Hello everyone! I am Spiffy, your interplanetary journalist with a mission to inspire millions to become entrepreneurs with empathy! I just landed on Planet Earth to participate in the PRIDE month celebrations here and to catch up with amazing LGBT founders making an impact on their world. The mood’s a little different this year, but I have no doubt that Earthlings, one of my fav groups of peeps in our universe, will bounce back stronger!
Today, I am interviewing Sonia Toledo, Founder of Dignity of Children, Inc. in New York City.
SPIFFY: Such a pleasure to meet you, Sonia! I hear that you are creating waves on Planet Earth. I would love to know what challenges are you addressing on this beautiful planet of yours?
SONIA: Nice to meet you too, Spiffy! My own experience as a child inspires my work. I realized now as an adult that my most creative side is being expressed through my business. My self-confidence allows me to take risks and encourages my leadership to contribute to this world, but I was not always like this. As a child, I had low self-esteem. My sense of unworthiness arrived from my childhood, where adults did not sit to listen to who I am. What is my passion? What do I think about the world? What are my interests? What makes me sad? It was almost like children did not have emotions, and are not allowed to feel. My thoughts, ideas, or creativity did not matter. The adults around me were in their chaos and confusion that did not allow for a child to be self- expressive.
So today, it has been 13 years since the Dignity of Children has been established. The mission is creating a world where children are safe and fully self-expressed so that they could thrive. I genuinely believe that the world will be transformed through the eyes of our children. If our children can see the world today, for what it could be for them. They will do what it takes for them to make that world come true! They would do what it takes for them to reach their potential to express their superpowers. Having our kids take on ownership of the world issues today will allow our kids to grow in their power to create solutions for this world.
That is my purpose. My work is surrounded by creating an environment where adults first holistically, heal themselves to turnkey and create environments to allow children to grow in confidence and creativity as young as five years old. Children have a lot to say; all we need to do is listen.
SPIFFY: Well said, Sonia. And what motivated you to do it?
SONIA: Today, we are experiencing a deep sense of separation in racism and economic inequality. Children that look like me and come from environments of low economic backgrounds with inequitable education are not offered the opportunity to express their ideas for change with today's world issues. We need to understand that they have powers to change the world as well. They have a voice. It took me a very long time to understand my voice to speak from my truth and speak from my heart, regardless of the adversities that were around me. And most times, these adversities were very close to me. And it took a lot of courage, but it also took a lot of skill-building to understand that the stronger, and the smarter I became, the more impact I was able to create in this world. I want every child to realize that they have the power it takes to be in this world, and create the world that they desire, the world that they deserve. Unfortunately, we are giving our kids so much responsibility because our adults are still trying to figure things out and that for hundreds of years, we have not yet dealt with this racism that we are experiencing today. It is so painful. I have pain for our young people that are judged by the color of their skin.
This explosion of anger against inequality is a long time coming. Dr. Martin Lurther King had it right. We got to do more. We must create a different world. And I know our generation is fighting today. But our kids could begin developing themselves now for tomorrow's change. And I am looking in the long term. We start step by step, piece by piece. We encourage our children to have a voice in their opinions of what they think and feel. Unfortunately, even with the pain that we may endure before seeing a change for good! Our children can take responsibility to overcome all adversities and create a world that nurtures abundance and love. That is my real motivation; I believe in LOVE. I believe love is the answer. But with love comes a lot of courage. Love is complicated. I get to learn to love the people who do not love me or do not express their love for me because of the color of my skin. I get to love the people that do not have the belief in me as I have for myself. I get to express love because love is the goal.
My motivation is to teach a child as young as they can conceive an opinion that their opinion matters, that they are worthy. They have the answer to our worlds' issues; we just need to give them the opportunity.
SPIFFY: Indeed! Love is the greatest force anywhere in this universe!
So, tell me about a recent milestone by your organization, Dignity of Children. What impact does that make?
SONIA: A milestone for the Dignity of Children was reached this past week. We conducted the semi-finals of a youth entrepreneurship competition, where young people, ages 12 to 18 years old, created a business or prototype idea to tackle world issues. Three middle-school teams and three high-school teams advance to compete for a $1350 winning prize.
For the last 12 weeks, they have embarked on researching one world issue that they connected to. Some of the topics in world solutions included; police brutality, decreasing the carbon footprint, creating care kits for the needy because of coronavirus, high fashion through recyclable materials, water pollution, self-care, wellness in quarantine, and an anti-bullying mobile application!
And these are just a few of the many ideas our kids came up with. They were able to present their ideas to business owners' investors and professionals. And they presented themselves with integrity, clarity, and commitment to express their view, and their plan to create a sustainable business. We started two years ago when we designed an entrepreneur process where young people will first discover their interests in making a change in the world. Together in teams, they embarked on more in-depth learning about the issues, conducting research, and transforming that into solutions. Thereafter, they designed services or prototypes for a particular solution and conducted market research on that solution. They met with financial experts, created budgets, identified challenges, and created a presentation for 10 minutes. They were able to answer some deep, profound questions from business owners and investors to defend their solutions. The top three middle-schools and the top three-high schools moved on to the finals, which will be on June 5th. This experience was a true expression of the talents and the brilliance that our children have today. The youngest age of 12, all the way through the age of 18, the profound ideas and solutions expressed during these competitions were just astonishing. And this is just a small sample on how we create entrepreneurs.
SPIFFY: Stars aren’t just up there in the sky but are right here on Planet Earth itself, right? :) This journey must have been hard, though. Could you share an experience when you faced failure and didn't give up?
SONIA: I started Dignity of Children in 2008, with just the simple idea that training adults in the after school world will support creating environments where children are safe and fully self-express so that they could thrive. This kind of world is what I believe will transform the world. One strategy is to create and design a winning team. And I feel that is the one area that has been the most challenging, throughout these last 13 years because not everyone has an entrepreneurial mindset. We are an S-Corp, and we intend to build a team of staff that will own the shares of the corporation, so they could continue creating on the mission of this company. That is not such a secure message to convey to someone who just needs a paycheck. Prosperity comes in many different forms, and communicating that to the staff has been my mission. But it's also been my biggest challenge. It's hard to watch people not interested in their growth or expand their mindset. I know that I spend lots of time, even years trying to change a person's mindset. And it was challenging and a loss in investment. It has been difficult for me to understand how to develop others with clear boundaries and set standards, which is required.
I think that has been the biggest challenge for me, and at the same time, the biggest opportunity for professional growth. Today, I am still building my team. Forging partnerships and strategizing to spread the message about Dignity of Children has been quite a growth area for me, resulting in an expansion of my leadership.
SPIFFY: That’s reassuring to know that everyone faces failures and not just me! Especially when I take the wrong turns in the Milky Way and miss reaching my destination planets! :(
BTW, what’s something you have unexpectedly learned from someone recently?
SONIA: You know, there are many lessons learned. And those small lessons are the most priceless. A young lady in our youth entrepreneurship competition, a middle-school girl from Girls Inc., gave a presentation on self-care. Her passion for self-care is understanding that women are the greatest creators and caretakers of this world and are powerful, brilliant, and beautiful beings. Her product was to encourage and give out the message of self-love and self-care and create a growth mindset. She knew that it was vital to transforming the world.
This 12-year-old understood that when she experienced anxiety, it was because she was experiencing a lack of self-care. That was a compelling lesson for me. Because in every upset or pain in my body, there is a lesson there for me. What is there for me to do, to care for myself because the world is counting on me. A small lesson from a 12-year-old young lady reminded me that others are counting on me. So, it's my responsibility to love and care for myself.
SPIFFY: That’s such an important message and I’ll be sure to broadcast it far and wide in our universe! So, on a parting note, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
SONIA: Yeah, one more thing. It takes a lot of humility to know that we can't do this all by ourselves. I am requesting that you take a pledge to mentor a group of young people that are embarking and creating ideas that would transform the world. All of our children deserve a mentor to encourage their ideas to be realized.
Dignity of Children has designed a curriculum model to teach young people how to be change agents in this world. Our platform Ideas Empowered by Youth provides four ready-to-use PBL modules that will spark curiosity and learning in any young person. Designed for after-school programs, schoolteachers, and parents home-schooling their children, our platform invites students to cultivate critical thinking skills and develop creative solutions to community problems.
SPIFFY: Thanks for this wonderful conversation, Sonia. I always feel so energized after talking to inspiring people like you on Planet Earth. Bye!
SONIA: Thanks Spiffy, safe travels to your next planet! Goodbye!
Sonia M. Toledo founded Dignity of Children, Inc. in 2008 with the vision of creating programs that would support families holistically. She has over 25 years of experience working in the after-school field, building quality programming for students in elementary through high school during out of school time. Sonia has worked for Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA, Children’s Aid Society, Child Care Inc., and has served as the President of After School Works NY. A Doctoral of Education candidate for 2021, she has also been presenting at conferences for organizations such as the National Afterschool Association, BOOST and the New York State Network for Youth Success for more than 15 years. Dignity of Children, Inc., a certified MWBE, has served child care programs across New York City & State, and has educated adults to help them create environments for children that would make them feel emotionally safe while allowing them to develop their self-worth.