Listen. Think. Act.

Listen. Think. Act.

Innovative Solutions to Poverty in Africa

By Ann Freestone, BA’89

If it wasn’t for the 11th hour, Jamie Van Leeuwen, Ph.D., BA’96, would be a surgeon, but instead, he’s saving lives in a much different way. As a second-grader and growing up, he thought he would be a “fabulously wealthy” doctor.    

Fast forward, however, to his senior year as a pre-med student at Creighton. Van Leeuwen had doubts about his career path. Gilles Monif, his Creighton mentor, suggested a graduate degree in public health before medical school and that put him on a trajectory of first helping young people on the streets of Denver to now running the Global Livingston Institute (GLI), a Denver-based nongovernmental organization. Thanks to his last-minute career change, this 41-year-old globetrotter has traveled to more than 90 countries and saves lives by focusing on innovative solutions to poverty.  

With a bachelor’s degree in psychology and German from Creighton in 1996, he went on to New Orleans for a master’s degree in sociology and then international public health, topping off his classroom education with a Ph.D. in public policy. His experiences at Creighton still influence him today. “Dr. Gary Leak in the Psychology Department continues to mentor and support the research I am doing to this day,” says Van Leeuwen. “He has had a very significant impact on my life and the way I think about the world.”   

His first full-time job working on poverty issues was at Urban Peak, a street outreach program for the homeless and at-risk youth in Denver.

“I learned more from the kids on the street than they learned from me,” he says of his work, which included providing such services as substance abuse and mental health treatment, employment support and housing. Through Urban Peak, he learned at a grassroots level the value of building relationships to help the poor connect to services that would transition them into employment and stable living. Fundraising rounded out his job as well.

Urban Peak set the stage for Van Leeuwen in 2006 to start serving as the executive director for Denver Road Home, the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, a tall order.

“In the 1960s, what if JFK came on TV and said, ‘We are going to go halfway to the moon’?” Van Leeuwen explains. He says people need to think big and think differently about how we bring people to the table to solve complex social issues. “The whole point was to end homelessness, so how do we get bolder about what we do?”

Again, Van Leeuwen built relationships to impact change: over six years, Denver Road Home raised almost $50 million, built 3,000 housing units and decreased chronic homelessness in Denver by approximately 70 percent. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recognized the program as one of the top six homeless programs in the country.

“It’s about the value of personal relationships,” he says. “Without them, I don’t know how you get anything done.” He took this idea to heart.  

In 2006, he was awarded the Livingston Fellowship and traveled to Uganda and Rwanda. In Uganda, he saw firsthand the urban slums of Kampala, the effects of children serving as soldiers in Lira and poverty in rural Kabale. He also traveled to Kigali, where he saw the impact of the Rwandan genocide. Three years later, he founded GLI as he became aware of the many people and nongovernmental organizations taking actions in East Africa without truly understanding the community’s needs.

GLI’s approach turns charity work on its head. “Our whole concept is to listen and think before we act,” says Van Leeuwen. “We tend to act first, but you first have to get to know the people.  When having the conversation, the first thing you build is relationships.”

Today, GLI’s vision is dedicated to improving communities globally. Its mission is to educate students and community leaders on innovative approaches to international development and empower awareness, collaboration, conversations and personal growth. After listening and thinking in East Africa, the acting piece is significant and varied. Examples from work in East Africa range from a music festival where 5,000 attended and 800 were tested for HIV to buying a semitrailer to move supplies from city to city and to helping women learn candle-making to earn income.  

In August 2013, GLI opened Entusi, a resort and retreat center in Kabale, Uganda, on Lake Bunyoni, a hidden paradise, to bring students and community leaders from East Africa and the U.S. around the table. Completely run by Ugandans, the center employs 18 individuals who have never had a full-time job. According to Van Leeuwen, employment opportunities are the most valuable thing we can develop — and most sustainable.

So far, 400 people, including four Creighton professors, have traveled to Uganda and Rwanda with GLI. “In the spirit of Jesuit teaching, we have built community together with our Ugandan partners to address complex social issues,” explains Van Leeuwen. He says GLI is partnering with Creighton where there are many ways to engage students and faculty in building strategic partnerships between the U.S. and East Africa.     

Needing only three to four hours of sleep a night, Van Leeuwen spends 40 percent of his time working on GLI, and 60 percent working for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper as his senior advisor after almost four years as deputy chief of staff and director of community partnerships.  

Recipient of Creighton’s 2014 College of Arts and Sciences Alumni Merit Award, Van Leeuwen credits Creighton with helping set the foundation for his life’s work. “Creighton was about social justice, making sure we understood the broad perspectives, such as the social sciences, and not only understand them, but then act on them. This is all very important to me, and I’ll spend the rest of my life serving the poor. It’s all about how you channel your work and passion; it’s all about how you listen and think and act.”  

For more information, go to globallivingston.org.