To Kwyn Townsend Riley (Public Allies Chicago ‘19) and her closest friends and family, it is no surprise that poetry is her calling. For as long as she can remember, Kwyn has felt drawn to the magic of language in art and how she can use it to share her story.
“No one was talking about the common microaggressions that Black people face at predominantly white institutions. No one was talking about how we’re scared to have Black children because people are killing our Black kids,” Kwyn says. “That type of fire that was coming in my throat, I was like.. Oh yeah, that’s my calling. No one else was feeling this type of enflame. No one else was feeling this type of conviction. That’s how I knew that poetry was meant for me.”
Through a lens of Black queer feminism, Kwyn has been able to amplify her voice through spoken word, most recently with her debut album And She Worthy, which is available on all major streaming platforms such as Apple Music, iHeart, Amazon Music, and Spotify. This form of feminism works for those on the margins and it provides a space for women and femmes that have been historically muted and erased by white, mainstream feminism.
“Originally, historically, socially.. I never really considered myself a feminist. It was very white-washed, boxed-in, and closed. I just didn’t see how my Blackness and queerness, how my love for all types of women– including Trans women and women that are sex workers, would [fit] into feminism,” she says. “I’ve started using that phrase to not only tell people that “Hey, Black women are feminists too!” But for my other Black queer people who are looking for that type of space. There is a place where they can be included.”
Public Allies deepened Kwyn’s commitment to the work. It aligned her heart-work together and provided her with the tools to identify that she can be civically engaged with Chicago organizations that align with her politics. But, her time serving was not an entirely smooth experience. At her first assistantship site, she faced being hyper-invisibilized as the only woman in a space comprised of Black cis men. Her second assignment site was exactly what she needed.
“The [Public Allies] training, the cohort, and my new assistantship with Open Lands really confirmed my passion for social equity and for the people of Chicago. I fell in love with my city all over again and the opportunities that we have,” Kwyn says. “Public Allies came for me at a time when I couldn’t find a job, I was looking for friends, and looking for an opportunity to deepen my connection with transformative and restorative justice work.”
These experiences speak to her journey as Black woman and help to bring her poetry to life.
“Poetry is a ministry for me,” Kwyn says. “ I feel very aligned when I am doing my poems and when I’m performing. I really don’t feel like myself. It feels like someone else takes over my body because Kwyn is very separate from Kwynology. Even though Kwynology is performing poems that Kwyn has experienced.. I feel like I naturally have to step outside of myself to perform them because a lot of them are very deep and difficult. I’m a nervous, shy, and insecure person. Kwynology is this audacious, y’all gonna hear this, type of person. I feel more brave. It makes me feel very courageous and strong. It also makes me feel free.”
Now, Kwyn is earning her accolades. Last fall, her debut album And She Worthy was considered for the 64th Grammys. And just last month, she won the best new poetry by a Chicagoan collection for the Chicago Reader’s Best of Chicago 2021!
“I didn’t have any idea about the Chicago Reader nomination. That was a push that was like ‘Oh yeah! Also, you’re nominated for this too!’. This is actually from my city? From my hometown? People can actually vote?,” Kwyn says. “That felt like a huge homecoming celebration. I see poets and authors that have publishing deals.. And I’m just so grassroots and community fed. I really felt seen and heard. I’ve been feeling adorned with all of this.”
When she reflects back on the high school aged Kwyn that just wanted to get on stage and share her voice with the world, she says, “I know that I made her proud. I feel proud. I would tell her to keep going because she’s an amazing poet. Poetry can be whatever you want it to be and I’m glad that I don’t have to exist in these boxes or genres when it comes to spoken word and poetry.”
As for next steps? Kwyn is motivated now more than ever to keep pushing and to let her faith take her where she needs to go.
“My family and my poetry mentors are my support systems,” she says. “They keep me hungry for this creative stuff. With working full-time, this can get pushed aside. So being friends with people who do the same thing that are also working full time and are creatives.. It makes me feel like I can actually do this. Being around people that are doing these things, maybe in a different way because they may not be Black or they may not be a poet, or maybe not in higher education.. It gives me hope and affirmation that my complexities can still be completed. All of my ambitions can still be fulfilled. I just have to maintain the course.”
Aside from working full time, Kwyn has been applying for residencies with the hope of eventually putting together a one woman show. She also wants to continue writing books, with her first two being And She Wrote and And She Will. As she moves forward, Kwyn finds solace in reminding herself that success isn’t instantaneous, it’s a journey filled with ebbs and flows.
“There’s a saying that says que sera, sera. I struggle with being in control of my own life and I really need to relinquish that,” Kwyn says. “It’s not mine and I can’t control everything. I can only work really hard to maintain the course that I am on right now and just show up for people, be compassionate, and forgive myself.”
Listen to the video below for an excerpt from And She Worthy.