If you aren’t already familiar with the City Councillor for Ward 13 in London, ON, allow me to present the fiery, outspoken, and radical political force that is Arielle Kayabaga.
I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with Councillor Arielle Kayabaga, and to say I enjoyed myself would be a wild understatement. Having the opportunity to ask her about the woman behind the inspiring leader she is, I was delighted to learn that those two entities are one and the same.
This is no easy feat, however. The ebb and flow of political and personal responsibilities are constant. Arielle has been able to navigate those shifting waters all while maintaining a strong and vigilant connection to who she is and where she has come from. “I didn’t get involved in politics until I really understood who I was, and what my focus was going to be,” she told me. “I made a promise that I would stay connected to myself, and if that ever changed, I would leave that space.”
Pleasantries: Exchanged, Coffee: Drank, Ice: Broken
From the moment one meets Arielle, there’s an appreciable balance between cool confidence and fiery vigour. She’s poised between the two worlds she inhabits and acts as an example of how to authentically play the game — and win.
Of course, I learned all the important things. Her favourite colour is yellow. She had a pet monkey in her childhood — who would one day betray her! She can speak French, Kirundi, English (“I understand a bit of Swahili, but I’m not fluent,” she casually tosses in), and is learning Spanish as we speak. She’s secretive about her star sign (hint). And she loves being a mother — another accomplishment in her extensive collection.
But I also got to go a little deeper, and experience another facet of this city councillor. And I’m so happy to share that afternoon with you all. So, without further ado — Arielle Kayabaga.
What made politics the realm you picked to exist in?
I feel like it picked me. I do it because of the fight for justice and the fight for freedom that I grew up feeling. It’s all connected to my identity and the things I care about… I’m one of those people who really like to defend people and themselves. Understanding and realizing that all this power over how people live in their countries, whether they get to move, not move, access to jobs or housing; is all connected to policy- And once you realize that can be shifted in policymaking; that’s what drove me to participate in the political system.
What had you anticipated about the Councillor position? What came as a surprise?
I expected to face challenges of understanding what I was doing, of understanding the best ways to change policy and serve the community. I expected to run into a lot of pushback based on what I was trying to do — I expected to just have a lot of work, and that’s exactly what I was met with. (We share a hearty laugh here).
I didn’t expect to be so public. I didn’t live my life so on the radar before. That’s a big thing; being a politician, I don’t think I knew what that meant. I considered myself to be a community member, someone who people can connect to, who they can call upon when the activism is done. I found a lot of barriers once being in that political seat. People start seeing you as a political figure, and they connect you to a system that’s not even designed to be part of who you are. That was a huge surprise, realizing that I now occupy a space within that system. One I want to combat and want to change — it’s… different.
How have the intersecting parts of your identity informed the way you do your job?
I bring in a particular set of experiences in policymaking and policy in general, and that really keeps me grounded and connected to myself. That has been a plus. I’m able to have experiences and input on specific policies that most people in the space currently wouldn’t be able to provide. It also connects you to a larger network of people who want to feel represented, and feel their voices matter in this moment. I do however look forward to not being the only or last. I look forward to more of these people being in that space, and what we could accomplish. We’d kill it!
But at the same time…
I’m politicized. My entire existence is politicized. I can’t breathe away from politics because of my identity. Being the first black woman elected to council in 2018, that’s… unfortunate, and because of that, I become a political instrument.
Being a younger woman, being a woman altogether — there are about 25% of women in leadership around the world — is a political instrument. It’s a lot to navigate and take in, that your presence isn’t just a protest, it’s a conflict. Balancing those two lines is a lot. Sometimes it’s useful. Sometimes it causes you a lot of pain.
As someone who now provides ample representation, who provided that for you?
I was pregnant when Obama got elected, and in my first year of university (Political science at Carleton). When he won, I literally collapsed. I bawled my eyes out, which is a big deal for me. Just seeing him, the first black president of the United States, and knowing that this is the same country that conducted the biggest genocide against black people, it was surreal.
A professor, who I’m still very connected with to this day, had told me that he thought I would be Prime Minister one day, in my first week of classes! I knew I had dreams to change the world, but my mind was stuck on what I knew — understanding that being a minority came with a lot of fight.
I was thinking about what he had said when I saw Obama win, and I thought I think I can do it. They say when you see them you can be them, and I saw Obama. He opened the door for so many of us, and the ripple effect that happened with Obama was insane. We’re going to see that same effect with Harris. I think there’s going to be a ripple effect about me being elected in London, and it’s already started.
But Wait! There’s More!
These gentlemen may have helped inspire Arielle forward, but another powerful woman keeps her motivated today. Stay tuned for the second part of this interview, where we’ll find out who that is, along with more golden nuggets of information about the trailblazing Arielle Kayabaga.
Feature photo courtesy of Arielle Kayabaga.