The Dignitas ProjectBy Rachael Apfel
For those who live in the slums of Mathare Valley — one of the largest slums in East Africa and the oldest in Kenya — a quality education may seem unattainable. With hundreds of thousands of people living in about a three-square-mile area, there is no electricity or running water; inadequate sewage, roads, and housing; and high rates of disease and violence. About 1 in 3 people are HIV-positive and only 1 in 10 have stable employment. There is no government funding or support for community-based schools, and the schools suffer from a scarcity of resources, high teacher turnover rates, and few teachers who have received professional training beyond secondary school. Given these conditions, most organizations do not have the capacity or willingness to work in Mathare Valley, much less address systemic issues with the surrounding education. And yet, this is where Tiffany Cheng Nyaggah, Ed.M.’06, chose to start the Dignitas Project.
An education development organization founded in 2008 that focuses on transforming communities through education and opportunity, the Dignitas Project — unlike many non-government organizations (NGOs) — does not approach urban slums as dense concentrations of human need where charitable work in “emergency mode” or through traditional methods will have a desirable effect. Instead, the organization aims to create change through community empowerment, channeling time and resources into community leaders and education professionals in an effort to build on the talent and capacity that is already present and create a much more sustainable outcome. “Dignitas is not charity, it is an investment in people,” Nyaggah explains.
“When I started here, I wanted to ask how we could do things with the community, rather than to the community,” Nyaggah says. “There are organizations that believe that if they send books or supplies then things will get done and change will happen, but you cannot expect long-term, sustainable change unless you change the capacity and culture of the community.”
To do this, the Dignitas Project identifies and supports emerging leaders both within schools and within the community, building on the capacity that is already there. Project staff members provide school-based leaders with professional development, onsite coaching, and technical assistance in order to develop strong leaders that have the skills to manage and lead a high-performing, dynamic, and accountable organization in service of children and families. To complement these efforts and provide support for the schools, the project then seeks help and involvement from the community, building relationships with parents, village leaders, churches, and community-based organizations in order to connect schools with on-the-ground resources and expand support and sustainability.
Together, these efforts not only raise expectations and standards for education, but they create a sense of empowerment and confidence that becomes obvious from the testimonials of teachers and leaders who have been involved in Dignitas’ Leadership Institute.
“I feel that I’ve just gone through a complete change in my life, both in the way I think and the way I’m going to deal with issues,” says David Ouma, a 2012 Fellow from Valley View Academy, a partner school in Mathare Valley, in a testimonial. “I feel that I now have what it takes to change the lives of pupils in Mathare Valley.”
Judith Adema, a 2011 Fellow from NECI Education Center, another partner school, also sees similar transformation in her school. “At first, when we came to the training, we were told that we were supposed to set goals for the community, the parents, and the children, which we found really challenging,” she says.” But then we began involving students in learning, material development, decision-making, and group discussions. The pupils have really improved, and they now feel ownership of their learning in the school.”
With this success has come growth, bringing with it a whole new set of challenges for the Dignitas Project.
“When it comes to expanding, one of the key issues has been the ability to build an understanding of the program more broadly in a way that is simple and clear,” Nyaggah explains. “People have asked to use our rubric, our model, and our tools because it has been very effective. Of course we are willing to share, but we want to ensure that the people who are adapting and using our approaches recognize and preserve the values and spirit of the approach.”
As the program continues to grow, these challenges are also accompanied by the need for increased funding, a unique issue for the Dignitas Project, which hopes to build a body of support while remaining independent of the desires of large donors.
“It is easy to build an organization and become donor driven, going after grant money, and doing what those donors want you to do,” Nyaggah says. “We took a different approach and wanted to ensure that we would be able to pivot and respond to community needs and retain that flexibility and adaptiveness that so many NGOs give up when they become attached to large donors.”
However, these challenges are hardly discouraging for Nyaggah, who considers them indications of successful growth. “I see new challenges as positive developments,” she says. “They direct our focus and help us know what questions to ask. It’s actually exciting.”