Written by Katharina Depenthal & Madison Gent //
Katharina: When I was 14 years old, I was extremely eager to go and volunteer at our local animal shelter. My mother drove me over to go and inquire about their policy for teen volunteers. Once I got there and asked the woman at the register about volunteering, I was informed that I was far too young. I would have to be 16. This was extremely discouraging and confusing. They were saying I couldn’t look after dogs—let alone scoop up dog poop from cages until I was 16 years old!
Katharina and Madison: Our society tells us to wait for life to start later. Later, when we are more qualified or ready. Later, when we have turned 16 and can legally drive. Later, when we graduate from high school, graduate college, get our first job, get married. What could we possibly contribute?
The animal shelter incident is not an isolated event; it’s the result of the common misconception that young people are incapable of contributing to society. This idea is a massive roadblock in the lives of youth because it causes them to foster a damaging thought: that they are unable to affect or participate in justice in the world.
Allow us to introduce ourselves–our names are Katharina Depenthal and Madison Gent, and we are 16 and 17 years old. Being teenagers ourselves, we are all too familiar with the struggle of societal and self-attributed limits. However, in the past few years, we have both been working to go beyond the limits we have made for ourselves in order to get involved in the justice issues we are passionate about right now—knowing we have skills and passions to contribute regardless of our age or experience.
Madison: When I was 14, I started looking for a way to get involved with mentoring and helping people with mental illnesses, with the goal of ending the stigma around mental health issues. What I did not see coming was the struggle of being too young to volunteer with any of the programs I looked into. Therefore, inspired by the programs that used social media as a way to reach out to people who are struggling, I decided to create a Twitter account where people could reach out to me and I would provide a listening ear. It was a simple idea, although sometimes difficult in practice, which allowed me to provide a healthy outlet for people who are afraid or unable to seek help on their own, as well as provide encouragement to them. Through my account I have spoken to over 1,000 people. Now, almost four years later, I have recently been invited to be an ambassador for one of the programs I was too young to work with before.
Katharina: Recently I began volunteering with Teen Court, a government program where eligible juvenile offenders who want their records expunged are judged and tried by their peers. In participating in this program I get to be apart of three concepts I am passionate about: involving teenagers in the justice system, working alongside of convicted juvenile offenders, and sentencing other juvenile offenders in a rehabilitative manner which equips them with the tools to change and gives them a second chance.
Another way I have been volunteering is through an organization that provides after-school and summer programs for at-risk youth in my city. This program encourages and promotes education and provides a safe place for kids to be kids. While I am not running these programs myself, I am proud to be involved with these programs.
Another passion of mine—sometimes to the annoyance of my family—is making ethical consumer choices. Since I am working off of a small budget, I do this by shopping secondhand—this way, instead of directly supporting the companies that are using sweatshops, paying unfair wages, or using child labor, I am supporting thrift shops. For the things I cannot find secondhand, I purchase from brands that share my values.
Madison and Katharina: Another way in which both of us have practiced justice is through writing to companies when we disagree with a policy or product. Madison once wrote to a company about a product they were selling that promoted self-harm, and Katharina contacted a company to urge them to make more ecological choices. Both companies changed their policies upon receiving our letters.
We say all this to show that while you may think you can’t make a difference, you can—and your voice matters. If a company or government is doing something you disagree with, do not stay silent! No matter your age or education, don’t be afraid to go beyond your own self-imposed limits or those society has placed upon you. Get involved in practicing justice with the problems that speak to you. Donating—whether it be money or time—is a great first step, but it cannot be your last. As we have shown, you can write letters to companies or important political figures, you can volunteer, or you can start a program yourself—whatever it looks like for you. Get your hands dirty! You have influence with or without a degree, and the world needs your individual contribution.
So how are you going to practice justice in your life? What are you going to do to advocate for change? In the words of Steve Jobs, “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, [and] you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
Katharina Depenthal, 16, is a homeschooled high school senior. She is passionate about justice through education and the law and hopes to pursue these in college this upcoming year. She is also the younger sister of one of Streetside Conversation’s founders, Johanna Depenthal. Madison Gent, 17, also a homeschooled high school senior, is passionate about ending the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and is planning on getting a degree revolving around that passion. She and Katharina have been best friends for 10 years.