Could a podcast be life-changing?
For Mary Cipperman, 18, it certainly has been. From the time she started high school, the senior at Episcopal Academy had been a devotee of Pod Save America, the award-winning podcast from former Obama aides Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor. So she was particularly excited to attend a live recording of an episode in New York in the fall of 2019, where Georgia political superstar Stacey Abrams was the special guest.
“[Abrams] talked about voter access legislation and the ways in which young people, especially, face legal barriers to voting,” Cipperman explains. Inspired, she decided to study the issue further.
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“I spent the next six-plus months developing research on the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder,” she says, referencing the landmark case about the constitutionality of aspects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As her research progressed, Cipperman felt compelled to “apply this understanding of how our electoral system works to young people and to grassroots activism.” She wanted to create a student group that would travel to Harrisburg and do in-person lobbying.
Then the pandemic hit, and Cipperman realized she’d have to shift her focus to a virtual format. She reached out to like-minded friends in other states—Arizona, California, New York—and launched the National Organization for Youth Activism (NOYA), a nonpartisan online community and outreach network dedicated to promoting youth activism.
NOYA’s goal is to educate young people about voting participation and civic engagement more broadly; the NOYA website includes easy-to-navigate resources for registering to vote, organizing a voter registration drive, and so on. And last summer, Cipperman organized a three-day online conference; 70 students from around the country joined to hear from speakers like politician Kendra Evans; Anika Manzoor, executive director and president of the Youth Activism Project; Generation Vote CEO and cofounder Brianna Cea; and others.
“All young people have the power to make a difference,” says Cipperman, who will be heading to Harvard next fall, where she envisions studying government and ultimately pursuing a career in law and advocacy. She plans to tap a local high schooler to carry the NOYA torch locally, while launching a similar college effort herself.
One of many Germination Project fellows
Cipperman is just one of the many talented and tireless teens who, since 2015, have been named Fellows by the Germination Project, the nonprofit initiative founded by Philadelphia lawyer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Ajay Raju. Raju, who is also a co-founder and board chair at The Citizen, sees the Germination Project as a “catalytic incubator for Philadelphia’s next generation of business, political and civic leaders.”
The program’s most established initiative is its coveted Summer Leadership Boot Camp, a two-week program originally designed by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business/Wharton Social Impact Initiative, and now run through Penn Medicine; it aims to inspire fellows to “maximize their individual potential and ability to make a broad positive impact on the world through a two-fold approach of leadership development and social entrepreneurial skills development,” says Raju.
Each year, the project chooses about twenty 10th grade students from a competitive field of applicants from public and private schools, nurturing their interests in a wide range of fields through the boot camp, mentorship opportunities, internship placements, networking, funding, and unlimited encouragement.
Take Mitav Nayak, a 17-year-old junior at The Haverford School. The Germination Project inspired him to channel his passion for economics to a particularly timely endeavor: analyzing the City of Philadelphia budget. “I’m really interested in economics and finance—I took macroeconomics, and I’m taking microeconomics right now and really enjoying it,” he says.
For the last year, with Raju’s encouragement, he’s been taking a deep dive into the publicly available data about the City budget, preparing infographics to explain where our money is going to and coming from, and how it’s been impacted by the pandemic and the American Relief Plan as well.
“The projections versus what actually ended up happening, which we learned a few weeks ago, weren’t very far off,” he says. “It wasn’t completely accurate, but it also wasn’t as far off as you’d expect, given how crazy the last year has been.”
“All young people have the power to make a difference,” says Cipperman, who will be heading to Harvard next fall, where she envisions studying government and ultimately pursuing a career in law and advocacy.
While Nayak hasn’t worked in any capacity with City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, he’s eagerly looking forward to the chance to do so, as he helps to get a civic boot camp program off the ground for future cohorts of Germination Project Fellows.
“The numbers are really interesting and it’s really cool to learn about how a city manages a budget, but this is also the kind of research that can be applied to any sort of profession or situation where you have to go out on your own and try to figure out what’s going on, depending on the problem you’re looking at,” he says.
Like Cipperman, Nayak relished the journey of “starting from scratch” and piecing together information in a way that would be easily digestible and appealing to others.
He believes firmly that the key to success as a young person is to keep trying things you may be passionate about. “You can find a way of being impactful no matter what you are interested in. Just do your best to figure out how you can use your interests to make a difference or help others,” he says.
And persistence, he says, is key, a lesson he learned from his parents who, like much of his extended family, immigrated to the U.S. from India. “They taught me to always work hard, and to never take anything for granted.”
A chance to expand outreach
Working hard, making a difference—those traits have underlined all of the endeavors Great Valley High School junior Prithvi Parthasarathy has taken on from the time he was in middle school. There’s the literacy nonprofit he launched—Story Journey—through which he distributes books and advocates for indigenous literature integration with public schools, to spread multicultural stories to young students.
The Germination Project has enabled him to expand his outreach even further, to distribute books and hold online workshops in six Philadelphia public schools, where he’s setting up indigenous literature libraries. And then there’s his work over the last year on the Corona Project, an endeavor of Dr. David C. Fajgenbaum’s lab at Penn Medicine.
You can find a way of being impactful no matter what you are interested in. Just do your best to figure out how you can use your interests to make a difference or help others,” Nayak says.
Since June 2020, thanks to an introduction by the Germination Project, Parthasarathy has been part of a team that’s analyzing published medical journal articles, looking at what could be “promising drugs to prioritize for clinical trials.”
So is it intimidating, nerve wracking, to be 17 and working alongside world-renowned scientists and graduate students on critical, timely research?
“I’ve always welcomed challenges,” he says. “And the physicians and doctors and researchers that have been fighting this pandemic, utilizing efforts to the maximum, they’re my role models.”
This summer, Parthasarathy will be interning at the biopharmaceutical company Ocugen, helping with research about the Covaxx Covid-19 vaccine.
“All research stems from the idea that some problem needs to be solved,” he says, explaining what motivates and excites him about his scientific pursuits.
Cipperman, Nayak, and Parthasarathy are just a cross-section of the recent Germination Project Fellows, students who have a spark that the GP invests in and fuels to the maximum. You can learn about all of the Fellows here. And while the students’ backgrounds, interests, and talents are decidedly unique, they do share one—particularly reassuring—trait: a commitment to making Philly, and our planet, a better place.
Forget Pod save America—these teens are already on it.Header photo, from left: Germination Project fellows Prithvi Parthasarathy, Mary Cipperman & Mitav Nayak