Sadaf Shallwani

Sadaf Shallwani, PhD

I seek to work alongside people & communities to create & use knowledge for social justice.

  • I am an established global childhood researcher and professional, with a unique combination of experience and expertise in academic research and professional practice focusing on young children, families, and the contexts within which they exist.
  • I abide by a strong belief that research and knowledge must be grounded in context and socially relevant, and that attaining knowledge comes with the responsibility to share that knowledge, act for change, towards social justice, equity, community, and sustainable living.
  • I strive everyday to be anti-racist and fight for equity and inclusion. I believe in and strive to integrate an ethic of pluralism into my professional and personal life. I also passionately believe in the importance of community connection and civic engagement.
  • I have extensive experience working in Global South and Global North contexts, including Asia, Africa, and North America. My international (outside of Canada) experience has been primarily through my work with Firelight Foundation (2014 to present) and the Aga Khan Foundation (2008 to 2012).
  • My doctoral thesis examined the quality of early primary environments at government schools in Pakistan, and how these early learning environments affect young children’s educational outcomes. I received my PhD in Developmental Psychology & Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

I have training and experience in the disciplines of education, social work, and psychology. In addition to Canada, I have worked in various Majority world contexts – primarily in Pakistan and countries in eastern and southern Africa such as Kenya and Tanzania.

My work through these different lenses, and in these different contexts, has deepened my understanding of the complexities of childhoods, families, and communities; and the need for research and theory to be contextually grounded and socially relevant. My research, theoretical, and professional work is driven by and guided by these notions.

I am interested in research, theory, and practice in a range of areas: early childhood development; early education (pre-primary and primary, and notions of ‘school readiness’); and human development in family, school, community, and broader social contexts. I am particularly interested in deconstructing and reconceptualizing mainstream notions of development and functioning.

My academic, research, and professional work are guided by values of social justice, equity, and human rights, including the rights of children.

Current professional work (updated June 2021):

Currently, I am the Director of Learning & Evaluation at Firelight Foundation.

  • Firelight supports community-based organizations (CBOs) in eastern and southern Africa that are working with their communities and other stakeholders to mobilize impactful and lasting community-driven systemic change for children and youth.
  • My role includes leading the development and operationalization of a responsive and enabling learning and evaluation strategy for Firelight, and working with our Africa-based team examine the impact of our work on organizations, communities, and children and families.

Some of my current projects include:

  • A 3+ year inquiry and learning journey into understanding how CBOs and communities themselves define effectiveness and success, and how funder partners can be better supports and allies for impactful and lasting community-driven systems change.
  • Mapping studies on child rights and wellbeing at the community level in three countries (Zambia, Tanzania, and Malawi) to capture a country-level snapshot as well as dive deep with communities and children themselves on:
    • what it is like to be a child in their community,
    • the ways in which communities support and protect children’s rights and wellbeing,
    • the areas where children’s rights are at risk, and
    • how communities can and do advocate for and effect change to improve children’s wellbeing.
  • Thought and practice leadership at Firelight around how we and our CBO grantee-partners shift power closer to communities, further strengthen our model of support to our CBO grantee-partners, and otherwise operationalize our collective understanding of community-driven systems change.
  • I also support my amazing team members who are –
    • Working with CBO grantee-partners in Malawi working to end child marriage in their communities to: understand and surface systemic issues and root causes, participatorily define what success means to them, participatorily develop and collect data on indicators that are meaningful to them, and collectively analyze and make sense of learnings.
    • Establishing a new initiative in Zambia and Malawi where we are supporting CBO grantee-partners to mobilize community-driven systems change to improve nurturing care for children and ultimately early childhood development outcomes.
    • And much more. 🙂

Current community engagement and service (updated June 2021):

  • I serve as the Strategic Planning and Policy Lead for the Diversity & Inclusion Portfolio at the Ismaili Council for Canada. My team and I seek to understand, unpack, and provide guidelines and recommendations to disrupt/ improve/ revamp institutional systems, processes, and programs so as to dismantle barriers, marginalization, and exclusion, and improve equity, inclusion, and pluralism.
  • I am part of an active network of BIPOC evaluators and researchers from around the world. I am working with a small group within the network to develop a mentorship/support initiative for early career POC professionals and researchers.
  • I moderate and support groups on social media focused on social justice and the nonprofit sector, such as the Canadian Non-Profit Happy Hour group on Facebook.
  • I serve as a peer reviewer for a number of international conferences, including the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES).

Please feel free to get in touch with me around shared research interests, discussions, professional opportunities, and more.

Sadaf Shallwani