Parenting + Changemaking

*This post was written in collaboration with Ashoka's Youth Venture. It first appeared here.

Hi! My name is Daniella Cohen and with the help of Ashoka’s Youth Venture and the support of my parents, friends, and teachers, I co-founded GIVE. What started with one letter has transformed into an international letter writing organization. Our main goals are to promote empathy and enhance education at our partner schools in India and Uganda by installing computer labs and providing access to the internet. None of this would have happened without the support of so many people — my parents, specifically, were instrumental. This post is about just that: what my parents did to help me become a changemaker.

How did my parents foster cultural understanding?

My parents supported cultural understanding since a young age. With relatives dispersed between five continents, traveling was easy. Traveling immersed me in other cultures and allowed me to get a glimpse of other peoples lives. This was the beginning of empathy learning.

When travel was not possible, I was able to experience different cultures through books and audiobooks. My parents ensured that the books they read me were written by diverse authors. The books in my book shelf have always represented cultures and stories, very different from my own. I remember reading about great leaders from various countries. My parents also encouraged me and my siblings to act out the stories — these are some of my fondest memories. My favorite audiobooks were mythologies. I remember falling asleep to Greek and Indian mythologies. These stories shaped my understanding of accepting and being curious about other cultures.

How did my parents foster a love of learning?

My parents also supported a love of learning since a very young age — outside of school. In second grade, they suggested I take “Shakespeare for Kids” enrichment classes at a program through a local university. These classes made learning pressure-free, fun, and supported my curiosity for learning.

Outside of the classroom, I talked with my grandparents about their histories. Learning my family’s stories of escape from the Holocaust in Europe taught me to to be curious about and appreciate the past. Learning about culture can start with your own family.

My parents instilled in me a love of learning; this is what inspired me to start GIVE.

Through GIVE, I prioritize providing funding for education at our partner schools. We have installed internet and computers in rural areas of India and Uganda. The laptops supplement the education, spark curiosity and inspire a love of learning, too.

What is the most valuable advice from my parents?

The story of GIVE truly started in 2008, when I was in third grade. As a third grader, I only understood “war” to be a problem of friendship. I had the idea to write letters to students in war-torn areas to build friendships and — in my mind — solve war. So, my third grade class wrote letters to students in Iraq and Israel. Unfortunately, we never got responses, but it was ultimately my parents who gave me the most valuable guidance: just because something doesn’t work the first time, doesn’t mean you should give up. You have to try harder the next time with more passion and drive. Two years later, GIVE was founded as a pen pal exchange with a school in India.

My mother told me, “You must be willing to fail at something if you really believe in it.”

The first letter I received from my pen pal, Suma.

The first letter I received from my pen pal, Suma.

How have my parents supported me in starting my own project?

As a third grader, I thought that friendship could end wars. Looking back, it is easy to laugh at myself and my lack of knowledge about war. However, the notion that students, even in third grade, want to become friends and want to learn about other people is something remarkable. My parents believed in me and supported me by affirming this simple, powerful idea. My parents encouraged me to take risks for what I believed in. By validating my third grade idea, my parents taught me that my voice matters.

Two years later, when GIVE was founded, my parents supported me even more. In fifth grade, I had a separate GIVE-specific email — my parents taught me how to professionally compose emails in order to reach out to mentors, more schools abroad, and prospective pen-pals. My parents helped me apply for grants, launch fundraisers, and manage the funding. My parents practiced giving speeches with me and helped me gain confidence before speaking at funding events. Managing funding and using a “work” email are things that fifth graders don’t usually do. With my parent’s guidance, I am proud to say that GIVE was able to grow into a sustainable and functioning project, started by a fifth grader.

Speaking at a fundraising gala for our first partner school in Bangalore, India.

Speaking at a fundraising gala for our first partner school in Bangalore, India.

Follow Daniella Cohen’s changemaking @GoGiveProject

Follow Ashoka’s Youth Venture @Youth_Venture

Learn about Ashoka Youth Venture’s Council here!