Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Thoughts from Costa Rica: Education (plus) economics, equals...

Our crucial weakness lies in our work with youth.
-Adolfo Rodriguez, Costa Rica's Social Well-Being Secretary

By the end of my senior year in college, I found myself stuck in the middle of a ruthless tug-of-war battle regarding what to do with my 16+ years as a student: On one side of the rope was the opportunity to teach in a low-income Bronx community with Teach for America (TFA) , and on the other was a career in management consulting in Manhattan. While the driving goal of both was to arrive at a point where I could more adequately pursue social entrepreneurship, the increasing pull from the former side caught me largely by surprise. 

As a business major and entrepreneur, I recognized relatively early-on the power of economic development – and specifically entrepreneurship – in alleviating poverty throughout the globe. What the TFA opportunity (and many sleepless nights) taught me, however, is how profoundly interlinked education is as well. Feeling almost foolish for having been so one sided, I slowly realized that the two really couldn't be separated, and I started to deeply consider exploring the educational aspect of development.

Krysta with her students
For a number of reasons (that I won't get into now), I ultimately decided to stick with the economic route, but my sister, Krysta, pursued its counterpart. She accepted a position through AmeriCorps to teach in a Spanish speaking community for two years in central California, before moving to Costa Rica to start a tutoring center in an informal community called Los Guidos. Since 2008, she has been leveraging her experiences to forever change the lives of the youth in this all-too-often-neglected community on the outskirts of San Jose. She has also recruited my younger brother, Blake, to spend a year here, and work with the same organization while attending language school. For years, I've wanted to visit and learn more about the amazing work going on here, and this summer provided the perfect opportunity to do so.

Only hours into this journey, my college realizations about the power of education were being re-affirmed. As my parents and I departed San Jose CA – leaving behind my 6 brothers and sisters who would be starting jr. high and high school that week – we landed in San Jose CR, where over 10,000 university students were marching for increased funding for research and scholarships. Their central message was the same realization that I began exploring several years ago, and that Krysta and her group have been pursuing daily: to invest in education is to invest responsibly in democracy and development for the good of all the inhabitants of our generation.

Meggan :) 
During the few trips that I made to Los Guidos, Krysta's students confirmed that this generational development was exactly what was happening. As Meggan flawlessly read the Bernstein Bears in Spanish, Julio meticulously subtracted 34 from 78, Christopher enthusiastically matched the "5" card with the same number of lizards, and a mom eagerly introduced two of her kids to Krysta, I thought about the types of opportunities these 60+ kids will be able to pursue one day, as a result of their education. I thought about how much more adequately they were being prepared to handle the challenges of the world. I thought about how they could become great entrepreneurs, but how entrepreneurship would no longer be their only option to better themselves and their family. I thought about a sign a student held at the university protest – Power comes from knowledge; knowledge comes from education – and how Krysta was forever empowering this generation to better their lives and the greater community of Los Guidos.

Heading back to CA and soon to NY, I leave Costa Rica with a renewed sense of appreciation for this type of empowerment, and with excitement that my employer is exploring the possibility of investing in the education sector. I also leave with a strong sense of inspiration from the work that Krysta and Blake (and their friends) are doing – as they invest in development for the good of all the inhabitants of our generation – so that one day, the above quote from A. Rodriguez will be read – not in the daily newspaper – but in history books throughout the country. 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

We Shall Overcome: The launch of the CT Cyber + Resource Centre

With this faith, we shall go out and adjourn the councils of despair. And bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. And we will be able to rise, from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope... We shall overcome.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Back in Kenya, crowded in a small 7x7 foot room in the Mathare slum, the Community Transformers (CT) crew and I sunk deeper into our chairs as we discussed all of the seemingly monstrous set backs for the rapidly approaching launch of the CT Cyber + Resource Centre: stall tactics and bribe requests for our government license, a lost credit card, an unresponsive internet service provider, a greedy hike in rent from our landlord, inflated costs for the network connection, delays in our posters and banners, misprinted t-shirts, and a dozen other speed bumps posing as road blocks. With our launch party only 4 days away and the newly constructed desks and freshly painted walls of our Resource Centre completely computer-less, the spirits of our 20-plus member team began to slowly (or perhaps rapidly) shutdown. 

Taking a break from the blank stares into our Excel work plan and endless to-do list, I scrolled through my iTunes mindlessly. Partly in jest but mostly in desperation, I started playing Dr. King’s We Shall Overcome speech. Around the fifth time Dr. King repeats that that well known but so easily forgotten declaration, something magical happened: We realized how profoundly his words spoken 45 years ago to a deeply segregated American South related directly to us in an ostracized slum in East Africa. Within a few minutes, the whole team was speaking in harmony with Dr. King as he continued to repeat the declaration: deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome.  

Over the next four days and with our new motto repeated tirelessly miracle after miracle brought us closer and closer to our launch deadline. With the funds transferred three days before the launch, the computers installed with two days remaining, the photocopier delivered the day before, the internet connected the morning of and the software installed with minutes to spare, the Resource Centre was miraculously operational as Steve and Nick cut the ribbon to the cheers of hundreds of observers. As the acrobats flipped, the performers sang and Njenga gave a speech, I couldn’t help but shake my head in near disbelief: God must really like performing miracles!

Over plates of chicken, goat and rice that evening, we each shared lessons we learned over the past several months (and especially the past 4 weeks). After a relieved and humble asante sana to all the CT members and our sponsor in the States, Charles Alulo, one of CT’s founders, reminded us all of that fateful moment in the office, when the team rose from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. He reflected on how life always throws us challenges something that Mathare knows all too well but that God never allows anything bigger than we can handle and that he works all things together for good if we are faithful and perseverant.

Mike, one of the older CT members who was an invaluable help with the Centre, went on to shared an Erwin McManus quote that he thought prophetically described CT, their journey and struggles over the past 5 years, and specifically the possibilities for the Resource Centre:

There comes a point where crawling isn’t enough. Though we fall over and over again, we fight our way to our feet, and we begin to walk. Walking is great until we can run, and running is great until we can drive, and for some of us, driving is not fast enough we just have to fly.