African American Studies' students create nonprofit
Hannah McConn and Randryia Houston are students in the African American Studies program at University of Houston (UH ) who have created a new nonprofit organization that aids schoolchildren in Ghana, The Pencil Project. Their mission is to help alleviate educational disparities within Ghana’s primary and secondary school system by providing educational tools and resources.
It was a comment made by a school administrator in Ghana to a studying abroad group of UH African American Studies students that started it — the revelation that elementary school students in the African country drop out at an early age as a result of something as little as not having a pencil to do their work with.
That single complaint frustrated Randryia Houston and Hannah McConn, two of the students who participated in the AAS Summer Study Abroad in Ghana trip that summer in 2009. A friend of theirs, Tiffany Lester — an English major and former president of the Resident Hall Association — came up with the idea that they should start a big school supply drive.
"When we got back, we were really frustrated," McConn said. "We knew that we wanted to help the Ghanaian people in some way, but we didn't really know how, and we kind of felt that as students, we didn't have the means or revenue to do so in a huge way. So, she (Lester) suggested we just start with pencils."
From that frustration, The Pencil Project was born — and this summer, when Houston and McConn returned to Ghana for the AAS Summer Study Abroad program, they brought with them more than 30,000 pencils to donate to children.
"When we were given this opportunity to go to Ghana, it just opened up a new world to me," Houston said. "Our professors in the African American Studies program really pushed the idea of, 'Americans always go to places, and they take and they never give back.' So that's why they asked that we bring school supplies on the trip to give back to the local people and to give back to the communities and the cultures that we visit. So I guess we took that idea and we ran with it. It was simple — it's just a pencil and it's very inexpensive and it's something we take for granted here, that the children really need there."
Houston is currently pursuing a master's degree in international social work from the UH Graduate College of Social Work, and her background — and passion — is philanthropy. She previously graduated with a sociology degree from the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and is pursuing a Graduate Certificate in African American Studies, and has spent time balancing her coursework with internships through the American Humanics Nonprofit Certificate Program and Families Under Urban and Social Attack — now called Change Happens!, a local nonprofit organization. She's from northwest Houston and is a Westside High School graduate.
"If you're going to live here, because all of my family is here, why not go to an institution that has alumni that are still in the city?" Houston said. "At the end of the day, it's about building those networks while you're in college that can guarantee you the connections that you need."
McConn is starting her last year as an undergraduate and plans to attend the UH Law Center next fall. A graduate from Nimitz High School in Humble, she was the president of the UH chapter of the Keep a Child Alive foundation, a nonprofit organization started by Leigh Blake and singer Alicia Keys. Her passion is politics and international law, and she has been an intern in State Senator Rodney Ellis' office whose district includes the UH campus. In 2009, she participated in the Texas Legislative Internship Program through the Hobby Center for Public Policy.
"I went to Ghana wanting to study the politics, but … I couldn't study anything about it because it was the education system that was so broken there," McConn said. "I don't think people can put the right people in office and make the right decisions for the country to move forward until all the people are educated."
Houston and McConn recently registered The Pencil Project as an official nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, and they hope to expand its outreach to other continents and African countries. Houston said that their five-to-seven year plan includes opening a boarding school in Ghana.
In some respects, the logistical challenges of coordinating a donation effort as massive and extraordinary as the Pencil Project required overcoming psychological hurdles more pronounced than physical or financial barriers.
“It was just hard to communicate to people here—especially African Americans—the need to give back to Africa, and the extreme necessity of being philanthropic. People really didn’t understand why we would give to schools in Africa and not to schools here in America,” Houston said.
Yet, many African American social, religious, and civic organizations did support the Pencil Project once they became aware of the historically important cultural links and shared interests that African Americans have with West Africa.
In fact, the overwhelming generosity and support shown by donors contributing across local, state, and national boundaries came as a surprise to quite a few of the students and staff at the schools, many of whom remembered Houston and McConn from their earlier visit in the summer of 2009.
“There were people who we had come in contact with and said, ‘Okay, we’ll be back; we’re going to bring back supplies,’ and they didn’t believe us. And so, when we saw them again, they were actually surprised because Americans say they’re going to do stuff all the time but never follow through,” Houston said.
McConn was quick to agree, saying emotions ran high on both sides. “When we would get to a school, everyone would be excited; we’d hear screaming and shouting. The students would just be excited to see you. But after they got the pencils, they were extremely grateful and kept thanking us.”
“At one of the schools they did a huge performance for us. They sat us up on a stage and started singing and dancing. The embrace lasted for almost an hour.”
When Houston and McConn first started their initiative, they initially had concerns about whether they would be giving to the right schools or if their efforts would be better utilized elsewhere. As they visited with each school, however, those concerns quickly disappeared. They soon discovered that even at the seemingly prestigious boarding schools, most of the institutions had taken-in significant numbers of orphans who were wholly dependent upon the sporadic support of outside donations to maintain their enrollment in school. “We learned as we were going along that no matter the size of the school and how much money it looked like they had, there’s always a need,” Houston said.
“There was one young girl at the Matter Ecclesiast School, named Caroline, who I connected with immediately,” McConn stated. “As I was about to leave, I found out that she was one of the orphans. So the pencils—in the end—are going to help her stay in school.”
Houston, who has a young daughter, also felt a personal connection to the students. “Just being in an environment where there were kids the same age as my daughter really touched me, and I actually cried. I really didn’t get to talk with anybody at the Matter Ecclesiast School because it was so emotional for me to know that these could have been our own kids.”
"A lot of the families farm there, so the kids are needed to help with the farming and school supplies are an additional expense that the families might not be able to afford," Houston said. "I think that minimum wage there is like less than two dollars a day. This is our small way of lessening that burden so that the kids will continue to be in school. Pencils are used primarily for the lower grade levels as they are here, so if the kids don't have the pencils, they never advance and even get to middle school because they left in elementary school."
AAS is exceptionally proud of Houston and McConn’s thriving service initiative. “When presented with the opportunity, they used their education and background in African American Studies to solve a problem facing African people. That is exactly what we ask our students to do,” Malachi Crawford, assistant director of African American Studies, said.
For more information about the African American Studies program, and its Summer Study Abroad in Ghana program, visit http://www.class.uh.edu/aas/. For more information about The Pencil Project, visit www.pencils4ghana.org. Drop off donations for The Pencil Project in the African American Studies office, Room 629 Agnes Arnold Hall