Jessica Dewhurst’s bio is certainly impressive. While actively engaged in the service initiatives of her faith community, she holds many titles and accolades, not least of which being the Social Justice & Advocacy Desk Coordinator for The Edmund Rice Network of South Central Africa, The Edmund Rice Associate Cape Town Chairperson, and an Edmund Rice International ECOSOC UN Youth Ambassador. No wonder she was placed on Youth Village’s Top 30 Inspirational Young People in South Africa’s List for 2014, as well as being featured as one of Who’s Who’s Under 25’s Notables in South Africa. I caught up with Jessica to find out what inspires her.
1. HOW DID YOU DISCOVER YOUR PASSION FOR MAKING SOCIAL IMPACT?
Through a combination of things, but ultimately from a young age I realized that where I encountered my Lord the most, where I could see and feel Him in the most real and tangible way, was when I immersed myself in the lives of the most vulnerable – and therein lie my true calling.
The discernment continued when I was blessed to have the opportunity to attend high school at CBC St Johns in Parklands. During that time I was exposed to the many social and environmental injustices that the world currently faces. I was also encouraged from a young age to volunteer at various projects, which ensured that I grew up with a strong passion for those I was working with.
It was with this solid grounding that I was able to realize that I was being called to a different way of life – one that I reluctantly but thankfully decided to take.
2. THERE SEEMS TO BE A DIALOGUE BETWEEN YOUR FAITH & YOUR SOCIAL ACTIVISM. WHAT IS FAITH GOOD FOR IN THE KIND OF WORK THAT YOU DO?
While I realized that called to a life of service to those most vulnerable was a joyous and life-giving occasion, it however caused me a lot of distress because I knew right away that this kind of life would not be easy.
I realized that I was no longer satisfied dealing in simple charity work or quick fix jobs where no real structural change was occurring. I realized that what I needed to do was start engaging in works of justice where together we could fight the systems perpetuating the issues of injustice that the world currently faces; and in the process bring about a real end to suffering.
And I’m sure you can now see where the faith came in! Doing this kind of work is hard. Really hard. Unlike charity work where one tends to see immediate results to your efforts – justice work often takes enormous amounts of energy and many years before you see the fruits of your work. Justice work includes taking on governments, big corporations, banks, international agencies, religious groups, cultural groups and many others who will do anything to maintain the status quo to benefit those in power. I have been physically, emotionally and spiritually attacked but have always managed to come out of it smiling.
And to be honest, this was purely because I have always had to have a strong spiritual foundation. No human being can do this work alone. The amount of compassion, energy and sacrifice that is needed when engaging with justice work cannot be found within a person’s own capacity. You HAVE to have the spirit there with you, hand in hand, to achieve something great.
It is also through my faith that I realized that what I do is not just about helping someone out – but rather it is about identifying God in them. It is about empowering people and helping them to get back a sense of dignity and worth. It is also my faith that ensures that I never give up this duty. Or give up smiling!
3. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO THOSE WANTING TO BREAK INTO DEVELOPMENT WORK?
- Start volunteering: You will never be able to advocate for the rights of others unless you have taken the time to get to know them. So get out there and sign up to an NGO where you will be able to break through your personal boundaries and really engage. Volunteering at an NGO also gives you an amazing opportunity to gain incredibly valuable skills and start to understand the way that the NGO and government sectors work. You are also bound to find some truly amazing role models already working in the field. Take the time to learn from them. God sends us angels for a reason.
- Study something in the field: God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. So get out there and allow him to equip you! (It is also always a plus to actually know what you are doing!!) Try taking some courses or studying one of the following fields: social development, social work, international relations, politics, management, monitoring and evaluation, community development, human rights, law or any other field that jumps out at you. Believe me, it will help.
- Remember why you are here: Always remember that we work for the cause, and NOT for the applause. Fame and fortune will always fade, and so if that is why you are here, then you are bound to burn out soon. Keep reminding yourself of your purpose!
- Don’t forget YOU: Constantly give yourself the time to reflect and take a breather. Although we as social service people tend to make our entire life our work, this is not always healthy. Put some structures in place so that you will always have time to do some other things you enjoy. Go to a movie, read a book, go for a hike, see your friends, or enjoy a night out. Whatever it is, you are your greatest instrument – so treat yourself well so that on Monday morning, you can do your job well!
- No, you are not weird: If I had a coin for every time I heard the words “why are you so serious?” or “why do you take life so seriously” then I would surely be a millionaire. At first I let people and their words get me down, always thinking that it was weird to care so much and be affected so immensely by what was going on around me. You find yourself feeling ashamed for calling out someone for speaking callously about another’s suffering, or for making jokes about another’s misfortunes. DON’T. You have been given a gift, one that I call “God’s annoying conscience” where you are simply not able to turn away from the suffering of another person. This does not make you weird, this simply means that God wants you to feel even a slight portion of what He does every time He looks upon his world. Be glad that you FEEL because it means that you have been called to do something about it. That is pretty awesome if you ask me!
- Keep your family close: You should probably accept it now that you are going to be one busy person. Whatever you do, do not let this negatively affect your family life. Always, always make sure that you take the time to see your family. They are the ones who will be there when you’ve had a bad day, or when you have something to celebrate.
- No such thing as ‘normal’: Be okay with a different kind of life – because ‘normal’ will no longer be in your vocabulary. But I can assure you now that this path is one of the most rewarding and joyous ones you can take. You have been given the opportunity to make a difference in this world, no matter how big or small. So get out there, put a smile on your face, and live your calling. You will be forever thankful you did. And because you won’t hear it often, let me be the first to say ‘thank you’. You don’t yet know the value you add to this world.