News and analysis
March 12, 2015

SXSW Awards Honor Community-Service Projects in Far-Flung Countries

Nate Johnson/Library for All

Students in Haiti read on tablets provided by Library for All, a nonprofit that is cultivating a digital book collection for children in developing countries.

Peering at a tablet screen and recognizing scenes from their island home, the first graders couldn’t stop exclaiming, "Gade!" — the Haitian Creole word for "look." They were the first students to test Library for All’s digital book collection, and their excitement signaled a success for the nonprofit.

"They’d never seen a book about Haitians before. They’d never seen a book in their language before," said Rebecca McDonald, founder of the nonprofit, which distributes e-readers in developing countries. "I’ll never, ever forget that moment."

Ms. McDonald and nine other people using technology to improve the world will be honored tonight at the Dewey Winburne Community Service Awards at the South by Southwest Interactive conference.

The awards honor the late Dewey Winburne, a co-founder of SXSW Interactive, who had deep interests in education and technology.

"He was somebody who had a lot of foresight about how to conquer what we now call the ‘digital divide,’" said Tammy Lynn Gilmore, who oversees social-benefit programs for SXSW Interactive.

This year’s honorees, selected by a panel of previous winners who live in Austin, represent five countries and a range of interests, including literacy, economic opportunity, and journalism. Each will receive $1,000 for the charity of their choice.

Here, we profile three of those winners who work at nonprofits. You can see the full list of winners on SXSW’s site.

Rebecca McDonald

Footage of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti spurred Ms. McDonald and her husband to quit their jobs in Australia and head to the Caribbean country. Ms. McDonald didn’t have a concrete plan but hoped to help the country rebuild, having previously worked as manager of a construction program.

"We felt like it was what we were meant to do," she said. "I’ve always been philanthropically minded and wanted to make a difference and give back, but I hadn’t really committed my whole life to doing it before."

They ended up working for Heartline Ministries, a maternal-care organization, but Ms. McDonald soon felt called to address the dearth of books in Haiti’s schools.

"How in the world could you get an education when you have access to no educational resources?" she said.

Her solution was an online digital library accessible using tablets distributed to schools across the country. The organization she founded, Library for All, raised its start-up money through Kickstarter and then received grants from Echoing Green and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Now based in New York City, the organization is working with 10 schools in Haiti and testing a pilot program in Congo.

Books are carefully selected to be culturally relevant and language-appropriate, with most written in French or Creole. The organization pays local publishers for texts and asks larger companies, which don’t usually sell books in Haiti, to donate books.

"I tell them we’re creating book purchasers for the future," Ms. McDonald says.

The awards panel was impressed by Ms. McDonald’s commitment to Haiti long after the initial disaster response ended.

"We heard so much about disaster relief, and often after it falls out of the news, that drops out of people’s consciousness," Ms. Gilmore said.

Jukay Hsu

Queens, N.Y., is one of the most diverse communities on the planet, and Jukay Hsu wants to make sure its residents get the chance to inform the fast-growing realms of digital development while improving their own economic footing.

"Technology’s incredibly empowering," he says. "If you can code, you can solve problems in your own life and your own community."

The Queens native founded Coalition for Queens, a nonprofit designed, he says, to foster "a more inclusive tech ecosystem" and "pioneer a pathway from poverty to the middle class."

Its keystone program, Access Code, trains people — many of them immigrants — to create mobile applications and prepare for entry-level developer jobs. So far, the average income of participants going into the program has been $26,000, while their average income after completion is $73,000.

In creating the organization, he was influenced both by his undergraduate years at Harvard University, where he studied economic development, and his tour in Iraq as a military officer, where he worked with soldiers who enlisted out of high school. While most Access Code students have graduated from college, Mr. Hsu hopes to reach people who lack higher education, noting that 65 percent of New Yorkers don’t have a bachelor’s degree.

"It doesn’t matter what college you go to or if you’ve gone to college," he said. "Some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and the hardest working, were in the military without a college education."

Libby Powell

The satisfaction Gaza Strip residents took in sharing their stories with Libby Powell, then a team member with Medical Aid for Palestinians, inspired her to train as a journalist and report about far-flung communities.

But the process of telling other people’s stories struck her as odd. After a trip to a remote region of Sri Lanka, where she struggled to understand the local culture and convey it accurately in her writing, she wondered whether she could better serve people by helping them report about their own lives.

"It wasn’t my story to tell," Ms. Powell said. "It was a simple idea: Could I bring my journalism training down to fundamental building blocks, share that, and create a new network of storytellers?"

She’s done just that with Radar, a communications-rights organization that trains citizen reporters and promotes the stories they tell through social media and other ways online. Based in the United Kingdom, the staff offers editorial guidance to local correspondents who report from the field. The group has generated coverage about elections and Ebola in Sierra Leone and slavery in India and is working on new projects that give voice to people living with dementia and those who are homeless.

Created with money raised through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, Radar works to raise awareness among the public, policy makers, and service providers about issues affecting marginalized groups. The organization has helped place articles in The Guardian and the BBC.

Governments and nonprofits are paying attention, Ms. Powell said, and have taken action to fix infrastructure problems and inquire about other issues reported by Radar correspondents.

"It’s been a hugely powerful process," she said. "It brings out new information and new angles on the most important stories. It shakes up our stereotypes and perceptions of these issues."

Send an e-mail to Rebecca Koenig.