Executive director Lori Markowitz (in black, on left), joins a group of Youth Ambassadors during a private audience with His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama in 2008. Photo/Matthew A. Felton, Youth Ambassadors Program.
by Sabrina Squires
Lori Markowitz has taken the term “volunteer” to an entirely new level.
Having spent the last 20 years working with youth development within the nonprofit sector, Markowitz has transformed the lives of students in the Seattle area with the help of one word: compassion.
“I think that my call to action [came when] I dedicated pretty much my life to social justice and to trying to make a difference and create a better world,” she said.
As founder and executive director of a program called Youth Ambassadors, Markowitz has formed a curriculum around the organization, which is currently nominated for the Case Foundation’s Finding Fearless award, which recognizes the nation’s most inspirational and fearless “changemakers.”
A ‘Fearless Changemaker’
Originally from the East Coast, Markowitz was open early on to immersing herself in different cultures. After high school, she pursued a bachelor of arts in international business administration at the American University of Paris.
She later moved to the Middle East, where she was living on the border of Israel and Lebanon. Markowitz said she realized there had to be a better way to resolve the issues between the two countries.
“I wanted to dedicate my life to efforts of peace, whatever it might be, where I might be,” she said.
Over the years, she has accumulated a wide range of experience in nonprofits. This has included advocacy, international issues and cross-cultural exchange programs.
“I’ve had experience in all kinds of projects, predominately around young people, because I believe the path to peace is through our youths,” Markowitz explained.
In 2005, Markowitz received her master’s degree in public administration from the Washington Evans School of Public Affairs and was also the recipient of the Daniel J. Evans Leadership Award, in recognition of her leadership and public service.
In 2007, Markowitz was recruited by a local organization called Seeds of Compassion, which was hosting a five-day conferencein Seattle in April of the following year. The conference would focus on compassion and the empowerment of young people. It would even include a visit from the Dalai Lama.
The group wanted Markowitz to be in charge of the youth-programming efforts for the event. “Essentially, there weren’t any guidelines,” Markowitz said. “It was just, ‘Let’s find a group of young people and develop something around compassion.’”
Markowitz brought together a diverse group of 50 middle school and high school students. For eight months, they had hands-on experiences that reflected what it meant to be compassionate, while they gained familiarity with other cultures.
“The eight months before the Dalai Lama came to Seattle, we were exploring each other’s worlds,” she said.
After the event, Markowitz’s students wanted to continue with the program they all had assisted in creating.
“This was supposed to be a one-year project,” Markowitz said. “It was the students who looked to me and said, ‘No, we want to continue.’ How do you turn your back on 50 devoted, compassionate, young people that want to continue together?”
While the Youth Ambassadors were experimenting with different service projects, the King County Prosecutor’s Office approached them in 2009 for their support. “I thought, how do we help [them]?” Markowitz said.
The issue of truancy had become apparent to the office, and rather than waiting until truancy became a legal concern for a student, the King County Prosecutor’s Officewanted to address the problem proactively, through truancy workshops.
Rather than discussing their issues with adults, these at-risk students could have conversations with the Youth Ambassadors about truancy. “Because I was training my students on active listening — how to reach out to the other and how to be nonjudgmental — they had a lot of skills already around mentoring,” Markowitz said.
After success with the first workshop, Seattle Public Schools asked the Youth Ambassadors to help them with its truancy workshops as well, Markowitz said.
Seattle Public Schools program manager Ruth McFadden said she saw the Youth Ambassadors saw the program’s potential when the students volunteered at the truancy workshop with the King County Prosecutor’s Office and. So McFadden offered to help train the students and have them assist with the Seattle Public Schools’ workshops.
According to Markowitz, her students wanted to have more of an ongoing relationship with the peers they were working with, so Markowitz piloted a similar peer-mentorship program at four Seattle schools, which would ensure longer-lasting relationships. The program found its biggest success at Cleveland High School.
Markowitz started the program last year at Cleveland through a leadership class. Although it gave her class time, it didn’t allocate her enough, she said. Principal Princess Shareef suggested Markowitz create a class.
“We started talking about how to have kids support other kids — not just in attendance but also in leadership within the building and impacting classrooms by visiting and observing classrooms,” Shareef said. “It has become a really positive thing for the students and staff that are involved.”
Markowitz has 20 students in her class, ranging from sophomores to seniors. The goals of the class are to understand the teaching profession and to use peer mentorship to address the issues of truancy.
“This has been a positive experience,” Markowitz said. “Teachers have come to us asking if the students will help them plan their projects in the classroom. It’s so empowering for the kids.”
Finding Fearless Campaign
The Case Foundation has launched a campaign to find the “most fearless changemakers” in the United States and award up to $670,000 in grants and prizes.
Organizations and individuals may nominate themselves via application. The foundation’s judges reviewed the 1,200-plus applicants and narrowed it to the top 100, which included the Youth Ambassadors.
After making this cut, Markowitz received notice that her group had made the top 20 and was granted $1,500 and $25,000 in Microsoft software. This is when she notified her students that they were up for the big prize of $10,000.
The public had the opportunity to vote for which organization they think is most deserving of the grand prize until Wednesday, Nov. 28.
Her students at Cleveland hope to win the grant so they can travel to Washington, D.C., and advance their program.
Markowitz said of the honor, “It’s not about investing in me; it’s about investing in what they are trying to do. And I feel like I have to keep fighting for that because they deserve it, and I think they are making a difference — why not support it?”
Brittany Villars, a junior at Cleveland High School, spoke highly of Markowitz and the Intro to Teaching course. “Lori…is a powerhouse,” Villars said. “She is such a tiny person but with such a huge voice. She is able to bring student voices into only where adults seem to be.”
Villars hopes to win the competition. “It would mean the most that it would get to help Lori, and the program that I have grown to love.”