Teaching Children to Care

Dina Buchbinder Auron, M.P.A. ’16, uses sports to get children excited about solving global problems.

Education for Sharing students play a learning game about the environment at a shelter in Norogachi, Mexico. 
Photograph courtesy of Dina Buchbinder

The genesis of Education for Sharing, a nonprofit organization that has served hundreds of thousands of children by educating them about global issues through imagination and play, took place on a cruise ship. Dina Buchbinder Auron, M.P.A. ’16, a recently graduated Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Mason Fellow, is the organization’s founder and executive president, and has since guided it from a dream into reality. 

In 2007, when she was 24 years old and newly graduated from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), in Mexico City, Buchbinder was selected to attend the Ship for World Youth—a program run by the Japanese government that brings socially active young people from around the world together aboard a two-month cruise. There, she encountered a young Canadian who told her about an initiative in Canada called Sport in a Box, which seeks to empower youth through sports. “I was very inspired by my Canadian friend,” Buchbinder says, “and I thought, ‘Oh, we need something like this in Mexico.’” 

It took courage to embark on that path, Buchbinder says. The prevailing culture on her college campus was for graduates to head straight for government or the private sector. Her classmates, she says, “almost couldn’t believe that I was going to work with children and with sports. They thought at the moment, that’s not very serious or professional.” Nonetheless, with the help of just one friend, she founded Education for Sharing, inspired by her care for children and passion for sports. “Even though I’m not very good at sports, I love them,” she says. “I believe in the power of what they make you feel, especially as you’re growing up and have so much energy.”

Indigenous children from Norogachi, Mexico, participating in Education for Sharing surround founder Dina Buchbinder.
Photograph courtesy of Dina Buchbinder

The mission Buchbinder set for her organization is simple. “We wanted to form better citizens, from very young ages,” she says. “We achieve this mission by the transformative power of play.”

“She has tremendous commitment to the mission that she’s following,” says Robert Kaplan, Bower professor of leadership development emeritus at Harvard Business School (HBS) and a friend of Buchbinder’s. 

A Vision of “A Different Citizenship”

There is a dire need for better citizenship, Buchbinder argues, not just in Mexico, or even in the developing world, but around the globe. She lists what she calls the greatest “human challenges”—violence, corruption, and apathy—which she believes transcend borders and demographic lines. “We work with all kinds of backgrounds,” Buchbinder says. “You might be a kid in the jungle of the southeast of Mexico, and you might be a very privileged child in a private school in Mexico City, and you’re also part of our vision. The vehicle of play is so human, so special, and it’s an equalizer.” Her organization has now served more than 539,000 people, in all 32 states in Mexico, as well as in other countries in Latin America and in the United States. According to Buchbinder, 94 percent of the schools where Education for Sharing operates in Mexico are in underprivileged communities recently targeted for assistance by the Mexican government.

To choose what challenges to address, Buchbinder has borrowed the issues identified in the United Nations’ list of Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to end poverty, hunger, and inequality. Many other nonprofits, governments, and businesses work on these same issues, she acknowledges. But in her work in particular, she says, “We are really trying to go to the root of the problem. Not just the symptoms, not just the consequences of the problem, but where is the root of these problems coming from?” Her answer: “We believe it’s coming from the lack of a different citizenship.”

Her vision of citizenship is one in which every person “gets to feel useful and valuable, where everyone gets to contribute to their communities, where violence is no longer the norm, and apathy is no longer an option, but where the choice that everyone makes is for the betterment of society.” The goal is for the elementary-school-aged children with whom Buchbinder’s organization works to have a head start on making that contribution. She relates the story of a 10-year-old girl who stood up before her teachers and peers at the end of her Education for Sharing program to tell them, “This is the first time in my life I feel useful.”

Engaging Children through Play 

Buchbinder admits that these goals can sound lofty, but she is just as committed to the methodology her organization has developed to achieve them— engaging children through play. “We go beyond memorization,” she says. “We go beyond the classroom, and we go from the classroom to an open space where the children have fun, where they’re learning in a healthy environment.” 

At the core of Education for Sharing are games. Their content relates to the Sustainable Development Goals—including games that address environmental issues, disease, and gender inequality. The games themselves seek to impart to their participants an appreciation for civic values like teamwork, empathy, and respect. Finally, while the program has expanded beyond just sports to include lessons in art and science, all the activities are meant to be games at heart—so they always include cooperative, active play.

Education for Sharing operates by training teachers to conduct sessions, including both active games and classroom discussion, during normal school hours with their classes. Participants in the session begin by traveling “by imagination, to different countries,” Buchbinder said, “to talk about interesting facts from that country.” Children might begin a session on global health by visualizing themselves transported to Brazil by a mythical animal. The teacher leading the activity might then note the high rate of HIV/AIDS in Brazil. 

Then the play begins: Buchbinder describes a game of dodgeball reimagined as “doctor tag.” Instead of teams, the children are divided into “communities.” When hit by a ball—which might represent HIV, or malaria, or the flu—the “infected” child needs to be seen by the community’s doctor to receive a shot. At some point, she says, “like it happens in real life, doctors run out of medicine, and so children start going out of the community to the clinic.”

After playing, the children and teachers form a “circle of reflection,” where, Buchbinder says, teachers “invite children to come to their own conclusions about what values they practiced, how they made a difference, what they felt, what they thought, and also what they propose in order to address the challenge that we are looking at in that game.” 

At the conclusion of the program, the children are asked to assemble a “treasure box” with handmade gifts, to send to another school as a cultural exchange. Buchbinder says this is meant to raise “cultural appreciation between children, between cultures, between worlds.”

She tells the story of a private international school in Mexico City, with students from as far away as Japan. Asked to create a treasure box to send to underprivileged children living in a rural indigenous shelter, the city-dwellers thought to send them manufactured goods like blankets, or even laptops. Education for Sharing said they had to send handmade objects instead, as a way to level the playing field between the children. 

What surprised them was what they then received in return. The indigenous children sent a wooden ball, which Buchbinder says they had kicked around for miles; letters in their native language, Raramuri; and pictures of the mountains that surround them—a striking landscape compared to Mexico City. All those gifts came wrapped in a blanket. 

“Children in the private school couldn’t believe that children the same age as them made these tremendously beautiful objects,” she says. The urbanites, curiosity piqued, started to marvel: “How cool that they speak another language that I’ve never heard about?” and “I want to get to know them!” 

A Grown-Up Organization

If the magic of Education for Sharing comes from children, it has taken a lot of adult work to get the organization to where it is today. “There is a huge logistical aspect to what we do,” Buchbinder says, noting that she has worked with private and public institutions to secure capital—each year, her organization needs to raise between $1 million and $2 million to fund its operations. In Mexico alone, the organization has worked with the ministry of education, the ministry of energy, and the center for indigenous development. 

Obtaining private funding, on the other hand, can be difficult. “In Mexico the donation culture is not like in the U.S.,” she says, but she hopes to find more sources of cash now that she has graduated from Harvard.

More work for Buchbinder and her team comes from the need to carefully train teachers and then monitor schools’ success. The organization has an “impact evaluation methodology,” which measures the participants’ awareness of civic values before, following, and several years after the program. Buchbinder says results are very encouraging; by her count, 86 percent of teachers report a substantial decrease in violence or bullying after adopting her methodology. Kaplan praises Education for Sharing for being “evidence-based.” In her work, he adds, Buchbinder “was applying ideas that people had shown could work, and using them to help young people [with] how to deal with and manage conflict.”

Buchbinder hopes that teachers will carry out the Education for Sharing mentality even long after receiving their training—that they will discover a new self “that can be playful, that can be actively and intentionally listening to each one of their students, that is unlocking, unleashing the potential of all of their students, and also feeling like they’re learning all the time.” And she hopes children and their parents together can become ambassadors for her organization’s philosophy. She recalls a third-grader who told about seeing his father leaving the faucet running in the kitchen. When the child asked his parent to turn the water off, he replied, “Why would I close it? I pay for this water.” The son had a response ready, having traveled to southern Africa via imagination: “What you don’t know is that there are children in Lesotho that don’t have water to drink.” 

“By involving parents,” Buchbinder says, “we are able to create the support from home, to reinforce the values that children are gaining. So it becomes like a virtuous cycle.”

Expanding Horizons

From its beginnings as a two-person, volunteer outfit nearly a decade ago, Education for Sharing will soon be a six-nation operation, with programs in Guatemala, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, and the United States, in addition to Mexico, and plans to expand soon to Colombia. Today, there are more than 100 full-time staff members.

Finding a way to shuttle staff back and forth from Mexico City to training sessions in remote, mostly indigenous regions of Mexico, she explains, seemed like a daunting task at first. So as the organization grew, she and her colleagues turned for help to the communities they were serving: Education for Sharing hired college students and recent graduates who lived near the schools where the program would be implemented. “We found the most amazing potential in people that, locally, would understand the context,” Buchbinder says, and for whom “it would be tremendously meaningful to get involved with their community as a first job.”

Buchbinder now hopes that her method can spread even more widely—her dream is “to make it [accessible] to every teacher in the world that wants to implement an education like this,” perhaps via an online model. “The question that we’re always dealing with,” she admits, “is how do we maintain the quality of an experiential training—of the face-to-face training? What you feel when you’re in front of another person and when you play with them and see their reactions—that’s very difficult to replicate.”

Education for Sharing students in the Mesa del Nayar region of Mexico hold up cards representing the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals.
Photograph courtesy of Dina Buchbinder

As she began implementing her methodology in a handful of Washington, D.C., schools, she found that she needed to adapt again. The U.S. operation has worked primarily with specially trained teachers, like coaches and librarians. The bureaucracy is different—Buchbinder says American schools have much more freedom to make their own decisions. And, given the priority U.S. policymakers have placed on enrichment outside of the school day, she has also begun to work on developing an afterschool program.

But, in the ways that matter, Buchbinder says, her work is the same on both sides of the border. “Many people think, ‘Why would you bring an education program to the U.S.?’” she says. “What is also true,” she counters, “is that the problems that we deal with in Mexico are not exclusive to Mexico, or to the other countries that we’re working in. They’re human issues, and the solution that we have to address these issues is a human one, a universal one, so it applies everywhere.” 

“An Endless Well of Wisdom”

When Buchbinder came to HKS for her yearlong stint as a Mason Fellow (a program for mid-career professionals from the developing world), her nonprofit had already come a long way. She had worked full-time for seven years (the minimum experience required for the Mason program) and completed a one-year fellowship in urban planning at MIT. All her experience notwithstanding, Harvard presented a whole new realm of opportunities. “In one way, it was to retool myself,” she explains. “I hadn’t been to school for seven years. I wanted to learn other strategies to work better with governments and with other international organizations. I wanted to learn about better tools for negotiating, better tools for organizing, to tell my narrative.”

There was another, even more powerful motivation to come to Harvard: the “people aspect.” Buchbinder says she was eager to meet other Mason Fellows, who came from more than 60 developing countries. “I wanted to share with them what we’re doing, and I wanted to learn from them about what they’ve done, to understand what challenges they have been through and how they have overcome them,” she says. “It has been just an endless well of wisdom, to be surrounded by these people.” 

Buchbinder’s professors, too, have provided a great deal of support to Education for Sharing during her time at Harvard. Ricardo Haussman, professor of the practice of economic development at HKS, invited Buchbinder to his annual conference to introduce her to fellow social entrepreneurs. Mark Moore, Hauser professor of nonprofit organizations, counseled her on how to assemble an international board for her organization, which currently has separate boards in each country it operates in.

Robert Kaplan, the HBS professor, advised her on strategy as her organization grew. His wife, Ellen, who has also worked on the management of nonprofits, did the same, introducing Buchbinder to new contacts. Since Buchbinder “clearly could not be in every location at the same time,” Ellen Kaplan said, “it was very important to have this strategy outlined for all of her various leaders in these different cities, so that everyone was cognizant of the mission and understood the best way to achieve results.” 

This May, Buchbinder graduated with her master's in public administration. The same week, she gave birth to her first child, Clara Kumi. “One of my plans, for sure, is my baby,” she says. “I’ve always known that I want to be an active professional at the same time as having a family. For me, it’s very important because that’s the example I grew up with—my mom has been a very hardworking woman always.” 

So Buchbinder will become a working mother, continuing to work to build Education for Sharing. Her next goals are to expand her U.S. operations—she envisions starting up somewhere in California, or perhaps in Chicago—and to investigate how her approach might be adapted for younger children. Education for Sharing is also one of 15 finalists for a World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) award, in a competition for education projects sponsored by the government of Qatar. The six awardees will be announced in September.

Buchbinder has also been part of a team seeking to effect change here at Harvard—they want the University to enhance childcare services for students who are also parents—and she says she has met with President Drew Faust to discuss her proposal. She wants Harvard “to serve the needs of students with young children, so they can achieve their fullest potential while being here. I think that’s very important.”

The professors and students she met during her time here, Buchbinder says, “are the reason why we want to form better citizens from young ages: so that they can become like this—professors like this, students like this, change makers.” Buchbinder’s time at Harvard has been “very exciting, not only because of the road, but also because you realize that you’re not alone in this quest for a better world.”

Aidan Langston ’19 is this magazine’s 2016 Daniel Steiner Undergraduate Editorial Fellow.

Read more articles by Aidan Langston

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