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Tour du monde en autostop - Jeremy Marie

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Interview with Ruth O'Gara, about education in Uganda and in Harlem :

This world tour led me to meet so many different people. Some of them were kind, some were stupid, some were concerned about the world, some didn't care at all... And some of them were working actively for the good of humanity...

One day of July 2008 in Uganda, I met Ruth. She welcomed me to stay at her place for few days and I had the opportunity to see what she was doing.

Let's sit with her a second to ask her what she was doing here.

 

Ruth, first of all, can you introduce yourself? (Age, nationality, educational background...)

I’m twenty-five years old and have been living in the United States for the past 11 years.  I am Irish by birth, but spent a lot of my childhood moving around to countries in Africa and Asia before my parents settled in the suburbs of Washington DC in 1998.  I completed high school in Virginia, and majored in English and International Relations at the University of Virginia.  After university I moved to New York City to teach with the Teach for America program.  I left New York for Uganda in January of 2008.

Ruth O'Gara in Uganda


Can you tell us why you left for Uganda?

After spending some time in Africa as a child I had always maintained an interest in the continent and studied International Relations with a concentration on Africa in university.  After two years of teaching in a low-income community in New York city I began to understand the irreplacable role education has in the development of individuals and communities.  I didn’t have anything tying me down to New York and decided to take advantage of my flexible situation to explore education in other parts of the world.  I knew that returning to Africa as an adult would present a lot of opportunites for personal growth as well as a chance to have a real impact.

Where did you go and what did you do there?

While reseaching the seemingly infinite volunteer opportunities in Africa, my mother connected me with a neighborhood friend who served on the Board of a small local non-profit.  This orgnization funds a primary school, secondary scholarship program and two health clinics in rural Uganda.  After hearing more about the project and meeting the other board members I realized that spending time at the school would be an authentic and meaningful way to broaden my own horizons and provide concrete assistance to a project that was growing quickly and achieving astounding things

The organization is called Arlington Academy of Hope, and their primary school is located in a very rural corner of Southeast Uganda, close to the Kenyan border.  I lived in the village near the school and volunteered as a special projects administrator and reading teacher at the school for the 2008 school year.  My duties included overseeing the volunteer program at the school, overseeing the secondary scholarship program and reading enrichment programs and offering general support to the teachers and administrators.

The Airlington Academy of Hope


What was the situation before the arrival of the Arlington Academy of Hope? What improvements do you think the Academy has done?

Uganda has a program of free primary education, but in the rural areas it is a broken system.  The school buildings are overcrowded, under-resourced and under-staffed.  Teacher training and support is largely non-existant and often teachers can’t even be sure they will receive their government salary.  As a result, many teachers have second jobs or operate side-buisnesses that detract from their ability to fulfill their roles as educators.

This population in this section of Uganda relies on subsistence farming for survival, and children are valuable resources around the farm.  Great pressure exists on children to spend their days digging, planting and grazing cattle rather than attending a failing school.  As a result the vast majority of children in the district do not complete primary school and instead look to an ever-decreasing patch of inherited land to support them in adulthood.

Arlington Academy of Hope has revolutionized the local expectation of what a school can be and the role of education in a young person’s life.  Its core asset is a staff of well trained, highly motivated teachers and administrators, recruited from the more elite urban educational environments of Uganda.  AAH ensures these teachers are well-paid and supported, and in return students of AAH receive instruction of a much higher calibre than the surrounding schools.  In additon, the school has abundant resources and no student every lacks a book, pen, desk, or other basic requirment for learning.  Students also receive two meals a day and uniforms.

Ruth and the children of the Academy


Why do you think Arlington Academy of Hope succeeds where others could have failed?

AAH was founded by two Ugandans who were born and raised in the rural community the school and clinic serve.  Their parents and other family members still live and work in Uganda.  Their guiding hands, both on the US-side and Uganda-side ensure that AAH remains firmly rooted in the reality of Ugandan life and culture.  Additionally, the administrative staff on the ground is all Ugandan.  In my limited exposure to development organizations I have noticed a tendency for these organizations, both large and small, to become dictators of a new culture, a new way of doing things.  There is of course room and need for evolution and revision in the systems of a country like Uganda, but development efforts will fail if they do not have an adequate understanding of the historical and cultural context in which they operate.  Beyond this, development organizations need to operate with a respect for this context and with a mindset open to the possibility that they, too, can learn something.  AAH is truly grassroots, and has achieved a solid balance of American and Ugandan influences in its operations which I believe contributes to its success.

The founders John and Joyce Wanda

                  

I also know from first hand experience that the volunteers, both Board Members and others, are an invaluable asset.  The undeniable importance of AAH’s work and the tangible results we see every year, breed a passion and commitment among US-based volunteers that drive the organization forward.  It is inspirational to work among such people and become caught up in the excitement of what the school and clinics achieve.


The founders of the Academy John and Joyce Wanda are Ugandans. The staff is a mixture of ugandans and americans citizens. What values do you think both countries citizens are bringing?

Currently there is only one American citizen on the staff in Uganda, and the rest of the staff are Ugandan.  As I mentioned above, I think this strong grounding in the Ugandan reality is critical to the success of the organization

I don’t think it’s possible to categorize what values each country brings.  I think most everyone involved in the project brings the value of hard work, and tries to operate with a spirit of possibility and positivity.  The Ugandan staff and US Board act as a check and balance system, pushing each other’s concepts of what is possible but also checking each other when it becomes clear that something is financially or logistically unreasonable.  We try to make everything a truly collaborative effort, from mission and vision setting to budget revisions.   

The music class in AAH



You are nowadays in New York City, what are you doing there?

My organization, Harlem RBI, provides free after school and summer enrichment programs for youth in East Harlem.  Every youth we work with plays on a baseball or softball team, and we use the power of these teams to coach, teach and inspire youth to recognize their potential and realize their dreams.  I am the program manager for the middle school afterschool enrichment program, so I supervise and manage the program that serves 6th-8th grade.

Three childrens of the RBI Harlem


What difference do you think the RBI is doing in Harlem?

Harlem RBI offers a comprehensive support system to young people to help meet their academic, physical, and social needs as they strive to graduate high school.  This neighborhood has very low high school graduation rates and high rates of childhood obesity, asthma and diabetes.  Many of our youth come from single parent, low-income families.  East Harlem traditionally has high incidences of gang-violence and drug use.  I live in the neighborhood and find it a lovely place to live and work, but the risk-factors for young people are undeniable.

Growing up is hard, no matter where you are, and we know that youth in this neighborhood face larger challenges than many.  At Harlem RBI we believe fully in the potential of each young person we work with and strive to give them all the tools they need to overcome any adverse circumstances they face.  Almost all of our youth graduate high school and matriculate to college.  This is our biggest accomplishment—assisting youth in finding a productive path to completing their education.


The staff of RBI Harlem

                           


Would you compare the situation in Uganda and Harlem? If yes/no, why?

I think there are similarities in that both communities I worked with contained public education systems which were failing the young people and this undermined the value of education in the eyes of young people.  Both organizations are working to build a shift in the mindset of both young people and their families, to prioritize education and have bigger dreams for their futures.

East Harlem, as an urban community, presents more challenges than the village in Uganda in terms of the crime rates, availability of drugs, etc.  It sometimes feels like a greater challenge to try and address all the various factors that a complex urban society throws at young people.

Me with a RBI group going for ice-skating in New York City


How important “education” is for you? Why?

My experience with education has been a real journey.  I kind of fell into teaching after college, more because I didn’t have clear aspirations in another direction and teaching seemed like an interesting option for a while.  While I was struggling with my decision about what to do after university, it felt like I was looking out at this huge ocean of possibilities and I really couldn’t see a clear path for myself.  My dad told me that often people are on a path and they don’t even realize it until they look back.  Looking back now, it seems true—maybe my path was education all along.

I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about social injustice and international development.  My working experiences have rooted me in reality and become the lens through which I view these issues.  It’s a complex world, and I find it difficult to make unqualified assertions, but one thing I know is that assisting young people in an underserved community is the most valuable thing anyone with resources to spare can do.  Educating and supporting young people to make positive choices rises above politics and economics and theories of development and is simply necessary and good.  Whether this means that I use my own voice and time to work with individual young people, or I manage a program, or I start an organization, as long as I know that I am opening previously closed doors for young people, I am motivated and committed.

  Ruth teaching in Uganda


Don’t get me wrong—sometimes it’s exhausting and confusing and at the end of the day a job is a job and there are mornings I would much rather sleep in.  But I think I operate with a level of fulfillment higher than most because of my daily interactions with young people who are growing in front of me and moving towards a future I can help shape. 


What are your hopes for the future?

That’s a big question!  I think a lot could change in this world if local, national, global leadership really prioritized fixing the way we educate young people.  The failing school systems of the United States are an absolute blot on all our statements of what we represent as a country.  We are not a country of equal opportunity, and I think the disparities in public education offered in different communities most clearly symbolize this failure to live up to our ideals.  


How do you think we could reach those hopes?

Again—big question!  The teachers are a good place to start.  Teaching as a profession needs a make-over.  I think about the training required to become a doctor, and the status afforded those who become doctors and I think—shouldn’t it be the same for teachers?  Collectively they shape the minds of the next generation.  A good teacher changes your life, a bad teacher can change it too—for the worse.

I think the United States has become entrenched in models of education and definitions of teaching that are blatantly failing in many communities.  Things like the charter school movement are definitely moving us in the right direction—injecting some dynamism and urgency back into the situation.  I also think the increased focus on accountability in the public education system will be positive once we address the giant question of how to fairly assess educators.

Ruth, optimistic for the future, is active to make it better

                         

I am optimistic about the future.  There are a lot of smart people invested in the question of making the education system better and I think we’re moving in the right direction.  I have no real idea how or where I’m going to fit into it all.  I guess I’ll look back in ten years and it will all make sense.

 

Ruth O'Gara is now living in New York City and still working with RBI Harlem.
You can have more informations about:
-Airlington Academy of Hope on aahuganda.org/
-RBI Harlem on 
www.harlemrbi.org/

See you very soon,

Jeremy



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