From the start, we here at the Obama Foundation have worked to build a diverse network of emerging leaders, in our hometown of Chicago and around the world, because we believe that real change happens when ordinary people come together to make a difference.
On President Obama’s 60th birthday, get to know 60 changemakers in our network who are paving the way for a brighter future—and if you can, pitch in $6 or $60 to support their work and help turn their hope into meaningful action.
John Leong, Kupu
John Leong’s organization, Kupu Opens in a new tab, has a two-fold mission: to preserve Hawaiian land while empowering local youth. John spends his days providing hands-on training in conservation, sustainability, and environmental education for young adults. He is dedicated to fostering the next generation of environmental and cultural stewards.
Ciara Byrne, Green Our Planet
For organizations committed to fighting the climate crisis, the need is urgent and the time is now. Their work can’t wait, not even during a global pandemic. So when COVID-19 hit, Ciara’s team at Green Our Planet Opens in a new tab teamed up with fellow Obama Leader Joseph Kunkel to collaborate. Together they worked with Apache, Navajo, Pueblo, White, and Hispanic teachers in 10 schools across New Mexico to reach two goals: implement a hydroponic program at the schools and design a culturally-responsive stem curriculum that would give students the passion and skills to become planet advocates.
Hong Hoang, CHANGE
In Vietnam, Hong Hoang mobilizes youth leaders and community groups to address her community’s most critical issues: climate change, air pollution, plastic waste, and wildlife trade. After becoming the first Vietnamese person to ever visit Antarctica, she is committed to educating and organizing young leaders to create a greener world.
Julian Aguon, Blue Ocean Law
Born and raised in Guam, Julian Aguon started Blue Ocean Law Opens in a new tab grounded in the central Chamorro value of reciprocity. Through his legal work, he is doing his part to defend vulnerable communities from pressing issues in the Pacfic region. He is dedicated to protecting indigenous rights and environmental justice.
Elsa Bernadotte, Karma
With one third of all food produced globally going to waste, Elsa knew she had to come up with a creative solution to help the planet. She co-founded the app Karma Opens in a new tab to educate people around the world about food waste and its consequences. Since the app’s launch, over 700,000 users have saved 1,200 tons of food, saved over 4 million meals, and saved oved 1,800 tons of carbon dioxide.
Greseë Koca, Keep It Green
In Obiliq, Kosovo’s most polluted city, Gresë is empowering local youth as change agents and environmental activists. As one of her initiatives at Keep It Green Opens in a new tab, Gresë worked with community stakeholders to aid the passage of Kosovo’s first environmental law.
Juan Carlos Monterrey Gómez, Ministry of Environment of the Republic of Panama
As a climate change specialist in Panama, Juan works on international maritime emissions and sea level rise adaptation. Whether it’s drafting, implementing, or monitoring climate change policies, he spends his time empowering youth, indigenous, and rural communities, who are typically excluded from policy decisions. Currently he’s helping coordinate the Climate Ambition Agenda for AILAC—a group of eight Latin American countries responding to the global climate crisis. Learn more about Juan here Opens in a new tab.
Collins Dadzie, USAID
Under USAID’s West Africa Energy Program Opens in a new tab, Collins is strengthening the enabling environment for utility-scale renewable energy projects, which include wind and solar power. His work is helping Ghana optimize its energy delivery, while making the energy sector greener and promoting sustainable economic growth.
Swietenia Puspa Lestari, Divers Clean Action
Swietenia is the Executive Director of Divers Clean Action Opens in a new tab, a youth-led organization based in Indonesia that focuses on marine debris cleanup. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Divers Clean Action started researching the rise in waste and developing strategies to combat it. They are promoting sustainability by providing healthcare workers with reusable mobile phone cases that can safely be disinfected, urging the public to wear reusable masks and sharing resources to keep them clean, and providing hand soap in bulk to reduce waste.
Rashvin Pal Singh, Biji-biji Initiative
With sustainability at the heart of his work, Rashvin helps create action through innovative problem-solving technology tools. The idea is to not only come up with great ideas, but to share them with others. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Malaysia, Rashvin Pal Singh and his team at Biji-biji Opens in a new tab started making face shields for frontline workers. Creating designs with 3D printers and laser cutters, Rashvin’s team shared the face shield designs with others across the country.
Christian Vanizette, Makesense.org
Although based in France, Makesense.org Opens in a new tab is an international organization that focuses on how social entrepreneurs can use technology to solve social and environmental issues. In 2020 when COVID-19 began to spread, the entire focus of his organization shifted Opens in a new tab to a virtual community organizing format, and they quickly developed a platform to share best practices around the COVID-19 response to communities across the world.
Sanae Ogino, Mayors for Peace
As a native of Hiroshima, Japan, Sanae is pushing for peace, with a message of caution. Because there are more than 13,000 nuclear weapons that still exist in the world, she is committed to achieving world peace through nuclear abolition. Sane believes that sharing the messages of atomic bomb survivors will assist in raising awareness and is critical in healing.
Pastor Tracey G. Lee, Chicago Activist, Pastor, Target Area
During the summer of 2020, we spent a month following Pastor Tracey Lee and captured photos of her as the Target Area team responded to ten shootings, seven of which happened in just 24 hours. During our time together, we witnessed the faith, love, and unyielding hope this young Black woman brought to her community in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood as she worked to make our city safer.
William Calloway, Chicago Activist, Christianaire
Many Chicago residents, including Will Calloway, are all too familiar with the pain gun violence causes. As Will saw more and more lives cut short, he was inspired to take action, joining a long legacy of resilience and activism in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago. The young activist founded the faith-based nonprofit Christianaire Opens in a new tab and has become a violence interrupter, dedicating his life to mediating violence and creating a safer and healthier Chicago.
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, Alero Thompson, Isabella Akinseye, Nkemdilim Uwaje Begho, Titi Ogunrinde Medunoye, and Lanre Oniyitan, Obama Leaders
When we designed our first international leadership program, Leaders Africa, in 2018, our hope was to unite leaders across countries in the world’s fastest growing region, so they could support each other, guide each other, and build skills that would help them deliver social change. Last summer, when protests gripped Nigeria over the conduct of its Special Anti-Robbery Squads (SARS), we’ve seen those hopes realized as six of our Nigerian leaders came together to protest police brutality and corruption in their communities, while calling to #EndSARS.
Christopher Lemark, Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health
While making a name for himself as a rapper and performer on the South Side of Chicago, Christopher LeMark was also fighting his own invisible battle with severe depression. After getting the help he needed, he came to audiences with a new purpose: to normalize therapy and mental health conversations. His organization, Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health, Opens in a new tab is shattering stigmas surrounding mental health care, with a specific focus on Black and Brown communities.
Joseph Kunkel, Mass Design Group, Sustainable Native Communities
Joseph Kunkel has spent his career studying how architecture can reflect and honor a community—or do it harm. He is passionate about exploring the role architecture plays in building sustainable, inclusive, and forward-thinking communities for Indigenous people. Through his work at both MASS Design Group Opens in a new tab and Sustainable Native Communities, Opens in a new tab he has also seen firsthand how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Indian Country, and shown how architecture can help prevent the virus from spreading further. Opens in a new tab
Michael Sunbola, Lagos Food Bank
In Lagos, Nigeria, Michael is working to ensure his community has access to nutritious food. He can remember what it felt like going to school on an empty stomach—inspiring him to work tirelessly so that other children in his community don’t encounter the same obstacles. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Michael continues to feed his community through the Lagos Food Bank. Opens in a new tab
Wael Habbal, Syrian and Greek Youth Forum
When Wael Habbal arrived in Greece from Syria in 2015, he had to overcome tremendous obstacles, including healing from his own trauma, transitioning to a new home, and mastering a new language. But through helping others, he felt human again. That’s what led him to launch the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum Opens in a new tab, an organization that provides pathways to employment, community-building activities, and beyond for refugees.
Kealoha Fox, AlohaCare
After serving Native Hawaiians who were experiencing homelessness and supporting immigrants’ transitions into a new life, Kealoha saw gaps in access to health care for people in her community. Through her work at AlohaCare, Opens in a new tab she is addressing food security, increasing housing stability, and improving pregnancy health.
Sofia Kouvelaki, The Home Project
After witnessing the refugee crisis in Greece firsthand, Sofia launched The HOME Project Opens in a new tab to provide dignified support and care for unaccompanied children whose families and lives have been wrecked by war and persecution. Through her work in Athens, Sofia helps empower young refugees to grow into active citizens and feel like they belong.
Anton Seals, JR., Grow Greater Englewood
As the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates issues like food insecurity, leaders like Anton Seals, Jr. had to get creative in how to best serve their community. Leveraging the power of farming, community gardens, and information sharing, Anton and his team at Grow Greater Englewood Opens in a new tab aren’t just shining a light on food insecurity—they are addressing it head on.
Dissa Ahdanisa, Fingertalk
When Dissa was 10-years-old, she met a deaf person for the very first time. She was intrigued by the way the person used sign language to communicate, and decided to do her part to help others connect with the deaf community. Years later, she started Fingertalk Opens in a new tab, a social enterprise with the mission of providing employment opportunities for deaf people in Indonesia.
Richard Kachungu, Young Emerging Farmers Initiative
After being inspired by his father’s farming skills growing up in Zambia, Richard wanted other young people to see the opportunities within the industry. At the Young Emerging Farmers Initiative Opens in a new tab, he is doing just that. Through different programs, Richard’s organization is teaching young people how to conserve natural resources, while increasing food productivity, improving nutrition, and increasing household income.
Bhavagaya “Bea” Bakshi, C the Signs
Bhavagaya believes that every patient, anywhere in the world, has the right to survive cancer. That’s why she developed C the Signs, a platform that is helping doctors detect cancer earlier. Health care professionals in the UK’s National Health Service use C the Signs’ screening tool during a patient’s first visit to identify which tumors and cancers they may be at risk of, and what tests or referrals their patient might need next.
Ibraheem Alinur, City Health Tech
As the founder of City Health Tech Opens in a new tab, a startup focused on improving community health and preventing the spread of disease in communities that have suffered from long term underinvestment, Ibraheem has been hard at work responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ibraheem piloted his hand washing device at essential workplaces, with the automated device triggering a series of animations that encourage better and longer hand washing times.
Gigih Septianto, WeCare.id
When COVID-19 swept through Indonesia, Gigih and his team at WeCare.id Opens in a new tab focused their efforts on supporting medical workers and hospitals by turning their office into a warehouse where they organized food and medical supplies before delivering them to hospitals in their community.
Maïmonatou “Mai” Mar, Gribouilli
In France, Mai is giving nannies of color a voice through her organization Gribouilli. Opens in a new tab As the first vocational organization to support and empower women working as nannies in France, Gribouilli has built a network of more than 700 women and has established partnerships with organizations in her community. Recently, Mai sat down with French activist Assa Traoré to discuss their like-minded social justice work for people of color in France.
Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin, Anti-Racist Forum
Through her work at the Anti-Racist Forum Opens in a new tab, Amiirah is helping develop a national hate crime reporting platform to ensure incidents of abuse are being properly recorded. As someone who came to Europe as a young adult, she is especially proud to be able to provide mentorship and jobs for racial minorities.
Wandile Mthiyane, Ubuntu Design Group and Anti-Racist Hotdog Stand
When Wandile was denied service at a local beachfront restaurant in South Africa because of the color of his skin last summer, he decided to respond with a protest of his own. He called it #AntiRacistHotdog. Opens in a new tab As a young architect who grew up in post-apartheid South Africa, Wandile believes that if architecture can segregate and oppress, then it can also liberate and enable opportunities for all. That belief is the foundation of his organization, the Ubuntu Design Group. Opens in a new tab
Harry Grammer, New Earth
In a nation with the world’s largest prison population, Los Angeles County has the highest rate of youth incarceration and probation, and a recidivism rate of 69 percent. To address the issue, Harry founded New Earth Opens in a new tab, an organization that runs a mentor-based arts, academic, vocational training, and counseling programs at Los Angeles County juvenile halls, youth detention camps, and group homes. The organization also runs a joint charter high school that supports youth after their release from detention.
Skye Riggs and Tim Middlemiss, Ripple
After meeting in the Obama Foundation’s Leaders Asia-Pacific program, Australian changemakers Skye Riggs and Tim Middlemiss joined forces to launch Ripple Opens in a new tab—an organization that is helping young people from every corner of Australia get involved in civic life. Combining Skye and Tim’s networks, Ripple now serves a community of over 10,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 25 in Australia, giving them the support they need to take action and build thriving communities.
Rodney “Hot Rod” Washington, Briana “Bri” Smith, Ashley Nicole, and Evanescia “Eviethecool” Thompson, Powers for Good
When the COVID-19 pandemic thrust people around the world into ongoing uncertainty, President Obama shared words of encouragement with a group of Chicago organizers Opens in a new tab who were working tirelessly to support their neighbors. After President Obama urged the group to come together to create an even bigger impact, Rodney “Hot Rod” Washington, Briana “Bri” Smith, Ashley Nicole, and Evanescia “EvieTheCool” Thompson took his words to heart. Together they formed Powers for Good, an initiative where they use their talents, resources, and passions to strengthen their neighborhoods.
Consuela Hendricks and Angela Lin, People Matter
After meeting as community organizers in Chicago’s Chinatown, Consuela and Angela founded People Matter Opens in a new tab to empower, educate, and care for people in their communities. From offering language classes for folks who don’t speak English fluently to building Black and Chinese solidarity, these young women are fighting against racism and xenophobia in a hyperlocal way.
Nika Kovač, The Research Institute of 8th March
Nika is passionate about building solidarity through storytelling, and as the director of The Research Institute of 8th March, she is tackling gender and economic inequalities across Slovenia by coordinating national campaigns. She’s recently expanded into advocating for clean water for all and addressing other issues women in her community face.
Mika Yakushi, Rebit
As a transgender man in Japan, Mika understands the path to becoming who you’re meant to be isn’t always easy. It’s especially hard for those who do not have strong support systems around them. After seeking treatment for depression and suicidal thoughts, Mika dedicated his life to making sure that no child or adult ever feels as lonely as he did.
Vanessa Paranjothy, Freedom Cups
By providing women in underserved communities with menstrual cups, Vanessa is changing mindsets and making periods a problem of the past. After founding Freedom Cups Opens in a new tab with her two sisters, Vanessa is addressing the lack of access to sanitary products and clean water that many women around the world face, which can impact their school attendance and job opportunities.
Pamela Adie, Equality Hub
At her organization Equality Hub Opens in a new tab, Pamela is helping members of the LGBTQ community feel accepted and included across Lagos. Understanding the importance of visibility and the power of storytelling, Pamela recently directed Under the Rainbow, the first lesbian-focused documentary made in Nigeria.
Lucinda Van Den Heever, The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA)
As the Women’s Rights Programme Manager at OSISA, Lucinda is building support for the LGBTQ movement through strategic intervention, challenging the status quo, protests, and programming. As a lesbian woman of color, Lucinda is proud to fight for marginalized Africans.
Nick Antipov, MAKEOUT
Through MAKEOUT Opens in a new tab, Nick is helping foster a new generation of LGBTQ activisits in communities across Balarus by creating safer online spaces. After coming out to his family, Nick felt a huge shift in his life, and he knew he wanted to help others feel the same empowerment he did.
Bart Staszewski, Lublin Equality March
As part of his work, Bart is shedding light on the impact of “LGBTQ-free zones” across Poland. These zones affect more than 10 million citizens and have chilling effects on queer people living and working in the area. “I am proud that I can be openly gay and that I can share my experiences with others, but not everybody has that opportunity,” Nick explained.
LaSaia Wade, Brave Space Alliance
As the first Black and trans-led LGBTQ center on the South Side of Chicago, Brave Space Alliance Opens in a new tab is building a more resilient Chicago community. Ran by LaSaia Wade, the organization provides a range of resources including food assistance, support groups, mutual aid programs, and HIV testing. During the pandemic, LaSaia has been leading a number of mutual aid efforts to help queer, trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people in Chicago weather the crisis.
Jaton Zulueta, AHA! Learning Center
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, students and parents needed support adjusting to a whole new, unfamiliar way to learn. But many communities were forced to do that with limited internet access. In a normal year, Jaton and his team at AHA! Learning Center Opens in a new tabwould teach free, in-person after-school programs in the Philippines. In the end, Jaton came up with imaginative ways to keep delivering lessons—including running lessons on Facebook messenger.
Maralmaa Munkh-Achit, Zorig Foundation
In her community, Maralmaa is empowering the next generation of leaders by improving their access to quality education and employment through the Zorig Foundation’s Opens in a new tab programming. Across Mongolia, she is empowering rural women by awarding educational scholarships, which provide better pathways to long term success.
Roshni Mahtani, The Asian Parent
Upon realizing there was little relevant parenting-related content online in the context of her Southeast Asian culture, Roshni started The Asian Parent Opens in a new tab as a blog, which has now grown into a 250-employee content, community, and commerce health-tech company that operates in 13 countries. As the CEO, Roshni is building a strong, family-centric culture at her organization. Children are always welcome in the office and there are even spaces designed just for them. Employees are encouraged to take time off to attend their children’s school events, and breastmilk in the communal fridge is a common sight.
Charles Daniels, Fathers’ UpLift
Through the work of his organization, Fathers’ UpLift, Charles provides dads with mental health support and mentoring so they can be the best parents they can be for their children. Working with fathers who are overcoming challenges like homelessness, depression, incarceration, or joblessness, Charles believes everyone has the potential to be a good parent.
Aimée Eubanks Davis, Braven
The mission of Aimee’s organization, Braven Opens in a new tab, is to empower promising, underrepresented young people. From first-generation college students to students of color, she is helping youth find confidence, network, and garner new skills that can lead to meaningful careers.
Candace Washington, Brown Books and Paintbrushes
Candice created Brown Books and Paintbrushes Opens in a new tab on the South Side of Chicago to empower, develop, and educate young children through art, literacy, and cultural programming. By celebrating Black culture, Candace is making sure the kids in her programs have a healthy racial identity and are proud to be themselves.
Tarun Cherukuri, Indus Action
As an education advocate, Tarun fundamentally believes that where you are born shouldn’t affect the level of education you receive. At his organization Indus Action Opens in a new tab, he’s putting his core values into action. His team advocates on behalf of families and children living in poverty, as well as children living with HIV, transgender youth, and children with special needs, ensuring they have the same access to opportunities as anyone else.
Joel Hellermark, Sana Labs
Providing personalized learning is Joel’s bread and butter. The COVID-19 pandemic challenged Sana Labs’ Opens in a new tab normal practices, but it didn’t slow them down. In 2020, Joel and his team provided personalized education on COVID-19 treatment and prevention to 80,000 health workers and 2,000 hospitals. Joel believes humanity can be empowered by providing high-quality learning at scale.