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How Teenage Activist Malala Yousafzai Is Turning Her Fame Into A Movement

For the first time, the young Peace Prize winner’s organization talks about the work they’re doing to create a voice for girls around the world.

Most teens spend their 18th birthday celebrating with friends. Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai spent it in Lebanon, opening a school for Syrian refugee girls while bombs dropped 20 miles away across the border. She later met with the Lebanese prime minister.

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But she couldn’t travel for too long. She had to get home to volunteer at a local nonprofit, a requirement for her own school in Birmingham, England. “Her school is great. They treat her like an everyday student. They don’t count meeting with world leaders as work study,” says Meighan Stone, president of the Malala Fund, an organization co-founded by Malala and her father, Ziauddin, in 2013.

Such is the unusual balancing act at the Malala Fund, where more than 20 staff are now led by a Pakistani girl who is still finishing high school.

Tanya Malott/Malala Fund

Malala became a global symbol of strength and resistance when, at 15, she miraculously survived being shot in the head by the Taliban. She had spent her childhood living under the growing influence of militants in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, who at one point banned girls education and bombed schools in the region. But she and her father, a politically active teacher, both spoke out for education rights. On her way to school one day, a militant boarded her bus, called for Malala by name, and shot her and her two friends. Now Malala lives in England with her family and has the opportunity to do more than she ever dreamed of to help the cause of girls’ education all over the world. She can’t safely return to Pakistan.

By 18, she’s already written a memoir, become the youngest-ever Peace Prize winner, and is the subject of a high-profile documentary to be released in October. With the Malala Fund, she faces a different challenge: building from scratch an organization that turns her powerful personal story into a movement for lasting, large-scale change. At a time when 62 million girls are out of school globally, including many in war-torn regions, the Fund’s mission is both specific and ambitious–to secure girls the right to at least 12 years of quality schooling, no matter their circumstance.

With the blessing of a public captivated by Malala’s story, the Fund has had its work cut out for it–in a good way. Its launch coincided with Malala’s address to the United Nations in July 2013, her first public speech since becoming a global news story and still only nine months into her recovery. Still, she was determined to pick up her fight where she left off, says Stone, and the family realized it needed a strategy for directing the outpouring of support. By 2014, its first full year of operation, the Malala Fund had already committed $3.5 million in its work.

Today, the Fund has developed a three-pronged approach, focusing both on galvanizing a grassroots global advocacy movement around girls secondary education and funding specific projects spearheaded by local organizations in six countries (Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Kenya). Its goal is to fund social entrepreneurs who already know what needs to be done and just need more help to do it–people much like Malala’s father, who ran several schools in Pakistan.

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Joshua Roberts/Malala Fund

In poor Northern Nigerian communities in the shadows of Boko Haram’s insurgency, the Fund has supported the Centre for Girls’ Education, an organization founded in 2007 that has developed successful programs for keeping poor adolescent girls in school for longer and delaying their early marriage at an average age of 15. An almost $200,000, two-year grant from the Malala Fund is now supporting the education, skill building, and social mentorship of 216 girls who are enrolled in school and 186 girls (age 10 to 14) who are not in school. All but 2 of its 80 or so of the organization’s full- and part-time staff are Northern Nigerian women.

“Their biggest barrier to school is poverty,” says Habiba Mohammed, 45, who coordinates and oversees the Center’s programs from Nigeria’s Kaduna State. Malala met with the two girls in the program when she visited Nigeria last year, where she also prodded then-Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan to offer more help to the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants. Though the world promised to come to these girls’ aid, they have not been returned, and education organizations in all of Northern Nigeria are still severely under-resourced.

“We dedicate the resources and finances that we think are catalytic to helping local leaders do this work. And then Malala sits with world leaders and says to them, you know, if an 18-year-old’s organization can do more, I think you can do more, too,” says Stone.

The Malala Fund is influenced as much by the tech and digital world as by other NGOs. It counts current U.S. Chief Technology Office Megan Smith as a founding member of its advisory board, and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia among its early advisors. Its small staff started work in the social entrepreneurship incubator Beespace and now operates from different coworking spaces in London, New York, Washington, DC, and soon in Los Angeles. Inspired by Malala–a digital native who anonymously blogged for the BBC when she was 11–the organization goes out of its way to elevate girls’ own voices on the global stage, rather than only putting their faces on glossy brochures.

“We have this chance to have a blank piece of paper” says Stone. “We don’t want to just duplicate what’s already been done. That wouldn’t be worth Malala continuing to stand up in the public eye, having to balance being a student and being an activist.”

Social media is at the heart of what much of the fund is doing around its global advocacy. Its #BooksNotBullets campaign, coinciding with Malala’s summer trip, resulted in 20,000 posts calling on world leaders to invest an additional $39 billion per year to provide universal free primary and secondary education for all children. This amount is equivalent to just eight days of global military spending. Another example came last October when the Nobel Peace Prize was announced. The organization still only had three staff. They knew it was an opportunity to reach young people everywhere at once.

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Trailer for the upcoming documentary, “He Named Me Malala”

Most acceptance speeches are made in a room full of elites. They wanted to create the first digital Prize speech. They worked with the agency Scratch, owned by Viacom, to get up at 4 a.m. to edit down the live feed of the speech from Norway into a three-minute shareable video. They got the United Nations, Facebook, and even Shakira to promote it throughout the day. To the ceremony, they brought five girls that Malala had met through her travels, announcing they were the first ever “girls delegation”–and had them do their own press junkets.

To Stone, who previously worked with the World Food Program USA, the ONE Campaign, and other international development organizations, it’s “profoundly freeing” working for a young person–especially one who has such moral clarity and refuses to get caught up in politics. Stone and Malala email or talk almost every day, though Malala’s homework and school time take precedence to her work on the Fund. She only travels during school breaks and writes speeches in her spare time.

The next few months will have more big moments for the organization. The upcoming film, directed by Davis Guggenheim, will be widely released in 171 countries, translated into 45 languages, and later broadcast by National Geographic. It will coincide with a social media campaign to use the film to turn more people into education activists. And at the UN’s General Assembly meeting in September, Malala will continue her efforts to have a 12-year education recognized as a basic right–and make sure there is funding and accountability for achieving that goal.

Still, the challenge is daunting even in the few countries where the Fund is focusing its work. “Nigeria has a long way to go to be able to get all children into school for the 12 year[s],” says Mohammed, citing needs for far more resources for schools and teacher pay, better teacher training programs, not to mention the nation’s security challenges and cultural barriers to girls education.

For the Malala Fund, it’s a busy time that requires a lot of the staff. But the chances to make a difference are also unprecedented. Says Stone: “We all recognize right now that the opportunities we have are so incredible, and we don’t want to leave anything on the table.”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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