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Female Disruptors: Janvieve Williams Comrie of AfroResistance On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Not everything is so serious. — When you’re doing this work around social justice, sometimes we tend to get serious all the time. And I’m so grateful that I have two small children that keep it light. My 11 year old son tells me all the time, “Mama is not that serious”. And each day, I get to go back to my 11 year old self because, he is right, it is really not that serious. And the truth is that he is wise beyond his years because not everything is so serious. So I find joy, laughter and pleasure in my work as well. At all times.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry,b I had the pleasure of interviewing Janvieve Williams Comrie.

Janvieve Williams Comrie is a human rights strategist, trainer and organizer with a deep commitment to assist in the building of powerful social movements for racial justice and human rights. She has worked in a variety of fields and for several human rights institutions, including the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights Regional Office Central America, where she coordinated a regional program on race and racism. Janvieve is internationally recognized for her work with Afrodescendent communities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I began organizing when I was very young and I mean very young, but we didn’t call it organizing in Panama where I’m from, nor during that time.. And I say that because organizing was simply a common way life in the communities that I am from, people seeing a need, zooming into that need and with others, collectively finding, sometimes demanding a solution to that need. I usually tagged along with my father when I was a child, his friends and him where were always active doing something in the community. When I was 8, 9 or even 10 years old, I did not know that he was part of different what they call movements, but then as I started getting older, through those experiences I started being able to see and identify different things like shortage of water and electricity, that education wasn’t the same for everybody, basic things like that. I started to perceive that were unequal in Panama, even though I obviously did not have the language at the time.

In essence, I didn’t come into this as a career. I still don’t see it as a career per se. I see it as a journey. I see it as a process. I see it as a way of life and in reflection, this journey, process, way of life, has given to me into me as I have given to it. So I have never thought of this once, as a career. Yes, I have gone to school, I am a sociologist and a political scientist. And those have definitely influenced the way that I think and the strategies that I apply to this work. And yes, I do financially sustain my family with this work, and that is a privilege of its own. I am honored that I get to work for the ‘betterment’ of communities where I belong, where I can identify myself with, where I certainly say, “I benefited from their work, and I am simpy continuing that”.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The work that I’m doing that is disruptive is disruptive because what I’m in essence doing through the organization that I founded and that I’m currently direct, AfroResistance, is creating systems and structures that do not leave Black Women and Black Girls, and their families that are immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean behind, and also transforming current systems that are in place that are oppressive to them, to us. It is really looking at how do we create and seize opportunities to examine and to transform practices, policies, and the systems, and bring those to the public light, and to public conversations we’re having, and if we are not having them, then, we are a catalyst to having them.

Our work is grounded racial equity and gender equity, and centering issues that impact, Black communities from our idiosyncrasies, from our cultural expressions, from our perspectives. To many, that starting is challenging and it makes many have to be reflective and have to really challenge their own biases, their own way of thinking.

And that reflection in itself is disruptive.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was probably in my early twenties and I was working already at the Women’s Institute at the University of Panama and I had to facilitate a workshop, and we usually used projectors. This specific workshop was in a rural community. And I was informed that the workshop was gonna be outside, which is where they always have workshops. And of course there is no electricity. Of course everybody laughed

Because they were like, of course she’s coming from the University of Panama with all the technology, and all they have is butcher paper and markers. What I learned from that was never not to rely on technology and always be ready to improvise. Now, I can facilitate anything, anywhere with whatever materials I have available, no matter how limited they are.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’m a firm believer in life that we don’t only need a little help, we need a lot of help along our journey, because we stand on the shoulders of many, I do not come to this alone by any means, I’ve had a lot of not only mentors, but people that have held my hand. I can proudly now say that I’m at a stage where I’m doing a lot of hand holding, mentoring new, while at the same time still being mentored.

One of my earliest mentors was my grandmother., I used to spend a lot of time with since I was very young, not only helping her, but also listening and watching her. She would share stories of her childhood and her adolescence and her adulthood with me. She was an identical twin, that had very similar yet distinct lives, and I really honor those stories because she had big dreams for me. And there where dreams of love and hope, and all her work where a foundation for me to be able to stand tall, to fulfill those dreams. And then another one of my mentors, father. I get to speak to him almost on a daily basis. We haven’t lived together, not even in the same country for over 20 years now. Yet he is still one of my to go to people in regards to what direction do I go to with the organization in regards to politics and policies.

I honestly could say that I have a circle of women that hold it down and mentor me on a physical, mental and spiritual level, and without them, I couldn’t do the work that I do as freely as I do. We are all immigrants living without our immediate family, some of us have life partners like I do and some of us don’t, and we have really created a strong knit family, where our survival depends on each other and without them, I honestly would not be able to, thrive as a Woman, as a Mother, as a Black woman, as a Black mother, raising Black children as I do. So they are also mentors in this world for me. Because everyday I learn from them.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. I am my only competition — It’s easy to focus on what others are doing, especially in the nonprofit world. And the truth is because we’re trying to work with other people and transform people’s lives, we are our own competition. I have learned that I just need to focus on fulfilling my own life's mission, and on the impact that on not only individuals, but collectively in the organization and in the world. I constantly ask myself, Am I doing the best I can? Are others around me growing? Am I growing? Am I getting better at what I do? If the answer is yes, then I need to do better. If the answer is no, then I need to figure out why, and then I need to do better. I can’t look at others and compare myself to them. I would always be spiraling.
  2. You must read and listen between the lines. — Since very small, I was taught to listen carefully because there’s power in silence. Those that know me well, know that I’m very comfortable with silence. Between words and sentences, there’s a lot that is said, and that is a skill that you pick up as you mature right in life, but for that, you have to be a good listener, tuning into what people are saying and what they’re not saying. A lot of people are very uncomfortable with silence. And there is listening to that silence in between not just words but statements. And in that silence, there is knowledge, wisdom and a lot of information.
  3. Not everything is so serious. — When you’re doing this work around social justice, sometimes we tend to get serious all the time. And I’m so grateful that I have two small children that keep it light. My 11 year old son tells me all the time, “Mama is not that serious”. And each day, I get to go back to my 11 year old self because, he is right, it is really not that serious. And the truth is that he is wise beyond his years because not everything is so serious. So I find joy, laughter and pleasure in my work as well. At all times.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Absolutely. I am not done. I am a licensed coached.I wanna do is grow my, my coaching practice, to really impact more Black Women throughout the region in regards to their self care, and personal growth, but also how they see themselves in society. I also want to do more writing. I also want to expand my writing to have more regional impact, so more children can see themselves in books, and that more Black Women can be published.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Any book by Bell Hook really, her books bring together why I do the things that I do. Not only because of her deep analysis around race, gender and the depthness of the political, but also the hope, the love, the fight, and what it means to be a woman in society. Bell Hooks, shares tools to dismantle, to fight and to organize. And, and that we, are entitled to be upset. And that we are also are entitled to greatness in life, and I want that for everybody. I want that for all women, for all men, all children, all genders and all races and all people. I want that for all of us. I want us for, to all breathe and all, to be able to enjoy the fruits of each other.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I think we need to look at the youth and trust and to the youth. We need to transfer power to the youth. I really believe that the youth are happier than most of us over a certain age, at least my age. And I really believe that youth have a lot of experience that we undervalue. I believe that youth have a lot of answers to take us forward and that we need to trust, um, young people, um, and that young people need to step it up as well. The movement towards liberation and freedom has to be youth led and the youth are leading, but some of us are not listening. So I think that if I could inspire a movement that could bring the most amount of change in the most amount of people, it has to be youth led. And within that, we have to trust that trans Black youth are going to lead us forward.

How can our readers follow you online?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/janvieve-williams-comrie

www.afroresistance.org

www.janvieve.com

Instagram: jwpanama and AfroResistance

Facebook: Janvieve Williams Comrie and AfroResistance

Twitter: Jwpanama and Afro_Resistance

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

825 Followers

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.