Mahika Halepete, a 16-year-old high school junior from San Jose, California, is the founder of AYANA International. AYANA is a non-profit dedicated to empowering young leaders to positively transform their communities by designing sustainable solutions to local problems. Through their week-long incubator, the Youth Innovation Lab, AYANA fosters creative problem-solving among youth in the developing world using design thinking.
For too long, a select few have made the decisions that impact all of us. Societies become peaceful and prosperous when everyone’s needs are met and their voices are heard, yet not enough emphasis is placed on giving youth a seat at the table. Across the globe, youth face barriers to participating in decision-making on the issues that affect them, such as poverty, violence, and climate change. Additionally, they are restricted from opportunities that would provide them with the skills needed to make informed decisions on those topics. Young people need the chance to discover their potential and make change in their communities so that they are prepared as leaders. We need to stop saying “young people are our future.” That’s not true. Young people are our present, and we can’t wait until they become adults to let them start changing the world. It is so important that young people from all ages, races, genders, geographic regions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and perspectives are engaged as change agents.
If we aren’t going to be given a seat at the table, we have to build our own table. I decided to start a non-profit, AYANA International, so that I could turn my values into action and pass the torch to other young leaders like myself who want to make a positive impact in their communities.
I designed AYANA to uphold my belief that communities need to be involved in the design and implementation of community development programs. Instead of pushing solutions on communities, I’ve had the chance to enable young leaders to discover their own leadership potential and create solutions to community problems. To date, AYANA has reached over 325 young people in seven cities in Africa, with plans to expand to other continents in the future. I know how important youth agency is, so I made sure to fund entirely youth-designed, youth-led projects, which include a hand-washing station at a school in Tanzania and a pop-up library in Kenya. I have seen the impact of this work not only in communities, but on individual young people. While running a workshop in Rwanda, I saw many of the students arrive unsure of themselves, but by the end of the program, they were confident and speaking freely and with conviction about their ideas to change their communities for the better. Everyone wins when there isn’t exclusivity about who gets a seat at the table. This is what happens when we don’t make young people wait to have their voices heard and their leadership valued, and instead let them start doing that today.
Every day, I can wake up and say I’ve made a difference in the world and have the incredible opportunity to continue to grow my impact. I have now realized that when young people recognize their ability to create real change in their school, town, country, or the world, they can find their calling. I have never felt more sure of myself or a stronger sense of purpose than when I have witnessed the power my actions have. This is something I wish for every young person, everywhere. Through my experience and the experiences of the young people I’ve worked with, I know it is not only immensely powerful, but possible.