The Power of Sisterhood: A Conversation with Isabella Yasmin Kajiwara

The Power of Sisterhood: A Conversation with Isabella Yasmin Kajiwara

Since the beginning of civilization, women have had to fight for their right to be heard. Their roles in reforms and revolutions, wars, scientific advance and other ground breaking societal transformations have continuously been diminished. Nonetheless, strong women have always been the backbone of meaningful change and have proven time and time again that they are a force to be reckoned with. 

Today, we stand on the shoulders of many fearless women who came before us and carry a responsibility to continue what they have started. Rosa Parks, Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, Marie Curie - women who have transformed history and shaped the world of today. Even in the 21st century, much change needs to happen to achieve gender equality. And what greater power is there than the coming together of women from all walks of life to unite under a common cause? What greater impact is there than that of community?

Community can mean different things to different people and rather than being a static concept it is an organism that keeps moving and shifting. I had the honour of sitting down with Isabella Yasmin Kajiwara to discuss some themes around community, sisterhood and driving meaningful change. Isabella is a writer, editor, community organiser and activist based in London who throughout their life has experienced many different shapes of community. From a young age, they have moved around a lot and learned that community is really impacted by one’s own perspective on it. Some people may think of community as a set group of people and define their identity through it. Yet, Isabella argues that it exists in different spheres and ideas and at the end of the day, it starts with ourselves. And even the idea of what community means will change throughout your life: “There are so many different facets to our personality, so as a result there are so many different ways in which we need to water ourselves and grow our community personally around us.” Isabella is enthusiastic about the idea of pod-mapping. This was invented by a group called the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective and describes the process of identifying who we are leaning on in certain situations and whether there are people in our lives which we might be overlooking. The goal is to be open and perceptive to the people in our immediate environment, rather than leaning on one “ride-or-die” person. After all, community is not just about supporting each other, but about holding each other accountable in a compassionate and transformative way. 

Isabella feels lucky that they have many different communities to lean on, their ESEA (East and Southeast Asian) Sisters being one of them. ESEA Sisters is a Collective that creates spaces for East and South East Asian women, trans, non-binary and genderqueer folks, and regularly organises community events around themes like art, nature and mental health, with currently more than 500 members on Discord. Another community which has had a profound impact on them has been their Buddhist community. Faith plays an important part in Isabella’s life, alongside their family and different activist and creative communities. Isabella considers themself to be part of a network of communities which are all intersecting and connecting with each other. When it comes to fostering community, we need grace and compassion for each other. Without this, community cannot exist sustainably. While accountability is important, it needs to coincide with grace. Let’s make an active commitment to compassion and kindness. Let’s intentionally choose these in the face of disagreements and hurt. This radical, transformative approach of dying to our ego may be uncomfortable, but it allows us to move past societal and global division. If you see people with your mind and with your heart, and see them for who they are, then you are never alone. This is the difference between being surrounded by people and having community. 

Strong women who have influenced Isabella throughout their life have taught them to live with humility, yet not to shy away from using their voice to serve a greater good. One of those people, their Buddhist mentor Allison, is an example of such a woman. Although there are decades in age between them, Allison is very youthful in spirit. She regularly performs as a drummer and recently wrote a rock opera. Isabella describes her as someone who has youth bursting out of her – more so than most people their own age. Allison is driven by a constant curiosity, committed to learning and asking people questions. She defines leadership not as telling people what to do, but as supporting them and helping them grow so that they’re able to lift up those around them. Leadership, after all, is an act of service. 

One of Isabella’s ESEA sisters, their friend Mai, quit her job last year after realising that she wanted more from her life. She decided to take time out and travelled to her home country, willing to take a leap into the unknown in order to put her happiness first. She taught Isabella the importance of ‘putting yourself out there’. Isabella, who comes from an activist background, has always focused on the collective, making sure that no single person was put on a pedestal. They weren't used to attaching her name to something, aware of avoiding selfish ambition. However, Mai explained to them that sometimes you have to step to the forefront as a means to an end, understanding that it is the motive behind the action that draws the line between self  and self-less. 

Another dear friend who has set a great example when it comes to facing challenges is Vanessa. Vanessa Tsehaye is an Eritrean human rights activist who founded the human rights organisation One Day Seyoum at the age of 16, inspired by her uncle Seyoum Tsehaye – a journalist who has been imprisoned in Eritrea since 2001. Despite the severity of her family’s fate, Vanessa is one of the happiest and most joyful people Isabella has met and lights up every room she enters. She always shows kindness and support to the people around her and keeps her joy no matter what. 

The common denominator of all those who drive change – whether at the forefront or in the background of history – is hope. A small word that carries great weight. Hope is a discipline. In an economy that harvests on dissatisfaction, the only answer that can liberate us is hope and gratitude, and the choice to continuously cultivate them. Hope is in things unseen: understanding that you may sow the seed though you might not live to see the harvest is where faith sets in. Isabella explains that the victory is in the decision to sow the seed, whatever form this may take, knowing that you might not be the one benefitting from it. This victory means that we have liberated ourselves from the need of instant gratification deposited in us by a capitalist society. If we truly want to drive meaningful and long-lasting change, we need patience and endurance. After all, many of the blessings we enjoy today are the harvest of other people’s work who sowed their seeds at some point in history. 

Isabella recently took on a position as editor at Shado Magazine. Shado stands for “See. Hear. Act. Do.” and is a community of artists, activists and journalists dedicated to providing a platform towards issues of social justice. Besides their work at Shado, Isabella is currently working on their book based on a family member, the journey of which they describe as a return to self and a means of exploring their roots. 


Words by Faye Sirohi 

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