How to Change the World on Less Than $1 a Day

Copyright 2020 by Seun Shokunbi. All rights reserved.

We’re afraid to die yet want something to live for. That’s the unofficial lesson I learned growing up in a Christian family. Our prayers were always asking God for a long, meaningful yet safe life that ends with us entering heaven.

And of course, we gave thanks for how lucky we were to have food and shelter while alive, and we would pray for those living with less.

But when I told my family I was coming here, to do a little bit more than pray for those in need, they begged me not to go. They couldn’t understand why I was putting myself in unnecessary discomfort or danger, coming to a place where (they believed) I could get kidnapped or killed because of how desperate the situation is for poor people in this region.

I’m not naive enough to think that poverty doesn’t SOMETIMES bring the worst out of us. But so does wealth & privilege. And so that conversation with my family was confirmation that I had to give this speech. 

Lately I’ve been obsessing over human nature – the ways we think about others, and how we decide when and how to help anyone else. And there’s a vital message for us to reflect on if we truly want to change the world, make it a better place. 

It’s a message about people in comfortable places and positions learning how to get uncomfortable.

Whether or not they realize it, most people talk about changing the world in ways that benefit them. They talk about big dreams they have to leave behind a legacy, so that when they die they will go to heaven, or people will throw huge parties celebrating their lives, and they’ll leave their mark in history. Some talk about a win-win situation, building a money-making social enterprise that is profitable yet provides jobs that improves the lives of people & their environment.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those thoughts – except when we’re not honest about how attitudes and actions we take for granted keep people in situations that make us have to become their heroes, saving others rather than empowering them to take care of themselves.

The road to doing good, as we like to say, is paved with good intentions. But we’re 20 years into this journey of doing “good” works in the name of Sustainable Development Goals, and we still haven’t reached our destination. 

20 years into the 21st Century, nearly 75% of people living in extreme poverty today are in Sub-Saharan Africa, even though the percent of people in the world living with poverty moved from 30 to 10%. 

These statistics hurt me because of what I still hear people say about my country Nigeria, and about black people across the diaspora. 

Africa, as recently as last year by some of the world’s most famous leaders, on the most prominent stages, is still described as a dark continent full of wayward people and “shithole” countries.

Many of the approaches we take to address Africa’s issues start from a scarcity mindset – describing people in “undeveloped” or “developing” nations as unable to figure it out, as if our ancestors in past centuries weren’t leading rich kingdoms that ran pretty well before being interrupted by, I don’t know, colonialism.

Scarcity mindset also shows up in the simple things, like when we think we can just drop a few dollars and cents into an offering plate and POOF, the money will travel all the way to Africa in magical fairy dust and end world hunger.

But we should ask ourselves: in a world where we have enough disposable income to spend billions of dollars creating robots that talk and look like people, why don’t we fully commit to preventing real humans from experiencing poverty and insecurity? 

And in a world where almost anybody with a computer can make up their own currency, why don’t we have enough money to stop 440 million people from going hungry every day?

If you asked me what I thought, I’d say it has more to do with the way we think about saving the world than it does with the resources we have to do it. 

We, the privileged, the rich 1%, the middle class families sitting in our living rooms sending $10/day to children’s charities, and the African diaspora “lucky enough” to be born or living outside of Africa need to admit we have a savior complex towards Africans. 

And it’s turning our beautiful dreams about a peaceful world into nightmares for others. 

This nightmare started with this man. Andrew Carnegie, considered the “father of modern philanthropy.” He literally wrote the book on the savior complex, called the Gospel of Wealth, creating this mindset that it’s better for us to have a few people – like 1% of the world’s population – making lots of money. Because by becoming rich, these people proved they’re the only ones we can trust with this responsibility to save people from poverty. 

People like Carnegie who are part of the rich 1% want to be honored as superheroes and saints, either with their names plastered on every project, or rewarded with a life of eternity in Heaven.

Carnegie gave money to remarkable initiatives, and people still do this today. Yes, the millions of dollars they donate may help a little bit in making the world a better place. The harsh truth, though, is that the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest is the main cause of the harm that they’re trying to fix in the first place through their charity.

This is data from a 2018 Harvard University report, and the picture is pretty clear and bleak: over the past 20 years the world has 4 times more millionaires and billionaires, and even as they give their money away there are still parts of the world where you are more likely to become or stay poor, rather than become rich or never experience poverty in the first place. 

Africa is where this happens the most.

And what about the charities that we donate our money to? How far does that go in stopping this from happening?

Not far enough. It cost around $6 million USD this year to run one of the most well-known charities for children. That’s almost double the amount it cost them to do this work 11 years ago. Yet the rate at which the poorest children around the world enroll in school hasn’t changed that much over those 11 years. 

So it’s costing us more to do the thing that we told the rich people we could do with their money, that we’re not actually doing…

In 2013 Peter Buffett, the son of one of the richest men on earth, described this as the charitable industrial complex. The CIC claims that poverty is big business and that rich people only donate to charity in a way that keeps them comfortably rich, while keeping poor people poorer. 

Poverty is VERY profitable for people and corporations getting tax breaks and positive publicity for donating relatively small amounts of their wealth. 

Based on the charitable industrial complex and this graph, the term “not-for-profit organization” is not that accurate.

This notion that it’s money that makes the world go round caused me lots of anxiety as someone from a middle class background dedicating her career to working with NGOs.

I started thinking about this during my Master’s degree program ten years ago, living in London and wondering what good I was going to do with my privileged life. 

For my thesis, I decided to tell another story, one not about the rich using their wealth to save Africa. 

My argument was that if we truly wanted to see Africa develop, we couldn’t sit in ivory towers, conference rooms or fancy cafes just talking about what needs to be done, or throwing money at the problem. 

We needed to adopt the relentless, guerilla mindset of people who create real change in the world every day while only making less than $1 a day.

Mohammed was one of them. 

Mohammed probably knew he was just one of a million other stories of young people trying to check every box they were told to if they wanted a better life. 

Study hard, chose the right subjects at university…thinking all of this would make them the next self-made millionaire or at least get a well-paid job that helped them take care of their families.

Instead Mohammad and many others graduated into barely making enough to survive. 

Instead they scrambled for small jobs from the kinds of people that donate to charity because they want to help people like Mohammad

Ironically some of those people would opt to pay people like Mohammad poverty wages.

While these people wrote songs about Africa and ran fundraisers to support the so-called helpless Africans, Mohammad took matters into his own hands, taking a different approach and making a statement.

He set himself on fire. 

This was probably the hardest decision, but I’m sure this was a completely selfless act, more selfless than sending $10 a month from your decent paycheck. Because if Mohammad simply wanted to end his life, he could have done it quietly, in the shadows. 

Instead he lit a match where the entire world could see, where it would force us to spark a more honest, deeper conversation about all the other Mohammads in Africa. 

I’m not telling everyone to leave here today and set yourself ablaze to make a statement. But what I’m saying is that there are so many other people in Africa, young and old, maybe in this room, living with little, fighting to free themselves and the world from the evil that is extreme poverty and oppression. I also know that many of you in the room today have more realistic dreams than others about making changes in your communities, but are afraid you don’t have the resources to carry them out. 

I hope the stories I tell today convince you that you’re underestimating how much more you can do than many of us to make the world a safer, better place. 

The title of my talk suggests we can save the world on less than $1 a day, but it requires some more context. 

I’m not ignorant to the fact that we need money to do much of this work. But there’s something in the way charities or people with privilege operate that makes us waste lots of time and money. And if we got rid of this thing, it would make the money and time we pour into ending poverty go a lot further.

That thing is entitlement.

I’ve been living in Nairobi, Kenya for four months now, and I nearly went crazy seeing this right in front of my eyes. 

On the one hand, you see places like this where sidewalks and paved roads are non-existent, in an area where over 2 million Kenyans live. On the other, you miraculously see meters of smooth paved roads and – surprise surprise – sidewalks in an area called the UN Crescent, an area of Nairobi County where diplomats, expatriates, and much wealthier individuals live.

I would call it coincidence maybe if I didn’t see the same thing comparing areas of mainland Lagos to Lagos Island in Nigeria. 

So for me, it has to be more than a coincidence. It’s a clear sign that for some of us, we want to save the world only when it’s comfortable and convenient for us. 

We somehow find a way to build better roads and houses for ourselves even while the people in the countries we’re coming to help don’t have it. Even when they’re the ones who need them the most.

Carnegie got one thing right. He told us that Heaven only comes when people start to get their happiness not from working for themselves, but for others. And he was also right when he said this requires us to change our mindsets…and that this work could take forever because, unfortunately, human nature defaults to selfishness. 

The cheapest and most effective way to save the world is to stop thinking we’re angels or superheroes, and be brave enough to go into the places and situations that aren’t so pretty 

to fight against systems that keep the poor poorer and the rich richer. And we need to look at the courage and sacrifices made by the people we claim we’re trying to save, the ones that give up something more precious than money to get us closer to Heaven on Earth. 

Last year, during the Year of the Return, I saw so many of us in the diaspora searching for a heritage we felt detached from. We were searching for purpose and wondering what influence we could have on the people we left behind to achieve our professional and financial goals. 

We, the diaspora, are in an entitled situation, where we get to travel to Accra for celebrity parties but fly back to the U.S. once we’ve had our fun or realize it’s too risky to dedicate our lives to living in and making changes in Africa.

Even if we don’t decide to move to Africa and roll up our sleeves to do the work that changes lives, we should at least admit that there are Africans, with less money than us and less fear than us, who deserve a seat at those elite tables to speak on the work they’re doing to save and change lives.

Think about women like Aisha Yesufu, who without cameras or famous people around her put her life on the line for years to end this abuse against women, while the rest of the world paid little attention. We barely hear about stories like hers even when the world became obsessed with finding and reporting on the Chibok girls kidnapped in Northern Nigeria. 

As we saw with Aisha, and Mohamed during the Arab Spring, those living on less than a dollar a day have brought down evil dictators and stopped atrocities without it costing them a thing – financially. 

But without our help, from those of us in the middle or higher echelons of wealth, it will cost a bit more – their lives. 

Those of us in the middle, in the diaspora, need to get uncomfortable, and one way is by demanding that we bring more people like Mohammad to these conferences to share their stories and their solutions for effective social change. 

We should demand that more donations go to grassroots organizations led by people who look like Aisha – those who have been sacrificing their lives on the ground in Africa, doing more than the international charities that spend billions of dollars every year just to cover operational costs. 

By 2050, the largest percent of children born into poverty will be born in Sub-Saharan Africa. And those children will be told the same thing we told children like Mohammad and me – that if you pray every day, get good grades in school and prove yourself worthy you’ll definitely escape a life of poverty.

We’d be telling them a very expensive lie.

The truth, the real solution, is not comfortable. When we start taking risks and say or do things that are uncomfortable, powerful people will get mad. Maybe only mad enough to make our jobs a living hell. Or maybe mad enough to go to the extreme, where we’re locked up, attacked, killed for challenging the status quo. 

But maybe, when we put all our chips on the table and we’re all in – financially, physically, intellectually, and emotionally – we’ll actually reach that utopian, pie-in-the-sky goal of saving the world a lot sooner than we think.

Self-Care for the Black Woman Entrepreneur

I joined the CareDeeply podcast, hosted by Wit & Grace Magazine, and I’d describe it as a form of radical self-care.

Recent events have me reconsidering what it takes to find peace and happiness as a black woman anywhere in this world. There may be safer spaces for us somewhere on the globe; if that’s so I hope I find that place sooner rather than later.

But until we can find peace geographically, we have to find it mentally and spiritually or else die. Unfortunately, that’s not hyperbolic at all. I wrote about the health impact on unique problems we face as black women, namely the microaggressions that also lead to a sub-optimal quality of life financially.

We still have a long way to go in getting black women professionals the same pay and resources that (white) men AND women get (although white women earn less than their male counterparts, their wealth far exceeds that of black women).

Speaking of microaggressions, it also takes the form of expecting black women to carry everyone else’s burdens. At the professional level, we sometimes feel our livelihood threatened if we refuse to take on the emotional labor of making our superiors comfortable and satisfied.

So becoming an entrepreneur can be are only escape, a way to produce something made for us by us. I talk about what it’s been like to rediscover myself through entrepreneurship, creating my own safe space and becoming more imaginative of how to invest in myself while creating value for others.

Click the link here to listen to the full podcast episode, and share your thoughts in the comments on this page.

If You Want The Protests to End (A #BlackoutTuesday Book List)

Read all the suggested books below with a free Amazon Kindle 30-day subscription.

Today is #blackouttuesday, a day for us to pause and reflect— black, white, and every other race/ethnicity globally.

But as you pause today, what exactly are you using to reflect? And when it’s time to speak up again, will you have the right words to use?

Almost a year ago today, I saw a comment on LinkedIn by a well-known influencer, using a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote to claim that everyone benefits from being privileged in America.

Normally I’d roll my eyes at this cliché and swallow my frustration. However, a whole year later, staying quiet cost us even more black lives. And the irony is that the quotes used by this white influencer represent the thoughts of people considered the most violent activists the world has ever seen.

The problem is that violence is given a different definition in a way that benefits people of privilege at that moment in time. Perhaps the broadest definition of violence for them is anything questioning their right to not be questioned. They don’t really fear riots or destruction of property as much as they fear our ability to see why they have so much more than those asking for just a fraction of the same.

Today’s blackout is pointless if we don’t change that narrative. If we continue to water down the legacy of MLK, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and other civil rights leaders, black people will continue to die at the hands of poverty, anxiety, depression, and police brutality. 

One year ago today, I told that influencer I’d put a reading list together for him, to question his notion of privilege in a racist society. But then I thought, why do I have to do this work for you? Why aren’t you capable of doing this research and self-reflection yourself?

For today, and the sake of putting this issue to rest, I put my pride aside. I’d regret it if I missed a chance to protect black lives from physical and emotional danger. On this designated day of meditation, I’m giving you an in-depth tool I pray will push you to rethink power and privilege, globally. I hope this will have to be the last time a resource like this is needed, and that this work isn’t in vain (because you’ll actually use it).

The list is broken down by three common assumptions you might have, and books that will push you to reconsider that assumption. The reading list can go on forever, but I’ll stick to the books I think do the best job. The books won’t always focus on black people, because my goal is to illustrate that privilege, white supremacy, and despotism by racial injustice is a universal, WORLDWIDE problem.

The first two recommendations I list will be, in my opinion, the most crucial texts. Each recommendation has information that can be fact-checked, so don’t read then gloss over anything you find hard to believe. 

DO THE WORK. As I told my 8th-grade students, use your ANEEY sources (almanac, newspapers, encyclopedias, and eyewitness accounts) to find the evidence used to corroborate the details you find, whether or not it’s not the first time you’ve heard them.

Let’s start.

Assumption 1: Education is the great equalizer.

All you have to do is “pull yourself up by the bootstraps”, study hard, and climb the social/corporate ladder out of poverty and into success, right?

Wrong. Several texts exist that are considered the canon of the political economy of education. They show and prove how the privileged in society use the idea of work ethic as a justification for their egregious wealth, and a way to blame others for living in poverty. Even worse, the privileged tell those they placed in poverty to simply copy what the rich do and poof, they’ll attain the same wealth and status.

I put it this way in a thesis I wrote about the topic: 

…the elite are in a precarious situation to maintain their ability to govern. On the one hand, they must provide the nonelites with a sufficient safety net in order to prevent social uprising; on the other, the elite aim to prevent the nonelites from entering their social realm and thus share their political power.

Here’s an easier way to say it— those aware of their privilege will never make it easy for anyone to take that privilege from them, and they’ll do anything to convince you that you have what you need to gain that same privilege.

Examples of readings that go into depth about this:

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire

The Political Economy of Education, by Martin Carnoy

Literacy and Racial Justice, by Catherine Prendergast

Inequality in the Promised Land, by R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy

First Class, by Alison Stewart

Despite the Best Intentions by Amanda E. Lewis

“As Higher Education Expands, Is It Contributing To Greater Inequality?”, by Martin Carnoy, published in the National Institute Economic Review, 215(1)

Assumption 2: Peaceful protests are just as, or more, effective than violent protests.

Hopefully, you’ve seen the hundreds of memes out about the infamous Boston Tea Party revolt that created the “greatest democracy on Earth”. If not, let the reading suggested below teach you this (in the words of Angela Y. Davis): freedom is a constant (violent) struggle. 

No significant movement against tyranny was won peacefully, be it the French Revolution, American Revolution, Haitian Revolution, or even the Protestant Reformation (there goes the argument that the Bible is for pacifists). 

And if your definition of violence is destruction or bodily harm, DO NOT flip the script and try to also label words or symbols against tyranny as violent. It’s not up to the oppressor to tell the oppressed how to resist their oppression. 

You CANNOT change your definition of violence simply to avoid dealing with any attack against your warped sense of entitlement.

And last, but certainly not least, please realize that your favorite peaceful and/or Christian protestor to quote was once your forefather’s sworn (violent) enemy. If you’re going to quote them, do your homework and get to know the full intent behind their words.

Examples of readings that go into depth about this:

Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community by Martin Luther King, Jr. (pay special attention to chapter 1, page 22)

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Y. Davis

Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

How Not to Get Shot by D.L. Hughley

Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman

Assumption 3: Slavery ended 400 years ago. We passed the Civil Rights Act. We shouldn’t be talking about this anymore. Blacks are in a much better place!

To an extent, it’s not entirely your fault for thinking this way. The elite— politicians, the wealthy, tenured professors at esteemed universities, and some in the media— are like the Wizard of Oz. They built a reality that fits their beliefs, one that revolves around them being in a position to tell us what is truth. 

The U.S. education system is designed to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as milestones leading to the end of racial injustice in America. You’ll rarely find a textbook drawing a clear line connecting data on Black Americans’ poverty, incarceration, and death rates to decisions made to perpetuate a system of inequity. That line, a literal timeline of Black American history, would clearly show a correlation between how blacks have been viewed since this country was founded and how they continue to receive the same treatment at large, despite the tokenism of a few black people with wealth and status.

U.S. textbooks conveniently leave out historical moments like the bombing of Black Wall Street, a clear sign that everything can be taken away from them even when Black Americans try to build something after given nothing. They also leave out discussions about the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement post-MLK, which includes the Black Panther Movement and a proven abuse of federal power when the FBI assassinated its members (look up Fred Hampton and watch this documentary to learn more). 

The question isn’t whether or not black people still suffer from social and political inequality. The question is why would anyone want to deny this, despite the evidence that says otherwise?

If you can’t understand why we ask for reparations, why some of us are smashing windows and why many of us feel the need to scream #blacklivesmatter at the top of our lungs, ask yourself where we find the urgency to do any of this, and examine whether or not you decide to come to that understanding.

Examples of readings that go into depth about this:

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Rest in Power by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin

April 4, 1968 by Michael Eric Dyson

Coming of Age in the Other America by Stefanie DeLuca et al.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Souls of Black Folk and Other Writings by W.E.B. Du Bois

Root and Branch by Rawn James, Jr.

A Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes

This reading list is not comprehensive. You won’t finish reading them in one day. Even if you did, most of you will have to wrestle with the desire to keep your points of view the same for some time.

Just know that the longer it takes, the longer the pressure remains. Black people won’t stop demanding what’s fair and right just because it’s taking you a while to get used to their courage to speak out.

So the onus is on you. How much longer do you want this to go? How worse do things have to get? Don’t say we didn’t warn you, or give you the tools you need to speed things up.

For Michelle Obama, Becoming Ordinary is Extraordinary | Leading Like a Lady

Lesson: See the Unseen.

I used to wonder why God was invisible. At times it was hard for me to put stock in a higher power I couldn’t see but was supposed to exalt. 

Then at one Bible study, I found my answer in a story about how God revealed himself to Moses. He was allowed to experience God without fully seeing God, because “no one may see [God] and live” to tell the story.

Interesting to think about as I think about feeling invisible, a feeling most black people share. God symbolizes perfection and no person is near perfect. But, I wonder if there’s a power within us (the black people) making it hard for others to fully see us, lest parts of them are forced to die.

It was definitely a theme in the Netflix documentary “Becoming”, based on the memoir of the same title written by Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the U.S. The film includes clips of her book tour, the best and worst parts about being the first black family in the White House, and the conversations she had about it along the way with high school students.

Read the book Becoming with a 30-day free trial of Amazon Kindle.

So much can be unpacked from her trip to Chicago, where a student asks, “how did you…persevere through this invisibility [of being a black woman]?” In one sentence she wraps up the misunderstanding and miseducation of black people around self and worth constantly forcing us into microcosms of ourselves.

For black women, the misunderstanding involves the exhausted tropes of being too ornery to talk to, too nefarious (think “welfare queens”) to trust, or too ugly or average to be valued. Coupled with black girls misinformed about who they really are, or what they could be, and you have the recipe for ripping apart the soul.

Policy changes or laws aren’t enough to solve this. The plague cuts across economic class, ethnicity, or geographic region. I saw it in myself— a first-generation Nigerian-American in a middle-class home, taught to find her worth in marriage rather than ambition. And I saw it in the black girls I struggled to teach in the South Bronx because they never thought they were smart enough. Miseducation starts at home, where internalized self-hatred is inherited, passed down in the mocking or discouragement from elders nursing past trauma. 

The trauma comes from a world deifying the black child only after they’ve made it through hell. Black children have the undue pressure to prove themselves significant while navigating paths paved with the blatant oppression of slavery, heading down the road of “soft bigotry”, low expectations” and taunts to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” And like a cool glass of water you’d be hard-pressed to find in hell, there’s no grace for buckling under that pressure of trying but failing to hold on.

Michelle Obama’s response to that question— “my parents always made me feel visible”— would be triggering without the self-awareness she has to recognize her unique situation. The key point she portrays in her book and attitude is crucial. We need to feel seen, but it’s a need a lot of young black girls can’t find at home or anywhere else.

When I think about that and the past generations of young people (like me) who didn’t have a Michelle Obama, I mourn the missed opportunities to unlock all the potential we had within us. If the world continues to have its way, black girls can’t afford to be just “good”, and don’t deserve the right or resources to be “great”. It takes someone like Michelle Obama, self-aware in rooms where entitlement can deceive, to show us where our true greatness comes from.

As Michelle eloquently puts it, it’s in the stories rather than the numbers. I loved Michelle’s conversation with Elizabeth, a senior from Whitney M. Young High School in Chicago. So many young women like her worry their life amounts to nothing if all they achieve is survival. I taught so many girls like her who didn’t have the perfect GPAs or pre-collegiate careers but were busy earning the income that keeps their family afloat, caring for the grandmother or father that’s sick, or frankly just carrying the emotional baggage of an unstable home.

It cautions me to reconsider what I try to accomplish as a leader, and especially as a black woman. Michelle clues us into our true superpower— seeing worth in what the world finds ordinary. It’s monumental to have an accomplished black woman like her showing us that growing up in places like South Side Chicago can’t deny us access to the privileges of high society by default. But it’s even greater to have someone like her breaking the fourth wall of privilege that tells us otherwise. 

A world that immortalizes Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg (college dropouts) for pursuing their dreams, but demonizes black children who get lost trying to find theirs, needs to be called to account. There’s so much power in Michelle telling black girls it’s okay to unplug from the world’s expectations, to stop being a “box-checker” under its standards to discover and be seen for what they truly value.

The world underestimates or refuses to understand that. It’s clear from the stories in “Becoming” and from “ordinary” life. The truth is that, as imperfect and complicated as we are, black women pursue the greater good. We raise and nurture children. We protest the harm done to others. We use our talents to inject joy and excitement into the culture. But, as Michelle says, “we go through it alone; we don’t have backup, we don’t have support…” And then, when the world’s done taking and reclaiming what we give it as its own, we’re stripped to a script or statistics that are nowhere near the truth.

The truth about us is dangerous to the status quo…too dangerous to be seen. God bless Michelle Obama, with the rare luxury of people’s attention, to share this with black women and the world: “That story, with all the highs and lows and what seems so ordinary, and what seems like nothing to you – is your power.”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf | Leading Like a Lady

Lesson: Look like a man, think like a woman.

(Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

You might call Ellen Johnson Sirleaf an “alpha female”, and that wouldn’t be your fault. Though you’d be wrong.

James Bond wishes his plots were as thick as Johnson Sirleaf’s life. Reading her memoir This Child Will Be Great is more than a thrill ride. But to call her an alpha female cheapens the magnitude of the events in her life and oversimplifies the purpose behind the choices we must make to lead.

Read the book using this link.

Have you ever wanted to be an alpha female, and did you ask yourself why? It’s one of those labels so overused that we say it without a strong sense of what it actually means. 

You probably said it because you want to be rich or successful, dominate anything you pursue, or to be the one in control. Psychologists say these tend to describe the alpha male, and that women wear these traits more often when they’re desperate. They want their boss to take them seriously, or they need that promotion to cover the extra childcare costs, for example.

Moreover, the alpha is his (or her) first priority. And that’s where the problem lies. Self-preservation is a natural instinct, so there’s nothing extraordinary about it. 

But, at least for the first 30 years of her career, Johnson Sirleaf proved herself extraordinary. It wouldn’t be a typical African politics story if Johnson Sirleaf’s legacy wasn’t mired in controversy. There isn’t a doubt, though, that she gave up several chances to put herself first for the sake of prioritizing others. 

In her book, she goes into elaborate details about the threats to her life. She was an activist under probably the most vicious political regimes in African history (don’t skip reading about it). Of course, she wasn’t the only one who did this in Liberia, male or female, during that time. It was especially abnormal for a woman to be in the position she was, or get the amount of attention she did for speaking against tyrants who didn’t make idle death threats. 

I see myself in Johnson Sirleaf’s boldness not because she’s a woman, or because I imagine I’d be just as brave to call bullshit in that hostile environment. Instead, I see her life as a reprimand to me and everyone who shy away from this and needs to know that this is what it takes to stop injustice from happening, whatever your gender. Oppression’s oxygen is silence. We all have a moral obligation to speak up, even if it means neglecting our natural instincts to lay down our lives for others.

What’s powerful about learning this lesson from a woman like Johnson Sirleaf is knowing that, whether she lived or died, her story would no doubt push others to not let her sacrifice go in vain. Her “alpha” traits didn’t just force greater international pressure to stop one of Africa’s worst civil wars. It told African women, specifically, that their voices were an existential threat to the status quo.

This couldn’t be clearer than when Johnson Sirleaf writes about a clash between her and then U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who didn’t appreciate her strong opposition to Charles Taylor, the notorious blood diamond dictator:

I was astonished. There was no way in the world I would work with Charles Taylor after all the death and destruction he had caused…and I told President Carter as much, in no uncertain terms…. 

“Do you really think I’m going to identify myself with that?” I asked Mr. Carter…I think the president got a little miffed with me because of that.

It took another six years before Johnson Sirleaf would be heard. One can only wonder why Carter or anyone else would be annoyed more by her resistance than by the blatant evidence of Taylor’s despotism. Regardless, Johnson Sirleaf’s persistence signaled to Liberian women that they couldn’t risk letting another dangerous man get the benefit of the international community’s doubt.

Let’s be clear: we shouldn’t hate men. We should hate what they get away with —which is, at best, demanding more for mediocre effort, or at worst giving them full reign despite how their actions harm others. 

In a world where a proven murderer (a man) leads a country into years of senseless massacre, while a political prisoner turned first woman president in Africa is immediately harassed when accused of a fraction (nepotism and counterfeiting) of that chaos, introspection once again helps us understand what’s best when leading like a lady.

Unlike Okonjo-Iweala’s book, I was inundated (in a good way) with Johnson Sirleaf’s honest self-reflection. If there were one tip I’d give to the wannabe alpha females, based on her life, it would be this: you can try to look like a man, but at least have the sense to think like a woman.

Let’s say “looking like a man” includes the tough exterior, the no-bullshit attitude, and the fearlessness in demanding what you want, nothing less. Embodying that put Johnson Sirleaf’s life at risk countless times. And her shrewdness in wielding it ultimately saved her.

Too many close calls make it impossible to believe she’s still here at 81 years old. From coercing assassins to jail her instead of killing her, then watching other men in the same prison executed while she’s released the next day, she’s lucky to be alive, let alone be an elder. All of this even after standing her ground and refusing to bend to the will of then Liberian dictator Samuel Doe. 

Her quiet confidence was the trick. Calm and sensible defiance —which, by the way, is NOT usually an alpha trait— was the ironic, stronger counterbalance to the braggadocio and violent threats of her enemies. “They sicken of the calm who know the storm,” is how Dorothy Parker once described it. Several times Johnson Sirleaf recounts how reminding her assigned assassins of their mothers, or treating them like sons by bringing them water or just talking to them, were the little things that meant the difference between being left alone or raped, beaten, or murdered.

Listen, women— better yet, black women— are asked to be the voice of reason in unfair and unsafe environments constantly. I get that and even spoke about that here. It may sound like this is another plea for us to be the bigger person and execute sound leadership at the risk of losing ourselves or our lives.

I can’t help thinking about the amount of carnage we’ve seen in Africa, and how in the midst of so many dying for no reason we need leaders to make themselves a purposeful sacrifice so that something worthwhile comes out of it. 

I wish I could tell you that you can have it all— the kids, the husband, the corporate office, the smooth-sailing peace of mind and wealth. That’s what the alpha female probably wants to hear. But maybe the greatest thing you could give to prove your worth is not in what you gain by living, but what your life inspires others to do.

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