Apefa Adjivon is the Founder and Executive Director of the Pearl Project. Moving to Canada as a refugee with her family at a young age, she had the opportunity to experience life in both the western world and the developing world. Recognizing the difference in the treatment of women in Canada and her home Sierra Leone, she dedicated her life to improving the lives of individuals in developing countries and women internationally.

Q: What has happened since we met at the Youth Innovation Summit in May?

At the Summit, one of the panellists was Maja Saletto Jankovic, the Director of the Youth Opportunities Fund at the Ontario Trillium Foundation. She mentioned that the Foundation was accepting applications, so we started that process over the summer. We found out that we made it to the last round of the Youth Opportunities Fund, so it’s nice that we made it this far. In July we were named finalists for the Young Entrepreneur Award with Startup Canada, for my work on the Pearl Project I was named a young leader building peace by UNESCO , Most Inspiring College Women for Her Campus, and the Globe and Mail has included me in their 30 under 30 in Sustainability list with the Pearl Project. Finally, UNA-C is now our official organisational mentor, which opens us up to a number of connections and opportunities in terms of our capability to apply for grants.

Q: Have you made any connections that have helped you with the Pearl Project?

One of our ACSE trainers works for Toronto Community Housing, and she gave us references for people to speak to in the Regent Park area. We’ve had consultations with them about youth, where youth needs are and where the Pearl Project training is needed the most. I’ve also had the opportunity to speak to the Director of Community Outreach for the University of Toronto, which is my university. She spoke about the best way we can go about the project, the needs of students at Regent Park and how the University works with organizations in the community. Our website has now launched, and right from the first day we’ve had mentor applications from Toronto, which is where we’re based, but we have also received applications from people in other provinces. I didn’t reach out to anyone outside of Toronto, so the fact that people are coming in on the first day we launched the website and signing up from across Canada has been amazing.

Q: You are super enthusiastic and energetic, what keeps you following your path regardless of the challenges?

The Pearl Project came out of my own experience and out of my experience helping the Youth Drop-in Centre in Calgary. I’m still in contact with a lot of students who I worked with there and with whom I have been volunteering at student groups through my university. I see myself in these girls and I know that when I was growing up I needed something like the Pearl Project and that there is still a need for it. If there was someone who had a program that effectively helped girls, I wouldn’t be as adamant as I am about the Pearl Project. I work so much with youth and because their stories mirror mine so much, I feel like not doing the Pearl Project would be failing myself. I’m committed to seeing the Pearl Project through and even if we don’t hit super big numbers, the point of the Pearl Project isn’t to have a super streamlined project that helps as many youth as possible, which is what I think the Boys and Girls Club and YMCA do. The Pearl Project is about helping girls in the best way possible, it’s about that individual and making sure to equip her as much as possible to enter the work force, to enter university. I think my motivation just comes from what I experience and from knowing that there is a fix, that someone can do something, and I feel like I should be that person.

Q: Your accomplishments are amazing, but what are some of the challenges that you are facing?

It’s really hard to have much larger organisations that have been around for a long time listen to us and take us seriously, in part because of our age, in part because of our gender. I come up to a lot of people so I’m sure there’s something about race in there sometimes. A big piece is going out for those accomplishments and those titles so that when I come up to people they do take me seriously. My generation is very entrepreneurial and a lot of people want to start a company but they don’t really see it through. People just say “oh, you’re just running a mentorship program” or “you’re just pairing girls with university students” but it’s so much more than that. People try to water the Pearl Project down or try to simplify my own idea to me because they think that I don’t quite understand because I’m younger. I’ve done my research and I’ve been working on this for a very long time. We don’t get to have a lot of the conversations that we want to have about the Pearl Project because a lot of doors shut on us when people find out how young we are.

Interviewers: ACSE team

Canada, 2017

Find out more about the Pearl Project by clicking here