We caught up with Deborah Kimathi, Executive Director of Dignitas, a non-governmental organization based in Nairobi, Kenya, to learn how this organization embodies their tagline “dignity through education.” We also dive into Deborah’s trajectory in this work and her story residing in Kenya for the past 17 years.
Early on, I developed a passion for people. I was blessed to grow up in a family that was very outward looking, and invited lots of people in, exposing me to needs and people from different walks of life. A passion to see people thrive and reach their potential grew in me, alongside a sense of social injustice, and a need for that to be addressed. That led me, from a young age, to be consistently involved in community work, in the UK and abroad.
Whilst at university, I had the opportunity to travel to Kenya to volunteer; and it was through this first trip that I fell in love with the place, people, and culture. As a student, I made several trips, and once I graduated, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to come to Kenya to set up a new project under the umbrella of a UK charity. The intention was to help out-of-school girls, but before I started there was no clear strategy for implementing or resourcing that intention. I founded a project called “Seed of Hope” which offered vocational, enterprise and life skills training to out-of-school girls. This project still runs today, and I have the privilege of serving as a trustee. Founding and operating Seed of Hope proved to be a steep learning curve for me as an individual, a development worker, and as a leader. I ran Seed of Hope for 7 years, then went on to run the umbrella charity for a further 8 years.
In 2017 when I began to look for a new challenge, I came across Dignitas and met founder, Tiffany Cheng Nyaggah. From our very first meeting, there was a resonance around education justice and the rights of children in marginalized communities. One conversation led to another, and Dignitas brought me on as Executive Director in January 2018.
There are a few key things about Dignitas that I think sets it apart. One is our team, as much a team of educators as a team of development workers, with significant expertise, and a deep commitment to education, and to empowering school leaders and teachers to be great. Dignitas invests a lot in its own team, and has an organizational culture of learning, and continuing professional development. School leadership is a unique area of work in this region, which offers Dignitas an exciting opportunity to make a difference. Our relatively narrow focus on instructional leadership adds a depth and richness to this opportunity, when compared to the many organizations with a divided and diluted focus.
At the core of our work is the “empowerment” of education leaders. This word is often debated, but I believe it centers around two critical components: choice, and self-efficacy. Empowering someone with knowledge, skills, or access that they did not previously have opens up choices and opportunities. If we can support educational leaders to develop the mindset, techniques, and tools that they need to be a real agents of transformation in their schools, with a team of teachers, and for children, then we can say we have been successful as a team.
A great example of this was recently reported by a Dignitas coach, who shared a story of a community school that enrolled a 12-year-old autistic boy who had been turned away by every other school in the neighborhood. Since attending a Dignitas workshop on “fixed versus growth mindset,” the school’s approach to learners shifted and they were inspired to meet this student’s needs. The school leader went through the process of assessing his needs, determining how to best engage him in learning, and modifying the school environment to be a comfortable place of learning for him, despite the school generally lacking resources. She then disseminated this approach to the rest of her team, ensuring they were appropriately prepared to support this child. From being completely non-verbal and non-communicative, this boy is now beginning to read, writing sounds, socializing with other children, and doing homework assignments. It was transformational for this leader to see this child, who had been excluded by the community, able to achieve, and thrive. She was so proud to have played a part in helping him and his parents recognize his potential.
One of the things that I have learned over the years working in development, is that there are far too many people working in their own corners. Working in silos is so detrimental to the work that we all want to do, and there would be so much power in coming together. That is why Dignitas generally has a very open, collaborative approach. Finding others who want to achieve a similar goal, and who have a shared vision for the work that we want to do in communities can be really powerful.
Dignitas seeks to work in partnership with government, and other community stakeholders. We seek to align with government strategy – whether by leveraging data to show the importance of school leadership, or helping to facilitate training workshops, our focus is to place ourselves as an ally, a trusted partner, and resource. Without community stakeholders, Dignitas wouldn’t be where it is today – Dignitas has consistently sought to identify, and build on strengths within the communities in which we partner.
Dignitas’ strategy for growth has three key elements: evidence, government partnerships, and technology. Currently, the Kenyan government is rolling out a new, national competency-based curriculum. Changes in curriculum push our work towards its goal of equipping school leaders to transform opportunities for every child. Nairobi is an exciting place to be, renowned as the East African hub of innovation. Challenges in the education sector have the potential to open up interesting conversations as well as potential solutions.
We thank Deborah for sharing a bit about her push for dignity and empowerment through education. We look forward to learning more from her and Dignitas moving forward and are excited to see hear how their organizational goals grow and adapt to the changing educational climate in East Africa. One partner on Dignitas’ school leadership work is Global School Leaders.
Meet Deborah Kimathi: https://globaledleadership.org/deborah-kimathi/