Liberian Youth Virtually Connect With Peers in Minnesota

March 7 was a very exciting day for our small and humble organization. We had been invited by youthrive, a Minnesota-based organization, on January 17, to have Liberian students participate in the Nobel Peace Prize Forum Youth Festival (NPPF) at Augsburg College via Google+ Hangout Connected Classrooms. We extended this opportunity to iLab Liberia since they had high-speed internet and the ideal space to hold this event. The featured speaker for the NPPF’s morning session was Liberia’s 2011 Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who has presented several times to Minnesotan youth.

Liberian youth at iLab in Sinkor, Liberia, watching Nobel Laureate share her story at Augsburg College in Minnesota via Google Hangout. (Photo by Rodney Johnson)
Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) and iLab Liberia co-hosted this event, and each organization invited youth to participate. We had nearly 50 students from various elementary and high schools, and University of Liberia. The program lasted about two hours and started at 9:30AM (CST) in Minnesota; 3:30PM (GMT) in Liberia.

Luther Jeke of iLab Liberia talking with the youth. (Photo by Rodney Johnson)
This was NPPF’s first year of using Google+ Hangout, so two tests were conducted earlier in the week that was coordinated by Edwin Irwin from youthrive and Mark Holterhaus from the NPPF team. The first test was on Tuesday and it took a few minutes before we could connect Liberia on hangout. From this test, Teemu Ropponen, iLab’s Executive Director, assessed what was needed to ensure the best connection. He and his team hooked up one computer to a projector for the students to view the activities in Minnesota and connected a video camera so the Liberian youth could be seen on the screen at Augsburg. Their efforts showed perfect results during the second test on Wednesday.

Liberia’s students waving to the camera. Youthrive’s Ed Irwin orchestrated the activities from Minnesota and cued Liberia when they would up on the screen at Augsburg. (Screen shot by Heather)
UDS Executive Director, Kelvin Fomba, quickly prepared our youth on what this event was about, because this was new territory for them. He explained that they would be participating live at this event through the internet. Most did not comprehend what he was saying, because they thought they would be just watching a video. Well once they were sitting in iLab’s conference room, they soon discovered that their presence was being acknowledged by the MCs at the forum in Minnesota. So, this was a very exciting and life changing experience for all youth.

Students watching Leymah present at Augsburg College in Minnesota. Left photo has Teemu Ropponen, iLab’s Executive Director, in the background by the wall. (Photos by Rodney Johnson)
Left shows some students taken photos with their cell phones (Photo by Rodney Johnson). Right photo shows students on the live Google feed (Screen shot by Heather).
Heather Cannon-Winkelman, UDS Executive Director, was connected privately via Hangout at Dakota County Technical College. She was co-presenting at this college later that morning for the Multicultural Student Leadership Association (MSLA) with a Liberian Student and MSLA President, Branko Saah Tambah, on Liberia and U.S. relations. She was able to see and hear the activities from both the Minnesota and Liberia sides. She took some the screen shots from her computer that are shared in this post. Interestingly, when the Russ Wood students saw her image appear on the screen, they started saying “there’s Heather.” So this made it more real for them.

Left of student watching Leymah (Photo by Rodney Johnson) and right photo of group from Heather’s perspective from her screen shot.
One of the highlights of Friday’s forum was when Leymah asked to have the lights turned off at Augsburg’s Kennedy Center. She then requested that the youth use their cell phones to light up the room. Liberia followed Leymah’s lead by turning off the lights and displaying their cell phones. Next Leymah proceeded to explain that though this room was dark, it was the young people like them that were the light. This definitely was an inspiring moment for the youth on both sides of the Atlantic.

Left are students in Liberia seeing the Kennedy Center illuminated by Minnesota peers’ cell phones (photo by Rodney Johnson). Right shows the Liberian students holding their cell phones (screen shot by Heather).
Once Leymah was done with her talk, the floor was opened to questions and answers. About three to four students in Minnesota were able to ask her a question. Then Liberia was given their chance to ask the last one. It was one of our scholarship students from Russ Wood, Ishmael, that represented his peers by asking her a question. His asked Leymah how could Liberian youth become peace builders. This was a great opportunity for this rising star. Ishmael, who is about 12 years old, is a creative talent who writes his own parables and songs, MC’d last month’s second annual student celebration, and recited one of his parables to the participants–ranging from 16 to early 30’s–at our September 2013 workshop on creative and innovative workshop.

Left photo is Ishmael in front of the camera waiting for his cue (photo by Rodney Johnson). Photo is Ismael asking his question to Leymah (screen shot by Heather).
After Leymah answered Ishmael’s question, she mentioned that she knows the name of his school and would visit them when she was in Liberia next. Both Uniting Distant Stars and Russ Wood Students will gladly welcome her visit.

Leymah Gbowee addressing the Minnesotan students at Augsburg’s Kennedy Center and Liberian students via Google Connected Classrooms. (Screen shot by Heather).
Since iLab provided the space, UDS brought the refreshments. Some of our youth prepared the sandwiches and ensured everyone was served. This team of youth was led by another of our scholarship students, Princess, who will be graduating this year. Her team made enough sandwiches that allowed the youth to have seconds. When the program ended, our youth helped clean-up before they left iLab’s facilities. We encourage our youth to volunteer their time and talent for such events.

Left photo is the food table. Center photo is Princess enjoying what she helped prepare. Right photo shows youth in line to get a bottle of ice cold soft drink. (Photos by Rodney Johnson).
The virtual event was a great success. Kelvin was overwhelmed by number of students who expressed their gratitude for being able to participate in such a program. If you think about, these Liberian boys, girls, young men and women were able to connect to the greater world for about two hours. This experience is something they will not forget and hopefully they can do more of in the future.

Kelvin in the background with some of our youth. (Photo by Rodney Johnson)
UDS is equally grateful for this opportunity that connected Minnesota based and Liberia based organizations together. We have many Thanks for Maddy Wegner and Edwin Irwin at youthrive for inviting us to be part of it, and also for Teemu Ropponen and Luther Jeke at iLab Liberia along with rest of their team for proving their space and expertise. This amazing accomplishment can be summed up by a quote from Mattie Stepanek… “Unity is strength… when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.

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