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Paper Crown Founder Katie Carlson on Social Enterprise & Kigali, Rwanda

Paper Crown Founder Katie Carlson on Social Enterprise & Kigali, Rwanda

It can be a huge, life-changing decision to uproot yourself from home and venture halfway across the world to start somewhere new, and for Katie Carlson that somewhere was Kigali, Rwanda. 

Originally from Vancouver, Katie first found the beauty of Rwanda on an exploratory trip as part of her degree and found that equality and opportunity between the sexes and the possibility of building up the female spirit were all within reach in this quickly growing city.

Ever an advocate for women's right and a supporter of gender equality, Katie branched off from her art and film background to create her Social Enterprise, The Paper Crown Institute, where she works with the women in Kigali's communities to be able to reach out and spread knowledge, information, and empowerment to other women in their towns. 

Katie, along with her work with Paper Crown, has become a global ambassador of sorts; Living out her dreams far away from home, making a difference in the community, and supporting fellow women to do the same. Read her story on how she got started below.


How did you get started in your creative career?

I had always been a feminist activist since I was about 17 but I didn't articulate it as such at the time. I got involved in a lot of campaigns around gender equality, women's rights, and other social issues, and as I have a long background in the arts (theater, dance, film, creative media, etc.) I used those as outlets as well to express my feminist perspective, performing in shows like the Vagina Monologues and being a burlesque dancer for a few years in Vancouver, right when it was emerging as an art form there.

I started studying gender when I was 17 and from there I couldn't stop. I went to film school for my bachelor's, and worked in television for a few years afterward; my main interest was using documentary film to tell stories about global issues, social justice issues, but the longer I worked in the industry the more I felt the need to be on the ground out in the world trying to make change. So I started exploring what my dream job would be, and they all generally required a Masters degree, so I went back to school for international development studies, specializing in gender. I came to Rwanda in 2011 for field research for my thesis and moved here permanently in 2012. It just seemed like the perfect fit for what I wanted to do, which was to support women and girls to have equal rights and freedoms, but to also holistically change community attitudes and beliefs around gender roles, involving men and boys as well.


What gave you the motivation to start the Paper Crown Institute?

I was working for a small social business at the time and it had some components of gender work but not in a targeted or strategic way which is what I was really looking for. I had become very familiar with the gender networks in Rwanda, as the country is pretty small and I've been living in the capital city Kigali which is also quite small relative to other major cities, so I had good networks in the field.

I became inspired to run my own workshops with adolescent girls, just to try it out and see what would happen. Adolescence is a crucial time for girls because so many things change in their lives and they become particularly vulnerable for a variety of reasons, including dropping out of school around the age of 15, teen pregnancy, sexual violence, menstruation and other issues that are difficult for them to manage, especially in a developing country setting.

I love working with young people and I wanted to help educate and inspire them outside of the traditional public school system approach. I had faith that the process would unfold organically and take me where I wanted to go career-wise. So I started giving workshops for free at secondary schools in Rwanda, focusing on gender and leadership, and being very interactive in nature, engaging with the girls, giving them space to talk about these issues in their lives, and the feedback I got from them was that these discussions and the space and time that we created to talk about these issues was so valuable to them and they wanted more.

So at that point I decided to make it official in a sense and register a nonprofit social enterprise in Canada and also register a domestic social business in Rwanda, under which I could do consulting as a specialist in gender, but I could also fundraise and offer programs and projects to girls in Rwanda at no cost to them through the Canadian nonprofit side. 


What were your thoughts/feelings involved in moving to Rwanda?

Rwanda is a beautiful place, both within the people and the unbelievable landscape. It truly is the land of a thousand hills, I always say that wherever you're going in Rwanda you're either going up a hill or down a hill and you always have a beautiful view. When I first came here I was amazed at how clean and safe it was, very well run and almost zero corruption, and I knew that I could make a life here and be comfortable and happy.

There are so many tremendously inspiring things about the country, The fact that just over 20 years ago there was a genocide where nearly 1,000,000 people were killed, and the millions of people that survived that have managed to rebuild their lives despite the trauma and heartache they have had to endure, it was just beyond moving and beyond inspiring for me, and the longer I live here the more I am amazed every day at the incredible transformation that Rwanda has undergone.

Since the genocide in 1994, the country has literally risen from the ashes, By coming together through ideas of national unity but also through incredibly strong political will at the top under the leadership of the current president, Paul Kagame.


How has Paper Crown come to involve and empower the community?

Paper Crown has worked with different communities since we started "officially" operating in the Rwanda in 2013 under that name. We have worked with adult men (at their request, as part of community organizations) engaging them in discussions about gender roles and combating gender-based violence, we have worked with hundreds of adolescent girls in different parts of the country, looking at building their skills, their capacity, and their sense of personal self-confidence to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve in life.

We have also worked with adult women in a "training of trainers" approach last year in Kenya, to teach them the basic gender education and leadership workshop, which they then have taken back to their countries to teach two other young girls in their own communities (those countries include Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, the DRC, and Rwanda).

All of our work is based on engaging regular people in participatory workshops and activities that are meant to challenge people's beliefs and ask questions, to encourage people to think critically, and to look at all the areas that affect gender roles and particularly for adolescent girls, looking holistically at the important skills and key information they need in life to be able to grow up to be successful and confident young women; those skills include understanding what gender is, understanding gender-based violence, learning about leadership, networking and career building skills and also learning about the importance of mentoring and being active in your community, both as a role model and as a leader.

These focus areas have been developed as a result of specific requests we received from adolescent girls asking us to tailor our work around areas they felt they needed the most capacity building in, which were not being addressed in other spaces in their lives, such as public school or church. In our cornerstone project in Rwanda, known as The Uwicyeza Project, we actually have the girls working in teams after six weeks of training and they go out into their communities and engage their communities under the oversight of young women mentors and they further spread what they've learned and build their confidence and inspire others by engaging their communities directly. We think that's a major part of both building up an individual and also building up a community.


Being from Vancouver, and relocating to another place was a big move. What made you fall in love with Rwanda and decide to make it your home?

Besides being a really beautiful place, as a gender specialist it really made a lot of sense to put down some roots in Rwanda, because the government is very committed and very progressive in it's thinking on gender equality and empowering women and girls to have the same rights and freedoms and opportunities and support that men and boys have.

In a way, the country really sees gender equality as a major opportunity for further developing the nation and achieving social and economic progress. So all of the government ministries and different government bodies / agencies, as well as other organizations working in the country, generally have a very high regard for efforts made to transform social and behavioural norms around gender inequality and to try to become a truly gender equal nation.

Working as a gender specialist here, there is a lot of support and acceptance of the idea of increasing rights and freedoms and opportunities for girls and women, so it's very motivating to be working in an environment where you can see that your efforts are being embraced, and even very much encouraged, by some of the most influential people in the country. It inspires you and makes you want to keep going to achieve the change that we know we want to see so that women and girls can have a higher quality of life.

This work is really my passion, and it became my career, which is a happy marriage I have to say, so for now, Rwanda is really the best place to achieve my dreams.



Full Interview on Hayo Magazine.

All Photos: Katie Carlson

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