Words Into Deeds Empowers Youth, Helps Communities

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Tompkins Weekly    11-23-22

By Cathleen Banford

Where do young people learn about social systems and how they interconnect and how to empower themselves to influence positive changes in their lives? While the political arena is often dripping with divisiveness and too many politicians out of touch and beholden to dark money, there are people living with agency and accountability in their lives, addressing these issues directly.

One such individual is Gertrude Noden, founder of Ithaca-based Words Into Deeds. In a recent conversation, she shared how she’s finding ways to both empower and engage groups of young people within their communities. Through this work, they learn to navigate and improve systems directly impacting their lives.

Words Into Deeds, Inc. provides opportunities for youth to develop their full potential as informed, engaged citizens in their schools, communities and globally. Working with teachers and community leaders, using resources such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as frameworks, they present workshops and offer sustained support for outreach projects tailored for the needs and age range of each participating group.

Students in Gulu, Uganda (supported through mini-grants from Words Into Deeds) helping prepare their first crop of cowpeas to make boo, a traditional Ugandan meal with peanuts and spices. Part of their harvest is used for school lunches; the remainder is sold to local grocers and the profit used to purchase seeds for the next planting. Photo by Words Into Deeds, Inc. Uganda Team.

Words Into Deeds has been empowering students to learn about how dynamic systems work together, taking the time to look at the many related issues that come together at a problem point. This allows them to see solutions to shift the system, rather than just applying Band-Aid fixes. It’s a way to repair systems that aren’t working for people by starting right in school and having students think about how things work.

Cathleen Banford, a member of Sustainable Finger Lakes’ Board of Directors, spoke with Noden to learn more.

Banford: Why are you teaching about the SDGs? Why is it working? How does it actually help students?

Noden: “Words are the required foundations to do the work. It’s about understanding the 30 articles of the UDHR and processing those with youth participants and adults. People don’t really know their rights. Then you bring that conversation to contemporary society and where these rights show up in their community. Are human rights being advanced or violated? That’s theoretical; it’s the ideal.

“There’s also the 12 principles of democracy. You can’t protect your rights and principles unless you understand what they are. There’s a level of complexity there; young people need to understand that foundation.

“When you get to the SDGs, they cross stakeholders. They’re global. They really show the interdependence of issues in our lives. They are concrete and are actionable. That’s also a foundation, but now you are starting to segue into action, into deeds.

“For example, the Promoting Gender Equity and WASH youth empowerment project has brought together youth and teachers from three schools and a women’s cooperative in Uganda and South Sudan who are working collaboratively producing and distributing reusable feminine hygiene kits and in-house made liquid soap to donate and sell in their schools and vicinity villages.

“In a recent presentation students were able to highlight important points. Why is feminine hygiene an equity issue? Well, because the girls in Uganda and South Sudan collectively miss 1,000 days of school per month. There’s a disparity there. It prevents the girls from their right to education and to participate fully in their community because they’re ostracized and there’s a stigma. They become ‘the other.’ And the students … are starting to understand this.

“So the next question is: do you care? Can you talk about a girl’s period or not? We have to get past any discomfort of the topic if we want to move forward. What do you want to do? And the response is that they don’t think it’s right to talk about. So, what are you going to do?

“They then came up with the idea of providing the materials for the girls during their menstruation. Yet the girls themselves can’t do that by themselves. They are sixth and seventh graders. So, you start to build creative partnerships with experts who can do it with them. And you make friends.

“Everybody understands the foundations, everybody understands the problem, and now they are designing solutions to the problem that will promote human rights and offer the SDGs of quality education, gender equity, access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, and ultimately decent work and a good living. So, everything is very integrated and interdependent.

“We don’t teach interdependencies explicitly. We don’t teach geopolitical interdependencies around the world. We’re pretty insular in our history teachings.

“You’re taking different components of a community and bringing them together to synergize and come up with the design and implementation of a real action of consequence. And then you need to come up with an enduring, replicable, improvable next step. That takes assessment and self-reflection. Is this beneficial to all? Is anyone being hurt by this? How do we then scale up to serve more girls?

“The initial goal was to make 170 kits in six months, and they ended up making 500. So, these girls are embracing it, they’re gaining self esteem, they’re getting financial skills, and they’re starting to see that light towards a better economic situation. At the end of the presentation, the presenter noted that she could now buy food for her baby. So, they’re breaking the cycle of poverty and hunger, and all of those other interdependent SDGs.”

Banford: Ecological, economic, health, food, education — in essence, everything is a system, and if we are not able to see them, then we won’t be able to repair them. We need to see them as interconnected and interdependent.

Noden: “Creativity is where [science, technology, engineering, arts and math] comes in. The humanities, the arts, music, dance. It’s not just STEM; we need different forms of expression and of raising awareness.”

Banford: Agreed, arts are integral to the way we empathize, communicate, and connect with each other. If we don’t have that, we’re left with isolated, linear thinking, which by itself is not sufficient to fulfill people’s multidimensional, socially interdependent needs. Systems can either breed trust or mistrust. The second scenario is straining and doesn’t support the creativity needed to grow through challenges.

Noden: “Yes, this is about understanding one another. One example: the justice system is linear, based on juries and prosecution, not on the defendants, who are the ones who don’t make any money. (People negatively impacted by broken systems from the time of their youth are prone to remaining in negative cycles such as this.)”

Banford: When teaching or building a program, relationships are absolutely part of it. Children learn when they feel safe, when there is inspiration around them, when they’re encouraged and authentically engaged. If that’s not their experience, they’re going to tune out. How do you see yourself and your work aligning with the needs of young people today given the complexity and wicked challenges of our times?

Noden: “The real world is a collaborative wave that works together. Look at society and what’s really being asked of students. Get the work in at a reasonable time, don’t abuse the system, and keep going. We build artificial walls that restrain. And it’s our own choice to build these walls. They prevent us from thinking beyond, so we’re trying to fix things within the walls. My whole program is, let’s get rid of these walls and ceilings; let’s open it up and bring people from around the world and talk.”

Banford: I can imagine more of this happening with youth in our community. Thank you!

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