Interview with Razel & Lauren, founders of Kahon Ng Karunungan!

Lauren"s Bio:

Hi! My name is Lauren and I’m 17 years old! I’m Chinese American, but I've spent most of my life living in the Philippines. I run Kahon Ng Karunungan with my co-founder, Razel, as well as @herstoryphillipines, an English enrichment program dedicated to empowering young females in the Philippines. Outside of my passion for social justice, I enjoy true crime documentaries, photography, and journalism. A fun fact about me is that I can list nearly every dog breed.

Razel's Bio:

Razel is, first and foremost, a proud Filipina. She finds family in all three of the major islands (Nueva Ecija, Ilo-Ilo, Sultan Kudarat) and believes this enriches her distinct identity.

Her proudest feat to date is founding her two NGOs, Kahon ng Karunungan (combatting educational inequity) and Literato Ph (using literature to combat authoritarianism). Beyond educational inequity, her greatest passion is conflict resolution as she comes from an area that is riddled with religious conflict in the Philippines and wishes to do her part to resolve these conflicts in various parts of the globe. For this reason, she is a prospective "Ethics, Politics, and Economics" and "Ethnicity, Race, and Migration'' double major at Yale University double major. In her free time, she also loves creative non-fiction and is currently the Director of Editing for the Lilac Blog. She also participates in service experiences as a means of learning more about her culture and getting a more profound worldview.

Interview by Daania Sharifi

Could you both start off by introducing yourselves to the readers? Name, age, interests, and what kind if stuff you spend time doing (passions etc)

Razel: Hello, Cliche Teen Journal readers! I am Razel, first and foremost, a proud Filipina. I find family in all three of the major islands (Nueva Ecija, Ilo-Ilo, Sultan Kudarat) and believes this enriches her distinct identity.

My culture brought me up to be resilient, joyful, and collaborative in the face of any challenge. Like the looms of Yakan village in Zamboanga, my culture weaves a personal tapestry from fabrics, enriched by an assortment of diverse, unanticipated challenges that bring color to my life and pursuit to enlightenment.

Her proudest feat to date is co-founding Kahon ng Karunungan (combatting educational inequity) and founding Literato Ph (using literature to combat authoritarianism). Beyond educational inequity, my greatest passion is conflict resolution as I come from an area that is riddled with religious conflict in Philippines and wish to do my part to resolve these conflicts in various parts of the globe. For this reason, I am a prospective "Ethics, Politics, and Economic" and "Ethnicity, Race, and Migration" double major at Yale University. In my free time, I live life as an immense social studies and literature nerd. I love watching history documentaries (13th is my favorite!), analyzing movies and literature for meaning (Truman Show? Parasite?), participating in Academic Bowl, and listening to podcasts (Radiolab! PhilosophizeThis!). I also love writing prose and participating in service experiences as means of learning more about my culture and getting a more profound worldview.

Lauren: Hi everyone! My name is Lauren! I’m Chinese American, but I’ve spent most of my life living in the Philippines. When I moved from the US to Manila, I experienced a cultural shock. I saw societal issues I had never previously considered. Young children on busy streets were soliciting money in exchange for a few stringed strands of local perfumed flowers. This inspired me to reach out to the local Filipino community through service and established my passion for social justice, specifically educational inequity. Next year I will be studying political science at Barnard college of Columbia University. Outside of Kahon ng Karunungan, I also founded an English Enrichment program dedicated to equipping young Filipina females with English skills for the purpose of personal empowerment and preparations for the workforce. Before quarantine, I’d spend 2 hours each week teaching these girls at a local public school. In my free time, I enjoy watching true crime documentaries, doing street photography, and playing with my Golden Retriever. I also love journalism, whether that be reading or writing interesting news articles.

Nice to meet you Lauren & Razel! Your stories are very inspiring and we love to hear about your cultural and ethnic backgrounds! Could you both talk to us about KNK (Kahon ng Karunungan)? What gave you the inspiration to start it? How did you first establish it? What work had to be put in before it could become what it is today?

Razel: Kahon ng Karunungan broadly focuses on reducing educational inequity all over the world. Personally, I experienced first hand the gap between the quality of education in Filipino schools and the elite international schools in the Philippines. While we were reading Shakespeare, Darwin, the world's greatest thinkers, most in Filipino public schools could not even understand the basic tenets of English grammar. I believed that the educational opportunities that I was so fortunate to have was circumstantial and economically-based. Thus, I believe it was my duty, given my education, to reduce the gap between the quality of education in the Philippines. What initially gave us the inspiration to start was a typhoon that ravaged the province of Kalinga in the Philippines. We realized that the most vulnerable schools were the infrastructurally damaged schools and that we could provide these classroom in a box kits to fill the gap between the time of catastrophe and their formal schooling.

KNK has such an amazing mission! What have you all accomplished so far? How has that motivated you to spread KNK more?

Lauren: Over the past two years, KnK has distributed over 1500 self-learning kits to school damaged by typhoons and volcanic eruptions. We have also created 2 English workbooks for Junior and Senior High students in rural areas in the Philippines and donated laptops to Malagnat National Highschool. We were both inspired to expand the organization and achieve even more because we’re both leaving for college soon, and want to leave a final impact on the Philippines. Also, seeing the students have access to resources which they didn’t have beforehand is always really touching. For instance, before we donated laptops to Malagnat National Highschool, the students had to learn technological literacy through computer drawings.

Razel: I'd also like to add that we were inspired to expand our reach to more countries around the world due to the coronavirus pandemic and how that's disproportionately affecting lowest income areas. We realize the power of collaboration, and we have collaborated with various organizations around the globe to first, create these educational resources, and second, distribute them to low income areas. We are currently partnering with organizations in the United States, Canada, Nigeria, and more to come! So, as previously mentioned, we were propelled to action after seeing the catastrophic effects that Typhoon Mangkhut had on the area of Kalinga. Malagnat National High School faced landslides and flooding due to the typhoon. Thus, we reached out to the Local Government Units (congressman particularly) of the region to connect us to the principal of the school. Thereafter, we had to raise money and compile supplies to create the classroom in a box kits. Thus, we first published a story book with four stories and sold them to over 100 people to raise money for the workbook printing. Then, we placed school supply drives in four locations including a testing center and three other schools. After creating workbooks, we had to work with the school to find the logistics of transporting the goods to the mountainous areas. Thankfully in October, we held a gala to raise 5000 dollars, which sustained us for our outreach trip to Talisay and will help us for our future outreach trips.

Amazing! That’s incredible that you raised that much and helped out to a community that needed it! 💗 So the next question would be about looking to the future of KNK, what do you hope to accomplish in the next couple of years (are you hoping to keep KNK running for that long) and what is the ultimate dream goal for KNK?

Lauren: This year, KnK is focusing on improving our workbooks to include all four core subjects (English, Social Science, Science, Math), establishing a blog that sheds light on the causes of educational inequity, and using technology to make educational resources available to the remote areas of the world. KnK currently has over 10 partner NGOs from all parts of the world including the United States, Nigeria, Canada, and Ghana. And yes! We hope to sustain the organization for as long as possible by accepting new members who will eventually be able to lead the organization. The goal is to make the greatest impact we possibly can on our local Filipino community and make it self-sustaining.

Razel: Our ultimate goal is ensure that students in low-income areas do not feel that they are being left-behind (hoping to see a lower drop out rate in between elementary school and high school) first in the Philippines and around the world. A few years in the future, I hope we can use KnK as platform to learn more about the causes of educational inequity and reach out to the Department of Education and the Commission for Higher Education to create educational reform. We hope we can also create change in the educational curricula in the Philippines (and perhaps the world!) and tackle its flaws.

I love how outlined and precise your mission and goals are! Moving on to the next category of topics, personal questions. So could you each tell us who are your inspirations? What is so inspiring about them? & if you could ask them one question, what would that question be?

Razel: For me, this is quite a difficult question as I have so many to choose from! As a prospective lawyer myself, one of my greatest inspirations is Earl Warren for a multitude of reasons. First, he is the embodiment of how people themselves can reform and act on the side of justice as they become more socially conscientious. He initially advocated for Japanese-American internment as Californian Attorney General and eventually turned to advocate for sweeping civil rights reform as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I think it's important to have figures like Earl Warren with the rampant Cancel Culture that is warping societies today and the reality that we must not shun differently opinionated individuals in society as we can eventually include them to advocate for greater justice. If I could ask him a question, I would ask how we could unite many in the extremely polarized society we have today for progress and how the law can be utilized to create the societal reform me need today? I would also give an honorable mention to Maria Ressa (an amazing Filipino journalist dissenting against the authoritarian practices of the Duterte administration) and Farahnaz Forotan who tells the stories of women and the rights they reject to concede under a Taliban government as US-Afghan negotiations are occurring.

Lauren: I would say my inspirations are mainly powerful women who fearlessly fight for equality - To name a few, Yuri Kochiyama, Dolores Huerta, and Sylvia Rivera. These women have taught me what it means to be a female in social justice. However, a standout woman to me is Nawal El Sadaawi. I am inspired by her experiences as an author, a trained doctor, an activist, and a prisoner. But to me, she is, more than anything else, a strong female voice who has shown me that the way to help others may be beyond challenging, but that it is always worth the effort. In a hypothetical conversation with El Saadawi, I’d ask her about the changes brought about by the Arab Spring, which would meander around many “what ifs”.

How have you all been coping with quarantine and the whole current state we are in? What do you do productively, what do you do for fun, to pass time, etc?

Razel: I've used this quarantine to do more projects for KnK! We've used it productively to expand our organization and find ideas to grow! The quarantine was eye-opening to reduce the gap between, not only education inequity, but also the resource gap.

Lauren: To pass time during quarantine, I’ve mainly been working on my non-profits. For KnK, Razel and I have been scheduling meetings and partnerships with other organizations, interviewing applicants for KnK’s core committee, and developing new projects. I’ve been doing the same with my other English enrichment program, HERstory. For each of these organizations, I’ve renovated their websites during quarantine. I’ve also been online tutoring students in China who want to learn English as a second language and have applied for a couple journalism internships as well. For fun, I’ve been editing a lot of old photographs that I didn’t get to before, binging Netflix shows, like the trials of Gabriel Fernandez + Ted Bundy tapes, and learning the basics of graphic design.

Razel: It always helps to maintain a routine. Daily, I always start my day but reading a book (now I'm reading "How Democracies Die" and finished "A Room of One's Own" recently). I use my daily workout time to catch up with my podcasts and to keep learning! I keep a certain time of day specifically for work. I'm also taking Coursera and EdX courses on microeconomics and on the American judicial system. Our family always makes sure to eat together and have time for each other and keeping each other sane. I also schedule weekly movie nights and Facetime calls with the people I hold most dearly. After the quarantine, I hope to dive deeply into internships with non-profits and relevant government agencies! I also do external jobs like tutoring, freelance writing for several publications, and am currently the Director of Editing for@thelilacblog!

Amazing! So our last question would be advice. What advice do you have for teens who want to follow your footsteps? & What advice do you have for teens about life, school, friendships, self empowerment, etc?

Razel: First, join other NGOs first! My experience interning with other NGOs and our Service Learning Council definitely helped me to navigate the pitfalls we had with KnK. Second, try to be specific with your advocacy. Lauren and I started with focusing on infrastructurally damaged schools from natural disasters and moved to the broader cause of educational inequity. Third, start small and local. Before endeavoring to change the world, you should ask yourself how you can help your community and your country first. Start with school supply drives and awareness projects on social media!

Lauren: Adding on to Razel, I’d say for teens who want to start a non-profit organization, to find a cause that they are deeply passionate about, as it expedites the process when you enjoy working for a particular cause. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out- whether that be to a local school or shelter you want to help out or to other teens running similar organizations.

Razel: For general advice, believe in yourself first! In the most trying times of your NGO, only you can give yourself the enthusiasm and persistence to keep going. Prioritize your studies first as you can make the most change by learning about the problems in your society thoroughly and having the education to carry out the solutions. For friendships, prioritize quality over quantity! In high school, it may seem like people are keeping track of how many followers or friends you have but in the most difficult times, it is most helpful to have a small circle of friends who truly care about you. Prioritize yourself, and if you feel burnt out, you must take a break even if productivity needs to suffer. If you lose enthusiasm and drive, you will lose out the most in the long run! Lastly, always dream big and aim high, but have the hard work and educational experience to back it up!

Lauren: For school/personal life, surround yourself with people who genuinely care about you. Also, use your skills, talents and strengths to your advantage! Finally, don’t be afraid of failure, in and outside of the classroom, as it will allow you to discover yourself.

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