Stephanie Kimou is a woman on a mission. An American and Ivorian women’s rights activist, she is carving out space for Black women to be decision-makers, not just beneficiaries, within the international development sector. With Population Works Africa, her consulting firm, she advises international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private foundations on how to make their programmes and processes fairer to the people they say they want to serve.
“Excited” doesn’t begin to cover how I feel about sharing this interview with you. Not just because Stephanie is my friend. Not just because I am a proud strategic adviser to her firm. I’m excited because Stephanie has found a way to get some of the most powerful organizations investing in African women’s health to hear the messages many of us have been trying to pass on for years. She must be protected at all costs.
It was a joy to speak with Stephanie about her life mission to “elevate Black women”, and the initiatives she’s put in place to realize it (part 1, below). We spoke about what inspired her: the highs and lows of her early career in international development (part 2) and her hybrid identities - 100% American and 100% African (part 3). Our conversation ended on an exploration of Stephanie’s rapport with feminism (part 4). Spoiler: she actually doesn’t consider herself a feminist. Let’s roll.
Hello Stephanie, thank you for joining me today. Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Stephanie Kimou, I’m an American who is originally from Cote d’Ivoire, and I work in reproductive health and rights. I am the founder of Population Works Africa, a consulting firm whose mission is to disrupt the historically white space of power in international development.
That’s a bold mission statement! Tell me what you mean.
My work with PopWorks has two main components. First, I work with large international organizations and foundations who are leading or financing health interventions in Africa – mostly West and East Africa. I help them think more critically about how they can ensure their work doesn’t perpetuate the racism and sexism that are so prevalent in the international development sector.
So when I work with organizations like Care International, the Hewlett Foundation or the Gates Foundation, my role is basically to analyze their work and ask questions: could this be racist? Is this problematic? Who is making the decisions here? How can we improve this? My goal is for the international development sector as a whole to be more diverse, more inclusive, but also to relinquish power – to African women, mostly. Since we’re the beneficiaries of most international development programmes, I want to make sure young African women can access the spaces where decisions are made about their own lives.
“I want to make sure young African women can access the spaces where decisions are made about their own lives”
That makes sense. What’s the second component?
The second component focuses on mentorship and capacity building for Black women working in the international development sector. I support young African women who advocate for sexual reproductive health and rights. I do this through workshops, trainings, webinars, one-on-one coaching. I help them determine what change they want to see in their country and what tools and tactics they can use to push that change.
You also created this community called #BlackWomenInDev, which started as a Facebook group. What that tells me is that you’re not just focusing on access but also about solidarity. Does that sound accurate to you?
That’s right. I started #BlackWomenInDev as a simple, streamlined way for me to give visibility to Black women working in international development and give them a space to come together. Black women are in all spaces of this sector: we’re out there working on gender, reproductive health, education, water and sanitation and all these issues. However, the leadership and the decision-making are usually held at by White women, White men, or sometimes, Black men.
Many Black women in the sector end up becoming invisible and feel isolated. And so I wanted to put together #BlackWomenInDev as a simple platform not only to document and share the stories of Black women working in international development, but also make a space for us to connect with one another so we don't feel so alone.
I am a proud member of #BlackWomenInDev and I can’t thank you enough for creating this space! You know, I remember when you told me about your idea for this group; you didn’t think much of it, you just had an idea and put it in action. What’s amazing is that the community grew massively: it’s been a year and a half, and there’s over 2,000 of us in this group! We have in-person meet-ups, some national sub-groups are being formed… What have you learned in this process? What’s your biggest takeaway?
Obviously, the rapid growth tells me that there's always a need for spaces where Black women can come together, and that wasn't one at all for women working in the international development sector.
Beyond that, my takeaway from observing the interactions on #BlackWomenInDev is that Black women really do show up for each other. When I created the Facebook group, I had this concern that I would have to initiate and facilitate all the conversations, provide all the opportunities, and answer all the questions, all on my own. It didn’t stop me from doing it: you know how I am, always biting more than I can chew. (She laughs). But I was worried.
Well it turns out, I don’t have to do much. Every time someone asks a question or posts about micro-agressions, answers just pour in. When someone posts about a job or an opportunity, others tag a friend who might be interested. When someone posts that she’s travelling to a new country, a few others are available to meet with her.
That’s my takeaway: when you bring African women together in a safe space, they collectively take the responsibility to keep that space going. It’s the most beautiful thing. It feels spiritual, almost. You know what I mean?
“When you bring African women together in a safe space, they collectively take the responsibility to keep that space going”
I do, and I love it. You know, one of my favorite things about you is that while you always seem to have a million things on your plate, you are grounded in a clear vision of what you’re doing. You are a consultant, but your agenda is not driven by the jobs that are available. You do mentoring, you facilitate a community, you even write on make-up products sometimes! But you are not all over the place at all. So what is that core mission you have that ties all the bits and pieces together?
That’s a really good question, Françoise, because I’ve never thought about it in this way. I’d say that elevating Black women is the centerpiece of everything I do: my work, my personal life, my friendships, my whole existence. That’s what I’m all about: disrupting power dynamics to make sure Black women belong in the spaces of power, that they feel like they belong there, and that they are prepared to make the change once they’re in.