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Seven Minnesota women collaborating to lift global literacy

Literacy is key to everything. We have found a synergy to uplift and support each other.

Books on a bookshelf

“When spiders unite, they can tie down a lion” ~ Ethiopian proverb

There are seven of us Minnesota women living this statement by uniting to tackle the critical issue of global illiteracy.

A year ago, we all met for coffee. It didn’t take long for us to realize how much we complemented one another. We had similar struggles and issues in conducting international nonprofit work. Each of us had unique skills and experiences that could help each other, so we started to do just that: help one another with different tasks.

In a society that taught us to be competitive and tear each other down, our diverse group sees the power in collective action and collaboration to impact the world on a larger scale. Our organizations have improved lives in Minnesota, Haiti and across Africa, but it’s been challenging doing it alone. We are also working against statistics like Minnesota having the largest gap in the nation in reading scores between white and non-white students.

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Our women-led collaboration consists of Saintanne Tipton (The Lighthouse, Haiti), Rosemond Sarpong Owens (Sanitation and Literacy Ghana, Ghana), Leslie Pitt (Project Lolo, Ghana), Carol Pfleiderer (Holistic Ministry of Children of the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia), Sarah Drake (herARTS in Action, Minnesota and Burkina Faso), Erin Bagniewski (Africa Strong Inc, Uganda, Zambia and Nigeria), and Robyn Coquyt (Africa Classroom Connection, South Africa).

With power in numbers, it’s easier to open doors. We also shared lessons learned, grants and more. When we talked to others about how women, whom many would see as competitors, were working together, people validated what we were doing as unique and needed. Individually, our organizations have made remarkable strides in promoting literacy and education.

Zulu, a 10th grader at King Zwelithini High School in South Africa, said, “We have heartfelt gratitude and appreciation for what you have done for us. Before, our school had overcrowded classes with enrollment of 80 students. Learning and teaching wasn’t comfortable. The teachers were not able to work properly. Now we even have a class to have one on one conversation and give expanded opportunities to those learners who experience some difficulties.”

And from a teacher: “Allow me to say that this method (of student-centered teaching approaches learned in teacher professional development) has been of great importance towards the academic performance of our learners at Rwemiyenje Primary School,” said Silver Kamugisha, primary-grade 7 science teacher in Uganda.

Sarah Drake
Sarah Drake
We recognize that by combining our strengths and resources, we can achieve more. We share a commitment to collaboration and a determination to make a significant difference in the lives of those we serve. We believe that women coming together and collaborating over literacy and education will change the world, one person at a time. Our vision is that everyone has access to education, learning opportunities and literacy.

As individuals who mostly do this work are volunteers, we lack the resources and time it takes to put together strong and continuous programming and functions. Literacy is important to us because access to education is a right denied to many children.

Erin Bagniewski
Erin Bagniewski
Globally, nearly 250 million schoolchildren are still out of school after the shutdowns from COVID. As a result of lost learning time, this could have a $17 trillion impact on future lost wages, according to the United Nations. It will also have a huge effect on the African continent, which has the youngest and fastest-growing population. By 2030, 375 million African youth will be in the labor force, which will be more than the rest of the world combined, according to the International Monetary Fund.

After a few meetings, our group agreed to work on a major project. While we all do different things, literacy is key to everything. Fundraising is hard, but we found a synergy to uplift and support each other. Together we are Literacy Is For Everyone (LIFE). The inaugural event on Friday, Oct. 13, at the Dovetail Building in Minneapolis isn’t just to raise essential funds but to increase awareness about the challenges faced in accessing quality education and essential resources locally and across the globe. To learn more, purchase tickets, bid in the auction go to

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Sarah Drake is the founder and CEO of herARTS in Action. Erin Bagniewski is the executive director of Africa Strong Inc.