Students Rebuild Inspires Creativity, Builds Global Community for Philanthropy

Meet Leonetta Elaiho—Chief Empowerment Officer

From the time she was a young person herself—specifically, a 15-year-old camp counselor in Seattle—Leonetta Elaiho has seen the many ways that youth development harmonizes with community development. Over the course of her career, she’s played a part in shifting the field from a deficit mentality to an asset mentality. “With a deficit mentality,” she says, “You’re mitigating risk by focusing on problems. How can I reduce the risk of teen pregnancy or handgun violence in this school? When you focus on assets, you see the gifts of young people and can leverage them towards solutions. And not just solutions for them, but for the whole community.”

A group of children and their teacher/leader point to a global map together
Visualizing and mapping connections between students

Thanks to the work of many youth empowerment pioneers and practitioners, a greater number of funders and institutions have come to believe that ingenuity, drive and resilience are powerful forces of change both for individual youth and for communities. This approach is our best hope, she says, of tackling long-term challenges ranging from malnutrition to ecological disaster. “Given the opportunity and support, young people, not just adults, are going to transform lives and communities.”

👉 Find out more about the 2020 Students Rebuild Challenge, launching today!

Elaiho spent over a decade with World Vision, working on youth development practice in the U.S. and around the world, and about three years ago she became Senior Program Manager (and not the more appropriate title indicated in the heading of this article) of Students Rebuild, an enterprise of the Bezos Family Foundation, which also sponsors Early Learning Nation.

Leonetta Elaiho’s Three Steps to Successful Global Learning

Taken from her guest blog for Education Week

  1. Empower creativity. Art can radically connect the hands and hearts of students to global issues. Making art is a creative way to connect students with issues and invite them to take action.
  2. Invite contribution. And sometimes a personal invitation is all that’s needed to transform teaching and learning. For example, when educators, as partners and coaches, invite students for meaningful conversation and activities, it often results in rigorous and life-changing studies.
  3. Leverage technology. With the help of technology and media, students’ understanding of global issues is greater than ever. This expanding access provides opportunities to deepen student understanding, and to build empathy and connections in authentic ways. Virtual reality, dynamic video content, and interactive video conferencing put a more personal face to

Students Rebuild arose in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti. The original, powerful impulse was to virtually connect young people impacted by the disaster with others around the world. New Orleans-based survivors of Hurricane Katrina, which had hit five years earlier, formed a special bond with the Haitian students. “When you’ve lost everything,” Elaiho says, “It can be healing to reflect on your strengths and all the opportunities that are available to you—and, above all, to share your story.”

Elaiho joined an organization that already had a robust communications framework, with operations in all 50 states and 70 countries. Under her leadership, Students Rebuild has been focusing on depth of experience and magnitude of impact. “What type of transformative experience do we want people to have?” she asks. A growing resource library for educators and an ongoing partnership with the Global Nomads Group are enhancing the possibilities of virtual exchange.

To be clear, Students Rebuild is not an internet phenomenon. At its core, it demands participants to express themselves through physical materials. Elaiho cites humanitarian Carl Wilkens’s dictum: “When we make something with our hands, it changes the way we feel, which changes the way we think, which changes the way we act.”

👉 Podcast: ‘Talking Art’ With Students Rebuild (WVIK Quad Cities)

A Students Rebuild participant gazes at a gallery of self-portraits drawn by other participants

Combining creativity with social agency is a powerful exercise that students can carry with them for the rest of their educational journey and into their careers.

Elaiho considers herself an introvert who feels art and literature deeply. “Creative expression is generative for me – whether I am consuming it or creating it.” While she hasn’t joined the adult coloring craze, she writes and has a dedicated creative space in her home. She comes from a family of artists and is married to one, too.

Elaiho believes “creativity is a renewable resource that all young people possess. And it’s possible to harness that creativity for the collective good.” That’s regardless of whether it is made by little hands still developing their motor skills or fashioned by art students in honors classes. “The individual art making is a personal exercise; the spectacle of thousands of works together is where the collective power lies,” she reflects.

Every year, Students Rebuild issues a new “challenge” to young people globally. Last year it invited them to take creative action on behalf of ocean conservation. More than 100,000 students from 1,300 teams in 40 countries made sea creatures, and each artwork was matched with a $2 donation from the Bezos Family Foundation, raising $500,000 in total. Results included:

  • Supporting over 4,000 coastal youth with conservation training
  • 5,000 new coral planted onto reefs around Eleuthera Island in The Bahamas
  • Building a floating classroom in Bangladesh to enable children to go to school during monsoon season
Five Books That Have Had a Deep Impact on Leonetta Elaiho
  1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  2. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
  3. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  4. The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
  5. All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes—“really, everything written by Maya Angelou”

A culminating exhibit featuring student-made artwork was held in Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.

👉 Read more: Ocean-Themed Art by Students in 45 Countries on Display at Shedd Aquarium

The recently launched 2020 Challenge is notable for its ambition: writing the ‘recipe’ to end hunger. Through the Hunger Challenge Elaiho and her team are taking on the gamut of the issue, from chronic malnutrition due to conflict in places like Yemen, to food insecurity and food deserts in American communities. Students will create recipes—complete with illustration and other enhancements—either literal recipes for dishes relevant to their backgrounds, or figurative recipes for things like ‘healthy communities’. For every recipe, the Bezos Family Foundation donates $3, up to $700,000. The funding will go to 12 projects—eight domestic and four international.

Want to support Students Rebuild and the great causes it advances? Elaiho welcomes your enthusiasm but declines your donations. She considers one of the most important aspects of the organization to be the way it democratizes philanthropy, making it accessible to all. “Your financial assets or social connections don’t count here [though you can always donate directly to one of the partner organizations! –ed.]. It comes down to what you can make with your creativity and thoughtfulness.” With your own two hands.

Mark Swartz
Mark Swartz

Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. He lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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