Leona Amosah, the Founder of SWIRL, Talks Diversity and Identity

Leona Amosah, the Founder of SWIRL, Talks Diversity and Identity

Amosah, a high-achieving senior at UNC Chapel Hill, created the organization to provide a community for students with multiracial and mixed-race identities.

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Leona Amosah, the Founder of SWIRL, Talks Diversity and Identity

Amosah, a high-achieving senior at UNC Chapel Hill, created the organization to provide a community for students with multiracial and mixed-race identities.

Celebrating Students with Interracial Legacies (SWIRL)

Amosah, a high-achieving senior at UNC Chapel Hill, created the organization to provide a community for students with multiracial and mixed-race identities.

By Molly Flynn, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

While many college students occupy their time with binge-watching Netflix, binge-drinking at parties and binge-eating at their campus diners, Leona Amosah has chosen to indulge in things much more productive.

Amosah, a senior at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, seems to be involved in a little bit of everything. As a double major in Russian and Global Studies, Amosah spends her time not only in the books, but also involved in a wide range of campus groups. She actively participates in organizations such as Tarheel Outreach Program, Harmonyx A Capella group, Easing Students Abroad Entry (EASE), APPLES Service-Learning Program and Buckley Public Service Scholars, just to name a few.

But, her brainchild, as she calls it, is an organization that she started in August 2015. This past week, I had the opportunity to speak directly with Amosah and learn a little but more about SWIRL, which stands for Students with Inter-Racial Legacies.

Molly Flynn: What inspired you to start SWIRL?

Leona Amosah: I came up with the idea for starting SWIRL after watching a documentary called “Little White Lie.” It told the story of a Jewish woman who grew up with a white identity, until she discovered that her biological father was black.

Throughout the film, she grapples with her mixed-race identity, discussing how she felt when she identified as white versus how she felt when she identified as black. I very much connected with the film as a person of mixed-race, and was sobbing by the end of it.

Leona Amosah, the Founder of SWIRL, Talks Diversity and Identity
Leona Amosah (Image via Facebook)

After watching the film, I really wanted to decompress with someone and discuss how it made me feel, and I realized that I could not think of anyone apart from my siblings who would be able to empathize with how I was feeling. I started looking into whether or not UNC had an organization for students of mixed-race backgrounds, and I discovered that we did not. This was thoroughly disappointing for me.

So, I decided to contact the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at my school, and I ended up chatting with the Assistant Director of Multicultural Programs. He was very excited about my desire to start this organization and agreed to be my advisor. From there, I reached out to UNC students through Facebook to assess how much interest there was in such an organization. A lot of people seemed really excited about it, so I decided to go ahead and start the organization that fall semester of 2015.

MF: What does SWIRL do or aim to do?

LA: UNC-CH SWIRL seeks to serve as a platform for multiracial/mixed-race students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to come together as a community, voice their experiences and inform the broader UNC-CH community about multiracial/mixed-race identities. UNC-CH Swirl exists to:

Provide a safe and inclusive common space for UNC students of multiracial and mixed-race backgrounds.

Wholly recognize and affirm multiracial/mixed race identities.

Offer a community in which anyone and everyone is welcome and respected.

Create awareness of the presence and experiences of multiracial and mixed-race students on campus.

Facilitate discussion that inspires collaboration and connection between multiracial and mixed race-students and the general UNC student body.

Recognize intersectionality and actively seek to collaborate with identity-based organizations and initiatives.

MF: Have you had any obstacles on the course of your mission?

LA: We have not had any major obstacles per se. It has been a little difficult to find a good balance between discussing mixed-race identity and experiences, and branching out to include other identities. At times, we have ended up focusing on parts of our identity that are not necessarily connected to race, which can be frustrating, especially for first-time goers who come into the space thinking that we will be talking exclusively about mixed-race identity and experiences.

While SWIRL was originally established as a space for people of mixed-race identity, I very much want it to be an organization for anyone and everyone who seeks a space that validates all of their identities. In other words, I want SWIRL to be a place where people feel whole and do not feel the need to hide any of their identities.

MF: What have you been able to accomplish in the past year? What do you want to accomplish this next year?

LA: SWIRL has done a lot in the past year! We have had two successful photo campaigns titled “What Are You?” during which we posed that question to students around campus.

“What are you?” is a question people of mixed-race or people who are racially ambiguous get asked all of the time. The inception of SWIRL was partly inspired by this simple question that demands a rather complicated response. As people with complex identities, we constantly find ourselves wading through the murky waters of these identities. We constantly assess and reassess who we are and what that means.

During one of our very first meetings, we discussed the topic of identity and quickly found a point of conversion. Oftentimes, when someone fails to fit easily into certain boxes, it causes a lot of confusion for everyone, especially those faced with the pervasive question: “What are you?”

Leona Amosah, the Founder of SWIRL, Talks Diversity and Identity
Leona Amosah

We know that this question is usually posed in order to figure out the pieces of a person’s racial and/or ethnic identity. SWIRL decided to pose this question to people on campus to see how they would react to it. We found through our discussions that it is not a matter of discovering what we are; rather, it is a matter of assessing and describing who we are. We are all human beings with complex and unique identities as evidenced by the responses we got through this photo campaign. We will be doing this every semester, hopefully!

We also jointly hosted an event in collaboration with the Campus Y around Valentine’s Day in the spring of 2016. During the event, we discussed our experiences with interracial relationships and the added complexity of being the product of an interracial relationship. The parents of one of our members came and joined some of the members of SWIRL on a panel to discuss these topics. It was really cool and interesting to hear about their experiences as an interracial couple, and how discuss how views on interracial couples have changed over time.

SWIRL also hosted its first ever “Mixed Mixer” during Fall 2016 at a local bar on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. This was our first-ever fundraising event.

We also hosted a benefit night at a local restaurant to raise funds for the organization.

MF: How has your campus encouraged or discouraged your program?

LA: I was able to establish SWIRL as an official student organization through the Student Union on campus, which has given us a physical space in which we can hold our weekly meetings.

My campus is a fairly open place that promotes the establishment of a diverse array of student organizations, so in that sense it has encouraged the growth of SWIRL by giving it an environment in which it can be recognized and grow and flourish.

MF: Do you believe that SWIRL is relevant to college life? How has it affected students who join? 

LA: I wholeheartedly believe that SWIRL is relevant to college life! SWIRL has created a space on campus for students who constantly grapple with their complex identities, and it provides a community for students.

I have gotten really close with members of SWIRL, and they have become like family to me. A lot of them have told me that SWIRL has become a place for them to come and decompress every week. Though we are very unique individuals, we come to SWIRL with similar experiences, and it is great to have a place to share such experiences with others who can empathize.

MF: A lot of people argue that the recent election promoted a lack of diversity. How do you feel about America’s political environment, and do you feel like this has impacted the mission of SWIRL?

LA: With the recent election, I felt really distraught and hopeless, especially with the upsetting things I have witnessed both on-and-off campus. I wouldn’t say the recent election has promoted a lack of diversity. I think the issue is that the election has given rise to a lot of hatefulness and has promoted outward manifestations of blatantly hateful behavior.

Leona Amosah, the Founder of SWIRL, Talks Diversity and Identity
SWIRL sign (Image via SWIRL Facebook)

During the election season, SWIRL emphasized its purpose as a space for decompression. After the election, we came together as a group and discussed how the news made us feel. A lot of us felt shaken, saddened and angered, amongst other things. We felt like our very existence was being jeopardized, given the continued thickening of the racial divide in the US. But mostly, we just felt exhausted from it all.

Since the election, we have actively sought to be a part of protests and initiatives around campus that are committed to supporting people of marginalized identities. We hope that as an organization we can combat the hatefulness and blatant racism that has manifested as a result of the election. We will also strive to combat all systems of oppression that continue to marginalize people.

MF: Ten years from now, what will you hope SWIRL has accomplished? 

LA: Given the steady and continued rise of people in the U.S. who identify as mixed-race, I hope that ten years from now SWIRL is a major organization on campus.

I hope that SWIRL will continue to provide a space for people to come together to share their experiences as people of mixed-race backgrounds; that there will be chapters of SWIRL all over the U.S.; that it continues to be a community of students dedicated to recognizing the wholeness of everyone’s identity, and continues to fight on behalf of members of marginalized communities.

MF: Is it difficult to be a full-time student while also starting this chapter on your campus? If so, what has been the most challenging and also the most rewarding part? 

LA: It was certainly a struggle to start an entire organization during my junior year. I was under a lot of stress academically, so starting SWIRL was quite the feat for me.

The most challenging part was getting everything up and running by myself (securing a space for meetings, buying refreshments, reaching out to people via Facebook to get them to join, creating flyers to advertise the meetings, starting a listserv and sending out weekly emails, etc.), all while still trying to maintain my grades and my commitments to other organizations.

Of course, having SWIRL exist is a reward in-and-of itself. Being a part of a community of people who are just as passionate about SWIRL as I am has always been very rewarding. It has been wonderful to have so many amazing people in my life who love being a part of such a community, and who also enjoy sharing their experiences with each other.

MF: How can someone get involved with SWIRL or start a chapter at their university?

LA: You can get involved by liking and following SWIRL on Facebook and Twitter @uncchswirl! You can also join the listserv to receive email updates by sending an email to uncchswirl@gmail.com. We post updates and upcoming events on our Facebook page and Twitter account and send out weekly emails!

SWIRL would love to expand on other campuses! Someone from Duke University reached out to me about starting their own chapter of SWIRL on their campus, so now there is a Duke SWIRL as well (they also have a Facebook page for anyone interested in getting involved with them).

Definitely send us an email if you are interested in starting a chapter at another university, because we would love to help get things started!

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