Fast Company

Student Starts First Tuition-free School in Africa’s Largest Slum

DoSomething award winner Jessica Posner brings education to Kibera.

DoSomething, headed by Fast Company columnist Nancy Lublin, has recognized five young social entrepreneurs with $10,000 grants--and one with a prize of $100,000. Fast Company will profile one of these enterprising youth each day this week. Click here to read the other winners' stories.

More than 1.5 million people live in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, squeezed together in a labyrinth of rusted tin shacks and garbage-lined alleyways. Although Kibera is Africa’s largest slum, the Kenyan government considers it an illegal settlement and provides no public services to the impoverished residents. Access to clean water and electricity is almost non-existent; HIV rates are some of the highest in the world; a fifth of all children die before the age of five; and roughly 66% of young women routinely trade sex for food. Here, 23-year-old Denver-native Jessica Posner decided to start a school for girls.

Posner first visited Kibera as a Wesleyan student studying abroad in Kenya. An experienced stage performer, she began working with a youth organization called Shining Hope for Community that used theater as an engine for education and healing. “[Founder] Kennedy Odede had been doing theater to teach public health, and to start a conversation in the community about gender and equality,” says Posner. “We used the space to talk through difficult issues.”

Before long, Posner decided to move into the Kibera slums to bring herself closer to the residents and their everyday struggles. “People were totally shocked--they’d never seen anything like it. Kennedy even said no,” explains Posner, recalling the resistance she met. “But I wanted to be exposed to a world that was totally different than my own.” She describes her experience to me: how fragile life is in the slums, how difficult it is to live without water and electricity. But she’s not looking for sympathy. “I’m lucky,” she makes clear. “I made a choice to live in Kibera--everybody else there did not have that choice.”

Inspired by her time living there and working with Shining Hope, Posner began envisioning another project: a school for girls. “Such staggering odds are stacked against women--there is such a need for opportunities for them,” says Posner, who points out that just 8% of girls in Kibera will ever have access to school. “We wanted to place women at the center of development--we felt it would be the best possible way to change the society as a whole.”

The following year, Posner returned from her second trip to Kibera, and turned all her attention to furiously raising funds. Along with Odede, she established Shining Hope as a 501(c)3 non-profit. She wrote to friends and family, appealed to the Wesleyan community, and applied for grants. After raising thousands of dollars through her grassroots efforts (“I sent out a lot of emails”) and winning a grant from 100 Projects For Peace, she returned to Kibera to turn her dream into a reality. Soon, she had secured land, engaged the community to build an eight-classroom school, and hired teachers and an education specialist to design a curriculum based on the needs of the children--a curriculum that encouraged theater and the arts.

Of her endless passion, Posner credits her youth. “Being young, people are often skeptical, but I don’t think about it,” says Posner, now 24. “It just means I have a lot more energy, and the ability to be more optimistic. When challenges and obstacles come up, I am less likely to be deterred.”

In the summer of 2009, the Kibera School for Girls opened as the first and only tuition-free school for girls in the Kibera slum. But even after overcoming so many challenges, she had yet to face her most difficult. “The hardest part,” she says, “was selecting only the students we had the resources to take.” Of the some 500 applications the Kibera School for Girls received, Posner could only accept 45.

But her school is rapidly expanding thanks to aggressive fundraising efforts. In the past year, Posner won the Dell Social Innovation competition, a Newman’s Own Foundation grant, and the Echoing Green Fellowship. And just last week, she won the Do Something award, a prize of $100,000. “We built our school with just $25,000,” she exclaims. “With $100,000, the possibilities for Kibera are endless.”

The school now serves 65 students, and will soon take on 370 through 8th grade. Posner has also launched the Shining Hope Community Center, which provides much-needed public services including a library and health clinic, literacy and computer classes, Internet access, and other infrastructure.

Posner isn’t celebrating yet though--there’s still work to be done. When I tried contacting her shortly after the awards ceremony, she couldn’t be reached. She was already on a flight back to Kibera, ready to put the money to good use.

[Photograph by Gabriela Herman]

More winners' stories:
Micaela Connery: Knocking Down Barriers With the Power of Performance
Jacqueline Murekatete: Genocide Survivor Embraces Her Ordeal to Educate Others
Will Perez: Med Student Pioneers “Political Medicine” in Rural Haiti
Mark Rembert: DoSomething Winner Returns to Save His Stricken Hometown

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