I am in conversation with Ivorian-American activist Stephanie Kimou, who works to make international development a more inclusive sector for Black women (click here to find out more about her work). Here, she tells me about the highs and lows of her early career in the NGO sector and answers some tough questions I had for her.
You’ve told me about your mission to be disrupt the power dynamics in international development and elevate Black women who are doing the work or highlighted as beneficiaries, but often left out of the decision-making. Before you started critiquing the system, you were part of it. How much has your experience as a young Black woman in the sector informed the direction you’ve given your career?
My journey of working in international development has been a rollercoaster of feeling empowered then disillusioned. I started working in international development when I was 19 or 20. I was so excited. I was working in South Africa with sex workers and the lawyers who represented them, and I was like, gosh, I’m doing important work. Then I lived in rural Tanzania for almost two years, supporting women refugees to turn their small co-operative into a global brand that could bring them wealth. I was immersed in the realities of African women and I could tell my work was making a difference because of that. I was living my best life.
Then I moved back the U.S. and it hit me that there were some major gaps in the ways large American NGOs were working with Black women. Black women were the main beneficiaries of all health and development interventions, but they had no say in how programmes were designed or implemented. It was the most uncomfortable reality for me.
What made it so uncomfortable?
It was draining to be surrounded by a 95% white staff. I was working with women who had never worked in Africa but were appointed as project directors for AIDS programmes in Tanzania. I was working with men who were kind of racists but were directors of whole international organizations that worked mostly in Africa.
Because I’m an African woman and because my professional is deeply personal, it was really tough. I’d gone from this high to a really sharp low. I created Population Works Africa so I could find myself in that high again, on my own terms.
“My journey of working in international development has been a rollercoaster of feeling empowered then disillusioned.”
I feel you. But however justified, leaving the comfort of a stable job in an international NGO into self-employment can be a scary move. I just did that too, for different reasons, and the fear almost kept me from going all the way. How did you handle the fear and challenges of transitioning toward self-employment?
Look, I’m not going to lie to you and say it was a tough or scary transition. I already had a lot of visibility: I was the only Black woman in my team, I was unapologetically African, I was bilingual and I was good at my job. The partner organizations remembered my work and I just had to have some incognito conversations to secure a few clients before I even handed my resignation. I wasn’t taking a big risk at all.
Emotionally, I had great support from my then boyfriend – and now husband. He kept telling me I was brilliant and I could do anything. Sure, he was biased, but I believed him. (She laughs).
Good for you! To be fair though, not all of us can afford to go the entrepreneurial route. For all sorts of reasons, many Black women working in international development have to stay in their roles and put up with the ignorance, the micro-aggressions, the white tears and all that nonsense. What advice would you give these women?
I think there’s immense power in Black women joining forces to change the landscape of who is doing the work in international development. If you’re scared of setting up your own firm or are unable to do so, you can join forces with another consultant and create a joint venture.
I get that, but let me push back a little. Not everyone can or is ready to leave, even with a partner. I don’t want to give the impression that entrepreneurship is bliss, because I know from personal experience that it can be really tough to maintain your visibility, your income, etc. So how van Black women handle things when they have to stay put? Well, I guess your answer could be the same: we could turn to each other and join forces for survival. Is that it?
Yes. Who else can we turn to if not each other? Back when I was working at the Population Reference Bureau, I would turn to the other Black women in our sector: they would talk me through some of the things I was dealing with and talk me off the cliff I had found myself more than once.
That’s why safe spaces matter, be it established platforms like #BlackWomenInDev or just your group of girlfriends. We need spaces where we can speak freely about diversity, inclusion, and the feeling we have that we don’t belong.
“We need spaces where we can speak freely about diversity, inclusion, and the feeling we have that we don’t belong.”
Here in the U.S., support groups for Black women are everywhere: at work, in church, etc. They are political spaces. They should also exist in the international development sector, to give us the power to say the things we need to say.
That’s where context makes a difference. For those of us who don’t work in the U.S. (even if we work with American organizations), the idea of support groups exclusively for Black women is so loaded. In France, the groups that have tried it have been accused of “communautarisme”, reverse racism and of jeopardizing the unity of the nation. Black women working in French-dominated organizations in West and Central Africa face the same challenges. So I get your point about being unapologetic and challenging the system, but don’t you think women sometimes have to adapt to their environment?
It’s a hard question for me to answer because since I started working for myself three years ago, I haven’t put a filter on myself. It’s not just that I go to meetings and told my clients they should hire more Black women in positions of power. It’s that they hired me for it. It’s part of my brand.
And I think it’s glorious! But I think it’s also a position of great privilege, isn’t?
Oh for sure! And my privilege comes with a huge sense of responsibility. If I am in the room with such big organizations as my clients and they’re listening to me, it’s my responsibility to advocate for Black women. At least I want them to get used to hearing our message, even if they’re not yet comfortable with it. In our sector, the idea that Black women should have power should not be radical, it should be commonplace. That’s why I talk about it everywhere I go.
“My privilege comes with a huge sense of responsibility.”
I don’t want to offend you, but do you ever fear that your clients might use you as an alibi? Especially now that the conversation about White privilege and White saviors is getting more attention, do you ever wonder if you’re being tokenized?
Let me tell you this: there is absolutely no way a Black woman in my position would not be tokenized. If a Black woman has a clear message, she will automatically be used by powerful people who need to maintain a level of legitimacy. I am very, very aware of that, as is every Black woman I know who is in a position of power or is just visible. So I’m not afraid of it, and I don’t waste any time thinking about how I can prevent it. I mostly wonder how I can leverage it to further my agenda.