For the third summer in a row, Wagner College has hosted a group of 25 young civic leaders from 20 sub-Saharan African nations as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, the flagship program of President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative — or YALI, as it’s popularly known.
On Sunday, Wagner’s Mandela Fellows left Staten Island for Washington, D.C. There, they joined the 975 other Fellows who had spent their summers at 38 colleges and universities across the United States in programs focusing on business and entrepreneurship, public management, energy and — like the Wagner Fellows — civic leadership.
When YALI started in 2014, Wagner was the only small college involved in the program. According to the U.S. State Department, it was chosen because of the strength of Wagner’s Port Richmond Partnership, which links college classes, faculty and students with the governmental, educational, health and civic institutions serving a nearby, economically challenged community on Staten Island.
“We do such a great job ... thinking about how scholars and the community can combine forces, we were a natural choice for the Young African Leaders program,” said Jason Fitzgerald, a Wagner education professor and the program’s academic coordinator. “When we heard about YALI, we saw it as an opportunity to talk about how civic engagement work is actually done, in a completely different context.”
Ruta Shah-Gordon, Wagner’s vice president for internationalization, intercultural affairs and campus life, agreed.
“When we saw the grant description, we said, ‘This is what Wagner does best,’ ” she said. “Help others while we help ourselves.”
The focus of the 6-week civic leadership institute at Wagner College, Shah-Gordon said, is “learning how to create sustainable partnerships by becoming more integrated into a community.”
The curriculum is broken up into week-long components, each consisting of a combination of classroom work, field visits and practical exercises. After a week spent discussing theories of civic leadership, Wagner’s Mandela Washington Fellows focus on economic development, healthcare, education and the environment. During week six, the institute’s finale, the Fellows put their learning into practice, developing and defending grant proposals for the work of the nonprofit organizations they lead back home in Africa.
“We’ve had some extraordinary successes,” Fitzgerald said. “For instance, members of our 2014 cohort created two new international organizations: one against gender-based violence in Africa, the other advocating for rights and access for those with disabilities.”
The program has evolved over its first three years.
“We’ve changed the program to include more members of the Wagner community,” Shah-Gordon said. “We have more mentorships, going both ways — Wagner alums and friends mentoring Fellows in their career fields like film production, nonprofit organization management, disability services, healthcare for women and children, journalism. We’ve also asked the Fellows to be mentors to some of our students, particularly for a group of student athletes, which has opened those students’ eyes to a world they had never imagined. We’ve asked more faculty members to give guest lectures to the Fellows, so more of them are involved than just the professors leading each weekly module. And we’ve developed a network of ‘host families’ to take the Fellows under their wing and into their homes while they’re living among us over the summer.”
ONE WEEKLY MODULE: ENVIRONMENTAL POLLUTION & CIVIC LIFE
Among the four weekly focus subjects of study for Wagner’s Mandela Washington Fellows, the environment is of particular relevance.
Developing African economies have rushed to develop industries, big and small, to lift their peoples’ standard of living. Unfortunately, technological shortfalls combined with constrained budgets, a lack of regulatory infrastructure and, in a few instances, official corruption have led to some extraordinary cases of environmental pollution.
Wagner’s YALI program looks at how a nearby U.S. city has addressed similar issues.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the New Jersey community of Toms River faced a major challenge from industrial pollution. Illegal dumping of highly toxic industrial waste contaminated the aquifer that provided the community with its drinking water, producing a cancer cluster. It took years of pressure from a community group, led by the families of cancer victims, to force the federal and state governments to recognize and remedy the situation and compensate those hurt by it.
The study of environmental crises like Toms River and the response of government, industry and civil society to those crises has been the major focus of an entire week each summer by Wagner College’s Mandela Fellows, led by biology professor Donald Stearns. Each year, Stearns has brought the Fellows down to the Jersey Shore to meet with representatives of the company that provides water to Toms River, and with Linda Gillick, leader of a community organization that helps more than 250 children afflicted with cancer and their families.
Following the 2014 visit to Toms River, Mandela Fellow Linda Simon of Tanzania wrote a letter to Gillick about water pollution in her own community.
“As a medical student, Simon bonded with many pediatric cancer patients, only to find their beds empty the next day,” wrote Francesca Cocchi in a news story about the visit for the Asbury Park Press. “She specifically recalled watching children play in a stream that ran between Tanzanian homes, its water dyed purple and blue from textile industry runoff. In her letter to Gillick, Simon wrote that she now sees new possibilities related to issues such as cancer.”
MENTORSHIP FOR FILMMAKERS
One of the Wagner College community’s YALI mentors and hosts this summer was Stephen Greenwald.
Greenwald has a unique resume as a former college president, film company executive, and international attorney with special expertise in both capital punishment and Israeli jurisprudence. He came to Wagner a few years ago to help the college build an MBA program in media management.
Greenwald served as a mentor for two Mandela Fellows who work in the medium of film: documentary filmmaker Aicha Macky of Niger, and Slum Film Festival organizer Josphat Namtenda of Kenya.
Macky’s first feature-length documentary, “L’Arbre sans Fruit (Fruitless Tree),” took the Best Documentary prize earlier this year at the 12th Africa Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria. It is a moving, first-person exploration of the social situation of Nigerienne wives who do not bear children, either because of their own infertility or that of their husbands.
“A really extraordinary film,” Greenwald called it, “very courageous on her part, and extremely well-made. Her goal was to get it distributed in the United States, so I introduced her to a friend of mine who runs First Run Features, Seymour Wishman — they’ve had a role in distributing lots of documentaries, like ‘Indian Point’ and the ‘Up’ series, ‘Seven Up,’ ‘21 Up.’ He’s almost always able to get his films into theaters. So I set up a meeting between Seymour and Aicha, and he just loved her film. He wants to distribute it.
“Josphat wanted connections to other film festivals,” Greenwald said. “I set up a meeting for him with Paula Landry, an adjunct in our media management program and co-author of my book, ‘This Business of Film.’ She has connections with the Haifa Film Festival, which would be ideal for Josphat, especially considering the recent African outreach trip by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. We also have a partnership with the film school at Kibbutzim College.”
SUCCESS, AND CONTINUING THE PROGRAM
To Greenwald, the benefits to Wagner College of the Young African Leaders Initiative are obvious.
“For us, it adds another dimension to the Wagner experience — and a stamp of recognition, an affirmation of the quality of our education, from the State Department,” he said. “And it’s just a good thing to do. We always need more connections.”
It’s also changing the lives of the Fellows themselves, Fitzgerald said.
“The program is having a huge impact on the Fellows — so much so that some of them give up their jobs in order to continue through the whole summer’s program. We had a Fellow this year who was told in the second week that, despite an earlier commitment to her involvement, they needed her to come back home or she’d lose her position,” Fitzgerald said. “She decided to stay.”
“When we consider YALI’s impact, on the Fellows as well as on our students and other members of the Wagner community, I am more inclined than ever to think that we’ll continue the program,” she said.