Inspiring Tomorrow’s Leaders to Do Something

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Episode 81 │ Inspiring Tomorrow’s Leaders to Do Something

Wednesday, Mar. 6, 2024

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DeNora Getachew

From addressing climate change to destigmatizing mental health, young people are stepping up as leaders to create a better world. Our hosts talked with DeNora Getachew, CEO of, to learn how we can empower youth to create change. DeNora shares about the causes most important to young people, how they're getting involved and what families and educators can do to encourage service learning.


  • Visit to learn more and follow @DoSomething on social media.

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Helen: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Helen Westmoreland.  

Kisha: And I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester. We are your co hosts.  

Helen: That's right, and today we are going to talk about the young people, how we can elevate student voice, empower youth as leaders, and help them find meaningful opportunities to create change. 

Kisha: I really love this topic, Helen. It's so important that my children understand how helping others makes a real difference in the world and I love seeing how the youth today speak up about what's important to them.  

Helen: Me too, Kisha. And we are thrilled to have with us today, DeNora Getachew. She is the Chief Executive Officer of Do Something, the national hub for youth activism. Under her leadership, this 30 year old nonprofit has focused on fueling young people to change the world. DeNora is a proud native New Yorker and the mother of three. Welcome, DeNora. Thank you so much for joining us.  

DeNora Getachew: Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here with both of you today and to be able to talk to your listeners about such an important topic. 

Helen: So tell us, how did you get involved in youth activism, DeNora?  

DeNora Getachew: How far back am I allowed to go, Helen? I don't know. 

Helen: As far as you'd like.  

DeNora Getachew: For me, it goes all the way back. Unfortunately, not unfortunately, but like timing wise, I've got to date myself. And I hate doing this so early in the conversation, but my own commitment to youth activism dates back to myself as a young person.  I'm coming to you and your listeners from the great village of Harlem, here in New York, and I cut my teeth as a young activist advocating for myself and my own educational opportunity as a young pregnant teen at a high school here in Harlem. 

So kind of a full circle moment now, 30 years later, I'm a homeowner in Harlem. For me, I know, right? Hey, it's for me that really, sorry, I should, I should have warned your listeners up top. I like to have fun when I'm having these conversations. That's my line, have fun. That is. Well, you know, we're talking about some serious stuff and it has to be relatable and real. 

So just warning that that's what you're going to get during this conversation, at least for me. You know, I was a young pregnant teen at a high school here in Harlem and I learned that I was pregnant and, and I was treated either as if my pregnancy was contagious or a distraction to the school community. 

And so I was being encouraged to transfer to what back then we used to call a transfer high school for young people who were either over age and undercredited or had other issues going on that didn't make them a good fit for their traditional classroom. And what people should know about me is I'm often a rule follower until I decide if those rules actually should apply to me. 

And so I went and learned more about this transfer school. I went and visited with my mom and what I quickly learned is that while they could offer me child care, they weren't going to offer me the rigorous academic opportunities that I was being afforded in my home school. 

And so I learned very quickly how to engage with local government to advocate for myself and to be, Back then, I didn't even know those words, right? What an activist actually meant.  

So when you ask that question, Helen, it goes all the way back, right? 30 years ago, I was a freshman in high school, which is ironic given that 30 years ago was when Do Something was founded. And over the last 30 years, right? I know, we just celebrated our 30th anniversary and 30 years of activating young people to change the world. And what's powerful about my own trajectory and Do Something's kind of parallel over the last 30 years is that it's been this journey of like, how do we meet? 

How do I meet the needs of, like, young people who, you know, then were Gen Xers like me? And so I went on to go to college and law school and really wanted to use my legal degree to help others like myself and make sure that I was both improving access to democracy, but also, and, and, probably more importantly, with all due respect to us older folks, make sure that young people understood why it matters to participate and over the last 30 years, Do Something was doing the same. It was like really evolving and continuing to be relevant to new generations of young people. So that's my way back moment.  

Helen: Love it.  

Kisha: That is a great story. And, it really helps inform what you're doing now. What are the issues most important to youth right now? 

DeNora Getachew: So let me give you a little bit about the Do Something. Our mission, as you said at the top, Helen, is fueling young people to change the world. For the last 30 years, what we've done really, really well is meet the needs of young people, activate them or light their civic spark, if you will. And so what I love about the work that we do at Do Something is that we are engaged directly with young people and we hear from them often about what issues matter to them. 

And so in a recent, poll survey of young people, what we heard them say, shouldn't come as a surprise to your audience, education and access to education, right? Top issue that really resonated to young people, whether that was because of the constant onslaught or threat of books being banned and, and, you know, school districts nationwide or realizing what's the role of AI in their education and how are their teachers and their schools evolving to teach them how to live in a 21st century environment and everything in between? Strong seconds pillars behind that, the economy. Young people are concerned about, will they have economic mobility and have a sense that they see an economic pathway for themselves. And they're concerned about whether the gig economy that we've created is sustainable for them and their peers and how that's contributing to, and this is what I'd say is like third and rounding out the top four issues is their health. And their mental health in particular. 

And so it's not lost on young people that they're growing up in a time of complete unprecedented natural disasters and reckoning for intersectional equity and justice. And they just want to know if they're going to be okay. And so the economy played a big part in that. And then what I would round out at the top of young people's mind are really thinking about equity and justice. 

And those are young people's words, like, how are we living in a time where as the world, but I'll speak specifically in this moment to the United States being the most diverse that it's ever been, that people's rights are being taken away. And so young people see all of the work through a lens of intersectionality. So they're confused about how we could all have these intersectional spectrums of identities that we show up with every single day and really want to live into them. But we're not actually having our government and our decision makers prioritize policies and decision making that reflects that. 

And then last but not least, is the environment. Young people are incredibly concerned about, and these are DeNora Getachew's words, not young people's words, but will we become extinct in our own lifetime? Not the planet, right? Because the planet has survived lots of disasters and changes in climate. 

But will we do something about, you see how I can say do something in almost any sentence? Will we do something about not falling off of that cliff of making sure that our planet is sustainable. So, like I said, young people are really astute and aware about the intersections of all these issues. So when they think about the climate, they're thinking about their mental health and how the everyday a natural disaster, right, once in a hundred year storm comes of age. And they're like, how does that affect my mental health and my sanity? If I can tell a quick story of my young daughters, I remember this summer, they ended their school year right with fires here in New York, the smoke from the Canadian fires were coming in and every day they were concerned about the air quality. And as a parent, I was thinking, I both want them to be aware of their environment, you know, and what's affecting that environment, but also I want them to be 11 and then 12 year old girls. Like, I want them to just have fun. And it was really impacting their mental health. Like, can we actually go outside and what's going on?  

Helen: Yeah. DeNora, thank you. It sounds like, not surprisingly, our young people care about a lot of different issues. One of the places that we are either sending signals to our youth that you can make a difference or putting roadblocks up to them, is their school system. So, in the work that you've done with DoSomething. org, I'm curious what advice you have for schools of do's and don'ts for how to really help empower and activate their young people's voices?  

DeNora Getachew: So one, I want you to get familiar with us and call us DoSomething and drop the org because it just sounds so formal. DoSomething. We're doing that to such a great question because let's be honest, as a parent, my children's teachers and the administrators in their school hold a very trusted place in their hearts, right? The important role that schools play can't be understated. And it's been that way in our society since the beginning. And yet I think we're in this moment where we're all, let's just be honest, a little bit burnt out and tired from the pandemic and the aftermath of that.  

So I just want to first and foremost applaud our educators for all of the hard work they do day in and day out to navigate educating, young people at a prime moment and to be those trusted messengers and to be those people who actually can convince young people to light their spark, find their identity and get engaged in ways big and small. That's not an easy feat and for sure not an easy feat amidst the luring pull of technology in schools. To your question, I think what's powerful about the role schools play is that they can be those gatekeepers and those people who have introduced young people to things that they hadn't really experienced or appreciated or known up until that point. And so schools really are these learning laboratories that we need to be giving more credit to, to be able to provide service learning opportunities or make volunteerism a key part of school curriculums. 

When Do Something was founded 30 years ago, Andrew Shue and Michael Sanchez, the co-founders really just wanted to make volunteerism as cool as sports. Our founders had in mind that schools would be this place where young people would understand the fundamental role of democracy and government in their lives and use that for good. That would be powerful. So really just want to encourage more schools, not in a way that feels like a check in the box, because let's be honest, Gen Z and Gen Alpha, they're not here for the check in the box. How can we provide more opportunities for service learning, meaning connecting the dots between being of service and the academic curriculum in schools would be key. 

And I don't want, again, young people walking around being like, I have to do my hundred hours of community service before they graduate. But I do want them to realize that  the schools play, especially at the middle and high school level, such a fundamental role of helping young people telescope out from that sense of self that is completely developmentally appropriate and natural. So that sense of us and the sense of now. How do we get young people to see the larger community, see the world in which they operate in and then be able to be of service to it. So more schools bringing back and really uplifting the importance of service learning is key. Second, I would say, and I've been a part of some of this work especially in my past role at Generation Citizen, which is a great nonprofit focused on ensuring that young people develop the knowledge, skills, and sense of civic agency they need to be leaders of change, so plug for them. 

Seals of civic readiness. I was on a New York State Commission that was responsible for including a diploma option for young people to obtain the seal of civic readiness so that a young person when they graduate will have taken a certain number of actions, in the classroom, in the community, in order to prove that they are civic ready. And what I think is powerful about that is like, it's a badge of honor, this seal, right? That says like, I am a committed citizen.  And so there are several states, including Arizona, California, Georgia, like I said, New York, I was a part of that effort, and Virginia that are adopting this seal of civic readiness. And I don't mean this glibly because it is an academic setting, but really gamify and meet young people where they are like, Oh, I've got this badge of honor and I want to have it. Let's put more of that out into the world to ensure that young people are leaving high school with the knowledge, skills and sense of civic power that they have in their toolbox. 

I'd also recommend schools really thinking about volunteer service days or civic opportunity days where young people, whether that's connected to the seal of civic readiness or whether that's a service learning opportunity where young people are actually given, let's call it a volunteer day, right? And they get to go out into the community. We saw this adopted in Fairfax County, Virginia schools back in 2020, where young people in grades 7 through 12 get one excused absence per year to engage in civic activity outside of school. If we could have more of that happening, imagine what of civic fabric we could create in our nation. And even if you could have like a national day, but maybe that's like a bridge too far DeNora settle down.  

Helen: You gotta aim big. Yeah.  

DeNora Getachew: Aim big, aim big. And then last but not least, I would just, I would be remiss if I wouldn't put in, put a plug for the work that my colleagues and I are doing here at Do Something. 

We're really focused on this program that we're running called the Art of Democracy, where we're helping young people in many ways, go from that sense of civic ideation and exploration. Like, what's my own civic identity? And then how do I use that identity, my own avatar, my own cape, my own superhero? 

Me, DeNora Getachew, I'm the Democracy Ninja. My tools and my toolbox are focused on all of my power, energy and expertise to make our democracy more reflective, inclusive and accessible, but especially for young people. What if we did more of that work nationwide to equip young people with their own civic identity, help them understand and be able to talk about the issues that are pressing to themselves and their community through a story booth series, and then really give them opportunities to put their voice in front of decision makers and local politicians to inform the local election process. 

So we are really going beyond just that act of registering young people to vote. Again, powerful work, important work. 16 million new young people are become eligible vote between 2020 and 2024. That's powerful and gets to shape a new version of our electorate. But what we're missing is then how do you keep young people engaged between election cycles. 

So arming young people with their own civic identity is one way to do that, So I'll recap service learning opportunities, seals of civic readiness, work. Maybe we get that one excuse absence a year to engage in civic activity and then having educators be in the driver's seat of helping young people with that civic identity exploration and sharing their stories at the local level. 

Helen: Love it.  

Kisha: That is very good. It excites me just listening to you talk.  

Helen: I know you got this contagious. I love it.  

Kisha: Yes, yes. I know that that's what you need when you talk to youth today, because they're just looking for someone who can help them find their voice. So as do something, and you work more with youth, what patterns are you noticing with youth activism? You know, how, how are they stepping up and becoming advocates?  

DeNora Getachew: What we are seeing young people do, and I want to be clear that activism doesn't just look the same for every young person, right? So young people are not a monolith. And I want to try to get us away from this notion of even describing all of us as activists, because that might not be a label, right, for a generation of no labels that resonates for you as a young person. 

Helen: That's such a good point. 

DeNora Getachew: And so when we think about the civic identification and how we get young people to understand, are you the person who's going to be at the rally or organizing people to go to the rally? Are you the person behind the scenes who's fueling and funding the movement? Are you the person who's writing the op ed? What's your role? Like, what is the way that you are best suited to show up. If we can equip young people to find their own civic identity, then they can determine what form of advocacy, activism,  gets them engaged. 

And so what we've learned, in fact, is that when we've engaged with young people all over the country, and we have members in every single area code in the United States. It's going to look different in every area code around the United States. It might look different within the area code. 

In New York, a place we often hold up as this like very committed, staunchly democratic place, Only 58 percent of young people we engage with in New York feel like they are equipped to affect change or lead change versus their 73 percent of their counterparts nationwide.  And so what does that mean to lead change in a place like New York City? I'm like, there's a protest, a rally, a march every day, all day. Things are happening all the time, you've got thriving journalism sector. You've got a thriving advocacy sector and still young people don't know. And is it because it's oversaturated? And so they're like, how do I show up? 

I don't know the answer to that question. But what we have to do is meet young people where they are. When we think about how to meet young people where they are through that civic identification, we really then are using that as a way to help keep young people engaged on their specific journey. You know what I think has been powerful about Do Something over the last 30 years is we get to young people at scale. 

We have activated over 8 million young people over the last 30 years. That's a lot of young people, right? But at the end of the day, young people don't just need their civic spark lit. They don't need us to raise their awareness. They need to know what they can actually go do. Right. And the reality is, is there's more to do. There's so much more that needs to be done.  

DeNora, the Democracy Ninja, might be equipped to do one thing, but what do we help young people do that really meets their needs based on, where they are in their community and what issues matter to them. Like, we see young people like Jalen Smith, who became the youngest mayor in America in his hometown of Erla, Arkansas, and he, he's showing up differently, than a young person might show up in New York. So again, it's that notion of, like, what am I equipped to do? What are the issues that matter? And then how do I get engaged? What infrastructure already exists, right? And we're doing a lot of that work again here in New York City, just because we're place-based here, not because there's a bias towards New York, just for your listeners. 

I want you to know we care about young people all over, but we have a full team in New York. And so we're piloting out some of the work we're doing here in order to take it nationwide. And what we're seeing is young people again, aren't a monolith. So they want to know if I care about homelessness, if I care about poverty, if I care about food insecurity, what can I do about that? 

And our platform was not giving young people more intentional and individualized ways to engage. And a lot of the work we're building now do something at 30 is really focused on that individualized approach. Like how do we take young people take a playlist with them or an activity list with them on the road to do the things that resonate for them. 

Kisha: Awesome. 

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Kisha: You mentioned mental health being one of the issues. Do you have some examples of what youth are doing right now to address the mental health crisis that we've been experiencing for youth?  

DeNora Getachew: I came on board almost three years ago as CEO, and I will say to you that it breaks my heart that the one issue that we have consistently and deeply focused on over those last three years is access to mental health. Young people are very clear that it's okay not to be okay. So shout out to the young people for doing their part to destigmatize access to mental health and the need for mental health supports. But what that means is it can't just be the band aid solution. A few of the things that we've done in this area, through our Camp Reboot program this year, we're focused on the intersection between mental health and art therapy, and how do we help young people who either already naturally are art inclined – I am not for the record. But what we've seen is that this intersection of art, therapy and mental health can be a great resource for young people, giving them a creative outlet that they either didn't know they had or wanted to be able to tap into and access. 

And so kind of the first module in that programmatic journey was connecting the dots between art therapy and mental health. We've also launched a second module focused on how do we help young people? They're in school buildings with their peers all the time, and they might know their peers better than their parents know their peers. 

How do we help young people be upstanders and not in a way that creates a burden for them, but if you see something, say something, as we like to say here in New York City. And so really certifying young people to be mental health first responders, if you will, and see that this is what's happening for young people, and this is how you can help make a difference in their lives and often that making a difference, just to be honest, we're not putting the responsibility on a young person to be a counselor or coach is to tell an adult, to tell a mandated reporter, or trusted grown up who can then make sure that young person is getting the help they need, but also has the context they need to be able to help the young person. 

And then the third component of that is something we're launching at the top of the year, really focused on how do we help young people build out some service projects of their own that help address mental health inequities in the communities. Because we know that now there's this big conversation that's happening publicly and out loud about the importance of mental health access. 

What we don't have is all of the resources we need to solve that mental health crisis. There's a dearth of mental health providers. And so how do we help young people advocate for solutions and resources, whether that's funding or more mental health and guidance counselors in schools to address those inequities and make sure that all young people, not just those who have access to means, get the mental health supports they need. 

Helen: That is so powerful. I appreciate a lot of those examples of what you are doing at Do Something and what young people around the country are doing for this issue. I wanna go back, DeNora. You talked about youth are not a monolith, and it strikes me you are working with young people across the country every single day. 

Our listeners are a lot of those young people's parents and caregivers, What are you hearing from young people or what advice do you have for families about how to support their children's engagement in civic life and democracy and activism?  

DeNora Getachew: I would say it's important. And this is something I model at home, even when it's hard, to be honest, and to start those conversations around the table so that and start them early, so don't wait until you have to have the conversation about mental health or about the Middle East crisis. Have those conversations about topics that are closer to home and less high intensity, if you will, so that your young people, your young people, aka your children, really get in the habit of having conversations with you in ways that feel authentic, that feel safe and feel trusted. So beginning to have those conversations early, like my parents did with me around the importance of civic responsibility, around the importance of voting, around the role that you can play in your community is key. We live in a world that's so isolated in this time, right? Where young people, my teenager, I officially have a teenager a weekend. I'm still practicing. 

Helen: Oh, congratulations.  

DeNora Getachew: And what I would say is, we had to have a conversation again around like, it was all the lead up to turning 13 of like, what will we do with this phone? Let's be honest about making good choices. So that it didn't feel like the first time we were having that heavy conversation was on my daughter's 13th birthday, but instead things we had already reinforced around dinner table, around in the car ride, et cetera. But then there's also the being a part of your civic community, right? So the discussion here of what does it mean to see your parents engaging in civic activities, whether that's volunteering, park cleanups, or going to vote. My kids go to vote with me every single election. Oh, that's awesome. All right, let me not, let me not tell a lie.  

This year was local election, it was cold. It was, I had not made the right voter plan. I apologize to your listeners, the Democracy Ninja is just like us. Sometimes I didn't make a voter plan, even though I encourage everybody to do that. And by time, all of the pieces came together. It was like it was dinner time and it was dark and it was cold. And I was like, I'm just gonna go vote by myself, right? And so my husband and I went to vote together.  

Helen: But you probably talked about it afterwards.  

DeNora Getachew: We did talk about it. Thank you for that. I appreciate the save there. We did talk about it afterwards because they were also like, well, what's on the ballot? We actually talked about it on the front end, which was part of the reason that they were like, Do we have to go? 

And I was like, Yes, there's more than just voting for the President, and then on the back end, I was like, Well, you didn't go. So let me tell you about what we, you know, talked about without revealing the confidence of my vote. And you have to do that even before they're of age to register to vote, right? Because if you don't develop those civic habits early, we've lost young people. Election laws are determined state by state. And so often, right, you might have grown up in one place that had one set of laws, and then you get to college or wherever you're living after high school, and there's a whole different set of laws. 

If even entering the process structurally feels overwhelming, you're less likely to do it. You couple that with a generation that has grown up, or two generations now who are growing up at the epicenter of technology in their daily lives as a formative and key component of how they communicate and lead, they often think, well, I did it. I did it once I voted. Why didn't we get the bill passed? And it's like, whoa, let's talk about how change happens. And so often at our dinner table, we're talking about how change happens. Like, yes. It can take 72 seconds. This is my own example. It's not necessarily true. It could take 72 seconds to order your dinner sometimes. 

Great! Like, we all know what we want. Boom, boom, boom. We press the buttons. Bing! We're sending it off, right? That doesn't mean that in 72 seconds change is going to happen. So just because you went in the voting booth and you filled in the bubble or pressed the buttons, that doesn't mean that right after you leave, we fixed the problem just because you elected a leader. We don't live in a world where we coronate leaders. So you still have to hold your elected officials accountable to be able to do the things that you wanted them to do and the reason you voted for them. And that part of that means showing up to vote. But it also means the day that they get sworn in, you're at their office or shortly thereafter. 

And you're reminding them that they're accountable to the voters. And I think sometimes what gets lost for young people  is that they don't have that context of that full arc of change. So technology for sure has accelerated the possibility for change. So it won't take, hence my 72 seconds reference. It ain't gonna take the 72 years it took from the convention at Seneca Falls to get to the 19th amendment. 

We hope, but it isn't gonna take the 72 seconds either that it took to order your dinner. And so somewhere in between, we've got to talk to young people about how real change, systemic, that like root cause, deep change we're all pushing for, how long it takes to happen. 

Helen: Love that. It's great.  

Kisha: This has just been such an inspiring episode and I thank you, DeNora, for sharing, just the joy of being people who do something and who speak up and use their voice and passing it on to our youth, who are going to take the baton for a better future. Is there anything that we didn't discuss today? Or is there anything you wanted to share that you haven't yet?  

DeNora Getachew: I would be remiss if I didn't just encourage your listeners. to talk to their young people about the importance, in this moment in particular, being civically engaged. We are on the precipice, I believe, in my soul, that young people are going to continue to be the leaders of movements and help get us to this other side, this more equitable, more just, more diverse society that we want to see, majority of us seek to live in, but it's going to take work. And so I want us all to be mindful of the role that we play in encouraging young people to stay the course and to be a part of leading change in ways big and small.? 

It doesn't always have to be that we're climbing to the top of the biggest hill in order for change to happen. Sometimes we have to go on those shorter hikes. And get to that small win in order to see progress. So be the momentum, be the fuel that keeps us engaged. And so I would encourage all of your listeners to talk to their children about the importance of being engaged, whatever that engagement means to them, whatever that way that shows up, or however that can look to them. And one place where they can find ways to get engaged, find that civic identity, and really, go from being civically curious to civically committed is the hub for young people and activism, So I put that org back in 'cause it's a website, not necessarily the company. That's right. 

And so I encourage your listeners to visit to learn more about how they can help young people get engaged and be leaders of change together with their peers. 'cause there's also this important notion we have to remember in a post covid environment of like, we can do lots of things, independently, but we are so much stronger and so much better when we do them together. And so would encourage them to visit DoSomething. org, the hub for youth centered activism, to find ways that they can get engaged today and every day.  

Helen: Awesome. Well, thank you again, DeNora, for joining us.  

DeNora Getachew: Thank you.  

Helen: And to our audience listening, thank you as well for listening in. For more resources related to today's episode, check out Thanks for tuning in and join us next time.