David White IV is the Mill Run Campus Pastor for UALC and founded the O2 Conference to give middle school and high school students a platform to share their ideas to create social impact in Columbus, along with the funding and support they need to realize their ideas. Their conference for 2022 is coming up, and for me personally, it’s a source of inspiration hearing the ideas of young people to create change.
Middle and high school students submit ideas for uplifting Columbus, and the selected ideas have the opportunity to pitch to the community, receive funding and mentorship to help realize these dreams and build relationships.
What is exciting is that the ideas have so much variety. One student launched a safe food pantry in her school; an idea that spread to over a dozen nearby schools. There was an idea to build a hydroponic vegetable garden to bring fresh produce to a local food desert. One student launched an app on the app store to help students focus. Another taught breathing exercises to reduce stress.
This year’s theme is “Thriving Schools” because education continues to be challenging, and many students and faculty are overwhelmed just keeping up with the basics of education. (But this is only a guideline and not a requirement).
I last spoke with David White before the pandemic in 2019, and I was really curious to hear how things have changed. One thing is clear: the pandemic has made it more difficult to form new connections in our community. Many, including myself, feel more isolated from the city around us. And that isolation has only magnified issues around us.
But what inspired me from our conversation, is how well the O2 Conference brings together people. It’s not just about students pitching their ideas: it’s about building connections and giving people an opportunity to help each other grow, listen to each other and develop understanding. The conference is a lens for the community to come together so that we can give what support we can to lift each other up.
It is easy to forget that change doesn’t need to be big to make an impact, and we don’t need to create it on our own. For students who submit their ideas and participate in the O2 Conference, they’re going to learn this first hand – but the point is that we can share in that journey and use that as inspiration for our launching our own ideas.
[00:00:11] Adam: Welcome to People Helping People, the podcast for a social entrepreneurs who want to create a greater social change in the world and be inspired by the possibilities of what they can do. I'm your host, Adam Morris. And I'm so excited to be sitting down again with David White, the Mill Run campus pastor for UALC, and founder of the O2 Conference. The O2 Conference is a conference for our middle school and high school students to pitch ideas, to create a social change receive funding and mentorship in order to realize those ideas and basically uplift our community here in Columbus. So, David welcome on the podcast.
[00:00:47] David: Thanks, Adam, you're the best. Awesome to hang out with you.
[00:00:51] Adam: It's great to be sitting down again. Can we start off, can you just tell us a little bit about the O2 conference?
[00:00:56] David: For sure. Yeah.
It's an opportunity, a platform for middle school and high school students in the Columbus area to pitch their ideas, to meet a local need. And we provide six months of mentoring and a total of $10,000 in funding through this conference in order for them to support their idea.
And our tagline is we're breathing life into Columbus, through the ideas of young people. And so it would be exciting to see these ideas launch and make a real impact in Columbus. After four years of doing this we're pretty learned and grown up in it in the process. We've learned a lot from it.
And there have been 21 different ideas that have been presented at the conference. 13 of the 21 have actually become reality, which. So much fun to watch, but what we love about the conference is that there are layer after layer of win and victory baked in for the student, for our community that supports them and for the community at large of Columbus, because we can describe all these different layers of wins, but it's not just about the idea of becoming a reality.
It's all the growth and the relationship building that happens along the way. People are interacting in ways across all parts of Columbus through this conference that otherwise would never meet. And that to me is a beautiful win in relationship building. It's actually how we came to know each other in many ways because of all the new relationships and the beautiful collaborative network that is Columbus, like I have experienced that firsthand, that people in Columbus are very collaborative and very willing to work together.
Regardless of which sector or field or expertise. I have been blown away by, by that element of Columbus.
[00:02:39] Adam: I'd love to dive into this a bit more. When we recorded last, it was 2019 in a very different world. And just over the last couple of years, I've noticed this for myself, just that it's been much more difficult to connect with the community. So when you say there are these different levels of wins, share what that looks like starting with the student.
[00:02:57] David: Sure. So when students especially in middle school, years or early high school years are getting a chance to explore new ideas in the classroom. They oftentimes have a project or an assignment or just something they want to work on the side that is just really invigorating. And then at some point the energy or the time, or the support in the classroom might run out because the semester has ended or we know our schools don't have all the money in the world.
We know that the teachers go above and beyond all the time. How will that student take a next step or explore this idea further? And so it's really fun to provide this platform that can pick up wherever that leaves off and not allow that project to get shelved or learned that persistence piece of sticking after something for longer than a one month or six month period, as oftentimes when an ID. In its formative stages. That's really the push point of when it can become something more. And we've been a platform that also helps students kind of stick with it and make that next move.
But I also love the career exploration and the self discovery process in this. If there's something that you might be passionate. You might feel like it might be a calling in life might be something that you want to pursue in college. You don't know yet. You remember back to those years where you're like, just discovering who you are.
It's wow. I A lot of us, even as adults. Um, Am I in my sweet spot yet? Do I get to work in that area? And so what a beautiful gift to give to young people to begin that exploration of like through this idea, I can try something out that might be something I'm interested in being majoring in college, or just have a career in, and then I can test those waters further.
And if the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no, that's actually very helpful as well.
[00:04:36] Adam: Yeah, you got poke in and see what you're curious about and explore that. And that opens up a lot of doors.
[00:04:42] David: Absolutely. That could be with the conference. It's very broad. Like our theme every year revolves around the concept of thrive in some way or another, because we believe from our faith perspective that God wants people to thrive and be healthy and whole. And so we're excited about being an advocate for that in many shapes and forms.
So, this year our theme is thriving schools because we have seen the challenge that schools have had to just persist in the COVID. And if we can support schools locally in any way, we love to just raise our hand and say, Hey, we'd love you guys. We support you. We see the challenge that it is to keep doing what you do. Now each year, the theme is also broad enough that any idea could be submitted as an application. So if students have a completely different off the wall idea, besides a school related concept where they are trying to support teachers or administrators, or the peer to peer relationships, where anxiety or depression or anything like that comes up, we would be happy to have any idea apply so that we might interact with it and give it some feedback.
And and see if it's fitting for the.
[00:05:47] Adam: Great. What are some examples of ideas that have come through the O2 conference?
[00:05:51] David: Yeah. There's such a broad range. A really great school-related example that happened two years ago was two students came up with the concept of an app for their phone that would allow them to stay focused on their homework assignments. They were in particular thinking about students who might struggle with ADHD or some other some other learning challenge.
And they crafted a specific app that would allow students to track their homework and their projects, and it would prompt them to keep after those things and stay. And the app eventually became known as prompt. And it's now on the apple store. So the excitement of getting to pursue that, and it's a beta form before the conference and then put it forward as an application to us that took place.
They had a chance to come and present at the conference. Colon ley, Mara did a great job of presenting it and they walked out with a solid amount of money. I forget exactly how much it was, but I think it was around $2,000 and a six month. Who actually had some skill and expertise to help them keep after it, in the process of that, they were able to go from beta to full launch and now on the app store, the apple app store.
So go to. So they ranged from that all the way to super practical needs. Like you can go to our website o2conference.org,, and you can hear the story through the video of Margaret Lee who launched the in-school food pantries and the Hilliard schools. It was an idea that started off as one food pantry in her high school, she saw a need of people not having enough food.
There was some poverty there that needed to be addressed. But the stigma. You know, Free lunch and everything else, like whatever it might be like they were, she was looking to avoid that. So what's what was a free way that anybody could just walk in and grab whatever they need and not have any stigma attached to it.
She beta tested that with her principal, which is an awesome partnership right off the
bat. Right? Yeah. And so they found some level of success in that. And then she was inspired by the conference to say, I have a bigger vision, but I need to flesh it out. And her vision began to look like, what if we did this. In middle schools and high schools all over Hilliard. Okay. That's a different scale than your own high school. That's ambitious, but she presented that at the conference and she she received I think $3,500 and won the audience award because the audience gets to participate too in a couple of different ways.
Not only do you get to vote for audience. But you get to express as an audience member, what you think the needs of our community are. You get to share that voice because O2 really in large part is a listening activity for what is going on before we just start to going spreading around solutions.
What if we actually listen for awhile? That's our stance as a church is to say what's happening out there. What do people see and hear and see and feel. And can we listen to that and then support solutions that aren't even really necessarily our solutions either. But we want to get on board and supporting people to go after that calling to meet those needs.
It's really an empowering, inspiring, that's a whole nother level of win. But Margaret's idea did eventually branch out other schools caught onto it. And I think it ended up in 17 different schools, not just the middle schools and high schools, but it went to some elementary schools.
[00:09:00] Adam: Very exciting.
[00:09:01] David: incredible. I mean, What a win for the whole city, right?
[00:09:05] Adam: Can we look at this aspect of listening? One, because I think that's a very powerful cornerstone for bringing in the community and helping address needs appropriately without just blindly trying to present solutions. Can you just expand on that a little bit about how that piece of with the O two conference.
[00:09:23] David: I can't tell you how much fun it is to work on this conference every year. I'm so inspired by it. I'm so grateful for the relationships that get built along the way. I get to listen to every single application that comes in and we have an O2 conference team that's made up of both students and adults. Here that work on this throughout the year. And every single idea application that comes in, we review it. And I always interact with the students who are applying, maybe their ideas pre idea. It's not formed enough to be at the conference, but we would love to support them to go a little farther with it. Maybe apply again the next year. But for those that become presenters. We have now put our finger on something by listening to their ideas. That needed to come out and be heard. And so the conference when they have that empowerment to share and pre COVID years, we had 250 to 275 people showing up at the conference just to listen to these ideas.
And again, it was people from all over the community. Lots of our church members, but also just gobs of other people were just like curious. And so now all these people are listening to this student's idea, collectively, and getting a chance to respond to it. Is that something that strikes a chord with them? Is that something that they should go and be a part of a being a solution for in the community? Or is it not that, but something different? The idea of walking out of the conference with a breath of fresh air for all of us is something that we believe O2 accomplish as we S we've witnessed it for four years.
And the listening and then the responding is hand-in-hand. But we, as a church, just appreciate the opportunity to listen because we already have a community garden. We already have a number of ministries that try to meet needs. But to just blindly throw money or throw resources or, relationships at more stuff, I think we've both been around enough to see that is a feudal approach.
You know what I mean? It just ends up ends up having only so much impact.
[00:11:17] Adam: Yeah.
[00:11:17] David: When, if we could actually build a better understanding of what the true need is versus like a superficial observation, it allows you to dig in more deeply, and then craft solutions that I think are more long lasting.
[00:11:29] Adam: And I've always really liked that about this. It's not just, Hey, here's some money to help support you with your idea. But one of the most powerful pieces is pairing mentors with the students who can really sit down with them help them flush that out and really understand. their problem and possible solutions.
I remember you sharing a story with me a couple of years ago about somebody who had pursued an idea, they went and listened to the community and they realized that what they were proposing wasn't going to work. It actually might cause more harm. And so they decided to walk away from their project and just being in that position where you're evaluating things and it's okay for things to not move forward because you're learning and bringing in new information.
But during that year, you're connecting with the community and really better understanding what the needs are of people. And that can spark something new.
[00:12:18] David: That is another, win that's what I was referencing earlier by personal growth. I How many students would view a putting down of their original idea as a success, right? That feels like failure on the surface. But when your idea is about unity and then you find out that this would actually create more division the way you're pursuing it, and you realize, wow, this is not the path forward to actual success.
Then you come to a different realization and a depth, right? You've matured in the process of that experience. And yes, it's I'm really grateful for, I count all of those things as enormous. Because we didn't do more damage. We do. And the, I, the idea didn't do more damage, number one, but number two, that student grew and now their ability to look to the future and try a different idea.
Like what's the different path
[00:13:06] Adam: Because that opens up more possibilities.
[00:13:08] David: Yeah, absolutely. The mentoring here is I always say the money's great, but the mentoring is absolutely. The most valuable part of what we can offer students because the people that we hand-select and safeguard and do all the good work ahead of time of training and orientation to what we're doing.
There are people that I know and trust and I have noticed a skill set in them that I think can really benefit. And the cool part is how oftentimes we pick the mentors Well, in advance of the conference. And then the ideas that come along end up being like, clutch fits like it's like, how has this happen?
Like one year we, we had a student apply with this idea to provide this music and choir training to the community, to students who maybe had less of that opportunity. And who did we have on our panel already, but a music teacher, it was like, but having every year in some capacity and I was like, man, this, those are the moments for me where I'm just praising God and going this is incredible.
[00:14:01] Adam: cool. When the right people come together
[00:14:03] David: yeah.
[00:14:04] Adam: around an idea what have you seen in terms of growth for the students that go through this how does this process transformed the students.
[00:14:12] David: I think at the forefront with just the kind of preparation we do with them before they actually come to the event, it's not super extensive and crazy, but it is oftentimes new for students.
to stand in front of a group of people and pitch their idea to somebody else and say, what do you think? And. And not only what do you think, but to be able to think critically about the questions that the panel might ask back, the panel of mentors are there to ask those questions. It's like the friendliest version of shark tank. You could ever imagine where it's in, everybody's there for you and supporting you, but they do want to ask deeper questions to help understand your idea and understand the kind of mentor who might fit you best.
And what kind of funding really is necessary to help this idea. The money is almost like it's not an indicator of how important your ideas. Some ideas just take more money than others to pull off. But the growth that happens in that preparatory phase of the excitement of their idea, and then the reality of I've been accepted to this thing that actually is going to put money in mentoring.
Like this has become real all of a sudden, like I have a real shot. If you are selected to the conference. you've won because you're going to walk away with valuable things that can help you actually pursue this idea. And so there's also, there's this excitement for it. And this passion that comes out, there's also this like gravitas to it oh, I actually need to like work on this then.
This is not theory anymore, but this is this could actually impact other people in a good way. And at what will this experience be like for me? And so there's always anticipation, right?
[00:15:44] Adam: I love that gets the ball rolling.
[00:15:45] David: It gets the ball rolling. And then.
the event itself, when you're sharing your idea with hundreds of other people, that is just a thrill.
You can see it on their faces. It's a joy for me to witness and be like, oh man, this is so cool that they're getting a chance to do this right now. And they walk out feeling so afirmed. In general whether there's a lot of work to be done on their idea, or it's a very advanced, there's not a lot of tweaks, they walk out going
what an amazing opportunity that was just to experience tonight, and then from there, once they're paired up with their mentor, the expectation really is to spend, two to four hours a month really working on this idea.
What is the amount of time that. Requires to move the idea forward, right? It's not that they're going to spend every waking hour working on this at all, because they're still students, they still got work. They've still got school. They've still got athletics or whatever other extracurriculars they have going.
This is a realistic kind of expectation. And the mentors have work in lives too. And they have families and other things. So all that takes place over a six month period and to see friendships grow through that, or expertise. Beyond just the project itself, students start to grow and mature in ways because they've been sharpened by a mentor and the mentors end up being blessed right back by of course, we learned very quickly. We know this, but we don't always live it out when we are selfless. And when we give of ourselves there's this principle in life that we see that I think is expressed really clearly in the life of Jesus. That's like when when you lose your life and give to others and you love others, um, wow.
You are blessed in return. You find your life, you lose your life, you find it. Yeah.
[00:17:16] Adam: I think that's so inspiring. Just one, if you can get that ball rolling, where, you take action on a project and dig in, there's just so much that comes from that and it develops your curiosity. It develops your understanding, develops your connections to the community and allows you to see things differently.
And it also teaches you that it's possible to take an idea and create something. I think if you learn that in high school or middle school, You've got that for the rest of your life. That's a, one of the thing I love about the O2 conference is that, for the students that have gone through this presented their ideas, worked on the project, they're going to know that's possible every step of the way in their life.
And that's going to give them the motivation to start new things, dig in with that curiosity and realize that there's support in the community to realize those dreams and ideas that they have.
[00:18:03] David: I think you and I both, as we've shared and gotten to know each other better, we both realized like moments in our lives where that happened for us and the confidence that came from that. The whole set of things that opens up more broadly in our perspective like, oh, well, if that can happen, then what else is possible?
You start to dream differently. You start to think differently. And I think for a lot of students in this moment right now, and COVID Not nearly as much feels possible, it feels like a ton of restrictions on us. And then on top of that, our time horizon, oftentimes that gets changed or shifts constantly like to think farther down the road than a week. Right now, it feels hard for adults. It feels hard for everybody.
[00:18:43] Adam: It's like, how is the world going to be different a month from now? We don't know. Whereas in past years you can guess what a month was going to be like. But there's just so much change that's happening. And we all know it. We all realize that we've all been through this, pandemic together and it's affected us.
But I don't think we realize how challenging it is to really adapt to that uncertainty. So it's been a time of great change we've learned and we've grown a lot from that, but I don't think collectively we've all settled on, Hey, here's the new normal where we are now. And I think that's exciting for the O2 conference this year, at a point where students are burnt out in the schools but it's an opportunity to really break through and say, Hey, here's, what's possible. Even in the midst of these interesting times.
[00:19:26] David: Yeah. Maybe the O2 Confernce could be a breath of fresh air for a student to get out of a rut to open back up to possibilities. That certainly would be our hope. For students everywhere, all over the Columbus area. It also might be one of those things with this particular topic of thriving schools, where they notice something that's holding a whole bunch of students back holding their peers back or holding administrators or teachers back.
Just in general, we've seen a lot of toxicity in relationships recently where people are not advocating for each other as much. They're really. I dunno, these hard times can turn us inward on ourselves and make us really self preservation as versus loving our neighbor and looking out for each other.
Maybe if there's something they noticed that needs to be altered or changed what is that idea? What is that problem that need, and then the conference can help them get after a solution that really could impact their whole school. Or just a group of friends. Like it doesn't the scale.
The scale is important, both ways, right? The small scale, this large scale, it doesn't have to be an idea that changes the entire world.
I really do feel like a lot of changing the world is about the smallest things and those things tend to add up.
[00:20:31] Adam: If you get a group of students really reflecting on how they can create change in their school this year, that impact. It's going to magnify it just because their peers will see what's happening. And it will spur a lot of new ideas.
[00:20:45] David: Yeah, we need some hope like that right now, right? Yeah.
If the cameras can inject a little bit of hope into that conversation, that'd be great. And, we're flexible in that regard. And so if we need to, if we need to change our timeline of when we do the conference or how often we do it we're interested.
This has been so fruitful. We're interested in how other parts of Columbus might want to grab onto this. If there's a north O2 conference we're in Hilliard UA, but we have had people from all over Columbus apply. It really has been pretty broad. But maybe there's another one of these that meets for young adults, or maybe it's on the, more of a farther east side version of this, we can share what we've learned with other people who want to put something like this on it's an idea that we're playing with. We're trying to determine what's next. And if none of that unfolds, then that could be the right move to, but that's the, some of the things we're enjoying thinking through.
[00:21:38] Adam: What would you love to see the O2 conference become?
[00:21:41] David: Yeah. I love the inspiration that it brings and the relationships that get formed through it. And so if we just continued to do one conference, which would be fantastic, I would love for that network to grow for more and more people to be aware of this opportunity so that lots of students have access to it. Again, the primary applications so far have been from our local geographic area. But I think a lot of the students who could benefit the most from this probably don't yet know that it exists. So I would love for more students in maybe underserved populations to have a chance at this conference cause I think all their ideas are valuable and I want to hear them. I want to know what they are. I want to advocate for them as people. Originally we actually started with sixth grade all the way through young adult. That was our original concept. And again, this is how ideas work, right? Like you have to test them. And we learned in general that having all of that in one conference, the young adults, weren't really thrilled about you know, competing quote unquote.
Middle-schoolers, it's not a competition to begin with, but it felt that way, right? It didn't attract the right group. And so I'd be fascinated by a young adult version of this. That just was a standalone version. I think there's so many young adults in Columbus that are playing with ideas that could really make an impact and meet needs in Columbus.
And the social enterprise community around here is amazing.
Shout out to all those people doing that kind of work around here. We could go through the whole list that you and I both know and appreciate, from social ventures to see change, to give back hack to everybody.
[00:23:12] Adam: there is so much going on. And I think one of the most powerful things is getting more people tapped into that. And so they realize what's here and what they can do because. Everybody has all these great ideas and these experiences working with different communities. And the more that we share those, the more that we collectively learn, we become aware about what's going on in our community.
And when we know that something's happening, then we can take action and do something about it.
[00:23:37] David: Yeah, so you say what's next for the O2 Conference, I think is something that might be already built into who we are. Is can we just keep living into it is we recognize now that we're part of a bigger ecosystem of ideas that are happening in Columbus. If they were launched, that could make it real impact. And so I think if that ecosystem could continue to be built up so that there's a progression from middle school to high school, to adulthood and people wanting to keep investing in Columbus. Wouldn't That be a beautiful thing over time? That'd be. And
[00:24:09] Adam: That brings us together.
[00:24:10] David: Yeah. So that's an exciting thing to play a piece in, it's a small little piece, but it's a fun one to be a part of.
[00:24:16] Adam: How do people find out about the conference? How do they apply?
[00:24:19] David: Yeah. Yeah. Please go check out, o2conference.org and you can learn all about what it is and read past stories of past students. You can see all the past conferences and the students that have gone through it and get a flavor for what it's been like. And then I would encourage people to think broadly and think of their own stuff, right?
Just because what's happened. Doesn't mean that's what your idea needs to be. And so think about the needs that you see in your area. And where your specific gifts and passions might come into intersection with that need and begin to form an idea. Or if you've been working on an idea go click the apply button. And either way that apply form will start to help you consolidate your ideas into one place and you can actually save your work. As you go along, you don't have to apply all at once.
It's a fairly simple application, right? We don't wanna make it burdensome, but we do want to understand your idea when we review it as a team. And then and then from there February 6th is the actual deadline to apply this year. March 6th is the event Sunday, March 6th at 4:02 PM.
We're done, right around dinner time. So you can go have a great dinner after the event and make a fun evening out of it, so to speak. But anybody who's interested in attending the same website. We'll allow you to eventually buy tickets.
We're not putting those up for sale until a little bit closer to the event, but we'd love to have people come out, listen to the ideas, be inspired by them and also share their voice at the event for what they see the needs are of this community.
[00:25:51] Adam: Thanks so much for sharing. I love it if it's breathing life into Columbus, through the ideas of young people I always find it something that inspires me and breathes life into my own heart and soul for what's going on. So thank you so much.
[00:26:03] David: Thank you, Adam. It's always just a great time to hang out. Thank you.