Jessica - Promoting diversity and inclusion among classmates in Surabaya, Indonesia

Combatting intolerance, Jessica’s initiative encourages interaction and inclusion among diverse groups of students.
Jessica Indonesia AYC 2019
Source: Ara, Reilly Brooks

With over 50 million young people in Indonesia, changemakers recognize the value of young people and their collective cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity for building a better Indonesia. Changemakers like Jessica refuse to accept intolerance, which is deeply rooted in the mistakes of previous generations. Starting with her own school, Jessica and her team strive to create a more inclusive society where social innovation, environmental activism, and changemaking can flourish for the good of all.

When Jessica Gunawan was a young girl in Surabaya, Indonesia, she remembers everyone in her school playing together. However, she noticed these interactions changing over the years as external social prejudices enter the playground. Young people became increasingly separated by their religion, race, and socioeconomic status. Jessica was struck with confusion and pain; she didn’t understand why peers she grew up playing with suddenly began to say, “You can’t play with her, she’s Hindu.” Walking down the hallways, once oblivious to such distinctions, she now saw groups behaving in a hierarchical manner, separated from each other, and unwelcoming to others.

Jessica felt compelled to act. She could no longer sit back watching her friends be torn apart on the playground or witness discrimination spill over into the classroom. Unsure how to move forward, clarity came from Jessica’s innovative teacher, Mr. Martinus, who did not focus solely on grades and performance. Instead, he pushed his students in their personal development. He challenged Jessica to reflect, “What is your motivation and what do you want to do?” With such a broad question, Jessica felt intimidated; she was used to adults telling young people what to do rather than adults asking young people what they want to do.  

Eventually, she spoke up and said that she was tired of seeing pervasive discrimination among young people, mimicking the intolerance among adults. After internalizing the support of her teacher, Jessica felt like a spark was ignited. Not only could she do something, but it was her age that made her powerful to affect change in building a new Indonesia.  

At the age of 13, Jessica launched Be One in Diversity, a movement to foster tolerance, acceptance, and diversity by engaging young people of different backgrounds through casual, fun activities. She knew it would be difficult to change such entrenched attitudes, so she decided to use another passion of hers—environmental conservation—as an entry point for tolerance. She partnered with the environment team at her school and invited different groups of people to participate.  

Change can start from something small. We become a role model for others – the small things we do can become a big inspiration for others.

Rather than hosting serious interfaith discussions, she breaks down prejudice barriers by encouraging young people to work together on a common issue, such as a forest and spring water conservation project. These activities create a positive association between students as the shared experiences highlight their similarities over their differences. 

However, some of Jessica’s friends pushed back on her idea, thinking that adults should handle societal issues while students should focus on their schoolwork. Jessica began to question her initiative, until May 13th, 2018.  

On this day, Jessica, along with most of Indonesia, was astonished by a series of church bombings in Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia. One bombing was just 10 minutes away from Jessica’s school.

Twenty-eight people died and 57 people were injured. Jessica went to school the next day and racial and religious tensions were heightened. Going from class to class, Jessica was incredibly uneasy, while devastated by the headlines sweeping the news. One of the most troubling facts about the bombing was that, for the first time in Indonesian history, children as young as nine-years-old participated in the attacks.  

Jessica realized that if young people lack their power to make a positive difference, then they ignore social issues and normalize intolerance. Polarized politics and religious differences were driving a wedge in society, and this bombing explicitly demonstrated that fundamentalism affects young people. Jessica thought that if people can be affected for the worse, they could also be affected for the better. The bombing strengthened her resolve that this generation could end intergenerational prejudices  and animosity across Indonesia.  

Jessica revamped her Be One in Diversity efforts by increasing collaboration. In her school, she partnered with the student council and student leaders from other clubs to host workshops, discussions, and events centered around entrepreneurship, the environment, community engagement, and social justice. Slowly, tolerance started to build again. 

Thrilled by the progress, Jessica aspired to engage students at other schools to celebrate diversity and spread what she calls the “kindness virus.” Jessica reached out to her friend, Steffi from the neighboring Dulink community, to run the Be One in Diversity Movement in Islamic boarding schools. They also partnered with Majlis Ta'lim Al-Islamiyah Muhajiri, a religious community, and communities outside Surabaya, to expand their initiative.  

By diversifying her activities and forming a team, Jessica scaled Be One in Diversity to be a rallying call for young people to celebrate their diversity and changemaking power. Jessica sees Be One in Diversity as a model for every school in Indonesia to tackle radicalism while building awareness, solidarity, and empathy. 

To be a changemaker, Jessica says you “do not have to be someone famous, professional, has a prestigious title, and so on. Everyone can be a changemaker, even young people like me, or younger than me, you can be a great changemaker.”