2022 Persons of the Year: The Changemakers

Benita Urey (left) and Alex Devine




.... So for Urey and Devine to show that the forces of courage can be as contagious as fear, and for stirring people and nations to contribute to a worthy cause, and for reminding Liberians that, no matter what, the solution to societal ills lies in our potential, they have been selected as the Daily Observer’s 2022 Persons of the Year.

It is quite difficult to live in Liberia as poverty rattles everybody’s nerve paths.  The cost of out-of-pocket health expenditures is spiraling — preventing many people from seeking healthcare —  while the education system stiflescritical thinking, and creativity with no solution insight. 

Then came Benita Urey and Alex Devine.  The former works to reduce the spiraling cost of healthcare for poor families, while the latter removes the barriers that have for years negatively impacted the intellectual capacity of many students. 

“It is us that can change the story of Liberia showing that the forces of empathy are greater than the furies of fear and that, with a shared vision, Liberians can become a better place,” Urey told the Daily Observer in an interview.

“We can’t just continue living as if there was no tomorrow, because there is a tomorrow and so, the onus is on us to change the narrative,” Devine added. 

Urey — a social activist who is the youngest Daily Observer person of the year — runs the Healing Liberia Foundation, where she speaks the language of hope, repeating the unassailable facts: that societal problem is everyone's responsibility.  She has focused her attention on healthcare injustices that many poor people have protested against for years.  And while she is neither the first to sound the alarm about the crisis nor the most qualified to do so, she has become the most compelling voice on one of the most critical issues facing the country — the impact of health costs on the poor.

“It is very important that we all as people see the need to make a difference in the lives of those who do not have,” Urey said. “People are suffering in this country, particularly when it comes to health costs.  So when you have it, find and directly impact somebody’s life.” 

“And this is what we do at the foundation. When you save a life you impact so many other lives too. When you save a young person’s life, you are not only impacting their life but also the lives of their parents and siblings and the people around them.”

And there comes Devine, who like Urey is a social activist fighting for change within the country's education sector.  Devine is concerned about the poor state of education in the country, which stiflescritical thinking, and creativity.  This was happening in a country that has produced some of the world’s renowned intellectuals and critical thinkers, including Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Plenyono Gbe Wolo, reportedly the first Black African to graduate from Harvard University, as well as Angie Elizabeth Brooks who was a Liberian diplomat and jurist.

And so, after being troubled for a while, Devine set his sight on finding a solution so as to produce the next generation of intellectuals and critical thinkers. The thought led to the birth of a national debate championship, which has grown to have over 400 participating schools, including rural schools.

This year's champion came from Nimba County -- the  ‘Lion Kingdom’ of the Ganta United Methodist High School, beating one of the country’s elite schools — the College of West Africa. And that was not the only surprise. Students from rural counties dominated the individual awards categories, including the most eloquent speakers and other awards. 

This testimony here shows that debate as an extracurricular activity is now having a   profound impact on reducing the barriers that have long existed in the country’s post-war education system which had stiff intellectualism and critical thinking.

“I consider critical thinking and debate to be a culture. It makes you not just accept just anything. I want young people to be independent,” Devine explained in an interview.  “When more young people begin to ask the tough questions like why and how questions, it makes a difference.”

“We have a youthful population and cannot allow the vast majority of them to end up not being critical thinkers,” he added.  “If we don’t build the foundation, we are going nowhere. That is the only way we can make a change.”

So for Urey and Devine to show that the forces of courage can be as contagious as fear, and for stirring people and nations to contribute to a worthy cause, and for reminding Liberians that, no matter what, the solution to societal ills lies in our potential, they have been selected as the Daily Observer’s 2022 Persons of the Year.

The award profiles a person, a group of persons, or an institution that has made a significant impact on the country and its people on a national scale.   The Person of the Year is a change-maker and a pace-setter, impacting the lives of the people directly and, for now, Urey and Devine are doing just that and have shown that their courage and desire for social change are worth emulating if the country will move forward.

Two years ago, Urey was roundly mocked when she began to use her brand power and family connection to raise funds for surgeries for poor families.  Many thought she would not go far. However, after summoning the courage to speak the truth to where it belongs,  she now bends the country's wealthy and many others to the force of her ambition. 

She succeeded by issuing a moral clarion call that has seen her foundation raise enough funds to impact the lives of many whose families could not afford hospital bills, as well as treatments for cancer, rickets, heart failure, and hepatitis B. 

Some people were in a critical stage and would have died if the Urey foundation had not intervened.   A case in point is that with Joseph Hinnah, whose family is poor and barely survives on two square meals per day. Hinnah had cancer but his parents had no money to pay for his treatment. 

So for years, he lived with it, and, after countless appeals, his parents lost hope. But as they say, your helper comes anytime. And that came from the Healing Liberia Foundation, which did not waste time in bringing Hinnah to Monrovia to get treatment.

At that point, he was near death.  His eyes couldn’t open. His stomach was swollen. Cancer in his body was at stage three. But Urey is someone with courage, she never gives up.  Hinnah’s chemotherapy fees, which were nearly US$5,000, were paid and, after months of treatment, he recovered.

A joy his family would not have been able to afford, Hinnah’s case is similar to many children and adults in the age range of 25 years, who the Healing Liberia Foundation has impacted their lives with the help of the general public. This survival comes down to God first, and Urey’s ability to persuade Liberians to make commitments where they had previously fumbled — helping those in need of healthcare. 

And that has worked. Lots of business people have all donated money to the foundation’s cause, while ordinary Liberians are not falling behind.  All that is needed is an appeal, and the funds would be ready. The Urey foundation’s success caught the attention of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center, which a couple of months ago announced a US$30,000 grant for the foundation to specifically assist poor children from rural areas have access to life-changing surgery. 

As for Devine, he has succeeded in creating attitudinal shifts, transforming the minds of thousands of future generations who are calling for urgent change in the way education is taught in the country.  The government has listened and now the Minister of Education, Ansu Sonii, and his team has recognized the debate, which is organized by his foundation, Youth for Change, as one that has a profound impact on building a foundation for generations to come. 

Parents have followed. They now allow their kids to travel from as far as Maryland to Monrovia to participate in the finals of the debate.  This is something remarkable.   The educated class has not been left behind too. They move in their numbers whenever the students are on camp to represent their counties for the nationwide final. 

But this change would not have come if Devine had not taken Liberian students to participate in the Africa Debate Champions in 2017.  There, Liberia came third in the tournament even though it was a first-time participant.  And in 2018, Liberia was able to participate for the first time in the World Debate Championship — competing with 64  countries. 

While Liberia did not win, they reached the quarter-final — a remarkable achievement that brought the government on board as a partner and the public. The Liberia National Debate Championship in its nearly seven years of existence had shown the light on hidden intellectuals and critical thinkers like Satta Sheriff, who could not be where they are today if not for the confidence developed through the art of debate.

Sheriff now works with the Melinda Gates Foundation; Beulah Nimene is a rising poet; and John Singbe, is a law graduate. He is a Mandela Fellow and now attending Pretoria University in South Africa to get his master’s in Law. 

Urey's and Devine's desire for change shows that while societal problems would not go away and may even be complicated as we go along, the change may not come until someone takes the lead. It is about the question, how many of us truly exceed our life span?  As Shakespeare observed in Julius Caesar, it’s far easier to be remembered for doing evil than doing good. How many will leave a mark on humanity for their contributions rather than their crimes? 

It is that desire that has gotten Urey and Devine where they are now: the ability not just to see but to do things others cannot, in arenas where the stakes are high. And so we say, both individuals are Liberia's avatar of infinite possibilities, reminding the country that the desires for change are not cast aside but become part of daily lives so as to reduce many of the country's societal problems.

They have shown that one does not have to be the leader of any political party or advocacy group. But should have the courage and not the fear to help a neighbor or a friend. That way, Liberia can become a better place for all to live.