All of us at the Women’s Center had been eagerly awaiting Jessica Odede’s arrival to Grounds. The Beverly Cobble Rodriguez Lectureship had initially been scheduled for last March, but when Jessica became ill, the event was rescheduled for September 30.
The Beverly Cobble Rodriguez Lectureship Fund Supporting Women’s Education and Global Leadership was established in 2014 through a generous donation made by Beverly Cobble Rodriguez and Joe V. Rodriguez, Jr. This endowment funds an annual lecture on women’s education and global leadership with an emphasis on healthcare, multi-national business, and the liberal arts.
As the first lecturer chosen for this lectureship, Jessica Odede embodies the very heart and intention of the endowment through her success as the co-founder and COO of Shining Hope for Communities. Jessica shares her story with such poise, certainty, and modesty that everyone present finds themselves thinking in new ways about challenges they had assumed to be insurmountable.
Having started as a junior whose ambitious approach to her time at Wesleyan did not leave room for a semester abroad until a friend convinced her to consider it, Jessica stands now as an incredible example of how you can “shine hope from the most hopeless places.” She traveled to and lived in Kibera with community activist Kennedy Odede, whom a family friend recommended she contact. As the largest slum in Kenya, described by Jessica as being about the size of Central Park with nearly 1 million people living there, her residence in Kibera was unprecedented. In most cases outsiders would live in a city nearby due to the conditions in the slum, but Jessica was adamant that she needed to live the same daily life as those who live in Kibera in order to truly be part of the community she wanted to help.
Jessica and Kennedy fell in love and together they worked to create a community movement toward improving the conditions in Kibera, starting conversations about sexual health and gender-based violence, among other crucial issues facing the community. But they eventually decided that the best thing for Kibera would be a greater investment in the women and girls in the community and opened an all-girls school. They opened the Kibera School for Girls for the brightest and most vulnerable girls and began their journey toward a cultural shift in the value placed on women and girls in Kibera.
The school eventually became more than just a site for education, for they realized that by connecting social services with the girls school they would have an even greater shift in the status and value of women and girls in Kibera. They opened a health clinic, provided clean water and sanitation, and provided resources to further economic opportunities. As a result, they now find a variety of measurable impacts on the community. For example, 58% of the women involved with SHOFCO are employed or have a steady source of income, in comparison to 46% of women not in the program. Change is reaching men as well with 83% of men in the program stating that it is never okay to hit their wife versus the 60% of men not in the program who hold that view. Participants in the SHOFCO program tend to score 20% higher on questions related to gender equity. By giving women and girls the opportunity to pursue an education and to provide services for their community, Jessica and Kennedy have been able to generate an incredible shift in the way men view women and girls in Kibera.
Jessica shared with us a story of a father who was shocked by his daughter’s math abilities that were greater than his sons’. He never expected her to be able to do math that well. The work of SHOFCO helps to eliminate that feeling of surprise when a girl excels.
While Jessica and Kennedy’s story is remarkable, she was sure to emphasize to us how important the commitment and role of the people in Kibera was to improving its state, noting that, “it takes the community to make it happen.” Although she and Kennedy have lead important initiatives in Kibera, she gave a significant amount of credit to the community itself for its ability to make this cultural shift.
Over the short period of time Jessica was here with us, she spoke to several groups and generously shared her professional and personal perspectives through interactive discussions held after the lecture itself and after each of the smaller events. The Women’s Center’s interns were honored to have her read from her new book, Find Me Unafraid, during the weekly meeting of their class. Women’s Center staff members joined Jessica and the interns for a lively conversation over lunch. With each of these appearances Jessica was asked a great number of questions to which she was never short of an impassioned and eloquent answer.
Erin East, an intern in our Women, Girls and Global Justice program commented, “Something that I really enjoyed about Jessica’s visit was her openness and honesty when answering our questions. Her insight was invaluable and getting to know her story was exciting.” Erin continued, “It was absolutely a pleasure to meet Jessica and hear her story. As someone working on a development project and with aspirations to pursue a career in development, I was motivated and inspired by her work. Because of the difficult nature of this field, it is so easy to lose sight of your motivation for the things you do. Listening to someone as successful as Jessica really helped me reconnect with why I want to do this.”
Kendall Siewert, an intern for Iris Magazine, noted that there’s a special level of accessibility embedded in Jessica’s story. Kendall described the intimidating story told by so many other successful advocates who seem to have been born with a fully formed vision of they wanted to do in life. But for Jessica, she was honest in explaining the happenstance nature of her experiences, calling on her luck having a friend who knew Kennedy and the opportunity to study abroad at all.
Whether you aspire to work in global development, have an interest in the increased agency of women across the globe, or are not yet sure where your wish to have an impact on the world will lead you, Jessica Odede serves as a remarkable example of perseverance, passion, and courage. View photos from Jessica’s visit and read her book, Find Me Unafraid to learn more about her remarkable story.