Community Engagement, Bolstered by Expertise

Submitted on March 15, 2021

By Elizabeth Labiner

Graduate students are juggling a lot: coursework, assistantships in research or teaching, and professional development, just to name a few of the major responsibilities students are expected to balance. Given the many demands on graduate students’ time, some people might expect that students’ lives are all about their scholarly work. Graduate students all over campus are demonstrating that’s not the case, however, with their community-oriented and globally-minded outreach and service. 

Diana Wanjiru Githu, a Fulbright scholar and doctoral student in the Arid Lands Resource Sciences program, founded the Community Based Organization (CBO) Guzo Kenya in her hometown of Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013. Currently, Githu is a Rangeland Ecologist whose research interests focus on how the physical sciences and social sciences can intersect to resolve challenges; her doctoral work is on agrivoltaics (the co-development of solar power and agriculture in a single area) and its impact on the nexus of food, water, and energy. At the time she created the organization, though, Githu had barely begun her undergraduate work but was already looking at ways to address large-scale challenges facing her country. In founding Guzo Kenya, she was primarily focused on improving conditions for children and empowering them through a multifaceted approach:

Its mission was to nurture a culture of true voluntary based community service for the betterment of the underprivileged in the society. In my country, there exists a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, and for me this triggered a sense of personal responsibility to try and bridge the growing gap. I looked for like-minded people to join me, and together we implemented projects revolving around balanced nutrition, child-friendly education, and proper sanitation. 

As the founder of the organization, Githu spearheads resource mobilization activities to facilitate their initiatives. To date, she says, Guzo Kenya has successfully transformed the lives of thousands of children in informal settlements, pediatric wards, refugee camps, childrens’ homes, and rescue centers in Kenya. Over the years, their membership has grown to the hundreds. Despite her current geographic distance from the organization and its work, Githu is still able to be actively involved in nearly all aspects of Guzo Kenya.

Last year, Githu was horrified to learn that teenage girls in Kenya were being coerced into trading sex for sanitary towels. She immediately jumped into action with Guzo Kenya, and the organization raised funds to purchase and deliver reusable sanitary towels and undergarments to over 300 girls. While they do respond to crises when such situations arise, Githu and Guzo Kenya’s focus is not solely reactive. Githu is excited to seize opportunities to better the lives of children in every possible way. Presently, some of the projects and initiatives are tapping on her expertise in managing natural resources. “For instance, she explains, “we recently set up an irrigation system linked to water tanks and boreholes, in order to address food security at a rescue center that rehabilitates street children. Currently, we are working on setting up a biogas plant for an orphanage in one of the outskirts of Nairobi.” As Githu’s academic work continues, so too will her contributions to the global community. 

James McKenzie, a doctoral student in the Department of Teaching, Learning & Sociocultural Studies, already had years of experience in nonprofit educational work when he returned to the Navajo Nation to strengthen his connection to his culture and  language after having lived in an large urban community for a number of years. Once there, he began working with the Diné Policy Institute and focusing on Indigenous language and culture revitalization. McKenzie committed himself to this work on the personal level, which grew his commitment to it on the local level: “Being in our community, I sought every opportunity to learn and to contribute what I could. I did my best to live the commitment that I knew was necessary in re-immersing myself, and that would be necessary for me to truly contribute to the wellbeing of our people.” 

McKenzie was very happy in this work, but over time realized that in order to maximize his contributions to the revitalization efforts, he needed to further develop the skills, knowledge, experience, and resources critical to furthering the movement. He explains, 

My point in being [in graduate school at UArizona] is not to identify more ways to privilege dominant structures and knowledge – rather, I am here to form more ideas and better understanding of ways that we can privilege, nurture, and support resurgence of Indigenous knowledges and languages, to contribute to wellbeing of Indigenous peoples.

McKenzie’s early work on strategies for teaching in Indigenous immersion programs has expanded to also critically engage with systems and institutions of education as a whole. He is working on exploring methods and forms of education that will help Indigenous communities decide how best to approach educating each generation. 

His focus on community ownership of education dovetails with the work he has done over the years, as well as what he hopes to continue doing. McKenzie has worked on shaping academic programs on Diné language and culture; building, implementing, and normalizing Navajo immersion programming; designing and hosting a Navajo Nation summit on language and culture revitalization; and facilitating creation of a baccalaureate degree for Navajo language and culture. One of the projects of which he is most proud was a volunteer-led initiative to create, refine, and normalize immersion experiences for learners of all ages. McKenzie recalls, “We developed and held programs that were open to anyone. We had participants come from right down the road, from the most rural Navajo reservation communities, and we had Diné people come from as far away as New York and California, and from everywhere in between.” Rather than basing the learning experience in the classroom, the organizers turned instead to Diné settings and ways of life for the curriculum and pedagogy, rooting the immersion experience in Diné cultural ways of being, social settings, and natural environments. 

As he continues his academic work, McKenzie is most eager to continue making an impact among Indigenous learners. “For many Indigenous students (re)connecting to our languages, there are a number of barriers to our being able to quickly speak the language if we did not grow up speaking it,” he notes. The immersion experiences for which he advocates aim to make space for learners to grow their own comfort and ability, connecting to the language by grounding the experience in the Diné identity. He reflects, “There is a feeling that is almost indescribable when you see someone who has struggled with their own Indigenous language make a breakthrough and begin to use it. Seeing them feel good about that -- to have had some contribution to that happening -- is a huge blessing.” 

Community engagement is integral to the mission of UArizona’s charter as a land-grant institution. Further, the benefits are many. It’s deeply rewarding personally, contributes to the betterment of the world, and can even enrich one’s professional development, as Dr. Joel Muraco details in “4 Career Benefits of Community Engagement Work.”