Inspirational Woman Interview: Ashley Lackovich-Van Gorp

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Ashley Lackovich-Van Gorp, is a global scholar-practitioner and activist for the rights of girls and women. She works with adolescent girls and young women in conflict and low resource settings on life skills, leadership and rights programs. Specializing in child marriage prevention and response, she has designed, implemented and evaluated programs, created toolkits and conducted and published research. She is the Founder of Enhance Worldwide, an adolescent-girl focused nonprofit working in Ethiopia. With Mercy Corps as the director of the Regional Center for the Advancement of Women and Girls, Ashley works to equip practitioners with the knowledge, tools and strategies to effectively reach and engage adolescent girls. She reports and writes for Girls’ Globe and consults organizations such as UNHCR, The Population Council and the Center for Creative Leadership. . Ashley holds a PhD in Leadership and Change from Antioch University, an MA with a focus on interethnic relations from Skidmore College, and a BA in German from the College of Wooster.

What is your background?

Ashley Lakcovich-Van Gorp: I’m originally from a former steel town outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After high school I spent a year in Germany before attending the College of Wooster in Ohio. From there, I started working globally in humanitarian response, which then led to my work with adolescent girls and young women. I’ve done quite a bit of work in Indonesia, Ethiopia, the DR Congo, Jordan and the West Bank and Gaza. I also have a master’s degree from Skidmore College and a PhD in Leadership and Change from Antioch University.

You are the Founder of Enhance Worldwide, a nonprofit organization in Ethiopia that provides educational opportunities to adolescent girls. What inspired you to found Enhance Worldwide and what has been its impact on the community so far?

Ashley Lakcovich-Van Gorp: My life’s work is supporting adolescent girls and Enhance emerged as part of that. Half of our work takes place in one community in Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia, and we really ground ourselves in that community. We send adolescent girls from very poor families to local public school, and so we have a good partnership with the local school administration and staff. We host different community programs at the school to bring people together around education and we have a referral program to link girls to a variety of services within that community. So, I like to think of us as strengthening the community around its own structures.

Can you tell us about some of Enhance Worldwide‘s specific programs for girls’ education?

Ashley Lakcovich-Van Gorp: Public education isn’t free in Ethiopia. There is a school fee, most schools require school uniforms that cost an additional amount, and students are also responsible for buying their text books. This means that many poor families just can’t afford to send their daughters to school.  One of our programs, Kinship Care, provides families with funds to cover these expenses and contribute to the household. The reason we provide money for the household is that often families rely on their daughters to contribute to the family economically. If she’s in school, she can’t work – and we don’t want that to be a reason for her to dropout. We also have meetings with the families and check on homework, attendance and grades and address any issues that arise. In addition, these girls are enrolled in our life skills programs that help them overcome challenges, set goals and make healthy, informed decisions about issues at home and at school.

What are some specific challenges and failures you’ve experienced in your career or life, and how did you overcome them?

Ashley Lakcovich-Van Gorp: Professionally, I often need to fight to be taken seriously. I’m younger and female and I have an image that doesn’t necessarily match the image folks have of a woman doing my work. This is still a challenge, and I recognize when I’m older I’ll be fighting the same fight against a different stereotype. As for failures, I don’t really frame my experience in that way. I’ve made bad choices and mistakes, but I think as long as you’re doing the best that you can, you can’t fail. You might end up with results you don’t like, but to me failure only happens when we don’t try.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Ashley Lakcovich-Van Gorp: Personally empowerment matters because it’s how I navigate a society that that puts me at a disadvantage for being female. In my work, I focus on listening to adolescent girls to understand what they need to empower themselves to face the specific challenges in their lives. I like to imagine a world where every human being has access to a life of dignity, and I think empowerment is one tool to get there.

When I talk about empowerment domestically I point out that I’m in the most privileged group of women because I’m educated, employed, straight and white. We talk a lot about breaking glass ceilings, but for many women- especially women of color, transwomen, immigrants and single mothers- it’s not about glass ceilings, but rather glass walls. I mean, you can’t reach for a ceiling if you can’t get in the room. So I recognize that it’s a privilege for me to even talk about empowerment personally because there are fewer structures holding me back.

You’ve been a Child Marriage Prevention & Response Consultant at the UNHCR and are working on a Girl Center with Mercy Corps. Can you tell us more about these experiences?

Ashley Lakcovich-Van Gorp: The work with UNHCR is the child marriage prevention and response toolkit. Essentially, it’s a collection of promising practices, tools and strategies to prevent and respond to child marriage in refugee contexts. Child marriage is an issue in displacement. When families lose livelihoods and girls lose access to education, marriage often seems like the only option to secure a future for a girl. So the toolkit comes in to help practitioners respond to that scenario. It will be out in 2017.

Mercy Corps is starting a MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Center for the Advancement of Women and Girls. Essentially, the Center is going to equip practitioners with the knowledge and skills to effectively reach and engage adolescent girls. Our idea is to reach girls by engaging those who work closest to them. These practitioners can really transform the lives of girls, but this transformation can only happen if they have access to the support, tools, strategies and approaches to do their work. When you work with girls and women in a sense you’re automatically an activist. And activists really need support when they tackle big issues like child marriage.

In your opinion, what are the biggest structural and institutional barriers to ending child marriage?

Ashley Lakcovich-Van Gorp: Many people think that child marriage is linked to Islam, but it occurs across religions, countries and cultures. It’s caused by poverty and gender inequality and in some cases by traditions and insecurity like displacement. To end child marriage we have to tackle all of these factors.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Ashley Lakcovich-Van Gorp: I can’t narrow it down to one! I will say that I’ve been very blessed to have many strong, powerful women in my life personally and professionally. They’ve given me paths to follow as well as helped to light the path I’m creating.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to education, women’s empowerment, and international development?

Ashley Lakcovich-Van Gorp: In terms of child marriage, I’d recommend the book I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced and the film Difret. Malala’s autobiography is amazing as is the film. While not related to women and girls, the most powerful book I’ve ever read is A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. That book really changed my perception on many things so I recommend it to everyone.

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