Dancing into a Happier Future with Kunle Oladehin of EDN!

Akash Ghai

In 2003, when an 18-year old Kunle Oladehin went to Harvard to study biology, it was supposed to be his first step towards medical school. Little did he know at the time that dancing was to become his passion, mission and vocation in life.

14 years later, Kunle is the Executive Director of Everybody Dance Now! or EDN! as it’s better known; and the founder of the New York chapter of the organization.

EDN! teaches hip hop dance to under-served children and youth at low-income city schools. It does this via a number of service channels: after school programs, youth-serving organizations, affordable housing communities, homeless shelters and juvenile centers. EDN! achieves this by joining hands with different site partners already working with these segments and brings its own resources for street-dance exposure. As dancing classes are held after school and during summer vacations when most students’ parents are at work, these also help prevent learning loss, inactivity and more serious issues such as drugs, alcohol, gang violence, crime, and teen pregnancy. As the Executive Director of EDN! Kunle is completely immersed in all its activities.

However, Kunle’s first brush with dance happened at Harvard. Coming from a strict immigrant household where academic excellence was given paramount honor, Kunle favored medicine. At Harvard he signed up for the campus hip hop dance company. It was to be a life changing decision. Continuing with his studies, it was dance that gave him self-expression, lifelong friends and a way to inspire others. After graduation, he worked in HIV/AIDS research which led to an interest in community health.  

“If you’re gifted at something, that’s probably a hint that you have a contribution to make to society.”

Foregoing medical school, Kunle went to Columbia University, studied public health and later began working in Pulmonary Medicine at Columbia Medical Center. But dance remained his passion. Alongside working as a scientist, he remained active in street dance communities, taking part in competitions around the world.  In 2013, Kunle founded Get Down for the Cause, a project to strengthen the New York dance scene. Joining hands with like-minded people, he organized hip hop dance and culture workshops.

Kunle’s dance network included now long-time friend Jed Forman, whose wife Kelli became EDN!’s national program director.  Kunle discovered EDN! while collaborating with Kelli on a documentary showcasing hip hop dance history.

EDN! was founded by 14-year old Jackie Rothman in 2005 to take dance and the arts to under-served youth. At the age of 12, she had been performing for a group of kids with disabilities when the music stopped and the issue couldn’t be fixed. The students in the audience asked if they could dance. Jackie invited them up and saw the joy reflected in their experience of transitioning from observers to dancers. EDN! was born and it quickly expanded to working with dozens of site partners across Santa Barbara and Goleta, CA. In 2010, EDN! was featured on the national MTV show, America’s Best Dance Crew. In 2011 it was voted as Santa Barbara’s “Youth Agency of the Year.” A year later EDN! expanded to over 20 cities across the United States, led entirely by young people.

Knowing the mission and activities of EDN!, Kunle needed no persuasion. In February, 2016, he quit his job as a Researcher at Columbia Medical Center and joined EDN!, taking up the vacant post of executive director. Finally, his passion became his vocation and life mission.

Under his leadership, EDN! is scaling its national footprint. From a 100% youth-led volunteer model, it is now bringing in professional paid staff. They are also working with professors at NYU’s Global School of Public Health to create short, medium and long-term impact measuring systems.

As with all NPO’s the issue of funding is never too far away. EDN! hasn’t relied on government funding for itself, but some of the schools and centers they work in are reliant on grants, which can affect their site partnerships as the political climate changes. They have been looking to diversify their funding streams and Kunle hopes that donors will show more support towards their initiatives.

As per the growing pains of many organizations, is a demand for manpower. At present EDN! boasts a talented roster of teachers and administrators. But with increasing operational growth, finding and supporting new staff is an ongoing challenge. 

“It’s always a chicken and egg situation where we need funds for talent and the talent helps bring in more funds.”

EDN! spends maximum resources on hiring and training better instructors as well as on refining curriculum for weekly classes. Kunle feels that the more they can pour into teachers, the more they can improve each student’s experience.

Kunle is a big believer in building relationships. Getting to know site partners, donors, and parents is plays a big role in his responsibilities. When these stakeholders can see how much EDN! values their voice, it helps sustain the organization over the long-term.

EDN! has high future aspirations and Kunle knows that there is plenty more work to be done. By 2022 he aims to firmly establish EDN! in 10 cities across the US. He envisions each chapter becoming self-sustained with local staffing and growing revenue, connections and support. From simply serving schools in a community, he wants EDN! to become a part of the neighborhood infrastructure with the potential to reach more people than ever before.

He deeply feels that education of young people needs to change with higher access to the resources, mentors, and connections needed to thrive. His message to the younger generation is both inspiring and simple: the world is yours. Don’t buy into any narrative that hints otherwise.

Key Lessons from Kunle’s Story:

  1. Follow your passion: Keep following your passion even if you do not (or cannot) make it your profession initially.
  2. Stay connected with like-minded people: New avenues open when like-minded people stay connected through a widening network. Meet, talk, engage, discuss, swap ideas – its the most fertile ground for brainstorming.
  3. Build strong relationships with your stakeholders: Get to know the people connected to your mission – whether they’re participants, donors, volunteers, site partners or relatives of those you are working with. Let them see that their opinion and voice matter to you and you’ll reach your goals faster.

Check out EDN!

Connect with Kunle on LinkedIn.

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Akash Written by:

Akash has worked with small and mid-sized NGOs and social enterprises from around the world and specializes in assessing operations and management alongside creating growth opportunities for such organizations. He established Development Three (D3) a firm that delivers on this premise. Based on his experiences with NGO/NPO founders, he conceptualized and established the Founding Stories project.

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