School of Hope

Through her nonprofit, SCALEAfrica, architect Erinn McGurn ’94 is ensuring that children from some of Africa’s poorest communities have safe, environmentally friendly school buildings—and a shot at a better life

by John MacMillan

Erinn McGurnClick here to watch a video interview with Erinn McGurn ’94

One day last spring, Erinn McGurn ’94 found herself in the front seat of a dusty car driving along the dirt roads of rural Mfuwe, Zambia, on her way to the Chiutika Basic School, which she’d first visited about five years ago with her husband, Guy Baron. She was anxious and excited by what she was about to see, and when she finally pulled up to the school, she had to sit in the car for a few minutes to compose herself. “It caught me off guard, how overwhelmed and moved I was,” she recalls. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

The landscape in front of her was so dramatically transformed that it was almost unrecognizable. Gone was the crumbling, cramped, and dangerous school building she toured on her first visit in 2006; in its place was a sturdy, clean, and environmentally friendly new school complex with teachers’ offices, covered outdoor space, and a classroom block big enough for 1,000 children. “It was a truly beautiful school environment, a complete contrast to what had been there,” McGurn says. “The kids were happy and excited, and to see them enjoying the school so much was an incredibly moving experience.”

McGurn was so emotional because the vision for the new school was, in part, hers, and she was seeing it come to life for the first time. More than that, though, she knew the kind of lasting impact the school would have on the local community. “With the deep poverty in some of these areas, the kids realize that their education is really one of the only ways out for them,” she says. “Having a place where they can go that is comfortable, that is safe, where they can concentrate and focus on what’s important to them, to their future, can do so much good, not only for them but their families.”

The Chiutika school project was the first undertaken by McGurn and Baron’s nonprofit organization, SCALEAfrica, which they founded in 2007 with the goal of building schools in sub-Saharan Africa. As it turns out, though, they’re doing much more than that: They’re transforming communities—and saving lives. “The end result may be a new school,” McGurn says, “but what we hope to do in the process is provide a context in which local people learn about issues like HIV and AIDS, malaria prevention, and how to survive in their environment.”

SCALEAfrica—an acronym for Sustainable Communities and Learning Environments—is unique because of its commitment to using natural resources to construct schools and encouraging local residents to take center stage in the building process. “When we talk about sustainability, we’re not just talking about materials, like sand or gravel or wood, we’re also talking about the people power that exists,” McGurn says. “Local people often have skills we don’t have. They know the land better, they know the environment, and it’s important that they have a stake because they feel so much more invested in the success of the project. It becomes a source of pride for everyone.”

On of SCALEAfric's schoolsThe idea for SCALEAfrica, which receives most of its funding from private donations, started to take shape after McGurn and her husband returned home from a 2006 trip to Zambia, a country of about 13 million people north of Zimbabwe. The two were familiar with Southern Africa from their regular visits to see Guy’s family in Cape Town, but they both felt they could learn more. The next time they went to Zambia, they decided to visit more rural communities and perhaps tour some local schools, thinking that they might be able to help in some small way by bringing along pens and paper and soccer balls for the kids. The first school they toured was the Chiutika Basic School.

As the headmaster took them around the grounds, in and out of classrooms, they were shocked by the crumbling structures and lack of space and wondered how any kind of teaching or learning could take place amid such dangerous and decrepit conditions. “There was basically one classroom building for 1,000 students,” McGurn remembers. “Most classes were being taught outside in the extreme heat.” Yet, even in the midst of such despair, the students seemed happy. “Everyone, from the teachers to the students, was making the most of their situation,” McGurn says. “They didn’t have much of anything, really, but they were enthusiastic and still learning, and we felt such a connection with them.”

As McGurn was getting ready to leave, she asked the headmaster what might help the school the most. His first response: a library. Then this: “He said, ‘What we could really use is a dictionary,’” McGurn recalls.

It was such a humble request that McGurn knew immediately that she wanted to help in bigger ways. Returning to the States, she began sending books, including that dictionary, and corresponding back and forth. In one letter, the headmaster told McGurn that the roof of the only classroom building was damaged during a storm. “Right then and there, my husband and I sat down to figure out what we could do to help,” she says.

Remembering the hopefulness of the children she met while touring Chiutika, McGurn realized that their future hinged on whether they would be able to receive a basic education and knew she had to dream bigger. An architect by profession, McGurn began drawing up plans, figuring that building a school from the ground up would be the most effective way for her to help. “Schools arm kids with knowledge and the essential tools for survival,” she says.

McGurn and schoolchildrenBut McGurn didn’t want to create just some faceless nonprofit that would roll into the community, take over for a few months, and then leave. Involving local people would be an integral part of SCALEAfrica’s mission, as would using environmentally friendly materials. During the construction of the Chiutika complex, for example, parents of the schoolchildren pitched in by making 100,000 bricks. They carted water and sand from a nearby river, built their own kiln, and fired the bricks on site. In designing the new structure, McGurn took into consideration the harshness of the environment. “One of the things that was important to us was the siting of the building and its orientation so that what few trees existed were shading the building,” McGurn says. She and her team also created ventilation in the roof so that hot air wouldn’t get trapped in the building. “That was something they’d never had before,” she says. “It was such a simple thing, but it made such a difference in the quality of life of the kids and their teachers.”

McGurn’s worldview wasn’t always as wide as it is now. She grew up in the perfectly middle-class San Bernadino Valley in Southern California, where her father was a union employee at a grocery store and her mother was a customer service manager at United Stationers. She lived in a development where the tract houses looked as if, as she says, they came straight out of the movie E.T. She raced BMX bikes with neighborhood kids, rode motorcycles and horses, and for a while was a competitive gymnast. In her early teens, McGurn moved with her mother and brother to the Bay Area (her parents divorced when she was 4) and started at San Mateo High School, where a mechanical-drawing class sparked her interest in architecture. “My mother signed me up for the class because she insists that I told her when I was architect like Mike Brady from The Brady Bunch,” McGurn recalls.

When it came time to choose a college, McGurn decided on Smith after talking to an alumna about Smith’s art department at a local college fair. “It was the only school I applied to,” she says. “I never visited; just showed up on move-in day. Some might call that impulsive, but I think of it as intuitive. It was the best decision I ever made.”

At Smith, McGurn felt free to explore subjects she’d never considered before, and by extension other cultures and religions. “I think [being at Smith] opened up an empathy that was always there, but it got redirected once I was exposed to all these new things,” she says.

Since earning her master’s in architecture from the University of Texas at Austin in 1998, McGurn has had a fulfilling career developing high-end residential architecture. In 2010, she formed her own practice, SCALEStudio, and is currently designing schools for other nonprofits in rural African villages. “I’ve had so many moments in my professional life when people have said to me, ‘I need this,’ when it’s really just a want,” she says. “That got me thinking very hard about what people actually need, things like basic shelter, good nutrition, an education.”

That’s why her work with SCALEAfrica and SCALEStudio gets her so excited. “When we encountered the community at Chiutika and that relationship developed to where I felt I could contribute to getting all these kids in school, it set off this spark in me that I didn’t turn back from,” she says. “What we’re doing has real value and meaning and has the potential to lift these communities out of poverty.”

When McGurn returned to Zambia last May, she had a few things on her agenda. The first was to survey the Chiutika site and see the new school in action. Next, she wanted to check on the progress of the new teacher housing her group was building on the school’s grounds; new housing means teachers won’t have to walk miles to school every day and can enjoy more humane living quarters. On top of all that, she was eager to find another school to help. She found it in the Chamatwa village in Mfuwe. The school is called Chitempha and, with about 450 students, is much smaller than Chiutika, but it was in worse condition. “They’ve really been left behind,” McGurn says. The building itself was built in 1940 and hasn’t seen many updates since then. It’s overcrowded, bats fly through classrooms, and there’s little ventilation, all of which create health issues for the students and teachers. SCALEAfrica’s plan is to build a six-classroom block, with each building connected along a skylit verandah that would provide both protection and shade. The roof will be designed to collect rainwater, and the buildings will include teacher offices, storage space, and meeting rooms. As with the Chiutika school, the Chitempha project needed government approval. That request has been granted and construction is slated to begin in 2012, once McGurn has raised the $100,000 budget.

McGurn hopes to one day develop scholarships for young girls in Zambia. As in many poverty-stricken countries, the privilege of attending secondary school often goes to the eldest son. “I’ve met so many girls who are so bright and smart and enthusiastic, but their education ends at seventh grade because their families say they need them at home, which they do,” McGurn says. “But imagine what could happen if they were able to continue their education.”

All of this goes back to McGurn’s original vision for SCALEAfrica as an organization that treats access to education as a human rights issue and their work as a means to helping a community secure its future. “The word ‘scale’ implies growth, something to aspire to,” she says. “There is a lot more we want to do; there are a lot more communities—and kids—in need.”

John MacMillan is director of alumnae communications
Photos: Joshua Paul