Women Working To Do Good

WWTDG: Nora Rahimian and Liberian Prison Youth

I met Nora Rahimian in my AP European History class at Beverly Hills High School.  We had intense study group sessions and her mom always served us superb tea and cookies.  I always saw Nora as a leader, facilitator, and educator and I am proud to report that she is currently completing her MFA in International Affairs at The New School in New York, specifically building on the strengths of communities and cultures she works with to create strategies for peace with perpetrators of violence, prisoners, gang-affiliated youth, and people who have caused harm to their community.  She is also spearheading the funding of The Liberian Prison Project, which seeks to aid incarcerated youth in the Monrovia Central Prison of Liberia.

Monrovia Central Prison of Liberia. The Guardian.co.uk, featuring statistics from Amnesty International, reported that: "Up to 1,700 people are incarcerated in Liberia's 15 prisons. Of these, only 300 have been convicted of a criminal offense. About 80% of inmates are pre-trial detainees. Cells have one small barred window on the door and another that faces outside. Although, at the discretion of guards, prisoners can move in and out of their cells with reasonable ease, overcrowding is a problem. Amnesty found cell blocks designed to hold 374 inmates were housing as many as 839. The ministry of justice is piloting a parole and probation system in an effort to alleviate the problem, but one Liberian NGO worker told Amnesty: 'For every prisoner they release, they bring in five'." (Image and quote from "The Guardian")

What is inspiring about Nora’s story is that she came to the United States as a refugee during the Iran-Iraq War.  Although her father was a professor and her mother ran a clinic in Iran, her parents took minimum-wage jobs in America so they could live the “American Dream”.   Nora says, “There were bombs falling the night I was born and I am very aware of how political that is– that if Saddam Hussein hadn’t been in power, then that war wouldn’t have happened and I wouldn’t have come here.”  Nora saw that there was a lot of racial tension in her community of Glendale, California, and many of her peers turned to gangs.  When she moved to Beverly Hills as a teenager and saw the disparity in wealth and opportunities between the two parts of Los Angeles, she decided she wanted to do gang work.  Nora says, “It was my way of giving back, being a part of the solution and not the problem.  There’s also the personal desire to see the underdog succeed and wanting people to find their own power and their own light.”

Nora has primarily worked with incarcerated and gang-affiliated youth in both Santa Cruz and New York.  Through The New School’s international field placement program, Nora first traveled to Liberia to study how youth was treated within the country’s prison system.  Through an internship with Youth Crime Watch of Liberia, she saw a need to provide programs for youth while they were being detained, including skills building, psycho-social therapy, and mentoring from adults in the community.  Her hope with The Liberian Prison Project is to not only create these programs, but also set the youth up with apprenticeships and mentors once they’re released, so they could continue building their skills and have the support necessary to go back to school if they so desire.  Nora’s ultimate overarching goal is to engage youth and help reduce crime and recidivism within Liberia.

Anti-gun rally Youth Crime Watch of Liberia held in the busy market area of Redlight. Musicians and comedians were brought in to encourage people not to use guns and to build community.

Youth Crime Watch of Liberia (Image from http://www.ycwliberia.org/)

Nora’s background has prepared her to make The Liberian Prison Project a true success.  While receiving her BA in Psychology at University of California, Santa Cruz, Nora worked with Barrios Unidos, overseeing violence prevention and intervention within low-income housing projects, schools, prisons, and various incarceration programs.  At A Gathering for Genesis, Nora did national organization work, specifically around de-incarceration, youth empowerment, and mobilizing communities.  She brought together not only inter-generations, but also a variety of people from around the United States to take action regarding incarcerated youth.  Nora says of her work in Santa Cruz: “I sought to get youth involved, so there was a lot of mentoring, focusing on spirituality and healing, culture and healing and how culture cures.  I’d like to apply that to Liberia- use the strength of Liberian culture as a reconciliation tool for these young people who are now incarcerated and stigmatized.”

Nora has also done a lot of gender-specific work.  In Santa Cruz she started a women’s circle for women to share experiences in a safe talking space and find support within each other.  A young woman that had a strong affiliation with a gang ended up leading her own circle and serving as an example for the youth in her community after Nora mentored her.  Nora says of her mentoring the youth and the circles she’s formed, “It’s a two-way relationship.  I learn as much from my young people as I hope they learn from me, and once they end the program, we continue that mentoring relationship…Personal transformation is really powerful and building a strong relationship with yourself can be a tool for social justice and change…When I think of the future and the work I do, I think of creating spaces for transformative change like that.”

A gender empowerment retreat Nora led for women that were a part of Youth Crime Watch of Liberia's technology lab.

Nora’s strategy for The Liberian Prison Project is to involve organizations like Youth Crime Watch of Liberia and Prison Fellowship of Liberia, that are already well-respected and making effective change in the Liberian prison system, and to just help them grow by raising the funds needed to create more programs.  She feels that with $250,000 she can run a successful program for a year.  Nora has been applying for grants and is a finalist for one of them.  She has also done outreach to private donors, but she does need more people like you to talk about the program.  You can add your support by commenting on the New Challenge website, where she is a semi-finalist.  Her goal is to raise stipends for the youth to have apprenticeships after incarceration, living wage salaries for the people implementing the program, and money for supplies and curriculum.

A workshop Nora held with Youth Crime Watch of Liberia, training youth to start leadership groups in their schools.

Nora feels her master’s work has given her a strong theoretical background and the legitimacy to work with young people and be a source of positive change.  She says her Peacebuilding and Development class helped her “figure out how to do this work as an outsider, going into someone else’s community and being as beneficial as possible while reducing risks.”  She is constantly thinking: “What are going to be the effects of this program? What am I not seeing that’s going to have a direct impact on someone’s life?”  Nora stresses that it’s important she’s not looked at as a sympathizer, but rather as a leader and facilitator: “I had a teacher tell me that to educate is to pull the knowledge out from within people and ever since then, I think that’s my role, to bring out the leadership in people.  So if I can step back and create space for you to step forward, or for you to find your strength, then I feel that I have been successful and in five or ten years, I hope that I have done that for a good amount of people.”

If you want to help Nora Rahimian get The Liberian Prison Project off the ground, email her at liberianprisonproject@gmail.com.  She’d love to talk more about the project if you have any questions, and she’s open to hearing from you.

Women Working to Do Good is a series that Hello Giggles and the White House have been collaborating on. We will bring you stories of women in communities across the United States who we think are stars in their own right. Whether they are young entrepreneurs, active community organizers, or making a difference in a single life or community, we think these women are amazing and want to share their stories with you! Each story will also be featured on the White House blog, and we are working together to bring more strong female role models to the forefront.

If there is a woman in your community who you think should be honored in this series, email us at wwtdg@hellogiggles.com!

Images courtesy of Nora Rahimian

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