How becoming a changemaker at any age can inspire others
Paula Ugwu’s changemaker journey epitomizes the power of teams. From the earliest moments of her journey, she has witnessed changemaking through her family members and peers inspiring her to do the same. Now, she works on Ashoka’s Youth Years program in Nigeria to empower African youth to reach their full potential just as she had been empowered by those around her.
As a young child, Paula was very close to her grandparents and often spent her holiday times with them. Her grandparents were empathetic, rather than sympathetic. She saw their consistent desire to lend relatives and strangers alike a helping hand. Despite not being wealthy, her grandparents were influential and well connected to those within their community. Such connections meant that they could link those in need to reliable friends who could offer advice or provide the resources one needed, but when it came to things such as food, her grandparents were often willing and able to provide for those in need. In being able to witness this, Paula’s grandparents were truly her first examples of changemakers. As her first teachers of empathy, they played a significant role in molding Paula’s behavior and upbringing.
Their inspiration was evident. While in primary school, she had her first leadership position as class prefect. Her responsibilities included keeping the classroom organized and liaising between subject teachers and her classmates. During her time as class prefect, Paula realized that students were struggling to submit their school assignments on time. With the input of her classmates, she designed an effective plan that ensured the students were able to submit assignments on time without being overwhelmed. This replaced the practice of having various assignments due at the same time. With a new time-table implemented, certain assignments were due on certain days of the week, and both teachers and students agreed to hold one another accountable.
Paula then continued her changemaker journey at her secondary school, which was an elite, high performing boarding school with students from various parts of Nigeria. Her school offered a service-learning program, and ultimately, it was young people, like herself, who worked to contribute to the betterment of the local village that prompted her to join. While a member of the group, she and her team noticed that students who attended the local public school were not performing well due to overpopulation. In recognizing their privilege, Paula’s service group decided that they would use the knowledge they gained from their school to assist the underperforming students. Public schools within in Nigeria often had high student to teacher ratios. And with such ratios, this meant a small number of teachers presided over classrooms filled beyond their capacity. Consequently, the students’ quality of education was negatively impacted. In an attempt to provide assistance, every Saturday, Paula and her team members worked with these students to improve their numeracy and literacy skills. Paula focused on the latter by using storybooks provided by the school or local charities. By the end of the school year, the students they worked with improved and grasped concepts they did not previously understand. Seeing the positive effect this effort had on the students, as well as their grateful parents, encouraged Paula to continue her changemaker journey.
Paula and her team were consistently community oriented in their efforts. In addition to working with the students who attended the neighboring schools, Paula and her team also sought to meet day-to-day needs of the village that surrounded their school. This community consisted of low-income families, many of whom lacked necessary resources. As a result, the service team led a monthly outreach in which they encouraged their classmates to donate hygiene products such as soaps, toothpastes and toothbrushes. These items were then packed into kits and hand delivered to families in the local village. Additionally, the group carried out periodic sanitation exercises within the community in order to improve the village’s sanitation levels. Paula’s school culture encouraged young people to create positive change in their communities through organizations like the service program.
Once Paula reached university, she continued onward in her changemaker journey. In studying subjects such as Social Work, she participated in programs similar to the ones she had joined in her youth. However, in this role, she worked with young people who had been placed in remand homes, or juvenile centers. She played an active role in developing the extracurricular activities program for the youths, where they had the opportunity to learn vocational and personal development skills.
When Paula finally entered the professional realm, she pursued a career that was different from what she studied, but she still sought opportunities to embed the skills learned throughout her life. She had an array of passions and curiosities, ranging from project management to development economics, and this was something her boss quickly grew cognizant of.
Rather than attempting to quell her interests, her boss-turned mentor intentionally created instances in which Paula’s interests could flourish. For Paula, it was evident that her boss saw great potential in her. Her boss believed that if Paula found her footing, she could overcome any obstacle that came across her path. From then on, Paula acknowledged the importance of having mentors who not only promote capacity building, but also see potential in others’ abilities.
With such reflections, Paula can now say that her journey has been paramount to her future aspirations, as she currently seeks to empower African youth in the same way her family, peers, and mentors empowered and inspired in her. She sees the strength and potential of African youth, so her time on Ashoka’s Youth Years team has been dedicated to accomplishing this goal. In working with them, she continues to showcase the importance of teamwork. To boost collaboration among young champions in the Ashoka Anglophone West Africa youth network, she has designed thematic clusters in areas of education, gender, and youth development. In these clusters, young changemakers are organized into working groups based on their thematic interests. The activities of the groups are entirely managed by the young changemakers themselves, as they self-organize for collective impact through co-creation in projects. In these clusters, the young changemakers consistently support each other’s projects in a shared learning space. This is due to their prioritization of collaboration and mutual support. Paula and her coworkers believe that collaboration is essential to changemaking and social entrepreneurship, as one person does not have a monopoly of all the skills necessary to address a social problem. Therefore, teams create a space for individuals to share their skills and resources for the good of their community.
Furthermore, Paula understands the transformative power of mentorship in a young changemaker’s life, and as such, has developed a capacity building program that matches these young changemakers to Ashoka Fellows, who commit their time and resources towards guiding and supporting them on their changemaking journey.
Collaboration and teamwork are fundamental components of changemaking, and they have guided various aspects of Paula’s life. People and experiences equipped Paula with the tools she uses in her work with the Youth Years team. Her ability be empathetic, to brainstorm solutions, and to utilize her own resources have transformed the lives of her peers and community members. Who are people in your life that have embodied characteristics you consider admirable? How can you apply what you learn from them in your own life?
This story is part of the #EverydayChangemaking series, amplifying voices and journeys of people across Sub-Saharan Africa driving positive change in their communities.
This story was produced by Celina Adams and edited for length and clarity.