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Mindleaps: transforming lives with the power of dance 


Dancing is a universal act of joy and happiness, but for children living on the streets in post-conflict countries, it can be truly life-changing. MindLeaps is an international NGO improving the lives of vulnerable youths across post-conflict countries in the developing world, largely in Africa, to ensure they can succeed in school, enter the workplace and 'leap' forward in life.

MindLeaps was founded by American social entrepreneur Rebecca Davis, a Russian-trained ballet dancer, who travelled to post-genocide countries to examine the effects of ethnic conflict. She discovered that street children showed a deep love of dance and felt inspired to use her background to help create change.  MindLeaps aims to permanently decrease the number of street children in post-conflict countries.

We caught up with Rebecca to hear more about the social impact of MindLeaps, their biggest challenges and how they plan to expand: 

Tell us about MindLeaps and your mission:
MindLeaps is an international NGO that's using dance to develop the cognitive skills and social-emotional learning of at-risk youth. We focus on post-conflict countries in the developing world, where there's large numbers of out of school and refugee children. Using a carefully crafted curriculum we train the kids up, and when we see their skills reach a sustained level of development then we sponsor them to go back into the formal education system. Our programmes run year round in Rwanda and Guinea by local staff, and this year we've been focusing on expanding our work to reach more vulnerable youth – especially across the continent of Africa where dance is often a huge attraction.

What is the social impact?

MindLeaps believes the source problem of many of the issues we face in the world today stems from uneducated youth. When there are youths, particularly in the developing world, that are not getting educated or remain illiterate there is no way for them to contribute to the employment sector and there's also no way for them to really find meaning in their life, which increases the risk of youth radicalisation and further destabilises the world.

The social impact of MindLeaps is based on tackling the root cause of this problem, which is a lack of educated youth. Our dance programme is unique as the children really want to take part - kids would not be attracted to free English classes or anything that ties too heavily to education. Through the activity of dance we can inspire them to love learning and ultimately realise that the path to their future is through school. The main impact of MindLeaps is to attract children that would otherwise have no way of getting back into formal education and providing a pathway to change their lives. 

Rebecca Davis from MindLeaps

Founder & Executive Director Rebecca Davis with children enrolled at Rwanda Sonrise Boarding School 

Why did you choose dance as a channel to help street children out of poverty? & What effect does it have on academic performance?

My background is in dance so when I was visiting these post-conflict countries I noticed all these vulnerable youths out on the streets moving to music with a clear love for dance. I sensed they felt they were good at it and would like to learn how to do it better. I thought there must be a way to leverage this to help them make a path to a better life. We found that if you target the countries that have dance as an integral part of their local culture that this could be a successful hook to get these kids into safe spaces and ultimately out of street life. 

MindLeaps spent 3 years working with researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Drexel Universities in the United States to figure out how movement ties to the development of cognition and the improvement of behavioural skills. We created a system focusing on 7 cognitive and social-emotional skills that are essential to school performance but can also be improved through a movement context – ranging from memorisation to teamwork. These skills help to develop the social emotional learning and behaviour necessary for children who have been out of school for a long period of time to actually sit and listen in a structured environment. Once children have finished our programme and go back to school, 70% of them perform in the top 20% of their academic classes, which is pretty mind-boggling considering a lot of these kids had never been to school before or have had a long gap in education.  

We've learned that with a bridge programme like ours that focuses on these core skills, you can expect school performance to increase at this rate. 

What has been the greatest challenge/obstacle you’ve faced?

Funding is always an issue for working in a humanitarian context, more specifically in Rwanda over the last few years. In 1994 after the genocide there was this huge feeling that the world should make up for our lack of assistance during the genocide and we should help as much as possible, but now with issues of radicalisation and the refugee crisis, Rwanda has fallen off the map in terms of priority countries. So we've definitely found it more difficult to advocate for these street kids in Rwanda that are a by-product of the genocide, and really make sure their voices are heard. 

There has been a lot of scepticism from the African governments who struggle to see the importance of 'the arts' as a tool for education. That's one of the reasons why we wanted to tackle the measurement side of it and find a data collection tool that we could use so that we could quantify the relationship between performing arts education and academic education. That has helped us a lot but it has definitely been a challenge that we've had to face and overcome. 

MindLeaps Dance Class

A MindLeaps dance class in Mauritania 

What has been your biggest achievement so far?

Most people would say the number of kids we've served or the school performance of our kids (which is really incredible), but I think what is most impressive and significant to us as an organisation is that we've developed a curriculum that can be replicated and that other organisations can use in their own programming. That's how I think we'll be able to reach across the continent of Africa and how we'll really have sustainable change - it doesn't now rely on these kids having one MindLeaps centre in Rwanda or Guinea, it is now a methodology that other organisations can embed in different communities where youths are at need. Which is really very exciting!

What is the potential for growth for MindLeaps – do you plan to expand to more countries?

Going forward we want to maintain our permanent holistic operations in Rwanda and Guinea where we have great locals running the programmes, whilst slowly expanding across the continent. We now have international teams of MindLeaps staff who are deploying to other countries and helping organisations to use our methodology with the vulnerable youth they are already working with. 

Our specific focus will be expanding from street children to refugee youth. We have found from our experience of working in Rwanda specifically that there's large numbers of refugee youth who are in a semi-permanent living state and are really lacking a sense of identity and hope as their lives have been thrust into chaos. The MindLeaps programme could do a lot to help those kids maintain their inspiration for life and create a sense of community in their new locations. In 2018 we're expanding into Uganda and Kenya with a focus on refugee kids and more broadly we're looking for organisations across the continent that could benefit from using our curriculum. 

Listen to more of Rebecca's story on her TEDx talk: Discovering YOU matter, or check out the MindLeaps website for more information. 


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