All business leaders feel pressure on their shoulders throughout their careers. Whether it’s due to their expectations, the expectations of their colleagues, or frankly …
Taking a stand for change | Akuyoe Graham
Founder & CEO
Today, Akuyoe Graham, Founder & CEO of Spirit Awakening, received a very kind note from a colleague in which she said she would try to bring some of what she’d “absorbed” from Akuyoe’s model of womanhood, activism, and leadership that puts “we before me.” “I was humbled and moved by her statement as I had not been expecting a review of my character. Qualities that I try to emulate include compassion, generosity, forgiveness, authenticity, joy, beauty, integrity, dignity, strength and LOVE,” says Akuyoe.
From the onset of Spirit Awakening Foundation, Akuyoe wanted to have an organization that was diverse, inclusive and steeped in meditative practices;
A company that valued its staff and clients irrespective of divergent points of view; a space where hierarchy could not shield abusive behavior and where service to humanity was the inspiration for our every act and deliberation.
Receiving The Los Angeles Women’s Theater Festival’s Integrity Award in 2021 was an encouraging affirmation of my path.
But Akuyoe had her share of struggles in the form of conscious and unconscious bias regarding her gender and race. “I have a meditation practice that helps me release any sense of being a victim, so that my actions really come from a place of empowerment and not the voice of a victim or one who feels less than.” After 27 years of excelling in the particular arena; being recognized as an innovative leader in trauma-informed programs and services for children and young adults, being lauded by both the public and private sector, to have still to struggle for operational support, and to have still to prove ourselves each and every time to be considered by most of the major philanthropies for really big grants- is, in a word, disappointing.
However, there is a wind of change, and women of color are finally being acknowledged for their tireless efforts and work ethic to their families, communities, and world. Fearlessly speaking up is one way for women of color to be seen and valued.
Akuyoe counsels many women one on one, and she mentors some of the young women that have come out of the Spirit Awakening programs. One of the things they love to do at Spirit Awakening is help new businesswomen take that first step in the direction of their goals. The foundation helps with goal setting, resume writing, and finding direct contacts in their chosen field. They have helped in the area of the entertainment industry by setting up photoshoots, interviews with managers and agents and recently have cast some of the young women in cameo roles in their upcoming film shoot. Akuyoe and her team also provide stipends and some financial aid for emergencies.
The steadfast leader also invites team members to take the initiative on expansive ideas. Encouraging the team to make presentations at events where wide audiences can see and hear them. Akuyoe invites former students to become part of the administrative team and grow professional skills; those who show a teaching talent are trained to facilitate their arts program and curriculum. Furthermore, former students are invited to serve on the board. “I always seek to hire from within, to cultivate the talented individuals that we already have, as in the case of our brilliant young COO who started as my assistant, showed talent and skills and very quickly rose to her current position without prior C-suite experience,” says Akuyoe. “We do all of our training and mentoring, the encouraging and assisting. We want our team members to honor their dreams by cultivating those dreams and taking action to realize them.” Spirit Awakening Foundation was not founded to be used as a shield to hide from our dreams, rather as a place of inspiration to catapult us into the fulfillment of their life’s mission and purpose, all the while serving those in need amongst us.
Being a pioneering leader, Akuyoe advises women to make a difference by being the difference. She wants women to stand up and make waves and not hold back. “I’ve learned to not be afraid to take up space, not to be afraid to be seen and heard, it’s okay for some people not to like you; you’ll live. Be BOSS LADY. What you say goes; sure, listen to other points of view- yet if you feel strongly about something- trust yourself. Listen and Lead.”
Taking the Company to New Heights
27 years ago, Spirit Awakening programs were scorned and ridiculed as too “touchy, feely.” 27 years ago, bringing yoga and meditation into classrooms was so threatening that one school district threatened to have Akuyoe “shipped back to Africa. ”Now, to see the entire youth criminal justice system repealing its punitive, failed practices and fully embracing mindfulness, yoga, and meditation as healing and necessary components for rehabilitation is brilliant. Spirit Awakening was and continues to be part of the community of youth advocates that helped change the course of the youth criminal justice system by modeling empathic, compassionate, healing arts programs as viable healing modalities for transformation. Advocating for youth to be given stipends for participating in events, especially when organizations are benefitting financially, is also something Akuyoe is very proud of.
Students who go through the foundation’s innovative curriculum inevitably become agents of change because they tease out their critical individual thinking skills. They invite program participants to step outside society’s mental programming and learn to observe within a larger context, to learn to trust their authentic voice, the aspect of themselves that cannot be controlled or manipulated by social structures no matter how dense.
“Historically, the human spirit thrives beyond mundane and literally impossible circumstances. There is no greater power than the search and pursuit for freedom. All Spirit Awakening students get a taste of their own authentic voice and they are changed forever,” elucidates Akuyoe. “I am producing and directing and will be one of the actors – along with some of our program participants in the Spirit Awakening film.” Spirit Awakening Foundation was born out of the one-woman play that Akuyoe penned 30 years ago. She received critical acclaim for the play and performance, and with that, she created a writing workshop called unmasking your authentic voice and started volunteering her time in the juvenile halls and probation camp facilities for children and teens. “It’s now time to expand the reach of our programs and services by making the film and bringing the transformational story to the big screen to reach more people.”
One of the foundation’s intentions is to make films creating Healing Circles for women worldwide, especially in communities where violence against women is prevalent or on the rise. “I have always had a vision to create what I call “Spirit Home” for abused, neglected, homeless, trafficked young adults- to house no more than 6 young girls at a time and to mentor, guide, support them as they transition into full adulthood and all the responsibilities that come with being a healthy, functioning adult,” adds Akuyoe. “We are in talks with individuals that are interested in helping us realize this vision and our intention is to also open our first Spirit Home in 2023.”
Photo Credit: Deidhra Fahey
Founder & CEO
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