What makes a changemaker? While it’s tempting to focus on headline-making success, the truth is that being a changemaker starts with the way we regularly engage with the world around us. Do we care about the problems facing ourselves and others enough to take action? Do we value others’ perspectives and look for ways to imagine a way forward together?
Working with thousands of changemakers of all ages, Ashoka found four qualities or “abilities” that changemakers share: cognitive empathy, fluid teamwork, shared leadership, and creative problem-solving. These abilities rarely come automatically or overnight — they require steady practice. As changemakers, we must prioritize them at every step of our journey.
Looking for practical examples? We turn to past and present participants in the T-Mobile Changemaker Challenge — young leaders who are reshaping their communities for good — to see how they’re putting these abilities into action. Let’s go!
1. Cognitive empathy
Romy’s grandparents immigrated from Mexico and Cuba, and her mom’s first language was Spanish. After hearing about her mom’s growing-up experience in the U.S., Romy wanted to get to know recently immigrated Latin American students at her own school. As she made friends, they began exchanging stories.
Romy started to look at life from her new friends’ point of view. That’s when she began to see a problem at her school more clearly. She explains:
“Sadly, my school can be highly segregated — most English learning students are isolated in separate classes and rarely interact with other students. And many Spanish classes do not provide students with the opportunity to practice their conversational skills with native Spanish speakers.”
Empathy helps us grow deeper understanding of people and the problems they face. “Cognitive empathy” takes that understanding a step further by looking at larger patterns. Through cognitive empathy, Romy began to see the bigger picture more clearly.
There are over a million Latin American immigrant students in English learning programs in California public schools, and many aren’t integrated into their school communities. “They feel invisible and uncomfortable engaging with the general school-wide population that does not understand their experience as immigrants who face language, cultural, economic, and academic barriers,” Romy says.
Romy joined with her peers to create MiSendero, an initiative that integrates English learners into the school-wide community by facilitating mutual learning experiences for all students. Instead of viewing language barriers as an obstacle, they’re creating opportunities to build connections and for immigrant students to use their skills as Spanish tutors and community leaders.
Meanwhile, students in Spanish classes are benefiting from conversational tutoring by MiSendero students while learning to appreciate the unique experiences of their Spanish-speaking peers.
It all comes back to building empathy!
2. Fluid teamwork
In a fast-changing world, we never know when a new challenge will come our way. That’s why changemakers need to be able to take on new roles and adapt on the fly, organizing into teams to meet the moment.
Living in a global pandemic, fluid teamwork is more essential than ever. When Covid-19 hit, Linens N Love — a youth-led organization that donates lightly-used hotel linens to local families and shelters — knew that homelessness would be rising. They responded by taking their teamwork to another level.
“The team quickly implemented the Global Volunteers Program so that we could continue our work, all while being socially distanced,” explains co-founder Valerie.
The team organized into groups in charge of specific projects. Valerie worked with the Research Blogging team to interview shelters about the current situation and volunteer opportunities. Meanwhile, Linens N Love Virtual Project Leaders organized mask-making projects, coded the organization’s Connect app, and hosted linen drop-off drives. The following year, the Linens N Love team of 500+ volunteers — including Research Bloggers, Project Leaders, Ambassadors, and a Tech Team — joined forces to elevate their digital activism.
Through collective agency, each team member was able to find their role as a changemaker in the project and in their community.
3. Shared leadership
Changemakers are leaders, but not the kind we’re used to. Leaders at traditional organizations exert authority and control, excluding those lower in the hierarchy from decision-making. Today, changemakers are redefining power dynamics. They know that everyone has something to offer and deserves to have a voice in decisions.
For example, take the team behind HiStory Retold, who set out to challenge the Eurocentric, whitewashed narrative of U.S. history that reinforces stereotypes, compounds discrimination, and deepens division. Founder Zoya explains how the organization began:
“As a Pakistani, Muslim girl, it’s no secret that my identifiers aren’t exactly celebrated in the classroom. I was born after 9/11 — much of my early educational experience was shaped by stereotypes about my background and religion. Growing up, this impacted my social development. I was shy, afraid to speak up, and unaware that I could make any kind of a positive difference in the world.”
In 2020, she attended a program called IMPACT, where she met three young women — Makayla, Inaya, and Lily — who had also never seen themselves reflected in their curriculum.
“We realized that the roots of hate against difference/diversity often planted themselves during childhood. We decided that education was the key to dismantling that hate. So we built HiStory Retold.”
Shared leadership is at the center of HiStory Retold. Their work is led by the Leadership Board, a group of 29 students from across the U.S. The team engages a plethora of partners — like schools and libraries — in their pursuit of diverse curricula. They’ve collected 200+ community stories, and feature them along with artwork from students on their website. Educators are even using the stories in their classrooms.
Changemakers like Zoya do not aspire to be the “lone hero” — instead they work alongside others, supporting more people to step up and create the big picture.
4. Creative problem-solving
Changemakers are seriously creative. Where others see problems, they see possibility!
For inspiration, look no further than the youth-led initiative, Tobelli. Rashmi recognized that we have a big problem with food waste: over 30% of the world’s food produce is thrown away each year. Reflecting back on childhood trips to India, Rashmi remembered how her grandmother used spices like turmeric and rosemary to keep food fresh.
The high school student wondered if the age-old ayurvedic practice could be adopted by more people to save wasted produce. She shared her idea her friend Shria, and the idea evolved to become Tobelli, a biodegradable food packaging that keeps food fresh beyond its expiry date. The secret ingredient: Cellulose from the tobacco plant.
Why choose the tobacco crop? “With smoking rates on the decline, tobacco is a crop that needs a novel and widespread use that keeps nicotine off teens’ hands and food on farmers’ tables,” Rashmi says. Currently, tobacco farmers around the world, such as those in Malawi, find themselves in extreme poverty as exports decrease.
Rashmi and Shria found a new purpose for tobacco, including the often-overlooked leaves. They created a film using tobacco cellulose — a sustainable, nicotine-free alternative to plastic wrap. And they’re using natural food preservatives in the product — just like how Rashmi’s grandmother used spices to keep her food fresh. They’re currently working to market and prototype their product, with the goal of bringing on more people to be a force for change.
How are you practicing your changemaker abilities?
Whether you’ve just hatched an idea or you’re already leading an established organization, we can all keep honing our changemaker abilities. Consider one way you might be able to up your empathy, teamwork, leadership and problem solving — it’s never too early or late to start!
For more inspiring stories, read about young changemakers’ initiatives here.