Changing The Face Of Politics Podcast
Episode 15: Margaret Alva interviews Philomena Wankenge
Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute’s Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In this episode Margaret Alva, former Indian politician interviews Philomena Wankenge, Co-Founder of Freedom Fighters DC, about her life as an activist and what it takes to make intersectional, progressive and feminist change within the racial justice movement today.
Margaret Alva: Hello, and welcome to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. We this evening have with us a very outstanding guest, Philomena Wankenge, well she'll tell us her story and so I will not waste my time. She is founder, the co-founder of a famous, now famous organization known as Freedom Fighters, DC, right? I'm Margaret Alva. I have been - I was a former member of parliament, a union minister in the Indian government and the governor of four states. I have now retired, but as active as I can be in the women's movement. Welcome to you Philomena. Your life story is something of which inspires all of us. She, or rather, you came as a refugee to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo. And you went on to university, Virginia State University, and it was the shooting of Michael Brown you say that brought you in, and that was in 2016, that brought you to the protest platform. A tweet in 2020 during the civil unrest, changed your life. And you are doing fantastic things. You are a media personality, you are a fighter for the rights, not only of your people, but of all women. And you are being recognized for what you have achieved when you are still under 25. Last year, we marked 25 years since Beijing. It was a historic event and the famous quote from Hillary Clinton that “women's rights are human rights,” became the slogan for the next decade. I welcome you and I would like you really to tell me what you see has changed over the last 25 years. Do you think the women's movement, human rights, and other issues have really moved forward or are stagnant?
Philomena Wankenge: Thank you, thank you for having me. I'm honored to be here with such an honorable woman. Thank you for that question. My biggest thing that I’ve seen progress with human rights and even women's rights is the visibility and the awareness, throughout the world with people knowing what we're actually going through. But things that I've really noticed stay the same is marginalized individuals kind of being ignored in these conversations. And so my biggest thing is being a woman of color, like yourself, is using our platforms to basically advocate for those that get lost in the conversation. And oftentimes we tend to group all women together, and yes, we are one and that is for sure and one woman’s women is all our win, but I think it's imperative that those that do get certain rights and privileges before marginalized women do, use their platform to advocate and emphasize our issues because as long as one group is ahead of the other, there's always going to be a weakness of unification between us as women. And so I think it's important if we're really going to move forward as a whole, that those that have certain strengths use them to, you know, kind of elevate those that have certain weaknesses. And so that way it doesn't allow patriarchy to still continue to use us and continue to keep us stagnant in our movement. And so I noticed that visibility is more throughout the world and people are becoming more aware and more conscious and even men are starting to be more of allies. But I have noticed that there are still certain voices that are not being heard and certain issues that are not getting the same amount of attention as others.
Margaret Alva: Philomena, you are a young woman under 25, right?
Philomena Wankenge: Yes.
Margaret Alva: You are from the Congo.
Philomena Wankenge: Yes.
Margaret Alva: A refugee, you came as to the United States. You’ve had a long struggle. You fought battles on the streets and I'm sure on various other platforms where you become a media personality too. Tell me something about the beginning of the struggle and what has been your experience of being a young woman, a woman of color, and a woman in a new country?
Philomena Wankenge: My entire life has been politicized, whether I was conscious of it or not. Having to basically leave our village while it was raided, not know if our family was alive, having to live in a refugee camp and then you come to a first world country and you realize you're poor. When you live in a refugee camp, everyone showers outside, everyone takes rations from the UN. And so there's nothing to make you feel excluded or make you feel small or marginalized because everyone is struggling like you are. And then you come to a different country and you feel excluded. And then you - I didn't really realize I was Black until I came to America because everyone looks like me back home. Then I came and I moved to a majority white area and I started noticing little things, but I didn't even notice at that time that it was racism. I just thought maybe it was because I wasn't American, that I was being treated that way. But it was simple things like me responding correctly to a question and my instructor acting as if it's the most amazing feat in the world. And I noticed it in every class and anytime any Black person would answer correctly or would show some sense of intelligence. And then you keep growing up and you keep growing up and you realize that, no, this is, this is just racism. Our people are not expected to be intelligent. We're not expected to graduate at the top of our class, we're not expected to move forward. We are expected to from the time that we are born to be born into struggle, to stay in struggle and to die in struggle. And so I would say that my activism really was born through the internalized racism. And just once I started seeing Black deaths happening all around me and no one around me was reacting the way I was. No one lost their appetite, no one was feeling anxious or feeling afraid. And at that time I wasn't a psychology major so I didn't understand these were all part of the Black trauma experience. And on top of that, being a woman, it's, it's part of the struggle. You're not only Black, which is already hard enough as it is, but then you're a woman, so you have to prove yourself 10 times, 10 times over. And even that's not enough and you're constantly invalidated, especially if you're an attractive woman. And so there was a time in my life that I just felt defeated. I felt like what was the point? And I'm sure a lot of Black people and people of color get to that point where they just feel like, you know what, maybe I should just become another statistic, maybe I should just accept it because I'm living in a society that doesn't even want me to win, let alone survive. But I got to a point where I realized if I did that, then my kids are going to have to go through that. Then their kids are going to have to go through that. And it's like, I would be responsible for like basically bringing my kids into a certain type of hell that I've never, ever even wanted for myself. And so I've been through a lot of struggle as a Black woman and as a refugee from learning English, taking ESL classes, all the nine yards, but those same struggles have basically made me stronger and have made me realize how important it is that I do whatever it is that I can, whether it’s protesting, whether it's, tweeting or emphasizing Black issues or just issues that affect women as a whole, so that my kids and their kids don't get born into this same type of environment.
Margaret Alva: You’ve been so passionate about these issues, Philomena. I'm just asking you besides the shooting of Michael Brown in 2016, which you say triggered in you, you know, that anger and that anguish. Tell me what at home, before you came to the US, were you involved with any kind of activity? Were you involved in any kind of organization or political party as a young person?
Philomena Wankenge: No, as a child, my family was. My family was always involved, always outspoken, always teaching me to just speak for what's right and my parents were always that way. My Uncles were in politics and, you know, took office and so they would always introduce me to leaders, but at the time I didn't really realize what they were doing, I was just a child and meeting people that were my family's friends. But then later on in 2012, I actually helped my father create a nonprofit, which is called a UPI A Vision RDC, which we provide free healthcare, housing, clothing for women's victims of war and orphans. And until this day, we still do that and it's still present in our home in Bukavu. I wasn't at the time because I was just so little when I left Congo at such a young age, but once I reached an age where I could process and understand that, how, how lucky I really was to make it out of Congo, I made sure to do something that will always give back and would kind of provide maybe future needs or women that even give more than I did and so that's still going on today and we still collect items and we still we still house orphans and we provide education for them. And so that's my main thing is just empowering people and creating and giving them the tools that I was given so that one day they can get out of Congo, just like I did.
Margaret Alva: You got out alone or with your family?
Philomena Wankenge: I got out with my family, luckily. My grandfather unfortunately was killed defending us from the rebel soldiers, but I was fortunate enough to get out with all of my family.
Margaret Alva: Ever since you came to the United States, you have been to the university, you have done your studies, you are on the public platform. Do you see an opportunity for you to be able to change things for your people?
Philomena Wankenge: Yes. I see an opportunity. It's just some days it's, it's difficult to see change when you feel as if you move forward and then you take 10 steps back. And a lot of change at this time that we're in is very performative and it's not substantial, actual change. And it's policies that have sometimes have loop holes that you think are progressive and in reality that are regressive and have other agendas. And so where I'm at right now, it's really educating myself so that when I do enter the arena outside of just protesting and actually get into, I would say politics, I understand how to actually make change stick.
Margaret Alva: Do you work mostly with women or do you have men involved in your movement?
Philomena Wankenge: I have, I have an equal amount of both men and women in my movement. Honestly, it's - I like diversity. I think it's important to hear each other out. I think it's difficult to critique something that you don't understand. And so I do have a lot of men in our group, but I do have a lot of women in our group and we tend to, we tend to be a more woman-ran organization, but we do have men there to give their input and to just guide us as well.
Margaret Alva: And do you think that it makes a difference when there are more women involved? Because I feel so, but do you feel that women think differently, handle issues differently and have a different approach to the entire battle, if I may say so, that we are fighting today?
Philomena Wankenge: Yes, of course, of course we do because we have much more to lose and we have much more to gain. And also I've always felt as if a lot of men lead with their egos and a lot of women lead to create solutions. And so those are completely two different approaches. And I think that women are more willing to compromise for the greater good of the people that they're governing, as opposed to a lot of men lead with the intent of being right and getting exactly what they want with short willingness to compromise.
Margaret Alva: Tell me, what is the technique or what's the system you use to get more and more women involved? They are not all Black. They must be white women also supporting and participating. How do you manage to bring them all in?
Philomena Wankenge: Yes, definitely not all Black. One of my actually closest colleagues, , that I did an interview with as well is a white woman. She's an ally. That's what I consider them allies. It's a system, it's essentially just having a diverse group and each one knowing their part and working together for the whole. So with my white allies, they use their platforms to emphasize our issues. And then for that, we do, we talk to them about the things that we feel yes are being seen, but are not necessarily being heard and then they take that and they amplify it. And I think for me, I just want women to win as a whole. I'm huge on advocating because I am a Black woman and understand that experience and so I always advocate for that, but all in all in a perfect world where I would find peace and want my children to be one, I just want women as a whole to win. And I want all of us to be heard and to have rights into matter.
Margaret Alva: Do you see as the change for the next 10 years, what do you foresee happening for women, not only in your country, in the US, but around the world?
Philomena Wankenge: Well, if we're going to follow the trend that I'm seeing right now, I will say that the standard of professionalism is changing. The new generation is changing what a professional is supposed to look like and what a woman politician is supposed to look like. When you look at a politician like Cori Bush, she doesn't look like the ideal politician, as opposed to what 50 years ago in 1968, when there was the first Black woman was allowed to be in Congress, she looks different. She speaks Ebonics, she speaks in a language that basically identifies with the people that she governs. She shows what she comes from. 50 years ago from now, 50 years before now, that wasn't acceptable. You had to present yourself in a certain way if you even wanted to be heard or even wanted to be validated as a leader. And so I think that the trend that's about to follow now is women being visible not only in themselves as women, but also as politicians and not having to constantly separate the two. And I think that that's, for me that's the most important thing, because I think as women, oftentimes we have to sacrifice our individual selves and present ourselves in a certain way and if we don't, we're highly criticized for it. And I just think that right now, politics are shifting to a way where people are just going to be more humane and just more of themselves, as opposed to just simply being perfect politicians.
Margaret Alva: Do you see young people, the new generation, you are the new generation as far as I'm concerned, I'm in the seventies and there's a big gap between your thinking and my thinking, I presume because we belong to two different generations.
Philomena Wankenge: Yes.
Margaret Alva: You, as the leader of the younger generation, of the new generation, do you see them being politically aware, involved, or concerned? Do you hope that this new generation will carry forward the struggle or they're already involved with their careers, their own struggles, their own lives and their own sort of, if I may say so, effort to climb the ladder to success. How do you see the younger generation helping with the changes around them?
Philomena Wankenge: That's a great question. You know, I think that if there isn't a shift from individualism to community, that the struggle and the fight may get lost. And that is just me being honest with you. I think that our generation is gaining a sense of self and understanding that they don't have to struggle in certain ways and they can figure out how to climb the ladder faster, which there's nothing wrong with, but I also think that with this new era of social media, which was even evident in the fight, even with some of the leaders, was that it, a lot of it became about individualism and, and being seen rather than fighting for community. And so I think if we don't as a generation tackle that issue, that a lot of the fight will become more about individualism and individual leaders than about the community and what the community actually needs.
Margaret Alva: So you do think that younger people will probably be more involved than for instance, our generation was? See our generation worked more with our hearts. We were involved in social issues, we came out. In India, for instance, we had a whole generation of freedom fighters before us who set the constitution, who set the democratic norms. So we had something we inherited. The new generation now has a different approach. Do you have hope that this new generation will really be the answer to the many issues which young people are facing today?
Philomena Wankenge: I do. I really do. And I believe that this past summer showed that. I believe that we're not afraid of a fight, but I do think that we're not operating in the same circumstances as the past generation so our approach has to be different. And because, it just, it just has to be different. Our approaches aren't going to be the same. And oftentimes when people from past generations look at our approaches, they may feel like it's not as effective, but in the sense that it is. We have social media now, which tends to make things faster, quicker, and brings awareness to different parts of the world. My tweet reached people, people in India, it reached people in the UK, it reached people where we were connecting with different people, in Colombia, , fighters, freedom fighters in Colombia. So we have a tool that past generations didn’t, where we have instant information being shared, instant. And that right there is our biggest tool. Now, if we don't use that properly, our messages can be lost because while I was a freedom fighter and I was on the streets, we had, , bots, we had people that were trying to intercept our movements, that, and that's common in every movement. That's never going to change with any generation, but that was there for us too, but now it's on the internet and there's trolls now. And so as long as we make sure that what we're fighting for and the right information is being shared and we’re uniting with allies, I do feel like we are the future of this fight. And we don't back down from our fights. And we're not just willing to be on social media, and sharing things, we're also willing to get on the streets and sacrifice ourselves and our bodies. And I believe that that's something that we learned from your generation.
Margaret Alva: Tell me, what is the big surprise in your journey that you would like to present as the change that came into your life?
Philomena Wankenge: Well, my life changed in a matter of like a week. My biggest surprise was how people responded to me till this day. You know, I didn't expect any of this to happen. I really just expected to have a small protest and to just keep doing what I was doing all summer. But I think the biggest surprise for me is how, how powerful my voice is. It's a powerful tool, but it's also a very humbling tool. And it's something that I realized I have to constantly reach out to mentors to make sure that I'm using it in the right way and for the community and not for self because I am human and I'm not perfect and I can't ever be a perfect leader. And that's another thing that I also learned about myself is that there is this need to be perfect and that pressure to be perfect by people that follow you, but you have to constantly remind yourself that yes, you are powerful, yes, your voice is powerful, but you can never be perfect, you're still human. And that's why oftentimes when people come to my events, I go and I talk to them and I sit on the floor with them and I sit with them and I talk to them because I want them to know that the only difference between me and you is how my voice reaches you. But I'm no, I'm not above you. And any power that I have was given to me by you. And so I believe that just always reminding myself and just identifying myself with people like that will always keep me grounded.
Margaret Alva: Do you see yourself any time becoming a political leader? I’m talking about running for office, either in the US or going back home to carry on that battle of your family.
Philomena Wankenge: It's inevitable, unfortunately for me. It's something I don't want to do just because, you know, I am highly critical of politicians. But I've really, it's in my future. But right now, I need to focus on obtaining my Masters, working on campaigns and learning how to construct policies, that's really where my passion is. But after, at some point, I'm sure in my thirties I will be running for office. Will it be in America? Yes. I'm sure it will start here, but eventually I want to be a Minister in Congo.
Margaret Alva: Are you very optimistic about your movement? I mean, the way it will go in the coming decade. For instance, this whole question of Black Lives Matter has become a global issue, not just for the colored people in America, but everywhere. And I think it has inspired also other groups to take on this battle in their own countries, in their own societies. So are you very optimistic about the results of this movement that you have launched as a young person in your twenties?
Philomena Wankenge: Yes, I am. I'm extremely optimistic. I believe with any movement there are going to, there's going to be progress and there's going to be people that oppose what you're doing, but I believe we have made huge strides. We have made huge, huge strides and we have to celebrate our wins and those moments where we feel defeated and we feel like we're not moving forward, or we're not moving fast enough or at the pace that we want to, we have to celebrate the little wins that we have. The trial that just happened with George Ford, that was when I was at work. I cried. It was,it was the first time that, Black death was validated as murder as, as what it really was. And looking back years ago, if people in the civil rights movement were alive and could see that, they would cry because, they couldn't even fathom or conceptualize that even happening or America even recognizing a Black death as something that is inhumane and wrong. So, I think that you have to look at it from a bigger picture, as opposed to just one little thing each time in the movement and realize that we have made progressive growth as Black people, but there are still things that we want and are fighting for and we will get there.
Margaret Alva: Your one statement, “I do not seek to be a leader or a martyr, but I have to be the voice of my people,” which is so, so moving. You know, your life has been a struggle. You've been a martyr, if I may say so, in many ways, for a cause. And whether or not I see leadership coming your way, you may not choose it, but I think ultimately it will be inevitable. You are in your twenties, over the next 15 years you are going to grow, your voice is going to get louder and you are going to be heard. So do you envisage a change coming in your life in the next 10 years? And are you optimistic about it?
Philomena Wankenge: Yes, I'm, I'm always optimistic. That's the only way to survive for me with everything that I've been through. But yes, I think life is a constant cycle of change and accepting it, whether it's uncomfortable or not. And for me, I'm, I'm going to go wherever God takes me, honestly, that's, that's just how I feel about it. And I usually pray with my mother about every decision. So if we see that politics is what I need to do despite about whether I like it or not, my, my thing is always about the people. If me being a politician is what is going to help my people, I will do that.
Margaret Alva: So you, in other words, are prepared to take the plunge when the time comes?
Philomena Wankenge: Yes, ma'am.
Margaret Alva: I believe that you are set for that. Tell me how easy it is working with men, a new country as a Black young woman.
Philomena Wankenge: It's not easy at all. Personally, I prefer working with women, honestly. Working with men is something that unfortunately we have to do, but I'd rather not do, but I think it does prepare me if I ever do go into public office because it's controlled by them. I will say America is very much so an all boys club, whatever, what level you're in. And for me, I just think that it's just about focusing on being a leader and as opposed to just seeing myself as a woman, because I think that that's my biggest issue with this country and just the world is that when women are leaders were seen as women leaders, we're not seen as leaders, no one ever refers to a man as a man leader, they just call them readers, you know? And so I think that we have to not ignore how America is ruled by patriarchy.
Margaret Alva: But when it comes to women, then they call us women leaders.
Philomena Wankenge: Yes, exactly. They use that differentiation and they don't use it for men. And so I'm going to, of course, I always do what I need to do, and I'm going to be professional and respect decorum, but dealing with men is not the easiest thing and living in a patriarchal society is not easy. And a lot of men internalize those values, that root patriarchy, and they're not always aware of them nor willing to change them. And so it's just a, it's just a basically you live, you learn, and you adjust, type of environment when you work with men.
Margaret Alva: There is one last point I just want to ask you. You have been talking about the defunding of the police, right?
Philomena Wankenge: Yes.
Margate Alva: And how do you think it is being taken? Will it move forward or do you have great opposition to that platform that you have launched in a big way, which is so important to protect the rights of the marginalized?
Philomena Wankenge: You know, they're not defunding the police right now. This, that law that just got passed and I send peace and love to all my Asian brothers and sisters, and I'm glad that they finally did something to protect them. But unfortunately, when you read more of the law, they, they put a loophole that actually puts more money into the police. And so when you're the average citizen, and it's not to say that the average citizen is not intelligent, nor incapable of reading policies, but oftentimes they read what is read to them from the media. And so they don't necessarily understand the loopholes that are taken to fund the police or how it's funded. And so the cause of defund the police, it's not something that's going to happen right now. I don't believe it's something that's going to happen in my time.But it's not something that I'm going to stop advocating for. And there is extreme opposition from pretty much all over the place from the white supremacists to the alt-rights, to the Republican party for defunding of the police, because it goes into so many things. But it's not something that we're going to stop doing, because I don't know if many people know this, but police were originally created to hunt runaway slaves. And so there is nothing in this world someone can tell me about an institution that was made to enslave others. It will never ever be for the people. It will never protect the people and it will never ever, ever, ever in this world sit right with any Black human being. I appreciate though that they risk their lives every day to protect people, to make sure people are okay and that they are safe. And there is no disrespect to them, but you cannot be part of an institution that was founded on dehumanizing other people, and think that it will ever be a part of progressive society.
Margaret Alva: Would you say that having more women in the police force would help dehumanize, I mean, rather humanize the force a little more?
Philomena Wankenge: No. It doesn't, it doesn't because even from a psychological standpoint, the things that, the fact that there's no psychiatric testing regularly for police officers, whether men or women, shows the problematic issues in the police force, they see trauma every single day. Many of them have PTSD. Many of them have psychological issues, they can't even pass a simple psych evaluation, but these are the individuals that are sent out in times of crisis to other human beings. It does not matter whether you're a man or woman, police, police, police officers are just problematic all around. And so I do not think as a Black woman, if a white woman stops me or a white police officer stops me, it's going to make me feel less uncomfortable. It's not, it's still going to make me tense up. It's still gonna make me cry. It's still gonna make me have anxiety. It's the, when it comes to gender and police, it just does not make a difference.
Margaret Alva: It’s been wonderful speaking to you, Philomena, you have so much fire and you have so much to contribute. To me, passing on the baton to the younger generation, to people like you, is great satisfaction. Our hope is in the young, in your generation, in leaders like you. I wish you every success in your, if I may say so, the many goals you have set for yourself. And let your organization grow. Freedom Fighters DC has to become a worldwide movement. I thank you for being with us. I thank you for your very frank answers. And I do believe that you are set for greatness in your life. Thank you, god bless you.
Philomena Wankenge: Thank you.
Closing: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at ndi.org.