Op-Ed: Silicon Valley Students Turn to Political Activism Through ‘Agents of Change’ Coalition

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.

Unlike other STEM programs, this initiative would merge an education of computer science with a cultivation of emotional insight. Each middle school student had to build a website, dedicating it to someone they were grateful for. Half of our Agents focused on helping middle school students learn the basics of Python and JavaScript and the other half worked on helping students find and tell stories about their source of gratitude.

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].

8 Comments

  1. “Agents of Change”?

    Change what to what?

    This is all about “process” and zero, zilch, nada, about substance.

    This sounds like a bunch of junior college poly sci majors conned into doing volunteer work for the Khanna permanent election campaign.

    > with the support of their Agents of Change coaches, 15 brave middle school students presented their work to Congressman Khanna

    I do hope the fragile little snowflakes were in an OSHA approved safe space and provided with adequate self-esteem counseling when they made their presentation to the fearsome Congressman.

    > the cynicism undergirding much of modern civic life.

    There’s a reason for this:

    “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”

    — Lily Tomlin

  2. This featured project was just one of many completed by Agents of Change this past school year and is in no way rooted to volunteering for any campaign. To my knowledge, there aren’t too many registered goat, chicken or pig voters at Animal Assisted Happiness and the kids at Sunday Friends are certainly too young to vote. San Jose Outside The Bubble, your cynicism is misplaced.

  3. I get it – San Jose Inside got Ro Khanna elected.

    Do you have to publish puff pieces now? This should be a press release.

  4. Is this the demographic of young would be voters that eat soap and get confused about which bathroom to use? Alas, America – we shall never see the likes of the Greatest Generation again.

    • Maybe, I think it is more about neocortex development.

      “Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have made it possible for scientists to watch the rate at which the PFC matures, and have discovered the male brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25. Meanwhile, women experience a maturity rate of 21 years-old.”

      “When you’re 18, you’re roughly halfway through the entire stage of development.”

      So what High School or Middle School “activists,” think, scientifically speaking, doesn’t amount to squat.

      If populations trend roughly 50/50, on average everyone has significantly degraded executive control (over your lizard brain) and judgment processing power in the engine until you are 23. These kids simply should not be voting or politically active. What they should be learning is math, science, reading to learn facts, the craft of writing, some history, and general vocational and economic skills. We do education and voting wrong. If the actual brain anatomy was a guide, one would probably only learn theory and political science on a return to school in their mid-20s. From 16 to 26 should be working years, apprenticeship, learning job skills, etc. Going to school until you are 26 or so is not wise and those that do shouldn’t be surprised if much of your adulthood is unlearning the nonsense they taught you until you are 26.

      The system in place is actually very destructive to many lives and a huge drag on a meritocracy, So much of what requires us to be successful in life is just not developed until 25, risk management, organized thinking, attention, and those that do not exhibit these behaviors in HS are permanently held back in the job market. We, as a society, are leaving a lot of money on the table so to speak, having the lifepath crossroads at age 16.

      But how else will society employ so many intelligentsia who don’t want to compete and produce for society?

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