Upon meeting Carol “Sallymatu” Bangura it is impossible not to be struck by her resilience, tenacity and fearlessness when challenging the status quo. She is a woman who has proven that she is not deterred by being the only voice in a room speaking out for what she believes is right. As the Founder and Executive Director of Schools without Borders—a non-profit organization dedicated to serving and improving the educational outcomes of African and Caribbean children in the Philadelphia public school system—Carol is no stranger to hearing the word “no”. In fact it seems to inspire her. “When I started this I heard “no” a lot. I had to persevere to get to where I am today”, she says, recounting the difficulty of approaching donors for funding to support her programs in the early years. Today, Schools without Borders has grown from an organization that provided book donations to students in Sierra Leone and Philadelphia in 2007 to a full-fledged supplemental education program providing over 200 students with the extra support which they need in order to succeed. Carol’s work has not gone unnoticed and her efforts have earned her more opportunities to do even more good work. She is currently also the Chair of the Founding Board of Directors and President of United Way of Sierra Leone.
The road and journey to this point has not been easy however. It took years of unrelenting work and required a character whose spirit could not be dampened by the obstacles it would face. Born in Sierra Leone in the early 70s, Carol moved to the United States with her family at the age of 5. They lived in the projects of north Philadelphia and eventually moved to another area called the Badlands—an area notoriously known as a casualty of the cocaine wars in the 70s and 80s. Despite growing up in an environment known for its ability to crush the human spirit, Carol arose triumphant. For her she said it was her education that shielded her from much of the downsides of such an environment.
“Education is what separates me from another single mother of 42 who happens to be living on welfare. Education is the key. There is no other way. It is what lifts people out of poverty” she says. As a teenage mother herself who dropped out of college, Carol showed her understanding of the necessity of an education by returning for her Bachelor’s after her third child and her Masters after her fourth.
Carol’s work in education began as an expansion of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service project for one of her son’s in 2007. Wanting to reconnect with her home country, Carol and her three sons collected books to send to children who needed them in Sierra Leone. The response was overwhelming, with hundreds of book donations coming in and the project taking off immediately. Within a year she transformed it into its own stand-alone organization called the Million Books Project. She even won a Point of Light Award from Disney for her work and rallied community members to become regular participants and donors.
Things changed however as the result of a simple challenge posed as a question. An acquaintance inquired, “Why are you sending all these books to children in Sierra Leone when children right here in Philadelphia don’t have books to read?” Taken aback by what she had just heard, Carol decided to investigate the matter and was shocked by what she discovered. Not only were students in her own district going to school lacking access to the most basic resources needed for an education but the schools were full of African and Caribbean immigrants. Young boys and girls who could have been her own children, struggling to make it in the “land of opportunity.” These students were facing great barriers to their education in the United States even after some of their families had braved civil wars and grave economic hardships to leave their home countries for better opportunities. The irony of this was not lost on Carol and for her these facts were unacceptable and worthy of challenge. She was ready for a fight and she got one.
At every step Carol met disinterest, apathy and sometimes challenges to her bold question “Why don’t you provide the extra services for our (African and Caribbean) children which you provide for other children?” As she pushed to get answers, services and even funding, she often found that she was the only one in the room advocating for this particular group of students. Her perseverance earned her recognition with the Mayor’s Commission for African and Caribbean Affair and she subsequently became Chair of the Children and Youth Committee.
What began as an investigation and book donations drew Carol into the Philadelphia school system and over the course of three years the Million Books Project became the African Center for Educational Sustainability and is now Schools Without Borders. Furthermore, she has expanded her work in Sierra Leone to include a scholarship for 55 elementary school girls to complete their education through her Girls Initiative for Reading Literacy and Skills (G.I.R.L.S) program. It has been Carol’s tenacity in pursuing funding that allowed her to grow her organization to this point. “When I heard no I would ask them what I’d done wrong, what was missing, and how I could make it better. Then I would try and apply again,” she says.
Today Carol remains undaunted by the challenges ahead and divides her life between Sierra Leone and Philadelphia, fully committed to the worthy goal of putting real resources behind educating children so that they can grow up to change their world, much as Carol herself is doing.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Profiles