We have the good fortune to work with many volunteers who are as committed to the vision of Firelight as we and our grantee partners are. As summer closes, some of them are heading back to school. We've asked them to talk about their experiences over the summer and to tell us a little more about themselves too. This is from Allison Fiffer, a student from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, who has been a pleasure to work with and who we look forward to seeing again.
At the end of my summer as a volunteer at Firelight, someone asked why I am interested in Africa. This is a loaded question, but one I have thought a lot about. My decisions-among others-to major in African/African-American Studies as an undergraduate, to live and study in Tanzania and Ghana, and to spend time working with African refugee youth in Chicago are the result of an important relationship that began in 1998.
During my freshman year of high school, I joined a school-sponsored program and committed to weekly tutoring. I was partnered with a girl from a marginalized, primarily African-American neighborhood in Chicago. I quickly grew close with Michelle, * and one day she asked me for my phone number. Being 14 and relatively unaware of boundaries, I gave her my number. This marked the beginning of an incredible relationship that remains one of the most important ones in my life today.
Michelle, her family, and her community represented my first meaningful exposure to black culture in the United States. While her reality does not reflect that of African-Americans in general, it is one that is all too common: the daughter of a single mother of five, incarcerated male family members, poverty, and exclusion by a racist and classist system. When I compared our realities and questioned how our lives could take such different paths, I determined that the inequality was simply unfair; my emotions catapulted me into a deep passion to change it.
While declaring a major in African/African American Studies was intentional, it is only with hindsight that I understand it as a way of grounding my emotions in knowledge. Studying both the history and the present, and understanding the relationship between the two, opened my eyes further: I learned that Africa was the continent with not only the most widespread but the deepest poverty, that more black men in the US are in prison than in school, and that global power dynamics have played a large role in preventing people of African descent from accessing power and resources.
Living with families in Tanzania and Ghana and traveling throughout the continent were transformative experiences; while they confirmed that Africa is overwhelmingly poor, they introduced me to a people whose optimism and hope are as intrinsic as my desire to see them fulfilled. All of my experiences since--most recently my summer at the Firelight Foundation--have confirmed that the hope, resourcefulness and strength that emanate from Africa will make poverty history. Organizations like Firelight, who focus on the capabilities and resources that are there rather than those that aren’t, will make the most significant contributions to a more just and equitable world.
So, why Africa? Her name is Michelle, and this past July, 13 years after we met, she attended my wedding in Chicago. I am forever grateful for her friendship and for the lifelong passion she inspired in me.
*Name has been changed.
This blog was written by Firelight Volunteer Allison Fiffer. Allision grew up in a suburb of Chicago where she developed a curiosity about the world and a strong desire to explore it. She has had unique living and learning experiences, which inspire her belief that interacting with people from diverse cultural backgrounds is the single greatest form of knowledge and understanding. She currently lives in Monterey, CA where she is a graduate student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.