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Photo of Loo and Bantu Girls

Stephanie Loo (far left) with Schweitzer project participants.

“The empowerment of girls holds the key to development and security for families, communities, and societies worldwide,” Desmond Tutu and Ela Bhatt wrote in a recent op-ed.

It’s safe to say that Stephanie Loo agrees. As a Schweitzer Fellow and a Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) student, Loo has spent the past nine months working to develop the social, academic, and leadership skills of middle- and high school-age Somali Bantu girls in the Greater Boston area.

She’s driven by the voices of the girls themselves—voices she first encountered while serving as an assistant to HSPH Associate Professor of Child Health and Human Rights Theresa Betancourt, who conducts research on child and adolescent mental health within the Somali Bantu refugee community.

“Because of cultural traditions as well as safety concerns about the areas they lived in, the girls had little opportunity to interact with one another outside of schools or community weddings and holiday events,” Loo says. “On weekends, they were limited to staying at home, watching TV, and providing childcare for younger siblings.”

With the support of the Schweitzer Fellowship, and with Betancourt as her Schweitzer mentor, Loo partnered with the Shanbaro Community Association and the Chelsea Collaborative to establish a safe space for Bantu girls to connect with each other, develop confidence and leadership skills, and explore their heritage and traditions. (The Bantu are an ethnic minority in Somalia; in the face of mistreatment, more than 10,000 Bantu have resettled in America over the past decade.)

ASF: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

SL: As I began my studies at Harvard School of Public Health, I quickly connected with Dr. Theresa Betancourt and her mixed methods research work on child and adolescent mental health with the Somali Bantu refugee community. Too often, the end product of research is a series of recommendations that no one works to turn into a reality—but her research team was already seeking ways to not only conduct research with the Somali Bantu community, but also partner with community agencies to translate that research into practical, on-the-ground solutions and services.

As a part of my research assistant duties, I read through many qualitative interview transcripts and was struck by the voices of the young girls during their focus group discussions. When asked what types of programs would be beneficial to them, they unanimously spoke of wanting a place where they and their friends could gather, for social and educational purposes.

When I read the words of these young women, I saw an opportunity to create a lasting impact on their lives through a very simple solution: listening to their needs, and creating a safe space and group for social, academic, and community development and strengthening.

Through the Schweitzer Fellowship, I have been able to make that vision a reality and provide a place for the girls of the Somali Bantu community to gather weekly. We’ve focused on academic and career development through peer mentoring and activities including a field trip to Simmons College—all while maintaining and incorporating a reverence for the Somali Bantu culture and traditions.

ASF: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

SL: Along with my site partners, Shanbaro Community Association and the Chelsea Collaborative, our dream is to maintain the girls group well beyond my Fellowship year and eventually expand the girls group into a program that includes a community resources group for the women of the Somali Bantu community as well.

Many of the adults who have come to the United States as refugees have little to no English speaking ability. The women in particular remain in the home, raising the children, and do not drive. Many of the Somali Bantu women are married off at extremely young ages, around 18 or 19, and by age 22 they may already have three or four children to take care of.

For the girls currently in the group, I hope this will be an opportunity for them to create strong bonds with the other girls in the community. I hope it will inspire them to pursue goals like attending college and obtaining jobs that will enable them to help their families. Through the abilities and confidence they gain from their group, they will be able to become the future leaders of the Somali Bantu community and successful citizens of their adopted home.

The Chelsea Collaborative is already making an active effort to seek funding to further support the group beyond my Fellowship year. With funding, we can then hire a community member to serve as a staff person in organizing events and activities for the girls group, as well as plan for a space for the Somali Bantu women. To that end, we were recently visited by the Foley Hoag Foundation; their representative spoke with the girls, me, and the leaders at the Chelsea Collaborative about the group and the goals we have in mind.

ASF: What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

SL: I believe that treating and reducing the burden of mental disorders and illnesses is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, particularly in the context of the developing world.

Unipolar depressive disorders have been listed as one of the highest contributors to the overall burden of disease in the world by the World Health Organization. We can see the effects of such a burden in the high rates of suicides in particular segments of the U.S. population, such as the military and Native American youth. But in many places—our society included—mental illness still carries a stigma that contributes to the underdevelopment of research, medical treatment, and social support services for ailments such as depression, PTSD, and autism.

I believe the solution resides in addressing the underlying values and culture of our society, which allows mental disorders and illnesses to have such a dark reputation and often stifles discussion on these topics. This is by no means an easy solution or a quick-fix. Efforts to change the conversation on mental health issues need to be turned into open discourses that promote positive and beneficial outcomes that enable those with mental disorders and illnesses to have a voice in a world that would rather see them as voiceless.

ASF: What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

SL: I am constantly surprised by the things that my girls say during our group meetings each week. My hours with them are truly a joy and I cherish my conversations with them, whether we’re grappling over an algebra problem, having a serious discussion about bullying at their schools, or laughing over the latest popular fad in school. The hopes and dreams that they express in all of our conversations fuels me to work even harder in supporting them to reach those goals and dreams.

ASF: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately a Schweitzer Fellow for Life) mean to you?

SL: The greatest gift anyone can give is giving back. Through the Schweitzer Fellowship, I have the role and responsibility to live up to that ideal to the best of my ability through my place as a mentor and leader for the Somali Bantu girls. In leading by example, my role as a Schweitzer Fellow enables me to enact lasting change for the communities that I serve now, and the ones that I hope to serve in the future through my personal and career pursuits.

Following the completion of my Fellowship year, I am looking forward to mentoring and inspiring the next generation of Fellows to create and enact lasting change.

Click here to learn more about the Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program and our work to develop leaders, create change, and improve health in vulnerable communities. We are supported entirely by charitable donations and grants.