Liberian Youth Virtually Connect With Peers in Minnesota

March 7 was a very exciting day for our small and humble organization. We had been invited by youthrive, a Minnesota-based organization, on January 17, to have Liberian students participate in the Nobel Peace Prize Forum Youth Festival (NPPF) at Augsburg College via Google+ Hangout Connected Classrooms. We extended this opportunity to iLab Liberia since they had high-speed internet and the ideal space to hold this event. The featured speaker for the NPPF’s morning session was Liberia’s 2011 Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who has presented several times to Minnesotan youth.

Liberian youth at iLab in Sinkor, Liberia, watching Nobel Laureate share her story at Augsburg College in Minnesota via Google Hangout. (Photo by Rodney Johnson)
Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) and iLab Liberia co-hosted this event, and each organization invited youth to participate. We had nearly 50 students from various elementary and high schools, and University of Liberia. The program lasted about two hours and started at 9:30AM (CST) in Minnesota; 3:30PM (GMT) in Liberia.

Luther Jeke of iLab Liberia talking with the youth. (Photo by Rodney Johnson)
This was NPPF’s first year of using Google+ Hangout, so two tests were conducted earlier in the week that was coordinated by Edwin Irwin from youthrive and Mark Holterhaus from the NPPF team. The first test was on Tuesday and it took a few minutes before we could connect Liberia on hangout. From this test, Teemu Ropponen, iLab’s Executive Director, assessed what was needed to ensure the best connection. He and his team hooked up one computer to a projector for the students to view the activities in Minnesota and connected a video camera so the Liberian youth could be seen on the screen at Augsburg. Their efforts showed perfect results during the second test on Wednesday.

Liberia’s students waving to the camera. Youthrive’s Ed Irwin orchestrated the activities from Minnesota and cued Liberia when they would up on the screen at Augsburg. (Screen shot by Heather)
UDS Executive Director, Kelvin Fomba, quickly prepared our youth on what this event was about, because this was new territory for them. He explained that they would be participating live at this event through the internet. Most did not comprehend what he was saying, because they thought they would be just watching a video. Well once they were sitting in iLab’s conference room, they soon discovered that their presence was being acknowledged by the MCs at the forum in Minnesota. So, this was a very exciting and life changing experience for all youth.

Students watching Leymah present at Augsburg College in Minnesota. Left photo has Teemu Ropponen, iLab’s Executive Director, in the background by the wall. (Photos by Rodney Johnson)
Left shows some students taken photos with their cell phones (Photo by Rodney Johnson). Right photo shows students on the live Google feed (Screen shot by Heather).
Heather Cannon-Winkelman, UDS Executive Director, was connected privately via Hangout at Dakota County Technical College. She was co-presenting at this college later that morning for the Multicultural Student Leadership Association (MSLA) with a Liberian Student and MSLA President, Branko Saah Tambah, on Liberia and U.S. relations. She was able to see and hear the activities from both the Minnesota and Liberia sides. She took some the screen shots from her computer that are shared in this post. Interestingly, when the Russ Wood students saw her image appear on the screen, they started saying “there’s Heather.” So this made it more real for them.

Left of student watching Leymah (Photo by Rodney Johnson) and right photo of group from Heather’s perspective from her screen shot.
One of the highlights of Friday’s forum was when Leymah asked to have the lights turned off at Augsburg’s Kennedy Center. She then requested that the youth use their cell phones to light up the room. Liberia followed Leymah’s lead by turning off the lights and displaying their cell phones. Next Leymah proceeded to explain that though this room was dark, it was the young people like them that were the light. This definitely was an inspiring moment for the youth on both sides of the Atlantic.

Left are students in Liberia seeing the Kennedy Center illuminated by Minnesota peers’ cell phones (photo by Rodney Johnson). Right shows the Liberian students holding their cell phones (screen
shot by Heather).
Once Leymah was done with her talk, the floor was opened to questions and answers. About three to four students in Minnesota were able to ask her a question. Then Liberia was given their chance to ask the last one. It was one of our scholarship students from Russ Wood, Ishmael, that represented his peers by asking her a question. His asked Leymah how could Liberian youth become peace builders. This was a great opportunity for this rising star. Ishmael, who is about 12 years old, is a creative talent who writes his own parables and songs, MC’d last month’s second annual student celebration, and recited one of his parables to the participants–ranging from 16 to early 30’s–at our September 2013 workshop on creative and innovative workshop.

Left photo is Ishmael in front of the camera waiting for his cue (photo by Rodney Johnson). Photo is Ismael asking his question to Leymah (screen shot by Heather).
After Leymah answered Ishmael’s question, she mentioned that she knows the name of his school and would visit them when she was in Liberia next. Both Uniting Distant Stars and Russ Wood Students will gladly welcome her visit.

Leymah Gbowee addressing the Minnesotan students at Augsburg’s Kennedy Center and Liberian students via Google Connected Classrooms. (Screen shot by Heather).
Since iLab provided the space, UDS brought the refreshments. Some of our youth prepared the sandwiches and ensured everyone was served. This team of youth was led by another of our scholarship students, Princess, who will be graduating this year. Her team made enough sandwiches that allowed the youth to have seconds. When the program ended, our youth helped clean-up before they left iLab’s facilities. We encourage our youth to volunteer their time and talent for such events.

Left photo is the food table. Center photo is Princess enjoying what she helped prepare. Right photo shows youth in line to get a bottle of ice cold soft drink. (Photos by Rodney Johnson).
The virtual event was a great success. Kelvin was overwhelmed by number of students who expressed their gratitude for being able to participate in such a program. If you think about, these Liberian boys, girls, young men and women were able to connect to the greater world for about two hours. This experience is something they will not forget and hopefully they can do more of in the future.

Kelvin in the background with some of our youth. (Photo by Rodney Johnson)
UDS is equally grateful for this opportunity that connected Minnesota based and Liberia based organizations together. We have many Thanks for Maddy Wegner and Edwin Irwin at youthrive for inviting us to be part of it, and also for Teemu Ropponen and Luther Jeke at iLab Liberia along with rest of their team for proving their space and expertise. This amazing accomplishment can be summed up by a quote from Mattie Stepanek… “Unity is strength… when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.

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?

Women Leaders Who Are Transforming the World

How could the mainstream U.S. media possibly have overlooked a powerful
movement occurring today around the world?  Those of us paying attention
are witnessing the emergence of transformative leadership on the part
of women.  They are engaged globally in making social change, both at
the grassroots level of rural villages and at the highest level of their
As I had mentioned in my August post Uniting Distant Stars Has Gone Supernova, I am dedicating this one to some incredible women who have defied the inequalities and injustices in their nations. Though these women did not meet the criteria of Forbes The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, they are a force to be reckoned with.
What excites me about these women leaders, is that they are championing the issues of gender inequality, poverty and war in some of the toughest patriarchal societies in Africa and Asia. This post will highlight the eight women that were included in my June presentation to the Miss Liberia Contestants of Minnesota. Furthermore, this post will close with a special recognition of one special young day who has inspired a generation of girls.

1) Immaculée Ilibagiza, Rwandan Genocide Survivor

Immaculée has inspired me since I heard her share her incredible story of survival in Liberia in 2009 and then read her books “Left to Tell” and “Led by Faith” when I returned home in 2010. This young Tutsi woman spent nearly 90 days in a three by four foot bathroom with seven other Tutsi women in the home of a Hutu pastor. When these women emerged from their cramped quarters, they were sleep-deprived, wasted from hunger, and overwhelmed with grief for the loved ones that had been killed. For Immaculée, she lost her parents, two of the three brothers, and countless friends and family. It was from this terrifying ordeal that she found her faith and the capacity to forgive.

In finding refuge by reading the Bible, she was struck by the words that Jesus said up on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” She saw how this statement rang true for those committing the senseless butchering of their neighbors. This gave her the reason to forgive the killers of her family. After some time of mourning and securing a job at the UN, she went to the prison to forgive the killer of her mother and one of her brothers. The Tutsi man in charge of the prison became so outraged with her and questioned why she did it. Being apologetic, she explained that she was just one Tutsi so if she was wrong then there was nothing to worry about (Immaculée). 

Surprisingly, one year later this same prison official came to the UN to meet with her. She was taken aback by his visit and wondered why he wanted to talk to her. She was overwhelmed when he started off by thanking her for changing his life. He then shared how his wife and children had been killed, and how this consumed him with so much hate that he would beat the Hutu prisoners daily to get some temporary relief. Yet, he repeated this same cycle every day. So it was her example that allowed him to forgive and let go of his hate and sorrow. This gave him the peace and freedom to move on with his life, which he was now remarried and they were planning to have children (Immaculée).

Zarifa Qazizadah, Afghanistan’s First Female Village Chief

Zarifa is one who puts a smile on my face, because she fulfilled a promise that secured the vote of men in her village. One may not believe that this woman had the capacity to be a leader. She was married at age 10 and had her first of fifteen children at age 15. She was destined to be a housewife and servant to her husband’s family. However, with some personal sacrifices she was able to provide a necessary service to her village–Naw Abad–that exemplified her leadership capabilities (Hegarty).

It all started in 2004 when she was seeking political office. Zarifa made a promise to the village men that she would connect the village to the electric grid. They of course laughed at her believing that this was impossible for woman. She did therefore lose the election, but kept her promise. So, she re-mortgaged her house and borrowed money to buy the posts and cables needed to connect to the main electrical supply. She succeeded that same year in supplying every house with electricity (Hegarty).

This 50-year-old grandma of 36 grandchildren, was voted in as chief by the same men who shunned her. One of her male supporters explained his reason for voting for her, “she does the type of work that even men are not capable of doing.” As chief she has taking on some other initiatives such as sponsoring the building of the first Mosque where both men and women can pray together. She also heads the local women’s council and encourages other women to follow her example. Zarifa is no ordinary woman, because she owns and rides a motorcycle [1], and uses a gun to protect the people in her village (Hegarty). This formidable woman has started the process of change in her nation.

Dr. Hawa Abdi, Somalia’s 2012 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee

Dr. Hawa is another inspiring woman who shares her property with approximately 90,000 refugees just 15 miles from Mogadishu. In order to accommodate the people seeking refuge, she has transformed her one-room clinic on her property to a two-story hospital to serve the people. She also added an 800-student school and adult education center. She opened some of her land to families to farm and purchased a small fleet of fishing boats as a means to feed everyone (Ibrahim and Gettleman).

Dr. Hawa’s sacrifices have not gone unnoticed by the people she serves. On May 5, 2010, 750 armed Al Shabaab [2] militants surrounded her hospital. The commanders held her at gun-point for several hours while their minions, mostly teenage child soldiers, ransacked her hospital and tore up records. She was enraged by their unwelcome occupation that she told them that she would not leave and then yelled, “You are young and you are a man, but what have you done for your society? (Ibrahim and Gettleman).”

Consequently, she was placed under house arrest for the next five days forcing her hospital to close and causing two dozen malnourished babies to die who were left in the bush by their fleeing families. Suddenly, hundreds of women living on her property gathered together to protest against the militants along with many Somalian expatriates that forced them to relinquish control. She then insisted that they apologize in writing, which they did begrudgingly (Ibrahim and Gettleman). It is amazing how she got these young men to apologize, so I wonder if she used the certain motherly tone that makes children stop in their tracks.

Manal al-Sharif, Saudi’s Founder of Women’s Right to Drive

Manal really impressed me with her bold action in starting the Women2Drive campaign. In May 2011, this divorced mother of one son risked it all by driving around Khobar while being video taped in a nation that forbids women drivers. Her creative protest did not go unnoticed by the police, because she was arrested the next day and then held with no charges for nine days. Luckily, she was finally released after a great deal of international pressure (Sutter).

Her public protest was not centered on women having the right to drive, but on all the gender inequalities in her nation. Women in Saudi Arabia need their male guardians’ permission to “get married, leave the country, go to school or open bank accounts.” She believes that if women defy one of these unjust requirements such as driving that they would have the courage to speak up and take appropriate action (Sutter).”

Regrettably, her work has come at a cost both professionally and personally. She was forced to quit her job and her six-year-old son has been harassed and bullied by his classmates for her public activism. Though she was not able to find the right words, she tried to explain to her son why she was doing this and that some day he would be proud of her. For now she is saving the clippings and awards she has received, so that when he is older he can decide whether is mom was making a difference or a “sinful, dangerous woman (Sutter).” Manal has created the spark that is lighting the fire of other women in her nation to take a stand for their rights.
President Joyce Banda of Malawi, Africa’s 2nd Female Head of State

President Joyce Banda is clearly a woman to watch. What piqued my interest about her, is how she was able to stop a coup d’état with one simple phone call. The former President Bingu wa Mutharika had suddenly died of heart attack in April 2012. Mutharika had planned to have his brother Peter succeed him as President instead of Joyce the Vice President who had been voted in and the natural successor as stated in the constitution (Smith).

On April 7, the cabinet ministers, parliament members along with the chief justice and some other judges were waiting at Peter’s house for the court order to swear him in. Knowing that this meeting was occurring, she called the army commander, General Henry Odillo, and asked if she had his support. He answered yes. This phone call forced the hand of the ministers and parliament, who quickly left Peter’s house to avoid any appearances of treason. The chief justice, a staunch supporter of Mutharika, protested her swearing in by saying he did not have his wig or robe, but a car was sent to fetch him to perform his duties (Smith).

Since becoming President, Joyce has taken her role seriously as Southern Africa’s first female head of state. She made this point clear when she said, “It’s heavy for me. Heavy in the sense that I
feel that I’m carrying this heavy load on behalf of all women. If I
fail, I will have failed all the women of the region. But for me to
succeed, they all must rally around (Smith).” She definitely has her work cut out for her and it will be interesting to see how she transforms her nation.

Major Liu Yang, China’s First Female Astronaut

Liu’s triumph makes me think that girls may be becoming more valued in China than we thought.  As her parents’ only child, her accomplishment may significantly change the status of girls in her nation (Grammiticas). We have all heard about the China’s one-child policy and the “missing girl” factor. That has caused us to over-generalize this nation’s vast population. We must acknowledge the fact that there are other parents like Liu’s who appreciated their daughters and believed in their potential.

Another exciting aspect of this story is how Liu was vying with another woman of the same age, Captain Wang Yaping, for final position on the three-person crew. Both of these women were revered as heroines by their fellow citizens, because they were proud of what they represented in the history of their nation (Grammiticas).

Remarkably, her success in becoming China’s first female astronaut has helped women surpass a famous old Chinese maxim “women hold up half the sky (Branigan).” Without a doubt, Liu has reached the stars and will be an inspiration to other girls in her nation. She made this clear before the launch in June when she told the reporters, “I am grateful to the motherland and the people. I feel honoured to fly
into space on behalf of hundreds of millions of female Chinese
citizens (Branigan).” We will need to pay closer attention to what effect her achievement will have on the next generation of girls in China.

Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna, Liberia’s Straight from the Heart Center Founder

Agnes is the one leader that I talked to personally in May 2012. Though we had never met, she contacted me after reading my comment on Leymah Gbowee’s (Liberia’s 2011 Nobel Laureate) Facebook post about President Taylor’s conviction and how more work was needed in the rehabilitation of the former child soldiers. My comment was about my willingness to work with these young people because I had interacted with them during my first trip in 1998 and then worked with a few during my first year of residence in 2007/8. So Agnes sent me a Facebook message asking me to read her book “And Still Peace Did Not Come: A Memoir of Reconciliation” and to let her know my thoughts when I finished reading it.

From the very first page, I was captivated by her story. She skillfully started each chapter with a personal narrative from a war victim and/or perpetrator that was interwoven with her own experiences of the war. Since she had seen first-hand the atrocities of war and those who committed them, she was able to create the perfect avenue for victims and perpetrators to tell their stories as a means for healing and reconciliation. As an experienced on-air personality, she produced a radio program called “Straight from the Heart [3]” that first focused on the victim stories. After some coaxing from her producer, she started talking with former child soldiers (males and females) and soon discovered their dual roles as both victims and victimizers.

Her compelling story helped amplify the voices of the countless people whose lives were forever changed by Liberia’s long and gruesome war, which blurred the line between victim and perpetrator. So it was an honor to meet with Agnes when she came to Minnesota from New York to attend a graduation in May. We spent an hour or so talking about her book and experiences working with former child soldiers. From that moment, we formed a sisterhood and knew someday we would be working together in some capacity.

Leymah Gbowee, Liberia’s 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Leymah had a simple dream that materialized into a non-violent peace movement of women who ushered in the end of Liberia’s 14-year civil war. Surprisingly, I was not aware of this renowned  women’s peace movement from all the personal and scholarly research on Liberia that I had conducted. It was right before I left for Liberia in January 2009 that I heard about the award winning documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” that would be playing in U.S. theaters while I was gone. Gratefully, my Mom had received a copy from a friend that I could watch when I returned in January 2010.

I have watched this documentary several times and have recently read Lehmah’s book “Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War.” There is no doubt about her leadership in this successful peace movement that brought Christian and Muslim women together upon realizing that a bullet does not discriminate. She, like the other women, were tired of the war and what it was doing to the children of Liberia (Disney).

Throughout this movement, they faced many challenges including operating on limited funds. Regardless of these obstacles, Leymah was able to organize the women in holding sit-ins in both Liberia and Ghana where the peace talks were being held. She held fast to her convictions as they maintained their mission even when the fighting increased or during the faltering peace talks in Accra (Disney). It was her leadership that showed the rest of the world how a powerful group of women could take one dream for peace and make it reality.

Malala Yousuzai, Pakistan’s Child Advocate for Girls’ Education

Young Malala’s courageous story has captivated the hearts and minds of countless people around the world, including me. In 2009, when it became clear that the Taliban would force her to quit school, this 11-year-old girl started an anonymous blog–Diary of a Pakistani schoolgirl–to speak out about her rights. She was one of the few girls who were brave enough to protest about the injustice, because they had witnessed the destruction of over 150 schools in 2008 (Malala Yousafzai: Portrait of the girl blogger). So, the young girls felt that the only way to stop this madness was to stand up for their rights.

This young girl did not give up fighting for her right to an education even when she and her father–Ziauddin– were facing death threats. Her father runs the local private school that she attends in Swat Valley. He is also the strongest supporter of her activism. Her work soon received international attention when she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by The KidsRights Foundation and awarded the National Peace Award [4] by her government (Malala Yousafzai: Portrait of the girl blogger).

Sadly, this girl, now 15, was shot in the head by the Taliban on October 9, while heading home on a bus with others. This was definitely an assassination attempt, because her activism was threatening their oppressive hold on her community. These radical militants failed to realize  Malala’s resolve. She is recovering and has already requested her school books. Her strong spirit has been such an inspiration, especially girls, that a petition has already been started to nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize (Malala Yousafzai: Thousands sign Nobel Peace Prize petition). There is no doubt that Malala is very deserving of this award, because she used her voice to regain her right for an education instead of a gun or missile.

Foot notes:
[1] Zarifa needs to ride her motorcycle at night while wearing men’s clothing to protect her from being a target of the Taliban.
[2] Al Shabaab (The Youth in Arabic), a radical wing of Somalia’s now-defunct Union of Islamic Courts.

[3] The radio show’s name was derived from Byran Adam’s song “Straight from the Heart”
[4] The National Peace Award was renamed the National Malala Peace Prize for those under 18 years old.

Works Cited:

Branigan, Tania. “China’s first female astronaut shows how ‘women hold up half the sky’.” The   
     Guardian. The Observer. 16 Jun 2012. Web. 24 Nov 2012.
Disney, Abigail E, and Gini Reticker. Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Sausalito, Calif.?: Distributed by
      Roco Films Educational, 2008. 

Grammaticas, Damian. “China’s female astronaut quandary.” BBC News Asia. BBC.
     12 June 2012. Web. 24 Nov 2012.
Hegarty, Stephanie. “Afghanistan’s supergran crimebuster on wheels.” BBC News Magazine.
     BBC. 27 May 2012. Web. 24 Nov 2012.
Ibrahim, Mohammed and Jeffrey Gettleman. “Under Siege in War-Torn Somalia, a Doctor Holds Her
     Ground.” The New York Times Africa. NY Times. 07 Jan 2011. Web. 24 Nov 2012.

“Immaculée Ilibagiza Keynote Speech at International Week.” Online video. YouTube. 22 Oct 2008.
      Web. 24 Nov 2012. 

“Malala Yousafzai: Portrait of the girl blogger.” BBC News Magazine. BBC. 10 Oct 2012. Web.
      26 Nov 2012.
“Malala Yousafzai: Thousands sign Nobel Peace Prize petition.” BBC News Asia. BBC. 09 Nov 2012.
      Web. 26 Nov 2012/
Smith, David. “Malawi’s Joyce Banda puts women’s rights at centre of new presidency.”The 
      Guardian. The Guardian. 29 Apr 2012 Web. 24 Nov 2012
Sutter, John D. “The woman who defied Saudi’s driving ban and put it on YouTube.” The CNN 
     Profile. CNN. 10 Jun 2012. Web. 24 Nov 2012.

Uniting Distant Stars Has Gone Supernova

Fueled by passion and energy, United Distant Stars is charting a new
course across the galaxy.  Its mission is to engage young
Liberians–“rising stars”–in receiving education for jobs or careers. 
We see that as their first step into the great unknown–fulfilling their
dreams of a meaningful and satisfying future!

This surge of inspired energy came after I gave a presentation on women’s leadership to the 2012 Miss Liberia Minnesota contestants on June 26, sponsored by the Liberian Youth Network (LYN). Decontee “Dee” Sawyer, LYN’s Executive Director (and also 2006 Miss Liberia/Minnesota), had heard about my presentation to the Ebenezer Community Church (ECC) Youth Group and asked if I would be interested in talking with her contestants. 

I was excited to have this opportunity to talk with these beautiful young women, and just three days away from the pageant. I knew that I had to deliver a talk that would pique their interest and stimulate involvement because they were focused on their final preparations for the contest. They each had their sight on the crown and title for 2012.

I wanted to convey three primary principles to these emerging leaders:

  • Be informed…knowledge is power,
  • Be inspired…cultivate your passion, and then
  • Ignite an eternal flame…put your passion into action
As I had with the Ebenezer Youth Group, I began by quizzing them on
their knowledge of Liberian history.  Next I sketched out brief profiles
of eight women currently recognized as powerful and inspirational
leaders in their nations, despite very dangerous circumstances, as in the case of Liberia’s Leymah Gbowee and Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna. There is more to be said about these women, so I will be dedicating an upcoming blog post about their incredible stories of leading in complex situations.
Finally, we closed the presentation on how they can put their passion into action. It seems that the hardest thing to do is taking those first steps. Too often we feel that we need to go BIG to make an impact and then we end up doing nothing. So, we talked about sharing their ideas with others, being an advocate for someone or something or starting a pilot project. This message was good reminder for all of us that when we take those first “small steps” we are on way to making our dreams a reality.

Left to right Jessica Chea (contestant), Catherine Carr (2012 Miss Liberia-Minnesota), Decontee Sawyer (LYN Executive Director), me, Satta Kendor (contestant), Decontee Yarpah (contestant)

After I left that night, I had no idea how my presentation went because I’m usually in a “zone” where I’m unable to gauge my audience’s
response.  The following day I received a call from Dee thanking me for a
great presentation, explaining that afterward each of the contestants
revised their “platforms” (action plans to be carried out after the
pageant–whether or not they receive the crown).

This feedback inspired me to put my passion into action!  United Distant Stars has launched two small projects focusing on educating young people in Liberia. One project has provided scholarships to five primary and secondary school students, and supplemental financial aid to eight students in three to six-month vocational programs. The second project involves adopting a small primary school in the Monrovia area.

United Distant Stars will be slowly rolling out our vision and plans as we move forward. We have added an “About” tab so you can learn more about us.

I close this post with a insightful quote from Michelango that encourages us to reach for the stars…

The greater danger for most of you lies not in setting your aim too high and falling short; but in setting your aim too low, and achieving your mark.

Empowered Women and the Nobel Peace Prize

We just witnessed a great moment in human history as three strong and courageous women–President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman–were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. These women represent developing nations that have not always valued and respected women as leaders and advocates for change.

This pivotal moment will, if it hasn’t already, galvanize the sisterhood of women all around the world. Unlike the other prize holders, these honorees represent women of color, women of all faiths, and women fighting for social justice and human rights in all nations.

I celebrate the recognition of these three women and all women, who value love and compassion as a means to making this a better world. We are living in time where more and more women are taking an active role in democracy movements, standing up to tyranny, and fighting for their rights. There are three great examples of this movement in 2011 that are worth noting.

Let’s not forget the women of Egypt, whose voices were lifted earlier this year as they demonstrated for a peaceful change of power. These women followed in the footsteps of their Liberian sisters by demonstrating with love. For instance, many of us were captivated by the image of the woman kissing the police officer on the cheek, which left him dumbfounded. The Egyptian women risked their lives to speak out and advocate for change, because they are tired of the status quo and wanted their children to have what they have been denied.

Let’s not forget Dr. Hawa Abdi in Somalia, who stood up to rebels seeking to destroy her hospital and harming the people she was helping. Here is a woman, who used her land to build a clinic, school and feeding program to support 100,000 people who have been displaced by a 20-year war in Somalia. This selfless women on May 5, stood her ground as about 750 militants entered her property. She was placed on house arrest for five days shuttering operations causing two dozen children to die. Quickly the women in her community responded and began to protest followed by the condemnation of the Somalian diaspora. This is when Dr. Abdi demanded a written apology for their deadly intrusion, which they begrudging gave to her.

Let’s not forget the women in Saudi Arabia, who are defying an unjust law that denies them the right to drive. These women have risked being arrested and even flogged by openly driving vehicles and posting video of being behind on the wheel on Facebook for the world to see. Recently the King gave them the right to vote and run in municipal elections starting 2015. Also, the King revoked the flogging penalty on women who were arrested for driving after a great deal of international outrage for this inhumane punishment.

These are just a few of the many women who are dedicating their lives and livelihoods to non-violent movements in their nations. The three Nobel Peace Prize winners have empowered women around the world, who stand for justice and peace, with new hope and motivation to continue their journeys in being force of change.