Making It in NOLA: Mama Maji

In this installment of Making It in NOLA, our sights land on New Orleans non-profit, Mama Maji. We sat down with founders Sydney Gray and Brian Manning-Goremans to get a look at what their organization has in store over the next year, both internationally and locally. Through Mama Maji’s vision for the city, Brian and Sydney shed light on what an increase in the non-profit sector could mean for New Orleans, and why locals should take notice.

Chiga Water

Mama Maji’s international development efforts are centered around providing clean water access to developing countries via programs that also empower women. “Water is a woman’s world in Kenya. It’s their domain, and we want to utilize that to empower them, to give them the training to affect their communities the way they want to,” says Sydney. “Without a clean water resource, the women in these communities still hike to collect the water from a natural source -a contaminated source- and hike back.”  Mama Maji’s mission is not only to provide clean water resources in these areas, but to build small municipalities where the women of the community are involved in every phase from conception to implementation. “Kenya is a male-dominated society, and we’re not excluding the men by any means, we’re simply addressing a need [contaminated water] in a sector of Kenyan culture that is traditionally the female’s responsibility.” Sydney spent a large chunk of the last year in Kenya implementing one such project, and returned home inspired to further Mama Maji’s efforts.

Sydney in KenyaBuilding on the momentum from the success of the Chiga Water Project, Sydney and Brian are now looking to find further purchase here in New Orleans. When the duo relocated two years ago, they found a uniqueness in the city that has helped shape the Mama Maji mission. “In New Orleans, the concept of development is not as foreign as it is in the rest of the United States. We have such a unique perspective because we’ve been developed,” says Sydney. “Hearing community members talk about how disenfranchised they felt when outsiders came in to tell them what their community needed now…it was one of the most incredible things I’ve heard in the last year.” Sydney and Brian have found that the pride New Orleanians take in their communities, which some might find creates a relatively insular society, was born partially out of a need to redevelop the city. “There was such an inward focus out of necessity after Katrina, but we’re not at that need anymore,” says Sydney. “There are still needs here, but the pride is about supporting local organizations, local communities, local businesses.” According to Brian, there’s a huge push right now to bring international business into the city, something he and Sydney believe connections made through non-profit networks can aid. “The communities that do best working internationally are the communities that have the strongest personal identity. You can’t have a strong international presence without a strong presence at home first…New Orleans is ideal for that in so many ways.”

As of now, there is a relatively small International Development community in New Orleans with the potential for massive growth. That potential is owed in large part to Tulane’s Payson Center for International Development, and its host of qualified graduate students. International Development non-profits are centered strongly in San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, D.C., and many graduates of the program have been forced to pursue their specialties in these or other cities. Even those interested in investing in international development, are limited in their options and must pursue resources in one of these cities; thereby funneling money that could be used to create more jobs in the non-profit sector of New Orleans, into other states. Brian and Sydney want to shift this paradigm.


Along with an expansion of the Kenyan water program in the next year, which includes training for another 20 women in Kenya, Mama Maji is now looking to build partnerships with the Payson Center to provide opportunities for students within the city. In supporting the move of non-profits to New Orleans, Mama Maji believes that, ideally, a feedback loop could be created in which international connections are built and work to bring international business to the city as well.

Tips on Finding Advice Support for Non-profits:

  1. Get the word out in your community. The community you’re based in needs to know you to help you.
  2. Have a clear message or mission. It does no good to communicate with your local network if they can’t understand your goals and your plan.
  3. Show what you’re doing for your community. This goes back to engaging locals. You need to show them what you’re providing locally as well as internationally (if you’re in the International Development sector).

To find out how you can get involved with and support Mama Maji, visit their site here.