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!

Liberian Youth Define Leadership Qualities

Since our return from Liberia in September, we have been reviewing the data we gathered from the young men and women who participated in our two-day workshop. One of the documents that our young participants completed was a pre-workshop information form. This form listed ten questions focusing on problem solving, helping others, character building and much more. The purpose of this form was to better understand these young mindsets before they were challenged by the two-day creative and innovative thinking workshop.

One of the questions asked on this form was “what are three qualities you find important in a leader?” When reviewing these forms a few days before the workshop, we were quite impressed by their responses. Clearly, they can visualize what makes a good leader despite being confronted examples of corrupt leadership. So, it seems fitting that their thoughtful effort be shared with a greater audience.

How does one best convey what these young Liberian men and women named are important leadership attributes? Well, it was not going to be easy, because there were 54 respondents and some of the qualities were mentioned more than once. Of course the obvious option would be to publish a simple list that would start with the most important trait at the top. However, it would do little to symbolize what they saw as the ideal leader.

So, the next option was to illustrate their ideas in what is known as a word cloud (i.e. tag cloud) as shown below.

 This graphic has many layers to its design. The leadership qualities that were mentioned more than once were carefully laid out within the national borders of Liberia. The green background with the brown edging represents Liberia’s lush rain forest and fertile ground, which is ready to be planted with the purposeful seeds of these emerging leaders. The color and size of each word represents the number of times a particular quality was mentioned.

Here are the most commonly named qualities:

  1. Patient: selected 9 times
  2. Respectful: selected 7 times
  3. Innovative and Visionary: selected 6 times each
  4. Committed, Compassionate, Good Listener, Humble & Open: selected 5 times each  
  5. Green qualities: selected 4 times each
  6. Yellow qualities: selected 3 times each
  7. Red qualities: selected 2 times each

This word cloud was not able to accommodate all the qualities that were chosen. Therefore, the illustration below shows the “The Honorable Mentions” for the leadership traits that were only selected once.

Both visuals will be included in our workshop next October when we return to Liberia. As we prepare for next year, we want to continue to find creative and thoughtful ways to capture what these young people expressed before, during and after the workshop. There is much to be gained from their insights and perspectives about the world. Let’s face it…our young men and women around the world are the next leaders in business, government, academia and so forth. This is why we value their input and inspire them to become the next great leaders of the 21st century.

Staying Curious

When we tap into our curious spirit, we are more likely to expand our knowledge base and adapt our skill set to meet the demands of this ever changing world. Granted, most people are change-averse, but it is one of the two guarantees in life–the other being death. We must learn to let go of a past that no longer serves us and learn to embrace a life that is a continuous exploration into the unknown. Basically, when we challenge ourselves to learn or do something new, we are tapping into a new realm of possibilities.

This requires a change in how we think and see the world. One of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein is “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” This statement holds many truths, from the individual to the national level. We often limit our possibilities, because we have set imaginary constraints on our thoughts. Too often our thinking gets stuck in the mud like this truck. 

This picture was taken on my trip to Lofa in December 2007, a northern county of Liberia bordering Sierra Leone and Guinea. This dirt road recently experienced a great deal of rain making it difficult for this truck to pass through,

What is exciting about changing our thoughts is that there is now technology that can show us what is happening to our nerve cells in our brains. With the development of better brain scans, scientists can examine how a novel idea is being formed in our neo-cortex (front part of the brain) through the learning process. Then it can show through time-lapse video how our brain can rewire itself when a new habit is being developed (click here)[1]. Being able to see what our brains can do when we change our thinking is amazing. Also, this ability can happen at any age…so yes an old dog can learn a new trick. 

The curiosity to learn or do something new takes an open mind. I like to look at the world with the eyes of two year old. It was during this time of our life that we were discovering a larger world and were eager to try everything. If we can harness this fearless enthusiasm again as adults, we can plug into our creative and innovative centers in the brain. The reality is if we want to change how we see the world, we need to develop creative and innovate thinking that is not hindered by fear of failing or doubt of our abilities. 

The idea of being curious is important to our ongoing personal and professional development. As we continue to learn, we continue to grow. This is why we need to explore and experience the greater world around us, because it expands our opportunities. I will close this post with a great quote from Audrey Hepburn, “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m possible’!”

Video: Look What Happens in Your Brain When You Change Your Mind. Dr. Joe Despenza