January has been busy preparing for yet another exciting year. As we look ahead to our plans for 2014, we also reflect back on what we accomplished since our beginnings in 2012. It was reassuring to see that our humble organization is making progress that is small-small (an expression used in Liberia).
This post highlights some project milestones and features photographs taken by Heather during her first year of residency in Liberia, a beautiful tropical nation along the coast of West Africa.
This image was created in 2007, filling the map outline of Liberia with photos of Coconut trees in Bong County and the pre-sunset ocean view along beach in Congo Town.
What compelled us to start Uniting Distant Stars? The co-founders Heather Cannon-Winkelman and Kelvin Fomba had an idea to start a vocational training center that balanced the job skills with the job-keeping skills. The latter component is often lacking in training programs to where many of the graduates emerged ill-prepared for such workplace expectations as punctuality and appropriate behavior. In our attempt to make this dream a reality we applied for a fellowship in 2010 and 2011 for start-up funding.
June 2007 – Kpatawee (“K” is silent) Waterfall in Bong County.
Both attempts failed to move us to the next level. As we reassessed the application process and the finalists, we noticed a pattern. Those making through each “gate’ had projects or programs that were producing results. This is when we realized that we needed to start a program that showed we were walking our talk.
November 2007 – Heading east through Grand Bassa County.
By July 2012, we transformed the essence of Uniting Distant Stars. Besides being a blog it was a bona fide organization serving disadvantaged youth through education. We provided primary and secondary school scholarships, vocational training tuition assistance, and a school supply drive for Russ Wood Christian Academy.
November 2007 – Nature’s funny way to ask “Why” – Grand Bassa County
It was the school supply drive that attracted the most interest and we slowly increased our circle of supporters. This momentum got us thinking about what we should do next and we started off 2013 with many ambitious goals. We met most, including:
Published our first annual report, listing 2012activities and 2013 goals.
Formed our U.S. based board of directors.
Registered Uniting Distant Stars, Inc as a Minnesota Non-Profit Corporation.
Secured our fiscal sponsor, Ebenezer Community Church in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
Organized three successful fundraisers focused on programs in Liberia.
Shipped four 14-cubic-foot boxes for Russ Wood Christian Academy.
Developed working partnerships with organizations in both Minnesota and Liberia.
Held first annual youth leadership workshop in Liberia on “creative and innovative thinking”
2007 – Sunset along Golden Beach in Monrovia
In summary, 2013 was an amazing year. It opened new pathways for us to expand our network of donors, followers and partners. That success is the driving force to continue developing and growing our programs in the coming year. Learn more about what we achieved in 2013 and what is in store for 2014 in our next annual report, to be published in April. Uniting Distant Stars exists because of the passion and dedication of all who have generously supported us. Thank you!
On September 13 and 14, we had the privilege of interacting with some of Liberia’s rising stars in our Youth Leadership Workshop on Creative and Innovative Thinking that was held at the Business Start-up Center in Monrovia. Most of the young men and women came from the Monrovia area along with four each from Bomi and Margibi Counties. These young people entered the workshop thinking the only means to solve their problem was money. They left realizing that they had other resources readily available that they could use to make a difference in their lives and those around them.
Liberia’s young leaders, who participated in the two-day workshop on Creative and Innovative Thinking.
Prior to the workshop, we had collected some basic demographics about each participant. We had them answer 10 questions that related to solving problems, collaborating with others, identifying one’s strengths, assessing available resources, and defining leadership qualities. Their answers helped us better understand their mindsets before the workshop. Some of the young participants provided general answers, which others were more detailed in their responses. Here are two of the questions and summarized answers:
What do you experience in your daily life that you would like to change? Many of the answers were related to the lack of money. However, a few went deeper and shared how they would like to not drink, womanize, sit around and do nothing, let anger control them, and be afraid to talk with people, all of these can impede one’s ability to make or keep money.
What resources do you have available now that you could use to solve a problem? Very few mentioned what type of resources they had on hand such as a rubber tree farm or house. None of them were able to mention other non-monetary resources such as the sun, wind, reusable trash and junk. Most noted God as their resource.
We had a solid turnout on both days with 54 participants and about 11 observers in attendance. Altogether, with our Uniting Distant Stars team, we had 70 people. We need to pause and mention that we were most appreciative of everyone’s patience, because in Liberia even the best laid plans can be met with challenges that require us to adapt our schedule and start later.
The youth paid attention, took notes, participated in the discussions and asked good questions.
The biggest challenge was preparing food for 70 people. Six women prepared the food offsite (20 minutes from venue) and had to cook with a coal pot because most people in Liberia do not have electricity and stoves. These constraints made it difficult to meet our time frame for breakfast and lunch both days. The cooks were provided with a taxi to help them transport everything once it was ready. The ladies did a great job cooking delicious meals both days, so it was worth the wait.
From left to right: Some of the cooks and youth enjoying their lunch break.
Discovering Your Innovative Spirit – Heather Cannon-Winkelman: This laid the foundation for the two-day workshop by walking the participants through the innovative process of solving their problems using resources they had available now. They viewed the 6-minute TEDTalk by William Kambwamba, explaining why and how he built his windmill during Malawi’s famine. The participants were asked to examine what William accomplished and how they could apply some of his innovation into their projects. Also, they were given a “Think Outside of the Box” activity to examine if they could see outside their limiting beliefs. One young lady solved it out of the group.
Left to right: Heather giving background on William Kambwamba before showing his video and closing her presentation by challenging them to start creating.
The Entrepreneur Within – Gradieh Wreh: This presentation captured all the essentials of creating and growing a successful business: goal setting, planning, attitude, financial management, marketing, networking, etc. Gradieh used her own experience as a successful entrepreneur as she traced her process of taking an idea and transforming it into a business. She had the participants do an imagination activity in which she had them close their eyes and were told to see their life in the best possible situation. Only about 30% actually imagined something that matched their passion. Others commented that their ideal world was driven by unfulfilled professions that would make them a lot of money.
Left to right: Gradieh with some of the participants demonstrating synergy in how a flock of birds work together when flying, and her guiding the participants through the imagination activity.
Don’t Imitate, Do Create – Kelvin Fomba: His presentation showed why creativity is important for addressing everyday problems. He shared how creativity is rooted in Africa with its long tradition of art, music and storytelling. Kelvin demonstrated his own creativity as an automotive technician and grassroots innovator. He showed two examples of cars where he designed and made his own intake manifold to replace the old one and replaced the diesel engine with a gasoline one. He also modeled his wearable goods that were made from discarded drinking water plastic bags. He illustrated how to make “the impossible possible” and “something out of nothing.”
Left to right: Kelvin explaining the importance of creating over imitating, and also modeling a product line that he co-designed from discarded drinking water plastic bags.
Harnessing One’s Own Power – Elijah Wreh: This presentation guided the participants in self-examining their confidence, strengths, passions and desires. Elijah shared the process he used to develop his successful career. He had the participants determine their top five strengths and had five young men and five young women come up to share theirs. He provided tools and tips in how each person can continue to develop their self-awareness and build confidence. He encouraged young people to not give up on their dreams and to strive to realize their potential, which could result in a worthwhile business career. Elijah also gave out some personal development books.
Left to right: Elijah presenting on Harnessing One’s Own Power, had young people rank from 1 (least) to 5 (best) their Unique Abilities: Wisdom and Insight, Relationships, Communication, Leadership, etc.
There were many interesting questions and insights that the young men and women shared with us. Couple of these led to some thought-provoking discussions and revelations. The first one was culture, where they expressed their disappointment on how this is not part of their education. For example the only languages taught in school are English, French, and Chinese. The second one was about emulating a famous person such as President Barack Obama to strive to be more like them. This idea was challenged when they watched Kelvin Doe’s TEDTalk and how his YouTube video had more views than President Obama’s victory speech in 2012. Young Kelvin’s example revealed that each one of them can achieve greatness in their life.
The second day of the workshop, many told how they went home thinking-thinking to extent that some could not sleep. Before they stared working on their projects they heard from Lawrence Yealue of Accountability Lab (Lab) and Business Start-up Center (Center), our two Liberian partner organizations. He described the services of both and how they were prepared to provide for those ready to develop their ideas into businesses. Both the Lab and Center greatly contributed to the success of the workshop.
Picture from Accountability Lab Twitter Page. Lawrence Yealue is talking about the services that Accountability Lab and Business Start-up Center provide.
From Day One, we promoted collaboration with participants while thinking and designing their projects. When we opened the “lab” on the second day to start their project development, more than 75% found at least one other person to work with. They had two and half hours to create and plan their project concepts. Some were still “stuck in the box” with their thinking by developing micro businesses to sell common things in the market like charcoal and sandals/slippers. We challenged their ideas and reviewed what they saw and learned from the day before. They were then able to go back to the drawing board and come up with new ideas.
Here are some of the groups working together on their projects.
Interestingly, many were inventorying their available resources and how they could use them for their projects. Some of these resources were their homes, farm land, old shoe bottoms and scrap cloth from the tailor shops, clay and rocks, and old usable equipment lying around their homes. A few young men and women saw how they could pool their skills and talents in developing a small business plan. Many were focused on how their projects could benefit others, which led to various training center ideas.
After lunch, the groups presented their projects and answered two questions from their peers. Very eager to share their ideas, the first few weren’t able to summarize their projects within the five-minute allowed time-frame. Thus, two of the facilitators became timekeepers so we could hear all project presentations before we ended the day. As each presenter shared their creative ideas, their concepts were listed and categorized into sectors that were similar in nature.
Some of the groups presenting their ideas on Day 2.
After the presentations, we grouped the ideas into four sectors [or industries]: fashion, food, sanitation and training. Now they had a chance to network with each other. When we had them vote on the two best projects, they all voted for their own! Since no determination could be made, the five Uniting Distant Stars workshop coordinators and facilitators voted on the top two sectors that were the most creative. These were food and fashion. The groups that fell into these sectors will be collaborating together and meeting with our two Liberian project team members Kelvin Fomba and Rev. Elijah Wreh to show what they have accomplished. Based on the results of what each groups produce in the next month or two, the fashion and food groups will each receive a small seed grant of $200 for use in further developing their collaborative projects.
Lef to right: is the Sanitation Group and Food Group networking.
The feedback received from the participants–both verbally and on the evaluation forms–was very positive. Most suggested that we offer the workshop in the counties (rural areas), and also have them more often during the year. Though we don’t currently have the capacity to go out to the counties or do this more than once a year at this time without additional sponsors, we already plan to return in October 2014 to conduct the next workshop. Official planning for 2014 will begin after the first of the year.
Overall, we did observe that the 2-day workshop did have an impact on our young participants’ thinking. We need to keep the momentum going by engaging these future leaders to think outside [or with no] box. Even though our capacity is limited, Kelvin and Rev. Wreh are committed to supporting our young creative geniuses as best they can, and with the help of our partners Accountability Lab and Business Start-up Center.
We were invited to a radio talk show on 5 FM on Monday, September 16 to talk about the workshop. From left to right: Gradieh, Elijah, Kelvin, and Albert the talk-show host.
To prepare for next year’s workshop, will we analyze both the pre-workshop information form and the post-event evaluation. We will “think outside the box” to learn how to improve upon meeting the challenges we faced this year and provide more substantive support beyond the workshop.
We want to Thank all of our supporters who helped make this workshop possible. We are grateful that you joined with us in challenging the minds of young Liberians to realize their own power to make positive changes in their lives. We believe “a mind not challenged, is a mind wasted” and with your help these young rising stars are more open to the possibilities that are within their reach.