15 Apr PINC PODCAST Ep 1: Sojourner White
PINC International's PODCAST: Welcome Home with Sojourner White.
Dive into our first episode where PINC CEO and founder, Lisette Miranda, interviews Sojourner as she takes us on her journey of self-identity through her travels. Having been named after Sojourner Truth, this young woman is true to her namesake and discusses how her time abroad heightened her awareness of the media’s portrayal of global relations, respectability politics as a Black woman traveling abroad, and how these experiences have served as a tool to inspire the leaders of tomorrow.
This is Welcome Home: Young Women’s Stories From Traveling Abroad. Today’s guest is Sojourner (Sojo). Welcome! I’m so excited to have you on the show. You did give me permission to call you Sojo, but I would love for you to give us a little background on your awesome name.
Sojo was named after Sojourner Truth, which was a woman who was born a slave in the United States and she was originally named Isabella Baumfree. That was her original name, but she was a very religious woman and she believed in getting rights for women, especially Black women who were freed from slavery. She had a vision, for lack of a better word, or an epiphany on her travels, and she changed her name from Isabella Baumfree to Sojourner Truth. Sojo White's mom was, around 12 years old, she read the narrative of Sojourner Truth and she decided then and there that if she had a daughter, she would name her Sojourner, which is how she got her name! "Sojourner" is literally a temporary state, someone who goes from place to place and Sojo feel's that it was definitely the perfect name for her!
Do you feel like you conjure this spirit that... this namesake that you carry?
Yes. She thinks that the more she grows up, travels, and meets people, the more she keeps the story of Sojourner Truth in her mind because of all the challenges Truth went through. Truth lost her children, they were taken from her, but she still persisted and continued to tell her story, Sojo hopes she will be able to do the same. Sojo notes that her life is much different from Truth's, but she thinks everyone has their own challenges that they have to overcome, and if Truth could overcome slavery and become free, then having her freedom taken back, then getting becoming fee again, then Sojo can do anything too!
So tell us a little bit about yourself, Sojo. Where are you from? What are you currently doing?
Sojo is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She went to school in Peoria, Illinios at Bradley University where she studied Psychology, Spanish and Women’s Studies. Sojo is currently in Americorps, which is the service organization in the United States, she works through their non-profit problem called Public Allies, their mission is to build a just and equitable society and the diverse leadership to sustain it. She says that they do a lot of social justice advocacy work and have diversity inclusion trainings on all the -"isms" you can possibly think of. She is specifically placed at The Girl Scouts of America where she leads girl scouts at five schools in the Milwaukee area!
A bigger question to ask you now after all that, where have you traveled?
Sojo studied abroad and taught English in Spain, and has travelled to Morocco, Portugal, Italy, England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.
And this was like a mix of some more formal programs and some were informal. Is that how that worked?
Yes, she studied abroad for a semester in Grenada, Spain, which gave her a lot of freedom on the weekends to travel within Spain, but she did leave the country a few times. Then when I returned to Spain to teach English, she traveled more, and went to the majority of the countries she listed within a nine month span!
Do you have a memorable travel experience you wanna share with us?
Her most memorable travel experience was when she studied abroad. She had been in Spain for about two weeks, taking classes and preparing for the semester, and her program offered a trip to Morocco as a cross-cultural exchange and stayed with a Moroccan host family. They spoke with students studying in Morocco, and went to a woman’s house that focused on financial literacy and development! But, she also crashed a wedding in the Rif Mountains towards the end of her trip! They happened to be there visiting with the family and had just finished lunch, and the family said, “there’s a wedding in town, do you guys wanna go?” They crashed the pre-wedding reception and ended up dancing in the middle of the ceremony!
Is that what you kind of felt that it was kind of like if you were there, you were invited? Was it like a town gathering kind of thing?
Yeah, Sojo said even the Moroccan student who was with them, she was like “I’m going to the wedding later,” Sojo was confused because she didn't know if that was a part of their planned day trip! She didn't know but there was a wedding and a reception and they joined in and started dancing!
Now if you think about a traditional American wedding, the ones that we see in film and whatnot, and then you reflect back on your Moroccan wedding, what is a tradition that you saw in the Moroccan wedding that you would love for us to add to the American wedding?
She thinks that what she attended was the pre-wedding festivity, which was just celebrating as a community the couple that was getting married--a beautiful thing! Maybe the festivities were for the people who weren't invited to the actual ceremony, like in the U.S. it’s a strict list because you have to pay for people’s meals and you may not have the space for everyone. Sojo likes the idea of having a gathering of people who have supported you throughout your life, saying it is a way for them to celebrate you in this next step in your life before the official ceremony.
And was it colorful? Was there just food and you know, like was there music playing? What did that look like?
Sojo remembers hearing drums and bells playing, and singing in Arabic. She said even the kids looked like they had made their own instruments for the ceremony!
Were men and women kind of congregating equally in the same space?
She doesn't remember.
Do you remember if you were just with women at that point?
It was a mix, Sojo doesn't remember who was dancing or who was sitting on the side either.
And you found that they were welcoming?
Yes, very! They invited these random people to their festivity with open arms, dragging them from where they were walking back to the car and into their own celebration which was really beautiful, and they didn’t have to. They could’ve just let them walk back and go to the next stop but they invited them, so of course they were very welcoming!
Do you find this to be, like, your opportunity to talk… ‘cause now we talk about people based on their religion, right, and religious beliefs and that’s such a hard conversation, but when you hear things, what can you say about your experience with the people that you’ve met who are Islamic?
Sojo recalls having a whole session with some students, there were six or seven student total, and two of them were talking about politics, religion, all that stuff that interacts with each other and it definitely got a little tense at times because people were very solid in their beliefs, and when you talk to someone who doesn’t have the same beliefs it can cause a little tension. She learned that you can’t judge a whole religion based on one person. They don’t represent everyone who reads the same religious text, they don’t represent everyone who worships whoever they consider their God, they don’t represent everybody… and so, keeping that in mind in discussions when you talk about religion is really important to her. She learned that from them, and her mother who was a Lutheran minister. Despite anybody’s beliefs, you can’t judge one religion based off one person.
Were you in Morocco during any of the bans, by any chance?
No, she was in Morocco in 2015 before the extreme bans.
What’s one thing, or a couple of things you’ve learned about the U.S., our country, your country, through someone else’s eyes while traveling?
She says that she's learned some funny things, especially being a Black woman traveling, she got a lot of stares, which was a big adjustment for her traveling abroad. She would tell people, “I’m from Wisconsin,” and they would say “Oh! Like That 70’s Show.” They would say, “we love the movie Freedom Writers. Is that how high schools are right now?” So it’s crazy how much the media influences how people perceive other cultures and other countries, she notes that even as a Black woman I would get the, “what part of Africa are you from?” She would take a moment, wondering if they knew that slavery was a universal thing, and she notes that there were very few countries that didn’t get slaves from Africa, so it was a question that really caught her off guard the first few times. Sojo came to realize that what the media portrays as American, blonde hair and blue eyes, affected the way that other countries see Americans, they don't seem to understand the full complexity of the United States and how diverse and culturally different America is. Sojo learned that from being in Europe, seeing it through their eyes and through her own--seeing the diversity of other countries, she thinks it could be the same way. Like when she went to Spain, she didn’t know there was a large Afro-Spaniard population, she had no idea that existed, so it was a two-way street. Sojo also said that she got called ‘Obama’ a lot in Morocco, that was interesting.
The U.S. is a melting pot, it is a land of a lot of immigration, and I hope, you know, in time, that the shows that are more diversified are gonna make it overseas so that they can see more. It’s not their fault, is it?
No, she thinks it’s about who controls what people see. Even in America, she notes that the perception we get of Latin American, African countries, and Middle Eastern countries are warped to fit a certain narrative, so even it's happening for us too, she thinks it's like, we don’t even know if those portrayals true or not.
How did you view the news coverage? Did you see a lot about the States? Did you see more global coverage while you were traveling vs. just a very micro set of perspectives?
Sojo said it was kind of a mix, but more global than anything, but also had locally centered news as well. She lived in Spain the longest, roughly a year and a half, and learned a lot about the local and countrywide issues, which was something she hasn't seen in the U.S.
Is that something you would like to see change?
Yes, she would love to learn about other countries, what they’re doing and what they’re going through, because that's how she believes global citizens are made. To be a global citizen, she doesn't think you have to travel, you just need accurate information about the world. She would love to see if they could integrate more of that, but she knows that there’s a lot going on here in the U.S., so she knows it's going to be hard to find a healthy balance. In terms of being in Europe, she definitely got a mix of what was going on in the E.U., but they reported about the U.S. as well.
I just would love to hear a little bit more about any shifts in your perspective while you were abroad. Maybe how you looked at yourself, how you saw yourself in the world?
For Sojo, the second time when she was teaching in Spain she was more cognizant of her blackness and how it was perceived by others. She was living in a smaller village in Spain so it was pretty homogenous as far as diversity was included, so for her it was understanding that she was the first Black person a lot of her students ever encountered. She recalls how she had a 3-year-old who cried the first three months she was there. She didn’t understand why he was crying; she just assumed “he’s 3, it’s his first time in school” and then the teacher told her “sometimes he gets a little overwhelmed ‘cause he’s never had a teacher who looked like you before." She remembers thinking, “he’s 3… how does he know to cry?” Eventually he became attached to Sojo's hip by the end of the year, but she had to be very conscious of what she did and how she acted because she thinks, whether you could call it respectability politics or not, but it was her thinking, “okay, I am the first person of color or person of Black-American descent, African American descent, they've met. How I present myself is how they will attach to other people or attach it to my culture.” She the idea that her identity was representing a whole culture was definitely a shift in how she saw herself as more than just Sojourner White. She was representing a whole country and a whole race of people, and then also understanding her diaspora identity was something new for her as she is an African American, but African diaspora American. Sojo is a descendant of the African diaspora and understanding the difference between her identity and African immigrants who she encountered, they had two very different point of views and were treated very differently. Her English was a privilege; because she spoke English, in the eyes of some people that she met, it made her better than other people who looked like her. For Sojo, that was definitely something she had to reconcile her own privilege with because she never had to deal with that in the United States. It’s a thing, but not as much as when they have African immigrants and African Americans who speak English, who’s teaching. She said it becomes a whole status issue, and so that was very interesting and a lot to take in, and just reconciling that she is Black, but she doesn't have a deep, dark skin color and even that, that’s why people asked her what part of Africa she was from, they weren’t accustomed to seeing a Black girl speaking English in their city. Sojo says her identity is something that she, not struggled with, but reflected on a lot while she was there, and still to this day just understanding the different instances that she was in.
I would love to remember back before you traveled. What were some of your preconceived notions?
Sojo likes to talk about Morocco because that is one of the experiences she had that shattered so many ideas that she believed to be true. Specifically, the whole idea that Muslim women are oppressed, that they can’t leave the house, they can’t go to school, they can’t show any skin at all… in Morocco, that’s not true. There’s so much diversity between their culture and Saudi Arabia, for example. They’re two totally different places and she thinks she had this assumption that they were all the same. She learned that even though both countries speak Arabic, they have different dialects, there are layers, just like in any other culture there are layers to their culture. It’s something that she saw first-hand and it was eye opening that our media really just screws us over sometimes, it just puts on this perception that it’s dangerous, you can’t go there, you shouldn’t go there. Sojo says there’s danger everywhere you can’t escape it whether you’re in the U.S. or in Africa, in Europe or in Latin America, in Asia or Australia, it doesn’t matter. All over the world. So that was another notion, these places aren’t as scary as the media makes them out to be.
When you are dealing with the young women that you deal with in the Girl Scouts, what is something that when you’re communicating with these beautiful, young, open minds, what is something from your travel that you try to kind of always instill in them?
Sojo wants to show them there’s a world outside of Milwaukee, which is not to slight her hometown, she loves Milwaukee! But she wants show them that these imaginary boundaries that we are subconsciously, consciously, are told or taught, don’t have to define what we do and what we see, and how we choose to live our life. She says because everyone knows that Girl Scout's have really great cookies, we did a whole curriculum on financial literacy. Part of that, she included international currencies because she serves a lot of Spanish-speaking girls too. These girls would bring Sojo currency from Mexico or Panama and she knew she had to put that into a curriculum. She included, "how much do you think one dollar is worth in I think I used Indonesia, in Mexico, in Canada, and in all these other places?" to show them that there’s a lot of world out there and that most of them were born in the U.S. and they can get a passport, Sojo says that the blue and gold passport holds a lot of privilege. Citizenship is a whole other topic about who can and cannot travel, but she thinks just showing these young women that there are other countries to see out there and to not be afraid of being different--that's what she really wants and hopes to leave with them. She wants them to know that they can learn a different language, she knows a lot of them thought, "a Black girl speaking Spanish, what?” So even with the Black girls that she works with from the middle schools, she tells them that they can do these things, it’s not impossible and and they shouldn’t let what people say just deter them from being them.
If anyone is looking to get in contact with you to learn more about you and to help you in your efforts, how can people find you?
Sojo has a travel blog: Sojournies.com
Facebook page: Sojournies,
If anybody is interested in talking about it or learning how to get abroad, the ways to get abroad, if you wanna teach abroad, she went through Fulbright which is an amazing program that people can get involved in, especially if you’re about to graduate in 2019.
@joineby! Where Purpose Meets Panties: 10% of net sales from EBY go to Seven Bar Foundation to empower women through microfinance: small loans to start their own business. EBY is gifting listeners $10 OFF your first box with PINC2018 promo code. https://join-eby.com/.
Welcome Home Sojourner White!
About the PINC International:
PINC International designs and organizes Internships Abroad, Study Abroad, & Leadership Retreats programs for young women ages of 18-24 designed to connect with their inner leader and become global citizens. Our goal is to show the world that when young women travel it can only benefit campuses, communities, meeting, and boardrooms and help change laws. Since its conception in 2014, the program has welcomed students from OVER 25+ universities across the United States.
EBY! Where Purpose Meets Panties: TEN PERCENT OF NET SALES FROM EBY GO TO SEVEN BAR FOUNDATION TO EMPOWER WOMEN THROUGH MICROFINANCE: SMALL LOANS TO START THEIR OWN BUSINESSES. EBY is gifting listeners your first box for FREE, just pay $3 shipping with PINC2018 promo code. https://join-eby.com/