Simon Stumpf on early changemaking: "In the world today, we will all be called upon to lead at some point"

Simon Stumpf
Source: Simon Stumpf

Simon Stumpf, Director of Ashoka’s Fellow selection program in the U.S., shares how he seized his own opportunity to lead as pre-teen when family circumstances demanded and how he didn’t stop there.  As a parent today facing a world of great change and challenges, he shares his thoughts on what it will take to have his own children LeadYoung.

During the winter in which I was in 5th grade, I’d run up into the house each day after school to be the first of my six siblings through the door to hold our new baby brother. But one day I burst through the door and the house was dark. Instead of my mom and baby brother, my siblings and I found my dad sitting teary eyed at the darkened kitchen table.

Hours earlier, my 2-month-old brother Stoney had quit breathing at home. My mom was about to start making my brother Zach’s birthday cake (he turned 12 that day) when she noticed Stoney was struggling for air. She called 9-1-1 and as soon as they arrived at the local emergency room he was airlifted to a hospital two hours away, a place that would become his (and my parents’) home-away-from-home for the next three years. My siblings and I grew up really fast with a parent at his bedside and us kids managing the home front. We cooked, cleaned, chopped firewood, helped each other with schoolwork, and – every January 6th, the anniversary of Stoney’s medical emergency – we would throw a big birthday party for my brother Zach complete with A&W Root Beer and Jim Carrey movies.

During this stormy period, a literal tornado cut a miles-long path of ripped up trees and decimated houses through a rural area just a few miles east of my house. As a 7th grade member of student council, I somehow managed to convince our school to plant trees at homes in the affected area. A local paper covered the story and I realized that young people making change was actually a pretty unusual, powerful thing, and I was hooked.

Given my brother’s fragile respiratory system - the root cause of his major medical problems - I got involved in advocating for local clean indoor air ordinances. Eventually, most of these efforts failed so we shifted to giving awards to local restaurants that banned smoking voluntarily; I was in the paper again presenting a smoke-free award to our local Subway franchise owner, regardless that his motivation was due to being located at a gas station more than curbing second-hand smoke.

I also led trainings for students on the effects of smoking and how the tobacco industry manipulates teens across the state. After a routine physical, in which my doctor didn’t ask the standard “do you use tobacco” question, I found myself working with the University of Minnesota and my local hospital to change the clinical intake form to include that question for underage teens too. At 16, I joined the inaugural executive committee of Minnesota’s youth-led, $9M-per-year anti-Big Tobacco campaign and traveled around the country sharing our model with other teens.

Yes, I was a pretty cool kid:) I remember my first conference call more vividly than my first kiss. And I spent more money on my first answering machine than I ever did on a music player. But I had a great childhood, and I’d recommend early changemaking to anyone. Not because it is cool, or will get you into college or will make your parents proud. But because, in the world today, we will all be called upon to lead at some point. Our job is to know how to spot and confidently step up when our time comes.  I seized my moment because I saw the role models in my life - my parents, my siblings, even long dead historical figures - step into their own moments to be changemakers. If I hadn’t seen this, I might very well have missed mine. If I hadn’t realized young that the people most qualified to solve the problem are the ones who are experiencing them, I might have waited for someone else to do something about the issues I cared about.

Today I’m a parent to three kooky kids. I hope they all stay healthy and would never wish a sick sibling upon any of them. Or a tornado. Or a pack of 1990s-era Big Tobacco execs. But they will no doubt face challenges at home, at school, and out in the world. And when they do, the best thing I can do as their parent is to ensure that they have the will and the skill to do something about it.