VOICES FROM INSIDE THE SYSTEM

‘I Spent Much of My Career Listening to White Folks Complain About Africa and Africans’

Working in international aid, Stephanie Kimou was often the only African on staff at white-led institutions

Photo illustration. Image source: caracterdesign/Getty Images

Voices From Inside the System is a GEN series where we interview people who have had firsthand experience in industries with especially fraught histories of systemic racism and inequity. We asked our subjects to think deeply about the role they played and the work they did. We asked them why they stayed or why they left, how they might be complicit, and if they thought they — or anyone — could fundamentally change the system.

Stephanie Kimou, 33, lives in Baltimore, where she teaches international affairs at Georgetown University and runs Pop Works Africa, a consulting firm that seeks to decolonize aid work by shifting power and resources to communities receiving aid. While 80% of aid workers are people of color — nationals of countries affected by natural disasters and war — the nonprofits employing them are still largely led by white people, who are paid four times more than local staff. Kimou spoke with journalist Raksha Vasudevan about how the aid system often fails the Black and Brown people it claims to help.

My family moved from Côte d’Ivoire when I was about four. Growing up in Maryland, the kids on my soccer team and teachers would be like, “Oh my god, you’re from Africa? Your people probably need so much. The PTA could do a clothing drive, because your mom said you’re going to Côte d’Ivoire this summer. We could send you home with some clothing.”

I remember being 12, the only Black girl on that damn Montgomery County soccer team and thinking what these white soccer moms are telling me was right. That’s the fucked-up thing about white supremacy: You don’t need to be white to perpetuate it. I started taking on definitions of what Africa needed, what Black people needed.

After grad school, I moved to Tanzania for my first real job in aid. It was supposed to be a homecoming: moving back to the continent and supporting sisters and brothers who looked like me. But at work, nobody looked like me. The person who started the nonprofit, the finance manager, the operations person — all white. All the major money and programmatic decisions — all made by white people being driven around in fancy cars and living in gated communities. It was so clearly neocolonialist, these organizations creating universes of their own in countries they say they’re in service of. But what they’re actually doing is taking space and resources away from local leaders and experts. Until funders reckon with how they’ve been resourcing white-led institutions, there’s no moral imperative to change this shit.

After that, I was hired by an aid organization in D.C. I got there and was the only African on staff for an institution that had about 80% of its work on the continent. During my second week, two white girls I worked with said they needed a photo for a presentation they were doing about Malawi. They asked to take a photo of me holding hands with the janitor, who was the one other Black person around. In their minds, a photo of us, the only two negroes around, would somehow represent Malawi.

What could I say? I was like, “Can you give me a minute?”

Back then, I had a scarcity mindset, like most Black people in international development. I was afraid that if I spoke out, I wouldn’t have a career. I had a lot of degrees and a lot of debt; I couldn’t risk being the angry Black girl who’s not a team player. I spent much of my career listening to white folks complain about Africa and Africans, and I finally thought, “Oh my god, if I stay here, these white folks are going to finish me.” I would end up blacklisted like other Black folks who finally flipped out on some really inequitable shit.

So I quit. I started consulting, and when I started getting projects, I was like, “Now I can create my own Black-ass space and be a bit of myself.”

I started Pop Works Africa in 2017, and every year I became a little more vocal about the racism inherent in the industry. I stopped using the term “developing country” and instead say “formerly colonized nation” or “formerly occupied nation.” People wanted to know why that was important. There seemed to be an appetite among white people to pay for this type of education. I created a webinar, then I created a four-month e-learning program, and then I had a facilitated discussion series.

It was so clearly neocolonialist, these organizations creating universes of their own in countries they say they’re in service of.

The space for interrogation is growing. With Black people being killed on the streets, the same white women and white-passing women of color who pushed for gender to be considered in how aid is designed and delivered, these women are now like, “Let’s talk about racism!” White women in this field, if they’re uncompromising, can move the needle on some shit. They are not powerful themselves, but their proximity to power and privilege allows them to inform the discussions. Pop Works is very busy now because we’re facilitating discussions around learning and unlearning definitions and understanding manifestations of white supremacy.

I’ve been able to create my own liberation, and I feel a lot of guilt about it, because most Black women and women of color are not liberated. At the same time, Pop Works is going to make almost $1 million to date, and that’s because I’m who the fuck I am. I think I’m brilliant. I’m able to make a lot of impact.

Funders hire me as a strategic adviser because they’re giving money to organizations they already know are a little problematic. They want me to reduce the harm these organizations may cause. That’s the middle ground the aid sector is in right now: We’re not ready to tear down the institutions, but because we are so sad about Black Lives Matter, we will potentially allocate resources to interrogate and to reduce harm.

I was brought in to work with an international NGO in Côte d’Ivoire. They wanted to work with youth on advocacy, and I suggested they create an advisory group of young people and compensate them. At first, they said they couldn’t just grant money to young people — they’re not registered, they don’t have a bank account. I thought, “You hired me as a consultant, so you can hire these young Ivoirian experts whom you can’t do this work without. You can hire them as consultants.” And they were like, “I guess we can.” Not paying people, especially young Black Africans, for their time and expertise — that’s harmful! It’s so basic, and yet so many organizations in this sector don’t see that.

Going forward, I think we need harm reduction officers on aid projects, and we need to call them by that title. Because “strategic adviser” implies I’m building on an equitable framework, and I’m not. I’m reducing the harm these organizations are doing by building that basic understanding of intersectionality. And Black and Brown women are perfect for these roles, because we have a lived reality of marginalization and oppression. We’re all harm reduction specialists.

That’s part of my mission — to reduce the harm that’s being done — but the other part is to leave the sector more Black. Whatever projects I take on, I’m committed to opening up space for more Black women. That’s the work as I see it.

Economist & writer. Words in LA Times, NYLON, Outside, LitHub & more. Tweets @RakshaVasudevan

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