Tulane grad student named 2015 Ashoka Emerging Innovator

Emily Carmichael, Print News Editor

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Working on a fellowship in the Chiga region of Kenya, Tulane graduate Sydney Gray remembers struggling to get the women to speak as she led a community seminar. Gray watched men dominate the conversation. Then the conversation turned to water; the women came alive. 

Through water, Gray found a way to work with these women to address their community’s water issues. She founded Mama Maji, merging the California native’s two passions: water and women’s empowerment. Working in the same region of Kenya, Mama Maji’s people-centered approach has proven highly effective, earning Gray the honor of an Ashoka Emerging Innovator 2015. 

In order to qualify for an Ashoka award an organization must meet three criteria: create innovative solutions, systemic change and sustainable change. 

Unlike other water organizations, Mama Maji approaches water as a community issue, and specifically a way to empower women, instead of focusing mostly on the technological aspect of water issues. 

“Water is a women’s world,” Gray said. “Really, water is a women’s issue. The biggest problem is that it’s not seen like that globally right now. It’s seen as a technical problem instead of actually seeing it as a people problem.”

Women across the globe spend an estimated 152 million hours collecting water in a single day, making this necessary and time-consuming task one of the biggest barriers to women’s advancement. They are simply too busy collecting to do anything else.

It is Mama Maji’s success in removing these barriers and creating lasting shifts in community water practices that Ashoka chose to recognize. International water projects have a failure rate of between 20 and 60 percent. While Mama Maji is still a young company, its success rate is 100 percent.

In New Orleans, Mama Maji has educated over 400 people including students and young professionals, and works with local schools to educate children on water issues.

Mama Maji incorporates the Tulane community into its work. It runs regular workshops through the Center for Public Service, partners with Rotaract and started the Catalyst Club to raise awareness of global water issues.

“They’re filling a gap; students really want to get involved on an international level,” Bridget Smith, Mama Maji board member and manager of Tulane’s Service Learning Program and Public Service Fellows program, said. “They see Mama Maji as the perfect fit for what they want to do and want to see and get experience in.”

Senior Victoria King found her fit with Mama Maji. As the organization’s social media intern, she has been impressed with Mama Maji’s approach. 

“Mama Maji fufills a need for water that many of these rural communities in Africa don’t have,” King said. “The community came to [Gray] and they told her ‘this is what we need help with.’ She was able tor bring it all together and be the catalyst.”