Being a Bush Fellow last two years has been the most amazing and transformative experience. The fellowship helped a lot both professionally and personal in which I have learned a lifetime skill that I will continue to use. For the past 12 years I have been working on combating skin-lightening and chemical exposures in different ways researching, advocacy and educating the communities. My goal was to always scale my activism of this work to nationally and globally and Bush Fellowship gave the opportunity to scale my work not only in Minnesota but to nationally and globally. I have reached out to many powerful individuals and institutions to teach them about these issues of colorism, skin-lightening practice and chemical exposures, help them understand why it’s also their problem and that they need to address. I remember 8 years ago I reached out to one of the local County Government in Minnesota their public health department to do education for the population in their counties about the mercury exposure and its health impact. The response I got from them was “this issue impacts only immigrants of color and we do not have many of them in this county”. I always kept this in my mind because it was very racism and colorism comment that is against the public health principals of protecting the health outcome of those that live in this county. As I was reaching out to those institutions and leaders that I wanted to educate about this issue so they use their platforms to take action, that comment from the county and all the skills I gained from my Bush Fellowship trainings helped to strategies my talking points about these issues by making intersectional issues in which it does not only impact communities of color but also chemicals in the skin-lightening products impact the environment in many levels. Many of these leaders shared the message and connected me other leaders both in the state and national level who could also raise awareness on these issues. Because of my expanded network and being consistent about teaching the impact of colorism, skin-lightening practice and chemical exposures helped me reach more people in the US and globally. Leaders of institutions including schools, government, community-based organization and academic institutions invited me always to do trainings, guest speaking and keynote speeches about the issues that I work on and ways everyone can get involved to address.
For the past two years I did put a lot advocacy time on ways Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is regulating cosmetic products in general but in particularly the skin-lightening products. What I found was that they have banned many toxic ingredients in cosmetics but not actively regulating these products. In the case of skin-lightening products I learned that FDA never regulated skin-lightening products even though mercury was banned many years ago. In 2020, I have started educating Congress members about ways mercury and hydroquinone impacting the health outcomes of people of color especially women of color. Congresswomen Betty McCollum has been very supportive in advocating within Congress and helping other Congress members to support passing a legislation to address these toxic products and also raise awareness on the issue. As result for the past two years Congress passed legislation that funded FDA to regulate skin-lightening products and partner with community-based organizations. I’m now working with Congresswomen Betty McCollum on the 3rd year legislation for Fiscal Year 2023 to continue fund FDA so the regulation of skin-lightening products in the US continues and expand their current regulation target. Also, Congress passed legislation in December 2020, that banned hydroquinone in skin-lightening products and the law became effective on September 2021. FDA started regulating over the counter skin-lightening products that contain hydroquinone and they were able to find 12 larger companies who were selling these toxic products on over the counter all over the US. FDA removed the products and contacted the companies on April 2022. I was able to do all of this advocacy, systems change and scaling up the work because of the support I got from Bush Fellowship.
Also, the fellowship helped me doing landscape analysis in the US and globally skin-lightening product manufacturing, the marketing, the sale and countries that get the highest toxic skin-lightening products. This helped me to travel Dubai, United Arab Emirates which is the hub of skin-lightening products where all skin-lightening manufactures sale their products. Also, Dubai is the market hub for East Africa, Middle East and Asia as well as the US (especially for immigrants in the US that make business out of the skin-lightening products). This trip really helped me interview five skin-lightening product dealers that based in Dubai and export these products to East Africa, Middle East and Asia. I learned that they export the most toxic products to low-income countries in Africa and Asia in particularly in African countries. These manufactures also continue to promote colorism and use local communities to sale their products. They hire people both from cities and rural areas to increase their sale of skin-lightening. This trip helped me to travel to many countries in East African and do community-based landscape analysis to learn the impact of these toxic skin-lightening products, the type of products they use and testing products. My trips to East Africa helped me compare the communities in Minnesota, and other states in the US their ideology of colorism and the use of these skin-lightening products. This helped me to partner with CNN to film short documentary about my lived-experience of colorism, the use of skin-lightening products in Kenya in comparison of the US and ways both governments are regulating these products. I was also able to connect and interview with local communities in India and the Philippines to learn how colorism, skin-lightening practice and chemical exposures impacting their communities. I was able also to recruited some of these leaders into the global coalition that I established.
The fellowship also helped to expand the Young Women’s Wellness and Leadership Initiative (YWWLI) That I started in 2019. This is for training young 14–18-year-old East African women to take lead of their health and wellbeing, gain leadership skills and get mentorship by women of color who are in leadership position and look like them. Since I started my Bush Fellowship, I was able to expand the program curriculum and graduate 5 cohorts which total is 42 young girls. Some of them now graduated from high school and in their 1st and 2nd year of their undergraduate degree. This helped me mentor many of these girls and also provide internship at Beautywell.
The followship helped me learn the fundamental of managing non-profit organization, effectively fundraising the work we do through Beautywell, networking and also coalition building. I was able to do Executive Certificate in Nonprofit Leadership, Non-Profit, Public and Organizational Management. I have also participated trainings on facilitation and documentation. This helped me learn more and build confidence on ways that I can facilitate larger working groups or coalitions.
I have also learned ways to partner and create content with media organizations in order to effectively communicate our campaign to the public using equity lenses, culturally and linguistically responsive ways.
My Bush Fellowship journey has been transformative life experience which helped me grow professionally by building my leadership skills and expanding my network. Taking care of my spiritual health, the importance of sustaining my spiritual wellbeing, increase and sustain my overall health and wellbeing. Also, pursuing my calling and passion of combating colorism and creating safe space for the impacted communities.