Have faith in the generosity of others. Generosity was the only reason why anyone agreed to judge the Scribe Writing Contest; it was the only reason why anyone agreed to sponsor it. Whatever it is you’re trying to do, there will always be people — far more people than you think — who are willing to help you succeed without any thought of reward or compensation.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vishnu Bharathram.
Vishnu Bharathram is a high school senior at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx. He was born in New York City, and moved to New Delhi when he was four. He lived there until ninth grade, when he returned to the United States.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I was born in New York City, but when I was four my family moved to New Delhi, India, where we went on to spend the next ten years. There I attended the American Embassy School, an international school with students from every corner of the globe, from Sweden to South Africa to South Korea. We returned to New York at the start of ninth grade, where I’m currently a senior at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx. My experiences engaging with diverse, global perspectives have become foundational to the way I think and see the world, so I feel incredibly fortunate to have had them.
You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
The Scribe Writing Contest is an annual, two-hour, online creative writing contest open to all high schoolers worldwide. The first edition was held in May of 2020. A panel of seven professors of English and creative writing judged the submissions, and six nonprofit literary presses sponsored the contest with cash prizes and books for the winners. When the contest took place, we received nearly 900 submissions from 17 countries and 6 continents, including Australia, Chile, Germany, Malaysia, South Africa, and the United States. The next edition will be in May of 2021.
The long-term purpose of the contest is to help revitalize the practice of creative writing and the humanities among young people, who are increasingly turning away from such disciplines in favor of more “practical” ones. The number of English majors in American universities has halved since the 1990s; the History major has suffered a similar fate. Yet the skills imparted by the humanities — the ability to think clearly, to communicate effectively, to envision new possibilities — are not only practically “useful” but luminously fulfilling. The Scribe Writing Contest aims to reconnect students with that fulfillment.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I’ve been personally dedicated to writing for as long as I can remember, because in my mind it represents nothing less than an avenue to alternative possibilities: a reminder that there are always new potentialities, brighter potentialities, within tomorrow’s reach.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t 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?
What ultimately motivated me to organize this contest was the coronavirus pandemic. In such a moment of tragedy and uncertainty, it seemed to me that the possibilities offered by creative writing — the possibility of a refuge from “reality,” of a space to imagine and to dream — were of greater necessity than ever before.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
The first thing I did, once I had crystallized the idea for the contest, was to reach out to professors of English and creative writing nationwide to ask if they would be willing to serve as judges. I was deeply humbled — and genuinely astonished — when seven renowned professors said yes. They were all busy, important people with far better things to do than judge some high school writing contest. But their generosity and their commitment to nurturing creative talent were all the motivation they needed.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
After the contest I was emailed by a participant, a student at a Greek international school, who actually turned out to be a former classmate of mine at the American Embassy School. We hadn’t spoken in years, but this contest — of all things — allowed us to reconnect.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
I remember at one point I was trying to reach out to a potential sponsor but made a typo in the email address, which led to a very perplexed response from a man who informed me that he was not, in fact, a publisher.
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?
My family played an essential role at every step of the way. Whether I was reaching out to sponsors or raising awareness about the contest, they were unwavering in their willingness to guide and support me in every way they could. The contest truly could not have happened without them.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
When the contest came to an end, I received — to my amazement — personal letters from participants across the globe, letters which touched upon everything from their authors’ experience with the contest to their aspirations for the future. Those letters, to me, were the most powerful validation I could have hoped for of the impact of the Scribe Writing Contest.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
First, politicians — both local and national — must increase funding for the nation’s arts and humanities programs, particularly those directed toward young people. Humanities departments at schools and universities across the country have suffered unprecedented budget cuts in the last decade or so. That cannot continue.
Second, I think one of the most powerful things the “community” can do is to make sure that young people have easy and abundant access to books, whether in public libraries or in the home. I’m lucky enough to have grown up surrounded by books; much of my childhood was spent in the libraries and bookstores of New Delhi. I know from experience that being in the presence of all that information and all those possibilities can be the key to an enduring love of the written word.
Third, we need to remember that it is precisely in an age of algorithms and AI that the humanities become more relevant than ever before. If modern technology does indeed have the capacity to transform human relations, then it is only through the humanities — through a collective consideration of what it means to be human — that we will decide when and how to put that capacity into practice.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- The little things will take longer than you expect. When I started organizing the contest, I allocated my time based on the assumption that I would have to invest a lot of time in the most important tasks — identifying potential judges, communicating with sponsors, and so forth — but relatively little in the smaller ones. I was mistaken. I soon realized that I needed to reserve much of my time for tasks that I had previously imagined would entail little effort.
- Be open to feedback and criticism. People around me (my parents, for instance) were constantly offering suggestions on how I could improve what I was doing; the cumulative value of those comments, in retrospect, was enormous.
- Always keep the specific needs and preferences of your target audience in mind. In order to ensure that the Scribe Writing Contest, a two-hour contest. was available across different time zones, I decided to make it available over a two-day window. Participants could log on to the contest at any time of their choosing within that window; once they did so, a series of prompts appeared on their screen and they were given two hours to respond to one of them. I think that decision was critical to expanding the contest’s geographical reach.
- Have a plan for everything. (Well, perhaps not everything, but as much as possible.) Mapping out exactly what you want to do, and how you intend to do it, can be invaluable.
- Have faith in the generosity of others. Generosity was the only reason why anyone agreed to judge the Scribe Writing Contest; it was the only reason why anyone agreed to sponsor it. Whatever it is you’re trying to do, there will always be people — far more people than you think — who are willing to help you succeed without any thought of reward or compensation.
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?
Because to serve others, in some way or another, is a moral duty to which we all ought to aspire. Each and every one of us is a product of the kindness of our fellow-beings — of the people who raise us, of the people who educate us, of the people who inspire us. Surely we have an obligation to repay some of that generosity.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
David Attenborough. I’ve been watching his documentaries since elementary school; I remember asking for a copy of “Life in Cold Blood” (and a remote-controlled Tyrannosaurus rex) for my ninth birthday. He’s one of the most extraordinary public figures of our time: a brilliant communicator, a superb naturalist, and an unyielding defender of the millions of species which call this planet home.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find us online at scribewritingcontest.org.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!