I started my PR career at the UK charity ActionAid in 1993. I was a late graduate from University because my gap year turned into several gap years, which I filled with travels around the world, exploring different countries and cultures. It was during those travels that my social awareness was piqued by the painfully obvious and very real disparity between the haves and have-nots of the world.
Having grown up in South Africa, I have always had an affinity for the continent of Africa, which made ActionAid a good fit for me. I happened to be working in the press office at the time of the Rwanda and Burundi genocide of 1994, which saw over 800,000 people murdered across a three-month rampage because of their ethnic identity. This was my first exposure to the press and to crisis communications, and it was an experience that has sparked a life-long career in public relations ever since.
But I left ActionAid somewhat disillusioned with the charity sector. It seemed to me at the time that a lot of money was raised, but not enough made it to the causes being championed. In hindsight, this was somewhat naïve, because obviously you need quality people to run an organization like that, and many who were doing so joined on much less money that they could perhaps have received in the commercial sector. So, I ended up moving to a specialist travel PR agency where I was able to work on an incredible project, that was both historically significant and something that personally resonated with my own upbringing. In this new role, I helped to organize the very first post-apartheid press tour to South Africa with the South African Tourism Board. Only, I didn’t get to go because I was too lowly at the time!
There are a lot of parallels with the struggles epitomized by today’s Black Lives Matter movement and the post-apartheid reality of many South Africans. I remember pictures of township people camping at the end of the long driveways of South Africa’s rich white folk in the belief that once apartheid was in the past, they could rightfully claim these houses. Needless to say, that did not happen. Racism prevails still in some parts of society there, where the rich white men and women of then largely remain the rich white men and women of now. Sound familiar?
Having visited Tanzania in 2016 with my extended family, I jumped at the opportunity to join the board of The Africa Exchange Project, a metro-west based non-profit that aims to increase the cultural understanding between Tanzania and America, with has a special focus on helping young women with education and healthcare needs. It fulfills a promise I made to myself when I left ActionAid – that I would gain experience in the commercial sector and reenter the charity world at a more senior level, where I would be better able to effect change.
We recently produced a short video highlighting the Barnabas Chavala Scholarship for Girls, a program that helps fund secondary school educations for young girls and women, something that has faced many challenges in Tanzania and across Africa generally. The predominance of patriarchal systems with a fundamental and ingrained socio-cultural bias that favors male members of the family persists. For a young woman trying to complete her education, this presents numerous roadblocks and denied opportunities. From early marriage and/or early pregnancy, greater relative responsibility for domestic and subsistence duties compared to male family members, relative undernourishment (as males often receive a greater share of household food), and the overall perception that investing in male education should be prioritized as it is more likely to result in financial gain for the family, are but a few of these.
At March, we are also trying to challenge the status quo that exists in our industry and across business in general. There is a stark lack of diversity in many technology companies – and it’s not necessarily due to racist bias in hiring policies; its largely due to the fact that endemic racism in US society means that there are so many obstacles for people of color, that there aren’t even candidates to consider in most instances for jobs that are open in the communications and technology sector.
We still have a lot to learn and a lot of work to do on this front. If your organization has been working on this front, too, we’d love to chat about your story.