It's a long way from Oklahoma to Africa.
Perhaps no one knows this better than eighth-grade math teacher Carlisha Williams.
She's been to the small West African country of Gambia so often she's lost count a little bit.
"This will, I believe, be my 13th trip," said Williams, founder of the nonprofit Women Empowering Nations and a teacher at KIPP Tulsa.
The organization is raising money to take 10 eighth-grade girls to visit their African pen pals, part of an effort to truly open up a world of possibilities to the students.
Their circumstances vary, but while each of her students has goals, "the sight of those things that they want to be in life, it might not be in their community," Williams said, describing how poverty and neighborhood violence can dominate their outlook.
Mostly, parents understand the value of the trip. She said she tells them, "What would it be like if you had the opportunity at 13-14 years old to go back to a place, for African-American girls, of your ancestry?"
Williams can sell her experience in the country. She took a group of five Oklahoma City teens to Gambia in 2010 for a similar visit.
But it wasn't always that way.
Her first trip to Africa came in 2007, when she visited representing Oklahoma in the Miss Black USA pageant.
The trip turned out to be life changing, both for Williams and the dozens of teen girls in Africa and Oklahoma she has since helped.
Back in 2007, Williams said that while she found herself in an unfamiliar place, she quickly became fast friends with a Gambian teen about three years her junior, Fatoumatta, who served as a sight-seeing guide.
"Before I left, I had already started youth mentoring and working with young girls ... A lot of the identity issues and struggles that adolescent girls face in the United States, that I even faced as a child, she was dealing with. It was just, like, we're so much alike. But we were divided, years and years ago," Williams said.
In the months after the competition, she would return to Gambia with a few other pageant contestants.
Carlisha Williams (3rd from left) with students
COURTESY OF MICHELLE DODD
"We just kind of did a service trip on our own," Williams said.
The formal vision emerged to establish a nonprofit to help girls during the often-tumultuous adolescent years.
She enrolled at Syracuse University in New York, earning a master's degree in public administration. Her vision for the nonprofit was much more than a school project.
"Really, even before the organization started, I had still been going back and donating hospital supplies, working in the schools, just volunteering and reading," Williams said. "Doing a lot of stuff on the ground to build those relationships."
Williams led the first Women Empowering Nations trip to Gambia in 2009. An OU professor helped her find a suitable venue for a youth program, and Williams maximized her contacts with schools from previous visits.
"We held this 2009 literacy and empowerment program. Actually we went over with a lot of resources, a lot of books, a lot of school supplies and held a program where we focused on reading, creative writing and public speaking, but all centered around self-esteem development," Williams said.
The program began with a group of 30 African girls and has expanded to over 100 girls, she said.
In Gambia, schools have more than 50 students in each class, Williams said.
"Textbooks and resources are very scarce. Some of my students ... when they run out of paper in their notepad, that's it. There's no more class for you until your family can afford to provide you with those resources," Williams said.
Yet the country has made strides in promoting the education of girls as well as boys. It's not an idyllic situation, with sexism and harassment still serious problems. But Williams said the girls have a strong passion for learning.
"That's their pathway to opportunity, and their desire to seek out that educational support is so strong. But overall, like as kids, they remind me of my kids right here in Tulsa. They're just alike," Williams said.
Williams earlier worked as an assistant at Marcus Garvey Leadership Charter School in Oklahoma City. Students there were part of a group Williams took to Gambia in 2010, and video clips of that visit are on her organization's website, wenations.org.
For this trip, Williams plans on a full-length documentary, titled The World They Knew. A video production specialist with Chesapeake Energy, Jason Lemon, has agreed to direct the film.
Photos and written accounts are one thing, but "it's so different to see it, to feel it," Williams said. "And I feel like the documentary is not only just to document what we've done and what we're doing, but the power of international travel ... global opportunity and experiential learning. I also feel like it's just a powerful message and story, taking young women from Tulsa, Oklahoma that might not ever have that opportunity to go back and connect with their ancestral roots."
She has established an account for people to donate at crowdfunding site IndieGoGo.com/TheWorldTheyKnew. Williams is also seeking out individual donations, with a fundraising event scheduled for March 28 where potential donors can meet some of the girls set to go on the trip.
Williams said her own worldview was influenced by a trip to Peru when she was about the same age as the girls.
"I feel like through this trip, not only are they going to get to see other young women in another country who are similar to them, but what they will see will hopefully make them appreciative of what they have here ... to put them on that right path for high school and also just make them want to be a global citizens," Williams said.
It's the start of breaking out of their comfort zone, she noted.
"I feel like once they get to high school, you're not going to be in a classroom with kids that all look like you and talk like you, that are from the same community as you. But how will you navigate and build relationships and truly make the most out of any experience that you have?"
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