As a teenager, I was often misguided, even when I asked for advice from educators, who simply didn’t know what they were talking about.
I was surrounded by gangsterism and violence. Teenage pregnancy was a reality that many of my friends faced. Even the very intelligent among us dated gangsters for status. Our parents neither had the time nor the know-how to guide us toward making the right decisions in matters that would affect the rest of our lives.
It’s not surprising that in this confusion and turmoil, it’s difficult to focus on developing and empowering oneself.
I always knew I wanted an education, but getting it was a struggle. Ever since, it has haunted me to know that there are so many other girls out there who are in exactly the same position that I was. It plagued me to the point where I realised I had to do something to reach them and show them that, despite seemingly impossible odds, it IS possible to get an education.
This drove me to start the I AM LEADERSHIP project. A colleague and I have now hosted three workshops where high school girls have interacted with facilitators and speakers who share invaluable knowledge and guidance with them. The aim is to awaken a sense of agency and autonomy within young girls. It is to expose them to different opportunities that they can use to realise their goals.
We recently hosted our last workshop and it was a success that I will garner. That being said, it was by no means easy.
Earlier this year, I called on a few friends of mine to help organise a project that would somehow share development expertise with girls from poorer areas. I wasn’t clear how it would look, and much less clear as to where to begin, as I had never attempted anything like this before.
Over the months that followed, two of the friends who had agreed to help had dropped out. Only two of us remained. We were low on resources, both in terms of manpower and capital. Despite this, my remaining colleague, Leila Samsodien, and I soldiered on.
We started by calling up people whom we thought would be great at speaking on key topics such as how to interact well with people, how to plan a career and what bursary plans and opportunities are out there.
We then went on to try and reach the youth whom we would invite to attend. This proved hard initially. I was planning to host the workshops for the benefit of the youth at a church in Kuils River. The church would also be my venue. However, in time I found that the church bureaucracy was curbing our progress, so after many weeks of meetings, it was back to the drawing board.
Eventually I spoke to my mentor, Mireille Wenger, and good friend, Ricardo MacKenzie, both of whom are Members of the Western Cape Provincial Parliament. They managed to put me in touch with schools and community organisations that could in turn put me in contact with girls who wanted to attend the workshops.
Things were looking up but, although we had resolved our logistical difficulties, we still didn’t have any funding. So we set about finding micro-donors. We asked as many people as we could reach for small donations of R50 and R100. There were some big donations of R500 and even R1 000. Eventually, we managed to fund-raise enough to cover half of our expenses. As for the rest, well, let’s just say my performance bonus went into a good cause this year!
We were now set to start hosting the I AM LEADERSHIP workshops, to encourage growth and development in the young girls who can use this platform toward becoming our future leaders in their communities—leaders who, through their commitment and success, can show other young girls that being an educated career woman is well within reach if you know how to grab the opportunities.
The girls who have participated in the pilot project are all in high school, the majority being in grades 11 and 12. They are from Tafelsig, Mfuleni and Eerste River, in Cape Town. They joined us at the Kuils River Golf Course Conference Centre, to engage in the workshops we hosted.
To date, we have been addressed by, among others, Sharen Russell, a facilitator from Dale Carnegie Training. She donated a session with the girls and taught them some basic human relationship principles, on how to interact well with others. She taught the girls a ‘conversation stack’, which is a list of topics to discuss with people when you first meet them so that you don’t run out of things to say. She let the girls do some group work and presenting. This was especially important, as a fear of public speaking is so prevalent.
At the next workshop, we were joined by Shari Cupido who hails from Paarl and is a diplomat at the Brussels Mission in Belgium. She joined us via video link to talk about her journey to where she is today. This was a really interesting session, as Shari also gave the girls a brief on diplomacy and the importance of trade relationships.
For the second session of the day, we were joined by Annette Mille, a career guidance counsellor who did a personality assessment with the girls. She discussed the importance of choosing a career that is suited to your personality and said this was the first step to making the right choice.
A male-dominated world
For the final workshop, we had Beverly Mokoena —a private business banker from Standard Bank—talking about her rural upbringing and how she went on to become a career woman in a male-dominated environment. Beverly also discussed some of the bursary opportunities that Standard Bank has to offer.
Rebecca Pillay, Mentorship Manager for the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, joined us for the next session and talked about the Orbis Foundation and the bursary, mentorship and leadership development opportunities that it has to offer.
She spoke to the girls about how to apply to become part of the Orbis Foundation and also touched on her background and spoke about some of her failures to drive the message of ‘failing forward’, which means failing and then learning from and improving on it.
The last session was mine. I spoke about where I grew up and how hard it was for me to reach my goals. When I was younger and walking to and from the station to take a train, even on dark rainy winter mornings, I dreamt of attending university, of being a writer, a lecturer. I also wanted to work in politics. I specifically wanted to work in Parliament. I have achieved all of this and am going strong.
I shared a story about when I worked as a waitress while at university. At one of our events, I saw Helen Zille, then Mayor of Cape Town. I remember frantically wondering whether I should go up to her and introduce myself. In the end, I didn’t, thinking that I would later meet her in whatever political career I ended up pursuing. It happened just that way. All things happen in time; all we need do is keep up the good work. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.
One participant came up to me after my session and told me that she had no idea that I came from the same type of environment as they did. She told me how good it was to see that I was successful.
Living the life you want
It is an honour that that is how she sees me. That is all I want to be—a case-in-point example of how, regardless of difficulty, you can design your life and live the life you want for yourself.
Another girl has asked me to mentor her. This I take as a serious opportunity and a big responsibility. I am fortunate enough to be able to make an impactful difference in her life, and I look forward to it.
I AM LEADERSHIP is about showing young girls that if they are determined and work hard enough, they can mould their lives into anything they wish. Anything.
The more difficulties you overcome, the better you become. You are more than welcome to doubt yourself sometimes—it’s important to stay humble, but you have to keep going nonetheless.
Not all of us have access to the know-how and much less do we believe that we ‘can’. This is especially the case among women. We need to talk to and help one another achieve our ends; we must share expertise and knowledge with each other. We must embrace the fact that in us all, there is stellar potential waiting to be materialised. It takes work and we must help each other do that work, to the best of our abilities.
I am fortunate that I have met and worked with enthusiastic young girls and very informed professional women, who were so willing to guide the girls who attended the workshops. As such, I AM LEADERSHIP will continue, as all those involved want to stay involved. We also have more women who are interested in sharing their skills and experience as we roll out in future.
Fund-raising and planning
Thus far, I have been invited to attend the ‘Freedom—Our Responsibility’ conference in Bloemfontein at the end of September 2014, by Susi Gubler. Susi heads up the organising board for the conference from Switzerland. I AM LEADERSHIP will have an information table set up with a view to getting people involved in the project.
We are aiming to spend the rest of 2014 on fund-raising and planning, as we want to roll out the project next year, for a longer period of around six weeks, so that there can be a more in-depth interaction between the speakers and the girls. We are also in talks to set up a parallel I AM LEADERSHIP programme in Eldorado Park in Johannesburg.
There have been amazing breakthroughs and successes thus far, but it would not have been possible without the speakers who gave up their time, the ‘micro-donors’ who made contributions.
But most of all, thank you to Leila Samsodien for being a consistent support throughout. It is my hope that with the proven success we have seen up until now, we will one day be able to run I AM LEADERSHIP nationally.
I would like to extend the invitation to you, the reader: if you have any skills or expertise that you would like to offer, please contact us on our website: iamleadership01.wordpress.com