The 28-year-old, who was a high-school English teacher in New Orleans through the Teach for America program when Katrina hit, was fired due to the storm’s devastation. She went to Harvard for graduate school, but New Orleans drew her back. “When Katrina happened, I had to get back somehow,” she says.
She taught in New Orleans again for a few years after the hurricane. But she wanted to do more, especially after one of her students was shot. So Ms. Chen founded two nonprofit groups, one that helps educate students from low-income families and another that supports a network of committed social entrepreneurs.
She started a branch for the nonprofit group First Book, which gets discounted books from publishers. Students then get to select one to keep. More often than not, it’s the first book they own, she says. As an English teacher, she says she passionately believes in literacy, since it’s so critical to ending the cycle of poverty.
Ms. Chen also started a support group for social entrepreneurs, many of whom had innovative solutions for the city’s problems. They are a critical part of rebuilding this city, she says. An environmental company, for example, has a stated goal of changing the light bulb of every low-income person’s home in New Orleans to a greener one. The work is paid for by the profit the firm makes doing energy-efficient light-bulb installations from clients who are able to pay.
Ms. Chen says she feels hopeful that in five years, the next generation of young people will be more educated and “can have the skills to go into the world and be successful.” And when they graduate from high school and college and come back, they can be part of the city’s transformation. They’ll be the ones sustaining all the progress that’s been made, she says.