GEF Young Leaders Reflection

- Noah Steinberg-Di Stefano

GEF-Kenya Young Leaders from the Dondora community.

GEF-Kenya Young Leaders from the Dondora community.

"Last September I met Daniel Masawi, Executive Director of the Global Education Fund Kenya, at Global Education Fund’s annual fundraiser in Boulder, CO. At the event, Daniel spoke about his passion for youth development and the difference GEF-Kenya’s leadership training was having on young people from the impoverished neighborhoods of Embakasi, a rugged, industrial district of Nairobi where Daniel grew up. His vision for change and unwavering commitment to youth in his community was inspiring.

Since meeting Daniel, I’ve been immersed in a post-graduate MA degree program in Sustainable International Development at Brandeis University. I have been taught to question ideas, even good ones, if they don’t produce tangible results.  I have also learned that not everything is measurable on neat pie charts or spreadsheets, some programs require a personalized, comprehensive analysis to communicate sustainable change.  One consistent challenge that mentoring programs like GEF Kenya’s Young Leaders program face is how to track success. How does one measure leadership? This past week, I sought to answer that elusive question as I spent time with the GEF-Kenya team in Embakasi.  As part of my MA program, I will be in Kenya for several months working with another education program in another part of the country and took the opportunity to arrive early to visit both of GEF’s programs in Nairobi.

I’ve already had the opportunity to speak with members of GEF’s Young Leaders’ Clubs at their meetings. Each day of the week, I joined Daniel and the GEF Kenya program alumni who now serve as mentors and workshop facilitators to secondary school students in the after school club sessions. We spoke with high school students who have been part of the GEF young leaders club, engaging in interactive activities and discussions designed to nurture  leadership skills of self-awareness, confidence, critical thinking, and goal setting. These skills, so crucial to positive youth development, are often left out of the traditional education system that revolves around standardized testing. While these skills are a crucial part of success, from a traditional monitoring and evaluation standpoint they can be difficult to assess.

The last workshop of the week was held in a secondary school in the neighborhood of Dondora, one of Nairobi’s poorest and most crime ridden communities that is largely controlled by street gangs and situated next to East Africa’s largest landfill. As we finished up a jovial post-meeting photo shoot with students, a number of boys from the group approached me to talk about their favorite basketball teams or their relatives living in the States. After they split, I was on my way to the car when I was approached by a young woman clutching her notebook, who introduced herself as Julie. “So nice to meet you”, she said quietly but confidently. “Likewise”, I replied. “It was so great to meet all of you and learn how this program is making a difference.”

“I want to learn what it is you do with GEF, how do you work.” Explaining the mission and operating procedures of an organization to an inquisitive high school student is somehow a lot more difficult than laying it all out for a prospective donor. I did my best to explain that GEF partners with organizations that are committed to using innovative educational practices to empower disadvantaged youth and  transform communities. “Did that answer your question?”, I asked. Julie gazed back at me, decidedly unconvinced. “But how can I create change? The reason I ask is I see a lot of problems in my community and I want to do something. Women my age getting pregnant, all this trash everywhere, people getting shot, as leaders we need to do something. I want to learn how I can organize my classmates to help.”

I was stunned. This 10th grade girl had just epitomized everything that we had been workings towards; to mold a generation of change-makers who are committed to being leaders in their communities. She listened intently, scribbling notes as I spoke on how change starts at the individual, personal level before it is gradually spread through a community. Commitment to change requires patience, dedication and perseverance, especially when you come from a community like Dondora, mired by gang violence and the oppressive restrictions of poverty that wear students like Julie down and make it incredibly difficult for her to go after her dreams.

As we drove back to the office, I couldn’t stop thinking about Julie’s words. I was a twenty-two year old college graduate, unexpectedly thrust into my first community development job before I developed a change-makers mentality. Here was a 16-year old girl, who despite all the obstacles she faced in her personal life, was committed to improving her community. She is exemplifying the qualities of what it means to be a leader.

My conversation with Julie has impacted me profoundly. Since 2008, GEF Kenya’s Young Leaders program has impacted nearly 400 students like Julie from resource poor backgrounds in the Embakasi district of Nairobi.  Engaging students in confidence building, self-awareness, critical thinking, entrepreneurship and leadership development can have a positive and transformative impact on their sense of hope and ability to act even with the realities of urban poverty they face daily.  Students like Julie are a testament to the power that mentoring and leadership training can have: transforming followers into leaders, and shy students into visionary change makers.

Noah Steinberg-Di Stefano has been involved with the GEF team in Boulder since early 2015 focusing on specific areas of work. He has assisted us with grant-writing, and he has taken photographs, undertaken interviews and written blogs about our GEF partners in Guatemala and Kenya during his own personal and education-related travels to these countries.  He flew himself out to Colorado from Boston so that he could attend our annual event in last September which is when he met and spent time with Daniel Masawi, Executive Director of GEF Kenya, and our team.