A Heart for Liberia: James Earl Kiawoin
The Luminos Fund is expanding to help more out-of-school children catch up than ever before. Our country leaders are spearheading this effort: a group of dynamic, knowledgeable, and dedicated individuals who live and breathe our mission to ensure all children experience joyful learning. In this new series, “Luminos Leaders,” we will share their stories with you, starting with Liberia Country Manager, James Earl Kiawoin.
Q: Tell us a bit about your background. Did you grow up in Liberia?
I was born in Liberia in the middle of the civil war. Then my family went to the Ivory Coast and Ghana where we were refugees for two years before coming back to Liberia. I started primary school in the Ivory Coast but continued the rest of my education in Liberia where I finished high school at age 14. I was too young to do anything, so I went to the African Leadership Academy (ALA) for another two years. ALA is a pan-African prep school meant to develop the next generation of African leaders. ALA was a real game-changer in terms of what my life could have been and what it became after that. It was the first time that I got access to real, proper education—global education that was preparing me with a skill set and a mindset dedicated to social change and social justice. With ALA, there was a mission around preparing students to go back to their homes and do actual work to advance their communities.
Growing up in Liberia, many of my friends’ parents couldn’t afford to send them to school. Or kids would go to school, and they weren’t interested or motivated and would stop going. As a child, I didn’t understand the gender dynamics, culture factors, or financial issues. I just thought, oh, they don’t want to go to school because school’s boring. Today, I’m able to step back and understand those dynamics: the fact that if the public school systems are not strong, parents will think that their kids are better off staying on the farm. In most of the communities Luminos serves in Liberia, there’s no real no role model effect. Kids don’t see people graduate from high school and so school doesn’t make sense to them because they haven’t seen anyone do it.
Q: What makes Liberia special? What do you love about the country?
When you trace the history of Liberia back to free slaves returning to a place they knew nothing about—there’s this sense of daring and entrepreneurship in the Liberian spirit. That’s one of the things that’s always brought me back to Liberia.
When I was growing up, before attending ALA, I had no idea that I could do anything meaningful for Liberia. It was just: you go to school, you try to survive the war, you just try to eat and live. When I went to ALA, that was the first time that I actually realized that there’s something we can do in this country. We can change the narrative for children who come after me. We can help build the national education system. We can help build systems across all sectors to do good for people!
Q: The core of our mission at the Luminos Fund is education. Tell us more about your own education. Why education is important to you?
After completing the ALA program, I did my undergrad at Colorado College in Political Science. I went back to Liberia to work for two years on the Ebola crisis and then returned to the States for a master’s degree in Public Affairs with a focused on international development from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs. I’ve been really, really fortunate with all the places I’ve gone to school.
For me, education opens doors for people to cultivate their own potential and innate talent. For most families in Liberia, there’s no other pathway out of their current situation. The way you pull yourself out of poverty, for the most part, is to go to school and get a job to take care of your family. For the longest parts in Liberia’s history, people have not been able to go to school because of the war or their family didn’t have the resources. It’s really important that we are able to create access to high quality education so that people can do things for their families and in their own communities.
Q: Why did you decide to join the Luminos Fund team?
It was a combination of a personal desire to help Liberia, and also knowing that I could do more at scale, even through a small organization. The Luminos Fund is so different from previous parts of my career that focused on strategy and were far removed from day-to-day implementation. At Luminos, I’m actually in the field once a week; talking to Abba [Luminos Liberia’s Program Manager], talking to parents, and talking to teachers. There was an appeal to being in direct communication with those who are benefitting from the program. It’s a very dynamic job. At Luminos, every day there’s something new from government engagement to people management and trying to ensure the motorbikes run!
Q: What’s your favorite part of your role?
I love being able to see the students in class and learning. The teachers are there, classrooms have the proper materials, and there’s all this chanting going on and active, play-based learning.
At the front of everybody’s mind is that we have to ensure that these children are reading and writing properly, and that they can transition to traditional schools. Whenever you enter Luminos classrooms that’s on the fullest display: everyone is so committed to helping these kids learn how to read and develop the desire to learn.
Q: What inspires you?
The will of individuals to craft big societal change is really inspiring. Whenever I come across those people who are willing to ask hard questions or to put it all on the line to solve hard problems, it’s really inspiring.
Q: What inspires you about the Luminos Fund?
This commitment to excellence. Watching Folley and Emmanuel [Luminos Libera Program Associates] in the field, seeing them coach the teachers, and do the running records, it’s very visible that everyone wants these kids to succeed. Everyone really buys into the vision that every child can learn, and our job is to ensure we teach them how to learn.
At Luminos, everyone’s actions reflect our mission. When we’re collecting receipts to ensure that we’re good stewards of our resources, it’s reflecting that mission because, if we can do more with this money, more children can learn. When we’re tweaking the curriculum based on feedback or driving consistent use of data to improve program outcomes, it’s all geared toward that simple vision that children should be reading; that they should be in school in order to cultivate their potential.
To learn more about Luminos’ work in Liberia, visit our Liberia page.