The year before I came to graduate school in the United States, I taught English and Social Studies at my old high school in Bombay. On the first day of teacher training, our impassioned headmistress Ms. Shirin Darasha, opened with, “There are three things you need to know about being a teacher. I want you to remember these every day as we start the new school year: Encourage, encourage, encourage.”
To encourage means to impart courage; to embolden; to give support to; and to foster. Oxfam America’s youth leadership program, the CHANGE Initiative, lives and breathes this value. You can see it in the faces of the 50 or so college students who come to Boston every summer for leadership and advocacy training, which prepares them to promote social change on a local and global level. They are scrubbed full of hope and excitement, and their energy to make a difference is palpable in how they respond to and engage with Oxfam staff during the week-long intensive training. To date, CHANGE has trained nearly 550 students from over 200 campuses.
Earlier this month, Oxfam celebrated the 10th anniversary of the CHANGE Initiative. About 200 alumni gathered together to reconnect with each other, and with the agency. On a Friday evening, amidst the shrieks of joy from seeing old friends and Oxfam staff, our Boston office was buzzing. The CHANGE leaders had grown and changed so much since their college days. But each of them remained humbled by and grateful for the social justice education they’d received from Oxfam during their formative years.
Among the many poignant CHANGE stories, Alicia Wilson’s stands out in my mind. Her keynote speech even had a self-confessed “tough” Oxfam employee staving off tears.
Alicia, who was born and raised in east Baltimore, attended the CHANGE training nine years ago. She said her life was changed immeasurably by it. “I knew little about Oxfam America and even less about the CHANGE Initiative before I came here. But I knew that I wanted to make a difference. At the end of that week, I emerged as a different person. The training actively engaged me in Oxfam’s social justice mission and also helped me develop as a capable leader.”
Today Alicia is an accomplished lawyer who’s back working in her hometown. She continues to give back to her community. She said her CHANGE training taught her about globalization, Fair Trade, and hunger. But it also helped her realize her mission – to help young people find their voice.
In this way, Alicia said she was living out the values of the CHANGE program – to be “the change that is so needed in the world.”