Student who never traveled founds arts NGO in Ghana

Four Brandeis students interning with Attukwei Arts Foundation this summer

Jessye Kass '13 had never left the country before going to Ghana during a gap semester before entering Brandeis. The experience inspired her in lasting ways.

Teaching English at an orphanage with the organization Projects Abroad, Kass, now a rising senior, saw firsthand how children struggled to learn in the poverty-stricken area.

She knew she would return to Ghana, and that she wanted to make a difference in the lives of children there. Her philosophy is that every child deserves art and a safe environment in which to learn.

With Sorensen Fellowship and seed grants, Kass teamed up with Ghanaian artist Serge Clottey, whom she met at the orphanage, to co-found the Attukwei Art Foundation. The non-governmental organization aims to educate children about the world around them through art and to provide therapeutic arts programs. It has so far operated in a handful of the poorest schools and its board – on which Clottey serves as president and Kass as vice president – hopes to expand to serve HIV/AIDS communities and children who have suffered abuse.

This summer, she has returned to Ghana for the fifth time and four other Brandeis students are interning with Attukwei, which has served more than 1,000 children so far.

“When we started working with them, some of the kids didn’t even know how to open a marker, which was really sad to me,” Kass says. “They have a hard time learning to be creative. I’m not a fine arts major, but I’m a creative person – I do photography, I doodle.”

Kass says the foundation has worked with students on such tasks as simple as learning to pass paint to one another, creating community murals or just “being silly and learning that it’s OK to be wrong.”

Teachers appreciate the help, she says, especially because none of them have funding for creative programming.

In school, Ghanaian students are taught to memorize facts and figures and to compete with one another, Kass says. Working together and using their imaginations are foreign concepts for many.

An anthropology and African and Afro-American studies double major, Kass has also studied art therapy and arts education independently and learned about the healing value of the creative process. The foundation’s volunteers are all art majors and this summer, they’ll offer a musical theater program.

“I’ve watched some of the children go from 4 to 8 -- it’s really great to see them grow,” says Kass.

 “We were both sort of naïve about what it would take” to start and build the foundation, Kass says of herself and Clottey, but little by little their dream began coming to fruition as they wrote a mission statement, built a website, legally registered as a nonprofit and recruited volunteers. Much of the arts supplies come from a Brandeis African American Student Association donation, while volunteers seek grants to pay for their own travel and living expenses.

Alia Goldfarb ’13 is one of this summer’s interns. She and Kass were part of the same midyear class and have remained close. Goldfarb, who is in the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence studies program, with a focus on applied theatre for mediation, education and reconciliation purposes, thought working with the foundation would be a great fit for her personal interests and professional aspirations.

“Attukwei Art Foundation focuses more on the fine arts as a medium for education and expression, however Jessye felt my approach with the performing arts could be a good fit to expand the programming AAF has to offer, which is what I will be doing this summer,” Goldfarb says. “Serge is a gifted artist and teacher, whom I hope to learn much from. Jessye has an inspiring, undying passion for her work and a deep connection to the country, which I hope to share.”

Fellow Brandeisians Emily Balmuth-Loris ‘14, Breanna Beberman ’13 and Malika Imhotep ‘15 also will work with the foundation this summer.

Kass says she wants the foundation to continue expanding its offerings and plans to earn a graduate degree in school management or arts education after completing her bachelor’s degree next year.

“Eventually, we’d like to turn it into a school,” she says.

Categories: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs, Student Life

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