When Ophelia Akoto began her Capstone project with Vital Voices Global Partnership (VitalVoices.org), she knew she would have the opportunity to interview impactful and influential women. But she had no idea it would be quite like this.
As a McLarty Fellow, Akoto’s work with Vital Voices this semester involves interviewing past Vital Voices fellows to research how strong networks, skills, and knowledge are formed, maintained, and sustained through participating in various Vital Voices programming. Her research also seeks to understand how past fellows have relied on their network, skills, and knowledge obtained from Vital Voices to demonstrate successful leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Already, Akoto has interviewed women like Rehmah Kasule, Founder of CEDA International; Mersiha Smailovic, Founder of NGO LEGIS; and Violeta Bermúdez, former Prime Minister of Peru.
“Through Vital Voices, I have been able to meet some very incredible, successful women, and it’s just really inspired me,” Akoto said. “As a woman, it shows me I can go for my goals, I can stand for what I believe in, and really fight for it, because I’ve interviewed so many women doing just that. That is what public service is about – standing and fighting for what you believe in.”
Akoto’s opportunity with Vital Voices has given her the opportunity to expand on the theoretical side of her Clinton School education. She collects data from Vital Voices alumni by conducting in-depth interviews and identifying trends through contribution mapping, a novel approach created by Vital Voices that has continued to be fine-tuned by Akoto’s and others work. Contribution mapping uses monitoring and evaluation to assess contributions instead of impacts.
Additionally, the work has allowed her to utilize many of the lessons she learned in Clinton School classes like Field Research Methods, Data Analysis, and Communication Processes and Social (Ex)Change.
“We did a lot of facilitation in Dr. Roberts’ class,” Akoto said. “He taught us how to communicate with other people when we are interviewing, allowing them space to talk, asking follow-up questions, not trying to lead people on, and just letting people express how they feel. That has really helped me in my interviews.”
Akoto’s field service projects in partnership with Vital Voices are a continuation of how her interests in women’s issues have influenced her work at the Clinton School. As a first-year student, she was a member of a team of students who partnered with the City of Newport Economic Development Commission to research barriers to women participating in the Jackson County workforce. The team’s work included best practices research to determine how other communities have successfully reduced the relevant barriers to increase participation in the workforce.
“We did focus groups and surveys, and through that we tried to identify those barriers, and interestingly they all triangulated back to our literature,” Akoto said. “What we found in our literature to be true – age, childcare, transportation – these were all barriers that all faced women. It was amazing working with Newport. Their project was very interesting.”
Akoto plans to pursue a Ph.D. after graduating with her Master of Public Service this spring. She said that she is looking at programs related to social policy, with an emphasis on economic inequalities, specifically gender.
“Working with Vital Voices has given me the opportunity to learn about the difficulties that women leaders and women entrepreneurs face,” Akoto said. “I feel like that will be very important in my Ph.D. program, just having that practical knowledge.”
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