PHILANTHROPIST is a title often painted with too broad a brush stroke, but not so when applied to Elisa Sednaoui. Born to an Italian mother and a French-Egyptian father, Sednaoui is primarily known for her work as a model—with campaigns for Diane von Furstenberg, Roberto Cavalli, and Giorgio Armani under her belt—and she also boasts an extensive film repertoire. However, Sednaoui’s dream has always been to become a cultural diplomat. Today, at 28, Sednaoui is refocusing her career and stepping into the all-encompassing life of a social activist as CEO of the not-for-profit organization, the Elisa Sednaoui Foundation (ESF). Vogue Arabia’s Philippa Morgan speaks to Elisa Sednaoui to uncover the ESF’ two-fold empowerment strategy for women and children in Egypt, Italy, and beyond.
“Gender equality is a global problem. I see it in Italy, in Europe—not just in the Middle East. The foundation is not about challenging traditions but rather activating social change through its work,” Elisa Sednaoui passionately explains. “The facilitators that I’ve hand-picked and trained are both men and women. They are paid equally. It’s about merit,” she adds. Sednaoui’s polyglot abilities (English, Italian, Spanish, French, and Arabic) lend a lyrical tone to her voice. “Culturally speaking, male facilitators are used to leading situations. I’ve had to step in.”
“‘I know you want to lead, but when it’s her turn to, she leads.’”
The Elisa Sednaoui Foundation is a fluid cultural organization led by locals and headquartered in Luxor, Egypt. The men and women who operate it are employed, trained, and sponsored to facilitate after-school creative programs for children.
“I grew up in Egypt, so I had some roots in communities, and that’s how I started to find the people to build this project with me from the ground up,” shares Elisa. She describes the long process of sourcing staff, and the lengthy networking and negotiating with families to obtain permissions for women to join the foundation.
ESF aims to expand to become part of the fabric of Egypt’s national education and further gender equality. “We bring people and children together through the arts, with non-traditional education, as well as teach foreign languages, and literature,” explains Sednaoui
“It’s been a very hands-on process,” she smiles.
Game-like community arts classes prove to be the perfect foil for Sednaoui’s desire to foster social equality, empower women, and further listening skills in underprivileged communities. The foundation’s pilot program launched mid-April 2014 in Luxor, where Sednaoui fondly recalls spending her formative years. “I grew up there and I remember being 11-years-old and curating a community art exhibition. I’d cycle round to friends’ homes and collect paintings, or pictures they’d drawn, and I’d commission themes from different people,” Sednaoui recalls.
“I made a decision when I was seven months pregnant to focus on the foundation, and maybe this will be my entire life’s work.” Its debut missional project launched with a creative workshop, bankrolled with money Sednaoui had set aside. The team called it “Funtasia” and taught local children how to write and record a song through facilitated play. While the foundation was founded in her namesake, Sednaoui cringes when she hears her name, “That’s just what I called it when I created it legally-speaking. I don’t want it to be about me at all.”
The foundation nurtured Hanaan Mohammed in the role of a lead facilitator, and trained her as she completed a computer studies course. Following her phoenix-like flight from a small village in Gourna—her childhood dream to be a heart surgeon dashed by difficult family circumstances—through perseverance and opportunity she secured a fulfilling career. “Every time I feel like giving up, I remember there’s hope for the future to be beautiful,” shares Mohammed.
“We live in a world that likes to hear about impact and numbers, but we are talking about humans. Real people in complex cultures. We can only achieve results with time and care. That’s not utopian thinking because I’ve seen it time and again through the work,” concludes Sednaoui with conviction.
Learn more about the Elisa Sednaoui Foundation and find out how you can join the community launching creative activities for children here.