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On February 8, the CUSSW Alumni Association hosted a Career Night with recent graduate Moiyattu Banya (MS’09). Banya is a passionate social entrepreneur who specializes in women empowerment in Africa. She is founder of the Web site Women Change Africa (open to invited readers only), which recently launched the first girl’s empowerment movement in her home country of Sierra Leone.
Banya left Sierra Leone because of the Civil War, but always knew she wanted to return. She attended the Columbia University School of Social Work planning to use her degree to improve conditions in her home country.
“When I came to the States, the very first thing I promised myself was that I’m going to go back one day and give back on some level,” said Banya. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to happen or when or what it would look like but I knew I wanted to go back and make an impact because it was important for me.”
Banya currently works as the Senior Program Officer of Program, Design, and Development for Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa), a small non-profit organization founded by Nobel peace laureate Leymah Gbowee in 2006 to promote women’s participation and leadership across Africa.
Initially, she designed programs to increase the participation of women in the African electoral process, a project that led to a broader spectrum of duties, including initiatives for rural women and the topic of youth and security. “The fun thing is, with each project the possibilities are different,” said Banya, “but my overall responsibility is conceptualizing programs from start to finish and ensuring that the programs we already have are sustainable and scaling up.”
She also added that this was a way for her to use some of her clinical training from CUSSW. “As much as I went to social enterprise route, I love clinical work,” said Banya. “This was my cheat way of still doing my clinical work.”
Banya got the idea for Women Change Africa while working for WISPEN-Africa. She realized that successful women of color were not getting the attention they deserved. As Banya tells it:
I first started in the Western space, which to be perfectly frank is dominated by white women. What I found was there was literally no space focused on celebrating young African Women who were doing awesome things.
Banya has two main goals for her Women Change Africa initiative:
“The change theory for Women Change Africa is very simple,” said Banya. “We believe that if women are celebrated, connected with the right people and resources, and if they cultivate their communities together, tremendous change can happen.”
The girl’s empowerment summit held last November in Sierra Leone was a way to help young African girls become more confident and empowered in order to pursue their goals. Banya explained that she had tried launching this summit the year before but it “totally flopped.” She added: “That’s when innovation happens, when you fail.”
Though still in its “baby stage,” Banya says that the summit was successful enough that she is looking to expand its scope for the next time.
“Girls walked in quiet, and left confident,” she said. “If you don’t believe in yourself and you don’t see yourself as powerful and awesome, you can’t do what you want to do.”
According to Banya, students at the School of Social Work should remember that, when following their dreams, they need to be both specific and persistent. “Be willing to negotiate, but also know when to walk away,” she said.
She added that she believes there is no one path, noting that she’d worked for three years in the Department of Education before pivoting into the work she really wanted to do, which is international in focus.
Sometimes you have to make big changes in your life, she said. “If you ever think you’re on the brink of making that move, “ she went on, “Read The Alchemist for inspiration.”
Banya further encouraged CUSSW students to get involved in her Women Change Africa initiative, saying she could use their help with everything from fundraising to project assistance.
Contributed by Julien Hawthorne (CC'14)
To listen to Moiyattu Banya's talk in its entirety, go to CAA's Livestream.