Tag Archives: education

Fostering Social Entrepreneurship in Rwanda

This post also appears on the Spark blog. It serves as a profile of one of Spark’s most recent grantees, an organization I happily support, The Komera Project.

It’s not every day that you get to see the foundations of graduate school flourish into a burgeoning non-profit organization halfway across the globe. So, when one of my close friends from graduate school told me in 2008 that she was starting an organization in Rwanda where she had been living, I was of course eager to support her. And the more I learned about Rwanda and the work her organization was undertaking, I became invested in seeing its success grow.

Named The Komera Project (in Rwanda the word “Komera” means “be strong, have courage”), Margaret Butler developed the idea to start the group over the course of her many runs through the Rwandan countryside. She noticed that sometimes girls from the local villages would jump in and join her on these runs until she realized that her behavior wasn’t going to be considered socially acceptable. Combined with the fact that Margaret was seeing first hand how most girls did not make it to secondary school, she decided to host a girls-only ‘fun run’ one day to promote the education and rights of these girls. As they started off, supporters shouted “Komera!” to the girls, and the group was born.

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Working with the local government, schools, and some on the ground staff from Partners in Health based in Rwanda, Margaret steered the first of Komera’s 10 girls onto their fully funded secondary education path. Komera has since grown to over 60 scholars, and has expanded their reach beyond just funding the girls’ schooling. They now also provide mentorship, a leadership program, and now a social entrepreneurship program.

Some context and understanding of Rwanda is essential to underscore how significant this is. Only 17% of girls in Rwanda go to upper secondary school (high school). 87% of the country lives in rural areas. All Komera scholars are from these rural areas and live on about $1 a day from families working as subsistence farmers or tin miners – so these girls would be farming, mining, and/or working in their households if not in school. Komera focuses on supporting the girls in grades 10-12, since the majority of girls begin dropping from school in grade 10. Komera never takes on a scholar unless they have the cash to fully fund them for those three years – this cost is $500 a year for tuition, uniforms, boarding, all school supplies, and personal supplies like hygiene products.

By 2010, the focus at the Komera Project had shifted from primarily scholarship to figuring out how to keep the girls in school and create a real Komera community, and that’s when the themes of mentorship and leadership came into play.

The transition into boarding at school can be really difficult for the girls, especially since they are spread between 13 different schools. In Rwanda, once you have the funds to pay, the local government decides what school you will go to, so while Komera would prefer all the girls to be in the same 4-5 schools, that isn’t possible. However, they are all in the same district (there are 30 districts in the country total).

To help combat some of the difficulties around these transitions, Komera provides school-based volunteer mentors for all the girls – female staff or teachers who meet one-on-one with the scholars every week. They actually use curriculum to cover topics like health education, financial literacy, what their rights are as women in Rwanda, to any personal concerns they may be having. The girls also meet with the Komera social worker (one of only two paid Komera staff members!) regularly when she visits each school throughout the year. Their next goal is to launch a university mentoring program, and they have started to do some outreach to universities in Kigali (the Rwandan capital) to see if there is interest among Rwandan university women to mentor these girls.

Leadership is another key component of the Komera Project. The Komera scholars attend Leadership Empowerment camp during their month-long summer break, where they take part in the now-annual Girls Fun Run and participate in workshops focused on topics like English-speaking skills, how to use computers, and sex education. These have been essential for the girls, because these month-long breaks can be vulnerable times for the girls who go back home. Most stay with extended family, get pulled back into working with the family and can potentially be convinced that they need to leave school – especially true for the nearly 20% of girls who come from families who don’t fully support their education efforts.

In regards to the new Social Entrepreneurship Program that Spark is helping to support, most recently the idea of sustainability has come up – how does Spark keep the momentum of being a Komera Scholar going once the girls graduate from secondary school? This was particularly pressing since 15 girls will be graduating in 2013.

The girls had been requesting a social entrepreneurship type training for some time – wanting to learn the skills necessary to starting and maintaining a business, a non-profit or grassroots venture. When asked about social entrepreneurship training, all the girls said that they had never even considered how they might be able to give back to their community or considered themselves leaders, and they were really excited about the idea of learning how to create something to benefit and incorporate their community.

The winter break, in November-December hasn’t been able to be filled by Komera because they haven’t been able to fund camps both in May-June when they have the leadership and empowerment camps as well as during the winter months. Finding funding for this new social entrepreneurship training became essential, as well as a way to get a tested and evaluated curriculum in their hands.

A local Rwandan group, Global Grassroots, has been offering entrepreneurship, business training, and skills-based workshops for women in Rwanda since immediately after the genocide – and they’ve been doing so pretty successfully. They have agreed to modify their program for a weeklong intensive program for teen girls, as well as moderate the weekly follow-ups. This will be called the “Girls Academy for Global Conscious Change.”

The girls will work in groups of ten, separated by interests – they’ll select a topic they want to focus on, like health, education, water, and they will learn how to craft a mission statement, develop a program goal and implementation plan, and how to write and follow a budget. They will be given small grants of $50, which will be managed by the social worker and through each phase can retrieve part of the money for supplies, then implementation or advertising. The goal is to have them create these mini-organizations and incubate them throughout the school year, with the hope of maintaining it beyond that year, turning it into a profitable business, and growing it beyond their immediate school community.

When I heard that this was their well thought out plan, I thought Spark would be the perfect place for Komera to seek funding help to cover the costs of the girls supplies, food, transportation, and personal supplies throughout the training. The perfect way to blend two of the organizations that are most dear to me.

The Komera Project embodies the exact kind of values and practices that Spark looks for in grantees, and I look forward to what these budding entrepreneurs are up to in just a few years.

Check out their Facebook and Twitter pages, and visit their site to learn more about Komera and meet some of their scholars.

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Filed under Education, Feminism, International

American Graduate, American Dropout

I don’t know how many of you educators were able to catch parts of PBS’ ‘American Graduate‘ series this year. It’s a great series that’s focused on the major issues of (mostly public) education in America, including urban versus rural education struggles, mentoring and counseling, adolescent health issues like substance use and sexual activity, ensuring that we’re serving the needs of immigrant students, social and economic class issues and how they impact opportunity and subsequently achievement (measured most commonly as high school graduation) and what’s behind some of the alarming and rising rates of dropping out across the country.

The latter three issues were behind a documentary that I was featured in and that aired in September. It was pioneered by a group of teen filmmakers at an organization based in Brooklyn called Reel Works, a group with a great mission that I encourage you to check out. If you want more background on the piece, check out the PBS brief before the video, which also includes a great interview with some of the teen filmmakers. Hope you find it interesting!

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Education, Health Behavior, Media

Is Media Use Slowing Kids Down Intellectually?

A couple interesting studies recently came out that I thought were clearly linked with implications for the development of our younger generations. I recently wrote a post for The 2×2 Project that discusses the impact of media use on the mental health of teens, so I thought this was fairly pertinent.

The first study showed how much the U.S. economy loses to social media use every year. Take a guess at what that amount is.

10 billion bucks? Nope.

100 billion? Not even close.

500 billion? Still no.

According to Mashable’s summary via LearnStuff, social media costs the U.S. economy $650 billion. Check out the infographic they put together:

I’m someone who is generally really torn about social media. I have a blog and am active on Twitter, though along with my Facebook profile I use these all primarily for semi-professional purposes. ‘Semi’ in the sense that they aren’t part of my job, but I use them to promote interesting finds or essays related to my field of public health; I’ve found the sites to be remarkably helpful in communicating important points and connecting with wider audiences compared to different – usually more traditional – media channels. I use social media heavily to promote work being done in my fellowship – my own and other fellows’ – and it unquestionably has helped us reach researchers and organizations it would have been otherwise very difficult to do.

That being said, I am also fairly hesitant about social media given that I don’t particularly like my personal life broadcast across channels, so I have to be pretty meticulous about what and how I use the mediums. I think it can be enormously helpful for children who have difficulty communicating and making connections; I also find that it can feel almost more isolating than no communication at all since it emphasizes and underscores that real interpersonal interaction isn’t exactly happening. So, I’m clearly torn.

The second study, by the great group Common Sense Media, addresses the concerns of teachers and educators that the various kinds and amount of time kids are using media at home is impacting the quality of their classroom work and engagement. 71% of teachers said that they think media use is hurting kids’ attention spans in school, 59% said that it’s impacting the students’ ability to communicate face to face, and 58% have said that the media use is impacting kids’ writing skills – and not in a good way.

Given that the LearnStuff infographic shows that 97% of college students are daily Facebook users, it seems that these symptoms have the potential to get worse at increasingly younger ages, and that by the time kids who grew up in this media-rich environment are in college…well, who knows. And 60% of people visit social media sites at work (something I found most interesting? that more people are on LinkedIn than Twitter), which are obviously impacting work in the sense that they are taking away from productivity or activities related to the job – unless the job is one that incorporates social media, as many jobs increasingly are. Not to be a doomsday reporter, but I do think the implications for these studies are very real.

Thoughts? Come chat on Twitter.

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Education, Media, Pop Culture, Technology

Social Media Continues to Make People Feel Bad About Themselves

A study out of the UK has found (as have others more than once), that use of social media sometimes doesn’t make you feel like…really socializing. Instead, it can make you feel anxious and depressed, which are more likely to make you feel withdrawn than anything else.

The study found that participants noted a drop in their own self-esteem after viewing the accomplishments of their Facebook friends. Combine this with the fact that 25% of them claimed to have had relationship issues due to online ‘confrontations’ (which could, of course, mean many things), that more than half were rendered uncomfortable when they couldn’t easily access their social media accounts, that other studies have claimed more socially aggressive (subtly termed ‘hateful’) folks use Facebook more often, that people often deliberately post bad pictures of their friends to make themselves look better and subsequently compare their weight, body size, and physical appearance to these friends, and that Facebook is cited in divorce proceedings as being problematic for couples, and you may be liable to think that this phenomenon offer little in the way of improving our lives.

A good thing to remember here, aside from the pretty remarkable things being done with social media in terms of education, research, medicine, and public health (this USC study is great news, and touches upon the influence of social networks in ways I’ve been exploring as it relates to substance use, sexual behavior, and disordered eating behaviors, and that other studies have shown the exact opposite in terms of emotional response, is that social media does allow users to tailor the perception and identity they project. Another recent study (I’ll try to find the URL for it!) showed, unsurprisingly, that what users often admire about their friends’ virtual lives is the positive sliver that their friends elect to promote about themselves.

Also encouragingly, those children and adolescents who will have known no life without social media, recently were surveyed about their use of technology and reported that they still preferred face-to-face communication. I put limits on myself in terms of use (though I’m sure to some of you it may not seem like it!) since I feel as though I miss a lot in terms of nuance when communication online, but it remains true that both my research and personal communication projects require a fairly consistent social media presence – I admit that I’m torn. As with most everything, balance is key, but how can we monitor our behavior in ways that allow us to strike that balance without teetering into territory that destroys our positive sense of self?

Thoughts? How about you ironically follow me on Twitter to discuss?

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Body Judgments Begin…Pretty Close to Birth

I know it’s been a while since I’ve written – I took six weeks off to finish my dissertation and prepare for its defense (I passed!), and to take a bit of a breather after all that required writing! But what better way to start a new month than with a new post?

One of the many reasons I went to graduate school to study adolescent female and women’s health was because I wanted to gain a better understanding of why women and girls develop disordered eating behaviors, what makes them worse, and most importantly, how to prevent them. And more and more studies are telling us what many researchers, clinicians, and patients themselves have been telling us for years.

A few recent studies in particular that have been published in the past few weeks highlight these issues well. One new study out of UCLA has again proven that strong self-perception is key to the prevention of risky behaviors in teen girls. The results of this study showed that overweight girls who had high body satisfaction and who were happy with their size and shape were less likely to engage in a range of unhealthy and disordered eating behaviors like fasting, skipping meals, and self-induced vomiting. And more importantly, the study also showed that these girls had lower rates of anxiety and depression, which are so disturbingly common among girls with burgeoning eating disorders.

And the best thing about the study’s results was the discussion that these public health experts, dieticians, and professors had, in which they emphasized that for effective, healthy weight-loss interventions for teens who may need to lose weight for real medical reasons (preventing the onset of diabetes or hypertension and increasing cardiovascular health, for example), these programs need to be rooted in positive self-esteem and the enhancement of self-image. When you feel better about yourself, you want to keep taking care of yourself. You are also more likely to want to share yourself with others, and creating positive social networks increases the likelihood that people will have supporters pushing them to stay healthy as well as a community that makes them feel worthwhile, appreciated, and worth the kind of self-care that diet and exercise changes require.

So why do companies, organizations, media outlets, and other vocal critics keep harping on the idea that shame, insults, and bullying will help people lose weight? To me, the root of this problem lies in the misguided thought that anyone else’s weight is anyone else’s business. It isn’t.

Another recent study has unfortunately shown something I find really upsetting. Preschoolers – remember, that’s ages 2-5 – show negative perceptions of overweight children. The way this study was conducted involved an adult reading four different stories to a group of children, in which one character was ‘nice’ and the other was ‘mean.’ They then showed the children pictures of one overweight figure and one normal weight figure, and asked them to select which one was the ‘nice’ character from the story and which was the ‘mean’ character. Nearly half of all students said that in all four stories, the overweight figure was selected as the ‘mean’ one. Mind you, these figures had no faces. No physical expressions. One was just bigger than the other. And because of that, the children thought they were meaner.

I mean…whoa. Ages 2-5 are in the early developmental stages, when children are absorbing and processing and incredible amount of information – verbally, visually, and physically – and learning how to reason. We do not need judgments about others’ weight getting ingrained at this age, creating perceptions that are very difficult to change. Of course, this one study bears repeating, and should incorporate additional measures of exploring these outcomes; nonetheless, these results are troubling.

Of course, this study begs the revisiting of one of my most pressing points on this blog. Weight, just like food, is not a characteristic that is inherent in measures of good versus evil. That’s very dangerous territory to traverse – once one allows weight to dictate the assessment of whether or not someone is not only of value and worth (societally speaking, this already happens, when overweight people are ignored, more easily dismissed, not taken as seriously), but whether or not they are actually truly ‘bad’ or ‘mean’ or capable of certain sins because they are overweight, one’s morality becomes game for critics. I also always remain shocked at some critics’ short-sightedness in this relam – if you yourself gain weight in the future – something which may happen for a variety of reasons – are you readily willing to take on the label of weakness, ‘meanness’, gluttony? The impassioned rhetoric around the blaming and shaming of overweight people is so starkly in need of an infusion of compassion.

What this shows is that children are inundated with messages, both direct and indirect, from so many different sources at such a young age, that the idea of being overweight is coded as bad in so many ways, that it seems nearly inescapable. To me, this means we have to keep making intense efforts to combat these messages, because we are climbing one steep hill.

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Disordered Eating, Health Education, Mental Health

Social Media and Higher Education

Interesting infographic of the use of social media in higher education. Courtesy of the Online Universities and Columbia Teachers College EdLab:

I think this is interesting for a few reasons. What role does social media have in the administration of universities? How can they utilize social media to promote their in-house programs for students? What actually prompts students to follow higher education institutions on social media sites (aside from loyalty to their alma mater)?

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Filed under Education, Media

Even My Vomit is Pink This Month…

Our next guest post is by Belinda Sirha. Belinda is a cranky graduate student in public policy currently residing in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In her former life, as a cranky non-profit communication specialist, she worked on several national PSA campaigns to end violence against women. She is also a former Kenya based Peace Corps volunteer.

 

Yesterday morning I woke up and realized, much to my delight, that it was Monday, October 24th. This meant that not only would homegirl be getting paid, but she’d be able to buy groceries as well. It also meant that there was only one more week left in October—one more agonizing week of pink tchotchkes, pink-clad celebrities, and overly sexualized gimmicks on Facebook. Yes, my friends, Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2011 is coming to an end.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But it’s also Rett Syndrome Awareness Month, National Pork Month, National Book Month, National Cyber Security Awareness Month, Filipino American History Month, LGBT History Month, Nonprofit Career Month, National Bullying Prevention Month, National Fire Prevention Month, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Italian-American Heritage Month, Vegetarian Awareness Month, National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, National Pizza Month, and National Dental Hygiene Month. I mean, how could you not know that October was National Dental Hygiene Month? Halloween, candy, cavities? Come on, now.

Sadly, the sheer number of causes, and the discontinuity between them, trivialize the meaning and the impact of an awareness month. And maybe that’s of little importance at first glance—after all there are so many causes to be aware of, and only so many branded charity items to buy. But awareness months play an important role in social movements. Awareness months provide a time and date around which educators and communicators can organize; they become an opportunity to mobilize supporters and recruit volunteers; an annual opportunity to remind donors of their financial commitments. These months offer a chance for coordinated and cohesive efforts among many individuals and organizations working to raise public awareness — but that’s easily forgotten when everyone from Glamour Magazine to the NFL is touting pink like it’s going out of style — and like it’s nothing more that, a style.

So, what to do? Here we are with this divide between the commercialization of a cause and the grass roots origins of a movement, each equally important, and ultimately, dependent on the other. You can’t finance those three-day walks without those infamous pink buckets of fried chicken—you dig? Organizations are forced to slap their logo on plastic products made in China because we (you, me, and that subway lady currently coughing everywhere without covering her mouth) aren’t donating directly or with an understanding of specific organizations’ missions. It has become more about publicly flaunting our purchase of something that supports a cause, to be seen as someone who is aware more than actually becoming aware. But it’s still money, so it’s all good, right? It’s not. This method of cause marketing breeds ignorance, as it almost always is lacking substantive educational content. What did you learn about the importance of monthly breast exams from that T-Shirt you bought at LOFT? The message is lost in the medium.

We’re moving into the holiday season, and soon enough, you’ll be seeing those annual appeals for support in your mailbox. This year, think twice before chucking those mailers into the recycling bin. Dig down into your pockets, dig out a fiver, and make a donation. One-hundred-percent of that five dollars will go to a cause, presumably a cause you care about – not to overhead or manufacturing of a bracelet, t-shirt, or cap. Having a hard time figuring out where to share your pennies? Check out Charity Navigator. Charity Navigator evaluates and ranks organizations based upon their financial health, accountability, and transparency – important elements of which responsible donors should be aware. Educating yourself about not only the general topic of the cause — but about what specific organizations do (workshops, curriculums, sponsorships, classes, advocacy, basic research) that is unique from others — also allows you as a donor to find meaning in your gift, a reason for continued support, and perhaps the motivation to teach others. So, go forth, and donate wisely and informatively.

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