Passion with a purpose

Young 'social entrepreneurs' are finding innovative ways to make the world a better place

November 17, 2005|By JONATHAN PITTS | JONATHAN PITTS,SUN REPORTER

By any standard, Mohammed Mamdani qualifies as a visionary.

Four years ago, as an 18-year-old high school senior in London, he was so dismayed by what he saw as the alienation of young Muslims in British society - a lack of social opportunities, a scarcity of useful activities, a nearly universal sense of separation - he decided he couldn't live with himself if he didn't do something.

He asked his father to install a new phone line into the family home. For the next year, he cut classes, trained himself as a counselor and spent most of his waking hours manning his personal creation, the Muslim Youth Helpline. Today, the award-winning service employs 60 workers, fields 10,000 inquiries a year and serves as a model for aspiring social activists around the United Kingdom.

Mamdani, now an Arabic studies major at Oxford University, typified the extraordinary panel he served on yesterday: a group of five "social entrepreneurs" under age 25 who shared their success stories with about 50 youth leaders from across Baltimore.

The locally based International Youth Foundation, which supports programs for young people in more than 60 countries around the world, sponsored "Activism With a Heart," a gathering at the American Visionary Art Museum that coincided with the publication of the foundation's first book, Our Time Is Now: Young People Changing the World.

Ashok Regmi, an IYF director and event organizer, said the panel was part of a global trend with considerable momentum.

"[Youth] are at the forefront of positive change as they've never been," he said. "There are now more than 1.1 billion people between the ages of 15 and 24 in the world. Exploding technologies connect them and their ideas. And they have access to an array of some 26,000 civil-service organizations," up from just 6,000 in 1992.

But such a global movement originates with individuals, young people who begin their quests with little more than an idea, a lot of passion and an awareness of a crying need. People like Mamdani.

"I saw Muslim communities so marginalized," says Mamdani, who got his help line up and running just three weeks before Sept. 11, "that their young people are left very, very vulnerable to the more radical elements.

"I felt responsible. If I didn't do something, who was going to?"

Get things done

A placard outside AVAM was playfully engaging - a profundity that seems a trifle at first. "Call them not your children," the quotation from the Talmud reads. "Call them your builders."

That made for a fitting aphorism for the conference, where Mamdani's panel shared its stories with Baltimore teens from 15 social-service organizations. Their message: Young people don't merely have ideals; lately, they've learned increasingly to marry their aspirations with the kind of practical knowledge that gets things done.

The challenges for young activists, says Regmi, are threefold. Because grown-ups tend not to trust them, they lack the resources they need. Because of a lack of skills, their enthusiasms can easily be wasted. And they lack network support. But things have changed greatly even in the past decade, says Regmi, an optimistic 28-year-old who started agitating for democracy in his native Nepal at age 9.

Mamdani was just one of yesterday's presenters who have followed a similar path.

Harjant Gill, a 23-year-old filmmaker and video producer from Washington, D.C., spoke of multiple projects over the past five years aimed at depicting gays, lesbians and members of other minority groups with more empathy than "the dominant media" tend to. Jocelyn Land-Murphy, 25, of Canada, spoke of leaving college - and her plans to study medicine - four years ago to develop the Otesha Project, in which she, her co-founder and 20 colleagues bicycle from site to site across Ottawa. The plays they have put on for more than 30,000 high school students illustrate how ordinary people can take small actions to protect the planet's resources.

"I've learned more in the last four years than I ever could have if I'd stayed in school," said Land-Murphy, adding that the university she left is now trying to hire her to teach there - even though she doesn't yet have a formal degree.

Maria D'Ovidio, a 25-year-old Argentinian, did just that three years ago when she grew frustrated that her university economics courses offered no practical guidelines for helping the poor in her country. She studied theories of entrepreneurship on her own and launched Intepay, a nonprofit outfit that offers poor families micro-enterprise loans and teaches them business skills.

"It's about more than income," she said. "It's also for self-confidence. For many in my country, people have been so poor for so long, the custom of working has disappeared. But work brings a sense of hope and of inclusion."

Creating change

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