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Dari Zwart was very quiet as a young girl. “I did not know exactly how to express my voice.”

Dari Zwart

Dari Zwart

She found her voice through Unidas, a youth leadership program of the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona.

Six years later that voice is heard in the Balkans in Eastern Europe. The Harvard junior is spending the 2014 spring semester studying and doing ethnographic research with the young people of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia.

“I never expected Unidas to have such a big impact – or that I would become such a leader,” she said. “Unidas inspired me to work with youth – to be part of solutions.”

She discovered Unidas through her English teacher as a sophomore at University High School in Tucson. “I really wanted to do something with public service or learn more about issues in the community. But I did not know where to start.”

Create Change, Invest in Women

The Unidas Girls’ Leadership and Philanthropy Program was the place. “It was one of the best experiences and decisions I’ve ever made,” Dari said. Unidas is one project of the Women’s Foundation, whose mission is to foster equity and opportunity for women and girls. The foundation’s motto is “Create change, invest in women.”

Unidas recruits high school girls to come together and learn about issues from professionals in their community, build consensus about what specific concerns are most important to them as a group, then go through a grants process to select and fund a nonprofit organization involved in the type of social change they chose.

Participants gain hands-on experience in community service, leadership, social justice and grant-making – all centered around helping improve the quality of life for women and girls in Southern Arizona. “Unidas” is the feminization of the Spanish word for “United.”

“Unidas really works building the group community. We learn to trust each other and respect one another’s opinion,” Dari said. “Building respect is very important. Consensus is not always easy. We learn to come together with something that represents all of us – our passions and our interests.” The second year she mentored incoming girls and third year she was co-facilitator of the program with the director.

“It was exciting to take on a leadership role, to lead discussions and help everyone find their own voice, support individual girls and bring everyone together as a group.”

Outstanding Youth Philanthropist Award

Over the years The Lovell Foundation granted $90,850 to fund Unidas, then initiated a $25,000 challenge grant to support an endowment for the program. Ann Lovell has been a member of the Women’s Foundation Advisory Council since the early 2000s and served on foundation committees before that. “We want to bring up people in the community who understand the scope of organized philanthropy,” she said.

In November of 2012 Unidas received the Outstanding Youth Philanthropist Award from the Southern Arizona Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Dari’s family is from Holland. Dari is short for Darijn. She grew up speaking both Dutch and English and travels to Amsterdam to visit family once a year. In Tucson she’s studied Spanish and German. Now she’s learning Serbian by living there.

Through Unidas Dari was involved with organizations working directly with youth. When she headed to Harvard, she was undecided about what to study. Maybe biology? “When I came across social anthropology it combined my extracurricular and academic interests.” She found her calling.

International Cultural Experiences

The summer after her freshman year she went to Brussels, Belgium as an intern for the European Parliament. The next summer she did an internship in Bosnia. Now she’s in Belgrade in Serbia for the academic portion of the semester, then will spend several weeks in Kosovo for her research, specifically in a town located between Croatia and Bosnia. Both are intertwined in her research.

After the most recent Balkan war in the 1990s “everything was so charged,” she said. Ethnic identities are very strong. “How you experienced the Balkan war shapes how people come together.” This is especially challenging for the youth “who need to come together to better the future – of work, school, economy, society.”

She and two teammates organized a summer educational initiative for youth in Mostar, Bosnia, focused on teaching English and practical skills. They recently received a $10,000 Davis Grant for Peace to support the project. “I have so many warm memories of working together with Unidas girls to fundraise and put together events – which I believe will really come in handy this summer,” she said.

She hopes to continue her research, perhaps returning as a Fulbright scholar. “After I graduate I would like to go back to the Balkan region to do more research. I want to live in Europe for a year. It’s where my roots are.”

Dari said, “I cannot say enough to describe what impact Unidas had on me. I’m still discovering different ways of looking at the world. It helped me focus. It helped me grow and think more broadly. Is this something that really matters? Is this important in a bigger way in the world?”