BY SARAH JEAN DAVIDSON
September 2011 marked the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Peace Corps created by President John F. Kennedy who signed an Executive Order establishing the Peace Corps in March 1961. Since its creation, 200,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers, working in over 130 developing countries, making a difference and forever changing the way America sees the world and how the world sees America. According to the Peace Corps website, the roots and mission of the Peace Corps can be traced to 1960, when a youthful JFK challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries.
Celebrating this historical milestone with thousands of other Peace Corps alumni, September 2011 in Washington, DC was a Wilmington, North Carolina native and a Williston Senior High School graduate named Barbara Ferguson Kamara. Kamara, a quiet but strong-willed child, grew up in a Wilmington public housing complex. She was the oldest of three children, living in a two-parent home filled with books and lots of love. Both parents were community activists and taught their children to ”Be thy neighbors’ keepers.” Her grandfather owned a grocery store. Much of her childhood was spent working at the store and helping neighbors. She remembers her parents taking neighbors children to church, to the movies and having activities at their home to always be aware of where their own children were. Kamara remembers the story told by her mom of when her grandfather was forced out of business by the local white establishment. Her youthful passion for fairness and helping others made her think of pursuing a career in social work, according to her high school year book.
In 1961, Kamara was a college student at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina and very active in campus activities. She pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, was active with the Foreign Student Association and was editor of the award winning Johnson C. Smith University Student newspaper. Additio-nally, she fine-tuned her passion for helping others and making a difference by becoming involved with the Student Non-violent Coordi-nating Committee and participating in the civil unrest that swept the country in the fight for equal rights for African-Americans via sit-ins, jail time and other means of protest. Her fellow classmates were so impressed with her leadership and verbal skills that they selected her to represent them and speak about racial injustices before the all-white City Council of Char-lotte. Pursuing a degree in mathematics with a minor in economics, she was looking forward to a future as a scientist.
Two years after President Kennedy created the Peace Corps, Kamara was on a chartered Pan Am flight from New York as one of four African Americans, with approximately 200 eager mixed-age range Americans headed to a Liberia, Africa, a country established between 1821-1847 by abolitionists and former African American enslaved people. The airplane landed at Robertsfield International Airfield outside of Monrovia, Liberia, the country’s capitol.
Much of Kamara’s job in Liberia was about teaching, ‘building bridges’ and navigating the politics and culture of former enslaved African Americas referred to as ”Americo-Liberians,” and Liberia’s majority indigenous population. Her first assignment was at a Junior High School in Tappita, a small town in Nimbia County in Central Liberia, teaching a fifth grade class with 35 students, that included a 35-year-old father and his young daughter. ”Because of the caste system established by the ”Americo-Liberians” the indigenous population was not afforded universal opportunities to pursue an education,” said Kamara.
”Being the only African American of her group in an indigenous area, the community related to me, and the father saw my class as an opportunity to become literate and learn with his daughter,” said Kamara. She notes that she was surprised to learn that there were no high schools within 50 miles of her school; and that some students walked two to three days to attend school and had to live with people in the town to obtain even an elementary education.
Responding to a demand to move to Monrovia to teach mathematics, Kamara asked her principal to allow her to move to the Junior High section of the school to teach math. Even though there were no female teachers in junior high school, the principal agreed to Kamara’s request, and allowed her to teach ninth grade math, creative writing and English. As part of her agreement, she agreed to teach calculus and other advance math in the teacher training summer institute in the beautiful coastal town of Robertsport in Cape Mount County.
In one of Kamara’s ninth grade classes, one of her students, who was also teaching an afternoon class was underperforming, and the school was concerned that he might not pass the required exam to transition to tenth grade. They considered demoting him so he would not embarrass the school. Word came to Kamara about the student’s situation. She learned that in addition to being a student, he taught 80 students, ages 4 to 12 in his afternoon pre-primary class. Not being aware that the local community did not allow foreigners to teach below the third grade because of possible American cultural indoctrination, Kamara offered to teach the class and allow the student to keep his small stipend. After lengthy deliberations, Kamara’s negotiating skills were instrumental in letting school officials know that her values were consistent with the Liberian community, and she was granted special permission to teach the pre-primary class.
Kamara was intrigued with teaching the class, but she was not aware that the 80 students in the class spoke 19 different languages. Challenged with teaching this class, she invited the women in her English as a Second Language class to help her with the class. This arrangement not only provided Kamara with help, but gave the women the opportunity to practice their English skills, as well.
Kamara’s Liberia experience with the pre-primary class had a profound effect on her decision to seek opportunities to pursue a master’s degree in early childhood upon her return to the United States. Following her Peace Corps experience, and along the way to a Master’s of Science in Early Childhood Development, Kamara served as assistant to the superintendent of schools in Sumter, South Carolina where she was the liaison to the early childhood Teacher Corps program at South Carolina State University. While in Sumter, she wrote a one million dollar proposal for a program for three- to- five- year-olds in the Sumter school system; and she visited and communicated with many people who were involved in early childhood projects such as the Abecedarian program in Chapel Hill, NC and the New Nursery School Model in Greely, Colorado.
Under the auspices of the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, Kamara visited all early childhood teacher training programs in southern states. Later, she presented a paper on her findings at a conference at the University of Georgia. In the audience the day of the presentation was the President and Dean of Bank Street College of Education, a school that has been identified as ”one of four exemplary early childhood teacher preparation programs in the United States.” Kamara says, that in a conversation with the president and dean, they asked her where she obtained her degree in early childhood. Her response was, ”I don’t have a degree in early childhood.” Impressed with her presentation, they offered, and she accepted a full tuition scholarship to Bank Street College.
Following the completion of her work at Bank Street, Kamara experienced a long and illustrious career in early childhood development. Her first experience was as a teacher of three-year-olds at the Learning Institute of North Carolina’s Children Center (LINC) in Greensboro. In two years, she became director of the demonstration center and positioned the program to play a significant role in the establishment of the first eight state-supported public school kindergartens in North Carolina. Prior to transitioning from LINC, Kamara expanded program services to eight southern states and was able to offer college credit from eight colleges and universities for those participating in Head Start and other early childhood training programs.
Although Kamara made nationally recognized contributions in early childhood while at LINC, she continued to assess ways to be better prepared for international work. Her work was well known to newly elected Governor Jim Hunt’s Secretary of Administration who had supported Kamara’s campaign for a City Council Seat in Greensboro. She offered and Kamara accepted a position in the Hunt administration to manage a program in the North Carolina state government, where the principal investigator was on the faculty of the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This position would provide Kamara an opportunity to pursue a degree in international public health. However, prior to starting the position, Kamara received a call from President Jimmy Carter’s administration asking her to consider the position of Associate Commissioner for Developmental Services at the newly created U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. Remembering her parents telling her not to ”jump from job to job,” Kamara declined the offer from President Carter’s team. A phone call from Marion Wright Eldelman, founder and president of the powerful Washington, DC Children’s Defense Fund, changed Kamara’s mind and she accepted the presidential appointment with the Carter administration. The following week, the Carter team contacted Governor Hunt to inform him of Kamara’s decline of the Presidential appointment.
Governor Hunt and his team talked with Kamara and the rest is history.
Kamara was responsible for the national Head Start program and other early childhood initiatives in the Carter Administration and served until the end of his term. In 1987, she was appointed by District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry to head the newly created Office of Early Childhood Development. She served in that position for over 20 years, retiring in 2008 with a long list of positive outcomes, including increasing the budget from $50,000 to $110 million.
The extent of Kamara’s influence on early childhood education can be readily seen in the District of Columbia and throughout the world. Her unrivaled experience has enabled her to be more effective as one of the nation’s foremost and top early childhood experts.
Today, Kamara is a consultant to an international foundation assisting the government of Liberia with rebuilding its educational infrastructure following 15 years of bloody civil wars. Exemplifying the Peace Corps mission and spirit, Kamara notes that her professional experience makes her well suited for the task. As she and others work to re-build Liberia’s educational infrastructure, Kamara applies some of the principles and strategies she has learned to make high quality early childhood options available for children and families in the country where she served as Peace Corp volunteer fifty years ago.
Looking back, Kamara says, her work in Liberia brings her full circle. ”I am a person who grew up in the Hillcrest community of Wilmington with support from my family, church, school and community. They let me know that with a solid foundation, hard work, determination and big dreams, anything is possible.”
Sarah Jean Davidson is free lance writer, early childhood specialist and the founder and owner of the National Institute of Family Services, Inc. You may contact her at NIFAMServ@aol.com.