Get to Know: Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah
"Getting involved in this role was inspired by community members and the desire to take on a challenge where I’d be refocusing an organization to be the national youth-led 2SLGBTQ organization many young queer and trans people need."
We talked to Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah about her work as an Executive Director with the Canadian Centre for Gender & Sexual Diversity (CCGSD), some key moments in her childhood and adolescence that led her down this path of advocacy and activism, her time as a rugby player, and her earring-making hobby during the pandemic.
Has this kind of advocacy and activism work always been something you envisioned yourself doing?
Yes. Recently, I was sitting on a panel for Carleton university (where I did both my undergrad and my masters) and the panel was on alternative careers outside of academia. I told them the reason I moved to Ottawa at 18 years old was to get into a career where I was involved in advocacy and activism. Both from a public policy approach (like foreign affairs) but also feminist activism. I knew I needed to be in close proximity to where those decisions were happening. So that kind of inspired my academic journey and career trajectory. I moved here from the Toronto area so, it was a bit of a sacrifice (laughs) for the better of what I want to do. I’ve always been that teenage feminist. I was pretty outspoken in undergrad. I pushed where I could in a Catholic school in Brampton, Ontario. I think my rugby coaches and my teachers knew I’d probably be at the forefront of future protests. And they weren’t wrong. It’s always something I thought I’d be doing and it’s something I’m happy to be involved in now.
Were there any moments in childhood or adolescence that you look back on now as indications you’d be well-suited to this kind of work?
I developed really early. I got my period in grade 4, and I knew what had happened, but my mom’s immediate reaction was “Don’t tell anyone.” So I felt that periods were a shameful thing, and this was the complete opposite experience of my best friend at the time who grew up in a single-parent home and was the child of a feminist lesbian Latina woman from El Salvador. My friend’s first period was celebrated. She got roses and Oreo cookies. I’ll never forget that. It was such a stark contrast between her household and mine. I remember confronting my mom about (her reaction to my first period) after my first year of university and she was like, “I was just afraid that if you told people that they would harm you.” This was a reflection of how she grew up in western Africa where those moments—those physical changes in your body—are supposed to signify a coming of age and it meant something completely different. I look back on that time and it’s no surprise I ended up working at the women’s center during my undergrad, hosting feminist consciousness-raising groups and talks with people about alternative mentrual products to use. So if there was one moment that I think really marks that change for me, it was that.
"I knew what feminist leadership should look like—having been fortunate enough to work in organizations that had really good feminist leadership."
What about in terms of protesting? Did you have any moments related to that growing up?
I went to a Catholic school in Brampton where they made us wear uniforms. I think we were in grade 10 or 11. With this Catholic school once a month they had dress-down days—you could come to school and wear whatever you wanted. And Halloween, my favourite holiday, happened to land on the Friday we had dress-down day. The administration felt it would be appropriate to ban us from wearing halloween costumes because they were afraid of how rowdy we’d get. So I actually helped lead a protest with a bunch highschool students where we came into school wearing our Halloween costumes. I remember I was dressed as a vampire. I had contacts, fangs, and long nails. I’ll never forget it. It was almost like a badge of honour to be kicked out of class. We got CP24 (a local news network) to come in and interview students about it. I got kicked out of class because I pushed against what I felt was a foolish idea. After that, I think a lot of people were like, “Ok, this girl’s going to be doing something. Speaking truth to power, or engaging in some kind of civil disobedience.”
Could you tell me about how you got involved with the Canadian Center for Gender and Sexual Diversity? What kind of work do you do on a daily basis?
I saw the job posting and had a conversation with my partner about it. She was really encouraging. I know what this organization has meant to people I share community with, and people I consider friends here in Ottawa. I thought, “This organization is going to require someone who can really bring it forward.” I applied not knowing what was going to come of it, but it happened. I became an Executive Director at 28 years old, and it was an opportunity for me to package skills I’ve learned—from school where I was studying foreign policy, to my undergrad in women’s studies, to my political activism and my community care work. That experience helped me bring thoughtful leadership into this role. Getting involved in this role was inspired by community members and the desire to take on a challenge where I’d be refocusing an organization to be the national youth-led 2SLGBTQ organization many young queer and trans people need.
My day-to-day work is focussed on organizational change. Everything I do—whether it’s finance related, fundraising, day-to-day management with staff, being the spokesperson for the organization—all of it is centred on organizational change. This organization had the same leader for the last fifteen years before I came in. So I knew I was coming in with a very different set of expectations and understandings, and I knew what feminist leadership should look like—having been fortunate enough to work in organizations that had really good feminist leadership.
"A lot of queer folks have been using the term possibility model—a model of what is possible for you."
Intersectional feminism is one of the guiding principles of the CCGSD. Can you talk about the importance of intersectional feminism in your own life and why it’s so important to the CCGSD?
Whenever I have a conversation about intersectional feminism I have to remind people that intersectionality is a framework, and the term was coined by Black women and Black feminists. Historically, intersectionality was centred on naming the experiences of Black women who were navigating sexism, racism, and sometimes classism at the same time. As a framework, intersectionality is liberating for me because it allows me to analyse how the rest of the world impacts me—the vulnerabilities it might put me in—that might be different from a white woman, for example. As someone navigating homophobia, racism, sexism, and classism at the same time, I’ve had to think about decisions I’ve made differently and intersectionality allowed me to name that experience.
When it comes to our work at CCGSD, I like to say, oppression doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Homophobia is happening at the same time as Islamophobia and colonialism. In our work it would be a disservice to only name homophobia and transphobia while ignoring other different ways in which oppression impacts other 2SLGBTQ communities. The homophobia I’m going to experience is very much shouldered in being a Black person. I’ve heard things like, “Black people are more homophobic than anyone else.” If you apply an intersectional lens to a statement like that you end up finding out how convenient it is for white supremacy to talk about our people this way, and to position itself as inherently progressive. It was white supremacist colonialism that introduced very homophobic laws that are archaic and still practiced even in my own country. You have to name the different ways that oppression operates even in the 2SLGBTQ community; if you don’t, you risk further isolating community members who aren’t the more mainstream white, cisgender, gay, queer man.
You were a very accomplished rugby player in university. Did playing that tough sport prepare you in any unexpected ways for the work you do now?
Yes. If you speak to any person in women’s rugby (highschool, club, university etc.) they’ll all talk about how rugby is such an empowering sport in terms of how different body types are able to find a space (in the different positions). In other sports sometimes it doesn’t really translate the same way. I think for people who are socialized to not be rough, or to be ladylike, there is a joy that a rough sport like rugby can bring out for folks that is beautiful. I’ve made so many awesome connections and lifelong friendships because of this sport. It’s also made me a better leader. My first leadership opportunities were through rugby. I was the captain of the rugby team in high school. It taught me what it was like to represent a group of people, to be the person who is at the forefront of making sure collaboration is happening, and being the person who is cheerleading. I bring that same skillset with me today as someone who is leading an organization. I have to ensure we’re all on the same page, respect all the different skill sets we have, and cheer us on when we’re exhausted or going through a really rough time. Rugby has definitely helped me grow more confident, be a better leader, and be a better feminist.
"Rugby has definitely helped me grow more confident, be a better leader, and be a better feminist."
Who are some of your role models?
A lot of queer folks have been using the term possibility model—a model of what is possible for you. Laverne Cox talks about possibility models a lot specifically for young trans folks. For me, it’s important to find other Black women, but also women who are specifically from Ghana. Women who understand the challenges that come from a somewhat socially-conservative community that is entrenched in tradition. Being feminist or queer is sometimes frowned upon by our communities and elders. When I discovered Phyll Opoku-Gyimah—the executive director of Kaleidoscope UK and director of UK Black pride—I saw her name and I was like “That’s specifically our tribe. That’s an Akan name.” She’s a queer woman and significantly older than me and I was like, “Holy crap. This is what I wanted to see.” I wanted to see what I could possibly look like in 20 years. An example of how I could rock it with such beautiful fierceness. She’s the definition of a badass. Just like myself, she’s proud to be Ghanian, proud to be queer, and proud to be a lesbian. We actually connected because she shared a picture of a traditional Ghanian wedding, but it was a lesbian wedding. I commented on her Instagram and was like, “As a queer Ghanian this just makes me so happy to see.” We ended up following each other on Instagram. Then, through this role, last month a full circle moment happened—I was able to sit on a panel with her. I was fangirling her for years and then here I am sharing space with her as a Black women leader working on 2SLGBTQ rights. It was pretty awesome.
A lot of what you do seems to be in the spirit of empowering others. What does empowerment mean to you?
I know some people have feelings about the word empowerment. Empowerment is so much based on the individual. I can’t hold your hand and empower you. But I think you can play a role in fighting to change the conditions around someone that will allow them to be empowered. Also, if people look at me and see a potential possibility model and that empowers them, that’s something that I find really cool. Empowerment to me means being able to achieve a goal, or engage in an activity you may have originally thought you couldn’t do, but through the process—whether it’s accessing information, education, knowledge sharing—you are compelled to actually do that thing. You’re like, “You know what? I can do this. I shouldn’t have imposter syndrome. There’s no barrier in my way.”
"Empowerment to me means being able to achieve a goal, or engage in an activity you may have originally thought you couldn’t do."
The weather is getting nicer. Vaccines are rolling out. Are there any looks, outfits, or pieces of jewellery you’re looking forward to showing off when we’re officially allowed to start socializing again?
Yes I am! Lesbian earrings. It turns out Queer women and lesbians have somehow gravitated towards this trend of making earrings out of anything. It’s like this weird form of coding for your queer life. I have miniature ketchup earrings, mini pencils, miniature shopping cart earrings. Through quarantine and the pandemic I have just been making earrings. I have like over 300 different pairs of earrings that I’ve either purchased or made myself. They’re a great way to express my style while working remotely, and I always have a fun time when I see people’s reactions to my earrings. Our lockdown in Ontario has been especially hard and long so I’m really excited to show off my collection of earrings.