Justin Kennedy

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
South Africa
Fellow since 1999
This description of Justin Kennedy's work was prepared when Justin Kennedy was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.

Introduction

Justin Kennedy marries the self-esteem and confidence-building elements of outdoor leadership programs with career development and civic awareness initiatives. Together, these elements provide disadvantaged South African teens with the skills necessary to become the next generation’s leaders.

The New Idea

Justin’s Excellence Growth Goals (EGG) Foundation takes teens between the ages of 16 and 18 from disadvantaged areas and helps them acquire the discipline, confidence and professional skill they will need to become leaders. Unlike other youth programs in South Africa that focus narrowly on either career counseling or wilderness training, the EGG foundation weaves personal, professional, and academic discipline with commitment to community change, and in so doing provides teens with the resources they need to develop strong visions of personal and communal excellence.

Justin works with schools to identify young adults with exceptional but unrealized potential, and invites them to participate in a six-month program that includes collaborative wilderness training, accelerated learning techniques, job shadowing, and community activism. The focus, though each stage, is on cultivating self-confidence and creative leadership. Justin envisions himself as a trainer’s trainer, helping replicate his project throughout South Africa.

The Problem

South Africa faces tremendous challenges as copes with the social and political dislocation of the apartheid years. While among the healthiest in Africa, South Africa’s economy is less robust than anticipated and will most likely remain so in the short term. Poverty, escalating violence, and AIDS/HIV all loom large for South Africa’s fledgling democracy. Continued progress on the social and economic fronts will depend on several closely related variables, among which are the quality of education in South Africa and the emergence of a black professional middle class.

At the moment, South Africa’s educational system is in a shambles. Curricula are grounded in an outcome-based approach which tests students’ rote abilities in a limited number of academic areas. A high premium is placed on memorization, which often determines success or failure. Creativity is not rewarded or developed, and students are therefore poorly prepared for the demands of the professional economy.

The integration of a larger portion of the underrepresented black and “colored” citizens into the professional workforce has been stymied by the small size of the pool of qualified candidates. Those programs that do exist to help black children enter the job market most often focus narrowly on trade skills rather than teaching children to be leaders and entrepreneurs. The brightest black children are thus often not provided the opportunities to develop the skills and vision necessary to become their generation’s leaders.

The Strategy

Justin’s youth training program is composed of four complimentary elements:

First, he works with a select group of teens to help develop in them a basic level of self-confidence and elementary team-building skills. This dimension of his modeled on several outdoors/wilderness programs that Justin has experienced in South Africa, mainly OTC’s life skills and wilderness program. Teens participate in a variety of collaborative outdoor activities (tent-building, rafting, rope work) and then gather to discuss their successes and failures each evening. These activities help launch the program and kindle enduring enthusiasm for the six-month agenda.

Second, Justin and his partner work with the teens to improve their study skills and learning abilities. It is here that students notice immediate improvements in their performance: Justin teaches accelerated learning techniques and discipline in learning that gifted students do not ordinarily need to learn to get by. Justin believes that schools reward only certain forms of intelligence, and that students must learn to adapt their study skills to their own personal array of talents—to this end, he works with them individually to create personalized success and discipline strategies. Justin also works with teens to develop fundamental “I.T.” skills to help them become comfortable with technology.

Third, Justin organizes a comprehensive job shadowing program with professionals. For the first time, students witness the dynamics of professional life and begin to understand the skills necessary to excel in professional environments. Their horizons are broadened as they are introduce different forms of professional practice. Students are also introduced to the idea of entrepreneurship as an alternate model of successful thinking and acting (one that has never been rewarded in schools). To locate professionals who are willing to take students on, Justin has developed partnerships with personnel organizations.

Finally, students must engage themselves in their communities and begin to find applications for their leadership skills in community reform. Justin feels that professional success must never be divorced from community activism, and works with teens to link these two forms of achievement.

Justin works with teens between the ages of 16 and 18—after most other programs have given up. He recruits from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, starting in the suburbs of Cape Town. He does not, however, take all applicants. Justin works with teachers to find students with exceptional but unrealized promise. He also puts teens through an application process that culminates in a contract through which the selected candidates pledge responsibility for and commitment to Justin’s program. Teachers, administrators, and communities have been very receptive to his efforts. Students who complete the program will remain involved as mentors or trained as short-term instructors, and will fuel the program’s expansion.

The EGG foundation has just been registered as a section 21 organization (one of South Africa’s two non-profit categories), and Justin is in the process of fundraising for the first full trial program. He is currently working with Kellogg Foundation, local Cape Town municipalities, and the education Department of the Western Cape to secure seed funding, and he and his partner have begun to approach South African corporations (those that have social responsibility budgets) for support. Justin has already secured an in-kind donation of a nature facility in which to conduct his wilderness training, and has run an abbreviated pilot program with a small group of children.

Justin’s vision is to replicate his program throughout the country, starting with townships and impoverished urban areas and then moving into rural areas. Within two years, he would like to have established a trainers’ training program, and he envisions himself directing this program in the near future. To help spread the influence of his ideas, Justin is building partnerships and endorsements with the Africa Leadership Forum, the Nelson Mandela Youth Fund, and the Starfish 2000 project, among others.

The Person

For six years immediately following college, Justin worked at Shell Oil, climbing the corporate ladder. In the fall of 1998, he quit abruptly and decided to change his life. He had long nurtured a vision of a practical youth leadership program, and decided to devote himself to realizing that ideal. Using the money he had saved at Shell, Justin and his part-time partner Tembele took over the floundering OTC wilderness and life-skills program and began transforming it into the Excellence Growth Goals Foundation.

Justin had studied psychology and focused on motivational techniques, of which Neuro-Linguistic Programming, the theory that informs much of his leadership program. But Justin needed the help of someone with easy access to the township and experience as a youth trainer—for this he turned to Tembele, who has brought all of this to the EGG Foundation and made its success more plausible.

Justin’s passion for his work stems in part from his own alienation as a teenager. He poignantly remembers his aversion to white South African racism, and his falling out with friends and peers over the question of discrimination. This aversion has turned into a positive ideal, to empower and educate talented black and colored youth and help them realize the ideal of the African Renaissance.