By A. Colleen DeGuzman
Colleen is a 2018 T-Mobile Changemaker Challenge winner and a leading member of South Texas Ideas, an organization that empowers youth in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley to share their ideas with the world. You can learn more about the 2019 Changemaker Challenge here.
When I arrived at the Changemaker Lab at T-Mobile’s headquarters in Seattle last August, I was instantly hit by magenta, which would become the color that united our group of around 70 young people, brought together by the 2018 T-Mobile Changemaker Challenge.
Some sported magenta shoes and skirts, while others wore embellished T-Mobile t-shirts. We were proud to wear the color because it became an emblem of the friendships we made. For three days, I was surrounded by the most courageous teenagers I have ever met, all driven to create positive change in their communities.
On the second day of the Changemaker Lab, I found myself standing in front of the entire group, holding a detailed plan of how I would tell everyone about South Texas Ideas, the nonprofit that has been my heart since it launched in 2017 to elevate the voices of youth. My partner, Adrienne Piando, and I were handed the microphone to tell our fellow changemakers about what our organization is and why they should care about it, too.
We covered the major elements that define South Texas Ideas, also known as STXi: we are a student-led and student-focused multi-project organization; we host an annual Ideas Festival that encourages conversations about culture, community and identity; and we promote pride in our hometown, the Rio Grande Valley, the southernmost region of the nation.
Beyond that, everything I said is now a blur. Adrienne later told me she felt the same way. We believe that’s because our words that day did not come from us, but from the great love we have for the people of our community.
We had stayed up until 2 a.m. the night before to craft the outline I was holding, arranging and rearranging its parts. With sticky notes scattered across our room’s mirror and a pile of scratched drafts on the bed, our determination to write a perfect pitch and nerves of delivering it the next day kept us awake.
But when I remembered how Mentor Dida, a leader from Ashoka who facilitated the lab, told us that he was looking for “passion over perfection,” I forgot about the transitions we carefully crafted and I remembered why we were there: to tell others about why STXi is devoted to empowering and reminding the predominantly Hispanic youth of the Rio Grande Valley that their ideas matter.
So we let go of the notes in our journals. Instead, we spoke from our hearts about our deep love for our hometown and how STXi challenges local students to be the vivacious changemakers our area needs them to be. This was an opportunity to offer others a glimpse into the incredible potential we see in the youth of the Rio Grande Valley.
The Rio Grande Valley is home to teenagers who grew up in a region overlapped by two countries. Here, residents are raised to have hearts big enough to accept two cultures as their own. Yet the greatness that comes from living in this extraordinary place has been eclipsed by the rise of negative conversations about our area.
Our hometown has found itself in the national spotlight for reasons out of its residents’ hands — for family separations, the drug war, obesity rates. Constant negative press from out-of-town media has overshadowed the remarkable benevolence and spirit in our corner of the country.
South Texas Ideas encourages students to challenge their ideas and offers a platform for them to carry out their own projects to make the change they want to see a reality. We believe in the power of young people, and give them responsibilities that develop their leadership skills. We work with teenagers who have dreams for our community — and the people I met at the Changemaker Lab were some of the most daring dreamers I have met so far.
After hearing the stories of other young people and seeing their passion for their own organizations, I returned home inspired and hopeful. Connecting with other changemakers I now count as friends, I gained confidence in my generation by knowing that these people from across the nation are standing up for the world they dream of living in.
Since the Changemaker Lab, STXi has led many community projects, including launching a podcast called “Wrong Chat,” a platform for students to discuss social issues such as immigration and gun control. Our inspiration for the podcast’s name came from the awkward feeling you get when you accidentally send a text to the wrong person — which is the same way many teens feel when discussing hot-button issues, believing their voices do not belong in these conversations. Through the podcast, STXi aims to normalize deeper dialogue among youth, giving rise to an active and aware generation.
We’ve also partnered with Baylor University for the Texas Hunger Initiative, a project focused on creating equal access to healthy food across the state. Representing the people of our hometown, STXi members took part in the project’s photovoice component by creating photos that unveil the food scarcity problem here. Selected photographs have been printed and published, featured in art exhibits, and even included in an art exchange project with students in India.
Describing the impact of our organization is important, but I discovered at the Changemaker Lab that speaking from the heart will always be more powerful than a perfect presentation. When I think back to the day we delivered our pitch, I remember the moment when, after we concluded, the room fell silent for a second. I looked over to Adrienne, who, like me, was teary-eyed. In that second, I understood that people respond to genuine stories. Now, whether I am presenting about STXi to a potential sponsor or telling a friend about a new idea, I know that understanding the driving force behind what we’re doing is the most crucial part.
As we prepared for our pitches last August, we were simply asked to answer the question: why are you doing this? Sitting on the carpet floor of the T-Mobile headquarters, surrounded by magenta-clad changemakers, the first answer I scribbled into my journal was “because the people of the Rio Grande Valley deserve it.”
Applications are now open for the second-annual 2019 T-Mobile Changemaker Challenge! Dream up your idea, build a team, and apply for the chance to take part in a three-day learning experience at the Changemaker Lab and receive seed funding. Learn more here.