Malala Yousafzai On Staying Optimistic When It’s Hardest: “I Gain Hope When I Meet Young People”
The Nobel Laureate talks about keeping momentum, the power of community, & her new role as Literati’s Chief Education Advisor.
Speaking with activist Malala Yousafzai about education is what you’d think it would be: clear-eyed, inspiring, and hopeful even when it’s heartbreaking. “I think it's really important for children to understand that, especially in the U.S., that not all children around the world have access to education,” Yousafzai told Romper by phone this week. “130 million girls — that's a big number — do not have access to education. And these girls, I have met many of them in person, have one dream. And that is to be in a classroom, to be able to wear their school uniform, and to read books and to learn.”
Certainly, she speaks from experience. Ten years ago, the then 15-year-old was already an internationally-renowned education activist when Taliban gunmen shot her in the head on her way to school. The assassination attempt was unsuccessful twice over: not only did Yousafzai survive, but she continued to speak out, and even won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at just 17.
So now, when it comes to educational initiatives she has her pick of organizations she can partner with to help her reach the 130 million girls who need support. Recently, Literati, a book discovery service for children and adults, announced as Yousafzai their first ever Chief Education Advisor.
“When I receive an offer to work with an organization or a company, I always look at their mission,” she says. “When I looked at the offer from Literati, I realized that Literati is on the same mission as me, which is to inspire a love of learning and a love of life by connecting people through literature and through education.”
Austin-based Literati is for readers of all ages and features Book Clubs curated by luminaries such as Roxane Gay, Megan Rapinoe, Richard Branson, and Yousafzai herself, whose “Fearless” Book Club focuses on books written by women and first time authors who tell stories through a unique perspective or cultural lens.
We spoke with the activist about her new role, how she maintains hope, and kids today (spoilers: the kids are all right).
You have worked with Literati in the past. How is this new role going to be different for you?
For the past year and a half, I have really enjoyed being part of this book club, and recommending books to amazing readers who want engaging conversations. I'm also reading some of those books for the first time, and I really enjoy the process of reading more and more books so then I can share those recommendations with my club and hear their perspective. Do they have the same thoughts as me? Do they have the same feelings after reading that book? What are their thoughts?
The reality is that we still are living in a world where some of us are prevented from having access to knowledge and education, and children are being told that they should not be exposed to new ideas and new perspectives, that they should not know about the reality of the world that exists.
I am really excited to be the chief education advisor; I look forward to advising Literati and expanding access to literature, especially in underserved communities. I will help the company identify organizations who will benefit from large-scale book donations. Literati is committed to donating up to one hundred thousand books in 2022. I will also be highlighting books curated by Literati that resonate with me.
This may sound like a question that has a very obvious answer, but I'm curious to hear your thoughts on it: what kind of difference can having access to books make in the lives of children who might not otherwise?
Many children who are already at risk of falling behind are struggling even more as a result of the pandemic and other economic and social issues. This is an opportunity to expose children to amazing work, books that will not only support a love of reading and literacy, but also help in providing new perspectives, and it would ensure equal accessibility to these resources. I believe that every child is passionate about learning new things. So through the work that I'll be doing with Literati, we will ensure that these books reach underserved communities, and that kids get all the knowledge and receive the books that they need to carry on their passion for learning, for reading, and for also exploring new perspectives.
Have you read a book recently that has particularly stood out to you, either as being particularly powerful or enlightening, or simply just entertaining?
I recently read Pure Colour [by Sheila Heti]. I really enjoyed it. There's something about the writing that I quite enjoyed. And then what else did I read? There's another book, Things I Don't Want to Know by Deborah Levy.
So you know both of those will immediately go on my reading list, right?
Is there a book you read as a child that had a particular effect on you?
I started with The Alchemist [by Paulo Coelho] , and I don't think it should surprise anyone. I really enjoyed that book, and I think it was a perfect reading for me at that age when I was determining what I want to do in life. And I was deciding to speak out for my right to education; the Taliban did not want girls to be in schools. I also read Meena, which was about this Afghan hero.
Could you speak to the recent reversal of their decision to allow girls to be educated in Afghanistan?
They did not believe in education [when I was growing up in Pakistan], and we hear the same news again in Afghanistan. They announced a date for a return to schools, but on the date they reversed their decision, and their excuse was that it was due to some technical reasons.
The reality is that we still are living in a world where some of us are prevented from having access to knowledge and education, and children are being told that they should not be exposed to new ideas and new perspectives, that they should not know about the reality of the world that exists. It's not, we are not telling kids about some superficial world — but it's to tell them that this is the reality of the world. There are so many good things happening, but there are also many flaws that need to be addressed.
[The girls I meet] don't need any inspiration to tell them why education is important, because they already know it. They have been through their situation where they have seen what lack of education means.
The recent news about the Taliban was so discouraging and painful to hear. How do you keep up hope when you see setbacks like this?
I gain hope when I meet young people, when I meet children. Children believe in a better world. They already know that there is unfairness and injustice in the world that they see around them. They know that some people are not treated fairly because of their skin, their language, their identity, their background, and they are not okay with that. They can sense the injustice from a very young age, and especially in this day and age we see young activists speaking out about gun safety, and about climate change, and about gender equality. When I see young activists speaking out, it gives me hope for the future of our generation, and I think the young people are not shy of speaking the truth, which is what we need.
That is true. Though you just listed so many issues that young people can get passionate about, and there's no dearth of ways that those issues intersect. How can people remain focused? Especially for people who maybe aren't in that position where activism is their “full-time job,” but do want to make a difference, do you have any advice?
I always give advice to people about believing in themselves, and I tell them that it's really important to understand the power of your words and actions, and how you can play a role at your home, in your office, and in your community to stand up for what is right and what is just. And I think giving support to others is sometimes so powerful, because it's holding each others' hands, it's telling each other that we are here for you. And so I think that sometimes, you stand up for a mission or for a cause and you feel like there's no one out there who can understand where you are coming from. But there are people in your community who will be there to support you.
You have been at this work for more than half your life, which is impressive considering you're 24. How do you feel activism, or perhaps people’s engagement with it, has changed in that time?
I have received support in my activism for a very long time, and people support me in different ways. They donate to my organization, Malala Fund, which is a charity that works for girls' education around the world. They are also sending me kind notes, letters and cards, and they share their thoughts about reading my story and following my journey. And there are many people who, as individuals or as organizations, have partnered with my fund to help me in the work that I'm doing. So I'm always very grateful for the opportunity that I have to speak out for girls' education, not just on my own but with the support of so many people.
What's your favorite aspect of the work that you do?
My favorite part of my activism is meeting girls. I have visited girls in many countries, including Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Brazil, and Iraq, and I have met incredible and inspiring girls whose stories are moving. These girls have been pushed out of their homes because of conflicts, because of climate-related events. These girls have gone through some of the most difficult journeys, but they do not give up on their education and on their quest for learning. And usually, I go to meet them to inspire them, but the opposite happens. They inspire me. And they don't need any inspiration to tell them why education is important, because they already know it. They have been through their situation where they have seen what lack of education means, what absence of education, knowledge, and learning means. And once you see that, then you start valuing the resources that are available to you.