The Power of High School Students

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Racism, sexism, poverty. These are some of the most significant problems facing America today, and we’ve been tackling them throughout history. If the smartest and most innovative leaders have not managed to solve them, who can? The nature of these issues means that they cannot simply be solved with a single policy or by a single person or group. They require the participation and investment of entire communities, both young and old. Believe it or not, high schoolers are working alongside veteran activists to drive real change as we speak, because these issues affect them as well.

When Redefy reached thousands and inspired people from all over the world to fight for justice, many did not know that this organization was actually run by high school students. Redefy stands as proof that young people could tangibly impact their communities by defying stereotypes, embracing acceptance, redefining perspectives, and creating an active community.

When we found out about Lauren McLaughlin, a high school student from Menlo Park, California, from HSCanvas, an organization that interviews students in the San Francisco Bay Area following their passions and impacting their community, we thought she embodied Redefy’s mission. We would like to share her story of taking initiative to serve others and proving that high school students are fully capable of creating change. Lauren is the co-founder of A Chance to Dance, a project that mentors and offers free dance lessons to local underprivileged kids. We hope you enjoy!

Q: Tell us a little bit about the history behind your dancing career and A Chance to Dance!

A: I have been dancing since I was three years old. Now, I’m the captain of my high school dance team as well as my competition team. From 6th to 10th grade, I started and ran my own dance business, which served about 6-7 girls between the ages of 5-12. I definitely enjoyed it, but as someone always looking for the next step and to expand my impact on my community, I wanted to do something more. I started thinking about how I could use my passion for dance to help cultivate a similar passion in others. I love teaching, and I love dancing, so I quickly realized that I could combine the two by teaching free dance classes to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to dance. Paying for classes, costumes, competitions, and equipment makes dance a very expensive sport, so many kids don’t get to participate. However, I believe everyone should be given a chance to dance.

The purpose of A Chance to Dance is to provide free, regular, ongoing dance classes for kids ages 10-17 from lower income families. Currently, there are three teachers, including myself. Each of us have over 10 years of dance experience.

Q: Wow, you started a business in 6th grade? How did you do that?

A: I’ve always naturally taken a leadership role in my activities and the role of a teacher/mentor in dance. My younger sister and I both dance, and I’ve been consistently helping her out since I started. Her friends and their moms would come up to me and say, “Hey Lauren, you should teach dance! You’d be a great dance teacher!” I had helped teach summer camps and dance classes at my studio, so I thought about it. Starting and running your own business isn’t that hard, right? Admittedly, it was much harder than I expected: I had to teach the class, track finances, coordinate costumes, plan the end-of-the-year show, and keep everything organized. It was quite a challenge, but it gave me valuable leadership experience that ultimately led to A Chance to Dance.

Q: How did you acquire funding for A Chance to Dance?

A: In October of my sophomore year, I came across the Tutor Corps’ Susan Lindquist Community Service Grant. After I came up with the idea of A Chance to Dance, I applied for the grant, and won it! Then, I started a Kickstarter campaign, filmed a promotional video for it, and received enough money to start my project in January. All of this happened very fast, but it was so exciting.

Q: What’s the mission of A Chance to Dance?

A: The program has three goals. The first is to engage kids from lower income families who may not have many opportunities to play sports and exercise in rigorous physical activity. The second is to help them develop self efficacy, which includes helping the kids set personal goals, and then assisting them in achieving those goals by the end of the year. The third is to provide them with positive role models, through the teachers becoming mentors for the students.

Q: Do you have your own role model who you look up to?

A: My role model would be my dance teacher Nona. One year, I had to interview her for a project, and I learned all about her story. Coming from a lower income background, she is someone who has paved her own path to her success today, and is a huge inspiration to me. Nona has been very supportive of me through this whole process, and also lets me use her dance studio for A Chance to Dance!

Q: What do you love most about running A Chance to Dance?

A: The program runs from September to the end-of-the-year show in May. Usually the class starts off with about fifteen people, with eight or nine girls who attend every week and are clearly passionate about dancing. I run the program for those eight or nine girls, because I get to see them grow as both dancers and individuals with every class. It’s so rewarding, for example, to see that one of my students got her splits down after a month of consistent work, or when one comes up to me at the end of the year and says, “I felt so uncomfortable in the beginning of the year, even dancing in front of my parents, but now I’ve danced in front of a whole crowd at the end-of-the-year show, and I thought it was fun.”

Q: What kind of setbacks have you faced in your time working on A Chance to Dance?

A: A problem that we have faced, and still haven’t quite solved yet, is that many students who really want to attend our classes can’t attend due to their circumstances. For example, they might have other events on weekends, they might not be able to get rides to the classes, or their parents might not be motivated to support them. It’s hard for these kids to consistently attend, mostly because they and their families aren’t used to committing to the regular practices and meetings of sports and clubs. That’s why I believe it was a huge accomplishment to get those eight or nine kids to regularly attend nearly every class throughout the year. It helps them develop a habit of making commitments, which will greatly benefit them later in life.

Q: What’s the next step for A Chance to Dance?

A: I’m part of a national organization called the Boys and Girls Club, and currently I’m talking to one of their directors, as we’re both interested in integrating my program into the club. Currently, I am interning there to see how the organization works and interacting with the youth it serves to hopefully begin collaborating in the fall. Both of our programs have similar missions, so I’m excited to see where it goes!

Q: What advice would you give to high schoolers who are starting a similar project or a project in general?

A: First of all, it helps a lot if you write out your plan beforehand, because it helps you become organized and gives you direction for your project. For me, applying for the grant was helpful, because the application required a very specific project overview and timeline. I worked on it for an entire month, but once I had everything written out, my entire plan was laid out in front of me, and I knew exactly how to start and which steps to take.

If your project requires funding, applying for different grants and starting a Kickstarter campaign are great ideas. They will also help you identify the potential problems and challenges of your project, and give you opportunities to brainstorm how to overcome them.

Lastly, make sure you’re starting your project for the right reasons. If you’re working on something just so you can check that box off for your college application, then your project is not going to be as successful. The people you are working with and supporting you will know that you are not truly dedicated to it. It’s important that what you’re doing comes from your true passion. My passions are dance and teaching, and I took those two things and thought, “What can I do with the two things I love to help my community?”

If you want to check out more interviews featuring high school students who are impacting their communities through their own independent projects, please check out www.hscanvas.net.

-Ayushi Jain (redefy Head Officer of Journalism) and Justin Duan