Meet the Teams Competing for the Second-Annual T-Mobile Changemaker Challenge Grand Prize of $10,000

Last year T-Mobile and the T-Mobile Foundation kicked off the second-annual Changemaker Challenge, a nationwide search for young people with big ideas about how to change the world for good. The 2019 Challenge drew an unprecedented 428 submissions from teams across the US in three categories — Technology, Education and the Environment. Judges from T-Mobile and Ashoka, a worldwide social entrepreneurship accelerator, assessed submissions based on Changemaker Quality (work put into each idea); Creativity (innovation); Commitment (devotion to seeing a project through and ensuring a lasting impact); and Connection (openness to working with others in their community). From the 428 entries, judges selected 30 winning teams, including one top winner for each category.

Next week the contest will culminate with all 30 teams attending the Changemaker Lab, a three-day immersive workshop at T-Mobile’s headquarters in Bellevue, Wash., where they will build community and share ideas. The three category winners will also pitch their ideas to T-Mobile leaders for a chance to win the grand prize — a total of $10,000 to fund their project. Learn about the issues and ambitions that fuel the category winners below!

Category: Technology
Ava, a video game by Social Cipher
From: Pomona, CA

When she was 14 years old, Vanessa Castañeda Gill was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism that leads to difficulty with social interactions. She spent years working with her mom to develop her social skills via games, music and movies, but still was fearful – and shameful – of sharing her diagnosis. Then she met the folks who she’d partner with on Social Cipher, a studio that creates video games for neurodiverse youth.

“Each of us have a different reason or passion for being on this team,” Vanessa says, “and when we bring all those passions together it creates magic, and you can see it in the quality of our game.”

Social Cipher’s first release is Ava, a game that tracks an autistic young space adventurer as she leaves the safety of her home planet to search for her missing brother. The idea behind the game is for neurodiverse youth to apply social skills in a secure and accessible space.

“We want to help these kids feel understood, seen and represented, as well as empowered to raise their own voices and be unapologetically themselves,” Vanessa says.

Applying to the Changemaker Challenge made a lot of sense for Social Cipher because, she says, T-Mobile shares a value her team is passionate about: “We want to make people feel connected to themselves and the people around them.”

Social Cipher is currently looking for ways to distribute Ava. “We want to bring this into schools and make it as accessible as possible,” Vanessa says. “That may also include mobile. And after that we want to continue making games for all kinds of needs and other forms of neurodiversity. Everyone needs to be represented — and this is just a first step.”

Category: The Environment
Youth Climate Action Coalition (YCAC)
From: Granite Bay, CA

Living in Northern California, high school juniors Kevin Malaekeh, Jake McCullough and Jack Galloway couldn’t ignore the signs of climate change. The nature lovers have witnessed some of the state’s most damaging droughts, wildfires and floods over the last few years.

“That has had a firsthand effect on us,” Kevin says, which led the trio to launch Youth Climate Action Coalition, or YCAC.

“Last year our school took in some of the victims of the Paradise Fire, one of the most devasting wildfires in California history,” Jack says. “We talked to the victims about the effects a fire like that can have on a community. This inspired us to create an environmental club at our school.”

The trio started by installing low-flow faucets across school grounds, then launched a food-scrap collection program, diverting up to 30 lbs of organic waste every week to provide compost to the school’s gardening program. These successful initiatives inspired them to go bigger with YCAC, and they’ve since helped implement another regional high school’s climate action plan and have even worked with students in Spain. YCAC currently has 60 members around the world — and counting.

“We can not only have an effect locally but globally,” Jake says. “That’s what being a Changemaker is all about, and that’s why we’re grateful T-Mobile is giving us this chance.”

Category: Education
Stories Told US
From: Parkland, FL

On February 14, 2017, a man with a gun walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, and murdered 18 people. Parkland student Carlos Rodriguez survived — but he lost two close friends that day.

“The night of the shooting my mom sat down with me and said, ‘Carlos, your story matters, and it’ll be heard throughout the country. And you need to help others find their story as well,’” he recalls. That’s when he decided to become a Changemaker.

Over the next two years, Carlos developed Stories Untold US, a social media platform that connects people who’ve experienced gun violence. The goal, he says, is “to amplify as many voices as possible, because our stories will be the catalyst for change in this country.”

Carlos has been amazed at the participation Stories Untold US has inspired.

“The most energizing part of being a Changemaker is turning other people into Changemakers, using our stories as a way to get back up and join the fight,” he says. “It’s impressive how simply sharing one story can lead to another person sharing theirs. And it’s amazing that T-Mobile wants to help young people with big ideas, start something.”

Carlos wants Stories Untold US to address more than just gun violence. “We want Stories Untold US to be a mass healing platform for everybody to find their voice and their story.”

The Second Annual Changemaker Lab is February 19-21, 2020. T-Mobile will announce the Grand Prize winner in the afternoon on Friday, February 21. Stay tuned for updates and visit to see all the other winning teams coming to the lab next week!