November 18, 2015

THE FACE OF ISLAM:

MALALA STRIKES BACK: BEHIND THE SCENES OF HER FEARLESS, FAST-GROWING ORGANIZATION (KAREN VALBY, 11/18/15, Fast Company), 

Three years ago, while she was riding the bus home from school in Pakistan's Swat Valley, Malala was shot in the head by members of the Taliban. She'd been targeted because of her history of campaigning, publicly and passionately, for her and her friends' intrinsic right to attend school. She survived and since that heinous day has gracefully become the de facto voice of the more than 60 million girls deprived of education worldwide.

Her appearance at the UN General Assembly in September was part of a whirlwind visit to New York that required her to take a rare two days off from her own schooling in Birmingham, England. The youngest-ever Nobel laureate also attended the premiere of He Named Me Malala, Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim's documentary about her life. She struck allegiances with world leaders on behalf of her two-year-old NGO, the Malala Fund. And, in what Stephen Colbert called his favorite moment to date on his new show, she performed an eye-popping card trick for 3.2 million viewers on network television.

But Malala is doing more than building awareness: She's creating a network of action and impact. Her still-young Malala Fund has already helped finance projects in six countries--Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya, Jordan, Lebanon, and Sierra Leone--by opening schools, providing scholarships, and setting up education groups and remote-learning programs. While the fund's budget today is modest (it spent more than $4 million in 2014), Malala has created a model for other NGOs, local government, and, yes, world leaders that shows how on-the-ground engagement can be effective. What's more, she's already had international impact--at the UN--that has gone largely unrecognized, despite all the media she's attracted. "In the beginning, people ignore you," Malala tells me during a conversation at the fund's Washington, D.C., coworking space a few weeks before her New York blitz. "And then they say, 'Okay, now we have to listen because she is not going to keep quiet.' So you keep speaking. And once young people join the mission, it's no longer just my voice. It's the voice of the people."

In person, Malala is both relaxed and deeply attentive, a high school junior who doesn't wear makeup or carry a cell phone. The left side of her face is still partially paralyzed from where the bullet inflicted permanent nerve damage. When I first meet her, she is wearing traditional Pakistani clothing and the same pair of modest platform sandals she'll wear in New York in order to give her 5-foot frame an extra inch to see over the average lectern. True power clearly knows nothing of stature or age. As becomes increasingly evident during conversations with her, her family, and her team, Malala has a force that's completely devoid of bombast or ego.

When the Taliban took over the Swat Valley in 2007, bombing schools and murdering resisters, the world did not send help. Politicians failed to act. NGOs that pledged financial aid and on-the-ground resources were unable to deliver. Malala's terrorized community was left to fend for itself. Malala and her father, Zia, a peace activist who ran the school she attended in Swat, continued to speak out. When she woke up in a hospital bed in England, ripped from her home and culture, they decided together that still more needed to be done.

In 2013, they started the Malala Fund to make the broad, irrefutable statement that every girl deserves an education--and translate that belief into action on both the local and global level. Its mandate, as set by cofounders who know well the cost of being let down, is to prove there are bolder, braver, more effective ways to support girls than the failed efforts of those who'd left Malala to her fate in Swat Valley.

Posted by at November 18, 2015 5:48 PM

  

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