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.”