Eddie Ndopu is a South African activist and a United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Advocate who has worked closely with Amnesty International and the World Economic Forum.
Ndopu is seeking to join forces with the UN, world leaders, and the private sector to establish a Global Access Fund — with the goal of mobilizing at least $1 billion to boost existing initiatives in countries around advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Decade of Action to achieve the Global Goals by 2030.
Here, Ndopu shares his journey into activism, putting disability on the global agenda, and how his ideas of activism, what it is, and what it can be have evolved through his journey.
You can read more from the In My Own Words series here. And you can sign up to join the Global Citizen movement in taking action to defeat poverty and defend the planet in a way that’s equitable for all here.
American philosopher Dr. Cornel West once said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” This statement resonates with me deeply. Activism, the act of demanding justice on the behalf of others, is love made manifest. It’s a form of radical love, really, and leaning into it with empathy is akin to writing love letters every day to engender change on issues that I care about, in communities that we care for. I feel incredibly humbled, privileged, and equally heartened to be able to think about what it means to make change in the world.
My introduction to activism was informed by my experience as a human being who entered the world born with the degenerative disability spinal muscular atrophy. I had to advocate for my needs as a disabled kid and insist on being treated equally like my non-disabled counterparts. Eventually, as I grew up in Namibia and then in South Africa, I became a big leader and an activist in the formal sense, because I started realizing that on the African continent where I am from, very few young people with disabilities are accorded access to basic education.
It dawned on me that I could have become a statistic so easily. As many as 90% of children with disabilities across the global South have never seen the inside of a classroom. The deep desire to live a big, bold, and full life fuels my work as a disability rights activist.
My activism has culminated in me living the life that I want children with disabilities everywhere to live. When I graduated from Oxford with a master's degree in public policy and became the first African with a degenerative disability to do so, it wasn't just a personal achievement. It was a symbolic victory for all of those disabled kids.
Activism is an act of service and a necessary and complementary component of service delivery and program development. We tend to speak about activism as though it's this abstract endeavor to change the world, but activism is also about embodying the insistence on space to be a full human being. I learned that at the young age of seven, when I became the only wheelchair user in my school. I’ve also learned over the years that it can be extremely challenging to advocate for yourself, because part of advocating for yourself comes from the recognition that you are on your own. I have often found myself in spaces where I was the only one –– the only Black, queer, disabled person in a room –– and that often still tends to be the case.
Sometimes, when you find yourself in situations like that, you are acutely aware that advocacy is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. We advocate for our survival. We advocate for our humanity. It can feel like a massive burden sometimes; there is an emotional weight that accompanies the recognition that I need to do this right in order to exist. My very existence becomes a form of resistance. Therefore, activism is crucial for survival.
I want to be able to move through the world freely as a wheelchair user. In one way, ramps can help me do that by facilitating my entrance into a building, but they alone don’t make a space accessible. What makes a space accessible is the freedom, the connection, and sense of belonging that wheelchair users feel when we're in that building and we all come together and are treated with dignity. We cannot think that just the installation of a ramp in a building is actually going to facilitate freedom for disabled people.
In the world of international development, it sometimes seems like there's a standard for vulnerable people, and then there's a standard for everybody else. Everybody else can aspire for more, but when we work with marginalized communities, it’s like they need to be content with the bare minimum and basic building blocks. Advocacy enables me to challenge these notions. Admittedly my advocacy work has evolved over the years; I started out focused on legal recognition and equal rights. Those things are important because they provide the conditions for equality, but are, on their own, insufficient for the pursuit of liberation.
Partnering with Global Citizen on the Global Access Fund is the great honor of my life. There are so many funds and programs that exist in the world, but there are very few that speak to the inherent dignity of people and the idea that striving for self-actualization goes beyond the logic of compliance and beyond ticking a box. It requires thinking about how vulnerable and marginalized communities are also entitled to further their lives. It sounds obvious, but it's not.
The partnership around this fund with Global Citizen is to say that people with disabilities are not a niche group. At the very top line, what the fund seeks to achieve is to plug the gaps where people with disabilities are being left behind.
There are so many cracks in terms of the global humanitarian system. People with disabilities are not adequately targeted in emergency response, for example. We're talking about 1.3 billion people — 15% of the world's total population.
The Global Access Fund is about saying, for the first time, that disability is part of the human condition. We've always been here, and we will always be here, and there should be nothing pertaining to the species that doesn't include people with disabilities. It's about really elevating the conversation and robustly putting this on the global agenda. I can't think of an organization that can do that better than Global Citizen.
I have had the great fortune of being associated with so many organizations, from the World Economic Forum to the United Nations, and I continue to value the work that they do. My work with Global Citizen will allow me to help bridge everyday life and public policy. Hopefully my contribution, however small that might be, will result in disability being put on the global agenda and taken seriously.
My own evolution now is wanting to feel free in everyday life. Global Citizen provides activists like me a glimpse of the ability to self-actualize and self-author so that we don’t have to compartmentalize — pop culture, art, and advocacy can go together.
I believe activism is about the work of the imagination. It's about envisioning a world that doesn't yet exist and going after that world. Sometimes what triggers our imagination is culture. It's art. It's music. It's everyday people coming together reimagining public policy and reimagining society and social discourse. That’s why I’m standing with Global Citizen’s justice and equity campaign to support the Recovery Plan for the World, to advance equity for all in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Activism can be dangerous work, both figuratively and literally. There are costs attached to it. Global Citizen opens up the definition of activism to be more inclusive and helps people see how they can get involved by operating at this intersection between pop culture, art, and public policy.
Global Citizen is giving people a platform for self-expression, enabling them to show up behind a cause that is deeply personal to them. It’s giving them the power to hold world leaders accountable and call on them to stand up for the most pressing issues we face today. The political is the personal, and the personal is political. All of these issues — gender equality, poverty, climate change — are issues we live through every day, and it is these issues that Global Citizen is fighting to address.
We need to get to a point where activists and advocates are taken care of, too. For all the talk around self-care and the importance of mental health, sometimes activists aren't afforded the kind of care that they need to do this work. They're left to their own devices, especially the activists that are on the front lines.
We should not take these people for granted. They need our support, they need our care, and they need, in some cases, our protection. These are the people who are the true visionaries of our society. They see things before the rest of us. They see inequality before we do. They see environmental degradation and the collapse of ecosystems before we do. Sometimes they're ridiculed and dismissed, but they have true vision.
The world that we're trying to build is really about creating more livable lives. While it may look like we're advocating for a specific policy or specific intervention that's very material and tangible, beneath that are goals that symbolize higher ideals from freedom to equality. It's never just about the law that we're trying to pass or the very specific petition, but it's really about what it might mean to exist as a human being in a meaningful way.
As told to Leah Rodriguez.
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