For Black History Month, we honor and celebrate the fabulous black feminists and wonderful womanists who continue to build the feminist movement and bend the arc of history toward justice. Today’s Fantastic Black Feminists are Mercy and Nyasha Chikowore-Mercy is the current Communications Manager at the Washington Area’s Women’s Foundation and a public relations specialist whose work has been featured in The Washington Post and SoulBounce.Com. She also serves as the Executive Director of ColorComm LLC, a network of women of color in the communications field aimed at creating space for mentorship, connection and community. Nyasha is currently a full time doctoral student in the D.C. area and is a contributor at WillDrinkForTravel.Com, a lifestyle and travel blog dedicated to combining “the love of traveling and seeing new places with the love of unique and native spirits.” Our Spring 2017 intern, Henrieta Muradzikwa, conducted the interview.
In today’s world we live in extremely sheltered spaces where people fear travel and venturing beyond their “homes”. Both of you have travelled far and wide from childhood to now, where have you lived and how has that experienced made you the women you are today?
Nyasha: We were born in Tokyo, Japan, grew up in New York City, Harare, Zimbabwe, and Geneva, Switzerland. From Switzerland we went to South Carolina for college and we currently live in Maryland. I couldn’t imagine who I would be today if I hadn’t grown up traveling. I have friends from different countries, I can communicate, at least at a basic level, in 2 other languages, and have been exposed to different cultures, religions, and foods. Traveling has given me the confidence to talk to anyone about anything. You can put me in a room with celebrities or a room full of diplomats and I think I can hold my own quite well. If I had only lived in one bubble my whole life I couldn’t imagine how stagnant my views of the world would be today.
Mercy: After traveling to Japan, Zimbabwe, Switzerland and living in various states in the U.S., I am just thankful our mom let us tag along. A colleague recently told me about a study with inner city children, when they were asked to draw the world – they drew their neighborhoods, corner stores, homes. When other children were asked, they drew countries such as China or continents like Africa. I’m just grateful to have experienced more than one neighborhood, city, state and country. It’s made me appreciate how unique we are as human beings but also how much we all value the same things –love, laughter, family, friendship and the list goes on. Living in different countries has also made me a better communicator and a social chameleon if you will – I can blend into any environment with no problems.
It has become a trend this series to ask each black woman about her hair, luckily I have you both. Nyasha, what made you go natural and how has that journey been for you? Mercy, your dreadlocks are breathtaking to say the least, what made you want to loc your hair and has it been an obstacle in the job market?
Nyasha: What made me go natural was seeing friends in college who did it and their hair looked healthy, and amazing. Mind you it was the early 2000’s so we were still into the box relaxers of the ‘90s. I found online forums that discussed natural hair, since YouTube wasn’t a thing back then. I took the leap in 2004 and thought I looked like a boy initially but slowly got more comfortable with my hair. It definitely helped increase my self-esteem regardless of what others thought of me. I got some not so great reactions in the beginning, and I still get some interesting comments today (my fave: “When are you going to get your hair done?”).
Mercy: It took me a while to go natural but once I did, sometime in 2010 I think, it wasn’t a huge transition for me. I was never tied to my hair but I also knew that relaxers were slowly but surely damaging my hair. I started my journey by getting twists but I also knew I needed a different style from my sister so I picked locs. Now that was a transition. It was pretty tough in the beginning because my hair looked like the perfect picture of struggle but my locs have really blossomed into something I never imagined. I get compliments from literally everyone (men, women, all races), which has been amazing. More than the compliments, my hair and scalp are healthy and I love my own hair. I haven’t had any obstacles with my jobs when it comes to my hair because work in great environments where they truly let me be me, locs, piercings and all.
You were raised by what I would call a “self-made Zimbabwean woman”, how has the Zimbabwean culture shaped your views and thoughts on today’s social inequalities towards women especially when the majority of business spheres are male dominated arenas?
Nyasha: I think we were lucky to be raised by a highly independent mother, and were surrounded by many of her friends and our aunts who were like-minded. I think their independence was the standard for us, so I never grew up thinking that a woman’s place was anywhere other than running things (thanks Mom!). Considering we hopped around, I can say that I took carrying yourself with respect and being respectful towards others to heart from Zimbabwean culture. The Zimbabwean women I know are highly intelligent and aren’t concerned with glass ceilings so in a sense the inequalities weren’t apparent to me until moving to America and hearing the accounts of others.
Mercy: Our mom is beyond amazing, but I don’t think anyone is truly self-made. She has a great community of other powerful women. What I learned from her is that it’s key to surround yourself with women who believe in you, who serve as a sounding board, give you new ideas or criticize your bad ones and inspire you to think outside the box. My mom also had a strong father who believed that she could do what she put her mind to and encouraged her to travel and leave Zimbabwe at a time when women weren’t readily given those opportunities. Because of watching her and being around her fierce community, I surround myself with powerful and creative women all the time, from work, to social organizations and more. Now that I work at the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, I really get to encourage women to aim high and the organization helps remove the hurdles that especially affect low-income women and girls. As far as male-dominated areas in business, I think there are still ceilings to break and offices to infiltrate but the men that I’ve worked with have been some of my biggest supporters. The ones who aren’t will soon feel the lack of diversity in their bottom line.
Would you both describe yourselves as feminists and if so, how does it reflect in your daily lives?
Nyasha: I identify more as a womanist than a feminist for various reasons. As a therapist and future psychologist I have an affinity for working with people of the African diaspora and want to do my part in improving mental wellness for my people. I would think that in my position as a therapist I passed on some of the wisdom I received from my mother and her crew to my female clients. I found myself having numerous conversations about increasing self-esteem, dreaming past graduating high school, and not doing things just because a boy said so. I also tried my best to counter the negative messages about themselves that they are given by society, whether through adults, friends or social media.
Mercy: Sure, I’m a feminist. I think more than wearing the title, I do. I serve and help women 24/7. Whether I’m telling our partner’s stories at The Women’s Foundation, executing events with ColorComm: Women of Color in Communications, planning panels and getting local ambassadors for the African Women’s Cancer Awareness Association or serving as a mentor to three female college students – it’s all in my actions. Women truly run the world, and I’m glad that I can tell our stories, inspiring women to connect with other women and get new contracts, clients, jobs or more. There’s no question that I’m a woman’s woman and just want us to all be great
Who is the “Alpha Twin”?
Nyasha: I think we’re both alphas in our own way, there’s a balance.
Mercy: Whatever Nyasha said!
You both represent a cluster of identities ranging from little girls in Zimbabwe to aspiring students in Geneva and here in America, what words of advice would you lend to them when it comes to the “Big Bad World”?
Nyasha: Take advantage of all the opportunities presented to you. Take learning French seriously and keep in touch with all of your friends.
Mercy: Don’t take anything for granted and be intentional, enthusiastic and 100% present in everything you do.
You both appear in a handful of panels discussing hair and the beauty of blackness. Mercy you recently attended the Black Love Experience, do you mind sharing what that is and what the experience was like? Nyasha, you also modeled for the Love the Hair you wear project, how was that practice?
Nyasha: I think it’s great whenever anyone decides to highlight the beauty of black people. Black empowerment is not a novel idea but I think we’ve recognized a consistent need for it as time has gone on, especially considering the politics of the country, past and present. We should always know that we are beautiful, we are resilient, and we matter. If we can celebrate ourselves through hair I’m always down to participate.
Mercy: The Black Love Experience brought together performance artists, visual artists, independent creatives, entrepreneurs, and kindred souls under the canopy of all things Black. We celebrated our blackness through expressions of music, poetry, live art, body wellness, and creative commerce, and it was pretty epic. I served as an ambassador and used my social media skills to highlights different aspects of the event and the beautiful brown people who attended. Any time I can participate in highlighting my people, I’m there. I do it for the culture.
It may sound silly but as twins, do you guys have superpowers like twin telepathy and extrasensory perception?
Mercy: I often describe it like the relationship between you and a best friend. You already know what your friend will say, how she’ll react or that she hates twin questions. So no telepathy here but I admire those who have it.
What obstacles have you faced and how did you overcome them?
Nyasha: I think the main obstacle is getting over the fact that life doesn’t always happen the way you think it should. If my 16-year-old self could see what I’ve accomplished at 31, I don’t know how impressed she would be, but I hope she would give me an E for effort. I haven’t fully overcome it yet; I think it’s probably going to be a consistent fight. Taking it one day at a time seems to help. I think another obstacle is being in the mental health field. It’s not a particularly sexy field so I’m trying to figure out how to make it more appealing to the masses. That too is a work in progress but transitioning back to being a full-time graduate student helps me focus on that goal more than I would have been able to as an employee.
Mercy: I think every day there are so many hurdles that women face, that people of color face, that immigrants face. Put all of that together and you have a smorgasbord of f***ery. Life has been interesting and brought unique challenges but I constantly remind myself that it could always be worse. I’ve learned to move through life with a positive attitude and a smile on my face (after crying of course – gotta let it out). We could all feel sorry for ourselves but at the end of the day, the best thing you can do is to help yourself. As a publicist, I often hear ‘no’ or get no response at all. I’ve had clients question me just because I’m a woman of color. I’ve had artists’ managers curse me out just because they felt like it. I choose to laugh and move on. My profession really has given me thick skin and I’m excited to continue growing and getting better at my craft. At the end of the day too, people are always watching. The things we go through help and inspire others, and you can’t beat that.
We here at Feminist Campus extend many thanks to Mercy and Nyasha for sharing their stories and their work with us for Black Herstory Month! This is our last interview in the Black Herstory Month series, but that doesn’t mean that Black Herstory ends here! Every month black feminists make black herstory and every month is Black Herstory Month. Thanks for joining us for the Black Herstory Series and thank you to all of the brilliant black feminists who shared their stories with us over the month!