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A Word with Theodoros Chronopoulos

Posted 13 September 2023 in EMpower News   |   Share


Recently, EMpower’s President & CEO Cynthia Steele spoke with Theodoros Chronopoulos, EMpower’s Senior Programme Officer for Africa and Russia and Global Safeguarding Lead. They spoke about changes in the ecosystem, a call to action on mental health, and what he’s been most proud of during his nearly 10 years at EMpower. He will be leaving his position at EMpower at the end of the month and joining the C.S. Mott Foundation. Following are select excerpts.

I'm curious to know what changes in our ecosystem—the philanthropic sector—you find noteworthy?

One of the most striking changes in philanthropy over the last ten years, for me, has been the number of new entrants in the field and the new vehicles and tools they employ to pursue their objectives (Alliance Magazine did a special feature on this recently). And then, we have donors like Mackenzie Scott and Jack Dorsey with his #startsmall LLC and his famous Google spreadsheet, modeling a different way of thinking and giving. At the same time and while charting their own course in philanthropy, high net-worth individuals continue to wrestle with old questions around power, transparency, effectiveness, and whether one engages in philanthropy as part of a movement (as in the case of Leah Hunt-Hendrix) or as a singular entrepreneur. As the debate continues it’s worth noticing more carefully who is doing the talking and who is being listened to. 

Over the last ten years, we've also seen a growing realisation of the importance of working with young people ages 10 to 24, and we have seen more resources committed to them. EMpower has played a critical role in increasing awareness of the importance of investing in young people at this stage of their lives. 

I also think that funds for women and girls have increased considerably since the mid 2000s, with many more foundations and individual donors providing direct support and encouraging more comprehensive programmatic approaches.

In July, we had the most recent update from UNAIDS that shows how much progress has been achieved on HIV and AIDS over the last few years. The report also indicates that we're not doing as well with young women, especially young mothers or young pregnant women. It's worth reflecting on who's usually assumed to be included when we abstractly speak about “women and girls.” Are we thinking of them as whole persons or do we conveniently leave parts of their lives out of sight, mind, and programming? Are safe spaces safe for all girls and young women? 

Are we also thinking about disabled girls? Lesbian girls? Girls with behavioural challenges? Are with thinking about sexually active girls? Girls that occasionally engage in sex work? Young women and girls are not all the same. The material conditions in which they find themselves also differ. At EMpower, we have come to know this well, and we're trying to ensure that the varying needs of the multiplicity of young people that live in the 15 countries in which we work are addressed to the extent possible. 

To laser in a little bit on mental health—one of the issues that I know is dear to your heart—what's your call to action for funders? 

EMpower is one of the very few organisations in the development space that early on developed an understanding of mental health as a positive value, not a negative one. We all have mental health in the way that we have physical health; we need to learn to protect it in the same way that we learn to protect our physical health. This is an important shift which makes one think differently about our main areas of work. 

It still astonishes me that we often expect young people living in high violence communities and with multiple experiences of loss to do well in school, graduate, and secure jobs without offering them support to help deal with intrusive thoughts, anxiety, grief, and depression.

If I have a call to action, it is for more resources for mental health and better analysis. Much of this was included in the report we published in May. Resources are needed to build and staff institutional settings and to develop and strengthen community-based support. We need to do this thoughtfully, with a good understanding of local context and an appreciation of the varying needs young people have. We also need to develop approaches that fully address the interconnections between gender and mental health and to finally offer LGBTQI+ young people the support they need and deserve. The impact that growing up in a homophobic environment has on LGBTQI+ people is still underappreciated.

A key trend in mental health philanthropy is investing in apps and chatbots. I can appreciate how useful apps can be with specific categories of people or, for example, LGBTQI+ youth living in environments in which their lives and identities are subject to criminalisation. However, the more I learn about mental health, the more I realise that people need people. People heal through relationships in conducive spaces. I would urge new philanthropists, new investors in mental health, to identify and support approaches that bring people together as opposed to approaches that keep them apart or eliminate human presence outright. 

You can't cuddle up to your iPhone! Your iPhone isn't going to give you that sense of connection. Yes, one can get some sense of connection through online social capital, but the loneliness piece is real. 

Precisely! Taking this a little further, people also need meaning and purpose. There was a very interesting piece in the Atlantic this month which made some intriguing connections between young people’s persistent feelings of sadness, the rise of meanness and hate crimes, lack of purpose, and poor moral education. What I found particularly captivating was how many of the author’s recommendations are already reflected in the skills around which we have structured our mental health programme in South Africa: self-awareness, strength of character, forming positive relationships, self-regulation, mental agility, focus on what one can control and positive action, and seeing impact as specific and not pervasive. 

You've seen and shaped a lot of change and growth at EMpower. Can you share what gives you a sense of satisfaction and pride? 

I am proud about the way we have evolved our understanding about safeguarding within EMpower. I'm constantly surprised by how deeply our colleagues think about it and how they are working with their grantee partners to deepen those conversations. Our colleagues in East Asia have just flown with it. They've created tools and approaches that we can all use across the organisation.

I am proud to have been part of such a talented, thoughtful, and caring programme team at EMpower. I shall miss them very much.

Perhaps what has given me most pride is to see how our closest donors and supporters have evolved their understanding of EMpower’s work, how they have grown as philanthropists. I want to thank them for allowing my colleagues and me to walk alongside them on this journey. 

I think back to some of our grants meetings way back in the day when you first started and seeing how much evolution there has been. I see the growth and the change, and you have been such a huge part of it. 

One of the things that I'm grateful for is the trust that our Board of Directors are now placing on us—or have been placing on us for some time. That has changed many of the conversations. I hope that our Boards understand how much we value their trust and how their trust is also reflected back in our trust in them—because we all have a part to play.

Thanks, Theo. We are really going to miss you!


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