized our entire structure that we were able to cohesively operate. The second is I've always had a very hard time with delegating responsibility, because I always fear either it's too much for them or — and this is so terrible for me to say — they would do it wrong and I didn't like that. It's really a growth curve — to be able to believe in your team. I think this was multifaceted in the sense of not only do we have an amazing team, but we also have a team that's willing to go above and beyond for us. Throughout this process, it was a self journey of realizing that the people around me are not holding me back. They're lifting me up with them. So that was a big thing for me.”
Dalya: “You know, just to give an example of how amazing our team is. Michelle, the other day sent an email saying the first person who opens his email has to write a blog post. It was urgent, so somebody would click it. We got a response within two minutes, because our team is so devoted. If they see an email, you know, ‘urgent’, they're going to open it immediately. So that's just an example of how committed their team is and how they're truly going to do anything to lift us all above and beyond, as Michelle was talking about.
I think another thing more personality-wise that I’ve acquired from this, besides my spreadsheets, would be a new sense of leadership. It's so different having to think about other people and not just yourself when you make mistakes, because I know when I make mistakes, I always just like to focus on myself and think, ‘Oh, this is what I'm going to improve on next time.’ But now when I make a mistake, I need to think, ‘Oh, how has this impacted other people, like our volunteers or other people on our board? How can I use the mistake to improve upon that not only for myself but also for these other people?’ This new sense of leadership, which I'm definitely going to bring in the future to maybe a job or in university. When you make a mistake, you need to think of everybody involved, and not just how it has impacted you.
What advice do you have for new founders?
Michelle: “As corny as it sounds, because this can be applied to many instances, [my advice] is to have courage. Courage is not the absence of fear. It's not the same as bravery. It's the acknowledgement of fear, but the want — the drive to still overcome it to see that the goal is more important than your fear. [For] me, courage took the form of ‘Do not be afraid to reach out.’ The worst that can happen is someone will say no, the best that can happen is they will change your life. Dalya has realized this in many steps of our process. I think the issue is youth leaders tend to bog things down to the details. ‘What if this happens? What if this happens?’ When you look at something objectively, there are two situations: yes or no. Once you begin to realize coherently, and you become cognizant of the fact that you have nothing to lose but everything to gain, decisions become so much clearer — your drive to go achieve something becomes so much faster, everything actually begins to take form — it manifests. For me, have courage. Don't be afraid to first act on what you believe in. This is very important for advocates, people that want to start movements; it's not only to act on what you believe in but to have the courage to do it.”
Dalya: “Yes, that's definitely everything. I personally feel like that. Before having this project, it was kind of scary to email a big company to ask them for something because you think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so weird. They're not going to block my email or something ridiculous, right?’ But in reality, the worst that can happen is they're not even going to open it. Ouch — that's going to hurt a little, but it's not gonna do anything bad for you, and as Michelle was saying, a ‘no’ doesn't impact you as much as a 'yes’ does. Founders should know to have a plan before starting anything else. That's a given, but you really should have down to the specifics, kind of an idea and a goal. At the same time, you should be open to adjustment because when you start things up, it's not going to go all the ways planned. My high school career did not go as planned. It's always going to change: you need to have more ideas and the ability to alter what you have that'll further impact your goal. That's another thing — have a goal. Problems I see when people start up new organizations, projects or ideas is that they have a passion, plan and resources — but they don't have a specific goal. They're just kind of going into it thinking, ‘Oh, you know, I'm just gonna deliver masks,’ but Michelle and I were like, ‘We want to deliver to these specific neighborhoods. We want to deliver this amount. We want to have an impact. We have a specific goal.’ [My advice is] having a specific goal and a well-thought-out plan, but also the ability to change it on cue on when it's needed. Those are two very important things that I would recommend new founders to look into.”
Michelle: “I cannot highlight what you said more — absolute genius.”
Dalya: “G Suite too, which you know.”
Michelle: “The thing is — people think it's so expensive. It kind of is — if you have nothing initially, for one email, it’s $60 a year or something like that. But it's the best investment we've ever made. For us, personally, we use the firstname.lastname@example.org email like 10-20 times a day so it was a very good investment for us.”