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Leaving a High-Tech Job to Empower African Children

Justin Silbaugh (second from left in cap) and staffers welcome arriving students to art camp in Uganda.
Justin Silbaugh (second from left in cap) and staffers welcome arriving students to art camp in Uganda.

Justin Silbaugh directs arts education project in Uganda

Not too long ago, Justin Silbaugh worked in California's high-tech industry. Today, the 40-year-old lives, works and volunteers in the East African nation of Uganda.

For the last two years, he has been the country director of an arts education project in Kansanga, on the outskirts of the capital of Kampala.

The after-school program is devoted to community service, and Silbaugh's goal is to create an empowering environment for youngsters who would otherwise have little hope for a better life.

Switching gears

Up until his early thirties, Silbaugh led a typical American life.

He attended public schools in the state of Maryland where he was born and grew up, went to college, and got a job in the high-tech industry in California.

Then, he changed careers and became a teacher and also helped set up an organization to teach computer skills to senior citizens. But he'd never lived overseas like so many of his friends had done through the Peace Corps and other organizations. He wanted that experience.

"And I felt that Africa was calling to me," says Silbaugh. "In the West, we have so many misconceptions about what Africa is and what it isn't, and I felt like I wanted to go and really experience it for myself."

A friend who worked in international development suggested he go to Uganda. While planning to leave for East Africa, Silbaugh was introduced to Laban Movement Analysis, a system for describing dance movements developed by Rudolph Laban, one of the founders of European modern dance in the early twentieth century.

"It's a way of categorizing movement, actually into a language that can be transcribed in the same way that musical notes can be," he says. "So, you could create a dance and actually write out that dance in a language that someone else could look at and then reproduce that dance or that movement."

Justin Silbaugh with students in Uganda
Justin Silbaugh with students in Uganda

Learning about life through art

In Uganda, Silbaugh's interest in Laban, teaching skills and his experience in business came together with In Movement: Art for Social Change. Started by Spanish dancer and actress Begonia Caparros, the program uses Laban Movement Analysis as a form of therapy for orphaned and abused children. Silbaugh - who'd met Caparros in California - has been its director since 2008.

"We work with about 300 disadvantaged children and youth from the surrounding area here in Kampala. And we use the arts as a tool of empowerment for the kids," he says. "To build their self-confidence, their self-esteem, to help them develop a belief in purpose-driven living, develop their communication skills, leadership skills, give them opportunities to really develop in life through the arts."

The children come to the program after school and on weekends, to learn music, dance, drama, creative writing, the visual arts and circus performing. Silbaugh says all the teachers - or facilitators as they are called - are talented Ugandan artists with a passion for working with young people.

"When they become a part of the In Movement team, which we refer to affectionately as 'The Dream Team,' we train them in our methodology of working with the kids which is really about doing something very different than the education system here in Uganda is doing which is very much about 'chalk and talk' memorization, but doesn't really focus on creativity, imagination, independent thinking."

Students in the after-school arts program work on a project.
Students in the after-school arts program work on a project.

Transformational times

When kids first come to the three-year program, Silbaugh says they are shy, quiet, and unable to express themselves.

As they work with the Dream Team, he watches them transform into happy, confident youngsters, with a positive outlook for their own futures.

But then, there's the question of what happens next. The Ugandan government offers free education only through primary school. Silbaugh says that's where schooling stops for 80 percent of the nation's young people, because they can't pay the tuition for higher education.

"A lot of our kids they finish our program and they have so much energy and enthusiasm for their future, but they don't have the resources to go onto good secondary schools. That can be frustrating," says Silbaugh. "We want the kids to succeed but there's not really free public education here in Uganda, at least not in the way we know it in the U.S.."

So, In Movement has begun to try to help students connect with organizations that could sponsor their education costs.

Silbaugh, who has fallen in love with Uganda and its people, plans to stay in the country for several more years. Despite the challenges, he says he would like to see the arts program expand, and reach children in other parts of Uganda and the rest of Africa.