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Activism / Black Experiences / Global Resistance

Aya Chebbi is Building a Pan-African, Youth-Led Movement

My philosophy for change is that we need to go through a cycle of radicalization, revolution, and liberation to achieve our mission as a generation.

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Written by Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Art by Kristel Brinshot.

Aya Chebbi is an award-winning Pan-African feminist. She is the first-ever African Union Special Envoy on Youth and the youngest diplomat at the African Union Commission Chairperson’s Cabinet. She shot to global fame as a political blogger during the Tunisian Revolution in 2010 to 2011 for her political blogs at Proudly Tunisian, which were published at OpenDemocracy and Al-Jazeera, among others.

Chebbi is the founder of multiple platforms, such as Afrika Youth Movement (AYM), one of Africa’s largest Pan-African youth-led movements; Afresist, a youth leadership program and multimedia platform documenting youth work in Africa; and Youth Programme of Holistic Empowerment Mentoring (Y-PHEM). She served on the Board of Directors of CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and was the youngest of the councillors at the World Refugee Council and commissioners at Oxfam Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct.

She has been recognized in many annual lists, including 2019’s inaugural List of 100 Most Influential African Women, the 2018 Apolitical World’s 100 Most Influential Young People in Government, and the 100 Most Influential Young Africans in the World in 2016. She has received numerous awards, including the 2019 Gates Foundation Campaign Award, 2018 Young Talent of the year by UNLEASH Festival, 2017 Pan-African Humanitarian Award by Pahawards, and 2016 Inspirational Woman of the Year by Women4Africa Awards. She is a graduate of University of Tunis El Manar with a bachelor’s in International Relations, Fulbright scholar at George Southern University, and Mo Ibrahim Foundation Scholar for her master’s in African Politics at SOAS, University of London.

Chebbi travels across the African continent to support and train thousands of social movement leaders and activists on mobilization, blogging, leadership, and non-violence, and continues to travel the world as a scholar, mentor, speaker, and activist. Her extensive experience over the past decade has made her an influential leading voice known for rebranding Africa and commitment to youth empowerment, Peacebuilding and Africa’s integration.

The following has been condensed.

Being part of the revolution made me believe that change can happen with fearless young women like myself at the forefront.  

You first gained public attention as a blogger during the 2010/2011 Tunisian Revolution. What helped to shape your perspective?

Where I come from shaped my worldview. I come from a small village in the Northwest at the crossroad of Tunisian-Algerian culture, with Arabic tongue, indigenous Amazigh Maghrebian identity, and a consciousness about French colonial legacy, which manifests in regional disparities and inequality. I grew up in a religiously conservative Muslim family. I have been perceived as a “rebel” by my extended family, as I cracked the ceilings to live differently from what culture and society expect. The mosaic of Tunisian history and diversity has built my fluid identity and curiosity about new cultures and experiences, which led me to travel the continent, living in homes and learning about my “Africanity.”

The Mediterranean tragedy has been a reality on the shores of my country for decades; that, with my cousin’s experience being recruited by Daesh, influenced my writings and activism. In 2010, the “rebel” in me matured into a political voice that manifested during the revolution in ways I did not think possible. I owned my voice and narrative when I started Proudly Tunisian, exercising my freedom of expression and challenging the mainstream western media narratives about our “Revolution of Dignity.” The blog empowered me to make the news until we became the news. Being part of the revolution made me believe that change can happen with fearless young women like myself at the forefront. Nothing has seemed impossible to me ever since.

What was the motivation behind starting the Afrika Youth Movement? What did you learn from the experience?

With the Afrika Youth Movement, I moved from my personal, political voice as a blogger to a movement building and pan-African activism. The more I travelled, I realised that, in our shared marginalisation as African youth, we could develop a sense of common identity and a critical consciousness that would enable us to challenge the status quo and take charge of our destiny. Many inspiring young Africans availed themselves to working with me to make this vision a concrete reality, turning their frustration and anger with, and consciousness of, political and economic struggles into collective positive action for Africa.

Today, the movement has grown from 500 members in a Facebook group I created in 2012 to over 10,000 grassroots leaders from 42 countries across Africa and the diaspora. It has become one of Africa’s largest youth-led movements, taking its agenda from the margins of society into the centre of regional and international discourse. We’ve celebrated many victories, supporting youth elected into office, preventing election violence, protecting human rights defenders, changing the narrative, and radicalising more youth for our pan-African movement instead of violent extremism.

However, we have also gone through a hard time this past decade, where young activists lost hope and have been falling into desperation, depression, or violence. We have more work to do to amplify role models and positive stories.

What does “Pan-African” mean to you? 

Being Pan-African means that I live every day with the idea that, with African solidarity, we can solve all of Africa’s challenges; that my liberation is your liberation and my access to education, power, resources, the internet is your access. That is the ultimate act of solidarity. It means that every day, I work towards an African unity of voice and action that transcends borders, ethnicity, skin color, language, political affiliation, et cetera. The political solidarity manifested in the liberation movements in the face of colonial powers in the ‘50s and ‘60s showed us how Pan-Africanism can liberate us. Today, we need to also claim a New Pan-Africanism for our generation to liberate us from poverty, unemployment, Afrophobia, inequality, corruption, violence, and all systems of oppression and marginalisation because Pan-Africanism is about equality, dignity, and respect for all Africans.  

What do you think the rest of the world needs to understand about the African continent?

That Africa doesn’t need “aid” but it needs industrialization. Pan-Africanism refuses charity and foreign aid, and advocates for self–determination and ownership — owning our resources, owning the means of production, owning the technology, decolonizing our knowledge, and really being the drivers of our continent and destiny. Besides, remittances from our diaspora are three times greater than aid. Surely, foreign aid with good intentions had impactful projects on the ground, especially when they’re citizen-driven and youth-led, but Africans are increasingly able agents of their own solutions. As we work on self-centered development and a financially independent African Union, we need to move towards equal partnership — so that the 2030 Global Agenda recognizes that the North is not “helping” the South, but that it’s a North-South agenda.

What do you think the rest of the world can learn from African activists?

The rest of the world can learn from African solidarity and resilience. Africa has been the host for migrants, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and refugees for decades. Of the 40 million IDPs in the world, 12 million are in Africa. The world’s largest refugee camp has been in Kenya since 1992, hosting Somalis; Ethiopia is hosting Eritreans, Tanzania is hosting Congolese, and Congo is hosting Burundaise. That’s how it works in Africa: one place is the home for the other. But the world is not learning from them because the narrative of crisis is the dominant one. The reality is, Africa has been most hit by crises — whether conflicts, climate change, diseases, you name it — but she survived because of resilient Pan-African activists who are innovating scalable solutions, and African citizens who are empowering our communities.

We need to first find our identity in order to have clarity of mission.

You’re the first African Union Youth Envoy. What does that mean, exactly?

My current position is the Special Envoy on Youth of the African Union Commission. My assignment is to represent the voices and interests of African youth to the relevant African Union decision-making bodies, advocating for the implementation of the African Youth Charter and Agenda 2063. I focus on what I call “Intergenerational Co-leadership” — the average age of African leaders is 64 and the average age of the population is 20. The political system tends to see youth as a threat, while the young people feel they are not being heard and their needs are left unmet. In my role, I am building dialogue on the importance of intergenerational collaboration, particularly in countries of democratic transition like Sudan and Algeria, where young people led positive change deserve to take their rightful place in leadership and in society.

You love incorporating digital tech and fashion in your activism. Tell us more about what influences the way you advocate and connect with people.

In the digital age, we have the opportunity to be our truthful self in the world. The tools I use are meant to meet people where they are and empower them to be whatever the hell they want to be. I run a brand called RadicalAya, which is the expression of my true self, and helping others find their radical selves. The more authentic we are, the more we can stimulate conversations that can change mindsets and impact everyday life. My self expression through fashion, blogging and social media comes from a strong sense of identity and knowing who I am. In the space of activism and advocacy, we need to first know why we are doing what we’re doing, or we’d lose a sense of purpose — which might explain the failure of the development agenda in many places. We need to first find our identity in order to have clarity of mission. So I believe by expressing one’s identity boldly using the tools we have, we can help others find theirs.

What is your philosophy for change?

My philosophy for change is that we need to go through a cycle of radicalization, revolution, and liberation to achieve our mission as a generation. We have to radicalize youth into social change by creating alternative spaces that are Pan-African, non-violent, non-misogynistic, non- discriminatory, and transnational. Then, we’re able to revolutionize the way we campaign, the way we use technology and access information. Once we are empowered, and non-violent with a united voice, then we are ready to organize for our collective liberation and achieve equality for all.


About the Author

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-Australian writer, broadcaster and award-winning social advocate.

Yassmin trained as a mechanical engineer and worked on oil and gas rigs around Australia for years before becoming a writer and broadcaster in 2016. She published her debut memoir, Yassmin’s Story, with Penguin Random House at age 24, and followed up with her first fiction book for younger readers, You Must Be Layla, in 2019. Yassmin’s critically acclaimed essays have been published in numerous anthologies, including theGriffith Review, the best-selling It’s Not About The Burqaand The New Daughters of Africa.

Yassmin founded her first organisation, Youth Without Borders, at the age of 16, leading it for nine years. Since, Yassmin has co-founded two other organisations and now shares her learnings through keynotes and workshops. Yassmin has spoken in over 20 countries on unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. Her TED talk, What does my headscarf mean to you, has been viewed over two million times and was one of TED’s top 10 ideas of 2015.


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