The thoughts expressed in this Guest Opinion are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of S&P Global.
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In American history, many social changes and cultural shifts have been motivated and driven by the young members of society. Mario Fedelin, a young changemaker himself who was chosen as a 2019 Obama Foundation Fellow, held this value of empowering young people as a cornerstone of Changeist—an organization he founded in 2014 that brings together 11-26 year-olds in weekly dialogues about civil discourse, social justice issues, and how young people can be engaged in creating a more just society.
Fedelin’s professional experiences are largely rooted in service. At age 20, Fedelin served in AmeriCorps, working for City Year, on a diverse team in San Jose. He notes that his three years with AmeriCorps changed his life, as it caused him to question what it means to have dialogues with other who have different backgrounds.
After working for City Year, Fedelin moved to Philadelphia, where he “felt like a fish out of water.” Though he had not completed school, he invested in building connections with many people and saw the value of learning from those who had talents and skills that complimented and differed from his own.
Both in his City Year experience, and another seven years in Los Angeles, Fedelin built civic engagement programs for high schools before pivoting from education-centered programs to youth programs that focused on after-school time.
Through this work, Fedelin focused on his passion: building diverse youth civic engagement programs focused on dialogue. He points to Little League as one example of an institution that focuses on bringing kids together, instead of being driven by outcomes to “fix” disadvantaged youth. With Changeist, Fedelin wanted to build a network for the most marginalized youth to come together, engage in dialogues, source good ideas, and collaborate “in a way that allows them to be seen first.”
Fedelin’s first steps in creating Changeist were all about team building. Assembling his own team of the best youth organizers he had met over his career and together, Fedelin and his partners articulated a plan for the “Saturday Leadership Groups program” -- weekly youth dialogues around social justice and civic engagement that extend over an 8-week period, each with a different topic, and some with site visits to museums and, in one case, in partnership with Warner Brothers (in connection with its release of the movie “Just Mercy.”). Fedelin also leveraged a team of advisors from his network with City Year, noting the critical role of not only financial capital, but also in building “social capital” – or trust among and between the participants in his program.
As Fedelin and his colleagues scaled Changeist, the initial mindset was to prioritize growth. But he quickly realized that growing too rapidly is not sustainable and can impair teamwork and participant satisfaction. With the onset of COVID-19, Fedelin paused to reevaluate the Changeist scaling strategy, while moving it to a remote platform. Pivoting to Brene Brown’s concept of “scaling at the speed of trust”, Fedelin explains his thinking as asking, “How do I slow down and make the investments where it matters? And then, we grow from there.” Top of mind for Fedelin is COVID-19’s monumental impacts and traumas experienced in the communities he serves, so he emphasizes the need to slow down and consider how to build brand new systems—including systems of healing—before the world reverts to the shortcomings from “before.”
As of 2020, Changeist has become an AmeriCorps program, with 30 AmeriCorps members leading programming. In that same year, Changeist expanded beyond its original program site in Los Angeles and launched a second site in Stockton, CA. With these two sites and in-person gatherings shifting to online programming with the start of the pandemic, Changeist has grown to have 137 high school students, 204 middle school participants, 50+ youth in alumni pathways, and 71 team leaders engaging in weekly dialogues with themes ranging from “What does it mean to be on a team?” to “What is heteronormativity?” and “How does this issue impact my community?”. Youth participants hail from 37 cities (87 zip codes), representing over 100 middle and high schools.
Fedelin advises others who are looking to build change to not only ask themselves, “What is my idea for change?”, but also “Do I have people who I can build it with?” Those who try to build organizations or social movements in isolation will struggle to gain momentum or achieve sustainable, impactful change. Fedelin credits the balance he has with his co-founder, Beth Bayouth—whereas he has the ideas, she has an MBA and brings skills that transforms ideas to reality. Fedelin explains, “When you are intentional with who you surround yourself with, the outcome of the work is so much stronger for it.”