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A mentoring program is behind the new wave of young female climate advocates in South Africa

Black Girls Rising is a program in South Africa that provides mentorship for girls aged 12 to 18, enabling them to lead climate change efforts in their communities through both theoretical and practical training.

Kate Okorie, bird story agency

On Mother's Day, Xoli Fuyani's smartphone was flooded with messages from the young girls in her non-profit organisation, Black Girls Rising.

Founded in 2021, the organisation trains girls between 12 and 18 to lead climate action within their communities.

Fuyani has been pleasantly surprised to find that her role as an environmental educator and mentor has taken on a parental quality for the girls she is guiding.

Yola Mgogwana was among those who sent her messages.

"I always send her Mother's Day, New Year, and birthday messages," Mgogwana said, highlighting a mentoring relationship that stretches back more than four years.

Under Fuyani's tutelage, a then-11-year-old Mgogwana delivered her first public speech in 2019. Fuyani had helped to organise South Africa's first climate march and Mgogwana, who was then a member of Fuyani's now-defunct Eco-Club, volunteered as a speaker.

She spoke in front of 2000 fellow young people gathered for Cape Town's first-ever climate march, with viral images and videos instantly making her a recognisable face of South Africa's climate movement. She is now one of its most influential voices.

Mgogwana's success is a mix of courage and preparation. Growing up in an informal settlement in Cape Town's Khayelitsha, she shared one communal tap with 55 other families, and when the taps ran dry during Cape Town's infamous (and narrowly avoided) "Day Zero" water crisis in 2018, her family struggled because they could not afford the water sold in shops.

For Mgogwaana, it was a wake-up call to speak up for her community. But she lacked the training to do so.

"I remember when I started working with Yola Mgogwana, the teachers told me that she was not going to make it because of her background and grades. But I wanted to prove them wrong," Fuyani said.

After her speech, Mgogwana became the subject of media attention and received invitations to conferences.

"She became an overnight 'South African Greta'," Fuyani said.

Since then, neither has looked back.

"I found myself shifting from just being an environmental educator to preparing Yola to be in these spaces," Fuyani said.

Inspired by their success, two years later Fuyani established Black Girls Rising to extend this training to other girls from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"Currently, there are 30 girls in our Rising in Leadership Fellowship, and some, like Yola, are already leaving," she said. The fellowship is the arm of the organisation focused on equipping the girls with practical skills to lead climate action in their communities.

Fuyani decided the organisation would focus on girls because she saw how climate change impacted girls and women differently.

The 2023 Afrobarometer survey on climate change awareness in South Africa shows that most South Africans who are educated about climate change believe it is making life worse in the country.

However, the impact of climate change is disproportionately felt by vulnerable groups like women, who are also the country's least informed about climate change. Less than half of women in South Africa are aware of climate change, compared to 53% of men.

The survey suggests that empowering these vulnerable groups could contribute to developing a more inclusive and resilient foundation for addressing climate change.

Using her extensive environmental education experience, Fuyani developed a five-part training model for the organisation's Rising in Leadership Fellowship.. Black Girls Rising fresh intakes are usually between 12 and 13, and everyone must go through the first level which focuses on self-development. "We value our process," Fuyani said.

"At this level, we teach them how to self-regulate, deal with trauma, and they also get to learn about their communities."

The training gets more intense as the girls move up the levels. At the second level, they are equipped with leadership and advocacy skills. "Because now they have a sense of who they are and know how to set boundaries," Fuyani added.

Levels three and four are practical. The girls are given the autonomy to lead campaigns based on their interests. Not all are directly linked to climate. They can choose from four possible campaigns. "Their campaigns could be about clean air, water systems, period poverty or food security," she explained.

The girls are allowed to recruit younger girls to support their campaigns.

"It is like starting a club, but within a campaign," she said. The lead girls for each campaign are paired with top organisations in their areas of interest.

The girls who choose the clean air campaign go to playgrounds to measure air quality.

"The girls will help raise awareness on areas where the playgrounds don't have clean air and highlight the privilege of breathing clean air," Fuyani explained.

"With what they have learned thus far about clean air, they are very keen to partake in activities that help to clean up the air," wrote Lihle Sabisa, a mentor for the clean air campaign and a Run Leader for Cityzens 4 Clean Air Campaign, an initiative with Urban Better developing interventions to support clean air in African cities.

Some of the girls have also taken on a food security campaign, leading by example and growing vegetables.

"We work with two local organisations that have community gardens. The idea is that the organisations will give them starter kits for their home garden," Fuyani explained. "The campaigns are fun and not just about theory," she said.

The fellowship is a hybrid programme. Fuyani meets with the girls three times a month, once in person in Cape Town and twice online. All of their meetings begin with a movement-based practice. It could be dancing, singing, drawing, craft making, yoga or mindfulness exercises.

"We believe in the power of arts as a tool and medium to transform and heal. Hence, whatever we do, has an art element," Fuyani explained. She added, "A lot of the things we do in-person, we are able to translate online."

"The experience we have are very exciting and out of the box," said 16-year-old Lithalomso Chulayo, who joined the program early in 2023.

"It's very relaxing and just gives you a chance to dive deep into your inner self and soul," she continued.

"We are training them to be young changemakers, but we also want to create a space where they could be themselves and be kids. It's as if the world expects them to be adults, and I don't want that for these girls," Fuyani explained.

This year, the organisation had to accommodate highly motivated older girls like Chulayo, who is now taking lessons from levels one and two simultaneously.

While "everything is tailor-made according to a girl's needs after we have accessed their maturity and leadership potential," accommodating girls of above 12 is not usual.

"The age group is specific because of the programme's design, and we have seen that in the climate space, there are not many of these opportunities for the younger girls," Fuyani argued. Chulayo is appreciative of the opportunity, however.

"The experience has benefited me to believe that I can take all the information that I have learnt and use it in the outside world to give back to my community and inspire other young people," Chulayo said.

Project Drawdown, a globally recognised extensive database of climate solutions, ranks female education sixth among 100 sustainable solutions to tackle climate change.

At the final level of the fellowship, the girls are matched with organisations to expand their advocacy beyond the grassroots level.

One of the girls at this level has been selected for the Ashoka Young Changemaker programme. At the same time, Mgogwana, now fifteen, is a young advisor with Child Rights International Network (CRIN), which aligns with her dream of becoming an environmental lawyer.

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