Editor's note: This article was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Aarushi Sahai mentions that her favorite book is the 1911 classic “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett; she read it for the first time when she was 9 years old, and she rereads it every year. When I ask her why this century-old novel resonates with her so much, she replies: “I liked Mary’s story. She came from being not active and just wanting to be in her own world to realizing that there’s more out there, and even though she wasn’t the center of what’s out there, she could still be a part of it.”
Sahai tells the story of her own transformation, from being a sensitive, introverted kid (“shy and bookish,” to use her descriptors) who was apprehensive about even speaking to people to the purposeful and outspoken youth activist she has blossomed into with the support of her family and other key mentors encountered along the way.
“As a little kid, I didn’t like the way my voice sounded or how I said words, I guess. [But I had teachers who] pushed me out of my comfort zone. They taught me how important it was to always be learning and that that’s not something to be embarrassed about,” she says.
Sahai says that asserting her voice was one of the biggest challenges she faced getting started in youth activism. “I was afraid that I was too young to be taken seriously,” she says. “But I found that if I really did put myself out there and I showed true dedication — not just ‘Hey, I’m here,’ but actually working to find a solution to the issue — it showed people that me being young is not a problem. I’m just as capable as everyone else,” she continues.
Now 16, Sahai is an 11th-grade student at Big Picture School, a choice school in the Bellevue School District. Based on the Big Picture Learning model, which emphasizes linking student-directed learning to their community and their personal interests in ways that elevate the relevance of the subjects they study, the school’s curriculum and adviser-mentor approach have enabled Sahai to explore her passion for environmental and social justice issues through internships and other volunteer opportunities with local nonprofits.
In addition to sitting on the school’s Environmental Leadership Council, she has helped kick-start its SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism) club, and has organized the annual talent show and multicultural night for the past few years. Recently, Sahai acted as one of the faciliators for a community conversation about the impacts of race and colonization on the American education system as part of a seminar series called “Let’s Talk Race.” Aimed at questioning the complexities of who defines and records the history of civilization, the interactive event featured guided group discussions about systems of oppression and racism, and featured a timeline detailing an indigenous perspective of our education system.
Through her involvement in the Environmental Leadership Council, Sahai learned about an opportunity to join the Youth Ambassadors Program (YAP) at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This service learning program convenes high school students from the Seattle area to discuss and collaborate on ways they can best make a difference in their communities. The goal of the program is to empower youth to motivate and inspire global awareness and action.
Sahai emphasizes that YAP has come to mean much more to her than simply a youth group. “We always end with a story-circle dialogue, which really helps us feel like not just part of a work group, but more of a family. I see these people as not just peers, but also as supporters and as people whom I can support — we know that we can always lean back on each other, and that focus on caring in the program is what makes it really different,” she says.
The group of approximately 15 ambassadors meets from two to three times a month to discuss what is going on in their schools and communities, and to work on shared projects, such as planning for the upcoming Teen Action Fair, to be held at the Gates Foundation Discovery Center on March 23. This annual event connects teens with youth-driven and youth-focused organizations, and features youth-led performances and art. “I’m on the programming committee, and we are focusing on what youth artists we want to invite to the fair, because we want to showcase their voices and experiences,” says Sahai.
In what spare time she has between school and volunteering, Sahai loves shooting nature photography, baking, listening to music and, of course, reading. But these days, she doesn’t have a lot of time for novels. What is she currently absorbed in? “Right now, I’m reading a textbook for applied psychology. I don’t read much fiction anymore. It’s all textbooks, but at least it’s really cool textbooks about people.”