Ashleigh grew up in Adelaide, South Australia. Her passion for volunteer work started young, with her family's values deeply rooted in community engagement and addressing the inequalities that exist in Australian society. When her chance came to leave South Australia and attend college on scholarship in the Gold Coast, she jumped at the opportunity. She studied International Relations and Journalism, but said her biggest learning experience came from outside the classroom, "moving away gave me a chance to work out who I was, and discover my identity outside of my family and hometown."
She took part in many different social projects during her time at university, including fundraising and increasing awareness of HIV/AIDS, providing scholarships for girls in Sierra Leone, Model United Nations, and more. Her focus was always rooted in the structural inequalities between the west and other nations around the world. "I wanted to live outside my comfort zone, try to put myself somewhere completely different," she told us. This drive led her to study in Mexico City during her last year of school.
In Mexico, she was studying and working with the Red Cross to create meaningful job opportunities for young people. During one of her trips to the public library, she went on Twitter for the very first time. It was on Twitter that she found Mama Hope, and they were promoting their fellowship program. “I remember reading the position description and thinking, ‘that’s me!’.” She submitted her application to their global advocate program (crossing her fingers and toes). She had been staying in a yoga center in Guatemala with no internet or phones, the only access located a 45 minute walk up a large hill. On her final day of her stay in Guatemala, she received the email saying she was accepted to the Mama Hope program, and would be working in Uganda. Her partner who had been living in LA, got accepted to a microfinance job that same day. It just so happened, it was located in Uganda as well. The whole process she said, felt serendipitous, like it was the natural next step.
Q: Did you have any reservations while making these life changing decisions?
A: Initially when I was accepted, I didn't have any doubts, but that’s because I am an awfully trusting person, which that seems to get me into a lot of pickles when traveling - but that’s another story. In this case, I really felt this kind of amazing alignment of the universe- that things were how they were meant to be. I wanted to be working in the for-purpose space, and at the time found that nonprofits were the only career step that really fulfilled my values. I was attracted to working with Mama Hope because I believed in their vision and approach to development. I wanted an opportunity to translate my passion into action and tangible skills I could offer the sector.
Mama Hope’s Global Advocate program focuses on growing emerging development leader’s skills such as fundraising, project management, monitoring and evaluation, and everything in between. Their focus is a Global Advocate Fellowship program where they address the damaging culture of short term demand driven volunteerism. Particularly, they focus on eliminating pity, and unlocking potential.
While many volunteers have good intentions, travelling for 2 weeks to teach english can actually be quite damaging for everyone involved. This kind of involvement furthers the “white savior” model of development. Mama Hope encourages advocates to consider their objectives and what they are trying to achieve, and then find a better way to do it. Approaching situations with sympathy instead of empathy disempowers who you are helping. The communities Mama Hope works with are challenged, but they also have solutions. They believe so strongly in the capacity of their communities, and embrace leadership and passion. Their leaders have the potential to create change, they just need the resources. Sometimes all it takes is a person to help catalyse that.
As a global advocate with Mama Hope, you are placed in project sites in Eastern Africa where your skills match with a community’s needs. Once Ashleigh was accepted into the program, she hit the ground running with fundraising.
“Fundraising is all consuming, you are putting your whole self out there. You have to be really vulnerable and it can be scary. There are definitely days where I was like, ‘what the hell am I doing?’”
Ashleigh was the first Australian in the program and managed to raise over 30,000 Australian dollars for her project, a not for profit health center in Uganda. The community of Budondo, with a population of 56,000 people, had no access to proper health care. There were occasional midwives and assistants, but the community was severely lacking when it came to doctors. The community banned together and said, we need a solution.
When Ashleigh arrived in Uganda, the focus was on connecting the health centre to the network of immunisations, medicines and services in the country. This required spending days and days in meetings with government officials, who rarely showed up. All of those annoyances and problems however, would dissolve when she would walk back into the center. It was appropriately named Suubi, meaning hope in the local language.
“There were so many setbacks during my work. But whenever I felt frustration, I realized that this was so much bigger than just me. This community had seen so many friends and family die because they were unable to access proper care. Now, moms can safely give birth and babies begin their lives with the best chance.”
A sense of community both in Uganda and around the world also helped motivate Ashleigh during her time abroad. They were in need of an ambulance to quickly transport patients, especially mothers, to hospitals. This was really difficult because of bad roads and thin paths, so they found a company that makes motorbike ambulance attachments. After getting a quote, they started a crowdfunding page. Within a couple of days, they had raised the money they needed to purchase the life-changing emergency transportation. During this process, Ashleigh was reminded of how “when we come together we can do things that are pretty extraordinary.”
As her time in Uganda with Mama Hope came to an end, Ashleigh moved to Melbourne, hoping to work for an organization doing game changing work in Australia. Her experience fundraising for the health center, motorbike ambulance and an ultrasound machine made her passionate about the power of philanthropy and partnerships. “I’m passionate about the way giving provides people the ability to be apart of a movement - something bigger than themselves, so I wanted to see what that looked liked in an established organization”.
For the past 18 months, Ashleigh has been working for Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB). She manages philanthropic relationships, and works to build partnerships with corporates and industry to create impact through EWB’s social enterprises.
She has also engaged in many community activities such as volunteering at The Red Cross, helping with migrant services, and the Melbourne Development Circle. She also participates in 10x10 Philanthropy, a movement to fight apathy, and encourage young people to be engaged in giving. Because of this passion, she remains involved with Mama Hope as much as possible. A balance, she says, focused on “staying engaged and helping where I can.” She helps to recruit advocates, and speaks to people considering the program. “I love talking with potential advocates because they are in the exact same position I was two years ago - young, immeasurably passionate, and not yet sure how they fit into the puzzle of the world.”
Ashleigh is also really excited about the intersection between not for profits, private companies and the public sector. “Not for profits, philanthropy and business have a role to play where the government might be too risk adverse.” She wants people to see the power of business to create positive social change. “This should be the core of all businesses!” she says, “my experience working with not for profits has shown me that things can move a bit slowly, often because you are tied to donor funding, which means that not enough time is spent talking about impact, and the focus is on how you're going to continue to fund the projects. This is where as a society we need to see tackling challenges such as growing inequality, global warming, food insecurity as more than just the role of charities, it’s the responsibility of everyone - whether they’re running a business, government department or foundation.”
Q: What's next?
A: I am not 100 percent sure. I know I am very passionate about maternal health, and I am contemplating studying that further. I am also just trying to be comfortable with staying in the same place for a while. We will see what opportunities present themselves, really. Being in the right place at the right time and working really hard always seem to lead me to where I am supposed to be.
Ashleigh encourages all people, especially the younger generation, to get involved with something they are passionate about.
“We are facing enormous challenges as a society, and we’re not going to solve them with the same thinking that created them. I find it extremely frustrating when young people are vilified as being disengaged and passive. Millennials are extraordinarily engaged, often called impatient, but impatience is our greatest asset. Global challenges need impatience and implementing change requires a diversity of voices. Expertise doesn't just come from years of experience, some people have experienced more in 25 years than 50 years. We need the meaningful participation of young people. Consider where you can create change, and then find organizations or movements that speak to those interests. I don't like to say you're ‘giving back,’ I like saying you're ‘giving forward’.”