On a January day, Jamie Van Leeuwen answered his phone, the service spotty. He was in East Africa with a group of 20 CU Denver students who spent two weeks during their winter break at his nonprofit, the Global Livingston Institute.
CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs, Van Leeuwen proudly said, was one of the nonprofit’s first partners. Now there are 32 academic partners. Students and faculty travel to East Africa throughout the year to engage in conversation and dialogues with communities—not to build schools or medical buildings, but to build partnerships.
Van Leeuwen says if you really want to change a community, start by listening to the people who live there. He discovered this 10 years ago when he founded the Global Livingston Institute. His mission: to educate students and community leaders on innovative approaches to international development. How? By listening, by thinking, and then, acting.
“On my first trip, I remember talking to a woman working with children in slums in East Africa,” Van Leeuwen said. “She said, ‘Africa is filled with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that have showed up with matching T-shirts to build schools and medical clinics, without really understanding the needs of the community. If you really want to impact change in Africa, come in and think with the community before you act.'”
In 10 years, the Global Livingston Institute has brought more than 2,000 community leaders, students and faculty, artists, and philanthropists to East Africa, where they develop relationships with Ugandan leaders and learn from locals to initiate thoughtful change.
Van Leeuwen’s experience is one example of how graduates of the School of Public Affairs are making a significant impact on communities through nonprofit work. To date, roughly 30 alumni hold a leadership position at local, and in Van Leeuwen’s case, international nonprofits. Their missions range from supporting and protecting the LGTBQ community to creating more equitable opportunities in education.
“The School of Public Affairs has had leading programs in nonprofit for four decades,” said the school’s dean, Paul Teske. “We are gratified that many of our MPA and PhD alums play critical roles in the nonprofit sector, both locally and globally.”
Van Leeuwen, Teske said, “is an example of an incredible nonprofit leader, who practices collaboration, evidence-based decision making, and an inspiration to new generations of mission-driven workers who want to make our world a better place.”
A key differentiating factor in the master’s program within the School of Public Affairs is the flexibility. Students have the ability to learn while working in their fields of interest, meaning they can apply their knowledge to real-life scenarios. While earning his PhD in public policy with an emphasis on affordable housing and homelessness, Van Leeuwen led the street outreach program for Urban Peak, a nonprofit for homeless youth, and explored conversations about what would become the Global Livingston Institute.
“I think that CU Denver is not risk adverse and is willing to think differently and to think bigger about how to approach international development,” Van Leeuwen said. “CU Denver really set the stage for us to take the Global Livingston Institute to another level.”
Innovative Solutions to Combat Poverty in East Africa
If you live in Denver, you may have seen Van Leeuwen’s name before. In 2006, he was appointed by then Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper to lead a homelessness initiative, and in 2014, he served as senior advisor for then Governor Hickenlooper. Through his work in local and state politics, he has helped generate more than $300 million in new resources for the public good, which included leveraging more than $50 million in resources for the homeless and preventing more than 3,500 families from becoming homeless.
During that period, Van Leeuwen was recruited to spearhead the street outreach program for Urban Peak, where he directed fundraising, legislative work, and research. He also enrolled in CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs. The structure of the master’s program “allows people to continue their professional work while enhancing their academic credentials, which is significant in terms of people’s abilities to grow in their communities,” Van Leeuwen said.
While at CU Denver, Van Leeuwen was named the inaugural fellow for the Livingston Fellowship Program, created by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation to provide learning opportunities to nonprofit leaders. His fellowship work focused on building a network in the community through Denver’s Road Home—then Mayor Hickenlooper’s ten-year plan to end homelessness that Van Leeuwen was appointed to lead—and finishing his PhD in public policy and social impact. After his first trip to Kigali, Africa, he knew what his next endeavor would be.
“I learned how important it is for us to create a seat at the table for those who don’t have a seat at the table,” he said.
With funding from the fellowship, Van Leeuwen took his first group of 18 CU Denver students to East Africa. As of 2020, thousands of people have traveled to the Global Livingston Institute to find innovative solutions to poverty.
Modeled after the Aspen Institute, the campus in rural Uganda sees more than 300 scholars and community leaders annually, has employed more than 300 East Africans, and is a collaborator in multiple research projects and workforce development initiatives throughout Uganda and Rwanda, according to Van Leeuwen. The institute hosts an annual Women’s Leadership Summit and produces one of the largest free music festivals in East Africa to promote HIV prevention, cervical cancer screening, and reproductive health services.
For the students who travel to the Global Livingston Institute, every day is different. The most recent CU Denver group started off in the slums of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, connecting with locals on urban issues. In northern Uganda, they met with former child soldiers to understand the impact of a civil war and what it means to reintegrate back into society. They spent time on a lake in rural Uganda. They learned about genocide in Kengali, home to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. They had dinner with the music producer who helped build East Africa’s largest music festival.
“We really design this to be driven by the experiences the students have every day,” Van Leeuwen said. “Ultimately, we are more interested in seeing what the students do with the experiences they have in Africa back in their own communities.”
Van Leeuwen, who currently serves as director of Youth & Community Engagement with Emerson Collective, credits CU Denver for allowing him to take risks and explore new approaches to international development. He’s not sure what the next 10 years will look like for the Global Livingston Institute, but he knows who will remain at the forefront. “The local community has to be the teacher to drive the experiences that our students have,” he said. “If you really want to change communities, it has to come from their voice.”
Other SPA Graduates Leading Nonprofits
Flexibility and peers help Elsa Holguin continue education and provide nonprofit leadership.
Elsa Holguin had her hands full raising two young daughters as a single mom and working full-time in the nonprofit sector. Because of the structure of CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs, she was able to continue her education, and it paid off.
Holguin now serves as president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, a nonprofit organization that helps make preschool possible for all Denver families through financial tuition support and access to information.
At One Colorado, Daniel Ramos helps protect and support the LGTBQ community.
In a typical day, Daniel Ramos connects with his 10-person team on issues or policies affecting Colorado’s LGBTQ community. The organization’s mission is to 1) protect the LGBTQ community and 2) help it thrive. “Especially in the Trump Administration, we see what news and policies, and any potential rollbacks, have happened that we may need to respond to,” said Ramos, adding, “At One Colorado, we want to ensure we are represented—as elected officials, educators, and workers.”
Transforming spaces to engaging places through the Downtown Denver Partnership.
Though it’s been some time since Beth Moyski attended the masters in public administration program in CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs, her connections to the program are ever-present.
“I encounter classmates through my work on a regular basis—including elected and appointed officials at the state and local levels,” said Moyski, vice president of special districts at the Downtown Denver Partnership, a nonprofit that for more than 60 years has led a bold vision to build an economically powerful center city.