Young Change Makers: Why and How Eshaan Kothari of Take Action Is Helping To Change Our World
Be mindful of burnout — activist burnout is a real thing. While I told you to embrace discomfort, know your limits, and take moments of rest when you need to. This speaks to the importance of support systems that can pick up the slack and care for you when you may need it. For me, this support system has been my sister. While she is in college, she is often the first to pick up my phone calls and provide advice on leading Take Action Inc. or just listen to my rants.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eshaan Kothari.
Eshaan Kothari is a co-founder and president of Take Action Inc., a global youth-led nonprofit that, through education and mentorship, empowers young people to take action for causes that are meaningful to them. Outside of his organization, Eshaan is an ambitious student activist and researcher with interdisciplinary interests in gender and race studies; when he is not hosting a demonstration or filling gaps in overlooked historical narratives, he is volunteering in Brooklyn with domestic violence nonprofit Womankind, curating monthly issues of his high school newspaper as a Co-Editor-in-Chief, or making stop-motion films with his DSLR camera. Eshaan is also an avid chocolate chip cookie lover, Bollywood movie binge-watcher, and basketball fanatic.
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?
I have lived in my home in northern New Jersey my whole life, but I commute daily to the Bronx where I attend Riverdale Country School as a senior. I live with my two parents, older sister, and younger brother. I would summarize my home life as defined by a kind of liminal space: my family and I eat Western dishes infused with Desi flair (spaghetti with cilantro chutney is a weekday dinner staple), we speak Hinglish, and we inadvertently Americanize Jain traditions. Some may call me an American-born confused desi (ABCD), but I like to believe that my two identities are not conflicting and rather enrich one another. Finding comfort in the grey area continues to inform my activism and research.
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?
To be completely frank, I was not much of a reader growing up. You could more likely find me outdoors playing with some sort of ball. But, I distinctly remember finding a Rick Riordan book in the depths of my older sister’s closet and falling in love with the worlds that Riordan built in his Percy Jackson series and the lesser-known Kane Chronicles. My parents would have to practically pry The Throne of Fire from my fingers to get me to go to sleep on time; even a ball didn’t work as a negotiation tactic. Riordan’s books, while imagined, are rooted in accurate mythological stories and past events, which unlocked my love for historical fiction — a tool to bring to life the stories of those erased from history.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I feel when most people think about “Making A Difference,” they gravitate toward enormous donations to advance cancer research or end world hunger. While these issues are incredibly important, such large acts that often require huge sums of money should not prevent one from getting involved in their communities. “Making A Difference” is unique to everyone and can be as simple as small daily acts of kindness, like (as cliché as it is) holding the door open for someone or building companionship with incarcerated youth through letter-writing, as one Take Action Inc. activist spearheaded a workshop on. While I recognize the importance of large-scale philanthropy, I believe that on-the-ground work where one is physically involved with the community or issue is equally as fulfilling and often more meaningful. In this sense, I think the intention and purpose behind “Making a Difference” matter as much as the tangible impact.
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?
Propelled by the brutal murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in 2020, we enter a moment defined by activism, which exposes persisting systems of oppression. In this zeitgeist, our world becomes even more in need of informed young leaders, but as youth, I know that it is easy to feel disempowered when adults — on top of possessing the right to vote — are often more valued than minors, fueling apathy and inaction.
To empower youth to get involved in their communities and beyond, I co-founded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Take Action Inc. with my older sister in 2019. Serving as the president, I foster a global community of 64,000+ youth activists and provide them with weekly educational materials on pressing social justice issues, running 14 skill-building workshops and crafting 47 toolkits on topics like anti-Blackness, domestic violence, and environmentalism. Expanding our reach to incorporate a variety of perspectives, I manage seven global chapters (New York, New Jersey, Florida, Connecticut, California, Thailand, and India) and partner with 19 international organizations, including the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), March for Our Lives, Indigenous Peoples Movement, and Bachpan Bachao Andolan.
To highlight some of our ongoing initiatives and events, we have spearheaded a letter-writing workshop with NARF to uphold the Indian Child Welfare Act, hosted panels on voter suppression with constitutional law experts, and phone banked for reproductive justice, creating a nationwide database of safe abortion clinics, to name a few.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My extended community has a history of misogyny and toxic masculinity. Determined to end this cycle of violence and to learn about gender through a lens radically different from my community’s instruction, I turned to gender and race studies. As I started to learn more about hypermasculinity and domestic violence within the unique context of the South Asian community, I grew more passionate about these disciplines as research concentrations and drivers for my advocacy. Thus began my passion for activism.
Opening up about this violence has been a difficult journey, so I just wanted to thank Womankind for helping me navigate survivorship and you for providing me with this platform to share.
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?
When I was thirteen years old, my middle school grew anxious about the school shootings occurring around us. Policemen marched outside our classrooms, and lockdown drills occurred more frequently. To discover ways to help students like me feel safe, I decided to learn about gun violence. Overwhelmed by the convoluted legal jargon and historic precedent, I researched for hours but still did not know how to take action.
While tackling cycles of violence first opened my eyes to the world of social justice, this was the “Aha Moment” for me, where I first realized that I needed to take matters into my own hands and help prevent youth like me from being discouraged from taking action. I co-founded Take Action Inc. in order to make activism resources more digestible and accessible to youth and to help young people realize their limitless potential to make transformative change in a world that is in dire need of it.
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?
I started small with a club at my school, connecting like-minded young people on campus. From there, other youth activists came forward. Take Action Inc. expanded to more schools in New York City and New Jersey and, through the power of social media, continues to grow globally. However, because I am a minor, it has honestly been difficult to persuade adults to take me and the vision I have for my organization seriously and to solicit donations and grants. To convince people of the unique value of my project and my dedication to it, I conducted extensive research, digging through IRS documents and legal procedures to understand how to apply for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. I also composed a business plan that helped me fundraise for important causes and sustain Take Action Inc.’s operations.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I currently lead an education campaign through my organization, where I think the most interesting stories have come. Essentially, we leverage virtual and in-person library spaces to teach the histories of marginalized communities amidst state-level challenges to this crucial education, addressing harsh realities and combating misinformation and dangerous bias. Informed by my school electives like “Nations Before Us,” I connected students to books such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, dismantling romanticized stories of Thanksgiving and Pocahontas to expose colonial genocide.
I love how these spaces help me learn from my peers. (For confidentiality, I will use first initials only.) Brave queer youth on the Take Action Inc. team like Z — fighting on the frontlines against “Don’t Say Gay” laws — introduced me to impactful media (e.g., Dean Atta’s book Black Flamingo, Barry Jenkins’s film Moonlight), igniting productive discourse surrounding identity. Z led a team creating queer children’s novels to combat widespread book bannings.
As another example, to counter his school’s censorship, Take Action Inc. youth activist N wrote in his local Floridian newspaper that calling enslaved Africans “involuntary workers” in textbooks sugarcoats slavery’s cruelties and perpetuates institutional racism. Into his article, N wove in blues tunes his great-grandfather wrote in the Jim Crow South, which was beautiful! N also leveraged his co-captain position on his school crew team to promote racial justice, using tape to write impactful messages on his jerseys, echoing NBA/WNBA players in 2020.
Ultimately, as I provide tangible and moral support to connect and assist young people in their activism, I am so happy to have found an empowering community with Take Action Inc. that helps me grow and that I could not bear to lose.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
I have had some hilarious Zoom mistakes, as I think almost all of us had during Covid. I once gave a whole speech introducing a speaker while on mute, and people saw my mouth moving but did not say anything until I was almost three minutes through. That was really embarrassing because the speaker left the meeting because she thought she had joined too early. It took us a whole 15 more minutes to sort that out! Another time, someone must have used my Zoom account because I logged in under the name “Stephanie.” I didn’t realize, so the speaker kept calling me Stephanie, and I had no idea who they were talking to.
I am more than glad to be out of the early Covid days, but Zoom, regardless of technical difficulties, continues to remind me of the power of social media and allow Take Action Inc. to reach youth who might not be able to attend our in-person events.
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?
I feel that most people will respond with someone who is personally close to them, like parents or friends. While I am incredibly appreciative of my mother for being so supportive, checking my internalized blind spots, and helping to file tax reports come April, I want to approach this question a bit differently. For me, my favorite author, Tony Kushner, has helped me succeed.
I distinctly remember preparing a speech for a demonstration I was going to lead addressing the recent increase in anti-AAPI hate crimes during COVID-19. Two nights before, that speech had been a blank Word document and an extreme case of writer’s block. How do we exert agency in such rigid institutions and fight against systems of oppression? What does progress look like for my community? How can we leverage our individual strengths to work toward collective change? When contemporary news articles and op-eds did not answer these burning questions, I found solace in Kushner’s words.
In one of his novels, Angels in America, Kushner leveraged art as a mode of political commentary, fighting against the Reagan administration’s inadequate response to the AIDS epidemic that killed thousands of LGBTQ+ people. Kushner not only taught me that individuals can tackle structures of oppression in creative forms of expression, but also that there is hope for progress and what this may look like now. Specifically, when their voices were most repressed, Kushner provided visibility to gay AIDS patients, breaking the societal stigma that prevented crucial discourse surrounding the epidemic. Hoping to inspire similar dialogue and self-reflection surrounding anti-AAPI hate, I made sure that people like Vicha Ratanapakdee were remembered and honored in my speech not solely because they were victims of anti-AAPI hate but also for their humanity and stories.
I also wanted to take the time to acknowledge our amazing global action team for being such thoughtful youth leaders, pushing Take Action Inc. to heights I never thought we could reach, and taking over the load when I may need moments of rest.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Again, I will use first initials only.
After attending our webinar on sociocultural misogynistic stigmas, thirteen-year-old J — who wanted to protest the menstrual taboo that left many girls her age unable to attend school for lack of access to pads and tampons and fear of being seen as “sinful” — was determined to act. Knowing her love for screenwriting, I helped her write a skit to have open conversations with peers about menstruation. I then connected her to our partner, 100 Million Campaign, which published her skit. Also, recognizing our responsibility to support other youth movements to amplify our collective impact, we helped a newly formed organization in Seattle raise $2,000 — through outreach, fundraising, and on-the-ground assistance — to create care packages for homeless shelters.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
While we are tackling many social justice issues at Take Action Inc., here are three general ways communities can empower young people:
- Listen to youth — we are the next generation of changemakers, and legislators often give us less credit than we deserve. This becomes incredibly more important as American politicians in the “culture wars” use children’s education and safety as a means to push forward their agendas, failing to take into account the valid ideas and actual needs of students.
- Don’t be paternalistic or condescending — when you do listen to youth, do it out of a place of care and actual interest. We all have much to learn from one another, and a superiority complex can prevent crucial discourse that leads to tangible change.
- Be open to new ideas — each generation brings with it a fresh set of beliefs that challenge those of the previous. This dialectical process is incredibly important since it allows our society to progress with the rapid advancements of the time. I find that it is often harder for adults to admit their fault or change their existing views since it may challenge their position of authority, but I think that reform is an admirable character trait and not an admittance of defeat.
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?
To preface, I recognize that I am still constantly learning and that this list is bound to change, but I hope these five valuable pieces of advice can be of any help!
- Get educated — I always say that proper advocacy starts with education. Being equipped with exhaustive evidence to back up the claims that you are fighting for is a great way to get adults to start taking you seriously. When conducting this research, always approach the news sources you use from a critical lens, evaluate their bias, and expose yourself to valid counterarguments. As youth, we must often go the extra mile to just get one foot in the door, so I encourage you to leverage the most powerful tool that we have — knowledge — to earn a seat at the adults’ table.
- Don’t be afraid to raise your voice and challenge traditional authority figures — this can be as simple as pointing out problematic behavior in your home life with your parents. (However, remember to always do so from a place of care and empathy.) I know that Take Action Inc. has given me the confidence to dismantle the misogyny prevalent in my community. For instance, watching Bollywood movies, I remind my father that his calling darker-skinned actresses “ugly” reflects Eurocentric beauty standards, a product of British colonialism’s legacy in India. Changing the culture of a whole society or world can seem incredibly daunting when looking at the larger picture, but remember that progress starts small and within one’s family and communities. This is not easy, but I urge you to put yourself out there — embrace a reasonable level of discomfort.
- Listen to understand and not to rebut — I don’t think I would be where I am today if not for the amazing support of fellow Take Action Inc. activists, which speaks to the importance of dismantling hierarchy to foster productive discourse. As I talked about before, Z constantly introduced me to new literature, which I am so appreciative of and informed many of our conversations surrounding identity.
- Be willing to reflect on your internalized blind spots — no one is perfect, and as a product of this, everyone will have their implicit biases. Just being conscious of that and willing to reform is a crucial step toward becoming an inclusive, intersectional activist. I think the biggest, most harmful blind spot that I had to personally deal with was the Islamophobia that was passed onto me by my Indian Hindu community, which I continue to grapple with and unlearn.
- Be mindful of burnout — activist burnout is a real thing. While I told you to embrace discomfort, know your limits, and take moments of rest when you need to. This speaks to the importance of support systems that can pick up the slack and care for you when you may need it. For me, this support system has been my sister. While she is in college, she is often the first to pick up my phone calls and provide advice on leading Take Action Inc. or just listen to my rants.
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?
I recognize that not everyone will be as passionate about activism as I may be. But I think the best advice that I have gotten and that I wish to pass along is to pursue a career or job where you are able to marry your passions with the ways you can make a difference in the world. This can look like a whole lot of things, but centering your responsibility toward your community and beyond, I think, will allow you to find a sense of belonging and empowerment in life. At least that was the case for me!
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. 🙂
I would want to have a private lunch with novelist and my idol, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (@chimamanda_adichie). I think I could talk for hours about her TED Talk on “the danger of the single story.” It continues to encourage me to explore ignored perspectives on Africa and Asia and their diasporas, adding complexity and forthrightness to the dominant narratives often written by the “victors” or colonizers. I would ask her about the works that she has lined up, and we would bond over our shared love for travel and mangoes. (Don’t ask me how I know that!)
How can our readers follow you online?
Please check out Take Action Inc.’s website (www.takeactioninc.com), and follow us on Instagram (@take_action_inc). We have some exciting new workshops coming up with partnered organizations, and we wouldn’t want you all to miss it! If you are interested in joining our global action team or setting up a chapter in your community, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Young Change Makers: Why and How Eshaan Kothari of Take Action Are Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.