This interview is part of our "Social Citizen Sightings" series, in which we highlight how people are using their creativity, idealism, and digital fluency to support their causes every day. Milena Arciszewski is 26. She enjoys camping, reading, adventure travel, and clean socks… and I should mention is starting a nonprofit called Pando Projects.
Pando Projects is a nonprofit that empowers people—in particular Millennials—to step up as leaders and develop new, local solutions to the problems in their communities. The initiative seeks to support ordinary people in accomplishing extraordinary things by helping them to tackle national and global challenges. By providing tools and support for people with ideas, the group hopes to empower Americans to change the world, one project at a time. The pilot phase launches this month and will support 15 New Yorkers with ideas for grassroots projects.
1) Why are Millennials any different from other age groups when it comes to volunteering and service?
Arciszewski: I think many Millennials are bored with the traditional service model in the U.S. We don’t want to sign up for a pre-existing volunteer program, initiative, or campaign – we want to start our own projects and find our own innovative solutions to the problems facing our planet. We also want a volunteer platform that incorporates technology and social networking, ensuring that our volunteer initiatives are talked about, celebrated and shared.
2) What drove you to start your new initiative, Pando Projects?
Arciszewski: Volunteering became a part of my identity [growing up]. As a relatively shy girl, it was a way for me to connect to the community that I never really felt a part of.
However by the time I was a junior at UVA, I was bored. I no longer felt like I was making an impact. I was tired of signing up with pre-existing programs. I was tired of being told what to do. I was tired of these small, pre-packaged volunteer commitments, designed to make me feel that I was “changing the world,” when in fact, all I was doing was stapling papers.
The volunteer programs were static and dull, leaving little room for creativity or problem solving. Whenever I had a good idea, I was told “we just don’t have the budget for that.” I felt like I was drowning in my good intentions, and that no volunteer program was truly the platform for me to make an impact on this planet.
Cynthia Gibson, in a Case Foundation report [titled Citizens at the Center: A New Approach to Civic Engagement] perfectly captures my frustration and impotence: “While there are millions of Americans, especially young people, who are trying to ‘make a difference,’ largely through volunteering, there remains an inchoate yet palpable sense among most people that what they do matters little when it comes to the civic life and health of their communities, states, or the country overall.”
3) Given your frustration with the service sector as a young individual, what “change” happened that moved you to take action and helped you to affirm your desire to be part of the solution rather than the problem?
Arciszewski: I started my own grassroots volunteer project [as a junior in college], outside of any institutional structure. I had heard a story about a university in Afghanistan, whose library had burned down and whose students needed textbooks. Strangely inspired, I organized a book drive that collected and shipped several thousand used books to that school in Afghanistan. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life.
In starting my own project, I found the volunteer experience that I had been looking for. It was exciting, fast-paced, relevant, and new. And the project transformed me from a shy, pajama-wearing introvert to a happy, confident leader. The project also landed me a coveted internship. I was beyond myself – not only had I helped people in Afghanistan, but I had also helped myself grow up in a beautiful way.
4) What have been some of your most difficult challenges in developing this new model of service solutions?
Arciszewski: Grassroots organizing is hard. I remember how much I struggled with the book drive. I didn’t know how to raise money, organize events, manage volunteers, keep people updated… it was a logistical nightmare. What this country needs is a platform to simplify this process, so that whenever someone has a good idea for tackling an issue in their community they can actually do it. And that’s why I’m starting Pando Projects.
For those people with new ideas, we provide the project mentorship and online workspace they need to make their ideas happen. We don’t help people start organizations; we simply help them carry out projects within one year, for up to $5,000. Like a book drive. Or an after-school art class. Or a community garden. There are thousands of people with amazing ideas… I simply want to unleash their potential to change the world.
5) Final thoughts?
Arciszewski: In the same Case Foundation report [referenced previously], Cynthia Gibson wrote, “[We need to] create opportunities for ordinary citizens to come together, deliberate, and take action collectively to address public problems or issues that citizens themselves define as important and in ways that citizens themselves decide are appropriate and/or needed.”
I hope that Pando will play a role in making this happen. Millennials, check out www.pandoprojects.org. We are just getting started, but we will give you a service opportunity that will rock your world.