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Strengthening Communities

by Johnny McNulty

2022 McNulty Prize Catalyst Fund awardees share how they are ending the tyranny of distance.

The McNulty Foundation’s Catalyst Fund exists to lift up promising new models for social change that are poised to deepen and expand their impact. It hopes to spotlight these ventures, give them support, and rally others behind them. The recently announced 2022 Catalyst Fund awardees represent a range of geographies and sectors, from education to journalism to rural mental health. But they all contribute to community resilience, improving the education, information, and social infrastructure communities need to thrive.

We brought the awardees together to engage in a virtual conversation, Emerging Solutions for a Resilient Future. In a series of rapid-fire interviews, they discussed how they are building solutions to deeply entrenched challenges alongside their communities. Introduced by moderator Gisela Porras, a 2018 Catalyst Fund Recipient and President of Vital Voices Panama, the panelists included Dr. Lisa Fitpatrick (Founder, Grapevine Health, Washington, DC), Tanushree Hazarika and Karma Paljor (Co-founders, EastMojo, Northeast India), Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah (Founder, Nigerian University of Technology and Management), Dr. Ann-Gel Palermo (Co-Founder, East Harlem COAD, NYC), and fifth-generation South Carolina farmer J.E.B. Wilson (Founder, SC AgriWellness). Read our takeaways from the conversation below.

A town in Northeastern India

NUTM scholars at their graduation

The “Tyranny of Distance”

One theme that came up repeatedly was “the tyranny of distance” in its many forms. Communities that are at a remove from power in one way or another - geographically, economically, socially/ethnically - struggle to attract the attention and resources needed to solve problems, even when they can easily identify both problem and solution. On the other side of the same coin was the importance of proximity to the work of building social infrastructure - geographical, cultural, and economic proximity. If institutions are not built in a way that they can be easily accessed, they won’t be. The ways in which proximity and distance can manifest vary from issue to issue, but this was a common factor in all of the awardees’ work.

Amplifying voices and untold stories from Northeast India

The phrase ‘tyranny of distance’ came from a story told by Karma Paljor, a longtime business journalist for CNN, when his editor in Delhi explained that they simply didn’t have the resources to cover stories in Northeast India for their readers in the rest of the country. Besides the first-level consequence of being ignored and left out, this has immense implications for this particular region. Separated from the rest of India by Bangladesh and connected only by a thin strip of land, Northeast India is home to over 130 indigenous tribes and a host of languages, cultures, and religions - and until recently, no voice in the national media. This doesn’t merely stop stories from being told; it prevents problems from coming to light and being solved. So, Tanushree and Karma joined forces to launch EastMojo, the first media outlet bringing voice to local journalists from the Northeast. Coupled with the 4G revolution, which brought the internet to places without built-up fiber-optic networks, their determination enabled them to build a platform locally to tell these stories globally. This allowed Karma to fulfill a pledge he had made to himself when his editor rejected that story, to one day return to Northeast India and tell those stories up close.

The idea behind EastMojo is to represent the underrepresented and break the tyranny of distance.

Karma Paljor

Centering high-quality education at home in Nigeria

In Nigeria, in education, the tyranny that existed was the distance to high-quality university education. Nigerian expats have succeeded at every major world university, but too many stay in the countries where they study. A persistent norm of the best and brightest leaving has been a problem many nations have faced, the classic “brain drain” dilemma. NUTM competes for those top-tier students and sets the precedent that its competitors should be doing the same. Dr. Enelamah talked about the example of India’s Institutes of Technology and others as proof world-class universities could help lead the development of economies. NUTM is reversing the brain drain and building up talent at home, a positive cycle can ignite, creating an innovation economy on the model of Silicon Valley or Boston - and to be an example for its peer institutions in Nigeria to follow in its steps.

When disasters and pandemics strike, help in East Harlem comes from within.

New York City is one of the world’s richest but most unequal cities. Yet, the residents of low-lying East Harlem find themselves isolated and without adequate support during hurricanes, pandemics, and other emergencies. Demographically diverse and not as affluent as the rest of the extremely expensive city, East Harlem has built its own resilience through East Harlem Community Organizations Active in Disasters (COAD), founded by Dr. Ann-Gel Palermo. By creating a network of business owners and community leaders who know their roles in emergencies, from food to shelter to evacuation to checking on elderly residents, East Harlem COAD is knitting together the threads of trust and competency that prevent tragedy in times of stress.

Community members and their children in East Harlem

Farmers in South Carolina

As agricultural communities face unprecedented stress, farmers turn to those who can understand.

While South Carolina farmers might experience a very different day-to-day reality than the residents of East Harlem, economic and mental stress due to the changing economy is a constant. Over the past few decades, rural communities have hollowed out, and with the loss of people comes a loss of social ties. J.E.B. Wilson, a fifth-generation farmer, knows the toll this has taken and the challenges of getting farmers to ask for and accept help. The tragic result is that suicide has become a significant cause of death among farmers. SC Agriwellness is a mental health outreach organization aimed explicitly at farmers and built by people who understand their issues so that farmers can reach out to trusted voices.

Vulnerable communities need trustworthy health information, and trustworthy voices to deliver it.

The importance of trusted voices was repeated for Grapevine Health in DC, founded by Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick, which focuses on getting accurate medical information to communities of color. Unfortunately, due to a long legacy of mistreatment by government and medical authorities in many communities, those same authorities have well-earned difficulty communicating with those communities. However, these messages are too important to neglect, so finding credible partners to re-establish that trust is vital if we are to protect every community from health threats - and in health, we can’t protect anyone if we can’t protect everyone.

This pandemic has shown us that we have to listen and respond in the way that communities need us to respond, rather than the way we want to respond.

Lisa Fitzpatrick

Watch the full conversation below with the 2022 Catalyst Fund awardees and read more about these leaders here. The McNulty Foundation established the Catalyst Fund in 2017 to provide unrestricted support to promising ventures with significant early momentum and at critical junctures on their path to creating meaningful change, led by Fellows of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. Having supported over 20 recipients from around the world, the Catalyst Fund boosts leaders and their organizations with funding as well as non-monetary support to reach the next level of impact. Learn more.

Watch the full conversation here

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