Liam Elkind’s mom has the philosophy that whenever you are receiving important news, just get the facts down and don’t let yourself react. Liam Elkind ’22 followed this principle on Nov. 20, the day when the American Rhodes scholar class of 2022 was elected. Elizabeth Alexander, the head of the committee, announced the winners of District 3, Devashish Basnet and Liam Elkind, and explained the logistics of accepting the award. Elkind took notes, said thank you and logged off. Staring at his page, the thought suddenly hit him — “Liam Elkind, that’s my name.”
After the whirlwind of calling his girlfriend, parents and mentors, Elkind hopped on the train from New York to New Haven, and indulged in celebratory toasts with his girlfriend and her mom.
It is the culmination of the hundreds of hours he put into the Rhodes application. But even more, it is the testament of, in his own words, “being there for each other,” of his 22-year-long life.
An “Intense Kid,” Beloved by Family and New York
Elkind was born and raised in New York, a city that he “eats, breathes and sleeps.” At Yale, he majors in Ethics, Politics and Economics and Global Affairs. Last year at the start of the pandemic, Elkind co-founded Invisible Hands, a national nonprofit with more than 15,000 volunteers that delivers groceries and prescriptions to at-risk community members. Invisible Hands has attracted nationwide attention, and Elkind has appeared on national media such as NPR, NBC and The New Yorker.
But Elkind wasn’t born a confident leader. When he was in kindergarten, while his classmates were singing “This Little Light of Mine” at their concerts, Elkind was standing backstage with his teacher, choking out words “this little … light … of mine” in a volume audible to no one. This is what Elkind used to do: crying backstage.
Childhood wasn’t an easy time for Elkind. He couldn’t speak until almost 3 years old. He didn’t get into any of the preschools in New York. And he refused to leave his mom’s side at any time. His mom described him as an “intense kid,” and indeed Elkind had terrible anxiety.
But things changed when he was in the third grade. When his family came to his show “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” they expected that he would be crying somewhere backstage as always. This time, however, Elkind showed up. The rising adrenaline, while terrifying, molted away his anxiety. Having finally overcome his fear, he was immediately drawn into the world of performing art. Thus was born his first childhood dream: to become a great actor.
It took time for Elkind to become his own person, but he was never alone. At every play or small event in the school, his whole family was always there. Even today, whenever Elkind performs at the Yale Children Theatre, his grandparents will be there for him.
Elkind grew up with the unwavering feeling that he was important, special and loved by his family. And when the supportive environment at home made him a caring, grateful kid, New York further encouraged him to spread kindness and warmth. He remembers his mom telling him that the day after 9/11, she tried to pay for a firefighter at the grocery store, and the cashier said, “Nice try, lady, you know, 10 other people have already paid.” It was a moment when everyone wanted to come together, a moment Elkind often witnesses in New York, a moment of which spirit is deeply ingrained in Elkind’s identity. It reaffirms and inspires him that when the world pulls us apart, we are still finding ways to pull together.
Feel the Wind on Your Face
Elkind applied to Yale for four reasons: his passion for musical theatre, his desire to explore multiple academic disciplines, his brother’s experience at Yale and his strong love for the Thai restaurants around campus. But after handing in his college application, his interest had already begun to expand.
The day after former President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Elkind’s high school English teacher asked the class to share one thing they were excited about the future. Elkind passed the question out of frustration.
And then a girl said, “I’m excited to get more involved in politics.”
This forever changed Elkind’s career. At that moment he realized that when his rights and his democracy were under attack, he would need to stand up and fight for it. Elkind remembered in 2008, his mom let him fill in the bubble for former President Barack Obama and said, “Isn’t it amazing that in this country, we get to choose who our leaders are?” Elkind wanted to carry on his family legacy of believing in democracy and voting rights. In the future, he wanted to take his own kid to a polling station, put a pencil in their hand and tell them that their voice matters. That was the value Elkind strived for, the value he feared was losing.
Applying to Yale as a prospective theatre studies major, this sense of duty quickly encouraged Elkind to go into ethics, politics and economics and global affair majors. He wanted to bring more ethics to politics and economics. His courses at Yale have shown him what the world looks like, but he also wants to determine what the world should look like by doing the groundwork himself. John Rawls is Elkind’s favorite philosopher. To Elkind, an ideal society is where everyone has the political, economic and social tools to flourish.
He was involved with Yale College Democrats and started a group to register student voters. He wanted to make sure people had the opportunity to make their voices heard, and he worked to make the absentee ballot experience on campus more streamlined.
He also continued his passion for theatre at Yale, sometimes performing for a child who was barely paying attention and a mom on her phone, sometimes watching hours of cow footage to learn how to “moo.”
The four years at Yale is a safe, open environment for Elkind to explore. “I want to be able to … have fun and feel freedom, feel the wind on your face as you run,” he said. It is a feeling of having limitless capacity and potential energy for the future, a feeling that he worries will wane as he gets older. He wants to enjoy it as much as he can.
Pull Together and Pull Through
Elkind is a big fan of the musical “Hamilton.” Just like Alexander Hamilton, Elkind desires to leave a legacy: not of wealth and fame, but of the changes he could make for the better. Elkind did not throw away his shot. When the whole world was separated by the pandemic, Elkind was in New York. This time, he was the person that pulled everyone together.
March 2020 was a difficult time, a time of loss where people feel directionless about what they could do to help themselves and others. It was a time in need of a hero, and for Elkind, being a hero meant simply to do what he could do. “Watching reruns of ‘Breaking Bad’ didn’t feel particularly heroic to me,” he said. Instead, he wanted to do some good. So when he saw a Facebook post by his friend Simone Policano ’16 asking if anyone knew of an organization that would deliver food and medicine to elderlies in need and no such organization existed, he reached out and asked, “What if we made that organization?”
They recruited some friends and put out a call to action on social media. Within the first 72 hours, they had 1,300 volunteers.
Thus, he founded Invisible Hands, which has become a national nonprofit with more than 15,000 volunteers that delivers groceries and prescriptions to at-risk community members and fights food insecurity. Elkind thought this would be a spring break activity, but Invisible Hands went viral. The next day, he woke up with missed calls from Good Morning America, Fox and more signed up volunteers. Blake Lively shared the Invisible Hands’s flyer on her Instagram story. Bernie Sanders told his supporters to reach out to Invisible Hands if they needed free food.
The urgency of the moment was real. It was no longer the controlled environment at Yale, where Elkind had the freedom to fail — if he didn’t pick up people’s calling, someone would be hungry. He put his phone numbers on the flyer and received calls from all around the country. He started hiring people, managing the budget and operationalizing Invisible Hands. For the first month or two of the pandemic, when people called New York’s governmental hotline for food, they would get the response: “We can’t help you. Call Invisible Hands.”
It was a lot of work, and sometimes they failed. At first, Invisible Hands received more donations than it could use, and Elkind decided to put it back into the community in the form of a subsidy program of $30 worth of groceries per household per week. But after Bernie Sanders emailed Elkind’s personal phone number and the demand skyrocketed, they quickly ran out of money. Invisible Hands almost went bankrupt within six days, and Elkind had to shut down the subsidy program.
Elkind has constantly struggled with being aspirational and pragmatic at the same time. He has ambitious goals for the distant future, sometimes stumbling to realize his limitations in reaching those goals. This time, he realized they couldn’t do everything by themselves. He started partnering with food pantries, mutual aid groups and religious institutions that already had food or funding, and Invisible Hands could leverage their human capital to deliver to those in need. Elkind was 20 years old at that time. “To be a 20 year old in 2020 is to see lines beginning to wrinkle my forehead as I spent long nights trying to solve an unsolvable budget, to make up for lost time in the spreadsheets of loans unpaid,” he said. “Those wrinkles will serve as perennial reminders of that fight for years to come.”
Elkind will always remember the day he heard from a woman living in Michigan. In the email, she told him that her 83-year-old father, living alone in New York, had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Every week when one of the Invisible Hands volunteers dropped off food and medicine, they would sit on different sides of his door and talk about their lives, their fears and their joys. The 83-year-old man and the boy in his 20s never saw each other. If they passed by on the street, they wouldn’t have recognized each other. But they had become friends.
The woman told Elkind her father had passed away due to COVID-19. She said the help that Elkind and his team were able to give her father was not in vain. She told Elkind that they had provided some semblance of relief, reassurance and comfort to her father in his final days that made him know that he was not alone.
To Elkind, living in New York during the pandemic felt like when the city was on its knees, people found ways to pull together and pull through. He remembered every night at 7 p.m., people would clap for the doctors, nurses and other essential workers who had put their lives on the line for the rest of the people. While the ambulances were racing by, the Broadway’s leading singer, Brian Stokes Mitchell, would sing out of his window a song called “The Impossible Dream.” Its lyrics sang, “This is my quest — to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.”
To Do, To Love, To Hope
“When Breath Becomes Air” is Elkind’s favorite book. The book is a memoir of the American neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi fighting death on a day-to-day basis as his profession, and fighting death on a day-to-day basis for his own life. Elkind always finds inspiration in Kalanithi’s hopeful spirit. It is a spirit of knowing the odds were against him, knowing for a fact that he would lose at some point, but continuing the fight and leaving a legacy. Sometimes Elkind is bothered by the thought that the progress to make the world a better place seems like a never ending battle. But when he was 20 years old in 2020, he too continued the fight and left the legacy with Invisible Hands. Elkind said he felt hope — in the face of overwhelming odds, there would be a brighter day out of darkness.
To Elkind, Invisible Hands is a reminder of the power of community organizing, but also a scathing indictment of government inefficiencies. Elkind is also cautious that people may become so moved by stories of people coming together to survive adversity that they forget that many of those adversities shouldn’t exist at first. Elkind returned to Yale after a gap year at Invisible Hands, but the campus environment has made him feel like a boy. His eyes have been opened to the need and urgency beyond Yale. Elkind wants to go back to the groundwork. He will graduate from Yale in two weeks, finishing his Yale career one semester early. He will return to Invisible Hands and make sure it will run smoothly when he studies at Oxford. He is ready to get back into the real world.
The government responses during the pandemic are an alert to Elkind that the public policy work he aspires to do one day has the power to improve — or impair — people’s lives. The desire to be an ethical, effective public servant has spurred Elkind to study the intricacies of policymaking through ethics, politics and economics. And now, this desire is taking him to Oxford. Elkind hopes to get a master’s in philosophy in comparative government, with a focus on comparing different democracies in the world through voting rights, campaign finance and structural reforms. For Elkind, to study in the United Kingdom through the Rhodes scholarship is both an exciting opportunity and a huge responsibility. He wants to explore what the United States can learn from other countries’ mistakes. He wants to come back, maybe to his beloved New York City, and work to provide people with the political tools they need.
On Nov. 21, before announcing the winner of the 2022 Rhodes scholarship, Elizabeth Alexander read a poem called “To be of Use” by Marge Piercy. It is a poem about the importance of service and the beauty of being of use to someone, a poem that aligns with Elkind’s life philosophy.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
Kant has the theory that in order to be happy, one needs to have something to do, someone to love and something to hope for. At this moment, Elkind is living with all these three things: to do schoolwork and Invisible Hands, to love his girlfriend and family and to hope for working towards driving meaningful changes in society. Every day, Elkind lives his favorite song, “I’m Here,” from the musical “The Color Purple.” When his love, his family and his community are in need, he’s here.