Family Portraits: Carrie Kholi

The vision statement of the Elements Organization reads, in part: “We envision building a group of empowered LGBTQ womyn of color who break the silence, become more consciously engaged in one another’s herstory and foster connections … ” One of the ways members are achieving that goal is through the upcoming LGBTQ Womyn of Color Conference, Oct. 7-10 here in our city. To achieve that goal, we spoke to board member and organizer Carrie Kholi to learn a little of herstory.

PGN: Philly gal? CK: No, I was born in Monrovia, Liberia. My parents and I moved to Salem, N.C., when I was 2 years old. That’s where I grew up, so, I guess I’m your typical Southern belle. Moving to Philadelphia has been quite a change considering I went to private school for most of my life. I graduated from Hampton University with a B.A. in English arts and I’m currently a Ph.D. student in the Literatures in English program at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

PGN: I know you do a lot of non-academic things … CK: Yes. I became a member of AUTHENTIC, a collective for women of color in visual and aural arts, about two years ago and recently joined the board of Elements. I started my own company last May, Philly A-List Entertainment and Event Services, and I’m a volunteer project coordinator for The Peace and Love Movement. And that’s on top of teaching and working on my doctorate. I like to keep busy! I think it’s what kept me sane while being separated from my family.

PGN: Tell me about them. CK: I’m an only child, though I was raised from middle school-on with a cousin who lived with us, so it was like having a sister. My mom works in a large manufacturing plant in North Carolina, and she also does catering and has a cleaning business on the side. She does a little bit of everything. I guess that’s where I got my entrepreneurial spirit. My dad is a self-employed jack-of-all-trades: He does everything from rehabbing houses to landscaping and he’s an artist as well, so people will hire him to do murals and things. They’re the best parents you could ask for.

PGN: Do you have any memories of Liberia? CK: No, but there’s a large Liberian population in Winston-Salem, so I grew up with the culture. My mom likes to believe that I never got Americanized because I was so surrounded by Liberian food and music and people. It’s partly true, because when people ask me what I am, my first thought is to respond that I’m Liberian.

PGN: What do Americans not know about Liberia? CK: [Laughs.] Well, when I say that my family is Liberian, a lot of people will ask me if I can speak the language, but Liberia was a colony founded in Africa by freed American slaves, so the official language is English. The name Liberia denotes “liberty” and the capitol, Monrovia, was named after President James Monroe. People who like history should read about how the group “Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace” helped end 14 years of violent civil war by staging a sit-in outside of the Presidential Palace. They blocked all the doors and windows and wouldn’t let anyone leave the talks until there was a peaceful resolution. FYI: Liberia currently has a female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

PGN: What was a favorite thing to do as a kid? CK: I really liked to read. I’d read a book or play and then act it out for my mom and dad. I think I wanted to be an actress back then, which is funny, because now I’m entirely too shy to imagine doing anything like that.

PGN: A favorite teacher? CK: You know, I should have known that I was going to become a teacher because I had so many that I really loved. For some reason, I thought I was going to be a lawyer because I thought that’s what you needed to do to be awesome. But people like my fifth-grade teacher, Kiki Shepard, inspired me. She was very stern and all business when it came to class. And she was such a lady. She was perfection personified. Her hair was always perfect, her outfits were always perfect and she was the best math teacher I ever had, especially since it was a subject I did not care for. I had another teacher, Mr. Gray, who had taught my dad and he always gave me a hard time about it, “Your father understood how to do this: You should too!” I think I liked teachers who were hard on me and required a lot. It pushed me to excel.

PGN: What do you teach? CK: Most of the year, I teach “Introduction to Expository Writing,” which is a required class: If you don’t pass expos, you won’t graduate from Rutgers. A lot of the students taking it do so with a groan, so I have to work to keep them engaged. I also teach an introduction to poetry class, which is an elective, so they want to be there. They’re really enthusiastic about it and excited by the text that we study; it’s quite a contrast. I’m on my third year of teaching.

PGN: Do you remember the first poem you read? CK: I think it was Edgar Allen Poe. I was obsessed with him when I was in middle school. My dad bought me the complete collection of his works, which I still have.

PGN: How did you come out? CK: I’ve never felt the need to announce that I was gay, because I’ve never had straight friends announce to me that they were straight, but because of growing up in the South in a very Christian, religious household, there were a lot of factors to deal with. I don’t think I was going to tell my mother but for some reason, I felt it was something I needed to declare and I’m not sure why. My mother is the best mother and always on it. You know those commercials where they ask, Do you know where your child is? I’m 500 miles away right now and my mother probably knows exactly where I am. So when I was about 11, she asked me if I was a lesbian and I said yes. I think she was disappointed and, for a period after that, I felt a little rift between us. We’re very close but every few years I have to come out to her again as a reminder. With my father it’s never been directly addressed, it’s sort of an unspoken acceptance. It’s always a process.

PGN: What made your mother ask you if you were gay? CK: I grew up with Southern women who were real “ladies.” Think of Whitley Gilbert from “A Different World.” Well, I started hanging out with girls who weren’t quite as ladylike, not as feminine as my mother was used to. She knew something was up. And at the time when most girls were flocking to little boys, I was more interested in my female friends. She didn’t miss a trick.

PGN: OK, random question. Do you think you had a past life? CK: Oh, yes. I definitely feel that I had a past life, and I just hope that I’m doing better in this life than in the last, and that the next one will be even better. My grandmother recently passed away and, for everyone else, it was really devastating, but I felt it was closure for her and I actually felt closer to her than ever before. I’d like to hope that I was a really awesome woman in a past life or someone who made a difference.

PGN: What do you recommend for Oprah’s book club? CK: Everyone should read Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Salt Eaters.” Everything she writes is a jewel, but this book is especially good for anyone who is or wants to be an activist. It shows how everything we do is connected and that everything we do affects someone else. It addresses life and our connections and progression and forward movement and community.

PGN: If you could bring a fictional character to life, who would it be? CK: Right now I’m re-reading “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, and if I could bring a character to life I’d have to bring Janie to life and befriend her. There are a lot of different qualities in that character that I’d like to think I have, and long to develop more.

PGN: You do big events; any celebrity encounters? CK: No, as I said, I’m really shy, so I let others do that. Though I’ve now started to get over the shyness using Twitter and have had responses from a few celebrities with that. I’ve had an obsession with rapper Rick Ross and I tweet him, like, every other day.

PGN: What’s the hardest thing about what you do? CK: Well, I’ve created and executed events and workshops on topics ranging from creative writing to anti-violence advocacy, autobiography as activism, the cross-sectoring of race and sexuality and women in new media, as well as some of Philadelphia’s largest events for LGBTQ women of color. Each one is different, but each time you feel like you’re releasing a new project into the world. You fret over the details and though I’m sure nobody notices the little things that may not go right, for us it feels magnified. Right now, I’m in the middle of putting together the Deuces party for the Women of Color conference and I wake up each morning nervous, wondering what I need to get done to make sure everything runs smoothly.

PGN: What else is happening at the conference? CK: The theme of the conference is “Crossroads & Crosswinds: Connecting Across Race and Space.” We have some great keynote speakers: Van Nguyen, youth educator and organizer of the Trans Health Conference; Coya Artichoker, founder of the 2-Spirit First Nations Collective who was recognized by Ms. Magazine as an up-and-coming youth activist; and Marquita Thomas, founder of Serafemme Queer Women of Color Music Festival. Our music headliner is Grammy-winner Dionne Farris and we also have performances from Anomali, Devin Christy and Pussies, Pens and Politics. There are over 17 workshops, film screenings, an inter-generational brunch and our closing party, Deuces.

PGN: What has been your most exciting or crazy event? CK: I think the whole month of October will be! I’m working with way more women and organizations than I’ve ever worked with — Elements, Authentic and WUP 2.0, all from the Philly area — and in addition we’ll also have Tomboyz Quarterly and DJ India from D.C., Distinguished Cravat from New York, Marquita Thomas and LezUrban Productions in L.A., among others — and we’re really trying to create a significant network of awareness around issues within the LGBTQ community for women of color. The month begins with the conference and ends with a weekend that we’re organizing around the 19th annual Lupus Loop in Philly on Oct. 31. We’ve also invited in our promotional partners from all over to spend Halloween weekend in Philly with a masquerade at the Hyatt on Friday, Oct. 29.

PGN: Wow, that’s a lot what with school and teaching, etc. How do you do both? CK: The thing that gets me through grad school is the desire to want to go on teaching. My students keep me grounded and from getting lost in the world of books by myself. But I also get excited seeing things come to fruition, so hope I’ll always be in a position to do events in the community and make things happen.

PGN: I understand you’re really big on social media? CK: Yes, I have updates on lots of LGBTQ events here in Philly and in Atlanta, D.C. and New York through my Facebook page, (search for enlistthealist) or you can follow the tweets (search for enlistthealist). I don’t just promote my events, I like to open up possibilities for people to find all sorts of things. People should have options. I love options.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to [email protected].