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Photo credit Kara Smith uusc4all

When people ask me what’s the secret ingredient to falling in love with social justice, advocacy, and civic engagement, I barely manage to spit out an answer. I never know how to say I’ve helped to make some significant changes in my community. I never know how to admit that I fell so hard for social justice, it has taken complete control of my thoughts, passions, and life.

Social justice has influenced my career and schooling. I currently attend University of California at Los Angeles where I’m double majoring in Political Science and Sociology. With this focus, I aim to work with non-profit organizations specializing in policies relating to helping those in urban areas. Over this past summer, I worked with Mikva Challenge, a non-profit organization that pushes youth to become advocates in their community on topics such as health, the juvenile justice system, and education.  More specifically, I assisted in facilitating a group of youth for 7 weeks in a program that addressed diversity, and the lack of youth involvement and access to the growing tech sector in Chicago. I’m also a member of Vote For Our Future, a civic-minded student organization that works on voting registration, plans events for voting advocates to speak on UCLA’s campus, and informs our student body about the election process.

It has taken a lot of dedication and effort to grow as much as I have in recent years. But how did I get here? I was once a bratty, completely lost teenager with no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Now, I’m a driven, young adult yearning to make a difference in my community.

What happened to help open my eyes?

It started in high school with Mrs. Van Benthuysen, a very special former teacher, current friend, mentor, and role model of mine. Mrs. Van Benthuysen helped me realize the world did not revolve around me. She taught me about the various issues my community faced which allowed me to recognize that my problems were small compared to my surroundings. Among other realizations, Mrs. Van Benthuysen helped me discover a new passion towards transforming my community into a positive environment. In turn, this gave me a more meaningful direction in my life. I went from wanting to get out of high school as quickly as possible to becoming deeply involved in my school and making positive changes on issues I never once thought about before.

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Photo credit Rikki’s Refuge

One of the notable changes I worked on near the end of my junior year with Mrs. Van Benthuysen was my high school’s uniform policy. The purpose of the uniform policy was unclear, and truthfully, damaging our school spirit. Students dreaded wearing them, were constantly receiving detentions due to violating the policy, which could be severely or loosely enforced at random, and teachers had to become uniform police before they began their lessons. Through a rigorous month filled with research, committee meetings, and a Local School Council vote, we were able to abolish the policy by the time I started my senior year. Abolishing the uniform policy at my school created a better learning environment for the students, who began to see school as a safe place as oppose to a detention center. Most importantly, students felt and witnessed their voices being heard.

Mrs. Van Benthuysen is one of the biggest reasons I became interested in social justice. She taught me how to be a leader, challenged me, and encouraged me. She started a social justice club at my school where I found friends who had similar passions in wanting to improve our school. From there, as an organization with clearer direction, we made several transformations in our school, such as involving the voice of the student body in the principal selection process. Before I knew it, I had devoted my time, sacrificed sleep, and had much less of a social life for social justice. And it was absolutely worth it.

Without advocates, there would be no way to implement change for the people who do not have a voice. Without social justice, there would be no youth voice demanding changes affecting their lives. Without civic engagement, there would be no way to address political and social issues affecting our communities in very personal ways. Not having a voice in the decisions elected officials, principals, or a future superior make for you is suffocating. That’s why now is the time we, as youth, must step forward and use our voice to make change. Sooner or later, the leaders in our communities will not be around to fight the fight. It is vital as youth that we start to adapt into advocate roles so the leaders of today can pass the torch onto us, and we can continue the work.

How do you actually make a difference and become involved with social justice?

Step 1: Find a mentor, teacher, leader, or role model in your life who is already creating positive changes in your community. Once you find a person or group of people, hold on tight to them. You will need them in the future. Get to know them on a professional level as well as personal one. Learn their leadership style, how they approach and solve problems, and ask them about their personal interests.

Step 2:  Discover what you care about and what can be improved within your community. There is no right or wrong answer. Help is needed in so many places, if you stop and look around. This step can take a while and will always vary as you grow and become more knowledgeable about the neighborhood, community, city, and world you live in.

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Photo credit uusc4all

Step 3: Find others who are passionate about issues similar to your interests, so you can receive support when taking action, hear new perspectives, and make new friends.

Once you have a stable foundation consisting of you, your family, your mentor(s), and friends, you can begin to build up and outwards! Start to act on the issues you care about through solving the root cause of the problem. Do your research. Learn more about the issues you care about so you can fully grasp what you’re talking about. And don’t forget to start evolving into the leaders you look up to now! These are all very important actions because your mentors, teachers, and leaders, won’t always be there to fight for you and you’ll need to take over.

You’ve learned my tips on how to get started in social justice. What do you think about getting more involved? Once you take that first step, you won’t notice how quickly your life is evolving into something wonderful. Now is a good time to take social justice into your own hands.

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Noelle Cumberbatch
Noelle Cumberbatch (also known as Elle, pronounced L-E), is 19 years old and attends the University of California – Los Angeles, where she is in her second year. She is studying Political Science with a focus in Race, Ethnicity and Politics, as well as Sociology. When Elle is not studying or reading for her classes, she enjoys reading a good book or discovering new cafes around Los Angeles!

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