How do you keep going if you are trying to give schoolgirls the best education possible in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges in South Africa’s education system?
Gabrielle Wills says she has “to believe that just being available and doing the next right thing is the first step to overcoming those challenges”.
Seven years ago, the Durban born 29-year-old founded Micah6, a nongovernmental organisation that arranges sponsorships for girls to attend schools that they would otherwise not have been able to on their own, while providing them with mentorship and guidance.
In contrast to her schoolgirl aspirations to enter the performing arts world, Gabrielle studied a business science degree and then a master’s in economics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. It wasn’t long before life took some unexpected turns, with her founding a nongovernmental organisation and then becoming the chairperson of an under-resourced school.
When Micah6’s first cohort of girls started grade eight in 2009 at a Durban school, Gabrielle attended the school’s governing body election as an invested member of the community.
“I became a chairperson by default when only six other parents in a school of 1 000 pupils pitched up for the election,” she said.
The struggles that ensued with teacher union members, underwhelming district officials and the sheer lack of support all round for educating children “fuelled within me a holy discontent with the current education status quo”.
Her experience at the school informed her next move in academia – a PhD in education economics at Stellenbosch University that investigates the impact of teacher unions and school management on pupil outcomes.
“When the majority of the education system is underperforming, NGO interventions are not enough. We need system-wide reform informed through policy-relevant, empirical research.”
To pay the bills, however, Gabrielle runs The State of Engagement – a business crafting tools to measure and better understand employee and management dynamics. But when asked what she loves about what she does, Gabrielle, goes back to the pupils she has helped in getting an education.
“Our work at Micah6 rescues the potential of young lives before a grossly inadequate education system swallows it up,” she says. “I can’t describe the sheer delight of the moment a proposal is accepted, funds are committed and we get to tell a child that they will be starting in the school they have always dreamed of attending.” _ Victoria John