Alumni Interviews: Championing literacy for social justice
Paola Jani (BA 2001, political science, history, South Asian studies) has worked with non-governmental organizations and international development agencies in Canada and around the world. She has been a project coordinator for Girl Empower and Girls for Safer Communities, as well as for various financial literacy and heritage projects. She is pursuing her post-graduate diploma in public management with the School for Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Arts & Science spoke with her at the student-alumni networking reception, part of the Next Steps Conference.
What was your most transformational educational experience as an undergraduate student at U of T?
It was in a small group seminar on African studies. I remember entering the seminar room and noticing the diversity of my peers. As the course progressed, the professor created a space for students to engage, to ask questions, to challenge our thinking about the continent of Africa. I will always be grateful for the dialogue and rigor of the conversations — we learned the art of communications.
How did your studies connect with what you went on to do?
I majored in political science and history, with a minor in South Asian studies. One of my first jobs out of University was at the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI) in Ahmedabad, India. My area studies of South Asia directly related to my work in India. As AIDMI is a non-governmental organization, my political science degree was crucial to helping me understand the role of NGOs in society. U of T prepared me very well to start my career aboard.
Describe the work you were doing in Kenya as part of your MA in UNESCO World Heritage Studies at the Brandenburg Technical University in Germany.
I interned with a local consultancy and the National Museums of Kenya Sites and Monuments Department to increase awareness of heritage in Nairobi. I had to establish a high-level steering committee and develop a survey to research local inhabitants’ perceptions on what constitutes heritage and to come up with a list of potential buildings of significance (similar to the World Heritage List). This research became the foundation of my Master’s thesis, “Prioritizing the Region of Africa: Methods of Bridging the Gaps for Creating a Representative, Balanced and Credible World Heritage List.” The end result of the project was the creation of a sustainable archival website identifying these buildings and a photography exhibition to celebrate Nairobi’s architecture.
What did the experience teach you?
A lot. One day I met with a group of students from Jomo Kenyatta University and I asked them to explain what Kenyan architecture is, how they define Kenyan architectural heritage. For a moment the room was quiet and I thought perhaps I needed to change my facilitation method of engagement. I was about to ask another question when the comments regarding the uniqueness of Kenyan architecture and the identification of heritage buildings turned into a rigorous and intriguing debate on participative cultural heritage exploration.
In the course of it, a student asked me directly “What am I doing here asking about Kenyan architecture and why can’t Kenyan’s themselves ask about their own heritage?” It was a tough question because I became the external party and I needed to swallow my pride, letting the student know that I in fact was working alongside the consultancy and the museum, as an ally and leaving the project in the hands of the people, Kenyans themselves. Given my own identity, I felt excluded, a foreigner in a land I so much wanted to claim as my own — and in fact, I struggled with the question for days on end asking myself if I was doing the right thing.
It was at that moment that I realized that the conversation and dialogue needed to continue to ensure that the voice of the people is heard in arenas of heritage development. I realized the strategy of working with the local consultancy and the National Museum was essential to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the most important element of the project — the voice of the people.
What motivates you to do social justice work?
I grew up in a family where there is awareness and sensitivity towards social justice issues, such as poverty reduction, inequality and human rights. I can only be honest in saying that being a visible minority (I have not been spared the pains of discrimination) has played a significant role in forming my ideas of what a socially just world can look like.
Making a positive impact on the lives of people facing injustice is what sustains me in my work. Women’s access to banking, credit, financial decision-making and earning are powerful means of self-empowerment — I find it deeply meaningful to know that I can contribute to making a profound change in a women’s life by supporting her, for instance, to open a bank account.
Financial literacy training for girls and women living in Canada is essential because it strengthens their understanding of money matters, builds confidence and empowers them — which is a great strategy to prevent gender-based income imbalances, discrimination and violence against women and girls.
You’ve also been involved in a project based in Hamilton to build a library in Liberia that is rallying many stakeholders, volunteers and donors. Tell us about the project.
The Liberian Learning Center is bi-continental project with the mission of building communities and opportunities for youth. Liberia is now emerging from its decades of conflict, with the scars and destruction still very much a part of daily life. The Liberian government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) describes a number of plans designed to achieve macroeconomic development largely through the implementation of much-needed social development. One of the goals of the PRSP is to achieve universal primary education — ensuring that all Liberian children are completing primary school—by 2015.
Liberia has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world and there has not been a functional library system in the country since before war erupted in 1989. In a nation where 70 per cent of schools were damaged or destroyed by conflict, the educational infrastructure situation is grim. Only 22 per cent of public and community schools have chairs to sit on to learn. A mere 30 per cent of public schools have functioning latrines or toilets. On average, there is only one textbook for every 27 students. As a result, both students and teachers stay away from school with heartbreaking regularity. Poor wages and a lack of training make teachers unreliable and fewer than 40 per cent of Liberian children are enrolled in primary school. At home, children get little educational support from their parents, more than one-third of whom have never attended school themselves.
As a result, the idea of the Liberian Learning Center emerged from a member of the Liberian community, Leo Johnson who had escaped the war. Tools such as a Learning Center and a library are desperately needed to inspire, educate and equip its youth to build a better future.
You’ve worked and studied on four continents — if you were to say this peripatetic life taught you one fundamental thing, what would that be?
It’s taught me to be fearless in travelling. It allows you to explore the physical world as well as the world of ideas. Not only do we discover new places, but we discover our own humanity, the quality of our humanness.
You participated as an alumna volunteer in the Next Steps Conference and Work + Asia Conference at the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Asian Institute, among other events. What advice do you have for students who want to know how their Arts & Science degree prepares them for life after graduation?
An Art & Science degree prepares you to be innovative, and to think creatively and differently — these skills become vital to you in your career. The most important quality to have is passion — be passionate and bring meaning to the work you choose to do. When your career doesn’t go as planned, remain passionate and ever hopeful because just as one door closes another opens.