Michele Lai

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Hong Kong
Fellow since 2019
This description of Michele Lai's work was prepared when Michele Lai was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019 .

Introduction

Michele Lai is inspiring a generation of youth in Hong Kong to become changemakers. She creates programs that enables young people to develop changemakers skills and to create their own social initiatives for helping other young people.

The New Idea

Michele is working to ignite the power of youth in Hong Kong to develop social responsibility, take positive action in their community, and support other youth to make the world a better place.

Michele’s organization, Kids4Kids, inspire young people by offering extra- curricular programs and support for children and young people aged 6-18 that equip them with the tools to come up with their own ideas for making a positive difference in their lives and the lives of their peers. Kids4Kids helps youth discover their unique talents, develop ideas for how to use these to improve the lives of other young people, and then work with peers from across different social backgrounds to put these ideas into practice.

Michele is driven by the belief that kids can make a positive social impact in society. The younger they start helping others, the earlier on they will be able to develop their own authentic voice and resilience when coping with adversity. Kids4Kids helps young people acquire the core changemaker skills in a way that is fun and authentic, while also building social cohesion and civic awareness. Kids4Kids bring together youth from all communities across Hong Kong

The Problem

The Hong Kong education system, similar to other education systems across East Asia, is noted for its rigidity and focus on rote learning and exams. Hong Kong’s intense examinations-based education system has long been seen as failing its students in certain life skills while placing them under immense pressure to perform academically.

Despite widespread awareness that the system is not helping children develop the critical changemaker skills needed for the 21st century (skills such as empathy, initiative, teamwork and collaborative leadership), efforts for reform have stalled. Hong Kong has tried multiple educational reforms, but outcomes are not visible, in part due to a misalignment of stakeholders’ incentives. To parents and, accordingly, students, getting their child into university and a good job seem to be the sole objective of the education system, which directly counteracts efforts to broaden students’ skill-sets and horizons.

This pressure to enter the best schools has created an environment that is highly stressful. Students in Hong Kong typically spend ten hours per day on studying, not including the time spent on homework, with evenings taken up with extra tuition and night classes. 92% of students felt pressure in preparing for the HKDSE (Hong Kong’s University entrance examination) and 37% described such pressure as severe.

Youth in Hong Kong are being deprived of the space and time for other aspects of personal development. On average, students in Hong Kong only have around 6 hours of sleep per day and only 8.4% of youth can fulfill WHO’s advice on accumulating 60 minutes of physical activity per day. Virtually all time is taken up with school, homework as well as tutorial classes.
This is taking its toll on Hong Kong youth. Mental disorders among youth are become increasingly prevalent. The caseload of the child and adolescent psychiatric teams of the Hospital Authority rose from 18,900 in 2011-12 to 28,800 in 2015-16, representing an increase by more than 50% in five years. According to the Commonwealth Youth Development Index 2016, Hong Kong ranked 116th among 183 countries in the health and wellbeing domain, lower than many comparatively less developed countries.

The Strategy

Michele’s goal is to make it the norm in Hong Kong for young people to grow up with the skills and habits of helping others. Her strategy for doing so has multiple elements:

1. Develop programs for engaging kids at every level: Michele and her team have developed a series of youth programs that can be run at any level and for any intensity of engagement. These include the ‘Powered by Youth Forum’, a 2-day event where kids are encouraged to discover their special ‘powers’ (such as teaching others, storytelling etc), and learn to how use these to develop their own idea for taking positive action in the community. Kids can then progress to more advanced programs such as ‘Action for a Cause’, in which kids form a team to develop a social project, then enter a competition through which the top 20- 30 projects are selected, and then supported on this journey over the course of a year. Over 90 ‘Action for A Cause’ projects led by youth have been delivered to date, directly impacting over 11,200 people.

Kids4Kids engages kids to talk about what is important to them using what they see themselves as good at: their power. Kids who love dancing, for example, might develop a program to teach dance to kids from less advantaged backgrounds. The programs focus on civic engagement, empathy, leadership, and personal strengths. Secondary school students are ignited to design their own community project tackling social issues which they personally and passionately care about. These programs challenge students’ creativity and problem-solving skills and function progressively through three stages: “Giving to Collaborating,” “School to Community” and “Plan to Action.” The programs develop the students’ creative mindset, nurture their communication skills and increase their teamwork mentality.

2. Encourage interaction between kids from different backgrounds to foster social awareness and empathy: Kids4Kids runs Literacy Programs where primary school students learn to express their creativity through reading, illustrating, writing, and coding. These include ‘Buddy Reading’, where teenage volunteers select books to read to primary school children (often from different social backgrounds) through to ‘My Story Creation’, where young people are encouraged to write and illustrate stories that they find uplifting. These Reading programs all adopt a storytelling approach whereby teenagers read books to younger kids from primary schools and community centers which lack resources. Their direct beneficiaries are low income families, new arrivals, ethnic minorities and children from different backgrounds.

3. Work with Schools across the social spectrum: Kids4Kids makes sure that it works with young people from every social background, and prioritizes kids from less well off schools. Kids4Kids currently works with over 300 schools across Hong Kong, with 19,000 students participating in its programs annually, including public and low resourced schools as well as private ones. The programs are offered in even the most disadvantaged areas.

4. Put Kids in Charge: Michele and her team identified that in order for their work to be effective, it had to be driven by the youth themselves. Young people decide for themselves, come up with their own projects, and they’re empowered as much as possible to take things forward for themselves. Their programs are designed to spur creative thinking, with kids encouraged to be curious and to ask questions, a rarity in the current system. The entire engagement is peer to peer with learning meant to be wholly collaborative: kids sit in clusters to facilitate sharing.

In 2018-19, Kids4Kids engaged 28,000 young people in its programs from over 300 schools and 120 community centers across Hong Kong.

The Person

Michele was born in Malaysia and grew up in Australia, after her father gave up his career to relocate the family so that his daughters would be able to attend university and receive a better education. Michele developed a highly initiative-taking and entrepreneurial spirit early on, running her own business from the age of 14. She credits the liberty her parents gave her to do things for herself and the resulting abundance of unstructured time she had with allowing her to feel that she could do anything she set her mind to from a young age.

Michele studied business marketing at university and then joined Toyota in Australia, becoming the first female executive in their product planning department. Michele later moved to Hong Kong to progress further in her career as the youngest manager in her department and eventually work in other industries for a few years, where she was able to further develop her entrepreneurial and business skills.

Eventually Michele left the corporate world to start her family, with the firm belief that she had to leave the world in a better state for her children. With that will to help kids in mind, Michele’s social-entrepreneurial journey began. She wanted her kids to know the world outside their bubble, so she would share stories with them of other children and how they live, as well as take them on outreach trips. She also introduced them to charities that she was involved with, including Room-to-Read, which builds libraries for schools in countries such as Nepal. It was hearing a story about Room-to-Read that one day prompted her six-year-old son to ask her if could sell some his own books to raise money for the other children Michele had told him about. She supported him in organising his own book sale, allowing him to sort and price the books, and took her son to participate to a market, where he was in charge of selling the books and raising money for a cause in the process. She deliberately entrusted him to do as much of the work as possible, to see if he would be able to see the project through. To her pride, he succeeded and gained tremendous confidence from the experience.

He then shared the story the next week at school when the teacher asked him to do a show and tell. With the help of his mom, he created and illustrated his own book. Michele saw how this experience of developing and completing his own project to help others less advantaged than himself, and then to share that story with his peers, could be such a meaningful and empowering experience for him.

It was this experience of with her son that first planted the seed for what would become Kids4Kids. Michele wanted to facilitate similar experiences for other children in Hong Kong, based on the powerful idea that young people could become changemakers by learning how to create their own projects to help other young people from backgrounds less advantaged than themselves.

Michele began by launching an out-of-school project with other parents where kids would create and illustrate their own storybooks. This became ‘My Story Creation’, Kids4Kids first program, and later expanded into ‘Buddy Reading’, a literacy program where teenage volunteers read books to younger kids, often from less well-resourced backgrounds. Kids4Kids now runs many more programs that help young people develop their full range of changemaker skills.

Fueled by the Confucian principle of doing to understand, Michele envisions a future where kids take action for themselves, and believe that no problem is too big, and no child too young, to take even a small step towards tackling.