Femme Founders: bilphena yahwon and Upile Chisala, yanja

 bilphena yahwon and Upile Chisala are the founders of yanja, a monthly gathering that creates a safe/courageous space for people of colour in Baltimore. I recently met these two amazing femmes and asked them to sit down with me for a Q&A about the mission of yanja, the importance of safe spaces, and the complexity of diasporic blackness.  

I want to know about the amazing femmes behind yanja. Please tell me about yourselves.

bilphena yahwon : I am a baltimore based writer + social justice advocate born in liberia, west africa and raised in danané, côte d'Ivoire. I came to the US in 2001 as a refugee. I am the owner + curator of goldwomyn.com the author of ‘teaching gold-mah how to heal herself.’ and the co-founder of yanja. I also have a background in family studies and is interested in exploring the cultural, political + soci-economic factors that plays into healthy communities specifically refugee + immigrant communities / the psychological impact of migrating and the mental health issues that are often ignored during the assimilation process. I aspire to deconstruct the ivory tower through research and academic work focused specifically on american + diasporic blackness, the complex dynamic of the african family and womanism.

Upile Chisala: I am a Malawian storyteller, sociologist, cofounder of yanja and author of a collection of poetry titled ‘soft magic’. I was born and raised in Malawi and came to the US in 2011 to attend New Mexico State University where I graduated with an Honors BA in Sociology, Law & Society, Women’s Studies and Contemporary Social Studies. In my academic and personal lives I am drawn to storytelling, and the stories I want my work to give the most light to are the ones from the margins. ‘soft magic’ explores identity, gender, self-care, and the diaspora. As interdisciplinary as my interests are at the core is my desire to play a role in bettering the world and bringing light to the counter-hegemonic realities of African women in Africa and out.

What is yanja’s’ mission?

yanja series is a once a month gathering  that strives to create a safe/courageous space for people of colour based in baltimore and surrounding communities to connect, unwind + express themselves. it is our goal to cultivate + promote a space of love, of learning and of pride within our individual identities through movement, through storytelling, through fellowship and most importantly through open + honest dialogues.

What is the meaning behind the name yanja.

yanja is short for the Chichewa word yanjanani which means ‘come together’ or ‘gather’. Chichewa is the national language in Malawi. We wanted a name that served as a note to our diasporic identities. Here we are, two Black African women in Baltimore trying to connect individuals of color.

What does leadership look like within yanja? Is it collaborative? Hierarchical? Tell me why.

yanja’s leadership is very much collaborative rather than hierarchical. We both have an equal say in the decision making process and will not do something unless we both approve of it. Within this collaboration we also identified our individual strengths during our planning process.. Different tasks require different strengths and a different leader.  When it comes to going out and networking, Upile is the leader. When it comes to more logistics, bilphena is the leader.  It’s really what works best for us especially given that it’s only the two of us. We’re very transparent with each other and are consistently setting new goals, because of this we’re  comfortable making decisions without the other present. That trust and understanding was built at an early stage.

How does social media play into yanja's success?

This tech savvy world calls groups like ours to have an online presence. Social media is important in helping people find us and us them. We are still very new but we can without a doubt say that social media has had a role in the success we’ve had this far. We are still getting the hang of how to engage with the audience we currently have and are working on ways to build on that audience. At our recent event, a sister circle on collective healing inspired by Lemonade, we found that most of the ladies who showed up had heard about our event via Facebook.  So if you are in the business of gathering individuals, social media gives you access to such a wide audience it would be careless not to use it. yanja is tremendously important to us both so using the platforms we’ve established as storytellers in Baltimore is a big part of our efforts.

What is the most exciting/rewarding part about this effort?

yanja was created as a response to the lack of spaces for people of color particularly black people to gather and connect and honestly just be comfortable. Being witness to the interactions yanja has acted as a catalyst to is the most rewarding part of this. Watching strangers become friends or customers of each other or supporters of each other at events that we have held is almost magical. The interactions and relationships we have had a hand in creating is how we are exacting change be in it an individual or the community as a whole.

Why are spaces and collectives like yanja important?

As people of colour with various oppressed identities, it is critical that we are able to have safe / courageous spaces to boldly express every part of our identities while still being mindful of respecting the identities of others. We  believe that this expression is a form of resistance.  Collectives like yanja are able to provide this safe/ courageous space on a monthly basis. A  space that unapologetically celebrates the diverse + complex identities within Blackness. Within Africanness. A space that is rooted in social justice work.

We’re also able to provide more one-on-one and intimate interaction because of our size. During our Lemonade sister circle, we were able to provide an atmosphere that encouraged women to be vulnerable and to lay it all out. We really don’t think that level of healing would have been able to happen if we were in a bigger space with a huge crowd.

How can we support yanja?

For one, spread the word! Although we love the intimacy of small spaces, we want to grow and reach more people. There are so many topics and themes we hope to explore in our gatherings. In addition, support us through suggestions + feedback. Let us know what you want to see and join us in the planning process.

We also need resources. yanja is supported solely through the two of us. If you have connections with spaces, possible food vendors, donors etc. let us know! We hope to find a more stable way of sustaining this work that we both so love and have invested in.

Follow @yanjaseries on social media & make sure to RSVP for Equality for HER’s inaugural Femme Film Festival to catch bilphena yahwon and Upile Chisala in person!


IG: @yanjaseries