I met Erica a few months ago on a four-day training course where we shared a full-day role playing exercise and many chats about vegetarianism. While I already knew a bit about One Girl, I didn’t know much about the impactful programs, run by Erica and her team on the ground in Africa. I was eager to learn more. Over a glass of vino in a super cute Westgarth bar, Erica was generous enough to share not only the details of her current work and impressive career trajectory, but also her personal drivers and values. It was such a delight getting to know Erica a bit better and I’m pretty chuffed that she has continued to educate me on High Street’s finest watering holes since.
“I was in a really bad place after my mum died during my first year of university.
She had been involved in so many different activities when I was growing up. She fostered kids and supported friends going through a rough time. She did missionary work. She was involved in protests, social justice and human rights projects. She even performed as a clown and a puppeteer with my dad.
It all had a big influence on me.
Mum always encouraged me to fight for justice rather than staying idle so I was involved in activism from a young age. I remember having an animal welfare club when I was eight and fundraising for it by busking and selling cakes. During high school, I ran workshops on refugee and asylum seeker rights. I was always campaigning for things, or fundraising … I think I’ve always been drawn to trying to make people happy.
When Mum died, I decided to go to South America. Seeing me in a bad way, my friend made the decision that we needed to go on an adventure. He later realised he couldn’t afford it, but I went anyway and it changed everything for me. The people and culture helped shift my perspective, particularly around my grief.
My host mother in Guatemala, for example, had lived through the civil war and endured a lot of trauma. Yet, she was so positive about everything. She made it normal to talk about pain and grief, and she would introduce me to people by saying, ‘this is Erica, her mum died’.
Celebrating people openly and being so upfront about death really aligned to my own way of dealing with things. To move on, you need to be able to talk about things. I felt really at home in Latin America.
After this first stint overseas, I went home to finish my undergraduate degree. When I finished high school, I didn’t realise pursuing social justice could be a career path so I had chosen to study arts. But once I had completed it, I went to Mexico to work in an education program, developing the curriculum.
I knew at this point what I wanted to pursue long term and I started a Masters in International and Community Development.
Through the Masters I had the opportunity to take an internship with the United Nations Development Program. I spent four months in New York working on the Sustainable Development Goals before seeking out another role in Guatemala. I applied on a whim but then spent the next three years there.
Now, back in Melbourne, I’m the International Program Director at One Girl, leading the strategic direction of our programs.
Our mission is to harness the power of education to drive change for girls in Sierra Leone and Uganda. We focus on adolescent girls and work with community and government partners to develop and implement programs that will create change in girls’ lives.
I hate the connotations of the term ‘development’. Instead, I think of my work as cultural strengthening. I’m interested in why certain cultures and societies are prevalent, why certain people have a voice while others don’t – and I think it’s important to look at how these structures can be dismantled.
Every time I design a program, I’m looking at how we can utilise the strengths within a community rather than imposing our own way of doing things. At One Girl we look at how a community can harness their assets, and their individual strengths, to lift themselves out of a situation of inequality.
We work with the girls themselves to identify their strengths and get them to lead the programming. This element of our work is really important to me. We have girls sitting on program advisory boards and we will soon launch our very first program to be designed completely by adolescent girls.
It’s also really important to take cultural context into account. We recently used arts-based methods such as drawing murals, body mapping and photography interpretation to evaluate a program. This works so well in Sierra Leone where people respond well to the arts because that’s how they’re used to communicating. One of our other new programs will be using drama and forum theatre to educate women on menstrual hygiene, health and sanitation.
I love being in Sierra Leone and Uganda, but I would rather work behind the scenes. I feel uncomfortable being put on a pedestal or thanked for doing my job. So, I’m excited about working to develop the capacity of the local team.
I’m not saving the world but everyone is a cog in the wheel. Everyone should play their part and do what they can.
Mum ingrained this in me — a sense that you should never leave things as they are simply because you can.”
Photos: Lucy Bastick @streetsofmelbourne