Community Partner Highlight: Aster Bekele

In this month’s Community Partner Highlight, Aster shares the mission and impact of the Felege Hiywot Center and what she believes can strengthen community partnerships in Martindale-Brightwood. Aster is the Founder and Executive Director of the Felege Hiywot Center, which connects youth to the virtues of community service through urban farming, environmental preservation, and other programs.

As told to Mary-Chapin Snow

For those of us who are unfamiliar with the Felege Hiywot Center, can you share a little bit about it’s history?

Everything that the program is today- I learned from the students. It’s about knowing the students on a personal level and who they want to become. I think we make science unreachable to kids- we speak a foreign language. We have to make it accessible to them and have the activities apply to them and their interests.

One thing that makes this programming different is that students participate in the program for multiple years. This gives us so much time to build trust among one another. In 2004, we started the center with the 4-H principles. The program was grounded in science and agriculture. Students completed their 4-H projects with the support of volunteers and staff at the center. Early on, I found that having the kids work in pairs or groups worked better because they enjoyed working together.

Outside of agriculture, we also teach students life skills like cooking, washing dishes, and cleaning.  During our cooking activities, we’ve featured so many different countries’ cuisines- Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana, France, England. We have a direct connection to Ethiopia and plan to send a couple students there in the future.

We also started a project for each student to learn about their grandparents. Many of the students’ grandparents have a garden and this program has given the youth and elders something in common to discuss. Now, they love talking to their grandparents and openly share their stories of their family.

By 2014, we started building a public space. The students talked to the youth and elders of the neighborhood and held town hall meetings to determine the name and purpose of the space. Through talking to the community, they learned about the history of the neighborhood and how that space had been used in the past.

What are the key things you hope students take away from their time at Felege Hiywot?

I always make sure students know our door is never closed here. I want every student to thrive and find their unique gifts.

The other thing I always push is for students to not cut their umbilical cord to this community. No matter if they move, I want students to stay connected. None of them were able to get where they’ve gotten without holding someone’s hand. This has been a critical message for our program.

What motivates you to do this work?

God kept calling me to do this work. Several years ago, one of our students, a 13-year-old boy, was killed in the cross-fire of a shooting in the community. That moment made me realize that I wasn’t going to be anxious to get out of this community anymore. I wanted to be a part of this community’s healing. In 2016, my son was killed in a shooting as well. I couldn’t function for so long. I wouldn’t have survived without this community, the students, and their support. Then I realized we have kids grieving the loss of loved ones and don’t have anyone to heal with. So at Felege Hiywot, we now have conversations about how and why we support others after they experience a tragic loss of a loved one.

How do your programs partner with the community?

I always ask experts to come in to address our needs. For instance, to teach students about nutrition, we brought in an expert from Community Health hospital. We’ve had engineers, scientists, teachers, college students, PhD candidates all volunteer and lead programming.

Tell us about the new program at KIPP Indy Legacy High.

We are starting a new program this spring / summer at Legacy High. Current KIPP students will lead the training for other students who are interested in joining. They will help plant and maintain 20 beds at Edna Martin Christian Center. The students also get professional development on advocacy and employment skills. They will also present their learnings about the community.

We will use what we call “Real Talk”. We try to get students to change their language from “I messed this up” to “Next time, I could do this better”. I want to the students to understand that no one makes mistakes.

How can we strengthen community partnerships in Martindale-Brightwood?

I don’t think partnership is fully understood. I think it is tapping into everyone’s skillsets to bring them to our children. It has to be more than surface level.

I think we need to increase our awareness of the work going on in the neighborhood. At Felege Hiywot, we know what were good at. For us, it’s the science. So we need to have partners to meet our other needs. We need to sit down and talk about the work were doing and the needs we have. Once we have that in place, we can better work together.