By Jackie Lagus, based on an interview by Leigh Meinert.
A personal call to action led Australian born Pip Wheaton to South Africa and the helm of an organisation that encourages young people, and those around them, to shift their perception of what young people are capable of achieving.
Spurred by her studies in morality and applied ethics at the University of Sydney, Wheaton felt compelled to apply the theory she was learning in environments that lay beyond the heated debates that she engaged in with fellow classmates. Nevertheless, her journey across the world and into leadership was unplanned and she finds it ironic that, “I have sort of ended up in this role almost by chance. There was never any real sort of intention to try and aim for a position of leadership, which is strange to say for somebody who actually runs a leadership organisation.”
A self-described ‘people’s person’, Wheaton believes that a vital tool in her leadership kit has been to work with mentors and people who have the skills to help co-create success. “One of the biggest things for me, that has gotten me through the tough times, is surrounding myself with people who have experience and knowledge… as well as inspiring individuals who are doing work in similar fields. They constantly remind me that there are wonderful people out there doing amazing work, and although it can be tough we work through it.”
Wheaton also credits, “passion, determination, a willingness to admit when I do not have the answers, and a real desire to support the people who are in my team,” as well as, “the fact that I am quite crazy. I think you have to be a little bit crazy to take on the challenges that running a leadership organisation throws up.”
Wheaton describes enke as an organisation in its infancy that began in 2009, with three main objectives: to connect, to equip, and to inspire. More than a catchy by-line, in practice the organisation brings together young people from across South Africa’s socio-economic spectrum, having impacted over four hundred South Africans to date.
“We have an annual forum where we currently bring together Grade 11 learners from across a range of diverse backgrounds. We put them through a programme that gets them to understand each other, to develop empathy, and to understand the real lived experience of people from different circumstances.”
Wheaton emphasises that this forum is highly experiential and learner-driven. “It is youth-to-youth learning, so all of our presenters and facilitators are young. (They are) so close in age that the participants actually almost see them as equals. So they are role models for them as well. A lot of the facilitators come from a similar range of backgrounds, so that the participants realise they can go to university too. Or they can go off and be an entrepreneur. Whatever it is that excites them.”
In addition to connecting them and inspiring them, enke’s annual forum also seeks to equip their young participants by means of the forum’s personal development component. “It is based on the emotional intelligence theory, so that to be a leader you need to have self-awareness. You need to be able to manage yourself, as well as have social awareness and be able to manage and mobilise others.”
Wheaton believes that an individual’s journey begins with a sense of vision and purpose. “It is actually about what is your vision for your own future. If you want to go to university, that is great. If you want to go and drive a taxi, that is great. The question is, why do you want to do that? What is your long-term vision?”
Thereafter she believes that her role is to help young people to link their dreams and ideas with the real world context. For this reason, each of the participants is required to develop a solution to a social problem in their community which they are passionate about, in parallel with the forum’s personal development component. Over the course of the week they are provided with time and mentoring to design a project that they commit to going home and running.
Wheaton describes the impact these community action projects have had. She recalls two students in particular, from a rural high school in Limpopo, who went on to do an education project – a one-on- one tutoring programme – that increased the Grade 11 pass rate from sixty-one for ninety-seventy percent. She also recalls a participant “who is from quite a well-off school in Cape Town. When she came to the forum she had also picked education as her issue. She came to the forum and realised that one of the things she is most passionate about is photography and art. She has gone on to design a project… that is teaching photography as a means of creative self- expression with a school in Khayelitsha. She worked with nine students and on Heritage Day they will hold their very first exhibition. I am really excited to see how this project will continue to develop and grow.”
Wheaton becomes particularly animated when she describes how participants learn through doing. She believes passionately that much of leadership is about simply doing what needs to be done and not waiting for someone else to carry the torch. “We like to think of our role as creating a mind shift for them, so young people can believe that they do not need to wait for somebody else to make change happen. They can do it for themselves. Whether this is on a social issue or whether it is in their own lives.”
Accordingly, Wheaton’s focus is on encouraging young people to take action on issues they feel passionately about and developing in them the belief that they can make a difference. She relates this to her own life story. “You have to have a personal call to action and that can happen at any stage in your life. For me I was not one of those students who would have been selected to go on a programme like enke. I would not have been identified as that person. My personal call to action came much later… it was when I was studying and realized that actually you have got to do something, not just talk and write about it.”
“For some people, that call to action is really early.” It comes from seeing injustice first-hand, or it comes from having been a victim of injustice or just even having somebody say to you,‘What do you want to change about things?’ And all of a sudden going, ‘Actually, yes, I really do want to change something.’ That is all well and good if you do not think you can actually do anything about it, so you have to want to, but you also have to believe that you can.
“That is where role models come in. And they do not have to be people that you know directly, but just understanding that there are other people out there who have done this type of thing, and they were not that different to me.”
Wheaton feels fortunate to know and work alongside many of the people that she looks up to. She reflects that, “I generally admire the qualities that I do not have, and would quite like to have. I am always blown away by people who are able to combine a real attention to detail while never losing sight of the big picture. I always think that is so amazing. I have been lucky enough to work with people who have that.”
An example that Wheaton cites of such integrity is her experience of an organisation called Generation of Leaders Discovered (GOLD) Peer Education. “I remember being confronted by the idea that they do not accept money from any alcohol sponsors, for example, because alcohol is such a big issue in the communities that they serve. This was when I first moved to South Africa and I was confronted by that idea that, wow, actually that is an issue that needs to be considered! It is not just a case of taking the money because we are doing good, so that is okay. Rather let’s look at the bigger picture. I always really admire that.”
In the process of cultivating leaders and nurturing hidden talents, Wheaton has been surprised to discover that she has become less cynical in the process. She is often at the receiving end of innovative ideas, fresh thinking and tremendous energy, not only from her participants but from other facilitators and youth groups.
“It shows that probably when I was growing up, I was a victim of (the attitude of) ‘the young people, what do they know? The youth of today, they are hopeless.’ So it has been really refreshing to see that that is not the case.”
She has also learned how important it is to support young people when they go out and undertake projects, particularly as they are often undertaking significant risk at a vulnerable time in their lives. Wheaton believes in the optimum balance of support and encouragement, and her team at enke aim to achieve this by having a weekly audit of the hits and misses that they encounter as they continue supporting their young participants in the months following the forum experience. The dilemma that she and her team are currently grappling with is how to make the support sustainable. “We strive to be personal and relevant and all of those things, but really the support should be coming from networks and peers. So how do we create organic support? Support that goes beyond the programme as well so that it is not just, ‘Okay, well you have done your nine months with enke, now you are on your own.’ Now, do those connections and support last?”
When asked about any trends that she has noticed in leadership development within South Africa, Wheaton enthuses, “Maybe it is a little bit early, maybe I am too optimistic, and maybe it’s just because I surround myself with people who think this way. But I am starting to feel that there are more and more people who are trying to break that stereotype of youth and looking to showcase the positive images.”
In other words, more and more people like Pip Wheaton.
For a full transcript of this interview please visit www.tsiba.org.za/news/resources