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MILEAD Fellows: Exemplifying Feminist Leadership at the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women

AshleyHernandez6 April 2016

On March 16th, 2016, when I arrived at my first event for the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations headquarters in New York, I realized something very profound. As a social development practitioner, this is one of the few times I’ve experienced young African women as the primary narrators of issues affecting African women and girls in their countries and communities.

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MILEAD Fellows after their panel for the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations

The Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa (Moremi Initiative) hosted the session entitled “Enhancing Young Women’s Voices for Women’s Empowerment and Sustainable Development: A Multi-generational Dialogue with Emerging African Women Leaders”. As the girls on the panel presented, the aim and the focus of the Moremi Initiative became clear to me. The organization “strives to engage, inspire and equip young women and girls to become the next generation of leading politicians, activists, social entrepreneurs and change agents”. This is achieved through the MILEAD fellowship (Moremi Initiative Leadership and Empowerment Development), which selects young women ages 19-25 from various African countries and the Diaspora to sharpen their leadership skills via trainings, mentorship, networking and resource mobilization. The twenty fellows showcase members of different cohorts from 2009-2015, and represent more than 15 countries attracting a wide audience including 2011 Nobel Prize Laureate, Leymah Gbowee who supports the organization and provides mentorship to the fellows.

While reflecting on this experience, I had a strong sense that an essential ingredient in successfully bolstering African women and girls as change agents is the organization’s emphasis on transformative, feminist leadership. So, I had to ask myself, “what defines this kind of leadership, anyway”? My definition is derived from authors like Srilatha Batliwala (Batliwala, 2010), who believe that it requires engagement with power, politics and values. I will now outline the ways in which I believe the Moremi Initiative cultivates this type of leadership.

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MILEAD Fellows celebrating at the AWDF 15TH anniversary gala

 

  1. Moremi, Power and Politics

On the surface, Moremi Initiative may appear to be another leadership program. Yet, what makes it formidable is that it is not soliciting African women’s participation in predefined projects affecting them and their communities. Instead the organization acknowledges that African women and girls hold the solutions and must define and set their own agendas. To this end, Moremi Initiative equips fellows with the tools, resources and the space to negotiate their own narratives’ and set the agenda for social change in their regions, countries and communities. Fellows get connected to powerful institutions while being provided with a dynamic support network and training to chart their course as emerging leaders. With these new skills, fellows are able to effectively articulate and advocate for the issues that affect them, their peers and women and girls broadly. One of the fellows who spoke at the CSW event identified this as one of the most important components of the program. Elizabeth Jarvase from South Sudan explains, “After joining the Moremi Initiative, I have represented South Sudan more than three times internationally, simply because ‘Moremi’ gives young African women space to develop and grow; it creates opportunities, and it provides the tools and skills needed to focus and advocate for our different causes with passion and integrity”. One of my favorites moments at the panel entailed Elizabeth putting forth a discussion on the human rights abuses related to the current civil war in South Sudan. She then eloquently asked the audience to reflect on how we can use our knowledge, abilities and power to end the suffering of women and children in this crisis.

 

  1. Moremi, Politics and Value: embedding women’s empowerment in social justice

One of the aspects I revere the most about the Moremi Initiative is the way in which feminism is treated as an integral part of social justice work in Africa. After one of the MILEAD trainings, a fellow reflected, “I also got enlightened on the term feminism which interested me a lot because of its concepts. I also got to know that it is a very good term, and in my own understanding I have come to define feminism as having equal rights and opportunities between men and women” (Winnie, 2015). Many of the girls in the program come from diverse backgrounds and advocate for an array of issues ranging from youth empowerment to clean water, not all are overtly related to gender. Yet the choice to introduce and engage with definitions of feminism is both political and indicative of a value that upholds gender equity. I believe this is essential to achieving a type of leadership that places African women at the forefront of social change.

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MILEAD Fellows with Moiyattu Banya, host and volunteer AWDF USA board member, celebrating at the AWDF 15TH anniversary gala.

 

  1. Moremi: creating resilient leadership and values through inter-generational mentoring

Another objective of the MILEAD program is to “build intra and inter-generational solidarity that cuts through borders”. I witnessed this while attending the 15th anniversary gala celebrating the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), and it was magnetic to see the confluence of generations in the same space. Described as being “at the forefront of the African women’s movement, AWDF supports the work of African women’s organizations and activists throughout the continent” (Siyonbola, 2016). The organization boosts of a dynamic and pan-African network, which is why Moremi Initiative prioritizes bringing fellows into these spaces to ensure the building of bridges across generations. This not only maintains the legacy of African women’s leadership, but also engenders the emergence of fresh new ideas and issues from younger generations.

I want to conclude this reflection from a place rooted in my own personal history and experience. I am a non-African woman, raised in the United States. As an ally, I believe one of the best ways I can support the Moremi Initiative is nurture deeper relationships and leverage opportunities to grow, and acquire relevant knowledge and skills about Africa, women and girls. When all is said and done, for me it is important to always be conscious that this platform is ultimately about the voices and decision-making of African women and girls.

After all, this is what moved me most about the Moremi Initiative’s participation at the 60th session of CSW: many individuals, including allies, partner organizations and donors aided in getting the fellows to New York. Yet the stories heard in the room that morning — the topics of discussion — were all determined and articulated by bold, visionary, resilient and emerging young African women leaders.

More information on Moremi Initiative can be found on their website, and you can also check out their Facebook page.

 

References:

Batliwala, S. (2010) Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation: Clearing the Conceptual Cloud. Crea-Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action. Available at: https://www.justassociates.org/sites/justassociates.org/files/feminist-leadership-clearing-conceptual-cloud-srilatha-batliwala.pdf

Winnie, N. (2015) Winnienansumba. [Blog] World Press. Available at: https://winnienansumba.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/24/.

Siyonbola, O. (2016) Incredible Women Don’t Just Happen: AWDF’s 15th Anniversary. Applause Africa. Available at: http://applauseafrica.com/2016/03/18/incredible-women-dont-just-happen-awdfs-15th-anniversary/


Ashley Hernandez is an SDP graduate who is passionate about gender equity.  She is currently working with Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa and volunteered with the African Women’s Development Fund USA for their 15th Anniversary Gala. 

On the Wall/Within the Street: Re-Engaging Urbanites with their Environment

ClaireTunnacliffe30 June 2015

London, December 2014

London, December 2014

Walking along the Regents Canal at the end of last year, this Tasmanian Tiger caught my eye. As Londoners, life can be fast-paced, and not in the least stressful – everything happens at 100 miles per hour, and if it’s not, then you’re probably not doing it right. Or at least, it certainly feels that way… And yet, this encounter made me stop and pause and look and reflect.

The Tasmanian Tiger is extinct, and amongst the bleak backdrop of greying sky and murky canal water – I couldn’t help but wonder if it had been worth it? Did the person who placed this up want me to reflect on the Tasmanian Tiger (okay, not indigenous to London) but on the wider disappearance of the natural world within our very urban existence?

A quick Google search revealed that the artist behind these eulogy-style pieces is Indiana and The Extinction Project, “my work has focused on the idea of wilderness and freedom, in escaping from the current modern society and moving to the country. This society steals most of our time in exchange for money that we spend on things we do not need, and in the process we are destroying what we really belong to: the nature and the world”.

Walking the streets of many cities around the world, I’ve often come across artistic interventions from people having taken to the streets and scribbled, scratched, pasted, created beautiful murals or one-word retorts. While the expanse of what can be described as street art is huge, I define it as the act of taking to the streets and inscribing on the walls artistic, but also a political, social and environmental responses to the state of the world from a very personal perspective.

London, September 2012

London, September 2012

Over the last few years, I’ve researched urban street art as a tool for social transformation. The world has an infinite depth of artists, writers, and creative individuals marking their place in the world. Street art is a powerful tool in reflecting the experience of the urban, provoking an engagement of urbanites with their environment.

As a global artistic and social movement, it repurposes space through experimental interventions and challenging the dominant visual culture (an unending stream of advertising, commodity, industrialisation, consumption and alienation), it provides alternatives to this vision. Encounters with urban street art within the everyday create social interstices, opening up ways of seeing and feeling the world differently.

Through its lens, we reconnect within an increasingly urban existence, one we had forgotten the natural and social entanglements that make up the fabric of the urban context. With urban street art disrupting the mainstream experience of the urban, the spectator is provided with an alternative vision of the world at play.

As a result, at the crossroads between urban street art and everyday life, the spectator evolves from a passive to an active participant. By awakening new understandings and raising consciousness, engaged urban street art provokes a re-engagement of urbanites with the environment, acting as a catalyst for transformative social change.

Marrakesh, May 2014

Marrakesh, May 2014

So, that’s the theory. But in practice? To move beyond the topical and speculative to the practical act of catalysing transformative social change, there needs a more grounded understanding of the cultural effect of urban street art itself: Who are the spectators? How does it make them feel? What do they take away from the encounter? Do they change their routine because of it? How can we understand more fully the role of the active participant?

The same question started rolling itself in my head: “How does urban street art open up new ways of seeing and feeling the world around us?” I began to ask around, artists and academics, everyday encounters and in-depth research. These interviews are part of a wider project around documenting these encounters around the city.

The answer has, up till now, always been a reverberating Yes. But how? Speaking to Lee Bofkin, co-founder of Global Street Art, “Of course street art has the opportunity to encourage social transformation, for so many reasons. It enables talented artists to leave gifts around the city, which are beautiful and site sensitive. It allows artists to be challenging and ask difficult questions. It counters the idea of a single authoritative aesthetic, which allows for a diversity of opinion and a diversity of voices. Its transience gives people something to look out for, to be interested in, less threatened by and maybe even excited by change.”

New York, October 2013

New York, October 2013

In very different ways, illegal and legal street art play a role in the shaping of public spaces; an interplay for confrontation, awareness, beautification, response, anger, activity. It is this activity, which allows people to participate and take responsibility for their public spaces. There is a dualistic role between the counter-culture and anti-capitalist retorts of illegal pieces as there is a desire and need for legal wall spaces, carefully chosen to brighten and breath life into others.

This is not an either/or. The beauty of what is called urban street art today, will be called something different tomorrow, but the act of taking to the street and inscribing on the walls is nothing new.

London, June 2013

London, June 2013

What we should hold onto are the messages; the powerful voices which interlace personal with political, social, and environmental, which momentarily occupy the space on the walls and between the streets as well as living on beyond, once documented online. I would tread carefully in describing urban street art as a subculture, as it has been expunged by the mainstream attempts to monetise it.

Yet, there remain many artists who continue to use the streets, both illegally and legally, to speak about issues they hold important, some of whose notoriety is spread across the timelessness of the internet, and others who remain faceless scribbles.

All of whom, nevertheless, play a part of this artistic and social movement. I would more easily call myself a researcher and an urban planner before an artist, but I strongly believe that one of the greatest attributes of urban street art in creating social transformation is that it awakens a dormant creativity within us all, and with it, a refreshed curiosity in how we shape, create and impact our everyday.

So, the next time you Instagram that piece that caught your eye, ask yourself: what just woke up inside me?

Paris, September 2014

Paris, September 2014


Claire is a DPU MSc Environment & Sustainable Development alumna. Since graduating in 2012, she continues to research the role of urban street art in re-naturing urban imaginations and experiences. She is applying for a PhD to begin in 2015 on urban street art in West Africa and the effect of marking surfaces in public spaces, however her interests are rather more interdisciplinary, lying at the cross-sections of; community engagement, urban street art, public interest design, sustainable development, town planning, creative cities, art psychotherapy, mental health, the psychodynamics of public spaces, and their impact on place making in the city. 

She will be publishing a fuller version of the account above as a DPU working paper in the coming months entitled “The power of urban street art in re-naturing urban imaginations and experiences”.