Jana Zindell

Welcome to Hello World’s interview series showcasing the work of individuals and organisations that are championing education and helping marginalised communities to shape their own future.

EDUCATION IS… discovering life’s many different paths

As Ubuntu Pathways’ Chief Strategy Officer, Jana Zindell oversees the strategic development, impact measurement, and implementation of all programs. Over her 20 years at the organization, Jana has professionalized the grassroots service delivery model, creating a global blueprint for community transformation. She has been instrumental in building all aspects of the model. She has led the creation of a comprehensive pathway of interventions taking orphans and vulnerable children from cradle to career, drove complex organizational change, and guided the development of Ubuntu’s capacity building program, a globally recognized best practice in recruitment, empowerment, and retention in low-resource settings. In 2010, Jana spearheaded the design and building of the Ubuntu Centre, a 24,000 square foot, state-of-the-art building that houses a mother-and-child clinic, an early childhood wing, and job skills training hub.

Jana is a passionate advocate of contextualized, locally-driven poverty solutions as well as the importance of staff development, creating a learning culture, and the value of intrapreneurship. She writes and speaks regularly about these topics. She is currently leading the Ubuntu Advisory, a nonprofit incubator that will train and empower other community institutions capable of delivering sustainable change. Jana received a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of Wisconsin and a Master’s in Development and Policy from Georgetown University. 

If you could write on your own school report, what comments would you make?

Teachers are there to help you and guide you, not to judge you. Don’t be driven by a letter that they put on the paper. Follow that insatiable curiosity that you feel in the pit of your stomach. It will take you all the places you need to go. The community that you grow up in does not define who you are. It does help shape you. You are lucky to have such love and support, but you can choose many different paths. You will have a chance to see the giant world that is out there soon. School is just one little moment in time-you are a kid. Have fun and learn but don’t take yourself so seriously. 

What did you dream of becoming as a child and what obstacles got in your way?

My mother was a teacher. She knew all of my teachers. There was a close and warm relationship amongst this group. I could see how much they loved their work and the joy they received from being in class. They were my role models and I wanted to be a teacher as well. When I got a little older and went to high school, I worked after school to save enough money to have a summer experience in Costa Rica living with a family. My world changed completely. I realized the privilege that I had growing up where I did. I realized that I wanted to have an effect beyond my own community. A new dream began to form. This would inform my journeys for the next two decades of my life. There were always obstacles, but I was very lucky to have the resources I needed to explore, learn and grow.

Ubuntu has transformed the lives of so many with its integrated approach – what has this work taught you and why? 

Nothing can replace local knowledge. Living in South Africa, I observed deep structural inequities. I moved to South Africa in 2003, Apartheid had ended less than a decade before. The policies of the previous government literally mandated oppression and disadvantage. There was no magic bullet to rectifying the long-term damage of this systematic oppression.

Seeing this situation firsthand, I realized that most often one’s birthplace determines their future. I was proud to be part of a team that sought to ensure that this wouldn’t happen to another generation of children. We recognized that it would take deep and long-term interventions in medical care, psychosocial support, education and job training to make a difference. Children need a comprehensive support system while they are growing up. A hungry child will not be able to focus on academics. A child whose mother is sick at home will not be able to thrive. Working at Ubuntu and observing our model at work, I learned that it would take years, not days or months to make real, lasting change. 

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