“The poor don’t need to be given a voice. They need to be given the microphone.” – TMS Ruges
Our work began as “The Strongheart Fellows Program”, an innovative educational program to help exceptional young people from extremely challenging backgrounds rise above circumstance and excel in our larger shared world. Our Fellows came from refugee camps, war zones, and extreme poverty but all had inner resilience and uncommon drive. We had a residential campus in Liberia, West Africa and eventually relocated to Austin, Texas as our program expanded to include participants from Liberia, Palestine, Afghanistan, and Uganda. Through our program, the young people received high level education, mentoring, narrative processing, executive function training, and many other important tools for change. Partnered with the program, they’ve achieved remarkable things. They’ve been to graduate school, worked in the halls of power, won scholarships to very competitive universities. But as they were given, they gave back – in the form of their experience and perspective. The During the course of our work with these young people – over a decade – we worked with them to communicate their stories to the world and to share their hard-won wisdom on important issues. As first-hand experts on the social issues they had lived through, their active participation and leadership in crucial conversations brought meaningful change. Our Fellows program came to a natural conclusion in 2015, as the last of our Fellows graduated and moved on to new opportunities. Our organization has expanded and pivoted to focus primarily on the power of these voices – from our Fellows and now many others – on the stories and knowledge carried by the people closest to the issues.
CIVILIAN PROTECTION IN CONFLICT SETTINGS
Evelyn Apoko was abducted by the LRA, a rebel group in Northern Uganda when she was a young teenager. She was badly injured when the government bombed the rebels but eventually escaped to freedom and became part of our program. She underwent multiple surgeries over many years, through the help of Strongheart and our partners. Strongheart worked with Evelyn to develop into a strong advocate for the rights of survivors of conflict abduction – and for civilians caught in conflict. Through Strongheart, she appeared on Oprah, CNN, and in various other media outlets on behalf of victims of conflict. When the US Congress was enacting a law regarding the conflict Evelyn had survived, there was no provision for protecting innocent women and children. We worked with our partners on Capitol Hill to bring Evelyn before Congressional leaders to shed light on this issue. After individual advocacy meetings, she appeared before the US Senate with an impassioned and well-informed plea for policy change. Unanimously, the US Senate passed a resolution amending their Northern Uganda Act, to ensure the protection of civilians abducted by the LRA.
ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT FOR MARGINALIZED COMMUNITIES
Bara’h Odeh, born in Bethlehem and raised in a Palestinian refugee camp for 16 years, is a model of resilience. She has applied resourcefulness to adversity through her work to build the second hand market in Palestine and give people the opportunity to buy affordable, used goods with dignity. A natural-born entrepreneur, she is a powerful voice at the intersection of commerce and peace in the Middle East. She has inspired and charmed audiences across the US and abroad, furthering her goal of deeper cross-cultural understanding and dismantling myths regarding Palestinian young people and the role of Muslim women.
Lovetta Conto, our first Strongheart Fellow, was born in the midst of the Liberian civil war and spent years living in a refugee camp. She developed a fierce compassion for the rights and needs of displaced people. She has been featured in many articles, news reports, and spoken at multiple high-level conferences. With Strongheart, she created “AKAWELLE“, a line of jewelry made from bullets from the Liberian civil war, worn by many social justice advocates including Angelina Jolie.