Today’s post comes from Jenna Rogers, the Executive Director of S.O.U.L. Foundation. The organization works to foster sustainability in vibrant Ugandan communities through unique partnerships focused on education, women’s empowerment, food security and health. Jenna earned her MIA in international development from The New School and has designed and worked for human development initiatives focused on empowering individuals to be self-sufficient in Uganda, Ethiopia, Liberia, and New York City.
“What are your goals for the future?”
When asked by his father, this simple question changed the life of Muganda Muzamiru. Tata Muganda, as the father is called in the Lesoga language, invited his son to share his dreams and aspirations with him during the school-holiday leading up to Uganda’s National Qualifying Examinations. For Muganda, the exams were all that stood between him and a university education in a country where only about 30% of boys make it past the fifth grade.
In 20 years, this conversation marked the first time Muganda’s father had asked him anything about his future. Though Tata Muganda worked hard to provide for his 17 children, ensuring that the family’s scarce resources were stretched to cover school fees for as many siblings as possible, paying tuition was considered a sacrifice, not an investment. Tata Muganda had never asked any of his sons or daughters how they planned to use their education to improve themselves, their community, country or world.
In Muganda’s rural village, the lack of opportunities made dreaming difficult; a future beyond the grinding cycle of subsistence living was unimaginable until recently, when the community began working together to lift themselves out of poverty.
Muganda will begin university at the end of this month. He is one of over 250 students whose families have partnered with the S.O.U.L. Foundation to invest in the education of their children. Many of these same parents are among the hundreds of men and women engaged in sustainable business cooperatives of their own design, which are providing new skills while promoting women’s empowerment and food security.
These unique and empowering partnerships have transformed Bujagali Falls and the surrounding villages into the epicenter of a grassroots development movement that is relevant, replicable and rapidly expanding. The costs and returns of each S.O.U.L. initiative are shared equally between the organization and our community partners, who are responsible for identifying not only their needs but solutions for meeting them.
Muganda believes that the life-altering conversation he had with his father was a result of S.O.U.L.’s educational programs, which provided Muganda with the opportunity to attend secondary school and now university. Just as significant, however, is what the same program provided for Tata Muganda - an opportunity to participate as an empowered stakeholder in the education process, which evolved his perspective on his own role. In addition to contributing 50% of school tuition (S.O.U.L. pays the remaining 50%), parents are required to organize and attend regular Parents’ Council meetings, which Tata Muganda now proudly chairs.
My colleague Brooke Stern founded S.O.U.L. at the age of 23 because she recognized the potential waiting to be unleashed in Uganda, the small East African nation she now calls home. After witnessing the injustice of extreme poverty in Uganda for the first time, like many of us, Brooke’s first response was to give the material items she saw were lacking, such as shoes for children. Within a month, most of the shoes Brooke had distributed were gone and the children were running through the dirt in bare feet.
Brooke quickly realized that, despite her genuine intentions, the plan to distribute shoes was not successful or sustainable because it was based on her own assumptions about culture, poverty and need. In the past fifty years, billions of dollars have been squandered by policymakers who failed to recognize this simple lesson Brooke learned from the children: you cannot begin to impact people until you ask them what they truly need.
Brooke had the humility and insight to listen to and learn from the best development experts around: the people living in Uganda themselves.
Brooke and I share the belief that individuals must be the agents of their own change and a respect for the dignity and perseverance of our partners in Uganda, whose capacity for creativity and hard work never ceases to impress. Our goal is to establish equal and transparent partnerships between social entrepreneurs from diverse disciplines and backgrounds across the developed and developing world, beginning in Uganda. We have already been joined by hundreds of young innovators from Denver, Colorado to Qatar who are lending their diverse talents to our movement for meaningful change.
Establishing authentic relationships and absorbing local knowledge provides for an extended entry process into the communities in which S.O.U.L. works. Brooke spent a year living in Bujagali Falls before S.O.U.L.’s objectives came into focus and program activities began. After establishing partnerships, however, we strive to make ourselves irrelevant as quickly as possible. We teach teachers to prevent dependence and increase the impact of any given initiative by equipping its architects to replicate the results themselves.
Relevance is akin to survival for members of our digital generation. Many of us came of age alongside an ever-expanding range of tools and products for communicating and seeking information.
As our options for communicating with one another become more numerous and advanced, there is an increased threat of missing opportunities for authentic interactions and falling victim to the myth that s/he who has access to the most information has the most knowledge.
The upside to this threat is that, like any good that becomes more scarce, personal interactions have been endowed with greater value in light of alternative options. Connecting through the most basic questions in an open dialogue can have more impact now than it might have when there was no other alternative. Empowering another individual can be as simple as seeking their input, treating them an equal stakeholder or asking them their dreams for the future.