Feminist You Should Know: Meet Mwende Katwiwa!

By Carmen Rios
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By now, you know the story: after receiving hundreds of nominations for our Feminist You Should Know contest (and reading tons of inspiring stories which literally kept us awake at night for days), the Feminist Campus team was able to sift through them, sit down, knock our heads together, and decide on ten finalists! This was no easy task: every single nominee was the most amazing person we’d ever met so far in our lives. No lie. Our awe-inspiring crew come from a diversity of backgrounds, universities, regions, and perspectives in the feminist movement – and since it wasn’t possible for us to pick someone out of that batch ourselves, we posted blogs written by each of our stellar finalists about their feminist journeys and experiences and asked all of you – yes, you! – to pick your favorite.

We are gathered here today to say that the people have spoken.

Mwende Katwiwa is Our 2013 Feminist You Should Know! 

mwende-winner-photo

Mwende is a spoken word artist and activist currently based in Louisiana, at Tulane University. In her finalist essay, she wrote about reclaiming feminism as a woman of color:

Similar to the manner in which the Civil Rights movement marginalized women, the feminist movement in America was historically (and is, at times, contemporarily) riddled with the exclusion of the experiences and needs of black, brown and otherwise marginalized women. Through academic research and personal experiences, I came to the painful realization that feminism, and in effect the term “feminist” itself, was not something that was originally constructed as a space or empowerment tool for women like me. Rather than allowing this to discourage me from the movement, it made me more passionate about ensuring that the ideals of feminism were fought for on behalf of all women. Embracing the term became a form of activism in itself, a demand that if I was to claim the title as I had been encouraged to do, then the movement needed to similarly claim me and my experiences of womanhood as well. This is why I now embrace the term feminist and proudly attach it to the various initiatives that I take part on in campus and around New Orleans.

When asked why they were voting for Mwende, FC community members repeatedly called her “badass” and/or “the baddest bitch,” “the bomb,” “a boss,” “inspiring,” “my hero,” “genuine” and “authentic,” and “powerful.” Other responses included “Mwinny is the most creative and gifted flower I’ve ever met” and “Full disclosure, I AM MWENDE KATWIWA MWAHAHA.” Here are some of our favorite comments from folks who voted for Mwende:

Mwende is inspiring, not just to me, but to many people with whom she comes into contact. She is one of the most courageous and powerful people that I know, and I am sure she will make a great difference in this world.

It is about damn time the voice of a strong black woman was heard loud and clear, speaking sense and truths we have needed to hear for far too long. Mwende is that voice.

She is the truth. Mwende has an unstoppable energy that continually amazes and impresses me. She is a force to be reckoned with. She does the work that is often to hard for me and that I take for granted. Mwende inspires me to be the best woman I can. I don’t think she sleeps.

Because she’s the next Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, and the baddest bitch around.

Mwende is an exceptional human being. She is a poet you should know, a person you should know and a feminist you should know.

Mwende is an AMAZING young woman who has excelled at everything she’s put her mind to. I first hired her as a resident advisor 3 years ago and in that time she had grown so much as a leader, role model, and advocate. Mwende possesses a grace and maturity that truly belies her years. I am honored to know and to have worked with this young woman. The sky is the limit and she will most definitely impact many on her journey.

I’ve always considered myself an adamant and outspoken feminist, but Mwende has really inspired me to take that to the next level: activism. She gracefully embraces multiple sources of social injustices and makes poised and compelling cases for social equality through multiple mediums of expression including Ted Talks, her spoken word and her campus activism. Mwende is not just a feminist, but a leader, an activist, an icon and an inspiration! How could I not vote for her? Mwende for President!

What can be said about a woman who not only talks the talk, but walks it as well! I have seen and grown with her as she matured into a woman, an advocate and feminist! She deserves nothing less that the recognition and success that she has received thus far! The world is better because of Mwende, and those that she interacts with can attest to this statement! 

I’ve known this awesome woman since my sophomore, her fresh(wo)man year in high school. She was one of the people to inspire me to write poetry and we also worked together in a performance group. I was there when she was coming up with different stage names. SHE. IS. A. SUPERHERO. EVERYONE. SHOULD. KNOW.

SHE’S BRILLIANT. AND BAD ASS. AND BEAUTIFUL. and the world needs to hear her message.

Mwende is amazing!!! She’s so talented AND she’s the nicest most down to earth person I’ve ever met, I don’t know how she can be so caring to so many people even though she’s so busy. And she’s also never afraid to stand up for what’s right when there’s negative dialogue or events on campus, and I know she is creating a more positive environment at Tulane and in New Orleans. She’s so perfect.

She is a fierce spoken word artist who uses that medium to touch on numerous problems & challenges facing women, which in turn affects us all. Her courage and outspokenness challenges the established order, but also challenges everyone who hears her.

Mwende is an outstanding student and passionate feminist. She shares her enthusiasm through a number of campus organizations and through her Spoken Word performances both on campus and among the New Orleans community. Honestly, she amazes me with the amount she’s able to accomplish, her talent and passion. She’s definitely a role model and someone that many students at Tulane look up to and highly respect.

Mwende won by a squeeze out of over 2,000 total votes and over 200 initial nominees. To celebrate, we’re giving her free entry to the National Young Feminist Leadership Conference, a year-long subscription to Ms. magazine, and a feminist swag bag with a card signed by the team. We couldn’t give love just to one person, though, so we’re gifting every nominee with a subscription as well, and each finalist will also receive love notes and some feminist gear from the team.

We also sat down with Mwende to ask her five (OK, six) quick questions, helping in the process to move her from “Feminist You Should Know” to “Feminist You Knew When.” Here’s what she had to say:

Give us a bit of your backstory. What kind of work have you done? What are you doing now?

As an African immigrant to the United States, I grew up dealing not only with the trials of immigration, but also with the identity of being a ‘black American’, and much of my initial activism in film and spoken word poetry reflected this. As I came of age as a woman in this society, I began to get more and more involved in activism that as Feminist in nature. I became heavily involved in intersectional activism, community engagement and service in high school, and decided to take a year off before attending the University of Chicago to volunteer in a high school in New Orleans. This year of service was the first time I had been away from home for extended periods of time and it allowed me to develop my own sense of what it meant to be part of a community. For the first time after leaving Kenya I had found what I considered home, and found myself unable to leave the work I had begun in the city. Fortunately, I was given a scholarship to attend Tulane University, allowing me to pursue my education while maintaining my connection to the city that I wanted to do further engage as my community. This choice has given me the opportunity to continue and enrich my activism in various forms on campus and in the greater New Orleans community.

On campus, I am a Producer for The Vagina Monologues, a production made up of some of the strongest and most amazing young women I have met in college. I was in the show for two years and while I thoroughly enjoyed my experience, I also know that most minority women on campus did not consider the production their space or platform to voice their issues. I became a producer this year in order to combat that notion, and the Vagina Monologues leadership team this year has made active efforts to diversify the cast and reach out to all persons who identify as women to take part in this transformational and empowering experience. I sit on the Executive Board of the Black Student Union as the Chair of the 2014 Black Arts Festival. Having grown up seeing how art connected and spoke to different people with such ease, I elected to Chair the festival in an attempt to bring together the greater New Orleans community and Tulane University to interact with each other in a manner that is necessary yet does not happen often enough. Both the Vagina Monologues and the Black Arts Festival are reflective of my belief of the power found at the intersection of arts and activism by giving minority voices a platform for their arts and their selves.

In addition to my arts based activism and community engagement work, I also co-facilitate and serve as a mentor at a Girl’s Group through the Upward Bound program on campus. Through this enrichment and empowerment initiative, my co-facilitator and I meet afterschool with a group of young women from different high school and explore the personal, local and social issues they are facing. The group provides a safe space for the young women to learn about themselves and their (black) womanhood while providing them with information and resources to promote their personal, emotional and sexual health. I play a similar mentoring role for college-aged women on campus as a ‘Big Sister’ through the Newcomb College Institute and the Office of Multicultural Affairs (where I am also an Ambassador). Having originally come to New Orleans and Tulane University through community engagement and service, I maintained my commitment to community work in my earlier college years by volunteering regularly and taking clases that explored effective and sustainable service. After a series of service and community oriented internships, fellowships and academic courses on campus, I was selected as the inaugural Bruce J. Heim Foundation Student Service Fellow for Tulane’s Center for Public Service (CPS). Through this position, I research and match Tulane University students and groups with appropriate service partners around the city so they can perform service that is meaningful and responsible. This position allows me to assist my fellow students in engaging the greater New Orleans community responsibly while encouraging them to think about incorporating service and community engagement into their academic and career goals. I also sit on the Student Advisory Board for CPS which allows me and my peers on the board to award grants to students in need of financial support to support their community based initiatives. I also serve as the Service Chair for the Mortar Board Senior Honors Society, the first all-female honors society in the nation.

Off campus, I am a BlogHer with Winnovating, a D.C. based organization that profiles and interviews women innovators in efforts to bring their under-reported stories to light. I joined this group of amazing women led by Angie Pelzter (founder of the Global Women’s Network) at the start of the summer and we officially launched our site in August 2013. I am also a guest BlogHer with Melissa Harris-Perry’s Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South. This group focuses on supporting programs, courses and research at the intersection of gender, race and politics with the understanding that the intersectional nature of social issues does not allow us to tackle them separately. While I enjoy these writing positions, I found early on that my true passion lies in writing and performing Spoken Word poetry under the stage name FreeQuency. I write almost exclusively on issues of social justice and inequality, using my notebook to personify my beliefs about the power found at the intersection of arts and activism. My work can be found in several publications and I am the 2013 RAWNewOrleans Performing Artist of the Year, as well as the WhoDatPoets Rookie of the Year.

Professionally, I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to integrate my activism into my work. My year of service taught me that while grass level activism and service is important, it can be difficult to enact sustainable change without addressing the systems that create and support these inequalities in the first place. I have tried to complement my ground level community work and activism with efforts to address the larger systems from an institutional perspective. I have attended workshops and conferences hosted by the Public Leadership Education Network (PLEN), the only national platform to prepare college women for leadership in the public arena, securing an internship with them that allowed me to tap into the larger sphere of women’s activists in the policy arena. I have also spent time with international organizations such as the United Nations Population Fund, the World Trade Center of New Orleans and the World Affairs Council of New Orleans, which has allowed me to maintain a global citizen’s approach when I think of enacting institutional and large-scale change.

Who inspires you?

I am the most inspired by my mother Lucy Mule. Growing up, I always thought of my mom as a teacher, but the more I became involved in activism and community engagement, the more I realized that I was following in my mother’s footsteps. She has been responsible for exposing me to various spaces and sources of knowledge that continue to inspire my activism and poetry today.

 My mother has an ability to carry herself with the calmest demeanor yet command respect and attention without ever raising her voice. When she does speak, she rarely wastes words and effectively communicates her messaging in a way that different people can understand. She has an enviable ability to look past the details and see the bigger picture when things go wrong; never dwelling on the negatives, she prefers instead to actively seek solutions to the problems at hand. She is always extremely careful when she does work in a community to do so in a manner that is respectful to the community and responsible to the community members. She inspires me to try to be a better person, one who is more knowledgeable and understanding in my activism so I can become a more effective change agent.

What advice would you give to campus activists hoping to get more involved or really make their mark before they graduate?

The biggest piece of advice I would offer other campus activists is to start their activism early in their college career. Make good use of your time from the start by familiarizing yourself with the resources and opportunities your campus has to offer so you know what is available to you when you decide what you want to be involved with. For those of us who are nearing the end of our time in college, making a mark requires stepping up and putting in hard work with the understanding that you may have to give up part of the ‘college experience’ in order to make change with the limited time you have left on campus. I spent my first two years being fairly inactive on campus because, even though I identified and vocalized problems, I always figured that someone else would step up and do the organizing work needed. I had to go through a very painful personal experience of racism on campus by a Tulane University staff member in order for me to be pushed out of my complacency and remember that, sometimes, we are the ones we are waiting for.

I would encourage anyone in tertiary education, not just those who define themselves as activists, to be appreciative of their time in college and to have fun, but to also look critically at what they, their peers and their institutions are doing in their communities and beyond.

What’s been one of your most rewarding projects?

In the summer of 2012, I had an internship with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). I was the only intern at the small DC office and my boss asked me to plan a Youth Summit, an official U.N event for World Population day in less than 2 months. At first I was nervous about the large-scale task, but I was able to organize a planning committee with 20 or so interns from other similar organizations to help plan the event.  Though I was the youngest member of the committee (20 at the time), I chaired the initiative and the Youth Summit was a huge success, seeing over 100 attendees at Capitol Hill on World Population Day. This project was especially rewarding for me as the youngest member of the organizing team because it made me more confident in my ability to organize and lead others who had more experience than I did. The event was especially rewarding however because beyond the Youth Summit, the planning committee drafted a Youth Declaration that implored world leaders gathering at the historic London Summit for Family Planning to consider youth in their outcomes. This declaration was signed by numerous attendees at the event as well as receiving signatures from nearly every continent on the globe.

How do you stay motivated?

Snickers and Pringles…you can pretty much get me to complete any project using those two motivational tools. In general though, I am motivated by the hope that one day the things I am doing will actually make a sustainable and measurable change.

You’ve just won the FYSK contest. WHAT WILL YOU DO NOW?

I plan to continue my activism efforts on and off campus until I graduate this May. There is currently a coalition of progressive students and groups on campus trying to change the climate at Tulane to one that encourages the formation of and supports student activism. We are attempting to come together and spark change by addressing our ‘separate’ issues in an intersectional manner that recognizes that the systems that dictate the different forms of injustice we fight against in separate spaced are often linked or the same.

I am also growing increasingly excited from the Vagina Monologues and the Black Arts Festival, both of which occur in the middle of next semester. After that, I will focus on graduating and finding fulfilling work that relates to my passion for community engagement and activism. This title of ‘Feminist You Should Know’ will go a long way in expanding my activist networks; so I am especially appreciate to have received it at this time. I want to thank Haley Norris for nominating me for this honor, all of my friends and family who voted for me and continue to support my work,  and the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Feminist Campus program for allowing me to have this chance to stand with nine other amazing women activists in this competition.

We set out in the Feminist You Should Know contest with high hopes of uncovering young people around the country who are doing amazing work for progressive and social justice causes and projects. We were truly amazed by the response, and by the outpouring of passion, respect, and awe which came forward in the nomination, essay-writing, and voting processes. Feminist Campus program has always known young feminism was alive and well; now, we have more than solid proof.

Only time will tell what amazing, world-changing, groundbreaking activism will come forth from our finalists and nominees in the future, but we do know this: we will endlessly support the work of young feminists around the world, and we are exhausted from beaming with pride over the stories and communities we’ve been able to glimpse into throughout this process.

By Carmen Rios

Carmen splits her time disparately between feminist rabble-rousing, writing, public speaking, and flower-picking. She is currently Communications Coordinator at the Feminist Majority Foundation, the Straddleverse and Feminism Editor at Autostraddle, and a writer with FORCE. Carmen is a SPARK alum and former Managing Editor of THE LINE Campaign blog. She's part of an oncoming anthology about girls' activism.

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