As I reflect on the last week with my peers, Israeli Embassy constituents and Kenyan leaders and pioneers, three words most resonate: inclusion, community and kindness. Through conversations and engagement, I saw people helping people, people uplifting people, and people caring about people. The Kenyan leaders we met gave “transformative leadership” a whole new meaning for me, as they focused on inclusion, community and kindness to do the work they do. The African proverb “lifting as we climb” and the Hebrew words “tzedek” (social justice) and “tikkun olam” (betterment of the world) reflect the common threads I saw throughout my journey.
While I could give several examples of inclusion, community and kindness, these stories filled my heart and my mind.
Irene founded and runs the St. Ann’s Baby and Children’s Home. While Irene works closely with her team to house, feed and school 41 children, Irene continues to envision how to better St. Ann’s and the town of Gilgil (75 miles northwest of Nairobi). Her formula is based on sustainability and current resources. For example, St. Ann’s grows their own vegetables to feed the children, while Israeli volunteers who live and work at the home enhance her staffing to lower the ratio of “moms” and “dads” per child. A bakery they run provides the children with bread and generates revenue from sales to the local community. In addition, local school children attend the school located on their property. Irene and St. Ann’s Baby and Children’s Home take an inclusionary approach to their work. St. Ann’s hopes to purchase a solar panel to help them reduce their electrical costs and sell the extra power to the Gilgil community, which will serve as another revenue stream for St. Ann’s and meet a local need. The work of St. Ann’s defines inclusion—she provides for her children while meeting needs of their community. Irene and her team’s work is transformational and collective.
On day three of the trip, we had breakfast in Kisumu, overlooking Lake Victoria (the largest lake in Africa and the largest tropical lake in the world). As we drank chai tea and ate breakfast, I sat with James Aggrey Otieno, former principal of Joel Omino Secondary School. James had traveled to Israel to learn about Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) through MASHAV, Israel’s development agency. ESD is a training program that encourages participants to “think global, act local.”
During breakfast, James talked about his work to change the culture at Joel Omino to embrace a new learning and engagement model. As he led this change on campus, he centered the work on the “Hut of Wisdom,” a circular structured clay hut built with a thatched roof located in front of the school’s academic buildings. James got the idea for this hut after he visited Abraham’s tent in Jerusalem. He described the tent as a place of meditation, reflection and calmness. The clay hut embodied similar feelings, as it promotes equity and listening through its round shape, and coolness and serenity from the Kenyan sun.
Students and faculty at Joel Omino talked about using the hut for conversations, meetings and working through differences in opinions. The hut serves as the foundation for the Joel Omino community. It takes a restorative justice approach and uses circles, which are both a progressive pedagogy and deeply rooted in African history, tradition and culture. As we learned at Joel Omino and our other site visits, community is built from within where all people are empowered and have a voice. Again, reflective of transformational leadership in a way that is deep and meaningful as it extends beyond superficial relationships to an understanding of people, cultures and histories.
Our days were spent with members of the Israeli Embassy, Billy (a photographer), Jones (a videographer), Sammy (our bus driver) and Yossi (our security guard). This local team made our trip run smoothly and gave us the opportunity to learn and experience the beauty of Kenya. More so, they demonstrated a kindness that reflected the Kenyan hospitality and culture we came to know. They were warm, open and engaging. They were thoughtful and well-intentioned. Kindness emanated from the people we met on this journey as they shared with us their stories and smiles and opened their hearts. As I move forward from this trip, I want one of my takeaways to be a focus on kindness both externally with friends and family, colleagues and neighbors, and internally when I think of how hard I can be on myself.
From my short visit in Nairobi and nearby towns in Kenya, my curiosity and commitment to tzedek and tikkun olam have been reignited. I want to learn more about the Kenyan culture and history, I want to think through ways ESD can be used at Pine Manor College (where I work), I want to challenge myself to use transformational leadership more meaningfully and regularly, and I want to learn more about the partnerships of MASHAV and Israel with other countries.
Project Inspire is aptly named, as it has inspired me as a Jewish woman, a leader and a community member. I return to the United States humbled and privileged.
Staci Weber is the dean of student affairs at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill. She holds her Ph.D. from Syracuse University in post-secondary education administration and wrote her dissertation on first-generation college students, college access and support programs, and students’ college-going journey from college preparation to graduation.