Kingsley Bangwell’s one-track mind turned ambition to action

“Growing up I always wanted to be a pilot,” Ashoka Fellow Kingsley Bangwell told an audience last week at Ashoka’s global headquarters in Rosslyn, Va. “I became such a disappointment to my family when I told them I wanted to start an NGO and change things in Nigeria.”

It’s funny how quickly things can change.

At 22, Bangwell launched a start-up from the small barbershop in his Nigerian hometown, Jos, that teaches youth to be engaged and effective civic leaders. Although he lacked a real office, staff, financing, a computer, and a formal university education, Bangwell remained committed to the idea that one day he would be able to prove to all Nigerian youth that they can be agents of change in their communities—just like him.

His Youngstars Foundation, founded in 1995, has since reached hundreds of thousands of young people through award-winning film, radio, television, and online programming.

In 2003, Bangwell moved to the United States, a “land of opportunity” where, according to his family, he could make money and marry. But Bangwell eventually felt incomplete chasing the American Dream.

He confessed to feeling that “Nigeria’s history will not be complete without the role that I have to play in it.” He opted to follow his heart back to Nigeria in order to launch a new initiative, Democracy Series: Participation, Learning, and Active Youths (DESPLAY) — the organization that earned him an Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.

DESPLAY is a program that brings young people together from different backgrounds to deepen their understanding of democracy and encourage active and informed participation in good governance processes. After taking part in the DESPLAY academy, young graduates serve as community role models, spreading positive messages through an extensive peer, online, and television network.

DESPLAY has had great success so far, aided in part by partnerships with government agencies like USAID. Its original goal was to have one alumnus elected to office in the first 10 years; already four DESPLAY alumni have been elected to government positions, three in Nigeria and one in Ghana.

If you can dream it, you can do it — and Bangwell’s journey as a social entrepreneur working to promote human rights and youth leadership proves it.