Community//

Alison Bellwood: “Don’t apologise for what you can’t do”

Running a program in Nigeria has meant that we’ve needed representation locally. We identified someone who was running a very small youth-focused organization and gave him the opportunity to work with us. The impact on Semiye Michael and the DEAN Initiative has been incredible. As he describes it, we have given him the chance to […]

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Running a program in Nigeria has meant that we’ve needed representation locally. We identified someone who was running a very small youth-focused organization and gave him the opportunity to work with us. The impact on Semiye Michael and the DEAN Initiative has been incredible. As he describes it, we have given him the chance to perform on a much bigger stage and given him the support and advice he needs when required. It’s easy to only think of your impact on the end recipient of your work, but if you are lucky enough to be able to fund others to work with you then you can help build their capacity too. I didn’t realize how important this would be and how proud I am to be able to give others the chance to develop. As the Nigeria country manager for World’s Largest Lesson, Semiye now runs one of the largest youth volunteer networks in the country and advises others on how to do the same. His impact will reach much further than mine in Nigeria and he will help create change where he lives with his local team. We’ve been able to support him to keep going in 2020 and he has already pivoted his work to help respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is helping teachers learn how to use digital tools in their teaching and focus on the delivery of quality education not only while schools have closed, but into the future as well. If Nigeria can make progress to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, then that will make a big difference to how attainable the SDGs will seem to the rest of Africa and the world, and to the Goals as a whole.


Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Alison Bellwood, a creative communications expert with a specific focus on children and education. She worked extensively with some of the world’s most recognized brands (PepsiCo, Unilever, Nestlé) before partnering in the creation of a children’s learning programmed –Oddizzi.com — to help children in schools know and understand the world they live in and connect with one another.

In 2014 Alison joined Project Everyone and developed the World’s Largest Lesson as part of the awareness-building campaign for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The World’s Largest Lesson aims to create a generation of Global Goals “champions” who see the Goals as a shared ambition and are determined to see them achieved. The World’s Largest Lesson reaches over 18 million 8–14-year old across the world each year encouraging children to make changes in their daily lives and drive grassroots community action. In doing so, these children build the skills and values needed to create a fairer and more sustainable world for us all.


Thank you for joining us Alison! Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

In2018 we reviewed the reach of World’s Largest Lesson in Sub Saharan Africa and identified that we weren’t making the kind of progress that we would have liked. We funded a local organization to build a network of 300 youth volunteers to visit schools and teach lessons about the SDGs during one particular week. It was very much a pilot and so I arrived in October 2019 for an activation week not really knowing what to expect. I was overwhelmed. We didn’t have 300 volunteers, we had 4000! They were extremely well organized, using social media tools to efficiently communicate with the many volunteers across the country. They visited schools and taught a lesson in which children drew pictures of Nigeria they would like to see in the future. Some of these children were as young as 6 years old, all drawing, imagining and talking. The lesson proved to be thought-provoking for the students, in a way that most school lessons are not; the lesson encouraged students to aspire for a better future.

In just one week, we reached an unprecedented 800,000 children and reached millions of Nigerians on TV and radio. The success of our campaign caught the attention of the government, who were so impressed that they then asked us to do it again, but this time focusing on teaching families and community groups. We put a plan together and delivered it within 5 weeks, and by the end of 2019 had taught 1.3m children and families across Nigeria about sustainability and worked with them to develop their own ideas on what they wanted to change in their communities.

This is just an example of the variety of different people that I work with and how truly passionate and committed they are to see a change in their communities and the world. Giving people something to get behind and a platform for sharing their ideas is sometimes all you need to do. We learn from our community as they learn from us, and together we influence others to make positive change.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Back in the day, at my first office, there was a pretty strict dress code, where women were expected to wear a skirt or dress. I cycled to work every day, and one day forgot to take my office clothes with me to change into. I quickly nipped out to buy something to wear and all I could afford was a pair of trousers on sale, so I bought them and tentatively wore them. All day I waited for someone to comment. I noticed a few odd looks but no real comments. Women looked on with interest. At the end of the day, I realized that I got away with it. From that day on, the dress code changed; many of us started wearing trouser suits and flat shoes and were much happier not feeling so restricted and stuck in the 1950s. The lesson I learned was that you never know where change will come from, but when it does you’ve got to grab it and run! Be the change you want to see (even if it is by mistake).

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

World’s Largest Lesson aims to reach children and students as far and wide as possible, and inspire them to do more to learn about sustainable development, and highlight the interconnectedness between the different problems that we face — from the climate crisis to poverty and discrimination.

Just recently we have launched new resources for very young children, aged 4–8yrs old called ‘Explorers for the Global Goals’. Delivering these activities to groups of children has been a challenge, as schools around the world have been disrupted by COVID-19. However, teachers have found ways around it. At a school in Ireland, teachers have used the Explorers resources as part of the home-learning curriculum for all their classes, and have asked parents to share photos of all their children’s amazing work — from art projects using natural objects they’ve found outside, to mini towns they have created using building blocks. Children have enjoyed talking about and imagining how they would like the world to be. They are also driving changes in their families’ lives as a result of these resources that encourage Empathy, Communication, Problem-Solving, Creativity and Curiosity — we’ve managed to include these core values in the form of fun characters for children to learn from in the lesson resources. Examples of some of the changes that children have introduced in their homes include moves to reduce food waste, being kinder, saving water and donating to those in need. Very young children are making a connection between these actions and a global ambition, which is a big achievement for such young children!

Others have shared the actions that children have taken together to make a change. A group of children in Jordan knew of a woman in their village who had lost her husband and was finding it difficult to feed her family. They worked together to raise some money to help but wanted to make sure that what they did was sustainable. So, they bought a goat and gave the goat to the woman. She could provide something for her family but also sell the milk and do more with the money. Their teacher was so proud that she had inspired this thinking in her students, and she shared it with us. It’s a small story, in just one part of the world — but if just stories like this are taking place all over the world (which they are) then we are always moving towards a better and more sustainable future!

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Running a program in Nigeria has meant that we’ve needed representation locally. We identified someone who was running a very small youth-focused organization and gave him the opportunity to work with us. The impact on Semiye Michael and the DEAN Initiative has been incredible. As he describes it, we have given him the chance to perform on a much bigger stage and given him the support and advice he needs when required. It’s easy to only think of your impact on the end recipient of your work, but if you are lucky enough to be able to fund others to work with you then you can help build their capacity too. I didn’t realize how important this would be and how proud I am to be able to give others the chance to develop. As the Nigeria country manager for World’s Largest Lesson, Semiye now runs one of the largest youth volunteer networks in the country and advises others on how to do the same. His impact will reach much further than mine in Nigeria and he will help create change where he lives with his local team.

We’ve been able to support him to keep going in 2020 and he has already pivoted his work to help respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is helping teachers learn how to use digital tools in their teaching and focus on the delivery of quality education not only while schools have closed, but into the future as well. If Nigeria can make progress to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, then that will make a big difference to how attainable the SDGs will seem to the rest of Africa and the world, and to the Goals as a whole.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

At a policy level, if we could see a change to school curriculums then I wouldn’t need to do what I do. We’d like to see Sustainable Development built into every child’s learning from the start of their school lives. This includes establishing a real focus on building values and skills like empathy, curiosity, problem-solving, creativity and communication.

We’d also like to contribute to a re-think of the purpose of education. It’s narrowly focussed on exam success and a gateway to the workplace. To me, it’s about learning the skills and values necessary to live a successful life — that contributes to society and enables everyone to reach their full potential.

And finally, I’d also like to see a much greater intergenerational dialogue with a focus on collective problem-solving. Young people including teenagers are sometimes welcome at the table but in truth, it’s tokenistic. I’ve seen young people organize, solve, create, motivate and persuade. We are missing a trick if we exclude them from decision making.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

For me leadership is about facilitating others in working together to achieve a common mission. It requires intuition and insight, trust, flexibility and creativity. Like many other organizations that pursue a social mission, the COVID-19 pandemic has required us to adapt and re-think, while at the same time adjusting to a new way of life as a team; working remotely and all in very different home/family situations. This has been hard.

As the leader of a small team, my focus was first and foremost on my team as people, and then on our mission. We have adapted our working practices, as everyone has done, but tried to pay attention to the softer things too so that if there are any personal issues, we are picking them up quickly and able to support. From a mission standpoint, agility and creativity have recently played a huge role in a “pivot” as a result of the pandemic. From a 4-week standing start, we created a fully digital learning experience — World’s Largest Lesson: Live. Produced in partnership with UNICEF, this was viewed over ¼ of a million times in its first week.

Delivering this at speed required a different kind of leadership. Everyone had a role to play but we all needed to move fast and hit a deadline, so it was more directional. It’s been good for us all to have a focus during this time and we have learned a lot — together.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Don’t apologise for what you can’t do

While my role is leading an education program, I am not a teacher. I spent the first 3 years apologizing for this. Then I realized that this gave me permission to challenge and do things differently. That has been helpful.

You can always do something with no money

As a not for profit, we rely on fundraising and don’t always have the funds we need. It has never stopped us from delivering a campaign, even if we’ve had to create everything ourselves. Keeping things going means that we can be viewed as a continuous program and funding eventually does come.

Be OK with uncertainty

Linked to this — operating with uncertainty has been hard and when we’ve lost funding at various points I’ve been tempted to give up. But I’ve got used to it now, and know that there will always be a solution around the corner.

Trust your instinct

Even though we want to deliver our program — I don’t want to do it at all costs. There have been moments when we’ve been asked to switch tactics or deviate from our mission. Only once have I done this and regretted it from the start. Never again.

Say No — More!

There are no real boundaries to the scope of this project. Our mission is to reach every child in the world! But that also means taking every call and following up every avenue for growth, which can be time-consuming. Saying ‘no’ more and focussing on the big projects makes for a more sustainable program (and a happier team) in the long run.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to see a move away from high stakes testing in school to a process in which student performance is viewed more holistically and is skills-based.

I’d like for all students to be required to work creatively in teams to find solutions to local community problems and be measured for the skills that they develop through the process.

This year has forced some of this change already and the debate has opened up. I hope that it inspires a long-term shift in education.

Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Play a long game”

I’m a real believer in working collaboratively and being the best partner I can be. Sometimes that means the relationship can feel one-sided but I have partnerships that have taken 5 years to formalise and are now instrumental in our ability to grow. If I’d not followed that approach I wouldn’t be here now.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this especially if we tag them. 🙂

John Green is an author and YouTube creator who is one of the most popular teen fiction writers in the world. He has a great ability to connect with people and I’d love to talk to him about story-telling in all its guises.

I would also (of course) like to breakfast with Michelle Obama. Who wouldn’t!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@theworldslesson on twitter
@theWorldsLargestLesson on Facebook
@theworldslesson on Instagram

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