Yale Divinity Student Explores New Social Solutions in Kenyan Slum


Heaven Berhane, a Master’s student at Yale Divinity School and member of the Yale Black Seminarians, traveled to Kibera, Kenya with support from Tsai CITY’s Student Innovation Fund to do research toward providing a child welfare center for the community. She sat down with us to reflect on her project and her time there.

Q: Tell me about your work with Crossing Thresholds.

A: We went to Kenya to work on a project building on the vision of Simeon Ajigo, founder of Facing the Future School. He works alongside Carter Via who founded Crossing Thresholds.  The main mission of Crossing Thresholds is building schools in Kibera, which is a slum in Kenya. It’s the largest slum in the world, so it has a host of something like a million people.  From that work, Simeon saw that there were additional needs within the community. He wanted us to do a survey.  My classmates and I went door-to-door, house-to-house, and spoke with different family members, asking them questions around health, education, abuse and neglect for children. We were figuring out what the needs were within the community because the assignment’s long-term goal is to build a child welfare center that helps to address the needs of the community beyond the children, including the family systems. So we did some of the groundwork around the research that we hope to use to figure out what resources we can establish within Kibera. 

Q: What phase of the project is your team at now?

A: We’re speaking with Carter and Simeon about what their vision for the future is based on the information and the data that we have. We’re analyzing the data and then we’re asking, ‘What is the next step?’


Q: What led you to this work?

A: One, my background in social work. I’m interested in the issue of child welfare, which was a lot of the work I did before I came to Yale. I’m really interested in working to address issues around family systems, children, and then just generally figuring out ways that we can collaboratively work with people on the continent to help build up the infrastructure, and the economy, and the overall welfare of the people there.

Q: What brought you back to school?

A: I’m in the Divinity program, and that led me to use my faith as something that propels my work for social justice, activism and addressing social issues and social needs. 

Q: What is your vision for your work in the future?

A: I’m really passionate about how the church can be a force or a voice for change in the communities that we’re serving. My vision would be continuing to discover what’s drawn me to work at Tsai CITY as well, which is figuring out innovative ways for us to address social issues—whether that’s in activism, in art, or in music—but really pushing minorities, people of color to feel empowered to create change within their communities. My vision is focusing on the most underserved communities and making sure that we’re giving them a platform so that their needs can be addressed, so that they are never forgetton.

Q: What’s it like working with Tsai CITY?

A: It’s been great! I’m the Equity and Civic Engagement Coordinator, so my job is around getting more students of color in the door, from different backgrounds, different disciplines, just different people.  I make sure that they get all the resources and opportunities that they need to want to make, like I said, the changes in their communities or any community for that matter.  It’s been great so far.  I’ve been able to do a lot of listening sessions on campus with different student groups, figuring out what they need.  We’re hiring cultural center liaisons right now, which is awesome.  And they’re going to help us stay connected to the cultural centers and find ways that we can make sure there’s a pipeline of students from there to here, or us going to them to host different sessions and workshops.  We’re gearing up to some stuff for Black History Month. 

The second piece of it is engaging with New Haven, which is a bit of a longer process.  But just figuring out, what is Tsai CITY’s role and responsibility to engage with the community here, and provide the resources that the community here needs so that there isn’t such a divide between us and them—New Haven residents and Yale students.  We’re figuring out what that looks like long term.

Q: Are you going back to Kibera?

A: I would like to. That’s something that we’re working on now. My classmates and I are working to figure out funding opportunities to fund the project. So the goal is definitely to go back sooner rather than later. 

Q: Anything else you’d like to share about your work?

A: Those of us who are in privileged spaces need to think about how to do work ethically.  Whether it’s me as a minister or here at Tsai CITY, or working in the community or in Kibera, or whatever I decide to do, we’re always thinking about how to do this work ethically, and what does it look like to have a relationship that is equitable between me and different communities so that there isn’t a power structure? There should always be collaboration and value on both sides.  I think about the work systemically, the systems that are causing the inequities in our communities. So while we’re doing the work, we’re not only trying to address the issue at hand, but thinking about what got us here, whether it’s through the church or Tsai CITY, as a social worker. What are we doing to address the systems that are causing the inequity around us?

Emma Chanen is a junior at Yale and a Digital Media Intern at Tsai CITY.


Emma Chanen