Oakland program guides students to put passion to action

Sitting alone in the woods, 16-year-old Eve Cowen had an idea: what if there was a school aimed at transforming ordinary teens into socially responsible citizens?

A participant in the Outward Bound educational program, Cowen spent her solo activity time filling a legal pad with countless ways to employ the concepts of tikkun olam in guiding students to create positive change in the community.  

Years later, her ideas grew into the Oakland-based Future Leaders Institute, of which Cowen, now 34, is the founder and executive director. 

“We are reprioritizing how we educate young people,” said Cowen, who holds a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “We’re discovering what is most important in this world and making sure we can get it accomplished.”

Now in its fourth year, FLI is working with 350 high school students throughout San Francisco and Alameda counties. The teens, ranging from sophomores to seniors, partner with local professional leaders to create passion-driven projects that address real-world needs.

Students recently presented their projects to 50 community leaders, social entrepreneurs and education professionals at “Pitch-a-thon 2009” at the Asian Cultural Center in Oakland.

After months of researching and conducting interviews, students revealed their business plans on stage and met one-on-one with selected mentors who offered resources to help the students execute their ideas. A dinner and reception followed.

“Inspired, spirited thought has to come from within,” Cowen said. “A lot of education comes from the outside in. We ask, ‘What do you really want to do in this world?’ The results from the students are much more powerful, and the world benefits much, much more.”

FLI participants come from a variety of racial, social and economic backgrounds. For roughly 75 percent of the students, Cowen said, FLI is the first opportunity they’ve had beyond a sports team to “really shine.”


Future Leaders Institute participant Coimbra Jackson (right) of Berkeley is interviewed for the Bay Area literary journal Youth Outlook during Pitch-a-thon 2009.

Implementing the “Passion to Action” curriculum is a team of local professionals and teachers, providing structure and guidance for the students to help them realize their ambitions.


Through time-related milestones such as conducting interviews with professionals in their chosen field, managing a budget and writing a mission

statement, the students cultivate relationships with their peers, teachers and adults. At the end of the school year, FLI hosts an Academy Awards–style event to honor students’ accomplishments.

Past participants have published books with the profits going to different causes, launched campaigns for healthier school lunches and helped design environmentally friendly paint for cars.

“We’re putting Jewish values into public education,” said Cowen, who frequents Chochmat HaLev, a Jewish meditation and learning center in Berkeley. “Of course, everyone’s experience in Judaism is different. But the foundation of Jewish values is to be a contribution to the world and not just take, but give in a way that will have the biggest impact possible.”

A graduate of FLI at Albany High School, Rachel Krow-Boniske combined her passion for cooking with her goal of using dialogue as a means of bringing peace to the Middle East.

Over the course of a year, Krow-Boniske, 18, fundraised, solicited food donations, worked with panelists and cooked for “Breaking Bread for Peace: An Evening of Food and Dialogue,” which featured two Israeli American and Palestinian American speakers, plus a dinner. 

“Social justice, or tikkun olam, has always been an important aspect of my Judaism,” said Krow-Boniske, now a freshman at Willamette University in Oregon. “Every participant in FLI works to repair the world in a way that is both beneficial to others and meaning to him or herself.

“And to me, that is what tikkun olam is all about.”

While Cowen acknowledged that there are many programs focusing on youth leadership, she said FLI is unique because the course is integrated into the school day as a class. FLI receives funding from the schools, individual donors and foundations and corporations.

Next year, the program will be in 12 schools and Cowen hopes to expand FLI beyond California by 2012.

“We’re giving the experience to become committed to leaving a lasting difference,” Cowen said.