Feature Article: Youth Empowerment: The Building Blocks to a More Just and Sustainable Future

Tim Takechi

Tim Takechi

At first glance, Molly Freed is no different than any other high school student. She studies hard, earns good grades, pays attention to her teachers, plays soccer and hopes to get into the college of her dreams. But once you get to know her, you will discover she is far from typical.

A senior at Chief Sealth International High School in Seattle, WA, in the spring of 2011 Molly brought the World Water Week festival to the Pacific Northwest as a result of attending the 2010 Aspen Ideas Festival as one of 12 Bezos Scholars in the entire country. She has discussed social justice issues with esteemed figures such as retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, launched her own social entrepreneurial project and aspires to promote social and environmental justice on a global scale after college. Not bad for someone who has not even graduated from high school yet.

Molly’s path toward becoming a bona fide community leader started in the fall of 2008 when one day she sat in her Spanish class and listened to her peers talk about an organization called “Global Visionaries.” Global Visionaries (GV) is a 501c3 nonprofit organization in Seattle, WA whose mission statement is “empowering young people to become global leaders in creating a just and sustainable future.” Since 1997, Global Visionaries strives to promote a better future by equipping youth from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds to become the leaders they are meant to become.

“I am completely convinced that youth can and do change the world, everyday. We just have to give them the opportunity,” says Christopher Fontana, Executive Director and co-founder of Global Visionaries.

Global Visionaries operates under the core belief that youth can change their communities for the better if they are given the inspiration, experience and passion for promoting a better world. Leadership should not be a responsibility given only to adults with fancy degrees and job titles. Leading can come from anyone who has been empowered to make change.

In the same spirit of collaboration and goodwill, GV partners with other nonprofits to form a network of like-minded organizations who are dedicated to creating a more harmonious socio-environmental ecosystem through youth empowerment. Unlike other youth leadership programs, GV is not interested in existing only for the sake of boosting a student’s résumé for college recruiters. GV exists to give Seattle-area youth practical hands on experience at community service in order to instill in them a lifelong ethic of philanthropy and compassion.

“The difference between Global Visionaries and other programs is that you’re doing it. I feel a lot of people in my classes do things to get into college and I think as soon as you arrive at Global Visionaries you have to get rid of that,” Molly Freed says. “You’re not going to get into the program if you say you’re doing this because you want to get into college. You get in if you want a new perspective. That’s what was driving me.”

A Brief History of Global Visionaries

Like most nonprofit organizations, Global Visionaries started from humble beginnings. In 1992, public school teachers Joe Fontana and Christopher Fontana and their students set out to bring the youth of the world together to find a way to bring about a more peaceful and just society. “YES,” the youth-organized Global Youth Environmental Summits that took place in 1993 and 1995, made this dream a reality. The 1995 Summit, sponsored by the United Nations Environmental Program, brought together more than 300 high school students from 32 countries and 40 states for one week to learn about environmental issues, peace theories, leadership skills and ways to take action.

Jason Foster, one of the lead youth organizers, later traveled the world for an entire year visiting more than 33 countries. He returned to the United States with the realization that true education takes place outside the classroom and in the real world. In June of 1997, Jason Foster and Joe Fontana led the first Global Visionaries trips to Guatemala and Costa Rica. The organization grew from there. GV was officially incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit organization in the state of Washington in 2002. Today there are GV satellites in San Francisco, Colorado, Shoreline (north of Seattle) and Guatemala.

Jason Foster went on to earn his law degree from the University of Michigan and currently works for the United Nations writing multilateral treaties to expedite emergency aid to needy countries. Joe Fontana continues to work with Global Visionaries as the Colorado/California Program Manager while Christopher began serving as Executive Director in 1999.

In creating the mission of Global Visionaries, Christopher Fontana’s philosophy is simple:

“All of us at Global Visionaries are committed to creating a pathway for youth to become powerful change makers and a platform from which they can acquire the skills, knowledge and tools necessary to create a sustainable planet.”

How GV Transforms the Hearts and Minds of Seattle Youth


Global Visionaries recruits its students from various high schools in the Seattle Public School District to join their year-long Leadership Program. Leadership Program students get to learn about social and environmental justice issues, work on local service projects and travel to Guatemala for a culminating two week experiential service trip.

A Global Visionaries Group

Molly Freed notes that it was poignant to see her older friends who had gone through the first year program discuss how GV set their hearts on fire to stand up for the oppressed. “A lot of my peers had gone through the program and so when they first came into my Spanish class, it was really powerful to see my friends that I’ve known on a superficial level getting up there and talking about the things I’ve never seen before. It was amazing and life changing to see them just jump into another culture,” Molly says.

Once selected, first year students attend a weekly extracurricular meeting called “Culture Nights” where they are given the foundation to becoming youth leaders. “Culture Nights are the vehicle for the global, environmental and social justice curriculum to be delivered to program participants in preparation for traveling to Guatemala,” says Sophia Gardner, GV’s Assistant Program Manager.

Culture Nights are led by members of GV’s Youth Board, a collective of second-year students who are given leadership and mentorship responsibilities over first year Leadership Program students. Culture Nights aim to introduce students to the basics of social and environmental justice by teaching them about racism, sexism, classism, imperialism, economic injustices, sustainable living, intercultural communication and examining current local and global issues facing the 21st century.

In addition to attending Culture Nights, first year students get to join one of three Local Work Teams: Local Roots, EarthCorps and Youth Venture. The Local Work Teams allow students to apply the knowledge they have learned with hands-on projects so that they can see the positive changes they are making in their communities. Students on the Local Roots Work Team learn about local food production. They examine issues surrounding agriculture, the environment, food scarcity, food sovereignty and how local and global issues are interconnected. Participants get to spend the day at a Local Roots farm in Carnation, WA to meet local farmers who are making significant social change. EarthCorps is a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that works to reclaim valuable plots of urban nature so they can have another opportunity to thrive. GV’s EarthCorps students visit local parks to plant trees, clear overgrown brush and learn how a healthy ecosystem is critical to maintaining a healthy society. EarthCorps work parties typically occur one Saturday every month. Youth Venture is GV’s other partner organization. Associated with its sister organization Ashoka, Youth Venture seeks to transform youth into viable leaders by giving them the education and support necessary to start their own social entrepreneur projects. GV students on the Youth Venture Work Team complete their journey by initiating their own social entrepreneurial projects. Past ventures include raising awareness of water scarcity to Seattle elementary schoolchildren, supporting coffee farmers in Guatemala, building computers for low-income families, providing material support for a school in South Africa and soliciting donations for a food bank.

All this hard work culminates in a life-changing two week trip to Guatemala. GV hosts two trips biannually in the spring and summer. Experiencing a different culture while working on important community projects rattles the worldviews of the students so they can see the interconnectedness between overlapping cultural and ecological systems.

The Guatemala Experience


Trip participants are given an action packed schedule during the two weeks they experience Guatemala. Students are placed in home stays where they become part of a Guatemalan family. This cultural immersion experience is meant to make students feel like they are part of a community instead of outsiders visiting a foreign land. Every day participants attend language school to learn the basics of conversational Spanish. The GV leadership team encourages students to speak with their home stay families in Spanish as much as possible. All students keep a journal to write down their inner thoughts and process the immense experience.

“I love my home stay family. They are so sweet and being with them has already pushed me out of my comfort zone. Speaking Spanish and staying in someone else’s home, sharing life in a different language is intense, but it’s so great. I love seeing them smile. I just wish I knew more Spanish,” wrote a 2011 Spring Trip student.

Tikal, Guatemala

Similar to the Local Work Teams, students are placed in one of four Guatemala Work Teams: Construction, Reforestation, Coffee and Hospital. The Construction Work Team in 2011 helped build a school in a town called San Antonio. The Reforestation Work Team plants trees where they have been cut down by developers. Students on the Coffee Work Team assist local coffee farmers who earn their living selling fair trade coffee beans. The Hospital Work Team lends a hand in the care giving of patients both young and old in the Obras Sociales Hermano Pedro Hospital located in Antigua, Guatemala.

Construction Work Team

Each day ends with reflection and discussion, because the emotions students feel can be overwhelming. For many of these students, this is their first time seeing people live in extreme poverty. For others, the injustices they see carried out everyday leaves them frustrated. One particularly memorable experience is the visit to the infamous Guatemala City Garbage Dump, a massive landfill upon which many people make their homes. GV partners with Safe Passage, a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving economic and educational support to folks living off the Garbage Dump. GV students are given a tour of this humanitarian disaster. Shaken by what they have seen, a Spring Trip 2011 participant wrote in their journal: “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so powerless and so powerful at the same time. My heart and soul wept for what has happened, however my spirit is empowered to make a change, even from a place as far away at the United States.”

The group also visits the Chichicastenango market, an open air Mayan market famous for its vast cornucopia of sights, smells and unique cultural arts and crafts. Understandably, after two weeks of being immersed in this rich and beautiful country that has been victim to decades of social oppression, students leave with their hearts set on fire to building a more just society for all. Reagan Jackson, GV’s Program Manager, traveled to Guatemala with the 2011 Spring Trip and was amazed at the personal growth she saw in the kids during their time together. A well-traveled woman in her own right, Jackson says the emotional and intellectual transformation these students went through makes all the sweat, stomach aches and homesickness worth it. “I have been around the world. I’ve lived and worked abroad for several years, but here I am surprised to realize there is still so much I have left to learn, still so much work left to be done. And though I am tired and sore, I’m also energized, not only by the work we are doing, but by watching our kids form community,” Jackson wrote in a letter to the GV community. As awe-inspiring the Guatemala experience can be, equally difficult is the emotional bombardment they feel when returning home.

Coming Home


Words alone cannot express what those two weeks were like. Past participants have talked about having the “bubble” of their comfortable American lives burst after experiencing a whole other world. Students attend a post-trip retreat where they can openly articulate their feelings and thoughts upon coming home. Many experience “culture shock” associated with returning to a familiar environment after living outside of it. Other students may feel angry. Some are sad. But most return feeling like they have to do something. If they will not take charge, who will?

Beyond Guatemala: Youth Board and The Pro Justice Team


Global Visionaries’ commitment to developing youth leaders does not stop with the Guatemala trip. Once students finish the first year Leadership Program, other opportunities await them. Critical to the development of student leaders is the Youth Board, a collection of second year students who are given more responsibilities within the organization. First year students can apply to join Youth Board, and if selected, are provided the unique opportunity of being leaders amongst their peers. Molly Freed did not let this chance slip away. “[GV] has opened my eyes to all these opportunities that are out there for you. I’ve taken advantage of all these opportunities that are there. In Guatemala you have the opportunity to talk to Guatemalans and for your peers to work as hard as you can to get the most out the experience as you can. The most important thing I’ve ever learned was to actually take advantage of that,” Molly says.

EarthCorps Local Work Team

Youth Board students mentor first year students and participate more fully in GV’s fundraising, promotional and program activities. One remarkable Youth Board program is the Pro Justice Team. The Youth Board Pro Justice Team organizes and leads several workshop activities for first year students to teach them ways of tackling systematic social oppression. Using techniques such as Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and other exercises developed by the Mandala Center for Change, the Pro Justice Team is a crucial component to GV’s mission of empowering the powerless.

Global Leadership Class


Despite a down economy, Global Visionaries continues to grow. The need for young leaders to step up to the plate and take charge in their communities has never been greater. But GV is not just about recruiting students to join them on this quest for social change. GV also works directly with the public schools through the Global Leadership Class. The Global Leadership Class is a program where high schools offer an elective class for students to learn the elements prescribed in GV’s Leadership Program. Christopher Fontana taught and coordinated the Global Leadership Program for years but now has help from other instructors, students and program interns.

One GLC teacher, Noah Zeichner, teaches social studies at Chief Sealth International High School. Zeichner describes the Global Leadership Class as bringing GV’s youth empowerment mission directly into the classroom. “The philosophy [of the Global Leadership Class] is the belief in the value of experiential education, a democratic classroom where students have more of a voice than is the norm and leadership skill development,” Zeichner says. As a longtime Trip Leader for Global Visionaries, Zeichner has worked closely with Fontana developing the Class’s curriculum and outreach initiatives. One project in particular, the Adopt-A-School program, allows students enrolled in the Global Leadership Program to teach the lessons they have learned to elementary school students.

After joining Youth Board and becoming involved with Youth Venture, Molly Freed created a project called Bottle Brigade, an educational program seeking to teach elementary school students about the harmful environmental impact of bottled water. The venture even found sponsorship from a company that produces reusable bottles. Molly enrolled in the GLC in the fall of 2009 and continues this line of work to this day.

“The Global Leadership Class prepares young people to understand the complexity and connections of social justice and environmental issues facing us in the 21st century,” Fontana says. “Most important, students are empowered to take action on the issues they learn about.”

David White-Espin is another GLC instructor who currently teaches English speaking and writing at the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center for the Seattle Public Schools. As a former teacher at Global Studies Academy at Cleveland High School, White-Espin joined the Global Visionaries family after Christopher Fontana reached out to the Academy to form a partnership. White-Espin says there is a lot of value in exposing high school students to local and global issues. The problems of the 21st century will not go away anytime soon, so now is the time to empower the youth who will soon take over the reigns of our planet.

“High school students are learning about global issues, the environment and social justice in an authentic way. They are gaining skills such as cooperation, an understanding of how the world works and a greater sense of social justice,” White-Espin says. “With these skills they are better prepared to discuss complex problems, make better choices and deal with the uncertainties of a rapidly changing world.” From a long-term strategic point of view, Global Visionaries hopes the Global Leadership Class will continue to expand and transform the content and methodology of public education for the better.

Youth Empowerment and Youth Leadership


This amazing journey finally has brought Molly Freed to organizing the World Water Week festival at Chief Sealth from March 21-25, 2011. This week-long festival included a series of workshops and presentations aimed at focusing attention on sustainable management of freshwater sources. Chief Sealth students were introduced to career and internship opportunities in the field of water advocacy.

The Friday of World Water Week was a powerful day for students. In place of their regular class schedule, students experienced what getting clean water is like for a majority of people around the world. According to UN Water, 827.6 million people worldwide live in slums, often lacking access to clean water and sanitation services. In an act of support and solidarity, students and staff carried one to five gallons of water around the high school track for a couple of miles. This was designed to simulate what many folks around the globe routinely undertake in order to provide water for their families. Molly’s passion for combating water scarcity came out of her experience working with the Youth Venture Work Team, her participation in the Global Leadership Class and traveling to Guatemala. While a rock star in her own right, Molly is not the only success story GV can celebrate.

Andrew Green participated in the Seattle Leadership Program and spent his gap year (the year between high school graduation and college) as the Youth Board Coordinator. Andrew went on to study sustainable agriculture in school and works at the Community Alliance for Global Justice, a Seattle-area grassroots membership-based organization dedicated to working toward a more just economy both locally and globally. Green says if more youth are given the chance to open their eyes to the wider world, the possibilities are endless: “The initial experience GV offers the students is so powerful that it gets us outside our comfort zone, outside our social boundaries. It offers possibilities that we didn’t know about, and it showed me what I could do towards a more just world, helping me recognize that it was all within my range of possibilities.”

Another GV alum, Meghan Flaherty, went on the 2004 Summer Trip and has worked for FINCA International (a nonprofit organization that financially supports social entrepreneurs), Teachers Without Borders, Microfund For Women and English Opens Doors Program. Meghan has studied international development and acquired a few foreign languages along the way. She credits GV for giving her guidance to discovering what she wanted to do with her life. “GV inspired my continuing desire to work towards social justice in the world. The reason for my language studies became clear: I could use those skills to talk with people all over the globe, to learn from their experiences and to work with them to empower their communities,” Meghan says in a written testimony of her GV experience. “The world became bigger—a vast unexplored globe full of people to meet, languages to learn, cultures to experience and problems to solve. I had found my spark, and its fire still lights my heart today,” Meghan adds.

Other alums have gone on to college to study human rights law, international studies, the arts, environmental sciences, economic development and diplomacy. After school, many of these young people have traveled to places ranging from Latin America to Asia to Africa to pursue careers in humanitarian and philanthropic work. What breeds these stories is GV’s unshakable belief that youth can and should be leaders.

“For generations upon generations, we have had an unrecognized prejudice against youth; we treat our young people very much the same way we treat our water – without proper reciprocity and without reverence. Still today, in 2011, young people do not get the respect, dignity and opportunities they deserve,” Christopher Fontana said at a recent GV fundraising event. It is this prejudice that GV students, alums, parents, volunteers, staff and interns seek to end once and for all. We live in a world in desperate need of strong, smart and compassionate leaders who will wholeheartedly confront the issues facing the 21st century. There is a thought-provoking quote attributed to Lila Watson, an aboriginal activist, that best summarizes the spirit unto which the Global Visionaries community carries out its work: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you understand that your liberation is tied to mine, then let’s work together.”

Working together to promote the value and dignity of all human beings across geographic, economic and ethnic borders is what Global Visionaries is all about. The belief that our future depends on the strength, vitality and heart of our youth is the driving force behind Global Visionaries and its hope that young people can form the pathway toward a better tomorrow. With young leaders like Molly Freed and many others already impacting the world, our future looks bright indeed.

About the Author



Tim Takechi is a former Public Relations & Communications intern at Global Visionaries. He earned his B.A. in Journalism & Mass Communications from Whitworth University in Spokane, WA in 2009. Tim has written for publications including The Highline Times, The Federal Way Mirror, Inland Northwest Homes & Lifestyles, The Whitworthian and the Global Visionaries blog. He has also worked in the Seattle-Tacoma area with various performing arts companies, most notably working in marketing and youth education for Stone Soup Theatre in Seattle, WA. Tim currently resides in the Puget Sound area where he is looking for full time employment.