Founded in 2014, MindLeaps is a nonprofit organization that deploys dance to support street kids and other marginalized children in locations across Africa and the Balkans. Not only did the organization receive significant attention thanks to their partnership with ballerina Misty Copeland, but the tools they use demonstrate the way that dance can be an effective means to expand the horizons of young people who face serious financial and educational obstacles in their lives. We chatted with Executive Director Rebecca Davis and International Coordinator Eugene Dushime to learn more about the organization.
On March 14, 2020, MindLeaps, a Rwanda-based dance and education organization, faced a dilemma that was at once new and startingly familiar to the team.
Eugene Dushime, the organization’s International Coordinator, explains: “When the first [Covid-19] case appeared in Rwanda it was March 14, . It was total lockdown, and the question was: how are the kids going to stay home without something to eat?”
MindLeaps works with “street kids” in Rwanda, Uganda, Guinea, and elsewhere—children whose families are unable to provide food and education for them, who have taken to living on the streets in order to source food on a daily basis. These children are among the most vulnerable populations across the continent of Africa and are typically forced to drop out of school as the demands of finding food become too great. Since its founding in 2014, MindLeaps has recruited these children to dance classes where MindLeaps teachers used a specially crafted methodology that uses dance to get these children into schools, off the streets, and with access to essential needs like food.
It’s safe to say that the staff are accustomed to thinking about how best to ensure that their students have food and shelter. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, the staff faced a new iteration of the problem. If these children were forced to stay home, how would they have food to eat if they could not come in for a meal at MindLeaps?
In response, the MindLeaps staff, from Rwanda to Uganda to Guinea and in partnership with other organizations in other locations launched a logistically complex but deeply impactful relief initiative.
In collaboration with volunteers and support staff, MindLeaps hand-delivered meals to children and families in each of the countries where they work. In Rwanda, for example, they supported 172 children and their families in Rwanda for a total of six months, bringing food deliveries that helped these individuals survive the lockdown.
But the team did not stop there. Dushime describes the academic support MindLeaps provided in Rwanda. “One of our support staff took our motorcycle, and teachers prepared [homework] exercises, depending on the level of education of these kids. And he [our support staff member] traveled and knocked door-to-door to make sure that [our children] got their exercises and took back those exercises to the MindLeaps Center to be corrected—to make sure that the kids were still on track,” said Dushime.
In other words, not only did the students receive food deliveries, but they also received their homework assignments and, later, corrections on those assignments, delivered to their door by MindLeaps support staff.
There was another challenge as well. MindLeaps works closely with many refugee populations, too. While lockdown was difficult for resident populations, refugee camps were entirely closed off, with no possibility for hand-delivering food or homework assignments. After securing donations that helped provide food for these communities, the MindLeaps then opened a “Virtual Academy” run entirely through WhatsApp.
“We’re going to go to where these kids already are online. If we said, ‘Ok, you guys need to go to Zoom school, it would have never worked,’” explained founder and Executive Director Rebecca Davis.
To do this, MindLeaps asked students to log in to a special WhatsApp group facilitated by their erstwhile dance teachers. The dance teacher in turn put dance classes on hold and taught academic classes for the children instead, ensuring that none of the children fell behind during the entire period of lockdown. Many students did not have smartphones or internet access, and the MindLeaps teams was able to provide them with both so that they could attend the Virtual Academy.
“The staff was just brilliant during Covid,” says Davis. “It really helped us understand: our mission is to protect and educate children. It’s very easy to say that our mission is dance classes and data, but actually everybody still served the mission but in a totally different way during the pandemic.”
While the pandemic relief organized by MindLeaps presented major logistical challenges, the work was in fact just a reflection of the important programming that the organization runs on a daily basis during non-pandemic years.
Since 2014, when Davis transitioned her own dance company into a nonprofit organization designed to use dance to promote education among vulnerable youth populations, MindLeaps has combined cutting-edge technology with dance instruction to help children develop leadership skills, literacy and language capacity, and resilience with the goal of getting children off the street, back into their homes, and back into schools.
In collaboration with several US-based universities, MindLeaps developed a methodology and an online app to track children’s progress in seven critical areas that support their ability to thrive in school. But progress in these areas comes directly through dance instruction. MindLeaps dance teachers undergo a rigorous training that teaches them how to use dance to boost these seven qualities in children, as well as how to use the Tracker app to monitor student progress. In the meantime, MindLeaps offers meals on-site for their students, communicates with and educates parents to support whole-family growth, and works with local teachers to facilities student entry back into the classroom.
The work has been so successful that MindLeaps now works in Rwanda, Uganda, Guinea, Mauritania, Kenya, and North Macedonia. “If you just agreed to what was in my inbox, in twenty-four hours we would be in Honduras, Jamaica, and Portugal,” laughs Davis.
But what value does dance itself bring to the program? Why does MindLeaps choose to use dance as the vehicle for change rather than other art form?
The answer, says Davis, is in the way that dance works as a social equalizer for the children the program reaches. She explains, “When we use dance as an entry point, we strip away all the criteria and all of the societal expectations of who should be allowed in this program. If we said this is an English-language program, then only kids who think they’re good at English or want to try to learn the language would sign up…When we say, ‘This is a dance class, and if you want to dance, come join,’ then there are no checkboxes. There are no criteria. There’s no ‘You’re in. You’re out.’ Then it really starts from a place of equality.” The first question we asked during our founding, Davis adds, was “What can you use at the hook that doesn’t create the inequity from the beginning?”
For Dushime, the value of dance also comes from the simple fact that it is fun. Linking dance to education creates a positive association between education and enjoyment, reshaping student perception that learning is boring or uninteresting.
While the target population for MindLeaps is based in Africa and Southern Europe, the organization is in fact registered as a nonprofit in the United States. This particular detail has been weighing on Davis as she considers the future.
In Davis’s opinion, the MindLeaps methodology has broad global application. It’s erroneous to assume that the model is only useful in certain African countries, where poverty is strikingly severe.
“If we know this tool works, and we have countries like the United States where things are falling apart,” says Davis, “then we have a moral obligation to tackle our country as well. We cannot say that we are going to go out and change other communities and not do that for our own communities. So, I think we’re really feeling that we should take on that moral obligation as an organization.”
In a time when nonprofit organizations are often competing for funding and arts institutions find that they are increasingly asked to prove their worth, MindLeaps provides an important example of the value of dance. MindLeaps demonstrates how dance can be a conduit to expand horizons for underserved children, to reinvigorate families, and to build resilience and community in places where systems have failed.
But most importantly, the future is not only bright for the organization, but it is also bright for the children and youth MindLeaps serves. As the early cohorts of MindLeaps students begin to enter adulthood, we look forward to learning how the impact of the organization ripples out into new and broader communities.