By Darwin Manning
While many members of the community spent their summers in an assortment of rewarding endeavors, perhaps none took such a Grinnell-focused approach as the two students and two staff members who worked with organizations that received the Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize last November.
Challenging Heights, which works to educate and reintegrate former child-slaves in Ghanaian society, had three Grinnellians join them this summer: Opeyemi Awe ‘15, Tilly Woodward, Director of Faulconer Gallery and Caroline Saxton, Administrative Support Assistant.
Eliza-Eve Leas ’13, S&B Co-Editor-in-Chief, joined another award recipient, Encounter, which is a conflict transformation organization working with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On Tuesday night, the four presented on their experiences. Leas gave the first presentation and spoke about her initial disengagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of heated and destructive conversations about the conflict.
“All my family members have opinions about this and they were all conflicting, so that was something that I stepped back from,” Leas said. “I didn’t want to be part of this, so I remained political, just not in that context.”
Encounter’s method allowed Leas to consider the conflict and the many perspectives in a new way.
“When I heard about Encounter, I said ‘Okay that’s cool, but not for me,” Leas said. “When I learned more about what they actually do, that really re-engaged me and made me want to learn more about the topic again.”
Leas’ work with Encounter allowed her to deal with tension, consider opposing views and recognize dual narratives. The effects of Encounter’s efforts were inspiring.
“I read a lot of stories of direct transformation through Encounter’s work and I think that was the most satisfying part of the job,” Leas said.
Awe, who presented second, was able to take her passion for global development to Africa. She described the work that she did as resonating so strongly that it led her to switch majors.
“Once I found that there would be an internship offered in this organization, I knew that this would be my dream position,” Awe said. “I went into it as a Chemistry major and now I am an independent major, and so as far as academics are concerned it did a number on what I want to pursue.”
Her regular day working for Challenging Heights would run from 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., and then she would be back at the school for afterschool activities. Her tasks included administrative work, hanging out with the kids, assisting teachers, helping grade homework and simply being of assistance in whatever dimension the teacher might need. She was extremely pleased with this as it pertains to the type of work she hopes to do post-graduation. Additionally, she was able to foster a very close relationship with her supervisor.
“My relationship with my coordinator, Jesse Emmalater, was great because she is really young and energetic, and loves the work that she does and so she was very honest,” Awe said.
In addition to Awe, Tilly Woodward and Caroline Saxton chose to spend a portion of the summer assisting Challenging Heights organization. Woodward traveled to Ghana to help the children make books and various types of artwork; she actually hauled two giant suitcases packed with over 80 pounds of art materials with her to the country. Woodward decided to participate in Challenging Heights because of her work on the prize paintings for James Kofi Annan, and her interest in the dialogue that he fostered with former child-slaves.
“As I thought about Challenging Heights, it occurred to me that making art might be a helpful thing to them for recovery,” Woodward said.
Woodward felt privileged to work with 43 exceptional kids and housemothers, cooks and other community members who were involved with the art activities. This gave her the opportunity to provide kids with a place that was theirs so that they could complete drawings, practice multiplication tables, learn the alphabet and write stories. Woodward was excited by the participation of the young kids and was pleased to bring some joy to the life of a child who had previously been through something horrific.
“I have worked with a lot of kids over the years, but never worked with kids so eager to learn and express themselves,” Woodward said.
As a member of the panel that selected the Social Justice Prize winners, Caroline Saxton decided that she wanted to create even stronger ties with the recipients and that the natural way to make this connection was through internships. Given that this was the first chance for a staff fellowship, Grinnell is truly breaking ground.
“Since I worked with the prize office, this might be a way for me to scout other opportunities, perhaps for an alumni trip, so that we can continue our relationships,” Saxton said.
During her time there, she was amazed by two elements of the community. The first was the eagerness of children to go to school and secondly the generosity of regular citizens, and their freedom from material obsession.
“If you don’t get to the school before the gates close you can’t come in, so if you want to go you have to make the effort and commitment to get there,” said Saxton. “They live with very little, they don’t have an attachment to material things, but they are very willing to share.”
For the next group of prizewinners, the plan is to continue building on this pattern of strong relationships and to continue finding students and faculty who can intern and assist these companies.
“The next group of prizewinners will meet with the CDO to try and identify possible internship experiences,” Saxton said. “Even if this doesn’t work with this group of winners, it will continue with Encounter and Challenging Heights.”