Korogocho, Education, and the Bursary Campaign

Raising the ACORN flag in the office
Raising the ACORN flag in the office

Nairobi The ACORN Kenya community organizers, Sammy Ndirangu and David Musungu, met Judy Duncan, head organizer of ACORN Canada, Drummond Pike formerly of Tides and now colleague at Paladin Partners, and me just outside of the Korogocho mega-slum at 350,000 people, the 2nd largest in Nairobi after the more famous Kibera.   We were to meet a number of the officers and committee members representing the three or four of the “villages” where we had organized 700 family members over the last almost two years.  They wanted to show us their new office for ACORN Kenya and had a good day planned out for us to see the changes in the community and to more thoroughly understand the crisis in education they faced and the progress of the Bursary Campaign we had designed to impact it when we were all last together.

children at the formal, public primary school
children at the formal, public primary school

Quickly with formalities over and the flag “raised” in the new office, our swelling numbers (eventually we were joined by 23 of the ACORN members on our rounds during the day) started walking the dusty streets.  Something was immediately new even before we made it to the first stop, one of the two grade 1 through 8 public primary schools in the area, and that was that the road paving had been completed and expanded through a joint project of the Italian and Kenyan governments.  It made a difference though the downside was hard to avoid since several hundred families had been displaced in the process with only four days notice.

The school’s attendance was only 100 students.  Meeting with the assistant principal there was a long and excellent discussion of the bursary campaign.  It had made a difference and where forms for the governmental funds that paid the school fees to secondary school from the bursary fund were formerly a closed and opaque process governed by favouritism, politics, and special deals, the campaign had forced openness and free distribution of the forms which led to 40 children winning the scholarships to secondary schools.  Even so, the principal noted many children even in the free primary school were hard press to come up with books, uniforms, and the money for the required meals.  One door was opening, while others were closing.

classroom at one of the informal school
classroom at one of the informal school

We also visited two “informal” primary schools where children were sent by the parents when the “interviews” did not successfully get their children into one of the two public primary schools for a population of 350,000!?! Where the young seemed everywhere?!? These were good spirited and well meaning affairs where many of our members were also very active, but the conditions were rudimentary at best, if not haphazard.  There were some 40 odd informal primary schools in Korogocho, so this was the “normal” for education, and after that nothing.

One of the highlights was meeting the mother of one of the campaign “winners,” as she sold rice along the road in Kusuvu village.  She proudly took us to her home.  Her daughter had stayed out of school for a year and now with the bursary funds was attending secondary school at 18 years old, and very happy.

We were winning and victory was sweet for the leaders, but as much as the road was paved, it seemed it stretch on as one rough patch after another for miles into the future with many holes to fill and rough spots to smooth before one could really feel that the children of Korogocho had a real chance at education.

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Building a Movement to Win the DREAM

pass-dream-actNew Orleans As part of Paladin Partners, Drummond Pike and I spent an invigorating and productive day meeting in Washington with Carlos Saavadra and Gaby Pacheco, two of the principle organizers behind the courageous and expectation-challenging push for the DREAM Act, which culminated in a near miss in Congress late in 2010.  It is fair these days to describe a lot of the work around critical immigration reform as stalled and stuttering as the forces of reform count the bleak prospects for a vote in Congress and try to reposition and find consensus for a future.

Not so for proponents for the DREAM Act.   This is not to say that some of the troops around the country are not demoralized and depressed, but is to say that the organizers are still moving aggressively and adamantly refusing to accept the possibility of delay or defeat.    Talking to Gaby and Carlos only days past their meeting with over 200 student activists from the United We Dream chapters in Memphis, the old axiom of organizing that acknowledges that when you have a real base, there’s never a choice but to keep fighting was proven once again.

The DREAM team understands that the political stalemate in DC does not dictate the strategy, but whether or not they can build the movement, the heat, the leverage, whatever one might call it, to trigger the change both locally and nationally.  Below the radar for example the visibility and inspiration produced in 2010, have inspired half a dozen fights even in these times of austerity to provide tuition for DREAM-type immigrant students at the state level in places as diverse as Maryland and Colorado.  And, bet on this, they will hang some new scalps on their belt in some of these states, which will help recharge the movement.

As exciting to me is the fact that they are thinking deeply and strategically about ways to continue to force their “story” (as Gaby continually called it) into the political and cultural equation at the grassroots level in 30 or more locations around the country in coming weeks and months.  The stories are compelling, because there is no way to get around the fact that these young people are the classic “innocent victims” of our national systemic policy failure.  Planted in a country through no agency or action of their own, they do their best to adapt and succeed in the new country’s terms until they hit the wall or in many cases the very high ceilings of their aspirations.  Then everything comes down to their status and it is hell to pay.  In building a movement the first key ingredient is the ability to establish “moral superiority,” and this they have in spades.

I wouldn’t bet against them when you look closely at their record to date and when you consider their desperation.  They don’t have time to wait, especially given the astronomical increases in deportations under the Obama Administration.

Before meeting the DREAM organizers I had a cup of coffee with a colleague working with Casa de Maryland, the huge immigrant rights and service organization.  She had a perfect metaphor for the crises in immigration reform.  She described all of us as reaching out of the water to grab at the reform being waved above our hands by the Obama Administration (think Tantalus in the classic Greek myth going for the grapes) and finally looking down to find that we had been eaten away from legs to waist by the deportations in the immigrant community while our eyes were skyward.

They have a shrewd fightback strategy on the deportations and the solid understanding that this is something that President Obama can and should do and the willingness and urgency to push him hard and directly to make it happen.

They are counting their friends and targeting their enemies and organizing widely and deeply outside of DC, in fact Carlos though still executive director of United We Dream has relocated back to Boston to keep it real.

We’re betting they can keep the DREAM alive, and so should you!

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