Opal’s involvement in Paulette magazine grew in a serendipitous way. I first met Opal through Tonjé Bakang, a mutual friend, on a warm summer evening in Paris. Days later, I mentioned to Irene Olczak, founder of Paulette, that I had met the co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, and she gasped, confessing that she herself had wanted to meet and chat with Opal for quite some time now. The stars were clearly aligning.
Fast-forward years later, these two inspiring forces finally got together, instantly clicked, and secretly plotted for months to craft the Fall issue of the magazine centered around togetherness, activism, and making a difference in the world. I’ve personally been overjoyed by their budding friendship, and by Irene’s constant gushing over Opal’s enthusiasm, generosity, and involvement. Things that I’ve loved about Opal for years. Back in 2016, she had kindly invited me to join her at Beyonce‘s Formation World Tour concert at the Stade de France after only meeting her once. That unforgettable night of dancing and lip-synching in full Beyhive mode sealed a friendship that has shown no sign of love drought. The next day, when she called to talk about the current migrant crisis and asked me to come with her to help, I grabbed food and water, and we immediately headed to a makeshift camp site where African migrants had been sleeping in horrid conditions for months. That’s what Opal does. She makes you want to be the best version of yourself through action. I also vividly remember that she decided to cut her “vacation” short to fly back to New York City and speak on immigration in front of a UN assembly. Her accolades as an activist and public figure are deservingly plentiful – a scholarship for immigrant Law students created in her name, an honorary PhD from Clarkson University, or being named one of the 50 most influential people by several magazines.
As an admirer of her work and dedication, and as a friend she can rely on and be silly with, I wanted to ask Opal Tometi about herself, the young girl who became an activist, the young woman who has to carve out time for self-care, and how she envisions a world in which we can all fully be ourselves Together.
How has being an activist and advocating for others changed and influenced you over the years?
For as long as I remember, I’ve been engaged in some form of advocacy. It really began with admiration and love for my friends and others in my life as a high schooler. And then over the years, as I realized we were facing challenges, it became a curiosity, then full fledged activism and eventually organizing. At first I was a regular actvist – something would happen and then I’d pop in to action and join a protest, but then after a while I realized that the challenges were relentless and that I needed to be engaged in deeper strategy in order to stop the injustice that our communities were faced with — which was more strategic organizing.
In the early ages I engaged in issues that I didn’t have any direct impact on my life — for example when I was first beginning I was involved in domestic violence work and ending child abuse — but the truth is I was never abused by a partner nor my parents. (I mean I saw kids at my high school in abusive relationships or friends in college but it wasn’t me). However, I eventually got courageous enough to move to issues that were impacting me more closely — I began to speak about stuff I knew intimately – like anti-Black racism and immigration. I honestly planned on doing this work in relative obscurity – I never thought I would be an “ official” public figure and thought a “leader” in the way I’m right now. But it’s been a humbling journey and a true honor to get recognition for work that is often done by many without acknowledgment or thanks. So I do appreciate the support – and my true hope is simply to be a good steward of this moment in history by doing the best with the platform I have. Using my voice and my expertise as best I can to achieve justice for as many people as possible.
In the constant whirlwind of news cycles and world events, how, when, and where do you find time to recharge your soul and reconnect with yourself?
There’s so much going on, and for a while I lost myself in it all. I gained lots of extra weight and neglected my own chronic health issues. However, in the past few months I’ve taken my own self-care more seriously. In fact, it’ #1. No one else can care for me the way that I will and I’m now perfectly clear on that. Maya Angelou once said “to be successful means to be happy with what you do and how you do it”. Audre Lorde also shared the same sentiment when she said “self care is not self indulgence. It is self preservation and it’s a political act”. With those sentiments and knowing who I am – knowing my heart and my ethic, and my track record – I have serious respect and love for myself. I am thoroughly pleased with who I am. And so, I listen to myself and my real needs; and that makes me feel connected and recharged daily. Each day I may need something different – sometimes it’s more sleep, sometimes it’s yoga in the morning, listening to Afrobeats or house music, or sometimes it’s hanging out with my godchildren.
What is the best piece of advice or wisdom that a mentor has shared with you and that you carry close to your heart everywhere?
Honestly, my mentors are amazing African women who have taught me the most by the lives they lead. For example, my first mentor was Leslye Obiora, a Nigerian Human Rights Lawyer from the University of Arizona and Yale who taught me to invest in the young people around you — even if they can’t give you anything in return. She took me under her wing literally and flew me with her when I was just a curious and passionate young person. I’m forever grateful.
Secondly, another incredible mentor-sister I have, Nunu Kidane, swims almost every day while leading an incredible non profit and providing thought leadership focused on advocacy for critical African issues. She stays active and creative while doing such cool work between the San Francisco Bay Area and Ethiopia. And lastly, my mentor Liepollo Pheko from South Africa is the most prolific and ambitious woman I know. She continues to show me that you can have the life of your dreams and should never apologize for your intellect, your drive and your accomplishments.
What does “Together” or “Togetherness” – the theme of Paulette magazine’s Fall issue – mean to you, and how can we strive for togetherness daily?
Togetherness is such a cool concept, but ultimately I think it’s most important that we recognize that everybody cannot nor should be exactly the same. It’s important that we value the diversity of experiences and expertise in all of us. We must value each of our respective contributions and qualities. I think this applies when we think about the world we want and need, but also how we actually achieve it. So often people don’t feel appreciated and I don’t think that this is right. Just like it is for a healthy body to thrive — we need all the parts participating in the functioning of the body. Just like a game we need all players being excellent in their own role but recognizing they are on the same team. Same thing with this life. We should share a same overall vision – multiracial, inclusive democracies that work for all of us together – but know that we will contribute differently so that we can get there.
By inclusive I mean including races, religions, gender, sexual orientation, ability , immigration status, or country of origin and class, among so many other things. I believe in us. I believe we can create a world that truly embraces the breadth of who we are and how we identify. It’s important that we not only educate ourselves so that we are aware, but we must commit to action. I encourage everyone to join an organization. That’s the single most important thing one can do – have a community that holds you accountable for your beliefs, but also supports you when you’re tired. We don’t have to do this journey for dignity and justice alone. Being in communion is what this life is about. We grow as a result.
As we slowly transition from Summer to back to school/work mode, is there any book, music, artist, experience that has moved you recently that you’d want to share and recommend to our Paulette readers?
I’m the kind of person who will travel for art, babies and love. And so this year, I gave myself a birthday gift of traveling for art – by going to the Chale Wote Arts festival in Accra, Ghana. It’s the largest arts festival in Africa and it was EVERYTHING! I had been wanting to go for years. I got to meet and view some incredible art. Thousands of people were there. It was grassroots – not sponsored by any large corporations and it was incredibly hope filled. I met folks like Adama Delphine, Nelson Makamo , Pierre Chistophe Gam, Serge Attukwei Clottey, Joanna Choumali and so many others. It was inspiring. People of all ages, backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses had access to art, were participating in the creation of and were clearly being moved by it. It was the best thing I’ve seen in years. Everyone should experience it. Making space in our lives for art period is very important. It opens up our imagination, reminds us that we can create whatever we want, and also allows us to experience beauty for its own sake. This is a beautiful reminder of the abundance that is already in existence in the world.
Thank you, Opal.
By PK Douglas
The 45th issue of Paulette magazine guest-edited by Opal Tometi is out now.