By About Her Culture
Congolese-American, Chloe Louvouezo, has made telling stories her life.
The cosmopolitan author, photographer, and senior communications officer at the Gates Foundation, utilizes the full suite of her creative talents, honed over a fifteen-year career.
Her book, Life, I Swear: Intimate Stories From Black Women on Identity, Healing and Self-Trust, is a collection of essays by Black women. It’s just one of her many attempts to give voice to society’s conventionally voiceless and stigmatized. Her podcast of the same name is entering a new season, adding to her multimedia approach to challenging perceptions of mental health and life as a minority.
In this interview Chloe talks about her unique background, the pillars of her work, her drive and ambitions, her book and what’s coming up next.
Living in 10 cities across the globe as a child is definitely unusual. And further, meeting a Congolese-American is also unusual for most Americans! How have those aspects of your life shaped who you are today and the work you do?
Chloe: That’s a good question! It’s unique, not having someone who looks like me, and not having someone who has the context that I do – not even from either side of my family, not even my parents.
My mother is White American, by way of Italy. My father is Congolese, from Brazzaville. I was born in the DRC. Neither knows what it is like to be a woman of color in the United States. To be a brown, African girl in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a White mother is also particularly unusual. I’m many things at one time: African, African-American, an African girl in the United States. And, my ‘Americanness’ surfaces in Africa.
This very global experience has shaped my worldview. I can find a piece of myself in every community I enter, because every community has felt in part like home.
The dichotomy is that I have felt like an outlier in many contexts as well. Being able to appreciate culture and community when I am not fully embedded in it has been a humbling experience. It has allowed me to appreciate diversity, even if my diversity isn’t reflected. I truly do see myself as a global citizen. Having called so many places home makes the world feel a little smaller than it would if I had only been exposed to one lifestyle, one point of view, one perspective, and one place.
It means to me that anything is possible. It has allowed me to see the world as less daunting, more attainable, and more accessible. Being so familiar with travel allows me to see life through the lens of possibility, because I know I can navigate it. It has allowed me to build connections in ways that open me up to differences, and that has been beautiful.
I think about storytelling around identity a lot. Identity is shaped by our sense of self, and our sense of self is really relative to how we perceive the world and how the world perceives us. I think having such an expansive definition of how I see the world, and how I’m seen in multiple ways by many different people, forms many different angles and adds texture to how I see my role.
Stepping into different environments, I know I’m perceived differently. It’s made me extremely self-aware.
What have been some of the challenges you’ve encountered as a woman of Congolese descent living in America and in different cities around the world? How have you faced and hopefully overcome those challenges?
Chloe: I don’t know that I think the challenges I’ve faced have been specific to being of Congolese descent, as much as it was about being a woman of color in America.
I’m not sure if White America makes many distinctions between the variations of Black Americans. I don’t think that it is apparent when I speak when I’m in America, that I’m of African descent, unless I’m given the space to tell my story. The challenge is that there’s a very monolithic assumption about the identity of Black people in America that doesn’t make space for the diversity that we are.
The challenge for me is that there’s no space for your background; as nuanced and complex and interesting as it may be. There are perceptions and presumptions around your identity that box you in. As a woman of color, there are challenges around the world that are at the hands of White culture. It can be very hard to navigate.
I grew up on the continent, in Niger and Congo. I moved around a lot between the United States and Niger, but I only moved to the United States permanently when I was 15.
Coming from a majority Black environment into a place where I was always the minority – I experienced culture shock. Those were very formative, impressionable years. I was still developing my confidence and my sense of self. For your value to be questioned in an understated, messaged way, by American society – that can be a jarring experience for a young girl coming into her own.
For me, it’s a matter of really owning my own story; owning my background. Often when people are trying to understand you they want to do it in a way that they can wrap their minds around. But, if your background is more complicated than they can hold space for, you can almost shrink your story. For me, my background is so broad. It covers a lot of geographies, and a lot of different cultures. It was important for me to own that, and to use that as a way to educate and enlighten.
It’s important to not let society write your story for you. It’s been a beautiful journey for me coming to the United States. It’s thrust me into a practice of telling my story over and over again, in different ways, and understanding what feels most comfortable. And, explaining what home is to me when I’m sharing who I am, and to not allow other people’s comfort to negate my authenticity.
Why did you choose education, poverty and mental health as pillars of your work?
Chloe: I studied journalism when I was in college. I knew I wanted to tell stories. Having grown up in an international development community, I knew I wanted to root those stories in social impact from different angles. My career started in the education space – access and quality of education for Black and Brown students. When I moved to New York, I worked for a human services agency that provided housing, and mental health and employment services, to people at risk of homelessness.
These three pillars of education, poverty and mental health have followed me through my communication career as a storyteller. I lean into them because they speak to everyday people. They are also very universal issue-areas that aren’t specific to any geography. No matter where you go there are education disparities. There are wealth gaps. Mental health is often taboo. But, all three are interconnected with poverty, so much so that they truly define the quality of life that people have and the potential for their mobility in life – economically, mentally, and also in the trajectory of how they can live at their highest potential and their highest vibration.
Education, poverty, and mental health have been pillars, because they encompass how people can navigate life, particularly for Black and Brown communities where society doesn’t set them up to live the life that they deserve.
Clearly, you live a mission-driven life. Tell us what drives you, and ultimately how you are seeking to make an impact in the world.
Chloe: A mission-driven life for me has been rooted in my experiences living between Congo, Niger and the US. I was exposed very early on to disparities that exist in the world on every front. I’ve done work in every way I can to narrow those gaps.
What drives me again, is recognizing there’s dignity in every person’s life and their story. It has been a beautiful career of being able to amplify and celebrate people’s stories who are often living on the margins of society.
As intangible as it may sound, it is very much a mission to bring more compassion and understanding to how people look at their own lives – giving themselves grace, but also lending forgiveness, compassion and grace to others. When we do that work for ourselves, it’s easier to do it for other people. When we can heal our wounds, then when we come together, that collective healing can be extremely powerful. Recognizing how central mental health is in everything that we do is extremely powerful, and is a pillar in the work I want to continue forward as I think about storytelling as a tool for healing.
Your book looks like it is amazing, with incredible women’s voices included. Why do you think this book is an important addition to the collective space by & for Black women, especially during this time?
Chloe: Thank you! I appreciate that.
This book is a culmination of so many voices in one. It allows Black women to be the main characters in their narrative. It allows us to hold the mic to tell our own stories… So often our stories are told on our behalf, of us. It is incredibly important for Black women to see a reflection of themselves in the rawest, most honest, and most authentic way. By seeing other women’s journeys through pain, joy, identity, and through their breakthroughs and breakdowns, it allows Black women to normalize the ebbs and flow of their lives – how they’re connecting, processing and healing. This sort of reflection allows them to give themselves more grace as they journey through their lives.
Being such a diverse compilation of essays from a diverse set of Black women, I think allows us to dismantle this idea of a monolithic identity or persona of Black women. We are so diverse. It was important to me to have this group of women represent Black women from so many corners of the world. There are so many ways, which based on our cultural influences, we interpret life, so we can learn from each other. We can think of ourselves in more expansive definitions of what it is to be ‘Black’ and ‘woman’ in this world.
What is the unique paradigm of well-being for Black women, and what is one wellness tip you’d give Black women if you could send us all a mass message?
Chloe: This is such a good question. I open the book with a dedication to Black women. I’m going to read it just so it can be a reminder of what we are capable of, if we only know our power.
‘To the young Black girls and women in every corner of the world – This collection was curated with you in mind. Our spirit cannot be denied, because it vibrates from our veins. Nothing can take what runs through us, so long as we know that to be true.’
I wrote this because so often we don’t know that to be true. We do think that parts of us can be stolen. Those parts are our identity. Our identity is compromised in so many aspects of life — career, motherhood, our relationships with the patriarchy, our relationship with Whiteness, our relationship with the trauma we’ve endured or inherited.
I think we are fooled sometimes into believing that our power can be taken from us, but it cannot. I hope that this book is a reminder that nothing can take what runs through us. What I mean is our essence, our hearts, our spirits – nothing can take that from us. I think the twist is that in not knowing our power, we are surrendering it to the forces outside of ourselves.
That would be a reminder to all Black women, as they navigate what can often be a very lonely experience in this life. Particularly, if we are not familiar with the normalization of vulnerability.
Do you have anything new on the horizon we should look out for soon?
Chloe: I will say, yes! I have several things that I’m bubbling! Look forward to another Life, I Swear series. It’s something that I’m working on. I look forward to exploring storytelling in multiple formats. I have a podcast that I’m looking forward to releasing the fifth season of, as well – also titled Life, I Swear.