By Camille Baptista
In 2006, a group of Berkeley High School biology students stood in a classroom and presented projects on infectious diseases around the world. As they listened to each other talk about different countries, they became inspired to do more and, with the help of a BHS teacher from Shirati, Tanzania, they traveled there the following summer to make an impact on a community plagued by AIDS and other illnesses.
Since then, one of those students has gone back again and again, and eventually started a nonprofit to promote waterborne disease prevention. Last month, he won a $10,000 fellowship to help him continue his project.
“Definitely this project came out of that Berkeley High School trip,” said Max Perel-Slater, co-founder of the Maji Safi Group and 2007 Berkeley High graduate.His organization runs educational programs in Shirati and surrounding towns to prevent the spread of water-related diseases, increase accessibility to clean water, and empower women to be community leaders in hygiene.
After his first visit with Berkeley High, Perel-Slater returned as a Wesleyan University student to work on various infrastructural projects, but realized the problem of water-related illnesses had much deeper roots.
“One water tank wasn’t going to be enough,” he said. “I kind of saw that there was a lot more that needs to be done, and that side of it needed to be education.”
He developed ideas for creating the Maji Safi Group while researching for his senior thesis at Wesleyan, which included going to Tanzania to share ideas with community members and test the water quality in Lake Victoria. Soon after, he cofounded the nonprofit with his friend Bruce Pelz.
“It kind of just really took off,” he said of his thesis project. “It was supposed to be like a nine-week project and I’ve been living there for two years.”
After a year and a half of operations, the Maji Safi Group is a full-fledged community effort. The organization focuses heavily on community input and education, as opposed to purely infrastructural projects. In addition to hiring and training Community Water Workers, who teach their neighbors about good sanitation practices, members of the Maji Safi Group — which consists of 14 Tanzanians and three Americans — visit individual households, run after-school programs, and use song and dance to help kids remember things like proper hand-washing.
“What it really came down to is the fact that preventing disease is much more economical than treating disease,” Perel-Slater said.
The fellowship, granted by World Learning and awarded to only five of the 100 applicants, will set up Perel-Slater with not only funding but also training and mentoring to help his organization expand. The members of the Maji Safi Group plan to use the opportunity to jumpstart construction of a community resource center in Shirati, which Perel-Slater said will be a way of tying together the group’s many different programs. He said the community center is something the residents of Shirati have wanted for a long time.
The group of Berkeley High students with whom Perel-Slater first traveled to Tanzania were all part the Communication Arts and Sciences school, one of the six small schools that make up the high school of about 3,300 students. Perel-Slater said the strong sense of community that is cultivated in CAS influenced him to commit his time to helping others.
“CAS students use media as a tool for social justice, and in a global context whenever possible,” said Dharini Rasiah, who has taught video and multimedia classes in CAS for more than 15 years. She said Perel-Slater spent his senior year of high school editing a video he recorded on the trip.
“This is one of the goals of CAS, to provide students with experiential learning, through travel, retreats and internships, to expand their worlds and use these experiences to inform their education and future work,” Rasiah said.
Laura Mason, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, collaborated with the Berkeley High students on the 2006 trip and continued to work with Perel-Slater afterwards.
“For all kids, it’s an incredible opportunity to experience a part of the world that is so unlike the world that we live in here in the Bay Area,” she said.
Mason has helped bring other Berkeley youths to Tanzania over many years through African Immigrants Social and Cultural Services, an organization for which she is the treasurer and a board member. It was with help from AISCS that Perel-Slater and Pelz were able to establish the Maji Safi Group.
“I can see the line of Max as a rising senior at Berkeley High to where he is now,” Mason said.
She explained that one of the difficult things about working in developing countries is that projects, however well-intended, often fail.
“Somebody like Max is undaunted by that,” Mason said. “He’s made a commitment to this community over time.”
Camille Baptista is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. She grew up in Berkeley and now studies at Barnard in New York City, where she writes for the Columbia Daily Spectator.
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