By Abby Rolland
With contributions from Leslie Wells and Sara Johnson
Ngozi Iwere has been a leader in grassroots, community movements and efforts in Nigeria for more than 25 years.
She founded Community Life Project (CLP) in 1992 to focus on the HIV/AIDS epidemic afflicting Nigeria. What started as a response to a major problem developed into a powerful nonprofit that focuses on community participation, influence, and a voice in daily affairs.
Iwere had experience in community movements before the creation of CLP.
“I knew that that we had to reach everybody, not just women or men, and reach out to them through their own networks and their own channels,” she said. “I started by approaching the self-help community-based organizations in my neighborhood, and proceeded to expand that grassroots approach nationwide.”
She faced opposition from some members of her community who believed that grassroots people were not interested in learning about HIV/AIDS. However, Iwere moved on with her plan.
“All humans are entrusted with their own well-being. If anything threatens that well-being, it becomes a felt need and preoccupation,” she said. “Grassroots individuals may not have university education, but they have a depth of knowledge about their own conditions, lives, and interests.”
Through their “bottom-up” paradigm of engagement, Iwere and CLP worked with local communities to identify needs and how CLP could influence change. CLP built networks of faith-based groups and trained associations, and other organized groups there were interested in addressing areas and topics of need.
“After working on the HIV/AIDS crisis, the organization took a life on its own,” Iwere said. “As we were working with communities, they added issues to our agenda that they wanted to learn more about. So, we brought in people who were experts in the issue areas and who could conduct trainings for local people.
“If you have organized groups and you use the right approach to engage people, they will get engaged.”
Recognizing the need to work with government in order to create more lasting change, Iwere and CLP decided to address election fraud in the country.
“Elections were terrible in the country. There was a great deal of fraud and they were a complete sham,” Iwere said.
Over several election cycles, CLP partnered with the electoral management body to register people to vote.
“We organized and mobilized leaders in communities and trained them on voter education and registration. Then, they trained their communities,” Iwere said. “We also worked with the transportation subsector so they could carry stickers, posters, and materials to a more widespread audience.”
In addition, Iwere and CLP adopted a cloud-based technology platform called Ushahidi.
“We embedded the platform into websites and added multiple local languages so that everyone could understand,” she said. “People could send a text message and say they were having issues voting, and that location would then be Google mapped for us and other partners to see.”
CLP also linked individuals without Internet access to networks and groups that had the technology available.
Through multiple partnerships, community outreach, and many years of hard work, Iwere and CLP were able to increase the credibility of and participation in elections in Nigeria. Their main focus now is on social accountability and including and engaging groups that are disadvantaged in the civic sphere.
“We’re working with community leaders to demystify the budget in order for people to learn what government is spending money on, and for government to learn what it is the people want,” Iwere said.
They are also connecting and collaborating with women to increase women’s participation and representation in government bodies.
“You can’t just suddenly get influence on the state or national level as a politician, so we’re working with women to get them into local political party structures and positions of power,” Iwere said. “We’ve worked in two states so far, and tremendously increased the number of women in the parties and positions of power; 180 percent in one state and 300 percent in the other. We’re trying to change the mindsets of people through experience, learning, and even self-awareness.”
With a forward-facing mindset, Iwere has been pondering sustainability and leadership succession since 1992, the beginning of CLP. As a longstanding grantee of the Ford Foundation, she heard about the ARNOVA-AROCSA NGO Leadership Fellowship Transition Program with collaboration between the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) Indianapolis. She knew CLP had challenges, such as building an endowment, which she wanted to address during her time in Indianapolis.
“During the program, I found myself reflecting on the past 25 years and questions about CLP that I’ve been wanting to answer,” Iwere said. “I don’t have all of the answers yet, but I found myself leaving with a better self-knowledge and greater clarity in terms of a sense of direction for myself and CLP.”
While Iwere was able to take time and learn from others in the program, she also impacted students and faculty at IUPUI.
From her mentor, Sara Johnson, director of executive education and clinical assistant professor from SPEA: “She’s modest and humble and willing to listen to anybody’s thoughts on what it was that she was doing. Courageous and resilient, her work has had significant impact in HIV/AIDS education, election reform, women’s rights and inclusion, and other areas. She has reinforced how impactful passion can be.”
Now, Iwere has returned to Nigeria to continue leading CLP, even as she begins her succession planning. Her focus though, remains on CLP’s community partners and impact.
“We’ll work with our partners and key leaders first, and then the board and donors next,” she said. “As an institution, we’re filling a huge gap, and I want to see CLP continue to make an impact.”
This is the third in a series of posts on the ARNOVA-AROCSA NGO Leadership Transition Fellows. Check back soon for more posts about the fellows.