Collage of 12 headshots

Meet the 2021 NYU Alumni Changemakers

A Dozen Pathbreakers Doing Their Best to Better Our World

Idealism. Vision. Determination. These are three words that spring to mind when describing this year’s stellar NYU Alumni Changemakers. True to its name, the program—which announced its first class of honorees in 2018—recognizes graduates who offer hope of an improved, more equitable future for the vulnerable, disenfranchised, and underserved through their innovative and tireless work. The selection process goes as follows: anyone within or outside of the university can toss a name into the hat; the nominees are then reviewed and chosen by the NYU Alumni Association Board of Directors. On the following pages, we profile four of this year’s winners and spotlight the equally impressive remaining eight. Extended stories on all 12 can be found at nyualumni.com/changemakers.


Modern-Day Abolitionist

Diana Mao

WAG ’08, Master of Arts in Public Administration

It was a jaw-dropping moment that instantly made her skin crawl and left her with a pit in her stomach. Diana Mao had spent the summer in Cambodia as a FINCA International bank fellow offering microloans. She was working with lendees, many of whom were subsisting on less than a dollar a day.  Near the end of her 10-week fellowship, she and a colleague surveyed a single father with seven kids. “It was desperate circumstances. No running water, no electricity. After we completed the survey, he offered my male colleague his daughter in broken English,” Mao recalls. “She was probably no more than 7 or 8 years old. That really opened my eyes to the vulnerabilities that children face in these communities.” That same summer, “when we stayed in the cities and hotels,” Mao says, “I’d see very old foreign men parading the streets with young Cambodian girls. And I became interested in [learning about human trafficking].”

Photo of Diana Mao

Portrait courtesy of Diana Mao

            That young girl whose father offered her up became the impetus for Nomi Network (named after a Cambodian child Mao met the following year), which has taken on the enormous mission of ending modern-day slavery. The shocking truth is that 40 million people around the globe are currently enslaved, and 71 percent of them are women and girls. Mao’s vision since she cofounded Nomi Network has been to empower and employ females in vulnerable situations. What started with Mao going from brothel to brothel in India—where half of the world’s enslaved people live—now has seven training sites in India, two in Cambodia, and one in Dallas. Her work has drawn the attention of governments and royal families alike in several African and Middle Eastern countries who want to start Nomi Network programs.
            In less than a decade, Nomi has impacted the lives of more than 10,000 people. In 2019 it helped 2,297 women and girls, and 1,426 jobs were created for them. “Data shows that when women have a dollar, they invest 70 cents back into the lives of their family,” Mao says. “I envision millions of women getting their first job and changing their families, instead of girls being sent to the brothels or being married off at the age of 12.” 
            The most critical aspect of outreach is emphasizing that everyone is on the same level. “The idea of the Nomi family is that just because we’re the trainers, the org that’s helping them, they are equal to us,” says Mao. “Solidarity helps break the chains of slavery, which is hierarchical and based on socioeconomic barriers between communities.”

—Rory Evans; Reporting by Bridgette Austin


Lifeline for Kids Facing Juvenile Justice

Ali Knight

WAG ’07, Master of Arts in Public Administration in Public & Nonprofit Management & Policy

Ali Knight grew up in a time and place where it felt as if the entire public narrative was working against him. He was raised in East Harlem and Brooklyn, “when young Black and Brown boys were being called superpredators,” he says. “I was a teen in the ’90s during the time of the Central Park Five. What was being told about us was that you needed to be afraid of us and we needed to be locked up for life.”
            He also had to navigate around drugs and crime in his community—and dealt with addiction and incarceration within his own family. Knight was drawn to alternatives: “I loved basketball, dancing, acting, and art. My ability to explore my identities and build my confidence through those mediums allowed me to escape the condition of my reality.”

Photo of Ali Knight

Portrait courtesy of Ali Knight

            But Knight is quick to point out that he wasn’t special—just a kid “lucky to have people who saw a lot in me, sometimes more than what I saw in myself. There were a lot of people who I looked up to, who were incredibly talented, who didn’t escape. They were caught in what we called the pipeline of prison.”
            Now it’s Knight’s turn to see something in the kids he encounters. For the past 21 years, he has devoted his career to public service, focusing on youth development programs and juvenile justice reform. Last year, after six years as the chief operating officer, Knight became the president and CEO of Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY), a Bay Area agency working with kids who are currently, formerly, or at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system. Every year, the program helps 2,000 boys and girls who maybe aren’t so different from who Knight was as a teen. “What’s unique to FLY,” he says, “is the ability of the young people to convert their trauma into resilience and agency. How do you not only survive but also thrive and become a catalyst for change? We take that agency and turn it into action.” It should come as no surprise that FLY’s Youth Advisory Council, comprising young people who have completed juvenile probation, are not only sharing their insights with others in the system but also agitating for change, Knight says. “They’re at the table with probation chiefs, district attorneys, public defenders, and presiding juvenile court justices, and having conversations about equity.” Those conversations are long overdue.

—Rory Evans; Reporting by Bridgette Austin

Exonerating the Wrongly Convicted

Headshot of Nina Morrison

Photo courtesy of Nina Morrison

Nina Morrison

LAW ’98, Juris Doctor

Senior litigation counsel at the Innocence Project, Morrison has helped free 30 innocent people from prison and death row using DNA and new evidence. She also specializes in litigating cases involving prosecutorial misconduct and accountability.

Headshot of Peter Neufeld

Photo courtesy of Peter Neufeld

Peter Neufeld

LAW ’75, Juris Doctor

Neufeld cofounded the Innocence Project, which has vindicated hundreds. The organization is at the center of a coalition that works to prevent injustices. Check out our profile of Neufeld from the Spring 2021 issue at nyu.edu/nyuam/neufeld.


Champion of Universal Voting Rights

Ellen Kurz

GAL ’80, Bachelor of Arts in Individualized Study

The 2020 presidential election was not Ellen Kurz’s first rodeo. For years, she has supported voting-rights champions running for state-level secretary of state and has worked on campaigns for George McGovern, Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. And as contentious and partisan as politics seems these days, Kurz, the president and founder of iVote, which advocates for inclusive voting rights, doesn’t consider this time a notable low point. “I think people are becoming more aware of it,” she says. “What’s worse now than the past 15 years is people not believing the election is won. That’s mind-boggling even to me, who’s been fighting voter suppression for a long time.” 

Headshot of Ellen Kurz

Portrait courtesy of Ellen Kurz

            Indeed, with iVote, Kurz has not only been playing defense against lawmakers who are trying to prevent people from voting, but she’s also on the offensive, aiming to make voting an automatic privilege. As she sees it, “voter registration is a kind of suppression.” Automatic voter registration (AVR) grants eligible people the right to vote when they interact with a government agency (get a driver’s license or state ID) unless they opt out, as opposed to opting-in registration. Kurz was a leading proponent of AVR, which is now in place in 20 states and Washington, DC—up from zero states six years ago.
            If everyone voted, maintains Kurz, it would alter the shape of so many issues. “Why is it that 80 percent of Americans think there should be gun control measures, yet we can’t pass one single piece of legislation like that in Congress?” she asks. Because, she posits, in presidential elections, fully half the eligible population doesn’t vote. And in local elections, that number can swell to 90 percent. “You’re getting lawmakers based on a slice of the citizens,” she adds. “It’s heavily weighted towards people who have means, those people who are voting.”
            Short-term, the goal of iVote is to put on notice those trying to suppress the vote. The long-term objective is universal voting, says Kurz: “You’re automatically registered, and everyone has [the day off to vote]. We put a premium on making it be a real democracy. We’re not electing a president with 60 percent of the vote. Or a mayor with 14 percent of the vote. Everyone’s vote should count, and it should be equal representation.”
            Thinking back on all the years, all the elections, all the campaigns, “it’s a long fight,” she says. But “I can’t think of anything better I’d want to do.”

—Rory Evans; Reporting by Bridgette Austin

Uplifting Vulnerable Youth

Headshot of Claudia Espinosa

Photo courtesy of Claudia Espinosa

Claudia Espinosa

WAG ’13, STEINHARDT ’23, Master of Public Administration in Public & Nonprofit Management & Policy/Doctor of Education in Leadership and Innovation

Latinas On the Verge of Excellence, founded by Espinosa a decade ago, educates girls and young women on college access and mental, physical, and reproductive health.

Headshot of Ilene Wilkins

Photo courtesy of Ilene Wilkins

Ilene Wilkins

WSUC ’82, Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Math

Wilkins is president and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy of Central Florida. Under her watch, the group strives to destigmatize special education and advocates to keep kids with a range of disabilities in the same learning environments as those without.


Tech Ed Provider in Conflict-Affected Areas

Alexandra Clare

SPS ’15, Master of Science in Global Studies

Alexandra Clare’s June 2014 trip to Iraq for her Center for Global Affairs master’s degree program was quite the educational experience: on the very day Clare arrived in Iraq, ISIS took over Mosul. She had a front-row seat to displacement and crisis, and there were so many elements that shocked her—not least, the broken humanitarian system. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in aid flowing into the region, more than 90 percent of the population was living in poverty. There were few long-term opportunities for education and employment for young adults.

Headshot of Alexandra Clare

Portrait courtesy of Alexandra Clare

            Ultimately, she cut that first trip short, but the idea of how to help had taken root: “I traveled back a couple of months later for my thesis and interviewed around 400 refugee youth. I was trying to gauge what their future looked like. If they could learn any skill, what would it be and why? Over 95 percent of the respondents said they were interested in technology.”
            With her background working in human rights and at the UN, Clare also recognized the long-reaching security threat of disenfranchised youth looking on as ISIS took over their country. “You have a cash-based terrorist organization recruiting people who are looking for a sense of belonging and purpose,” she says. “I wondered what education and economic opportunities would provide an alternative.” The idea for Re:Coded was born.
            Back in the United States, she was aware of the success of coding boot camps that led to jobs. Why couldn’t that happen in the Middle East? “You can work as a developer from anywhere with just a laptop and an internet connection. That’s powerful if you’ve been displaced and you don’t know how long you’re staying in a city,” Clare says. She saw a special opportunity for Re:Coded in the Middle East because “there are around 150 million youth living across the region, and it also has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.”
            So what was hatched first as her SPS thesis, then incubated at NYU, and is now its own entity has become the largest coding boot camp for conflict-affected and marginalized youth in the region. In just two years, it has prepared more than 1,800 participants with no programming experience for developer jobs, tripling their annual average salary. “I think it’s incredible that you come across these people whom you’ve given the opportunity to change their lives, and they take every tool in the toolbox and just run with it.”

—Rory Evans; Reporting by Bridgette Austin

Fighting for Equity

Headshot of Frank Leon Robers

Photo courtesy of Frank Leon Roberts

Frank Leon Roberts

GAL ’04, TSOA ’04, TSOA/GSAS ’20, Bachelor of Arts in Individualized Study, Master of Arts/Doctorate of Philosophy in Performance Studies

Roberts cofounded the National Black Justice Coalition and created the Black Lives Matter Syllabus. See our profile of Roberts from the Spring 2021 issue at nyu.edu/roberts.

Headshot of Edward Lee

Photo by Jolea Brown

Edward Lee

CAS ’95, Bachelor of Arts in Literature

Recognizing the lack of diversity in the restaurant business, chef, restaurateur, and best-selling author Lee cofounded the Let’s Empower Employment (LEE) Initiative. We profiled Lee in the Fall 2020 issue; you can read it at nyu.edu/nyuam/lee.


Forging New Paths

Madeleine Baran

GSAS ’04, Master of Arts in Journalism and French Studies

In her role as an investigative reporter at American Public Media and host of the award-winning podcast In the Dark, Baran has exposed corruption and injustice. Read our profile of Baran from the Spring 2021 issue at nyu.edu/nyuam/baran.

Headshot of Madeleine Baran

Portrait courtesy of Madeleine Baran

Isabel Ebel

TANDON ’34, Master of Science in Aeronautical Engineering

The first female in the United States to earn an aeronautical engineering degree, Ebel helped chart a course for the women who have followed her into the field she loved. Wishing to continue her studies after earning her undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering from MIT in 1932, Isabel Ebel (1908–1992) was initially rejected by NYU’s engineering school, which was then closed to women. But her friend Amelia Earhart angrily intervened, and Ebel, who was also a champion diver and swimmer, expert markswoman, and animal advocate, became the sole female in a class of more than 3,000 at NYU’s University Heights campus. There, she designed an aircraft that traveled up to 250 miles per hour and, in 1933, she plotted Earhart’s transcontinental flight from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Discrimination dogged Ebel in her job search, but she was eventually hired by Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation and later United Airlines and Point Mugu Naval Air Station, from which she retired in 1974.

Photo of Isabel Ebel with a model of a United Airlines turbojet