COVID-19 RECOVERY SERIES: Young People Leading the Way to Find Light in the Darkness of the Global Pandemic

April 1, 2021
CRS-Young People

By Peter J. Liang

It has been one year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Among the many disruptions caused by COVID-19, the disruption to schooling has gravely impacted the lives of children, their future, and their communities. Evidence suggests that COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on young people and the fallout may follow them for the rest of their lives, affecting their academic success, social skills, and long-term mental health.

  • UNICEF reports that the effects of COVID-19 on children and adolescents are going to be “substantial and widespread,” disrupting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries around the world. Closures of schools and other learning spaces have impacted 94 percent of the world’s student population, including up to 99 percent in low and lower-middle-income countries.
  • Making Caring Common (MCC), a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, found that 43 percent of young adults reported increases in loneliness since the start of the pandemic. About half of the lonely young adults in MCC’s survey reported that no one had “taken more than just a few minutes” in the past few weeks to ask how they are doing in a way that made them feel like the person “genuinely cared.”
  • International Labour Organization found that 65 percent of young people reported having learned less since the beginning of the pandemic because of the transition from the classroom to online and distance learning during lockdowns.

As we seek to emerge from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to recognize the challenges faced by young people. It is also important to find and share stories of young people who summoned the strength, took the lead, and stepped up to meet the challenges of the moment. To that end, I invited educators, non-profit leaders, young leaders and activists, mental health experts, and educational researchers to share stories of hope, strength, and resilience from their work and the children they serve to highlight how these courageous young people are leading the way during our COVID recovery in communities across this nation and the world.

1. Young people leading the way - Earl M. Phalen leads the largest Black-run network of turnaround charter schools, Phalen Leadership Academies, currently serving 10,000 scholars in 22 schools across the country. Earl’s vision started when he was at Harvard Law School running a small reading program out of the Roxbury Boys and Girls Club. That program grew to a national model called Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL).

The Community Food Service Delivery was spearheaded by many of our students and families, with leadership coming from our Class President, Darrance Jennings. He is in his junior year (the highest grade, currently, at the James and Rosemary Phalen Leadership Academy). Darrance and his classmates knew the families and neighborhood well enough that when families came through the “Grab and Go” food service line at the school, they started asking these families if they would be willing to take meals to those who were not able to come to the school. When asked why, Darrance answered, “It’s just the right thing to do. People are hurting.” This caught on, and more and more families volunteered to help others. When the students knew that they were still not reaching all of the families, they asked the coaches and counselors at the schools to drive them to our scholars’ apartment complexes so that they could deliver meals personally.

The Phone Chain for Safety was started in the face of increasing violence during the pandemic on the far east side of Indianapolis. The Mayor was either unable or unwilling to do anything to address it. Tae’Vion Walker, one of our scholars, came to school out of breath one day after a particularly bad night of violence in her neighborhood. I asked her why she was so winded, and she replied, “I had to run to school because I didn’t want to stand at the bus stop because I figured a moving target would be harder to hit, so I ran here.” Frustrated by the lack of success in curbing the violence, she told me, “We created a phone tree, and any time there are gunshots in one of our complexes, once we are safe, we all have two people that we reach out to make sure they are safe as well. We have to take care of ourselves, Mr. Phalen, no one else is going to.”

2. Young people standing up against racism - Kyra Yip, a high school student, co-founded Concerned AsAm Citizens of NYC (CAACNYC), along with her mother, Barbara Yau, to combat racism. To raise awareness of anti-Asian racism and encourage kids to think more critically about racism, Kyra created a short animated film, Robbie the Rice Ball, which has been seen by thousands of elementary school kids across the U.S.

When the Coronavirus began last year, Asian American children were already experiencing racism at school. With words like “Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu,” Coronavirus-related racism spread quickly and viciously. To combat this problem, my mom and I started working on a poster campaign to help stop the attacks on Asian Americans. We wanted to do something because Asians were getting blamed for the Coronavirus. Since I am an art student in high school, I thought I could create art and design a poster to help. I was so happy that people ended up really liking the poster! After that, I wanted to see what else we could do. I was in the beginning stages of learning about animation, so I figured it might be fun to make a short video. That’s how Robbie started. It’s a creative way to educate young children about Coronavirus racism and to encourage tolerance and more in-depth critical thinking about anti-Asian racism.

We are presently emailing and posting on teacher group pages and sites to ask teachers to share our video with their classes. We want kids to feel safer when they are back in school. They shouldn’t feel scared that people at school will make fun of them or bully them just because they are Asian. We also want non-Asian kids to understand that Asians are not to blame for the pandemic.

3. Young people making their voices heard and building community - Elizabeth Dabney Hochman is Executive Director of KidSpirit, a non-profit online magazine and community by and for youth that reaches about 250,000 readers from 190 countries. KidSpirit’s mission is to engage young people on life’s big questions in an open and inclusive spirit, to promote mutual understanding among 11- to 17-year-olds of diverse backgrounds, and to support their development into world citizens with strong inner grounding.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen youth around the world step up to connect and express themselves in response to feelings of isolation and uncertainty. KidSpirit’s editorial network has grown by over 30 percent, with new groups in Australia, Ohio, Taiwan, Tennessee, Texas, and Ukraine. Four of these groups were founded by teenagers who discovered KidSpirit online, took the initiative to reach out to us, and single-handedly coordinated Editorial Boards in their communities. For example, Anahis, a senior in Memphis, Tennessee, was looking for ways to step out of her comfort zone and be creative in order to grapple with the effects of the pandemic. She not only sought out these resources for herself but also wanted to bring KidSpirit to her peers. All of these kids have put extraordinary effort into organizing Zoom meetings and giving their groups opportunities to contribute artwork, poetry, writing, and videos. We have also seen a surge of kids participating in online editing workshops and dialogue sessions, seeking to share their experiences with others from different cultures and backgrounds and to meet this unprecedented pandemic challenge with resilience.

KidSpirit participants also responded to the summer’s reckoning with race relations in the U.S. After the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests, the global editorial network co-created a statement on racial injustice. Each Editorial Board contributed to a call for people of all ages to embrace differences as a source of beauty and strength. In response, we launched The Belonging Project. When discussing equity in their communities, the first cohort felt it was especially important to focus on mental health during the pandemic. They had many discussions about how the pandemic has exacerbated mental health challenges and the difficulties of spending so much concentrated time with family, especially if there was a stigma in the household. Each talked about the effect of the pandemic on themselves individually and created a podcast to interview others about their experiences, including a young person who had founded an online therapy service.

4. Young people learning about acceptance to maintain their mental health - Keith Senzer serves on the Board of The Sophia Valsamos Foundation (TSVF), which has brought youth mental health programs and wellness kits to thousands of students and educators in the U.S. TSVF’s mission is to empower young people to take a stand against bullying, to find support around challenges, and to embrace each other’s differences.

The biggest challenge teens are facing right now is a sense of isolation. The middle school and high school years are significant times in a teen’s life. They start to get comfortable with their independence and build their own relationships based on their needs and wants, and COVID has removed these opportunities for them. This isolation forces them to be at home where they are constantly in-check as to what they say out loud, and that is a big reason they spend so much time locked away in their rooms. TSVF has been able to deliver the Oh Shift Workshops, which focus on personal growth and acceptance, and offer Youth Mental Health First Aid Training to educators and those in contact with youth to recognize the signs of depression and address these problems before they become a significant issue.

During our workshops with teens, the central concept TSVF has delivered is the idea of “acceptance,” teaching teens to understand that what is happening is happening to them and to others, and all they can control is how they respond to things. When they realize that being in flow with the current state of affairs is far healthier than being in resistance to it and trying to change what cannot be changed, they can be less frustrated and more positive. I have seen teens embrace this concept and learn to find the benefit and positive outcomes of COVID as opposed to focusing on what they missed out on or are currently missing because of the pandemic.

5. Young people making caring common - Glenn Manning is Senior Project Manager at Making Caring Common (MCC), a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Reaching more than 150,000 students through its programs, MCC leads a number of research projects and initiatives to help children develop the capacity to care for and value others (particularly those who are different from them), to treat people well day to day, and to understand and to seek fairness and justice.

MCC’s vision is to create a world where young people learn how to care about one another and the common good. Research shows that acting with kindness and care makes people feel good by building connections with others and reinforcing their positive views. Studies have also shown that feeling care and concern for others is linked to altruism, and feelings of care can be cultivated by asking people to imagine what others are going through and how they feel.

Recently, we launched “Building Connection: A Free COVID-19 Program for Schools.” The program is designed to promote children’s positive relationships, moral empathy, gratitude, and understanding of fairness and justice; to build strong, inclusive communities; and to facilitate school-family communication and engagement. Through our programs, we help students practice intentional acts of caring and learn from and share their experiences. MCC encourages students to reflect on and to encourage more kindness and caring at their school and beyond by practicing regular, intentional acts so they become a routine and normalized part of their lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our society and our families’ lives, and it will certainly take some time to recover. As President Biden remarked during his prime-time address to the nation on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic:

"While it was different for everyone, we all lost something -- a collective suffering, a collective sacrifice, a year filled with the loss of life and the loss of living for all of us. But in the loss, we saw how much there was to gain in appreciation, respect, and gratitude. Finding light in the darkness is a very American thing to do.”

It is natural to spend time talking about the lives we have lost and the difficulties we faced during the pandemic, and rightly so. However, it is also important to think about all the lives we saved and all the challenges we overcame during the last 12 months. As we reflect back and look forward to the post-COVID-19 recovery, I hope these stories of hope, strength, and resilience from young people across different walks of life inspire you and your community to ignite visions of leadership to improve kids’ lives -- not only during the darkness of COVID but into the future of limitless possibilities.


About the Author:


Peter J. Liang is a 2021-22 Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow. Peter is the founder and CEO of Leadership4Kids, a New York based social enterprise committed to empowering kids through authentic leadership development. His recent book I AM A LEADER: A 90-Day Leadership Journal for Kids is a #1 bestseller on Amazon. He currently serves on the boards of Owl City Ventures, Columbia Alumni Association and Prior to Harvard, Peter had a distinguished career in marketing and communications in the technology industry.


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