Uswege Mwakapango and Adam Rubin through their RENEW organization envision an interconnected world where young people are working together to address issues threatening their communities. They are on a mission to inspire, empower, and enable young people to positively impact their communities. In this exclusive interview with Africa-OnTheRise, they share the story of how they met, the journey so far and what lies ahead for them.
1. You have both forged what is quite an admirable partnership, and this reflects in the quality and impact of the work you do with RENEW. Tell us about yourselves, how you met and your journey so far?
Uswege and I met for the first time in 2010 in Arusha, Tanzania, as we were both Volunteer Program Coordinators for Support for International Change. We spent that time living in villages outside of Arusha and Babati conducting HIV awareness campaigns, addressing an issue which was deeply personal for both of us. The curriculum for SIC included a section on life skills that Uswege and I always felt held the greatest importance in driving self-exploration and awareness, growth and behaviour change the students needed to thrive and live the life they imagine – there was an untapped potential that we knew was the key to personal development and therefore community development. Gaining an understanding of each other we came to realize that it wasn’t just our birthday we shared, but also a mind set in regards to the need for social and emotional skills into the classrooms. And so, in 2013, together we started RENEW – an international organization that brings personal growth and transformation into the classroom by providing young people with the social and emotional skills they need to discover their unique potential, step into their power and start living their dreams at an early age. Young people who participate in our program get to see their genius come to life and develop their community, as they create projects to address issues threatening their communities.
2. RENEW is on a mission to inspire, empower and enable young people to positively impact their communities; how would you say this mission aligns with the United Nations Development Programme’s “Sustainable Development Goals”, perhaps the goal of Sustainable Cities and Communities?
Although the impact of our work cut across several Sustainable Development Goals for United Nations Development Programmes including Peace and Justice, and Sustainable cities and communities as young people in RENEW workshop learn to build their inner peace and how to share it outward, and develop their communities as they implement their own created community service; the core of our program focuses on transforming THE QUALITY OF EDUCATION by bringing personal development to students to help them own their education (and their life). RENEW brings personal growth and transformation into the classrooms, and offers students with life lessons that schools do not invest in it as much as it does in cognitive and literacy area. RENEW believes that, the same emphasis that is given in academic growth should be given to personal growth and we do this through social emotional skills needed to develop the student as a person and not just a learner.
3. What drives you both to do the work you do, and continue to give your all to it?
RENEW’s dream is personal to both of us as it provides students with social and emotional literacy we needed at an early age in order to become more aware of ourselves, love ourselves more, understand and respect our feelings, and live the life we love as we tap into our inner greatness. Surprisingly, most learning in schools focuses on bringing what is “outside in, and ignore to bring what is inside out”. Students are exposed more into what is externally created and thought to be the key of life (i.e. academics) but they are not helped to explore more about themselves, discover their power within, and how they can use it to master what they need to live in their greatness.
Dr. Moses Coady once said “People will use what they have to secure what they have not.” Unfortunately, the current educational set up shut down students’ opportunities to explore and learn what they have from within, and instead they are exposed more to learning what they have not – the academics. The impact of this is it makes students have a deficit mentality (“I am not enough”) as they measure themselves from external standards. Impact goes further to having students who don’t know what they are passionate about, students who are emotionally vulnerable and who lack social skills crucial for living a happier and successful life. A lot of research results show increasing anxiety and depression problems among students, tremendous decrease in student’s resilience, increasing bullying and students’ involvement in risk behaviour, and increased dilemma among high school students about what to study in college. Yet, the education system is not responding to these crucial needs. RENEW workshops begin with exploration of the self, that way our participants discover their power within and use that understanding to identify specific learning needs and hope they need to learn and master in order to live their ideal life.
4. What are some of the peculiar challenges that you encounter in your work, and how are you able to overcome them?
- Limited commitment by learning institutions in social and emotional literacy programs as they invest a lot of their time and other resources in student’s academic success. Through this experiences, RENEW realized the need of creating awareness programs that has helped us in boosting the interest of our program to teachers, educators, parents and organizations that works with young people.
- Limited time in school schedule to accommodate our 5 days’ workshop. RENEW begun by offering a 5 days comprehensive program to all interested school, however we found out that investing in a 5 days workshop was still a challenge to some schools and so we decided to create additional workshop option; including a three day workshop for schools that cannot invest a full five days (we also offer a camp).
5. RENEW is a recipient of the Pollination Project grant as well as an impact grant from the same organization, what other similar grants have you received and how have these impacted your work with RENEW?
In 2014, RENEW was chosen as a finalist and winner for two funding competitions at Arizona State University: Changemaker Challenge and the Woodside Community Action Grant. After being chosen from more than 250 Changemaker Challenge applicants in the first round, and then 30 finalists that pitched on stage, RENEW was awarded $2500. RENEW also received the top prize of $2500 from the Woodside Community Action Grant, a seed-funding competition for community service focused projects that are engaging, community-driven, solutions focused, and sustainable. Migs Woodside, who generously provides the funding through the Woodside Endowment, decided to fund RENEW an additional $1000 more than we had applied for and told us: “we were extremely impressed with the RENEW project, we believe it can be a model for the entire world”.
In 2015, RENEW was awarded an impact grant from The Pollination Project and it completely changed the game for RENEW. It allowed us to bring our personal growth and development program to college students and inspire an entirely new generation of youth in Tanzania. This grant came at a pivotal time, and gave us not only momentum but also confidence and belief to keep moving forward. That belief turned into a decision to expand our programs to the US and take our youth empowerment program global. I can’t say enough about how important this was for RENEW and the work we do to empower young people around the world.
6. Across the continent of Africa and beyond, there are passionate young people who are frustrated by the existing systems in their different nations. What would you say is the best way to galvanize youth effort across the continent to drive positive outcomes across Africa?
True development, true freedom, and ideal life is never given, it is earned as individuals explore, discover, and learn to master, create and utilize available opportunities and or resources in the way that serve their personal and social’s needs.
Youth voice and energy is going to be amplified as they realize and experience the power they have personally and as an agency in living the change they wish to see. The available setup put young people on a trap – a trap that makes them think there should be a support from the top for youth initiatives to be successful, but the hard truth is that “youth’s change will be brought by young people themselves as they mobilize themselves and create youth agency to bring change they seek.”
RENEW workshops refrain young people from the dependence mentality by taking them through self-exploration experience that help them to realize their power within, and the power within themselves as young people in fostering the change they wish to see and live the life they have been imagining. The community service project that young people do at the end of every RENEW workshop is not just helping young people to develop confidence in the power of their actions, but also it is calling for adult’s reconsideration of their perception of youth when it comes to development interventions.
7. A lot continues to be said about the rise of Africa, the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative it is called. Do you agree that Africa is indeed rising? If so, what are the changing realities, scenarios and events that inform your conviction that Africa is indeed a continent on the rise?
Africa is on the rise and it has been on the rise since its creation. Look at all political, economic and scientific development that occurred even before the 15th century as that of Egypt, Mali, Nubia, Ethiopia and great Zimbabwe. With the current world of diversity in terms of culture, technologies, level of development and ways of looking at development progress; Africa has to reflect on its core values, reassess its current development behaviour to see if it is compatible with the kind of development they seek or if they are just a reaction to external pressure that has been happening since the colonization of Africa.
8. What should Africa look forward to from you soon? What is the next big thing you are working on right now?
Africa should look forward to tapping into their greatness as they explore their unique potential from within; overcome their limiting beliefs that have been limiting them from living an abundant life, and take bold actions toward their dreams to live a life of personal freedom.
In October, 2016 RENEW is putting on a Youth Summit in Tanzania – a day-long personal development seminar. We will be joined by personal growth and development experts from all over the world to bring a transformative experience to young people in Tanzania which is meant to take them through deeper exploration of self and mastering of their destiny.
We’re expecting to bring together close to 1,000 youth for this epic event. This personal development event will be the first of its kind in Tanzania and we think will become an enormous event across all of Africa as we build it out and it gains traction.