When Bed-Stuy resident Mutale Nkonde was a little girl growing up in Zambia during the late 70s, her family would have to cross the border into Zimbabwe to access basic, everyday household products, such as toothpaste.
According to Nkonde, Zimbabwe’s relationship with England afforded them a little more money and resources than some of the neighboring countries of Southern Africa, including Zambia, which at the time was still embroiled in the opposition of South Africa's regime of apartheid.
“It made me think as a little girl, there’s something really unfair here, because I want clean teeth too,” said Nkonde.
She was acutely aware of social inequality at an early age, and as long as she could remember, her family was politically active, she added.
“My uncles and aunts were engaged in the government in Zambia and would talk about politics a lot with my family, so I grew up singing freedom songs for Nelson Mandela and the ANC,” she said.
“Once we became free in 1991, it released me from that movement. But I really was already very passionate about making a difference.”
Nkonde’s parents, both of whom were doctors, moved Nkonde and her family to the U.K., where she attended high school and college. She studied journalism and continued her involvement in political clubs and organizations and began examining socio-political movements more through a global lense.
After college, she enrolled in a program to teach English in Japan, in the hopes of aligning with an international community of progressive academics. She also sought to experience a culture entirely different than her own.
“But [my students] were very disappointed to see that I was their teacher initially and were insistent that I was a celebrity: They wanted me to dance or sing… or play something,” she said. “But the truth was, a lot of the black people that lived in Japan at that time were entertainers, so it wasn’t an inherently racist attitude; it was their experience with black people.
“I had to introduce them to the black intelligencia, so I began talking to them about Kwame Nkrumah, W.E.B. DuBoise, Nelson Mandela, these huge black intellectual minds that moved not just their people forward, but in many ways, the world forward.
Japan also was where Nkonde met her ex-husband who was from Bed-Stuy, which is how, beginning seven years ago, she wound up in Bed-Stuy.
Since moving to Brooklyn, Nkonde has worked stints at BBC, CNN and ABC. She was the communications director for State Senator Kevin Parker, and currently she works as a communications associate for the office of the New York City Comptroller.
Now, as a Bed-Stuy-Brooklynite and with politics coursing heavily through her veins, she’s on her next mission: to build a local coalition of young black professionals who are politically engaged.
Nkonde is using the upcoming mayoral race as a springboard to enlist members and has been spending her days afterwork attending as many meetings as possible of black alumni groups, black fraternities and sororities, and black professional organizations.
“The mayoral campaigns are now looking for volunteers and are looking for people to make those types of commitments,” said Nkonde. She insists her efforts are fully independent of her work in the office of City Comptroller John Liu, who is a mayoral candidate.
“I like something different about all of the current candidates, and I’m hoping to get others to begin looking at and talking about the various candidates and begin a process of allowing themselves the time and discussion to decide.”
Nkonde started a Facebook page entitled, “Young, Professional and Politcally Engaged,” and on Sunday, December 23, at 2:00 p.m. at Vodou Bar, she is hosting a “Give-Get Breakfast" for all those who want to get politically involved while also swap their creative/professional capital. The breakfast is $35. At the breakfast, everyone will introduce themselves, talk about what they need to advance themselves personally and professionally, and what they are able to offer in exchange.
“I stand up at these meetings after work and speak about what I’m doing and invite them to the breakfast and to like my Facebook page. I believe that if people see me over and over, they’ll know I’m serious,” said Nkonde.
And serious, she is. As someone who has witnessed, protested and survived apartheid's regime of racial segregation, political engagement to her is no laughing matter-- nothing to take for granted.
To Nkonde, the choice in a leader can mean the difference between freedom and oppression, education or a lack thereof... and access to simple, everyday resources, such as toothpaste.
“That’s the kind of energy I’m trying to build,” said Nkonde. “It can’t be just about me engaging you in the mayoral race or the political process. I also want people to understand how talking, sharing and engaging with each other can have a positive impact on their lives.”