Human Rights Day: Get to Know UBC’s Inclusion Action Plan Coordinator

For International Human Rights Day on December 10th, Okong’o Kinyanjui, Inclusion Action Plan (IAP) Coordinator at UBC Vancouver reflects on his trajectory, equity and equality.

Can you talk a bit about the work you do?

My role as the IAP Coordinator is to support Action Planning Teams (APTs) with administrative and communication support. This includes scheduling meetings as well as developing and circulating agendas, materials, and minutes. I also support communication across and within APTS and also support them in setting up end-user consultations. Action Planning Teams are responsible for developing work plans to realize the 12 prioritized IAP actions that require implementation at the institutional level.

What made you decide to do this kind of work?

Growing up in Kenya, I lived in constant fear of being outed and imprisoned under Kenya’s colonial 14-year imprisonment penalty. This prejudiced colonial penal code has prevented us as queer people from mobilizing for our rights, sharing resources in times of need, and building meaningful connections with each other. This situation drove me into what I term life-threatening isolation, but virtual networks saved and sustained me until I could find acceptance in my immediate environment.

This led me to co-found the Queer African Network (QAN). We ensure that every queer person in Africa, and its diaspora, have access to fulfilling social connections and the resources to self-actualize.

While I was a student, I received a full academic scholarship to study at Quest University Canada, which is where I served on the Equity Diversity Committee, as well as the elected Human Rights Minister and, later, as President of the Quest University Students’ Association.

It’s really interesting to come from a context like Kenya where you can literally be imprisoned for your sexuality, to working in a university in more rural B.C., to now being at UBC. Across all the work I’ve done, it’s been critical to have solid knowledge on JEDI.

What has shaped your philosophy around human rights?

I first encountered Ali Bhagat in an undergraduate course. Ali Bhagat’s research challenges the notion of Cape Town as a safe haven for queer migrants by looking at how race, class, and migration/legal status intersect to disproportionately marginalize black queer African migrants. His work does a great job of highlighting how the city scape (and the inadequate distribution of access to safety) is by design.

Often, queerness in Africa is only talked about from the legal or the Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) lens, but S.N. Nyeck’s body of work examines the queer lived experience on the continent. For S.N. Nyeck, “queerying” is a critical praxis and the first step to understanding how innovation emerges from the margins and quotidian life.

Stella Nyanzi is another scholar who researches a lot about queer experiences in Africa, and especially in an educational context. She talks about radical rudeness and writes these really rude poems where respectability politics go out the window. She helped me understand that when your rights and freedoms are threatened, it is no use to be self-silencing in favour of appearing respectful.

What are some films you recommend?

Kenya’s first queer film, Stories of Our Lives, was made by someone I know, and them and their team were thrown in prison for this. It was the first time I saw a queer film by and for Africans when I was a teenager and it completely moved me.

Call me Kuchu follows David Kato, a queer activist in Uganda, who was unfortunately murdered before the film came out. Kuchu is a slur — it’s like the equivalent of queer before it was reclaimed.

I am Samuel is a powerful film that just came out this year, and the Kenyan government banned it. When it was released, we worked with our community in Kenya to organize secret screenings in opposition to the ban.

This year’s United Nation Human Rights Day theme is around Equality. Can you reflect a bit on what this theme means to you?

Queer African migrants and asylum seekers don’t really have equal opportunities to succeed and to self-actualize. Even within the process of seeking asylum, migrants not only face prejudice from immigration officials but from other migrants as well. Turning to UBC and Canadian higher education institutions more broadly, I’d also say that there’s a certain way that international students and staff can be perceived. Specifically, international students are often thought of as wealthier individuals who can afford to be here, and rarely as individuals who aren’t allowed to be themselves in their own communities.