How does one build a career in social activism? Candice Chirwa shares her story.
Menstruation activist, Candice Chirwa, campaigns to bring about social change related to gender equality, with a particular focus on the needs of women and young girls in South Africa. A first-generation South African-Malawian author and thought leader, Chirwa has written two books that have led to her being recognised for her work, and successfully building a career in social activism. This year, she joined forces with Nedbank as part of the newly launched YouthX programme as the Social Good and Sustainability Changemaker.
Through her award-winning non-governmental organisation (NGO), QRate, Chirwa also helps educate the youth, shifting the narrative around menstruation and highlighting some of the challenges that women and young girls face. She has and continues to make a difference in the world, and is an inspiration to young people who want to make a positive change in South African communities.
Chatting to her about how one can build a sustainable career in social activism, Candice shares various insights including her journey of becoming a YouthX Changemaker.
What inspired you to pursue a career in social activism?
From a young age, my parents always encouraged me to read, particularly feminist literature. In high school I had a passion for speaking out against social issues and spent most of my time involved in community service. When I went to varsity, I started engaging in academia that solidified my advocacy for sexual and reproductive health, particularly menstrual health management. It was my love of reading that sparked my passion in changing the world.
Does one need to study specific courses or have certain interests to become a successful social activist?
I believe that being a social activist can happen in different ways. You do not necessarily have to protest in the streets. You can also write, sing or be an activist through art. It’s all about asking yourself what change you can bring to your own community. Even if it means making sandwiches for underprivileged people or mentoring school kids once a month, we all have a social responsibility to improve the communities where we live for future generations. But I do think that it is crucial to constantly research that specific issue to stay abreast of the current trends to provide sustainable solutions on the ground.
What are some of the key qualities or personality traits that one needs to succeed in this field?
An activist must be creative, dynamic, and passionate about their cause. As an activist, it is important to never stop learning and never pass an opportunity to share what you know. It is also important to live out your cause and to lead by example. If you’re a climate-change activist, you must live according to the principles and values that you preach.
What can one expect in this line of work?
This line of work is extremely humbling. You get great satisfaction in changing lives, seeing the real impact of your work in the communities. Although the organisation and administration of driving social change can be tough, I promise that it is rewarding. Every time QRate facilitators and I host workshops, we get momentum to do more work. I think one piece of advice in this line of work is to remain respectful. Bear in mind that not everyone can be persuaded to support an issue or cause, no matter how important it may be to you. You may face opposition, but you should remain grounded and composed, delivering your arguments based on facts and statistics. There will be people who will challenge your social cause, but it is always important to remain true to your mission.
How long have you been a social activist and what are the key lessons you have learned so far?
From the age of 14, I’ve been involved in giving back though community service by donating food and clothes through my school programmes. I have also been passionate about writing on feminist topics in high school. The key lesson that I’ve learnt from my 11 years of activism, is that you must be willing to educate yourself and learn from others. Read, watch documentaries, listen to podcasts, and do your research. Do whatever you can to learn more about your own cause. That will make you a better activist by giving you the knowledge you need to teach others and ignite change.
How has your journey been as a YouthX Changemaker, and what would you like the youth to take away from your journey?
My journey as the Nedbank YouthX Changemaker has been an incredible one. Having the opportunity to empower other young people to unlock their true potential has been humbling. I also feel that being aligned with Unlocked.Me has been an incredible opportunity to learn from my fellow Changemakers in their respective fields and applying it to my own cause. Working within a network of like-minded people, I have felt that my own cause has taken on a stronger purpose, and I have felt a great sense of support.
Did you have to find a mentor to help and guide you on this career path? If so, how did this happen and how has this helped you?
I still have mentors who consistently support and guide me through my career and activism. Through networking and surrounding myself with like-minded people, I keep a valuable connection with people who have been a sounding board in unlocking new possibilities for my career. These mentors have provided knowledge and shared their experience. They have helped to highlight my strengths and weaknesses, which have played a critical role to help me the best activist I can. I highly recommend having mentors – they encourage you and give you a support system to help you take risks and believe in yourself.
Who are some of the people that you look up to who are involved in social activism, and is this important for people who are aspiring social activists?
Angela Davis is an American political activist, author and scholar who has been fighting injustice in the United States her entire life. As a young person, she was at the forefront of speaking out against systemic racism and intersectional feminism, which were then seen as radical topics that have now been pushed to the mainstream thanks to the mobilisation of the Black Lives Movement.
Zulaikha Patel is a South African young activist that I admire for her bravery, determination and strength. At the age of 13, Zulaikha protested against racial injustices and led an entire movement by instilling confidence in black girls to embrace their natural hair. I admire her passion in wanting to change the discriminating policies about black people that we often underestimate.
What are some of the challenges you have faced as a social activist during the lockdown and how did you overcome them?
The one challenge was trying to find alternatives in continuing the work in driving change in communities. Due to restrictions on social gatherings and not being able to leave home, I had to find new ways to gain access to communities that required education about menstruation. It was often challenging to find innovative ways to hold virtual workshops to continue with the work.
For a young person who would like to change their community and build a reputable career in social activism, what are the top three tips you would give to them?
- Use your voice and use it for good. Amplify the needs of vulnerable and marginalised groups in making society aware of why this specific cause needs attention.
- Even if it’s once a month helping at soup kitchen or creating a group to tutor students from impoverished areas, volunteer any way that you can. Volunteering offers wonderful opportunities to network and gain knowledge and experience. Start by helping an organisation whose work you admire; you’ll learn more about your chosen cause and make valuable connections by finding great mentors.
- Lead by example. Practise what you believe in, especially if you want to be a social entrepreneur. You must incorporate activism into your everyday life by living and acting in ways that support your cause.
Where can young people get funding and support when they embark on a journey in social activism? How did you do it?
When it comes to my own business journey, I started with no capital, creating awareness through marketing and getting enough content to create a funding presentation to pitch to investors. After a number of workshops, I did my research on funding institutions like the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) to look for different funding programmes that would allow my NGO to continue with further work, impacting more communities. I recommend that young people look at existing organisations like the Thusano Fund, the NYDA and the Youth Microenterprise Relief Fund to get access to funding.
If you want to learn more from Candice Chirwa and other YouthX Changemakers (Sho Madjozi, Amanda Dlamini, Theo Baloyi, Rich Mnisi and Rivo Mhlari), visit the Unlocked.Me YouTube channel by clicking here Unlocked. Me – YouTube.
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