OneWorld Now! is a Swiss Army knife of a program. It nurtures intercultural understanding, promotes equality, and makes education accessible to more young people. That's just for a start.

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OneWorld Now! is a Swiss Army knife of a program.

It nurtures intercultural understanding, promotes equality, and makes education accessible to more young people. That’s just for a start.

It does that mainly through after-school classes in Arabic or Mandarin and in leadership skills, followed by study abroad for some students.

I heard about the program from an acquaintance whose daughter was preparing for a trip to Qatar. And then from someone who told me a group of students from Qatar were visiting Seattle this week for a conference. OneWorld Now! (OWN) was the connection, and at the heart of it is Kristin Hayden, founder and executive director of the 9-year-old organization.

At her office in Pioneer Square, Hayden told me she started OWN when she decided to stop grumbling and do something about some of the problems that concerned her.

Right now, the U.S. needs people who can speak Arabic and Mandarin Chinese and who can navigate those cultures.

“Less than 1 percent of American high-school students study Arabic. Less than 3 percent study Mandarin Chinese and less than 1 percent study abroad,” she said.

When she was 15, Hayden lived in South Africa as a Rotary exchange student (1986-87) during apartheid. The experience charged her passions for social justice and international connection. In college, she studied Russian and was in Moscow as the U.S.S.R. began to unravel.

After college, she spent seven years in Europe, and when she returned after 9/11, she found fear and a lack of understanding that prompted her to do something.

Hayden began with some basic ideas. If Americans are going to engage with the rest of the world better, they have to start with young people. Language is a gateway to communication and understanding. Travel is transformative.

She wanted to do something about inequality in education, and the skewed view foreigners sometimes have of Americans. Hayden put all that together and gradually shaped it into the OWN program. Students commit to two years of classes three days after school each week — two days of language instruction and a day of leadership training, which gives the students tools to unlock their potential.

More than 95 percent of OWN participants are students of color and 70 percent are from low-income families. Hayden said the program “gets them fired up about what is possible for themselves.”

More than 99 percent of students who finish the OWN program go on to college, most are the first in their families to do so.

Rainier Beach High senior Ubah Deq will speak at the conference and is one of the students going to Qatar. “I was an average student,” she said. “Now I am a straight-A student,” because, “the staff is always there when we need help with essays, homework or college applications, anything.” She’s thinking of studying pre-med at The Evergreen State College.

OWN has received national recognition for its accomplishments and has attracted some committed financial supporters, chief among them, the Qatar Foundation International, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Starbucks.

The U.S.-based Qatar Foundation International is bringing students from that country to OWN’s annual Get Global youth conference this weekend. Currently 150 Seattle public-school students are in the OWN program. This year OWN opened a branch in Hawaii and started working with Seattle middle-school students at Aki Kurose and Denny.

“This is about access to education, at the end of the day,” Hayden said. “We are getting the results that everyone wants. … and who knew that it could be through exposing them to the world.”

Her set of tools works. Now, instead of complaining about problems, she can celebrate solutions.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or