After she graduated from college, Sasha Fisher booked a one-way ticket to Rwanda. She went with one suitcase, few contacts and no knowledge of the local language.
Still, she went with a vision. Fisher wanted to help small, impoverished communities take collective action to improve their own lives.
“I didn’t want to prescribe solutions for other people’s problems — instead, I wanted to enable community members to find their own solutions,” she said.
Her trip was the beginning of Spark MicroGrants, a rapidly growing organization that helps residents of rural villages in East Africa fund their own development ideas. Today, the organization has given micro-grants of up to $10,000 to 102 communities in Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, affecting more than 75,000 lives and boasting a 94 percent project sustainability rate.
“Men and women sit together and plan for their collective futures,” she said, describing how community members collaborate on resource mapping, budget building and risk assessment. “Our rule: we can’t impose ideas. We can only ask questions.”
Fisher, Spark’s executive director and co-founder, was inspired to start the organization after a trip to South Sudan in 2008 left her with serious questions. During her fieldwork, she saw several empty schoolhouses, a confounding phenomenon since access to education in the region was already low.
“It was apparent that some foreign aid organization had come in and tried to help, but they’d failed,” she said. “More local ownership could have saved the project.”
Though many consider her altruistic, Fisher firmly believes that work to benefit one benefits the whole.
“We’re all deeply interconnected,” said Fisher, who grew up in a traditional Jewish home in Tribeca. “I hope to see a world where everyone can live with dignity, and where everyone can define their own positive future.”
The Jewish kabbalistic idea of tzimtzum, God removing himself to make space for the world, fuels her vision.
“Sometimes, the most important way to create something is by removing ourselves from the picture,” she said. “Open space draws attention to what’s already there.”
Abstract altruism: Taking after her father, Fisher is an abstract artist. The money from selling her first painting helped fund her first trip to Rwanda.