Educate!’s Eric Glustrom ’07 and Boris Bulayev ’07 win 2011 Grinnell Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize for youth empowerment in Uganda
April 2011—story by Jenny Morgan, photo courtesy of Eric Glustron '07
As a seventeen-year-old high school junior, Eric Glustrom ’07 (pictured left, front row) received his first grant rejection early— and he remembers the story well.
Glustrom had applied to Amnesty International to fund a trip to the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in western Uganda, where he planned to make a documentary film. By the time he got the official ‘no’, he’d already made extensive travel plans and received official permission to visit the camp. Glustrom recounts: “They basically told me, ‘We love your idea, but we can’t fund it because you’re too young and it’s too dangerous.’” He considered his options for “about ten seconds” and decided to go anyway. Glustrom fundraised for his plane ticket, made a documentary, and found himself surprisingly inspired by a single idea that would shape his career: education. He returned to his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, and began to lay the groundwork for Educate!, an educational and youth empowerment non-profit based in Kampala, Uganda, that is currently developing the first national social entrepreneurship curriculum—in the world. Nearly ten years after his first grant rejection, Glustrom, president, and Boris Bulayev ’07 (pictured, center, front row), executive director, are co-recipients of one of the first-ever Grinnell Young Innovator for Social Justice Prizes. The award “honors individuals under the age of 40 who have demonstrated leadership in their fields and show creativity, commitment, and extraordinary accomplishment in effecting positive social change” and comes with $100,000: half of the award will go to the organization, and the remaining half will be shared between Bulayev and Glustrom.
It didn’t immediately occur to the seventeen-year-old Glustrom that education would become his life’s work. In the Kyangwali camp, he was more struck by “the malnutrition, the malaria, and the corruption.” Early in his stay, Glustrom befriended Benson Oliver, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who had fled to Uganda, alone, at fourteen. Oliver welcomed Glustrom into his community, showing him around and offering glimpses into life in the camp—so much so that Glustrom’s documentary became about Oliver’s life. Shortly before Glustrom was to leave Uganda, he asked Oliver the question that would change everything: “What can I do to help your community?” Oliver’s reply was clear and decisive. “If you want to help me, my community, and my country, then help me receive an education. With an education, I can start to solve the issues that my community and my country face.”
Everything Glustrom thought about education changed in that moment. “An education is not about sitting in a classroom,” he explains, “[it] is about taking action in a community to build a better, stronger, society.” By the time he entered Amherst College in the fall of 2003, Educate! was already underway. The vision was bold: Glustrom wanted to create an organization in Uganda that could “democratize” the kinds of “educational opportunities that a place like Amherst offers” — for an entire generation. Glustrom met Bulayev early at Amherst, and when Bulayev didn’t make the basketball team during his first year, he instead approached Glustrom about working with Educate! The pair discovered that their differences were their greatest asset. “I’m more the idealist, [Bulayev] is more the realist,” Glustrom observes, adding, “After we come to common ground, we’re in a better place than we were when we each started.” Both Glustrom and Bulayev (biochemistry and economics majors, respectively) consider Educate! “almost [like] a separate class we were taking” during their time at Amherst.
Educate! today has grown from its dorm room days into a thriving organization that empowers Uganda’s youth to actively solve public problems. Educate!’s flagship program is a two-year high school curriculum that is currently being taught to 1,000 students in 24 schools. Country director Angelica Towne spent two and a half years developing the curriculum, drawing from the world’s best social entrepreneurship curricula and adding an “Educate! twist” to make it relevant to Uganda’s youth. The curriculum, which is taught by college-aged mentors from Uganda’s major universities, includes a leadership and social entrepreneurship course, direct mentorship, experience starting a business or community initiative, and alumni support. Bulayev explains that the entire curriculum is “geared at making what we call ‘change makers,’” defined as “a person who starts a business or community initiative that solves a local problem, or works full-time to do so.” Lillian Aero, an Educate! alumna, began the Good Samaritan Project to teach women who have been widowed by AIDS how to make and sell jewelry. Aero’s initiative exemplifies one of Educate!’s core goals of “exponential empowerment.” Aero completed the Educate! curriculum and is now sharing her skills and knowledge with dozens of women, who are in turn creating jobs for themselves.
It is hard to understate the value and urgency of Educate!’s work. Uganda has the world’s largest youth population, with half of Uganda’s population under the age of fifteen; it also has the world’s highest youth unemployment rate at 83 percent. Every year, one million new job seekers enter the job market and compete for 300,000 available jobs. It is no wonder, then, why the Ugandan Ministry of Education and the UN International Labor Organization proposed that the Educate! curriculum be incorporated into the national entrepreneurship curriculum. The newly synthesized curriculum will pilot next year in 100 schools, and expand into 3,000 schools—eventually reaching 45,000 students annually. Glustrom views this as a crucial step towards empowering an entire generation of Ugandan youth, but Educate!’s work won’t stop there. With the help of the Grinnell award money, Glustrom and Bulayev are developing Educate! 2.0, which will focus on “the mentorship, supplemental training, and the practical experience of actually starting an enterprise.” In other words, they will support both students and teachers as the new curriculum is implemented. The pair hopes that one day, Educate!’s national program will be replicated in other countries throughout the world, yet Amherst is never very far from their work: both cite the College as being “foundational” to Educate!’s success, and many alumni play an active role in advising the organization. Glustrom sees the goals of his alma mater and Educate! as inextricably linked. “While our program in a village in Uganda looks very different than Amherst College, in so many ways, we’re taking the same mission that Amherst is working for—principled leadership— and helping youth in Uganda to do the same thing.”
Jenny Morgan is a staff writer for the CCE. She enjoys summer thunderstorms and cooking musakhan. She welcomes any questions or comments at jmorgan[at]amherst[dot]edu.