Eighteen-year-old St. Thomian Adajah Benjamin said she never imagined herself sitting next to a high-profile public figure like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On Wednesday, in San Juan, she did just that, sitting onstage with Clinton as a panelist at the third Clinton Global Initiative Action Network Meeting on post-disaster recovery in the Caribbean.
“I was very nervous on the stage presenting next to Secretary Clinton,” said Benjamin. “But after awhile, I just started to see myself getting more calm and enjoying the questions she was asking.”
The CGI Action Network Meeting organized by the Clinton Foundation gathered government officials, businessmen and community leaders to develop strategies to address hurricane recovery needs in the Caribbean and make the region more resilient in the future. Up to three main sessions lasting at least an hour were scheduled throughout the day, with various breakout sessions in the morning and afternoon dealing with a range of issues, from infrastructure recovery to mental health to workforce development.
Benjamin, a high school senior at Charlotte Amalie High School, is a trainee of My Brother’s Workshop, a local nonprofit known for helping high-risk and at-risk youth through programs in carpentry and the culinary arts. Even though she confessed to being nervous, Benjamin seemed calm and composed sitting two feet away from the former presidential candidate, sharing her experience helping cook more than 37,000 free meals after the storms, and answering Clinton’s questions.
“How is the recovery now in St. Thomas?” Clinton asked.
“I would say it’s 100 percent to me, but different people might say it’s different. I like the way it is. We have internet. We have TV. School is going good. We’re not doing split-session anymore, we have the full sessions of school. So I would say that we’re good,” said Benjamin.
“Well, you helped make it that way, so thank you. Thank you so much,” Clinton said.
“Talking about the Virgin Islands, I didn’t want to say the wrong things to make the Virgin Islands look bad,” Benjamin said after the panel ended. “But I spoke to the knowledge I know.”
Benjamin addressed the audience with a depth of knowledge born from experience. For several months after the 2017 hurricanes, Benjamin joined other My Brother’s Workshop trainees and trainers at their cafe in downtown Charlotte Amalie, preparing hot meals that were a rare commodity in a territory with a dead power grid.
“I knew that we would have to help people because everybody was in the same situation as us. I knew we’d have to help one another, but I didn’t know I’d have been helping giving out food,” Benjamin said in September, around the storms’ anniversary.
Benjamin recalled coming in everyday, making big pots of food for a long line of people that formed outside the cafe every day for months. She recalled being exhausted but returning to work everyday because “we’re all in this together.” Benjamin also remembered laughing at the limited permutations of Vienna sausage-based dishes that their trainers, including MBW Cafe General Manager Julius Jackson, could whip up.
“Every kind of thing. You name it, we’re making it with Vienna sausage,” Benjamin laughed.
Then in August, almost one year after the hurricanes, Former President Bill Clinton visited the downtown cafe during his second tour of the territory and heard about the nonprofit’s post-hurricane efforts. In November, Jenny Hawkes, executive director of My Brother’s Workshop, said she received the invitation in November for Benjamin to tell her story at the CGI conference.
“We were very excited to be invited and have one of our trainees come and speak about the opportunities or the lack of opportunities in the Virgin islands,” said Hawkes. “She did such an amazing job, filling in the entire audience of what we’re facing in the territory and the propelling how we’re going to move forward and how we’re going to address those needs.”
While Benjamin served as panelist in one of the main sessions, Hawkes also spoke on workforce development in one of the breakout sessions. Hawkes shared MBW’s existing vocational programs, as well as their next project: getting their trainees involved in the marine vocational field. Hawkes also joined representatives from Dominica, Puerto Rico and Haiti in discussing various aspects of recovery, preparation for future storms and the Caribbean islands banding together to strengthen tourism and exports.
“In the U.S. Virgin Islands, we know we’re a strong community and we’re bringing back resiliency and I think it’s important to come to this conference and see what other people are doing and things that we can take away from it and do better in our community, and at the same time be helping our youth go on to the career paths that they need,” Hawkes said.
“It was very energetic and positive which is not always easy to do when you’re talking about the speed of recovery and where we are and where we need to go,” Hawkes added.
Nakeba Stewart, assistant program director at My Brother’s Workshop, also said she was proud of their young trainee representing not just the organization but the entire territory. Stewart also stressed the need to provide more opportunities for the territory’s younger generation.
“I want them to take away that we are a resilient community,” said Stewart. “We always try to work together, and we need to create more opportunities for our youth, so they have a platform to speak from and so we can develop our community even more.”
For Hawkes, participating in the CGI was a great opportunity to network with other nonprofits from around the world, learning from them and sharing ideas for helping youth in other communities. As for Benjamin, Hawkes said the young trainee expressed how excited she was just to be a part of the event.
“I think the weight had just hit her of what we had been all doing,” said Hawkes. “The thing that was so precious was, here she is, she’s 18 years old. And for her to have this kind of opportunity to be talking to people who’ve been on these different platforms and these different places, and for her to just sit there and be like, ‘Yes, yes.’”
Benjamin graduates from high school in June and is currently applying to colleges. She wants to become a trauma surgeon.