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?

Taking Time to Reflect

It is hard to believe that we are near the halfway mark for 2012. The last three months have been so busy I haven’t taken time to breathe and reflect on the many activities that I am involved with.  As a practitioner of mindfulness, I have learned that life should not be dictated by a clock or calendar. Instead it should be marked by the moments that shape our global outlook and promote our personal growth as we strive to make our contribution to this world.

During the last three months, I have been engaged in many activities that included taking a course on humanitarianism, volunteering with new organizations, and networking with many interesting and inspiring people.

Introduction to Humanitarian Assistance

The American Refugee Committee (ARC) offered a nine-week course about the many facets of humanitarian work in emergency situations. As a volunteer with this organization, I was interested in learning more about their work and reflect on how my experience in Liberia might apply to my aspirations in the international arena. This course gave a thorough overview of the challenges and opportunities working with displaced people in some of the toughest regions in the world.

Each session was taught by one of ARC’s executives; however, the information they shared applied to international relief work on a broader scale. We were given a glimpse of the different theories of humanitarianism, what it takes to coordinate a relief effort with multiple agencies, navigating the differences between various cultures, how to ensure staff care (mind, body, spirit) and protect them in hostile environments, and so much more.

This course opened our eyes to many things that are not necessarily covered in the media when a natural disaster hits or war breaks out. For example, one of the important aspects of helping people who are displaced is getting different perspectives from the those affected by the situation to better address everyone’s needs. This process includes getting the perspectives of children, because their vantage point (i.e. vertically challenged) and knowledge of the area is not the same as young and older adults.

I highly recommend this course to anyone who is seeking a career change in international work, wanting to be more involved on a global level, or learning more about humanitarian assistance.

Volunteering to Empower Others

This year, I started volunteering with WomenVenture, in hopes of facilitating a class. I have been in their career transition networking group since 2010 when I was unemployed and taken a few of their core classes such as Social Media. Also, I have been engaged in supporting others in their transitional period by providing resources or just simply listening to their stories.

In February, I had the opportunity to assist with a class called “Build a Business Website“. This three-week course was being redeveloped, because it was not achieving the goal that each participant would publish a website by the end of the course. The course facilitator of this course found an easier inexpensive site-builder that would allow the class participants to develop, publish and maintain their website.

Though this course had a few hiccups introducing the new site builder and curriculum, five of the six participants were published by the final class and the sixth was just about ready. My assistance to the success of this class was awarded with the opportunity to write a part of the curriculum and co-facilitate the next the class in May, which was cancelled due to low enrollment. The next one is scheduled in September and I am looking forward to helping the next group of participants launch their business websites.

I had another great volunteering experience with ACER (African Career, Education, and Resource Inc.) on April 28. They were hosting their third annual job fair at the Hennepin Technical College in Brooklyn Park. I had become aware of ACER through some postings on Facebook by Wynfred Russell, Executive Director. When I saw the event announcement for the job fair, I asked if they needed any volunteers.

ACER job fair was unique, because it provided a more holistic approach. This was event for the whole family and went beyond just career development. Besides having representatives from companies and post-secondary educational institutions, it also offered free health screenings, activities for kids, teenage talent shows, information about Bottineau Transitway Project and much more.

I applaud ACER’s effort in recognizing job loss or job transition is a family affair. I was able to witness this first-hand as I worked at the registration table. Throughout the day I saw families of all generations and different cultures taking part in the various offerings. This event provided something for everyone. This was quite evident when a woman returned to the registration table and said “This was the best event ever, because all my needs were met.” She shared how she got information for furthering her education, her healthcare needs and job prospects. Her beaming smile and energizing enthusiasm was a clear indicator that this job fair was successful.

Networking With More Distant Stars

Uniting Distant Stars is a blog that was created to further my interest in appreciating and understanding other cultures through active dialogs with people in discovering that we are all “stars” and there is much more that unites us than divides us.

In the last three months, I have been able to meet and chat with interesting and inspiring people who are from or worked in different parts of the world. With each discussion, I have learned so much more about how this interconnected world is evolving and how we each have a part in making it better place.