Changing the Face of Politics Podcast
Episode 5: Mimoza Kusari-Lila interviews Seyi Akiwowo
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, Mimoza Kusari-Lila, member of the Kosovo parliament interviews Seyi Akiwowo, Founder and Executive Director of Glitch and former London borough councillor, about her career in politics, her work to combat online abuse, and her commitment to self care.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Hello, welcome to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. My name is Mimoza Kusari-Lila, and I'm a member of Kosovo parliament and former deputy prime minister of Kosovo. It's my special pleasure today that my guest is Seyi Akiwowo. Seyi is the Founder and Executive Director of Glitch, a small charity dedicated to ending online abuse and championing digital citizenship. Glitch was founded shortly after Seyi, then politician, faced horrendous online abuse and violence. Seyi, I have to admit that I was looking forward to this interview because I've heard your story live two years ago. And then I met you again last year, and I know the energy and passion that you carry with you. Could you please tell me, where did you find all the inspiration initially to join politics and then to continue your work about ending online abuse?
Seyi Akiwowo: Thank you so much Mimoza. I'm so pleased to be part of this conversation and that you're interviewing me. I think we, when we first met each other, I think we were kindred spirits and we had lots of fun both in Washington. And then for those short, those short few moments in, in London. So I'm really glad to have this conversation with you.
My passion for what I then knew later on to be politics came from when Charlotte, my school friend was stabbed at a house party and she died and it was really one of the first times that we had heard of youth violence in our area. And obviously it being a young girl. And I went to school with Charlotte, both primary and secondary, she was my neighbor, and it was just really a lot for me to have to deal with. And I asked a lot of questions to try and understand that, why had Charlotte been stabbed? Why did that person feel they needed to carry a knife? And wanted to explore youth violence a lot more. And those questions and that line of inquiry basically took me to politics. Local government, we're having a lot of power in making a lot of decisions about my community and people who look like me, but we were not being represented in those spaces. And so that's I guess, stubbornness, a little bit of naivety, and passion meant that I was pursuing things about youth parliament roles, young mayor roles, youth counselor positions in my area. And I realized again that that was still dealing with a lot of youth engagement issues - and that's great - I think those are important projects, but I really wanted to get to the heart of democracy where decisions and money and budgets and important life changing matters were being discussed. And that's when I decided at 22 to stand for my local area where I'd grown up and where I'd obviously even went to school in Charlotte. And then at 23, I was elected and it was a whirlwind for four years using that position to try and encourage more black women to enter politics and the online space and trying to kind of dismantle the barriers, which a lot of it was around not seeing yourself and representation, beliefs, as well as like the structural things that need to change to be more inclusive. But when I had, when I had had that video of the speech that I made aat European parliament go viral and it encountered online violence, it just, something just changed in me around how we really prepare young people and women to enter politics - not in a place that fear gives them fear, and incites fear, and not wanting to enter politics, but really understands that when you are embarking on this journey, these are the things that you need to think about, and basically the conversation I wish somebody had with me when entering politics and doing things more online and being a young person. And so that's where Glitch was birthed, to try and get more young people to be thinking about, particularly women who are disproportionately affected, thinking about the online violence and preparing themselves for that when it comes to entering all forms of public spaces.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Yes, it seems that, I mean, listening to the story, it gets always emotional because the reason that you enter politics was very personal and emotional, but still accompanied with a lot of courage and determination that you want to make things right. And then you want to show others that you stand up and you want to represent people and other women and girls. But then again, your path forward is also associated with something else that is identified with another sort of violence and another form of violence, of online abuse. So it seems that under pressure you perform, or you always find a new venue, what would be sort of, how would you define your role in this situation? Like, do you always have to be under pressure to take a new path?
Seyi Akiwowo: Yeah, my mum probably say, yeah, my mom probably say I wait way too, I wait last minute to tidy my room or to do something. I, yeah, so I'd probably, I do need pressure. But I think what has forced me to kind of change and reevaluate that, and I guess try and have a bit more of a balance is trying to do things more for a place of rest, rather than always feeling rushed and pressured to do something. Because I think yes, that, that energy you get and your journey you get from like waking last minute and feeling that pressure like means you can really like thrive, but I don't think that's sustainable. And like when, and now being like a CEO and a leader of a charity that has processes and manages people, that's not a way to kind of like manage a team all the time. Yes, there's a reactiveness because you don't know what's going to happen in terms of the tech space and announcements by government, et cetera, et cetera. But overall, I think I've grown to be more balanced in terms of doing things from a place of rest. If you incorporate more meditation and like running and like trying to do things by having more thinking space rather than always doing things that require adrenaline. And that, and that took a long time, that took a long time to shift. And like you said, there were two very traumatic events that happened and I had to do a lot of healing from that, I had to do a lot of inward work around yes, Glitch and my narrative and my story is trauma informed, but I don’t want it to be trauma led. I want to know that I'm doing things from a place of healing and a place of lived experience, not a place of fear or from a place of feeling like a harm or victim. And yeah, it's about re-addressing that balance. Because I think a lot of our campaigns that you see that are started by women, activists around the world - our birth from our oppression, our birth from an experience that we've had, right, and I think that's amazing, but I think what we also see when it comes to like activism and campaigns and women in politics is that we don't tend to have a long lifespan. I remember reading an interesting stat. I think it was in Canada a few years ago, about more women leave politics earlier than men. That there was a, there was a similar stat that was talked about last year ahead of the elections in the UK. And I think there's something there around like the sustainability by activism, and yes, that we are fighting against oppression and civil rights are birthed out of quite a lot of trauma and a lot of mobilizing, but, but I don't think it should be at the expense of our self-care. That's taken me about two years to really learn.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Yeah. You mentioned the comparison between women and men in politics. Have you ever thought of yourself on how would you have been reacted or what would have your life been if you were a boy or a man in the same position, in the same situation? Like how would you have, would life have been easier to you? Would you, I mean, do you ever think of that or make that sort of reflection in “if I was a boy then probably, or if I was a man?”
Seyi Akiwowo: Yeah, I mean, Beyonce’s song, If I Was A Boy, I constantly sing that song because I definitely think when it comes to Glitch, like fundraising and trying to get into spaces and, and even how people approach and talk to me, I definitely know certain situations that would be, I would be treated a lot more respect. Or people are very shocked when they heard, hear about me and then they see my TED talk and see my face because Seyi is a unisex name. So I think yeah, there is, its really funny when people engage with me on email versus engaging with me face-to-face. And I think also COVID as well as made that really interesting around people, do people kind of know who I am and yeah, and have they watched my TED talk or not. I think to answer your question though, there's a bit of intersectionality that's needed, because if I was a black boy, I think that would have come with a different set of challenges, particularly in London where you've got racial profiling and like a lot of tensions between the police. And you know, we see that black men as well in the UK are suffering from, from like depression and very poor levels of mental health. So I think there would've been a different struggle if I was a black man. But I think if I was a white man, for sure, I think being the charismatic person that I am, I'm very good looking, I got good dress sense, like I think that would have been lapped up and adored by the main, by mainstream media. And so, and I think often women do feel like they have to kind of like tone police or whitewash themselves or masculinize and be, you know, we heard that with Thatcher, Thatcher got voice training for, so that she sounded more masculine. I do think there's this kind of like pressure to appear, look and feel more, less emotional, whatever that means, and more, more like a man, because that's what mainstream media have put out there is what we want and need. But what we see in crisis, that's not the case. And I, and I definitely think if I was a man, things like caring responsibilities, things like you know, having like, like my, my clothes ironed for me and prepared for me, I think that those things would have also been a lot easier to allow me to focus on my career a lot more, whereas being a woman that's not necessarily been the case.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Yeah, I mean, I completely agree with you when you talk about racial profiling men or women, and we've seen cases, and we've seen even movements in particular in the United States, in the way how police has treated a black man versus how they treat others and definitely there is a racial profile. But when it comes to gender profiling, it's funny because I always think also, I make the same comparison. If I was a man, like we discussed jointly when saying that, how would we perceive as a woman who's doing sport in politics in public life? I would say if I was a man, I would probably be saying, ‘oh, he's very strong and fit,’ but as a woman, there's definitely looking down on you and saying, ah, she's not serious, she's doing sports.
Seyi Akiwowo: Yes, yes absolutely. I think if I was a man wanting to place importance of going to the gym at lunchtime, it would be really, like welcomed and like really seen like, ‘yeah, good on you.’ But when I'm doing, it's a bit like, ‘oh, okay, like wanting to spend on yourself, are you concentrating?’ Like, I think there's a lot more doubt. And, and I think that comes with anything that women do. I think there's a lot more scrutiny when women do things, there's a lot of distrust when women and intersex identities do things in comparison to white men. And I think that's where we've seen the need for diversity in our leadership and accountability mechanisms. So that, that we readdress the kind of scrutiny and balances a lot fairer.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Yeah, I fully agree. And not only just diversity, but also introduction with everything that comes with diversity, all the attributes, and not like you mentioned being a woman and then trying to act like a man so you'd be accepted in politics or in leadership role. And saying that all, how did that reflect in the position in your family or how did that affect your private life? I mean, initially in politics and then with being a CEO of an organization, did you have the support encouragement, or did you feel like you have to convince them? I mean, my experience was that I always, I knew, and I never had to convince my family that, you know, I need to do this. How was it, what was your case? I mean, how was your path in, into introducing your career choices to your family?
Seyi Akiwowo: Yeah, so my mom and my friends got the whole politics thing, eventually that, that was, that was like, ‘okay, cool, this is, this is important to you, I see and I see what, what that means and what you could, what you could do with it.’ When I was now kind of campaigning with like Glitch around like online abuse and violence, that kind of sticking up for like women's rights, that bit was a bit like, ‘hmm.’ And then when it came with backlash, you know, talking like whether it was like talking about Black Lives Matter two, three years ago, whether it was calling out gender injustices, then my family and friends were a little bit, like, ‘are you sure you want to say that, you sure you want to do that?’ And it comes from a very well-meaning place. But in a way it kind of reinforced some victim blaming, like me speaking up for my rights. Does it attract abuse? Like, like that's not okay. It's not my fault, I'm speaking up for my rights. And so I think that that transition from politics and leaving politics as well and going into like more of that, of the CEO and NGO world, that was probably harder for people to understand, like understanding the late nights, working the weekends, even though, as you know, working in local government, it does involve weekends cause there are surgeries that you have to hold for your residents, you visit loads of community centers and speak to people, that was understood. But when I was now having to do that for, for an organization and a charity, that was not really met well. And also, I the - I mean, there's a whole conversation to be had about remuneration in politics, but I, I definitely went above and beyond the kind of hours they say you should do as a local councilor and I was working at the time. And no one questioned in terms of how much I was earning when it came to being a councilor. But when I changed and flipped to be in a charity, more people asking questions about what I earned and ‘is this a safe thing for you to be doing, setting up your own charity news? You want us to be having kids to blah-blah-blah.’ And I, and I think, I thought that was, that was interesting. The understanding that we don't have that activists and campaigners on are not properly remunerated, but yet no one wants to do anything to try and make sure they are properly remunerated.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Yeah. You've seen, I mean, you, you have an intensive career in politics and apparently great reasons for it. And then in civil society or with the charity organization, but along this path, you've probably seen the impact you had on other girls and other women. And would you say that you had, or you felt like you're making more impact in politics then in non-governmental sector? Or how would you compare the impact that you had on other women and girls from both perspectives?
Seyi Akiwowo: I tell you that that is really important to me, that legacy stuff is really, really important to me. I've done loads of like personality assessments recently for like this leadership development course I'm on. And it comes up really strong, like about giving back and morality. And it was so heartbreaking. Mimoza, when people would tweet me during the time I was getting the abuse and saying, ‘this is why I don't want to enter politics because I see what you're going through.’ And then me what I was going through and what Diane Abbott, who was our first black woman MP in the UK and was the first black woman Shadow Home Secretary. They would say, ‘I see what Seyi and Diane get and why would I get into politics?’ And it would, it literally made me so sad. It made me, it actually was the final push to say, okay, I think I'm going to do this campaign called Glitch because if we want to get more women into politics, public life, sports, whatever it is, we don't meet another additional barrier to making that process hard. We already have to think about caring responsibilities and all, you know, gender pay gap and all the other unfairness. Now we're adding online violence to it. And that really irked me. And I, you know, if I was to do a comparison, I had a platform and I was a counselor to like speak and stuff and so I would get lots of like positive responses on social media, people would write to me or email me, or ask to speak with me and asked how I did it. And that was really good. But I guess now as a CEO, you have to kind of quantify that and set KPIs, so you can obviously let the board know and funders know. So I'm able to kind of put more numbers to that. And so the thousands of women that we trained through our workshops on digital self-care and self-defense, and helping them stay online, have more agency. I can put that in numbers, and I can tell you countries that we visited and and you know, politicians that we've trained up and parliaments that we've trained up. And so I guess as a CEO, it's easy to kind of track that. But both of them gave me such joy in being able to say like, you can do this. And actually I needed to come and do this because if there's, if there's more of us in this space, we can really shake it up and disrupt it and not have to keep doing the status quo. And I, and I don't think. and I'm grateful for what I learned in politic that's shaped me as a CEO and I'm grateful for my, my previous experiences in the charity sector to help inform how I was a politician, how I wanted to engage with the community. And I think that was something that was quite my USP, if you like, I use social media as a young woman in local government very differently to my counterparts. To the point that it scared our local mayor at the time, and, you know, he wanted to review what I was posting and stuff like that because I genuinely believed in transparency and engaging our community. So yeah, both of them have given me such joy.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Great. Seyi, you sound, and this is the experience that I had, or the impression that I had on you from the first time I met you, as very strong and very courageous woman, and definitely very determined. But are there moments when you feel low, when you feel like you're run out of energy, and I'm speaking this from my personal experience, and where do you find an inspiration to fill your batteries up? Apart from just, I mean, talking about the mental and sort of encouragement that comes from inside, not just the physical one, not just the running or the exercise, but also the motivation to go long distances, to go five more years doing what you're doing now.
Seyi Akiwowo: Yeah. That, yeah, one I've had to deal with perfectionism and self critique, but my inner voice was very tough on myself. Coming from a single parent household, so quite a lot of things I had to like teach myself and to myself. And so I guess the perfectionist in me helped me get better, get better exam results and get into LSC and, you know, do those things that I needed to do, to make up for not having a father around. But then the flip side and the way it became a bit more, I guess, toxic or unhelpful was that I was super critical of myself and never really self compassionate about what I was doing and giving myself praise. So people would be like, ‘yeah, you got elected at 23.’ And I was like, ‘yeah, cool.’ But you know, now looking back, that was an amazing achievement, but then I couldn't see it because I was just looking at, in such a perfectionist, hyper-self-critical point of view. So that was definitely one thing I had to change about being self compassionate. And so kind of keep motivating myself and, and, and to keep going, I talked to people, I think I talked to my peers who are also CEOs of small charities and were really honest and frank. And I talked to my board and I think my biggest tip around, like, how you keep going, if like, when you have those low, low moods, like it's, for a reason, our body is telling us something like, we're either tired or we're burning out. And like I said before, I think burnout and activism has been seen as a bit of a badge of honor when it comes to being in politics, when it comes to campaigning, we must tire ourselves out. Like we see it with like short-term campaigns when it comes to elections, people are working flat out, you see it on the West Wing, like it's a, it's a crazy framework to have, I think. But I think it's important to make sure that you're planning time for rest and listening to your body, because if your body is saying, I’m feeling low, it could be because lack of sleep, it could be because not good nutrition. Like it is those really basic, boring things that we got told at school about like eating our fruit and veg and going to sleep at a good time. But those are, those are like super key to have like a clear and positive mind.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Would you, I mean, would you characterize, you mentioned that you grew up without a father, with only the mother. What would you characterize being, impacting your character differently or any other children girls or boys that live with only one parents? Like who was your, the identification, your father figure, and how did that affect to see the balance in life between men and women being raised without a father?
Seyi Akiwowo: Yeah, you've nailed it on the head, Mimoza. I like, I didn't see this, what men do, what women do, because I only saw my mom do both. So I think that's why I didn't understand this whole thing about gender inequality. So it really came from a place of like, this doesn't make sense to me because my mom earned income as well as like helped put food on the table and literally would make the food and put it on the table. So for me, it was just really, I think that frames, a lot of my ‘women can do it too attitude.’ But equally seeing my mum do everything meant that I wasn't learning self care, I wasn't learning balance, I wasn't learning rest. And so I had to like unlearn - like unlearn the kind of like perfectionism and doing too much and try and make sure that I was being kind to myself. I think people who like, you know, and it's, it's so common, people who are not don't have fathers or who are in same-sex relationships, I think you do have this, these, these moments where you compare yourself, like, do, would your life be easier for you if you had a dad around? Probably, sure, like in terms of like maybe contributing income to the house, but if it was going to be a toxic environment, it's not going to be based on love. Like actually, maybe it was a, it's a, it is a blessing. And I think I do want to speak to, and I said this quite a lot when I started politics, I do want to speak to young women who are from single parent household and say, ‘don't let that, makeup hold you back.’ I think there's a lot of, a lot around, ‘Oh, I don't have a mum and dad to speak to the news if I want to start, start a campaign and get into politics,’ that, you know, that kind of like new flow, weird traditional family thing that is just, I think not what the real world is for many, many, many people. And so I do want to encourage anyone that comes from a single parent household that you can do whatever you want, and don't be held, hold back, held back by having any absent parent for whatever reason.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Oh, absolutely, I think there's a whole range of issues that need to raise worldwide in terms of the, how we do define a family. I mean, we, every society is moving away from a traditional concept of having a mother and a father and siblings. And now, as you mentioned, same sex marriages or being raised with only one parent and it's all on the effort to have a more inclusive and more diverse society where we don't put people in boxes just because the been or the grownup without one parents or because they come out of a family of the same-sex marriage. I think it's definitely a need to articulate much more and present examples like yours and others further to youngsters, women and men, or boys and girls. This crisis, COVID crisis had brought up worldwide the gender inequality in terms of, even in those communities affected, women suffer much more. And the domestic violence rates are up worldwide, including our country. And I assume because people got locked in the house and then, you know, the frustration and a lot of expression of violence has gone toward women and children. So definitely need to, to have a woman in decision-making, even though cases like New Zealand and Germany who have women in their leadership role have shown to be a much more successful stories than Australia, for example, or France or Italy for that matter. We, I mean, you briefly touched upon the fact that people ask you, do you want to go back to the council? And that was my question as well. Because listening and hearing your passion and your energy, I think definitely politics kids use some of that energy to turn things around properly in decision-making in the council. Do you ever think that your life path will lead you again to politics?
Seyi Akiwowo: Maybe, maybe.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: I need a certain answer, a more certain answer, actually, more determination from you. Not maybe.
Seyi Akiwowo: I tell you what I struggle with. It's the polarization that we're seeing in the UK at the moment, and very much tribal politics and that kind of labeling, and it's just not me, Mimoza. Like, I think for women as always, it's difficult for it to be, we can't be labeled because we don't fit into society's idea of black and white, like, because we're always like being othered as women. And then as a Black, young woman as well. And I just, I just don't agree with that kind of tribalism. And so until that is really resolved, I just don't think there's a place for me in UK politics, because I think we need that fluidity and collaboration. And, and I mean, obviously it's still adhering to ideology and wanting the world to be a better place, but the rise of in the UK, nationalism and fascism and stuff like that. I just don't have it in me. I also think in the UK, not enough of our parties are anti-racist and there's a real issue around our parties, being pro women and representation, but pro diversity and inclusion. And if that's not dealt with, I just don't see myself thriving in those spaces. Also, I like the freedom of being able to say what I want to say, and if I have to toe the party line and vote certain ways on immigration bills and things like that, I think I would combust.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Yeah. At least tell me that you have an optimistic view on the back in general, we want to feel optimism, and we want to believe that there's a brighter future ahead of us.
Seyi Akiwowo: Well, what I would really love to do is be parts of collectives that are working on women's leadership, and political leadership. I would love to like, do mentoring, coaching, whatever it is that I could do to basically impact more women than me just standing. I think that would be what I'd love to do for the next, like five, ten years. I always talk about like going, having a farm raising my own animals and having my own kids, and then having some like barn, den backdoor office thing that would allow me to like, have clients and coaching and part of that would, I would love for it to be around political leadership and getting young people and diverse people, diverse groups, engaging in democracy in some way. But it, but I hope that doesn't mean that it has to be me standing for one party and swearing some open allegiance. It's just not me.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Seyi, would you tell me more about your personal experience with a women in politics and their experience with online abuse, what it is specifically that you have encountered apart from your own experience?
Seyi Akiwowo: Yeah, I think online violence against women in politics is a real stain on our democracy. I think it's a real threat to our democracy. I think it basically unravels all the work that we're doing around gender equality and 50/50 representation, and all of that. I think the online violence for women in politics is so broad as well. And I think it's important that we use the term violence actually and abuse where we can, because it is, the impact that it has on women in terms of mental health, physically, psychologically, on their finances, their livelihood, their friends and family, it is the typology when it comes to physical violence. We know that women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online than men. But when we look at intersectionality, we see that women of color and black women are disproportionately impacted by online abuse and violence. And so if we've got already a problem with women entering politics, and then we've got a lack of black women, women of color, women who are disabled, et cetera, et cetera, entering politics, online violence is basically going to set us back like fifty to a hundred years. And especially last year, but we were talking about the centenary year of the vote, the centenary year of this and that, I wasn't celebrating because I was just only seeing how much online violence has pushed, pushed people away. And in the UK last year, we saw a record number of women MPs citing online abuse as the reason why they were not standing again. And I think that's disgusting, point blank. And I think we are seeing the ripple effects of that where young women, as I mentioned before are saying, ‘I've seen what Seyi’s gone through, I’ve seen what Dianne’s gone through, I see what AOC is going through in America, and I actually, I don’t think politics is for me.’ And if we don't get a grip to this, I think it's, we're not going to change the face of politics. What I'm also concerned about when it comes to online violence is this kind of binary that we see, like online violence is a continuum of violence against women and girls. And there is, it's not like someone's going to pick up ‘Oh, I'm going to do online violence to Mimoza and Seyi at like,’ no, like they will be violent any way that they can. And it can be a combination of doxing, hacking, gender-based violence, as well as then tracking you and stalking you and that leading to offline violence, which we saw during COVID. We saw in our report, The Ripple Effects of the Pandemic of Online Abuse, saw that online abuse had increased during COVID and it increased even more for women of color and minoritized people. So we can't see online abuse and online violence as something that is separate from offline lives - we have to see it as a continuum. And we have to make sure that legislation, education, our public health approach, whatever it is to tackling this, understands that continuum.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Well, it's definitely a perfect way or message to end this, unless you want to add something more because, as we are coming to the end of our time and I have several unanswered questions that I have in my head for you, but I'm also going to be optimistic and hope that I'm going to meet you in person very soon in DC, London, or maybe in the Balkans, never know where the path might lead. But I certainly would like to thank you very much for the opportunity to interview you. And I'm so convinced, and I have a deep belief that wherever you are, you are going to do your best, and you're going to continue serving as an inspiration to other young girls and women around the world. But still, if you have one last message for all of them and everyone who's listening to us, boys and men as well, we need them as in, in this partnership in this path to make the world better.
Seyi Akiwowo: Yeah. Thank you. Well, thank you so much for really, really interesting questions and a great conversation to have. My final message I think would be to think about who's not in the room and why that is and the more we have that in our minds, the more we use our platforms and whatever opportunities we have to really think about who else can we pull in, who else's experience or lived experience could we highlight, I think the more we can help really raise diversity of thought and experiences to the mainstream.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Beautiful. Thank you very much, Seyi, it has really been a pleasure this afternoon from Pristina in Kosovo to interview you in London. So I wish you all the best, and looking forward to our next meeting. Thanks so much.
Closing: Thank you for tuning in 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.