Diversity Summit 2016: Toluwanimi Obiwole poetry


PRESENTER: That was great. We have some great,
great community’s here doing a lot of
great work on campus. I like the fact that
we can celebrate them in such a wonderful way. I also want to now take a
chance to introduce our poet speaker for this morning. I have a write-up here. Toluwanimi Obiwole is a
Nigerian-born, Colorado-raised poet. She’s an undergrad studying
Ethnic Studies here at CU Boulder. And she was a member of the
2013-2014 Minor Disturbance Youth Poetry Team, as well as a
Brave New Voices International Poetry Festival
Champion and Finalist. In 2015, she was announced
Denver’s inaugural Youth Poet Laureate. She was the TEDx
mile-high speaker and is the author of the
chapbook, OMI EBI MI. Currently, she is working
with Penmanship Books for the upcoming release
of her second book. And I think she’s presented
at the CU Boulder Poultry Slam a while back. I think I saw her way,
way, way back when. But great poet, and has a
lot of videos on YouTube that I hope everyone
gets a chance to see. Toluwanimi. [APPLAUSE] TOLUWANIMI
OLUWAFUNMILAYO OBIWOLE: Good morning, everyone. I’m really excited and I
feel blessed to be here and to speak in
front of all of you. The theme of Ubuntu is a
little bit closer to my heart, because I come from a very
traditional African family. And it not only means
I am because we are, but it works the other way. We are because I am. And that means
that the existence and the sustainability
of our society depends on the visibility
of every single one of its members. Like, no one can be
left behind in order for our society to function
the way that it should. So I’m just going to
jump right into my poems. The first one that I’m
going to do for you all addresses my experience
as an immigrant in America, especially as an African
immigrant, and some lessons that I’ve learned from that. It’s called “Passport.” And actually, I’m going to
step out here for this one, because I don’t like
being behind that thing. Every year, I must journey
to the registrar’s office, blue American passport in
hand like a white flag. And I must prove to them that I
am, in fact, now a US citizen. This clerical error,
however small, always reminds me of one thing–
I am still not welcome here. Suddenly, the glances
weigh heavier. It irritates me just a little
more when they mispronounce my name, kicking the Os, Ls, and
Us around like magnet letters on a fridge. They rearrange my identity until
they are comfortable breathing the foreign vowels. My name and teeth read to
them like the storybooks they had as children. They spell poverty, refugee. Non-English speaker,
why can’t you you just go back
to your country. And I long to reply, where
I am from, we do not run, we root our families in
whatever piece of soil we find ourselves on. And we do not run. So this is for those of you
that have found yourselves on soil that does
not welcome you, but have turned your legs
into deep-rooted flower stems anyway. When they ask you where
you are really from, tell them a
collection of pillars that has held up and seen to
the destruction of empires. When they mark your nation
as the face of poverty– when they tell you your
beauty is savage reply that your heart does not need
their permission to beat. Dear Western savior, Africa
does not need your pity, like our problems only matter
when you televise them. Africa, the loaded gun
and you are too often standing on the wrong
side of the barrel She, Africa, this fall
bride, winter matriarch, well versed in the language
of trust and betrayals, still slitting
her wrists to show her oppressor she bleeds the
same red, but all they see is gold. They do not see the stars shine
on her fingertips, the blood red beneath the earth
red brown of her cheeks. They call us developing
like it’s a dirty word. Africa, I know is the one
bath of mother’s love, holding her children
wherever they are. Dirt lots in Lagos,
Nigeria, that the children have turned into kingdoms,
bustling Ghanaian airports. Africa, this fall
bride, winter matriarch knows the land I
her daughter stand in is a nation of earth patches
integrated in like puzzle pieces. America, a land of
immigrants, disassembled bodies still breaking open,
ghost-dancing with citizenship singing take me
home spirit and all, so you, sons and daughters,
with your flower stem legs. When they tell you you do
not belong, stand and let your roots spread where you have
planted them until they choke the hatred from every sentence. And do not run. [APPLAUSE] So this second piece I wrote
specifically for this event. And it kind of follows
along with the way that Ubuntu works both ways. I don’t have it memorized so
I’m going to read off of paper. It doesn’t have a
title yet either. This is for the students in the
front of the room 10 minutes before class wearing
everything they have to prove on their
skin, for the ones in the back with the 15 minute
late stride, sweat from running for an hour late bus, for
the ones with three jobs and no scholarships fighting to
honor parents whom America has turned into shadows, the black
fish without expensive lives or trust fund voices, the
ones the institution will put on their brochures then
grind into silent pavement after, the ones who are followed
home– mistaken and mistreated as campus workers, the last
ones to leave the library, the first to have
their work questioned. Double consciousness got
us scrubbing the accents and ebonics from our tongues. MLK visions, more jail cell
Birmingham burning, than I have a dream. For the ones who find home
in every hijab, head nod, dap up Spanglish
whisper across the hall, clutching our traditions close
beneath football jerseys, while our cultures are
worn as costumes year after year, our
bodies washed white, then displayed so clean
for demographic reports. Diversity has become a
gavel of a word smacked down for extra funding. We are more than numbers. We are more than what some
say our hands are good for. Our hands know what it
means to keep reaching even past those who see your
breath as a nuisance, desperate to live like a
human ladder towards heaven, a hope for those who died
with their fingers still inching towards the sky. I know I am my grandmother’s
dream come true because I am alive, because I
am here, because we are here. This heartbeat is a
collective effort. I am Asatta. I am Lollo. I am Malcolm. I am Amadou Diallo. I am Tamir Rice. I am Renisha McBride. I am Philando Castile. I am Rekia Boyd. I am Emmett Till. I am Saartjie Baartman. I am because the
history of this country is the steel fiber
I rip from my throat to breathe every morning. I breathe in a classroom that
would rather me be invisible. I am visible on a campus
with a privileged crowbar and I have not succumb
to the beatings. I am every brown body
having to defend themselves in a history lecture. I am every ignored upraised
hand in the STEM field that refuses to give up. And ain’t that a miracle? Ain’t that something
to sing about. Our ancestors proudly
rising through us, a cavalcade against the
backdrop of the Flatirons. Ain’t that the relentless
love poem of the century? We are because I,
I, I, I, I, am. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] PRESENTER: I think
they like you. [INAUDIBLE] PRESENTER: Are we good? Oh, we are! Thank you for such
amazing, amazing art. That’s a talent
that many of us wish we had and wish we
could express to others. So I think all of
us really thank you for being able to put the
words what a lot of us feel. [APPLAUSE] TOLUWANIMI OLUWAFUNMILAYO
OBIWOLE: Thank you so much. That means a lot. Thank you. PRESENTER: Yes,
so I guess we just wanted to have a discussion
and see– learn more about you and your experiences
and what your poetry has done to uplift
yourself and uplift the community that you’re in. So I guess my first
question– I wonder what my first question should be. I’ve made a list,
but now– [LAUGHING] depending on results,
that list changed. My first questions
would be this. You mentioned that
you have often felt not at home in
Colorado, because if how people pronounce your
name, because of how you look, because of several
various things. Right? In other poems that I’ve
seen on YouTube that you’ve recited and performed, you’ve
said that eventually Boulder did feel like home for you. Can you speak
about how long that took, what that process
was like for Boulder to feel more like home? TOLUWANIMI
OLUWAFUNMILAYO OBIWOLE: I think I mainly mentioned
Denver feeling more like home. Boulder– [LAUGHING] ‘Cause I’ve
only been here for four years, so it doesn’t necessarily
feel like home to me. It more feels like–
Boulder is, kind of, almost like this battleground
for me where even though I have to
fight to be visible, I feel so blessed, because
I do have this opportunity and I do have the
opportunity to learn and also be visible and be another body
in this space that gives hope to other people. But in Denver,
specifically, I think I found home with
the artist community, because there’s just
something about art that– obviously, it
brings people together. And they were just
so welcoming and so willing to share ideas,
build each other up, help each other learn,
heal each other. And the thing that
I love the most is that they made
art about healing. So I feel like that being
the central focus, that really helped it feel
a lot more like home. PRESENTER: Nice. I’m glad Denver could
do that for you. And hopefully, Boulder can do
that for you, and us as well. I saw that you’re in the
Colorado innovation network. Is that from the
Denver Poet Laureate? TOLUWANIMI OLUWAFUNMILAYO
OBIWOLE: Oh yeah. Yeah, so there’s this
branch of the government that deals with commerce and
technology and innovation. And they called on me. And they were, like,
hey, we need an artist to come and write
some poetry for us and do these videos
that will hopefully be like an artistic break,
an inspiration between some of the sessions. And my mentor, Ken Arkind
had actually done it, and Bobby Lefebre had
done it a year before. And they really loved it. And so they’re like,
yeah, this would be a good opportunity for you. PRESENTER: Nice,
yeah, that seems like you’re getting a lot of–
I don’t want to say, publicity, but being a presence in Denver. And that seems something
that’s pretty awesome. Do you see yourself as that–
as kind of a role model for what we can be? TOLUWANIMI
OLUWAFUNMILAYO OBIWOLE: I struggle with claiming
things like that just because I try to be humble with
everything that I do and understand that like
this is a great gift that I’ve been given. And I try not to get like a
big head or anything about it. But I feel like this was more
of a collaborative effort. I definitely feel like
because– if my community wasn’t so behind me, and wasn’t so
willing to help me and lift me up, I definitely wouldn’t have
been able to do the things that I do. Because naturally, I’m kind of
a little bit more shy in person. And I don’t really
like talk very loud. PRESENTER: It doesn’t come
off that way. [LAUGHING] TOLUWANIMI
OLUWAFUNMILAYO OBIWOLE: But honestly, it was the
encouragement of my community. But I do think that
this goes to show– it’s just one of
the many things that goes to show– that our
generation, that my generation, is really ready to step
up and make change happen and to be very vocal
about what we want. PRESENTER: I like that idea. That kind of resonates
with me, talking about how the community was
able to help raise you up. And sincerely, I
think you have been an inspiration, whether– you
maybe not like that title. But I think it’s worked. Do you think that there
are things here in Boulder that our community can do to
lift up the voices of people who may be quiet? TOLUWANIMI
OLUWAFUNMILAYO OBIWOLE: Most definitely, and I think
the most important thing is making events like this more
frequent and more visible. Because I feel like CU
Boulder, in many ways, is at least trying
to make an effort to listen to the
under-represented student population. But that isn’t really visible
amongst the general population of the students. I feel like CU Boulder
needs to take a greater initiative in actually saying,
these are the problems. This is where we are not
seeing or hearing people. And then publicly saying this
is how we can move forward. PRESENTER: That’s interesting. I agree. I think that’s a really
good thing that CU can do. Are there are ways which we
can help CU in that goal? We as students– I’m a
graduate and you’re undergrad– do we have the power? Do we have a voice that
can raise those issues? TOLUWANIMI OLUWAFUNMILAYO
OBIWOLE: Oh yes, absolutely. And I think it starts with us. I mean, like even
amongst the communities of the under-represented
students, there’s a lot of
healing to be done. And I think it
starts from there. We need to unite and come
together and hear each other out. And then go as a collective
voice and show up. Because there are a lot of
meetings and campus liaison stuff that’s going
on, but I feel like we, as a
student population, just need to show up. And for some of us, that
isn’t necessarily easy, because we do have
a lot on our plates. And for some of us, it
might even be dangerous, because you might get
called out by a professor, or you might have more
microaggressions committed against you, because
you are showing up and because you
are being visible. And so I feel like once
the campus facilitates an atmosphere where
under-represented students can feel comfortable enough to
show up, we will show up. PRESENTER: Nice,
that’s a good thing. [APPLAUSE] That makes me– I’m forced
to raise this question. With the election
results, it seems like more microaggressions
have been happening and will be happening. Is that your
perspective, or what do you think this will lead to? TOLUWANIMI
OLUWAFUNMILAYO OBIWOLE: Honestly, I feel like
it’s just everything that has been happening is
going to keep happening, but it’s just a wider platform. Like, now it’s acceptable,
because your figurehead pretty much represents that. So it’s more acceptable
to be microaggressive. It’s more acceptable to be
hateful openly towards people. However, I feel that
in order to combat that, we as a community– like,
the under-represented students, the people of color,
everyone, immigrants– we need that unity. We need to hold each
other up, as opposed to immediately
coming and combating people who are aggressive
and hateful towards us. If we establish
our own community, if we– I hate to say this, but
greed and power or whatever, like supporting
businesses of color, supporting local businesses,
supporting businesses that represent the
ideals that you want to be represented in America. That definitely helps and
builds up our community. And also in every single
way making the people around you feel as supportive
as possible. Like, just playing
your individual role and working on your
individual self. I feel like that is
the most important and really the only
thing that you can do. PRESENTER: Is there a way for
us to build our own communities, and support our own communities,
while also bringing in allies– is the appropriate word, right? I mean, I’m a math person. I like numbers. That was a numbers
game last night. It just was, right? So is there a way that we
can include more people into this discussion,
thoughtful discussion, about how racism and
sexism and xenophobia and– TOLUWANIMI
OLUWAFUNMILAYO OBIWOLE: Yeah, all of that,
all of that, yeah. Absolutely. I feel like though right now
the role of allies is to come in and to listen. Like, to not be a huge
overwhelming presence, but still show up– like
allies show up– but listen. Don’t speak, just
listen and support. Because you have the
platform of your privilege. So listen, support,
create atmospheres where your friends
who are immigrants, who are people of color,
who are women, who are from the LGBTQ
community– make atmospheres, create platforms in your
spaces for them to speak. And that is like pull
and push each other up, that is the only
way that this works. If you feel that this
election didn’t matter. Like, whatever, I’m
just going to keep doing what you’re doing. That is privilege. Like, check it. Recognize it. Hear it. Talk to your friends about it. Talk to your friends in
your spaces about it. And that is the only way
that this is going to change. [APPLAUSE] PRESENTER: That definitely
resonates with me. CU Boulder has been a
majority white institution for a long time. I think that people
want this to improve. People want an atmosphere
of inclusivity. That’s why we’re
having the summit. That’s why we’re
doing these things. And I think that maybe
with a lot of work and a lot of people reaching
out into their own spaces that they’re already a
part of, we can grow. There will be a
session later on today about the closing
of one of the raps, in particular one of
the RAPs on campus, which is the Residential
Academic Program. That, in particular, was the
Chancellor’s Leadership Studies Program in the ethnic
living learning community. It was in the leadership RAP. I don’t know how many of
us have heard about that, but there will be a
session on it today. Do you have views
on what it means to close these RAPs that are
supposed to be supporting students of color and,
more generally, learning about how to engage with people
who are different than us? TOLUWANIMI
OLUWAFUNMILAYO OBIWOLE: Well, this is definitely
something that is going to be hard to say. And I might get in trouble
for saying it, but whatever. It just goes to show that
there is a long standing tradition on CU Boulder of
preserving and protecting what will bring the
institution money. So what will bring
the institution money? Alumni who give back. Who are the alumni
who usually give back? The people who came here
privileged in the first place. The people who are in our
fraternities and sororities who daily commit
microaggressions and are the people following
people of color home and yet no consequences
are being given. It is the protection
of those people that preserves this university. And this university
operates like a business. And a lot of the people
of color on this campus are not here with a
whole lot of money. And because of that,
the institution generally has tended not
to care about our voices. And so, by investing,
by physically investing in cultural communities, by
reinvesting in these RAPs, the university
then takes a stand where they say, OK, now
we’re here for inclusiveness. Now we’re here for
everybody on campus, not just the people we think
we can get money out of. PRESENTER: Thank you for
sharing your opinion on that. I think that there is no harm
in you sharing your opinion. I think if you get in trouble
for that, that’s– right? The purpose of
these discussions– [APPLAUSE] The purpose of these
discussions is not that they are comfortable and
not that your opinion is liked, it’s that opinions are heard. And I appreciate you
sharing that with us. What can we do? What can we do about it? If that’s our feeling–
that students of color are not bringing enough
revenue in whatever sense, financially or impact,
on the greater atmosphere of the culture. If that’s what you think
CUs perspective is, how can we change CU’s
perspective on us? Is there something we can do? TOLUWANIMI
OLUWAFUNMILAYO OBIWOLE: Honestly, unless we’re altering
their monetary ability, unless we’re messing
with their funds, there really isn’t a lot
that we can do, but still be here and be visible
and keep voicing our concerns to the university. And it is up to
our regions, it is up to the people who
control our tuition, it is up to the
people who control the funds on this campus to
really say, hey, I’m here and I’m listening to you. And I hear you and I’m going
to invest in your visibility. PRESENTER: So we talked
earlier about involving other people outside of our
direct communities– people who don’t look like us– to
join these issues in their way. It seems like people
of color are put upon. Is that any issue that
has both people of color, people of color,
must resolve it. And that’s the only
people that it affects. Right? Only people of color are charged
with solving these issues. And I don’t think
that that is true and I don’t think– I think
most of us in this room probably don’t agree with that,
but maybe that’s the feeling. Is there a way to engage more
people in these solutions? TOLUWANIMI OLUWAFUNMILAYO
OBIWOLE: Yes, absolutely. Because patriarchy, racism,
misogyny– it affects everyone. It affects the people
perpetrating it and it affects the people
who these offenses are being committed against. And I think that by having
more widespread large campus dialogues and discussions,
we can include people. We can say here, look at us. We are not here to accuse you. We are here to have a
conversation by which we can reach an
agreement, by which we can reach a place to
where we are working with and for each other. As opposed to just having all
the students of color say, we don’t like the
atmosphere and sending out blame and everything. This is a dialogue. So I think representing
these issues as more of something that
can be dialogued about is extremely important. Because it makes people feel
more included number one. And two, it diffuses
a lot of the, I guess, hatred that can
get in the way of solution. PRESENTER: I agree. You mentioned before
that you’re quiet, but in this
conversation, you are, it feels to me, navigating
this conversation very well. And other people
in this community may not feel that they can have
these conversations so aptly. Are there tools that
you’ve learned in your life about how to navigate these
conversations that maybe you can share with everyone else? TOLUWANIMI
OLUWAFUNMILAYO OBIWOLE: I feel like, personally,
I had to be very, very grounded in my
self and who I was and what my communal identity
was in order for me to even be able to feel like I
had the right to speak out about these things. And I think that my task and
a lot of the other community members’ tasks is to remind
people that they already have this agency. They already have this voice. They can navigate
these conversations. And all they have to do is
just be like OK, I’m grounded. I have a support system. I’m not alone in this. This is not a conversation
that I have to have by myself. I have a whole entire
community behind me. And in that, it’s way easier to
navigate these conversations. PRESENTER: So I think that’s a
great, great thing to take away from these conversations– that
I think the more we practice, the more we have
these conversations, they’ll be awkward, and we’ll
say things that are wrong. TOLUWANIMI OLUWAFUNMILAYO
OBIWOLE: Oh yeah. PRESENTER: Every day, right? That’s the goal– to do
something wrong every day so we can learn from it. TOLUWANIMI
OLUWAFUNMILAYO OBIWOLE: Yeah, like my first
radio interview I went a little too radical. And I was talking about
like smashing capitalism and dismantling the
system of patriarchy. And they are looking at
me, like– um– [LAUGHING] AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] PRESENTER: But now we know. You can say that at some
places, maybe not everywhere. TOLUWANIMI OLUWAFUNMILAYO
OBIWOLE: Right? Yeah. PRESENTER: OK, well, all right. I think that’s a good
tool that we can use. I’ve noticed that some
people in the audience that I was talking
to folks and were thinking about the
closing of these RAPs. I would hope that
people in the audience can have these difficult
conversations with one another and with authorities
here on campus, whether that be the Chancellor,
the President– I mean, if it goes that high. Whoever we need
to talk to, I hope we can have these conversations. And I hope that we’re not
afraid to make mistakes in these conversations and
not say everything perfectly– that so long as we can learn
from these conversations, both sides can learn
from these conversations, that we’re doing
something right. Thank you. TOLUWANIMI OLUWAFUNMILAYO
OBIWOLE: Thank you. [APPLAUSE] PRESENTER: I wanted
to say one more thing. Please continue with these
great sessions going on today. The next session in here
starts in just a moment. It’ll be Sheryl Burgstahler
about a very important issue, inclusion, right now. What’s the inclusive mean
in inclusive excellence? So please stay and
continue to go to all of the rest of the sessions. Thank you all. [APPLAUSE]

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