La Follette School student Marissa Mommaerts is one of seven University of Wisconsin–Madison students or recent graduates who will represent the campus' student-run international development organization EDGE Project at the civil society component of the 2009 AGOA Forum, August 4-6 in Nairobi, Kenya.
Above: Marissa Mommaerts (far left) and others prepare to teach a global studies class in Lingira. The class informed students about world cultures, climate, foods, traditions, and geography. The program expanded participants' knowledge about current affairs, politics, and music. Many people on the island had not seen a map, so the teachers and students welcomed the world maps, posters, atlases and globes. Left: Mommaerts holds a diagram while Edge volunteers conduct a seminar to facilitate information sharing among farmers association members.
"For a student organization that's less than two years old to have such an amazing opportunity is something we never could have imagined," says EDGE co-founder Farha Tahir, a La Follette School student in international public affairs.
The forum enables officials from AGOA-eligible countries and the United States to evaluate implementation of the 2000 U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act. The forum also brings together representatives from the U.S. private sector and government officials from different countries. The theme for 2009 is "Realizing the Full Potential of AGOA through Expansion of Trade and Investment."
Mommaerts and Tahir started EDGE Project (Empowerment through Development and Gender Equality) with 2009 graduate Michelle Mazzeo in December 2007 after they participated in the Division of International Studies' Washington, D.C., Semester in International Affairs. EDGE creates a platform for University of Wisconsin–Madison students to engage in sustainable international development, project management, leadership and the realities of life in developing nations. EDGE connects students with the resources necessary to research, create and implement small-scale community development projects.
"We created it because we saw a need and we knew we could fill the gap," Tahir says. "Though we have put an immense amount of work into the organization more generally and the projects specifically, I don't think any of us anticipated the level of enthusiasm this has garnered on campus and the unbelievable opportunities we have had, especially for members to participate in the AGOA Forum."
This summer, Mommaerts is in Uganda with EDGE, working in community development in Lingira, a small community in the Buvuma Island Chain of Lake Victoria. EDGE collaborates with Shepherd's Heart International Ministry and WE International Inc., a Wisconsin-based international social justice organization. The organization aims to empower groups and individuals in Lingira to put into action their dreams to develop their community. EDGE Project student researchers specialize in various components of development during the academic year and help design and facilitate projects.
"Marissa is participating in all the EDGE projects as well as any meetings they set up for themselves or I set up for them in Uganda," Tahir reports from Washington, D.C., where she is spending the summer as Women Thrive Worldwide's global development policy intern. "In addition to my work at Women Thrive, I am spending my summer laying the groundwork for us to incorporate EDGE into a formal nonprofit organization. This includes not only establishing networks, but participating in meetings with relevant funders and alums, and drafting all legal documentation necessary for incorporation."
In Lingira, projects include the construction of a grain mill for the secondary school, a preliminary discussion group for the eventual creation of a farmer's association, a global studies curriculum, a women's craft co-operative, English as a second language education, and family planning training. All the projects include and plan for short- and long-term impacts, and seek to include the Lingira community's expertise in the development process.
In 2007, while participating in the Washington, D.C., Semester in International Affairs, Mommaerts interned at the Aspen Institute's Realizing Rights campaign. That same semester, Tahir worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, conducting research for the Commission on Smart Power. It was during that semester that the concept of EDGE was born. Tahir has also interned at the Wisconsin State Capitol.
Both students are pursuing master's degrees in international public affairs with a focus on development. Both completed bachelor's degrees at UW-Madison.
"It is clear that our strong alumni network at Wisconsin has played a major role in the connections we have been able to make and the opportunities that lie ahead for us as a burgeoning organization," Tahir says. "I personally cannot wait to see what we are able to do in the coming months."
US charity to support Buvuma, September 22, 2009, The New Vision, Uganda