Friday, April 26, 2013

Fulbright Scholar Explores Justice, Youth, Outdoors Across Nigeria

Fulbright scholar Erica Licht is not content to experience the world through the perceptions and stereotypes of others.  Whether through teaching yoga to at-risk youth, traveling by bus to Enugu to lead an anti-violence workshop, or strolling through Lagos Island to observe community policing efforts, Licht’s work in Nigeria aims to engage minds and challenge common perceptions on youth, justice, community and the outdoors.

Licht, a Massachusetts native and a graduate of Vassar College, arrived in Lagos in September 2012 for a 9-month Fulbright fellowship. Originally, she sought to explore the idea of using outdoor education as an alternative to prison for urban youth. Her project and goals have since evolved, to incorporate broader themes of youth engagement with the criminal justice system, drawing inspiration from nature.
“There’s a barrier between the lived experience and the perceived experience” Licht said. In working with youth often designated as ‘area boys,’ her work aims to challenge perceptions on the issues of youth, justice and policing.

Among her many pursuits in Nigeria so far, she has founded U and I Teach Each Other, or U.N.I.T.E., a community-based youth program. Through experiential learning, team-building activities, and discussions, this program connects at-risk youth with local police, guidance counselors, and community leaders. Licht leads discussions that focus on themes like conflict resolution, gender, the justice system, and, as she said, “breaking down different concepts, and really putting on the table how we feel about them.” Licht plans to conclude the program with a community forum in which youth can express their views and feelings on issues facing their communities. “It’s not often that Nigerian youth feel like they have this voice,” she said.

Now into its third month, U.N.I.T.E. operates 3 communities in Lagos (Lagos Island, Ojota, and Ajegunle), and a U.N.I.T.E. workshop was held in Abuja last month. The program also features visits to natural sites, like the Lekki Conservation Center in Lagos. While Lagos is not the most nature-centric city, Licht explained that she incorporates a broader view of the outdoors into her programming, often through activities like yoga.

“There are basic aspects of nature that everyone can relate to – everyone knows what a storm is. You can translate those into movements of the human body that relax the body, that energize the body” she said.

She explained that a primary trigger for violence in youth is stress, so many of her workshops and focus on teaching youth ways to relieve and manage the many stresses of urban life. She recently partnered with DaYoga studio to lead a yoga session with UNITE Ojota. She also said one of her most rewarding experiences in Nigeria so far was a visit to an orphanage in Ikorodu, Lagos, where she led a group of youth in exercises focused around the energy of the sun. Although she admits that sometimes both Nigerian and foreign friends are skeptical when they first hear of her work, she said that overall, reactions to her work have been very positive.

“People respect that I’m trying to take a genuine approach to community work,” she said. “My approach is to share humbly what I have to share.”

She added that, despite many Nigerians’ negative perceptions of the police, the police forces in the areas where she works are receptive and interested in improving relations with their communities. Many of these forces have received training in community-oriented police work from the CLEEN Foundation, one of the organizations Licht has partnered with.  Licht also hosts a radio show, Justified Nature, every Tuesday at 2:30pm on UniLag FM 103.1. She writes of her experiences and reflections on her blog, A Justified Outdoors (   She said that the relationships she has built with Nigerian NGOs, including the CLEEN Foundation, Youth Concerns and Development Initiative Africa (YCDI- Africa), Youth Ablaze, and PRAWA, have also been a rewarding aspect of her experiences in Nigeria. She also spoke highly of
officer Monday Agbonika of the Central Lagos Island Police Station, who has embraced U.N.I.T.E. in his community.

“If you connect with people doing things you love, you build an incredible global community of people doing beautiful work,” she said.