Dadjie Saintus endeavors to create opportunity in the lives of children that need it. As the philanthropy officer for UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) USA in Washington, D.C., Dadjie uses her skills as a fundraiser to provide aid to children worldwide.
Born in Haiti but raised in Boston, Dadjie’s family immigrated to the United States when she was very young. She attended Boston Latin School and later Harvard University. After college, she moved to New York City to be an educator through Teach for America. Dadjie spent more than 10 years in the city significantly involved in volunteer-based positions and activities. She became proficient in fundraising while working at Columbia University where she earned her Master’s of Public Administration. After her time at Columbia, she decided to use her talents in fundraising through UNICEF USA and moved to D.C. in early 2019.
PASSION FOR GLOBAL ISSUES
Consistently dedicated to education throughout her life, Dadjie said her schooling influenced her desire to volunteer from an early age.
“My education has played a huge role in my philanthropy,” she said. “It was always something that was incredibly important to my family. My parents decided to come here because they wanted to offer my brother and me more opportunities in life, so ever since I was a child there was that encouragement to work hard in school and to do my best. In high school, there was a course I took called ‘Facing History in Ourselves.’ The purpose of the course was to introduce students to the idea of human beings as change agents, and throughout the course we studied all the different times in history when people make choices. The idea we learned was that, ‘People make choices, choices make history, so what choice are you going to make?’
That class really sparked my ongoing desire to be a change agent. And in college, I was fascinated by human thought and behavior, so I spent a lot of time doing research in the role of intergroup relationships. I studied how different groups in society collaborate and some of the implicit biases or actions people take that can become obstacles for others. All of those things fueled my ongoing interest in the way that people take action. After college I felt compelled to make an immediate impact in the community, which led me to Teach for America.”
Teach for America (TFA) is a nonprofit organization that seeks out leaders to teach in lower income communities and work against educational inequity. Dadjie said TFA greatly influenced her passion for serving children in need.
“Through TFA, I taught third grade in the Bronx for two years,” she said. “That experience was really eye-opening to the challenges in our inner cities. The school where I taught was very under-funded. I found with my students that they all had so many interesting backgrounds and skills and talents, but they also faced a lot of challenges. I had a classroom full of students of different ethnic backgrounds, who spoke different languages, and in some instances they had challenging home environments or special needs, but they were all together in one classroom. To me, it was all about how I could serve the needs of each student and help them succeed.”
Dadjie said what she learned from that experience is how important it is to collaborate with the different stakeholders who are part of solving the problem.
“As a teacher, I had to wear a lot of different hats. It was working one-on-one with the kids in the classroom, but also reaching out to their parents at home. It was collaborating with my fellow teachers so we could make our lessons better, but also trying to reach a child to get them more excited about their schoolwork. It was communicating with the school administration and the community and it needed to happen on all levels because the issues with that education system were vast and complex. That had a huge impact on my mentality towards equity issues at the start of my career, and it’s something that has continued to fuel me,” she said.
Dadjie said her attitude as a teacher between her first and second year with TFA shifted as she became more comfortable with her students. She said she was able to connect with them in a different way and broaden their education during her second year through a memorable field trip.
“It was incredibly challenging to establish myself as an educator, as somebody in the room who can be authoritative but also supportive and loving,” she said. “But by the second year I felt more confident in who I was, so I got to connect with my students a lot more. I was more my authentic self and often found ways to connect what I was teaching them to experiences in my own life. That year I was able to take my students on a field trip to the Statue of Liberty, which was very memorable for a number of them. Many of them had never left their neighborhoods before, so I loved seeing how much fun they were having. It was really one of the great takeaways from TFA. I knew their eyes were opened just a little bit more.”
As her passion for global issues grew, Dadjie found a way to connect with her origins through mission trips to Haiti in both 2014 and 2018.
“I always yearned to go back to my homeland, it was just a question of what would take me there and when,” she said. “It worked out so beautifully when I was a member of Trinity Baptist Church and my now good friend Annie, who had been volunteering in Haiti for many years, met me. When she found out I was Haitian she was thrilled and told me that I’d be going with her to Haiti at some point. And I knew I would because it had been something I’d always wanted to do. It was a perfect partnering of interests and people, so we both started planning the first trip. She had previously been going to do a lot of construction projects, but we wanted to do something different. So when we went on the trips in 2014 and 2018, we focused more on working with the kids who lived in the orphanage and sharing resources and our faith with the pastors there in Haiti. In the village, Mirebalais, we came alongside the people by supporting their local leaders with some trainings that we gave, and we invested our time and skills with the youth in the orphanage. We also brought supplies and resources that they were running low on, so before both trips we did drives at Trinity to bring in supplies that the orphanage needed.”
Dadjie said she has created deep connections with the people in Mirebalais. Being with the children there has deepened her passion for creating opportunity through UNICEF.
“Over the course of both trips, especially on the second, I embraced being a bridge between the trip participants and the Haitians we were meeting,” she said. “I think they saw me as that connector because of my background. And as someone who speaks Creole, I was able to take on the role of being a translator. That was a highlight for me, being able to offer that to the people we were serving. And, on the first trip that I went on, I really connected with one of the girls, Elshada or ‘Da Da’ for short.”
After her first trip to Haiti, Dadjie said she started sponsoring Da Da, which allowed her to stay in touch and visit with her on her second trip in 2018.
“I’ve found my motivation for the trips through how personal it’s been to me, and that’s how I find my motivation through what I do with UNICEF today. When I look in the eyes of the girls in Mirebalais, in the eyes of Da Da, or of a young boy I met through UNICEF, I often see reflections of myself. It’s children with the same kind of curiosity. They have big hearts, big minds, and they just need that opportunity. I’ve been given that chance, so I want to create it for them as well.”
GROWING THROUGH FUNDRAISING
After working with TFA, Dadjie said she became increasingly interested in international issues and became more involved in taking on service positions.
“That’s when I joined World Vision, a humanitarian aid organization, and UN Women, a United Nations entity where I served for the empowerment of women. As I got involved in those incredible organizations, I educated myself on global poverty, justice issues, health issues, health disparities across the world, economic issues, gender inequality and the unique challenges that women face in the developing world. I immersed myself in studying all of that and it was a way for me to not only learn, but it also introduced me to speaking out about those issues. Some of the things I loved doing was organizing these events where we would highlight an issue like child marriage and talk about what could be done. We brought women and allies together and it was a way to not only learn about my passions, but it helped to get the word out and brought other people to it so they could take action, too. I then decided to formally study international development at Columbia University, and I also worked at Columbia as a fundraiser on the medical center side, so I was able to marry two things I was doing.”
Dadjie said by gaining experience with fundraising at Columbia she was able to prepare herself for her current position at UNICEF.
“I started working at the Columbia University Medical Center because of the growing interest I got from TFA for global issues and creating opportunity,” she said. “I worked at Columbia for seven years and built my fundraising career during some incredible different campaigns that the medical school had going on at the time. One of them was a campaign to build a medical and graduate building, which was my first huge capital fundraising campaign. At the time I was supporting my boss, one of the lead fundraisers, who I learned so much from. By the time we had fundraised the total amount, I had become immersed in the world of fundraising and philanthropy to see that capital campaign finished. And after the opening of the building, The Vagelos Education Center, I was able to see it come to fruition during my time on campus. I saw how the medical students, our future doctors, now have the opportunity to learn in an incredible state-of-the-art facility. It showed me the possibilities of philanthropy and fundraising. And after that fundraising experience, I was able to transition to more of a frontline role for Columbia’s 250th anniversary campaign in 2017. The focus was on getting scholarships to make it possible for students of all backgrounds to come to Columbia and study medicine. That spoke so deeply to me, and again, showed me the power of fundraising. Those were the experiences I had at Columbia that developed me as a fundraiser. And once the 250th anniversary campaign had wrapped up, I felt like I wanted to do something that would allow me to bring together my passion for global issues with my skills as a fundraiser. That’s how I made my transition to my current position. In early 2019 I saw an opportunity open up with UNICEF USA, and to me, the mission of UNICEF is to build a world where every child can thrive. That just speaks to me at my core in every single way, so I applied to the role, and now I’m here in DC. Now I have the ability to take part in a movement for children because of my experiences as a fundraiser.”
Dadjie said her outlook on life has been changed significantly through her major involvement in philanthropy.
“It’s all been so transformative for me,” she said. “I feel like I’m living out my calling, and not everyone will necessarily have the opportunity to do that. But for me, the chance to work in global development to create opportunities for children around the world, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s taught me to be grateful every day. I’m the frontline fundraiser here, so I kind of have to build from scratch a foundation for UNICEF to be able to raise money and resources. It’s been a lot of trial and error, a lot of challenges, but thankfully my boss has really empowered me to go out there, talk to people, seek new funders, seek new partner organizations, and do what I need to do to find new people who have the same vision. My work in philanthropy and with UNICEF has definitely made me more of a risk taker. I normally don’t consider myself one to take risks, I like to plan and be strategic. But I see now that I felt so called to this mission that I was willing to leave my work in New York behind, where I lived for more than 10 years, to come and do this. I started over on my own, and philanthropy is what made me take that risk. I feel grateful for that; I don’t want to live a life where I look back and think, ‘What could have been?’ because I didn’t take action or make a choice out of fear.”
FAITH AND MESSAGES
Dadjie said her faith has been the leading factor in her involvement in service.
“There are multiple different sources of inspiration for my philanthropy, but the most important has been my faith,” she said. “I’m a woman of deep Christian faith. My father is a pastor, so I grew up involved in our local church and often did service and volunteer work through that. I would really be nowhere without my faith. The first thing I did when I came here to D.C. was I found a church. Learning the teachings of God’s Word has always been so inspiring to me. I draw so much strength from the idea that we have a call to love our neighbors as ourselves. I’ve always believed that a pursuit of equity and justice are fundamental to the way that I live and express my love for people, and that’s a core to my faith.”
Often motivated to serve when she thinks about how different her life could have been if she had not been given the opportunities she had as a child, Dadjie said she believes it is important for everyone to maintain an involvement in volunteerism.
“I feel like I’m living out what’s possible for every child,” she said. “If my parents weren’t able to come here [to America], it all could’ve been so much different. I think talent and skill and grit and drive are equally distributed across all of humanity, but opportunity is not. That is what drives me; we have all kinds of people who all want to live out their full potential. But what can we do to remove the barriers that get in the way? You have to figure out what your contribution to that is.
“It’s so important to be a part of something bigger than yourself. I don’t think human beings were made to live out their lives disconnected from each other. We find our purpose when we’re not only connected to each other but to something bigger. For me, that comes from a big fundraising background, but I think anyone can find meaning in their life by connecting to something outside themselves. Whatever issue you’re really passionate about, whatever drives you, it allows you to be a part of something more. We as human beings were wired for that, and service allows us to tap into that which connects all of humanity.”
Dadjie said she wants to pass on the importance of learning from people who are acting as change agents around the world. She said there are opportunities to be a philanthropist and make an impact through service everywhere; you just have to look for them.
“There’s no one way to do philanthropy,” she said. “In our current culture, there’s this image of a philanthropist as someone who’s a large scale donor, a Rockefeller or a Carnegie. But we can all be philanthropists in our own way. Embrace that and seek your unique way to make an impact. All it takes is to give your time, talent, or treasure towards a cause to make the world better, and that can be done in so many different ways. There’s so much wisdom to be found in what people have done before us. So I think that while going on this journey, always be open and curious and listen to others. I love to learn about the work of people like John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bryan Stevenson, people who have been active in doing work for equal justice. It’s important to learn about what others who are on the front lines of change are doing, what they’ve done, and what they’ve learned from those experiences that we can internalize and apply to our own movement. We all have so much information to learn today right at our fingertips. It allows us to not only see what’s possible, but gives us the ability to make it happen.
“Keep yourself curious and don’t accept things for what they are. Always be looking for what could be, and don’t let anything hold you back from what can be.”
To learn more about UNICEF USA, visit unicefusa.org/