Staff spotlight: Sandy Cheiten and English education in Vietnam

In this series, we’re highlighting Idealist staff members who’ve made their ideas happen. Today’s spotlight is on Sandy Cheiten, a consultant who’s helping us develop a new project in New York. Sandy has lots of amazing stories; here’s one about how she helped turn a broad intention into a specific success.

In 1992, I was working in multimedia education at ABC News in New York. One day, I got a call from a friend who said he knew someone interested in starting an educational project and asked if I’d talk to her.

When I first met the woman with the idea, the journalist Barbara Stewart, she came to my formal, corporate office wearing a sweatshirt, sneakers, and jeans. She said she wanted to start an educational project of some sort in Vietnam, but she didn’t know what.

“Just come to Hanoi with me and we’ll meet with some people and figure something out!” she said.


Sandy, top left, and Barbara in Vietnam with some colleagues in the mid-1990s.

I was quite intrigued, as I had concentrated on southeast Asian studies in college and graduate school and had been a peace activist during the Vietnam War. Though it seemed a little crazy—I knew nothing about Barbara and we had no plan—I couldn’t turn down a free ticket to Hanoi. I had been to Vietnam during the war, but had never made it to Hanoi, and was so curious to see how the country had changed in the almost 20 years since the war ended.

As soon as we landed, we went straight to the Ministry of Education and introduced ourselves, then posed this question: if we could raise money for anything they needed, what would it be? They said they wanted English language textbooks for their schools. They knew that Vietnam was on the cusp of change in many ways, and among other goals, they wanted their children to learn English well so that they’d be ready to engage with other world economies whenever the U.S. trade embargo ended.

Now what?

When we came back to the U.S., we established BAVE, the Business Alliance for Vietnamese Education, applied for 501(c)(3) status, and hired a fundraiser. Through a number of trips over the next two years, we worked out a plan with the Ministry of Ed to produce the books; everything was decided in complete collaboration. I have no idea why they trusted us; maybe they actually didn’t. We were just so unusual, these two American women landing there unannounced, wanting to help.

For our fundraising strategy, we decided we’d form an exclusive club wherein our members—all corporations—had to donate at least one million dollars each. That might sound far-fetched, but it worked. Our fundraiser pitched to a bunch of companies that having their names on all these textbooks would introduce them to Vietnamese consumers, so that when the embargo was lifted (which turned out to be in 1994), they’d already be familiar and trusted brands. It really was a win-win.

The first order of business after we got our initial million-dollar gift was training a group of Vietnamese educators; we brought them to the U.S. for curriculum development and teacher training. When that was over, we raised more money and sent them back to Hanoi to draft and design the textbooks, and we rented a house for them all to live in while they did it.

The value of patience

It took a number of years to write and illustrate the books, which wound up being the country’s first color textbooks. We traveled with the Ministry of Ed to many regions in the country to pilot and evaluate the books in each setting. We eventually sent them to Hong Kong to be edited.

Finally, in the late ’90s, our first books were widely produced and distributed. We had a big launch event at the Hanoi Opera House. We were all over all the news. Everyone thought it was terrific because it showed the coming of a new age: the war was over, and our two countries could now work on a mutually beneficial project together.

Soon we realized that adults were using the books, too. And, with some additional funding, we worked with Vietnam Television (VTV) to produce an animated series that mirrored them.

My involvement started to taper off in the early 2000s, when the TV series was beginning. I had started a different job, and we had handed the reigns of the project off to VTV; it seemed like the right time to step away. But I had and still have a great sense of accomplishment about it, and am happy to say the books and shows continue to be produced today.

Watch this adorable BAVE video.

There were constant challenges, of course.

1. Disagreement
I love Barbara and we’re still friends to this day, but we’re very different and there were many times when we both had strong opinions—about how to work with the Ministry, for example, or what language to use in a certain place in the textbook—and we really argued.

Solution: No matter how much we quarreled over certain points, we always came to a final agreement and got back to business because, at heart, we had the same goal and intention—to see this project through and be of some help. That commitment never wavered, and it carried the day.

2. Logistics of working overseas
It would be very hot and we’d have no air conditioning, or there would be a monsoon rain or no heat in the winter, so you’d get soaked or freeze. And the language barrier, the time difference, and, back then, the absence of email… We faxed a lot of things, but that was difficult because of the money and technology restraints there. Also, sometimes people just wouldn’t show up for meetings, and it would be so frustrating because we were always working on a tight schedule when we were there.

Solution: We crossed each bridge as we came to it: hiring translators, scheduling calls at odd hours, buying people things like fax machines. Those expenditures became part of our budget. Just take obstacles one at a time, be patient and persistent, and allow that some idiosyncratic expenses might work their way into your plan.

3. Shifting cultural context
Sometimes it was just disorienting adjusting to a place where old and new were intersecting so dynamically. The country was changing before our eyes.

Solution: We just tried to appreciate it all. We got to see and make a very small contribution to these enormous changes that were bringing a country we were not long ago at war with to being an active trading partner on the world stage. It was exhilarating to witness the progress. They had a vision for their country, and you could see it taking shape everywhere.

Are you as blown away by Sandy’s story as we are? She welcomes your questions and comments below, or feel free to send her a message through Idealist.


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Link roundup: Playful libraries, the secret to reading a lot of books, and more

Peep this slideshow from Flavorwire about the most playful libraries in the world:


NYC’s Robin Hood Foundation library.

Read these:

Take action:

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How the Garden Library in Tel Aviv is growing community

Growing up with an Israeli mom and an American dad, I spent my summers in Tel Aviv and the school-year in New York.

South Tel Aviv was not an area we would frequent as a family. Distinguished by its proximity to the Central Bus Station – both the biggest bus terminal in the world and one of the most infamous urban planning disasters – the area is home to asylum seekers and migrant workers, many of whom who are transported there upon arriving to Israel.

Levinsky Park, only a few blocks long and wide, is a short walk away from the bus terminal. Walking home through the park with my sister Yael was consistently emotionally trying. People slept on and around playground constructs – huddled under plastic tarps to seek refuge from the rain – or just spent the day idling due to unemployment.

There is less homelessness now due to selective deportation, though the park remains the heart of the community of migrant workers and asylum seekers.

The communities that share this contentious space are vastly different linguistically, nationally, and culturally, though coexist due to affordability and circumstance. These qualities were what drew us to live in the neighborhood when Yael and I moved to Tel Aviv for our college studies a couple of years ago.

Moreover, these qualities are what inspired ARTEAM, an interdisciplinary art collective, to found the Garden Library in Levinsky Park in 2009, a beacon of hope amidst the often bleak landscape. A self-proclaimed “social-artistic urban community project,” the public library has helped transform the park, stitching together the disjointed, accidental community.

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Photo credits: Tanja Rochow, Levinsky Garden Library, and Yael Krevsky.

Talia Krevsky is a former Idealist team member who went on to actualize her idealistic pursuits in the Middle East, where she recently completed her Masters in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. She is committed to contributing to the transformation, or evolution, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, creatively and non-violently.

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Roundup: LGBT community around the world

Each June, millions gather worldwide in parades, rallies, festivals, and more to celebrate LGBT pride. We end our weeklong spotlight by zooming out of the U.S. and onto firsts in the international sphere.

As LGBT rights become more prominent in the U.S., other countries are quickly catching on. Here’s a quick roundup of the latest happenings:

South Africa—

In April, South Africa (the first—and only—African country that’s legalized gay marriage) saw its first traditional gay marriage between Thoba Sithole and Cameron Modisane. From Zulu and Setswana outfits to a cow slaughter, the couple and their families spared nothing to stick to their ancestral roots.

“People are still ashamed because the vast majority of the black community is not accepting of being a homosexual. They see it as largely being a ‘Western trend’ that is in fashion lately,” Cameron told reporters at the ceremony. “[We want people to see that] being gay is as African as being black.”


Meanwhile, in Singapore, where sexual contact between men is still punishable with up to two years’ in jail, a less traditional movement has taken flight—in the form of an online magazine directed toward the country’s gay male community. Launched in February, Element has managed to bypass the government’s strict media laws with it’s solely online presence while still capturing the attention of readers across Asia, if not the world. Publisher Noel Ng told the Atlantic that he sees the magazine as a way “to restore the dignity and worth of every gay man.”

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Shortly after Amnesty International published an article urging the Ukrainian government to introduce anti-distcriminatory legislation (following a slew of anti-gay attacks in the country), the capital of Ukraine, Kiev, held its first gay pride parade on May 25. Told to dress in comfortable shoes (for running) and non-offensive clothing, the peaceful, un-dsirupted crowd was flanked by police support and public encouragement as they marched through downtown. “This can be considered a historic day,” said Elena Semyonova, one of the event’s organizers.

Photo credit: Associated Press

Photo credit: Associated Press

Want to get involved in the LGBT cause? Search almost 6,000 nonprofit jobs, internships, volunteer opportunities, events, and like-minded people from around the world on Idealist

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Staff Spotlight: Claire Hansen, graphic design, and Guyana

In this series, we’re highlighting Idealist staff members who’ve made their ideas happen. Today’s spotlight is on Claire Hansen, our New York-based graphic designer who knows a thing or two about sisterly collaboration, working long distance, and navigating a culture outside your own. 


Tessa and Claire in Guyana in 2007.

In 2007, Claire took a two-week trip to Guyana to visit her sister Tessa, who at the time was a Peace Corps Volunteer with the Red Cross in the capital city of Georgetown.

Tessa wanted to revamp an educational children’s coloring book about inappropriate touching titled “Your Body is Yours!” which was being used in the Red Cross’s “Be Safe! Guyana” program. The content was basically good, but the images looked outdated and didn’t reflect Guyanese people or landscapes. For kids to get the most out of the book, Tessa reasoned that the design and illustrations needed to be redone.

“The original coloring books were actual books,” Claire further explains. “We wanted to redesign them to be easily photocopied so each kid could have their own. And since a lot of the child abuse issues the country was struggling with were family-related, we wanted kids to be able to take the books home, so their parents and siblings might also see.”

Claire set to work researching the fashions, pastimes, and terrain of Guyana and re-illustrating and designing the book, also tweaking some of the language along the way.

“It was an interesting road to walk—between being representative and stereotypical,” says Claire. “As an illustrator, I wanted readers to feel familiar with the images but not appear to be reducing their culture to its symbols, or seem racist.”

When she finished all 24 pages, she made about 40 copies of the book back home in New York and sent them to Guyana to be distributed. The Guyana Red Cross then solicited donations and had more than a thousand copies of the book produced and distributed through their branches in coastal towns and more remote, indigenous areas. From beginning to end, the process took about six months.



Claire’s redesigned cover.

1. Know your expectations.
“I don’t know if it bothers me that I wasn’t around to see the books in use, or that I’ll never really know the impact they’re having—though of course I hope it’s good,” says Claire. “Mostly, I was just happy to attempt the project. But if the outcome of your work is a bigger concern to you, you need to consider how you’ll be able to track the results: is the org you’re working with organized enough to really give your project legs, for example? Will you be able to track the results of your efforts over time?”

2. Seek professional help.
“If I did it over again,” she says, “I’d try to get advice from a publisher, or someone else who’d done this same thing. If you don’t have all the skills or knowledge you need for your project, find someone who does, rather than trying to learn everything on your own. If you do that, you’ll only wind up with ten percent of what you need to know.”

3. See what technology can do for you.
“Now there are all sorts of great online print-on-demand options for books, and ways to track how many you publish and distribute,” says Claire. “If I were doing it again, I’d look into using tools like that.”

4. Keep calm and carry on.
“I got so caught up in being excited to do it that I didn’t spend much time dwelling on the negatives,” says Claire. “If you know it’s going to be a long, slow road, just reconcile yourself to that fact and try not to get upset about it.”

Have you been involved with a project like Claire and Tessa’s? Have insights for others? Share your experience with our readers below. Or feel free to reach out to Claire through Idealist if you’d like to ask her advice.

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Beyond nonprofit jobs: How an Idealist plays matchmaker to help women leaders


Photo credit: Peshkova,

Twice a year, women leaders from Kosovo travel to Washington, D.C. to shadow folks at nonprofits, think tanks, media organizations, and more.  They do this for one month as part of the National Albanian American Council’s Hope Fellowships.

To find a good professional match for the women, Allegra Panetto, current Program Assistant at the Hope Fellowship, turns to Idealist to search for similar programs they can learn from.

Recently, for example, a Fellow wanted to develop a project that focuses on empowering women in local governance in Kosovo by building leadership capacities for women on the ground. By using the keywords “democracy” and “leadership,”  Allegra searched Idealist and found Council for a Community of Democracies. She reached out to them, and now the Fellow will spend four days at their offices, learning best practices and sharing her knowledge of the region.

“I really like Idealist because it breaks down things in a clear way. I like that I can see how active these organizations are. If they’re posting jobs, then I’ll take that as a good sign, ” she says.

Her other tips on how to make the most out of our site? Searching with good, specific keywords, patience when sifting through organizations, and broadening your geographic region to include not only the city, but the entire metro area.

Allegra is just one example of how you can use Idealist to not only find a job, but do your job better. How do you use Idealist beyond nonprofit jobs? What tips do you have?

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Girl brightens street, one balloon at a time


Photo via pea green girl.

Recently, I participated in GOOD’s first annual Neighborday. We invited our neighbors over for milkshakes and sat on our lawn and talked with them about everything from what our block used to be like to tips for toddler sleep to how to entertain visiting family.

The turnout was smaller than I’d hoped for, but it was still nice to stop for a moment and focus on the people who lived around me. So when I came across Zoe Green‘s little project of brightening her UK street with balloons and nice notes for one day, I couldn’t help but think, “Yes!”

She writes:

From my perspective, Shelbourne Road is just another long, fairly anonymous Bournemouth street. Nothing really happens here.

Other than the occasional social gathering in the corner shop, we go about our daily routines side by side and yet our paths never seem to overlap. I only really know my next door neighbour Paul and his dog Foo. I don’t know who lives opposite, or two houses down, which really makes for quite a sad state of affairs.

So how can I make a difference? One smile at a time.

I don’t intend to change the world. but I know that if you brighten one person’s day they are highly likely to brighten someone else’s. Happy Street Day took place on Monday 15th April 2013. It was my personal mission to bring some unexpected cheer to my fellow Shelbournians, encouraging them only to stop for a moment and talk to one another.

This project was about inspiring people. So take my ideas and share them with your community.

Go on, spread a little joy.

What are some other ideas to make YOUR street a little bit cheerier?

Join GOOD’s Fix Your Street day on the last Saturday of May. 

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Help Samuel send supplies to schools worldwide

An ongoing experiment: can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

Meet Samuel

After a service trip to a Guatemalan school during his junior year of college, Samuel McPherson knew he wanted to do something more to improve education worldwide.

“Going to the school with a group of 25 people and seeing the amount of change and impact we could have changed my perception of what was possible,” he says.

The 23-year-old Gainesville, Florida native is obsessed with all things social entrepreneurship. As an undergraduate Samuel studied entrepreneurship at Pace University, then got his Master’s at University of Florida. Everything he does is seen through this lens. Whether it’s interning for UNICEF or working in sales for an educational research company, Samuel views each experience as a learning opportunity for his new venture, Reciprocity.

The intention

The idea for Reciprocity is inspired by the one-to-one model made famous by TOMS shoes. When you buy a USA-made canvas bag, an international school of your choice receives a custom bundle of educational supplies. Bags because Samuel noticed on that on college campuses it was the one thing students all had in common, and education because he believes it’s essential for freedom of choice.

“Education is the bottomline of everything,” he says. “I strongly believe people should be able to make their own decisions about how their life plays out and the opportunities they take. That becomes very difficult without an education.”

Samuel is still figuring it out, but right now roughly 50% of the bag proceeds will go to the schools, who will keep the consumer update about how the supplies are positively impacting the students. Consumers who have contributed to the same school will also be connected to one another.


The concept of Reciprocity has gone through many iterations, and so far Samuel has a website and one of three bag designs ready to go. Currently in Washington, D.C., he is working on refining his idea and turning Reciprocity into an organization, seeking partners, and encouraging schools to participate.

“I’ve learned everything I can learn and now it’s time to put the feet to the ground,” he says.

Here are the challenges he is currently facing:

  1. For Reciprocity to work, Samuel needs to find schools worldwide to provide context about their institution, communicate with the consumer, and be the point person for the delivery of supplies. Schools say they are interested, but fail to follow through.
  2. Currently Samuel is solo, but would love a team of people who could give advice and mentorship about creating organizational structure and guidance, as well as working with youth and/or educational institutions.
  3. Since the company will have different bag styles, the development and production of the product can be expensive, the cost of which Samuel is currently self-financing. From investors to crowdfunding to grants, any potential avenues of funding would be beneficial.

How you can help


School in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where Samuel volunteered at. (Photo via Samuel McPherson.)

  • Do you know of any schools Reciprocity might be able to help support?
  • Samuel is considering moving toward a more project-based approach i.e. 150 individuals purchase bags and proceeds go to installing a well in a school/village as opposed to providing finite supplies that will run out. What do you think?
  • How can Reciprocity stay away from creating a dependency and instead have a lasting impact on the students?
  • How can schools can best keep in touch with consumers given tech limitations and time constraints?
  • Samuel is planning on launching a Kickstarter campaign. If you’ve done one before, do you have any advice on launching a successful one, especially when it comes to video creation?
  • Marketing folks: Recommendations on how to best spread the word?
  • Do you have any general feedback about the business model or website itself?
  • Do you know of any organizations that might want to develop a strategic partnership?
  • Are you interested in collaborating, mentoring, or giving any of your time to Reciprocity?

Leave a comment below or send him a message through Idealist and if the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!

Do you have an idea that’s just starting to brew? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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Help Tamara build bridges through music

An ongoing experiment: can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

Meet Tamara

Tamara Turner follows the beat of her own drum – literally and figuratively. Her passion with music began when she was five years old composing piano pieces in her hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado. Tamara hasn’t skipped a beat as an adult, dabbling in everything from film scoring to music journalism, and studying a wide range of musical styles from West African drumming in Ghana to tin whistle in Ireland to Gnawa music in Morocco.

Most recently, Tamara graduated from Boston’s Tufts University with a masters degree in ethnomusicology. There, she helped organize a “Music and Islam” symposium where, by connecting with the local Moroccan community, she brought in a Moroccan band to host workshops that culminated in a big concert. For Tamara, music plays a critical role in challenging the Islamophobia she often comes across in the U.S.

“Because music has the ability to build connections artistically, creatively, and emotionally, it gives us an opportunity to lead with the heart, transcending the medium of ‘discourse’ and offering a different kind of relationship with which to understand others,” she says.

The intention

Broadly speaking, Tamara envisions an organization that utilizes music for cultural advocacy, outreach, and education, starting with but not limited to the music and cultures of North Africa. One of the first issues she would like to address through musical bridges is Islamophobia.

The idea is two-fold: Similar to the program she helped organize at Tufts, she wants to connect with local immigrant communities in the U.S. to help share their music through concerts, education, and more. Travel is also key, as she’d like to work in North Africa to help record and archive musical traditions.

Besides fostering cross-cultural understanding, and of course, celebrating the inherent joy that music brings, Tamara also hopes to counter the exotification of non-Western music cultures that can sometimes result, however well-intentioned.

“That’s part of the vision, too. Not just piecemealing and romanticizing certain elements of other cultures, but allowing ourselves to be challenged by and uncomfortable with differences as well,” she says.


Tamara learning the guimbri with her teacher, Abdellatif El Makhzoumi, in Marrakech, Morocco. (Photo via Tamara Turner.)


So far, Tamara has been researching similar organizations around the world and is in the process of refining her idea.

Here are some challenges she has identified:

  1. Reaching out to immigrant communities in the U.S. seems clear cut to Tamara given her experience, but incorporating the North African component is both nebulous and daunting.
  2. She doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel, and is considering becoming involved with an existing organization or program at first.
  3. Although she’s been encouraged by the nonprofits she’s been in touch with, she always hears a version of the same story: “Contact us after you get funding.”
  4. Sustaining enthusiasm and momentum around the idea after it’s no longer fresh is a concern.

How you can help

  • Do you know of any similar organizations or programs to add to her list?
  • Besides initiating conversations, is there more she can be doing to get her foot in the door with people who are already doing similar work?
  • How can she inspire the average person to get outside their comfort zone and, for example, be open to new music from the Islamic world?
  • For music fans and non-music fans alike, what are some other effective and fun outreach strategies besides concerts?
  • Aside from major cities, are there other areas in the U.S. that could benefit from such an organization?
  • What are some potential funding avenues she should pursue?
  • How can she best balance her vision with logistics, and prevent getting so bogged down with logistics that her vision deflates?
  • If you’ve started your own nonprofit, would you be willing to share your story and the lessons learned?

Leave a comment below or send her a message through Idealist and if the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!


Do you have an idea that’s just starting to brew? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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Want to volunteer abroad?


Image of monks volunteering in Kyegundo earthquake zone via SFTHQ (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Have you been thinking about volunteering abroad, but aren’t sure how to go about it? If you’re wondering where to go, how long you can afford to stay, and how you can be sure you’ll contribute to a meaningful and positive impact, here are two free events that might help:

At these free events, you can chat with representatives from organizations that lead volunteer projects in communities around the globe. You can also attend free workshops—sponsored by Cross-Cultural Solutions—on the basics of international service and strategies for making volunteering abroad more affordable.

Our former colleague Erin Barnhart is coordinating these fairs along with the International Volunteer Programs Association (IVPA), so we’re sure they’ll be beautifully organized and full of valuable info. Click the Eventbrite links above for the full details and to RSVP. And let us know if you go check ’em out!

And if you can’t make it to one of these events, check out our International Volunteering Resource Center.

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