Daniela Lewy- Community Leader and Youth Advocate

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Spotlight Spotlight interviews advocates, community leaders and policymakers who have dedicated their careers to improving our communities, our nation and the world.

Daniela Lewy began her career 15 years ago as an experiential educator taking K-12 students on mountaineering expeditions in Alaska, cultural exchanges in Africa, and semesters abroad in the Himalayas. She recognized that these life-changing opportunities were unjustly limited to affluent students.

In seeking programs targeting underserved youth, she taught at the Baraka School a middle school in Kenya for at-risk Baltimore City boys. She gained a technical understanding about the multi-sector challenges they faced at home when she moved to Baltimore and received her Masters of Public Health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) in 2006. Daniela soon became a faculty member at JHSPH in the Department of International Health working at the intersection of public health and education for Most Vulnerable Children (MVC) throughout the world with projects throughout Africa, Asia, and North America. She has been passionately integrating local and global communities as an instructor, advisor, Service-Learning Faculty Fellow, research manager for a 12-country consortium, and program designer for cross-cultural initiatives serving disadvantaged youth. She is currently pursuing a Doctorate of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) at Harvard Graduate School of Education in order to gain skills to actualize this vision.

Who inspired you to do the work you are doing?

Students from underserved communities are systematically disadvantaged because they lack exposure to the global community. Without opportunities to engage with the world beyond their neighborhood corner shop or rural country store, they are crippled in their academic and professional pursuits, failing to see a limitless future. Yet when these youth are taken out of their environment, they are motivated, challenged, curious, and successful. Thousands of global and domestic experiential opportunities target wealthy students, but few of these programs are available to low-income youth. As one of my students wisely said, “Without exposure, our possibilities are limited.” My former students inspire me to increase access to these powerful learning opportunities.

What is the biggest challenge facing the United States and how would you fix it?

The greatest policy challenge facing the United States lies within our education system. Education disparities across race and class divides are vast and growing. While I have spent the past decade working predominantly on global issues, I am now passionate about applying the skills I gained abroad to the American context. I believe that I can have the greatest impact in a system that I understand the most. However, I need more tools to address the issues. This is why I have decided to return to school this fall. In three years, I hope to have an answer! Where can we find out more about your work? Creating networks with diverse individuals is the most powerful tool that I use. I learn from every encounter. Therefore, if individuals are interested in my work, they should email, call, or meet with me.

What advice do you have for young people interested in your field?

  • Stay open to the possibilities and don’t pigeonhole yourself by turning away opportunities that appear unrelated to your goals. Every seemingly mundane job, new acquaintance, or challenging boss can help you to learn what you like, and more importantly, what you dislike.
  • Actively seek out mentors and role models. If you see someone doing your dream job, call them and meet for coffee. Find out how they got where they are. One coffee date leads to another.
  • Write thank-you notes after meetings.
  • Follow through on connections that are offered.
  • Remember that there are more similarities than differences between local and global issues. Look for the synergies and ways to apply lessons from one context to another.
  • Become comfortable talking about uncomfortable topics.
  • Be humble and enjoy what you do.

How do you find balance with a career as demanding as yours?

I value work as much as I value play. If I am burnt out, I am no use to anyone! Therefore, I find ways to recharge – for me it is exercise, meaningful relationships, and some very funny/entertaining friends! I also make it a point to go completely off the grid for at least one or two weeks each year – someplace far in the mountains where internet and cell phone coverage don’t exist! (It is getting harder and harder to find these places!) Additionally, because the foundation of my work is based on learning from others, I can find connections (personal and professional) wherever I go. I could be on a beach in Zanzibar or a mountain pass in the Swiss Alps and I will be chatting with the person next to me. Some of the most powerful professional opportunities have been born out of serendipitous encounters such as these! Therefore, seeing work as part of my life makes it much less stressful.

What do you when you are not saving the world?

I love nothing more than hiking, climbing, running, cross-fitting, laughing, and gallivanting with friends (new and old) in mountains around the world.

What are your comfort foods?

I could live on a diet of sushi and chocolate chip cookie dough.