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Former North Allegheny high school students release guide for the next generation of young activists

Changemakers
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The co-authors of "From the Ground Up: A guide to Changemaking" during a zoom call.

Shortly before Sam Podnar graduated from North Allegheny High School in June, she spoke to the district’s school board about the need for diversity, equity and inclusion work.

“How do you change an environment that for so long has tolerated and in some ways enabled hatred on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion or abilities?” Podnar asked the board during a May 11 meeting.

She noted that much of what young people learn is by observation.

“An environment of toxicity is passed down from class to class … that students realize their slurs and their bigoted jokes are very rarely punished,” she said.

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Podnar is part of a student-run group called NA for Change, which is engaged in social justice issues. Their work led Allegheny County’s second-largest school district to create and implement a DEI task force called NA Empower. The group worked on updating the district’s harassment and discrimination policies to require a centralized complaint and investigation process and measures to restore equal access to programs or activities. The group held rallies and regularly shared testimonies during board meetings.

While Podnar says student activism and community stakeholders got the ball rolling, it will take time to see meaningful change.

So she and other recent graduates wrote a guidebook for future students to carry on the work.

It’s called “From the Ground Up: A Guide to Changemaking.” The 88-page book includes interviews with other young activists and non-profit leaders. It outlines the minutiae of organizing — from setting a vision and goal to public speaking and engaging others through social media.

It also includes a section with case studies and Q&As with other student organizers, authors and grant authorizers.

“I hope more people will feel supported enough to organize, to speak, to share,” said co-author and North Allegheny graduate Victoria Ren. “I hope people know that there is community out there, and there are so many people who care about them and are in their corner.”

Ren, who also worked with NA for Change, said the biggest win for the group was empowering others to act on injustices they see.

“There are clubs being formed, letters being written, protests being organized and so much more in our district. This sense of agency, despite all the horrible and heartwrenching things that are happening around the world, is beautiful and moving,” she said.

While in high school, Ren, now a Stanford University student, also founded STEM & Buds, an organization working to get young people interested in science, technology, engineering and math in a playful and fun summer camp-style program. As the organization grew, Ren said she realized there was so much that she wished she had been told when she started the work.

“I wanted to write something that would give everyone the advice needed to take action and to keep going,” she said. “Often, this type of advice is limited by connections and opportunities, and that excludes a good number of people. I joke that the guidebook is kind of like an older sibling who lays it out straight and is unconditionally rooting for you.”

Abby Liang designed the cover of the guidebook to represent creating change by working together.

“We each have our own stories, talents, and perspectives – combing these will allow teams to provide a more inclusive solution,” she said. “Together, we lift each other up.”

For Ren, she hopes the book will also help ease the imposter syndrome that many young organizers struggle with.

"We’re all young, and we always have more room to think, to act, to change. Realizing this was important for me because the best thing we can do is hold onto that hope that drives — even if it gets channeled through different mediums in our lives and we realize there are different ways to do so,” she said.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.