A Trip to Uganda Inspired Brittany Merrill Underwood to Change Hundreds of Women’s Lives–And Her Own
Story by Leslie Barker
Brittany Merrill Underwood’s life changed – completely, thoroughly, astonishingly – the summer she was 19, an age that now seems head-shakingly young. “I was the most selfish, spoiled SMU sorority girl,” she says on a recent March afternoon, sitting outside Akola, the store in Snider Plaza that fulfills a dream she didn’t know she had. “I was going to parties and trying to show up in class. My heart was empty; now it’s full.”
A dozen years later, she’s long ago lost count of the times she’s crisscrossed the globe. And how could she possibly number the lives of women she’s touched and changed for the better? Yahoo named her “Person of the Year” in 2014; during those same 12 months, she was asked to join the elite mentoring class for the Laura Bush Women’s Initiative. Clothing manufacturer Levi Strauss honored her as one of 50 women internationally who have changed the political, cultural and spiritual shape of the future. She’s made appearances on Katie Couric’s show as well as on CNN’s Young People Who Rock. She received SMU’s Emerging Leader Award, the Dallas Women’s Foundation Young Leader Award and was a finalist for the 2016 Global Business & Interfaith Peace Award from the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation. Most recently, she received a $75,000 United Way award in Dallas.
This 2006 Meadows graduate can remember exactly the moment complacency and selfishness began loosening their grip on her heart. She was in Uganda, of all places. She was there because a friend had suggested they have an “adventure” that summer. Underwood was all in: Europe! she thought. Her friend? Uganda, to teach at a boarding school. So off they went. But once there, Underwood got sick. She was exhausted. “My heart was hard,” she says. “I didn’t have any compassion.”
And then, a local pastor introduced her to a woman named Sarah. “If you could take it”– the beginning of her transformation –“all back to a moment,” Underwood says, “it would be meeting Sarah.”
Sarah, only a few years older than Underwood, cared for 24 orphans in a little shack. They slept on bamboo mats, curled up together; sometimes Sarah didn’t eat so she could feed the children. “It was so humbling,” Underwood says. “I had two thoughts: One, I’ve never done anything in my life, and two, here’s a woman who trusts in God for 24 kids. I didn’t trust God for my own life.”
Underwood left Uganda to study in Italy. While there, she ended up in a hospital bed with a stress fracture … and plenty of time. “All I could think about was this woman,” she says. “It was a burden. It wasn’t compassion; it was a burden.” Maybe she could just give Sarah a couple hundred dollars, Underwood remembers thinking, then go back to living her own comfortable life. But fate has its own inherent snickers, a way of steering one into the shadows to find unexpected purpose. A journalism major who decided she needed to raise money for an orphanage in that faraway place, she returned to Uganda and shot nine hours of film footage – heart-wrenching stories of children who were living the only lives they knew how to live and the women caring for them, but whose needs were beyond immense. “I’d never raised a dollar in my life,” she says.
“I didn’t tell anyone at SMU. Then I told one friend and she started crying. She said, ‘I’ll do anything. Let’s trust God.’”
Helping her on her journey was Dr. Maria Dixon Hall. Among her titles at SMU are Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor in Meadows’ Corporate Communication and Public Affairs Division (CCPA) and senior advisor to the provost for campus cultural intelligence initiatives. And, in interwoven chapters of Underwood’s story, Dixon Hall holds these: professor, challenger, guider, stalwart, supporter and lifelong friend. “Though she thinks of herself as spoiled, Brittany is a deeply spiritual, compassionate woman,” says Dixon Hall, who is also an ordained minister. “Yet in that compassion, she is at heart a skilled businesswoman who understands that her faith must work to set others free to be who they were created to be.”
Underwood’s faith allowed her to bounce back from mistakes, Dixon Hall says. That faith and compassion have bound the two women for more than 13 years and counting. But were first impressions to hold true, Dixon Hall might well have walked away from that first meeting. She didn’t. Which isn’t to say she believed in Underwood. Not at the time. “I remember sitting across from her thinking, ‘Sure, you want to build an orphanage in Uganda.’ Oh, please! I let her into my class [Introduction to Nonprofit Organizations] even though she wasn’t a major, just because I wanted to see how long it would take her to get a grip on reality.”
“Brittany’s model is life changing because it offers a challenge to conventional models of nonprofit organizing.”
Underwood met her challenge. She signed up for every nonprofit class at SMU. She graduated; founded the Ugandan American Partnership Organization, a partnership with a Ugandan ministry to build an orphanage; eventually raised $1 million for the project and moved to Uganda to help oversee its construction. Three friends from Furman University put their own jobs on hold and went with her. They lived in a dilapidated stone shack with three beds, a sleeping bag and no running water until members of the orphanage board told them they had to move to the city.
“The orphanage turned out beautifully; it is huge,” says Underwood of the three-story, concrete structure that took three years to build and houses close to 200 children. “Meanwhile, one of the girl working with us had funding for water wells, so we also started drilling wells in the countryside in eastern Uganda and learning the needs of people there. Many of the women in the communities we worked with were caring for orphans, sometimes 10 or more. The more we learned, though, the more we realized they didn’t need an orphanage. They wanted to keep the children in their homes.”
So how to harness the passion of these women and help them make their own lives better? The answer was jewelry, but it was not quite yet in the story. Though the orphanage was now completed and under local management, Underwood was getting frustrated, feeling that it was not the best model to care for disadvantaged children.
“I was about to throw in the towel,” she says. “Then I thought, ‘No. There’s something here. I’m going to commit to this country.’” She determined that building an orphanage alone would not empower the women financially. Earning a living wage, on the other hand, “would directly affect them by allowing them to care for more children,” she says. She established the nonprofit Akola (“she works” in the Bantu language) Project, which offers women in Uganda – and, more recently, in the Dallas area ways to improve their lives through vocational training, support groups, education programs and employment opportunities. Akola’s holistic approach also includes investing in village infrastructure and partnering with local health providers.
“Through Akola, we focused time and resources on building the economic strength of the women and treating Ugandans like partners,” Underwood says. “By 2010-11, we had several hundred women in the program making jewelry. We worked in the U.S. with a jewelry designer, who elevated the line. We found better wire and clasps for the jewelry; we switched away from toxic varnish.”
The pieces, made by more than 500 women in Uganda and Dallas, are sold in the Snider Plaza flagship Akola store as well as in 150 boutiques across the United States. Prices start at about $20 for beaded necklaces made from recycled paper and range up to $700 for the newest line, which incorporates such materials as agate, pearl and jade and is available exclusively at Neiman Marcus stores. That business partnership came about via a random chain of connections: Underwood met Neiman’s CEO Karen Katz through Dallas restaurateur Hedda Gioia Dowd, who had heard Underwood speak at The George W. Bush Presidential Center. “Karen Katz wove this magic and catapulted our brand,” Underwood says.
By this time, Underwood had earned a master’s degree in intercultural studies from Fuller Theological Institute in California and had studied “all the best developmental theories,” she says. “In terms of creating a sustainable impact model, we are doing what all of the best thinkers in the world are advocating.”
Her work led Dixon Hall to invite Underwood to teach a course at SMU called Principles of Social Innovation: Creating World Changers, which she has now done for several years. The class is part of a new degree track in CCPA called Social Innovation and Nonprofit Engagement; it trains students who are interested in working for established nonprofits, and those who want to start their own organizations with a social welfare focus.
“Brittany’s model is life changing,” says Dixon Hall, “because it offers a challenge to conventional models of nonprofit organizing. I wanted her to share that with an audience that too often theorizes about change but rarely has to meet a payroll on two continents to do it.” The course, she says, serves as a “reality check for people who think that changing the world just takes a little money and an interest in people.”
Now married and the mother of two young sons – Laith turned 2 in May; Colson was born last October – she and her family have a home in Uganda, and go there whenever possible. “I want us to spend summers there,” she says. “I want my boys to grow up, to have friends in the U.S. and to become friends with people who are very different from them. I feel most humble, most alive when I’m there. My heart and soul are there.”
Akola has connected women who otherwise wouldn’t know each other; it’s shown them they cry about the same things, she says, and “they pray about the same things. You suddenly realize the world is not just about you. You’re not here to take; you’re here to give.” Which, in the past dozen years and counting, she has in ways she never dreamed. “Every day, I wake up and think I am the luckiest person in the world to be able to do this.”
Interested in learning more about the Akola Project or where you can buy the handmade jewelry created by women from Uganda and Dallas? Visit akolaproject.org.