Kayla Soren, 19, Louisville, Kentucky

What is your story of strength?

Growing up in Kentucky, it was easy to see the impact of environmental destruction. Strip mining destroyed my state’s mountains more and more every year. Seeing this, I always wanted to do something, but I had no idea where to begin. I felt insignificant in my ability to make a change. I knew that my biggest barrier toward being an activist was my fear of public speaking, even communication generally. I was scared of talking to my teachers, friends, and let alone the public about my opinions about how the world should be. I had these big dreams, like everyone does, of changing the world or making a difference, but I felt that I could not do anything if I couldn’t even talk to someone next to me.

When I went to high school, I decided to join the debate team–and it started off as one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I was awful, and I lost almost every single debate my first semester, every weekend for an entire semester. But, I kept pushing. I told myself I wasn’t going to stop until I won a few rounds, just a few debates, to prove to myself that I could stand up for something. By the end of my freshman year I won a really small local Kentucky debate tournament.

That insignificant debate tournament really changed my life. While maybe it didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, to me it meant that I was validated. By the end of high school, I had one the state championship three years in a row, several national tournaments, and was the debate captain.  If I could make that difference in my own life by succeeding in something that was so hard to overcome, and turn one of my greatest weaknesses into one of my greatest strengths, I could try to do that for my own environmental activism as well.

I realized that one thing that bothered me about debate is that while a lot of people care, and a lot of people knew a lot of things, they never acted on anything. The biggest issue is that they never knew how to act, what to do, and I realized that wasn’t just in the debate community, it was everywhere. That is why I founded the International Student Environmental Coalition (ISEC), which provides a platform for any young person to get the tools and the skills and the empowerment to enable to create big societal change. We focus on is implementing ambitious ideas, so we want to go beyond a high school environmental club, to focus on national movements, and uniting national movements across the world.

ISEC is more than just an environmental youth organization–we really try to push the idea that, no matter what it is, you can try to do big things that seem hard and scary. I have also realized that cultural differences are really distinct. In the United States for example, it has been really hard to rally young people, and in Europe as well. That is because people there are in this mindset of being solely career oriented, and it is really hard to break this mindset, although you do see it being broken more and more in the US. But if you look to other countries where we (ISEC) have been most successful, whether in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, they care so much about doing something because their lives rely on it, and they have seen the importance of not being so selfish. That is really empowering, trying to bring that mindset to other parts of the world and create that mindset here at home.

What does being a woman mean to you?

Being a woman for me is hopeful. But I wasn’t always hopeful.

It is hard. I did not realize the struggles of being female until high school. I grew up blaming myself for a lack of self esteem or constant intimidation, but are never taught the contributing factors to those feelings, like being a woman. With women’s rights in all aspects now being increasingly integrated into our cultures, I am confident that more young girls today and in the future will learn what it means to identify as a woman. Finding communities, especially within environmentalism, and finding people within the mindset that they want to be progressive and do whatever it takes– that is hopeful.

I see women’s empowerment as providing hope for other movements as well. The women’s movement has really taken a comprehensive, all-in approach, and includes people from all different groups and areas, although admittedly still problematic in being largely white-centric, but they are trying to do a good job at bringing different groups together, and hopefully can become an example for a cross-cultural, cross-barrier movement.

What is a gender norm or expectation you wish didn’t exist?

The thing that bothers me the most is that when you see women in power–even though it is great they we are seeing more women in power–it is either people that look very masculine, or people that look absolutely stunning.

It is really hard to find that middle ground. Even though we are seeing more representation and that empowers other women, you still seem to have to fit that look if you want to go further.

Can you tell me about a time you disappointed yourself?

I tend to take on responsibility for everything, and there is a constant disappointment and constant guilt. It is hard to identify, I could name several instances of failure, but I think the biggest issue is this constant cycle of feeling like I am never doing enough.

If I do make a mistake, I also tend to take it very personally. I do everything I can to fix the mistake, but I think it is also ingrained in me that I have to never do that again, never make that mistake, which I think isn’t the point. Often failure is really important, and we try to sponsor ideas big enough to risk frequent failure in ISEC. That’s why I think the nonprofit has seen the unexpected immense growth that it is: embracing the potential to fail allows for the most impactful initiations. I am so thankful to have had so much failure in my life.

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