Welcome to the second instalment of our celebration of Women’s History Month, where, throughout March, we will be shining a weekly spotlight onto inspirational women who are helping change the world by challenging the patriarchy and eradicating gender bias.
In this interview, we chatted to Olivia Darby, the Director of Programmes and Policy at WONDER Foundation. WONDER, which stands for the Women’s Network for Development and Educational Resources, is a charity that is doing incredible work to empower women and girls globally, and we were really excited to have the opportunity to understand more about their work and what we can do to help.
Can you give me a bit of background on what WONDER does?
WONDER is a women’s education charity, and we partner with local women-led organisations in different countries, with the aim not just of giving certificates but really of transforming women and girls’ lives through education.
What’s your role in the charity?
I’m our Chief Programs Officer. I really struggle to answer this question because every day is so different, and I think that’s one of the things I love about this job.
A lot of what I do involves maintaining and fostering this constant dialogue we have with our partners, to really understand what their needs are as they emerge and to identify trends, do research, really deeply understand their context and use that to support them in different ways. So this could be identifying something that they’re doing that’s really innovative or interesting or under-researched and publishing something on that, sharing it with other people so they can learn from what these amazing women are doing. And then, of course, using the knowledge that we have to try and find the resources those projects need to be more sustainable.
This could mean training women myself, helping them to access expert training, or helping them fundraise in different ways through us or independently so they have the resources they need to continue to deliver and deliver more.
So you said that you do some training yourself, can you expand on that? What’s your speciality?
*Olivia laughs* I don’t really have a speciality. I’d say my speciality is in understanding what their needs are and then trying to meet that. I have a background, myself, in working in various roles in charities; supporting roles, policy roles and starting and leading projects myself.
That’s amazing that you have all of that experience behind you.
It’s super. I’d say, hopefully, I’m good at digesting things. Often it’s about us starting a conversation with our partners that helps them to see something and then empowers them to seek further or more expert support. Or, for example, at the moment we’re working with a number of our partners to deepen and develop locally appropriate, rigorous safeguarding systems.
Our methodology in doing this is quite novel, in the sense that it should be the normal way but it doesn’t seem that it is yet. We don’t just write a policy but really think, “How can it be implemented within the realities of complex local systems and cultures?” So we’ve brought in an expert to do that work with our partners.
What made you personally get into this role?
I’m actually one of the founders of WONDER. I was fuelled by idealism; by that stage, I’d worked in Kenya and seen how much local experience and excellence there was in the young women in the program and the women I met there, which was so different to the stories I’d been told growing up.
You have this idea of Africa and are often not told good stories, and I just met these amazing women and realised the best role I could play in addressing the problems I’d seen out there was to make sure they had the tools and resources they needed to do what they were already doing. I’d worked in other charities and seen things that worked well, and things that didn’t work so well.
What has been your greatest achievement in your time working with WONDER?
It’s very hard to say what I’ve achieved because on my own I wouldn’t have achieved anything. I think my great realisation in doing this work, really, is just how many people it takes to do something well. We have great support from the amazing volunteers we have, our incredible staff and our very generous donors. And, of course, the women we work to empower. If any part of this picture didn’t exist, none of it would happen.
Other people work very very hard and they try to do good things and they fail through sheer bad luck, and we’ve been very lucky to still be here. I’d say my greatest achievement, or our greatest achievement, because I don’t think it’s only mine, is the amazing relationships we have with our partner organisations and the phenomenal support we have from our volunteers.
What are some of your goals or aspirations for WONDER?
My goals and aspirations… so, I have some immediate goals. My goal at the moment is to work with our Polish partners to make sure they have the resources needed to welcome Ukrainians. We’ve done this before; we had a project working with partners in several European countries to make vulnerable migrant women and their families welcome, to give them the education and personal support needed to thrive in their new countries. So we have every confidence in our Polish partners’ ability to welcome the Ukrainians who are literally crossing the border at the moment and will need support. But they need money, and they need everything, so that’s one of my immediate goals.
What other goals do I have… I mean, I think just for us to continue the good relationships we have with our partners and to be responsive to the needs that happen. I think when we act like that, amazing things happen that we would never have dreamed of if we’d had long-term plans for them. One of our great achievements, for example, in the last year, has been starting remote and physical CPD training for nurses in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
When we were dreaming about this, probably 2 years ago now, we thought it would never happen. We thought it was impossible. It’s an enormous country and there’s very little internet coverage, even 3g coverage, so the people can’t access the internet via phones. So we were thinking, how on earth do you solve this problem of people graduating as nurses and there’s no training for them after that to keep their skills upgraded? And we started it, and it’s amazing. I’m still astonished.
That’s really incredible. I was doing something similar at my old role [...] and to make it so accessible to however people are consuming the courses, it’s a real challenge.
It’s hard enough for people who do have connectivity and a device and WiFi to do these CPD courses remotely. The moment you’ve got kids; you don’t have time, you have someone distracting you, you don’t have a quiet spot. And then, on top of that, the headache of people not having a device or an internet connection. You just think, how on earth can we make this happen? And I think that’s the thing I want to share; that as long as we really listen to our partners and their needs and we look for ways to address these things, then we do something that is genuinely needed rather than making a plan for something that someone else who’s a much larger organisation may actually be able to do much quicker than us. But we are much more able, I think, to respond quickly to emerging needs.
What’s your favourite thing about what you do?
My favourite thing… let me ask my team, they’ll give me a better answer *Olivia turns and asks her team*.
We all have the same response, which is: the people. We are surrounded by the most amazing people; our team, our board, our partners, our volunteers. They are amazing. It’s really inspiring and heartening, I would say, the enthusiasm, perseverance and genuine interest our partners have in their students, that we try to carry through into that genuine interest that we have in each of the women who are working with our partners and our volunteers.
That’s really lovely, and I think it’s the sort of thing that drives you to want to do right by people isn’t it. I think in more corporate settings you can get quite jaded by people.
We had a celebration the other day which was for ten years of our volunteers, which was really lovely and I was trying to think of what to say. I’ve met people in this field who are very jaded by it and have had so many setbacks, and I’ve had people say, “Why are you not jaded”? And I think it is the people that we work with. You know they’re always doing their best and you know they’re genuinely interested not just in targets and inboxes but they really are interested in the people that they work with, and that keeps you going even when things are challenging.
Who are three women who inspire you?
I think I’ve already said 100 times, the women I work with inspire me in so many different ways. But I’d also like to say my mum and my sister.
My mum is amazing. She’s got those same things that I really value in our partners; that constancy and service and real interest in the people that she meets. But also my sister. My sister had a baby this year and I haven’t met him yet because he’s in Australia. But I’m so amazed—he was born very early and my sister has been really heroic and dedicated and he’s such a happy baby. So yes, she’s really inspired me a lot this year. But all the women we work with inspire me in different ways.
What does the theme of IWD 2022, #BreakTheBias, mean to you? Or more broadly, what does gender bias mean to you and how does that come into play?
Well, it’s a very complex subject. We’ve recently published a report on the gender digital divide. Obviously, everything has moved online in the past couple of years and a lot of our partners have experienced trying to go remote in places where a lot of their students don’t have access to digital, and a lot of that is heightened by bias. By the fact that, when the girls are at home, they’re constantly being asked to do chores. If there are limited numbers of devices or one device in the family their brother has been prioritised for its use. And this, in a really practical way, is something we’ve seen during COVID. The girls and women in our projects have struggled, due to this bias, to continue studying. And it’s something we have to be really conscious of. Hopefully we’re moving into a post-pandemic phase, but it’s heightened divisions, heightened disparities, and we have a lot to do to recover and to make sure that women and girls have access to the resources that they need, both to regain what has been lost but also to take advantage of the good things that have happened. It’s a great thing, for example, for the women and girls that we work with in Africa that now they’re aware and they know how to access online opportunities and learning. They, too, can access courses from all over the world, but in order to do that they need to have the same digital access, which is affected by poverty in general and by being a women, specifically.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give your younger self? Framing it as your experience as a woman, and something that maybe you wish you’d known in terms of your career or anything in that vicinity.
I’d say, I guess, two things.
One, take breaks. It’s so easy when we work in this type of world and when you’re trying to get a charity off the ground to feel so driven by it that you forget to rest. And actually, what is the life that we’re trying to create for the women that we work with? It’s a good life, it’s a life of joy and wonder and having time to spend with family, and being able to have a sense of wellbeing. To remember that for ourselves, that changing the world is also about bringing joy to the world, not just about focussing on the problems that exist.
And, I would say, to be confident in being your own weirdo. The older you get, hopefully, you realise that you don’t have to be the same as anybody else, and there are going to be things that you’re good at and things that you’re not so good at. And that’s fine. If you have the right people around you, you make up for the things that are missing and you do everything better. So yes, I guess that’s what I would say. You learn that as long as you have the right people around you, everything is possible.
It’s interesting you say that about rest—I think, although it’s a more positive narrative than what we might have said before, our standards for women are so high, we can often feel pushed to go above and beyond to prove we’re not weak and pathetic as the narrative once suggested.
I think it’s true. We work in a rarified environment where all of our team are women, but it is that sense of—“What is our purpose in life?” It’s easy to think, when we encounter so many challenges in the world, that our purpose is to suffer. That will happen anyway. But I think the thing is to recognise that we want those women not only just to be able to survive, but also to find joy and purpose in their lives. And we also should find joy and purpose in their lives.
What do you want to see more of in the coffee industry?
In the work that you do, it’s very similar in a lot of ways to the work we do. That’s the beauty of single origin; you’re working with the community and you know them and their needs. Seeing the people there as people—they’re not just numbers, they’re people and families and are working to come home and spend time with their family, and to have that joy and meaning like I said before. So that’s always the good thing, if you can have businesses that are working in this human scale and giving us chances as consumers to be part of that human scale, and have confidence that what we’re doing is recognising a worker’s dignity. That’s a really beautiful thing.
I don’t know if you find this, too, and I’m curious to get others’ takes on this, but I think the coffee industry is quite male-dominated.
It’s always good to bring a human touch to everything. And, this might be quite a distraction, but if you go for a coffee it’s a female thing and if you’re obsessed with coffee it’s a male thing.
And that’s one of the amazing things that I do see in all of our projects, and it is that difference of ‘going for a coffee’. Women are so often very relational; everything we do is about the way we connect to other people, and giving people a chance. In our projects, if we can give women the chance to not just attend a class and go home, but to make friends, build connections, know their teachers and understand what’s expected of them if they’re going into a new job… community is a great asset for us.
One of the best things here at our office is that all of the women who come for English language classes here have the chance to have a cup of tea or coffee, and sit down together and just know people. It’s so hard to make new friends. This is something we know as women. If you’re not going to school or you’re not going to the playground, it’s very hard for women very often to make new friends, and so much so for people who are not working and who are struggling with the language. So yes, community is essential.
We’re so thankful to Olivia for taking the time to chat to us! We hope you found this interview as illuminating as we did. If you’d like to find out more about WONDER foundation or if you’d like to donate to their important cause, make sure to have a look at their website.