UDS Students Advance Their Skills With Real Experience

UDS Students Advance Their Skills With Real Experience

Your investment in Liberian Youth teaches them marketable skills and prepares them to be ready for any opportunity that comes their way. As you have witnessed, our students work diligently in perfecting their craft, and through your continued support, they are able to advance their skills with real experience.  

One of our sustaining supporters, Joel Decker of Starland Charities in Minnesota, donated $350 to purchase the advanced learning materials for our electrician students and four ceiling fans for our center to help improve the learning environment.

Joel fulfilled a wish expressed by our electrician students during the general meeting on September 29, when they requested supplies to learn how to install three-phase power for commercial buildings. The instructor, Boakai Dillon, started working with the students the day the supplies were purchased. Our students practiced how to connect three-phase and how to add the different type of breakers to the control box. This simple act of kindness by Joel helps our electrician students take their skill training to a higher level.

Your electrician students learning how to install three-phase power

Our students also received the opportunity to install the our ceiling fans in the great room of our center and connecting them to the breaker. The electrician students received real experience, and all students will benefit from a comfortable learning environment with the onset of hotter temperatures from the dry season.

Your electrician students installing ceiling fans to provide a cooler climate at their training center

Your commitment to young men and women allows them to hit the ground running after graduation. They are prepared to adapt to any type of work environment with the foundation of skills in their given trade. Your support is essential to their future success.

Thank you, Joel, for fulfilling the wishes of our electrician students!

“Youthrive Event” with Youth from Liberia and Minnesota

“Youthrive Event” with Youth from Liberia and Minnesota

 

On Saturday, the annual Youthrive Event was held at Augsburg college in Minnesota. Liberian youth were able to participate in this forum via Google Hangout, and engage with American youth in the discussions; which, primarily focused on addressing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) issued in 2015 by the UN (see infographic below).

 

On the Liberian end, there were about 100 youth who came to be a part of this Google Hangout meeting with students in Minnesota, and all our UDS instructors were there as well. The youth received refreshments which our catering students helped prepare. Pictured below (left) is a sandwich called “light bread,” made with cabbage, sausage, and other vegetables. Everyone who attended the event in Liberia received two sandwiches and a soft drink.

 

In Liberia, attendees were divided up into 17 groups, and each one discussed a different Sustainable Development Goal; below is a video group #8, discussing SDG: “Good Jobs and Economic Growth.”

 

 

At Augsburg, American students were also divided up into groups to discuss the different SDG’s. This video was shown as part of their table rotation discussions:
                               

 

After the group discussions, UDS co-founder, Heather Cannon-Winkleman, was able to lead the conversation between with our team in Liberia about their thoughts and feelings about the day’s activities.

 

It is incredible the amount of people this meeting was able to reach; because of your continued compassion toward and awareness of our youth in Liberia, Uniting Distant Stars has experienced significant growth in the number of Liberian students being educated over the past year, and had the resources to make this event happen.

 

Youth separated by miles of land and ocean, were able to see, listen to, and interact with one another, they were able to put their invaluable minds together as a part of a global team. Which, is exactly what the UN goals are all about: working together, country to country, human to human, to achieve a world of no poverty, no hunger, quality education, and more.

Thank you for making a world of difference! The future looks bright ahead.

Meeting UDS Kids via Google-Hangout

Meeting UDS Kids via Google-Hangout

REMARKS BY TEEN YOUTH VOLUNTEER, ANNA BERTCH:
Foreign countries, especially the people in them, can sometimes feel unreachable to American teenagers like me.  We read about the world in school… But, there just isn’t life in a textbook.  There is such a great disconnect between an individual looking at a picture, and the actual person inside the photo.  It’s one thing to hear about children who’ve been orphaned from diseases (like ebola), and another thing entirely to be able to talk to them.

Thanks to modern technology (Google Hangout, specifically), I had the opportunity to meet the Liberian children I’d recently volunteered to support through Uniting Distant Stars. We were able to establish a live-video connection, and for the first time, I was able to see their smiling faces in a setting far more personal than a photograph.

Initially, there was some degree of difficulty connecting to the internet on the Liberian end, but after a choppy start, we finally could see each other and everyone broke out into grins and applause.  

Prior to the meeting, the UDS-supported youth formulated 5 questions to ask me, and I brought 5 of my own for them. One of the things I asked was, “What are your dreams for the future? What/where do you want to be?” And their responses were not much different than had I asked the question in an American school: “doctor,” “teacher,” “writer,” “mechanic,” etc.. Their eyes were lit with hope and it became obvious to me why Uniting Distant Stars does the work it does.

Those sweet students became extremely real to me after the meeting and the need to help and uplift them became even more evident.  Inspired, I decided to create a “PSA” (Public Service Announcement) in their honor.  

It is an incredible thing to love and feel loved by individuals all the way on the other side of the globe. I will never forget the feeling of gratitude I had immediately following our meeting, not only for the luxuries and abundance which became apparent in my own life, but also for the opportunity to touch lives which used to feel unreachable. The impact has been mutual; their smiles, words, and impressions have left an unfadable mark on my heart.

Young Leaders Series Part 2: Advocating for Cultural Education for High School Students

Young Leaders Series Part 2: Advocating for Cultural Education for High School Students

Earlier this summer, Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) launched the Young Leaders Series to highlight three outstanding young people from diverse backgrounds on how they have challenged the status quo with business and education. Though we were sidetracked for three months by the Ebola crisis in West Africa, UDS is ready to return to this intriguing series. In June, Part 1 featured Gradieh Wreh on her rise as a highly successful young entrepreneur. Now for Part 2, we are elated to introduce Wenonah (aka Winona) Vizenor, who emerged as a STAR leader in 2013 during her senior year at Minneapolis South High School in Minnesota.

Wenonah successfully led a peaceful walk-out when her high school’s beloved All Nation’s program had been slowly dismantled due to lack of support. This program promoted the Native American culture, such as smudging and drumming. These are vital rituals for cleansing and uplifting one’s spirit. Moreover, this act of civil disobedience was equally organized to learn and appreciate other cultures within their school. In the last few decades, Minnesota is home to a growing immigrant and refugee community that has led to greater diversity within its schools.

Wenonah talk during the Student assembly during the peaceful demonstration to restore the All Nations Program.

Wenonah, a proud member of the Ojibwe and Oneida Nations, is actively involved in volunteering and community service. She is currently designing a program through Youthprise that focuses on out-of-school programs to improve academic performance “inside” the classroom for Native youth within her community. She is a mentor and also running workshops at an event called “Sacred Voices” for Native youth in middle and high schools.

Wenonah at the left with her Youthprise group.

Her passion is improving the opportunities for young people. Her ultimate goal is to work with Native Youth to guide them in reaching their unique potential. She is currently attending Minneapolis Community Technical College to complete a degree in Human Services and Native Studies. She plans to continue her education at the University of Minnesota.

I was introduced to Wenonah through her mom, Lynette, via Facebook. Lynette and I had worked together for a few years at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel. It was exciting to connect with Wenonah through Facebook, because I witnessed her organize this walk-out from the start to finish. It was quite inspiring to watch this young woman follow her heart and accomplish something that mattered to the well-being of her fellow Native students. This event spotlighted how Native American culture had been systematically stripped away by the forces of colonialism and religious assimilation for over four centuries–when the first European settlers arrived in North America.

She held a clear vision for this demonstration that restoring the All Nation’s Program became the primary objective. As she organized the day’s activities on Monday, March 11, she had the opportunity to meet with her Principal Cecilia Saddler, who allowed them to have an assembly in the auditorium and a round dance in the main commons area. Based on this effort of good faith, Wenonah called off the walk-out and commenced with the peaceful demonstration within the allotted area of the school. Approximately 1,000 students participated from various cultures and backgrounds.

Wenonah spoke at the assembly as cited by the Twin Cities Daily Planet: “Over the years, we have not been able to smudge, not be able to drum.
We are segregated from the rest of the school. You guys don’t hear about
us unless it’s something negative.  We want stability in our program.
We want teachers that respect us. We are not the only culture at our
school that feels judged or discriminated.  I am sick of being ignorant
of other cultures. I’m sick of others of being ignorant of my culture.”

Later on, Wenonah started receiving texts from fellow students stating they were not able to leave class to attend the assembly and this precipitated the walkout. About 300 students ventured outside for the walk-out to show their solidarity. They were later informed they would not be allowed back in the school if they participated. This is when local advocates intervened to offer their service. Most notably was Mysnikol Miller, who negotiated with the administration that the students’ would be able to collect their personal belongings before returning home.

KFAI Radio interview with the students on their activism at South High School. Wenonah is seated second from the left.

Since this courageous act of leadership, Wenonah had other opportunities come her way. She was interviewed by the well-known Native activist Winona LaDuke for her success with her peaceful demonstration. She also participated in the Circle of Healing with Diane Wilson, an author of Spirit Car:  Journey to a Dakota Past. Both of the opportunities allowed Wenonah to share her experience in leading a movement that promoted the positive aspects of culture and cultivated harmony among a diverse community.

The success of this civil disobedience moved the All Nation’s program in the forefront of issues facing the students at South High School. Though there were ideas in the works to revitalize this program, this student activism prompted a quicker implementation. Wenonah’s leadership in bringing voice to her and her fellow students forced the decision makers to pay attention. It was through her work and others who assisted in organizing this demonstration that showed that the voices and views of young people equally matter.

UDS is very grateful to learn more of Wenonah’s pursuits in life. She is a young person who leads by example and a strong role model for her peers in her community and around the world. We asked her
four questions that would encourage other young people to become advocates by
sharing her experience and insight that has guided her journey as a change-maker. 

1)
When did you first discover your desire to advocate for Native Youth and
realized that this was a path you wanted to take and why?

I have always wanted to work in my Native community. I come from a
family who was heavily involved with AIM (American Indian Movement),
and in the Native community. It wasn’t until I had enough of the
dysfunction and institutional racism that “we the students” faced in our
school that I realized I needed to make a change. I loved organizing and making sure there was change for students who come into the
All Nations program. That is when I realized what exactly I wanted to
do in my community; this passion to serve is what I fell in love with.

2)
What are the top three influences that supported your drive to be a change
agent and why?

  
Seeing students who were younger than me struggle to achieve in
school. It was frustrating to witness so many kids being transferred and
mistreated. I couldn’t watch it happen anymore or contribute to
the dysfunction by not doing anything. I had Native women in my
community who fully supported me, especially one of importance–Missy
Whiteman. I vented to her my frustrations. I told her that I wanted to be a change, and she fully supported and encouraged me to do it! She
was the first person I spoke to on organizing this protest.

3) In dealing with the barriers of age and race, what are some strategies you have applied to overcome them? 

Age was a huge barrier. I was organizing to promote change, and put some
heat under the seats of “professional” adults. They thought they could
deter my efforts from following through with the protest; they tried “negotiating”
with me to save face. They were not doing their job, and they were
intimidated by a high school student who did not take “no” for an
answer. I just had to keep on with my plan…be firm, be smart, and
be strong.


4)
As someone who successfully led a group of people to promote positive change,
what would be your five top recommendations that you would give a rising star
that may feel hindered by any social biases?
 

1: Connect and start conversations with those who feel the same way as you do–people who also seek the same change.
2: Try to ask questions of the right people about certain problems that you observe happening. Push for answers. Push for change.
3: Don’t hold back; don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t make a change. Be strong.
4: Be peaceful; violence can influence negative reactions and sometimes the
opposite outcome occurs of what was originally intended. As a minority myself, I
understand the frustration and even the anger at times, but it is truly
important to stay peaceful
5: Know your resources and who the right people are to talk with that can help or support the change that is needed. 

UDS Thanks Wenonah for sharing her incredible story to inspire
others to realize their true potential and taking action to create positive changes in this world. Also, we wish her all the best as she
continues with her passion to engage and guide her fellow Native youth in becoming shining Stars!!!

Reflection

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!