In the fall of 2014, Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) presented its inaugural 20 under 35: Young Professionals Changing the World Awards, honouring young adults from Canada and the U.S. for their "faith, entrepreneurial spirit and service." Ethan Eshbach, coordinator of engagement initiatives for MEDA, explains, "20 under 35 connects the values behind MEDA's work around the world to those of young professionals here in North America.” Canadian Mennonite is featuring profiles of the Canadian winners.
Gumani Kenneth Tshimomola nominated Siera Vercillo for Mennonite Economic Development’s (MEDA) 20 under 35 award because he saw her passions and MEDA’s qualifications matching so closely.
Neither Tshimomola, a South African, nor Vercillo, a Canadian, are Mennonite or connected with Mennonites, except for the work they were doing in Ghana. Ghana is the home of MEDA’s Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (Grow) program. GROW uses market-driven approaches to focus on improving food security for families in Northern Ghana. Women grow soybeans for their own families, improving protein for them. As well the crops fix nitrogen in the soil, improving fertility, and the women can sell the excess.
Vercillo knew of the MEDA GROW program as she worked in Ghana with Engineers Without Borders Canada helping develop extension services for smallholder farmers. She is very excited about MEDA’s work there as women increase their ties to markets, something they did in pre-colonial times. Empowering the women to do what they want with their lives fits with her passions for gender, racial and income equality. And Ghana has a place in her heart—she chose to do her PhD studies at Western University in London, Ont., even though she had invitations from other schools as well, because there is a group of Ghanaian women working there in the geography department. She is excited about collaborating with these women.
Vercillo feels that this group of women also encourages her in finding support for herself to be able to keep on attending to her passions. A Roman Catholic by upbringing, Vercillo finds that the religion of the Ghanaian women supports them to live in harmony with each other and to keep calm. It’s having the same effect on her. Up to now she has been funnelling her anger and frustration into her work and has managed to stay “mostly progressive.”
She sees “inequality as the greatest challenge in the world today.” This leads to people not being able to live their lives as they see fit. With over 1 billion people hungry in the world, and only 1 percent of the world’s population living in wealth, she sees a catastrophe happening before her eyes.
Her PhD studies are focused on agriculture, business, reducing inequality, and ensuring fairness and justice. In Ghana traditional crops and small landholdings have been replaced by larger farms and crops for sale, resulting in poverty in communities that were once self-sufficient. Hunger, poverty and stunting are on the increase, even though people are making more money. Seemingly the quality and quantity of food for the farmers has decreased. The situation is complex, as one would think that more money would result in better nutrition and life but this has not. Vercillo’s work is done by collaborating with women, consulting them for what they want and need.
As the first person in her Italian immigrant family to study at the graduate level, she sees her PhD as “for the family.” She has an opportunity, a privilege to ask questions in her studies, to develop tools and skills for higher level thinking, and to question the status quo in regard to development in the world. While her degree will probably lead to teaching, she wants to keep on going back to Africa to work with people there as well, testing ideas with those who are to benefit from her studies. As a white North American feminist she wants to create space for African women and men to share their thoughts, stories and needs.
Vercillo has a Masters in Gender and Development from the University of Sussex (UK), and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Toronto. There she led the responsible investment changes made to the University’s multi-billion dollar investment fund.