Power of 2: A Place In The Sun Foundation

After volunteering with the Peace Corp in Mali, Harvard graduate students Mike and Marisa Conway wanted to do more to help the communities they visited. In 2012, the couple quit their jobs in Washington, D.C. and began A Place in the Sun Foundation, a nonprofit that brings education and literacy to kids in Mali.

What inspired you to start your own foundation?

Marisa says… After being in Mali for two years, we saw a lot of development projects that were not achieving their objectives. We started to feel that perhaps smaller organizations that were on the ground and closer to the decision-making process could be more effective in giving voices to the people that development is supposed to help. We saw that a lack of basic education played a huge role in so many of the challenges people faced, so education and literacy became our focus.

Why do you believe that literacy is an important development area to tackle?

Marisa says… Literacy is something that is easily taken for granted. But in Mali and many other West African countries, less than 50% of adults can read and write. Illiteracy affects almost every part of daily life. In the health centers where I worked, women would travel for a full day to bring a sick child for treatment. We would do our best to explain a malnutrition treatment plan, but because many of the mothers were unable to read, they had to rely on memory for medication frequency and dosages. In those cases, a lapse in memory became a matter of life and death—a danger that could be easily avoided with written instructions.

What are some obstacles that you’ve faced establishing your foundation?

Mike says… There have been financial challenges, but the biggest issue has been figuring out how Marisa and I work together and what boundaries we set for ourselves around work and our personal lives. There are times when we’re climbing into bed and I want to open up a conversation about a report or interview and that just doesn’t work. There’s so much to do in order to launch the foundation, so we’ve had to carve out specific times to talk about work and make sure our time together doesn’t turn into a business meeting.

What makes your foundation unique?

Marisa says… We focus heavily on teacher training and support. We want to see students reading, but if teachers are not supported to succeed in their jobs as educators, how can we expect them to make an impact on their students? We use a local language curriculum that fosters the cultural value of children’s first language and home life, which we see as the gateway to learning French, the national school of instruction in Mali’s primary schools.

What have you found the most rewarding about starting your own foundation?

Marisa says… Since starting A Place in the Sun, we’ve learned so much about how organizations are developed, what their challenges are, and how this all works within the context of international development. But the most rewarding part is how generous and supportive people have been about project. When we tell people that we want to see children in West Africa reading and succeeding in school, the response if very positive. That encouragement keeps us motivated.

What’s it like working together to make a difference and change the world?

Mike says… It’s great to be doing this together and not only trying to do good things for others, but also strengthening our relationship as we move forward. Being founding partners has forced us to really look at ourselves and communicate our needs as colleagues, as husband and wife, and as friends. That’s very special and it makes all the work we put into our relationship worthwhile. It adds a whole new layer to how we interact.

What are your hopes for the future of your foundation?

Marisa says… We want to be a learning organization that is continuously reflecting on our work and building strong relationships with communities that lead to stronger outcomes. This is some of the most difficult work to do, and we don’t take it lightly. But we think that if we approach it in a manner that is open and honest, we can reach our goals and have an impact on learning in West African communities.

Mike says… We also hope to be an organization that has a healthy environment for asking tough questions and thinking through solutions. In order to create that environment, we have to understand that we don’t have all the answers and that the communities that we work with have more to contribute when it comes to addressing their challenges than we ever will. So, we see ourselves as being part of an enabling environment, an organization that helps communities find solutions with their own voice.

Image(s): A Place in the Sun Foundation

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