Two weeks after the 2016 election, I was on the phone with Ritu Ahuja Khanna, the wife of newly elected Congressman Ro Khanna. It was a restless time, full of unanswered questions. And yet, Ritu had only one on her mind: what should we do with our students?
For the last two years, over 400 teenagers had stormed the streets of Santa Clara and Sunnyvale, mastering the science of cutting turf and the art of voter persuasion. Instead of letting their activism dim down, we committed to doing something to keep their fire burning. Enter: Agents of Change.
Launched in January 2017, Agents of Change is Congressman Khanna’s student-run activism group that leverages the principles of political organizing to focus on local community impact.
In the last year, our students have volunteered at a range of local organizations including the Boys & Girls Club of Silicon Valley, Sunday Friends, Abode and Sunnyvale Community Services. Many have branched out and started their own initiatives, from organizing district wide mental health summits to starting after school reading comprehension workshops for elementary school students.
Weeks before their high school graduation, a few of the seniors had an idea for one final project: a five week computer science course for middle school students on the other side of the Valley. Kids that grow up in suburbs like Fremont don't spend too much time in East San Jose, vice versa, but that convention didn’t stop 12th grader Rohan Hajela, a co-founder of Agents of Change.
He had been teaching elementary school students the basics of computer science through workshops hosted at the Biblioteca Latinoamericana Library. Together, with his team of fellow co-founders, seniors Anisha Kollareddy, Sid Bansal, and Hasini Shyamsundar, they developed a more expansive five week STEM bootcamp for fifteen middle school students at Mt. Pleasant After School Program.
Studies suggest children absorb language like sponges—computer languages are no exception. On their first day, students were taught how to code an oval on their screens. One sixth grader, Ryan, digested the basics quickly and within two hours, he was giving a tutorial to his peers on how to create a house with moving clouds and a blue sky. But coding was only half of the beauty.
The other skill these students learnt was how to articulate their gratitude. Carlos, a sixth grader, dedicated a website to his best friend of seven years, Emmanuel. Emmanuel wanted to become a game developer and even though Carlos himself didn't care much for computer science or gaming, he thought that if he could learn the basics of programming, he’d be able to help his friend reach his potential.
This past Friday, with the support of their Agents of Change coaches, 15 brave middle school students presented their work to Congressman Khanna (see video below). Their efforts were commemorated with a photo with Congressman Ro Khanna. Several parents had come to watch, as well as some friends (Carlos’ friend Emmanuel sat in the front row). That afternoon at August Boeger’s gymnasium was a stark contrast to the cynicism undergirding much of modern civic life. It was a case for unyieldingly optimism.
The next day, I wrote an email to Ritu, recapping the event and reminding her of that conversation we had nearly a year and a half ago. The answer to “what should we do with our students?” had presented itself. Give civic-minded students a small bit of structure and watch them unleash their creativity.
Impressed by the results of this program, Maurissa Koide, a Student Advisor at August Boeger Middle School, and Danny Patton the Director of the MPAS program, are planning to work more expansively with our Agents of Change in the next academic year.
A special thank you to them as well as the other Agents who went out of their way to help with this program, Ayushi Prusty and Pranav Varansai. In attendance at the ceremony were other administrators who had made this initiative possible: Superintendent Mariann Engle, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Elida MacArthur and board members, Antonio Perez and Peter Ortiz.
Tarun Galagali is the founding advisor and executive director of Agents of Change. A Bay Area native, Tarun worked to help elect Congressman Khanna on both his 2014 and 2016 campaigns. For more information, visit www.rkagentsofchange.com. Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Interested in writing an op-ed? Email pitches to [email protected].