Gwen Madiba is an award-winning speaker, designer, former model, and renowned activist. Born in Gabon, she was raised and went to school in Ottawa. Her philanthropy has seen her be nominated for the Order of Ottawa, twice as 100 Most Powerful Women, and several awards with the University of Ottawa, among many others. Madiba founded the Black History Month Gala, Equal Chance, Education Funds for Orphaned Kids in Africa, Meals for Hope, and many other philanthropic endeavours to better the lives of people all around the world. Her stories of struggle, homelessness, the murder of her father, and the racism she has experienced in the workplace and fashion industry have touched the lives of many, and she continues to push to make a change and help others.
Photography by Sean Sisk
You received the Order of Ottawa last November, can you tell me about the work you did to be nominated for that?
The Order of Ottawa, which I received last year on November 21, was for some accomplishments I’ve had over the years here in Ottawa. It was really around community building and uplifting everyone. The Order was for the work I did try to build a legacy, and it was done with a team of people, not just me. We had built the Canadian Black History Month Gala with the Mandela family, through the Mandela Legacy. We’ve also built various youth empowerment programs to help our youth. For the first time in Ottawa, we welcomed Reverend Al Sharpton and Naomi Campbell for this gala. We worked on other projects that shed light on the city of Ottawa, which includes the Safara Fashion Show, in Ottawa, and from this project came a program where we had empowering practice sessions with the models. We make sure that they know their worth and that they’re comfortable, but also that they get an experience that they’ll never forget. That will allow them to see that they can truly accomplish all things. The project then becomes not our project, but a project that is about everybody involved. It becomes their project. It’s about uplifting each other, and including each other, but also about including the diversity that reflects Canada. We praise Canada a lot for its diversity, but oftentimes that diversity is excluded. I say a lot that diversity, without inclusion, is a lot like policy without implementation. It’s nice, but it doesn’t do anything for anyone.
Did the idea for the inclusive and uplifting model workshops come from personal experience?
Absolutely. When I was 12 years old, I went to audition for an acting role at a local agency. I went there with my mother, my sister-in-law and my little sister. Before we could even get through the door, a representative said, to me at 12 years old, that: “We have enough Black kids, we’re not going to take you.” I hadn’t said a word, I hadn’t read the script, they just looked at me and said that I wasn’t “it” and that they weren’t going to take me. My mom was really upset. I was upset, and hearing that “we have enough Black kids” really broke me completely. As I grew, and I looked at the modelling world and the fashion industry, you see a lot of exclusion. It’s only now that you see body positivity. People who looked different were not welcomed in the fashion industry before. Trans people were not welcomed. I wanted to create a space where everyone felt good, and everyone felt welcomed. The youngest person was 3 years old, and the oldest was 71. For us, it’s beautiful. It really brings the community together, and you see that people love seeing real people. People love seeing people who look like them. For me, it came from exclusion. I believe that when people aren’t inviting you to their table, you have to show up with a folding chair. Other times, you have to set your own table and invite your own people.
What was the moment like when you received the Order of Ottawa?
It was humbling. For me, it was very emotional. I came to Canada when I was 7 years old. My father was a diplomat from Gabon. He arrived here in the 1990s and when he left on January 1, 2006, he turned to me and said “you are choosing to stay in this country, and choosing to make this city your adoptive city and Canada your adoptive country. I want you to be the type of woman that builds a legacy of your own. Never depend on other people, become a resource for others.” He left on January 1 and was murdered on July 26. He was beaten to death by four people, and it was very hard for me. I went through things I never thought I would experience, including homelessness. I lived in a shelter for two months and a half while attending the University of Ottawa to obtain my bachelor’s degree. That was very hard, but I never gave up, and I kept pushing through. I surrounded myself with people who were encouraging and people who had big visions and big dreams, even teachers. I started the Black History Month Gala at the University of Ottawa, and I’m proud to see it’s a legacy they’re pursuing each year. It transformed into the Canadian Black History Month Gala with the Mandela family and that has opened doors and empowered so many other people. It has connected so many people. We would also offer four awards to allies, non-black people, who work with communities in Canada and abroad. I always say, on our journey to freedom, we had allies who were not Black. To combat racism in our society, it takes everyone. We have to recognize our allies, and also create safe spaces for Black People to discuss race and their issues within themselves. To see how one project led to another, and to another bigger project, which led to creating impactful spaces that are appreciated, and which led to the Order of Ottawa is truly humbling. Being in front of the Mayor and other incredible humans who were doing great things in the city of Ottawa, I thought about my father, and what he would say if he was there. I hope that he was able to see it from wherever he is.
What’s one piece of advice that your father gave you that you still use today?
Work so that wherever you stand, now becomes your kingdom. That means that wherever you are in life, wherever you stand as a human, you have to learn to lead from there. Just because you’re not at the forefront, doesn’t mean that you can’t lead. That was something that stuck with me because I’ve been in jobs where I started declaring things, where I would say I’m starting as a secretary but I’m going to end as a diplomat, and it happened because I knew to lead from wherever I stood. I think more and more people should learn that whatever is for you, at the end of the day, will always be for you. You just have to learn to see and achieve your destiny and to do that you have to fix certain things that you’re doing including reviewing your entourage, and what you feed your soul and your mind. Ultimately, you become these things, so you need to seek life, positivity, and success in your life, and you’ll become it.
What advice would you give to young women and girls who hope to inspire change?
Just know that you can do it. There’s no vision that comes without provisions. God gives us a vision, and with it, provisions. They’re usually there, you just have to find them or make them. You have to make room for your dreams and make room for your goals the same way you make room for scrolling through Instagram or watching someone else’s success story. You have to make time for your own success story. Your time is coming, you just have to align yourself with the proper resources, the proper time, and the proper people to get to where you need to get.
You returned to Gabon, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Senegal, to start-up Education Funds for Orphans in Africa. Why did you want to do this?
When my father was murdered, I became an orphan of a father as they say in Gabon. My father was the main provider at home. Though my mom was a pediatrician in Gabon, she couldn’t work when she arrived in Canada. She sacrificed a lot to be here. When I came back, my scholarship from Gabon wasn’t going through, and so I found myself without a home. That was extremely difficult for me, it was embarrassing, and I didn’t know how to tell my friends that I was going through hardship. I just kept it to myself. When I was homeless, I gave myself three months to get out of that situation, and within two months and a half, I had three jobs. It was very difficult to keep up with my studies and my jobs. I also was a part of a dance crew, and I remember finishing dance classes at 10 or 11 at night. People would say “hey Gwen I’ll give you a ride home,” and I had no home. I would say “no, no it’s okay, I’m going to walk,” and if they insisted I would just say I was going to the washroom and then disappear. That moment really touched me and made me think of other folks who were going through worse. In 2017, I was working at the University of Ottawa, and I needed out because it was very toxic. I had no options but I had to take a leap of faith. I came across a Mrs. Universe pageant, hosted for the first time in South Africa. I had never done a pageant in my life. So, I did. I asked the Embassy of Gabon if they could sponsor me, and they said no unless I made the top 5. I found a sponsor in Gabon who agreed to pay for my trip there, and two days before, they called me and said that I had no experience, that I had never done a pageant in my life, and that I was competing against others who had done this their whole lives, and that they didn’t have faith in me. So they pulled the sponsorship two days before the event. They said it would be a waste of money, and a waste of time. I had met Don C, who was Kanye West’s best man at his wedding, at a Kanye concert. I spoke with him and he decided he would take a chance and fund me, which is another story. I told him I would make history as the first Black woman to make it past the top 10. I arrived there, and I did. I passed the top 20, the top 10, and was in the top 2. When I got back to the hotel, I had hundreds of calls. That was probably the craziest week of my life, I had daily interviews. I had the chance to go to an orphanage and the kids were really happy. One of the girls had attended law school and was studying to be a lawyer, but she was taken out of her program because she didn’t have money, and the orphanage didn’t have enough money to send her. She said “you know it’s great that you’re here, but for me, it’s like you’re bringing shallow hope. You’re going to go back to Canada where you have a lot of opportunities and I’ll be here, suffering in this orphanage with my brothers and sisters. I will never get the chance to become a lawyer.” I had to tell her my story, and my struggle, and how although I looked good, it was just appearance. I had been through a lot. I told her I couldn’t promise her much, but that I swore, in front of the ambassador, that he and I will go back to Canada and work to generate funding for people like you to pursue their studies. I proposed a project, called Women Who Work, and we had a gala in 2018, and through the gala, we raised enough money to send children to school through this program. The young woman who I had made the promise to, graduated from law school last year, and other kids got to attend specialized schools and achieve their studies. It takes one person, and one decision, to positively change the lives of others. It doesn’t matter what other people say, it only matters what’s in your heart.
Tell us about Afroworld.
Afroworld was a project I wanted to work on for years. I developed it first in 2007 on paper. We were just not ready yet. I always wanted to work at a big festival that could bring society together in unity and love. I wanted various elements in, from music, hair, fashion, culinary arts, I really wanted all things Black, by us, for the world. That’s where Afroworld came in and I wanted to showcase us, as Black people, to the society, to welcome and rate and discover our cultures while challenging nonsense like racism and discrimination. I think cultural exchange is really a bridge to challenge racism and bring an end to discrimination. That’s what Afroworld is, it’s a cultural bridge. It’s going to be in-person, we’re being really careful with COVID. We’re partnered with Divvy, who was supposed to host Bluesfest. We are going to have a day before the events where we have an open dialogue with Indigenous and Algonquin leaders and Black leaders and an Ally, around unity and fighting racism in Canada. This is going to be the first day out of respect for our First Nations and Algonquin People whose territory we stand on.
Speaking of racism, there was an incident in April with one of your volunteers. Can you tell me what your experience has been with anti-Black racism in Ottawa?
M: It has been traumatizing. At Free Meals for Hope, which is a program that we put together to help all people who needed help during the pandemic. One of my volunteers, who I accompanied that day, was referred to as the N-word, in an email that was sent by an older lady who wanted more food. She said “I never thought I would see the day when an N-word would help me,” and the way in which she casually wrote that in an email shows how ingrained in her it was. We sent an email back, and never heard from her. I also worked in a place where my colleague told myself and another mixed person that they don’t eat with Black People, and his specific race, so we had to eat outside. I never thought, in Canada, that I would ever encounter such a person. They were so blunt about their racism, and when I filed a complaint against that person, I was told I was no longer allowed to move into the office until the investigation was complete. Meanwhile, the person was allowed to move freely, I wasn’t even allowed to attend office gatherings because the lady said she didn’t want to see me there.
What’s the best way to respond to aggression like this?
Protect yourself. Protect your mental health, and protect yourself legally. With social media now, if you can record it, record it. Whether a camera or voice, use whatever resources you have. Protect your mind, and your mental health, and try and remove yourself from this situation. If you can get witnesses, get as many as you can.
Can you tell me about the work you did that led to being listed, for the second time, on the Women’s Executive Network of Canada’s list of top 100 most powerful emerging women?
M: It’s always an honour. I welcomed this with an attitude of gratitude. I was first nominated by Allan Rock, the president, back in 2010. That was for future leaders and was for the things I worked on over the years for the university and also being a part of the Task Force on Respect and Equality to end racism on campus. I had built the Black History Month Gala with the participation and the support of the former Governor-General of Canada and I remember her saying to me, and the rest of the club, “don’t ever think you’re too small to bless someone, because we can all open a door for each other.” That was a big lesson for me. Last year, when I was included as an Emerging Leader, was really special to me because to be included as a Future Leader, and now to be seen as an emerging one, was just unreal for me. It meant that all the work I was doing over the past years was teaching new, future leaders. It was humbling and an honour to be included on this list of amazing women.
Tell us about your label, Dare.
So with Dare, what I’ve done is I changed it completely to an accessory and a kimono line right now. There are three projects that are coming in through the Dare label, and that’s the kimono line – because kimonos are one-size-fits-all and very inclusive, there’s also the bags, which I love, and a lipstick line coming very soon.
You started a series of panels called Inhale-Excel, how did you come up with the concept?
Inhale-Excel started because networking is everything. For me, network really determines your net worth, and that’s not just financially but also spiritually, mentally, intellectually, and I was blessed to have a father who was well connected. I was lucky to meet some of the world’s most inspiring people, and I always wanted my friends and folks around me to have access to the same type of encounters. So Inhale-Excel invited some of the inspirational folks around me to come and share their stories. For example, we had a friend, Ty Hunter, who had been Beyonce’s stylist, and who started out with humble beginnings, who worked on some of her most iconic looks, came to Ottawa to speak to young people and elders, about his journey. That’s the idea behind Inhale-Excel is to have people you see on TV who you thought you’d never meet, to be right in front of you. To let you know that they’re human just like you. They take a deep breath and inhale and excelled.
F: What are some of your favourite moments from the panels?
M: It’s the vulnerability that people bring to the table. The honesty about their pasts. We had people, like Ty, come and speak about how at one point in his life he was depressed and how he got through it. Sometimes you look at these people, and all the glory and everything, but they’re not necessarily the happiest people. Or we think only they can achieve it, when anybody truly can achieve it if your mind gets to work. So when their minds become vulnerable and open, they share their truth and it’s not always pretty but it’s beautiful in the way that empowers people in the way that they understand and that they’re human at the end of the day.
Who are some of your favourite advocates for BIPOC members in Canada, and internationally?
Many of them. Robyn Maynard is a scholar, and she’s amazing. I used one of her quotes in one of my Black Lives Matter activities, and she was saying how in Canada we’re so custom to the idea that there’s no racism. We forget that there is racism, that folks go through so much here. She is definitely my top one, in terms of the work that she’s been doing, and her accomplishments. Desmond Cole and Karine Jean-Pierre are also my two other favourites.