Organizing for Development in Uganda

LAS Alumni and social activists Daniel Yang, Harish Patel and Seva Gandhi. Photo by Joshua Clark

LAS alumni Daniel Yang (’07 biological sciences), Harish Patel (’07 political science) and Seva Gandhi (’07 psychology) represent some of the best and brightest—and most socially committed—members of their generation. In addition to working locally on social justice issues, they have given time and talent to Project FOCUS, a volunteer-run not-for-profit dedicated to “educate, inspire and empower local communities in Uganda and the United States.”

LAS Alumni Daniel Yang and Harish Patel founded Project FOCUS in 2006. Photo by Joshua Clark

During spring term of his junior year, Patel invited friends to his apartment to watch Invisible Children, a documentary on the long-term war in Uganda and its impact on children. According to Patel and Yang, their lives were changed that night. “We needed to consciously ignore what we were seeing or do something,” said Yang. “We were young and idealistic and decided that we wanted to go to Uganda to serve as witnesses. We were also naïve and unrealistic. We didn’t even know where Uganda was—we had to find it on a map.”

Two more UIC students committed to the Uganda trip and the quartet raised money through a campaign they called Bear Hugs for Uganda; donations plus family support financed the trip.

Yang landed an internship in Uganda doing tuberculosis research and left Chicago in May, 2006. The work involved interviewing people in the slums of Kampala. “It really opened my eyes to the fact that there are determinants of health that reflect the gaps and barriers and social inequalities,” Yang said.

By June, the group of four had assembled in Kampala. “We were just a group of individuals at this point,” said Patel. “We wanted to listen, engage in the community and be present. We stumbled across art as this incredible tool.” With donated cameras, Ugandan youth documented their everyday lives. What resulted was an exhibition of over 1,000 images hosted in both Chicago and Kampala.

Seva Gandhi read about Project FOCUS in the UIC Flame and reached out to Patel and Yang in December. She was involved by the beginning of 2007. The February photo exhibition attracted more young activists, building a base of talent for a summer, 2007 trip.

“No one in the core group was an artist and we wanted to do this art thing. So we started showing up in Art & Architecture and talking loudly about the project,” said Patel. “Everyone wanted to feel that the tools they spent years learning could be put to good use. ”

Yang explained that more than feeling good, involvement with Project FOCUS demands a serious commitment and deep self-examination. “The trips to Uganda created a realization that we are not ‘empowering’ or ‘helping’ or doing anything of that nature,” asserted Gandhi. “There’s an image shift that occurs when you realize what your meaning is in the situation, who you are in the space.”

“We used to have five-hour meetings—arguments,” said Yang. He noted that the work as a group and the work in Uganda was “a learning experience, being thoughtful every step of the way, not outcome oriented. We challenge the general notion of doing a model project and then replicating it— scaling up. Each community is unique and you can’t just take a model and stamp it on another community.”

A child with her fiber art project. Photo by Gloria Bernard

The rural village of Lyantonde had been identified for the focus of the 2007 trip. Work there resulted in new relationships and several more creative projects. At the end of the summer, a number of members stayed in Uganda to continue working. Patel, Gandhi and Yang returned to Chicago to establish Project FOCUS as a not-for-profit organization, a step they realized was necessary for continued stability and growth.

“One of the things we value is the advice of other people. We knew our limitations,” said Yang. “We were students and what students do when they don’t have these things is you talk to your professors.”

“We developed a network of people who were able to give us philosophical and technical advice,” said Patel. “Part of the LAS education is that you learn how to learn and enjoy learning, but you also learn to think critically. The whole notion is that if you have a liberal arts education, you can do anything afterward.”

Naliuma and Brenda near the Internet Café, Lyantonde, Uganda. Photo by Gloria Bernard See a slide show of photos from Uganda. All photos in slideshow by Gloria Bernard and Grant Buhr

Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Lon Kaufman was dean of the Honors College when Patel and Yang were undergraduates there; he was one of the team’s key mentors. “Harish and Daniel are very special humans. They care and they trusted that instinct to care enough to take action on a scale that most would see as impossible and in a way that most would think imprudent. They changed the world for a set of children, for a village in Uganda, for us at UIC and for us in the Honors College. Most importantly they inspired, and they continue to inspire,” said Kaufman.

Currently—as Gandhi, Patel and Yang split their time between local and international pursuits—Project FOCUS supports and sustains the Internet Café located in Lyantonde. The café was established in collaboration with local partner organization ICOD Action Network. Built with volunteer labor and expertise, and equipped through donated funds, the café brings internet access and training to the village residents.

The goal is for the café to become a self-sustaining business. “IC is not yet thriving financially, but it is viable,” explained Gandhi. “We realize that we are not business-minded enough, but we now have some people helping who are. Until now, the organization has always been run on social capital—people who are willing to give time and be invested, not just write a check. We haven’t done grant making but we are learning.”

“Sometimes there is a desire to make it that easy,” said Patel, “but then we go back to the principles with which we started: it’s not to raise money only, but to have these conversations and create international relationships.”