April Changemaker: Saif Ishoof

April Changemaker: Saif Ishoof

“People are not problems to be solved, but potential to be unlocked.” – Saif Y. Ishoof, Esq, Vice President for Engagement, Florida International University

As Vice President for Engagement at Florida International University (FIU), Saif builds win-win-win partnerships that create sustainable change for the university and its students; public and private sector partners; and the global community. Prior to joining FIU, Saif has served as founding executive director for City Year Miami, and CEO of FCT Technologies Corp.

What inspires you?
I am a product, and beneficiary, of this community. I immigrated to Miami at 2 years old. But for the guidance I received from my parents and the many role models who have supported me through the years, I would not be where I am today. I feel like I would be selling my community short if I didn’t try to help others. In a way, it’s part of the karmic balance of life – to improve the lives in this community that improved my life.

In your opinion, what are the top 3 issues facing Miami today? 

Miami is a snapshot of what the country will look like in the future – but here and now. We have an opportunity to delve into three issues: 1) Physical: We will be directly impacted by the rise in seal level, and need to plan for its long-term implications. 2) Equity: Miami is an appealing global metropolis, but there are also those that are socially and economically disconnected from these opportunities. 3) Identity: Miami is a millennial city. By that, I mean that Miami is 119 years old. It’s the largest, new city in America. Similar to other great millennial cities, Miami needs a deeper definition of who we are. In some ways, FIU’s path mirrors this: it is the 4th largest public research university in America, but it’s only 50 years old.

Where does FIU fit in?
FIU is embedded in Miami. So goes Miami, so goes FIU – and vice versa. We are a public research university with a powerful acedmic and public mandate. And we are constantly looking at how to help our students have a positive impact on their community. Our president is a visionary leader who has a view of what education must look like to support our students, including many first-generation college students. In the Office of Engagement, we are driving this work by building transformational partnerships. We’re helping our students and faculty, a community of engaged problem solvers, to connect with the public and private sector to create change. Additionally, FIU students tend to stay in South Florida, so we’ve built a network of alumni with a lot of civic pride, who are committed to building up their community.

Another strength of FIU alumni can be seen through mentorship. Though Miami, like other cities, has challenges to upward mobility, it is also a place where many those who have been successful are mentors to students. Our young people have access to immense brain power in the form of successful immigrant entrepreneurs who have taken on student mentees. This is something that is special about Miami. Many of those successful are only 30 – 40 years from their own origin story. They make themselves available, I think, because of a deep sense of empathy. This experience has created leaders who are willing to be bold and who create even more connection points and a strong network for young people.

What’s your advice for the next generation of city changemakers?
This might be an unconventional take, but I believe that well intentioned, ill-informed people can be dangerous. There’s no sugar rush, and no short cuts. Undertaking systems change is complex, and its important to do your homework, to really dive deeply into the issues in order to understand the origins of these multidimensional problems. Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, is an example of someone who has done this well. To really have the right mindset to serve communities that have been forgotten, you must dig in to these complex issues. Looking at the successful model he’s created – which President Obama has sought to replicate nationally – you can see the positive impact that digging in can have.

What should we know about your work that you haven’t yet mentioned because I didn’t ask the right question?
Put partnership at the center of your work. There is no way to drive the ball forward if any one entity things it can take things on alone. Putting partnership at the center requires putting aside brand identity, focusing less on who gets the credit than on creating a positive outcome. Cities that are really moving forward exponentially are those that doing this successfully.

About the City Changemaker

Saif Y. Ishoof, Esq. serves as Vice President for Engagement at Florida International University. He was appointed in May 2015 by President Mark B. Rosenberg and leads the office in incubating transformational partnerships. As VP for Engagement, Saif builds win-win-win partnerships that create sustainable change for the university and its students; public and private sector partners; and the global community. He is also a Green Fellow at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.

Previously, Saif served as founding Executive Director at City Year Miami, which provides 17-24 year olds an opportunity to serve one year in high-need schools as tutors, mentors and role models to address the opportunity gap. Under Saif’s leadership, the organization more than doubled in size and scope with an expansion from 8 to 17 schools.

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