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Rochester students to build community center in South Africa

April 21, 2014
student holding a child at a community center in Egoli, South AfticaKatherine Wegman '15 studied abroad in Egoli in summer 2012.

This summer Rochester students John Dawson ’13/T5’14 and Katherine Wegman ’15, will spend two months in Cape Town, South Africa, building a new community center for residents of Egoli, a squatter community on the outskirts of Cape Town. Their work will be funded by a $10,000 grant from Davis Projects for Peace, an initiative that encourages students to design grassroots projects that promote peace and address the root causes of conflict among parties.

John Dawson

John Dawson ’13/T5’14

Katherine Wegman

Katherine Wegman ’15

On earlier study abroad trips through the IES Abroad program, Dawson and Wegman both volunteered in Egoli, and were moved by the settlement’s poor conditions. Many settlements like Egoli developed in South Africa as a result of race-based segregation during apartheid. The communities, which are still largely unrecognized by the government, lack infrastructure and basic municipal services. For example, Egoli’s 2,000 residents share only one water spigot and have no electricity or sewers.

“The income inequality and legacy of apartheid couldn’t have been more apparent,” says Wegman, noting the vast difference in living conditions among people living in Cape Town versus those residing in Egoli.

Upon their return from Cape Town, Dawson and Wegman began working with Jennifer Kyker, an ethnomusicology professor at the Eastman School of Music, who mentored them throughout the project design stages and grant writing process. The students’ project, “Transcending Informality: Building a Community Center in Egoli Informal Settlement,” works to alleviate some of the physical barriers Egoli residents face.

The current community center, where Wegman helped hold nutritional health workshops and Dawson conducted a public health study, simultaneously serves as a library, church, childcare center, and meeting place. The center’s dilapidated condition and small size prevent large community gatherings and limit the expansion of additional resources, like health clinics. Wegman and Dawson will partner with Egoli residents and the Cape Town non-profit Ikhayalami to design and construct a facility that can promote community engagement.

“The current lack of infrastructure very much marginalized Egoli residents,” Dawson explains. “We want to break down the structural barriers that exists, and by constructing a physical space for residents, help cultivate peace in the community.”

Wegman, an anthropology major who studied public health during a semester abroad in Kingston, Jamaica and London, England, also notes that Ikhayalami brings to the project a network of resources to support Egoli community leaders as they create a strategic plan. Together, they will hold focus groups and community development workshops that ensure Egoli residents have a voice in charting their own course for development, she explains.

“Once Egoli is in Ikhayalami’s network, they will have access to the resources needed to advocate for more municipal services,” says Dawson, who studied molecular genetics at Rochester and plans to attend the University’s medical school in the fall.

Andrea Bolnick, founder of Ikhayalami, says that Egoli will benefit tremendously from the new center, as community halls are vital facilities for poor communities generally lacking in safe public spaces. “A common space everyone has a vested interested in can become a powerful asset in a community,” she explains. “It can build trust, unity, pride, and a sense of dignity.” Through simple projects like this one, poor communities have a chance to make their concerns heard and to be incorporated into the city, Bolnick explains.

The two undergrads have launched a GoFundMe page to help offset the cost of travel to South Africa. Donations will allow the pair to put the entire grant toward design and construction of the community center.

Dawson and Wegman, who are both graduates of Pittsford Mendon High School, were eligible for the Projects for Peace grant as a result of the University’s partnership with the Davis United World College Scholars Program. As a partner school, the University is able to nominate two proposals for the summer grant. A campus committee, coordinated by Belinda Redden, director of Fellowships, reviewed the proposals and interviewed the student applicants, selecting Dawson and Wegman’s proposal for submission to the national competition. “Katherine and John approached me last summer about presenting a Davis proposal and the diligence they put into preparing it shone through clearly,” says Redden.

Each year, 100 projects are funded, with at least one from each Davis school. The Projects for Peace program was launched by author, philanthropist, and scholar Kathryn Wasserman Davis in 2007 to commemorate her 100th birthday. Since its founding, Projects for Peace has funded more than 700 projects in over 100 countries.

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Category: Student Life