By Isabel Jiménez for Visionnaire Moralmoda
During their last conference in Bahrain, the Climate Change Forum hosted thought leaders from around the world. One of the keynote speakers, Dr. Yewande Austin (founder of Change International), shared with Visionnaire MM her mission to empower vulnerable communities through business.
Recognized as a Global JEDI Strategist (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion), Dr. Austin’s work has
reached over 250,000 people across 31 countries including 23 African nations. As an honorary U. S.
Cultural Ambassador, she has been recognized for her tireless commitment to our global community with an Honorary Doctorate in Humanitarianism from Stanford University, a 2017 President Barack Obama Lifetime Achievement Award, and as a 2020 CNBC Rising Woman – one of thirty-five women shaping the future of Africa.
Dr. Austin was recently honored to present her research on the impact of structural racism in international development for the United Nations Development Programme’s 2021-2022 Corporate Anti-Racism and Discrimination Implementation Plan.
We had the pleasure to meet Dr. Yewande Austin at the Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain.
Visionnaire - What’s your inspiration for this work?
YA - From my earliest memories, I knew that I wanted to change the world. I remember reading stories
about social activists like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth who risked their lives to free enslaved
people at the height of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in America. Why couldn’t I do that, too? I’m not
quite sure why I was so fearless at that age, but I was fortunate to be raised by a mother who never
silenced my dreams. She herself was an entrepreneur and commercial interior designer for nearly 40
Dr. Yewande Austin (far right) with IDP families (Internally Displaced People) in Northern Nigeria.
This early exposure to design would profoundly shape my approach to sustainable development.
Some may be surprised to know that I slept in my mother’s bedroom closet as a child. All she could
afford was a 1-bedroom apartment when she and my biological father divorced at the age of 1. It was
barely big enough to fit a twin bed, second-hand clothes and a bookcase, but my bed was adorned with an exquisite hand sewn quilt made by my grandmother, Artie Lee Ball, who lived to be 99 years old.
The living room was filled with Haitian art and handmade African pillows. And somehow, my mother managed to squeeze a drafting table into our tiny dining room where she drew the most intriguing floor plans. I was surrounded by beauty!
Dr. Yewande Austin and Isabel Jiménez, Lady of Parte Guelfa and Visionnaire's honorary contributing editor, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Bahrain.
Society has conditioned us to believe that beauty and struggle can’t co-exist, but some of the greatest innovations in history were born in times of crisis. Our little heaven on Cherry Hill Road was my introduction to creative thinking – challenging traditional ideas that foster innovative solutions to existing problems. Creative thinking reveals the possibilities that exist within everything!
"In 2015, my humanitarian organization was the first to provide emergency education relief to IDP children (Internally Displaced People) who survived Boko Haram terrorism in Northern Nigeria. When I learned that their families would be evicted from the Durumi IDP Camp, the concept of Alheri Village was born." - Dr. Yewande Austin
Visionnaire - Tell us about your organization, Change International.
YA - I founded Change International in 2006 to empower vulnerable girls and women with skills that promote social and economic independence. We’ve produced socio-economic empowerment programs for over 250,000 participants in 31 countries including 23 African nations. But I’m most proud of Alheri Village – sustainable communities that we’re developing for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. We’ve already received requests to replicate this model in 7 countries, but currently focused on launching our pilot for Internally Displaced People (IDP’s) in Abuja, Nigeria.
Visionnaire - How did you develop the concept for Alheri Village?
YA - In 2015, my humanitarian organization was the first to provide emergency education relief to IDP
children (Internally Displaced People) who survived Boko Haram terrorism in Northern Nigeria. When I learned that their families would be evicted from the Durumi IDP Camp, the concept of Alheri Village was born. In the Hausa language, Alheri means “grace”. Like the little apartment that I grew up in, I wanted to create a space that was beautiful, sustainable and protected homeless survivors at higher risk of sexual assault, violence and human trafficking. Alheri Village (2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #8 – Decent work and Economic Growth) offers residents secure housing, job acquisition training, healthcare and agribusiness education that will teach skills from farming to processing and distribution.
Visionnaire - What is economic inclusion?
YA - Economic inclusion is based on the fundamental belief that every individual deserves equitable
access to resources that position them to fully participate in the economy. Since the pandemic, more
than half a billion more people have been pushed into extreme poverty (less than $1.90/day).
The current economic crisis wasn’t caused by COVID-19, but the inequities that were created by us before the virus. So, we must be the ones to fix it. Change International has helped vulnerable people in twelve African countries develop high social impact businesses that confront some of the world’s greatest social, economic and cultural challenges through our leadership and economic inclusion program, Nawo, which means “invest” in the Yoruba language. We were recently invited to expand this program in India and the Ukraine to support their post-war recovery efforts.
The World Bank’s State of Economic Inclusion Report 2020 indicates that economic empowerment programs like ours are quickly becoming an important part of international anti-poverty strategies.
In Nigeria, the women of Alheri Village have launched 10 businesses and a women’s empowerment group from an investment that we made in 4 start-up businesses in the middle of a global pandemic! Lower income people have been historically segregated from our global economy, but by empowering these women economically, we reduce conflict, promote social stability, improve workforce development and increase the national GDP. And that makes the world a better place for everyone!