This interview with my daughter, Layla Tehranchi, was published in Authority Magazine as part of a series about young people who are making an important social impact.
I am so proud of my daughters’ work for Coco’s Angels — a Los Angeles-based non-profit raising support and awareness for foster children. I wanted to share Layla’s work and her interview with you.
Young Change Makers: Why and How Layla Tehranchi of Coco’s Angels Is Helping To Change Our World
Yitzi: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Layla: I grew up in an Iranian American household as the second of three daughters — in time, I would be the second of four once we adopted my foster sibling, Coco, in 2021. My parents were first-generation immigrants who fled a war-torn Iran, but we kept our Persian heritage alive by maintaining contact with our relatives there, and I’d spend every week on WhatsApp calls with my cousins, practicing Farsi as we played games together and built a relationship that would prove pivotal once the recent women’s revolution began. I think that this was the type of cultural community that instilled in me the values I hold today — values like inclusivity and cultural competence, sensitivity to others’ differences and a drive to help those whose life circumstances impede them from having the same opportunities I had in the states. Here, in the states, I was a free young woman, but for some of my relatives, this was not the case — a stark reality that compelled me to become more involved in advocacy efforts not only for foster youth here in the states, but for women fighting for basic rights in Iran. It’s a fight we have not won yet, a fight that I will continue to fight because I grew up being taught to never give up on a cause that you truly care for.
Y: Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
L: Growing up, my family and I volunteered at the LA Mission on a regular basis, and it was one of the most prominent memories of my childhood. I always thought I knew what to expect on the weekends we’d go down and serve food or sit with the communities the Mission served, but time and time again my eyes would be opened to a new social problem that intersected poverty and housing insecurity. I learned about problems incarcerated individuals faced after leaving prison and trying, albeit failing, to gain steady jobs. I learned about epidemics of opioids and the lack of legislation regulating those drugs. I learned about LGBTQ+ youth being kicked out of their homes, about ineffective strategies (like the cruelly named ‘street sweeps’) law enforcement led to remove encampments from Venice Beach or Skid Row. And, of course, I learned about the foster youth who aged out of the system, only to experience poverty, teenage pregnancy, drug addiction, and housing insecurity before they were 21 years of age.
The leaders and volunteers at the LA Mission took me under their wing and taught me how to look deeper into social problems and not see people as the problems they experienced. They challenged me to ask myself what we could do — together — to solve this problem, and they single-handedly had the greatest influence on inspiring me to create a movement of foster youth advocates.
They supported me when I needed help, partnered with Coco’s Angels as soon as we became a 501(c)3 organization, and taught me that when you have a support system like this, hope for a better future evolves into actionable steps to ensure those hopes are manifested in real, positive change. To them, and to any media agencies that choose to share Coco’s Angels’ stories, I want to express my utmost gratitude for helping propel Coco’s Angels to the place it is now.
Y: How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
L: I define “Making A Difference” as an actionable effort that results in real change. This change doesn’t have to be something so massive that impacts thousands; it can be a change that happens on a micro-level. I think that when we consider what we are capable of doing in order to induce change, and we think about it realistically, we can see how our collective efforts to make a difference accumulate into something far bigger. It’s like we are each other’s puzzle piece in this jigsaw of social problems that cannot be ignored. We might think our efforts are futile because they seem so small in the big scheme of things, but no puzzle is complete without each piece being placed together, in the right positions — and no puzzle piece is the same size, shape, orientation, or color. I think that’s a metaphor that I’d like to consider worthy of living by, and one example I can think of is when I began volunteering at a COVID-19 testing clinic during the pandemic. I was only 14 years old at the time and admittedly thought that what I was doing was so far from enough since I’d watched my mother, a first responder physician, struggle with the overburdened ICUs at her hospital. Still, I began to realize while inputting data for the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization’s (WHO) records, that each of our efforts, including my summer performing data entry and analyzing test results, contributed to a more meaningful way of truly “Making a Difference.”
I define “Making A Difference” as an actionable effort that results in real change. This change doesn’t have to be something so massive that impacts thousands; it can be a change that happens on a micro-level.
Y: Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
L: Coco’s Angels aims to transform foster youth’s lives by creating equitable opportunities for foster youth that do not exist, since Los Angeles county’s social welfare system is so under-resourced and has historically failed to provide essentials that these youth need. These youth are my peers — they are fellow high schoolers, they are as young as my sisters, and they represent all walks of life, yet they remain one of the most marginalized minority groups in the nation.
I want to change that, and we’ve set up foster youth tutoring programs that connects local high school students to foster youth in need of educational assistance. We’ve put on book fairs where youth received books for free, offered back-to-school drives, and orchestrated several years of holiday events to ensure that foster youth get similar chances to enjoy holidays with the help of other non-profit partners like the LA Mission. This is just the beginning of our efforts to change the world for foster youth. I am excited to reveal some of the projects I’m currently spearheading to offer foster female youth free AI classes, grow our tutoring services with the help of other organizations, and open a popup gallery documenting foster youth’s lives that will be accompanied by a published book of photographs, poetry, and prose.
Y: Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. We don’t always get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
L: One day, our social worker broke down, as she was visibly frazzled from the strain that a lack of resources had put on her and the other workers at the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS). I listened to her tell us about how this year, DCFS would not have enough funds to provide Christmas presents for the kids in the system and immediately knew that this was not okay. How could I live in such privilege, knowing that this was happening, and not do anything? My sister and I were in tears, but those tears pooled into a desire to take action, a plan of how we could fundraise through crowdsourcing in our community, and an orchestrated event that allowed us to not only fundraise what we needed, but purchase one of the top three gifts on every single child’s list in the foster care system.
When we delivered those presents from foster home to foster home in December of 2020, it was like the “Aha Moment” got even bigger — as if I was triggered to realize that we’d begun something that would not stop. It was the start of momentum, and it was a momentum that would build the more we interacted with DCFS, social workers, and partner with organizations whose missions aligned with our goals.
That holiday event catalyzed something in me personally because I began to see the faces of the same youth I’d met in their homes at community events we put on, cultivating a relationship with real people who had real needs that certainly needed to be met. These faces were driving forces behind our motivation to grow Coco’s Angels from an idea into a 501(c)3 non-profit.
Y: None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
L: From the very outset of Coco’s Angels, I had the privilege of having a mentor that worked at a private foster care agency. I would soon realize that this woman, along with her agency, embodied pure passion and heart for the children who are part of the L.A. foster care system, just as I had. It’s no surprise that being only 14 years old at the time left me with lingering feelings of doubt and uncertainty while building the infrastructure of a soon-to-be 501(c)3 non-profit, but with my mentor and her agency on my side, I never felt alone nor did I ever feel unsupported.
I remember nights during the early stages of planning our first-ever holiday event being filled with phone calls from her — phone calls where she would offer me insightful advice, tips from past experiences, and even more general guidance as to how I can widen my personal scope of impact through Coco’s Angels. Support and guidance from an individual you trust and look up to is truly priceless and cannot be replaced by a simple Google search. Learning from someone who has experienced similar obstacles that, at the time, laid ahead for me, was a gift that I would later realize was so powerful. I honestly cannot articulate how grateful I am to have met such an incredible role model who has endowed me with tools that I now carry with me each and every day I step out into the world.
Y: Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
L: A lot of people think you have to be able to donate money to solve a problem, and that’s not true. Someone could throw a million dollars into a GoFundMe, but if there’s no intention behind what is done with those funds, they may be spent on things that don’t truly address the root problem of an issue. I never want people to think that their one way of helping is to write a check. That isn’t a very human-centered perspective on how to solve any problem that involves real people.
Foster youth need mentors, they need peer tutors, and they need supportive communities. The first thing that our community can do is find time in their schedules to educate themselves about the problems facing foster youth, then find ways of volunteering their efforts to help them. It could be as simple as showing up to a Coco’s Angels’ event after registering as a volunteer, or it could be deciding to tutor a kid once or twice a week who really needs it.
The second thing that I think communities — especially youth-based communities like high schools — can do is to start a chapter of an organization (like Coco’s Angels) at their school. Leading the charge, they’ll already have our resources as we direct them how to get involved, how to lead or organize events, and what it means to create a collective effort.
Third, what politicians can and should do (with the support and encouragement of their constituents) is to pass legislation that creates programs oriented towards fostering youth’s longitudinal growth. This means passing bills that help to finance college tuition free of charge, getting grants for foster youth educational services, and increasing the budgets of social welfare systems in counties where there are extremely high rates of foster youth (like Los Angeles).
Foster youth need mentors, they need peer tutors, and they need supportive communities. The first thing that our community can do is find time in their schedules to educate themselves…
Y: Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?
1. Money doesn’t solve a problem — people do. If you don’t have the right plan that’s put in place with real people thinking about how they’ll use the funds, where those funds can best be invested, and how money can be turned into meaningful efforts, then you won’t get anywhere. I used to think that fundraising could take care of it all, but I realized once we’d raised so much money for our first holiday event that we had to think long and hard about where it could best be used. Budgeting before you fundraise is a skill I wish I’d learned several years ago, but now it’s one I feel confident about when organizing each fundraiser for an expected event.
2. Getting overwhelmed is natural and, if you don’t feel like you’re not doing enough, then you’re probably not doing enough. At first, I wanted to solve every problem that foster youth face but when you learn about the staggeringly high amount of challenges, to take them all on can weigh you down. At times, I felt overwhelmed to the point where I didn’t know where to go or what to do first, but I learned how to quell those insecurities and take it one step at a time. When you realize that stress is an expected part of any process, the stress means that you care; you learn to plan things out so that you can execute one action after another, but only one at a time.
We haven’t solved all the problems of foster youth, but we’re working on it, and when you take things apart and set yourself to doing them one at a time, then you’re that much closer to truly accomplishing a goal. Remember: to worry about something, to be stressed about something — that just means you care about it, and you’ve got to care if you want to make a real difference.
3. Lean on the people who’ve done this before. My sister and I felt we were unstoppable, and our eagerness to change the world for foster youth propelled us to accomplish so much. Time and time again, however, there were experiences where we really didn’t know what to do. How do we register our organization as a 501(c)3 and why was that important? What kinds of permits do we need to shut down a neighborhood block for an event and where do we get them? How do you cold call businesses and non-profits to establish a partnership that will be mutually beneficial?
There was so much to learn and I think that every teenager who wants to do something, whether big or small, needs to know that asking for help is one of the most valuable skills to learn. After all, if you don’t ask, the answer is no!
4. There is no rulebook for creating an impact. Your impact doesn’t have to be like Coco’s Angels. It doesn’t have to be a registered organization or a chartered school club. Your rulebook could be whatever you want it to be, as long as you’re working towards making that positive impact while considering all the costs and consequences of each decision made. I recognized this lesson when I had to pivot over and over again during the organizational process of putting together community-wide events.
Things will go wrong that you didn’t expect or were never supposed to happen. The rulebook you once thought was perfect could all crumble, and if you don’t rely on a standardized set of actions, then you can use creativity, team brainstorming, and innovation to find a way to make that impact you really want to have.
5. Don’t underestimate the power of a self-designed weekly schedule. There is so much potential in establishing parameters for times in your week to devote specifically to the organization you’re wanting to create or support. Every Sunday, spend an hour making this schedule but do it realistically. If you know you have AP Microeconomics homework that will eat away at your weeknights and practice in the afternoons, ask yourself where there is time to spend on drafting a proposal or writing emails to potential supporters.
Take advantage of downtime, but make sure you still give yourself moments in the day to recharge. Maybe spending an hour each day on this project isn’t possible, and that’s okay; make up for it on the weekend, train yourself to get up early, and learn to find joy in checklists that can help with those daily routines you’ve scheduled for your week. It will truly make all the difference, and it makes everything so much more manageable.
Y: If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
L: Whatever you think your goal is, be prepared for it to spiral into something that mirrors the effort you put in. When we started Coco’s Angels, I knew that we wanted to create events that helped foster youth get more resources. I hadn’t planned on starting a peer tutoring program, but that came about when creating a chapter at my school. I could have never foreseen the partnership we forged with Toast Masters to help teach foster youth public speaking skills, and this year I wouldn’t have foreseen the unique AI classes we aim to deliver to female foster youth to bolster their STEM learning.
Goals should not be concrete, but flexible, and if you’re willing to adapt and take advantage of a possible detour, you may realize there’s an opportunity to do so much more than you originally thought. Don’t be afraid to explore those possibilities, because it’s the possible path that can lead to an unforeseen reality.
Read the whole interview on Medium.com.
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