In 2010, while still in undergrad, I decided to travel to Ghana and the experience was life-changing. Nine years earlier, I started a small youth and agriculture program in Springfield, Massachusetts, called Gardening the Community. Having researched urban and peri-urban agriculture initiatives taking place in Ghana, I decided I would travel to Accra to volunteer with the farmers and learn from their perspective. I organized my trip through an international service-learning organization called Amizade. This nonprofit connected me with directors in Ghana who organized accommodations and arranged for volunteer placement with the country’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture.
My trip to Ghana began as a quest to learn about urban agriculture, but I ultimately learned so much more. I visited the capital city of Accra where I was, for the first time, in an environment where I was no longer the minority. I could sit in a public place or walk down the street and not be visually marked as “other.” I was blown over by this new context of self; I began to see the world and my own possibilities in a completely new way.
Through initiatives like the Obama White House’s My Brother’s Keeper and the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, the United States has come to understand the degree to which African-American men and boys still experience disparities in education, economic mobility, and social and physical well-being. Post-recession Black male unemployment is still high; more than double the white unemployment rate in January 2013 (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics). “Black males between 25 and 39 years old, arguably in the prime of life, are the most likely to be incarcerated,” (BMAfunders – U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics).
I knew that international experience could have an impact on this population, but I also knew that one of the greatest obstacles that prevents Black men and boys from experiencing global mobility is financial funding.
I had struggled to find the funding necessary to make the journey. While Amizade arranged for my program and accommodations, I still had to secure the funding to pay the program fee, my plane ticket and other associated costs (over $4,000). Initially I had tried fundraising and asking friends and family and didn’t get further than $500. GoFundMe wasn’t a thing back then and a lot of the suggestions often offered by many of the international service-learning programs don’t really help if you’re flying solo (without a group) and/or don’t really have a financially viable network.
The first time I went to Ghana, I didn’t know anything or anyone so I pretty much had to rely on the Amizade to make all the arrangements. While I was grateful for their program, I later realized it drives up travel costs a lot. Last summer when I returned to Ghana, I did my research. I found a great hostel in Accra and another housing situation in Cape Coast via Airbnb. I’m part of a network of really great folks (Startingbloc) who gave me tips on finding cheap flights and travel insurance.
My background is in nonprofit management and higher education administration with a focus on experiential learning and professional development. For ten years I oversaw co-curricular and pre-professional programs in collegiate settings, sending students all over the world. I have been privileged to have access to education and experiences that many people do not. Yet I realized, the young men who were likely to benefit the most from those kinds of international experiences, were often unable to or didn’t even consider the possibility.
In response to these inequalities, I decided to start Leaders of the Free World (LFW), an international experiential learning and leadership development program for black male achievement. The program provides international exposure to young men of color ages to twenty-three, while expanding each participant’s leadership capacity. Participants are recruited by means of self-identification and nomination. The LFW curriculum promotes consciousness and self-awareness while targeting social and psychological barriers to success. The goal of Leaders of the Free World is to create a network of leaders whose development impacts their own lives and communities; grooming the next generation of community leaders, entrepreneurs, and mentors.
At its core, Leaders of the Free World is about psychological emancipation.
It’s a name and a philosophy that challenge the preconceptions about who we often identify as those carrying that title and what we think “the free world” actually means. Our program aims to not only challenge young black men to see themselves in leadership roles, but also to understand that they have the ability to transcend social and geographical boundaries and limitations. They have the capacity to lead on a local and a global stage, and to actively work towards creating a free world for themselves and their communities.
This summer the first cohort will travel to Ghana. This will be their first international experience. Once the group arrives in Ghana, they will spend one week in Accra meeting local entrepreneurs and learning about different organizations in the area. While in the Cape Coast, they will have the opportunity to visit the slave castles and attend workshops led by University of Cape Coast faculty. The young men will also volunteer as well participate in cultural and recreational activities.
Leaders of the Free World offers young black men the rare opportunity to leave the challenges of their communities, enter into a culture different from their own, and learn ways to improve their own upon their return. For these young men, this is a transformative journey.