The deeper implications of the rise of nonprofits in Fremont

Image provided by The Project SD.

CW: Mentions of suicide.

In 2020, The New Yorker published an article about the rise of nonprofits in Fremont, California. As a high school student residing in Fremont, and as someone who has witnessed this phenomenon firsthand, I’ve decided to write a follow-up examining the situation from a closer perspective. 

Students are propelled into the world of college preparation immediately after they begin high school. The intense pressure of this process often weighs on them, pushing them to believe that they need to do extraordinary things in order to get into their dream colleges. In Fremont, California and much of the Bay Area, the need to be extraordinary has become equivalent to starting a nonprofit organization; becoming the founder of a venture can add a lot of weight to students’ resumes.

MSJHS junior Nihar Duvvuri started his nonprofit The Project SD in July of 2020 in order to “implement 50 speech and debate programs in low income communities and neighborhoods by 2030.” Nihar began his organization as a personal project, but because of the amount of money required, he decided that it would make more sense to operate as a nonprofit. This is important because many nonprofits don’t need to operate as nonprofits, but the founders do so in order to establish their legitimacy on college applications. 

WHS juniors Jheel Gandhi and Shriya Gattapally started their nonprofit Spreading Literacy in March of 2020 after researching literacy rates in other countries and realizing how low many of them were. Gandhi says “We just wanted to make sure that everyone had the love for reading and the opportunity to develop the love for it.” Spreading Literacy chose to operate as a nonprofit because they felt it would be easier to gather support from the Fremont community than “if it was just trying to do this project, it’s a lot harder to gather support. This made it a lot easier to get others involved.”

Many students start organizations even though there are already existing, well-known organizations that do the same work and have the same mission. When asked what he thinks would add greater value to the community—starting a nonprofit or joining an existing organization, Duvvuri explains that it would be beneficial to work with the existing organization because they tend to already have the resources many nonprofits in the early stages of development need. Nihar checked to see if there were any existing organizations he could join before he started The Project SD and found the Urban Debate League, an organization that hosts workshops that students have to pay for. The Project SD’s goal is to “break down this paywall that exists” and to start speech and debate programs from the ground up, both of which Urban Debate League does not do. Because of the differences between his and Urban Debate League’s visions, Nihar decided to found his own organization.

In response to the same question, Gandhi explains that starting a chapter of another nonprofit is a better option because when many organizations have the same mission, they begin to compete, making it difficult to inspire change in their communities. Gandhi and Gattapally discovered other organizations that held the same mission—to spread literacy. They decided to start their own, however, because this cause is personal to Gandhi: her cousin was recently evicted and was unable to find work because she couldn’t read or write. 

It seems that Duvvuri, Gattapally, and Gandhi have genuine intentions. But what have their respective organizations done so far? What value have they added to their communities?

The Project SD is currently partnered with Gateway Middle School where they have introduced a speech and debate program. They support the program financially, coach students, and are working to set up a series of workshops to further students’ speech and debate knowledge. 

Spreading Literacy has raised awareness about their cause and has established six branches. The Fremont and Florida branches have both held book drives, accumulating a little over 1000 books and 250 books, respectively. They have decided to send the books they collected during the Fremont drive to India, where a contact plans to set up libraries in cultural centers.

Spreading Literacy volunteers participating in a book drive. Images provided by Jheel Gandhi.

Many teen-run nonprofits tend to mysteriously disband after the leadership team graduates from high school. Duvvuri enthusiastically contradicts this trend by explaining that he wants to stay with his organization and the speech and debate community until 2030, at the least. He believes that speech and debate is important because “You create relationships. Being social makes me happy. I like to think it makes a lot of people happy.” When asked if Spreading Literacy is a long-term project, Gandhi says “Long-term for sure. We hope to hold a book drive every year at least.” 

Commenting on the rise of nonprofits in Fremont, Duvvuri says that they incentivize and encourage people to spur change, a positive of this phenomenon. However, one of the drawbacks is short-term organizations, which he tends to be wary of because they tend to dissolve after the founders graduate from high school. Gandhi says “Some people start it during high school, and after a while, they abandon the cause. At that point, their intentions aren’t pure and they’re probably doing it to stay caught up with everyone around them.” Gandhi brings up an important point and a key factor that has contributed to the rise of these organizations: the college application rat race. 

The sharp rise in nonprofits speaks to larger issues not only in the Bay Area but worldwide. Over the past few decades, students have become more and more competitive in their college application endeavours. They have begun to internalize the idea that anything less than perfection is unacceptable. All FUSD schools are affected by these impossible standards, but MSJHS has been at the center of conversation for a long time because students’ reactions to pressure have been on the forefront of FUSD’s conversations surrounding mental health. In the summer of 2020, Ankush Swarnakar wrote an open letter to MSJHS detailing the racist atmosphere the school fostered. His letter also revealed the deteriorating mental health of many students at the school as a result of the intense pressure they felt to perform exceptionally. In response to this letter, many Bay Area schools created Instagram pages aimed at exposing the horrifying treatment students were subjected to. Much earlier, in the first decade of the 2000s, suicide clusters occurred at Gunn High School (also located in the Bay Area) and MSJHS; speculation suggests that these students were driven to such ends because of the overwhelming pressure they felt.

Who do we have to blame for these unrealistic expectations? Colleges? In the first few decades of the 1900s, all students needed to get into UC Berkeley were above average grades. The SAT was introduced in 1926, and the AP exams followed; the first batch was administered in 1956. Should we blame the College Board? Many students would love to. In 2010, nonprofits and student-run organizations began popping up. If the first teenage nonprofit founder decided not to found their organization, would students still feel overwhelmed by the pressure to perform and do exceptional things? The answer is yes. If not nonprofits, students who’ve set their sights on top-tier schools would find something else to focus their efforts on. It’s the expectations surrounding the college application process that have driven the rise in nonprofits, not the interest in founding nonprofits.

Though nonprofits often stem from a place of pressure, they do motivate students to push for change in their communities. Students have the power to help in whatever way they see the most benefit. As Duvvuri says, “That’s crazy right, that anyone can help a certain niche group of people if they want to.” 

Hopefully, in the next few years, Fremont will see the rise of a nonprofit focused on dismantling the idea that one has to do extraordinary things in order to get into college. In the following decade, it is possible that we’ll even see a wave of nonprofits run by students who don’t care about the rat race. 

We can hope, but only time will tell.

Contact Information for Spreading Literacy and The Project SD:

Spreading Literacy’s Website

Instagram: @spreadingliteracy

The Project SD’s Website

Instagram: @theprojectsd

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