Each year, the Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award recognizes and supports young people who are positively impacting the world by using their skills to engage in the fight against extreme poverty. As the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to erase decades' worth of progress, investing in young, passionate leaders with clear ambitions is more critical than ever.
With the 2020 Cisco Youth Leadership Award applications now open, the two past winners of the award are here to answer some questions and offer advice for those interested in applying.
Wawira Njiru, founder and executive director of the organization Food for Education, became the first winner of the award in 2018. Food for Education aims to improve the lives of vulnerable children in Kenya's public schools by providing subsidized, nutritious school lunches. So far, it has provided more than 1 million meals.
Priya Prakash, founder and CEO of the organization HealthSetGo, won the 2019 award with her mission to improve the health and lives of 1 million students by 2023. HealthSetGo integrates technology and health care to empower parents, doctors, schools, and governments to invest in children’s health in India.
We asked you what questions you had for the previous winners. In the following Q&A, Njiru and Prakash address their inspirations, challenges, and achievements since winning the Cisco Youth Leadership Award. They also provide some words of wisdom for other young people who want to make a difference in their communities.
Who or what inspired you to join in the fight against extreme poverty?
Prakash: My fight for ensuring health education and access for all children came from my own fight with physical and mental health as a child. Because I was overweight, I got extensively bullied and lost my self-confidence. I know I’m not the only one. Over 14.4 million children are overweight or obese in India — many with diabetes and other lifestyle concerns. These children will grow up to develop chronic diseases unless we intervene now. This is what drives me to impact as many children as possible with the gift of good health.
Njiru: I was inspired by the community I grew up in. My friends and playmates were kids who lived in poverty from a young age, so I had a great sense of this injustice. Seeing the difficult yet honorable lives most poor people live inspires me to work toward making their lives better, especially for children.
What challenges have you faced so far — and how have you solved those challenges?
Njiru: I’ve faced lots of challenges in my journey, from raising awareness about Food for Education, learning to believe in myself as a leader, creating a great team, and getting support for the work we do. I’ve solved these challenges by remaining committed to our mission and also believing in myself and my team. Building a strong team around you is very important, as they’re the ones who lift you up when you’re down.
What's the greatest challenge you've had to overcome in the process of ending extreme poverty?
Prakash: The greatest challenge I’ve had to overcome is to break stereotypes. I’m fighting for the right of every child to grow up healthy, but the health of children isn’t a priority in India. With HealthSetGo, we are trying to make sure that children are empowered with the tools for a lifetime of health. We’ve managed to make strides in this domain by impacting more than 250,000 students. And now with the GC Prize, we aim to ensure that 1 million are impacted by 2023.
Njiru: The greatest challenge has been in convincing others that it’s possible. A lot of people get jaded by the seemingly impossible challenge of ending inequality, especially at a time like this, when inequalities seem to be insurmountable. I’m always encouraged by Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Poverty is immoral and the greatest form of injustice.
What advice do you have for young people who want to make a difference in their communities?
Njiru: Stop waiting. I think as young people, we spend a lot of time waiting. For us to feel ready to speak up, for someone else older to do something, for the world to change. It’s time for us to stop waiting and realize that if anyone is going to change anything around here, it’s going to be us.
Prakash: Sometimes making a change can be a lonely journey. So believe in yourself. Dream big. Know that you have the power to make a difference — whether it’s in one person's life or millions’. And then, have patience and work hard. 2020 is the decade of youth activism. If we all band together and strive to make our communities better then we can solve our world’s biggest problems.
How do you think ending extreme poverty will improve the climate crisis?
Njiru: I think it’s the other way around. Solving the climate crisis — which is completely doable in our lifetime — will prevent millions from getting into poverty and get millions out of extreme poverty, which is also completely doable in our lifetime.
Prakash: Climate change and health go hand-in-hand. India is one of the climate change hotspots of the world, and because of that, the country has had unpredictable outbreaks of diseases. Promoting sustainable consumption and lifestyles for our children and youth will have a huge impact on climate change and hence the well-being of the population.
What have you been doing within the last year since winning the award?
Njiru: We won the award almost two years ago, and it’s been such a roller coaster. We’ve increased the number of kids we feed from 2,000 a day to 10,000 a day. With schools reopening in January due to COVID-19, we will increase this to 30,000 kids fed a day. That’s a 1,500% growth in two years.
Prakash: Winning the award was a big milestone for HealthSetGo. During COVID-19 times, we have conducted daily wellness sessions focusing on fitness, nutrition, and mindfulness for students at home. To date, we have impacted more than 100,000 children with our initiatives during lockdown. We are also innovating in areas of telehealth and vaccination delivery. This investment in research and development has been possible due to the award.
What advice do you have for someone applying for the Cisco Youth Leadership Award?
Prakash: My biggest advice would be that if you’re thinking about whether to apply or not — apply! The application process for GC will make you think about your work in newer ways and help you as a leader think about your strategic roadmap for impact and scale for the next three to five years. Spend enough time on all the questions and I’m sure you’ll come away from the experience with having learnt a lot. All the very best to everyone applying this year!
If you are interested in applying for this year’s award, check out the Cisco Youth Leadership Award application page here. Applications are due Sept. 20, 2020, and the winner will receive a prize of US$250,000 to support their work.