The Undugu Society, founded in 1974, has a long history of empowering youth and their communities through a variety of programs. These include informal schools, a fair trade shop, and community micro-finance. One of their primary functions is to serve street youth through the formation of Street Associations. The way an employee of Undugu described it to me is that homeless youth around the city usually live in groups at a “base.” They sleep there, but during the day they travel to different places in order to try and “hustle” a living. Some of these activities might be legitimate, like working as a porter or selling wares, others might not be, like snatching purses or cellphones.
Once Undugu locates these groups around the city, they assign a social worker called a “Project Officer” to monitor and advise the group. This officer encourages the “association” of youth to do a variety of things that might improve their livelihood. First, they ask them to raise enough money to register themselves with the government as a Community Based Organization (CBO). This allows them certain rights like the right to assemble, have a bank account, and function without harassment by the police. Second, they ask them to elect leadership in the group that includes a chairman, vice chairman, secretary, and treasurer. This gives the group an organizing structure and a system for making decisions and saving money. Thirdly, they encourage them to pool their creative and material resources into an entrepreneurial activity the might provide them with a more steady income. This might be a car washing business, clearing a garbage plot to plant and harvest crops, or collecting recyclable materials for resale.
Undugu has identified more than 140 such associations around the city and the number is ever increasing. Each of these associations is at a different stage of development. Some suffer from a lack of leadership, are plagued by issues with drug abuse, and may be dominated by members who are predatory opportunists. Others are highly functioning, have a strong sense of community, and have successfully started a money making venture that gives them both a study source of income and a sense of accomplishment. When Undugu identifies individuals within these groups that have particular potential, they may hire them to be “youth facilitators.” These young people are then employees of Undugu that assist and advise the social workers assigned to each region. They are a liason between Undugu and the community and also can help identify additional youth groups in the area that Undugu may not yet be aware of.
I feel the Undugu model of youth empowerment is both unique and pragmatic. It also fits in well with the evolution of the mission of the organization. Over the last decade, Undugu has shifted its focus from being strictly a service provider to becoming more of an advocacy organization. It was during this transition that they formed a relationship with the Advocacy Project as they sought a way to blend their older programs with new innovations. It is their hope that the Digital Storytelling Project that began last year can become more infused throughout the organization because it affords a unique opportunity for traditionally marginalized youth to participate in self-advocacy.
With the help of the project officers and youth facilitators we selected DSP participants from 7 different associations. We visited all of these associations beforehand to tell them about the purpose of DSP and what it could offer their association. Although we would only select one person from each community, this individual would be responsible for not just telling their story, but telling the story of the association as a whole. We also chose these associations in close proximity to each other so that through the interaction of these selected students, the associations they belonged to would benefit from a wider network of support and a wider range of ideas.
Though youth are often accused in the local media of being the source of disruption and violence, these young people in DSP seek to tell a different story. That of youth in poor communities who, despite the obstacles, are seeking constructive pathways towards civic participation and community empowerment.
Posted By Barbara Dziedzic
Posted Jul 22nd, 2009