This 24-year-old is passionate about issues that matter to children and youth
It’s not every day you meet a 24-year-old executive director, but Neria Aylward isn’t your typical 24-year-old.
The newly appointed executive director of the Jimmy Pratt Foundation has an impressive resume: she completed her master’s degree in development studies at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and her undergraduate degree in social anthropology at Cambridge as a Blyth Scholar.
She’s a fierce community advocate. Her most recent advocacy involved lobbying against government funding for offshore exploratory drilling as a member of the Coalition for a Green New Deal.
But right now, she says she's really excited to work with the Jimmy Pratt Foundation, an organization that works with governments, researchers and community organizations to inform evidence-based policy that improves outcomes for the province’s children.
“If we’re giving kids the best start in life that we can, we’re really investing in our province’s future,” she said.
“It’s really exciting for me to be put in a leadership role with something like this, because these are things that were directly affecting me not that long ago, and I think it’s really meaningful that the board chose someone young to be leading these kinds of initiatives.”
Aylward replaces outgoing executive director, Robyn LeGrow, who according to a news release from the foundation, is changing careers after more than a decade with the foundation.
1. What is your full name?
Neria Leigh Aylward.
2. Where and when were you born?
Toronto in 1996, but when I was 13, we moved to St. John’s where both of my parents’ families are from.
3. Where do you live today?
4. What’s your favourite place in the world?
My family has had a cabin in Newtown since I was really young. I love it there. And Windmill Bight — I feel like I’m giving away a bit of a secret there — but the beach is phenomenal. It’s really my happy place.
5. Who do you follow on social media?
I have such a toxic relationship with social media. I delete it at least once a year because I spend too much time on it. But what always keeps me coming back are the food accounts because I’m always looking for new things to cook, and there are such great cooks on Instagram.
6. What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I love reality TV. I’m obsessed with it. I got really into it when I was living in England because they have this fantastic reality TV show called "Love Island" that goes on every night for the entire summer. So, ever since, I’ve been a huge fan. I follow all my shows, I love knowing about what celebrities are up to, and it’s a bit incongruous to the kind of work that I do.
7. What’s been your favourite year and why?
2019 and 2020 have been really good for me. Really hard, also, in other ways. I mean, in huge, obvious ways they have been difficult, stressful, and there’s been so much upheaval, but I decided not to do a PhD at the end of 2019, and move home to St. John’s, and I’ve been able to start doing work that I’m really interested in, and that I really value. And that feels important. So, it’s been a game-changer for me. I love living at home, I love being close to nature. And so, while it’s been in so many big ways a horrific year, in terms of my day-to-day life, it’s actually gotten a little bit better.
8. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
The hardest thing was moving away to England when I was 18. I got a scholarship to go to university, and on the one hand it was amazing, and I was expecting it to be amazing. But because I had so many fairytale ideas of what it was going to be like, the reality of it was very difficult — especially for the first year because you have that transition to university, which is difficult for everyone, but it was also really difficult socially and emotionally being so far away from home, and being in a completely different culture that we often think is much more similar to our own than it actually is. Often, I felt really isolated.
9. Can you describe one experience that changed your life?
Moving to England. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve done, but it was really the most life-changing because it opened up my world. I got an incredible education, but kind of more importantly, I got to travel, I got to live in a place with a different culture. You realize the things that you grew up with aren’t the only ways to live your life.
10. What’s your greatest indulgence?
Expensive restaurants. I love the atmosphere, I love the food, I love trying new things. I always can’t afford them, and I’m always so stressed when the bill comes, but it’s my greatest indulgence.
11. What is your favourite movie or book?
One (movie) that I watch every year around Easter is “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
12. How do you like to relax?
I love to cook. Prepping the vegetables, and putting it all together — it’s very meditative.
13. What are you reading or watching right now?
I’m rewatching some old seasons of RuPaul’s “Drag Race,” and I’m also really into “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.”
14. What is your greatest fear?
The most enduring fear I have is climate change. It terrifies me, and I think that it’s something that older generations just might not even understand — like, growing up with this threat of looming environmental disaster that you have no real power to control.
15. If you had to perform karaoke, which song would you choose and why?
I love “Fancy” by Reba McEntire — there’s so many words, but I try to get them all out.
16. What is your most treasured possession?
I don’t know if you could say it’s a possession, but my dog, Penelope, is amazing. She’s a little, red Jack Russell. She’s been my sidekick since I lived in England.
17. What physical or personality trait are you most grateful to a parent for?
The physical trait that I am least thankful to my parents for is from my Dad who gives me very fair skin, red hair and a high risk of skin cancer, but I am most grateful to my Mom, who is half Indian, and protected me from that so far — I tan, I don’t burn, which is very unusual for people with hair my colour. So, it’s a zero sum game.
18. What three people would join you for your dream dinner party?
My Mom’s dad and mom because I never really got to meet them as an adult. My grandfather passed away before I was born, and my grandmother developed dementia when I was in my early teens and then passed away pretty soon after. My grandmother was from India, and my grandfather was from England, and I’d love to be able to get to know them, and to understand what brought them here, and the stories that they have. The third person would be my brother because he could benefit from this as well, but he’s also the funniest person I know.
19. What is your best quality, and what is your worst quality?
I’m quite generous. I like to do things for the people I love. My worst quality is that I’m definitely a little bit obsessive sometimes. I’m very driven, and I can really lose the forest for the trees — I can really get stuck with the small stuff, and it’s kind of just the way my brain works, but I can often get myself tied up about things that ultimately aren’t very important.
20. What’s your biggest regret?
Forgetting how to speak French. I went to school in French until I was 12, and I really didn’t think it was very cool, and spoke English at any opportunity. I used to be bilingual, and now I can understand French, but I can’t speak it. I feel like it’s a huge part of my history that I kind of lost because I just didn’t think it was cool when I was 12. So, stay in French immersion, kids.
• Note: Responses have been edited for length
• Juanita Mercer reports on climate change and municipal issues in St. John's.