Janet Ricks is the Founder and Executive Director of Potential Leaders for Sustainable Future, a non-governmental organization that works with young people in Liberia to empower, educate, and elevate them, encouraging their inclusion at all levels of society, including in national decision making. As part of her organization’s COVID-19 response efforts, Janet led her Potential Leaders for Sustainable Future team in delivering a more inclusive public awareness campaign, providing people living with disabilities access to crucial information about COVID-19, how to protect themselves from the virus, and how to prevent its spread. Throughout the pandemic, Janet has also continued to advocate and increase visibility for young women and people living with disabilities.
We interviewed Janet about her work as part of our “Spotlight a COVID-19 Heroine” initiative, which highlights African women who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and dedication to their communities through their COVID-19 response efforts.
Read our interview with Janet below.
Q: Could you tell us a bit about your organization, Potential Leaders for Sustainable Future, and the work that you do?
Our institution was established in November 2019, and in August 2020 we became certified and accredited to operate as a non-governmental organization. Our focus is on building the leadership skills of young people, especially young women and people living with disabilities. Our aim is to empower, educate, and elevate these young people so that they have the capacity, the capability, and the confidence to become leaders and recognize that they have the power to bring about change.
Q: During the pandemic, Potential Leaders for Sustainable Future has reached out to the disabled community with important messages about COVID-19 and how to prevent its spread. Can you talk about how you coordinated these efforts?
In humanitarian crises, people living with disabilities are more at-risk. This is because they are often excluded from decision making spaces and processes, and they frequently do not have equal access to adequate information and services that address their specific needs. Knowing this, it was our goal to make sure that COVID-19 response efforts were inclusive, so that members of the disabled community could also have access to information about prevention and protection.
Our team decided to take action. Potential Leaders for Sustainable Future is lucky to have sign language experts on our team, and we also have one member who is a young artist, who also happens to be a sign language interpreter. We were able to work together using our team’s collective expertise to produce sign-language flyers, raising awareness among the deaf community using visual aid materials. We incorporated these materials into our broader public awareness campaign, making it more inclusive. We also broadcast Facebook videos that included sign language as well as speaking.
Potential Leaders for Sustainable Future also worked with ActionAid Liberia and, with their support, we produced a video with jingle messages, explaining in song how to prevent the spread and protect oneself from COVID-19. The jingle was a way of communicating this message to the visually impaired and blind community. The video and its accompanying jingle were broadcast in four different counties across Liberia and the jingle was picked up and broadcast by a local Liberian radio station.
Q: Potential Leaders for Sustainable Future has also collaborated with Liberia’s National Youth Taskforce Against COVID-19. Could you talk about some of the community engagement and volunteer efforts your organization has taken part in?
Potential Leaders for Sustainable Future was one of the 50 organizations selected to partner with Liberia’s National Youth Task Force Against COVID-19. The Youth Task Force was established in March 2020 and organizes widespread communication and community engagement activities to help spread COVID-19 awareness. Our organization was a beneficiary of a grant to support the Community Action Platform Against COVID-19 project, for which the aim was to help less-privileged sectors of our society by making food donations.
We were able to deliver bags of rice to 25 under-privileged households in Montserrado’s Logan Town community. We also made a donation of 15 bags of rice, three tins of oil, and other ingredients to the School of the Blind in Mango Town, Virginia and made this same donation of rice and food supplies to the Montserrado School of the Deaf.
Q: You are a strong advocate for the rights of women. Can you talk about some of the ways that you have continued to advocate and fight for women’s rights throughout the pandemic?
As a female activist, throughout the pandemic I have been going on local radio stations to talk about women’s issues. I also organize monthly forums where I invite teenagers to participate in discussions on women’s issues, because it is important to provide a safe space for young people to engage in dialogue. By addressing questions about gender-based violence, we can work towards understanding the root causes and how to curtail violence against women amid COVID-19 and beyond.
Unfortunately, in many places, the pandemic and the related lockdowns have resulted in an increase in gender-based sexual violence. We will not see the end to gender-based sexual violence unless we include everyone, regardless of their circumstance.
Potential Leaders for Sustainable Future also holds interactive sessions where we aim to empower women living with disabilities. We recently paid a visit to Smile For The Disabled and Disadvantaged Liberia in New Georgia, where we held an interactive session with 16 deaf and 15 physically-challenged young women. We spoke about women’s health and other issues, and the women shared their own experiences and daily challenges. By giving these women a voice and a platform, we want to empower them and encourage their inclusion and participation at all levels of society.
Q: How would you describe the response efforts of other women in your community and across Liberia during COVID-19? Have you seen COVID-19 impacting women and men differently?
COVID-19 has impacted women a lot, and I think the pandemic has been especially challenging for young women. Many of these young women and girls do not have positive female support, which is something that Potential Leaders for Sustainable Future aims to combat through our outreach, information dissemination, and interactive sessions. For many local women, their primary way of making money is by selling things in the market, but with the lockdowns and curfews imposed during the pandemic, many women lost their primary source of income.
However, I think COVID-19 has made people want to reach out to become more involved in their communities. So many women became actively engaged in community work through their own local initiatives, and it has been great to see these women continue to grow these new businesses or projects. This outreach to the broader community is something I have seen women doing a lot more of during the pandemic.