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“A person’s a person, no matter how small.” ― Dr. Seuss

Recently, on a panel discussing ‘race’ on MSNBC (American television network). Eddie Glaude, professor, author and news contributor, was responding to a question about what we say to children in a world that is still racist and xenophobic. His response included the statement: “We need to give them license to imagine themselves otherwise”. My understanding is that he was commenting on how children should be encouraged to view themselves as belonging, whole people, worthy. I agree with Eddie Glaude, but I’d like to extend/add to his sentiment. Children need to be able to imagine themselves differently, but we need to take more responsibility.

As those working to shape the future, it is us that need to see children differently; imagine them otherwise. 

I was always struck by reading After Freedom: The Rise of the Post-Apartheid Generation in Democratic South Africa. The book includes portraits of seven young South Africans navigating the new South Africa; democratic, but increasingly unequal. What this showed me was that children already imagine themselves otherwise. These young people grow up in circumstances beyond our comprehension and dream of being successful. They aspire to provide for their families, become doctors and lawyers and, dare I say it, change the world. Children have hope and they have agency. It is the structures that fail them.

Unfortunately, we can fall into the trap of perpetuating those structures. So what can we do differently?

Change our language

Work in the NGO field, and work with children in general, is often characterised by the words ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘recipients’. When we determine what children should receive in this frame of mind, we are at fault. We give children no decision-making power, no ability to correct us and we have pre-determined the balance of power. This perpetuates existing structures and therefore limits our ability to imagine children differently.

At Innovation Edge, we purposefully work to consider those our work is aimed at as customers, clients, users. We believe they have agency and choice. This is evident in the way we assess applications for funding and research feasibility. We ask about demand and expect thorough customer insights and market analysis. For example, our ECD Apps Launchpad is developed to address the specific needs of potential users in the ECD space. 

Check our judgements

We need to see children, especially those who are most vulnerable, as our future. Ask, “what does this future surgeon, economist, teacher, president need in order to succeed?” 

Similarly, we often think we know what is best. How can we actively listen to children as we work to improve their lives? How can we do less telling and more listening? And how can we respect their caregivers/those who raise them; giving them a voice and enabling them to be empowered to care in a way that is meaningful to them.

In our work, we’ve made efforts to meet caregivers where they are at. Our Sifunda investment is about turning routine shopping trips into learning adventures. And our ‘Daily Brain-Building Interactions’ focus area is dedicated to leveraging everyday opportunities for learning; not always calling for new behaviours, but leveraging the ones that exist.

 Sharpen our focus

We need to invest in the early years, because the early years matter.

We know that early foundations impact a child’s employment prospects, earning potential and long-term health outcomes (you can read more about ‘Why it Matters’ here). We need to see children as our future, not only as those to be cared for now, but those with the capacity to care for us in the future. 

Re-examine our priorities

In line with the above, we need to think about children thriving tomorrow, not only surviving today. While we want to decrease under-five mortality, levels of stunting or access to clean water (what I call ‘survival’ indicators), we should also monitor and measure indicators linked to thriving. The Early Learning Outcomes Measure (ELOM) is our contribution to thinking about changes to be made to early learning programmes that can enable children not only to make it to their first year of school but to be ready to learn when they get there.

Children have high hopes for themselves; they know their inherent potential. It is up to us to align our views of children to those they already have of themselves.

As we work for children, we need to imagine them otherwise.

About the Author

Lyndsey Petro is a Portfolio Manager at Innovation Edge. As part of the Portfolio Management Team, Lyndsey works on sourcing and pivoting ideas, incubating investees and strategizing for scale. She takes investees through a lean, iterative approach to idea and solution design and works in the field supporting customer engagement.

Lyndsey has a Bachelor of Social Science degree in Sociology and Organisational Psychology and a Masters Degree in Sociology from the University of Cape Town (UCT).