“I am someone that needs to work for a purpose. If I am not working for a good cause, I feel frustrated that I am not doing anything…. I really do want to leave an impact.”
Balkis Chaabane distinctly represents someone who strives to create a positive impact in her community through a commitment to organizing, civic engagement, and education. Currently, she is the Youth Engagement Community Practice Advisor of USAID (United States Agency for International Development), Regional Director of World Youth Alliance, and Selection Committee Advisor of IREX (International Research & Exchanges Board), but describes her work as an interdisciplinary effort that goes beyond just her professional titles. She earned a BA in English with a triple major in linguistics, literature, and civilization, but discovered that her true passion lies in international affairs, conflict resolution, peacebuilding, training, and facilitation. According to Balkis who has been especially focused on empowering the next generation of activists, “All of these things have really allowed me to have a set of skills that are quite diverse that I can use working with youth.”
Balkis grew up in Tunisia at the height of the Arab Spring and the Tunisian Revolution and had consequently been exposed to how activism and community organizing can leave an impact on something larger than oneself. “I think all that has definitely [created] the person that I am today,” Balkis said in our interview. “...because growing up and witnessing dictatorship. And then witnessing the country transition into a democracy and all the things that came with it and the difficulties.” Living through conflict is immensely challenging, and it is often difficult to fully consider all the nuances of the people and populations involved in conflict-ridden countries.
At a young age, she gained an understanding of current events and the history of the Middle East, which she attributes to one of her biggest inspirations - her father. “He has been the one that is telling me about all these things that are happening in the world since I was little, to be honest. I always say by the age of 12 I knew everything that was going on in the Middle East. And that made me passionate to learn more.” Ultimately, living through these events is what sparked Balkis’ mission to find resolutions to these types of conflicts on a professional level. “We need to do something, we need to change the narrative,” Balkis says.
Through the work that she does via her many professional and voluntary roles - one noteworthy goal Balkis has is to become a peacebuilder. Peacebuilding is an interdisciplinary practice that aims to resolve injustice in nonviolent ways and transform the cultural and structural conditions that generate deadly or destructive conflict (United Nations). Since there are many variables to assess in peacebuilding work, it can be extremely challenging to create lasting unity in intense conflict. Therefore, an important aspect of peacebuilding is creating sustainable solutions that will work in the future. Balkis notes, “First of all, you have to understand the history behind the conflict, you have to understand the cultural background of the people and to also really understand all of the foreign powers and different countries and laws that contributed to it. So, it is quite complicated.” Due to the complexities of these conflicts, she stresses that shortcuts should be avoided.
Ultimately, solving a conflict that only yields a short-term solution has the potential to create an even more developed conflict in the future. Balkis outlines a two-pronged approach to achieve peace. “First of all, it is not the people it is the government, and even if the people voted for that government, they probably didn’t know a lot about [what] those governmental officials had in mind or wanted to do or what their agendas actually were because we all know when they run for office it is one thing, but when they actually take the office it is a whole different story. [Second,] And also people need to understand that, at the end of the day, another person living in that country is a human being just like you who is trying to survive on a daily basis in whatever state that they are in and under certain restrictions.” This is the power that governments tend to exert over their constituents, promising one thing but delivering something else. Ultimately, their influence in already destabilized regions can turn people against each other, people who may come from different backgrounds or cultures but, at the end of the day, are trying to survive like everyone else. With 5 years of experience working in the non-profit sector, Balkis has a greater understanding of the functions of the industry and is using her experience and knowledge to found her own project - the Leading Impact Institute.
In her mind, the Leading Impact Institute will be a “think and do tank” that has an emphasis on not only brainstorming and research-based analysis but providing real solutions that can be implemented in everyday life. “Our vision is to create a more sustainable world, where information is accessible, and every person’s potential is fully explored and equal. This came with the frustrations that I have faced, and so I knew at one point in my life that I needed to start doing more…” In practice, Leading Impact Institute will provide research, learning resources, and certified training to the public for free, with a specific focus on creating a more just and sustainable world through education, international development, social change, and leadership.
As her project is still in the early phases, she is treating the organizational framework as, “led by youth, empowered by experts.” At the core of this idea, Balkis acknowledges how experts can be helpful and even invaluable but emphasizes that keeping youth at the center of decision-making is ultimately the most important aspect of this organization. She explains, “when you hear ‘think tank’, it is usually led by a board of professionals, and focused on people with more experience. This is what I wanted to change; I did not want to limit myself to that being the only framework. I wanted to create a space where you work in an environment that is like a family and provides equal opportunity to people that will work in the Institute.” She hopes that the Leading Impact Institute will maintain and grow its influence to eventually provide recommendations for policy and peacebuilding in areas of conflict.
Balkis acknowledges that although they have their work cut out for them to achieve this goal, she’s committed to finding creative solutions to the complex issues that have affected and continue to affect millions of lives, including her own. When asked about how she got started, her response was simple, “starting this organization was just an idea, and I just decided to get started.” She sees this as evidence of how one can make a bold impact - get started, and you will be surprised at the results that one can make. Even if the idea is small right now, it has the potential to grow into something bigger.
Chaabane, Balkis. Interview. Conducted by Nikhil Inalsingh, 1 February 2021.
United Nations, Peacebuilding Support Office. Peacebuilding: An Orientation. September 2020.