01/23/2013 03:36 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

MLK Day of Service: Youth Speak Up on Poverty

Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Poverty is the worst form of violence."

Growing up in Calcutta (now Kolkata) India, I witnessed first-hand the many layers of truth behind Gandhi's words. For beyond the obvious physical consequences of living in want, there lurks a constant and pervasive threat to human dignity, social bonds, and basic aspirations.

In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, the real question that we must pose to ourselves each and every day is, "What are we doing for others?" My childhood years in India taught me that the concepts of giving and interfaith dialogue are essential pre-conditions for promoting development.

Ever since I attended high school, I participated in many community activities that focused on building local capacity. With fellow peers we cleaned slums and hospitals; organized night schools for working adults; and started the Calcutta Youth Club to host fundraising events for a variety of good causes. Our goal was to give back to the community and in the process, motivate people to help themselves.

In all of these service-oriented activities, we worked hand-in-hand with the local community of Hindu, Muslims and Christian leaders, regardless of our religious backgrounds and personal beliefs.
I soon realized that peace and prosperity are inextricably interlinked because without security and stability for all, no single community prospers.

This is one of the major lessons I took away from my volunteering experiences in India. I also learned that many young people have an innate desire to be helpful and to serve their community, but that this calling must be nurtured and their energy positively channeled.

This is why this week, on the occasion of Dr. King's birthday and of his commitment to service, SNV USA officially opens its Youth Speak Up on Poverty Contest. This contest is a call to action directed to middle and high school students (11 to 18 years of age) to THINK BIG and to submit their ideas on how to overcome poverty and create a more prosperous and joyful future.

SNV is an organization committed to empowering poor people. In 2011, SNV's programs have contributed to improving the lives of more than 9 million people around the world. At SNV we have realized that to end the cycle of poverty once and for all, the efforts we make today must continue tomorrow. Today's young people are part of tomorrow's solutions so we must make room for them to get involved.

I believe that engaging youth at an early age on issues of global development and interfaith dialogue will empower and energize them to address local, national and global challenges throughout their lives with a firm belief in their own unique perspectives and contributions.

After all, this is what happened to me when I was growing up in India and what has shaped my two core beliefs in life: "live and let live," and "serve others regardless of their racial, religious and socio-economic backgrounds."

In my professional journey, I have worked for the private, public and non-profit sectors. Yet what I learned as a volunteer in the slums of Calcutta has stayed with me forever and guided my work. That experience has helped me to constantly explore, challenge myself and evolve as a person.

As the idea of this contest unfolded, I reached out to global leaders and philanthropists asking them to share an inspirational message with the future generation.

Prominent global leaders have shared inspirational quotes through the SNV USA Youth Speak Up on Poverty contest including President Bill Clinton, Israeli President Shimon Peres; His Holiness the Dalai Lama; Chief Muslim Imam of India Umer Ahmed Ilyasi; Governor Tom Ridge; Grammy-award winning singer and song writer Angelique Kidjo, and American actress, singer and activist Rosario Dawson.

"Today's generation of young people holds more power than any generation before it to make a positive impact on the world," said President Bill Clinton.

These quotes are meant to inspire and engage young people from 13 to 18 years of age. We want to hear their ideas for overcoming global poverty and promoting religious and racial tolerance, which are inextricably linked to peace and prosperity. Dr. Martin Luther King never lost sight of his dream: a world where all men and women are created equal and where freedom and justice prevail.

By inviting youth to participate in this contest, SNV and its partners hope to cultivate a future generation of compassionate leaders who are committed to improving the lives of millions of people globally. Their perspective will inform policy-makers and international development professionals to re-think approaches to global issues such as trade, the environment, education, health, and agriculture.

So for MLK Day, let's encourage youth to become leaders in the fight against poverty in North America and globally. Please help us spread the word and encourage any young person you know between the ages of 11 and 18 years to read about the contest and submit their idea through the SNV USA website: Prizes include cash vouchers; autographed books signed by President Bill Clinton and his Holiness the Dalai Lama; and much more.

Youth Speak Up on Poverty!
Join the contest. Visit