Here is Lucy Russell’s unique experience working with Hope Center Uganda, a female-lead NGO which is shaping and uplifting the community in Gulu, Uganda in many important ways.
Welcome to Hope Center Uganda, a strongly female-lead non-governmental organization that is changing lives and shaping the community in and around Gulu, Uganda. Their youth education, women empowerment and grassroots economic programs and the overwhelmingly positive and uplifting environment of the organization as a whole is making waves with the Ugandan people and beyond.
Lucy Russell is a student at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is studying for her Bachelor’s degree in public policy with a minor in Russian culture. She is an aspiring activist within her community in Raleigh, North Carolina and she had the unique opportunity to bring her humanitarian hopes across the world to work alongside the fearless leaders of Hope Center Uganda. During her time, she helped the female-lead organization develop an outreach program geared towards empowering women by providing menstrual products and women’s health education to the surrounding community with Girl Power Gulu.
We spoke with Lucy about her time with Hope Center Uganda, the importance of Girl Power Gulu and her inspiring relationship with the head of HCU, Anena Kevin Okumu.
So, where are you from and what is your personal background?
I am from Raleigh, North Carolina. My passion lies with empowering all citizens to reach their full potential in the classroom and as engaged members of their communities. In 2017, I started Civics in the Triangle, a program at UNC-Chapel Hill that places college volunteers in local elementary school classrooms to teach history, government and civics lessons. I am most proud of my work in Gulu, Uganda, where I started the Girl Power Gulu program to provide monthly supplies of sanitary pads and women’s health lessons to hundreds of local girls. Since returning to the United States, I have worked at front lines of state and federal policymaking through internships at the North Carolina General Assembly and the United States Senate. I am eager to dedicate my life to public service in North Carolina, the state I have called home for twenty years, and am driven by a calling to speak truth to power.
How did you become involved with Hope Center Uganda?
I was inspired by HCU’s efforts to empower children and families in Gulu through sustainable development practices. Jamie and Ella‘s passion for educating youth through creative and innovative outlets was contagious, and it made me want to travel to Gulu to contribute in any way I could. I was drawn to HCU because it broke the mold of what typical international development looks like; by working at the grassroots level in tandem with local leaders, HCU complements the work that is already underway with the community instead of coming in with a ‘savior complex’ that many aid organizations unfortunately promote. I have always been passionate about fighting for women’s rights, so I was eager to gain an international perspective on how to best advocate for women. I was also drawn to the organization because it is led by three powerful women (Kevin, Jamie and Ella) who are incredible role models to me. I have found that women-led organizations are the most supportive and uplifting environments to work in, as they inspire me to have confidence in my abilities and potential as a leader.
How would you describe your experience with HCU? How long did you work with the community and what was that like?
My time in Uganda was a transformative life experience because it showed me the innate strength of women across the world. While we were in Gulu in May 2017, Anna Shuford and I started a program to address an issue that Kevin identified as a major inequitable gender issue in the community. Alongside Kevin, we started the Girl Power Gulu program to provide women’s health lessons and sanitary pad supplies for pubescent girls. On my first day teaching in Gulu, I sketched a reproductive system and held it in front of my uterus in a classroom of giggling school girls. I told my students that even though I was a white American, we shared the same anatomical features that allowed us to bring life into the world. I focused on our common identity as women to help them better understand their bodies and fight the cultural stigma. It showed me the power of using education as a tool to expand opportunities for young women. The program was able to flourish because of Kevin’s leadership– her experience as a young woman maturing in Uganda showed her the dire need to address menstrual inequity in the country. It now reaches over 700 women in the area.
There are many different outputs to Hope Center Uganda – what would you say is the most important part overall?
Girl Power Gulu inspires young girls and women to reach their full potential in the classroom and in society. We target northern Uganda because it faces tremendous challenges with reproductive health and family planning. Some of these challenges include: early teenage pregnancies, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, inadequate access to feminine hygiene products, and an overall lack of information on basic concepts concerning reproductive health due to cultural stigma.
Due to the high poverty rate in this area, vulnerable girls often end up being misled by boys who convince them that engaging in sex is the only way to get rid of their periods (thus eliminating the need to spend money on sanitary pads). This causes rampant teen pregnancy that forces girls to drop out of school at a young age, decreasing their opportunities for employment and preventing them from breaking out of the poverty cycle. Girl Power Gulu was created to address this dire menstrual health need in northern Uganda.
I think Girl Power Gulu is the most important part of HCU because it not only addresses the fundamental need for women to understand their bodies, but it gives them the tools to become engage community members. By empowering young women at this critical age, the program has a lifelong influence on their educational and economic opportunity.
What did it feel like being welcomed as part of the community? Will you be back any time soon?
I never once felt out of place. The people in Gulu were welcoming, inclusive, and genuinely cared about my life and experiences. It was a beautiful community that focuses on the shared threads of humanity, not on the identities that divide us.
I would go back to Gulu in a heartbeat. I have been doing remote work to support the Girl Power Gulu program since its creation in May 2017, but I hope to return to Uganda soon to continue involvement with the program. I am just looking for funding!! 🙂
What was your biggest takeaway from the experience as a volunteer, or as part of the outreach?
The women of Gulu showed me how to use our shared identities and values as tools for social change. My time in Uganda inspired me to be a vocal champion for women and families around the world. I hope to dedicate my career to public service, and I hope to be known as a consensus-builder who brings people together to accomplish initiatives that promote dignity for all.
What struck you the most about Ugandan culture?
The women are the core of the family structure in Uganda; often families are single-mother households where the matriarch supports everyone. There is a great deal of responsibility that women are tasked with in Uganda, but they handle it with grace and an unparalleled work ethic. I am proud of the Kevin’s efforts to create more pathways to economic and social mobility for women in Gulu. Ugandan culture is not only one defined by strength, but it is one of limitless potential. Women leaders like Kevin are making an indelible impact on the country that will benefit generations to come. Kevin is the most inspirational leader whom I have ever met, as she is driven by an indefatigable conviction to improve the lives of Ugandan families. She has endless compassion for all, and she has devoted her life to improving her beloved community. She has showed me that no matter what obstacle is in your way, if you are persistent and tenacious, you can accomplish anything. Her fearless example is one that has a profound ripple effect in the community, empowering young girls across Gulu to have confidence in themselves and follow their passions. Kevin is a role model for women around the world; she is a true global citizen who shows what women can achieve.
Do you have any advice for fellow women or girls looking to get into service, or just in general?
Across all sectors and fields, women are significantly underrepresented at leadership tables. Decisions are being made regularly without the input of women, and it is damaging to our well-being and prosperity. In order to change this, more young girls must be taught that they are capable of anything they want to be. Engaging in public service not only allows you to make a positive impact on the world, but it can empower you to advocate for people in our communities who are overlooked and forgotten. For these vulnerable and marginalized communities, someone must take a stand to speak up for them. In my experience, women often take on this responsibility with an innate sense of empathy and compassion. Our world is better because women fight for equal treatment for all.