The M. Night Shyamalan Foundation Turns Barriers To Breakthroughs

Peak Johnson, for GPA -- The M. Night Shyamalan Foundation (MNSF) supports community leaders and activists, working to remove the barriers created by poverty and inequality which prevent communities from unleashing their full potential.

It accomplishes this task by focusing on core tenets: social justice and equality, the power of education and leadership.

“We’ve been around technically since 2001,” said Jennifer Walters-Michalec, executive director of the MNSF. “It was always operated as a small family foundation and I think our work has evolved over the years as we’ve done different things.”

Having spent five years working with nonprofits on quality healthcare and food access issues, Walters-Michalec joined the Foundation in 2007 as its first and only executive director.

She added that when the Shyamalan family first started practising philanthropy, their interests were geared toward poverty alleviation and working with different organizations in the hopes of eliminating the hurdles that sometimes marginalize communities.

“We sort of developed our model to be more leader-based because we didn’t want to limit our work to a specific geographic area,” she said. “What we found out is that our most successful work always involved an amazing leader and while there are a lot of organizations, it always takes that leadership to really impact the work they do.”

At the moment, the main focus for the foundation is to find more of these outstanding leaders to work with. This work can include grantmaking, assisting to expand their networks, or using the foundation to shine a spotlight on their work.

“Many of the communities that we are working in are overseas and it’s very tough to come into a community and make your own assessment. But community leaders always know best about what their communities need, so it’s our job to listen to the leader and build a relationship with that person so that they can really be candid about what their needs are.”

The M. Night Shyamalan Foundation enters into multi-year grant partnerships with a select group of leaders locally and around the world.

These leaders are social entrepreneurs who have demonstrated both resilience and commitment to addressing problems of poverty and inequality in their own community or a community they have ties with. They accomplish this in developing countries by ensuring that basic human needs are met and rights are protected, and ultimately providing increased access to educational opportunities.

Recently, the foundation has added two leaders, Katie Meyler, who in 2011 started an organization called More Than Me with no funds and no experience. The mission of More Than Me is to make sure education and opportunity, not exploitation and poverty, define the lives of the most vulnerable girls from the West Point Slum of Liberia.

It also added James Kofi Annan, who had been sold into slavery at the age of six and started his organization Challenging Heights in 2003 to save other children from a similar fate and empower them through education.

“We’ve helped people get access to water, get access to education and job search,” Walters-Michalec said. “Closer to Philadelphia we focus on urban education issues.”

The relationship with the MNSF and the city of Philadelphia stems from Shyamalan’s love of his hometown.

“It’s the greatest city so he is constantly wanting to promote the positive things that are happening,” Walters-Michalec said. “Obviously he lives nearby and makes most of his movies nearby, so he’s really trying to connect his work and relationship to the city with his philanthropy.”

In Philadelphia the MNSF works with Alejandro Gac-Artigas, creator of Springboard Collaborative, a summer literacy program aimed at closing the gap by turning the summer from a barrier into a launching point for low-income students and families.

“I think this foundation has the ability to raise the profile of not only the international leaders that we work with, but some of the talent that exists here in Philadelphia,” Walter-Michalec said. “I think one of Night’s primary goals is to highlight some of the good things that have happened or are happening here in Philadelphia and to be an advocate for the city and those in it.”

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