Black Philanthropy Month 2021: An Interview With Thelma Ekiyor, BPM Africa Chair & Founder/Chair, Afrigrants Foundation
Thelma Ekiyor, BPM Africa Chair & Founder/Chair, Afrigrants Foundation
As Founder/Chair Afrigrants and Managing Partner SME.NG, Ms. Thelma Ekiyor is a leading voice in women empowerment, impact investing and philanthropy in Africa. Outside of the office, She currently serves as a Board Member on ALL ON, The WISE Fund (USA) amongst other appointment. In this interview with Alaba Ayinuola, Ms. Ekiyor speaks on her career-path into philanthropy, Afrigrants and the Black Philanthropy Month Summit (Africa Region). Excerpts.
Alaba: Ms. Thelma, could you briefly tell us about yourself, career-path and philanthropy journey?
Ms. Thelma: I have spent a lot of time working in the post conflict countries and that shaped my realisation that only African solutions can solve African problems. And as my career progressed I was drawn more and more to indigenous social investment ranging from foundations to non-profit and I found myself working for two large institutions that I was the pioneer executive director and CEO for West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) and the pioneer CEO TY Danjuma foundation. Both experiences taught me that very important work, Africans to put resources behind social investment. Not only does this give us a strong position to negotiate with International Actors but it also enables African investors who are more familiar with the problems channel resources towards where they are mostly needed.
Alaba: In your words, how would you define Black philanthropy?
Ms. Thelma: Black philanthropy, interesting we have been scrambling with what is Africa philanthropy for a number of years and I think is a broader question as to what is black philanthropy is better. This is because black philanthropy captures everyone, so far as you came from Africa. For me Black philanthropy is divergence, the culture of giving and the ingenuity that have always existed in our traditional African communities been used to develop contemporary vehicles to address problems that are peculiar to black people.
Alaba: How did Black Philanthropy Month (BPM) Africa come about, and what is the purpose behind it?
Ms. Thelma: Black philanthropy Africa summit is a part of the global Black philanthropy movement that was started by Dr. Jackie Copeland who is a good friend and collaborator of mine personally and supporter of our work in Afrigrants. Black Philanthropy Summit is one of the regions that the global black philanthropy movement is focusing on, I mean black as in Africa. It is important that we have a very strong summit this year. This year, what we are trying to do is to bring together black people who have committed themselves to philanthropy, impact investing or just social entrepreneurship and hear from them how we can improve Black Philanthropy.
Alaba: One of the companies you founded and chair, Afrigrants Foundation is BPM 2021 Africa Partner. What inspired the partnership?
Ms. Thelma: I have known Jackie Copeland for years and we collaborate on different things. She is also one of Afrigrants funders. The WISE Fund is Afrigrants funders so of course when she asked that we partner, to us it was a privilege and also a no brainer because we believe in the principle of black philanthropy. We are one of the signatories and so we are very pleased that we are this year’s Africa chair and we are looking to facilitate a very good meeting. But is not all about Afrigrants, it is really about creating a space where diverse voices can really shape this conversation around what black philanthropy means to African and for Africans.
Alaba: The theme for this year’s BPM celebration is “TENacity: Making Equity Real.“ What is the significance of the theme, and how do you see people on the continent responding to it?
Ms. Thelma: Well we know what tenacity means in life, is just to make sure that you impact it, make sure you are consistent and we are very happy that we are going to be with like-minded people that have the same tenacity, to make sure that the goal of black philanthropy is realized. It is the ten years also.
Alaba: This year, BPM will be celebrated in other regions as well; Canada, Brazil. etc. As the BPM Africa Chair, what should we expect from Africa?
Ms. Thelma: I think what we should expect from Africa is that people are going to talk about issues especially how COVID-19 has affected them. It is important that all of us talk from the advantage point of what is necessary for the communities that we serve. And with our experienced speakers, together we hope to learn a lot and drive the conversation beyond the summit.
Alaba: What are some of the challenges facing philanthropy in Africa and the role of BPM?
Ms. Thelma: One of the problems affecting philanthropy in Africa is Lack of awareness of what philanthropy is and how it operates. Another problem is that we do not collaborate well. There is a lot of competition among players in Africa philanthropy because of limited funding and financing, so everybody feels like we have to compete for it. But actually we will get more funding and financing if we collaborate because we will prove that Africa is the place where people should invest.
The fact that there is very high poverty in Africa is another challenge amongst many other issues to deal with. So many people struggle with where do I start from even when they want to make a difference. We tell them to just start wherever you are and just do your little bit and that little will match up with somebody else little bit. Before you know it we have a wide level of impact. These challenges are the reason why we are having the black philanthropy summit and need to create incentives for people. There is misconception that only rich people give but we need to make it clear that anybody can be a philanthropist and social investor. Once you are part of making change and you put your time, resources, funds into it, you can classify yourself as a social investor either through impact investing or philanthropy. So these challenges are the reason why we feel that this summit is extremely important.
Alaba: How do you see the role of women in philanthropy as a positive force for good?
Ms. Thelma: One thing that we have done very well in Africa is, women are making impact in social investment and philanthropy. I think that’s because women are way ahead of men in terms of wanting to be social change makers. And so we have spare headed this area, but by no means should we be the only ones in these areas that we are talking about. We still need to encourage more women to get involved even though a lot of philanthropy organizations and non-profits are headed by women. This is a very good thing because its one area that we are setting an example of what can be done if there is gender equality.
Alaba: What advice would you offer on how we can cultivate a creative spirit of giving, no matter the level of resources in our possession?
Ms. Thelma: This summit is a conversation starter and it is very important that people attend to make sure their voices are part of the conversation because if your voice is not part of shaping what black philanthropy is, we will be impacted by what other people develop. It is important that people come out with their point of view so that all of us are able to shape black philanthropy and make sure that at the end we are proud of what we have shaped.
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B I O G R A P H Y
Ms. Thelma Ekiyor has over 21 years experience working in the development sector, as an Impact Investor, donor, philanthropic advisor, and social entrepreneur. She has experience working in 22 African countries. She has pioneered, founded and led a number of organisations and initiatives focused on impact investing and women’s economic empowerment. In 2020, Ms. Ekiyor was listed as one of the 50 most influential women in the development sector in Africa.
Ms. Ekiyor is currently the Managing Partner SME.NG – Nigeria’s Impact Investment Platform, which has set up two impact funds for women entrepreneurs. She is the Co-Founder/Chairperson of Afrigrants Resources and also served as its pioneering CEO. At Afrigrants, she led the establishment of “Market Women’s Quick Cash” – A financial inclusion solution to provide micro-loans to women in disadvantaged communities. She also founded the Afrigrants Foundation dedicated to the socio-economic advancement of girls and women. She also led the conceptualization of “The Ebi Fund” – an impact fund for women entrepreneurs. Ms. Ekiyor is also Founder & Co-Convener of The Funding Space – a mentoring and access to finance platform for social entrepreneurs in Africa.
Prior to establishing Afrigrants, Ms. Ekiyor was the pioneer CEO of TY Danjuma Foundation, and grew an endowment of $100 million. Before that, She served as the Pioneering Executive Director of the West African Civil Society Institute (WACSI), which was established by the George Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute for West Africa. She supervised investments and interventions in 15 countries across West Africa.
Ms. Ekiyor holds an MBA (Entrepreneurship & Innovation) from Imperial College London, UK; a Law Degree (LLB Honours) from University of Buckingham UK. She is also a Fellow of Stanford University, USA. Ms. Ekiyor served as Strategic Policy Adviser to UN Women Nigeria (2017-2019). She is currently a Board Member on ALL ON, the renewable energy impact fund in West Africa established by Shell.
She is on the Advisory Board of The WISE Fund (USA). Ms. Ekiyor has received several awards and citations for her contributions to women’s economic empowerment and philanthropy in Africa.
Funke Felix-Adejumo shines at Commonwealth Africa Summit, Advocates for Gender Inclusion
Funke Felix-Adejumo (Middle)
Funke Felix-Adejumo, a female enthusiast and philanthropist extraordinaire has taken the challenges of African women to the global centre stage stressing the need for a more realistic gender inclusion. The author of the celebrated book, “More Than A Woman”, was at the recently concluded Commonwealth Africa Initiative which was held in London, England. Where she extolled the virtues of African women, and raised other issues affecting the productivity of women among which is gender inequality.
During the Plenary Session 6: Commonwealth women in Leadership During The COVID-19 role in building back better. Felix-Adejumo, alongside leading African voices such as Southern Africa’s Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Fatimah Mohammed Habib, Founder/Executive director of Advocacy For Humanity, advocated for a more inclusive policy that will engender women participation in policymaking, religious circles, health, education, among other critical subjects.
“Let’s bring more seats and tables to involve more women in policy-making, education, religion, health and in all areas that God has empowered women to contribute to the socio-economic development of Africa,” said the Gender Champion when she mounted the stage as a distinguished Speaker.
Her commitment to promoting values and issues stifling the socio-economic development of women was again brought to bear when the renowned Reverend stressed that over the years, women have been made to sometimes feel inferior by various institutions. Saying women’s self-esteem has been bruised and subdued by forces beyond her immediate control. She referenced her own personal experiences where she suffered prejudice and bias as a woman. And how she was able to break through with support from a rich community of other women and men to be where she is today.
She encouraged women that are placed in positions of leadership by God to not pay attention to noise-making because there will always be criticism. She cited the Wright Brothers, the pioneers of aviation who suffered grave criticism from critics as a case in point, saying, women, and indeed everyone will always be criticized. However, they must be determined to forge forward.
Meanwhile, the reverend who has consistently supported the causes of widows and is regarded as a mentor to women across the country, was decorated with a prestigious Commonwealth Award for her contributions to women empowerment. With the peerless example of the president of Felix Funke Adejumo Foundation, it appears the space is looking brighter for all the women in leadership across Africa and in the Commonwealth. The woman crusader was with Councillor Trish Fivey, The Worshipful the Mayor of the London Borough of Sutton, who was in attendance.
Black Philanthropy Month 2021: An Interview With Dr. Jackie Copeland, Founder of Black Philanthropy Month and The WISE Fund
A social and environmental justice leader, Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland is Founder and President/CEO of Black Philanthropy Month, and The Women Invested to Save Earth (WISE) Fund, an innovation enterprise, supporting grassroots Black and Indigenous women climate change innovators in Africa, Australia, Brazil, the Caribbean, India and the USA. In this interview with Alaba Ayinuola, Dr. Jackie speaks on her career-path into philanthropy, her organisations; Black Philanthropy Month and The WISE Fund. Excerpts.
Alaba: Dr. Jackie, could you briefly tell us about yourself, career-path and philanthropy journey?
Dr. Jackie: I am a humanist, Pan-Africanist, and woman of faith, believing in philanthropy as not just about money, but an expression of love for humanity united for justice against all the odds, including the capacity of Black people to create a better future for their communities and the world. These values have evolved from my upbringing as an African-American from Philadelphia with parents from the South with proud Gullah-GeeChee heritage. These early experiences of giving over the years have coalesced into a life purpose to heal people, society, and the Earth. My vision is a world where all people have the resources (confidence, tenacity, mentorship, sponsorship, education, funding, etc.) to save the planet.
I started this journey with my studies as a cultural anthropologist and urban designer, working in the 1980s on community development projects in Africa, the US, and then worldwide, and earning my various credentials. I continued working as a foundation, bank, fundraising executive, investor, evaluator, professor, and board member, always with a focus on social and environmental justice, including Africa and the global Black Diaspora.
When I did not see vehicles to express and live my purpose, I created them, which is how I became a serial founder. One pivotal initiative was founding the Pan-African Women’s Philanthropy Network, now called Reunity, in 2001 with a diverse coalition of Black women innovators with global ties in Minneapolis. I thought that together we could build a global economy of giving and mutual support. Their example inspired me to create Black Philanthropy Month and its summit series in 2011, celebrating the UN’s International Year for People of African Descent. They organized the first summit with me. Without them there would be no Black Philanthropy Month. I honor them and the more recent leaders, who have help expand Black Philanthropy Month further, making it a global movement.
Reunity was founded 20 years but movements need to change with the times to remain meaningful, In 2020, concerned about the quadruple threat of the Covid-19 health and economic crisis, racial injustice, extreme wealth inequality, and climate change, I created The Women Invested to Save Earth Fund (The WISE Fund) to support diverse climate change innovators with affordable, accessible, quality environmental solutions that could benefit the communities hit hardest by climate change worldwide.
I also wrote a position paper for our partners detailing a enhanced BPM Summit design that would bring together Black funders across philanthropy and business worldwide to answer the question: How can we amass the financial and other resources that will be necessary to rebuild from the pandemics of Covid and anti-Black racism worldwide? Fortunately, partners agreed to move forward with a greater focus on donor and investor funding equity, bringing BPM squarely into a new era of economic and racial justice for these new times.
Alaba: You founded the Black Philanthropy Month (BPM) in 2011. What does it mean to you and the inspiration behind it?
Dr. Jackie: Inspired by Reunity’s ingenious blending of traditional African financing mechanisms with American funding structures, I founded Black Philanthropy Month in 2011 to celebrate the UN’s International Year and then Decade for People of African Descent by highlight Black-led giving as a central part of our global culture and resource for positive, equitable social change and economic justice.
In 2013 and 2014, other key leaders joined us, most notably co-architects, Valaida Fullwood, Creator of The Soul of Philanthropy; Tracey Webb, Founder of Black Benefactors; and Kula Addy, now The WISE Fund’s global programs and operations manager. Although we already had been long-time colleagues supporting each others’ efforts, last year, Thelma Ekiyor, founder of Afrigrants Foundation, officially joined as the BPM Africa Host and Chairperson, solidifying our longstanding African roots. Together, supported by a network of other global chairs, planning and funding equity committees, we have combined networks and talents to build the movement across at least 60 countries, this year highlight Black funding issues and equity in Brazil, the Caribbean, and Canada too (click here for a full list of chairs, partners, sponsors, and co-architects).
Alaba: Kindly share this journey of a decade, challenges and achievements?
Dr. Jackie: Black Philanthropy Month (register at BPM 2021) has continuously expanded the community and is now a global movement celebrating our homegrown giving, while advancing funding equity for Afro-descendant communities across the globe. In large part, it is about reminding ourselves of the power of community giving together as we have done throughout Black history’s funding and leadership of our various liberation movements from abolition to civil rights, independence, anti-apartheid and other movements that have moved us along what Dr. King called the long, universal arc of justice.
But 2020 has taught us that our and allied philanthropy are not enough. There is a $40 trillion global social finance industry. And it is time for philanthropy, venture, and impact investing to start judging Black communities by the content of our character and capacity, just as it does with other communities. The post-Covid recovery will require a massive investment of capital or funding, or our communities will regress.
Recognizing this need, last year Black Philanthropy Month revived the action summit series I founded in 2011 to create a Global Black Funding Equity Principles and a Pledge.
Among our greatest challenges as still a largely volunteer-driven movement is to:
1) generate the capital needed to sustain and further develop our growing movement;
2) devise tools to measure and track funding equity;
3) develop our movement’s organizational capacity in a fast-changing world where new models and skills are required for long-lasting impact;
4) expand recognition of every August as Black Philanthropy Month by more governments and multilateral organizations throughout the US and world, including the African Union; and
5) strengthen the movement’s leadership capacity, as many Black leaders worldwide are overstretched and overwhelmed, especially during Covid.
One way we are trying to build leadership and wellness is through Reunity, our women’s network founded 20 years ago, which will be closing out our BPM series again this year with its Being Well, While Doing Good Summit. Reunity will add to our global funding equity strategy, celebrate Black women leaders’ unique contributions, and revive community and wellness. Scheduled for August 31st, Reunity’s BPM Summit is on August 31st. Register at bit.ly/Reunitysummit2021.
Alaba: How does your organisation measure its impact?
Dr. Jackie: Black Philanthropy Month is a movement comprised of multiple organizations convened with The WISE Fund support as a backbone organization or administrative hub. Our four key impact criteria are longevity, diversity, engagement, and advancing funding equity. From inception, BPM has steadily improved along all these dimensions, using the power of social media and other technologies as national and global community building, and organizing tools along with the support of Black leaders from all walks of life following their networks throughout the US, to Africa and its global Diaspora. It has been difficult, but with the contributions of many leaders, we are still here after 10 years for BPM and 20 years for Reunity, its precursor. So, we proved that we have relevance and staying power.
We have engaged at least 18 million people in 60 countries. The United Nations has recognized BPM twice as an important celebration of global Black culture and innovation, as have 30 governmental bodies that have declared every August Black Philanthropy Month, prompting local philanthropy, civic improvement, and other funding bodies to celebrate the Month with various initiatives that increasingly continue year-round, increasing the movement’s visibility and engagement. The most obvious indicator of our impact is our tenacity and growth. Now we are holding ourselves accountable for enhancing the capacity for our global community to spotlight and advance donor and investor funding equity as a racial and economic justice issue, including Africa and its Diaspora from the Americas and every corner of the globe.
Alaba: The theme for this year’s BPM celebration is “TENacity: Making Equity Real.“ What is the significance of the theme, and how do you see people responding to it?
Dr. Jackie: We spent a lot of time crafting this theme together. “TENacity” has a double meaning referring both to our 10th BPM Anniversary but also reminds our movement of Black people’s resilient capacity to weather the compounding crises of the times to create an even stronger community together. “Making Equity Real” reminds us that celebrating our resilience is needed but insufficient. We have an ongoing responsibility to move to proactive, concerted social action together to create a more just future. Black Philanthropy Month builds our resolve and capacity to make a true difference as a global community everywhere.
Alaba: This year, BPM will be celebrated in other regions e.g., Africa, Canada, Brazil. etc. What should we expect?
Dr. Jackie: Black Philanthropy Month has always been celebrated across the world—60 countries to date, doubling from the 30 countries in the very first celebration in 2011, because its co-organizers were global from the very beginning of Reunity 20 years ago. However, most of the celebrations were organized independently by individuals and organizations within various countries. What is different now is that whole countries and continents are organizing coordinated Black Philanthropy Month celebratory, action Summits in collaboration with our Architects steering committee and other volunteers. This started with Africa in 2020 when Afrigrants became the BPM Africa host, organizing the first ever BPM Africa Summit, featuring leaders across the continent.
Global engagement continued with our convening of a Funding Equity Committee, including several African and Black Diaspora representatives. Also, Reunity continues, now as a BPM partner, further deepening global engagement, including African Americans and others from the US, while uplifting the often less visible role of Black women funders and innovators. This year other global regions reached out to ask how they could join us to organize BPM 2021 in their countries, including Brazil, the Caribbean, and Canada. We look forward to continuing global expansion of the movement, celebrating, and advancing our giving while promoting funding equity overall by donors and investors of all backgrounds.
Alaba: In your words, how would you define philanthropy?
Dr. Jackie: “Philanthropy” is a term used to describe giving in the West, among wealthy individuals, professionals and scholars working in the industry. But giving flows through many community-based and other voluntary organizations and groups of more modest means, including, for example, sororities and fraternities, religious institutions, hometown associations, small businesses, guilds and other professional associations, rotating savings and credit institutions, giving circles to name just a few.
Philanthropy is just one type of private capital used to improve society and develop communities and is primarily donated to qualified nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations, although institutions such as foundations, also can fund cause-related businesses organized for societal or environmental impact instead of profit. Two other primary forms of private capital are investments in businesses that also can benefit the public instead of just private individuals for profit: venture capital funding and impact investing. All these types of giving are now part of a growing funding field, sometimes called the “social finance sector,” estimated to be a $40 trillion US global sector. Black people contribute mightily to the world’s economy and giving. Now we need fairer access to dominant funding to rebuild our communities, still inhibited by legacies of anti-Black racism and colonialism.
Alaba: What changes have you seen in philanthropy in the last 10 years and your expectations for the next decade?
Dr. Jackie: Here are a few distinctive characteristics of Black giving and trends over the past 10 years.
Black giving is organized through diverse organizations. Nigerian and Caribbean esusus or susus; Black Brazilian quilombos; African-American churches; South African funeral associations; Kenyan harambees; Jamaican hometown associations, and much more were all equally worthy Black or Afrodescendant philanthropy institutions that are a basis of civil society equivalent to foundations and other more dominant funding institutions.
Giving is not just about money. It is about the love of humanity and the power of community to create a more just society, supported with time, talent, treasure, voice, and other means.
Giving is a tie that binds the immense diversity of Black people. There is enormous ethnic diversity and other diversity among the approximately 1.5 billion people on the planet that many would describe as “Black” or “Afro-descendant.” But a strong spirit of mutual support through giving is a common cultural feature of most Black communities, although there are contemporary forces trending towards the deep hierarchy, individualism, and paternalistic models of dominant Western philanthropy models now being critiqued by more participatory, “trust-based” giving approaches.
Giving can transform hope to justice. As a basis of identity, Black giving is also seen as a form of energy that sustains hope, helping us replant and remake our culture across eons and tragedy for justice and future generations.
Alaba: How do you see the role of women in philanthropy as a positive force for good?
Dr. Jackie: Women are the key, because traditionally, they have taken on primary responsibility for community improvement, although their efforts often go unrecognized in the annals of history. Both women and men have led Black Philanthropy Month as a movement to uplift all genders. Today our co-architects, who help with strategy and inclusion especially throughout the US are women. Reunity, BPM’s precursor and women’s network, continues to uplift and build women’s leadership especially given the unique challenges we face leading our communities and broader society in the face of racism and sexism. As all the research shows, societies that empower women’s human rights and leadership are more vibrant and healthier. Black Philanthropy Month and Reunity actively include women to advance all Black communities.
Alaba: What advice would you give to black people who want to become philanthropists, or give back to the community but do not know how?
Dr. Jackie: Remember that the basic requirement to be a good philanthropist is to have compassion and empathy for other people. You do not need to be wealthy or prominent. Most of the people reading this article are likely already giving to their school, alma mater, church, community clinics, or some other cause. If you are, then you are a philanthropist. The question is how to make your giving more impactful to make a difference on the issues about which you care most. Here are a few tips;
- Steward your resources to make your community and environment better, which will strengthen the people and natural resources upon which all markets, and future generations, depend.
- Commit to sharing resources and opportunities with others, often called “paying it forward,” a mindset fundamental to a life of giving for a better society that you can teach your children and grandchildren.
- Define the legacy you would like to leave your primary community or the world.
- Identify a cause and reliable institutions through which you can give to advance your legacy.
- Use Black Philanthropy Month every August to self-assess your giving journey and adjust it as necessary for more meaning and impact.
As we struggle against the continuing scourge of racism, a little Love of Humanity, including Black People, can go a long way to create a better world for all.
Happy Black Philanthropy Month! Be sure to join us tomorrow and all-year-round! We are the change and have the power to create a better future from crisis.
Black Philanthropy Month 2021: An Interview With Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Winner
Black Philanthropy Month (BPM) Summit (Africa Region) Keynote Speaker, Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Winner
As Founder and current President of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa (GPFA), Leymah Gbowee is a leading voice in advocating for peace and Women’s Rights in Africa and across the world. Outside of her foundation, Hon. Leymah currently serves as a Member of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Advocate and alumina for the United Nations (UN) and UN High Level Advisory Board on Mediation amaongst other appointments. In this exclusive interview with Alaba Ayinuola, Hon. Leymah speaks on her work, organisations, impact, black philanthropy and the strtaegic role women play in philanthropy. Excerpts.
Alaba: Dear Ma’am, we are so excited to have you. Could you share your experience after being picked as a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate?
Hon. Leymah: There is not much to share. I never expected the award, not because I was undeserving, but because I have never worked or gotten involved in any issue, advocacy or activism because I was hoping to win an award. The war in Liberia threatened the core of our being. We began to exist as a people and stopped living. There was no hope for the future and the future of our children. We had to change that trajectory; hence the women decided to protest for peace. The prize was unexpected; I was stunned for weeks. It took me almost five years to get used to the attention associated with the award.
Alaba: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and currently serving as a member of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Advocate, Alumina of the United Nations (UN) amongst other roles. How does this feel and are you under pressure not to disappoint as a woman?
Hon. Leymah: I am never under pressure not to disappoint in those places and spaces of high esteem. I have come to recognize that all those spaces require me to be my true authentic self and speak the truth without fear or favor. The only pressure I feel is the pressure to give every task on hand my best shot and leave the rest to history. I push myself to be the best because I recognize that many young people on the continent of Africa need inspiration, as most of our stories are the same. humble beginnings. I try not just to deliver well on my task but also to conduct myself with integrity to inspire the youth.
Alaba: What inspired the Gbowee Peace Foundation and Women in Peace and Security Network (WIPSEN)? Can you briefly talk about the impact of these organisations and how they have lifted communities?
Hon. Leymah: WIPSEN-Africa’s founding was primarily to ensure that women peacebuilders’ skills were being utilized in ways foreign/unknown to many institutions. When we (Thelma Ekiyor, Ecoma Alaga, and myself) co-founded WIPSEN, it built on our expertise as women peacebuilders who had worked at the grassroots, middle, and top levels of society. It was also to ensure that women were a core part of strengthening and contributing to the peace and security agenda on the continent and beyond. I believe without a doubt that WIPSEN-Africa’s work truly inspired many women to step out and contribute to peace in their communities and nations.
Before WIPSEN-Africa, peacebuilding and women’s involvement in our region was seen solely as a male domain (men make war, and men should make peace). Training of trainers for grassroots activists, mentorship of the next generation women peacebuilders, policy development, and advocacy were all part of our achievements. Our annual West African Women Policy Forum was a space where women from all walks of life and society gather to discuss and proffer recommendations.
The Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa is a continuation of that work. Peace building, in my opinion, is not just the absence of war but the presence of conditions that dignifies you and I. GPFA is committed to leadership and educational provision for young people. Over the last almost ten years, we have sponsored over 200 young people directly (school fees, books, health insurance, housing, and pocket money) with educational opportunities. We have funded thousands more in diverse programs. Key to our work and continuing my work with women is our community women’s program to sustain Liberia’s hard-earned peace. We also have a youth peace program called Peace Jam that focuses on community peace initiatives. I believe every initiative and program I have been involved with has impacted individuals and communities.
Alaba: As an advocate for peace and women’s rights for years, your accomplishments are incredible. What inspires and drives you?
Hon. Leymah: Women at community levels inspire me. Although many may never get on flights, stand before the U.N. to advocate for peace, or never have their names written on pages of peace journals. Several of these women have lost everything. No one would blame them if they angrily shunned any form of advocacy, yet they risk their lives daily to speak and act for peace.
Alaba: What has been the biggest lesson that you’ve learnt as an advocate and a role model?
Hon. Leymah: The biggest lesson I have learned is to “never despise humble beginnings.” Grassroots peace activism is not glamorous; you never really know when you are making an impact. It is hard work, most times depressing; you gain ten, you lose twenty; funding is hard to come by. However, it would take one looking closely to see small victories and changes and realize that people are beginning to cite you and your work as a drive to persevere.
Alaba: Let’s talk about philanthropy. What does Black Philanthropy mean to you?
Hon. Leymah: Black Philanthropy, for me, is the modern term for describing my African heritage and way of life. Growing up in Liberia, giving was a natural part of our daily existence. I grew up in a space where I never saw a child go to bed hungry. When death occurred in our community, people came together and financed the cost of the burial, especially in instances where the family was unable to. Black Philanthropy is the term used to describe my community’s way of life and practice.
Alaba: Is that the reason why you accepted to be a Keynote speaker at this year’s Black Philanthropy Month (BPM) Summit (Africa Region)?
Hon. Leymah: I accepted the invitation because I think it is essential to talk about Philanthropy and its linkages to Africa. Over time, the notion of Philanthropy is that a person has billions of dollars to give. I don’t think that is the primary intent of Philanthropy.
Alaba: How do you see the role of women in philanthropy as a positive force for good?
Hon. Leymah: Black women have always been a force for good, whether as mamas in villages or grandmas in inner-cities. They have always been and continue to be the nurturers and sustainers of society. Though many of these women in times past were not rich, impactful giving was a part of their existence. Today, I am called a philanthropist because my grandma and mother taught me the value of impactful giving. Black women in Philanthropy understand the issues they are supporting. In most instances, they have first-hand experience and contextual knowledge about these issues. Hence, their involvement is in-depth and produces results far beyond the current beneficiaries.
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B I O G R A P H Y
2011 Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Roberta Gbowee is a Liberian Peace Activist, Trained Social Worker and Women’s Rights Advocate. She is the Founder and current President of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa (GPFA). She also currently serves as the Executive Director of the Women, Peace and Security Program at Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York, USA. She is the Co-Founder and former Executive Director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-A) and a Founding Member and former Liberia Coordinator of Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET).
Madam Gbowee currently serves as a Member of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Advocate and alumina for the United Nations (UN) and UN High Level Advisory Board on Mediation. She is a Member of the World Refugee Council (WRC), African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health and Family Planning, International Honorary Committee of the Global Biosphere Institute, Aurora Prize Selection Committee and the Hilton Humanitarian Prize Jury. She was appointed by Canadian Prime Minister to serve as a member of the Gender Equality Advisory Council of the G7. She was recently appointed a member of the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity, Abu Dhabi and a trustee of Carnegie Cooperation New York respectively. Madam Gbowee serves on various other boards across the world.
She holds a M.A. in Conflict Transformation from Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, VA), and a Doctor of Laws (LLD) honoris causa from Rhodes University in South Africa, Dartmouth College USA, Polytechnic University Mozambique and University of Alberta in Canada. After receiving the Barnard College Medal of Distinction, she was named as a Distinguished Fellow in Social Justice and a Visiting Transnational Fellow at the Center for Research and Leadership Studies at Barnard College for the 2013/2014 Academic Year. From 2014 – 2016, She was appointed Distinguished Activist in Residence Union Theological Seminary.
She is married to Mr. Jay Kesselee Fatormah and is the proud mother of Eight (8) wonderful children. Madam Gbowee is a Christian and proudly calls herself a “Daughter of Glorious Jesus”.
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