Damani’s stunning visual illustrations (which she sketches, colours, and edits via a touch screen tablet) are colourful, playful, and especially representative of diverse groups of people.
“As a child, I loved cartoons, but I remember never seeing people like me represented in animation.” She comments on her dislike for the term “Black movies” but understands that only through further and steadfast depictions of marginalised groups can we hope to overcome the “whitewashed” media that proliferates modern society.
She recounts a recent outing with her younger sister to her primary school marching practice.
“There were little kids saying things like, ‘I don’t like my corn rows, I don’t like my skin’,” she repeats their fears while shaking her head disbelievingly. “And I think the only reason for that is because you don’t see enough images of you in the media being cool; you don’t see people who look like you represented through positive imagery.”
Damani remembers herself being influenced by mass media depictions, saying as a child her illustrations’ subjects were all White. It was only in her teens did her awareness of this heighten.
“That was when I started deliberately trying to be more representative with my artwork.” Some of her illustrations depict classic children’s fables with images that are inclusive of different ethnicities and cultures. A standout image depicts a Black mermaid, an image she says is just the kind of example of the ways in which she hopes her art will empower youngsters to believe they can be and achieve anything they want.
“Growing up, I never saw myself in any media depictions. I love fantasy [the genre], but there was never anyone in fantasy who I could see in myself. I want kids to see themselves. Like an Indian Harry Potter!” she giggles as if the idea is silly. But she knows and believes it isn’t.
Her passion for empowering disenfranchised youth and finding ways to use media to dismantle oppressive imagery has trickled into her academic career as well. In 2012, she completed her Bachelor’s in Psychology at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine.
“People are always confused about why I study Psychology,” she explains, given her artistic background. “Growing up, I had low self-esteem. My goal going into Psychology was finding ways to build self-esteem in young people.” During the span of her Bachelor’s, she came across a term that better encapsulated the spirit of what she hoped to impart.
“‘Self-efficacy’ is the belief that you can do anything you set your mind to. So it then became about instilling self-esteem and self-efficacy in young people.”
After graduating, Damani was granted a government scholarship and in 2013 travelled to the renowned University of Cambridge, England, to complete a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Social and Developmental Psychology. Her research included analysing over 11,000 Facebook statuses to determine the context and content of Facebook posts as it related to persons’ social standing in society.
Her findings concluded that people from the highest and lowest strata in society rarely commented on or highlighted social issues. Middle-class subjects were the most vocal in this regard, with Damani gleaning that the least privileged members of society did not feel justified or empowered enough to let their voices be heard.
Upon returning home, she already had a clear idea of the research she wanted to tackle for her PhD research.
“I want to use research to find ways for young people to succeed and to empower people who are affected most by problems in society.”
She has already been accepted into Cambridge’s PhD in Education programme, and her research proposal is specifically tailored for a Caribbean – especially Trini – market.
“Laptops,” she mutters, with half an eye roll, half exasperated sigh. “The government gives every new secondary school student a laptop. But there are no programmes in place to incorporate technology into teaching, or to hone young people’s technological skills.” She expresses concern that some students may not use their laptops or even know how.
“The government has said that they would like us to build an Information Technology Economy here in Trinidad and Tobago but the digital divide is growing.”
She explains how Singapore, a good comparative study to TT given its colonial history and similar population sizes, has invested in IT education for young members of their population.
As Damani states, in the Technological Age where social media is booming, we must seize the opportunity to pass on these skills to children.
“As I see it, social media is everything in today’s world. It is a way to stay connected, and you can create the image that you want to put out into the world. You have control.” She goes back to the biased media she consumed as a child and the power media has to influence people. She is keenest to teach youth that they can use media and technology to influence as well.
Her PhD research will focus on incorporating technology and education (given the unique position of each new secondary school student receiving a government-sponsored laptop in TT) to promote “academic, entrepreneurial, and civic self-efficacy.”
“I think a lot is being wasted right now; a lot of potential is being wasted,” she says broodingly, the softness of her words slipping away. “We have a responsibility to the young people here that we are ignoring.”
At Cambridge, her desire is to create a programme that can capitalise on the potential she sees. She believes social networking and technology are keys to “lessening the privilege gap” and creating more access to underprivileged children.
Having completed her MPhil, she will continue to work with various professors and lead experts in education and technology who can make her hopes a reality.
However, she has not yet secured funding to start her course of study in September 2015.
She tells me she has sent her research proposal to many local corporations as well as the Ministry of Education but has not garnered much response or support.
The Ministry sent her one follow-up email that said they would be in contact. They never got back to her.
“I only sent them the proposal to say, ‘Hey, this is the research I’m working on, maybe it can be of use to you,’ and they only responded once so…” she holds her palms facing upwards and shrugs.
With the start date for her PhD programme looming nearer, Damani started a “Go Fund Me” account where well-wishers and supporters can donate to the pursuit of her education. She is also commissioning illustrations for a reasonable fee.
“But I know no matter how much [commissioned] work I do, I won’t be able to make up the cost of tuition.”
She remains hopeful and is very open to corporate sponsorship and partnership.
In the same spirit of her fierce, unapologetic illustrations and her forward-thinking, visionary research, Kalifa Damani is holding on to hope that somehow, a positive change will be witnessed where the marriage of education and technology in our country and region is concerned.
“I see no reason why a child from TT can’t be everything they want to be. They can be the next big head of a world corporation, or an innovative entrepreneur or… I don’t know, whatever they want to achieve! Whoever they want to be!
“Give them the tools and they will build.”
For information on Kalifa’s “gofundme” account, to commission a unique illustration of your own, or to see more artwork and personal projects, search for Kalifa Damani on Facebook.