TALKING WITH … Caravan to Class’ Barry Hoffner, an altruist from here to Timbuktu
This interview with Caravan To Class founder Barry Hoffner was conducted by Alix Wall for JWeekly.com. Barry discusses his journey to Mali in 2010, and how that experience built into a passion to become involved in supporting education for the children there.
JWeekly: You were an investment banker before you founded Caravan to Class, a nonprofit that builds schools in Mali, Africa. How did you go from one to the other?
Barry Hoffner: After living 15 years abroad, in nine different cities, we had young kids and knew we wanted to raise them in the Bay Area. And instead of doing one thing, I decided to do a number of smaller things. Caravan to Class is probably about 30 percent of my time, but I’m still involved in finance and other things.
J.: Why did you decide to focus on building a school in Mali?
BH: It wasn’t that I wanted to go to Mali, but I had always had this image of the fabled Timbuktu as the middle of nowhere. I had read about it as a teenager, and having a sense of adventure, it was a place I wanted to go. For my 50th birthday, I went there to attend the [music] Festival au Désert.
While there, I took a camel ride, and got these guys to take me to their village, where I met with the head of the village and his wife. I asked them what the biggest need of their village was, and it was a school. So over the next couple days, it gelled in my mind that I would get my family and friends and ourselves to commit some money to build them a school, without the idea that it would become an ongoing organization.
A lot of people ask, “Why Mali?” And I say, “Why not?” When you look at the turmoil in that part of the world, the only long-term solution is education. In most of Africa, it costs 1 percent of what it costs to educate a kid in the U.S. If you took 2 percent off our global defense budget of all countries, with that 2 percent, you could build 500,000 schools to put the 70 million kids who are not in school in school.
J.: Why did you keep going?
BH: I found a great NGO partner and, despite the fact that nothing in Africa ends up like you think it will, it all did: the amount of money and time it took and the ease of dealing with them. Seeing the kids in the classroom after it was built was a transformative experience for me. When I got home, there was a $10,000 grant from a family foundation, which I took as a sign to build the next school. I decided to keep going with the mission of bringing literacy to villages around Timbuktu.
J.: Tell me a bit about the students.
BH: They are all Muslim and their ethnicity is a good portion Tuareg, broken up into white and black. The blacks are usually former slaves of the whites. Although they have their own languages, they are taught in French. In the upper grades, we are seeing more girls than boys in school, perhaps because the boys are needed to work. We use the ministry of education’s curriculum.
J.: Your nonprofit is building its fifth school and supports a total of eight. Why do the schools in this region need so much outside help?
BH: In all the villages where we operate, these children are the first generation in their families to be literate, as most of their ethnic languages are not written. The literacy rate there is as close to zero as it can get.
J.: In 2012, Ansar Dine, an Islamist group linked to al-Qaida, took over parts of Mali, including Timbuktu. France launched a military offensive in 2013 to drive off the militants, but what is it like for you traveling in the region?
BH: This April, I flew to Timbuktu on a United Nations humanitarian plane and had a U.N. peacekeeping escort when touring the villages where we operate, as tourism has yet to return to Timbuktu.
J.: You are Jewish, and so are all of your board members. How does this impact the goals of your organization?
BH: It wasn’t by design that I sought to have an all-Jewish board. It’s just people I know and have respect for, people who had experience in either philanthropy, Africa, or in some cases, both. I think it’s neat that Jews in the Bay Area are supporting education for Muslim kids in the Sahara desert, but it’s not by design.
J.: Caravan to Class recently received a $10,000 grant from the Marin/San Francisco Jewish Teen Foundation, a project in which teens allot money for charities. How did you come upon their radar and what will that money help you do?
BH: That was the final funds we needed to complete the fourth school. My son was on the board of the teen foundation, and their theme that year was youth at-risk around the world. We’re all about at-risk youth, but it was a competitive process and Caravan to Class applied and was selected.
The interview (© JWeekly.com) was first published August 7, 2014, on jweekly.com.