Imagine a world in which everyone, everywhere, had equal access to quality education—imagine the empathy, innovation, and forward thinking that would ensue. Such is a world envisioned by Rebecca Ume Crook, an educator and explorer from California who documents her contributions to education in South Africa and Kenya through her personal Instagram, @stickylittleleaves, as well as the collective account @everydayeducation, which shares stories of educators and students around the world using #everydayeducation to connect the narrative. We had a conversation with Crook about her vision for global education, her approach to activism, and the ways in which she thinks photography and Instagram can be used to advance social development and global awareness.
At what point in your life did you begin to be passionate about both photography and education?
“My passion for both education and photography is rooted in seeking to cultivate compassion and justice—two things I value deeply. Growing up, there were opportunities for me to explore and develop a commitment to both. I was always really interested in social determinants of health outcomes. What I eventually found was that the route to inequality is in the inability to access high-quality education, and that’s where I want to make my mark.”
How did that realization manifest into your current profession as an educator?
“In college, I looked around and felt really privileged, and I wanted to get out of that bubble. After graduating, I moved to Richmond, California, to do Teach For America. I decided to integrate photography into my curriculum, because it had always been a way for me to connect with and celebrate the beauty around me. I felt that my students had really important stories to tell, and I wanted them to know not only the power of their own voices, but also the power of listening to others. One night, I got an email from a network of private schools in South Africa looking for a Director of Student Achievement. I really knew nothing about South Africa, but I went anyway. I fell in love with Johannesburg, decided to move there, and brought the remaining cameras that I’d fundraised for my classroom in Richmond with me.
“When I moved to Johannesburg, I pitched my photography curriculum to the housing project I wanted to move into in an area called Jeppestown, which is typically known for its violence and crime. I really wanted to see the kids who lived there be able to use photography to tell their own stories, about their own neighborhood, on their own terms. The housing project committee took my proposal, stapled it to my lease, and said, ‘Make it happen.’
“So many people came to the first exhibition. It was really beautiful to see a diverse group of Johannesburg locals—some of whom had previously been scared of Jeppestown—come and listen to these kids tell their stories alongside their images. That’s really where I saw how photography can be a tool for building bridges, not only in the viewer’s eyes, but also in the photographer’s.”
You currently work for Dignitas, an NGO in Nairobi, Kenya, which “transforms schools through leadership training, instructional coaching, and infrastructure support”. You also contribute to a series of photography exhibitions in South Africa called Everyday Education, which share the stories of students and educators around the world. Where did the idea for those exhibitions begin?
“Through Instagram, I met two photographers, @sam.vox and @diaryofzach, whose work I really admired and whose perspectives aligned with mine. We’d been following each other on social media for ages, and I ended up convincing them that we should all take a trip together (Sam lives in Dar es Salaam and Zach in Cape Town). We met in Cape Town and traveled thousands of miles across South Africa, visiting schools and meeting dedicated teachers, school leaders, students, and parents who had high hopes for their futures. To help share their stories, we started having pop–up photo exhibitions, which we dubbed ‘Everyday Education’, showcasing portraits of learners and educators we’d met along the way. We wanted to support these school leaders and students and help them realize their dreams for their communities.”
Eventually, you brought these photography exhibitions to social media, in the form of the @everydayeducation Instagram account and hashtag. What are your hopes for using Instagram in this way?
“I hope that Everyday Education becomes a participatory movement and a celebration of learners and leaders worldwide. I want people to be able to see what learning looks like across the world, from afar [no pun intended]. Instagram is amazing because you can travel from where you’re sitting to Kenya or South Africa at the swipe of your thumb. I think images are really powerful in connecting people who have very different life experiences. At the heart of it all, there’s common ground to be found, and I think photographs can facilitate that.”
How have your travels expanded your awareness and fueled your activism?
“Putting yourself outside of your comfort zone encourages and requires growth. My times abroad have really promoted that growth and compassion. I’ve encountered such generosity from people all over the world that I wouldn’t have had experience with if I’d stayed at home. Now, more than ever, being able to empathize and understand across lines of difference is so important, and that’s what I think a good education enables people to do.”
To #traveldeeper with Rebecca and keep up with her contributions to global education, follow her at @stickylittleleaves. To join the narrative, follow @everydayeducation and tag your photos of learning with #everydayeducation.