This article appeared in the Winter 2013–14 issue of Erikson on Children with the headline “A student of social change.” More from this issue

Growing up in Kenya, Florence Kimondo, Ph.D. ’13, witnessed large shifts begin to occur in the society around her.

“Families started moving to cities, which caused huge lifestyle changes,” she remembers. Family structures that had been so important to Kenyan culture began to disintegrate. “Extended families broke apart, and parents no longer had the support they could once rely on. With the challenges of urban environments, such as the introduction of drugs, parents didn’t know how to deal with their children anymore.”

This experience led Kimondo to pursue her desire to work in a “helping profession,” and she came to Chicago to earn her Master of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago. She initially thought she would work with adolescents, but her interest shifted to younger children after an internship with kindergarten through fourth grade students at a public school in the city.

“With my M.S.W. degree, I had the sense that I was prepared to work with people in general, but not with any age group specifically,” Kimondo says.
“I didn’t have the background to fully understand the social, emotional, and cognitive development of the students.”

She first arrived at Erikson as a research assistant for Professor Robert Halpern, who was the director of the doctoral program. Through her work with him and with Aisha Ray, senior vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, Kimondo decided to apply to the doctoral program.

While at Erikson, she learned that World Relief, a nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and resettlement assistance to people displaced by war, needed English teachers who spoke the Kiswahili language and began to volunteer.

In 2007, the organization received a grant that allowed Kimondo to work in the Chicago Public Schools as a social worker with children and families from
Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Somalia, and other countries.

Her work with the displaced families would become the subject of Kimondo’s doctoral thesis.

Things fall apart

In most countries, there are many systems in place to help mothers — social service agencies, schools, churches, and extended families that support and reinforce what is taught by parents. But when war or disaster arrives, virtually all of these systems are torn apart. Families are forced to leave not only their homes, but also their culture and support systems in their community.

Since the 1980s, Liberian families faced this displacement during two successive civil wars and political upheavals. For her doctoral thesis, Kimondo met with four Liberian refugee mothers who had been resettled in Illinois to explore their beliefs about childhood and how those beliefs might have changed after war. She was particularly interested in the women’s experiences of raising children in a refugee camp.

“Refugee camps are usually located in very arid places in border towns that have little to no infrastructure,” Kimondo explains. “It often takes years
to recreate any sort of cultural systems, which will still be unlike those that the mother left behind.

“I wanted to look at what it meant to raise a child where, in essence, there is nothing,” she continues. In addition to being displaced, mothers and children often arrive at the camps having experienced incredible trauma and loss, which may include having seen their own family members killed.

Giving a voice

Talking in depth with mothers who had been displaced by war proved to be eye-opening for Kimondo, even after her years of experience working with refugee families.

“I was familiar with some of it, but now I was talking to a mother telling me her own experience,” she says. “There are certain things that you hear about on TV or read in the paper, but until someone tells you what happened to her, you don’t truly understand. You hear about a refugee camp or even see photographs of a child dying, but it doesn’t begin to explain an individual’s experience.”

She found that being displaced created profound discontinuities in the mothers’ lives, which were heavily marked by loss. Perhaps most importantly, the refugees had lost their power as women and lost their sense of safety while living in the often-hostile environment of a refugee camp.

“Displaced people tend to feel disempowered,” Kimondo explains. “All your life you were a Liberian woman, with your own life, your own identity and family and culture, but now you’re simply labeled a ‘refugee.’ You’re faceless.”

Through her narrative study, Kimondo enabled the four women to tell their stories in their own words and shared voices and experiences not often heard in academic research. What struck her most was the mothers’ resilience: despite the extreme odds against them, these four women continued to care for their children as best as they could and never lost hope.

Creating social change

In May 2013, Kimondo joined Erikson as the project director of Envisioning Change, a statewide effort to close the achievement gap for African American students beginning in the earliest grades. Principal investigators for the project are Jana Fleming, director of the Herr Research Center for Children and Social Policy, and Aisha Ray.

“Similar to the experiences of refugee children in the Chicago Public Schools, black students can tend to be faceless within education systems,”
Kimondo says. Just as displaced families must adapt to new settings, African American students in urban settings can experience school as an environment where their culture and backgrounds are not valued.

This fall, Envisioning Change convened a task force of some 40 educators, advocates, and other stakeholders to develop a statewide plan for Illinois that
includes specific strategies to narrow the achievement gap.

“The more people we have involved and who are willing to make a commitment and advocate for change, the closer we get to addressing the academic achievement gaps that have been impacting African American children for decades,” says Kimondo.

She expects that the plan for action will be shared at a symposium in fall 2014.

According to Kimondo, her life has come full circle: she is using the knowledge she gained at Erikson to help create social change through one of
Erikson’s projects.

“I’ve learned so much at Erikson, and I’m truly standing on the shoulders of others,” she says. “I owe my personal and professional growth to my
mentors, especially Dr. Aisha Ray, and the support and encouragement of my family and friends. I could not have made it this far without them.”