When she started at Free the Children as an intern just out of university, it was a small nonprofit with 12 full-time staff. Today, the organization and its We Day events feature prominently in the media, attracting thousands of students and prominent speakers and stars. It boasts a network of engaged youth; it raises millions in donations; and Oprah Winfrey is a big fan. Amazingly, this growth has much to do with the drive and leadership of 35-year-old Dalal Al-Waheidi.
Dalal has always been a little unconventional. As a young student in the conservative Gaza Strip, she spoke out against the lack of extracurricular opportunities for young women. In fact, it was a speech she gave about that gap, in her strong English (which she credits with dutiful TV-watching), that first attracted the attention of a visiting Norwegian minister. Impressed, he spoke to the Palestinian education minister about the possibility of Dalal attending the Red Cross Nordic United World College, a unique IB school that draws students from all over the world.
Boarding school. Co-ed. In Norway. No parental supervision!
Needless to say, the decision was not an easy one but she credits her family with being somewhat unconventional themselves. Despite what the community would say, she says her parents saw her palpable, jumping-up-and-down excitement and gave their blessing.
“They always wanted us to try things, even if for one time, so at least you can say you’ve done it…. It gives you experiences.”
That was the start of Dalal’s independent life, but it would not be the end. After boarding school, she got a full scholarship to attend Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., where she studied international development and political science. Toward her studies, she spent nine months in Ecuador working with indigenous street children.
Soon after graduating, Dalal interned at Free the Children, the organization famous for its 12-year-old founder, Craig Kielburger. The nonprofit’s holistic approach, domestic engagement, and youth empowerment resonated with Dalal’s own ambitions and values.
Not long after that Dalal became Free the Children’s Executive Director, and it was at that juncture that she decided to move back to Gaza temporarily. She laments that in the 12 years before, she probably saw her family for the equivalent of a year or less. Not able to keep still, and despite officially resigning from her job, she started up FtC’s first girls’ education and empowerment program in the MENA region while there. One can almost hear her responding to her younger change-seeking self.
Despite having been away for so many years, Dalal is still very much connected to her Arab identity, and credits her unique background for her drive. She witnessed war in Kuwait, where her family lived before moving to Gaza, and also experienced the Intifada and atrocities against her people which affected her deeply. “You learn you have to do it on your own. As a Palestinian, there’s not always solidarity from other Arab countries.” Her determination, her tenacity and independence, she says, have much to do with those difficult experiences.
She also feels passionately about being a woman in her field, suggesting that women bring something different to the table. “It’s not about being caring, loving … we read situations quickly and adapt very fast.” Women are often great networkers and are socially intelligent, she says. While it’s both a blessing and a curse, she proposes that women often have a harder time setting boundaries, which also means they end up pouring more of themselves into their work.
Despite all her success – she is currently Executive Director for Global We Day (Free the Children); was honoured with Trent’s Distinguished Alumni Award; and has been named one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women (“future leaders” category) – Dalal is still on the move. She thinks about one day leading her own Middle-East-based foundation whose core mission is to integrate community service with education for young people. “We start talking about leadership too late in the game; it should start at the primary, middle level.” She touts the “staggering” positive impact of service learning on the community, citing data that shows changing social attitudes, better connections within families, and greater civic engagement, all of which she has witnessed first-hand.
And ultimately, her goal?
“To raise a generation of young people we want to see in the world.… I think we’re focusing more on the challenges and we’re missing the opportunities.”
Spoken like a true leader!