Dalal Al Waheidi, Executive Director, WE Day
By any unit of measurement, Dalal Al-Waheidi has come a long way.
A childhood split between refugee status in Kuwait and Palestine eventually led to a high school scholarship in Norway. A passion for international development brought her to Trent University in Canada before sending her off to Ecuador to monitor projects on the ground. And an internship with WE—back in the days of Free The Children—started a 15-year journey to a seat at the head table, steering the WE Movement.
There’s a saying: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. In Dalal’s case, her childhood contained all the notes that her life would later strike.
She grew up affected by war. She experienced marginalization and deprivation, studying through power outages and air strikes. She saw friends married off or forced to stay home to take care of siblings, their dreams stifled under the heavy burden of responsibility. And she held on to a glimmer of hope in the form of her education to unlock doors for her future.
Those experiences established the themes that have come to define her life and her work: advocating for young people, fighting racism, advancing education and championing young girls.
Fresh out of university, her internship with WE saw her doing everything from youth outreach and data entry to stacking chairs after events. It taught her that no job is too small—and that every role is an opportunity to learn.
Soon she was leading her own program as the International Projects Director. She brought the youth empowerment strategy that had already transformed lives in Kenya, India and Ecuador to communities across the Middle East and North Africa. Working with teenage girls in Gaza and Tunisia, she helped develop strategies to improve their leadership skills and tackle gender issues in their communities.
Now the Executive Director of WE Day, her job is to answer one of the most important questions facing an organization destined to change the world: what’s next?
Leading a passionate team of 85 people, her sense of justice learned from childhood and the skills she picked up over her career are guiding the movement inspiring young people everywhere to get involved and make a difference.
WE talked to her about building WE Day globally, working with young people on behalf of young people and her most important role—being a mother.
Question and Answer
Looking at the arc of your career, what lessons can young people just starting out draw?
I feel like I’ve had nearly half dozen careers here since I started in 2002! I started at WE as an intern doing data entry. In my 15 years here, I’ve carved my own path, largely because I pushed to create roles that didn’t exist before.
It was the work in war torn and developing countries that first drew me to WE. So I learned from everyone I encountered, grew as a person and an employee, refused to accept “no” as an answer—and as a result, I found myself bringing WE programs to girls in the Middle East and North Africa for the first time, empowering them with opportunity and education.
Now, I manage a truly incredible team and especially take pleasure in mentoring young women, helping them grow into strong leaders. But that’s only possible when they recognize their own value and learn to advocate for themselves. Be confident: you are not an imposter. You are capable and you should fight for the job that suits your strengths and fuel your passion.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Khalil Gibran wrote, “It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” That message is at the heart of what I do—and it’s at the heart of WE Day. Seeing it come to life, seeing young people give back to their schools and communities, seeing parents get involved in raising a generation who cares, seeing entire schools take on massive development projects in communities around the world, it fills my heart.
But it’s also the smaller moments that I take pride in. In my role, I meet families across the country who truly live WE. They bring issues into their homes, discussing them over the dinner table. They volunteer together and donate to causes for their birthdays. They seek out ways both big and small to make a difference every single day.
I have been with WE since 2002 and I have watched this movement grow and gain momentum, from thousands of students to a global force of millions of young people, families and teachers. Seeing the impact they make is the best part of my job.
You lead a young team whose goal is to engage even younger people. What’s it like working with millennials?
When the WE Day senior leadership team gets together for our first planning session of the season, sitting in a second-floor glass-walled boardroom, nearly everyone around the table is a millennial.
The generation that we’re told is “lazy” and “entitled” organize 17 stadium-sized youth empowerment events reaching more than 200,000 young people in three countries. They work with world leaders and leading celebrities to inspire young people. They negotiate major contracts with sponsors allowing companies that care to give back. They create educational and inspirational content that changes lives.
Through the hard work of these amazing young people, in 2016, they collected 2,179,612 pounds of food for local foodbanks, supported 6,840 different local and global causes and volunteered 7,675,000 hours.
What does diversity in the workforce mean to you?
I think creating space for others is one of my main roles. I am passionate about diversity at WE and if you look at the number of women in senior leadership positions in the organization, we’re doing very well. But it’s not something we take for granted. I try to consciously make space for people to share and to grow, to foster voices from different backgrounds who’ve had different experiences. It’s not enough to want to change the world—we need to make sure that change is representative. And that’s why diversity matters.
It’s through diversity that we find our strength. Our diversity of ideas, background and experiences are what makes us successful.
How did becoming a mother change you and your role?
Before I had my daughter, my idea of motherhood was a mix of other people’s opinions and stories. It was memories of my own childhood and half-recalled promises about what I’d do differently. It was assumptions and judgements. It wasn’t real.
Then Zeina, my daughter, was born and suddenly it was.
It was more, in every way—that’s the best way to describe it. More challenging, more rewarding, more consuming, more exhausting, more beautiful.
Being a mother recommitted me to this work, because all mothers want what’s best for their children. That is the universal dream of motherhood—and I see it in the mothers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting across Canada and the mamas we work with in developing communities.