We spoke with Priya Shah, who is the founder of The Simple Good. The Simple Good is a 501C3 non-profit that aims to connect the meaning of ‘good’ to empower youth to become activists through art and discussion.
Where are you from?
I’m originally from Oak Park, Illinois. I went to school at the University of Illinois and studied accounting and finance. While I was pursuing my undergrad, I had the opportunity to study abroad almost every year that I was in school, from South Africa, to Brazil, and Turkey. I think my passion for traveling and studying abroad stemmed from high school. When I was a teenager, I had an opportunity to volunteer at the Mother Theresa orphanage in India. Engaging in this international program opened up my mind about what it meant to travel outside of vacationing with family. I learned about different spaces and cultural contexts, and visiting all of these places made me curious about the world, and I discovered things I didn’t know about myself. Through these experiences, I learned about different viewpoints from my own, and I became fascinated to learn about what else I didn’t know. So, after volunteering at the orphanage, I was inspired to go into college and see what international opportunities I could take advantage of for studying abroad. I picked places that would give me culture shock, and ones that were different from each other so that I could learn and challenge myself in different ways.
How do you connect mindfulness practices in the social-emotional learning curriculum?
We try to show our kids that in order to productively lead, we need to be present and self-aware about who we are. We want them to really understand that we are all inherently born with assets that can help us and the people around us. We encourage them to be in tune with their emotions, and to understand why they feel the way they do.
The social-emotional learning component of what we do is tied to mindfulness as it is the practice of self-awareness and social awareness to improve decision making. The idea is that as you better understand yourself, you can better understand other people, and therefore make better decisions to achieve goals.
What kinds of art activities do your students engage in with The Simple Good?
Our students engage in the visual arts, such as drawing, painting, and photography, that reflect on the simple good within themselves. Each session is also paired with meditation and journaling prompts where we discuss the power of breath and how this impacts our bodies and write about what emotions we became aware of. Each program builds onto each other which leads to students creating a body of artwork that represents meaning of simple good. The program lasts up to a year or longer and we partner with schools and nonprofits in Chicago and internationally to bring our program to various communities.
How does The Simple Good emphasize the importance of community work?
Our program is centered around community impact. Our students ultimate challenge is to understand and define how their simple good can impact their community and how they plan to implement it. They present their artwork and ideas of change in front of the larger community which holds them accountable to making that impact moving forward. Graduates of our program become Simple Good Youth Ambassadors so students understand they now have the knowledge and know how to make positive change and therefore they are accountable to do so.
What are some challenges you’ve faced starting a non-profit?
I came from a corporate space prior to starting The Simple Good. One of the reasons I went from being an artist to business was because, throughout my international volunteer and study abroad experiences, I saw a large gap between the business/corporate and social sectors. They needed each other, but they did not work together because they did not speak the same language. I decided to go into business to bridge the two worlds in order to have a larger, sustainable impact in our communities – especially the ones I already served. Now that I am in the non-profit sector, I see the flawed views of non-profits which can limit the capacities for organizations to make institutional changes. Non-profits should not just be seen as ‘charity’ – it is much more than that. A non-profit exists because it is fulfilling a societal need that the government has failed to provide, thus giving nonprofits a tax break for servicing this work. Ultimately, this work is about the long-term upliftment of human-beings and should not be seen as short-term charity.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman working in the social sector?
The nonprofit sector is predominantly led by women – over 75 percent! I think part of the reason for this is that community work requires you to understand and lead with compassion and empathy for the constituents you serve which are skillsets women lead with. I also think the gender disparity also impacts how non-profits are viewed and funded/supported by the male led corporate sector – nonprofits always having to worry about being poorly funded. I don’t believe this challenge needs to exist and if we work toward more representation on both sides, both nonprofit and corporate may be able to work in an even playing field to achieve mutual goals.
What is next for The Simple Good?
Well, we started as a blog that went viral in 2012, and then we formally registered as a non-profit in 2014. Before the pandemic, we were planning on scaling into Miami and expanding programs across the country. Now, we are still seeking to achieve the same goals, but we are shifting toward virtual programming and our first Social Emotional Learning Based Coloring Book. The digital learning is more challenging than expected because many of our youth don’t have access to internet, so the reality of reach is unfortunately limited. In light of this, we decided to develop a social emotional learning-based coloring book that will be distributed to Chicago Public Schools and nonprofit partners. The hope is to provide our students with access to mental health support and ways to find simple good during this time. The book will also include meditations, journaling prompts, and artwork by artists from Chicago and around the world. We want our kids to access coping mechanisms and to find positivity during this time. The biggest message we want our students to take away is that everything needed to create change is already within us, we just have to activate that energy.
What is one important lesson you’ve learned from creating The Simple Good?
I think that when you’re really doing something that is your purpose, the world does conspire to make it happen. So, this is why I encourage people to pursue their dreams.
How do you define what it means to be powerful?
To be powerful and confident, you have to have a complete connection and understanding to who you really are and feel comfortable within that. It is so hard, for women especially, to find complete confidence and certainty about who we are when we constantly have reminders about what we’re not. I think those who are the most powerful have made peace with what they’re not, as well as what they are. This is the underlying base for us to feel that power that we have within us.