By Rachel Kirk
“I didn’t realize how interconnected social systems were with environmental issues.”
Nearly two years ago, a few colleagues and I founded an organization called the Women’s Global Empowerment Initiative (WGEI). We promote global education in Morocco for young women of color in low-income high schools in Atlanta, Louisville, and New Orleans. Our vision is to provide young women of color with a unique professional edge by offering opportunities for language exploration, global education, and emotional literacy. With our partner organization, Dar Si Hmad, located in Agadir, Morocco, students have lectures on the global intersections of race, gender, and environmental justice. Students also have excursions through which they build personal and professional relationships within Morocco’s southwest community.
While Dar Si Hmad has a wide array of programs such as environmental education programs for Moroccan students and language and cultural programs for Amazigh (Berber) history, what the organization is most known for is its innovative fog nets on Mount Boutmezguida in the Anti-Atlas Mountains. This set of nets is the largest, most scientifically advanced, and cost-efficient of its kind. This project won the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Momentum Award in 2016 and won the Prix Suez from the Institut de France just a few weeks ago.
With support from Columbia’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4), where I’m a graduate fellow, I have been able to run a second pilot this summer while beginning to assess the outcomes of WGEI’s student program with Dar Si Hmad. Our program has several themes; however, we were able to focus more heavily on environmental justice this summer. While we have been based in Agadir in the southwest region, a few days ago, we took an excursion a few hours south of Agadir to Sidi Ifni. During this excursion, students spent a day hiking up to Mount Boutmezguida to see Dar Si Hmad’s fog net project firsthand.
Adriana, one of our students from Louisville, Kentucky, had many profound thoughts to share as she reflected on her experiences:
“Before this program, I was oblivious to different issues related to the environment. I didn’t know what environmental racism was and what the level of effects were of human activity on the environment. I also didn’t realize how interconnected social systems were with environmental issues. The most surprising part of the fog project was seeing the actual installation of the nets and learning about the way it was connected to women’s issues. I learned about the long hikes that women had to do to get water before the fog nets and how sometimes they would even lose the water they collected before returning home. At home, I can easily turn on the faucet and there’s running water but there are so many people who must take a lot of time out of their days to get the most basic resource. By hiking up the mountain, I got to experience first-hand the struggle that many women went through. Because only 14 villages are benefitting from the fog project right now, I think about so many other villages that are going through these struggles to get water. It also touched me learning about the Imidir people in the south of Morocco who were protesting during the COP22 summit and talking about how their ancestors left the well so that the people that come after them can access water.”
As a masters student in International Education Development at Teachers College, student testimonies such as this remind me of the importance of my work with WGEI. While the complexities of real-life make the administration of these programs difficult, our time in Morocco with this group of young women has been reenergizing. Our holistic vision has been implemented and student reflections remind me that this work is worthwhile. WGEI’s focus is, however, not only on academic skills. We also have been highlighting emotional literacy with our group of young women. Adriana additionally shared the ways in which her time in Morocco has helped her emotionally:
“This trip has helped me grow and be open to new opportunities. The hikes taught me a sense of collective unity and made me feel accomplished. At first, it brought up issues of self-esteem but when another student encouraged me by saying ‘you got this,’ it meant a lot. I’m often on my own and very independent and having a shoulder to lean on in a challenging time meant a lot.”
Through morning sessions to reflect and awareness-building on the support of sisterhood, our students have grown so much academically, emotionally, and personally, in such a short amount of time. They have also developed a sense of urgency to promote community transformation in their own respective cities. When I asked Adriana how her time in Morocco would change her when she gets back to Louisville, she said:
“When I get home, I’m going to be debunking a lot of myths about Africa. I’ve really had time to reflect on what I can do in my community in the United States. I’m going to limit my water consumption and recycle more, and I want to think of a way to connect my interest in art with recycling through making jewelry or scrapbooks with recyclable items. I’m also going to be more resilient and better myself in all aspects: physically, emotionally, socially. I’ve had time to figure out some things, especially in the moments when we’ve had no WiFi, wow!”
With just a few days left of our journey, the WGEI team will continue to track these trends in our students. Our hope is to build upon this program so that we can impact a larger number of students, such as Adriana. For now, I am grateful for the support from AC4 in continuing to implement WGEI’s second summer program in Morocco. Upward and onward.
This post was originally published on the blog for Columbia’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity.
Rachel Kirk is a 2018 AC4 Graduate Student Fellow, pursuing a MA in International Education Development at Teachers College, Columbia University. This summer she travelled to Morocco to focus on increasing accessibility to global education, particularly for young women of color from low-income high schools in Atlanta, Louisville, and New Orleans, and to focus on the intersections of race, gender and environmental justice.