Published: June 8, 2017

The Women and Gender Studies Excellence in Inclusion Award recognizes outstanding student projects (research or creative works) that explore issues pertaining to diversity and inclusion at CU Boulder or in the U.S. more generally. This award is designed to help foster an inclusive and welcoming campus climate at CU Boulder for students of all backgrounds, including first-generation students, minority students, women, LGBTQ, and other historically underrepresented groups in the field of education. This year we awarded the prize to two outstanding students: Heraa Hashmi and Toluwanimi Obiwole.

Heraa Hashmi was given the Excellence in Inclusion Award for her video project, "Building the (difficult) Bridges."  Heraa is a student in molecular biology and has served as the president of the Muslim Student Association. In her video, she talks about her identity as a Muslim American, woman, immigrant, and student. She describes the pressure she often feels to represent the entire Muslim community.  After an experience in the classroom where a fellow student asked her “why Muslims are so violent,” she created an online resource of 5600 cited instances of Muslims condemning violence.  This went viral and became the website, an ongoing initiative to fight Islamophobia. These projects and Heraa’s continuing efforts to engage her fellow students in difficult conversations are making an important difference in our campus community, and beyond.

The second Excellence in Inclusion Award winner is Toluwanimi Obiwole.  Toluwanimi is an Ethnic Studies major, and in 2015 was named the inaugural Denver Youth Poet Laureate. She received this award for her poetry collection, “On Those Who Shapeshift to Survive.” Her poetry speaks to her own struggle trying to "blend in" to American culture while still maintaining her African cultural identity. With these poems, she hopes to speak to the many other students who struggle with these issues and to reach out to those who have never considered them.

Poetry collection: “On Those Who Shapeshift to Survive” by Toluwanimi Obiwole

every year I must journey to the registrar’s office, blue American passport in hand
like a white flag
and I must prove to them that I am in fact a U.S. citizen
this clerical error however small always reminds me of one thing:
I am still not welcome here
suddenly, the glances weigh heavier
it irritates me just a little more when they mispronounce my name
kicking the o’s l’s and u’s around like magnet letters on a fridge, they rearrange my identity until they
are comfortable breathing the foreign vowels
my name and my teeth read like the storybooks they had as children, they spell: poverty, refugee,
non-English speaker, why can’t you just go back to your country?
I long to reply: where I’m from, we do not run, we root our families in whatever piece of earth we
find ourselves on and we do not run.
so this is for those who have planted their feet on soil that does not welcome them but have turned
their legs into deep rooted flower stems anyway
when they ask you where you are “really” from
tell them a collection of pillars that have held up and seen to the destruction of empires
when they tell you your beauty is savagery
when they mark your nation as the face of poverty
reply that your heart does not need their permission to beat
Dear western savior Africa does not need your pity like our problems only matter when you televise
Africa is a loaded gun and they are too often standing on the wrong side of the barrel
She Africa, this fall bride, winter matriarch well versed in the language of trust and betrayal
still slitting her wrists to show her oppressors she bleeds the same, red, but all they see is gold
they don’t see the starshine on her fingertips
the bloodred beneath the earth brown of her cheeks
Her streets paved gold with the footprints of travelers on the road to ife, accra, batouri, cairo,
benghazi, dakar,
they call us developing like it’s a dirty word,
the Africa I know is the warm bath of mother’s love, arms like an aspen grove holding her children
wherever they are, a bustling Ghanaian airport, dirt lots in Lagos, Nigeria that the children have
turned into kingdoms
Africa, this fall bride, winter matriarch knows the foreign soil, I her daughter stand in is a nation of
earth patches integrated in like puzzle pieces,
America, a land of immigrants, disassembled bodies still breaking open,ghostdancing with
citizenship and visas
singing, take me home, spirit and all
so you sons and daughters with your flower stem legs
when they tell you, you don’t belong
remember where you’re from
and let your roots spread where you have planted them until they choke the hatred from every
and do not run.

black girl, french maid, thick rope lips wrapped around future, fortune between thunder thighs, swol breasts,
sassy favorite accountant, colony in jordan river mississippi pool eyes, your favorite one night mistake, wifey
fuh real, pussy in a jar, red lipstick engineer, blood on veneer, blood on canvas, cinnamon stick blushing, the
one who stayed, big belly gold womb, panther aesthetic, gap teef swallow ya whole lyfe, position power,
queen bitch honor thesis, fetish for the meat of it, the sweetest meal is the one you have killed yourself,
resistance makes my body a spear, they will still try to eat the knife of me, for the beauty of it, love how I
make em bleed, nails in they skin and they still call me a delicacy, eat me, eat we, eat us, crack teeth on this
skin, sour to the colonizer’s stomach,
this is how the world tried to write a biological biography, they still can’t finish, still can’t consume
completely, won’t emancipate what they can’t understand,try to gaslight us like the fire won’t take them too,
still think they got some semblance of control, i smile like fresh waters and demise, cackle in they faces, ask
black hole questions, they’ll call us crazy, what’s a gyal to do?

i am driving 50 miles an hour across an icy highway just to teach myself who God is
i am scraping the bottom of the pot to teach myself how to be hungry
i am eating my own gut to relearn how to be unsettled
my guitar is really a shelf for six knives made of wire
and i am plucking the strings broken so they prick and stab me into something that still bleeds
and my mother is an annotated Bible holding my spine straight
so i meditate 30 minutes a day with the sunlight like a gun to my temple
i am becoming light just to watch myself break into particle

i am becoming a sort of science, chaotic storm in one particle
My father tells me he knows who God is
the Bible told my story: i am the whore, the resurrected daughter, and the temple
and he has had dinner with God for 30 years just to still be hungry
the year i turned 21 i walked the world like i was dancing on a wire
i prayed for the fall and was praised for having the grace not to: a grand production unsettled
this is how a goddess bleeds
demi-divine, blood soaked smile, always spine straight

i sing the lowest notes of the blues just to feel my vocal chords unsettled
i want to know the retaliating, painful stroke of Frida Kahlo when they tried to stretch her straight
if God is an electric storm let my heart be a 12 foot wire
i’m getting to know who light is
how constant illumination makes you hungry
light will bite and fill your memory till all the color bleeds
make the last place you died a sanctuary, your mother’s temple
rippling your “innocence” into particle

we were taught innocence is measured by how the wound bleeds
an innocent mind is never unsettled
is worthy to be saved from the omniscient power of hungry
only knows the path to heaven that is straight
always knows where righteous is
i was innocent until innocent became a lynch wire
i prayed the prayer of jezebel until my knees reduced to particle
my wounded faith broke ground for a new temple

everytime i fall in love i break a bone and now my skeleton is twisted wire
maybe only God knows how to make an ocean when the heart bleeds
to only pour out beautiful and silent,yes i know what silence is
to hold in my magic for fear it will leave my family unsettled
mama speaks in scripture to sanctify my mind straight
i don’t tell her that sometimes i leave church limping and hungry

i tell her spirit fills and ritual leaves me hungry
i greet the elders in church my smile sewn like barbed wire
they stare intently like they’re trying to get my story straight
they want to know if this is how a pure heart bleeds
being both depressed and in love with a merciful God somehow makes them unsettled
you can’t know this kind of purification without knowing what your pain is

i know my pain like a lover it knows how to bleed me unsettle until i crawl back to my temple hungry and
ready to know what whole is

we look within before we name our children
for they will bear our bones
that is what my mother at a tender fourteen named her unborn child
not knowing who would come first
boy or girl
          just knowing it would be precious.
but that is just one name embedded like a pillow to cushion the blow from the bullets that fly from the pistols
that are my names.
          toluwanimi is a lightening bolt
          means to God i belong because my mother fought in labor nearly a month wrestling and shooting
          prayers like arrows from her mouth a the demons whom she would not allow to have her child.
oluwafunmilayo: is honey in your mouth, means God has given me joy. the kind of joy that has the strength
to endure two miscarriages and still come home to breastfeed a baby whom she hopes will grow up to speak
english like the best of them. even now she will sigh, say “i once knew this language, i don't know where it
went” , and i long to wrap her in the womb of my arms tell her “mama, who needs english when you speak
the language of heavenly love”
          olajumoke is a family heirloom, means wealth valued together, becomes a place of rest for weary
          men. i hide it behind my teeth so no one gets too comfortable.
ariwa: is a legacy means beautiful daughter of the beautiful one. my mothers first name is a runaway slave she
fled the chains of christiana for the royal history of adetola she knew she couldn't bare a name that would
mean one thing to her colonisers and nothing to her tribe
once i gave my name to a boy.
          he returned it mangled and ugly
so i ran home begging to exchange it for something he could love
call me ana call me sarah
anything but this i was choking on the cup of poison
i had drunk from a country that told me
          adaptation meant renaming yourself “redefine yourself in America”.
two neat slaps across the face was all the cpr i needed. she said
do not reject gifts from God
your name may not be refined like sugar
that slips through the cracks of your fingers
but it is in fact
          the sugarcane
          that men must break their teeth on
          before being rewarded with the sweetness
your name holds weight
every syllable is a
from the talking drum that your ancestors danced to
you are so much more than your name
it is your crown
so wear it

On September 11th I was 7 years old holding a bowl of carrots. I had gotten a detention slip that day and the
biggest worry was how hard the back of my father’s hand would be when he saw it.
My father doesn’t look at anyone when the telly is on. He becomes a vortex at best. A frightened Hillary
Clinton type runs into the camera as smoke sinks its soft teeth into everything around her. A week ago I had
read about Jeanne Claude and Christo covering skyscrapers and bridges with miles of silk. I wondered if
magicians flew planes , if everyone inside had really just tumbled into a velvet sack, if giant white rabbits
would line the streets of New York when the grey cleared. I thought about the concrete bungalows and
permanently water-stained apartment buildings in Lagos. No plane would waste its time kissing the walls like
that. The glass was much harder back home. My father turned to me unprompted “You ok?” he asked. I put
the slip behind my back.

At school they taught us a new word. “Terrorism” bends through the lips so softly you’d hardly know the
meaning the first time. Mr. O said it during morning chapel and it sounded like the flu. The next week, they
told us about jihad and the end of times. I packed myself nice lunches, it was an exceptionally beautiful
September. I won the science fair the next month and we started doing bomb drills. I didn’t try to tell my
father about our daily lectures on terrorism, there were too many syllables and he really only wanted to know
my maths score. What does terrorism even mean to a man who knows his colonizer’s anthem better than his
father’s eulogy? Or a girl with two passports and an oil-rich allowance?

In the car, I vocalize along with Fela, my hips bumping on beat against the seat belt constraints, my fingers
dancing on the dial to turn it up. Uncle perks up, reclines his chair forward. “Wow, Tolu, you know this?!” I
smile and continue singing. “But you can’t know what it means?” I falter a little, the blow strikes between my
neck and ear. I explain that I do , that I speak the language and love it. He gives a small smile, the same one
the tour guide gives when the whitefolk start to list their African friends and nannies, asking if he knows one
of the three million Tayo’s in the world. I hate feeling like a fisherman in my own blood. America swims into
my lungs, I cough up border fences and visas. Dual citizenship molds my clothes, I am never on dry land.

One night, my cousins and I roam the streets of Lagos. The vendors draw soup from their pots, we argue
over prices. I drool over a golden pile of jollof rice, peppered and garnished with bitter leaf. After picking up
a few drinks, we wander home in a parade of gas street lamps, sweltering music, and the thick smell of maggi
in everything. My cousins speak only English to me, bending their r’s around a western parody accent. They
give me the biggest piece of meat and bottled water. I want to scrub my entire education from my tongue,
give only talking drum parties when I speak. I want to be African without two sugars and cream, I want to be
black without betrayal.

my mother asks me why my poems are so abrasive
i tell her that the words do what i cannot
i was taught to be polite and good
black girl is too dangerous otherwise
give them something they can digest
pretty decibels
soft hands
a body folded over and over into itself
but i’m out of space
i am angry and not trying to be
i am crazy but braiding down my hair
i am seven different kinds of unbuttoned but
damn if i don’t know where the safety pins are
fuck if i still don’t know how to pray
shit, on the bad days, i smile while the blood fills my mouth
i let my lips become an open frame in a kissing booth
taking in everyone
i know how to cry quietly in church
they tell me “you can survive if you’re quiet enough”
i am beautiful because they cannot pronounce my name
i followed the rules
turned on the good girl so well i became her
now pretty is a death sentence
i don’t understand what folded hands are supposed to do
against all these men and all this world
and all this black hole of me
my mother asks when i became so vulgar
i show her the “fuck you” hiding next to the hallelujah under my tongue
who i become when the bitch is showing
when my mean bone is popping out
i don’t wanna scare anyone
i’m not allowed to
girls like me live safer dressed in apology
everyone wants to keep you
everyone thinks they’re allowed to have you
would they still love me
smile at me
let me stay in their classrooms
if they knew of the harpy growing in me
if they knew my ribs were talons
me. black womyn . dark skin. savage
mama, in this body polite means colonizing my ugly
making these brick brown hands into something a white god could forgive
do you know how hard it is to be a girl with so much power but too kind to strike
i want to consume these weak parts of me so you know how much stone i’m made of
this anger is a self cleansing knife
i want to rip out my tongue and use that vascular machete
to collect the splintered bones of the boys who thought i needed them
let my lipstick be louder than every drunk frat boy looking for a bed to slide his shame into
the well meaning men hunting for the beauty of exotic without the bite of it
i know nice guys who think 400 years of screaming
can be swallowed with a blowjob and good manners
i write to spit the fire back in their faces
mama i let these words crack skulls for me
until the fight escapes my body

Lips clenched around the same vowels the whip would later make us sing
We ate the food of foreign feast days
Their god sent gifts in the form of
A one export economy
We burned our farmland
With shiny rubber pipelines
And sang glory be

In the beginning
there was war

We were carried out in new suits
Body bags for assimilation
They said bring us your gold
We said
Bring us your milk
Your swiss garments
Your women
Your patriarchy
Let us become god too
They said only for your soul
We said
Hell is already here
They said our sword is righteous
We said

This is for the students in the front of the room ten minutes before class
wearing everything they have to prove on their skin
For the ones in the back with the 15 minute late stride
Sweat from running for an hour late bus
For the ones with three jobs and no scholarships
Fighting to honor parents whom America has turned into shadows
The black fish without expensive lives
Or trust fund voices
The ones the institution will put on their brochures
Then grind into silent pavement after
The ones who are followed home
Mistaken and mistreated as campus workers
The last ones to leave the library
the first to have their work questioned
Double consciousness got us scrubbing the accents and ebonics from our tongues
MLK visions more jail cell Birmingham burning than “I have a dream”
For the ones who find home in every
head nod
dap up
spanglish whisper across the hall
Clutching our traditions close beneath football jerseys
While our cultures are worn as costumes year after year
Our bodies washed white
Then displayed so clean for demographic reports
Has become a gavel of a word
Smacked down for extra funding
We are more than numbers
We are more than what some say our hands are good for
Our hands know what it means to keep reaching even past
Those who see your breath as nuisance
Desperate to live like a human ladder towards heaven
A hope for those who died with
fingers still inching towards the sky
I know I am my grandmother’s dream come true because I am alive
Because I am here
Because we are here
This heartbeat is a collective effort


I am because Assata
I am because Lalo
I am because Malcolm
I am because Amadou Diallo
I am because Tamir Rice
I am because Renisha McBride
I am because Philandro Castille
I am because Rekia Boyd
I am because Emmett Till
And the promise of hope
The anticipation of victorious joy even when statistics
Point to obituary and not degree
I am because the history of this country is the steel fiber i rip my throat to breathe every morning
I breathe in a classroom that would rather me be invisible
I am visible on a campus with a privilege crowbar
And i have not succumbed to the beatings
I am every brown body having to defend themselves in a history lecture
I am every ignored upraised hand in the STEM field that refuses to give up
And ain’t that a miracle?
Ain’t that something to sing about
Our ancestors proudly rising through us
A cavalcade against the backdrop of the flatirons
Ain’t that the relentless love poem of the century
We are because

Click the title to read each poem.
All poems written by Toluwanimi Obiwole.

Watch Toluwanimi's spoken word performance:

In her application, Toluwanimi writes,

"my form of activism is creating art (poetry in particular) that speaks to both mine and the collective experience of (specifically African) students who struggle with trying to assimilate and "blend in" to American culture while having to maintain their traditional cultural identity in the home. Often, students like myself feel that we must perform multiple identities in order to survive which takes a toll on us that seems invisible to everyone but us. Through great favor and work, I have been able to not only produce poems that bring these stories to life, but perform them in front of crowds that have probably never had to consider these issues nor heard stories like mine before. However, what makes my art really worthwhile is performing my poems for people who identify like me and face the same struggles. I love being able to help them understand that they are not alone."

The Women and Gender Studies faculty recognized these two students at our annual Commencement ceremony on May 12, 2017 in Old Main. For more information on this award, and to view last year's winner, please see