TAT Gambian Trailblazers: Catalyst for Development: Mrs. Yassin Sarr’s Advocacy for Education and Empowerment

Mam-Yassin Sarr

By: Awa Conteh

Welcome to this week’s episode of Meet The Gambian Trailblazers, where we spotlight individuals making significant contributions to The Gambia and beyond.  

In today’s conversation, we have the privilege of delving into the remarkable journey of Mrs. Yassin Sarr, a passionate advocate for education and empowerment in The Gambia. Throughout her life, Mrs. Sarr has been driven by a deep commitment to leveraging education as a catalyst for positive change, particularly for young girls in her community. Join us as we explore the pivotal moments, motivations, and insights that have shaped her educational leadership and advocacy path. 

Mam-Yassin Sarr is the co-founder and director of Starfish International. This nonprofit organization seeks to advance humanity through girls’ education and service-learning opportunities in The Gambia, West Africa. Starfish International’s mission is to empower Gambian girls by providing them with an advanced education focused on service to humanity and international service-learning opportunities for volunteers. 

Mam-Yassin speaking to the crowd at the Starfish Billboard launching

Mam-Yassin graduated from Berea College with a degree in French and Sociology. She earned her Master of Arts in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at Murray State University and a Certificate in Advanced Studies in Teaching and Curriculum at Syracuse University. She lives in Brewerton, New York, with her husband and two children but spends most of the year educating girls in The Gambia, West Africa. She enjoys traveling, doing service projects, reading, and fundraising for Starfish International.

Mam-Yassin has taught Multiculturalism, Gender, Race, Class, and sexual orientation at Murray State University. She has taught refugees English and helped them resettle in Central New York. She has prepared student-teachers at Syracuse University’s School of Education who work with ESL students. She has also taught “Girls’ Education in the Developing World” at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Diplomacy. 

Speaking at Townshend International School in the Czech Republic

Reflecting on her motivation to serve, Ms. Sarr has said, ‘I was born in a Muslim family, went to a Baptist kindergarten, a Methodist elementary school, a Catholic high school, and chose the Baha’i Faith as my spiritual path. Growing up in The Gambia, going to college as a black girl in Eastern Kentucky, working as a university lecturer in the Southern United States, being married to a biracial man, and raising children on two continents and in two very different cultures have all helped me deeply reflect on the rich journey life has accorded me. This journey has been preparing me to see my undeniable role in contributing to the only way forward for humanity-peace.’  

Growing up, Mrs. Sarr harbored ambitions of pursuing a career in law. However, upon entering college and undertaking undergraduate studies in sociology, a profound realization dawned upon her. She understood that the most potent avenue for influencing a significant number of individuals lay in education. In her perspective, educators possess the unparalleled capability to reach and impact a broader audience than any other profession. This revelation prompted a shift in focus toward the field of education, setting the trajectory for her future endeavors.

English class with the Starfish students at the class room buliding

Witnessing her mother’s journey through a divorce, followed by the arduous task of rebuilding her life from scratch, left a profound impact on her. She observed how her mother, armed with her education, managed to secure a stable and well-paying job, ultimately paving the way for her to create a new life. This firsthand experience instilled in her a profound belief in the power of education as the ultimate form of security. It became clear to her that the right education equips individuals with the resilience and resources needed to navigate life’s challenges and secure a stable future.

Transitioning from being a student to assuming the role of an educator and advocating for educational reform in The Gambia marks a significant transition for our esteemed guest. For her, this shift feels like a natural progression. Her motivation stems from the experiences she gained while engaging in advocacy work as a student. Through various platforms such as GAMSU (Gambia Students’ Union), NSGA, the President’s Award Scheme, Barrow, Girl Guides, and student government roles in high school and college, she developed a strong foundation in advocacy. These experiences continue to shape her journey in educational leadership. Navigating the challenges that accompany this role has been possible due to the skills and insights she acquired during her formative years as a student advocate.

High school Graduate (Mary Banna) now a mentor-in-training at Starfish

“I have always felt that I have to be a part of the solution at the grassroots level and have therefore spent years translating what I have learned and taught in higher education into practical, everyday, real-world solutions in the lives of marginalized elementary and high school girls. At Starfish International, we are exploring and implementing ways these girls can use the opportunities they are afforded to impact their communities, countries directly, and the world, even as they navigate high school and college”, she told the Alkamba Times. 

Mrs Sarr underscores the idea that individuals at the grassroots level can address their challenges, given the proper support. Growing up, she internalized this principle, recognizing Africa’s rich potential as a source of valuable lessons for those willing to serve. Consequently, at Starfish International, she ensures that international service opportunities are designed to be mutually beneficial, highlighting her commitment to leveraging education as a means of empowerment. 

Mam-Yassin_ Recipient of The Fatu Network 2019 Heroes Award

Starfish’s approach has consistently centered on demonstrating the value of educated girls in the community through tangible actions rather than engaging in contentious debates. Over the past fifteen years, they have witnessed girls evolve into dedicated servant leaders who actively contribute to improving their communities. These young women provide various services, including tutoring, providing health services, establishing small businesses, offering media services, and more. Observing their commitment and pride in serving their communities with dignity remains one of the most fulfilling aspects of their journey in service.

In today’s world, having a broad vision is essential for success. It is crucial to develop this worldview early on in one’s education. Mrs. Sarr believes that Gambian girls hold immense potential to contribute comprehensively to global development. Additionally, she is convinced they stand to benefit significantly from exposure to their global community’s diverse perspectives and experiences. 

‘Everything that you need to fully live your purpose is already inside of you. With the right kind of education, one that takes into consideration the best parts of your culture and is squarely steeped in your context both as a Gambian and as a world citizen, you can fully take advantage of bringing out these precious attributes that we so desperately need to make our world a better place,’ she said.

Looking ahead, Mrs Sarr believes that the students who have graduated from Starfish International will play a pivotal role in advancing the notion of inter-development. They will demonstrate that combining material and spiritual development empowers individuals to contribute meaningfully to global betterment. Observing these young people reaffirms her conviction that selfless service is a powerful form of worship and a potent solution for addressing societal challenges. As they continue to embody this ethos, she remains optimistic about the bright future they are poised to create.

Mam-Yassin addressing the Starfish students

As we bid farewell to Mrs. Yassin Sarr’s journey, her profound dedication to education and service lingers as an indelible beacon of hope and inspiration. Her journey, marked by unwavering commitment and tireless advocacy, is a testament to the transformative potential of education in fostering positive change. Through her exemplary leadership and resolve, Mrs. Sarr has empowered countless individuals and ignited a ripple effect of empowerment and progress across her community and beyond. As we reflect on her remarkable story, let us carry forward the lessons she imparts: that education is not merely a tool for personal advancement but a powerful force for collective upliftment and societal transformation.

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