Q&A with PJ Cole, Queen's Young Leader, & Opening Speaker at CHOGM 2018

Q. Thousands of people apply for the Queen’s Young Leaders Award. You were in the first cohort of the Queen’s Young Leaders, and I believe the first in Sierra Leone to win the Award – what impact has this had on your life and your work to transform lives in Sierra Leone?

PJ. The Queen’s Young Leaders Programme has given my work profile and prominence. I remember going to a meeting with the head of the Smallholder Commercialisation Project in the Ministry of Agriculture in the early stages of designing our agribusiness and farming work and being recognised from the newspaper articles earlier that week.

It has also given me a platform to share the Lifeline Nehemiah Projects story which demonstrates real transformation and hope and gives the message that people’s past does not have to determine their future. Youth is not a disqualifying factor for leadership, instead with the right investment and support, young people can be leaders.

PJ and Devika Malik from India (a fellow Queen’s Young Leader who also spoke during the Opening Ceremony)

Q. You were chosen to speak at the Opening Ceremony of CHOGM, alongside The Queen, the PM and other heads of state – what message do you want people to take away from this opportunity?

PJ. Our testimony at Lifeline shows real and transformational change; what better way to demonstrate this message than to share it on that platform. But also, I did this as a Queen’s Young Leader, representing 240 change makers from 53 nations leading change.

Q. In your opinion what challenges does the Commonwealth face today?

PJ. The Commonwealth represents a fantastic opportunity for nations from six continents of varying colours and GDPs. They face challenges of climate change, inequity and extremism. 60% of the Commonwealth’s two billion citizens are aged 30 and under, positioning it as a unique organisation to drive socio-economic development and inclusive growth.

To continue to be relevant the Commonwealth needs to continue to modernise and be brave in facing up to these challenges.

Q. What part can young people play in responding to them?

PJ. The Commonwealth’s young people are connected now more than ever before. Technology has enabled us to be able to share in the pain, joys and hopes of people from across the globe, often in real time. Young people are able to mobilise and are proffering solutions. Take David Sengeh, who is responding to the issue of amputees by working on prosthetic limbs; Kelvin Doe, who is building a generator and a radio transmitter to reach his community; or fellow Queen’s Young Leader, Midia Shikh, who is printing prosthetic limbs for refugees in Syria. Young people are not only playing a part in responding to these issues, they are solving them.

Q. What more can be done to encourage young people to play a part in responding to today’s challenges?

A. Recognising and creating a space for young people to lead. The adage that children/young people should be seen and not heard no longer holds. Austria’s Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz is 31 years old, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is 37, and Sahr Charles MP in Sierra Leone is in his early 30s, which shows that young people are leading.

Q. How do you apply these insights to your work with young people in Sierra Leone?

PJ. I choose to take the initiative. Our response to Ebola is a prime example of this. My team Googled how to build an Ebola centre and we began building one. We learned about Ebola and adapted our response to the needs our community faced. By the end of the outbreak we had developed remarkable expertise. I tell young people, to ask themselves “what can they do?” whenever they are faced with a problem.

Q. Finally – what opportunities does post-Brexit offer young people in Commonwealth countries like Sierra Leone and how can they capitalise on these?

PJ. In her speech, Theresa May emphasised the importance of the Commonwealth in tackling the issues that nations face. I think young and bright Sierra Leoneans could look to share their expertise with the UK and help proffer solutions to some of the issues they face. Lifeline UK began working in its communities after seeing the work we were doing in Sierra Leone. We were able to inspire them to act and over the years have taught and exchanged ideas. I worked on many exciting projects in the UK and I am currently working with colleagues in the UK to bring young people from the UK to Sierra Leone to help broaden their outlook.

I think we should have an outlook of wanting to give, as that would also help us in being more resourceful, seeing that we are blessed and have a lot to offer.

PJ Cole is a Queen’s Young Leader from Sierra Leone. The Queen’s Young Leaders Awards celebrate the exceptional difference young people aged 18 to 29 from across the Commonwealth are making to change lives in their communities. To read more about their inspirational stories, please visit http://www.queensyoungleaders.com/

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