Josephine Kalipeni is one of those individuals whom — upon first meeting — is clearly genuine about getting to know you. This reflects her passion for knowing the community and helping those in need. She’s always on the go finding a new way to reach the community and educate members on how to empower themselves, stay educated on important issues, and become active in making a change in the world. Her road to success continues and no doubt will lead her somewhere even greater. Her story from the beginning shows a journey where her passion for helping others was solidified.
Smile Politely: Where were you born?
Josephine Kalipeni: I was born in Malawi, Africa.
SP: Tell me about your childhood.
Kalipeni: I lived in beautiful Malawi until I was eight. I remember so much from home-playing with cousins, school, family. We then moved to Chapel Hill, NC. Then to Hamilton, NY. Then here. My Dad is a professor so we moved as he sought tenure. My family is very close. I am the oldest of five. I have fond memories of gatherings with food, music, laughter, and stories that depict the strength and experiences of my family. I remember fights with siblings, sneaking around and helping each other cover it up, and just always having company.
I also cherish images of how loving, hard working, full of faith and compassion that my mother is. She was always loving on us and helping others whenever she could. I wonder, to this day, how she managed to give her all to me and my siblings, have some left to help others in need, and still be standing laughing and full of joy.
SP: Did you have any nicknames growing up?
Kalipeni: “Fe” pronounced “Faye.” My middle name is Faith.
SP: Do you have any nicknames now?
Kalipeni: Josie, JoJo
SP: When you were younger what was your dream career?
Kalipeni: I’ve always, for as long as I can remember, wanted to work as a UN Ambassador for Malawi working on improving other people’s lives.
SP: What sparked your interest in your current career?
Kalipeni: I have always had a heart to help, but wasn’t sure how that’d work into a career. I love to do legislative advocacy and community education, empowerment, and engagement around a social justice issue. I have seen people in cycles and situations that keep them from living the life they want to live for themselves and their families. My Mother has always been my ultimate “spark.” She has always helped others, connecting them with resources, and encouraging them to live their best life.
As I live here in the USA, I am even more aware of the opportunity and blessing I’ve been positioned in to help others, even people in Malawi. I have family back home whose lives and potential are limited because of opportunity, economy, and social justice issues. That drives me. Ultimately, my tipping point was a client I had several years ago when I was doing direct services. She was a single Mom with three children, one of which had been suspended from school pending a psychological assessment. Because she was on public aid, there was a waiting list for her son to get the assessment and no one else would help her. In the meantime, she had to stop going to work to stay home with him. She was on the verge of losing her job and her housing, which would have resulted in compromising her custody. I felt frustrated, angry, and helpless. At that point, I realized that my desire was to empower people and communities to change laws and systems. The awesome part about the work I do is that it really feeds my faith, which is so important to me, and can be very fulfilling and purposeful.
SP: Is there an individual that’s inspired you?
Kalipeni: Have I mentioned my Mom eight million times already? You have to meet her. She is just the most amazing life-giving person I have ever met. She is loving, genuine from the start, honest, compassionate, and you just don’t doubt that she has your best interest at heart. She sacrificed so much for me and my siblings. I gave her hell as a rebellious teenager, but she exemplifies unconditional love in the most tangible way that I have ever experienced. I have this vivid image of her traveling for the first time, from Malawi to here by herself with three children under the age of eight. She has one on her back, one on the hip, and in hand while balancing a bag, purse, and suitcase. She left her family behind in Malawi — her Mother, siblings, friends, comforts, life as she knew it — so that she could provide us with an opportunity to do and be better. She might be the one who is more deserving of this interview!
SP: What do your parents/family think of your choice in career?
Kalipeni: My parents and family tell me how proud they are of me. They see that I have found my stride, a place and work I am passionate about that gives me meaningful fulfillment. They know my desire is to see longstanding sustainable change in people’s lives, here in the USA and in Malawi.
SP: What is your favorite part of your line of work?
Kalipeni: I love taking information that media, policy makers, and experts make complicated, breaking it down, relaying it to people and communities in a way where the direct impact and significance of an issue is made clear and compels them to take action.
SP: What are your long-term career goals?
Kalipeni: I would love to work for a national organization that is doing social justice work on poverty related issues doing community education, empowerment, advocacy, and engagement. I would also love to work as a UN Ambassador to Malawi, advocating for women and children’s rights. I enjoy working to increase the capacity of people, communities, and organizations — strengthening them to impact change.
SP: When you’re not working what are you up to?
Kalipeni: I love reading a good book (currently reading Opening to God and Transforming Power: Biblical Strategies for Making a Difference in Your Community), watching suspense action movies, Netflix (currently going through 24 and Breaking Bad), or smutty reality TV (I know! It’s my vice), listening to music — live or otherwise — and anything surrounding good food and laughter.
SP: Are you involved in any type of community work?
Kalipeni: Yes. I am doing community engagement work with fantastic community organizations including NAACP, UIUC Women of Color, the Food Equity Group, XXI Stones, YWCA, Copper Creek Church, and City of Truth.
SP: What do you think you’ll be doing when you’re 65 years old?
Kalipeni: I hope to continue to be doing activism work with a new empowered generation and traveling the world, working with 3rd world country governments.
SP: Is there a story/book that you play that empowers you?
Kalipeni: I am continually motivated, challenged, and empowered by the Bible, no matter how many times I read the same passage. I also draw a lot of empowerment and energy from music. I also love the book Total Forgiveness. I have read that book eight million times.
SP: When you have a chance to travel where do you like to go and why?
Kalipeni: I love to go somewhere warm with lots of outdoor activity options. Anywhere in California, Sanibel Island, Boulder, Chicago, or Indianapolis. I like going new places with lots to do. I love D.C.!
SP: What’s a food you’re totally addicted to?
Kalipeni: Kit Kats. Pita Chips. My Mom’s curry beef and beans. Beer battered bacon from Destihl.
SP: What’s one guilty indulgence you have that you couldn’t live without?
Kalipeni: Reality TV. OMG! I feel ashamed. LOL!
SP: If someone built a building in your honor what type of building would it be?
Kalipeni: It would be a multi-purpose community space that would house different organizations working together to improve the community.