For Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg ’01, the road to Akili Dada by way of Whitman College had many signposts, all with the same directions.
There were the four years as an intern at Whitman’s Intercultural Center. There was the year as resident assistant of MECCA House, home to half a dozen students committed to cultural awareness. There were the all-night conversations with roommates in the living room of an off-campus house dubbed The Hike.
Invariably, the discussions and day’s work came round to “a fundamental principle,” in Kamau-Rutenberg’s words: how best to effect positive change in the world. Seven years later, she has turned thoughts into deeds, and her efforts have been recognized by the United Nations.
Her means of change is Akili Dada, an international organization that provides competitive and comprehensive secondary-school scholarships and career mentoring for young Kenyan women. Kamau-Rutenberg founded the nonprofit in May 2005. She directs its activities from her home in Belmont, Calif., with help from a board of directors that includes other Whitman alumni and a Whitman trustee.
“The fact that I had the opportunity to be involved in leadership at Whitman absolutely shaped what I wanted to do after Whitman,” she said. “When I was at MECCA House, for example, we worked as a team and learned how to educate people in the value of a cause. Those are skills I put to use every day in my work with Akili Dada.”
“Akili,” a Swahili word, connotes “intellect,” “ability,” “knowledge” and “competence.” “Dada” means “sister” and often is used as a term of respect and endearment between women. In everyday practice, Akili Dada has come to signify a familiar unifying theme: Sisterhood is powerful.
Akili Dada awarded its first four scholarships in February 2006. Since then, the organization has doubled both its funding and the number of scholarship recipients year after year. In Kenya, the group is a registered nonprofit; in the United States, it operates as a global support fund of the Tides Foundation.
Fifty percent of Kenyan students drop out of school after their primary education. The picture is bleaker still for Kenyan girls. Less than 30 percent of those who complete primary school go on to secondary school. Poverty, early marriage and the concurrent duties of maintaining a household and providing income for a family all conspire to prevent it.
“We don’t release the names of our students,” said Kamau-Rutenberg. “We try to balance concerns for transparency with those of our students’ privacy by posting only the pictures of our scholarship recipients on the Internet. This is to put faces to our work while protecting our scholars from stigmatization due to their class status.”
The recipients of Akili Dada scholarships are “phenomenal,” in Kamau-Rutenberg’s words, and their stories are compelling. “One of our girls comes from a family of five children whose mother is the sole breadwinner,” she said. “Three of the children are mentally handicapped. The financial and emotional strain is incredible. A scholarship from Akili Dada frees up resources to support the rest of the family. Meanwhile, this wonderful girl of ours plans to become a computer engineer.”
Philosophically, if not practically, Kamau-Rutenberg’s project parallels the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. While Akili Dada lacks the resources to build a school, its aim echoes the founding vision of Winfrey’s academy: “to offer academically talented girls the opportunity to develop their full intellectual, social and leadership potential.”
“I doubt that any of our girls or Oprah’s girls ever imagined this kind of opportunity,” said Kamau-Rutenberg. “Because of their circumstances, it takes a long time for them to believe they won’t be maids all their lives. It’s a long process of realization and growing into their potential.”
All of Akili Dada’s scholarships come from cash-in-hand, not promissory notes, meaning the organization only offers scholarships once they have raised 100 percent of the necessary funds to pay for a student’s entire secondary education. It is a business practice that Kamau-Rutenberg learned from Whitman’s model.
Each scholarship is guaranteed for all four years of a student’s schooling. (Tuition is $700 per year.) In return, the student must maintain high grades, perform 30 hours of community service and write a series of personal essays about her aspirations and personal development.
“The goal of Akili Dada is to nurture a generation of women leaders while restoring hope for young Kenyan women — hope that lets them see how vision and hard work can lead to success,” said Kamau-Rutenberg. “You’ve got dynamite if you can identify a brilliant young woman who has already overcome unspeakable poverty, link her to a network of her peers and other professional Kenyan women, and eliminate the burden of worry about school fees.”
Immersed in graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, Kamau-Rutenberg had little time to think so big. One day in her second year, a Whitman friend and classmate, Cassie Duprey ’01, called from her Teach For America post in the Mississippi Delta. She needed to find more books for her young students.
“I organized a book drive within my department and sent boxes of books down to Mississippi,” said Kamau-Rutenberg. “It was a moment that sent me straight back to our Whitman days, when we’d turn academics into action. It reawakened my hunger to make a difference in the world.”
Two years later, she and Ashley Biser, a friend from graduate school, were having breakfast together. Akili Dada was much on Kamau-Rutenberg’s mind, but she hadn’t spoken purposefully about it to anyone but her husband. “If I had all the time and money in the world, I’d do it,” she told Biser. “You don’t need all that,” Biser said. “You need some time, some money and all of your spirit. And maybe some help.” In the space of a morning, the two drew up a plan and a budget for Akili Dada.
Some months later, Kamau-Rutenberg returned to Nairobi, her hometown. There, she and Mueni Maluki, a friend from primary school days, went from school to school in the impoverished neighborhood of their childhood. They spread the word about Akili Dada and its scholarships. Within weeks the academic performance of the girls improved dramatically. They had heard the message of hope.
“I had so many friends and made so many connections at Whitman with people who understood what drove me just as I understand what inspired them,” said Kamau-Rutenberg. “These friends — Willy Becker ’99, Jill Jarvis’01 and Chris Petersen ’99 — are at the core of Akili Dada, serving on the board and helping me with the day-to-day activities. Akili Dada is the culmination of all the late nights we shared at Whitman, talking about the world and how to make it a better place.”
In May 2010, Kamau-Rutenberg experienced something she never could have imagined. Standing before a forum of the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) in Rio de Janeiro, her cherished Akili Dada was honored as one of nine international winners of the UNAOC Marketplace of Ideas competition. The prestigious award recognizes “the most innovative organizations best positioned to promote intercultural dialogue,” and opens new doors to international partners, funding and publicity.
“Just to have the U.N. recognize Akili Dada is a tremendous validation of our work over the past five years,” said Kamau-Rutenberg. “We are beyond thrilled.”
For more information about Akili Dada, visit www.akilidada.org.