Alia Whitney-Johnson: Making a Difference in Sri Lanka by Melis A. '08
Alia Whitney-Johnson, a Junior studying Civil and Environmental Engineering, spent three weeks teaching the art of jewelry making to eighteen Sri Lankan young mothers in a shelter for raped and sexually abused girls.
The MIT Public Service Center provides fellowships for students to travel around the world to allow them apply their talent and knowledge towards the advancement of underserved communities. Alia Whitney-Johnson, a Junior studying Civil and Environmental Engineering, spent three weeks teaching the art of jewelry making to eighteen Sri Lankan young mothers in a shelter for raped and sexually abused girls.
Her original plan was to assist the shelter, called Ma-Sevana, by a writing fundraising letter. But the moment she arrived, she felt overwhelming uncomfortable as a foreigner who did not even speak the language. “I wanted to remedy this feeling of distance and to give something more than my fundraising letter could, a personal relationship that might perhaps provide a sense of support rather than alienation, that might actually bring something beautiful, though not necessarily tangible, to their lives.”
Alia decided to share her passion for beadwork by hosting jewelry workshops for the girls. The transformation was rapid and inspirational; the young women developed individually by sharing their experiences while the group became more cohesive.
Since the girls spoke very little English, Alia initially communicated with them using a translator. However, she barely remembers a language barrier and recalls discovering the power of non-verbal communication. “Somehow we were able to sit around and make jokes and make fun of each other. How we did this without words is beyond me, but I will always treasure those moments when the girls would clearly be talking about me in Sinhalese, and I would start imitating them and we would all laugh.”
But when she returned home from her trip, she wanted to empower the girls by enabling them to use their beading skills to support themselves and their shelter. Her solution was to develop a program called “Emerge,” to “encourage the qualities I witnessed manifesting during the few workshops I had hosted at Ma-Sevana: self-respect, creativity, confidence, a willingness to try something new, independence, collaboration, imagination, organization, hope, and autonomy. Emerge would continue to support them in beadwork, an activity that proved to support the surfacing of these qualities while transcending prior educational background, enabling a lasting skill for the future, and providing a method of income generation.”
Alia also established a sponsorship program, where contributors financially support a Ma-Sevana artist by donating $50 in cash or beads per quarter for at least a year. In exchange, they receive quarterly portfolios of pictures of five of the artists’ favorite pieces. She has found six sponsors so far, but still needs twelve more. The jewelry will be sold in both Sri Lanka and the United States and all proceeds will be re-invested into the program, the shelter, and the girls’ bank accounts. If you are interested, visit their website at web.mit.edu/emerge.
Alia’s commitment to Ma-Sevana and the Emerge program is extremely inspiring and I hope that it will encourage you all to apply your excellent educations and skills to making global changes.