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Teens to Know

This Jewish Teen is Building Bridges Between Teens of Different Cultures in Pittsburgh

Peyton Klein

Peyton Klein admits she made a mistake: She assumed that, since the girl next to her in class wore a hijab and was very quiet, she didn’t speak English.

“Something was missing,” Peyton says. “I was politically active. I campaigned and knocked on doors. I believed in equality and inclusion. But I wasn’t actually living it.”

The girl’s name was Khwala, and once Peyton introduced herself, she shared her story about coming to the U.S. as a refugee. Soon the two sophomores became great friends and inspirations to each other.

Peyton realized that there were too many people making these assumptions and mistakes — too many people passing each other in the hallways without ever asking each other’s name. So she started the Global Minds Initiative (GMI).  Its aim is twofold English language learners are paired with native English speakers and get support navigating the school system, and native English speakers get to learn about different cultures.

So far, GMI has expanded to include over 1,500 students from 22 schools. Peyton has been featured on the Today Show and in Teen Vogue and The New York Times. She also hosted the TED Talk “Come Sit with Me: An Inclusive Take on Global Education.”

For this expansive work, Peyton is a 2018 recipient of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards.

Talking with Peyton:

What’s your favorite subject in school?
History. I’m a total history nerd. I love world history.

Where did you grow up and what was the population like there?
I grew up in Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh public schools we have over 1,200 English language learners from over 50 different countries. Which is extremely unique. And I think that makes it a pretty awesome place to live.

Tell me about that day when you realized you didn’t know someone in your class…
I was sitting in one of my classes and I realized I knew everyone’s name, except for the girl sitting behind me. I realized I was portraying all of these ideals about diversity and inclusivity in my life, but I wasn’t actually living by those same values. I went up to Khwala and we began speaking every day. We really became great friends. And I wanted to replicate those friendships across my school.

How did that inspire you to start partnering with English Language Learners?
Because of the incredible connection that Khwala and I had, I wanted to work with immigrant and refugee students. I realized how much I had learned personally from Khwala and I wanted to replicate that for others.

Your TED talk was amazing. Was that scary to do?
I think it was really exciting. Of course, I was nervous. Making such a public statement like that about something I felt so passionate about took a lot of concentration. But you can only say it once and then whatever you say will be out there. So, I think that it was a challenging thing to pick out the perfect words. Challenging, but really rewarding.

What would you say is the hardest part of doing this work?
I think the hardest part is finding the time and capacity. I mean, being a high school student and running a nonprofit — there’s a reason why a lot of people don’t do it. It’s a lot of work. But I don’t do it all by myself. I have an incredible support system. I like to give 100% of myself in whatever I’m doing, but with Global Minds, you can’t give 100% of yourself all the time because you’re needed in a thousand different directions.

What is the most rewarding part?
I get to work with the coolest people in the whole world every single day. It’s just such a privilege. I mean I see these ways in which we can impact each other. One girl was from Ukraine and she came to the U.S. and tried out for the tennis team because she knew there was a girl on there from Global Minds. She was able to seek out an opportunity that she wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s these smaller things, like saying “hi” to someone in the hallway, that could make a world of difference.

What’s next for the Global Minds campaign?
Growing our chapter networks. Not only in quantity but also maintaining the personal relationships and high-quality programming that we have. Also, — hopefully — a global conference in the future.

If you could sit down and chat with anyone, alive or dead, about Global Minds, who would it be and why?
I have two. Nelson Mandela because he’s such a warrior of peace in every sense of the word. And I think that’s what Global Minds aspires to be. We want to make a small dent that can lead to systematic change. I would also like to sit down and talk with Hillary Clinton; I was working way too many hours on her campaign when I started. It really helped inspire Global Minds.

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