Young Liberian leader, part of Obama initiative, studies at Wagner College in New York City

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y., USA — For the last 5 weeks, Samuel Duo of Liberia has been part of a group of 25 young African leaders from 19 sub-Saharan countries who have been studying civic leadership/engagement and nonprofit organization management at Wagner College, in the New York City borough of Staten Island. The Wagner College cohort is part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, which has placed 500 men and women in programs at 20 colleges and universities across America this summer.

Samuel Duo is the executive director of Calvary Empowerment Team, an NGO working with children and youth in Liberia whose programs focus on sexual and reproductive health education, leadership development, sports for development, culture and education.

Each Washington Fellowship institution focuses on one of three areas: public management, business and entrepreneurship, or civic leadership. Wagner College, the only small college selected for the Washington Fellowship, was chosen by the U.S. State Department for the civic leadership curriculum because of its groundbreaking Port Richmond Partnership, which links Wagner professors, classes and students with 20 different community agencies, schools and churches in a nearby Staten Island community.

Wagner College President Richard Guarasci laid out the basic theory underlying the Port Richmond Partnership and everything else his school does to engage with the community in a constructive, collaborative way:

“We believe that true leadership has less to do with power, rank or authority and more to do with the ability to bring together diverse groups of people in a common purpose and a shared vision of a better world.”

“I have had a great experience at Wagner,” said Mireille Muhigwa, who advocates for the rights of women and children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “For me, Wagner is both a spring of knowledge about civic leadership and a family for me. I am surrounded by amazing people, happy and kind, who fully appreciate the beauty of the diversity of people.”

Wagner’s Washington Fellows, as the 25 young leaders are called, spend equal parts of their day engaged in classroom lectures and discussions, and visiting many different kinds of community organizations in the field to see first-hand how they operate.

“The site visits and classroom discussions have been well planned and well thought out, and I feel that I have had great exposure to the way that systems work in the United States,” said Araba Hammond, chief operations officer for Village of Hope, a major Ghanaian NGO, “and the opportunity to fraternize with other young Africans and discuss the similarities and differences in our countries’ problems has been priceless. I look forward to using the experiences gathered so far to improve my work and become a resource and a mentor to other young Africans.”

Among Wagner College’s many community partners, the Washington Fellows’ field experiences have taken them to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation to learn about international development and philanthropy; the Mozilla Labs Hive learning network to study a variety of interactive, tech-based community endeavors; and Lifestyles for the Disabled, a Staten Island enterprise that occupies part of the former Willowbrook State School campus.

The Lifestyles visit was emblematic of the Washington Fellows’ field experiences while studying together at Wagner College.

Shortly after World War II, Willowbrook was opened as a school for developmentally disabled children. Its capacity was 4,000 students, but at its peak it warehoused as many as 9,000 people, according to Richard Salinardi, a 1969 Wagner graduate who has worked on the site ever since earning his degree.

“What happened here was … nothing,” Salinardi said. “It was a place where people were kept, fed and existed — nothing else.”

A series of investigations by politicians like Robert F. Kennedy and exposés by journalists like Geraldo Rivera resulted in Willowbrook being closed down.

It was replaced by a network of small, locally run organizations throughout the state that ministered to the needs of the disabled in their own communities. On Staten Island, that local organization is Lifestyles for the Disabled. Ironically, its home is the former Willowbrook campus, and its director is former Willowbrook employee Richard Salinardi.

“Today, we don’t put the emphasis on the ‘dis’ in disability,” Salinardi said as he led Wagner’s Washington Fellows on a tour of the Lifestyles facility. “We focus on the ‘ability’ — on the many, many things that our participants are able to do.”

The Lifestyles campus includes a café, commercial greenhouses, a laundry, building maintenance shops, a woodworking shop and a radio station, all run by the program’s participants with help from staff and community volunteers.

“There’s a tremendous irony to being here, at the Willowbrook State School campus,” said Wagner College education professor David Gordon, whose research specialty is education for the developmentally disabled. “If the buildings could talk, they would tell you some real horror stories about the way people with disabilities were once treated here. The irony is that today, with Lifestyles for the Disabled operating on the same campus, there are some really wonderful opportunities being created for those same people.”

The Washington Fellows’ experience at Lifestyles made a powerful impression.

“It’s one that I will never forget,” said Samuel Duo. “Seeing people with intellectual disabilities preparing food, doing woodwork and gardening, hosting radio shows, and interacting with them for more than an hour, I was stunned! In Liberia, these are probably the least among the forgotten population. I learned a lot, and it has changed me forever.”

Though the Washington Fellowship program at Wagner College still has one more week to go before its closing ceremony on July 25, the Fellows are already reflecting on the overall impact it has made on them, both personally and as community leaders in their home nations.

“My participation in the Washington Fellowship has been very exciting,” added Jestina Simba, an administration and logistics officer for Restless Development–Sierra Leone. “For me, it is the opportunity of a lifetime. … I will take what I have learned here and put it into practice back home in my organization, my community and my country at large.”