Regina Agyare looks like any other Los Angeles professional, sitting in one of the many posh storefronts found downtown, working on a laptop. But this space is a temporary one, a “pop-up” storefront that was vacant only a few days before. And Agyare, a software developer, has come here from Ghana to share with others how she has been making a difference in girls’ education.
Agyare is one of five winners in the GOOD Global Neighborhood Challenge, all of whom were flown into to Los Angeles in late August for a week-long “pop-up” fellowship. The neighborhood challenge was one of the many “maker challenges” posed by GOOD and its affiliated Global Citizenship Project. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, GOOD offers a platform for networking between community leaders and—as GOOD would put it—people “who give a damn.”
Agyare’s initiative, Soronko Solutions, was just the sort of project GOOD was looking for. Soronko—the Akan word for unique—creates interactive learning platforms on mobile phones, tablets and laptops. Already implemented in five rural communities in Ghana, Soronko’s programs supplement the relatively limited school curricula. Agyare has a particular interest in encouraging young women to take advantage of digital opportunities:
I am very passionate about working with women. Men get so many opportunities in Ghana and they take it for granted—they believe it is their right. Meanwhile, women face so many silent, unspoken, cultural barriers that restrict them.
Agyare runs a separate mentorship program through Soronko for young women interested in a STEM career—science, technology engineering or mathematics. Her goal is to “make young girls creators of technology rather than just consumers of it.” Girls—who remain underrepresented in STEM fields—are taught to code and build applications for electronics. The idea of pairing the girls with mentors was inspired by the lack of women role models in Agyare’s own journey to a STEM career:
In university, there were three girls in my computer science class, and from there in my career as a software developer, I have been the only woman in the IT department. It’s a lonely road, and I have wanted to quit many times because I wasn’t getting any encouragement.
The Soronko mentors are recruited from liberal arts colleges such as Agyare’s alma mater, Ashesi University College, and each assigned six girls to advise and inspire to create “apps” that address problems in their communities. One Soronko app facilitates communication between deaf children and their families; another, a mobile doctor app, gives rural people access to lists of symptoms and treatment options for diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and cholera.
Agyare says that the success of Soronko has contributed to a shift in perspectives, where STEM careers now seem more feasible for Ghanaian women and rural people:
Women are at such a disadvantage in terms of how they can explore their potential, especially in STEM. You have forward-thinking people who support women doing anything they want, but unfortunately, that isn’t the majority. Until that changes we have to keep the conversation going: We are part of that movement to get the youth involved in fixing that problem.
A glaring gender gap in STEM careers isn’t a problem exclusive to Ghana, of course. The U.S. has it’s own striking disparities. However, with that inequality comes community leaders, like Agyare, trying to change the conversation concerning women in STEM.
This is where the Global Neighborhood Challenge comes in. In Los Angeles, Agyare and other local organizations, such as Girls in Tech, 826 LA and Las Fotos, exchanged strategies and ideas for strengthening their community work. Said Emily Friedman,
The exchange of ideas between the fellows and the L.A. organizations shows that there are pieces of each community program that can be applied all over the world. We had a hypothesis that people face similar issues all over the world, but it was amazing to see that in action.
Agyare described the fellowship as a “two-way discussion.” The new friendships she fostered with people doing similar work across the globe was a lesson in finding common ground:
We really are global citizens. The problems that I go through, everyone else goes through, even in L.A. We’re starting a chain reaction just by discussion, just by sharing ideas. Our problems are similar, and when we can talk like equals, the exchange flows easily. I have been so affected just by that, I am more motivated to keep doing what I’m doing.
Photos by Jenny Simeone at the Global Neighborhood Challenge pop-up fellowship community evening.