Meet 2010 Do Something Awards Finalist Alia Whitney-Johnson

While studying in Sri Lanka, Alia met Medhani, an eleven year old girl who had just given birth to her father’s son. The experience moved Alia to create Emerge Global, a program that enables Sri Lankan girls who have survived sexual violence or abuse to become jewelry designers. Emerge Global utilizes a comprehensive program that not only teaches beading skills, but works to rebuild the girls confidence, while generating more than a year’s worth of savings for when they graduate the program. Emerge Global has supported 155 girls by selling over $60,000 of jewelry. And for that she may just win 100K!

Alia shared some of her wisdom with us. What person or experience sticks with you from the beginning of the process?

Alia Whitney-Johnson: I remember standing in a dimly lit shelter, watching an eleven-year-old girl nursing a child conceived by her own father. And it didn’t just affect the girl in front of me. There were nineteen other girls in the room and many more like her in Sri Lanka. This abuse could have, and should have, been prevented. But for a moment, all I could do was stand there. Should I smile? Should I not? How could I talk to her? Since we didn’t share a verbal language, I reverted to another: sharing ourselves through beading. That first workshop is crystallized in my mind- the way each girl asked permission for every single bead, hesitant since many had never even owned their bodies; the way the girls began to express themselves and support each other, looking after one another’s children; the way their own sense of beauty began to emerge through their designs. Best of all, that eleven-year-old, for whom I did not have an answer but I so wanted to connect with, held my hand. I knew then that I would never let go.

DS: How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you’re addressing?

AW: I felt paralyzed. I didn’t know my stomach could twist in so many ways. The combination of sadness and fury in my system was unbearable. They each had a story- whether they had survived gang rape, incest, forced prostitution, or fallen into an abusive relationship. Behind every statistic there is a real person with both fears and aspirations. I could not just walk away.

DS: How do you feel about it now?

AW: Today, I feel excited and hopeful. The girls we work with are happy; they are comfortable expressing their views; they have learned math, communication, business, leadership, and life skills; and, they are involved in teaching our program to newer participants. I cannot say that every girl’s personal path has been completely smooth. But, even in the toughest cases, they continue to work with us and ask for support in tackling the variety of challenges they face. Thanks to our amazing staff, our relationships with each girl are phenomenal, which assures me that we will have long-term impact. Today, when I think of the issues that these young women face, I see these challenges as an opportunity to change the system and build something new.

DS: Who is your inspiration to keep going?

AW: Every single girl we work with is an inspiration for me to keep going. In particular, the close relationships I formed with some of the first girls in our program keep me going. In many ways, we grew up and became ourselves together. When I see all they have been able to overcome and accomplish in their lives, I’m not only inspired to keep developing Emerge but I gain inspiration for my own life. When we hit a roadblock, I think of them and all I want for their futures. I want them to be able to achieve their goals. I want to protect them from having to endure abusive relationships or sell their bodies for food and housing. I want to be able to laugh every day like we laugh together in our program. I want their kids to grow up safely. And, because of their remarkable perseverance, I know that with a little support, all of these things can be achieved.

DS: Can you describe the moment you knew you were actually making a difference?

AW: Shortly after launching the program, we had one participant enter who would frequently lock down and stop talking when she would get upset. One day her counselor told me that she wasn’t speaking to anyone and hadn’t for several days. Within an hour of our workshop, this girl had a made pile of jewelry and was laughing and talking to other girls. She proceeded to help me teach the workshop that day. It was a small thing but one that gave me assurance that our program really mattered. To this girl, the Emerge Bead Program enabled her to become comfortable with herself.

DS: What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project? AW: I’d definitely say the largest roadblock I faced in starting the project was my age. Emerge began when I was nineteen and a volunteer for another organization in Sri Lanka. As a young, foreign woman, I found it hard to get people to take my ideas seriously. At the same time, being young and a student was advantageous. People wanted to work with us and trusted that my motivations were pure. I had to learn to wear many hats. I had to learn that not everyone had the same intentions as me and that to be taken seriously, I needed to be professional while receptive, and thoughtful in documenting every decision and leaving a very clear paper trail. But, while my age continues to be challenged, I have find that most people become respectful and supportive when they see the way our program actually impacts the teen women we work with.

DS: What about when you were trying to grow your project?

AW: I think there have been two incredibly challenging pieces in growing our work. First, we’ve had more requests for new programs, expansion, and new development than we can handle. Of course, it’s exciting when groups want to collaborate or see your work grow. But, it has been incredibly important to learn how to focus so that we can do our work very well. We want to maximize our impact and I believe this comes from having a clear target population, goals, and program and not overstretching ourselves.

Another area that has been challenging as we have grown is recognizing and encountering cultural differences. As an American woman working in Sri Lanka, I can never completely understand everything about Sri Lankan culture. However, I find myself challenging perceptions of what the girls we work with can and can’t do and have to occasionally take a step back and ask myself “what is my place in navigating a new culture?”

DS: What’s been the biggest lesson throughout the process?

AW: One of the biggest lessons I have had to learn is the importance of trusting your intuition. Of course, it is important to substantiate your decisions as much as you can but as your organization grows, you will be forced to play many roles. It’s important to be able to make quick decisions and recognize that you won’t always be perfect but that it’s important to keep moving forward (as long as you are open to learning and gaining feedback along the way). Throw yourself into your work, trust your gut, and things will work out if you truly believe in what you do. I promise.

DS: What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?

AW: Five years ago, if you had asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I never would have thought I’d do something like this. I thought I’d be an engineer or scientist. Starting Emerge Global was in many ways an unexpected reaction to a situation I encountered, but has also been best thing I have done. Meeting these girls has literally changed my life and redefined who I am and how I see my role in the world. I still see myself as an engineer, but focused on human problems rather than technical ones. But, I never imagined that meeting a group of individuals could change my life path in such a profound way. I’ve never had a greater sense of purpose or direction than when working on building Emerge Global so, while surprising, I’m pretty that my “journey” is heading in the right direction.

DS: What advice do you have for other kids who are having a tough time getting their ideas off the ground?

AW: People may tell you that it’s hard to start something while you are young and you should instead focus on learning so you can have a greater impact later. I disagree. Nothing has taught me more than developing Emerge Global and my work with Emerge has given my schoolwork a sense of urgency and purpose. And yes, as a young person, people sometimes take you less seriously. But, if they can feel your passion, they will support you and in fact probably be inspired that you are taking such a risk and initiative when you are so young.

DS: If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be? Why?

AW: I would have formed a team earlier on, or looked for a group of Co-Founders. When Emerge first began, I had no idea how much it would grow or what an important piece of my life it would become. I therefore didn’t realize how important it is to have a solid team from the very beginning. In retrospect, I wish that we had a core group of people who had been working on developing Emerge since the beginning. Surround yourself with people who inspire you, who offer complementary skills, and who share the same vision for your work. You’ll go a lot farther (and keep yourself sane) if you are a part of a strong team.

DS: What’s next for your project?

AW: We want to expand our Bead Program to support more girls in Sri Lanka. Then, we hope to bring our model to support girls who’ve survived abuse in other countries, including the United States!