Education & Employability

QCT on the Road: Lead From Where You Are

By Nicola Brentnall, QCT Chief Executive

I was on Twitter as I was packing my suitcase for this trip to Africa.

My friend Danielle sent me a link to a video of Abby Wambach’s Barnard Commencement Address for 2018 and said I would love it. She was right, and it is well worth a look.

I watched Abby speak on leadership and was struck by her strength, her focus and sharp wit. In her speech, she describes the characteristics of great leadership, and in doing so urges the Commencement class to “lead from where you are”. Whilst packing way, way too much stuff into my suitcase, I filed this expression away.

Fast-forward three flights and a great many miles. To Africa. To Uganda and Kenya, two countries facing challenges that their leaders are trying hard to address. My purpose: to visit the African Prisons Project and The Uganda Marathon to see what these organisations are doing to help.

"Young leaders can be the difference."

QCT supports young leaders who step up to help others, often with few resources and with very little to hand apart from passion, drive and sheer determination to right a wrong or fix a problem that they see.

These leaders struggle for funding and visibility as their ventures are small, sometimes with little or no reserves in the bank, their fundraising an endless hard hustle. Yet, their ventures so often have a profound impact on those people and communities they support. They can be the difference so many need to get by.

The work of African Prisons Project and Uganda Marathon shows this truth in action. Both have young founders, who have gathered around them a wider team or movement of committed supporters and volunteers.

Over two blogs, I will tell the story of the last four days. Two days spent with each organisation, where I learned so much from some of the most impressive people I have ever met.

Firstly, African Prisons Project ("APP"). This organisation is working in prisons across Uganda and Kenya. It is supported by the Prison Service in both countries, and the Prison Governors and Wardens I met during my visit all welcome APP and the help it provides to those they are responsible for.

APP exists because, sadly, too many people in Kenya and Uganda find themselves in prison because they are too poor to hire a lawyer and therefore don’t get a fair hearing in court. Some are in prison on remand for years or with sentences that do not consider any mitigating circumstances that should come in to play. It is people in this position who need help to secure justice.

APP trains both inmates and prison wardens alike to become paralegals, to provide access to vital information to help other people secure the release they are entitled to receive. Some of the APP paralegals have committed crimes, for which they have been tried and judged. They are serving sentences in reparation. They are very keen to make amends and to find purpose and meaning through serving and helping others.

We were welcomed in three prisons during our two days with the APP team and heard from men and women on the APP programme from six high-security prisons in total. These are mostly young people serving longer sentences, all trained as paralegals with some taking University of London law degrees. They want to help others and are leading from a very difficult place. They work from special legal advice clinics in the prisons where they live. Through sharing legal knowledge, they are bringing hope - the most important currency of all, especially here. Together, from January this year, Alexander’s team is securing release for over 200 people a month. These people should not have been imprisoned and can go home.

"There is excellence in this place."

During one visit, and in the company of a large group of APP paralegals, I was able to share news of the success of APP to date. News of the number of paralegals and law students, news of the results from the last academic year - which revealed APP students getting among the best results across the whole University of London and the first distinction, and news that the Kenyan APP service had been rated very highly indeed. At each statistic, a cheer went up. These are your results, your work, I said, and paraphrasing a hymn they had been singing earlier, “there is excellence in this place”.

A huge cheer erupted and as I sat down, a male paralegal across the room leapt to his feet and came over across the circle toward me. Smiling broadly, he shared with me what he could in that moment. “African dance”, he said, and clicked his fingers once over his head. The others clapped and whistled loudly. We all jumped up and joined this man in prison uniform, who most days helps in the serious business of justice. We clicked and then he clapped twice and stamped his foot three times. Together, we did this simple dance, marking triumph and a celebration of success against the odds.

"APP is no longer a project, but a growing movement for justice."

Alexander shared news that he was having some difficulties in the organisation, mostly financial, and that he was doing all he can to resolve this. The group listened intently, watching the young man they know as McLean, share his important news. When he sat down, one paralegal stood and said that McLean had their absolute support. As one, all the paralegals agreed. Another stood to say the APP was no longer a “project”, but a growing movement for justice. It was extraordinarily moving to see them standing, pledging support to the young man whose efforts had given them the ability to lead others to freedom.

Towards the end of the meeting, the news came in that a client of the paralegals there had been to court that same morning, to represent himself, equipped with the papers and argument prepared by the team. After serving many years, he had been released. The cheers that echoed round the room would have been heard many miles away. I was sitting next to Philip, a tall, dignified man, clad as they all were in the loose prison uniform. He was the lead paralegal on this case. As the news was read out, he leapt to his feet and shot across the room to embrace a fellow paralegal. Tears were shed. This was the news they had hoped so very badly to hear. The sense of relief, joy and most importantly, hope, filled the room.

Every time someone is released, a renewed sense of purpose and focus fills the paralegals left behind. They reach for the next case file - taking a new, often bewildered, client through the information they need to know on to how to appeal and take that first step closer to home.

The Queen's Commonwealth Trust supported APP with funds for youth workers to help train young people as health workers in a new youth centre built at the prison complex at Luzira. The centre serves local young people and the children of prison officers. These young health workers are now trusted advisors in the community among the young population. They provide vital advice in a place where there are so many health challenges. They are quite literally saving lives.

I have been so impressed by all the young leaders I have met during my time with APP. In difficult circumstances and trying times, they all follow Abby's mantra - they lead from where they are.

This comes with many, many thanks to Alexander McLean, Joss and the whole APP movement across Uganda and Kenya.


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