When I met Sajia, a 2009 Afghan Seed and 2020 GATHER Fellow, over video chat, I was immediately inspired by her presence and her ideas about education; especially her interest in empowering youth to design and implement their own projects within their communities.
We are both passionate about reaching youth—Sajia founded the Baale Parwaz Library in Kabul, and I’ve worked as an educator for 11 years—and the more we talked about our field, the more I realized how ideologically aligned we were. When I asked Sajia about how teens in Kabul were faring during the pandemic, she mentioned that they, like many American students, were stuck at home. So, I invited them to join This Teenage Life, a youth-driven podcasting program I had started over a year earlier that began meeting virtually due to the pandemic.
This Teenage Life began with a nonchalant bet I made with Nergish, a dear friend I met in the 2018 GATHER cohort. We were both obsessed with podcasts and I was looking for a new creative project. The bet was about if I could create a podcast episode for under $20 (maybe it was $30). Using my phone and free editing software, I eventually made this episode of a podcast for … no one. But it sounded surprisingly good!
Six months later, while working at a school in San Diego, I started podcasting again. This time it was with an inspiring group of teenagers. It started with one sophomore, then her friends, and several weeks later, close to 30 of us were sitting around one microphone having deep, meaningful discussions about issues relevant to our lives. We talked about issues such as self-doubt, love in high school, and when they realized their parents are human beings. We called it This Teenage Life. Almost two years since we began, we have many episodes which have been heard in 49 states across America and in over 70 countries.
For each episode, we edit the recordings of the conversations, compose and record music, make web art, and eventually publish the episode on our website and wherever podcasts are found.
Flash-forward to March. I had moved home to New York City where COVID-19 was spreading like wildfire. The school where I currently teach was closed, along with most high schools in the U.S. All stuck at home, the teens from This Teenage Life and I began having and recording conversations every other day. Throughout the pandemic, these conversations have been a social and creative lifeline which became even more powerful when I received an email from Daniel Moses, Director of Educator Programs for Seeds of Peace, which read: “Hi Sajia and Molly: I’m especially happy to be writing to introduce the two of you. This is an inspired connection. I strongly encourage the two of you to talk soon.”
So Sajia and I spoke, hit it off, and started figuring out how to connect the young people we work with. The schedule was tricky. To get the best internet connection, we met at what was 10 p.m. in New York, 7 p.m. in California, and 6:30 a.m. in Kabul. And while the connection wasn’t always reliable, it was good enough.
Our first conversation was trepidatious. The Internet was laggy and I felt nervous and awkward.
Everything changed when one young woman from Afghanistan talked about what she was watching during quarantine: Zootopia. Everyone—from the teenagers in San Diego to those in Kabul—was uproarious, “I LOVE ZOOTOPIA!” each teen was saying. The Americans and the Afghans all agreed—it was a fantastic movie and one with a beautiful message about resilience and how hard it can be to fight societal biases and change the status quo.
The idea of resilience really struck a chord. Each person shared stories of when they had challenged a societal norm or pushed to overcome something. A young woman in Kabul shared about how she fought her family to go to school and another young woman described her struggle to ride her bicycle in the streets. A teen in the U.S. described how she uses the limitations of not having much financial means to help motivate her. Another young woman talked about how she overcame her fear of swimming in the ocean.
From that point on, we met once per week talking about topics such as Tik Tok, beauty standards, and moments when we have “talked back” to adults. Those podcasting gatherings among the Afghans and Americans have since branched into virtual gatherings centered around poetry and creative writing, coding, and essay writing.
Twice per week now, at 10 p.m., fighting the urge to go to bed, I sign onto Zoom to meet with teens in California, New York, and Kabul. As soon as their faces appear, the tiredness is replaced by awe for this little wormhole, stretching across space, time, and conflict where teenagers from across the world come together to share parts of themselves and to, in the process, make something new and beautiful.
Molly is a 2012 Seeds of Peace Educator and 2018 GATHER Fellow. Sajia is currently in a Masters program at Stanford University. Learn more and listen to the new season of This Teenage Life ››