Nneoma Nwankwo is a writer, researcher, and the sister to my good friend, Nduka Nwankwo. The dynamic nature of friendships is that you potentially acquire a portal into their network of associates, friends, and family. As the “2016 Virginia Tech Undergraduate Student of the Year” and research analyst & activist on “menstrual hygiene management on girls in underserved areas of sub-Saharan Africa”, Nneoma is an example of the “graytness” that comes from having “grayt” friendships.
Join me for an in-depth conversation with Nneoma as she shares insightful stories from her upbringing in Nigeria, lessons acquired from her burgeoning journey in public and urban affairs, her perceived “graytness”, and wisdom that we can all embrace to “Make our good, GRAYT”:
1. What compelled you to focus your research and efforts to public and urban affairs? (When did you first know that you wanted to pursue research and/or a career that would position you to address public and urban affair issues?
Nneoma: Growing up, I was always very aware of the structural and infrastructural issues in Nigeria. You would read in the newspapers of little kids falling into pipes or get frustrated travelling a 30-min distance in 3 hours because of unnecessary traffic, and I remember often thinking that my country was too well-equipped in natural resources and human resources to still have fundamental issues like these. I chose to study public and urban affairs because it’s incredibly encompassing of all sorts of issues, you get familiar with environmental law, with water sanitation, with zoning and then with policy, all in the same breath. I was drawn to it because of the broadness of issues that can be tackled, and the diversity of places that it often covers.
2. What are your earliest and/or fondest memories that encouraged you to address international service and issues facing girls and women in developing nations?
Nneoma: My mom has been my biggest inspiration in this way. When I was 16, I took a gap year between secondary school and university, and I travelled Northern Nigeria with her. She’s a Gender Advisor and has done work with international development organizations from UNICEF, to Oxfam to GEMS 3, amongst others. I followed her a lot and watched her facilitate workshops, bond with underserved communities, support and create initiatives. I basically watched her change womens’ lives and she put me right in the middle of it. She let me participate in the Gender Policy Dialogue that the World Bank held in Lagos in 2012, and I remember we were coming up with all these potential policy changes to take to the national government, and I literally thought, “This is what I want to do.”
3. What are some of the preparatory steps that have prepared you to one day flourish in transforming the treatment of girls?
Nneoma: I study, I learn and I try not to stop at sympathy. It’s really easy to say “Wow that’s terrible,” and change the channel, or go back to your TL, but I actively try to teach myself to say “How can I get involved.” Of course, you can’t do this for every single issue (or you might run mad, and then be ineffective); but I take those issues that I find near and dear to me, and I literally make lists of how to be involved. Sometimes, it’s as little as raising awareness—sharing about them on social media, donating to causes, attending seminars—other times, it’s jumping into the research myself, learning about it, and contributing actively (in the field) to the solutions.
4. What values have you brought with you from childhood in Nigeria to shape your perseverance towards fulfilling your purpose?
Nneoma: I definitely learned to put in my best. My parents always made it so that I at least tried. It’s important to minimize the fear of failure by prioritizing the disappointment of not trying. Nigeria is an incredibly communal society, that your successes are not yours alone—so there’s the pressure of doing well, but more importantly, there’s the comfort of knowing that you’re not alone if you don’t succeed.
5. What do you identify as that differentiating factor that makes you equipped to address issues facing girls in underserved areas in Africa and throughout the world? What is your [graytness]?
Nneoma: I’m wary of saying I’m equipped because it always feels like there’s so much I don’t know (and I actually love the feeling of not knowing something, in the academic sense, because it means I can learn something new). That being said, I love my continent and I believe wholeheartedly in the purpose of the work I set out to do, I think the differentiating factor would be the blend of sincerity and a willingness to learn.
6. What advice can you give to a millennial about using their gifts and talents to build a brand/legacy for themselves?
Nneoma: I always give the same advice: start small. We always want to do that one big thing—crack that big joke that’ll go viral, write that big proposal that’ll get the prestigious grant, win the big election that’ll make you student body president—which is great. But you cannot get to the big without doing lots and lots of the small. I mean, isn’t the great big desert just lots and lots of grains of sand?
7. What are three (3) routine practices you implement to nurture and sharpen your differentiating factor?
Nneoma: I strategize—I’m such a lists person, I draw my ideas, I ruminate on them, I talk aloud to them. (2) I share my ideas with people around me that I trust. I know that I have blind spots and I can be hyper sensitive (or too insensitive) to certain things, so sharing ideas and thoughts can highlight those nuances to me (3) I try to win people over. Nobody is an island, and I find I’ve been most successful when I work with others. I love people, I’m a super-hyper extrovert and I love being around positive individuals, so I try to work with them.
8. What and/or who do you attribute your [graytness] to?
Nneoma: Definitely my parents and my brothers. We keep a family chat on Whatsapp that’s constant laughs and love—we’re scattered around the globe with my mom in the UK, my brothers in San Francisco and DC, my dad in Lagos, and me in New York. So it could be very easy for us to get detached, but we’ve done a wonderful job of sharing our days, accomplishments and pits with each other, and I truly cannot imagine being without them to do life with.
9. What makes you challenge the status quo in the treatment of women and girls around the world? What causes you to excel beyond [good] and embrace [grayt]?
Nneoma: I try to make issues about the individual i.e. not look at (for example) female genital mutilation by saying “Some communities do this,” rather say, “there’s a young woman somewhere in Egypt undergoing this wicked procedure.” I visualize by putting names and faces, so that it feels closer, and it helps me stay motivated and maintain interest in the issue. There’s a quote by Charles Bukowski that I love, “You begin saving the world by saving one man at a time; all else is grandiose romanticism or politics.” And I say to myself: “One girl at a time.”
10. What are three (3) defining philosophies that you try to live by?
Nneoma: Very simple: Acknowledge God, Be kind to others and myself, Be honest with others and myself
11. What was one moment of failure or success that would motivate someone else to continuously press towards fulfilling their dream?
Nneoma: Because I’m a writer, I honed the skill of accepting “failure” pretty early in life. I learned to become comfortable with “failure” or not having things work out. As a creative writer, I understand that sometimes, you might send out a story or a poem that’s dear to you, and an editor would turn it down. It taught me a couple of things: sometimes you try your hardest and it’s just not that great—that’s okay, just keep improving. But it also taught me self-confidence, self-trust, because sometimes when that story comes back, I don’t change it again, because it is the story I want to write. I have to trust in myself that the work is complete, and many times when I’ve done that, it’s been published by a different magazine who wanted to listen to that story. It’s like that prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
[GRAYT PEOPLE] Profile Series curates an informational collective of inspirational individuals who have shown what it means to mobilize confidence to challenge [GOOD] and mobilize courage to champion [GRAYT]—highlighting their past, their journey to their [graytness], their efforts and ethics, their motivation, and their aspirations.