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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Atlas Corps Class 14 Graduation Speech

December 15th 2014.
Scott Beale presenting  the graduand certificate to me
Good Evening Fellow-Fellows, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Courage, someone once said; is what it takes to stand up and speak…but it is also what it takes to seat down and listen… and so I want to thank all of you for demonstrating your courage and by letting a stranger (to some of you)- address you this fine evening!

I am indeed very humbled, thrilled and excited because today marks the near end of a beautiful journey that has been my Atlas Corps Fellowship Experience! When Younas Chowdry (the best Atlas Corps Training Manager, I should add) informed me of this fine task that my fellow fellows had nominate me for, I wondered what exactly I would say on behalf of and to a group of individuals who have often been described as the best of the world's rising leaders.

In my quest to find adequate inspiration for this speech, I asked each fellow to describe in a word or two what their fellowship experience has meant to them. Some of the words I heard included; transformative, awesome, stimulating, bittersweet, inspiring, insightful, motivating and a period of intense awareness and self-reflection.[1]

I remember quite vividly the first day I heard about the Atlas Corps Fellowship Program. Believe it or not, I received an email from a then unknown correspondent, Scott Beale -The Founder himself; in early February of 2013.The subject of the email was ‘ Do you know talented non-profit leaders.’ The gist of the email went something along these lines;

“Dear Catherine, We founded Atlas Corps on the principal that talent is equally distributed around the world but opportunity is not; help us find talented and passionate professionals for our next class of leaders.”

Now I don’t know what the normal and standard response to that should be (especially when it is a stranger asking you for a favour) but I must admit I was very sceptical. My email account had just recently been hacked into and as an avid blogger I often receive such requests to share opportunities on my blog and unfortunately some of them are not always legitimate! After doing some research and basic form of screening on this organisation (that is the lawyer in me by the way) I finally posted an article on my blog on February 25th 2013 titled ‘Apply to be an Atlas Corps Fellow’ and sent the link to Scott[2]. I never really belaboured on how he had gotten my email address but the more I spent time reading about other fellows and the benefits and responsibilities of being part of this fellowship, the more I was intrigued!

There are several factors I can think of that made me apply for this fellowship. Three of the most compelling reasons are that:

One -I also wanted an opportunity to learn best practices from a network of young extraordinary fellows from around the world on how to make effective and meaningful change to the world’s global problems.

Two- I was at a crossroad with my legal career and was keen to figure out what exactly I wanted to use my legal background in.

Three- I wanted an opportunity to learn from an outstanding organisation on how to develop and run my informal mentorship program for teenage girls in Kenya better.

It therefore made logical sense to travel 9,126 Miles from Kenya to take up a post as a grant manager serving at the Nike Foundation supporting the Girl Effect Movement. It would be a great injustice given the limited time I have to share all that I have learnt in my role managing a portfolio of grants, running and helping manage a request for proposal process, scoring and vetting concept notes as well as capturing, distilling and inspiring learning to scale initiatives for adolescent girls living in poverty. But what I wish to share with you tonight is that some of the most fundamental skills I have learnt on girl engagement and on how to make meaningful programs that target the most vulnerable girl, I could not have possibly learnt in a classroom anywhere! Serving at a Foundation has also exposed me to a broader spectrum of various and diverse organisations, programs, and initiatives that work from policy to advocacy to communication and even on research work!

And of course serving at the Nike Campus also revived my dormant genetic ability to run. I go back home having not won a Gold medal or broken yet another marathon best time but I must admit the influence of the swoosh was hard to ignore!

I wish I could tell you that all fellows, including myself had an amazing time everyday filled with rainbows and butterflies! I wish I could say that we were never frustrated, stressed, home-sick or sleep deprived sometimes! But some days we were! But we weathered the storm because we each knew what our own personal motivation for getting to the finish line meant to us and we knew that hard work is never easy and we were ready to put in the effort and the hours! I am particularly grateful for the genuine friendship among our class and the support fellows have given each other from forming our own whatsapp group, to calling and checking up on each other occasionally! I am even more grateful that I had Smiti Gahrotra a fellow from India not only share the Nike experience with me but was also my flatmate, greatest critic and cheerleader alike!

To my dear fellows, we did it! We survived the culture shock, we endured the Global Leadership Immersion Labs, we sat and passed the Project Management Certification, we braved the snowpocalyps, we made friends and we learnt. My wish for each of you is that you keep knowing, growing and going! Even as I say goodbye I am deeply encouraged that I have a network and pillar of support from as far as the beautiful Bogota in Columbia to the buzzing city of Kampala in Uganda and even in the scenic Seoul in South Korea. Tonight, we come together for our last hurrah! It may be the end of our stay here but it is just the beginning of another great chapter…

I want to end my last thought by thanking the entire Atlas Corps staff, all our partners and host organizations for taking a chance on us! We came here ambitious and bright but we leave better off not with all the answers to solve the world’s most pressing problems but we leave here with the tools and a network of amazing fellows and alumni who together will be the biggest step to changing the world!

Congratulations Class of 2014!  We did it!

To our guest and partners, I encourage you to hear other fellows’ stories before you leave tonight!

Thank You.

[1]Rehema- Transformative
Trish & Younas - Awesome
Karuna- Stimulating
Smiti- Inspiring
Victoria- Bitter Sweet
Karam- Self-Reflection
Monica- Motivation
Munya- Insightful
Kate- Awareness

[2] http://empowereddivas.blogspot.com/2013/02/apply-to-become-atlas-corps-fellow.html

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Global Change Leaders Program

About the Program
You can now apply online for the 2015 Global Change Leaders program.
The Global Change Leaders Program is a seven-week education program offered by Coady Institute’s International Centre for Women’s Leadership.  This program enables women from developing countries to strengthen their leadership capacities in order to contribute to innovation and change in their organizations and communities.  Program participants engage in learning grounded in real world experiences and focused on Coady’s core thematic areas.  Through a shared learning environment with other emerging women leaders from around the world, participants are exposed to a range of experiences and the beginnings of a potentially lifelong network of support.
In operation since 2011, the Global Change Leaders program provides successful candidates with a full scholarship that includes tuition, travel, accommodations, and meals. Program participants also benefit from the guidance and mentorship of accomplished women leaders from around the world. The program is led by a core team of Coady International Institute staff and supported by other Coady faculty and associates.
Program Eligibility
This program is targeted to emerging women leaders from developing countries who are working on development issues.  These are women who:
  • Possess a minimum of four years of demonstrated leadership experience in a social or economic development endeavour in sectors such as livelihoods or inclusive economic development, food security, environment, access to education and health care, governance, and the rights of girls and women;
  • Have great drive and passion for their work, demonstrated through their outstanding contributions in their organizations and communities;
  • Are practitioners in civil society organizations including community based organizations and not for profits, or active in public or private institutions, donor/philanthropic agencies, social movements or in a social enterprise/business;
  • Hold a university degree or a combination of post-secondary education and experience; and
  • Have strong oral and written English language competencies.
Program Schedule and Components
For 2015, the Global Change Leaders Program consists of two main components:
1. August 24 - October 8, 2015:  A seven week on-site intensive course at the Coady International Institute in Antigonish, Nova Scotia where a collaborative relationship is fostered among facilitators and participants to draw out lessons and insights from their rich and diverse experiences. This consists of:
a.  A foundation module, in which participants focus on leadership theories and essential competencies, analysis of gender, citizenship and power, practical understandings of these concepts and their application for women leaders within their own contexts, strengthening capacities for social innovations, partnership building in a multi-stakeholder environment, and enhancing abilities to realize citizen-driven asset-based development.
b.  Electives, focusing on Coady Institute’s key thematic areas of promoting accountable democracies, building resilient communities and strengthening local economies.
c.  A final module,  in which participants articulate an action plan for how they will take their new learning home to provide leadership in their organizations and communities and continue to work towards empowering other women moving forward.
2. October 12, 2015  - April 30, 2016:  Participants will benefit from one-on-one mentoring from experienced women leaders upon their return home for up to six months to follow on the application of learning into practice.  Mentors and mentees will be matched during the residency period based on specific needs and geographic locations.   Participants will also join a global alumni network of women leaders.
For more information go to http://coady.stfx.ca/themes/women/gcl/apply/

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Battle Against HIV & AIDS in Kenya.

It is estimated that more than 33 million people in the world today are currently living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It is also estimated that more than 30 million people have died from HIV-related complications since the earliest cases were detected in the early 1980s. While it is trite truth that huge progress has been made to increase access to HIV treatment in the past twenty and more years, and that new HIV infections have significantly declined in some regions, the pandemic nevertheless continues to wreck havoc in many more areas and efforts to control it seem distant. The number of newly infected people each year in most scenarios far outnumbers those who gain access to treatment by an estimated two to one ratio.

It is reported that Kenya has the fourth largest HIV epidemic in the world. In 2012, out of a population of about 40 million, an estimated 1.6 million individuals were living with HIV and there were approximately 98,000 new infections. The HIV & AIDS epidemic in Kenya has since been often referred to as being generalized. In essence this means that it affects all sections of the society including children, youth, adults, women and men alike. According to a Kenya AIDS Response Progress Report, a concentrated certain group of Kenyans are more susceptible to contracting the virus due to their vulnerability to HIV transmission.

These groups can be categorized as follows;
a)    Men who have sex with men (MSM)
b)   Persons who inject drugs  (PWIDs)
c)    Sex Workers
d)   Women and young girls 

HIV prevalence among MSM in Kenya is almost three times more than the general population. Condom use among this group is reportedly fairly low. It is important to note that sexual relations between men remain illegal in Kenya and can carry a prison sentence of about 21 years if found guilty. Homosexuality is thus largely considered taboo and repugnant to the cultural values and moral code of the Kenyan Nation. This stance leads to high levels of stigma and discrimination towards MSM as well as towards other members of the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community in Kenya. This often acts as a huge barrier and deterrent for these individuals to seek HIV treatment and testing.

I will not belabor with the jurisprudential arguments on the law and morality and how these two are either distinct or analogous hypotheses. However what I would like to direct your attention to the Kenyan Constitution in specific to Article 43(1) which guarantees every individual the highest attainable standard of health…which is important to the realization of the right to life. Articles 26,27 and 28 in my mind also suggest that everyone has a right to life and that everyone shall be subjected to equality and freedom from discrimination in every sphere including access to medical care and treatment irrespective of sexual orientation or preference.
Granted, the Kenyan Government has made significant contributions to addressing the HIV & AIDS pandemic but a correlation and consistency remains to be seen in theory and in practice. One of the greatest strides taken was in 2006 with the enactment of the HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control ACT 2006 which establishes the first ever tribunal (only one in the world) to handle legal issues relating to HIV, including discrimination against people living with HIV and protecting the confidentiality of medical records. Since its establishment in January 2012, the tribunal has received 400 complaints, admitted 14 cases and delivered two judgments.

Although the HIV prevalence among the general Kenyan population has fallen with rigorous campaigns around testing at VCT centers, sensitization and education campaigns as well as free ARVs medications provided at Government clinics, women and young girls unfortunately continue to be disproportionately affected by the epidemic. In 2012, Government statistics report that 6.9 % of women in Kenya were living with HIV compared with 4.2 % of men. Young women aged 15- 24 in Sub-Saharan Africa are almost three times more likely to be living with HIV than men of the same age. This can be attributed to discrimination that women and girls face in terms of access to education, employment, healthcare to name but a few. As a result, men will often always dominate sexual relations with women not being able to practice safe sex even when they know and understand the risks.

In the wake of the recently publicized partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Nike Foundation and the U.S President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) on a $ 210 Million initiative to reduce new infections in adolescent girls and young women, governments in Sub-Saharan countries should also accelerate efforts in prevention initiatives targeted at the most vulnerable groups as identified. More people should be encouraged to know their status and thus be able to access treatment, care and support regardless of other collateral factors. The Kenyan Government should also work on overcoming social, cultural and legal barriers that hinder access, treatment and testing of all its citizenry. Leaders should also start thinking of sustainable ways to scale up and fund existing prevention and treatment efforts to curb HIV & AIDS.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A reflection of important lessons learned during my fellowship.

St. Augustine is famous for saying that ‘the World is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.’ His sentiments have proved true time and time again especially as I reflect back on an individual level on what has been 12 months of my Atlas Corps fellowship experience. 

As a young African lass having grown up in a close knit nuclear and extended family, the first experience that genuinely perturbed me was the cultural difference and traditions that are practiced in America. With noted hindsight, I must admit that it has been quite refreshing and liberating to for instance have the autonomy to make decisions and choices on my own. I have also learned that I am surprisingly more appreciative of my own culture, value and identity, and own beliefs systems having experienced a change of what has been my norm for so long. I am more aware now that neither ideology is wrong or better but rather that culture is varied and societies are free to embrace different concepts and facets that they deem resonate well with them. This experience has also taught me that I am my country’s own self-appointed ambassador and that I owe it to myself and to the richness of information sharing to share what being a Kenyan really means as well as to give insights to our rich heritage, food, culture, traditions, history and of course our athletes! I couldn’t have thought of a more appropriate place to be other than on the Nike Campus to share all this, where I served as a Grant Manager supporting the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect Movement.

On a gender advocate point of view, I had the unfortunate realization that gender based violence and abuses especially those against women and girls in particular are rampant the world over with varied degrees recorded across both developing and developed worlds. I learned that it is crucial for actors in this space not to ignore how crucial gender dimensions are in the dynamics of power and abuses. For effective and sustainable programs, I learnt that it is essential to intervene with a comprehensive approach that gives voice and room to rights, values and the respect for the integrity of all human beings especially during the impressionable stage of adolescence in girls especially. I also learned how the Girl Declaration, a tool created by the Nike Foundation with over 500 girls living in poverty, aims to address poverty before it starts! The tool buttresses the assertion that a distant official need not write the best tools and policies that will effect and catalyze a movement but rather that for real change for girls, girls must be at the center of the movement!

From a grant manager perspective, I learned what it takes to write a good and successful proposal and how to conduct and score a request for proposal process. I honed my reporting and communication skills as well as my presentation and research skills, which were vital during the planning, design and implementation of grant programs and during scouting for new potential areas of investment.
Coming from a legal background where the skills of trade necessarily dictate speed of speech, I was made aware during one of my grantee meetings that I have the tendency to speak very quickly. This was obviously one of the biggest self-realizations and a rather difficult trait to change. I subsequently enrolled in a local toastmasters club to improve my communication and public speaking skills to ensure that grantees and others are able to comprehend what I am saying as well as work on shifting my mind set that not every audience is a court of law! I must say that I took Susan Cain, author of ‘The Quiet’ advice very seriously and embarked on a personal year of speaking dangerously and it has been indeed a humbling, rewarding and insightful experience. I am continuously learning to be aware of the needs and particularities of my audiences and in adapting to them immediately.
Sporty Speakers-Toast Masters Club!
As with most experiences, I was also reminded that they will be hard times and other than get stuck in the rat race, I should enjoy the process, the journey as well as the destination. I re-learnt that failure is not necessarily a bad thing but rather, that it is feedback that I am doing something wrong and through this process is where I learn the most! It is through this fellowship that I truly learned who I am and what my limits and expectations are and most importantly how to articulate them without feeling and thinking that I am being vain or shy or even conceited or proud! I learned that sharing my expectations and hearing the same from colleagues especially, helps manage my expectations and therefore results into more productivity and a less anxious relationship dynamic.

Lastly, I learned that to change my perspective and my world, I need a network of like minded individuals from all corners of the world and I am truly excited that the Atlas Corps fellows and alumni community provides me with this platform and solidarity unit to clamor more support and greater impact for girls and women’s’ rights everywhere!