Interview: Justin Zoradi on soccer, South Africa and…not the World Cup!
Justin Zoradi never expected to write a business plan, much less start his own organization. (“I got a C-minus in microeconomics in college!”) But after a service trip to South Africa in 2006, that’s exactly what he did. Living and working for a summer in the Cape Flats townships on the outskirts of Cape Town, Zoradi, a soccer-loving 23-year-old from Portland, Oregon, saw what many visitors to South Africa see–that nearly two decades after the end of apartheid most black South Africans still live in poverty, and black youth have little access to education or opportunity. Soon after, he founded a crowd-funded scholarship program, These Numbers Have Faces, to address the stark inequities he’d seen up close. Its mission: to break the cycle of poverty by offering the youth of Cape Flats a shot at college and a better life. What These Numbers doesn’t offer, says Zoradi, now 27, is charity; participants have to do tutoring and service projects and attend financial literacy courses, among other things–building the skills they need to become changemakers in their own communities.
Dowser spoke recently with Zoradi from These Numbers’ office in a repurposed warehouse in Portland.
Dowser: You provide scholarships to South African kids who can’t afford to go to college. How are you doing that?
Zoradi: We’re working with eight kids on scholarship in college now, and we’re building a robust program in the Cape Flats townships, which we hope will absorb hundreds of young people from the townships; they’ll get college scholarships, but also mentoring and service projects and financial literacy training–everything they need to really succeed.
What’s your approach, and how did it evolve?
We didn’t want to just hand someone a scholarship, because that’s charity, and we don’t want to be about charity. They have to put something in, and I have to put something in. So in return for a scholarship, our students do tutoring and service projects, attend financial literacy courses, and then commit to a financial reinvestment plan where they give 1% of their future income for life back into the program so that new students can go to college behind them.
Let’s take a step back. What’s your connection to South Africa?
After college I moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to do peace and conflict resolution work with Catholic Protestant young people. In 2006, I led a trip of kids to South Africa to do a summer-long service program. They built houses in townships, did HIV/AIDS outreach work, and a whole lot of peace and conflict work, learning about the South African transition to democracy and then trying to apply it back to Northern Ireland.
And there’s a soccer angle, right?
Right. I played soccer with this team outside Cape Town. They used soccer to promote AIDS awareness, along with leadership skills and character development. I got really tight with all the players and the coach, and on my last night the coach asked me, “Will you help the boys on my team go to college?” And I said, “I’m not your guy. Trust me. I got a C- in microeconomics in college. I can’t do it.” But I promised to stay in touch.
How did you get from there to founding the organization?
I was sitting alone after class [in graduate school at Portland State University in 2006], and I heard this voice saying, ‘Justin, will you deny for others what you demand for yourself?’ I’ve been given everything in my life, and I think it’s my job as a person of privilege, who believes in social justice and equality, to give back. And I realized that even though I had no idea what I was doing, I cared about those young people in South Africa and felt a direct responsibility to take action.
I rallied all my friends, and I said, this is what I want to do and I need your help. I think I’ve done a great job of leveraging social capital, and involving people who know things that I don’t – finance, Web development, so many things.
What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced?
I’m sitting in an office in Portland trying to affect the lives of people 4,000 miles away. That disconnect is really hard for me.
What about cultural challenges?
Western and African ideas about money are very different. In Africa, if you have money because you have a good job and you’ve gone to college, and I’m your cousin, brother, even friend down the street, it’s culturally acceptable for me to come to you every day and ask you for money. And you’re culturally required to do so.
Why is that so bad?
Educated people with good jobs can never really save money, because they’re constantly doling it out to their family and friends. We’re trying to get kids set up with opportunities so that they can make money and exit poverty, we’re teaching them how to budget and not get in credit card debt, and all these very Western ideas about how to manage money. When you throw that into an African cultural scenario, it gets problematic.
How do you deal with that?
The last thing I want to do is try and force Western beliefs onto people in Africa, but we also want to make sure that our students are doing well and saving money. We haven’t quite got it figured out.
How are you funded?
We’ve developed a small donor strategy to make up the bulk of our base. The initial donor circle was our friends and family, then we got other people to sign up to give 25 dollars a month. We have a much larger donor pool this way. I’ll take that many small donors over two or three large donors, because you never know what’s going to happen with them.
Where do you see TNHF in five to 10 years time?
In five years I’d definitely like to get 100 kids in the Cape Flats townships involved with this, and increase the size of the staff in South Africa. We have room to grow. Over time, I want to develop a strategy where we can create a sustainable organization in South Africa that can take off on its own. Also, our model’s applicable anywhere in the world, so if we get our program in South Africa going, we can look for another place in the world where this could fly.
What keeps you going?
The relationships that I have with these people, and the fact that whenever I’m feeling down or overwhelmed or uninspired and I get those feelings of self-doubt, I get on the phone and I call our staff out there, I call the students, I call friends of mine out there and immediately my hope is restored.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: These Numbers Have Faces