LearnServe Teacher’s Blog: Final Thoughts from South Africa (7/14)

What’s next? Where do we go from here?

I am pleased to report that we are all back safe and sound in the USA!  Our 16/17-day journey in South Africa has come to a close and we now must answer the question, “So, what now?”

I am sure my EME crew is off reconnecting with favorite foods, family, and friends.  But, I am also sure that many of them are/will be wrestling with the question of what to do next.  It’s a difficult question to answer.  After such an amazing international adventure with so many new and exciting experiences, it’s hard to keep it all in perspective. As we said our farewells to our South African hosts at the airport in JoBurg on Tuesday,  I started to feel sad.  Not sad that we were returning home to our loved-ones, but sad that we had to leave our new friends and experiences behind.  But, I tried my best to hold my feelings in check before my students started to clown me since they already think I’m too emotional!

In any event, I quickly remembered as I said farewell to each of our 14 guys in front of Eastern, that I already know part of the answer.  What we must do now is keep the fire burning! LearnServe EME South Africa was not about a one time trip to Africa.  It was not a summer vacation destination.  It was just one more step in our journey as a collaborative to empower our young men with the tools and experiences they need to be successful in their college, career and life pursuits.  Being reminded of that goal keeps me smiling and keeps me going.  I see how this experience has opened eyes and doors for our young men.  I also see how we now have the power to connect with more young men and women, at Eastern, to share what we experienced and how they too can get in on the action!

So, I would like to leave you with some of my favorite moments from the trip.  The purpose of these highlights is not for us to just re-live the moments, but to cherish them and spread the word to others.  This trip lives on in how we choose to remember it and how we choose to share with those we care about.  It is through these connections that we can begin to think about ways of creating more opportunities for experiential travel for our students of color at Eastern and throughout the District.  Thank you to all who have reached out with words of encouragement and appreciation for these reflections.  They are my way of unpacking all of my personal thoughts about our experiences and I’m glad that so many of you have enjoyed reading them!

Hats off again to the Empowering Males of Color Initiative and LearnServe International for making the last few months possible.  We are only beginning to see the fruits of the seeds that have been planted, but I am confident that the best is yet to come.

My Top 17 Moments (14 Students and 3 Chaperones=17 Great Days and Moments to Celebrate)!

  1. ​​Family Send-Off at Eastern on June 25th Departure Day.  Why in the world is this one of my great moments? Because the pure joy and excitement that I saw on each student’s face was…priceless!  I mean, these guys all looked like my 5 year old son getting ready for his first big birthday party.  It just felt good seeing parents and guardians, siblings, family members, and school officials, hugging and high-fiving each other–some even wiping away tears–all anxiously hoping that the trip would be safe, fun, and a success…it was 🙂  That day showed me that we all “got it.”  We all recognized that this was a big deal and we weren’t taking it for granted. We have to find a way to bottle up all that love and excitement and carry that with us each day to class and/or to work, and within all of our daily responsibilities.
  2. ​Naturena Day with City Year.  ​Our day-long work with City Year at Naturena primary school left a big impression on all involved.  We engaged in great dialogue with students in grades K-7, as well as with school officials.  While I was moved by the ongoing debate about the role of language in education, many of our students were struck by how motivated, gifted, and joyful the students appeared to be despite any personal challenges they may have had.   My hope:  that passion and joy for education will travel back with our EME guys to Eastern and the District, starting a new level of interest in the pursuit of knowledge.
  3. The Homestead Revitalization Project at Grassroots CYCC. Our Homestead work as highlighted in my Day 11-12 reflections, was a great example of community building and youth leadership in action.  As I mentioned before, there was something beautiful about seeing young minds wrestle with what would be worthwhile and sustainable to create in a community.  In the end, we created a space that everyone was proud to be associated with.  It was powerful and inspiring.  My wish:  each EME student will use the Homestead experience to really think critically in the coming weeks about what they can create and implement right here in DC that will be worthwhile and sustainable for the people who need it the most.
  4. ​Kliptown Youth Program (KYP) Gumboot Dance Tribute.  I JUST LOVED THIS!  I mentioned this moment in my Day 3 reflection, but haven’t been able to share the full video until now.  Check out the full 20 minute performance of our great friends in Kliptown through the following special google link (https://photos.app.goo.gl/Ro38E5IVVOdbSLMu2).  You can fast forward to minute 13 to see where some of our brave EME students joined in to show a few dance moves of their own!  I saw a number of our EME students come out of their shell and truly connect with the people of Kliptown, even from some of our guys that are usually too “hard” to smile, to see them dancing and laughing and playing, was quite special.  I hope you enjoy the full video link.  It is now also available through our master google photo link.
  5. ​One-on-One Check-Ins/Chat Sessions with EME Students.  This trip gave me an opportunity to get to understand each of my students a bit more.  Some of them, I have never taught, and so I only knew them through our regular mentoring sessions and activities.  This round-the-clock, 2-week plus trip allowed us to connect on another level.  The dreams and aspirations of our young men need to be understood, celebrated and cherished.  AND, our young men also need to be confronted and challenged, honestly and lovingly, in areas where they need to grow.  Courtney, Ginea, and I were intentional in checking in with each EME student, sometimes one-on-one and other times in small groups, all to reflect on the socio-emotional well being of the student and to challenge each student on how they were performing during the trip.  I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to connect with each young man and look forward to working with them as they grow, graduate, and excel in life.
  6. ​Birthday Celebrations for Zac and Devon.  Zac and Devon are alike and different in many ways.  The diverse nature of our students was shown throughout the trip, but one thing that remained constant was their sense of brotherhood.  I was honored to be able to share birthdays with both of them during our trip.  On both days, it was refreshing to see how all the guys genuinely wanted to make sure that their fellow brother had a great birthday.  We have to find a way to ensure that this brotherhood continues throughout the school year and that it becomes infectious throughout the larger student body! https://goo.gl/photos/nfz1tux97DdZU17k7 ​and https://photos.app.goo.gl/u9HnXRRnYazBE22l1
  7. ​Dinner with Kim and Corwin.  All smiles during my “ear-hustling” moments at the Friday night dinner where I heard students excitedly reaching for their business cards (completely unprompted by anyone) and sharing it with our dinner hosts.  When Kim yelled across the room, “Look Corwin, they each have business cards!”,  I silently beamed and shouted within.  I’m confident that our students will remain in touch with many of the people they encountered in South Africa and I look forward to hearing amazing updates from each of them.
  8. ​Table Mountain Day.  Table Mountain was a tough journey for most of us, but it was also a triumphant one. Many of my guys were upset going down the mountain because it was longer and more difficult, but we all made it through. Soon thereafter, most were celebrating their achievements and the difficulties were no longer overshadowing the big feat.  I hope the challenge of Table Mountain serves as a useful metaphor for each of our students in school, career, and life in general.
  9. ​Safari.  I already told each of you what made my Safari experience complete was my giraffe encounter!  But, what also stood out about my guys during the 2-day Safari was how resilient our guys are.  They battled through the unusually cold temperatures and even  a power outage to find a way to enjoy themselves.  That resiliency is a skill that we too often overlook, but that needs to be brought out during moments of trauma, crisis, and just daily disappointments.  I hope that I as a mentor and the rest of our students’ support network find new and creative ways to help our students become independent, resilient and consistent.
  10. ​Meeting Huddles.  I can admit to the guys now…our meeting times were intense!  We met almost every morning, afternoon, or night to discuss serious topics about race, gender, class, and division, with some meetings going on for almost 2 hours.  We analyzed texts, wrote journal reflections, invited debate, and shared personal moments.  That’s a lot to ask of young men on any day, but particularly tough during the summer while away on an abroad trip.  I wouldn’t change it for the world, though!  I saw true growth from our students during our huddle times and each meeting forced us to reflect on our experiences in country as well at home in a way that could never be accomplished from merely sitting in classroom with a textbook.  I thank each EME student for engaging during our huddle times and challenge each student to find their own space to reflect and explore the way we did in South Africa.
  11. ​EME Chats with Women and About Women.  It’s worth noting something that I have not explicitly spoken on before.  We had 14 young men, traveling with one man and two women.  Boy, was that interesting :).  Without going into details or breaking confidences, this provided for quite an enriching experience.  It helped to remind me the importance of dialogue when raising our young people and how too often many discussions go left unsaid. Shout out to Ginea and Courtney for being present and engaged with each of our young men, AND for pushing our students to think critically about the language we use when communicating with each other, and how better to communicate within and among the sexes.  More dialogue among the sexes is needed as we seek to produce Men and Women of Excellence.
  12. ​Favorite Food.  So, it’s no surprise by now that I like (read: LOVE) to eat!  I enjoyed trying new meals with my EME guys and seeing their faces when they liked (or not) what they received.  In the end, most of what we loved, wasn’t too different than what we could get in the United States, but when we loved something, we went above and beyond to get multiple rounds of it :).  Trying new things was a teachable moment for many of our guys and I’m glad that they rose to the occasion instead of starving for two weeks!  Here are a few of the food items that left the biggest impression with us:  “Pop,” in all its forms; Amagwynya (fried dough/bread); Braai (South African bbq); BGR’s American burger in JoBurg; RocoMama Milkshakes (the guys were truly addicted to these); and Malva Pudding (a popular South African dessert that made me gain 5 pounds).
  13. Favorite Destinations.  ​There are too many to list here, but I do want to highlight a category of destinations that I surprisingly really enjoyed.  I loved our time at the museums (Hector Pieterson, Nelson Mandela, Dompass, District 6, and Robben Island), even though I don’t usually enjoy museums!  These museums were so well done in telling us a story and in each case we had excellent tour guides that really gave us first hand accounts of experiences that were difficult to re-live.  My prayer is that we find a way to teach history so that it becomes living history that our students feel connected and empowered by.
  14. Homestays.  I can’t imagine doing a student study-abroad experience without a homestay.  So glad that our homestay period was a success and appreciated the feedback we received from students on how to make the experience even more enjoyable for future travelers in the coming years.  Seeing how our guys really connected with their “mamas” and other homestay family was a joy to see.  That period of time was invaluable because it showed a side of South Africa that we could not receive in any other way.
  15. ​LearnServe Student Blogs.  If you have not already, please check out our student blog reflections that have been posted on LearnServe International’s website:  http://learn-serve.org/blog/south-africa .  All 14 of our guys were assigned their very own personal reflection day and we were genuinely pleased with the results. We have been encouraging our young men to pause and reflect on their experiences while abroad, but more importantly, in life in general.  I won’t lie, many students hate the writing process, but I’m confident that they will be stronger writers and more critical thinkers, because of it!
  16. ​Oh, the Pictures.  As a reminder, this link has pictures AND videos from ALL of our days in South Africa: https://goo.gl/photos/2S9GS5pHLF7cMmUKA.  Some cover the big moments, others just capture our silly sides and random photo shoot sessions!  lol  Whenever in need of a smile or some motivation, take a look at these photos and you will be fired up/ready to go!
  17. Upcoming LearnServe Abroad Meetings and Student Presentations.  The work has only just begun!  Our students still have post-trip meetings they will have to complete before their official “LearnServe Study Abroad Graduation” in October.  During the next few months, I challenge each of you to check in with our EME team to see how they are doing.  How will each EME leader present their experience to their peers, school leaders, and district officials?  What sustainable social change initiatives will each EME leader create within DC? I can’t wait to see what each of our young men do in the coming months and I look forward to sharing the details with you all in the weeks and months ahead.

Again, I thank you for listening ear over the last few weeks and hope that together we have sparked something new and sustainable that infects the lives of many more.  Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions or are in need.

All the Best,

Ivan C. Douglas Jr.
Law Programs Teacher
Program Director
Empowering Males of Color Initiative
Eastern High School


LearnServe Teacher’s Blog: Growth (7/10)

Yes, it’s super late here in Cape Town, but the good news is that it’s not too late back in DC!  I just can’t go to bed tonight without recapping our last few days in Cape Town since we completed the Homestead service work.

The Message Trust

This past Friday, we visited The Message Trust, a private organization dedicated to improving the lives of young people throughout Cape Town, South Africa.  While we learned about the many divisions of Message Trust, we focused on their prison outreach, called Gangstar Enterprises, which assists youth out of prison or transitioning out of prison, by providing employment opportunities, mentorship and entrepreneurial support.  I was impressed by the personal stories of men who have served time in some of South Africa’s most infamous prisons, that have turned their life around and are now mentoring others to avoid repeating the same mistakes.  Many of our students found personal connections with some of the stories they were receiving, and that made the session quite moving.  I think we often fail to recognize the level of trauma that unfortunately too many of our young menhave been exposed to at such an early age.  I salute groups such as The Message Trust for reaching out and becoming part of the transition/rehabilitation process for youth that may have been subjected to the wrong path early on. Our young people are not disposable.  They all should have an opportunity to grow and learn from mistakes that may have been made, so they can become equal participants in our society.

Dinner with Diplomats

Shout out to LearnServe for arranging with our travel team on the ground for us to meet with a dynamic couple from the United States.  We were honored to have dinner at the home of Kim and Corwin. Kim, a member of the U.S. consulate diplomatic team in South Africa, along with her husband, Corwin, a businessman, were gracious in opening up their home to the LearnServe/Eastern Men of Excellence team.  We had an informal evening filled with good food and conversation.  I was so pleased to see our students engaging with professionals about government relations, investment strategies, college aspirations, and even favorite books!  My most exciting moment though, was seeing how eager some of my EME guys were to network and share their EME business cards with the couple, as they each sought to keep in contact with our hosts upon our return to the United States.  It was another one of those moments where I could step back and see how our young men are maturing and applying the skills taught throughout the last school year.  Good times.


The trip has been full of meaningful experiential learning moments, but we have balanced these significant experiences with the fact that we have to see the sights and sounds of South Africa!  We enjoyed some free time this weekend at a local market in South Africa and on the Cape’s beach front, so students could mix and mingle with local residents, shop and enjoy relaxing moments with each other.  We also had the unique experience of an overnight Safari that ended today!  Now, I know I’m a bit hype sometimes, but for real, for real, I am so excited about these animals I saw over the last two days!  lol.  We were thrilled to see 4 of the “Big 5” in Africa:  lions, buffalo, rhinos, and hippos.  But as the students now know, I really don’t care about any of those animals…I’m just glad that I saw some giraffe this morning!!!  lol.  We literally got out of our truck and walked near a giraffe!  I felt like a kid getting a brand new bike.  Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t hide my excitement around my EME guys.  Great times here, indeed.  Make sure you check out our master google photo link of pictures and videos…they were epic!  Even in the midst of all this fun, I was able to see signs of growth.  The Safari was 2 1/2 hours away from our stay in Cape Town.  It was COLD.  FREEZING. UNCOMFORTABLY FRIGID.  But, we fought through to see some animals 🙂  Did some complain?  Yes.  Did I complain? Oh yes!  But we realized, when is the next time we will have an opportunity to go on a Safari adventure?!  So, in the end, we went out in 40 degree weather yesterday and braved 25 degree weather this morning on a 8:30am game drive even after we lost electrical power this very same morning!  Was it worth it?  ABSOLUTELY.  No more complaints after seeing that giraffe 🙂

Student Reflections on Growth

One of the strengths of this trip has been the intentional times that have been set aside for us to pause and reflect on our experiences.  Although our students sometime resisted our morning and/or evening debrief/huddle/writing sessions, it is important for us to put into context the work that we are accomplishing here in South Africa.  We have begun, as a unit, to process what this experience has meant to the people in South Africa we have encountered and to us personally, as individuals.  A few days ago, we posed the following question:  How have you grown, personally and/or professionally, while on this trip to South Africa?  I am going to leave you with responses we received from each of our students.  As you read these responses, try to imagine what this growth exercise will mean to each young man a year from now…five years from nowten years from now?  It gives me goosebumps!  As I have alluded to in previous reflections, I’ve learned to celebrate the achievements of my students, both big and small, and to recognize that they will not grow at the same speed or in the same size, but that doesn’t mean that any one individual’s growth is more or less significant than another’s.  Each person is a work in progress and I am encouraged that they are bigger and stronger because of this experience.

How have I grown personally and professionally?

  • ​learned how to interact with other cultures/group of people; not excluding one group or another
  • speaking up for myself and engaging in conversations
  • relating with others and recognizing I’m not alone
  • interacting with other people since my tendency is not to interact with anyone
  • challenging myself to be a better leader and influence people in a positive way; teaching myself to be a better me
  • express myself more
  • stop making assumptions and accepting stereotypes
  • learned how to try new things and new food without being turned away because of differences
  • being a better friend; being willing to help; give more advice to others; better in encouragement
  • interact with people that I don’t know
  • still yet to find something new; don’t believe trip has taught me anything new yet (I’m sure his light bulb moment is coming…)
  • patience
  • how to move out of my comfort zone; preparing me for college by learning how to be away from home; sharing space with others
  • how to let things go: actively and passively

Have a great night! More reflections and final thoughts for the end of our trip are in store, so stay tuned!

Ivan C. Douglas Jr.
Law Programs Teacher
Program Director
Empowering Males of Color Initiative
Eastern High School

LearnServe Teacher’s Blog: Sustaining Our Communities (7/6)

When any of our students are struggling with the task of writing a blog, we often tell them to choose their favorite, most meaningful or most memorable moment of the day. We ask them to paint that picture for their readers and then work backwards to explain how they came to that moment and why it was important. So when I sat down this afternoon for my turn to write the blog, I realized that my favorite moment is this one right now. Let me try to paint it for you. I’m sitting on a deck off my cabin-like room at a guesthouse in Irish Town, Jamaica. The cabin itself is built right into the mountain, so when I look down through the wooden slats of its floor, I see banana trees beneath me. I’m sitting at eye-level with the tops of trees and can look up to see fog slowly drifting around a mountain top. Occasionally, a brightly colored hummingbird or butterfly floats by where I’m sitting. I can hear birds chirping, waterfalls rushing, a sprinkler watering crops on the farm, and of course, the laughter and voices of our students being carried across the mountains. I feel nourished from our farm-to-table lunch and proud of the work my team accomplished helping Mr. Michael, the founder of this farm/restaurant/ guesthouse venture, to reorganize his packing house.

All that said, I did wake up this morning in Kingston longing for my own bed back in DC, some take-out food, air conditioning, and Netflix. This longing intensified when our bus broke down on the mountain 20 minutes away from our destination this morning. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, we made it to “Europe in the Summer,” or EITS, which is a creative community that includes an organic farm, a farm-to-table restaurant, and a guesthouse, all beautifully built into the side of a mountain. EITS is one of the many ventures we’ve learned about in Jamaica that uses local resources to address global challenges, like climate change and food and water scarcity.

As I sit on this deck, taking in my surroundings I feel inspired by this venture. But I am also thinking about what it means to be physically and emotionally nourished by land that you have put physical and emotional work into. Several of our students have put hard work and sweat into the garden project at the teen moms’ home we’ve partnered with in Kingston. They’ve also supported the farmers of EITS by assisting with food packing, greenhouse construction, irrigation system maintenance, and kale-picking. In turn, we have all enjoyed the delicious, healthy farm-to-table foods, incredible views, fresh air, and relaxing atmosphere of this space. Even more, we have enjoyed the knowledge that we have contributed to something that sustains us as well as the community. This process is so valuable and yet so disconnected from the daily reality of life in DC that I woke up longing for this morning, where so much of life is about taking and consuming. I know our students are longing for the comforts of unlimited internet and hot water, but I also hope they are returning home with a greater determination to contribute to what sustains and empowers their own communities.

Eve Stutsman, Trip Leader

LearnServe Teacher’s Blog: Pushing Through to Make a Sustainable Difference (7/8)

At this point in the trip, we are on the tail end.  We have made it through our hump (days 7-10) and are now in the homestretch.  For those of you who have been on extended travel trips, you know what happens in the middle. Some are tired.  Others are easily frustrated.  Many begin to feel homesick.  Folks no longer want to be bothered or see each other for 24 hours a day.  All of these feelings are somewhat normal, yet our EME LearnServe South Africa team has persevered and is still standing!  In fact, we have been able to double down and produce some of the most meaningful service work to date, with the people at the Homestead Project.

Part of our LearnServe South Africa mission is to create sustainable social change within local communities.  As a testament to the mission, our Eastern Men of Excellence have been preparing for months for this service learning trip to South Africa.  We have read books, researched topics and explored common themes about South Africa and the United States.  We also made a commitment for each student to fundraise (online and by word of mouth) to support local initiatives that we would work with while in South Africa:  City Year South Africa and the Homestead Project.  I am pleased to report that our EME students have collectively raised approximately $2100 to fund community based projects in JoBurg and Cape Town South Africa!!!  Special Shout Out to our top fundraiser, Zac, and his family, as well as each of our supporters who invested in our vision and our project!

But, we didn’t come to South Africa simply to give money to local initiatives.  We came to learn AND to serve.  While our work with the Homestead Project began during our hump days of the trip and continued thereafter, I am so proud of our students for digging deep and producing some of the best service project work that I have ever witnessed!

Our Homestead Project work has been at two locations:  ​

  • ​The Launch Pad, which focuses on providing transitional housing opportunities from group homes to independent living for teenagers and young adults ages 17-22.
  • The Child & Youth Care Center (CYCC), which focuses on younger children below the age of 17 who have been abandoned and may be suffering from exposure to street violence (“gangsterism” as it is called in SA).  CYCC prepares young boys for more independent living and possible transition to the older Launch Pad facility.
Our goal was for our EME students to interact with the students at Launch Pad and CYCC to see what we all could do together to address issue(s) of concern in their community.  The results were phenomenal!  Over the course of a series of ice breakers, tours, meals (we prepared a meal for The Launch Pad and the Launch Pad children and staff prepared a meal for us) and intense planning sessions this TuesdayWednesday and Thursday, our students decided that it would be best to use our time, energy and fundraising dollars to revitalize an old basketball court into a multi-use sporting center for The Homestead.  The plan was ambitious, but doable:  install two new basketball rims and backboards; paint the court lines; design and paint new court games our EME students learned at the Naturena Primary school in JoBurg last week; help build an off-site “hookie” for a family in need; and clear the soccer field and replace the nets.  Before we settled on our final plan though, what impressed me and the other trip leaders the most was how we reached the decision.
Our EME leaders and members of the Homestead community have much in common.  We all met with our Launch Pad teenage partners at the Launch Pad, to ensure all parties had input in what work we would complete at CYCC.  During one of our sessions, we asked the students a question that was taken from our LearnServe curriculum: What pisses you off?  The responses were telling:
  • ​I hate not having enough mentors in my community.
  • I hate the unequal distribution of wealth.
  • I do not like the smoking of cigarettes around children.
  • Sexual assault.
  • Sex education (parents don’t even talk to kids about sex).
  • Students unable to study because they can’t afford to (access to higher education). 
Ouch…Wow! Their words, not mine!
And what about when we asked “what can we do to address problems such as lack of or access to education?”
  • ​Create a DC Kings and Queens program to teach self love and empowerment.
  • more emphasis on black history in schools.
  • reduce the price of higher education.
Sounds good to me!
Our EME students are really becoming leaders and true social entrepreneurs.  They understand that the process and results are important.  Zac came to me on Tuesday and asked “How will we use the money that we fundraised…do we get a say so in how the money will be distributed.”  Shout out to him for taking ownership of the process and wanting our team to be involved.  Transparency and accountability are key in community building.  Adonte, Alonzo, Louis, Noah and many more, led a pretty robust debate about how we should invest in CYCC.   While some EME leaders believed we should restore the basketball court, others questioned whether basketball and the concrete space, was the best investment of our funds and time since it is not the predominant sport in South Africa.  Would our work be sustainable?  Is it what the children of CYCC really want…really need?  Are we completing the work for our own satisfaction or for the benefit of the local community? Our future world leaders are already asking questions that all leaders today should ask when making policy decisions.  Questions of intention and sustainability before implementing a project?  IMPRESSIVE.  I smiled throughout the whole conversation because us trip leaders just had to sit back and watch the brilliant minds at work.  All sides presented their argument and a consensus emerged that it was best for us to revitalize the existing space and add new games that the CYCC children would enjoy.  We got to work and the results are amazing!  Take a look at the following pictures that we have taken over the past few days to capture the process and finished product at Homestead’s CYCC: https://goo.gl/photos/2TaKLbUuVGQU7nyz8
My heart is full and I am so proud of our students for their care, attention to detail, and for pushing through our hump days to get our Homestead project done!
For a complete recap of all images recorded to date, continue to check out our master google photo link at:
Until next time,
Ivan C. Douglas Jr.
Law Programs Teacher
Program Director
Empowering Males of Color Initiative
Eastern High School

LearnServe Teacher’s Blog: July 4th in South Africa (7/4)

This year marked the second time I’ve spent the 4th out of the country traveling with LearnServe International and my young men in the Eastern Men of Excellence program.  And so at the end of this reflection, I would like to pay tribute to 5 people who were with me around this same time last year.

On this 4th, we returned to one of the central pillars of the LearnServe International mission:  social entrepreneurship and community building.  Tuesday morning, we visited a business called MonkeyBiz (www.monkeybiz.co.za). MonkeyBiz is a classic example of social entrepreneurship because it was created to honor and revive traditional African Beadwork while simultaneously providing an opportunity for South African women to be gainfully employed within their own communities. The finished products are artistic masterpieces! Our students were treated to a special presentation by one of the leaders of Monkeybiz and they peppered her with questions about how the business is embedded within the community. LearnServe was also able to coordinate for us to visit the site on the same day that women from throughout South Africa were in the store to sell their African beadwork or to be provided with one-on-one guidance on various business strategies. The model is simply brilliant and the work product is truly priceless. Lions, giraffes, monkeys, table tops, wall pieces…you name it, MonkeyBiz has some beads for it. But it’s more than just beads. The organization has helped many women open bank accounts for the first time. It has provided resources for women to improve their health care. It has lifted women out of poverty. It has adopted a flexible business model that allows women opportunities to work from home and retain artistic license over their art work product. Monkeybiz is now global and does have a pretty cool and interactive website. I recommend you all visit and see if you can contribute to a business that is having a positive effect in the lives of women (and some men) throughout South Africa. Yes, I went home with a few souvenirs myself 🙂 ​

I highlight MonkeyBiz for two reasons.  One, because we came to see social entrepreneurship in action.  Creating businesses within communities that actually positively effect that same community, empowers the every day man and woman to provide for their family.  We witnessed the same late last week when we visited a local community center and purchased pottery from local potters.  Our purchases sow directly into the lives of people we know need it the most.  Secondly, the work of MonkeyBiz serves as an inspiration to our students to think globally, but act locally.  LearnServe and the Eastern Men of Excellence program challenges students to think critically about how they can make a difference in their own community.  I’m excited every day about how some of our EME scholars have already answered the call by becoming leaders within our Eastern and D.C. community.  Let’s continue to challenge each of them to think big but act local.  Our EME scholars have the tools needed to address many of the issues they have already identified in our community:  teenage pregnancy, uneducated youth, and teenage unemployment.  I’m confident that they will move forward with their own initiatives in the coming months.

We ended our day giving students some time to explore the coast line of South Africa by taking them to the Waterfront for a few hours.  Our young men always enjoy opportunities to be “independent,” so we could think of no better time to honor them (you see what I did there?!)!

As I close, I want to shout out 4 of our EME students and our LearnServe trip leader.  Alonzo, Clinard, Elijah and Peyton, have been with me since we first traveled to Jamaica with LearnServe in 2016.  Since then, they have grown and matured beyond my wildest expectations.  They truly have taken on the responsibility of being Eastern Men of Excellence ambassadors by performing well in school, recruiting other young men to join our mentoring group, traveling to other exciting destinations, and serving as leaders within and outside of Eastern High School.  Our organization would not be what it is today without the path that each of them have set.  So today, I celebrate each of them for a job well done.

Last, but not least, I want to shout out our LearnServe trip leader, Courtney Williams.  July 4th is her birthday and for the second year she spent it traveling with a bunch of high school students!  I salute Courtney for her leadership, sense of humor, passion, and tenacity.  Seeing her in her expanded leadership role this year after our journey together in Jamaica, has served to inspire me to continue to strive for excellence in all that I pursue.  The amount of time and energy that it must have taken to help engineer this 16-day trip is on display each and every day.  Her ability to remain positive and flexible, even when dealing with 14 young men with varying personalities and demands, is worthy of some praise!  Thank you, Courtney for all you do and for sharing your heart with us all.  Please join me in wishing Courtney Happy Birthday and Independence Day!!!

Tomorrow, I am excited to share with you the work we have started with The Homestead Project.

More pictures and videos have been added here: https://goo.gl/photos/2S9GS5pHLF7cMmUKA.


Ivan C. Douglas Jr.
Law Programs Teacher
Program Director
Empowering Males of Color Initiative
Eastern High School

LearnServe Teacher’s Blog: So how you feeling? (6/29)

So how you feeling?

Exhausted. Heavy. Overwhelmed. Angry. Distraught. Disgusted. 

Those are just some of the reactions our young men shared immediately after leaving the two museums we visited on Thursday, June 29th.

But then there was one reaction that Louis Wingfield III shared, that made me smile.

I feel “enlightened–Just like Mandela said, the museum is meant for reflection and education not to produce anger or hatred, so I feel enlightened.” 

I must admit, the first part of today was tough.  We took time to visit the Hector Pieterson Museum (dedicated to remembering the Soweto uprisings that began on June 16, 1976 and the 577 students of South Africa who died protesting the government’s mode of educating children in Afrikaans) and the Nelson Mandela Museum (a reflection on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela and the fight to end apartheid).

Our students were captivated learning about the student protest movement during the 70s and the country’s struggle to end Apartheid.  I was impressed by the level of engagement by our students and the questions they asked throughout our tour of both museums.  It is often overwhelming taking in all the various content that is displayed in historical settings such as the two we visited, so it is noteworthy that our students largely remained interested throughout and asked tough questions, many that are still being struggled with today.  City Year South Africa was again incredible in facilitating discussion among the students as both sides shared their thoughts on how youth issues and movements are similar and/or different in South Africa and America.  I was personally reminded of how many of the civil rights struggles of our history have been led by youth.  It is therefore important for us not to lose sight of the importance of our youth’s voice in education, culture, and society.

The second half of the day was more about South African culture mixed with a little bit of American traditions.  We decided to spend the afternoon eating dinner at a local restaurant called BGR.  BGR is a burger joint owned by an American named Joshua Cherry.  Joshua not only provided us with some “American-style” tasty burgers and fries, but he also spent some time speaking with our young men about his business model and why he seeks to employ young people. His commitment to helping reduce the unemployment rate in South Africa and prepare the young adults to receive basic work experience/skills that they can build upon in college and beyond, is yet another example of social entrepreneurship at work that LearnServe and EME have strived to highlight.  Thank you, Josh, for opening up your store to us Americans!  Niko and Carl are still remarking how they had the best burgers ever and how you should consider opening up chains in the United States 🙂

Key updates and links!

I could not write about last Thursday without mentioning it was Zac’s birthday!  I want to publicly salute and shout out Zac for being a great role model, brother, friend, AND leader among his peers.  I admire Zac’s quiet courage and strength and I feel blessed to have him as an Eastern Men of Excellence member.  Check out his birthday tribute that we had for him at BGR:  https://goo.gl/photos/nfz1tux97DdZU17k7​​

One more thing…As a reminder, please continue to check out the running google photo link we have of ALL of our pictures from the LearnServe EME South Africa experience.  We have a ton of pictures and with each day, the google photo link is growing. You do not want to miss out on the exclusive photos and videos of our special memories!


Okay, one more thing, for real…I am NOT  the only one writing blogs.  Our EME students are documenting their own reflections as well!  Please check out the following LearnServe page each day to see our students reflect on their experiences.  Their blogs, as well as mine, have been delayed because of our mini stay at the homestays (more to come on those!), but the first week’s student blogs are up and you will enjoy reading about each student’s experiences in their own words:


Happy Fourth, when it comes!

Ivan C. Douglas Jr.
Law Programs Teacher
Program Director
Empowering Males of Color Initiative
Eastern High School
An International Baccalaureate World School

LearnServe Teacher’s Blog: “Act L​ocally, but think Globally” -Thando, co-founder of KYP (6/28/17)

“Act L​ocally, but think Globally”  -Thando, co-founder of KYP

There were a number of moments throughout the day yesterday, when I was “for real, for real” caught up in my emotions with all that we were experiencing.  All of those moments had one theme in common…how our students are responding to what they are witnessing and experiencing is truly breathtaking!  This message is a bit long, but I hope you can read until the end 🙂

I must admit my own bias/struggle–I often question whether our guys are “getting it;” whether they understand the magnitude of what we are doing when we travel to various destinations (Jamaica, Costa Rica, Oakland, and now South Africa) or if our travels are just passing moments in time.  After our trip to Kliptown and bonding with the people of the Kliptown Youth Program (KYP), I will no longer have that question!  We are all “getting it” in our own way and at our own speed, and I am grateful for that.

Kliptown had us all captivated because of the scale of what we were seeing.

  • ​Mass poverty.
  • 75%-80% unemployment.
  • A large community without too many things that too many people take for granted such as electricity, plumbing, and adequate shelter.
Tough to take it all in, but our young men were alert, engaged, and full of questions and insight!
After our tour of Kliptown, we were able to spend time with the Kliptown Youth Program (KYP) to see social entrepreneurship in action.  KYP is a social program designed to affect change within the local community by empowering young people.  KYP focuses on computer literacy & internet access, serving food, sports and arts, after-school tutoring, and so much more.   The co-founders of KYP and our hosts for the day, Tulani and Thando, were just brilliant in how they guided us through the town and shared many of the social, economic and political conditions of the community where they were both born and raised.  You may remember Tulani and KYP from CNN Heroes. Tulani was one of the CNN Hereos back in 2012, recognized for his pioneering work in South Africa and his vision for social change within his community.  It was such an honor for us to meet Tulani in all his humbleness and work with the people of KYP.
Tulani challenged some of our perceptions of what “success” looks like:  Do the brightest minds in developing countries need to study “abroad” in Western countries or should they remain local to affect change from within? Why aren’t there more opportunities for children to take exams in their native language instead of forcing students to pass through Afrikaans?
Thando and the young members of KYP also joined our LearnServe South Africa group in a fishbowl discussion about potential solutions for problems we identified in South Africa and America.  It’s important that we take time to listen to the voices of our young people because their voice matters and they hold the keys to many of the problems that our society is currently facing.  KYP and LearnServe South Africa identified the following common issues within both societies:
  • ​the amount of uneducated youth
  • access to food and food choice
  • corruption in schools/drugs, violence
  • youth unemployment
  • teenage pregnancy
I truly appreciated our hosts and our young people. It was moving and refreshing to hear them wrestle with problems and potential solutions.  I left the session a little more optimistic.  They are hungry for change and they are working to find practical solutions.
Thando closed out our visit to Kliptown and KYP by joining members of KYP in a traditional gumboot dance (an African dance performed by dancers wearing wellington boots).  BIG SHOUT OUT to Clinard, Elijah, Peyton, Tyrone, Eugene and Lewis for having the courage to join Thando in learning the dance at the end!  Thank God I wasn’t asked to go up there! 🙂  We have the entire video recorded and as soon as we can download it, I’ll be sure to add to our google link that I’ve provided below.
In closing, I want to leave you with two special treats!
  • Here are our photos and videos to date!  There are a ton and we will be adding pictures daily. I hope you enjoy and are able to see a little bit of the joy we have experienced each day. https://goo.gl/photos/2S9GS5pHLF7cMmUKA
  • During our Day 4 evening huddle, our students were all-stars in leading our discussion and reflecting on the day’s events.  One of the questions they raised was “Did you see anything today that made you feel grateful?” Below are some of the responses I was able to record as I wiped some weird liquid out of my eyes…
    • Today made me just want to hug my mom and take out the trash more often.
    • I didn’t have to travel around the world to see poverty, but it does remind me how grateful I should be.
    • I always appreciate the things I have and the impact I can make in my own community.
    • What we saw today, we should take back to let others know how grateful they too should be.
    • I am grateful every day.  I pray every morning and night.  But, to be here and see people without access to running water or a bathroom made me just go “wow”…I see things now on a whole other level.
    • Last year was a humbling experience, but in many ways I returned to my old ways.  Today was a gut check that it is much bigger than me.
    • I wasn’t grateful before, but what I saw today shows me what I can be grateful for and return with when I go home.
Until next time, Hambakahle!
Ivan C. Douglas Jr.
Law Programs Teacher
Program Director
Empowering Males of Color Initiative
Eastern High School

LearnServe Teacher’s Blog: Impactful (6/27/17)


That was the final word we settled on and lifted up to the heavens as we concluded our workday in a circle with our new friends at City Year South Africa and the Naturena Primary School No 2 in Johannesburg.

It’s hard for me to put in words how fulfilling our experience was visiting, interacting and sharing with the people of Naturena.  It’s one of those things you have to see and feel for yourself, but I hope the pictures that we will share later today of our young men laughing…and dancing…and teaching…and learning new games, with primary age children from grades R (somewhat equivalent to our Kindergarten) through 7th grade, will give you a glimpse into how moved so many of us were with our 7 hours at school yesterday.  In short, it was impactful because we were immediately able to see the value of sharing between cultures.  We discussed the power of language and communication, arts, and sports.  From the moment we looked out our bus to the front of the school’s campus and saw the entire administrative staff of the school along with our City Year South Africa working team standing with open arms ready to greet us, I knew it would be special.  Wow moment, indeed. And what about with each new classroom we entered, seeing the students stand to welcome us, in unison…wow moment, every time!

I was also inspired by the good work of City Year South Africa, getting to know some of our hosts such as one of the leaders, Solly, and the reasons why he has aligned with City Year, reminded me the power of mentorship and civic engagement.  City Year South Africa employs young South African youth from the ages of 18-25 and gives them an immediate opportunity to make a difference in the lives of their local communities.  The City Year South Africa residents of Naturena work with primary youth to motivate and educate the next generation of South African leaders, while the administrative staff of City Year motivates and educates the residents on valuable career and life skills.  Many of the City Year residents look forward to becoming educators themselves, while others are working towards careers in the military, science and the arts. Seeing City Year in action gave our students a unique opportunity to see how to become true social change agents through community service.  Thank you City Year South Africa and the people of Naturena for opening your doors to us for a day!

A special shout out also must go out to our young men who really showed how they “got it” yesterday.  I again wish you could see our Eastern Men of Excellence during our huddle, pushing through a two hour session where they took the lead in reflecting on the day’s events and debating some tough issues.  We wrestled with how to compare the education system in South Africa with our own experiences with education in the United States, all the while recognizing that our experiences while informative, were still just a small taste of a much larger system both here and back in DC.  Our men recognized and celebrated the challenging work they saw the students learning at such a young age, marveled at how they could be responsible for learning at least 3 languages, and questioned how they could “bottle up” some of the energy they felt and export it to the United States.  I was impressed with how eager our young men are to share their experiences with friends, family and leaders back home.  The work we start here definitely will not end here, and that makes me smile.

I can’t wait to share with you all our next day’s adventure through Kliptown.  Stay tuned!

Ivan C. Douglas Jr.
Law Programs Teacher
Program Director
Empowering Males of Color Initiative
Eastern High School

LearnServe Teacher’s Blog: Greetings from South Africa! (6/26/17)

I am excited to report that our Travel Day 1/2 has come to a close and we are safe and sound in Johannesburg, South Africa!  There is so much I could start off with, but as I often realize, our young men are the ones that seem to sum up experiences the best.  So as one of my guys said today, “You know what, Mr. Douglas?  ‘This’ is a BIG DEAL!”  I couldn’t agree more.  We just successfully travelled around the world with 14 young men from Eastern Senior High School to…South Africa.  It is the first time on the plane for two of us.  It is the first time out of the country for 9 of us.  It is the first time on the continent of Africa for all of us!  We are not hear for sports or on vacation, but rather to experience, learn and share with youth from around the world.  That is a Big Deal and we should not forget that or ever take it for granted.

Sunday/Monday went incredibly smoothly and when we hit a few snags with our extra long time through customs upon arrival, our Eastern Men of Excellence unpacked their patience and just enjoyed the ride.  Thank you parents for completing all that paperwork…believe me when I say it was ALL needed 🙂

We started off our Sunday afternoon with on-time arrivals by all our EME students and parents.  It was quite moving to see the love and support from parents, guardians, siblings, and other family members that stopped by Eastern to say farewell to their loved ones.  The tears from family and friends alike showed just how our community gets it.  This is no ordinary trip.

I enjoyed seeing the brotherhood of our young men.  Pure excitement was in the air as we posed for a group shot at Eastern before boarding our bus to Dulles.  That excitement continued as everyone couldn’t help but notice our 17-deep group walking through the airport with our teal LearnServe South Africa shirts on.  Many EME students were proud to share with strangers a little bit about who we are and why we were going to South Africa.  The months of preparation was starting to show and it was impressive to witness our young men talking about comparing cultures, books that we read, and food that we were looking forward to eat.  While the flight was long (very, very long), it was smooth.  I was all smiles seeing a few of us pulling out our books for some last minute reading on South Africa as we approached our destination.

But when we arrived, that was when it really hit me how big of a deal THIS is.  Our guys began peppering us with questions and we all realized just how new everything was about to be. Changing money, driving on the “wrong” side of the road, living together as a group.  Fun times!  With all the new experiences, we tore down some stereotypes in the process.  Yes, we are in Africa, and it is modern–roads, bridges, taxis, airports, skyline. Yes, we are in Africa, and we are all eating with no complaints.  Yes, we are already seeing fast food (but avoiding it as much as we can on this trip!).  We are learning with our every move.  EME students reflected after dinner during our roundtable huddle how some overcame their fear of flying, some were excited to meet new people, and then there are some that were just impressed that they were still getting along with everyone after such a long flight! lol

So, while the last 24 hours has mostly been full of travel, there is much to already celebrate.  We enjoyed meeting our City Year South Africa partners after dinner this evening, and are looking forward to joining them bright and early in the morning to start our day at a local primary/elementary school.  All our guys should be fast asleep by now (but they are up talking like freshman on the first night in their dorm room!) getting ready for our first full work day.  Stay tuned for a complete recap tomorrow evening.  We will also share a google photo link for you to start checking daily for updated photos from our experiences.

As you prepare for dinner and your bedtime, I say pat yourself on the back for the role you have played in making this trip possible.  Our journey is just beginning and I already see what a great ride it will be.

Until tomorrow,

Ivan C. Douglas Jr.
Law Programs Teacher
Program Director
Empowering Males of Color Initiative
Eastern High School