10th Anniversary Dreams Campaign 10 Question Series - Maame Afon Yelbert-Sai
One of the ways we are celebrating our 10th Anniversary Dreams Campaign is through a 10 Question Series. The Dreams Campaign was created on the belief that girls who dream, become women with vision and through this campaign we hope to connect the SEGA girls with people and organizations around the world through their shared dreams. Our goal is to show each girl at SEGA the endless possibilities that come from investing in girls' education.
We are excited for you to read our 10 Question Series with Maame Afon Yelbert-Sai, a consultant on international development, gender and leadership and one of Nurturing Minds’ advisors.
1. What did you aspire for at an early age?
I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at an early age, all I know is that I asked a lot of questions. I was very curious. As I grew up a little bit I came to the realization that I wanted to become a lawyer. I was always asking questions and interrogating people. As I went to high school and college I realized what was drawing me was more social justice. How do you ensure that there is equity, fairness justice? That everyone can have access to opportunities, a happy life a dignified life? In school I was thrust into a lot of leadership roles and I knew I was curious about leadership and helping other people. Being a mentor and coach and how through leadership we can help others reach their true potential. In college I focused on my languages. I studied French and Spanish. I lived in France and Guatemala and these experiences helped broaden my prospective. In grad school I focused on international development and human rights with a focus on gender and development. Which all helped me do what I do now.
2. What inspired those dreams?
A lot of my leadership positions started in high school. We had a fellowship, I am a woman of faith, I am a Christian and my faith is integral to me. We had a fellowship in school and I served as the president. We also had a village outreach in school and we would go out to the surrounding schools and provide literacy support and help and just hanging out with kids and that really shaped a lot of what I do. I was the VP of the village outreach club. Also, growing up I grew up with a single mom. Watching my mom hold things together for us and our extended family all shaped the work I do and how I got to be here. I had a lot of cousins who are boys and I always felt as capable as them to do whatever they did. When I grew and saw what society conditions us to see as gender roles and what women can do I noticed things didn’t match up with what was in my head. A lot of that inspired and continues to inspire what I do now.
3. What is the most difficult decision you’ve had to make to pursue your dream?
One of toughest decisions, which I now look back on a realize it was part of the choices I had to make; I believe life is made up of choices you have to make and sometimes you have to make bold choices. So, when I finished high school in Ghana, I’ve always been crazy, I told my mom that I wanted to study outside of Ghana because I wanted to broaden my horizon and get other exposure. I deiced that I was going to pursue law in England. That didn’t work out however. I went to the embassy and they didn’t give me a visa. At that time all my friends had gone to university and I was home. I had to ask myself what I was going to do now. I basically turned it into a gap year. I studied for the SAT and took the TOEFL. I learned how to drive, helped my mom conduct her business, helped at home and went to a bible school. Finally, I got into college and I went to Iowa. That was a tough decision I had to make. As the oldest, my mom would come to me for a lot of things so leaving meant my mom also had to fill in some big gaps. But I learned to never give up on my dreams even if it doesn’t work out the first time.
4. What’s one thing you would tell your younger self?
There is one thing that I keep telling myself, my younger self, is do what you love. Like the Nike ad with Kaepernick, if you believe in something do it even if it means sacrificing everything. That resonates with me. There is a quote from a Liberian lady, in 2011 she won the Nobel peace prize, Leymah Gbowee. She said, “you can never leave footprints when you are on your tippy toes”. What that means to me is-take a stand. If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything. Make a commitment. The people who motivate us is because they had to make tough choices and stick to them. We see their story of resilience of being bold and visionary and that’s what inspires us.
5. Who is someone you look up to / admire?
My mom. Unfortunately my mom passed away in 2013. The way she lived her life gave me the blue prints for how I show up every day. In the face of perhaps, norms or cultural practice or expectations of women, she pulled through as a single mom raising myself and my siblings. I remember when I told her I wanted to come to school. Outside people told her “why are you wasting your time? Let her go to school like everybody else”. My mom told me “I will not be able to run around with you to give transcripts. You do the work. I will do everything in my power to make sure you go”. I am thankful my mom was so committed. Because of that, I was able to believe in my potential. I can sit here doing the work I do, mentoring others, be the musician I am, the mom I am, the whole woman that is able to bring all of who she is to everything she does. My mom definitely inspires me. Even after she’s been gone since 2013 her legacy still lives on. My mom had this unique ability of seeing the gold in people. Seeing potential beyond the surface. Calling out the good and unleashing peoples’ potential and allowing people to contribute impactfully and meaningfully in their village. That inspires me to show up fully.
6. What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
The best piece of advice I have ever received was from my coach who told me “I am enough. I am enough” there are times, especially now when you’re trying to do this, trying to do that, and she reminded me “you know, Maame…you are enough. You are enough to do what it takes to do. You have everything inside of you to fulfill your purpose you have everything you need to follow your calling. You are enough”. I think that sums it all up. Through the bad, the ugly, everything equips you to live your purpose and your calling and that everything you need is inside of you. A lot of that was telling me to just stop, breathe, relax and rediscover.
7. Who was your best teacher/helper on your journey?
Oh gosh. I wouldn’t say there is one but obviously I think my faith has been very big, instrumental. I am a Christian, I am boldly Christian. I am proudly African, and I am unapologetically feminist. Those things really hold me. My identity as an African woman, as an African, guides me and informs me. Who I am as a feminist allows me to speak up and use my voice as I should. Who I am as a Christian is central and integral to how I show up every day because I believe that as a Christian it is in Christ how I move and how I am. He holds everything I am together. In difficult times it is my faith that has brought me out of that. My husband is also a huge help. He is my partner. I move around a lot, but we have this collaboration that is rooted in mutual respect and a mutual vision of who we are and how we choose to show up in the world. Having him as a partner allows me to show up boldly in the world. And my mom. She is the foundation of who I am today. If she didn’t make sacrifices and choices she did I would not be who I am today.
8. How did your environment/friends shape/support your dreams?
I am competitive but not in a negative sense. I believe in excellence. If you are going to do something do it well. Growing up watching my mom I saw hard work. I saw that nothing comes on a silver platter. You can’t just rely on your beauty or whatever, everything comes through hard work. That shaped how I approach my work and how I do my work. I also saw my mom and how she engaged with people. We live in a society that becomes very class oriented. We put people in boxes. But I saw my mom being able to be very versatile in how she engaged with people. If she saw a market woman she could easily engage at that level but if she met with a business partner she knew how to show up. Even someone who was a drunk, my mom could see the potential in them. I used to always ask her “why are you wasting your time on people like this?” She would say you will get it at some point. I find myself sometimes going to the village center and now I know how to handle myself. I could be in a board room and I know how to handle myself. Leadership is a dance. Which means you have to know when to step back, when to step forward, when to step aside and when to hold your ground. That versatility was a dance that I saw my mom do all the time.
9. Was there ever a time you felt uncertain about your dream?
I wouldn’t say I was uncertain about my dream but I was shaken a little bit by an experience I had. I remember working at this organization, I was the African program director. Based on what I knew in terms of how you do international development work and how you interact with people on the ground, recognizing and highlighting local expertise and knowing we are not bringing solutions to communities but that the communities hold the answers we are just facilitators. We’re just conduits, bringing resources and access points for resources so that the communities can bring their solutions to life. I hear so often in the work that we do “I want to change the world” but I don’t think we can change the world. We facilitate a process of change for change to happen. So, I was working in this organization and wanting to make sure we were respecting the partnership we had. I was pushing for certain things but we were not on the same page. I walked into a meeting one day and basically, I was fired! I was like, “nobody fires me”. I remember coming home and I was like “I don’t want to stay at home. I am a mom but I am also a career woman”. I remember being so depressed. I also had questions. I was talking to god. I was saying, “you told me to do this, I did it and now you drop this bombshell?” But then on the train home I started to have ideas of what was next for me. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this particular experience was a gift. A gift for me to reflect and prioritize all the things I was doing. To add alignment to my work. So, I started to think about what I am good at where I thrive. I started creating connections and links and I came down to 4 things. I found integration and alignment through that process. And I came up with my purpose statement in 16 words. Everything I do, whether it’s my music for social justice, being a worship leader at church, being a facilitator, doing motivational speaking, working with women’s rights, all of that was to help others unleash their potential and to help others lead wholesome and fulfilling leadership journeys. It also allowed me the gift to rest. I was enjoying everything I was doing. Everything had a purpose and had meaning.
10. What is a piece of advice you have for the SEGA girls?
Anytime you get the chance to shake what your mamma gave ya, do it! Use your natural resources, and by natural resources you know what I mean. Sing! I was blessed with a voice so I have recorded 4 albums now. I have found that music and dancing... oh gosh! Yes. Any time I have been a facilitator we dance, we shake out butts, we move and as we do that we begin to not take ourselves too seriously. Also, not thinking everything is about you. When you do that, think everything is about you, everything gets twisted up. Bob Marley said, “when the music hits you feel no pain”. The way music is orchestrated it brings out harmony, melody, color. That is who I believe we are as humans. Music allows you to elevate and amplify your voice. Especially for SEGA girls who might be shy. It allows them to break out of that. It creates community and allows people to use their voice in a different way. For people or groups who are not together, it allows the space to create community. Music brings people together! Shake it! Work it! Don’t let anybody stop you. If anyone tries to tell you to tone it down tell them your future is too bright and they just can’t handle it. And lastly, just have fun! Don’t always be focused on the gloom and doom. Bloom and blossom and have fun. And take the time to know your sister. The sisterhood they get to form will go forever. Basically, what I am trying to say to SEGA girls is see people. When you start to really see people it means you are authentically about them, for them, into them and that you see them.