Small Business Story: Kweli

Kweli KitwanaActivism was my destiny; it’s a part of who I am. I grew up in a family of activists and teachers in Chicago in the 1960s. Beginning in my high school’s student council, I have always been a leader in almost every circle I’ve been involved in. In my twenties, as a single mom, I started organizing in Chicago. I’ve been working as a community organizer for over 40 years since, at neighborhood, city-wide, state and national organizations, addressing tenants’ rights, labor and workers’ rights, and national policy issues impacting racial justice, women and older adults.   

But I’ve also always been attracted to creativity. My mom, grandma, and all the elder women I grew up with were quilters. I was the 10th child in my family (a twin), and my mom was super-creative and resourceful. She “upcycled” before anyone knew what it was—she was my original Pinterest!  

In 2016, I participated as a year-long fellowship at the Rockwood Leadership Institute, which is a transformative leadership program for social justice leaders. There, I realized that I wasn’t fulfilling my creative side. I went back to school to engage with my artist self more authentically.  

Now, I’m a mixed media artist, and I create fabric designs that honor African American history and culture, and make provocative social commentary. Most of my work is culturally biographical: It’s about Black people and Black experiences, including the enslavement of Africans. At first, it seemed too “out there,” but now, things are changing—people want a “resistor” mask!  

fabric by Kweli Kitwana
AfroGURLS fabric by Kweli Kitwana

When I lived in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, I started a walk-in art studio called Art Shack, Baby. I was very conscious about being socially-mindful with what I put in the space; it was a green business. I began providing art programming to home-schoolers, Girl Scout troops, local libraries, and classrooms. Art Shack, Baby became the number one destination in Harpers Ferry. 

When I was organizing around serious issues, art sometimes felt frivolous. But through my business, I realized that art can provide space to build community and give people respite. From the Black Panthers in the 1960s to undocumented citizens today, art amplifies people’s voices in social justice movements. 

I’m determined to shift the paradigm so people think of art as a profession. After moving to the Bay Area, I founded my new business, Movement Insight, to allow people to use creativity as a way to address social justice issues, or tackle their organizing jobs, or give themselves permission to take a break from organizing and activism. I built a studio in my garage and developed a curriculum around activism.  

Harriet Tubman fabric by Kweli Kitwana
Harriet Tubman fabric by Kweli Kitwana

Soon, I was ready to move the studio out of my garage and into a retail space. That’s when I found out about Opportunity Fund.  When I applied for a loan with Opportunity Fund, I was supported and not questioned, not for one minute, about my business concept. I got the loan from Opportunity Fund and poured a lot of money into that building.  

Then, COVID hit. Luckily, I kept some of my consulting work, so I’m still able to do that and continue my work as an artist.    

Opportunity Fund has given me a lot of flexibility and time to figure out a new model for my art business that could work in the Bay Area. Adriana, my loan officer, encouraged me to apply for PPP; I had no idea that was something I would’ve been eligible for. The PPP was a huge help for me. And I was one of the first people to refinance my current loan at a lower interest rate. I would not have been able to do that at a traditional bank. Adriana is amazing—I feel like we’re sisters now.   

Having a business is how I subsidize myself as a lifelong activist. It’s how I cover my health insurance and plan for my retirement. We shouldn’t be stripping people—especially people in communities of color and low-income communities—of the opportunity to have a business.  

It’s been so important for me to have a non-traditional lending source. I don’t know who else would’ve taken a risk on someone with a non-traditional business like mine. People who are highly cultured can turn to Opportunity Fund to support their creative ideas, so they can, in turn, thrive economically. Giving people a loan lets them invest in their lives and communities. 

 

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