The first time Malaak Compton-Rock, ex-wife of comedian Chris Rock, went to South Africa was 11 years ago with her family. They did the typical tourist activities - safaris, museum tours, took in the Johannesburg culture and scenic drives along Cape Town’s garden route.
Towards the end of that first trip, Compton-Rock, who had previously worked in public relations for the United Nations Children's Fund, needed to touch base with her development work roots. She wanted to see some of the issues affecting black people post-Apartheid.
An old UNICEF boss linked her with a local non-governmental organization that took her on a tour of Diepsloot, a township in the north of Johannesburg, where she was met with dire poverty and devastation among the many grandparent- and orphan-led homes, a result of the country’s high number of AIDS-related deaths of young and middle-aged parents. It was where she met an elderly grandmother who asked her a question that has kept her going back to the country over 30 times.
“She said, ‘What are you gonna do about this?’" Compton-Rock recalls. "I was taken aback and asked what she wanted me to do and she said, ‘I’m really tired of people coming and looking and taking pictures and leaving but not doing anything. As gogos [grandmothers] we need to make money for our children so they can go to school and have a better life than we do.’ I told her I’d find ways to help and would come back. She looked at me like ‘yeah right’,” Compton-Rock said.
Three months later she did go back and connected with the same UNICEF-supported NGO and saw that grandmother again. “She remembered me and was shocked that I had come back.”
The grandmother’s question to Compton-Rock is a common complaint among the poor in third-world countries, who often feel like animals at a zoo when their everyday lives are turned into tourist destinations, but with no benefit to them.
There are many poor townships in South Africa, where Black people were relegated by the Apartheid government after it took away their land. Other informal townships, like Diepsloot, which literally means “deep ditch” in Afrikaans - the language used by the architects of Apartheid and now one of South Africa’s 11 official languages - have sprung up over the years as people of color try to be close to big cities so they can find work.
Most of these informal townships are shanty towns or squatter camps as they are known locally, with shacks made from scraps of corrugated metal, sheets of plastic, and cardboard boxes. There is no electricity or running water and they use outside latrines, sometimes shared by different families.
Compton-Rock's second visit started the income generating work that she does with the grandmothers in Diepsloot, as well as the support of orphan and vulnerable children in South Africa and, she said, "It started my love affair with the country."
Her program teaches the grandmothers modern and effective banking and saving, instead of saving their money under the mattress like they did previously. There are thefts and fires in the community that have caused them to lose their hard-earned money often. She has also partnered with an organization that teaches the grandmothers efficient urban farming. They now plant healthy produce they can use for their families and also sell for income. For many years Compton-Rock was given donations of Liz Claiborne handbags that did not sell in the US and she turned them over to the grandmothers to sell.
"When people in those communities sell stuff it’s usually junk or used goods and they are usually selling within their own community and are not able to charge an amount that will really make a big difference in their livelihood.
"A partnership with the Rotarians allowed us to create selling points for our gogos outside of their community, where they were selling to people who were professionals and had more income. As a result, many of the gogos in the program moved from shacks to brick housing and were able to get all their kids in school."
Journey for Change, Compton-Rock's youth empowerment program that takes at-risk youth from Brooklyn to volunteer in Diepsloot, was born after one of her trips to South Africa. At that time, she was already working with a group of young people who attended the Salvation Army's Bushwick Community Center for after-school services and summer school.
"Literally, one afternoon I was in Diepsloot talking to the gogos and orphaned and vulnerable children that are in my program and that night I got on the 16-hour direct flight from Johannesburg to New York, flying overnight and landing at JFK at 6:40 in the morning. I went straight to Brooklyn where I was working with the Salvation Army and Target to put in a library."
She was talking to the children about the new library space and told them she had just landed from South Africa and about the work she was doing there.
"They said, 'Wow! I would love to travel one day and go to a place like South Africa.' The combination of being in Diepkloof one day and Brooklyn the next and the kids telling me they'd love to go to South Africa is how Journey for Change was born."
She said the mission of the program is to travel abroad with disadvantaged youth "because when people travel and start to see themselves outside of their community, they begin to dream bigger and greater dreams than they could have imagined." The second reason is to serve. She believes that we all have something to give to society. "When you take kids from our country who feel like they are always on the receiving end of aid and you put them on the side of giving, that is very transformative. They come to understand global poverty and that in the United States, even if you live in the projects and don’t go to the greatest school, we have so many inherent blessings in this country and they'd better take advantage of them."
The first group of Journey for Change kids who made the long trip to South Africa in July 2008 was from Bedford–Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Group two was a mix of kids from Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, and Brownsville. All disadvantaged communities in Brooklyn. The third group was from the same neighborhoods and made a different trip to Ghana.
For this year's trip, the fourth Journey for Change, Compton-Rock has partnered for the first time with Dr. Steve Perry, the founder and principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School, to take 26 of his students on a 25-day service and learning excursion in South Africa.
"We have students in Harlem, New York as well as Hartford, Connecticut, so Malaak and I pooled our organizations together to give some of my students a compelling international experience," Perry told ESSENCE.
Capital Prep has a strong focus on social justice and Perry hopes the students, ages 11-17, will gain a keener understanding of their responsibility in the world, as well as realize their full capacity. "It's not enough for them to simply learn to read, write and compute.
"While many of the children we are sending would be considered low income in the United States, we want them to know that making what their families make and having the level of education that they have, they'd be comfortably middle class or higher in certain parts of South Africa that we'll be visiting. By the same token, they have to learn that South Africa is an entire country. It's not a slum. It's got some really beautiful, compelling parts just as the U.S. does."
Perry believes that the children from his school will go on to college and lead the lives they want. Therefore he is preparing them "to give back as they're being given and to understand that there's a great big world out there and they are as much a part of it as anybody, regardless of where they're coming from."
Perry's own son, 14-year-old Nathan, is one of the Capital Prep students going on the trip. He told ESSENCE he had seen pictures of Diepsloot on the Internet and was looking forward to going there to be of service.
Eleven students will leave for South Africa 10 days early to take part in African Leadership Academy’s global scholars program on entrepreneurship and leadership. The partnership with African Leadership Academy, a Johannesburg high school that admits students from all over Africa and the world and currently has children from as many as 30 different nations, is a new one that Compton-Rock is excited about. This year for the first time, 25 students from Diepsloot will be joining Journey for Change and share the same educational and recreational experiences that the American students will get.
Journey for Change also partnered with Ndalo Media, a magazine publishing stable which was founded and is run by South African media queen, Khanyi Dhlomo, which will curate media workshops for the students.
"I try to create opportunities for access because we can't tell our youth that they should aspire to do this and that when they have never had access or been part of anything," said Compton-Rock.
The students will blog their experiences daily for ESSENCE.com, Ndalo Media and TV One's NewsOne.
Upon returning to the U.S., the advocacy part of the program begins. The students will meet with congressional leaders from their own communities as well as leaders who have either created, supported or pushed bills around Journey for Change's area of focus for this year - a political climate where President Donald Trump has submitted a budget that cut foreign aid in the 2018 fiscal year.
While in South Africa, the students would have seen first hand how USAID and PEPFAR help real life people and will be able to apply that when they are in Washington DC advocating for foreign aid.
Compton-Rock was brought up in a family that emphasized service to others and she is instilling the same values in her three daughters - Lola, Zahra, and Ntombi. Lola, Compton-Rock's oldest, will be 15 later this month and will be volunteering in Peru this summer. Her youngest daughter was adopted in South Africa.
"I have this saying that 'I need Africa more than Africa needs me'. I can’t stay far from the content. South Africa has given me many gifts and the best one is my baby daughter," said Compton-Rock.