Using her VOICE

It takes an unquantifiable amount of energy to be a mother, wife, and social activist. But Ahmeda Mansaray Richardson, founder and executive director of VOICES (Voices Of Inspired Children Engaging Society) seems to take it in stride. In a phone conversation, Ahmeda explained how she is using this not-for-profit organization  to break some of Africa’s cultural norms.

AB: What is VOICES?

AMR: VOICES Ghana is a community-based organization that works in low income urban communities by providing resources and opportunities to allow youth to actively participate in their community development. Our entry point into our partner communities are schools that perform in the bottom 15% of Ghana’s Basic Education Certification Exam (Ghana’s national junior high school exam). In each school, we have a community action team which is dedicated to helping underperforming students hone their academic skills and become entities of social change.

We are able to achieve this goal by providing a 3-year program based on the VOICES Empowerment model. This model introduces children to critical thinking and fosters an environment where children utilize their God-given talents to transform their communities. In cycle one, the students meet with facilitators who engage them in discussions to get them to think critically about their talents, their rights and their responsibilities. In cycle two, the children select a community problem and use their newly realized skills to solve the issue.

In the final cycle, they apply the lessons gained from tackling the community project - time management, critical thinking, problem solving - and apply it to their academics. The results are empowered students who take initiative in the classroom and in their community.

AB: Why did you start Voices?

AMR: I started VOICES to disrupt the cultural norm that ‘children should be seen and not heard’. Not only does this notion make children vulnerable to abuse, but it also hampers the way they approach education. When we suppress a child’s voice or limit their right to participate, we inadvertently place a cap on their potential. I am completely consumed with the idea that if you allow a child to realize their inherent power, they will amaze you.

AB: In the Ghanaian culture, vocal children are often considered as disrespectful? Do you face any resistance from the community when you teach children to be more expressive?

AMR: Since we are a community-based initiative, we are completely immersed in activities in and outside the schools. We recruit facilitators from the community, we buy snacks from community vendors and we interact with the teachers and care givers so they understand that this is truly a complete community building initiative. We want the well-being of the community. When the adults in the community see the school children demonstrating their new sense of responsibility to their communities like participating in public health programs and child rights initiatives, the children win their admiration and support.

AB: What challenges do you face?

AMR: The biggest challenge is funding. Organizations are eager to fund malaria, HIV etc. but it is difficult to get them to support programs that seek to elevate the well- being of children through a self-empowerment process. Not many donors - be it individuals or organizations - understand that an empowered child is a critical link to eradicating diseases and alleviating poverty. If we had more funding, we would be in more urban cities and we would be able to tackle the issue of child-headed households and other issues that directly impact under-privileged communities.

AB: What are you most proud of ?

AMR: Our Voices Fellowship Program has generated a lot of success. We recruit high school students who did not pass the WASSCE ( national high school graduating exam) from our partner communities and train them to become facilitators in our community action teams. Although they are volunteers, we give them a stipend and provide them with professional development workshops. The training they receive during the 12-month fellowship has a remarkable influence on their personal development because it repairs their broken sense of confidence whilst boosting their actual marketable skills set. In addition, we pay for them to get the extra tutoring they need to prepare them to rewrite their exams and cover the cost of the exam registration itself. When they graduate from the Fellowships, they are skilled at problem-solving both at the personal level and at the community level and they are eager to continue making meaningful contributions to their communities. Those who have great social enterprise ideas receive angel investments from the organization, Our most improved fellows who enter university get full scholarships. They also keep the laptops and cellphones they used during the program.

To date, the alums of the VOICES Training Institute have used the knowledge their acquired to start their own business. Others have successfully completed degree programs from universities. I stay in touch with them not only to track their success but to provide continued support as their transition to different stages in their profession.

AB: What is Ahmeda’s big dream for VOICES:

AMR: My goal is to have a centre where people interested in the VOICES Empowerment model can modify and utilize it to transform their communities. So far, we have implemented the model in Paris and we are currently reworking it for low-income immigrant communities in downtown Toronto. I also want to expand it to regions in Canada and other parts of the world.