The Best Thing I Ever Created: Angela Maiers on Changing the World

This is the latest in a monthly series in which industry leaders describe the projects and products that give them the most joy and pride. This month, educator and Choose2Matter founder Angela Maiers stresses the importance and power of saying “yes.”

I don’t know that I “create” many things. Because of the extraordinary knowledge and generosity of my network, I’ve crowdsourced, curated, synthesized, and transformed many things into a work of my own. Through a process I call “Tactical Serendipity,” I’ve eagerly left myself open to the possibility that a “happy accident” or a “random collision” would produce something great.

One such happy accident happened in May 2013. I spoke to education change-makers at an EdCamp in Philadelphia. Based on the simple premise that everyone needs to know they matter, I asked them to join me to accelerate a movement to let students know they matter, and harness that to effect change in the world. I hoped that teachers and students would work on “quests” to solve problems that broke their hearts, and then share their work for us to publish on our website.

A brave teacher stood up and said, “My students will eagerly participate, but you need to come to my school and ask them.” That teacher was Justin Staub, a social studies teacher at Downingtown STEM Academy. Within hours, he sent me a pitch for a two-day “You Matter” event to take place at the end of the school year — two weeks away.

Justin and I worked frantically to figure out how this would work, but we never doubted that it would work. Even then, we thought it was a one-time event. Two weeks later, I was in Downingtown, standing in front of the sophomore class. When I asked if they believed they could change the world, six hands out of 300 went up. I explained that first graders all give an emphatic “YES!” to the same question.

Something happens after first grade. Students aren’t given the opportunity to think about what matters, to pursue what matters, and to hear they matter. I told them that they are geniuses and that the world needs their contribution. I shared messages from my network. I showed examples of everyday people accomplishing amazing things. I asked them what mattered to them, and why, and what breaks their heart about it. Then I asked them what we were going to do about it.

The students dispersed into small groups, and within hours they had birthed world-changing ideas on issues ranging from poverty and climate change to mental illness and body image disorder.

When we reconvened for the second day, the students showed up fierce. They wrote mission statements, developed action plans, created names and logos, built websites, and filmed launch videos. We had a new way of bringing the Choose2Matter movement to students, and it was brilliant.

We connected them to experts in the field: Students interested in animal rights were connected with a zoo. A group exploring a cure for cancer was introduced to prominent researchers. A group dedicated to suicide prevention was supported by the Executive Director of “You Matter, Don’t Quit,” a suicide-awareness effort founded by actress Mariel Hemingway.

As we closed out the second day, Justin asked the students who among them now felt they could change the world. This was their response:

Since that initial event in Downingtown, we have brought Choose2Matter LIVE to seven schools across the country and impacted 12,000 students. These students have led projects from charity work in Africa to legislative change in their own state.

Most importantly, every student that hears this simple truth — “You matter” — is never the same. The Choose2Matter movement is spreading this message into classrooms across the world, and it is transforming schools and changing lives.

It is only appropriate that I didn’t create this by myself. No creation is solitary. Without the audacity of Justin standing up in a crowd and saying “yes” to a crazy idea, this would not have happened. Without the support of his leaders, Justin’s “yes” may have fallen futilely to the ground. Without that first group of students being open to our message, the first event would have been the last.

For all these reasons, Choose2Matter LIVE is the best thing I’ve created.