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Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Ryan & Thomas Growney of Service Academy Is Helping To…

Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Ryan & Thomas Growney of Service Academy Is Helping To Change Our World

Maximize your personal impact — the ultimate aim of social impact efforts is to achieve the greatest possible change with your existing skills and resources. Make certain that your personal efforts channel your most valuable strengths efficiently and effectively, resulting in the best possible outcomes for you and issues you are supporting.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan & Thomas Growney, Service Academy.

Ryan & Thomas Growney are seventeen-year-old twins and high school juniors at St. George’s School in Rhode Island. Together, they’ve created Service Academy — a social impact nonprofit dedicated to reimagining youth service as a pathway for young people to develop the skills and experiences they need to change the world. Through Service Academy, they are empowering young people to accomplish more service activities that matter to them and to their communities!

It was a pleasure spending a few hours with Ryan & Thomas as their passion and energy are infectious! There is no doubt that a reimagined youth service is the pathway to develop an entire generation of systems change leaders that the world needs now more than ever. As podcasters, advocates, volunteers, game creators, and researchers, Ryan & Thomas are committed to action-first change. They will do whatever it takes to improve the youth service ecosystem in their community and template and share what they learn so any student who wants to make a change in their community can as well. They’re driven to grow Service Academy because they know that individually we each have power, and together, we have impact.

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Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Growing up, we lived in two apartments in New York City. Our parents divorced when we were very young, so we split our time evenly between them. Our childhood was filled with books and board games, and we spent most weekends and summer holidays at the beach in Montauk, where we grew to love surfing and generally being outdoors.

In the height of COVID, after a long and difficult family court battle over our decision to attend boarding school, we were accepted to St. George’s. Attending St. George’s has been an incredible experience for us. We found our people there. We can actively pursue our passions of outdoor activities, sports, and social impact, while also receiving a world class education.

We are aware of the many advantages that we have been given, and we feel a sense of responsibility to use these privileges to make a positive difference in the world.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The TED Talk by Daniela Papi-Thornton titled “Reclaiming Social Entrepreneurship” has had an incredible impact on our lives. Through her talk, we realized that our preconceived notions about social entrepreneurship were naïve, and she challenged us to think beyond being an aspiring social entrepreneur and to focus on becoming systems change leaders.

A systems change leader is someone who first apprentices with problems to develop the knowledge, awareness, and skills to address the root causes of systemic challenges. This idea of getting “married to problems, not your solution” has really resonated with us. It helped us to see ourselves more holistically as aspiring advocates, leaders and changemakers willing to do whatever it takes to improve youth service in our community.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Thomas: “Making a Difference” means taking actions that have a positive impact on people, starting with myself. It is about being intentional and purposeful in my approach to life. It’s not enough to simply want to make a difference; I have to dedicate myself to understanding my signature strengths and resources and where I can best apply them for the maximum positive impact.

Ryan: I define “Making a Difference” in the context of systems change leadership. It is about doing whatever it takes, whether that’s volunteering, social advocacy, social entrepreneurship, social innovation, or public policy change, to make existing systems work better for the benefit of those most negatively affected. It is about being committed to positive change and taking action to bring about that change.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

At Service Academy, we empower young people to accomplish more service activities that matter. We believe that youth service is the gateway to developing the critical thinking, collaboration, and systems thinking skills needed to create positive, lasting change in complex systems. And the existing youth service ecosystems in communities across the country are not working.

There was a recent study from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy that illustrates this point: “Despite 51-year highs among entering college students in their desire to engage in their community, volunteering among high school and college students has declined since the early 2000s and remained relatively low and stagnant for the last decade.”

We will not let a decades-old approach to youth service discourage our generation from developing into the systems change leaders our world needs.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Our passion for change is rooted in a feeling of powerlessness. In the spring of 2020, we felt stuck, watching as our city suffered, unsure of what, if anything, we could do to help.

We started by looking inside. What are our personal strengths and resources? This look-inside-for-the-power-to-effect-change-outside framework became the foundation of Service Academy.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. We don’t always get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

We didn’t have a singular “Aha Moment,” but rather a growing confidence from our discussions, research, and feedback from others. As we explored the idea of improving youth service programs, we became increasingly convinced of its importance and potential impact. We realized that if we didn’t take action, no one else might, and we would be missing out on a unique opportunity.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

We started with an interesting discussion about life, purpose, and giving back, and we realized there was a lot we didn’t know. We knew we were not the only ones too.

During quarantine, we were playing a lot of Cards Against Humanity. We decided to create a new question and answer card game that could help us think more deeply about giving back in ways that are meaningful and authentic. We had a lot of fun doing the research to create thousands of new card combinations that encourage us to think critically and creatively, exploring different perspectives and potential solutions to complex problems. The game is called Multiplicity of Pursuits. We knew that many of these ideas would help young people, like us, reframe how they engage in the world around them.

This gave us the confidence to create other tools including the self-assessment called the SuperPower Field Guide and begin advocating for more meaningful youth service opportunities and better support structures for aspiring systems change leaders in our school community.

As these projects gained traction and more people showed interest, we decided to put it, along with our hyper-local efforts to create change, under the Service Academy website including the ideas and tools we continue to develop and refine. We also started the Service Academy Podcast and are building a growing library of research on social impact.

In many ways these incremental steps to create an organization are intuitive. While not earth-shattering, ,they reflect the natural growth and development of our ideas and confidence to share them more broadly.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Thomas: We reached out to a lobbyist in Rhode Island to ask how we could propose state-wide legislation that would make local government data about existing social impact priorities accessible to the public (so we can know where to best focus our volunteer efforts). He was incredibly helpful. He took the time to explain the state legislative process and give us direction on how best to build a network of support. We have had dozens of people do the same, thoughtfully giving their knowledge when we asked, but the response from this gentleman, offering to help us propose legislation, was especially interesting for me.

Ryan: Because we were inspired by Daniela Papi-Thornton, we reached out to her via LinkedIn. She responded quickly with a thoughtful message and shared her work, including her Student Guide to Mapping Systems; she was incredibly encouraging. We have realized that if you just reach out and treat people with respect, they often will reciprocate with kindness and encouragement.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

We still cringe when we think about the overwritten 41 page Google Slides presentation with terrible graphics, colors, and font that we created and sent around to our early network of supporters. Despite how ugly it was, it was also a turning point for us. It was the first time we had all of our ideas in one place, and for the first time it sounded like our voice. While we wish we had consulted with a graphic designer beforehand, this mistake taught us the importance of seeking feedback and advice from others early on in the process. We have learned and grown from our mistakes with a new eye for presentation that is reflected in our website.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

We have had an incredible support network of mentors and cheerleaders throughout our journey. Our primary goal is to improve the youth service ecosystem at our school, empower students to stand up and declare how they want to change the world, and work within our community to create the service opportunities that match those goals. Teachers and school administrators at St. George’s have been overwhelmingly supportive, specifically Reverend Kirby, Mr. Osborne, Ms. Ducharme, and Ms. O’Brien. Many others have been instrumental in our growth and development offering guidance, encouragement, and support at every step of the way.

Their influence can be seen in the recommitment to student service on campus. Thanks to their efforts, there’s now a school-wide program dedicated to highlighting the value of service, a social entrepreneurship class, and more students engaging in meaningful service work.

They’ve helped us realize that even small groups of dedicated individuals can make a big impact. We’re grateful for their support and the lessons they’ve taught us about leadership, service, and community.

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We have heard from dozens of young people across the country (and a few from around the world) that the ideas and tools we’ve created at Service Academy have changed their perspective on service engagement. One individual, though, comes to mind, a classmate of ours who initially showed zero interest in service engagement — our message was not reaching him. To our surprise, a few weeks ago, he approached us and asked if we knew of any opportunities for him to volunteer, specifically, at a local hospital. We thought he was joking at first, but he wasn’t!

It was a turning point for us because we realized that our message had resonated with him, and he had shifted his perspective on service after a seed was planted. That anecdote has been incredibly rewarding and reinforces our belief in the power of reframing youth service. We hope that this individual’s experience will inspire others to find their own path to giving back in a way that feels authentic and meaningful to them.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We have heard hundreds of young people stand up and say, “This is what I want from service activities!” but they need a partner in school administrators, local nonprofits, and community leaders to help co-create meaningful service opportunities.

We feel strongly that community leaders should come together to list the top community social impact priorities. If the top government priorities are homelessness and education inequality, that information alone is incredibly valuable for aspiring systems change leaders so we have a clear starting point where community service can make the most significant impact.

Once the community priorities have been identified, students like us can begin to identify existing government and nonprofit support structures in place, including what is working well. This gap analysis will help identify opportunities for anyone to give back in a way that directly aligns with the community’s priorities.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).

  1. Change starts with you — you don’t need to be someone special to change the world — you are enough. It has taken us longer than it should have to realize this; that our thoughtful engagement will help us grow in power and effectiveness, so start where you are.
  2. Focus on a problem, not your solution — systems change is big and messy. It requires collaboration from various individuals, organizations, and institutions, and a combination of approaches. Avoid fixating on your own ideas; instead, remain open to diverse perspectives and work together to address complex challenges.
  3. Find other people committed to change and keep them close — building a network of dedicated people is crucial for driving change and having fun while doing it. A small group of passionate individuals can spark a revolution, so seek out those who share your passion and support one another.
  4. Be intentional and persistent — concentrate on the key aspects of change that you can control. Work consistently and diligently every day to improve your understanding of the challenges and develop effective solutions. Being intentional and committed will help you make a lasting impact.
  5. Optimize existing solutions — rather than striving to create new solutions, focus on improving what already exists. This approach will lead to the most significant positive impact, as it harnesses existing resources and infrastructure more efficiently.
  6. Bonus! Maximize your personal impact — the ultimate aim of social impact efforts is to achieve the greatest possible change with your existing skills and resources. Make certain that your personal efforts channel your most valuable strengths efficiently and effectively, resulting in the best possible outcomes for you and issues you are supporting.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Making a positive impact is not only about helping others but also about discovering and improving yourself. Understanding and caring for yourself is the foundation of how we care for others. Community engagement will boost your self-confidence, self-awareness, and accelerate your personal development. Learning to listen to understand what others need is a valuable life skill, and developing the courage to do something about it will bring personal fulfillment.

Service, volunteering, advocacy, public policy, activism, caring, and social innovation are ways to become the best version of you, and make a positive impact on the world. Whether it is done part-time, on weekends, or as part of a large organization or working alone, taking action to create change creates better lives and communities.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

If given the chance, we would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Wendy Kopp or Daniela Papi-Thornton. Wendy Kopp’s work in creating Teach for America and forging a new pathway for top university graduates to make a positive impact in historically low performing classrooms is truly inspiring. She has made a powerful positive impact in education reform, with an entire generation of Corps graduates working to change the face of education worldwide. We would love to hear her insights on leadership and creating social impact.

Similarly, Daniela Papi Thornton’s ideas on systems change leadership and developing an educational framework for it is elegant and impactful. We would be honored to sit down with her and learn more about her experiences and insights on how to develop education support systems and incentives to develop thousands of new systems change leaders from every school and community in the country.

We’ve featured both women on our podcast, so check out those episodes and discover others who inspire us too:

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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Ryan & Thomas Growney of Service Academy Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.