Last night I gave a short talk to about 100 high school students in the LeadAmerica program. The experience was probably more inspiring for me than for the kids! I opened up my speech with a question: how many of you have ever volunteered for a charity or done community service? Almost every single hand shot up into the air. Then I asked a few of the kids to stand up and tell me about their volunteer experiences. One girl had been a junior leader for the City of Rockville. One boy had handed out food to the homeless, and he described the mission of the nonprofit he helped as succinctly as if he worked there.

I shared three stories with them: my background and why I work in the nonprofit field, the story of Adele Ann Taylor ,who at 13 years old, started a nonprofit to promote literacy. I also told the story of a young Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. when he was a teenager trying to decide whether he would study law, medicine, or theology and what a remarkable young man he was. Then to see his short rise to leadership as one of the most influential figures in the civil rights movement just 10 years later.

The point I tried to make is that you’re never too young to change the world. As a young person, we all have stirrings of great ideas to improve the communities where we live. The only difference that only certain people actually act on those ideas. At the end of my remarks, I asked the roomful of kids to do me a favor and think about something they really care about, to tell me their big crazy idea for creating the world as it should be. What I heard from those high schoolers was astonishing and inspiring:

  • One girl wanted to save the Everglades in Florida
  • One young man wanted to make college free for everyone that wants to go
  • One young woman wanted to spread the love of God to everyone who hurts in the world
  • One girl wanted to prevent cruelty to animals

We could have gone on all night long. But what I realized was that these young people were probably going to be our future nonprofit leaders. And as I listened to each one of them stand up and share their passion, I almost cried right there. If ever there was a time I doubted that the next generation would want to take up the torch of social change, these kids restored my faith right then and there.

I also realized that it’s up to you and me to make sure these motivated young people find a great place to work when they come to the nonprofit sector. We might be Gen x or Gen Y, still young ourselves, but we have to continue to pave the way for those that will inevitably come behind us.

Here’s a short video with clips from the talk set to my favorite John Legend song. Too bad I couldn’t show the kids, as they are all underage, and I didn’t have a waiver to film them. You’ll just have to take my word for it that they were pretty awesome.

imageRosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, D.C. area.  She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.