#useyourvoice: ‘Embracing activism means being accountable’ says women’s rights campaigner Seyi Akiwowo

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  • The founder and director of Glitch became an activist at early age. Here, she explains what activism means to her and why we have a duty to be held accountable for the way we express ourselves

    I’m often asked ‘when did you become an activist?’ and still at my big age of 28, I struggle to pinpoint the date, time, and the moon rising sign for when it all began. I’ll be honest with you, I did sometimes wonder if this meant I wasn’t a ‘pure activist’ (whatever that actually means) because my journey didn’t start on a march, an uprising or following the legacy of activists in the family. My journey in activism began under the leadership of fantastic and brave warriors, all of whom pulled me up when I needed it.

    For many years, I didn’t even know ‘activism‘ was the word to describe what I was doing. I quickly learned I had a powerful voice, with a rhythm that resonated with people, and the directness of growing up in Nigerian household. So I would regularly find myself calling out the unfairness and frustrations others were unable to. I grew up seeing so many ugly variants of injustice in my home, my school and in my community and depending on who you were, my inquisitive, loud and determined nature was either extremely annoying and disruptive to the classroom or were the ‘traits of a natural born leader’. You can probably guess being a young black woman from East London which one I heard more.

    I clearly remember an ‘activation’ happening in 2006, when my school friend and neighbour Charlotte was stabbed and murdered at a house party. For weeks, though then it felt like months, I kept asking why? Why did this happen? Why did Charlotte’s murderer think she needed to hold a knife? Why didn’t we have the lifestyle we see on the Disney Channel, Trouble TV and Nickelodeon?

    And bear in mind, this was 2006. None of us who knew Charlotte were not given the appropriate trauma response nor did we have the language or youth-led community groups, such as The 4Front Project to help us unpack our feelings and questions. My own line of enquiry, along with other events, took me to protesting at the steps of government. The pathways always came back to politics. To the decision makers, the elected officials making policy affecting me, my family and my community – yet I did not see myself. I didn’t hear my lived experience coming from any of those government buildings or at the despatch boxes in the House of Commons. And it was during that season of life I embraced the label ‘activist’, using my voice in various campaigns from education reform, gender equality to anti-racism and serious youth violence. And as a true millennial, I proudly included ‘activist’ in my first Twitter bio.

    Reflecting on the time that’s passed since then, my relationship with activism, campaigning and civic leadership has changed immensely. In addition to an injection of realism about the world, my understanding of the huge responsibility it carries is crystal clear. Using your voice is to serve a cause with values of inclusivity, doing no harm to others on a foundation of self care. Although you’re an individual, using your voice is not about going rogue and a fast track to influencer status. And it’s in embracing accountability, within activism and campaigning, where we can ensure our efforts are inclusive, our movements are sustainable and we make ‘burn out’ a thing of the past.

    I think accountability gets a bad rep. It’s portrayed as either a bureaucratic process stifling freedom and creativity or a structure waiting to give us a good telling off. Accountability should be embraced as a place of refuge, safety, learning and avoiding duplication. While we must ensure it itself doesn’t become elitist, about status and just friendship. It’s in accountability that those using their voice can flourish and execute their finite resources more effectively – one of which is the person with the voice. It’s in accountability where we reimagine ways of working and unlearn patriarchal tools and practices. Using your voice is about doing the work behind the scenes, seeking mentorship, a work wife, forming accountability groups, taking regular sabbaths and hearing correction from a place of love. So as we encourage more to take up space and use their voice, let’s also redefine our relationship with accountability.

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