“When I returned to the U.S., I felt like I had never been here before simply because of the fact that I came as a mother. I felt like I could not breathe.”

Wairimu Macharia brings an international perspective – and a distinctive personal one — to the second cohort of Strategies for Children’s Advocacy Network.

 Macharia grew up in Kenya and came to the United States where she completed her master’s degree in international relations with a focus on peace and conflict resolution and diplomacy through the United States International University – Africa.

 “I went back to Kenya in 2010,” she recalls, “because I felt I needed to put the peace and conflict resolution in practice. There were a lot of conflict areas in Kenya. And there was a lot of need in Kenya and Africa for my field of expertise.”

 In Kenya, Macharia worked as a part time lecturer at the Africa Nazarene University in its school of peace and governance. She engaged in women’s leadership programs, and she participated in the reality television show Ms President, a competition based on women’s political leadership skills.

 Macharia also worked on creating “venting spaces.”

 “I believe,” she says, “that people need to talk, talk, talk. So I did a project in Kenya that had a Swahili name, Tuongee Community Conversations. Tuongee means Let’s Talk. We would go into communities and facilitate meetings for people to talk and vent. If they were angry, if they felt betrayed by neighbors, they could just vent.

 “But, by the end of the meeting, we would make sure that they had taken ownership of their own solutions.”

In 2019, Macharia returned to the United States with her three children.

“The first time I was here, I didn’t have friends who had children, so I never connected with the challenges of raising children here, especially finding child care.

“When I returned to the U.S., I felt like I had never been here before simply because of the fact that I came as a mother. I felt like I could not breathe. Everything felt like rocket science. For me, it was an eye-opener. I did not have any answers to the questions my children were asking.”

 Macharia wondered where she could go to find parenting resources, and she wondered why basic resources and information, like how to enroll her children in school, weren’t readily available. Why not, she thought, have an orientation meeting for community newcomers?

 In 2020, she took ownership of the solutions she wanted to see and became a consultant with the Department of Public Health in Worcester, Mass., helping to connect community members to programs and resources.

 “I was really keen on advocacy, and at the same time I was trying to learn a lot. So community work for me was both to put bread on the table and get answers to all the questions I had. And I felt that if I did not become a voice, nothing was going to get better.”

Among Macharia’s recent projects is advocating, through Worcester Family Partnerships, for sensory play options such as sandboxes in all of Worcester’s public playgrounds. She is also involved in parent leadership and efforts to address domestic violence. Primarily, she works as a mediator, helping landlords and tenants reach mediated, out-of-court agreements to stabilize families by preserving their tenancy.

 “Every single day here is a learning process. Policies can change, so you have to keep learning about what can or cannot work across time.”

 Macharia learned about the Advocacy Network from Yolanda Ramos, a member of the first network’s first cohort.

 Part of Macharia’s experience in the Advocacy Network has been the demystification of leadership.

 “In Africa, the open door policy in political leadership is not that open, although there is some progress. Here, on the contrary, I’ve learned that the open door policy means picking up the phone, calling leaders, voicing your concerns and seeing an end result,” she says. “It’s good to have a rich network. But it’s also true that my voice can be heard directly. That was amazing. That was empowerment right there.”

 Macharia is using the communication skills she has learned from the Advocacy Network on her professional projects. For the Worcester playground project, she reached out to the city’s Public Works and Parks department.

 “It is more powerful to walk into such offices and say we can work together as opposed to saying, Do something for me. It’s creating that partnership; for me that was an aha moment that I can actually create a partnership with this office.”

To do this, Macharia is sharing what the community has already tried and tested. Partnerships, she adds, are a way to avoid getting caught in budget battles, which can take years to resolve.

 “The question is, How can I be a part of the solution? For citizens, I think it is an awakening moment to know that you can be part of the solution.”

 Macharia, among others, has also been organizing community conversations with the Kenyan community to talk about the cultural adjustments that affect how parents raise their children.

 “These children are living in two different worlds: their parents’ world and their life here.”

 Macharia has other ideas. She’d like to develop an app that helps parents with life hacks, so that they feel less overwhelmed. She’d like to see policymakers include a member of the public in the work of putting advocacy and policy into action to ensure that intentions become reality. 

 It’s another example of the power of owning problems and owning solutions. 

 Unfortunately, this power has limits. There is one issue that Macharia owns that she has not yet figured out how to solve.

 “I want to highlight the immigration issue of reunification. This is a journey I have walked. I have a son who has been negatively affected by the separation from his dad because of the immigration process of naturalization.”

 “My question is: Who is able to help us? USCIS [the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] seems like an impenetrable wall.

 “I’ve done everything, especially after being in the advocacy network. I’ve gone to all the public offices I was directed to, but they all seem helpless. I am hoping Elizabeth Warren’s office can intervene. For children who are going through this, who is there to advocate for them as they suffer with anxiety every single day?”

 “I rarely advocate using the word ‘fair’ because that’s a relative term that can have a thousand perspectives. But this is a place where I have to ask: Do they consider what’s fair?

 We are inspired by Macharia’s energetic and passionate advocacy for herself and for her community. And we’re looking forward to seeing what’s next in her advocacy journey.