UDS Youth Vitually Participates in the Nobel Peace Prize Youth Forum

UDS Youth Vitually Participates in the Nobel Peace Prize Youth Forum

For the second consecutive year, Uniting Distant Stars, Inc. (UDS) in Liberia participated via Google Hangout in the Nobel Peace Prize Youth Forum (NPPY Forum) at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota on March 6, 2015. This was a unique experience for our 50-plus youth representing students in primary to college level as well as young people unable to attend school due to financial reasons. 

We displayed this banner at the beginning of the week and it spawned great enthusiasm by our young beneficiaries. This was donated by our two co-founders–Kelvin Fomba (Liberia) and Heather Cannon-Winkelman (United States)
In preparation of this much anticipated event, our Country Director Kelvin Fomba held a workshop the day before. He reviewed the activities along with sharing some background on the Nobel Laureate, the Organisation of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), who they would be listening to during the forum. Also, they watched the TEDTalks of William Kamkwamba from Malawi and Kelvin Doe from Sierra Leone for some additional inspiration.

Left photo: Kelvin conducting the workshop. Right photo: our youth watching William Kamkwamba’s TEDTalk “How I built a windmill”.
On the day of the event, our organizing team in Liberia was eager and ready to connect about two hours before the forum started (Liberia is six hours ahead of Minnesota). Shortly after the program opened, our youth were given a warm and hearty welcome from their Minnesota peers when they popped up on the two large screens on both sides of the stage at Augsburg’s Kennedy Center gym. This is the moment that made this experience real to our youth as they saw over 600 Minnesota students waving and saying Hello to them.

This photo was taken by UDS Executive Director at the forum when the Liberian youth appeared on the screen during the welcome at the forum. (The lighting was challenge to taking photos of the screen.)
As the program continued, the emcees of youthrive, the organization that produces the NPPY Forum, took a few moments to review their four simple rules for engaged leadership–Show Up, Speak Truth, Change Yourself, and Lead! The Change Yourself rule was the one that intrigued our youth the most. This led into a more detailed discussion after the forum on why this is important in order to bring about positive change in their communities.

Kelvin (red shirt) talking with our youth at the forum at the start.
Next, our youth were captivated by the talk from Leiv Sydnes of the OPCW and they gained a great respect of this organization’s dangerous, but invaluable work on eradicating the world of chemical weapons. At one point during his presentation, he showed a slide of a patient being treated for chemical burns that had the doctors wearing masks and hazmat suits similar to what they saw with the Ebola outbreak. This sparked a discussion with Kelvin on whether Ebola was a chemical weapon. He explained how many chemicals have no smell or can be seen, and like Ebola these suits are worn for their protection.

The banner is hanging with two rain suits next to it on each side. These rain suits are created with the same plastic used for the backpacks. Also, hanging on the wall on the left side is one of the backpacks made during the first phase of this project.
At the end of Leiv’s presentation, our youth were the first ones to ask him a question. They were interested in knowing the OPCW strategy in how they will eradicate production and uses of chemical weapons in order create world peace. Leiv responded by saying that chemical weapons only represents a small percentage of the issues challenging world peace. So while the OPCW is working on their part, these other areas of concern such as wars need to addressed as well.

Here our youth watching the forum in Liberia. The two youth in the front on the right are drinking water from the plastic sachets that are used for our Backpacks for Peace program.
The final activity that involved our youth was the World Cafe. The purpose of the World Cafe was to have the young people divide up into smaller groups and spend 15 minutes each on three questions involving peace and community building. Our youth participated in this activity simultaneously with the Minnesota students. After each question’s discussion, the individual groups had to agree on one idea that could be shared later to everyone. These ideas would be transformed into themes that would become actionable initiatives.

Here is a candid moment with some of our youth.
Here are the responses (edited for clarity) from our youth that were emailed to youthrive to be shared with the Minnesota students and we hope to receive theirs soon to learn more about each others challenges and perspectives.
1) What does a peaceful environment in a community or school look like to you?
A peaceful environment in a community or school means a lot to us in Liberia. The most important aspect is development, because whenever peace exists there must
be development such as quality schools, job opportunities, etc. 

2) Think about your own community or school… What kind of things have happened that wouldn’t be described as “peaceful”?

A lot of things
happen in our community and schools that would not be considered peaceful due to a lack of well-trained
security officers, equitable justice, etc. For example, during the EBOLA crisis, some youth
were killed by military personnel in the West Point community (a large slum) in Monrovia, and since then nothing has been done about this incident.
3) Think about what was said in Question 2… What kind of things can you do to take action in making your community or school more peaceful?

The
Liberian youth are appealing to the world to help train the security, so that they will be able to protect the people and the entire
nation. The youth are also pleading to get support in education and
vocation training, because when you are engaged in any good thing
this will help young people to be more focused with school and work.
The refreshments being served in this photo was organized and prepared by our own volunteer Princess Fomba. UDS provided sandwiches and soft drinks to everyone present.
In regards to their response in question 3, UDS is active in addressing their plea by offering scholarships and providing vocational training opportunities such as our Backpacks for Peace and automotive apprenticeship program for mechanics and drivers. However, we like to work with our youth more in seeing how they can find ways to respond to these concerns.
At the end of the program in Liberia, our youth created two groups–young ladies and young men–and each sang a song to Thank UDS for their participation in the forum.
In reflecting on this most memorable day, our youth expressed their interest in starting a group that would fall under Uniting Distant Stars. They exchanged numbers with each other, so they can plan a time to meet. We will support them as they move forward with any plans in making this a reality. Also, they stressed the importance of being involved in this forum or similar programs, because it was an enriched educational experience that is currently not offered in their schools.

Here are some youth expressing their joy at the end of our involvement in the forum.
We want to end this post by giving a much deserved Thank You to the UDS organizing team lead by Kelvin Fomba in Liberia and our donors in the United States and Denmark; youthrive’s staff–Maddy Wegner, Donna Cook, Callie Aguilar, Anne Parish, and their youth trainers–Malika Musa and Kevin Nguyen; and the Nobel Peace Prize Forum tech team including Mark Holterhaus and Adam Davis-McGee for making this event possible for our youth in Liberia!

Before you go…here are some special videos from our youth that were taped after the forum.



  
UDS girls and young women created this Thank You song for Uniting Distant Stars.

  
UDS boys and young men created this Thank You song for Sundance Family Foundation, who gave the $3,000 grant for the Backpacks for Peace Service Learning Project.

Young Minds Challenged and Opened

On September 13 and 14, we had the privilege of interacting with some of Liberia’s
rising stars in our Youth Leadership Workshop on Creative and Innovative Thinking that was held at the Business Start-up Center in Monrovia. Most of the young men and women came from the Monrovia area along with four each from Bomi and Margibi Counties. These young people entered the workshop thinking the only means to solve their problem was money. They left realizing that they had other resources readily available that they could use to make a difference in their lives and those around them.

Liberia’s young leaders, who participated in the two-day workshop on Creative and Innovative Thinking.
Prior to the workshop, we had collected some basic demographics about each participant. We had them answer 10 questions that related to solving problems, collaborating with others, identifying one’s strengths, assessing available
resources, and defining leadership qualities. Their answers helped us better understand their mindsets before the workshop. Some of the young participants provided general answers, which others were more detailed in their responses. Here are two of the questions and summarized answers:
  • What do you experience in your daily life that you would like to change? Many of the answers were related to the lack of money. However, a few went deeper and shared how they would like to not drink, womanize, sit around and do nothing, let anger control them, and be afraid to talk with people, all of these can impede one’s ability to make or keep money.
  • What resources do you have available now that you could use to solve a
    problem?
    Very few mentioned what type of resources they had on hand such as a rubber tree farm or house. None of them were able to mention other non-monetary resources such as the sun, wind, reusable trash and junk. Most noted God as their resource.
We had a solid turnout on both days with 54 participants and about 11 observers in attendance. Altogether, with our Uniting Distant Stars team, we had 70 people. We need to pause and mention that we were most appreciative of everyone’s patience, because in Liberia even the best laid plans can be met with challenges that require us to adapt our schedule and start
later.

The youth paid attention, took notes, participated in the discussions and asked good questions.
The biggest challenge was preparing food for 70 people. Six women prepared the food offsite (20 minutes from venue) and had to cook with a coal pot because most people in Liberia do not have electricity and stoves. These constraints made it difficult to meet our time frame for breakfast and lunch both days. The cooks were provided with a taxi to help them transport everything once it was ready. The ladies did a great job cooking delicious meals both days, so it was worth the wait.

From left to right: Some of the cooks and youth enjoying their lunch break.
During the first day, the participants were able to interact with the four presenters—Heather Cannon-Winkelman, Gradieh Wreh, Kelvin Fomba, and Elijah Wreh. The discussions and activities focused on innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, and knowing oneself. Throughout the day they watched video clips of innovative Africans—William Kamkwamba (Malawi),
Kelvin Doe (Sierra Leone), Duro-AinaAdebola, Akindele Abiola and FalekeOluwatoyin, and Bello Eniola (Nigeria), and Richard (Kenya)—who all made something out of minimal resources. From the outset they were challenged to “think outside of the box” and they were wowed by what they saw [and heard]. This emphasized when they said “seeing is believing.”

Read our article in the Heritage Liberia:
US based organization inspires Liberians.

The following is a synopsis of each presentation:
  • Discovering Your Innovative Spirit – Heather
    Cannon-Winkelman: This laid the foundation for the two-day workshop by walking the participants through the innovative process of solving their problems using resources they had available now. They viewed the 6-minute TEDTalk by William Kambwamba, explaining why and how he built his windmill during Malawi’s famine. The participants were asked to examine what William accomplished and how they could apply some of his innovation into their projects. Also, they were given a “Think Outside of the Box” activity to examine if they could see outside their limiting beliefs. One young lady solved it out of the group.
Left to right: Heather giving background on William Kambwamba before showing his video and closing her presentation by challenging them to start creating.
  • The Entrepreneur Within – Gradieh Wreh: This presentation captured all the essentials of creating and growing a successful business: goal setting, planning, attitude, financial management, marketing, networking, etc. Gradieh used her own experience as a successful entrepreneur as
    she traced her process of taking an idea and transforming it into a business. She had the participants do an imagination activity in which she had them close their eyes and were told to see their life in the best possible situation. Only about 30% actually imagined something that matched their passion. Others commented that their ideal world was driven by unfulfilled professions that would make them a lot of money.
Left to right: Gradieh with some of the participants demonstrating synergy in how a flock of birds work together when flying, and her guiding the participants through the imagination activity.
  • Don’t Imitate, Do Create – Kelvin Fomba: His presentation showed why creativity is important for addressing everyday problems. He shared how creativity is rooted in Africa with its long tradition of art, music and storytelling. Kelvin demonstrated his own creativity as an automotive technician and grassroots innovator. He showed two examples of cars where he designed and made his own intake manifold to replace the old one and replaced the diesel engine with a gasoline one. He also modeled his wearable goods that were made from discarded drinking water plastic bags. He illustrated how to make “the impossible possible” and “something out of nothing.”
Left to right: Kelvin explaining the importance of creating over imitating, and also modeling a product line that he co-designed from discarded drinking water plastic bags.
  • Harnessing One’s Own Power – Elijah Wreh: This presentation guided the participants in self-examining their confidence,
    strengths, passions and desires. Elijah shared the process he used to develop his successful career. He had the participants determine their top
    five strengths and had five young men and five young women come up to share theirs. He provided tools and tips in how each person can continue to develop their self-awareness and build confidence. He encouraged young people to not give up on their dreams and to strive to realize their potential, which could result in a worthwhile business career. Elijah also gave out some personal development books.
Left to right: Elijah presenting on Harnessing One’s Own Power, had young people rank from 1 (least) to 5 (best) their Unique Abilities: Wisdom and Insight, Relationships, Communication, Leadership, etc.
There were many interesting questions and insights that the young men and women shared with us. Couple of these led to some thought-provoking discussions and revelations. The first one was culture, where they expressed their
disappointment on how this is not part of their education. For example the only languages taught in school are English, French, and Chinese. The second one was about emulating a famous person such as President Barack Obama to strive to be more like them. This idea was challenged when they watched Kelvin Doe’s TEDTalk and how his YouTube video had more views than President Obama’s victory speech in 2012. Young Kelvin’s example revealed that each one of them can achieve greatness in their life.

See more great pictures of our trip to Liberia on Uniting Distant Stars Facebook Page.

The second day of the workshop, many told how they went home thinking-thinking to extent that some could not sleep. Before they stared working on their projects they heard from Lawrence Yealue of Accountability Lab (Lab) and Business Start-up Center (Center), our two Liberian partner organizations. He described the services of both and how they were prepared to provide for those ready to develop their ideas into businesses. Both the Lab and Center greatly contributed to the success of the workshop. 

Picture from Accountability Lab Twitter Page. Lawrence Yealue is talking about the services that Accountability Lab and Business Start-up Center provide.
From Day One, we promoted collaboration with participants while thinking and designing their projects. When we opened the “lab” on the second day to start their project development, more than 75% found at least one other person to work with. They had two and half hours to create and plan their project concepts. Some were still “stuck in the box” with their thinking by developing micro businesses to sell common things in the market like charcoal and sandals/slippers. We challenged their ideas and
reviewed what they saw and learned from the day before. They were then able to go back to the drawing board and come up with new ideas.

Here are some of the groups working together on their projects.
Interestingly, many were inventorying their available resources and how they could use them for their projects. Some of these resources were their homes, farm land, old shoe bottoms and scrap cloth from the tailor shops, clay and rocks, and old usable equipment lying around their homes. A few young men and women saw how they could pool their skills and talents in developing a small business plan. Many were focused on how their projects could benefit others, which led to various training center ideas.

After lunch, the groups presented their projects and answered two questions from their peers. Very eager to share their ideas, the first few weren’t able to summarize their projects within the five-minute allowed time-frame. Thus, two of the facilitators became timekeepers so we could hear all project presentations before we ended the day. As each presenter shared their creative ideas, their concepts were listed and categorized into sectors that were similar in nature.

Some of the groups presenting their ideas on Day 2.
After the presentations, we grouped the ideas into four sectors [or industries]: fashion, food, sanitation and training. Now they had a chance to network with each other. When we had them vote on the two best projects, they all voted for their own! Since no determination could be made, the five Uniting Distant Stars workshop coordinators and facilitators voted on the
top two sectors that were the most creative. These were food and fashion. The groups that fell into these sectors will be collaborating together and meeting with our two Liberian project team members Kelvin Fomba and Rev. Elijah Wreh to show what they have accomplished. Based on the results of what each groups produce in the next month or two, the fashion and food groups will each receive a small seed grant of $200 for use in further developing their collaborative projects.

Lef to right: is the Sanitation Group and Food Group networking.
The feedback received from the participants–both verbally and on the evaluation forms–was very positive. Most suggested that we offer the workshop in the counties (rural areas), and also have them more often during the year. Though we don’t currently have the capacity to go out to the counties or do this more than once a year at this time without additional sponsors, we already plan to return in October 2014 to conduct the next workshop. Official planning for 2014 will begin after the first of the year.

Overall, we did observe that the 2-day workshop did have an impact on our young participants’ thinking. We need to keep the momentum going by engaging these future leaders to think outside [or with no] box. Even though our capacity is limited, Kelvin and Rev. Wreh are committed to supporting our young creative geniuses as best they can, and with the help of our
partners Accountability Lab and Business Start-up Center. 

We were invited to a radio talk show on 5 FM on Monday, September 16 to talk about the workshop. From left to right: Gradieh, Elijah, Kelvin, and Albert the talk-show host.
To prepare for next year’s workshop, will we analyze both the pre-workshop information form and the post-event evaluation. We will “think outside the box” to learn how to improve upon meeting the challenges we faced this year and provide more substantive support beyond the workshop.

We want to Thank all of our supporters who helped make this workshop possible. We are grateful that you joined with us in challenging the minds of young Liberians to realize their own power to make positive changes in their lives. We believe “a mind not challenged, is a mind wasted” and with your help these young rising stars are more open to the possibilities that are within their reach.

Campaign: Youth Leadership Workshop on Innovative Creative and Innovative Thinking – Liberia

Globally,
civil wars have stripped many young people in developing nations of their
childhood and sometimes their humanity. 
Conditioned by what they witnessed or by direct involvement as
conscripted child soldiers, many still resort to violence as the preferred means
of resolving conflict and solving problems. 
During peacetime, they are easily persuaded to participate in riots and public
protests over the lack of jobs or food or education.  A prime example is Liberia,
a tiny West African nation that sustained total destruction of its
infrastructure while civil war raged from 1989 to 2003.  The most devastating losses however were the
hopes and dreams of its youth.  Today some
young Liberians are graduating from college with little chance of finding
conventional employment.  The national rate
of underemployment/unemployment hovers around 85%.   Many pessimistically believe that their true
destiny is to be a vendor in the already saturated open-air markets.   Such a narrow view can only be broadened by
introducing creative thinking
Our
crowdfunding project is a revolutionary, invitation-only international youth
leadership workshop, to be held on September 13 and
14, 2013 in ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Monrovia, Liberia. It will:
  • Engage and inspire young Liberians to develop their own
    grassroots innovative projects that address problems they would like to
    solve.
  • Provide a collaborative and supportive space where our
    young participants can re-light their flame of boundless imagination and
    creative spirit that was snuffed out by war and suppressive institutions.
  • Guide our young participants to channel their energy
    into creative projects that can effect positive change in their lives and
    the people around them.
  • Assist Liberia’s future leaders, innovators, and educators
    to re-discover their potential and how they can make a difference.

 ECC Youth Group giving a message of hope for their peers in Liberia
The
workshop will begin with stories of real-life role models—young African boys
and girls who broke free of the chains of hopelessness and almost miraculously created
innovative projects with little or no
resources. These amazing youth include:
  • William Kawkwamba of Malawi, whose
    story is told in his book “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.” In 2001, when only 14
    years old, he built his first windmill to generate electricity for his house, using his inborn talent, an English-language text
    book, and items from a local scrap yard. 
    He did this despite a deadly famine that forced him to drop out of
    school. His second, more powerful windmill was built to help irrigate his
    family’s maize crops.
  • Duro-AinaAdebola, Akindele Abiola and Faleke Oluwatoyin, and Bello Eniola, four teenage
    girls from Nigeria who developed a process using human urine—an abundant and
    renewable resource—to power a generator with an initial investment of $64. They
    also found a way to eliminate the smell of “pee” to alleviate the concerns of
    working with a form of human waste.
  • KelvinDoe of Sierra Leone, who pulled electronic parts from trash dumps to make his
    own battery and generator.  He later created
    his own radio station and took the name “DJ Focus” due to his belief that focus
    is necessary to develop projects. He was invited to MIT as one of the youngest
    visiting inventors after his story was shared on YouTube.
Day
1: Our participants will analyze and discuss each of these inspirational
stories, reviewing the resources used and how projects were implemented. They will also
hear from Liberian social innovators like Alfred Sirleaf, who have successfully launched grassroots
initiatives. After exposure to these examples of
innovation, they will be encouraged to note down in sketches or words what resources
they can access for developing their own projects and addressing the problems
they hope to solve.
Day
2: UDS will provide an open lab environment where our budding inventors can
incubate their ideas, to be birthed into viable projects. They will be
encouraged to work independently and in groups to conduct experiments using the
resources they gathered to test their ideas. Additionally, they will hear about
opportunities to develop and grow their project from our Liberian partners:
  • Accountability Lab will introduce
    their Accountapreneurship Funds which provides small grants to “harness the
    creativity of citizens to solve problems in their own communities.”
  • The Business Start-up Center at the
    University of Liberia’s main campus, will share their services that “stimulate and
    develop young and ambitious entrepreneurs through Training, business plan
    competitions and facilitates access to finance as a way of promoting SME development
    and growth in Liberia.”
Also,
UDS will award seed money for the top two collaborative project ideas developed
by our young visionaries, who are ready to address the social or economic
problems within their communities. The best two projects will be determined by
the votes of all participants.
This
is a $2,500 project that will provide (click here to see concept proposal):
  • Food and transportation for all participants 
  • A one-night stay for the 8 attendees from the rural
    areas
  • Workshop materials
  • Two $200 seed grants
  • Other logistical costs
Your
pledge in supporting this project will aid and encourage our emerging youth
leaders to explore, develop and implement their creative and innovative ideas
that will help heal and rebuild their nation. No amount is too small to be part
of the journey that these young people will take in
reclaiming the gift they were born with and to give them the chance to become
contributing members of their communities and the world.
Listen to what Josh Tabla of the ECC Youth Group has to say about supporting this workshop.
We
value your involvement in this project and want to appreciate your pledge as
follows:
  • Pledge $5 or more: the Liberian
    youth will be forever gratefu

  • Pledge $20 or more:
o  
The Liberian youth will joyfully sing your name out loud;
o  
Your name will be listed on the Uniting Distant Stars sponsorship page for this
workshop as a supporter.
  • Pledge $50 or more:
o  
The youth of Liberia will repeatedly
chant your name while dancing in jubilation
o  
Your name will be listed on the
Uniting Distant Stars sponsorship page for this workshop as a supporter and
included on the 2014 annual report.
  • Pledge $100 of more:
o  
The Liberian youth will consider you
as their global auntie and uncle
o  
Your name will be listed on the
Uniting Distant Stars sponsorship page for this workshop, included on the 2014 annual
report, and added to the “banner of hope” that will be displayed during
this two-day workshop.
Please pledge by check or PayPal by
following the instructions below.
Checks: Make out the checks to ECC
and put UDS Workshop on the memo Line and send to
Uniting
Distant Stars
c/o
Heather Cannon-Winkelman
4010
Lawndale LN N
Plymouth,
MN 55466
*PayPal: Go to www.ebenezercommunitychurch.com
and scroll down to Contact Us box on the left hand side. Select Uniting Distant
Stars
in the Donation Category dropdown menu and then click the PayPal button
(see image below).
 

*PayPal
charges a 2.2% plus $0.30 per transaction fee that will be deducted from your
donation.
 Your generous pledge is tax
deductible through our fiscal sponsor Ebenezer Community Church in Brooklyn Park,
Minnesota.

Change the Story, Change the Mindset

On any given day our news media outlets paint a bleak picture of the world, airing the same discouraging stories of corruption, crime and war. If one relies solely upon mainstream news sources for information about what is occurring around them, one is likely to feel hopeless and powerless. Fortunately, we have a choice on what type of news we want to consume. It takes a minimal effort, to thoughtfully glean the Internet for stories that describe what is right in this world. There we can find inspirational stories of people whose seemingly small achievements has made a significant impact in the lives of the people around them. When we consciously access this new storyline of Good Works, our mindsets change. Now we can see a world of hope, and begin to recognize and embrace the power we possess to make a positive difference.

The Uniting Distant Stars Project was created to encourage youth to develop an optimistic national perspective. By acknowledging their problems and telling their stories they can inspire their peers around the globe. This is because our youth are more connected than ever before in history, thanks to the advent of the Internet and social media platforms. As the old perceived boundaries vanish, young people can clearly see that what affects them in their nation also affects their counterparts in other countries.

If you take a moment to examine the reaction of today’s youth to multiple economic and environmental challenges, you can sense their collective frustration. On any given day the news around the world contributes to a growing rebellious attitude among its young people. First, their high international youth unemployment
rate, where three times as many youth are unemployed than adults (source: International Labor Organization). Next, having entered college with the expectation of starting
or advancing their careers, far too many graduate with staggering student loan debt and unpaid internships that don’t lead to jobs (source: The Jane Doe). Then there are those starving for food and education, who get involved in anything that they feel will feed their pockets and stomachs (source: New York Times Kristof Blog). Lastly and tragically, the destiny of the remainder is violence: to be recruited as weapons of war (i.e. child soldiers), persuaded to
participate in violent riots against oppressive institutions, or provoked by a sense of worthlessness to openly shoot or bomb innocent people in public places.

Above and beyond the present hardships, our global youth must confront soul-searing uncertainties about their futures. These dismal story lines are not only found in the media, but are also repeated by their families, academia, business, government,
and religion. One story is that they are heirs of national debts generated by policies that solely benefited the older generations. Another is that
they will likely inhabit a desolate planet resulting from short-sighted environmental policies that led to degradation to the landscape and mass extinction of
a variety of species. Then there is the continuous storyline that one
culture, class, race, or religion is better than the rest. Hearing such negativity over and over again can create hopelessness in young people and lead to the conclusion that there is no point in even
trying.

When our young people believe they have no options, they are easily persuaded by those who can fill their needs even though it can come at a cost. We have heard about certain groups that influenced our young people to commit heinous crimes against humanity. For example, I met and talked with a man from Pakistan in 2012, an educator working in
war affected areas, who enlightened me on the definition of Taliban which
means student. If you think about it the word itself is not a bad
thing, but it was who got to these young people first with the means to take care of their needs. Another example comes  from what I have learned about the conflict in Somalia while volunteering with American Refugee Committee. One day I was curious to learn more about
Al Shabaab and discovered that it meant youth movement. Again, the
“name” itself does not mean something to be feared, but it was who there first to provide a solution to their desperate situation.

The Uniting Distant Stars project has been developed to create a new storyline that will be
re-written by our future leaders, innovators, educators, etc. As has been stated before, the
inspiration behind this project–and even the transformation of Uniting
Distant Stars in 2012–came from William Kambwamba, from Malawi, the hero in the book, The Boy Who
Harnessed the Wind. In 2001 when he was 14 years old, his
nation experienced a deadly famine that forced him to drop out of
school. While he was hearing his hunger pangs call in his stomach, he
chose to answer the ones in his mind. By doing so he successfully built
his windmill with limited resources: his own talent, a U.S. scientific textbook, and access to local scrapyard. Young William did not succumb to the
dire situation that faced him, but instead looked ahead at a future that
was filled with nothing but hope. His example of starting something on
next to nothing, can be done even by those who are blessed with far more
resources then him.

William is one of many young
“super” heroes in Africa and other developing nations around the world who
have created grassroots innovative projects with determination,
persistence, hope and whatever resources they can find in front of them. These are the stories that we want to expose our global youth to as reminders that they do have options. Also, this will allow them to claim their place in our greater society as key players in future development.

The Uniting Distant Stars Project is excited to join with 50 young men and women of Liberia, who will write the next chapter of their nation’s history on how the youth can come together and be a force for positive change. They will illustrate how if we change the story, we can change the mindset.

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?