Two women who won a prize from Grinnell College for creating social justice programs are in Iowa for events surrounding the prize. Twenty-nine-year-old Maria Vertkin is one of the winners of the Grinnell College “Innovator for Social Justice Prize.”
Vertkin created an organization in 2011 called “Found in Translation.” She says the nonprofit organization formed in Boston trains low-income women bilingual as medical interpreters and then helps them get jobs.
Vertkin was born in Russia, moved with her family to Israel, and later settled in the U.S. Her experiences led to the idea for the organization. “I’ve been through at lot of situations where it was an asset to have bilingual, bicultural skills — but also many situations where it wasn’t and asset it was quite a barrier,” Vertkin explains. “While working as a social worker, I met many, many women who were in the same situation.”
Deborah Ahenkorah of Ghana is the other winner for the organization she created to help African kids. “The main purpose of that is to address the literary challenges that many African Countries face. The organization is called Golden Boabob and we recently launched a publishing arm that’s producing award-winning African stories for children. And that’s called African Bureau for Children’s Stories,” Ahenkorah. The name comes from the Golden Boabob, which is a large tree in Africa that she says often supplies many things to a community.
Ahenkorah says many books had been donated for reading programs, but they all came from other countries. “The challenge with doing that is that it means that many children will grow up in Africa just reading American stories or British stories and never seeing themselves, their own cultures and their own realities in what they read,” she explains. Ahenkorah says reading books from other countries added to the hurdles faced by the children.
“Because you are learning to read not only a new language, but you are reading about a culture that you have no idea about and you are reading about things that you can’t even imagine,” Ahenkorah says. She says for example, a child in Ghana who lives in a village with no electricity may be reading about refrigerators and appliances, or maybe about snow, and they have never seen such things in their lives.
Ahenkorah grew up in Ghana and then attended college in the U.S. before returning home. Both women will receive a $100,000 Grinnell Prize that gives $50,000 to each individual and $50,000 to each of their organizations.
You can learn more about the winners at the Grinnell College website.