Change Agents

Lessons from a decade of working in a Kenyan slum
Rye Barcott ’01 traveled to Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa, as a senior on a Burch Fellowship in 2000, intending to research the lives of the young people there. Where other visitors might have stood at its entrance and seen only the crushing realities of poverty — the open sump running through a landscape with a breathtaking number of mud homes, where small wooden coffins remind one of the smallest casualties of political and economical neglect — Barcott chose to see possibility.

“It’s alive,” he said of Kibera in a 2004 Review profile. “I mean, it’s the most alive you can feel.”

In the 11 years since Barcott cofounded the nonprofit Carolina for Kibera with Kenyans Tabitha Festo (who died in 2004) and Salim Mohamed, the organization has become a model for participatory development, lauded for finding and engaging leaders who also happen to be young residents of Kibera. CFK, which is part of UNC’s Center for Global Initiatives, now boasts a sports program; a medical clinic; a reproductive health and women’s rights center for adolescent girls; a solid-waste management business for youth; and a scholarship program that provides tuition, tutoring and mentoring.

Barcott, 31, is now the special adviser to the chair and CEO of Duke Energy in Charlotte, where he lives with his wife, Tracy Dobbins Barcott ’00, and their daughter. He earned master’s degrees from the Harvard Business School and Kennedy School of Government in 2009 after serving five years with the Marines in the Horn of Africa, Bosnia and Iraq.

Following the release of his memoir, It Happened on the Way to War:A Marine’s Path to Peace, Barcott spent much of 2011 on college campuses, talking with students about how they can make a difference. The book came out in paperback in February. He recently shared with the Review some of the lessons he’s drawn from his decade of experience with Carolina for Kibera. An edited excerpt of that conversation follows.

You’ve said there’s a difference between saving the world and changing it. Describe the gulf that exists between those two ideas.

I was really frustrated during those initial weeks in Kibera by how a lot of large NGOs had lost their way; they weren’t serving the needs of the communities that they intended to serve. Instead, they had gotten diverted, and they were spending resources ineffectively … as opposed to actually investing in human talent and capacity. The save-the-world mentality embodies a lot of the failures of well-meaning individuals from more affluent places like, name-your-town in the United States, who assume that, because they are American and born into this particular culture and set world, that they can show up and just start solving problems for people in very different contexts, who live on a lot less than they do, and therefore must know less. Which is just fundamentally flawed.

Coming into a place, you have to recognize that there is a lot more that you can learn from it than you’ll ever be able to give back. [For college students] there is this abundance of opportunity and interest in traveling overseas … in going off the beaten path and in doing something that’s service-related. That’s a great and powerful thing, as long as it’s treated as primarily an educational opportunity — that students are keeping their eyes out for ways that they can make an impact by working with others, but the objective isn’t to come in and save somebody’s life or transform a bunch of lives in a few weeks and then leave. Because that’s just really naive — and it can also do damage. The unintended consequences can be pretty significant.

What are some of those unintended consequences? And how can you avoid them?

Expectations are really powerful and profound things. And when you come into a place — whether that’s a rural setting or an urban setting, like Kibera — and by the color of your skin and who you are, you represent wealth and opportunities … and you then insinuate that you can be really helpful, people will believe in that. And sometimes the breakdown of those expectations can have a greater consequence than had you not arrived and made these suggestions. That’s a really powerful lesson for students to learn, that these are other human beings.

I felt like taking the time to learn the local language, even if they are English-speaking, to learn the local dialect, was really important. And coming into a place without an agenda of creating something. When you come in with an agenda, you can become a prisoner of your own perspective, rather than stepping back and really trying to understand a place before you do something. That gets you listening and doing more listening than speaking when you’re traveling. The old Native American quote was something like, “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” It’s a pretty good quote.

What advice do you have for college students who want to be social entrepreneurs?

‘The old Native American quote was something like,“You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” It’s a pretty good quote.’

Rye Barcott

Find and develop relationships and friendships with mentors. They’re going to take some time out from their lives and tell you the things that are harder for you to hear, and in a way that you can actually register when you’re starting to go astray. Approach people. Some of those folks will not respond. That’s fine. You have to work at it. But if you work at it, those relationships can be immensely valuable in providing you with ideas as well as just personal sustenance and real joy in life.

Another thing is the notion of depth and breadth in our lives. [Students] have more and more options [for travel], but if you … don’t really go deep into your area, you will find that you’re left with a more shallow set of experiences as opposed to any really deep understanding or knowledge of a place or people or the impact you can make in an area. In Kibera, it worked in part because we stuck with it, but it was also because there weren’t other Kiberas in my life. We were able to stay focused on this particular area. You could use your summers in college and travel to four different continents, and that would probably be a lot of fun. But you might not get as much out of it. It’s important to come to some kind of clarity [about your interests], and then recognize that, in this world, it still takes depth to do anything well.

And the third thing is to take risks. It never gets easier. If there’s something that you have really dreamed of doing, there’s almost no better time to go for it than when you’re still a college student. So build a team around you, and do it. That might just mean traveling to a place and doing some interviews and doing a small research project. Or it might mean starting an organization. Whatever it is, recognize that everybody goes through the same fears of failure, and do it anyway.

How do you maintain a commitment for the work you’ve done with CFK now for more than a decade?

I deliberately try and remain optimistic. Where I get the real sustenance is seeing the impact of the actions that I and others made on a day-to-day basis, on the ground, when we go back to Kibera. You see it in the aspirations of a 17-year-old or an 18-year-old who I have known since they were 11 or 12 years old. And they’re achieving things in their life that they’ve thought about doing, and they’re becoming role models in their own communities. That’s a powerful thing to be able to see. The beauty of grassroots work, the beauty of community development, is that you can be really in it. And it’s a double-edged sword at times, because, boy, it can come right back at you. You can feel at times like you’re just running on a treadmill. When I step back and reflect on Kibera now, the community itself hasn’t changed superficially. The same core infrastructure problems exist. That can get you down. But what have changed are the perspectives of the people who are impacted by CFK. It’s one way that you can have a direct, immediate impact on a community.

Copyright 2012 UNC General Alumni Association

From the May/June 2012 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review