Making Connections at CGI U 2016

By Gidon Feen

It was with great excitement that I boarded my plane at Reagan National. I was ready to head to Berkeley for the Clinton Global Initiative and even with TSA Pre-Check, I still wasn’t getting off the ground fast enough. I was coming to the conference with an ambitious commitment, but one that I felt confident would be well received. I hoped to establish a faith-based leaders initiative in African countries to combat homophobia. In many countries, such as Uganda, Nigeria, or Cameroon, high levels of homophobia exist, often with the support of the religious leaders. By creating such an initiative, a dialogue, and bringing on religious leaders in the fight against homophobia, I believe that these countries can see a paradigm shift in their hatred towards LGBTQ people.

CGIU did not disappoint. From the opening session to the closing plenary, I was constantly amazed. President Clinton was illuminating, as was Chelsea, but so were there broad array of speakers they convened for the weekend. One of my favorite was Maysoon Zayid, a comedian and an advocate for those who are disabled. Her comments were both funny and profound; her message resonating strongly with many in the room. I was most struck, however, by the message that President Clinton kept returning to: it is ok to fail. I found it particularly important to hear as a student at GW, where so often I see my peers in a never ending cycle of internships, non-profits, and successes. It was heartening for me to hear from a president that failure is fine, and even helpful!

I was able to make important connections for my commitment at CGIU, in particular with my mentor, Ryan Olson. The two of us had many mutual connections in the LGBTQ international affairs community of DC, and he has said he will help me find the right people to see if they can help with my idea. This would not have been possible without the support of The George Washington University, and I am extremely grateful to them for assisting with funding to get me to the conference.


Engaged In Discovery

By Eleanor Davis

“Are we alone [in space]?” President Bill Clinton asked NASA astronaut Cady Coleman at the 2016 CGI U. While musings about outer-space might seem off topic for an action-based student conference, the themes of curiosity, discovery, and pushing the limits of possible are not.

Whether or not we are alone in space, for the foreseeable future we as humans are dependent on this small blue planet for life. To ensure a healthy, safe, and equal future for current and future generations, we are going to need many creative innovations. At CGI U student innovators committed to projects that ranged from creating backpacks that carried water to help farm workers combat kidney disease to creating social networks that support foster children in the mid-Atlantic. No idea is to big or to small and the only limitation is your imagination.

CGI U gives a platform for students to discuss ideas and share best practices. New ideas and partnerships are born over the two day conference. Even if other students’ ideas are not related to your own commitment, the energy and optimism fuels progress and reinvigorates our drive to innovate. One student I met is trying to put mussels in the Chicago River to clean the water and prevent the costly dumping of germicides into the river to “clean” it as per EPA regulations. Her excitement was infectious and even if it was not completely relevant to my commitment, we all have the same goal — help our fellow humans.

As my commitment is about two months from its end, I was able to share experiences and insights with other, early-stage, commitment makers. I also got ideas on meaningful ways to wrap up the project. I have worked with a team to teach middle school students in Ward 8 of Washington, D.C. about geography through open source mapping software, topical lessons, and exciting speakers. We have learned many lessons along the way but the one I shared most often, is the idea that you need to be flexible and listen to your community partners. We could not have completed this project without the help of Higher Achievement. Flexibility is key and all plans change.

In the end, I am grateful for the chance to have attended CGI U and I know even after my commitment is finished, I will use these memories and lessons as motivation to continue discovering and innovating. But for now, I know the answer to the 42nd President’s question, we are not alone because we are together.

Opioid Overdose Prevention with Student Nurses

By Alison Spillane

From April 1st through 3rd, I participated in the Clinton Global Initiative University at the University of California at Berkeley, representing my Commitment to Action. This experience helped me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.  Multiple forums were held, and topics ranged from addressing mental health stigma to bolstering your commitment through fundraising or capacity building. I was able to attend a panel on mental health, and the insight surrounding the development of supportive communities for individuals living with a mental health diagnosis really resonated with me. Many opiate users experience stigma surrounding their use and are often too afraid to seek support from health care professionals when they need it most. My commitment seeks to address not just physiological overdose, but more importantly, provider bias that limits access to health promotion in the first place. Preventing an overdose starts with supporting drug users so they may reduce the potential harm that drug use places on their bodies. The continuum of care includes nurses in community, acute, and emergency care settings. Creating more inclusive, supportive care environments that are free of judgment and stigma serve to enhance access to care for drug users. Attending CGI-U reminded me that one of the greatest public health challenges our society faces is stigma. Whether it’s related to mental health, HIV status, reproductive choices, or drug use, stigma is harming, and at worst, taking lives. As health professionals living in an era with strained medical spending and sky-rocketing rates of heroin overdose, one of the greatest interventions available to us is addressing and eliminating our own biases regarding our patients. Their very lives depend on it.


Teaching Challenges and Solution Strategies

By: Ellie Davis, Arzoo Malhotra and Marietta Gelfort

Through this post, we will share some of the challenges and solutions we have experienced while teaching. During the summer session we had a consistent group of students who received introductory knowledge of geography and open source mapping. However, this group of students changed due to lower participation rates and the older students entering more advanced classes. In response to this change and without the resources or time to repeat the summer classes, we reorganized the fall and spring sessions into a more modular design. Each class we teach is independent of the other classes, allowing for the constantly changing student attendance. Although a single class can build on knowledge from previous classes, the activities and discussions do not require those classes. Our class time also changed from the summer. We are teaching after school in an evening session. After many hours of learning, our students are tired of lectures and instead, we have found that physical activities receive a better response. Now, we form our classes around interactive activities that simulate the topic of the class. We also are bringing in speakers to help the students see the real world applications of the topics.

Due to these challenges, we learned that our teaching objectives had to be altered to create a more motivating and engaging learning environment. Most challenging in this regard was to let go of traditional teaching methods and strategies as well as to acknowledge time and space limitations. This experience has helped us create a more flexible and interactive classroom. The final chapter of our class will be to help the students interview one of the speakers that came to our class and produce a short presentation on that person’s career and how the student could achieve a similar career. We look forward to seeing the students’ presentations and their observations of the career options in geography.


Project Lilypad: Project Impact

By: Paige Cooper

What has been the impact of this project on you personally? On your academic experience? On the community you intend to serve?
The need for persistence has been a lesson from this project. When my original ideas for floating wetlands turned out to be more difficult to implement than anticipated, it has at times been hard not to become discouraged and a little disconnected. Often in a classroom setting problems are just a point of discussion and not an actual plan of action.
Working on casework for public health classes has sometimes made the reality of community projects seem more solution-orientated or data-driven. As I have learned from this experience, that is not always the case. Projects that may seem perfect from the start might have more complex processes. While the frustration may seem bad, I think there’s still a lot of benefit jumping through hoops and trying to make a positive change.
Moving forward with my project and other future endeavors, I want to have a mindset of iterative change. If the first attempts don’t work out, it’s okay to revise the plan and press on.

What is keeping you in this program?
I like how the work on Kingman Island is part of bigger movement for its community. Despite the fact that there’s a lot of city politics that continue to overlook the area, and a little uncertainty about the future of the neighborhood as the stadium re-development continues, I view the revitalization of Kingman Island as a project that provides both environmental and social benefits. Restoring the Island not only provides a direct benefit the to river and land, but also provides a public space for everyone to enjoy. Even though previous city plans to restore the island have fallen through, there’s a lot of hope and potential for the park.



How is this going to impact your future?
Being a part of this project has encouraged me to be a more active citizen in DC. I have had a limited understanding of DC, despite having attended school in the middle of the city for the past four years. As I make the transition out of GW and into the working world, I would like to take more ownership of the DC community that has become my home. As a resident, I feel like I have partial responsibility for the social and environmental disparities within DC. My project isn’t just helping a distant community; it’s helping my future neighbors.

Describe one moment that was particularly meaningful to you.
One moment that was meaningful to me was listening to a resident of the area nearby Kingman Island describe how the park was a special place for her. While I was waiting in line, I overheard this woman next to me speaking about a park that she loved to visit next to a giant parking lot. The hint of a “giant parking lot” tipped me off that she was talking about Kingman Island, so I joined in on her conversation.

From our conversation, I learned that she was a resident of the area and we were able to speak about her experiences as a resident of the area. She was very energetic and enthusiastic. Even though she recognized that the neighborhood had challenges and that the recent stadium development was a strain on the community, she had a lot of optimism for the area. She called Kingman Island “a bright spot”. Being able to have a candid conversation with a resident about the Island helped to me to better visualize the long-term potential for what this project could mean. As an outsider to the area, I will likely only see a small part of the project. To members of the community, such as this woman who visits the park often, changes to her community good or bad have an effect on her everyday life. I hope that Kingman Island can continue to provide a “bright spot” to members in the community.


GIS for Youth Empowerment: Project Impact

By: Ellie Davis

What has been the impact of this project on you personally? On your academic experience? On the community you intend to serve? 

GIS For Youth Empowerment has rejuvenated my passion for geography education. It has helped me decide on a career path and highlighted the importance of geography in the school system. The community has benefited from the scholars learning about both assets and issues and learning how to be change makers and advocates in their community.

What is keeping you in this program?

I think it is vitally important for our scholars to learn about different geographical concepts and be able to connect those concepts to their own lives. Watching them think deeply and grow academically keeps me teaching.

How is this going to impact your future?

This experience has solidified my resolve to receive a PhD in Geography and be able to use this experience to help other communities.

Describe one moment that was particularly meaningful to you.

There is a student in our class that was very quiet and was nervous about speaking up in front of her peers. During one class, she whispered a very insightful idea about the topic and we got her to share it with the class. Since then, she has become a leader and articulate participant in the class.

Perry School Peace Garden: Project Impact

By: Max Grossman

What has been the impact of this project on you personally? On your academic experience? On the community you intend to serve?
With its rain barrel, educational activities, gardening, and cooking demonstrations, my project is inherently multifaceted. This has made a personal impact on me as it has taught me the power of building partnerships when I – neither a master rain barrel installer or gardener – need help achieving project goals. Working with the GW’s Engineers Without Borders chapter and DC Greens has made much of the program areas that I lack experience with possible, and grown the community which the project serves.
The project has also had an academic impact. It has removed the abstraction from the research-based justifications I originally made when justifying the project. Through the project activities, I was able to see the impact it makes myself, rather than just put my faith in published papers. This sort experiential learning is very powerful.
Through the environmental lessons, the Perry School students have been introduced to plants, places, and ideas new to them. For example, it fascinated students that the same sweet potatoes grown on farms surrounding DC are also grown in Taiwan. They have also had the chance to experience the K Street Farm – an open green space they look forward to going back to in the spring.
What is keeping you in this program?
Over the past two years, I’ve come to know and care about many of the children in this program. In that time, it has become increasing evident that gardening and being outside is something they truly enjoy. This program makes our student’s outside time possible, and because of this I seek to continue implementing a meaningful service project.
How is this going to impact your future?
As my first real interaction with community and educational gardening, working on the eco-equity challenge has made it clear that I will seek out similar opportunities in the future.
Describe one moment that was particularly meaningful to you.
In the fall, partner DC Greens gave our students a tour of their K Street Farm. This day was particularly meaningful to me as it generated the sense of discovery I’d hoped would come from the project. Kids struggled trying to say the word cistern, learned the important relationship between bugs and crops, and marveled at the taste of real honey. Capturing these sorts of moments is part of what makes service projects special and I hope to help our students discover more in the future.