Conversations | Advice for Immigrant Poets from Toluwanimi Oluwafunmilayo Obiwole
“The more I told my story, the more it resonated with people: other immigrants and other people of color started reaching out to me because their story was similar to mine.”
This October, the Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) Preconference in Denver brought extraordinary immigrant artists together, including Toluwanimi Oluwafunmilayo Obiwole, a Nigerian-born, Colorado-raised poet, educator, and organizer. Introduced to us by PlatteForum, our Denver partner organization, Toluwa, as her friends call her, became Denver’s first Youth Poet Laureate in 2016. This opened a world of opportunities for her, including resources, spaces, and a community. As much as she feels supported now by the city, Toluwa believes she was one of the lucky ones and aims to share as much of her knowledge and resources with others in need.
Read on to learn more about her story, the challenges she faced during her first years in Denver, and her mission to help immigrant artists in her community.
NYFA: As an immigrant, what were the challenges that you faced when you first came to the U.S.?
Toluwanimi Oluwafunmilayo Obiwole: When my family and I first came to Colorado, it was a challenging time, having to go through the hardships associated with citizenship, education, being young, and adjusting to the social climate. There were very few people of color in my school and I went through a cultural shock—I wasn’t speaking well and had a strong accent. My mother’s solution for me was to read the dictionary every single day, section by section, to get familiar with all the words that I could possibly use in this language, and how to pronounce them. I developed a love for words, reading and writing, and by the time I got to school, I was ahead of many of my classmates. I was always creative when I was younger—I did photography, film, writing poetry and plays, visual arts—I wanted to be everything, making art made me feel free and I knew this is what I needed to be doing. My parents believed art can only be a hobby and I had to get a “real” degree because as an immigrant, you’re already limited in this country and you have to prove yourself in order to be able to do anything.
I studied Architectural Engineering and later became interested in Ethnic Studies, which became my main focus. My art just added to it—as a poet, I wrote about migration, my identity, the feeling of home on two continents at the same time, and community. The more I told my story, the more it resonated with people: other immigrants and other people of color started reaching out to me because their story was similar to mine. I made it my mission to not only become successful in my art, but to also create opportunities and facilitate spaces where other people that were also told their art or their voices didn’t matter can flourish, thrive, say, and create what they needed to and draw power from that—both economically and socially.
NYFA: Was there a lot of support for the artists in Denver, or was there a mentor that has significantly impacted you?
TOO: I’m the type of person that if I want to do something, I am going to do it. I started going to poetry shows and the older people in the community started to take notice and started talking to me, mentoring and encouraging me. They became different sets of parents for me—Suzi Q Smith, Ken Arkind, Bobby LeFebre, and others. Ken Arkind was one of my main mentors in poetry. He started the Youth Poet Laureate Program, connected to programs in New York City, Maryland, and Massachusetts, giving a chance for young people to represent their youth literary community. In 2016, I became the Denver Youth Poet Laureate, which opened a world of opportunities for me. At the same time, I realized that there were many people who needed to have access to all those amazing resources and mentors that didn’t have it. I started peer mentorship, taking the knowledge and resources I was privileged to receive and funneling them back to my community to other young creatives. Denver was incredibly supportive to me as a city, but at the same time, I was one of the lucky ones who received this support.
NYFA: What advice would you give to immigrant artists that are looking to push their career forward?
TOO: The most important thing to have as an immigrant artist is a community. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing today. Even if you don’t necessarily have access to those resources, start to find your community. Even if they are not in your state or city, connect with artists on the Internet, through Instagram, direct message people. I am always happy to offer a helping hand if you are in search of community or resources. Connect with me on Instagram and I will connect you to other people that might help. Once you have a community, you can form a collective and a collective allows you to do much more. I founded the Palm Wine Collective, which allowed me to start amassing resources in a pointed and directed place to then spread our beacon to the community. It’s all about bringing together the collective knowledge and power.
NYFA: Any upcoming events you’d like to share?
TOO: The PanAfrican Arts Festival will take place in Denver in August 2020 and will be announced on social media soon. Follow me on Instagram; I’m always posting updates about what I’m doing in the city, sharing newly-discovered resources for immigrant artists. Stay tuned for more!
About Toluwanimi Oluwafunmilayo Obiwole
Toluwanimi Oluwafunmilayo Obiwole is a Nigerian-born, Colorado-raised poet, educator, and organizer. She was Denver’s first Youth Poet Laureate in 2015-2016. In 2016 she co-wrote and co-starred in a play called How I Got Over, which was featured at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. In 2017, she was announced as one of The Root’s “25 Young Futurists.” She was a member of SLAM NUBA from 2015-2017, and is co-director of the Slam Nuba organization. In 2017, she was awarded the Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion Award by the University of Colorado Boulder as well as the Black Excellence Award by the University’s Black Student Alliance. She is a two-time TEDx Mile High speaker and is the author of two chapbooks: OMI EBI MI and How to Become a Lightning Storm. Her project to create and launch a PanAfrican Arts Festival in Denver was recently funded by Arts in Society.
– Interview Conducted by Alicia Ehni, Program Officer at NYFA Learning and Maria Polonetskaya, IAP Intern
This interview is part of the ConEdison Immigrant Artist Program Newsletter #122. Subscribe to this free monthly e-mail for artist’s features, opportunities, and events. Learn more about NYFA Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program.
Image: Toluwanimi Oluwafunmilayo Obiwole, Photo: Magdelena Fountukidis