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Rebecca Davis: Founder and Executive Director of MindLeaps

MindLeaps offers free dance classes to kids around the world that build social-emotional skills, which translate to educational and cognitive development. MindLeaps’ program is driven by data and tracks participants’ growth over time. Kids in MindLeaps use dance as a way to build community, create academic opportunities, and attain skills that help them in every area of life. Learn more here!

Can you tell me about your data-driven approach?


We use a movement-based set of observations, it’s very different from the traditional school model. There are seven skills that are ranked from 1-7 in each dance lesson. The skills are memorization, grit, teamwork, discipline, creativity, language, and self esteem. For example, if an instructor is ranking teamwork, they would do exercises in class where kids would do partner activities, hold hands, or create a set of steps as a team. It tests if they have the willingness to work with any kid in the room and if they can cooperate. There are 25 kids per class that is run by three instructors. Over time, we can see where kids are growing and where they may need more support. The data pattern becomes a guiding point for us to learn how to help each individual child, whether it’s sponsoring their education, enrolling them in language classes, or something else.


What can kids expect in a MindLeaps program?


Our centers are known in the community for having free dance classes, so it’s an open door approach where kids spread the word and bring their friends. Our instructors explain to the kids and the caregivers, if they have them, that it’s a 3-month program where they come at specific times, which is a big deal for kids who have never had regularity in their schedules. The kids have no idea that they are being graded, so from their perspective they come to class to dance, have a great time, build connections, and develop a sense of possibility for their futures. Over time, they get access to things like meal services, education, language classes, and other services depending on their needs. Kids can advance into different programs over the course of their time with us, but the entry point is always the same dance class.


Where are your programs located?


MindLeaps started in Philadelphia as a dance company that explored social justice issues, but I realized that social justice work needed to be done at the community level instead of on stages. I traveled the world and formulated the MindLeaps methodology with the help of others. Our focus was first on post-genocide and post-conflict areas. We’ve learned that there are many areas where social-emotional learning is challenged, so we don’t restrict our locations anymore. We now have programs in Rwanda, Uganda, Guinea, Mauritania, Uganda, North Macedonia, Philadelphia, and New York City. Each program differs depending on need. For example, in Africa we have more meal access, access to health care, and support for single mothers, while in the U.S. it’s a more narrowed approach to social-emotional learning through movement and dance.


What has been the best part of starting MindLeaps?


When you have many years behind you in an organization like this and you can look back at the trajectory of change, you realize that there is no reason for us to give up on the world’s biggest problems. There are so many issues in the world, but starting MindLeaps has shown me that they are solvable. I’ve also learned that we have a lot of power as individuals to enact change. Who would think that some kid from Canada who loves dance class could start something as big and impactful as MindLeaps? I’ve been able to use my passion as a tool to advance communities and create meaningful change, which is something all of us can do.

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