Driven by her own experience of burnout, Chrissie Okorie has built a platform for young activists to share their stories and access counselling- all while juggling her own recovery, her artistry and her work to redistribute power to her community through education.
Despite the clear, everyday legacies of British colonialism in the UK, the government continues to shrink the space for conversations, including in the national curriculum, about colonialism and Black history. Schools have been warned against promoting anti-capitalism and ‘victim narratives’, effectively preventing teachers and students from meaningfully discussing how historic events impact their lives and identities today.
The racism that Chrissie Okorie and her friends experienced at her predominantly white-led school was aggravated by the absence of a comprehensive education in Black history.
“They didn’t do Black History month for years,” recalls Chrissie. “I came from Croydon and most of the other Black girls came from South London. We very much felt that we were treated differently because of where we’re from. We had teachers saying things to children like ‘take off your bandana, this is not LA Compton.’ I remember saying, ‘sir, it’s not a joke. People die in LA Compton every single day. It’s not something to make fun of’. But for him, it was just gang related because we’re Black. I remember if there was a group of us together, they would run over and disperse us and be intimidating, but they wouldn’t do that to the white girls who huddled in groups, so it was like why are you attacking us? Why is there an issue with us? Why are you patrolling us?”
By Year 11, Chrissie and her friends decided they’d had enough. When a new student joined their year group, she asked Chrissie why the school didn’t celebrate Black History Month, to which she had no good answer. Together, they decided to approach four Black teachers at the school with a proposal.
“One of them said ‘I’m not going to lie to you guys, some of the things I hear about you in the staff room is heartbreaking, but maybe doing this for you guys will be a way for you to show them that there’s more to you than trouble.’ She went and pitched it to the headteacher and the headteacher said fine, whatever, so we did it and it was such a success. We did an assembly for the whole school, we did fundraising, our parents and families made food and we sold it and donated the money to a Black sickle cell charity. That’s when my activism started.”
The following year, Chrissie enrolled at a college in Croydon which did celebrate Black History Month and where she discovered her love of poetry. However, she realised that the Student Union, which was responsible for organising Black History Month, was predominantly white and included one boy who Chrissie knew to be racist.
“I ended up doing it myself because I didn’t like the way that it was done,” says Chrissie. “I did an event called Young, Gifted and Black, from Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’. Me and four others stayed behind and decorated the walls to highlight different Black sportspeople, authors, musicians and others that young people could see themselves in, and so, when they came to school, the first thing they saw was themselves and loads of people who looked like them. When people came in, we watched their reactions. You could see people looking at the board and talking about it, and then we ended up in the cafeteria where we had different world foods, music and a big celebration.
We spoke about it for a long time even after we left school. It felt like we left a legacy and we didn’t care what other people thought about us, we knew it was the right thing to do. It sparked something in us. It showed us that we have power and it showed the teachers that there’s more to us. It showed that kids are not just problematic, especially coming from marginalised communities. People don’t know how to work with Black children from that background and always put us in a bubble. But if you give someone something creative to do that makes a change, they will take the lead. For me, that was very empowering.
When I look back on that time, it’s crazy because we were just so young and didn’t know anything. We just knew that we deserve to be celebrated. We knew there was more to being from Croydon than being affiliated with gangs and even that there’s a history to the music we listen to, to grime, there’s a history and culture and it’s something that should be respected.”
“Activism is done as a community. It shouldn’t be a burden that one person takes on.”
After college, spurred by her successful activism at school and college, Chrissie threw herself into social justice work, starting as a volunteer with Maokwo Arts Organisation in Coventry where she worked with refugees, migrants and marginalised artists. Inspired to tell the stories of those most marginalised in our communities, Chrissie switched her degree from economics to journalism and became active as a speaker and spoken word poet.
The week that George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in May 2020, Chrissie broke down. Under pressure to be active, attend and speak at rallies, deliver educational workshops, perform on increasingly larger platforms including at the BBC, Chrissie’s mental health was struggling.
She decided to take a step back from activism and focus on self care, spending time with friends and family and writing poetry exploring Black joy rather than trauma, and penned a viral article about her experience of burnout, radical self care and recovery for Metro.
“Everything I’ve experienced, I always express it creatively,” explains Chrissie. “My therapy is to pour it out whether through an article or spoken word. Sometimes I feel, as an activist, that people forget we have lives and are human too. Sometimes we also need a break and, if we’re not talking about something, it’s not because we don’t care. It’s because this thing is really affecting us. So that’s why I wrote the Metro article: to say it’s ok to step back, leave spaces that are not good for us and take a break.
Activism is done as a community. It shouldn’t be a burden that one person takes on. My favourite quote is from Tupac: ‘I’m not saying I’m gonna rule the world or I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee you that I will spark the brain that will change the world. And that’s our job, It’s to spark somebody else watching us.’ He died at 21, but the legacy that man left is beyond measure. I think that’s one of the reasons why I took a step back, because it’s a team effort and, if somebody else burned out, I’d want them to take a step back while others carry on.
Activism shouldn’t be something that consumes your life. The little change you’re making is still a big change and everybody has a role to play. A lot of people were not thinking about burnout. Even a lot of the Challenge and Change Partners, when I first met them, said they’d never really thought about taking a step back and what that would mean. I think that’s why BLM really disappointed me, because a lot of people were “activists” and then, after lockdown ended, everybody had left a small number of people who are really activists behind on the frontline.”
“Self care is so important and it has to go beyond what social media says it is: putting on a face mask and spending some money.”
With support from the Challenge and Change Fund, Chrissie has created a podcast which will launch in early 2024 in which she interviews activists from across movements about their experiences of burnout and healing.
“One thing that made a difference in recovering from burnout was going back to university and studying. I needed to know there’s more than being on the frontline: adding knowledge. My Dad kept saying to me: in order to get into spaces where you’re speaking to the leaders that make change, you sometimes have to speak their language and you have to study them and the system. I learned a lot and have gone from being an activist to being an advocate.
Because I was studying journalism, I wanted to use more journalistic approaches to communicate, so the podcast was a response to people’s reactions to my article. There’s many activists and changemakers out there that don’t talk about the struggles they have, their mental health. I thought it’d be really lovely to hear activists from across movements tell their stories and have a conversation. It’s part of a global movement for people to understand they’re not alone and it’s ok to listen to your heart and step back. Self care is so important and it has to go beyond what social media says it is: putting on a face mask and spending some money. It could be saying that you’re done with activism for six months, for example.
When I think about my journey in the arts and charity sector, I feel like nobody ever puts money away for artists or changemakers to make art about their trauma. This is so traumatic and the things we do and see are not heard. Your activism starts with your own pain, so where do you offload all of this? No one has money for mental health services and the NHS has a long waiting list. So the goal was also to fundraise and give people mental health services. The idea behind the podcast was teaching and serving simultaneously, so we could hear about people’s experiences but also pay for people’s counselling.”
“Resilience is part of Black British history. Resilience is something I believe is ancestral to me.”
In pursuit of her own wellbeing, Chrissie has also been studying her history and fortifying her sense of self, which she believes is the road to resilience.
“Studying history and, for me, African history has been very important,” she says. “Resilience is part of Black British history. Resilience is something I believe is ancestral to me; something I believe is in my blood. I believe it’s passed down. I don’t believe I’m creating a legacy. I feel like I’m continuing a legacy. Whether you’re Black or from Palestine, Iraq or any place that has faced colonial oppression, resistance and resilience is part of our struggle. I think, sometimes, that we don’t even know it. Working class people are resilient. It’s part of our story and the legacy our ancestors created. If you think wrong is wrong, you follow that. It’s actually in me, it’s not something that’s taught, it’s something that’s passed down, it’s spiritual. Change comes from the place where you realise that you can’t allow something to happen.
Legacy is very important for me. We all start with good intentions to do something but when it becomes too big or you enter a space you didn’t think you could enter, people can become gatekeepers. I’m not here to gatekeep any space. For me, as a spoken word artist and poet, I always ask myself: how am I bringing the next generation along with me? How am I empowering young people to do better? I’m not going to be in this world forever. When we die, our gravestone is not going to show the things we’ve done, the CIC’s we built.
No one can take away the calling God has given me, the legacy my ancestors left me, my identity. I know who I am and where I’m from. And I know that the system was never built for people like us. Everything they give me I take as a bonus because I don’t expect anything from this government. The one thing they hate, as my Dad used to say to me, is an educated Black person. It’s about being resilient and my mentor has always said, ‘you’re supposed to be in those spaces and take over.’ Especially in the creative industry, you have a right to be there. You owe no loyalty to any organisation.”
Currently, Chrissie is exploring the relationship between her community and food. In particular, she’s aiming to educate people about the relationship between colonialism, poverty and staple and soul foods, and to do more advocacy related to health and nutrition.
“I’m trying to build a company and serve my community,” she says. “These days I’m really just trying to restructure the type of life I want for myself and undoing a lot of the trauma, always looking forward and persevering. My purpose is to speak up and fight for people, live my full potential without barriers, boundaries and labels and without allowing institutions to control me, my actions, my identity. I’m not a robot. I’m a rebel because I live my truth. I’m brave and I’m driven. I’m creating a world where young people from where I’m from have authentic opportunities. I don’t want anything from anybody and I want to give other people a seat at the table. You don’t owe me anything. I’m doing this work because someone else did it for me. And now I’m going to do it for you, with no terms and conditions.”
The Challenge and Change Fund is designed by young changemakers for young changemakers. It funds young people directly, supporting them to create the change they want to see. It prioritises young people who are emergent and have lived experience of the injustices they are trying to change, supporting youth led collectives, social enterprises and CICs across England. You can read more about Challenge and Change here.