Friday, September 17, 2021

Rina Madhani (GLS '14), Co-founder & Executive Director of the Literary Organization Start Lighthouse

Rina working for Start Lighthouse

Start Lighthouse was founded by NYU alumni Rina Madhani (GLS '14), Tejas Vemparala (STERN '14) and Brittany Kramer (CAS '14) during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in response to widespread school and library closures. Start Lighthouse creates access through customized literacy kits, literacy programming with a racial justice lens, and monthly community workshops for family members and caregivers in the South Bronx.

Since launching, they have collected 5,186 brand-new books for our customized literacy kits, formed a partnership with Congresswoman Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez to scale their programming, and held a virtual decolonizing education hackathon that brought together 120 individuals nationally. Rina sat down with us to talk about her experiences at NYU and what motivated her to co-found Start Lighthouse.

What did you study at NYU?

I was enrolled in Global Liberal Studies, which has a multi-disciplinary approach and allowed me to have a well-rounded experience during my time at NYU. My concentration was Politics, Rights and Development (PRD). I was able to learn more about the role of justice, especially when it came to human rights and social and economic development around the world.  

Rina and fellow NYU student in Spain
Rina and Fellow GLS Student in Spain

What is your favorite memory of your time at NYU?

My time at NYU is really embodied by a person and the relationship I was able to build with her – Professor Mejorado I was enrolled in her seminar Economic Development & Historical Patterns of Industrialization during my sophomore year and she was so captivating and passionate about her subject area. She continuously motivated me and guided me as I was completing my senior year thesis.

Your thesis was on Social Media: The Catalyst for a New Youth Identity in the Middle East. Can you tell us about it?

It was a very memorable part of my journey at NYU and the capstone that brought together my experience at Global Liberal Studies. My thesis was on the critical role that social media platforms played in awakening a new youth class and identity in the Middle East. Through these platforms, youth were able to create their own public spaces where they were the ones in charge. They were empowered to openly disseminate information and help shape the political discourse in that region at that time. It helped me realize how impactful social media platforms can be. Previously young people in the Middle East had been excluded from political participation. This was their opportunity to speak out against corruption and authoritarian regimes and become empowered.

Rina in Spain for Study Abroad
GLS Study Abroad in Spain

What motivated you to co-found Start Lighthouse?

It was due to the experiences that I had as an educator in the South Bronx. When I was teaching, I became witness to inequities that happen institutional-wise within our education system. I began my teaching career as a tenth grade ELA teacher at a public high school in the community and I was struck by how far behind many of my students were – some were at a fourth-grade reading level. That was when I realized that my students of color had just been pushed through the education system without getting access to the fundamental skills and services that they’ll need in order to truly be successful.

When I later transitioned into elementary education, I noticed that this problem was pervasive across all grade levels. This was especially true for students who had non-native English-speaking backgrounds. That’s when I realized that the greatest barrier to literacy was access to books and a lack of culturally affirming spaces in and outside of the classroom. Many of my students didn’t have books at home, especially if a majority of their parents’ income was going toward paying rent every month. Books were an impossible luxury for many of these kids.

Rina working for Start Lighthouse

Can you tell us what Start Lighthouse does?

Our organization addresses childhood illiteracy through an intergenerational approach. We not only empower students, we are also working with their family members and caregivers as well. We create access through our customized literacy toolkits that are designed to help build out their own home libraries. We have our very own racial justice literacy program called Woke Activists. It’s meant to design a safe space for students to have conversations pertaining to identity, race, racism and social justice in a developmentally appropriate and relevant way. 

We also host workshops for family members and caregivers based on what their literacy needs are in that moment. That’s how we disrupt the cycle of poverty – it’s all systemic. Ultimately, we’re trying to address gaps in literacy and access because they manifest in so many aspects of their lives.

More information about our work is available on our website.

What has been the impact of Start Lighthouse?

The response has been absolutely incredible. We’ve been fortunate to partner with Congresswoman Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez and her educational initiative in the South Bronx community. We’ve also cultivated partnerships with publishing houses, such as Scholastic, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hachette Book Group, and Mascot Books. 

In terms of our numbers, we’ve been able to impact 424 students in the South Bronx. We’ve distributed 1,251 brand-new multicultural books to build out their home libraries. And 80% of our students have mastered key foundational reading skills to be reading at their grade level today.

Rina Virtually Teaches Genesis
Rina Virtually Teaches Genesis

Can you tell us about your work with Success Academy Charter Schools?

I’ve had the opportunity to take on different roles. I’ve served as a classroom teacher in the Bronx, and I also work as a data analyst. My time at Success Academy has taught me about the importance of data and how it can be leveraged to drive and inform instructional practices to really ensure that we are meeting the learning needs of each individual child.

What advice do you wish you'd received when you were a student?

I wish someone told me to take risks and to view mistakes as learning opportunities. It took me up until the pandemic to realize that the community needed me and it was time to step up and get going. I needed to put my fear of failing aside, and I wish I’d known that earlier.

I recommend that you find your champions – someone who sees your potential and knows you can do 150% more. And when you find those champions, never let them go. I’ve been so fortunate to have incredible partners. I founded the organization with two other NYU alumni - Tejas Vemparala (STERN '14) and Brittany Kramer (CAS '14) – who I met during my freshman year, back in 2010. Start Lighthouse is what it is today because of my partnership with them. They were the first people who I told about my idea and they asked me, “What are you waiting for? Let’s do this.” I hope that someday I can be that champion for someone else and help them realize their vision.

Rina and friend in Washington Square Park

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