Aaron Friedland, The Walking School Bus: We live in an age of globalization where each of us is capable of reaching millions in moments. On the one hand it’s an opportunity, on the other it’s an obligation.
After a life-changing trip to Uganda with his family, Aaron Friedland decided to change the lives of thousands, and eventually millions of schoolchildren in Africa and other places in need around the world. He started work on a children’s book, The Walking School Bus, and a plan to donate school buses to Ugandan communities to improve access to education, which blossomed when Aaron realized that getting to school is only the beginning of the solution. Students also need nutrition to support learning, as well as a quality curriculum in order to be successful in their educational pursuits.
The Walking School Bus organization supports access to education in three ways. They raise funds to purchase and donate school buses to communities in need. They are implementing nutrition programs that utilize detailed research to determine which crops are ideally suited to local growing conditions and that deliver the highest level of nutrition (in the case of Uganda, kale, spinach, sweet potatoes, and sweet peas). And they have designed a curriculum program where Canadian students are recorded reading a book out loud and the recording and text are sent to Uganda where students can practise reading, which earned Aaron an award from The Next Einstein.
We talked to Aaron about inspiration, research, and kale.
On inspiration: Six years ago my family and I went to Uganda. We had heard about this incredible guy called JJ Keki. He’s a Jewish coffee farmer in Uganda who ended up going on a trip to New York in 2001 and actually witnessed the World Trade Centers come crashing down. He realized what intolerance and radical religion can do and he understood that if it could happen in the US, it could most certainly happen in his hometown of Mbale. So he returns to Uganda and explains to his fellow farmers the need to collaborate. Previously there had been Muslim, Jewish, and Christian coffee farmers and they didn’t really work together. But they started a coffee cooperative called Delicious Peace. And all of a sudden the farmers were able to capitalize on the market, charge higher fair trade prices, and most importantly, they came together as a community. And I heard about this collaboration, and their children going to school together, and that’s really what piqued my interest [in improving access to education].
On the problem: The children were walking over 5 km to go to school. They’d get to school hungry because they didn’t have access to good nutrition. And the actual curriculum itself was lacking: the teachers weren’t always trained well, and the students were disinterested. And as a student with dyslexia I really saw myself in many of them. The only reason I went to university was because I had this very strong social safety net which ensured I had all these precautionary measures in place. Had I been born in a place like India or Uganda I would have worked in agriculture and never escaped the poverty trap.
On the book: I started writing a children’s book called The Walking School Bus. What I wanted to achieve with this book was to teach students in North America about the value of education and to show them what their counterparts in Uganda and other parts of the world have to do every day in order to access education. The other component was to raise awareness and funds to purchase school buses for these communities. But what ended up happening was that I realized that the project doesn’t end with this book, it ends with an organization…In Uganda I saw three problems with access to education: distance, nutrition, and curriculum. There’s no point in working in just one of those facets, I needed to provide a more holistic approach to improving access and I started working with my professors and an incredible group of people to make the dream a reality.
On holistic assistance: We’re not just giving millions of communities around the world school buses. For example, some communities need a bridge because children are walking 5 km around a river rather than just walking 100 metres across. It’s a case by case basis. Our research is entirely vertically integrated, I have economists at UBC who work with teams of researchers to understand what is actually going to happen when we do it and that we are accountable for our own research.
On the nutrition program: You have to take social norms into account. If I just said, “Guys, this is kale, eat it,” who am I to do that? This is one of the reasons we incorporated sweet potatoes. We’re mixing in a few local norms with some new ideas. They can come together nicely and they strengthen student nutrition.
On the big picture: We live in an age of globalization where each of us is capable of reaching millions in moments. On the one hand it’s an opportunity, on the other it’s an obligation. You’ve got all of this information around you and if you aren’t actively taking it in and recognizing that you can learn and grow and positively change, you’re kind of slowing humanity down.
Get involved with The Walking School Bus today. The children’s book comes out in September 2016.