A Decade-long Journey in Youth Activism: Nathaniel Canuel’s ‘Up With Hope’

An incredible journey that has transformed parts of Kenya, Grese Sermaxhaj charts the rise and rise of Up With Hope.

Nathaniel Canuel left his home country, Canada, in search to make a positive social impact and went volunteering in Nairobi, Kenya. 

Wanting to help young leaders build physical space within informal settlements, he co-founded “Up with Hope” (UWH), in 2008.

Today, more than a decade later, he reflects on his journey, by saying that he feels lucky and grateful that he moved to a country as amazing as Kenya, learned a new language and was accepted by people who will remain friends for the rest of his life. 

Together with other youth activists, Canuel has made significant contributions to public space and waste management and has established many youth-led waste management facilities, social halls, information technology centres, community gardens, soccer fields, and other income-generating projects.

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Up With Hope: Nathaniel Canuel (left)

In this exclusive interview with Youth Time, he digs into his journey of hard work and determination, his volunteering and biggest challenges faced to this day.


Making the World a Better Place

Initially, he explains that when he started Up with Hope, he wanted to do more than build something and just leave.

“Fortunately, and without question, we left a legacy in the community. Have we made an impact? Yes. Is there more we can do? Of course, UWH journey is not over. Once the pandemic is over, there will be new projects. 

“I find it challenging to discuss the success of the project because of the magnitude of issues still facing young people in the settlements.”

He believes what they accomplished is like a drop in the bucket when you look at the big picture.

“At least we can wake up every day and say, “We are trying to make the world a better place.”

He acknowledges he had very rewarding experiences, like hosting the United Nations (UN) Secretary General. Yet, there were also troublesome times.

“Having to bury many of my colleagues whose lives ended far too early. So much tragedy. For a young person in informal settlements, life is incredibly hard. 

“There are so many challenges people have to overcome every day.”

He will always be proud of the choices he made as a young person to make a difference in the world.

“The person I was when I started volunteering and the person I am now are two completely different people.”


Honouring an Incredible Legacy

Canuels’ path cannot be described using solely singular nouns. He found many friends and supporters in Kenya.

Canuel and his colleague, Kaka used to say that they could die tomorrow, yet in the future someone will use the spaces they built.

“Having built the physical spaces and created an actual change in the community was always a sense of pride for us. So many others just focused on meetings and research.”

On this note, he reminds one of his friends who used to say to him “Much talk; less work”.

“There is so much time wasted discussing solutions that are never implemented. Those words are always in the back of my mind.”

Another benefit of the projects they established is leadership.

“When a child as young as four years old helps to build space in their community, even if it’s with a paintbrush or merely moving a stone, they feel like they are a part of it. 

“As they grow, that space becomes more important to them because of the sense of ownership they develop.”


Holding the Power to Change Lives

Looking back, Canuel says there are some huge positive things from their work.

“Although we had a huge team of supporters, for many years I was the accountant, labourer and documentarian, so we could fundraise money and direct 100% of it into the community. 

“Those were the most crucial times, when we had money, ready to build and invest. It was apparent that young people can do more than be a burden on society.

“We have the power to change lives. We have the power to change the landscape of the community.”


An Award for the Whole Community

Their model of youth led spaces became the lighthouses in their community, when given the chance. 

Hence, the UN started sending them around the world to showcase their success in youth led development.

“We really tried to lead by example so other young people could see that if you give back to society, a lot of amazing opportunities come your way.”

One of Canuel’s most treasured days was when Kaka received the scroll of honour from the president of Kenya at the UN headquarters.

“When he won that award, he won it for all of us, for the entire community.”


Unity is Strength

In this short documentary, Canuel’s peers in Kenya talk about the positive impact his help has had in their communities.

He describes this feeling by mentioning that once he gained the trust of the community, his life changed completely.

“Learning Swahili, the local language, was by far the most important way to show respect and care for the community. 

“Once I learned the language, the door was wide open for me. The more I was treated like a brother, the more I was impassioned to make an impact. 

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Working Hard: Up With Hope doing repairs on a soccer field.

“Working with amazing community leaders, accomplishing goals, I never would have thought possible in my early days of volunteering.”

He believes everyone involved had different strengths and so when they joined; they were unstoppable.

“In Swahili they say, “Umoja ni nguvu” (Unity is strength), and we are the living proof of that.”


Youth Activism

Volunteering absolutely changed his life.

“Without it, I don’t know where I’d be today. I am stronger, more focused and hardworking. I have a greater awareness of the complexity of issues facing this planet. 

“The list of things I’m grateful for is endless. I have been so fortunate to meet the most inspiring people on the front lines, people working against great odds because of their socio-economic conditions, yet fighting every day to make the world a better place.”

He believes people like himself who come from a place of privilege should absolutely have to give back to society.

“Those of us, whose lives are free from fundamental challenges, have an obligation to contribute to our society. 

“Go collect garbage on your streets. Go collect blankets and clothes for people who don’t have homes. If you don’t have time to take action, donate money to an organisation you respect.”

“Don’t just take. Improve this planet.”


Finding Sustainable Funding as a Challenge

He never paid himself from Unity With Hope, and financial insecurities challenged his long-standing activism.

“All those funds went to paying people’s daily wages and covering the cost of materials. I (often) had to hustle to pay rent. 

“By profession, I am a videographer, so in order to survive I had to constantly look for projects.

“Running a non-profit and trying to keep up a career is challenging and finding sustainable funding was a challenge.” he adds

Most of their funds came from art shows and fund-raising parties in Canada that raised thousands of dollars, allowing them to invest in projects.

“When we finally had the United Nations take notice of us, we had a lot more attention and became a lot busier, but still weren’t able to employ people.”

To support Canuel visit this Patreon page for one of their centres fighting COVID-19 and follow his blog at www.upwtihhope.blogspot.com to find out when he has any upcoming projects.

From East Africa let’s travel to West Africa and see how a young activist is transforming agriculture in Ghana.

The Aquaponics Initiative: A Young Activist Transforming Agriculture in Ghana

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