One Girl Can: Mackenzie Davis on the power of amplifying female voices

All Photos by © Elise Hassey

Education is empowerment—a fact that Vancouver-based charity One Girl Can not only knows, but proves year after year.

Mackenzie Davis, known for her roles in The Happiest Season, The Martian, Blade Runner 2049, and Terminator: Dark Fate, has experienced firsthand how access to education can alter a person’s life for the better.

It’s also something she’s witnessed time and time again through her work with One Girl Can.

Founded in 2008 by Mackenzie’s mother and co-founder of AG Hair, Lotte Davis, One Girl Can works to build schools and provide educational opportunities and mentorship to underserved girls in Kenya.

One Girl Can started by renovating schools, because education begins with a solid foundation. Soon after, they developed scholarship and mentorship programs, with workshops focused on confidence building, goal setting, career development, and strategic thinking.

Although Mackenzie has worked with One Girl Can since its inception, seeing how access to education could change the lives of young girls in developing countries inspired her to become an ambassador for the charity. Now, Mackenzie uses her platform as an acclaimed actress to bring awareness to how One Girl Can is building a better future for girls.

We sat down with Mackenzie to talk about how her work with One Girl Can began, what’s in store for the future, and the power that comes from amplifying female voices.

© Elise Hassey
© Elise Hassey
What was your first experience working with One Girl Can? Where did you go, and what was it like?

I’d been to many of the schools and seen many of the girls grow up over the last 13 years, but I wasn’t in the room for meetings, and I didn’t understand how the whole organization worked together with the schools and with the girls until I went in 2019. We went to Kenya for two weeks, one week of travelling through the region to visit the various schools and students we work with, and one week spent organizing and holding the yearly conference for university students on One Girl Can scholarships.

It wasn’t until this trip that I was able to really walk through it conceptually and understand it holistically. From meeting kids in their neighbourhood in Kibera—an informal settlement in the centre of Nairobi—to going to the schools that they attend and board at all over the country, to meeting with the headmistresses and understanding their investment in the girls’ education, and ending with the university student conference, where the girls are guided in two days of workshops by Kenyan women who are experts in their fields—academics and entrepreneurs and businesswomen who can speak directly to their experience and the unique set of challenges transitioning out of education and into the job market in Kenya. I walked through this whole cycle, beginning at pre-secondary school and still living at home to preparing to graduate university and figuring out how to become self-sufficient, and I was able to fully admire the extremely granular work and mentorship and attention that is paid to these girls and their education and wellbeing.

Last year, COVID-19 shuttered schools across the world as people tried to slow the spread of the virus, putting education on hold. How did One Girl Can step up to support the girls during that time?

Because of the nature of One Girl Can—the students come from towns of varying sizes with limited access to broadband and technology and they attend schools all over Kenya—remote learning wasn’t an option for us, unfortunately. Our main concern was being able to retain our financial commitment to the girls in the program so that when schools did open up again, we weren’t suddenly facing a crisis where we couldn’t support their scholarships. So we held our yearly fundraiser virtually last year (as we did again this year) and raised enough money to keep scholarships for all of the girls in the program. It was deeply moving and a huge relief to see that even in the midst of a local and pressing crisis, so many people were able to think broadly and continue to invest in these girls and in their ambitions.

The other way in which we pivoted was by focusing on a school we were building that serves many of the younger students in Kibera. The building they had been using for the past ten years was a very informal construction and couldn’t safely contain the growing student body, so we built an entirely new structure that was finished in January, and now we are building a dormitory to serve the female students. The dormitory will give the girls a safe place to study, sleep and get meals three times a day, so that they aren’t walking to or from school when it is dark out, as Kibera can often be a dangerous place for girls.

© Elise Hassey
In working with One Girl Can, you’ve been able to see the girls step into their confidence and feel supported in working to achieve their goals. Can you share why you feel amplifying these voices is so important, now more than ever?

I think one of the resounding lessons of this past year is how deeply we are connected. Not in a magical way, in a very practical way. We all watched the virus travelling across the world and—most of us, I think—convinced ourselves that it was something affecting there (no matter how close there became as it worked around the world) but not us and not here (wherever your here is).

Social progress is not something that lasts or matters if you hoard and isolate it—the world gets better, healthier, more equitable the more we expand our definition and application of progress. It’s not enough to believe in gender equity and only apply those expectations to your community. If you believe in it—and how could you not—it belongs to everybody, and it is the responsibility of those who don’t have to fight tooth and nail for it anymore to help support those currently fighting for it.

Your fans often praise you for bringing your personal confidence into the roles you play, something that undoubtedly makes you a great role model for girls everywhere. What are you working on now?

I’m in the middle of shooting a show about a pandemic that we started before the pandemic, that was interrupted and delayed because of the pandemic, and that we started shooting again in the pandemic. It’s been a very strange experience, almost too meta. But a very convenient place to work out some of the amorphous grief that has arisen from the last year!

As the world slowly recovers from the impact of COVID-19, what’s next for One Girl Can?

Something that I really admire about One Girl Can is their interest in the lived reality of these girls and their continued investment in trying to problem-solve to address that reality. Something students everywhere are facing right now is that it’s no longer enough to get your bachelor’s degree: in Kenya, in Canada, in America, it doesn’t directly translate into a job anymore. Accordingly, One Girl Can doesn’t consider a degree the end of their investment—they are not successful until the students are able to start working, earn a living and become financially independent. To address this, they are developing an internship and entrepreneurial training program. Through these programs, the girls can gain the skills and experience to give them an advantage as they enter the workforce. By partnering with local companies and organizations, we are working to match graduates with the right placements and training to better prepare them for their future.

Education and community support are incredibly important and can make a huge difference in a girl’s life. How can those of us at home help support One Girl Can’s mission to shape the future of girls?

Of course, sponsor a girl’s education or set up a recurring donation to help do so!

Education is the only way to break the cycle of poverty. By supporting the ingenuity and ambition of women and girls across the global south, we can empower her to achieve her goals and reshape her future.

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