Farewell, with love – Sheila Ruiz
Posted on 23rd March, 2021 in News
Endings inevitably evoke reflection and nostalgia, and more so when they come after almost a decade of learning and growing within a close-knit organisation. It is with a heart full of gratitude that I am writing this farewell post as I prepare to move on from the Royal African Society to an exciting new role within the EMEA Community Partnerships team at Facebook.
I joined RAS as the Events Programme Coordinator on Monday, 12 September 2011 – the date is etched fondly in my memory and I remember my first week as if it was yesterday. I was thrilled to join the organisation and make my mark in terms of enhancing its public events programme and bringing in new, diverse audiences – as I had done for the Africa Centre where I worked previously.
Before then, I had worked at RAS part-time in 2005-2006, providing administrative support after completing my African Studies MA at SOAS, but the organisation I joined in 2011 was very different. The team had grown substantially and new initiatives had been developed, namely African Arguments, launched earlier that year, and Film Africa, due to host its inaugural edition in November.
During my interview for the job, I remember pitching the idea of hosting an annual African literature festival. My proposal was enthusiastically received and a year later, during the summer of the London Olympics in 2012, we held the first Africa Writes at SOAS, featuring rising literary star Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie as the headline author. And so our popular cultural festivals began. Since their inception, both festivals resonated with audiences, going from strength to strength with each passing year; and their education and outreach strands eventually gave rise to the launch of a pivotal Education Programme in 2016, which is now core to our charitable mission.
Over the past 10 years, the Society has changed and expanded to become a much more inclusive and accessible organisation. Although our vision and mission have remained broadly the same, our different activities and programmes have made our work increasingly relevant and appealing to a growing number of people both in the UK, Africa and beyond. The diverse make-up of our current team is reflective of this change too, as is the impact that we are having across the different areas in which we operate.
Just in the past two years, we have made huge strides. Our APPG for Africa inquiry report on Visa Problems for African Visitors to the UK published in 2019 and our policy briefing on Mental Health in Africa published in early 2020, following a major conference on the same topic, contributed to positive changes in UK government policy within UKVI and FCDO respectively. In 2019, we also published a research report in partnership with the British Council advocating for more contemporary African arts to be programmed by UK cultural institutions, and later launched the inaugural Lifetime Achievement in African Literature Award at Africa Writes. In the midst of the pandemic last year, we adapted our plans and hosted a hybrid edition of Film Africa, bringing a selection of the best contemporary African cinema to UK-wide online audiences for the first time in partnership with the BFI Player.
If I look further back in time, I would be able to recall many more instances where our work has had a positive, lasting impact; and there will inevitably be several other initiatives I could not list, but which indeed emerged as a result of some of the many important activities and gatherings we have held in the past decade. For example, the other day during a meeting with Dr Aliko Ahmed, a director at Public Health England, he kindly let me know that the Africa-UK conference we held back in December 2011 on Mobilising the Diaspora for Better Healthcare in Africa was a catalyst for the creation of the Better Health for Africa Initiative, a network which he co-convenes along with Dr Titi Banjoko who sits on our Council. It was such a pleasant surprise to find that out after so many years.
Fortunately, we have now become much more aware of the importance of documenting and evidencing our impact, and we are getting better at doing so. This is very much in line with our overall organisational development since 2011 when the charity started working much more strategically. Though a lot of our recent programmes began in a very organic way, our approach to developing them further has been very well thought-out and intentional.
With the help of external consultants and facilitators, we have also done a lot of work over the past decade to join up the different new parts of RAS and meaningfully link them up with our core charitable remit. Consequently, RAS is today a much more wide-ranging, but cohesive, organisation that offers a comfortable home to all its different programmes.
The other crucial aspect of this ongoing work is that it involves all members of the team, which is just so necessary and fruitful. As a small organisation, coming together to discuss things collectively and get on the same page is of utmost importance. I feel very proud of the culture of openness and inclusivity we have built at RAS, and this has really been a team effort with input from all staff. I have learnt a lot from my colleagues over the years and am certainly going to miss everyone in our wonderful team, but I leave with the certainty that we will remain comrades for life.
Beyond the team, I will miss the many partners and individuals I have worked with over the years, including our many speakers and contributors – and our interns and volunteers too, who diligently help with the behind-the-scenes tasks that support all our work. Our partnerships have been central to our success at RAS and some of these professional contacts have become good friends along the way too, which has been a great gift of the job.
RAS has also gifted me many memorable moments, which I will cherish forever. I remember the care I received from colleagues when I was pregnant; the many critical insights and pieces of wisdom I have gained from our hundreds of speakers; the super fun parties we have held as part of our festivals; the challenges we have overcome by sticking together as a team; and the many, many lessons learnt.
Overall, working for RAS has been a very formative experience for me – from starting out as the Events Coordinator to becoming Deputy Director, my 10 years within the organisation have significantly built me up professionally. The main lesson I have learnt is that strategic and collaborative leadership, effective team work and strong partnerships are the three main components a charitable organisation needs to thrive. RAS now has all three firmly in place, and I leave knowing that its future is in good hands.
It has been an absolute pleasure being part of this small but mighty team, which constantly delivers in partnership with others, and I very much look forward to staying in touch. I am also very excited to start working with new partners and community leaders across Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, applying all that I have learnt at RAS in my new role at Facebook.
For me, this is not a goodbye as such, but – as one would say in Spanish, my native tongue – hasta luego! I definitely plan on being a RAS Friend for life and being meaningfully involved in the charity, starting with the 120th anniversary celebrations in June and Africa Writes later this year.
Photo credits: Liam Dickson, Benjamin Elwyn, Ivan Gonzalez, Siddharth Khajuria, Sarah Nwafor, Joyce Nicholls, Amos Ruiz, Yves Salmon, Uta Steinwehr and others.