School is back in session, bringing with it new opportunities, fresh outfits and accessories, and a chance to set new goals. For model and activist Noëlla Coursaris Musunka, it’s a time of year to encourage her kids to excel in their studies, and to be just as focused giving back and expressing themselves, too.
Coursaris Musunka has made service to others an integral part of her everyday life since founding the Malaika Project, an organization that provides schooling opportunities to Congolese girls, in 2007. And she’s setting an example for her children, James, 12, and Cara, 8, to do the same. She recently sat down with us to discuss her biggest passions—education, family, and, of course, fashion—while marking the beginning of the academic year with her kids, who modeled Versace Children’s new eyeglasses and sunglasses at Casa Museo Lodovico Pogliaghi and Santa Maria del Monte in Varese, Italy. If the first-ever junior collection from Versace Eyewear is any indication, the semester is off to a vibrant start. Here, our conversation with Coursaris Musunka.
ELLE: If you had to choose one word to describe yourself, what would it be?
NOËLLA COURSARIS MUSUNKA: I’m a builder. I was able to build who I am, both personally and professionally, through commitment and perseverance. I am a very active and determined person; I’m stimulated by and attracted to change. I built both my modeling career and my organization from the ground up. With the latter, I’m working to build future generations of leaders in my country.
How did you turn your dream for the Malaika Project into reality?
NCM: I founded Malaika in 2007 in Kalebuka, the village I’m from in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a non-profit organization that offers girls the opportunity to receive an education and high-end healthcare. Malaika means “angel” in the Swahili language, and our mission is to give these girls wings so they can spread them and take flight, leaving disadvantageous situations behind. We give them the inspiration and skills to face any challenges and be competitive in the workforce. And we teach them values including commitment, empowerment, and thinking out of the box. The students also gain overall proficiencies in everything from food education to computer science.
How has your experience in the fashion industry impacted your activism work?
NCM: My modeling career plays a complementary role to what I do with Malaika. It’s given me the opportunity to partner with fashion brands to deliver and amplify positive messages that really resonate. And all of the advertising campaigns that I take part in are in line with my values and convictions.
What challenges have you faced with Malaika, and what have been your biggest accomplishments?
NCM: Despite the support of the Kalebuka community, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all that needs to be done. It is a constant challenge, and the struggles of fundraising have escalated with COVID. But it is so rewarding to watch these girls grow and develop their dreams and ambitions. Some of them don’t have a bed or electricity at home, and it’s touching to see the happiness and gratitude in their eyes. I realize I’m making a concrete impact every time I do something like visit one of the 28 wells we’ve built to aid in the country’s water scarcity crisis. We’re celebrating the foundation’s 15th anniversary this year, and next summer our first class of girls will be graduating. I’m so excited and proud.
Based on your first-hand experience, how would you describe the power of education?
NCM: Education determined who I am today—it’s what pushed me to overcome borders, reach my goals, and take control of my life. That is my mission with Malaika: to empower younger generations through education. I lost my father when I was 5 years old, and because my mom didn’t have the resources to keep me with her, I left Congo to go live with some of my relatives. I came back when I was 18, and I was committed to helping foster the social revitalization of my country.
Do you think education can truly change the world?
NCM: Absolutely! This is particularly evident in Kalebuka, where we’ve been able to change many lives. Our students range in age from 5 to 18 years old, but Malika’s impact goes far beyond the girls themselves. It extends to their families, who can participate in the community center’s activities and learn how to read, write, use a computer, and sew.
Is there a fundamental principle you try to instill in your children?
NCM: Above all, to be kind. We live in a world where kindness cannot be taken for granted, and it is often underrated. I teach my kids to care about others and help as much as they can. Cara and James make me so proud in that regard. They’ve created small organizations with their friends to support people in need, providing them with food and clothes. I’ve always involved my kids in what I do so they can understand the value in it and be inspired. I’ve also taken them to Congo many times since they were born, because it’s important to me that they know and understand their origins. I want them to feel at home not just in London, but also in Kalebuka.
Now a question for the kids: James and Cara, are you happy to go back to school?
CARA: We can’t wait to see our friends! [Editors’ note: they confessed that they really didn’t miss the early morning alarm.]
What lessons have you both learned from your mom?
JAMES: To never give up. And to always look at the bright side of things.
CARA: To follow your passions, and to always look people in the eyes when they talk to you.
You both modeled outfits and eyewear from Versace Children for our shoot. Which looks were your favorite?
CARA: The maxi-sweater and fuchsia sunglasses. I would like to be a businesswoman when I grow up, and those clothes made me feel that way.
JAMES: The jacket and sweatshirt combo, along with the black sunglasses. I really liked the street style of that outfit and I was completely comfortable in it.
Noëlla, which look stood out most to you?
NCM: How can I choose just one? I fell in love with every outfit that Cara and James wore today. The clothes were so lively and rich, expressing the best of the kids’ personalities without forgetting about comfort. I definitely loved the glasses most, and the fact that they’ve revisited Versace classics for both sunglasses and spectacle frames. The iconic ‘90s “mini” version is playful, smart, and casual.
Is there something you love most about the style of Versace?
NCM: I’ve always been a fan of the brand’s audacious style and its values, like the importance of family, inclusivity, and freedom of expression. For me, Versace’s Medusa [logo] represents a symbol of strength, self-confidence, and courage.
When you think ahead to your kids’ future, what are you hopeful for?
NCM: I would like to see them happy and accomplished, no matter what path they choose. I want them to become honest, loyal, and generous human beings. Malaika is my third “child” in a way, and I’d like for it to keep growing and helping people. The foundation has become an ecosystem in all possible senses, with the goal of expanding to different branches of society and territories. We plant seeds every day, and I look forward to reaping the mature fruits in the future.
This interview has been translated and edited for clarity.