At the start of his high school graduation semester, 16-year-old Arush Mehrotra juggles distance learning, applies to colleges, and starts a nonprofit social justice organization.
He said he wasn’t one to sit still.
Before Mehrotra graduates next year, he wants to lay a foundation for the OC Justice Project so that its effects can continue after his death.
He started the project at Irvine University High School in January to create a platform for teens like him to practice activism on the issues they are passionate about in their community. However, the germ of the project began in his first year listening to a podcast about the bail called “Ted Radio Hour”.
It put him on a rabbit hole of research that sparked his interest in social justice and led him to write for Los Angeles Times High School Insider Op-Eds and become involved in his own school newspaper, Sword & Shield.
“Our mission is to inspire my generation, the younger generation, to deal with the problems that threaten democratic ideals,” said Mehrotra.
Mehrotra turned to Krishna Khawani to participate in the project. The two had met during mock trials and debates discussing policing and drug reforms. However, it proved difficult to start a school club at University High if you wanted to stay home.
Instead, they turned the OC Justice Project into a nonprofit through an incubation program at Irvine LIGHTS and decided to start school clubs for the next school year.
Khawani, the 16-year-old finance director for nonprofits, said it is easier to raise funds when he is registered under 501 (c) (3) and does not have to deal with school club guidelines.
Mehrotra scanned other schools’ club lists to look for like-minded groups and held out her hand. That’s how he found Noah Kim, the nonprofit’s director of operations.
Kim, a 17-year-old student at Portola High, founded a club called Wrongfully Accused to raise awareness of the false beliefs of people who were innocent or who received unfair sentences.
“Overall, I think it’s really amazing what Arush has done with OC Justice Projects,” said Kim. “My club, which I started last year, didn’t have many members – five to seven members. But Arush spread [the nonprofit] to several school districts. “
The OC Justice Project has five board members and chapter presidents at seven Irvine and Tustin high schools – University, Woodbridge, Irvine, Portola, Northwood, Arnold O. Beckman, and Foothill. They plan to expand charitable chapters to schools in Santa Ana and Mission Viejo.
To date, the nonprofit has 41 members, but Mehrotra said it is sure to grow as chapter presidents have just started club clubs in schools this week.
Together, the core members have set up a bank account, website and social media.
Arush Mehrotra is in the Irvine Civic Center.
(Don Leach / employee photographer)
The organization has three main goals: raising awareness of specific social justice issues, raising funds to support the local community, and political outreach.
“We don’t specify exactly what social justice issue we want to address,” said Khawani. “We want to leave it to our members to follow their own passions and what they consider important to themselves, and to give them the platform and opportunity to address these issues.”
During the spring and summer protests, members took an interest in the Black Lives Matter movement.
In June, the nonprofit hosted a Zoom Roundtable that focused on the movement. The aim was to learn something about movement and to talk about lived experiences. It lasted almost three hours and around 30 local students took part in the discussion.
Later, one of the board members designed a Black Lives Matter themed T-shirt to sell all profits and donate to the Youth Justice Coalition, which is working to resolve the school-prison pipeline. They raised $ 700 and shipped the shirts to people in Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Rancho Santa Margarita, Santa Ana, and Fullerton.
Mehrotra said the next fundraiser they plan will benefit people recently released from California jails.
To get more involved in local politics, the nonprofit is hosting a virtual town hall on September 19 with Irvine councilor Farrah Khan, who is running for mayor.
Part of the political awareness aspect of the nonprofit is also to publish student-written articles in the media, compile a comprehensive guide for voters on state and OC elections, and start a podcast that focuses on conversations with local community leaders.
This year’s civil rights and health climate was the focus of the organization.
“The Black Lives Matter movement definitely helped get the spark that allowed our organization to do even more. And it was especially helpful because we were all virtual and still able to do all these different things, ”Mehrotra said. “It helped attract people to our organization because they started hearing about these issues.”
It is no surprise to his family that Mehrotra founded the non-profit organization as it is politically active. His older sister developed a startup called JusticeText, a video management tool that allows defense lawyers to easily process their video evidence.
Mehrotra has a lot to do. He completes a list of the universities to which he would like to apply. So far it’s been a mix of UCs and his dream school, Columbia University.
“I don’t see an OC Justice Project going anywhere after I leave college. Because I think there is such a strong, passionate group of individuals out there – many of them are newbies. It will definitely go on, ”he said.
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