Stanley Ndambakuwa

The First Annual Girls’ Education Conference took place on May 17, 2019, organized through a collaboration between Stanley Ndambakuwa MAIDP’19 and YWCA Metropolitan Chicago. Through this event, Ndambakuwa brought to fruition a long-time hope: creating an opportunity for people to come together and discuss how to support girls’ education across the world.

This year’s conference was themed “Fearless Girls: How investing in girls’ education yields economic growth” and had two main goals: spreading awareness of the issue of girls’ education and gathering a group of passionate people to engage in conversation about this issue. Many things were discussed, including how girls’ education impacts social and economic aspects of communities, the importance of investing in girls’ education, early-learning innovations, and mentoring.

The conference was envisioned as a space for the gathering of a network of people who are active in supporting girls’ education. Shelley Bromberek-Lambert, Chief Reimagination Officer of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, said, “While we’ve made huge strides, there still is much more work to be done in girls’ education. We wanted them to walk away understanding the positive impacts that can come about through girls’ education and that it really is good for neighborhoods, it’s good for communities, it’s good for whole nations.”

Stanley Ndambakuwa is no stranger to women’s and girls’ issues. When he first reached out to the YWCA to collaborate, his goal was to create a campaign in support of girls and to develop it in a sustainable way. “An annual conference was something that would always bring people to Chicago every year, but at the same time, would create voices, would create support, would raise funds, would do a number of things which means we would remain connected to this city,” he said.

The conference is in its first year.

When they met and discussed the work that he had been doing, Bromberek-Lambert says, “We really just saw how aligned we were to the commitment to girls and to women and education, and so [the idea of the conference] sparked from that brainstorming session.” From there, they began to organize.

“We decided to have a keynote around curiosity and creativity because we believe that that is really at the heart of what all good girls’ education programs should include,” Bromberek-Lambert said. Chic Thompson, Founder and Executive Director at WAGiLabs, was chosen to discuss problem-solving from a creative standpoint. Thompson gave an example of a group of young girls who decided to focus their problem-solving skills on ameliorating the issue of malaria in their community. They came up with a song and dance that encouraged hand-washing, illustrating the idea that young children and girls know a lot about the problems in their communities and are willing to take more risks and be more innovative when problem-solving.

Next, Gina Warner, President and CEO of the National Afterschool Association, spoke about the importance of storytelling. Warner used Michelle Obama’s book Becoming as an example: many of the people who read it were drawn to the real Michelle Obama, not the First Lady. They were interested in her stories about growing up on the South Side of Chicago, and about her experiences before becoming the First Lady. As Bromberek-Lambert put it: 

“We all have a story and sometimes we think our story is not important because we’re not a First Lady, we’re not a celebrity. But our story is important to our tribe, whether it be our family, our coworkers, or the girls we’re trying to mentor.”

At the conference, Bromberek-Lambert facilitated a panel made up of four experts: Annette C. Heng, Chief School Excellence Officer of the Primrose Schools; Amy Maglio, Executive Director of the Women’s Global Education Project; Dr. Cassandra McKay-Jackson, Associate Professor at the Erikson Institute; and Samantha Williams, Global Director for Girls’ Education for Teach For All. They each spoke about how they became excited about girls’ education, and then discussed global trends in girls’ education, what they’re seeing happening with it, what they think are the best practices in helping further it, and the challenges that girls’ education faces. There were about 100 participants from different professional areas, including education, early childhood, social services, and business.

Stanley Ndambakuwa has long had a passion for women’s education. His non-profit organization, the African Community Fund for Education (ACFE), was founded in 2013 when he realized there was a major crisis in education among marginalized people. While working on these issues, he became aware of another, related crisis in Zimbabwe: the proliferation of child marriages. Partnering with the Embassy of Botswana in Zimbabwe, he launched his first major campaign, called Educate the Girl Child, which focused on creating awareness of and responsibility for the inclusion of girls in education, and hosted events across the world to encourage powerful people to raise their voices in support of girls’ education.  

Learning through the lenses of International Development and Policy taught Ndambakuwa a more holistic way of looking at how women’s issues affect a wide array of policy areas. “Inside the classroom, learning about economic development, political development, and international development is something that really has to be at the top of your head if you’re talking about issues like education,” Ndambakuwa said. “I call them ‘soft power issues.’ They’re things that if you invest in them, they will bring change. There’s no two ways about it: education is an equalizer. Education is indispensable.”

Ndambakuwa was also inspired by his interactions with speakers, professors, and collaboration with peers in the MAIDP program. The diversity of ideas, of backgrounds, and more at University of Chicago brought new perspectives into his path and allowed him to discover new ways of thinking and living: “I think I now have a diversified way of looking at the world and I feel like I’m more ready to get into the world and work anyplace... While here, I have been able to sit down with people and understand how people think, how they create their ideas, how they do what they do—and how that translates into the results that we have in different parts of the world.”

But one of the most impactful parts of being at Harris and being part of the MAIDP program was the community he joined, made up of students, professors, speakers, and alumni: a community that Ndambakuwa describes as more than just a group of intellectuals—it’s a group of friends. “There’s so much unity, there’s so much togetherness, there’s one common purpose, one vision. There’s support, and it’s a safe space. Feeling as if you’re part of a family to me was one of the best experiences,” he said.

“We really just saw how aligned we were to the commitment to girls and to women and education, and so [the idea of the conference] sparked from that brainstorming session.”

Looking toward the future, Ndambakuwa is excited to work with speakers that have visited UChicago, as well as alumni, professors, and future students. Particularly with the large alumni network at Harris, it won’t be difficult to reach out: according to Ndambakuwa, the network “means when I’m in the UK, I have people I can connect with—the same if I’m in Jordan or in China.”

In the next few years, Stanley Ndambakuwa is looking forward to continuing to expand his organization. Ultimately, he hopes that ACFE Group can become one of the largest international organizations started by an African. He aims to utilize his UChicago education to further support education and empowerment for marginalized groups.

“If I can show that being at Harris changed something, first off in how I approach my work and the impact that I’m going to make, and secondly in how we are going to expand as an organization—that’s how I envision success. Because success to me is just measured in how much my work grows.”

YWCA Metropolitan Chicago and the ACFE Group will keep hosting the Annual Girls’ Education Conference and are excited to continue growing the event as well as its influence in the world of policy.