When Western foundations build schools in developing nations, the focus is usually on the structure, the creation from the ground up. It becomes about the before and the during, less about the after. There is more to education than walls and a chalkboard, though, and this is the belief upon which the Vancouver-based Women Leading Change foundation has made its mark. Since being founded in 2008, Women Leading Change has raised over $1.8 million to facilitate education for girls in Africa. But instead of funneling that money into dozens of schools (the original goal was to build one per year), the organization has worked on five, using its resources for continued upkeep and long-term success in those locations.
“It’s not just about cutting a cheque and sending it off,” says Michele Matthews, vice-president of organizational development at AG Hair, the Vancouver hair care company that created Women Leading Change. “It’s about making sure the execution takes place on the ground in Africa.” Women Leading Change works directly with the communities to build and maintain the schools, creating sincere and important relationships with the people who live there. As such, each school is crucial to the organization, not just a drop in the bucket. Matthews visited the schools last year, calling the trip a privilege: “The big takeaway for me was that girls simply don’t have the opportunities that we have here—the tremendous abundance that I have here,” she says. “I saw the need, the beauty, the joy, the passion that these girls have: they want to learn, they just need the opportunity. For me it’s about making sure we honour that.”
AG Hair began in 1989 out of Lotte and John Davis’s home, where they hand-bottled products; the company is now carried in many salons across Canada, the States, Australia, and Taiwan. Keeping things local and artisanal is important to them, though, so all items are still made in Vancouver. Lotte grew up in South Africa during the beginning of the apartheid, and it was these memories of gender inequality that led her to give back to Africa, and the girls who live there. She travels there twice a year to check on the work being done and connect with the communities.
For locals in Vancouver, AG is partnering with Eastwood Cycle Sanctuary to produce Spin Hair We Care, in which participants take a spin class and then receive a hair blow-out. Proceeds from tickets for the series, which takes place at Eastwood on Sept. 25, Oct. 23, and Nov. 27, go directly to Women Leading Change. But as Matthews says, “every bottle counts”, so spin-shy supporters can feel good about buying an AG product year-round (10 cents for every litre sold go to the organization). Soft hair, full hearts.
Photos by Jenn Salt.