College students are perpetually on the cusp: of working, independence, adulthood, their future. The desire to reach the end of college and the beginning of the rest of their lives can cause students to overlook the journey. But Leila Chreiteh wants to target students while they’re still in college and help them turn their campuses into movements for social change.
A self-designed human rights major and recent alum of Agnes Scott College, Leila devoted her junior year to starting the Agnes Scott chapter of Every Campus a Refuge. “It seemed intuitive to me,” she said. Founded in September 2015 by an associate professor at Guilford College, Every Campus a Refuge (ECAR) was a movement inspired by Pope Francis’ call for parishes to take in refugees.
Agnes Scott College’s chapter was matched with their first family in March, but it took a lot of effort to get there. In December 2015, Leila started a petition to house a refuge family. It circulated during the Spring semester and managed to garner about 500 signatures from a student body of 1,200. A house was found and furnished with donations from a successful fundraiser.
A family of four from Iraq currently live in the house. “The mom makes really amazing baklava,” Leila said. Both of the parents have been able to find jobs and improve their English. Right now, the campaign is focused on resettling the family by finding an off-campus house.
During the founding of ECAR at Agnes Scott, Leila discovered it would be easier to apply for funding and lead a successful campaign if she were able to register the program as a non-profit. Along the way, however, she realized she wanted to start more than a single-purpose campaign.
“During my last year of college people would come up to me knowing that I had started a 501©3 and knowing that I had run this successful campaign on campus and they would ask me to do other things,” Leila said. “They would ask me if INTERSECT [the name of the 501©3 entity which facilitated ECAR at Agnes Scott College] had the capacity to facilitate other types of movements.”
Even on a small college campus, the number of students who came asking for help with planning and structuring other campaigns and movements was staggering. “By being approached by so many people I saw there was a huge need for something like this in academia,” Leila said.
INTERSECT’s mission is to aid students in building fruitful organizations to impact social change. Part of their statement reads: “Focused on bridging the gap in academic theory and activist practices through empowerment and partnerships, INTERSECT models how college campuses may act as a conduit for progressive change through student-led ventures.”
The name, Leila said, is a play on Kimberle Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality in feminism, “the intersection of different ideas coming into play. And we thought that there are, on any given college campus, the intersection between students, movements that they have, and actual fruitful improvements made on the campus. That’s often overlooked.”
In Leila’s opinion, students are seen as numbers or donors, not full-bodied people with lots of intersecting identities. If looked at one-dimensionally, their needs and ambitions can’t be adequately met.
“Students have a very unique coalition of experiences in that point in their life,” Leila said. She pointed to the history of student led protests and how many civil rights campaigns in the south started on college campuses.
Too often, however, academia as an institution is too absorbed with theory to put any energy into practice. “I believe there’s an obligation to do practice,” Leila said. “I think where academia falls short is giving students the tools to do the practice; however, I think academics are perfectly poised to put [theory and practice] together, but that’s simply not happening.” INTERSECT is meant to provide the tools they currently lack.
But for INTERSECT to succeed in its goal of facilitating multiple campaigns on multiple college campuses, they’ll need more manpower.
Of the original crew, only Leila has focused her post-graduate plans on building INTERSECT. “When I was thinking about post-grad life, I was thinking about the fact that I had started this 501©3,” she said. “That’s not something you can just kind of,” she paused to laugh, “throw away or tell the IRS ‘never mind, I quit.’”
Friends introduced her to Nikishka Iyengar, founder of The Guild. Iyengar describes The Guild as “a residential accelerator designed to help changemakers launch and scale their ventures while living a more intentional and sustainable life.”
Leila is currently part of The Guild’s 10-month residency fellowship in an ecovillage in East Atlanta. Fellows receive training on launching and scaling a social venture, resources to create a life and work plan, and one-on-one coaching from experts and potential advances.
“I’m really excited about being in a space 100% geared toward social impact,” Leila said. Over the summer, she’s worked on finding a co-director and board of directors for the non-profit, designing a website, and creating a minimum viable product to support her new business model.
“What do student activists need the most,” is the question that drives her work. Leila is committed to designing a non-profit with a sustainable model, capable of outliving the “life of a student,” or their traditional four years of matriculation.
I asked whether she would consider herself an entrepreneur. “Social entrepreneur,” was her response. “The realization that social impact, in its simplest form, relied on the skills of an entrepreneur was one of the largest shifts in thinking I have made in my short three months at The Guild,” she said. “But it makes sense: long-term and sustainable social impact requires a sustainable business model in order to bring a start-up from infancy to its fullest potential.”
Leila will be a host on The Guild’s podcast soon. The topic? Student activism in Atlanta, of course.