When we first launched the Fellowship last year, we were blown away by the response we got from people around the world who were helping create transformational change in their communities. Choosing just 20 Fellows from an application pool of 20,000 (!) inspiring candidates was certainly challenging—but as many of you begin to think about your application to this year’s Fellowship, we wanted to provide some insight as to how we made our selections.
To put it simply: the Fellows we selected are deeply embedded in their respective communities, working together to build not just immediate solutions but long-term change.
Take Keith Wattley, a criminal justice reform attorney from Oakland. Keith began his career advocating for better prisoner conditions. But when confronted with the particular plight faced by people serving life sentences, he began an organization, UnCommon Law Opens in a new tab , to help provide them counselling and support. Thanks to trauma-informed counseling and legal help from Keith’s organization, 192 inmates— many of whom had been locked up for decades—have won parole and rejoined their families and communities.
Beyond changing the lives of those 192 individuals and their families, Keith does his work with an eye toward systemic change for the roughly 200,000 prison inmates serving life sentences in America. Working with lawyers, therapists, prisoners, and family members, UnCommon Law is helping reform broken criminal justice systems and rebuild pathways to rehabilitation. In showing that once-violent individuals are capable of transforming themselves, Keith’s work reminds us that all of us—even the most forgotten—can play a productive role in society.
Ashley Hanson was another inaugural fellow, an artist and theater director who started PlaceBase Productions Opens in a new tab to help rural artists tell their stories in original, community-driven productions. But Ashley didn’t stop there—she connected these rural artists to each other, creating a community that is working to establish artist-in-residence programs in small towns across the country.
Ashley’s creative process brings communities together to understand the power they hold to work through the challenges they face. By casting community members who may not normally see eye-to-eye, in performances that take place in locations all across a given town, Ashley provides a creative outlet for residents to work together, wrestle with challenging issues, and ultimately build bonds of trust and understanding that help them continue to build strong communities.
Finally, there’s Nedgine Paul Deroly, an educator from Haiti who has begun a movement to build educational equity in her home country. Nedgine founded Anseye Pou Ayiti Opens in a new tab , an organization that has recruited and trained 110 teachers and recent school graduates to teach more than 5,000 students across 50 Haitian schools. Thanks to her efforts, pass rates in schools touched by her organization have tripled and 80 percent of the teachers trained in the program choose to remain in their communities after their teaching ends, continuing to invest their talents in building a stronger Haiti.
Nedgine’s work illustrates the power of solutions that are created by the communities who are most affected by a given challenge. Anseye Pou Ayiti’s model is inspired by Haitian history and values and informed by Haitians’ own visions for a better educational system. The result is a strong, sustainable, and empowering organization poised to show the world what’s possible.
In each case, these Fellows exemplified our criteria.
They were civic innovators. They didn’t just tackle a problem they wanted to solve, they helped build a community—of people involved and impacted by an issue—to help overcome a systemic challenge.
They were at the tipping point in their work. They had already demonstrated direct and meaningful impact in their communities and gained recognition among their peers for their contributions. But they could take their approaches even further with the right attention, support and network.
They were discipline diverse. They didn’t have the same cookie-cutter backgrounds; they were artists, activists, educators, entrepreneurs—people from all walks of life, employing different methods to improve their communities.
They were talented, but not connected. They hadn’t already benefited from prestigious opportunities or global attention. They had distinct voices, just waiting to ring out.
And finally, they were good humans. They were authentic, ethical, inclusive, collaborative—people motivated by the powerful desire to help others.
If you share that desire—and if the qualities we’ve laid out here describe you and the work you’ve done—please apply to join the next class of Obama Fellows by September 18, 2018.
We can’t wait to be blown away once again.