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?

Engaging and Educating the ECC Youth Group

Life is at its best, when you can do something that you love! Well, this was made possible by my dear friend Elijah Wreh, who had invited me to be the guest speaker for the Ebenezer Community Church (ECC) Youth Group today (February 26, 2012). Back in January, Elijah texted me that he was recently appointed as the new Youth Director and stated that he would be seeking my help. I was eager to learn more about what he needed, because it is my passion to work with youth development.

Before I go into some of the highlights of today’s presentation, I want to share more about the leadership of this group. I can say without hesitation that the young people in this group are very fortunate to have not only Elijah as a leader, but also his wife Gradieh. I have known this vibrant couple for about two years. They are both  intelligent, hardworking and constantly seeking ways to make this a better world. These two inspire me greatly that I do what I can to support them. For nearly two years, Elijah and I have been working periodically on a project that he is developing that would help support the educational efforts of young people in Liberia. Gradieh is a co-owner of Hairitage Creations Beauty Salon in Brooklyn Park and I have been a her client for 18 months. 

Now to the highlights! It was an honor to present to some very smart and spirited Liberian youth from ages 13 to 25 about my experience and research of their home nation. Everyone of them was eager to “test their knowledge” on Liberia’s geography and history at the start of the presentation as a way to ‘break the ice’. While they were quick to answer most questions, they did have two challenging ones.

The first one was “How was Liberia created?” and it did stump the group as they made several attempts to answer it. Their answers were more about who founded Liberia and not the one act that made it possible. So, I finally gave them the answer and explained that Liberia was created when U.S. Congress passed the Anti-Slave Trade Act in 1819 that gave the American Colonization Society (ACS) the money–$100,000–to establish a colony in West Africa. Prior to the passing of this act, ACS was unable to raise the money needed for their purpose.

The other question was “Why did Liberia declare Independence?” which this was implying to an economic reason. After receiving some good efforts from other participants, this one was answered correctly by one of the young men. He mentioned how Liberia had trade relationships with other nations and they would not pay customs for the goods they were trading as long as it was not a sovereign nation. Until their independence in 1847, Liberia was under the auspice rule of the ACS and the trading nations did not consider this organization as a nation. Plus at this time, the ACS was extremely broke and were ready to pass on the responsibility of governance to this fledgling new nation.

The rest of the presentation focused on the present situations such as limited electricity, no running water, high unemployment and poverty rates, and other factors that still challenge this war-torn nation’s recovery efforts. Then we discussed the future opportunities such as mobile technology, alternative energy sources, agriculture (i.e. supporting local farmers) and human resources development.

I wanted to engage these young participates on what are some of the possibilities of making a difference back home. Though many were born in Liberia, some had moved away when they were younger and were now accustomed to U.S. living. It appeared that most really hadn’t thought about returning to Liberia or how they could be a catalyst for change.

We ended the presentation with an energized question and answer session. One of the young men was eager to know what programs were available to volunteer with that were helping Liberia. This was a great question and I shared with him that there were several organizations in the Twin Cities focused on projects in Liberia. They were hungry to know more and yet our time was running short. We closed with Elijah saying a final prayer and everyone gave me a resounding thank you!

Later in the day, Gradieh called me and provided some great feedback about today’s interactions. The young people were still talking about my presentation after I was gone and how much they learned surprisingly from a “white women.” She also shared that they will be looking for organizations that their groups members can sign-up to be volunteers. This put a smile on my face, because now these young people felt empowered to do something good!

This post will end with the following pictures of my great day with some amazing young people:

Elijah Wreh, Ebenezer Community Church Youth Director
This is my audience of about 25 to 30 young people.
Close up of some of young people sitting at the back.
All eyes are turned at the young lady in the second row as she answers one of the geography questions.
Many hands were raised as the history questions were being asked.

This group was quite eager to answers questions and share their knowledge.

Giving some hints about the first challenge question “How was Liberia created?
That smile I am wearing indicates that this group was great to work with!
The young man in the middle is answering one of the questions.
The young lady in the second row wearing the white dress with the black jacket, demonstrated her knowledge by naming all the Liberian Presidents.
One of three group pictures at the end of the presentation. Gradieh Wreh is in the black jacket and red skirt.

Group photo number two.

Group photo three with some position changes!