Can you speak to your experience of being in a refugee camp at a young age?
I was very young to remember much of it. Everything I know about it is from my mom. I was born in the camp, which was in Ghana, and we moved to Canada when I was three. My mom tells me all the time that the camp got a lot of support from different organizations and I got Christmas gifts while we were there.
The Pearl Project is an endeavour you started to help young girls live up their potential against all odds. What did it take to start a foundation as important and as impactful as this one? When you first came up with the idea, what were your next steps of action.
I belonged to a college at the University of Toronto that encouraged us to come up with solutions to social problems. I wanted to focus on women's rights and they told me this area was overplayed. This angered me and drove me back to the drawing board. I told myself to come up with the wildest idea I could on helping out the women in my own community. The university still rejected my second proposal of The Pearl Project. That same year I was chosen as a youth delegate to the United Nations and got the chance to pitch the project in a competition. I won and received funding for it. I later came back to Canada and reached out to the girls within my university network that I knew had diverse expertise to contribute to The Pearl Project. Since then we have gained a lot of funding, media coverage and mentorship.
You speak of having your own mentor, how did you two connect and what kept pushing you forward?
I grew up in public housing in Calgary and the mentor I found was a family friend. One day I was playing with a stethoscope in my elementary school and told the teacher I aspired to be a doctor. I was told this dream would never come true for someone of my gender and race. Later that day, I ran into this family friend who was also our neighbour, and told her about the incident. She called the school on my behalf for treating me like that and encouraged me to keep aspiring for my dreams. She actually worked at nursing home and even brought me into work with her to get me familiar with the field of healthcare. Although my career path has changed direction, she is still someone who I keep in touch with and encourages me.
As a young woman who came from a low income community and faced cultural barriers, what did you find most challenging about creating The Pearl Project?
It doesn’t matter how much press or funding our foundation receives, our age puts us at a disadvantage. Almost every time I walk into a room or meeting, I am the youngest person there and usually the only black woman who comes from a low income background. I am also at a disadvantage because I don’t yet hold a university degree. These limitations, as well as lacking NGO connections, can get in the way of The Pearl Project. When people look at me, all they see is a university student who doesn’t have the skills to pull this off. I am judged because of my age, race and gender and this is a disadvantage I am trying to fix.
Can you speak to the importance of pairing young girls with career mentors as opposed to general supporting figures?
Being given the chance to see someone who looks like you in a career role is very important. It makes career aspirations look more realistic and you’re given a mentor that not only believes in you, but has also gone through all the steps you need to take. They have had similar experiences and struggles that you will be up against, which will speak volumes to young girls in similar positions.
As a woman who is uplifting many young girls out of their social realities, where do you think they struggle the most?
When we go into high schools to talk to young girls about The Pearl Project, most girls have already given up on whatever big dreams they had. This is because they are being told by teachers and guidance councillors numerous time that they couldn’t accomplish it. Their biggest barrier after we go to talk to them is going back into an environment that makes it impossible for them to thrive.
The Pearl Project advocates building young girls confidence as well as developing their skills. Can you elaborate on the importance of self-esteem, especially for young girls.
Before connecting young girls to their career mentors, we need to get them to believe in themselves first. Without that initial belief, the mentor or any services we can provide to them, will not make a difference. Building a young girls self esteem and letting them know they have worth is huge. They will only work towards their goals if they believe they are attainable.
You were chosen as a Youth Delegate to the Youth Assembly at the United Nations, what is something you learned at this conference that you wish you could share with other young girls?
You don’t have to have a set plan in mind to start making a difference. When I first got to the conference, I had done some volunteering, but I didn’t have the Pearl Project set in stone. It’s okay to figure it out as you go. As long as you keep going and see through your goal, opportunities will present themselves along the way.
As a very involved student and founder of The Pearl Project, where do find the motivation and perseverance to juggle both roles.
Traditionally women in my family were not allowed to go to school. For me, juggling school and The Pearl Project is challenging, but a lot of what I do is because I know others would do anything to be in my shoes. I had the privilege to pursue an eduction and that is a huge motivation to make my family proud and do it for others that can’t. I also think it’s important to achieve my goals so the girls involved in The Pearl Project can see that I am someone just like them who has made it. I can’t stand in from of them if I am not leading by example.
If you had to give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to stand out. In high school I did not get involved because I worried about what other people would say, but now as I look back, I would tell myself to not be afraid to stand out.
In the future, how do you think this foundation will grow and change to be an even better tool for the next generation?
My dream is to have The Pearl Project in multiple communities across Canada and I would like closer partnerships with community organizations and schools. I enjoy the independence we have right now, but I do want to see universities behind us to help provide scholarships and give girls access to greater opportunities.
As a social activist and leader, where do you see the role of business and brands in having an impact on social change?
Society has reached a point with social media that allows the whole world to be connected. This gives business and brand platforms the responsibility to show people what is happening globally and locally. They need to either provide awareness or promote donations towards social issues. We’re at the point where we can’t and shouldn’t separate the two.
Apefa Adjivon is dedicated to creating social change for all young girls globally. Starting within her own community and actively planning to expand, she is determined to show young women how to reach their potential. By empowering those who are underrepresented in society she has opened up doors with education and guidance which would have otherwise remained closed. The Pearl Project serves as an example of a young female activist and leader creating crucial change within a low-income community. You can learn more about the Pearl Project here.