For Somali-American model, Halima Aden, fashion and activism go hand in hand. Only four years into her career, the 23-year-old already has enormous accomplishments under her belt, including becoming the first model to grace the cover of magazines from Essence to British Vogue wearing a hijab. Still, the model says it’s her philanthropic efforts, including becoming a UNICEF ambassador in 2018 that remain her proudest moments. Now, in partnership with water brand Vita Coco, Aden is celebrating Day of the Girl by helping to improve the quality of education for children in low-income coconut farming communities in the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Day of the Girl, declared an international observance day by the United Nations in 2012 and celebrated annually on October 11, brings awareness to gender inequality faced by girls around the world, including inequality in access to education, legal rights and medical care.

“We’re talking about ... a huge chunk of young girls that could potentially be our future leaders,” Aden says. “We want them to be future entrepreneurs, doctors.. enter the workforce. Investing in them and their futures, it's absolutely critical. I'm excited to, [along with Vita Coco], highlight, discuss and put the spotlight back on important issues like educating young girls, and putting them in the classroom.”

Aden’s partnership with Vita Coco as Chief Coconut Officer of the Vita Coco Project, a social impact initiative launched by the brand in 2012, began this year on World Coconut Day, September 2. Together, they are building dormitories and recreational spaces for children in the Philippines, some of whom presently walk nearly six hours to school, and are left to spend the week sleeping on their classroom floors. Aiming to provide safer learning environments for at least 1 million people in South Asia, the initiative has so far resulted in 30 safe classrooms and 80 scholarships awarded to top performing students, and has supported coconut farmers in the form of investments and training programs.

Ahead, EBONY got to talk with Aden to learn more about the Vita Coco Project, and why a philanthropic career aspect is so important for her.

EBONY: How does it feel to be Vita Coco’s Chief Coconut Officer and first global spokesperson for the Vita Coco Project, and why did you feel that this partnership was a great fit for you?

Aden: First of all, I think Chief Coconut Officer is the coolest title I’ll ever have on my resume! But then, when you really look at the mission and what Vita Coco is trying to achieve, its remarkable, and I’m so incredibly honored to be part of such an amazing organization and project. Vita Coco has been doing amazing work on the ground, supporting the communities in which they source their coconuts from. When it comes to who I want to support and which products I want to try out, I do my due diligence to see what the brand is about, what their values are, what their social responsibility is and what commitments they’ve made. Since the beginning of my career, I've always wanted to combine fashion with activism.

EBONY: What did you learn from this experience, in visiting the coconut farms?

Aden: I’m someone who drank coconut water and never really thought about the process of preparing it. It truly is a labor of love. Seeing the process makes you have a greater appreciation for all the hands the product has passed before reaching you. In the Philippines, a third of the population there are coconut farmers, so it’s a huge chunk of the population that brands like Vita Coco are supporting by investing in their farms. It's empowering and uplifting so many people out of poverty, and giving their children access to better education.

EBONY: When it comes to giving back and helping communities and people in need, what are some of the issues that most resonate with you?

Aden: In honor of Day of the Girl and being a girl myself, I would say education. I think that is a fundamental basic human right, and it breaks my heart that millions of young girls will never have that opportunity. I think that will be one of society’s greatest regrets if we don't do something about it now.

EBONY: How is your work in fashion and your work in philanthropy similar?

Aden: I’m so grateful and blessed to be the first hijab wearing model, and have hit so many amazing milestones in my career, but then I ask myself “Okay, what’s next?” For example, I just recently worked with the sustainable shoe brand Rothy’s, and it was incredible to see that this brand took something we all love, shoes, and made them using 100% recycled plastic water bottles. It’s good for our planet, good for people, good for business. I feel like fashion is in a very transformative cycle where it’s out with the old, and let’s rethink new ways to uplift our communities.

EBONY: Why was a partnership with UNICEF so important for you to take on? Can you share some of the work you are doing with the organization?

Aden: Just a few weeks ago we announced a partnership with Pandora and the Bob Marley family, remaking Bob Marley’s “One Love” song. For every dollar donated, Pandora pledged to match that up to 1 million dollars. In the earlier days of the pandemic, the first thing I did with UNICEF was the #YouCanLearn campaign. UNICEF believes in uninterrupted learning, even despite living through a pandemic.

EBONY: You’ve shared that though you were born in Somalia, you were brought up in Kakuma, a UNHCR refugee camp in Kenya, a motivating factor of your philanthropic efforts. What are some things many people don’t know about children in these camps and other low-income communities that you think they should know?

Aden: When you are a refugee, you basically don't belong to any land. No citizenship, and no rights. For people already in vulnerable positions, it just makes you that much more vulnerable. But I’m so grateful that I had Kakuma where it was 66% women and children. Even today, that number has not changed. With that huge number of women and young kids, it was very nurturing. What we didn't have in teachers and toys and things to nourish our souls and our minds, we had in each other. We had that liveliness of having multiple different mama bears to hold you, teach you and pass down that wisdom. I think if I could educate the world on one thing, it's that refugees need more than just pity. Despite me growing up in one of the largest camps, I can still honestly say it was a beautiful and joyful childhood, because that's just the resilience of the human spirit.