Keshia Hannam: on Activism, Intersectional Feminism & Cross-Cultural Connections

Some months ago, I've asked a friend of mine from London about people she knows who are engaged when it comes down to female empowerment. Her answer: Keshia Hannam. This girl is a true "active" activist. She's a writer and speaker, she builds up communities around the world and stands at a point in life where many of us are currently at: figuring out who we really are. Currently based in New York, Keshia took some time and we spoke about her co-founded organisation the Camel Assembly, intersectional feminism and cultural connections of women (and men) from Hong Kong, London and New York.

Dear Keshia, tell me a bit about yourself. Who are you? What are you doing?

I am actually in a process of unravelling. To return to our true essence we sometimes have to go through a specific and oftentimes painful process of recovery. That’s something of the stage I am in right now; peeling back layers, unlearning and inspecting so as to release that which is no longer aligned.  This comes at a time when I am living in New York City; a city that demands authenticity and rewards the boldest in that realm. So I suppose that’s what I am doing–pausing, permitting myself to break, and reeopening at the right time. It feels like being the ammunition in a slingshot: the pre-release elastic band part of the journey isn’t so pleasant – it’s stretching, slow, labour-intensive and you don’t seem far from where you started – but hurtling through the air at speed can only come when you’ve taken the time to draw back.  My passions and work have looked like the informal study of culture, campaigning for social causes, writing, speech-making, moderating and community building. I am still doing those things, just at the moment they’re mostly done on the low.

How did the Camel Assembly start? What was the motivation behind it?

Camel Assembly began in New York in 2015. It was started by my best friend and business partner Yelda Ali, an Afghan Activist/DJ and tour de force in her own right. She was seeking a safe space that doubled as a creative incubator (creativity is often unlocked / rediscovered in safety). I encountered this community in May 2016 and instantly felt a type of power and energy that I hadn’t experienced before. Since then, Yelda and I have spent the last two and half years building communities of consistent, creative, conscious people across the world–from Hong Kong to LA, London to Nairobi, Miami to Mumbai.  The driving mission of Camel Assembly is to see people Marching Daily. That means to see people channeling the passion and vehemence of a protest or march into everyday efforts towards self and community. Our world changes when we realise the power of our own autonomy, and my belief is that change happens most easily in communities–when you can see that change real and living in another person’s life and so you believe it to be possible for yourself. 

The term "Intersectional Feminism“ is going around in the media. What does it mean to you and how would you describe this title?

The concept of intersectional feminism is a crucial foundation to build upon. I have great admiration for Professor Crenshaw in general, and the message of intersectional feminism certainly resonates and I have seen resonate because right now, ‘empowerment’ is seemingly a consequence of race and social class than it is of belief and activism.  But to summarise the ideas I have pertaining to this title I will say this: I spent the better part of 10 years trying to understand the differences in people around the world. I discovered that if we were to list the things that we had in common vs sets us apart, we may find we are far more the same than we are different, because we are first and foremost human. This is a starting point: it’s not the answer or a solution, but it’s common–ground that will enable us to better understand one another, and in doing so realise that one point of view will never illustrate the views of an entire body of people. Our responsibility is first to listen, then to understand, and then to share whatever we are capable of. There is no other way to bring equality.

What do you see as biggest challenge, risk or obstacle in your work or private life?

Fear of inadequacy. As humans we are riddled with the stuff, and I’ve found excuses owing to this fear to be a personal addiction in the way the first drink may be to an alcoholic–the moment you indulge it, it controls you.  

You’ve lived in London, Hong Kong and now you're in New York. If you compare the current situation of women between these cultures, which similarities and differences do you see?

That’s the curious thing: there is immeasurably more in common because we are all, first and foremost, human. In living in these places and building communities I believe I would need to tailor agendas and culture to ‘localise’ to the present environment. What I found was that people–irrespective of gender–were inspired by the same people, uttering the same grievances, and ultimately fighting for the same things (and at times, almost verbatim). There are subtle differences no doubt–New Yorkers love giving and getting attention, activities in Hong Kong need food, drinking, or extreme personal development to be involved or they’ll flake, and getting a Londoner to make any kind of decision is nearly impossible ("honestly, you choose”). These differences are part of the beauty that lies in steadfast threads of humanity that you’ll find in all three of those cities (and many more): a listening ear to a friend in need, assisting the elderly with their bags, desire for passion and purpose in work life, or the joy of being remembered on a birthday. 

And last but not least: which advise would you give to a girl out in our world?

Question everything, listen to yourself, ask for help. 


Interview with Keshia Hannam

Text by Bernak Kharabi

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