Ashoka fellow empowers youth in Kenyan slums

Ashoka fellow empowers youth in Kenyan slums

Originally from New York City, Paige Elenson was probably the person that her high school yearbook would have voted “Least Likely To Move to Kenya to Teach Yoga”. She shares with us her journey to building the Africa Yoga Project and the impact that the initiative has had so far…

“My life was consumed with the pursuit of success and, in turn, had some reckless failures of that pursuit. I felt empty, lonely and unhealthy. During University, I started practicing yoga. Through my training with my yoga teacher Baron Baptiste I realized that anything is possible if you come from a place of being open to what’s next. Baptiste Yoga transformed my life and I was compelled to learn how to share that with others.

In 2006,  I was on a safari with my family in Africa when I saw some Kenyan acrobats doing handstands in the bush.  Although I was told to stay in the jeep, I couldn’t help myself.  I got out and showed them that I could stand on my hands too.  After the safari, I came back to New York and kept receiving calls from the Kenyan acrobats pleading with me to come back and teach them more. Finally, after lots of thought, I decided to go back.  This trip is what changed it all for me. What I did not realize was that I would be staying in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Kenya, where most people live on less than $1 a day. While teaching, I met five teenage girls; Catherine, Anita, Irene, Leah and Hadijah. They called themselves the “Ghetto Girls.”

Ashoka fellow empowers youth in Kenyan slums

Ashoka fellow empowers youth in Kenyan slums

The “Ghetto Girls” ranged in age from 13 to 19 years old, and were living in a small room made out of iron sheets with one mattress.  Each and every day they traveled over two hours to come to yoga class. They said it made them feel clean, strong and happy. From here, a connection was born with Kenya,and with the amazing young people who were coming to class. After doing some research I found out that one of the root challenges that causes such abject poverty is youth unemployment. Over 80% of youth in Kenya are unemployed. I turned this challenge into our opportunity by forming Africa Yoga Project with Baron Baptiste. We now train girls and boys, like the ghetto girls, to teach yoga as a avenue to education, empowerment and employment.

What does success look like for you in this role as the team leader? 

Our greatest success is our people. We are leaders who are empowering leaders and that creates a legacy and sustainability way beyond what is imaginable.

What future plans do you have for the organization? 

I see Africa Yoga Project as a model for creating diversity and accessibility of yoga as a tool for social change.


How many people has the initiative reached so far?

Over 6,000 people participate in more than 300 community yoga classes weekly in 80 locations. More than 200 young people, trained as teachers, are earning a living wage by teaching yoga to people who otherwise would not have the opportunity. Every week up to 360 people from all walks of life in Nairobi gather at our community center to practice yoga for 2 hours together as a community.

How do you select the youth to work with? here you will find detailed information on eligibility to join program: http://www.africayogaproject.org/pages/academy-application New teachers are typically recommended by current teachers as they understand the program and can give other youth a good picture of the opportunity and commitment they are making.

 
How do you track their progress to ensure that these changemakers stay to their call of transforming the world?
We track the number of people we are reaching every week through these instructors, our program also includes assessments to ensure we are providing the right training for them to be successful.


What is your strategy to get every young person to acquire the requisite skills to be changemakers? 

What happens is youth who have joined our program go back to their homes and share what they are learning and share yoga practice and wellbeing with their neighbors and friends. This, we have found, is the best way for others to see how empowered their friend is, and want to join as well.


How is your typical day at work?

There is no typical day, My constants are being the mom of a beautiful four year old daughter, some sort of yoga and meditation practice and being open to the adventure of the day.

What is your leadership style?

I think my leadership style is to create a vision, inspire collaboration and let go of control.
 
How do you unwind?
I love to stay home with my daughter, a great movie and some yummy vegetarian food.

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