Learning to Listen: Advisory Council Member Steve Arnold

Written by Hannah Bain. Contributions from Steve Arnold.

Though Steve Arnold is our newest Advisory Council member, he has deep roots in the Kibera community and strong ties to CFK Africa as an education activist and co-founder of our Best Schools Initiative (BSI).

Steve has pursued at least four different careers in his life, but they all had one thing in common: they required him to listen intently to the thoughts and needs of others. Steve began his professional career as a Professor of Religion before shifting his focus to structural reform in the education system. He then became an administrator who “trained teachers on how to teach” before becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist.

“What I try to do with my life is find gaps where there is a need not being met,” Steve said. “And you can’t find gaps if you’re not really listening.”

Embarking on a “World Listening Tour”

With that in mind, Steve mapped out and packed for a “world listening tour.” He spent a year traveling throughout Africa, India, and China studying, listening, and learning about education and needs, specifically in informal settlements.

Why informal settlements? According to Steve, he was drawn to them because they have a high concentration of need and are only continuing to grow.

“While the needs in rural areas are large, the world has changed,” Steve said. “There are not so many people living in rural areas anymore. People are leaving rural areas to find job opportunities in the city, and they often end up in informal settlements in urban areas.”

Graphic with stats about urban growth

Steve began his journey in South Africa and slowly made his way north through Africa and then through part of Asia.  He worked as a professor and therapist at the University of Botswana, did consulting work in schools across India, and connected with people and organizations around the world.

He first set foot in Kenya in 2010 and immediately visited Kibera, which was well-known for being one of the largest informal settlements in the world. After a few days of asking questions and experiencing what life was like in the community, Steve decided he wanted to settle down and spend the rest of his life there.

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Steve with a friend in Kibera (Photo Credit, Steve Arnold).

Setbacks & Social Context

Prior commitments and the reality of packing up his life to move over 9,000 miles away brought him back to the U.S. between 2011 and 2013, but that didn’t stop his work. The research he had conducted in Kibera in 2010 emphasized the need for education reform. The literacy rate was “exceedingly low” – less than 10% from what he could gather – and there were only a handful of schools to serve a rapidly growing population, approximately 50% of which were youth.

With that in mind, Steve came up with an idea. He believed that even kids who didn’t have access to school could learn to read if they had tablets equipped with e-books and other learning material. A research lab at MIT had piloted a similar project in a remote village in Ethiopia, and the children acquired “decoding” skills by using the tablets. Though decoding is not the same as reading for understanding, it is an important step in building literacy.

Equipped with statistics, a successful case study, and his own lived experiences in Kibera, Steve returned to Kenya in 2014 with dozens of tablets. But statistics and studies hadn’t yet captured how drastically things had changed in Kibera in just three years. The literacy rate had grown exponentially, and instead of a handful of schools, there were nearly 200.

On his first day back, Steve shared his idea with a few community members. Instead of interest or excitement, he was met with laughter and dismissal. Not only did they tell Steve his plan wouldn’t work, they told him he shouldn’t distribute the tablets.

“When I asked why I shouldn’t move forward with the plan, they said ‘because our children will be killed if you give them [a tablet]. When somebody sees it, they will want it.’ This is why living in Kibera and contextualizing things is essential,” Steve explained. “I spent three years reading every study available and talking to people who lived there, and then in one day on the ground, I found everything I did was useless. I didn’t know the social context. I didn’t know how fast schooling had changed.”

Learning to “Dance” Within the System

Instead of drowning in discouragement, Steve took action. He and his wife were already renting a space nearby, and Steve also began renting a room in a house in Kibera, where he spent most of his time.

“The best word I use for life in an informal settlement is chaotic, and I don’t mean that with any negative connotations. It is fast-paced and fast-changing. You can’t predict what things are going to be like in a week, a year, or five years, and you have to learn how to dance within that system. But other than that, it is just regular life – infuriating and great.”

Steve Arnold

Steve spent his first year in Kibera listening and learning about primary education – figuring out how to “dance” within a rapidly evolving education system. During his second year, he partnered with 12 schools to help them become government certified, but the government support for the program was lacking.

He pivoted again in 2016, focusing his efforts on improving the quality of informal – or as Steve likes to call them, “mom and pop” – schools. Rather than being operated by the government and adhering to national standards, these private institutions were operated by nonprofits, churches, and “edupreneurs.” Though many of them meant well and improved access to school for thousands of children in Kibera, most did not have the resources needed to provide quality education for students.

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Steve working with a group from the Kenya Education Staff Institute (KESI) (Photo Credit, Steve Arnold).

“It seemed like everyone working in the education space was either offering scholarships or creating their own schools, but those initiatives reached maybe 20% of students in the community,” Steve said. “Nobody was looking at how to fundamentally improve education. I spoke to every NGO, community-service organization, and most schools in the area working in education, and CFK Africa was the only organization I spoke to that was willing to try another approach.”

The Best Schools Initiative Approach

In partnership with CFK staff, Steve co-developed the Best Schools Initiative (BSI), which focuses on improving student attendance and academic success (e.g., test scores, matriculation to high school, etc.) in informal schools through data-driven and cost-effective best practices.

Based on interviews with parents, teachers, and community leaders, the BSI team identified the most significant barriers to quality education in informal schools and developed interventions ranging from teacher training to free school lunches to address each one. CFK is currently partnering with more than 20 schools to implement and evaluate the impact of the various interventions. Our willingness to continually learn and improve is part of what Steve thinks makes us unique.

“Every organization is ‘doing research’ by collecting and reporting impact data,” Steve said. “But CFK’s Best Schools Initiative is actively trying to learn and experiment with what works best for long-term change.”

Though Steve views CFK’s research ethos as one of our strengths, he also believes we can improve how we research and measure impact.

CFK Africa leads BSI data collection in Kibera
CFK Africa staff collecting data for the Best Schools Initiative (Photo Credit, CFK Africa).

“M&E has gotten to a place in development work that we have to prove that we accomplished what we set out to accomplish,” Steve said. “That often impacts how we think about our goals and measure impact.”

Though Steve planned to live the rest of his life in Kibera, health challenges forced him back to the U.S. in 2018. Despite the distance, he has remained connected to BSI, providing strategic advice and analysis support for our team on the ground. He recently joined our Global Advisory Council and has collaborated with our leadership team to develop “Theory of Change workshops,” which will help us become effective catalysts for change in the 20+ informal settlements we are expanding into across eight counties.

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