What would it be like to be honored by the White House as a Champion of Change? Well, USF faculty member in the Politics Department, Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, can tell you all about it. Seven years ago, Wanjiru founded the international organization, Akili Dada, to help increase women’s voices in decision making in Kenya. Wanjiru is one of the inspirational women leaders in the world who saw a major problem, wanted to do something about it, and actually went out and made a difference. Don’t be surprised if you hear her name more often in the future!
Where are you from? Nairobi, Kenya but I am also a U.S. citizen. I came to the U.S. when I was fourteen.
What exactly is Akili Dada? Akili Dada is a leadership incubator and we’re trying to increase the number of African women who are engaged in decision-making, not just political decision making, but everything from the community level to corporate, civil society government and everything in between. We are essentially saying we have to have African women at the table who are making constructive, progressive contributions to debates.
What was your reaction when you found out you were receiving this honor? I was sitting at my desk and I glanced over at my e-mail and about fell off my chair. I found out about two weeks before the award in January. It has been a total game changer for Akili Dada since then.
What does it mean to be honored as a Champion of Change? It is a tremendous validation of work that my team and I have been doing for the last seven years. You never know if what you’re doing matters to other people or if others notice, but you continue doing something cause you believe in it and then something like this comes along and it gives you validation and makes you want to do it more. This award is not just mine; I have a tremendous team of women of all generations who work with me in making this possible. It’s been a wonderful collective effort. Also, the award has been really great in terms of publicity. It has opened doors and has brought a lot of people to pay attention to Akili Dada.
How do you find women to be mentors to the younger Kenyan women? We find them through networking. We have a core of very committed women who wanted to support young Kenyan women who are up and coming and they told their friends who told their friends. Now we have a database of over 200 women who are interested in supporting Akili Dada scholars. The active member fluctuates depending on how busy people are. We have had a tremendous outpouring from Kenyan women who say they want to stand side by side with their sisters.
What are your hopes for the future of Akili Dada? I hope that we will build a network of African women who are really engaged in decision making at all levels and that these women will feel supported, nurtured, and encouraged. Also, we hope these women will go forth and change the world for the better.
Who or what inspires you? I have been the beneficiary of a lot of generosity from a lot of strangers, from people who didn’t know who I was, but thought it was worthwhile to invest in someone like me. Their generosity inspires me. People came forward and gave money to scholarship funds that Akili Dada then benefited from. I’m excited to have Akili Dada be my way of paying it forward and multiplying that generosity. Generosity and kindness are wonderful and they multiply. Also, I get really inspired by powerful women who are courageous, strong, and have great inner power. Not necessarily about yelling in streets, but those who conduct their lives in ways that open doors for others.
What have you learned from the past seven years? Generosity really does multiply and sometimes being generous is the most courageous thing you can do. It’s human nature to want to keep stuff to ourselves, sometimes giving and letting go and giving honestly without any reservations is a very courageous act. I would love for the world to honor that more.
If any of you readers would like to learn more about Akili Dada, then please visit the website www.akilidada.org If you are interested in the organization then click under the “Get Involved” tab and see all of the ways you can help!