The Mamelodi Initiative – An Experiment in Grassroots Education Reform

RICHARD KELLEY, 2009 LEGACY AWARDEE & JUNTO MEMBER, TEACHING ABROAD - The Mamelodi Township of South Africa is home to more than 1 million people. Set up by the then apartheid government, Mamelodi was designated as a blacks-only area. Today, Mamelodi residents are still almost exclusively black South Africans. Many people in the township still live in temporary housing with no electricity and no running water. The township struggles with issues of crime, violence, HIV, educational inequality, and severely high unemployment rates.

However, when I entered the Mamelodi community in 2010, all I saw was amazingly kind-hearted people and learners with untapped potential. I found myself with an opportunity every Creativity Foundation Legacy Winner desires: a year of unstructured time to creatively engage in my passion (for me, educational inequalities in low-income and disadvantaged communities).

Fortunately, I did not come to Mamelodi completely unequipped. My experiences from the Phillips Brooks House Association at Harvard and a few key connections would make beginning my work possible. The Director of the University of Pretoria campus in Mamelodi introduced me to the staff of the Mae Jemison Reading Room, a collaborative project between the US Embassy and the university. Through this embassy, I began my work with high school students from across the township.

Not having a plan, I figured that the best people to ask for input about what learners needed were the learners themselves. Three projects were put in to motion: computer literacy courses, sports programming, and a young men’s group (to compliment the young women’s group already in place). I must say, if someone had asked me what I would be doing in Mamelodi, none of these things would have made the list (I am especially bad at sports), but I guess that’s what happens when you ask for input. While all these projects were (and continue to be) successful, the computer literacy course surprised me most. While the course had room for 30 people, I expected about 20 for the first time (and would have been happy to meet my goal!). Instead, the course was enrolled at 35 learners and a waitlist of another 30 also existed! The courses for this semester are already full (even though they start in a month) and people are constantly asking for more classes.

One of the largest endeavors undertaken by what I have started to collectively call The Mamelodi Initiative was the summer program for rising 8th graders. Approximately 100 learners attended the two-week program focusing on study skills for success in high school. The program incorporated 25 college volunteers from South Africa and the United States. One of my favorite memories from the program was one learner’s comment: “I wish this was real school. I actually pay attention here.“ The program will continue this March as an after school program which will be staffed by University of Pretoria education students, and US students will be back again to run a winter program with the same youth!

The work I have done here has consistently focused on building strong partnerships. These partnerships with the University of Pretoria, the US Embassy, local schools, churches, and Campus Crusade for Christ have lead to a powerful team working towards the same goal of combating education inequality in this township. This project has gone from one person lost in Mamelodi to more than 300 volunteers participating in the Initiative serving more than 500 youth from the community.

This experience has been a truly humbling one, but it would be unrealistic to say the experience has anything but just started. The Mamelodi Initiative has relied on the creativity of Mamelodi youth, community movers and shakers, and people who quite simply just care. Through this creativity, piece-by-piece, we are creating opportunities to support better academic performance, more career choices, and enhanced life opportunities.

With the tagline: “Learn. Grow. Dream. Achieve.“, this movement is only beginning. In fact, college access is the next step! Informally starting this semester with Matric learners from various high schools, I hope that the program can be formalized in the coming year!

Richard is former president of Harvard’s Philips Brooks House Association and a 2009 Legacy Prize Winner. He currently serves on the Creativity Foundation’s Junto.