In the final episode of A Path Appears (part three airs tonight on PBS; check local listings), Jessica Posner Odede and her husband Kennedy Odede bring us into the incredible work they are doing with their program Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), which provides education and social services for girls in one of the world’s largest slums, Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya. The New York-raised Jessica’s story of going from a study abroad student to one of the first outsiders to live inside the slum, where she met and eventually married community organizer Kennedy, is a remarkable one in itself. (Some of it is told in the film, and you can read more here.)

Jessica took time out from her busy life in Kibera to tell us more about the work she’s doing and give us a few updates along the way on some of the girls we meet in the film. (Note: You can also chat with Jessica and other remarkable folks alongside a live online screening of part three of A Path Appears, Tuesday, 2/10, at 11 a.m. PT/2 p.m. ET.)

You talk about this a bit in the film but what in particular about Kibera initially drew you there? 

Kibera is a hard place to describe, and part of what drew me to it is the tremendous resilience here. These are exceptionally smart, innovative people who drew the short straw, and I would love for everyone to know how much these people want, and can, do for themselves if they are only given the opportunity.

What kept me in Kibera was the realization of how random and unfair the world can be — how much the country and even the zip code you are born into dictates about your life and opportunities. I saw that I could use my own victory in the birth lottery to facilitate opportunity for so many others.

What was the biggest adjustment either physically or emotionally in living in Kibera versus your life in the States?

There are many adjustments — but it’s often difficult to see how much is taken for granted in the U.S., even simply the existence of and access to public education.  Sometimes the most difficult part is the wasted human potential: in Kibera live the next great scientists, novelists, and leaders — if only they were given equal opportunity to become all that they can be.

Jessica with Kennedy (at left) celebrate with soccer playing supporters of SHOFCO
Jessica with Kennedy (at left) celebrate with soccer playing supporters of SHOFCO

Can you give us any updates since your story was filmed for A Path Appears, for both yourself and Kennedy, and for the girls we meet in the film?

So much has happened since we filmed a little more than one year ago. We are thrilled that at SHOFCO we’ve opened our second site, and second school for girls, in Mathare, Nairobi’s second largest slum. What’s really driving our model is this desire to combat extreme poverty and gender inequality — and we see those two issues as interconnected. In communities where there is greater gender inequality there is greater poverty, and we believe this is because women are so central to development and family.

Our model begins with a school for girls that provides a superior education, free healthcare, food, and psychosocial services. The school gives students the support they need to complete their education and the tools to find a path out of poverty for themselves and their families. From the school, we aim to extend holistic community services beyond the families of students to the entire community. By attaching these benefits, we make a school for girls an attractive commodity.

Our approach is unique because it also enables both genders to be part of the solution, and it builds a community invested in its own future. Ultimately, this dynamic will help transform the face of urban poverty — from within — and this is why our work is so incredibly important. We are giving people the skills, resources, and tools to create their own opportunities and we are connecting this community transformation to women’s empowerment. Today, our holistic services improve health, provide economic opportunity, end gender-based violence, and create sanitation systems that offer dignity. Tomorrow, our girls will become the next generation of leaders, disrupting the systems that hold poverty in place. We are so thrilled that this is now up and running in Mathare — and Kennedy and I both hope this model will be replicated throughout Kenya’s urban slums.

Flevian is thriving in boarding school — SHOFCO is thrilled that through our programs that sponsor ongoing education for girls who are survivors of gender-based violence we have been able to fund her education at one of Kenya’s finest boarding schools. She loves school, and is doing great in all of her classes. During the winter break, Flevian joined the other girls who live at our safe house (including Ida!) for an amazing leadership trip that took them across Kenya, visiting the Maasai Mara and other beautiful landscapes. Her case will wrap up this year, and her perpetrator is still in jail. Our lawyers feel confident he will be put away for life.

Ida finished her first year of preschool at The Kibera School for Girls and is now in kindergarten. She prattles away in fluent English, and has the most charming smile. She is a ball of energy — playful and blossoming. Her perpetrator is serving time at a juvenile rehabilitation center and attending school there. Our gender department is working hard with young boys in the community through our soccer programs to discuss gender-based violence from a young age. It’s our hope that Ida’s perpetrator will turn his life around, and serve as an example.  Ida now lives in the safe and loving environment of our boarding facility, and dreams of becoming a doctor when she grows up. She and Janet are still best friends.

How often do you get back to the States to visit, and do you find any of your experiences in Africa have affected how you see social issues in the US?  Are there ways the things you’ve accomplished in Kibera could also help those in need in the USA?

I get to come back to the States several times a year, and every time I do I am compelled by the issues that face so many in America — issues of equity in the distribution and access to resources that don’t differ so drastically from what I have experienced in Kibera. A fundamental problem both in Kenya and at home is a global issue: 20% of the world’s population controls 80% of the resources. This is simply not sustainable. In Kenya, but also in the US, the impact of disenfranchised and uneducated young people is catastrophic — it leads to violence, hopelessness, and wasted potential.  These issues are not isolated to Kenya, but endemic in our own country. I have always been passionate about issues of educational equity in America, and my work in Kenya inspires me to learn more about the realities at home.

I think a lot of what I’ve been able to accomplish at SHOFCO could absolutely help those in need in the US. Key to SHOFCO’s success is the idea of how important hope is, alongside grassroots determination to create change. America needs hope and grassroots leadership. I also believe our unique model of connecting holistic services to schools for girls — creating an ecosystem of value — would absolutely be an innovative model to apply in the US as well.

Have any of your students seen A Path Appears yet? (In fact, have you been able to see it?)

They have not (and I haven’t either!) But I can’t wait to see the looks on their faces when they see themselves in the documentary, and more importantly when they hear about how their stories and voices impact and touch the hearts of those who get to see the documentary. These are the stories I am most excited to share with them. I know it will be very important to each girl when she hears that people all around the world have been moved by their stories and potential and want to help them realize their dreams.

girls at Kibera School holding up certificate of graduation

What still needs to be done in your estimation in Kibera specifically regarding the safety and education of girls? Are attitudes slowly starting to change, too, or is it a process of very slowly chipping away?

It is hard to acknowledge the positive changes we’ve seen without first emphasizing the heartbreaking violations that continue against Kibera’s women and children. One of our greatest motivations in building Shining Hope for Communities was gender inequity and the sexual abuse of women and girls in Kibera, and this has remained one of our greatest priorities. Since we started our work to empower women and eradicate gender-based violence, we’ve seen some really promising trends.

Every year, we conduct a survey of 1,200 households in Kibera to establish a representative community “baseline.” And after surveying our members compared to non-SHOFCO members, we’ve found that 91% of SHOFCO program participants believe women should be treated equally to men and girls should be educated at the same rates as boys, and 73% of SHOFCO members say that violence against women is never acceptable — both much better statistics than the community at large. This proves that our school, our Gender Development Committee, our economic empowerment programs and other women’s initiatives are working — and that our model of linking girls’ schools to community services is a powerful way to change these attitudes and behaviors.

In no way, however, have we eradicated gender-based violence or issues of inequality in Kibera, so our work to empower women and see justice when their rights are violated will continue, alongside our work to expand the services we provide to the community at large.

How did friends and family react to your decision to live and work in Kibera? Have they visited you, and what did they think?

My family and friends have been amazingly supportive. I’m so grateful to my parents for always encouraging me to follow my heart and dreams. It meant so much to me when my parents, brother, and sister came to Kenya and got to experience what we have built at SHOFCO. When they saw it for themselves, and got to know the girls, they were even more supportive, and it was great to have their involvement. Technology really makes the world feel smaller. Through Skype, FaceTime and iMessage I get to talk to my friends and family all of the time, and their support is an integral part of the change I’m able to make through SHOFCO as a result.

What are your favorite pastimes/places in Kibera outside of Shining Hope? Do you keep in touch with American culture via the internet as part of your downtime?

I love to read, do yoga, and watch TV.  I absolutely keep up with my favorite shows, which right now are The Good Wife, Parenthood, Scandal and Reign.

What’s next for Shining Hope, future plans, struggles, etc?

Shining Hope has ambitious plans. In 2015, we plan to directly reach over 76,000 people and employ over 250 Kenyans. We are still growing our services in Kibera and Mathare: expanding our schools, health clinics, water and sanitation services, economic empowerment programs and work to eradicate gender based violence. These are big goals, and they require daily dedication!

Find out more about A Path Appears and further resources.