Shelby Kretz of Little Justice Leaders: “You are going to make mistakes”

You are going to make mistakes. Like, a lot. I have made every mistake in the book — from supporting an organization that wasn’t aligned with my mission (hello, do your research!) to sending a customer the same box twice. I’ve had customers receive boxes that are missing materials and subscribers write nasty reviews of the box […]

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You are going to make mistakes. Like, a lot. I have made every mistake in the book — from supporting an organization that wasn’t aligned with my mission (hello, do your research!) to sending a customer the same box twice. I’ve had customers receive boxes that are missing materials and subscribers write nasty reviews of the box online. I’ve missed opportunities with potential partners because I didn’t reply on time or dropped the ball completely. All of these things are bound to happen. Do your best, apologize when appropriate, learn from your mistakes, and move forward. If you give up at the first sign of a struggle, you won’t last very long. But be careful, because not all criticism means you made a mistake…

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelby Kretz.

Shelby Kretz is on a mission to help create a generation of changemakers who will dismantle oppression and fight for justice. Shelby is the founder of Little Justice Leaders subscription box. Little Justice Leaders is a monthly box that provides resources for elementary school students to learn about complex issues of social justice in a kid-friendly way. Through her work, she reaches families and educators with learning experiences rooted in social justice, helping to raise young people who are aware of the injustices in society, care about their impact on the world, and seek to become world-changers. She is an educational researcher at UCLA, and her research focuses on the connection between the (in)justice system and the education system. In addition, Shelby is the co-founder of 1girl, a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower young women through leadership development programming.

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?

Of course! I grew in a small city in Ohio with three sisters (yes, four girls!). For most of my childhood, I had a very narrow view of the world. I certainly learned my basic values from my family — compassion, kindness, love — but I did not grow up in a family that was particularly passionate about activism, justice, or even volunteering.

Throughout my schooling experience, I had few teachers who wanted to actually teach us about the complexities of the world. I can count on one hand the number of times a teacher connected our learning to current events or anything else that might be relevant or important in the world at the time.

There were moments in school, though, that caught my attention. An English teacher us read What is the What by Dave Eggers, which outlines the life of a Sudanese child refugee. He connected the book to current issues of genocide, and I remember thinking: This can’t be real. How is nobody talking about this?

Another teacher had us watch a documentary about underfunded schools in the United States. Now, I went to a public high school that was not exactly loaded with resources, but we had desks, books, and overhead lights in classrooms. This documentary showed schools that didn’t even have used books to give to students. Again, I thought: How can this be possible?

And finally, in my senior year, I had a teacher who many other teachers in the building referred to as “radical”. She spoke openly about racism, poverty, misogyny, and homophobia. Issues I had never once in my life heard discussed in a classroom.

I always had to wonder how nobody else was talking about it. But these small seeds planted a desire in me to learn more, and I started to do research on my own. I started to volunteer in local elementary schools, homeless shelters, and programs for kids with disabilities. I explored everything I could to learn more and start to understand the injustice of society.

I’m grateful for the experiences I had as a child, but my learning experiences in particular would have been much deeper and more meaningful if they had been taught by educators who connected education to real issues in the world.

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?

Little Justice Leaders is aiming to build a generation of changemakers who will dismantle oppression and fight for justice.

We want every child to have the opportunity to understand the challenges of the world and how that impacts their life.

We want every classroom to connect learning to the real world.

We want every school to create a space where young people can explore important social topics, learn about oppression and justice, and find ways to be part of the solution.

There is always an age-appropriate way to teach about social justice. Young people have a natural interest in learning about it because it actually matters to the world they live in, and they have an inherent understanding of fairness. When we connect that to their learning experiences, it harnesses their curiosity for learning, desire to help, and interest in becoming an active citizen.

Each month, a family member or educator receives a Little Justice Leaders box with all of the resources they need to teach about a certain topic. We cover topics like Anti-Racism, Environmental Sustainability, Gender Identity, Religious Diversity, Immigration, Feminism, and so much more. Kids have the chance to explore a new topic each month, make connections between justice topics, and find the areas where they are most called to make an impact.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Throughout the 2016 election cycle, many parents and educators were feeling unsettled about what messages their children might be hearing on the news, in the media, and at school.

I’d been working in schools for years, so I spent a lot of time with educators and parents. I was hearing this concern from parents and teachers over and over again — how can I talk to my kids about this? They’re hearing these negative messages, and I don’t know what to say. I don’t know enough about this topic. I don’t know how to make it appropriate for their age.

The pressing topics on the news didn’t slow down. I continued to hear this concern, and many caregivers and educators were coming to the same the solution: I don’t know what to say, so I’m not saying anything at all.

This worried me. Kids were hearing these messages whether we liked it or not. When parents and teachers go silent on topics that are so relevant, the message to kids is that the subject is taboo. And taboo subjects for kids are rife with misinformation, confusion, and fear.

I knew this needed to be fixed, for a few reasons. First, kids were getting the information either way, so educators and parents should be involved in framing the story in an age-appropriate way. Second, kids have an innate desire for fairness and helping. This was a great opportunity to get them really engaged in learning more about what really is going on in the world around them. And third, some kids didn’t have the choice to opt out of these hard conversations. When some kids have to deal with the harsh realities of racism or transphobia or Islamophobia firsthand, all kids can handle learning about it.

Most importantly: Kids grow up to be adults. Adults who become teachers, engineers, business leaders, professors, movie directors, doctors, artists, and police officers. Adults who have real influence and power and privilege. Adults who either help to maintain unjust systems of oppression or actively work to dismantle them.

I knew I had to do something to help educate and empower kids to become positive changemakers. I knew it had to be ongoing because there were so many topics to cover and the work is never done. So, I had the idea of a subscription box because it could be ongoing, it could provide all the resources adults needed, and it would be something fun that families and classrooms could look forward to each month.

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?

I actually co-founded a nonprofit organization in 2013, which paved the way for my confidence in starting Little Justice Leaders five years later.

My nonprofit, 1girl, came out of a conversation with two friends of mine in college. One of my friends grew up in Kenya, and the other grew up in India. We were in a deep conversation about our experiences as women in different parts of the world.

We started looking into what was available for girls in our community, and we were disappointed. While there was a lot of programming, none of it was focused on actual leadership skills (though many of them claimed to be teaching leadership). When you dug into the curriculum, they were actually exploring issues like body image, “girl drama,” and sex education. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, it just… wasn’t leadership.

So we reached out to a local summer camp where I’d been volunteering and asked if we could run a program for their girls. They said yes. We started talking about it, and afterschool programs started reaching out to us. Suddenly there was more interest than we could manage, and we knew that we were onto something.

We never set out to create an organization, exactly. We stumbled upon something we cared about, and we took a small action to make a difference (asking to run a program at a place where I already volunteered). Then more people needed us, so we stepped up. And eventually we filed for nonprofit status, and before we knew it, we were running an organization.

I think sometimes we just need to take one step forward. After I grew 1girl with my co-founders and eventually passed it along to others to run, I had more confidence in my ability to start an organization.

When the idea for Little Justice Leaders came to me, I had that confidence already and knew I could make it happen. I started with what I knew best — baby steps. I made an Instagram account and posted about social justice for kids. Sometimes, you need to just take a baby step and see where that takes you.

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?

Since I had co-founded a nonprofit in the past, starting a business was less intimidating. That being said, even for a first venture, you can take small steps to get started.

I always say: If we had known what we were getting into with starting a nonprofit, we never would have done it. I’m so grateful that never thought to Google: How to start a nonprofit. We would have been completely overwhelmed.

Instead, we started asking around and found simple steps to take. We first secured that spot at the summer program. Then we reached out to local educational leaders for support with putting together a curriculum.

Then, somebody told us we needed a lawyer to file the nonprofit paperwork (this was before the days when you could just file online). I remember being on the phone with a lawyer somebody recommended. He was telling us all about what we needed to do, and my co-founders and I were looking at each other completely confused. He had lost us. He finished by telling us he would need a 5,000 dollars deposit to get started.

Remember, we were college students. And not the kind of college students with money from our parents or anybody else. There was an awkward silence until my co-founder said, “okay, we’ll call you back,” and hung up. Needless to say, we did not call him back.

It felt like that door had been slammed in our face, but we kept trying. We asked everyone we knew if they had a connection to a lawyer. Eventually we found one who was willing to help us out for just 150 dollars.

Ultimately, we just kept moving forward slowly and took it step by step. We didn’t overwhelm ourselves with a list of everything we had to do. We tackled one problem at a time and asked for help with each and every step.

With Little Justice Leaders, I took the same approach. I had never started a business before, and I had no idea where to start. I started with something I knew — Instagram. I posted and found that people were interested. I learned more about social justice education. I built a simple website using a template online. I searched around until I found LegalZoom, which I used to file for my business status. I took small steps each week to move forward.

You don’t have to know how to do it, and you don’t have to do everything in perfect order. Just take a step. Any step. And keep moving forward.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I first heard about the “Flywheel Effect” in business in Jim Collin’s book Good to Great. The idea is that to start and build a sustainable business, you relentlessly push a heavy flywheel. The progress is slow, and the flywheel turns slowly and only with consistent effort. Eventually, you reach a breakthrough point where the flywheel has built enough momentum that it flies forward without nearly as much effort.

It’s hard to remember that when you’re building an organization, but I tried to keep it in mind. For my first two years in business, I worked tirelessly to create new and beautiful boxes every single month, keep the business running, and stay afloat in my Ph.D. program (did I mention I also worked full time that first year?). In my second year, I quit my full-time job (but not my full-time Ph.D. program) to work part-time and run the business.

Throughout those two years, I saw slow but consistent progress. Each month, we would add a few new subscribers. By April 2020 (our 21st monthly box), we were up to about 200 monthly subscribers. And suddenly in May, when we released our Anti-Racism box, people were taking an unprecedented interest in racial and social justice on a wider scale. In just three months, we doubled our subscribers… during a pandemic, when half of our customers (teachers) weren’t even in their classrooms.

From the outside, it might have looked like luck. We released a box about Anti-Racism literally days before the entire world started to pay real attention to issues of racial justice in the United States. Suddenly, people were sharing our boxes as something parents and teachers could do to help educate kids about these topics. Parents and caregivers were home with their kids because schools were shut down, and they were looking for things to do with little ones.

But in reality, it wasn’t luck. I had been working for almost two years to build a strong, trusted reputation in the social justice education space. I put out free valuable content on a consistent basis. When schools first shut down during Covid-19, I even sent free daily lesson plans to parents for ideas of activities to do at home with kids. All of this work ‘behind the scenes’ set us up to grow when the moment was right. And at some point, the moment will be right for your cause or your organization.

I’d heard about the flywheel effect, but seeing it in action was incredible. Seriously, keep at it. When it feels like nobody is paying attention, keep at it. Keep creating value and giving as much as you can to the cause you care about. Eventually, it will be noticed. Eventually, you’ll run into something that feels like amazing luck, and perhaps there will have been a bit of luck involved. But it will only happen because you set yourself up to be ready when it came.

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?

About a year into starting the organization, we worked with a company that promised to help us grow using Facebook ads. At that point, I’d done very little paid marketing, but I had tested out some Facebook ads. I’d invested maybe 200 dollars or so into Facebook ads on my own, and I saw pretty good results from that. This company was promising something much better. They would write amazing ads and track all the data (which that felt overwhelming for me). The best part? It was free for me. They were doing it to help out a good cause.

I was excited. Based on my experience with 200 dollars in Facebook ads, this much larger scale investment could potentially add 100 or more subscribers for me in a single month! And the company agreed that would probably happen.

Unfortunately, I did no actual research to back up that estimate. I got excited, and decided it made sense to plan to purchase way more supplies for the following month’s boxes because the orders would be rolling in, right? Right?

Not right.

The ads performed okay but not great. We brought in a handful of new subscribers — not many more than I had with my previous much smaller investment in Facebook ads.

The lesson — do you research. Mistakes are bound to happen, but some are avoidable. I let my excitement about a new exciting opportunity get in the way of reason and data. I should have investigated to learn more about what was happening with the ads, how they were tracked, and what results to expect. Don’t close your eyes to the data and numbers. Even if it feels scary — ask questions. It’s your job to understand what is going on in your business. Don’t count on other people to tell you.

I ended that month with supplies for more than 150 extra boxes that weren’t sold. For a small company, that’s a lot of inventory.

To this day, I have a stack of leftover books sitting in our storage room from that month. Lesson learned.

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?

Absolutely. Many of my most influential mentors were people who I met when I was creating 1girl. As I mentioned, we told anybody and everybody who would listen what we were doing and what we needed. We often reached out to people who were “unreachable” — highly successful individuals in our community who had no reason to respond or take an interest in us, but they did. Not every person responded, but many of them did. And those people supported us every step of the way — from finding that lawyer, to getting connected at other local colleges, to handling challenges we faced at the schools.

While most of the mentors I found were positive, I want to be clear that not all of them were. Some challenged us kindly in ways that pushed us to do even better. Those are the ones you want.

Others limited our belief of what was possible.

We decided we wanted to host an event. We told a mentor we trusted about the idea. She very nicely said: don’t even think about it. Well, she didn’t say that exactly, but she might as well have. She said events are very hard to pull off (that’s true). We would be unlikely to fill a venue. Even established nonprofits struggle with this. It would be too much time and energy. It would be too expensive. It would never work. We nodded along intently and ended with saying we understood and would think about it.

My co-founder and I walked out of that meeting and looked at each other. “So, we’re still doing it, right?” she asked before we were even out of the building. “Yeah definitely,” I said.

That mentor had great intentions and was not trying to knock us down (though she was pushing her own fears onto us). Ultimately, that event sold out, we made more money than expected, and connected with some incredible people who still support 1girl to this day. That annual event still brings in the majority of the organization’s revenue.

Still other potential mentors were less kind. Though few and far between, there were some who outright told us we would fail, we shouldn’t try, and that it was a waste of time. We listened politely and moved on, though it was hard not to feel a little defeated after meetings like that. Don’t let it stop you.

Mentors are incredible, and they have helped me so much, but don’t get stuck on the ones who might try to bring you down. Seek out the ones who lift you up (which of course doesn’t mean they don’t challenge you). The best mentors will both challenge you and hype you up. They’ll question you in private and cheer for you in public.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Mackenzie has been a Little Justice Leader for more than two years, and she recently helped us put together a Little Justice Leaders box on Disabilities. She is a seventh grader in Maryland, and she is Deaf.

Mackenzie is passionate about diversifying art, LGBTQ+ pride, racial justice, gender equality, adoption, immigration, and the Deaf community. She has three younger siblings, and two of them have heart conditions, so she is also passionate about heart conditions.

Social justice is important to Mackenzie because she believes everyone deserves equal rights and opportunities. She envisions a world where everyone is kind, open-minded, and accepting of others.

For fun, Mackenzie likes to draw, read, and listen to music. She also loves math, art, and piano. She likes learning about the environment and art. Some famous people she admires are Emma Watson, Rick Riordan (for adding so many queer and ethnically diverse characters in his books), Helen Keller, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

About her experience in Little Justice Leaders, Mackenzie says, “I like being able to be a part of a community and learning about it. I had no idea about the LBGTQ+ community until LJL taught me about it. Thanks to Little Justice Leaders, I have added more LBGTQ+ and more ethnically diverse characters in my art.”

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, the community and society can help normalize talking about complex issues with kids. We have this taboo around talking about things that matter — like racism or sexism — with kids. Why?

Educators, parents, family members, and anybody with kids in their life can start this today. Talk to them about what’s happening on the news. Talk to them about inequality and privilege. Be open and honest about what you don’t know, and what you’d like to learn. Do more research together. Make it age-appropriate, but don’t avoid the topic altogether just because it seems scary.

When we talk to young kids about big issues, they listen. They care. They want to learn more. They want to do something to help. By inviting young people to understand real issues, we are offering them to opportunity to be engaged in learning and to consider their role in society. By talking to the kids in your life about issues of social justice, you’re not just helping spread the word about important issues, but you’re planting the seeds for a future changemaker.

Breaking the stigma is the first step to normalizing social justice education. And it shouldn’t always be negative or complicated, either. Once when I was babysitting a five-year-old, she said, “girls can’t marry girls.” I said, “Yes they can, people marry who they love, so some girls marry girls, and some boys marry boys.”

“Oh,” she said.

And then kept on playing. That was it. It was that simple. The other day, my four-year-old nephew said, “I like Barbie because I like girl things.”

I said, “there are no girl things and boy things — we all just like different things. Everyone can like whatever they want.”

“Oh, yeah!” He said, as if he was remembering something he had learned before. And that was it. It was that simple, and it is in those small moments that we can re-frame their understanding and set the stage for deeper conversations in the future.

Second, anybody can advocate for local schools to integrate social justice education in their programming. Speak up and work to get your local school to adopt a social justice curriculum and to diversify their curriculum.

Finally, politicians, education activists, and policymakers can fight for a more real-world curriculum and education for kids. When the curriculum is rooted in real issues going on in the community or the world, kids are more engaged and more eager to learn. It only makes sense — we care about what seems to matter and what makes an impact we can see. This is demonstrated by the old question we’ve all heard from kids in schools: when am I ever going to use this?

A curriculum more rooted in real world issues will lead the way for curricula that involves social justice.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Take it step by step. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: start with a small step, then take the next step. You don’t have to have a business degree or be an expert on business to start one. You don’t even have to know what a profit and loss statement is, or where to source materials. You just need to have an idea, a willingness to learn, and a commitment to doing the work. Everything you can do in business has been done before. You can learn what you need to learn. Take a single step, and then another. You don’t need a flawless website, huge social media following, and perfected product to get started. Just start. Which leads me to…

Your start won’t look like someone else’s middle (or end). When I started my business, I looked to established businesses and compared myself to what they were doing. My website didn’t look as nice, my email copy was downright bad, and I had nowhere near as many followers on social media as they did. I felt like I could never live up to those other companies because they were so much better than me. The truth? They were better. They’d been in business much longer than I had, and they had improved their website, marketing, and products to a point far beyond my reach at that time. And you know what? That was okay. I was at my beginning. They were in the middle or end of their process of some of those areas. Comparing my baby company to theirs made no sense, but nobody told me that. I hate to admit how much time I spent feeling like I wasn’t good enough because I didn’t compare to those bigger, more established companies. Now? I still have a long way to go, but everything in my business is better now than it was two years ago. In two years, it will be better still. So, start. You’ll get better as you go, I promise, but don’t waste time comparing yourself to others. Get inspiration from those you admire, and then keep working on your own craft. Before you know it, you’ll be better than you ever imagined you could be. That being said…

You are going to make mistakes. Like, a lot. I have made every mistake in the book — from supporting an organization that wasn’t aligned with my mission (hello, do your research!) to sending a customer the same box twice. I’ve had customers receive boxes that are missing materials and subscribers write nasty reviews of the box online. I’ve missed opportunities with potential partners because I didn’t reply on time or dropped the ball completely. All of these things are bound to happen. Do your best, apologize when appropriate, learn from your mistakes, and move forward. If you give up at the first sign of a struggle, you won’t last very long. But be careful, because not all criticism means you made a mistake…

Some people won’t support what you’re doing. And that’s a good thing. If everyone loves what you’re doing, you aren’t taking a strong enough stance. Be honest, be bold, and be yourself. That means sharing opinions and ideas that everybody else might not agree with, and that is okay! When you’re making a difference, you’re going to have some enemies. That’s a sign that you’ve moving in the right direction. Don’t be discouraged by somebody who says they don’t support you. I had a friend who was vehemently opposed to our work with 1girl, which I never understood (and still don’t). It hurt to hear because it was something I was so passionate about. Three years later, when the organization was thriving and working with hundreds of girls every year, he apologized. He even made a donation to support our work. Some people may never come around though, and that’s okay too. I have even more enemies with Little Justice Leaders. Many people believe that social justice should not be taught in schools and that it is inappropriate to talk to kids about social justice. They tell me so — some more nicely than others. And that’s fine because I’m going to keep fighting for what I believe is right anyways. I lean on my supporters and try to ignore the haters. But stay open-minded because…

Your ideas and passions will change. You might look back and cringe on some of the things you’ve done in business. I know I have. Have your strong views, but be willing to learn from others and hear them out. We had a mentor tell us we were missing the mark with some of our curriculum in 1girl. My co-founder and I thought she was wrong. In hindsight, she was absolutely right, and we’ve changed our curriculum to align more with what she suggested years ago. Your ideas will change over time, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in big ways. It’s all part of the process of learning, especially when it comes to issues of social justice. Allow yourself grace to learn and do better when you know better. You’ll grow and learn, that’s part of life and business. It’s especially part of social impact. Don’t be so set in your views that you can’t learn and change.

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?

You have so much power. When you identify a problem, create a solution, and work at implementing it every day, you’ll be amazed what you can do. Be humble and willing to learn because changing the world is hard. You have a lot to learn from everyone around you (we all do). Seek lessons everywhere — in books, in mentors, in community members, in potential collaborators. I promise, you’ll learn so much more than you even knew you needed to learn. And then keep at it some more. You’ll get better and better at what you do over time, and that is when you can truly use your power for good.

Just start! You don’t have to start with a massive launch, you don’t have to wait until Monday, and you don’t have to have everything figured out. Just take a single step right now. What can you do in this moment to make a positive impact?

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. 🙂

Michelle Obama. She’s brilliant, interesting, and the ultimate change-maker. She’s known to fight for what she believes in and has made a positive impact for so many people in her lifetime. In a private meal with her, I’d love to ask her more about her experience in politics and social impact. I’ve strongly considered politics as a future path for my change-making journey.

After reading her memoir, I would love to hear her story first-hand and have the opportunity to learn from her expertise on the topic. She has such varied perspectives because of her different life experiences, and that would make for an incredible conversation.

How can our readers follow you online?

They can find our work at Little Justice Leaders online at:

Instagram: @LittleJusticeLeaders

Facebook: LittleJusticeLeaders

Twitter: @JusticeLeaders

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you so much!

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