February 18, 2008
The sky is the limit: Football fans help anthropologist build vision
By Kim Urquhart
If Scott Lacy could get football fans to help build Cleveland Browns Elementary in Mali, West Africa, an “Emory Elementary” might be next. The anthropology professor heads African Sky, an all-volunteer organization that plans to build nine more schools there by 2010.
“Mali is in many ways the center of my life,” says Lacy as he settles back to share his story.
Lacy grew up on the outskirts of Kent State University but was the first in his family to go to college. Upon graduation, he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to serve in Mali, in the small southern village of Dissan.
His Peace Corps experience was cut short, however, when he contracted rheumatic fever. Lacy was medically evacuated to Washington, D.C., where he regained his health but lost the opportunity to continue in the Peace Corps.
Vowing to return to Mali, Lacy considered his options. Perhaps he would study anthropology?
In the meantime, he found work in New Mexico as a foster parent for troubled Native American youth. “They say the Peace Corps is the hardest job you’ll ever love, but actually this job was tougher,” Lacy says.
From New Mexico he went to the University of California, Santa Barbara for his doctorate. “From the very first day I started planning my return to the village of Dissan,” Lacy recalls, visiting the village elders to determine in what way he could best serve the community that had become his second home. When it became clear that the area of greatest need was food production, Lacy augmented his anthropology studies with courses in plant breeding and agriculture.
For his dissertation, he returned to Mali on a Fulbright scholarship. He studied the villagers’ food production and knowledge systems. “These are people who have a really difficult life but they are producing food and they are happy, and in many ways more fulfilled than people I know and love in the United States,” he marveled.
Wondering how to repay their generosity, the idea for the Bougouni Browns Backers was born.
At first the intention was to raise funds to build a water pump for the village. He enlisted the help of friends in Ohio, and cashed in on his connections with the Cleveland Browns. The fan club became an instant success — both with the flag football games Lacy organized in the village and the American Browns fans who bought “Bougouni Browns Backers” T-shirts for $15.
An unexpected publicity blitz followed. “With this publicity the money came so fast that within three months we had collected $10,000,” says Lacy. Enough for not only a pump, but for a school.
Shortly after the Cleveland Browns school was built, Lacy concluded his field research and returned to Santa Barbara to write his dissertation. But things had changed. “I started to see my role in the village as more than just an anthropologist. Instead I could play a more immediate role in terms of being a responsible international son of this community,” he says.
“When I saw how it easy it was to do something so small on our scale — but so big in this community — I felt that it would be immoral not to take that momentum from the success of this first fundraiser and do something with it,” Lacy says. “And that’s when I made my personal commitment to schools.”
As executive director of African Sky, Lacy is working with students in Emory Footsteps and other organizations to build more schools and launch community development programs in Mali.
African Sky — and his research as a Marjorie Shostak Lecturer at Emory — allows Lacy to return frequently to Mali.
Lacy’s research at Emory is focused on the intellectual property rights of farmers who have collaborated with plant breeders to create new crop varieties. He is part of a team of researchers who are studying these “renegades of the plant breeding sector” in countries around the world. “This is science that transforms lives,” says Lacy.
At Emory, students in Lacy’s sustainable development and anthropology courses are transforming community. “This idea of development isn’t something for far off places,” he teaches, “it’s for all of us.”