Article written by Claire Kaplan

The staff of the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center is proud to engage with global partners in elevating conversations about gender issues at home and abroad. For the past three years, the Center has been lucky to join with the Presidential Precinct as a “peer collaborator” for the Mandela Washington Fellows Young African Leaders Program. Each year we have engaged the fellows in conversations about women’s issues, gender-based violence and trauma stewardship, typically through group discussions during their very intensive seminars.

This year, the Center’s staff had the opportunity to meet with a small group of fellows on three different occasions, which allowed us to find out more about these outstanding young leaders, the nature of their work, the challenges they faced in meeting their goals, and what they hoped to learn and achieve while they were in the program. In addition, one of our trauma counselors, Margaret Edwards, facilitated a group discussion on responding to gender violence and trauma during one of the afternoon break-out sessions at Morven Farm.

YALI_5During the first two group mentoring sessions we met with Moussa Abdillahi (Djibouti), Tinashe Mutsonziwa (Zimbabwe), and Bukky Shonibare (Nigeria). Moussa runs a job skills training program for young women. One of his program’s struggles is finding employment for the trainees once they’ve completed their coursework, due to the lack of jobs in his country. Until recently, Tinashe worked for the African Union, but is now empowering women to run for political office. She sought ways to prepare future female candidates for the challenges faced by women who enter the political arena. She told us that many are unprepared for the degree of sexism and hostility they encounter when they run for office and as a result become discouraged. Bukky runs two NGOs, Girl Child Africa, an educational advocacy group, and Bring Back Our Girls, which fights for the return of the many girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria and provides services to those who return home.

At our second meeting we visited the Jefferson School City Center, where they visited the African American Heritage Center (including a Look3 exhibit on the Black Lives Matter movement), as well as the various agencies and programs that are located there, including The Women’s Initiative and Common Ground. Eboni Bugg, from The Women’s Initiative generously hosted the group, where she discussed their programs, as did additional community partners, Becky Weybright from the Sexual Assault Resource Agency, Cartie Lominack from Shelter for Help in Emergency, and Seth Wispelwey from The Arbor (a shelter for trafficking survivors).

The last meeting we were joined by Tobiloba Ajayi (Nigeria), a disability rights advocate, Hadiza Daret Kasimu (Nigeria), the president and founder of a Deaf and Hard of Hearing advocacy organization, and Sandrine Julien (Mauritius), who works with under-resourced girls in a Catholic school (many of whom are involved in drugs and sex work) as well as LGBTQ youth.

YALI_2All six of these amazing leaders shared their struggles and victories with us. They all face a lack of resources and shared some of their personal struggles. Given our ample resources by comparison, it was hard to only be able to offer support and guidance about organizing, collaborating, and prioritizing self-care. But they were hungry for any and all information, and especially appreciated our commitment to developing self-care plans that were realistic, given their situations. So often, individuals who are working for social justice forget to include themselves in that work. We emphasized to them that if they don’t care for themselves, they won’t be around long to do the work. We also discussed how important it is to develop new leaders to follow behind.

During the final meeting, the entire Women’s Center staff joined our new YALI friends in breaking bread and sharing stories about our work for social justice. Our experience with YALI this year was the most rewarding because we were able to meet several times and get to know them better. We all agreed that this was the highlight of our summer, and hope that we will be invited to participate next year when a new group of Young African Leaders visits UVA in 2017.