Hey there! My name is Val (she/her) and I am a 2020 #AerieREAL Changemaker for my youth empowerment organization, The Validation Project, which I founded when I was 14. I was bullied brutally and wanted to create a space where students could know their worth and work together to make a positive impact. Now, I am 23, and The Validation Project is a global movement!  

Through social justice curriculum, career field trips, youth empowerment workshops & more, we’ve impacted more than 40,000 K-12 students around the world to turn passion into positive action. The Validation Project recently celebrated our 8-year anniversary! I reflected on this milestone and what I’ve learned about leading and growing a non-profit organization at a young age. Read about it all below — I’m excited to share it with y’all!  

#AerieREAL Changemaker Val, founder of The Validation Project.

8 things I learned leading a non-profit 

1.  What burnout looks like and how to manage it 

Especially when I first started my organization, I put so much pressure on myself to work on it all the time. I thought that if I took a break, it would all fall apart. There’s this idea that if you love the thing you do, it shouldn’t feel like a job. But to be sustainable in your work, you need to have a balance. Burnout looks like exhaustion. It looks like dreading the things you ought to do and feeling that brain fog that clouds any ideas. 

So, how do you manage burnout? If you have the ability, let yourself take mental health days.  Normalize pressing pause on a project when it isn’t bringing the joy it should. If you can’t take the time you deserve, give yourself permission to air out how you’re feeling to those in your corner. 

2.  Ageism in the work world — how to recognize it and navigate it 

I started The Validation Project at 14. So many people told me I was just a little girl and I should leave this to the adults. Even at 23, I still experience ageism as a recent grad. 

To navigate ageism, remind yourself that being young is an asset, not a fault. When people tell you, “you can’t do this,” use it as motivation to prove them wrong. Check in with pals and give yourself the space to express the difficulties of ageism — it’s likely they’ve experienced it, too. 

3.  The importance of asking for help and how to do it 

Asking for help is often branded as a sign of weakness, but it’s exactly the opposite. If you have an idea and are looking to get it started, think of who is in your circle. What passions do they have? What skills do they bring? Your support system is likely the people already in your corner! 

During college, The Validation Project grew exponentially because my best friends would come over, have pizza, and help me brainstorm. You’d be surprised how your idea can grow when you let your people into the question marks and predicaments of it. 

The Validation Project program collaborators.

4.  Thinking small doesn’t mean you won’t make a big impact 

The Validation Project started on a grassroots level. I experienced bullying at my school, and I wanted to help other kids in my district feel worth it and make a sustainable change. Thinking small is powerful. If you want to make an impact, look at your community. What issues do you see? What local organizations or activists are already on the ground? How can you support them? Is there a gap you can help fill? Do your research, and get the conversation started. 

5.  How to apply for 501c3 status 

I know it seems daunting! First things first, start with the basics: choose your name. Then, you must file articles of incorporation where you fill out some basic information, like the address for your nonprofit. Then, apply for IRS and state tax exemption. Next, draft your bylaws! What does your nonprofit stand for? Finally, appoint directors for your board, hold your first meeting, and obtain necessary licenses and permits. You got this! 

6.  How to navigate self-doubt 

I’ve been leading The Validation Project for 8 years, and the self-doubt still creeps in pretty frequently. As a high school student, it told me I was too young to lead an organization. As a low-income college student, it told me that I shouldn’t be at my school. Self-doubt tells me my ideas are too much or too little. 

My advice: Talk about it. Self-doubt is most powerful when we treat it as a secret. Sharing my feelings with my friends and family humanized it, and led me to realize that others in my circle had the same feelings in their own lives. 

Val works with the youth at an event in St. Louis, 2017.

7.  How to create community during the pandemic 

In March 2020, The Validation Project shifted to be completely virtual. With K-12 students experiencing intense isolation, I knew that creating an environment to hold space for all the feels was crucial. That’s how Treehouse, our virtual center for young people, came to be. Through social and social justice activities, students across state and country lines are becoming friends and collaborating in social justice work. 

Creating community: Have theme nights to your Zoom hangouts. Play Mad Libs, do a PowerPoint presentation party, cook the same meal while you video chat. If you have pals you can distantly see, soak up the spring weather and have a picnic or do an art activity in a park! See which local businesses in your area you can safely support, and incorporate it into your hangouts. 

8.  How to celebrate the wins — big and small 

Letting yourself soak up the successes is crucial. The Validation Project’s big milestones, like our 8-year anniversary, are exciting, but the small specific ones — like making our first batch of business cards — are just as important to celebrate. 

How to celebrate: Let yourself put on your power song and dance. Order your favorite takeout. Call a pal and tell them the news! Collage how you feel to have a memento of the occasion! 

Get Val’s look: Aerie Ribbed Henley Long Sleeve T-Shirt | Aerie Twill Overall

One final thing I want to touch on are some of the ways that the #AerieREAL Changemaker program helped my initiative. Being a Changemaker has provided my organization with the funding to take our efforts to the next level!  

We’re designing new programming specifically for middle school students about self-esteem and leading our first-ever fellow program to spend the spring designing new events and curriculum for the next eight years. Being a Changemaker has also provided me with a community of fellow activists to sit in the self-doubt with, collaborate with and learn from. 

Learn more about #AerieREAL Changemakers by checking out the 2021 program, and share your thoughts on Val’s story in the comments below, Aerie fam!

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