Since we began the Imago Dei Fund in 2009, we have been drawn to solutions which support communities to be and create their own change. Tostan is more of a movement than an organization and offers a model of community-led societal transformation that we here in the United States, and elsewhere, could learn from to strengthen our social fabric, bridge social divides, and live more fully into the founding values we celebrate this 4th of July. E pluribus unum—out of many one…

Whenever I describe Tostan and its work across West Africa, audiences–from the USA to Canada to Europe–invariably respond, “We need this educational program here! How can we bring it here?”

Tostan offers a non formal human rights based education program that empowers communities with little access to formal schools to claim their human rights and change conditions that violate them. Tostan classrooms are incubators for imagining more just and democratic conditions, and participants design, manage and carry out activities that increase wellbeing not only of their community but also of those in their social network.

That Western audiences ask for such an educational program might seem ironic: Tostan partners across West Africa with rural, resource poor communities. Most have no electricity, paved roads, schools or libraries. What is resonating with audiences from resource rich countries?

Human rights based non formal education is learner-centered, practical, participatory, and problem-based, expanding the capabilities of those who wish to live in a democracy. Tostan’s non formal program has several key components: a structured curriculum that embeds information in a way that learners can absorb and internalize what they’ve learned; a participatory pedagogy through which everyone contributes to knowledge making; and active engagement with others in their social networks. Early on during the human rights and democracy sessions in the curriculum, participants create their vision for wellbeing for the future of the community and deliberate on the values that they wish to carry forward as they celebrate what they find positive and then reach consensus about what and how they will change harmful practices.

Most well known about Tostan’s education outcomes are the large numbers of communities who have gathered in public declarations to commit to abandoning child marriage and female genital cutting, now over 8,000 across West Africa. Less known are the actions women are taking to become involved in the destinies of their communities. During the program, they take on new roles as leaders. Over the last decade, program participants have taken new leadership roles in local and even national government. For example, in the Upper River Region of Gambia in 2017, where Tostan has been implementing its program for the past 10 years in Mandinka, Pulaar and Sarahule communities, a former female Tostan participant was elected to the National Women’s Council to represent the interests of girls and women in Gambia. Also less known is that Tostan conducts seminars through which religious leaders respectfully examine the rich interconnection of human rights and responsibilities and religious faith, and explore catalytic roles they can play in supporting improved realities for women and girls and well-being for all.

Audiences in the USA who hear about Tostan admire the way that communities lead their own development. They like how Tostan participants have a chance to think about and discuss practices that are harmful to health and wellbeing, how they envision and adopt new practices that bring peace and security so that everyone can flourish. “Why don’t we have such a non formal human rights based education program in our country?” they ask.

We did have such program. Developed out of Highlander’s Folk School during the 40s and 50s, The Citizenship Schools that spread across the South not only helped increase literacy among African Americans so that they could register to vote but also helped them increase the health and wellbeing of their communities.

Perhaps the time has come again. Such an education, when responsive to communities’ needs, can awaken aspirations for peace, security and citizen-led social actions that reduce suffering and violence. It can encourage aligning community practices with religious faith, no matter what the origin of that faith. In the wake of Ferguson, Parkville, Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and border violence, we need such aspirations—and citizen action.