As nonprofit leaders, area teens spur civic engagement

Lowell Catholic seniors Bridget Provost, 17, of North Andover, and Daniel Russell, 17, of Dracut, who run the Leaders in Lowell speaker series. Greater Lowell Community Foundation is letting them use their office space to work from. (SUN/Julia Malakie)
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LOWELL — Between college applications, extracurricular activities and keeping up with academics, being a senior in high school can be tough.

Now imagine leading a nonprofit organization on top of it all.

That’s the reality for Daniel Russell, 17, of Dracut and Bridget Provost, 17, of North Andover, the founders of Leaders in Lowell, an organization that brings prominent speakers to the Mill City for panels and events. It started as an initiative at Lowell Catholic High School in 2017, when the teens brought Dr. Vanessa Kerry, daughter of former Secretary of State John Kerry, to their school to speak about her nonprofit organization Seed Global Health.

They saw the event as an opportunity to promote education, community involvement and civic engagement. And they wanted to do more.

“We decided, why not move it to a broader, citywide scenario where we could not only engage more people, but have a wider variety of topics?” Bridget said. “Because you can’t cover everything in a small Catholic school.”

The teens began searching for an established nonprofit to partner with, and in spring 2018, Leaders in Lowell came under the fiscal sponsorship of the Greater Lowell Community Foundation. Their first citywide event was held a few weeks later, and in the time since they’ve hosted prominent figures such as former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford, UMass Lowell President Marty Meehan and former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift.

The fiscal sponsorship allows Leaders in Lowell to accept tax-exempt donations and make payments through the Greater Lowell Community Foundation rather than filing as an independent 501(c)(3), according to Jay Linnehan, the foundation’s president and CEO. It also streamlines some of the legal aspects of running their organization, since they’re still under 18 and unable to sign contracts.

When it comes to finding speakers, Bridget and Daniel said they try to focus on topics that are pertinent to people’s everyday lives, with past events focusing on subjects such as education and women in leadership. The teens agreed their favorite guest so far has been Rena Finder, a Holocaust survivor who was saved by Nazi-businessman Oskar Schindler, who saved more than 1,000 Jews during World War II.

“There’s so much to learn from each speaker. And then on the other hand, we learn so much from working with these people and working with Senate offices and House offices and huge nonprofits,” Daniel said. “So we’re learning a lot every time we reach out to somebody.”

Though the foundation provides fiscal sponsorship, the teens handle the organization’s day-to-day operations themselves, from contacting potential speakers to coordinating venues, securing sponsors and promoting upcoming events. At times, they’ve spent about 30 hours a week on work for Leaders in Lowell, they said.

Fundraising is important to keep the events free, they said, because venue costs can add up. But the teens noted they don’t pay speaker fees, and every speaker the organization has hosted has volunteered their time to visit the Mill City.

Leaders in Lowell’s next event in December will feature Deesha Dyer, who served as the White House social secretary under the Obama administration. She’ll speak about her experiences at the White House, as well as her nonprofit organization, beGirl.world, which focuses on empowering young women through global education and travel.

Linnehan said Leaders in Lowell is the first youth-run organization that has participated in the foundation’s fiscal sponsorship program, though there have been other groups with a focus on youth participation, such as Lowell High School’s Giftcards for Guns program.

“I think often times, people look around and go, we’ve got the next generation that may not be as engaged as folks like me might think they should be,” Linnehan said. “I think Bridget and Daniel are a great example as to the fact of the matter is, many people are. And I think more folks should just look and see the passion that they have and why they have that passion.”

As the organization has grown, so have the teens’ connections. They’ve even made two visits to Washington, D.C. to meet with significant organizations and political players, including the Office of the Vice President, the offices of Sen. Ed Markey and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and representatives of the nonprofit organization America’s Promise Alliance, which recently awarded Leaders in Lowell a grant.

Though Bridget and Daniel will be heading off to college next year — likely studying international relations and politics, respectively — they hope to continue running Leaders in Lowell from wherever they end up. And until then, they’re hard at work lining up speakers for the remainder of their 2019-20 series.

“We have a lot going on right now in America and the world,” Bridget said, “and little grassroots discussions can inspire people to maybe take a little more action.”

Leaders in Lowell’s next event with Deesha Dyer is set for Dec. 2 at the Richard and Nancy Donahue Academic Arts Center at Middlesex Community College. Additional information is available on the organization’s website at www.leadersinlowell.org/upcoming-events.