Why I Support Educate!

John McDermott sits on Educate!’s governing board. He spent his career developing the teacher education program and coordinating the programs for institutional planning and research at Moravian College. Since 2004, he has been involved with Educate! as an advisor and contributor. He recently traveled to Uganda to assess Educate!’s socially responsible leadership programs. Below he writes on his experience and the value he took away from that trip.

Unlike most Americans who visit Uganda, I didn’t go on safari or see a gorilla; I went to observe Educate!’s program.  After watching Educate! grow over the five years since I first became involved, and after having served on the governing board nearly as long, I decided that to have more confidence in my support, I had to see the programs in action.  I traveled half way across the world to answer for myself a question I get asked so often: “Why do you support Educate!” I found my answer: not only did the programs surpass my expectations, but I began to see first hand the empowerment that our students feel, as they realize that they are the brighter future for Africa.

I met Eric five years ago, after I retired from a long career in college teaching and administration. Moving back to Amherst, Massachusetts, where I attended college so many years ago, was part of my retirement plan; devoting my retirement to a single organization was not.  But Educate!’s enthusiasm for social change in Uganda lured me in, as my involvement with the organization has grown along with it.  I have watched Educate! evolve into a organization with the audacious vision to educate and empower Africa’s future leaders.  As a governing board member, I often tell people about Educate!’s mission to change the lives of more than 400 Ugandan secondary school students by introducing them to the principles of social enterprise, democratic leadership, and community engagement.  From a considerable distance, I watched the noble vision unfold through countless reports and concept papers.  Through it all, though, I harbored a nagging question: is anything of value really happening.

It was in the classrooms that I was most impressed with Educate!’s work.  I saw examples of inspired teaching by Educate!’s mentors under the most modest circumstances.  Most schools I visited are little more than well-worn single-storey stucco or brick structures.  Many had open windows, dirt or weathered concrete floors and blackboards too worn to support very clear writing.  The lessons, on the other hand, engage students in a discussion of Nelson Mandela’s principles of leadership, explore the concept of socially responsible enterprise, and encourage the spirit of personal engagement and empowerment through sustainable community projects.

The contrasts between setting and substance were striking and thought-provoking.  All too often, in my former life, I observed indifferent teaching taking place in gleaming, well-resourced American schools.  It was a revelation to watch engaged teaching in Ugandan schools that resembled places challenged by American school reformers two centuries ago.  I realized that it isn’t so much where students are being taught, but what.

This experience has reassured me that the programs we talk about are successfully underway in Uganda. But that alone is not why I support Educate.  I support Educate! precisely because of its audacity.  It is easy to doubt that Educate!, by itself, can ever overcome the poverty and disarray that are apparent everywhere one looks on the streets of Kampala and in the villages one passes in the countryside.  But Educate!’s concept of “exponential empowerment” is already evident in its work at its partner schools.  By empowering 400 students to make a difference to more than 400 others, the impetus to change multiplies.  By making Educate!’s resources available without charge to other likeminded organizations, the impetus grows still faster.  By reaching out to business and community leaders for their advice and support, new ways to address the challenges of nation-building and development can be found.

The student sponsorship idea with which Educate! began has made schooling possible for promising young men and women whose lives were torn apart by violence, hunger, tribalism, and inhumanity.  The school programs that Educate! has more recently instituted in Uganda have the potential for changing the lives of hundreds of secondary school students.  As they learn about civic engagement, gain confidence in their mobilizing abilities, and successfully start small businesses, Educate! teaches its scholars that they have the power to change their own lives and the lives of hundreds of others.  I support Educate! because it teaches students that change will come through their own collective efforts and imagination, rather than through other people’s charity.  Educate! creates a culture that is committed to socially responsible leadership, and acknowledges the necessary role socially conscious leaders will play in transcending the terror and heartache of tribalism, corruption, authoritarianism, and ethnic conflict found all too often in Africa.

With the quality teaching exemplified by the Educate! mentors— James , Aggie, Sandrah, Esther, Charlotte, Solomon, Costence and Barbara— the Educate! team is laying the foundation for a future of peace, prosperity, and civility.  If Educate! can demonstrate “proof of concept” in Uganda, there are lessons to be learned by American schools about how to link schooling with community engagement and social action.

Finally, I support Educate! because the prospect of being a part of this audacious plan has turned one aging former teacher from retirement to engagement. Maybe, for me at least, that’s reason enough.