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Image credit: Edmund Rice Justice Desk

Jessica Dewhurst: Leading through empowerment

Jessica Dewhurst: Leading through empowerment

“Help people see the potential that they have”

Queen’s Young Leader, Jessica Dewhurst tells Leading Change about empowering people – from Youtube stars and government bodies, to the world’s most vulnerable people.

Thinking back to the moment she heard she'd won a Queen's Young Leaders Award, Jessica Dewhurst says, “I thought it was a joke! I very nearly put down the phone.”

But being a natural networker, Jessica made the most of the opportunities, increased profile and credibility that the award gave her and her organisation, the Edmund Rice Justice Desk (ERJD). ERJD offers training in human rights – including anti-domestic violence, anti-trafficking and anti-drugs as well as children’s and parenting rights – to vulnerable communities.

“When someone is in the room,” says Jessica, “I want to know their story and know how we can work together.”

So when she met the video blogger, Alfie Deyes, at a Buckingham Palace reception for Queen's Young Leaders, Jessica took the opportunity to invite him to see her work. In the end, Alfie wasn’t able to come, but Youtube star, Caspar Lee went to see the work of Queen's Young Leaders in South Africa.

Seeing potential

Jessica hadn't invited Caspar to simply meet “a whole bunch of sick people”. She wanted him to meet someone who was the same age and liked the same sorts of things, but whose rights were not protected.

So the visit focused on him meeting one of his fans, Loyiso Mqubeni, a young South African living with HIV.

“Caspar was born into a family where he had privilege and they could look after him and give him a life that he deserved. Loyiso was born into a different type of family,” says Jessica, adding that she wanted to show the Youtube star “the similarities between the two of them, and get Caspar to ask questions and question himself”.

The video that Caspar Lee posted on Youtube after the trip had over three million views within just a few months.

So job done then?

Not quite. “We saw how many people were commenting on the video who had no idea what HIV was about,” she says. “We sat down and said ‘you know this doesn’t have to be a one-off thing, you have the potential – because of the huge fan base that you have – to really help educate your viewers’.”

Jessica says sometimes you have to "help people see the potential they have" to create change in the world. “Caspar didn’t know that that was something he had the power to do.”

She adds that HIV has now become a “heart issue” for Caspar, because he and Loyiso are in regular contact and have become close friends. Meanwhile, ERJD are creating a manual for Caspar to share with his fans to enable them to help end HIV.

For Jessica, this is what advocacy and human rights are about. “That’s what we tried to get Caspar to realise – you can’t just make one video. Transforming someone’s mind and heart is a lot of work.”

Working with government

Patient persistence seems to be key to Jessica’s approach. For a long time, she wanted to work with local government in South Africa, but her offers of help were not met with enthusiasm.

After she won the Queen’s Young Leaders Award however, government bodies became more open to working with the ERJD. “And once they do, they see that we’re not big scary people but people who want to work with government”.

She adds that while governments may deserve the criticism they get, it’s important to approach them with a positive attitude.

Edmund Rice Justice Desk team members

Edmund Rice Justice Desk team members

“Governments often assume we’re there to criticise them and to pull them down for not doing enough,” she says. “The approach we took was, ‘We see that you’ve been doing these fantastic trainings in communities. We specialise in these trainings and we would love to help you to expand a bit more’.”

The result is that ERJD now works in nine of “the most dangerous communities” in South Africa, using government buildings for training and workshops. “Not only that but they give us refreshments and they make sure there are police around to make sure our people are safe.”

Empowering communities

Over the last year, ERJD has expanded its operations. "We now operate in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, with the partnership of various governments," says Jessica. Wherever they work, Jessica and the ERJD staff firmly believe that the experts on solving community issues, are the people living in communities themselves.

“As an organisation, we don't believe its our role to solve issues  but rather use our skills, resources, tools and knowledge to empower others to make their own change. This way change is owned by the community itself, and it becomes much more sustainable.”

Teenage heroines

“What we do is tell people to use what you have in your community,” says Jessica.

And at the end of 2016, two 17-year-old girls – who had attended ERJD training – did just that. As a consequence, their detective work led to the arrest of four human traffickers.

Jessica and children with hands raised

Human rights training with children

Cash-strapped and without many resources at their disposal, the girls bought a sim card for 50 cents and put it in an old phone they could charge at a local petrol station. Then they put signs around the locality, giving the number of the phone and telling people to text if they had information or saw anything suspicious relating to human trafficking or people disappearing.

“And they went out door to door in their townships and explained that trafficking was a bad thing, and if anyone saw anything, to let them know,” says Jessica. Soon enough the texts started coming. The girls logged the information from each text on a pad of paper.

“Eventually they figured out the type of car, the colour of the car and the number plate and they called the police, who did a bust and arrested the traffickers.”

This is exactly how Jessica and the Edmund Rice Justice Desk aim to empower people. Their long-term goal is to make themselves redundant because communities no longer need their services.

“We need to empower people to go for their own change – first acknowledge that they have the power to make that change, and then really support, empower and equip people to do that.”

Jessica Dewhurst with children in one of South Africa's townships

"Build relationships within an organisation with not just one person but about two or three. If one person is too busy you have other people to work through."

Jessica Dewhurst


Ladies meeting in a library

"Upkeep those relationships – meet as often as you can, always be on each other’s radars, and promote the work of other people. It shows other organisations that you’re not just in this for yourself."

Jessica Dewhurst

Jessica Dewhurst working with abandoned and abused disabled adults in Khayelitsha township

“When you see another organisation doing something great, tweet about it, share about it, facebook about it and they’ll see that you’re just as passionate about what they’re doing as you are about what you’re doing.”

Jessica Dewhurst