Youth literacy projects in Meridian, Mississippi, and Nairobi, Kenya, earned Gianna Biaggi ’17 the Samuel Huntington Public Service Award, which comes with a $15,000 stipend to aid her efforts for up to one year. Biaggi, an international studies and American studies double major, was one of three graduating seniors in the United States to receive the national award.
She will spend most of the summer in Meridian, where she will build a literary magazine for young people to publish their writing. Biaggi will work with schools and youth groups on creative writing exercises to generate authors for the magazine and accompanying website, to be titled Pass the Mic Youth.
Biaggi was inspired to launch the program after serving an internship last summer with the Meridian Freedom Project, an after-school youth leadership program. “A lot of students I worked with in Mississippi struggled with reading,” Biaggi said. “I feel strongly that children everywhere should have the opportunity to read and write.”
Near the end of the summer, Biaggi will travel to Nairobi, where she will spearhead the establishment of a multi-faceted literacy program in the Kibera slum, a Nairobi neighborhood and the largest urban slum in Africa. Her program will include a library, child and adult literacy classes, and career counseling. “The poverty there is startling, but the people are resourceful and more interested in helping in their community than any other group of people I’ve worked with,” Biaggi said.
She recognized the need during a study abroad semester in the fall of 2015, when she performed a variety of duties for Wale Wale Kenya, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to providing activities for Kibera youth. Biaggi applied for the Huntington award in honor of a 12-year-old boy she tutored during her time there. “He can read now, which is really exciting,” she said.
Biaggi’s projects in Mississippi and Kenya also will benefit from a $6,000 grant from the AllPeopleBeHappy foundation and $1,500 grant from the Christensen Fund.
A native of Sonoma, California, Biaggi came to Kenyon as a Newman’s Own Foundation Scholar. She credits Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff, her academic advisor, and Associate Professor of Sociology Jennifer Johnson for encouraging her public service drive and giving her self-confidence.
“They believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself, encouraged me to pursue my passion and said it was OK to be an emotional person. The American studies department was all about community building and love, and that is what my projects are about. I would not have received these grants without their support.”
“My goal is to make youth literacy projects my career,” Biaggi added. “It is important for me to continue this work after my grants run out.”