Get Social

Communities Leading Change
Meet the people and organizations transforming lives in their communities, one good idea at a time.
Sometimes the best ideas are hiding in plain sight. At the Walton Family Foundation, we believe lasting solutions come from local leaders who are closest to the challenges that keep people from their full potential. We want to learn from their experiences – and celebrate their success. In this series, we’ll share the stories of local innovators bringing community-driven change to life.
Cultivating the Next Generation of Student Activists
Youth Activism Project trains teen advocates to build and lead their own movements for change

Anika Manzoor was 12 when she first began calling herself an activist. In 2004, she attended a community event to raise awareness of the girls’ education crisis in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. At the meeting’s end, the presenter asked Manzoor and her friends “if we wanted to be the architects of a movement to fight this injustice,” she recalls. “It was the first time an adult in my life saw something in me—saw power in me. She talked to us as if we were her equals. That’s what made me say, ‘Yes, okay. I’m in.’”

That same year, Manzoor cofounded Youth Activism Project (YAP). The nonprofit trains and equips talented teens with the organizing skills, networks and resources to build and lead movements for change. “Young people have the energy and capacity to work in intergenerational solidarity to produce meaningful change,” says Manzoor, now 31 and YAP’s executive director. “And that can set them on the path to lifelong activism.”

Anika Manzoor is cofounder of the Youth Activism Project.
Anika Manzoor

Over the last 18 years, YAP has trained and mentored more than 3,000 teen activists nationwide. In turn, those students have launched nonprofits and campaigns in their own communities. They have returned policy wins on issues such as improving school nutrition, removing police officers from schools and boosting state funding for school-based mental health services. Seventy percent of YAP members identify as BIPOC. Ninety-five percent come from marginalized backgrounds.

Young activists can register new campaigns or join existing youth-led efforts on YAP’s online platform. The organization employs three full-time staff members. It offers virtual trainings on recruiting, organizing strategy, public speaking and lobbying, and helps burgeoning young civic leaders share their stories and apply for funding. YAP also connects its members to a national network of youth-led and youth-serving organizations and services that support and amplify their advocacy campaigns.

Youth Activism Project testimony
Youth Activism Project offers virtual trainings on recruiting, organizing strategy, public speaking and lobbying. In this photo, Anika Manzoor (middle) and fellow activists are shown following meetings with the Mayor of Baltimore to discuss concerns about health and education equity.

“We see our role as sparking—getting students past that activation threshold, training them in the skills they need and then connecting them with local and national partners,” says Manzoor. “We are conveners and connectors.”

In 2020, 15-year-old Sumiya Rahaman wanted to push for changes in her school community in Carroll County, Maryland, but didn’t know how to start. Rahaman completed a series of YAP trainings on how to activate and organize her fellow students around issues they identified as important.

A group of student activists pose with the singer Shakira.
Anika Manzoor joined singer Shakira in the spring of 2008 on the Global Campaign for Education.

Manzoor also mentored her one-on-one about building effective relationships with school leaders, elected officials and community allies. And Rahaman says she drew encouragement and inspiration from connecting with YAP’s network of teen leaders: “I enjoyed being in a space with other activists who made me feel like ‘we’re in this together’ whenever I faced roadblocks or challenges with my work.”

Rahaman later founded Carroll County Kids for Equity (CCKE), a youth-led group that advocates for educational equity and greater inclusion for students of color and LGBTQ students. CCKE surveyed 300 students across Carroll County to identify and elevate issues within the school system. These include increasing student mental health services, providing stronger protections for LGBTQ students, shifting school discipline toward restorative practices and prioritizing diversity and representation in the curriculum. With coaching from YAP, the group forged alliances with the county’s NAACP, a local church and PFLAG, a national organization that supports LGBTQ families.

Youth Activism Project protest
Over the last 18 years, Youth Activism Project has trained and mentored more than 3,000 teen activists nationwide. They include leaders of Students Toward Equitable Public Schools, who were campaigning to remove police from schools in a Maryland county.

In partnership with Search for Common Ground, an international organization that promotes cooperative conflict resolution, YAP helped coach CCKE members on how to speak to those with opposing views and find areas of agreement. Rahaman presented the survey results at the district’s equity & inclusion conference and met with school leaders and administrators to voice student concerns.

When the school board was considering a ban on students wearing clothing or items bearing “political” messages—a response to LGBTQ pride pins being worn at school—CCKE responded. “The students put up a really good fight,” Manzoor says. “Even though the ban passed, they testified at school board meetings and were able to mobilize 800 community members. They're still fighting on this issue. I count stories like this as a success because we’re not just focusing on the policy outcome—we’re focusing on how the community has been organized.”

We want to identify what really inspires young people and then teach them how to generate a sense of urgency and collective action.
Anika Manzoor

At its core, YAP trusts the vision and leadership of young people. “We follow their lead,” Manzoor says. “We want to identify what really inspires young people and then teach them how to generate a sense of urgency and collective action. And by extension, we're trying to solve all these other issues that plague the world.”

YAP mainly serves Maryland and surrounding areas. Via its virtual programming, it has worked with youth across the country in 44 states. Manzoor believes that elevating student voices and investing in youth advocacy is critical to fostering a new generation of civic leaders to tackle the most pressing issues of the future.

“Young people can be leaders right now,” she says. “And if we set them up during this transformative period of growth and development, they’re going to become adults who can change the world.”

Power to the Parents
Tired of being shut out of school decision-making, New Jersey nonprofit Parents Engaging Parents draws power from community

In 2017, a group of 30 KIPP NJ and North Star Academy charter school parents traveled from Newark to Trenton, New Jersey, to testify before the state school board in favor of a measure to ease teacher certification requirements. The group, led by KIPP NJ board member and parent Altorice Frazier, wanted greater access to talented teaching candidates who might share the race, ethnicity and socioeconomic background of their children.

But Frazier and his cohort were unprepared for the resistance they faced.

The measure’s opponents portrayed the parents as political pawns being used to promote charter expansion in the state. Frazier was stunned by the charge.

Engaging Parents in the Cause for Better Schools
Altorice Frazier founded Parents Engaging Parents in 2017 to elevate the voices of parents working to improve education in their communities.

“That's what made me start thinking: If we're going to come to these events, we have to be much more civically aware,” he says. “We have to move because we want to move. Yes, we can be in step with [charter school leaders], but it cannot be the narrative that Black, Brown and poor parents are just being told what to do. We can do it as partners, but we can no longer do it as customers and clients.”

Frazier, a father of five, was deeply involved with student mentoring and parent engagement through leadership roles at his kids’ schools. He also trained as a community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, and—not long after the contentious school board meeting in Trenton—Frazier founded Parents Engaging Parents (PEPNJ). The nonprofit promotes civic awareness and proactive parent advocacy to bring about real, measurable change on issues important to local communities.

Many of the parents Frazier spoke with expressed frustration about the transactional nature of their relationship with schools. Too often parents were mobilized for specific issues and then felt ignored once the campaigns were over. Frazier believed that many institutions took a top-down – and short-sighted – approach with parents. “That’s not the seed of building community,” he says. “We want to avoid check-the-box initiatives. We want to come into things with intention and with a coalition, collaboration and community.”

A mother and her children select backpacks at an outdoor school supply giveaway in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Parents Engaging Parents holds an annual Back to School Backpack and School Supplies Giveaway in Jersey City, New Jersey.

PEPNJ is rooted in the concept of “beloved communities.” It centers its work in building authentic, ongoing relationships with parents and community allies across New Jersey. Frazier and his team connect with parents in one-on-one meetings and listening sessions. They also build bonds through local community events such as jazz nights, comedy shows, stage plays and “sip and paint” socials. They hold weekly statewide check-ins on social media to educate parents on community issues and host workshops related to PEPNJ’s four areas of focus: education, economic mobility, social justice and health. Recently, PEPNJ invited The Community Food Bank of NJ’s SNAP-Ed Program to present a series of sessions on good nutrition, reading labels and making healthy eating choices. The nonprofit also offers workshops on advocacy, organizing and leadership skills to parent leaders across the state.

PEPNJ has built trust through direct support to communities in need. Since 2017 and throughout the pandemic, the statewide Unity in the Community coalition distributed backpacks, school supplies, early childhood learning kits and new winter coats to 10,000 struggling families across New Jersey.

The coalition includes PEPNJ and a broad array of community organizations, schools, local churches, government agencies and allies in the private sector. Coalition volunteers met with parents at these events and listened to their concerns and demands. Today, PEPNJ maintains a database of more than 3,000 parents with nine chapters across the state. Frazier says the network can be activated around a common cause.

Altorice Frazier and two parent education leaders smile at an event opening a parent resource center in Memphis.
Altorice Frazier, left, joins an event to celebrate a new parent resource center in Memphis, Tennessee. The center is operated by Memphis Lift, a parent-led movement working to improve education for underserved students in the city.

In 2019, the Paterson School Board announced it would consider a moratorium on new charter schools in the district, to the dismay of many parents who “believed we needed more quality seats in the charter space,” Frazier says. The parents decided they wanted to speak up. Working through their network, PEPNJ organized a coalition of 50 parents as well as charter leaders from all five Paterson charter schools. The group met with elected officials and held a rally calling for a meeting with the school board. At the meeting, PEPNJ parents testified with support from a large contingent of allies. Ultimately, the school board voted down the moratorium—and PEPNJ has been able to continue strengthening relationships with the board and school district officials on other issues.

Frazier says victory was possible because strong relationships and trust already existed when the time came to work together. “It can’t just be about scare tactics and fighting,” he says. “You don’t want to have to rebuild every time because you haven’t engaged these communities for real. If we engage together, we will fight together. I want to be organizing and building each other up collectively, so that when there is a fight, when there is a call—oh, family is coming just because.”

Our voice matters, and we want to be heard.
Altorice Frazier

Frazier says the group now has a deep bench of parent advocates willing to lend their voices to community causes. “It’s about cascading leadership,” he says. “These parents are leaders in their own right. It’s not about me getting 100 parents to come. It’s about me engaging with 10 strong parents, and each of them calling on 10 more strong parents in their communities. And there lies our 100.”

PEPNJ invests in the same consistent engagement strategy to cultivate community partners across the civic, public and private sectors, from schools to nonprofit organizations to elected officials.

“Through PEPNJ, parents learn they have the power to improve their lives,” Frazier says. “There is now a body of parents and community leaders who are watching and listening. Our voice matters, and we want to be heard.”

Tapping the Potential of Rural Communities
The Rural Opportunity Institute uses human-centered design to find innovative solutions to challenges in North Carolina

After serving as a Teach For America corps member in rural North Carolina, Vichi Jagannathan moved to Silicon Valley to work on scalable, tech-based solutions to educational disparities. She met up often to discuss ideas with Seth Saeugling, a fellow TFA alum who at the time worked for the Tipping Point Foundation’s T-Lab, a social innovation incubator in the Bay Area. Both were impressed by the immense resources and creativity being deployed to urban areas, but over time, they came to the same dispiriting realization: Rural students, like those they taught in North Carolina, simply weren’t part of the conversation.

What would be possible, they thought, if the dedicated, resilient leaders they knew in North Carolina could connect with the best practices and resources so abundant in the Bay Area?

“We often assume information flows from urban to rural, from wealthy to less wealthy,” Jagannathan says. “But what if we reversed that pattern? Those insights might be totally different. And they might scale even better to the problems that everybody is facing.”

To Support Rural Communities, Start by Listening
Vichi Jagannathan and the Rural Opportunity Institute are designing innovative solutions to community challenges in North Carolina.

In 2017, Jagannathan and Saeugling moved back to Edgecombe County, North Carolina. They founded the Rural Opportunity Institute (ROI), a nonprofit that supports youth, organizations and communities in designing innovative solutions to community challenges. During their time in the Bay Area, both had been immersed in human-centered design, a problem-solving framework that centers real stakeholders in developing programs or services tailored to their needs. The pair felt sure this collaborative approach would yield more meaningful and sustainable results.

“Having taught here, we knew there was a ton of knowledge, wisdom and insight in these communities—so much untapped potential,” Jagannathan says. “It wasn’t at all about ‘There’s a deficit. How do we fix it?’ It was more, what a tremendous opportunity to learn and support the folks who are already here doing the work and to improve their impact.”

After raising initial funds, ROI conducted design interviews with a broad swath of community stakeholders to identify pressing needs. They created a systems map to determine the most effective levers for impact. Over and over, they heard that traumatic events experienced or witnessed during childhood—abuse, food insecurity, addiction, having an incarcerated parent—profoundly affected children’s capacity to learn and thrive. Across generations, the ripple effects on the community were incalculable.

Success would be a world where our community has the resources and tools to self-determine their future.
Vichi Jagannathan

Together with input from their stakeholders, ROI developed a three-pronged strategy: educate community members about adverse childhood experiences (ACES) and the effects of toxic stress; teach restorative techniques for responding to trauma; and empower those who have been healed to become healers to others. Committed to making sure community members were the ones driving the change, ROI found a local partner with the expertise to help lead the effort. In close partnership with Asheville, North Carolina-based Resources for Resilience, ROI has provided free trainings on trauma-informed practices to more than 15,000 community members across Edgecombe County.

Rural Opportunity Institute group photo
Members of Edgecombe Community College's College & Career Readiness staff participated in the Rural Opportunity Institute's Resilient Leaders Initiative.

The program educates participants on the basics of ACES and trauma and teaches techniques for responding constructively. Nearly all Edgecombe County Public Schools staff have received the training—from teachers to social workers to school resources officers—as well as a large number of healthcare providers and law enforcement officers.

The primary focus on adults is intentional. “It’s like putting on an airplane oxygen mask,” Jagannathan says. “Adults need to put on their own mask before they can assist the child. A lot of adults have unaddressed trauma that gets triggered when they’re interacting with a child in trouble. We’re helping them regulate their own stress reaction so they’re equipped to stay in the moment and deliver a more restorative response to the child.”

Vichi Jagannathan community
The Rural Opportunity Institute supports youth, organizations and communities in designing innovative solutions to community challenges.

ROI has also invested in training a cohort of 25 local leaders—parents, educators, faith leaders, elected officials and healthcare workers—to become certified resilience trainers. In turn, they have shared the program within their own circles and organizations. “It was important to us that it wasn’t outsiders coming in and doing intervention,” Saeugling says.

ROI’s systems-mapping process also revealed a pervasive mistrust of public agencies from the communities they serve. In response, ROI launched the Resilient Leaders Initiative (RLI), the first social innovation accelerator program based in the rural South. RLI works exclusively with public agencies to help them design and pilot new trauma-informed programs and policies to build trust and enhance support for their staff and constituents.

A teacher provides instruction to a group of preschool students.
Teachers and students from The Impact Academy preschool participated in the Rural Opportunity Institute's Resilient Leaders Initiative.

In 2019, ROI piloted a biofeedback program at a middle school to help students who were struggling with behavior issues to manage anxiety and negative feelings. For just 10 minutes, at the beginning and end of each school day, the kids wore a small heart-rate sensor paired with an app that guided them through personalized breathing exercises to help them self-regulate and calm down. It’s a technique widely used by elite athletes, NASA astronauts and CEOs. The pilot saw a 57% decrease in reported anxiety and an increase in attendance, positive behaviors and academic outcomes. They are currently expanding the program with pilots at an Edgecombe County juvenile detention center and an after-school YMCA program.

ROI sees the work of lifting the community as an all-hands on deck endeavor. All of their learnings, best practices and materials are open source. They hired local illustrators to create flashcards and posters depicting resilience tools from their trainings that have been downloaded more than 1,000 times. In partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ROI provides a biofeedback guide for free on their website that has been downloaded and shared with more than 90,000 people.

Vichi Jagannathan outside
Vichi Jagannathan and the Rural Opportunity Institute have provided free trainings on trauma-informed practices to more than 15,000 community members across Edgecombe County, North Carolina.

ROI’s founders believe the strength of their approach comes from the community itself. “We didn’t come back to North Carolina with a specific solution, which is how a lot of social entrepreneurship happens,” Saeugling says. “We came back with a process that was based in listening to community members and building empathy.”

For their part, Jagannathan and Saeugling are hoping to work themselves out of a job. “Success would be a world where our community has the resources and tools to self-determine their future,” Jagannathan says. “That means reshaping the systemic infrastructure around them to be supportive instead of oppressive, so that they have the ownership and power to drive what happens next.”