Eddo Kim (@eddokim) is the founder and president of The Supply (www.thesupply.org), a nonprofit organization that is building low-cost private secondary schools in slums worldwide and designing an innovative human rights service-learning curriculum to empower the slum children to fight for their citizen’s rights and to understand their democratic responsibilities in correcting their community’s plights. The Supply, headquartered in NYC, is currently conducting work in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Combining passion with a thirst for research, Eddo holds steadfastly onto the belief that these informal settlements have the potential to be thriving urban spaces in the 21st Century. Eddo, a native Southern Californian, received his bachelors from the University of Pennsylvania, M.A. in Education Leadership at Columbia University, and Ed.M. in International Education Policy from Harvard. At the age of 28, Eddo is recognized as one of today’s leading, young social designers.
Plywood People: You founded The Supply to provide schools for children living in slums. Can you share a bit about your project?
Eddo Kim: The Supply exists to build community secondary schools in urban slums and to empower the slum children to ignite transformation within their slums through a human rights/service learning program called SLUMS (Student Leaders Understanding My Slums). We firmly believe that secondary school education, and in particular, this human rights based education will move the needle towards development and renewal in these slums. The reality is that cities are growing and as a result, urban slums are also growing. Currently 1.5 billion people live in urban slums, and that number is expected to double by 2030. These slums dwellers are denied access to basic human rights including clean water, health, sanitation, and education. Public schools are too removed from the slums and private schools are too expensive. Despite the financial burden on families (25% of annual income), low-cost community schools are the preferred choice for many parents of slum children because they keep class sizes small, perform just as well as public government schools, and have the capacity to give attention to each child. Many community primary schools are now available, but community secondary schools are not. (i.e. in two communities we are building secondary schools for, Lenana and Matopeni, there are no secondary schools available for populations of 80,000 and 150,000 respectively) Statistics reveal the impact of secondary school education in slums: lower STI prevalence rates and higher potential wage. Moreover, why we believe secondary schools and civic education are so important is because secondary school degrees are the basic requirement for any local or state government position. As urban slums continue to grow, there is a need for local representation that will stand up for the slum dweller’s rights and combat the current inequitable government policies that center around eradicating these “black-eyes” to cities and displacing slum dwellers from their “homes.” Our organization aims to work from the bottom up to ensure that these slums are actively engaged in writing their own futures.
Plywood People: What motivated your beginnings?
Eddo: My motivation has been constantly evolving. Initially, like many, the emotional draw from the suffering that I witnessed and the stories that I heard triggered the impetus to want to do something. However, what has motivated me to commit to this work extends beyond the emotional pull. The deeper I understand the slum crisis as well as the people that live in them, the more motivated I have become to seek systematic change and to envision a better quality of life for these slum dwellers. It’s been over two years now that I’ve been championing for this cause. Yes, it’s physically and emotionally taxing, but the story of a man named Muscort elevates this The Supply for me beyond a cause or work; it has now become a life calling. I met Muscort, the director of the primary school in the Lenana slums and now a dear friend of mine, a couple years back on my initial visit to Nairobi. He was one of the lucky ones to receive a sponsorship up to college. With a college degree, he could have gone off to the city centre and lived a comfortable life. However, he saw his education as a call to action and returned to his slum to solve a complex problem and start the first primary school for the orphans and slum children. His story resonated with me. I have had the opportunity to receive an amazing education and attend some of the greatest institutions (Penn, Columbia, Harvard). I was challenged by Muscort to take up this same call to action and stand alongside him in defending and empowering these children.
Plywood People: Your job requires some pretty intense research for the communities you’re working in. What kinds of things are you looking for? How does an area become approved?
Eddo: Slums are a difficult area to work for many reasons. Well, let me re-phrase that. Slums are a difficult area to do effective work. There are brick walls after brick walls because of the large structural deficiencies created by government and community apathy. Because of the complexities of these slums and our desire to be effective, we are fanatical about research, needs assessments, and evaluations. Because there is limited census data available in urban slums (government surveys overlook slum populations), one of the first things we do is try to gather door-to-door household data. Also, we’re constantly investigating the psycho/socio/emotional development of a slum child. Because of the unique context (slums are located right outside city centers) as well as the early exposure to alcoholism, sex, death, etc, we realize that these students bring with them many unique challenges when they enter the classroom. We’re constantly thinking about what type of “education” is appropriate (andragogy vs. pedagogy, informal vs. formal learning) and how “poverty” in the slum context is distinct from let’s say rural poverty. Lastly, when we decide to work with a community and a primary school (because of land tenancy issues in slums, we have to build our secondary schools on existing primary school land), we have a long vetting process to ensure that the community and school leaders are committed to long-term excellence.
Plywood People: What are the greatest challenges you face in your work?
Eddo: I think the greatest challenge actually is conveying what “success” in these slums looks like to our potential donors and supporters. Most donors want to see their donated dollars make quick, visible transformation (i.e. dirty water into clean, drinking water). Granted, most of them understand that education is crucial and know that their investments may not necessarily see immediate returns. However, there is still an inclination to rely on what I like to call WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) logic to frame our understanding of transformation. We’re used to seeing successes of education measured by increases in state scores, SAT scores, and college acceptances. Further, generally speaking, the “American Dream” metanarrative has crafted many of our ideas of what the purpose of education is supposed to be: an escape from poverty and a gateway to a “better life.” Therefore, many of our donors want to see our children be “successful” under these same standards, removed from the horrors of slums and placed in a “comfortable” life somewhere else preferably in the city center. But the questions we constantly challenge our donors with are: what is a better life? set by whose standards? and for what purpose? Our slum children love their communities. They would rejoice if they went from making $1.50 a day to $3 a day. We seek psycho/socio/emotional development in our children and the capacity for the children advocate for their human rights. Slums, a.k.a. the city’s “black eyes” will continue to grow, but can be self-sustaining and be our next generation’s thriving urban centers. Put all of this together and success in these slums is real and possible, but may not look like success if only seen through the WEIRD lens.
Plywood People: Can you share a story from the schools?
Eddo: In October 2010, the Standard 8 class at DYC Primary School in the Lenana slums was preparing to take the KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) National Examinations. Unfortunately, a head teacher ran away with the registration money, and all 27 of the students were disqualified. Forced to re-do Standard 8 and pay a full year’s worth of tuition, 24 students returned determined to pass the exam. What’s so crazy is that these students returned knowing that for most of them, even with a primary certificate, secondary education would not be possible because a secondary school simply did not exist. Yet, it was their thirst for knowledge that brought them back. Many orphaned students gave up lunch each day simply to pay for school fees. If you were to ask John, one of the standard 8 students who returned, why he wants an education so badly, he would boldly reply: “I want an education so I can improve my community. Who else who will come help us?” This standard 8 class was the inspiration behind our first school build. We have just completed building the first secondary school in Lenana and will service this courage group of students. The Supply is fully confident that this first ever secondary school will only further empower these slum children to become the change agents in their own communities.
Watch a documentary that we filmed about the resilience of this Standard 8 class.