Insight News

Feb 10th

“Empowerment” operative word in Kenya visit

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kenya2010Valerie Geaither recently visited Kenya to share and explore ideas about empowering families in the African diaspora. But when the Metropolitan State University professor returned to Minnesota, she was surprised by just how much she felt empowered.

Media stereotypes suggest Africa is an economic basket case and rife with disease, government upheaval and corruption and myriad other ills. But what Geaither witnessed during her trip to Kenya was a progressive, education-centric country determined to shed Third World status.

“I was exhilarated to see how much development was occurring in Kenya,” said Geaither, an associate professor in Metropolitan State’s Human Services Department. “Though I considered myself abreast of the negative stories we often hear about Africa, when we landed in Nairobi (Kenya’s capital), I wasn’t prepared to see a beautiful, booming metropolis that had a vitality and energy paralleling New York City.”

That initial stop in Nairobi last summer established an uplifted and inspired tone for the remainder of Geaither’s three-week journey in southern Kenya. She was in the country to attend the Pan-African Family Strength International Conference in Mombasa,

Kenya. Geaither’s presentation centered on how U.S. African American economic cooperatives might influence the development of more family-based, bottom-up practices in African cooperatives.

Geaither, a 19-year Metropolitan State professor who coordinates the family studies program within the Human Services department, observed that empowerment theories—which offer analysis and support for more self-directed individuals, families and communities—have garnered some currency in social psychology literature and among human services practitioners. When these theories are combined with family-strength-based principles—which focus on specific groups’ characteristics and assets—there is considerable potential for helping families of color, she said.

“There is increased interest in helping people develop the wherewithal to manifest their own way, rather than merely providing services and advocating for them,” said Geaither, a north Minneapolis resident. “Once people have the tools, there is no stopping them. I believe social economic cooperatives can be dynamic structural tools in the hands of people.”

After the four-day conference in the coastal city of Mombasa, Geaither participated in an affiliated two-week study tour with other international participants. Joining her on the tour was Metropolitan State student Robert Hickman, Sr., who was researching African culture for two student-designed independent studies. The group visited Kenyan cities, villages, farms, factories, co-ops, schools and families to experience and learn about Kenya’s family life. They also visited the Masai Mara Game Reserve for a three-day safari, where they witnessed a large migration of wildebeests, zebras and other animals.

“Visiting Kenya,” noted Geaither, “afforded me the opportunity to see how important education is to the Kenyan people. Education is seen as key to economic development. The emphasis on education and training is evident even in the smallest and poorest of villages, where the best building is likely to be a school.”

Geaither’s trip happened to occur during the campaign to elect Kenya’s new national constitution. That happy coincidence offered additional opportunities for enlightenment and a feeling of empowerment.

“To be present for the debates and the voting for the constitution, written by and for Kenyans to replace the initial post-colonial constitution, was a powerful experience for me,” she said. “It reinforced my pride in this African nation; it was empowering.”

Geaither, a member of the Minneapolis-based National Council on Family Relations, an organization of scholars, academicians and practitioners, plans to work with the council to expand Metropolitan State’s family-studies curriculum. In particular, she expects to draw on the tenets of the growing family-strengths movement and offer a certified family and parent education program.

Enthused about the practical prospects for the family-strengths movement, Geaither is planning to write a book on rituals for building and empowering strong African American families. In addition, she has been invited to help organize a proposed U.S. family-strengths conference focusing on African American families. Geaither’s other future plans include possible participation in drafting a curriculum for an international advanced degree concentrating on family strengths.

Metropolitan State University, a member of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, provides high-quality, affordable education programs for adults seeking bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. It is the only state university in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.


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