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The Power of a Few Good Ideas

By Jan McCoy Ebbets

When they graduated from Smith College in May, Kirby Capen ’07 of Washington D.C., and Neema Scott ’07 of Newton, Massachusetts, both had money in the bank and Africa in their sights. Before long, they were roving in far-flung places, urban and frontier, Capen in Ghana and Scott in Kenya.

Their travel was born of a mutual desire to make a contribution to peace-building efforts throughout the world and demonstrate the power of a few good ideas. So the two Smith graduates spent their summer executing their own public service projects, with $10,000 in funding through the Kathryn Wasserman Davis 100 Projects for Peace national competition.

Capen and Scott were among 100 undergraduates from 65 colleges and universities—including Brown, Columbia, Harvard and Yale universities—who won the monetary awards and traveled to more than 40 countries this summer to implement their ideas. Philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis established the Projects for Peace program in 2007 to encourage and motivate college students to design grassroots projects that could be carried out anywhere in the world during the summer and would contribute to fostering global peace.

Neema Scott ’07, who worked in northern Kenya this summer on her own public service project thanks to Projects for Peace, had a Praxis internship with the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston prior to her senior year at Smith. Photo by Edward Judice.

Capen, an engineering major with a minor in studio art, held individual beading workshops for 9- to 14-year-old students from four schools in Ghana, including a school for the deaf, as a starting point for discussions about identity, religion, differences and similarities. She brought together students whose religious backgrounds were Muslim, Christian and Jewish. She also offered computer workshops to the children—and planned to donate one or more desktop computers to each of the three locations where she worked—to encourage the communication among the young Ghanaians friends whose relationships developed during her workshops. Fellow Smith graduate and classmate Becca Berman ’06 joined Capen as a volunteer on the project for the first month.

“On my first trip to Ghana, as a high school exchange student, I was astonished at both the depth of interest in and lack of awareness of religions, other than the two major religions in the country: Islam and Christianity,” she wrote in her proposal. “Because Ghana has both a long tradition of beads, dating to 15th-century trade beads, an active bead-making industry, and long-standing traditions of wearing beads, beading activities could provide the entrée into discussing religious similarities and differences in [a familiar] milieu.”

On the east coast of Africa, Scott, who majored in neuroscience, worked in northern Kenya with a team of humanitarians who had agreed to help her teach inexpensive means of obtaining access to water in drought-stricken territories. Her idea was to instruct the local residents in the construction principles of manually drilling wells without heavy, and expensive, machinery.

With the funds from her recent award, Scott set a goal of completing three wells in the Turkana region and in the towns of Isiolo and Marsabit. She reported that her efforts had been well received. One village gave Scott her own tribal name: Na Langu (a Randille name meaning “girl from overseas”).

“The communities appreciate assistance, as well as the fact that I ask them for their help and advice, which allows them to own the project instead of me owning it,” she wrote in an e-mail from Kenya. “They are also confident that the water provided will help cease the fighting between neighboring villages that has been going on for the past few decades over the water shortage.”

“Everyone asks why a neuroscience major is in Kenya building wells,” she wrote. “The answer is: I had an idea of how to help people and decided that if I got the chance, that’s what I’d do.” This summer she and Capen got their chances.

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