Global Citizen Prize: Amina J. Mohammed wants to ask you an important question

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Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Amina J. Mohammed just received the Global Citizen World Leader Prize. Ahead of the Global Citizen Prize Ceremony, she shared her best life advice with Stylist

John Legend. Jennifer Hudson. Stormzy. Sting. H.E.R. Jorja Smith. The special performances by these stars is just one of the reasons you should watch the Global Citizen Prize this weekend. But there’s another big reason you should tune in for – and her name is Amina J. Mohammed.

The inaugural ceremony, which took place on 13 December in London, celebrates the work of world leaders, artists, business leaders, and youth activists, who keep the world’s poor at the forefront of their life’s work. And UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed was among the night’s incredible winners.

A former Minister of Environment and Senior Adviser to the President of Nigeria, Mohammed is now Chair of the United Nations Sustainable Development Group. She played an instrumental role at the United Nations to bring about the Sustainable Development Goals that have been agreed to by all world leaders. And she continues to champion the Global Goals to lift people out of poverty and to protect the planet.

Stylist caught up with Mohammed ahead of the awards ceremony, and she told us the questions we should ask ourselves if we want to make real change. 

(Warning: her hugely inspirational quotes will make you want to go out, occupy space and use your voice immediately.)

What has been your career motivation from the start and has it changed along the way?

I’m lucky to have been brought up in Africa. I’m an African and I’m Nigerian. I think back to my childhood in our home – my father was a civil servant, so it was about service to people. And my mother was a nurse, which is again a service to people. I think that really mattered – a sense of community and that we were all better off together.

And anyone who was out of that, for us, was an anomaly, it wasn’t right. So you were never completely happy if someone else didn’t have an education, wasn’t able to get as much as you could and have the ability and the access to it. So I think all along it was about putting people at the centre of everything that I do and just thinking that I’d be satisfied when everyone was not poor like me.

What are the main challenges you’ve faced?

It was always a challenge for women to lead, to be at the table, to have a voice, to be women “as well as”. You were always trying to occupy that space and make the most of it for what you wanted to do in terms of changing the world. And that has always been me in a man’s world. So that was a major challenge. 

Global Citizen Prize: winner Amina J. Mohammed accepts her award.
Global Citizen Prize: winner Amina J. Mohammed accepts her award.

Is imposter syndrome something you’ve ever experienced? And do you have any advice for women experiencing it?

I think that you have to hang on to your identity and utilise it. Don’t park it and leave it in the cupboard and come out trying to be someone or something else to occupy that space. I think once you do that, you celebrate your womanhood and your feminism and you show that it is actually a good part and a ‘value add’ to humanity.

And so you have to show the value add, the asset that you are and that it’s not about numbers – it’s about what you bring to the table. And it will never go as far unless we’re all there and we have that representation.

If it’s in a boardroom it’s different from when you’re tackling these things for the government and you’re in parliament or you’re in the judiciary – which is also not a very female domain.

It is tough.

What small things can we as individuals do to help achieve real change?

I think that when you’re in a room that you’re privileged to be in and you’ve finally made it but all you see opposite you is a bunch of men, ask the question: “Where are the women?” And we often don’t because we’re not sure if we’ll upset the apple cart and we’ll be out before we’re even in. And really question and open up that space and never allow it to go.

We have times when we think we shouldn’t accept to go on panels that are not 50/50, but if you’re not there, you’re not seen and you won’t have a voice. So insist on the panels, occupy space and make sure your voice is loud.

With all the issues that we speak about, use your story to speak to them. There’s nothing more credible than your own story. For young girls, I always say make the most of your education, a really good one and a really relevant one. And once you’ve got that education, no one can take it away from you. Your story, no one can take it away from you.

So your power is with all those tools that you access that one can’t take away from you. Then you’re in a real position of empowerment. And you might step back a couple of steps, but you will go forward a few more the day after.

What women have influenced you along the way?

Perhaps I’ll never know their names, because every day I meet women from different parts of the world and am influenced by the things that they’re doing, especially young women today. I met so many in Somalia and Sudan. Amazing women and, you know, I will get introduced to them on that day and I won’t remember their names, but I will remember their voices, I will remember their journeys and their challenges.

And the names that perhaps everyone with recognise are African women like Graça Machel, who not only fought for people’s freedom but for education for girls and continues to do so. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who’s the sole African president woman in her time – some came and went but she was there for two terms, always with her chin up and her shoulders back and speaking truth to power in those rooms that were full of men.

Sahle-Work Zewde, who’s our president in Ethiopia today who is supporting a Prime Minister with a vision to really make a change in that region which has never been lifted. And is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who did so much in the finance world for us in changing the way people thought about having inclusive economies and development.

What do you think is the biggest threat to women right now?

The threat of inequality. I think that’s growing. When that does start to grow, we’re the first to get hit. I think climate change is a really big one because for the billions of poor people, the burdens of climate change is on women: its poverty, its disease, its conflict, its crises. It hits women and children first.

I think the other challenges we’re not seeing are women in positions in leadership in any constituency in sufficient numbers to make the difference. We have to do a better job at communicating and engaging with men. You have to claim that space and you have to convince people. And they have to look at women as they look at men when it’s about the choices they have to make for leadership. 

What advice would you give to women who want to make a real change? And what questions should they ask themselves?

Take one step at a time. Be very, very committed to what it is that speaks to the courage of your conviction. What is your conviction in life? I think  you have to ask yourself that question – and you don’t have to go through it very often, for too long, don’t theorise – what is it that really touches you, what makes a difference? Sometimes it’s about human dignity and poverty, other times it’s about the environment. Maybe it’s about laws you want to change because there’s so much injustice. But find that hook that speaks to your heart and mind and go after it step by step.

Remember it’s a journey, because often people think they’re going to change this overnight. You’re not, you’re going to come across a lot of like minds, a lot of people were in the trenches and will be in the trenches with you. It doesn’t happen overnight, and if it does, you better be prepared. I think that preparation doesn’t come if you haven’t had that journey in which you get experiences and the network that you build. And so when I find myself at the helm of affairs in the UN, I draw back on all those relationships and networks that I’ve had and that gives me a solid foundation to lead from.

The broadcast will air on Friday 20 December at 8pm ET on NBC in the United States. It airs on Saturday 21 December at 7pm on Sky TV in the United Kingdom. 

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Images: Global Citizen Prize

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…

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