Washington Fellowship Weeks 3 & 4 : Encountering cultures and challenging perceptions

ZILA MILUPI - Visiting the greenhouse at Lifestyles for the Disabled
ZILA MILUPI - Visiting the greenhouse at Lifestyles for the Disabled
Zila Milupi - Learning about gardening at Lifestyles for the Disabled
Zila Milupi – Learning about gardening at Lifestyles for the Disabled -1

One of the best things about participating in the Washington Fellowship at Wagner College has been the very varied learning experiences we’ve had. Our academic coursework inside class has been well-balanced with on-site visits to non-profit organisations in the USA, where we’ve gained an insight into their working methods and have had the chance to engage with their staff and beneficiaries. Naturally as short term visitors, we’ve also explored as much of New York City as time has allowed, experiencing some of the City’s best known tourist highlights. We’ve encountered many extremes of New York City along the way, from the fragile hope of marginalized communities and the unwavering determination of those that seek to empower them, to the fantasy-like bright lights of Time Square. Yet throughout such diverse encounters, one personal lesson has constantly recurred, and that is how we deal with imperfect perceptions about us as part of a wider community.

Undoubtedly, my most memorable encounter yet with challenging my own preconceptions came through a visit to Lifestyles for the Disabled– a social services organisation that strives to provide the intellectually disabled with realistic work settings. I will admit now that I was hesitant about the trip to Lifestyles. I was ignorant of the level of disabilities I would encounter. In my mind, I conjured up images of extreme debilitating disabilities that led me to wonder at, and even become somewhat fearful of the type of engagement I would have with the beneficiaries there. In short, I was uncomfortable about being in an environment that I had so many preconceived negative notions about, yet I knew next to nothing about intellectually disabled people from any personal experience. The faculty at Wagner College didn’t appear to offer us any choice to opt out of the trip, so I kept my thoughts to myself and went along.

In the end, what I experienced and learned from Lifestyles was nothing short of amazing. I was blown away by the incredible stories of triumph throughout the institution: a restaurant café where we were warmly hosted for lunch; a budding greenhouse where we over-excitedly searched out and picked ripening strawberries, and eagerly learnt how to transfer plantlets into pots and; a carpenters’ workshop that displayed impressive decorative and functional pieces and was even equipped with a hand-built computer created to bring digitally designed pieces to life with absolute precision. Incredibly, all this was all carried out by the intellectually disabled community at Lifestyles, with only oversight and instruction from the Lifestyles staff. Even further, we learned of the social services that the intellectually disabled provided through community beautification programs and assisting senior citizens to complete household tasks that they could no longer finish themselves. Suddenly, the term ‘intellectually disabled” seemed to be a wholly inappropriate label for the people I met. I left Lifestyles charmed by their charisma, tickled by their humour and inspired by the manner in which Lifestyles allowed this marginalized community to live productive and dignified lives.

Zila Milupi - In Times Square
Zila Milupi – In Times Square

The remainder of our adventures from the Wagner College campus to various non-profit organisation sites collectively revealed the sheer diversity of work that NPOs in the USA do. From transforming the lifestyles of “intellectually disabled” and ensuring elderly communities receive adequate and nutritious meals on a daily basis; through fighting to create equitable development in impoverished neighbourhoods; to using art as a medium to develop life skills for teenagers, and giving young entrepreneurs platforms to test their ideas and grown their businesses. To me, this defies the perceived realms of non-profit work in Africa. In stark contrast, much of the development work in Africa, with its focus on the absolute poorest overlooks the needs of scores of young adults who, whilst not underprivileged, nonetheless require social and economic support to develop into tomorrow’s leaders. In my eyes, development work in Africa has largely stagnated with the bottom line and the more images we see of the debilitating poverty from non-profits, the more development work ignores the diversity of challenges that prevent Africa from progressing. And in a perverse cycle, the more we hold on to this image of development work, the more NPOs in Africa are driven to the bottom line to highlight their work with the poorest of the poor or the most victimised of the victimised to validate their efforts towards the development work for which the money was offered. Our failure to consider the next stages of national progress has served to focus development work on growth from negative 10 to zero; from having nothing to merely having something, without going further to support initiatives of wider national economic impact.

The result is that a significant number of young Africans that do not fit this image of development in Africa of the bottom line- young entrepreneurs, university graduates and other skilled but unoccupied youths, for example- are rarely considered as bona fide beneficiaries of developmental support. Yet their need for support in accessing growth opportunities is very real. The challenge now is how to bring these new faces to the sphere of African development where public and private, national and international actors commit their not-for-profit resources. Ultimately, to me, this boils down to the question of challenging the perception of what African development does and should look like. This isn’t a question of displacing the work done at the bottom line, but rather diversifying the commitment of resources so that all sectors of the economy can develop.

I’ve been fortunate to have travelled a fair amount and interacted with people from many different cultures. I’ve always considered myself- perhaps mistakenly- a sociable person, tolerant of many different values systems and as a result, I didn’t expect to be schooled on challenging perceptions as profoundly as I have been since the start of the Washington Fellowship. But in learning how other people challenge misconceptions about them, I’ve been inspired to challenge the pervasive narrow conceptions about the developmental needs of Africa. In this regard, being at Lifestyles for the Disabled reiterated the importance of owning your own story and determining how it is told through your actions.  In the same vein, visiting an organisation called Dreamyard that develops teen’s life skills through art, I have been inspired further by an art piece by David Carela. Next to five separate images of the young man himself holding different objects- a gun, handcuffs, a video controller, painting and a book- he wrote:

Zila Milupi -At the Statue of Liberty
Zila Milupi -At the Statue of Liberty

“It’s crazy to think that society can choose who they want you to be. It’s up to YOU to prove them wrong. What do you choose to pick up?”

For Africa, this means that telling the stories that few expect to hear is our responsibility. This will necessitate that more NPOs work across the development spectrum and tell stories of the diversity of needs, challenges and successes. By the same token, those that seek to help should allow the diversity of stories to be told, thereby fighting the stagnation of development that occurs when we only hear the stories of the most hopeless.

With only three more weeks on the Washington Fellowship to go, I’m excited to consolidate all that I’m learning about supporting the growth of young entrepreneurs to implement in my NPO, Winners’ Circle Association. As well as the practical skills I take away, I will for sure be more conscious to make deliberate effort to add to the multitude of voices in the development world that tell the stories of Africa– one that is proud of her innovation, self-sufficiency and emerging global leaders.


– Zila Milupi