Kathe Traore

“I didn’t find my people until my mid-20s. Let’s speed that process up for our next generation.”

A Gary Community Ventures GranteE

By Michelle Takara Fairbairn

Editor: Will C. Holden

Creative Director: Algernon Felice Jr.

As Kathe Traore moved through K-12 systems across two continents, she felt like she was only given one definition of success.

Graduate. Go to college.

As the daughter of African immigrants, Kathe says, the options were even narrower.

Become a doctor. If that doesn’t work, become a lawyer.

If she wanted a different example, though, she didn’t have to look far. Her father, Kathe says, was a serial entrepreneur. After moving to New York City in the late 80s and becoming a cab driver, he moved with his family to Colorado, where he owned African arts and musical instruments businesses.

When asked, Kathe struggled to recall all the jobs her dad owned while she was growing up. Stuck in her mind, however, are the cultural differences she navigated as she moved through K-12 systems across two continents.

To her fellow Black students in the U.S., she was an African. In her family’s home country of Guinea in West Africa, she stuck out as the tall American girl.

It wasn’t until she was 20 years old that Kathe felt like she “found her people.” And she did so on a campus in central Denver.

Imagine if we could give kids that opportunity much sooner, Kathe says. But she’s not imagining anymore.

Working as a program manager with Ednium: The Alumni Collective, Kathe’s now part of a team that’s working with Gary Community Ventures to imagine new credentials Metro Denver high schools can offer students before they graduate to better prepare them for what comes next, and to help them live choice-filled lives.

These are the lived experiences Kathe will be bringing to those discussions.

Lead photographer: CierraAnn Media, Assistant photographer: Mimarie Creative, Venue: The Headquarters | Sunday Night Meets

Kathe Traroe Q&A

We’re here for the Kathe Traore story. Can you tell us a little bit about how it began?
Okay. So, Kathe – she’s a trip. Born in Colorado Springs to African immigrant parents, both from Guinea in West Africa. I know my parents came to the U.S. in the late eighties, early nineties and met here in the states — in New York actually. Then they got married and then said, “we need to get away from all the Africans (in New York).” Can you imagine Colorado Springs in 1995? It’s still pretty white today, but imagine how it looked back then?

Was there any specific reason why they chose Colorado?
Something to do with business. My dad is a heavy entrepreneur. He has never really had an American job. If anything, he was just a taxi driver in New York. And that’s how a lot of immigrants started out. But, he always had his own business, so if I have any sort of entrepreneurial mindset it’s really from him. He had a business where he sold African arts, musical instruments and such, and then he opened up a clothing shop as well.

What did you think about Colorado as a kid?
I spent only a year in Colorado Springs. Right after that, we moved to Denver, in what was then the Stapleton area. I went to Ashley Elementary — it was something. It was difficult growing up and trying to make friends. I had a few friends, but it was here and there. I dealt with some bullying. At this point, I really started to realize the cultural differences. Because the friends who I thought were friends always made it a point to let me know I’m not one of them. It was always from the African American kids – and I would look at it like, “we got the same skin color… what do you mean?” I just wanted to be accepted and be so close to them because they were the closest thing to what seemed similar to me or that I could relate to, right? But it seemed like there was just not going to be any sort of acceptance. So I struggled a lot through elementary with friendships and such.

Were you able to confide in anyone about what you were going through?
It was hard to talk to my parents, because they just didn’t really understand it. My brother actually moved to Guinea when he was about 7 years old. I do think he started to understand it though, because when he came back, he would go by the name Trey. His name is actually Amadou. I heard teachers calling him “Trey” at parent-teacher conferences one year, and I’m like, “Who is Trey?” He leans over and tells me in French, “I tell everybody my name is Trey because there’s this other kid here from East Africa, and he always gets bullied.” So I think we both understood it at that moment.

Your brother spent time in Guinea. Were you able to spend time in your parents home country at any point?
Yeah, I moved to Guinea when I was 12, after I finished sixth grade. I spent four years there, and I miss that place. It was a huge, huge cultural shock too, though. I didn’t think there could be so many Black people in one space. My dad always made that place sound like paradise and he knew I wanted to go so bad. I was so excited, and then I got there and I was blown away. I remember landing — the heat hit me — I never felt heat or humidity like that before. I’m like, “This sure isn’t America, I’ll tell you that.”

Did you start school right away? Can you tell us about that experience?
I had summer school to start, and the first day, I remember we were asked to construct simple phrases in French. And basically the only one I could construct was, “I am American and I don’t speak French.” The professor came over, read my sentence and said, “Wait, you speak English?” In english! It was a relief to have someone else to speak english with. After class, he took me to the principal’s office asking to have a meeting with my parents to figure out the possibility of him becoming my tutor. Not too long after, he became my at home tutor. He became like family, really. His name was Mr. Conte. He taught me how to speak French, and I wouldn’t have made it in school without him.

What was it like being in school as you were learning the language?
So in Guinea, they rank students each trimester in classes based on test scores. I think we had a little over 40 kids in my seventh grade class, and I was in the 40s to start. But by the end of the school year, I was in the 30s. Eighth grade is when I really started pulling my weight, because I started to get a sense of how schools worked out there and it tends to be competitive. I no longer wanted to be among the lowest of the class. The classrooms were very simple, all we had was a chalkboard and benches — no white board, projectors or anything like that. All of our lessons had to be handwritten, so as the teacher is writing out the entire lesson on the chalkboard, we are doing the same thing in our notebooks . You better write it fast too, because once he’s done, he’s going to erase it. The lessons were more intense than what I was used to in America. I took it all very seriously, because I wanted to prove a point. Yes, I’m American, but I’m still smart. Because there was this thought that all Americans were dummies who just had everything handed to them.

In the U.S., you were bullied for being an African in America. Did it feel like you stuck out in the opposite way, being an American in Africa?
Actually, it was a complete flip. I was still sort of treated like a foreigner — they called me “American Girl”. But in Guinea, some people wanted what I had. The type of phone I had, the type of bags I had, stuff like that. So yeah, I was still different, but I was never really bullied because of it. Also, by the end of eighth grade, I was ranked like fifth in the class, so my friends were kind of jealous of that. They would call me a teacher’s pet and make fun of my height, because I was super tall. But it was never as bad as it was for me in the U.S.

Lead photographer: CierraAnn Media, Assistant photographer: Mimarie Creative, Venue: The Headquarters | Sunday Night Meets

You eventually came back to the U.S. for high school. What was that experience like?
You know High School Musical? I loved it — but knowing I was coming back and going into high school, I was scared because of the way they have these different groups set up in the movie, like the jocks, the cheerleaders, the popular people, the geeks, the weirdos. But you never see a group for Africans, so I was like, “Who do I gotta pretend to be?” I did know that I was going to go to East High School, though. I picked it, because I heard it was one of the top schools. Looking back on it, I regret it. I think there were only two or three African kids at that school, and I felt alone again.

Why was schooling easier?
Schooling felt like an obligation or something you had to be good at because you were judged by it (in Guinea), whereas here, no one is really checking on you about your schooling making sure you understand the material. I was worried about starting off 11th grade. I didn’t really feel prepared for that, because that’s when they want you to start getting ready for college. I didn’t really know what that meant.

Did you know you wanted to go to college in 11th grade?
Yes, definitely, I just didn’t really know what to prepare for. I had a college advisor, but that process was really just, “Apply to this school, apply to that school.” I remember thinking I wanted to go to Canada, because I wanted to get my degree from a French school. But my parents were like, “No, you’re staying right here.” And so if that was the only option, I knew I wanted to go to Auraria campus.

What about Auraria campus made it a clear choice for you?
For one, Auraria campus has three schools on it, so you’ve got all different types of people who are coming onto that campus from all different backgrounds, really. And I think as I was making the decision to go to the University of Colorado-Denver (UCD), I was struggling with my cultural identity so much, I figured this would be the place to help me with that.

Were you able to do that at UCD?
When I went to that campus, I found this organization called the African Student Union (ASU). Being able to find kids who were just like me, who were born here, raised by African immigrant parents — or were born back home and from a very young age and came here. Understanding that struggle of trying to find a balance between that American culture and the African culture and being able to just relate on that level made me feel like I found my people. Oh my gosh. And I started to slowly but surely come into who Kathe has become as of today.

What did being a part of the ASU do for you?
I think it taught me what it means to be a leader and developed my interest in community organizing. My last year there, I was the co-president. My team and I merged the three different ASUs on Auraria campus into one, so Metro State, the Community College of Denver and our group at UCD all became one. We planned this big new event, a gala to raise money and recognize people in the community. We had over 500 people show up to that event, from campus and beyond. From how successful the night turned out and realizing how much I was invested in planning the event I started to think, “I really want to create something like this, but for the larger Denver Metro area.”

Were you able to get into that kind of community advising work after you graduated?
COVID came and kicked my butt. I had a job, got laid off because of COVID. I didn’t know what to do. But that created the space I needed to find the African Leadership Group (ALG), which is run by Papa Dia. I was like, “Wow, this is like the ASU, but times 10.” As part of my work there, I was also able to complete their Leadership Africa program, which is a professional development course designed to help you find your leadership style and become more civically engaged. It helped me discover a lot about myself. It’s also where I met Ousman Ba, who turned me on to Ednium: The Alumni Collective. The rest is history.

Why did you decide to make the jump from ALG to Ednium?
I just thought I needed to take another step in my professional career, so I applied for a job as a program manager at Ednium at the same time I was applying for a position with the City and County of Denver to do community engagement work. Honestly, I applied for the Ednium job as a backup, because I thought I would be able to do more for my community working for the government. I got offered both jobs, but the Ednium job just ended up speaking to me more. Here’s this group of alumni saying, “We don’t think our K-12 system prepared us for what was going to come once we graduated, and we want to do something about it,” That just spoke to my core. I’m a DPS alum, I know what I went through in the K-12 system, and I know I didn’t feel like it prepared me for what came next. I feel like I was always given this one version of what success looks like, and it wasn’t until I graduated that I realized there are all kinds of ways to become successful. If we can reach more kids with that message sooner, there’s no telling how big a difference it could make.

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