Young Minds Challenged and Opened

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.
During the first day, the participants were able to interact with the four presenters—Heather Cannon-Winkelman, Gradieh Wreh, Kelvin Fomba, and Elijah Wreh. The discussions and activities focused on innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, and knowing oneself. Throughout the day they watched video clips of innovative Africans—William Kamkwamba (Malawi),
Kelvin Doe (Sierra Leone), Duro-AinaAdebola, Akindele Abiola and FalekeOluwatoyin, and Bello Eniola (Nigeria), and Richard (Kenya)—who all made something out of minimal resources. From the outset they were challenged to “think outside of the box” and they were wowed by what they saw [and heard]. This emphasized when they said “seeing is believing.”

Read our article in the Heritage Liberia:
US based organization inspires Liberians.

The following is a synopsis of each presentation:
  • 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.

See more great pictures of our trip to Liberia on Uniting Distant Stars Facebook Page.

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.

Young Minds Challenged and Opened

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.
During the first day, the participants were able to interact with the four presenters—Heather Cannon-Winkelman, Gradieh Wreh, Kelvin Fomba, and Elijah Wreh. The discussions and activities focused on innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, and knowing oneself. Throughout the day they watched video clips of innovative Africans—William Kamkwamba (Malawi),
Kelvin Doe (Sierra Leone), Duro-AinaAdebola, Akindele Abiola and FalekeOluwatoyin, and Bello Eniola (Nigeria), and Richard (Kenya)—who all made something out of minimal resources. From the outset they were challenged to “think outside of the box” and they were wowed by what they saw [and heard]. This emphasized when they said “seeing is believing.”

Read our article in the Heritage Liberia:
US based organization inspires Liberians.

The following is a synopsis of each presentation:
  • 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.

See more great pictures of our trip to Liberia on Uniting Distant Stars Facebook Page.

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.

Uniting Distant Stars: The Project

It is amazing how a philosophy can evolve into an organization and, ultimately, an international project. Uniting Distant Stars started as a blog in 2009, reflecting on what we share as a human family no matter where we live in this world. Three years later Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) emerged as an organization focused on educational needs in Liberia, West Africa. Now in 2013, we are about to embark on a  project in the works since August 2012. It is truly symbolic of UDS’s world view. On September 13 and 14 project designers in Liberia and Minnesota will gather in Monrovia, Liberia, to implement a two-day Youth Leadership Workshop on Creative and Innovative Thinking.

The people behind this project include Elijah Wreh and Gradieh Wreh, who are both from Liberia and two of the four workshop facilitators. They have inspired involvement of their youth group members in social action and supported by the Ebenezer Community Church in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, who is also our fiscal sponsor. They look forward to similarly motivating their age cohort back home in Liberia. Kelvin Fomba is the third facilitator and UDS co-founder and partner, and is based in Liberia. He has a long history of working with youth, teaching them the skills of auto mechanics and professional driving. Another critical member of the team is Reverend Elijah Wreh Sr. in Liberia, who will help recruit participants and follow up with them after the workshop has ended. He is currently building his own ministry in Liberia to support the emotional and spiritual needs of his people. And finally there is yours truly, Heather Cannon-Winkelman, who developed the UDS concept after reading “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” a book about William Kamkwamba from Malawi.

The Minnesota team has been talking about UDS with our social and professional networks for several months and are energized by the positive response we have received. Many expressed interest in becoming part of
this. Their enthusiasm motivated us to put together a crowdfunding (i.e. fundraising) campaign beginning mid-July. This post spotlights the people who “nudged” us to broaden our vision into an international initiative.

First, we need to pause and recognize Nita Schroeder for planting the seed for a crowdfunding
initiative. I first met her in
2010 when she co-facilitated a job transition group at WomenVenture in St. Paul, Minnesota, that I attended while seeking
employment after returning from a year in Liberia. She was the first to validate our project’s potential with her generous pledge in January 2013. I had reservations about the idea of crowdfunding until she pulled out some
money and urged me to start the campaign. Though it took a
while to figure out the “how,” Nita, we are finally getting it done!

Next there is John Trepp, my mentor from Mentor Planet. He has advised and guided me since November 2012 in developing UDS into an organization. He also has helped analyze the scope of this and other projects, and how we can best convey our message. He too has been a source of encouragement, especially about using video to promote our projects, a key to successful crowdfunding campaigns.

The spotlight now turns to Liberia. The result of my May 2013 post “Accountability from the bottom up” was the development of a collaborative international partnership. Blair Glencorse and Lawrence Yealue of Accountability Lab (Lab) in Liberia were the first to recognize the benefits of partnering with us. Blair then connected us with William Dennis at the Business Start-up Center (BSC) at the University of Liberia. William was instrumental in helping us secure the BSC lab as our venue for the September 13 workshop. Also, Lawrence has four potential Lab “Accountapreneurs” from Bomi County, one of the targeted rural areas for this event, who will participate in our workshop.

In the midst of this groundswell of support, I received an email from Pastor Stephen Tour of World Harvest Church in Liberia, offering his edifice as the site of our youth workshop. His was the church I attended while living in Liberia in 2009. It had the only internet cafe in our community of New Georgia Estate. Since we already had our site, we included two members of his thriving youth department as UDS participants.

Switching back to Minnesota, I met with Wokie Weah, the Executive Director of Youthprise and a Liberian. I had volunteered in 2009 with her sister Juanita Ramirez’s organization, Society for Women in Africa and AIDS in Liberia. Juanita had recommended that I talk with Wokie about the concept of UDS since our work had similar themes. Youthprise is a Minnesota-based organization that “will lead the nation in accelerating leadership and innovation beyond the classroom.”

After only a few moments of talking about our workshop and partnership with the Lab, Wokie strongly recommended we do a crowdfunding campaign and walked me across the hall to meet Ed Irwin and Maddy Wegner with youthrive, another Minnesota-based non-profit that engages “young people with adults in strengthening leadership and peace-building skills”. Both were excited about the UDS project and wanted to learn more about Accountability Lab. Ed agreed to help us film
our crowdfunding video. In return we will facilitate a connection between Liberia and Minnesotan youth. When we met, both were energized by their recent interaction with a Liberian star, Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, who was in Minnesota in April 2013 as part of the PeaceJam Youth Leadership Conference.

Just like that, more distant stars–Youthprise, youthrive and Accountability Lab–united to illuminate a path for youth in Liberia and Minnesota to pursue their dreams.

The last week in June, Gradieh and I did our first of two video shoots for our UDS crowdfunding campaign. We completed the final filming on Monday, July 1, 2013. The video will be ready to launch in mid-July. Ed from youthrive was a great help for us communicating our message from our passion within and not from a script. 

Gradieh and I at the end of our first video shoot on Wednesday June 26. 2012. Photo by Edwin Irwin

It was Ed who suggested calling this project “Uniting Distant Stars,” a brilliant, unifying idea, since our belief is that everyone is a star and has something to contribute to make this a better world. Whether it is our knowledge, skill, desire to help others, or money to give, we are distant stars uniting for a better global community. It is not about what we have, but what we can give of ourselves to change this world.

After each take, Gradieh and I would catch our breath and prepare for the next one. Photo by Edwin Irwin

When we launch our campaign in July, we will provide full details abour how you can get involved. For now, we will leave you with this: UDS is not about teaching our youth a skill, but rather to provide a supportive space where they can reignite their flame of boundless imagination and creative spirit that was snuffed out by war and oppressive institutions. We expect our young participants to gain inspiration from the video stories about their African peers who developed
socially innovative ideas with little to nothing in resources. These initiatives positively changed their lives and people all around the world, including me! We think that you will want to join us in this wonder-filled experiment. How can You be a source of inspiration to our global youth in making this a better world?

Accountability from the bottom up

Systemic, socioeconomic barriers have paralyzed people within their communities and nations throughout history. This occurs because they lack the knowledge and resources necessary to develop holistic solutions or hold accountable the power brokers in business, education and government. There have been some dramatic examples of change agents dismantling corrupt institutions such as gaining employee rights and ending Apartheid. Still, many people feel doubtful that they can do anything to effect positive change in their circumstances.

In March, I had the opportunity to hold a Skype conversation with Blair Glencorse, Executive Director of Accountability Lab [Lab], to learn more about his projects in Liberia, Nepal and Guinea Bissau. His work sparked my curiosity when I viewed his photos on Linkedin about an open forum he held with workers at the Firestone Rubber Plantation in Liberia. It is common knowledge that Firestone has not provided its employees with appropriate working conditions, from livable wages to proper safety equipment. This almost 90-year-old rubber plantation has been cited for many environmental concerns including the poisoning of nearby rivers. This forum was intended to allow workers to air their concerns, but also discuss possible ways that they can collectively hold their employer accountable for meeting their fundamental rights as employees. Thus the idea of “accountability from the bottom up.”

The focus of the Accountability Lab is on building partnerships with local organizations within nations they serve. The Lab contributes comparative understanding, new thinking and flexible support, while the organizations offer local knowledge, contextualized ideas and relevant networks. Blair brings extensive experience to the challenges of governance, accountability and development, working with stakeholders in developing nations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The Lab equips marginalized people in Liberia, Nepal and Guinea Bissau with needed resources and funds to amplify their voices about problems and develop innovative solutions to ensure that institutional leaders fulfill their responsibilities. One of the projects that Blair started in Liberia is called TELL-it-True. This is a confidential and anonymous SMS suggestion box (free text code 8355 or TELL). An operator will call back to gather and compile the information related to particular issues. This allows both students and faculty/administrators to provide a detailed accounting of problems and their possible solutions to an operator.

The Lab will periodically hold discussions with university administration and student government. These groups will develop ideas to resolve the concerns by determining action steps needed to implement them. These are then reported to the student body at large, explaining the findings and the necessary process to make corrective changes. It is through these exercises the Lab hopes to convince more people to use this system for addressing problems and creating viable solutions.

The TELL-it-True pilot program at Stella Maria has proven its worth. Blair shared in an email that “the process works well (fits the context and is low tech, which keeps it
simple and cheap) but the key is the political will on the part of the
administration to address the problems, of course.” So, they are ready to roll this out to high schools and other universities, which requires the coordination of the student government. They are in the process of building a consensus at the University of Liberia to implement this program, which could be an important vehicle in addressing the ongoing student frustration of this nation’s largest university. 

Another project that was introduced in Liberia on April 29 is called Accountapreneurship Funds. This exciting initiative allows people with an entrepreneurial spirit to develop their own innovative methods to facilitate the accountability of the powers-that-be. According to their Facebook post announcing this program, the Lab states: “The fund may provide small grants (of
US$1,000-2,000) to help catalyze new tools, but the emphasis is on the
provision of training, mentorship, connections and networks that can
really help make these approaches work over time. Applications are
received on a rolling basis.” For anyone interested in this program, please contact Lawrence
Yealue, Lab’s Country Representative, at 0888330901 (local number). 

Since introducing this initiative, Lawrence has been going out to rural and urban communities to explain the program and how to apply for funding. He was in Bomi County on May 4 talking with potential accountapreneurs, who according to the Lab’s Facebook post were able to deliver “tons of good ideas to fight corruption and improve transparency!” 

At the time of this posting, the Lab has awarded one accountapreneurship grant to community leaders within West Point, one of Monrovia’s largest slums. The project is to merge a formal and informal justice system to resolve legal disputes in accountable and legitimate way from both top-down institutions like the police and bottom-up community forums. Blair shared in his email that the Lab has spent $1,000 and “saved citizens over $1500 in bond fees, travel fees etc, and
hundreds of hours in time; and the results are far more sustainable as
they are locally agreed and owned.” They hope to award five or more grants before the year’s end. Check out Blair’s article Re-Imaging the Relationship of Citizens to Power-Holders Through “Accountapreneurship” in the World Justice Project to learn more about this program.

The Lab customizes its initiatives for the countries they serve based on their level of development and the strength of their infrastructure. Liberia uses texting for their university initiative. Nepal on the other hand has “Bye Dalal” which uses crowdsourcing as an effective means for accountability. They “use web-based tools to gather, organize and disburse the information, and foster human networks to transmit information to and from the web-tools, bridging the digital divide in new ways.” 

The work that Blair and his Lab team are doing in Liberia correlates well with the programs that Uniting Distant Stars is working on. We share the belief that grassroots innovation has its place in nation-building, especially with its youth. A nation’s future is their young people. When we engage them in finding meaningful solutions with lasting impact, they will likely remain vested in the process. The expectation is that the young people of today, who will be the leaders of tomorrow, shall themselves support the young people of tomorrow by endorsing “accountability from the bottom up.”