Role Models

Since I decided to write children’s books, I’ve had a lot of conversations around the importance of role models. It seems people are not so quite convinced that role models can have that much of an impact in someone’s life. Surely hard work, and access to opportunities should be enough?

I have also done quite a lot of research on youth motivation and aspirations (in my professional life ) and despite everything that researchers have found it is clear to me that the results don’t translate into everyday life.  We still ignore the psychosocial barriers around an individuals life and wellbeing..

I recently attended a Think Big Lecture and had the pleasure to listen to a discussion between Barakat Ghebrehawariat and Suad Ali. 
Suad is quite the inspiration and as I sat there listening I couldn’t help but see a million parallels between her career path and mine.

She was born in Somalia and came to Sweden as a refugee at a very young. Suad told us about her dream to work for the UN, to meet Kofi Annan, to work in development and against poverty.
She has known and nurtured this dedication and ambition since she was very young and worked her way up. This is her official title today; Expert, Resettlement and Special Operations, Swedish Migration Agency (according to Linkedin). She represents Sweden in high level forums and to a great extent has her career dreams in the palm of her hands.

Like Suad, I knew I would be doing what I’m doing since I was 6. I remember seeing the UN peacekeepers with their blue helmets on tv, and from the moment my mum explained what they were doing I knew that would be me someday.
I studied and worked systematically towards this and after my first degree, my first job was with the UN. Today I work and an international NGO in development, as an advisor in my field of education and development.

Both stories are parallel but that’s where the similarities end.

The stories I have listened to and read about Suad are full of hurdles; teachers and adults telling her she wasn’t suited for such big dreams.
Her swedish language was just not good enough. 
her professional ambition , unrealistic. 

It seems that apart from a small circle of perhaps her family and one education counsellor much later in the day, Suad found her way, alone and unsure. She looked up to Kofi Annan in the distance but there appears to have been no one closer.

Suad grew up, part of a minority in Sweden, a Somali Muslim who wears the hijab. I wonder how many African women were visible in her society as role models? Muslim women? Hijabi women? African-diaspora men?

I grew up in west africa mainly, until I was 15. My father was a civil servant. My uncles and aunties where right in front of me, living professional lives. I grew up seeing people like me as singers, artist, poets, doctors, scientist, experts, diplomats. My dreams, whatever they were, were validated by society.

As a teen, my school had a Model UN after school club where we could explore world issues, be assigned as country representatives and debate in mock UN council style.

That club felt like home to me. My friends and I decided we would apply to join other schools for the international model UN conferences, the next one scheduled for London.
Here we were, in the Gambia, teenagers, with no resources , no grants, no clue just big dreams.  We fundraised and annoyed our parents into using their networks to fundraise too. And we achieved our target.
Together with a teacher we attended the conference and I will never forget the feeling of representing Bosnia and Herzegovina in my speech in front of 100s of other teenagers.
The fire that burnt low was now raging in me.
The next Model UN  conference was scheduled for New York the following year, it would include a tour of the UN HQ itself. We set our sight on the target, again, we lobbied, fundraised, advocated and made it there.

Suad shared the story of how she attended a conference in Stockholm a city not too far from where she lived as a teen. It was the youth she met at that conference, that encouraged her to apply for the upcoming ONE Young World conference. A youth conference very similar to my Model UN one. She too would get to attend, visit the HQ in UN and even meet our idol Kofi Anan.

She told us of the moment she stood in the UN HQ and imagined that space as her future workplace.
I remember doing the same, I placed my hand on the wall during our visit so many years ago and told myself I would be back.

Throughout my journey, I have never doubted my ability to get there. I applied to the top 5 schools in the UK for university - without having any assurances that I could actually get in or pay for it!  I’ve applied for so many youth development volunteer opportunities. In fact, my first real job after university was for the UN.

Truth is, I am in no way special. I have met so many people like me, just smarter, with more languages, more networks, more traveled.
I am not an all A student , I never got remarkable grades or won special prizes for achievements..
I simply grew up with my aspirations windows and doors wide open. I believed in my abilities to succeed.

As amazing as this is, it also means I often spread myself so thin because I don’t believe in failure. 

I was reminded of that when I attended a workshop for aspiring entrepreneurs not too long ago. I decided to start my own company so I signed up to find out more. There was a group of 20 other people there and I realized the majority of them were hesitant to take on their own business, aware of the risk, cost, time and labor.
I sat there completely unafraid, my main question was “where do I start”.
Naturally, working full time, doing my PhD part-time, having a family and 2 kids under 5, the pressures of starting a business weighed heavily once I started. I am only human :)

But I often think on the difference role models make. Having one amazing, brilliant person there. Now imagine having a whole community.

Suad grew up in Sweden. The country with free higher education and resources. a woman of her brilliance and ambition should have sailed through this system, but she didn’t. she was met with structural racism, ignorance and discrimination time and time again. She moved cautiously and deliberately to become this icon and woman that I admire.

I grew up in the Gambia. One of the poorest countries in Africa. A country that didn’t even have a university when I was growing up and yet I faced so little hindrance.  I am sure there are more factors at play, social, economic, cultural, especially economic. But I don’t underestimate the importance that role models play, vis a visa diversity and racism.

Sahle-Work Zewde was just appointed as Ethiopia first female president. I remember her and other power women like her at meetings, and dinner parties as a teen. I had the luxury of meeting people like her, shaking their hand and letting their positions in life sink into my little teenage head.

 My parents and social context raised me to believe I could reach any dream and I believed them. Every child deserves the same
 Needless to day my books will have role models at the heart of everything.

Listen to Suad Ali's Sommarprat: here


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