Face to Face with the Fellows: Sasha Fisher
9/11 brought the world crashing in on Sasha Fisher’s doorstep—literally. Her childhood home was just five blocks away from Ground Zero. The experience left her certain of the world’s interconnectedness and dedicated to improve how it works.
It's quite powerful when families have a platform to discuss village development and decide what's best for their communities.”
2018 Obama Foundation Fellow
Rooted in the belief that communities should lead their own development, Sasha founded Spark MicroGrants to help communities across west, central and east Africa to develop and launch their own social impact projects.
Q: Let’s start with where your journey began. What initially brought you to development work?
A: I grew up in New York City about five blocks north of Ground Zero, so living in such a vibrant and diverse city like New York and having something hit so close to home felt surreal. I had no knowledge of why it happened and wondered what we had done to motivate it. It completely changed how I see the world and my place in it.
Q: If you’re comfortable, could you tell me a bit about what that day was like and how you think it influenced your work?
A: Well, I was in middle school at the time—I think I was about 11 or 12 years old. I was on 23rd street and my father was at home and stood on the fire escape and watched the planes fly into the towers. He and our neighbors walked uptown since nobody really knew what was happening, and we weren’t sure if we were safe.
We weren’t allowed to collect items at our home until the next day, and I remember walking with my father past the physical remnants of what had happened. We watched a never-ending loop of planes hitting the towers on TV, and just like that, it was back to relative calm in the streets, except that all of the debris and destruction from the attack littered the ground. Single shoes, mechanical parts, and no traffic where there was normally a cacophony of honking.
As you can imagine, it was a huge physical change for our community—I could follow the towers home if I ever got lost. They were a real guide for me. That day also changed the character and dynamics of our community and led to a lot of unfortunate animosity I’m sure most of us can remember. That time really ignited my interest in foreign affairs and in organizations that are working to improve how the world is working.
Q: How did you pursue that interest in the world as you got older?
A: As I got further into my undergraduate studies, I got involved with an organization in South Sudan that gave me a little bit of a better picture of how NGOs—particularly in government—work to improve the wellbeing of communities. I was there to ‘help’ build schools for girls, which seems like an obvious thing to work on and a clear way to get more girls in school.
The storyline became more complicated when I was there, however, because after seeing several empty school buildings in a region that has one of the lowest access rates to education in the world seemed a little contradictory. I would ask families why the schools were empty and not being used, and they would consistently respond that those buildings were built by outsiders. Those buildings weren’t our schools. Too often, development programs that are intended to lift up communities facing poverty wind up sidelining community voices, like they did in the example of building schools for children instead of asking communities what they need and giving them resources to achieve it themselves. I wondered if there was a better approach.
Q: So what did you do next? What’s the story behind how you founded Spark?
A: I blind emailed organizations that I found on Google, and miraculously two groups working on development in Africa, responded and kindly gave me a few thousand dollars and wished me luck. I’m fortunate that a number of other groups generously contributed some funding.
So I went to Rwanda with a one-way ticket and ten thousand dollars. I had never been to Rwanda before. I wanted to go somewhere where I would not feel like an expert in what was happening and therefore would have to delegate decision making power to community members. We had to think through how we would disperse the funds to communities in an appropriate way, so we started working with local civil society organizations, government officials and local businesses to test out ways of doing that. We also worked with university students who helped build an “adult patient process;” essentially a process by which community members would gather in meetings where women and men, young and old could talk together about what families would want to do with, at the time, a $3,000 grant.
Q: And how did you come up with the name Spark?
A: The concept behind Spark is actually thanks to my co-founder, Neal, and to one of our first facilitators in Uganda, Kenneth. I’ll never forget him describing the name Spark to community members in the village he was working in and he said, “Spark. It’s just a spark. It lights the fire, but you’ll keep the fire burning as you work to create change in your village and beyond.” I loved that and I thought that’s it. That’s what we have to go with.
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Hear Sasha explain Spark's process once they identify a community they want to work with:
Q: Is there one story of a Spark Alum that really stands out to you as an example of the continuous impact of your work?
A: The most incredible stories I tend to hear are from grandmothers and some of our village partners that the community meetings continue to happen.
There’s a village in Northern Uganda, for example, that came together and bought ox plows for their village. Through community meetings—initially facilitated by Spark—they decided to pursue the ox plow solution and it helped families improve farm yields. Community members started saving money, and over time started facilitating their own village meetings and launching additional projects. One of those projects involved women in the community starting their own savings project, which stimulated local businesses within the women’s group. We’ve seen that families actually double their household assets through the Spark process all the while increasing civic participation and action. These are the kinds of results that keep me going.
Q: Finally, how do you see the Obama Foundation Fellowship helping you extend the impact of your work?
A: Over the past eight years, we’ve been testing and refining our approach to strengthen communities around the world. We’ve primarily worked in Sub Saharan Africa so far, but the model itself is globally applicable and we’re starting to see high demand to support groups from new countries in Sub Saharan Africa, to countries in Southeast Asia, North America, South America, and beyond. I’m hopeful that the Fellowship and the leaders I’ve gotten to meet through it will push our team in how we foster a global movement of grassroots groups, governments and citizens that uplift communities to drive change, so that every one of us is able to realize the ability to drive local change with our neighbors.
Our vision for the future is rooted in authentic, dynamic community strength.”