Rina Madhani (she/her)

NYU Alumni Changemaker of the Year
(GLS ’14)

Changemaker Rina Madhani

Founder, Start Lighthouse

Bridges educational gaps with books, self-created literacy kits, and programs for marginalized students, fostering belonging.

As an elementary school teacher in the Bronx, Rina Madhani was painfully aware of society’s literacy gap. Children in low-income communities have little access to books (and little representation in books), and their reading skills lag far behind those of their more affluent peers. But when the pandemic sent students retreating to their bedrooms, this inequity became more dire. “I remember receiving a call from a desperate parent,” says Madhani. “She wanted to know how to get reading material for her child. They had nothing.”

Seeing so many students isolated in literary deserts, Madhani felt compelled to act. She established Start Lighthouse, a nonprofit determined to distribute 500 new books to underserved students, accompanied by literacy kits Madhani designed herself. The idea struck a chord, attracting partnerships with administrators, community members, and local officials—including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. By the time schools reopened, Start Lighthouse had become an official Department of Education vendor, and its footprint had grown substantially.

As of August 2023, Start Lighthouse has distributed more than 23,000 new books. They are refurbishing unused school spaces to create inclusive modern libraries. Their “Literary Adventures” program invites BIPOC authors into schools to lead interactive, student-relevant literary experiences. Madhani has been honored by UPenn and NYU—her two alma maters—and featured on media platforms across the city. But this recognition pales next to the thrill she feels in giving marginalized students a sense of belonging through literature. “We have uncovered a powerful model,” Madhani says, “and I have national aspirations for it.”