Young Change Makers: Why and How Author Surayyah Fofana Is Helping To Change Our World

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Another thing I wish I heard is to “Trust yourself.” Even though the book is about my real experience, I still wasn’t sure if the story was interesting or made sense. I spent days trying to rearrange and rewrite some of the most meaningful parts of the book to make it “digestible.” It was only until I realized that stripping away parts of my actual experience prevented me from authentically trying to tell the story.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Surayyah Fofana.

Surayyah “RayRay” Fofana is a biracial activist, dancer, writer and high school student with a full head of phenomenally curly hair. RayRay Paints a Self-Portrait is her first ever children’s book. It’s based on her own experience as well as those experiences of families and children whose racial, ethnic and/or religious background are a little more varied than what is typically represented in mainstream media.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up immersed in overlapping cultures! My Dad is a Black Senegalese Muslim, and my mom is White and Jewish, so matzah ball-infused African dishes are the highlights of every family event. Although my household celebrated my multi-cultural background through dance and music, I had to learn how to navigate my intersecting identities from a very early age. While I am still grappling with my identity today, I’ve always leaned on my loved ones for support and acceptance. From first grade to junior year, the bond I have with my family and friends has propelled me to pursue my passions, and work toward doing my part in making my community more inclusive and diverse.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Growing up, I have always really admired KindCotton. KindCotton is an organization that distributes hundreds of books to classrooms across the world. Their goal is to have a lasting impact on childhood literacy through working with educators to create a passion and love for reading. In writing my own book, I dreamed of having support from an organization like KindCotton as I’ve seen the impact they have had on myself, and kids across the world. Fortunately, I was able to work with them to distribute my book across classrooms in the United States.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, “Making A Difference” isn’t always about immediate change, or devising a solution to a broad and complex issue. What’s more, is that “Making a Difference” is about inviting conversation. A lot of us are daunted by the task of creating “change” and we forget to observe and talk to those around us. But our projects, outreaches, and initiatives aren’t what enact social change or progress, it is the insight and perspective we receive from others that propel us to move forward.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

RayRay Paints a Self-Portrait is an illustrated children’s book about my childhood experience which also centers on the experiences of families whose racial, ethnic, and/or religious backgrounds mark them as “unconventional” in the eyes of mainstream media. In my experience as a young woman of color, I’ve often found it hard to feel seen on many fronts, but especially in the books I’ve read in school. For so much of my life, race and diversity have been viewed as supplemental learning topics, not the urgent, crucial ones that they are. Growing up in a Black, White, Jewish, and Muslim home has forced me to confront a lot of adversity. I knew that the feeling of being an “outsider” was not just something I alone experienced. In reflecting on that feeling, I realized that the thing I wanted most was to see families like mine represented in a way that depicted them as normal, and worth celebrating. I wanted to help other young kids, especially those who’ve felt ostracized for simply being themselves, celebrate what makes them different. Ultimately, RayRay Paints a Self-Portrait is my attempt at redefining what it means to be “unconventional” and showcasing the importance of diverse representation.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Given that I wanted to target younger kids, I started to reflect on some of my experiences in elementary school. Some of the most prominent happened within my elementary school cafeteria. I remembered one specific instance vividly, I decided not to get the school lunch, because there was pork in it. My school lunch aide, who I adored, asked me why I wasn’t eating and I said: “Muslim and Jewish people don’t eat pork.” The lunch aid looked at me confused. She asked me where my mom was from, and I said “America.” She looked at me again. She asked me, ‘Well where are your parents from?” I said that my mom was still from America and that my dad was from Africa. She paused for a moment. Then, she said, “that’s so… interesting,” and walked away. From then on, I became eager to understand why we were “interesting” and how I could change people’s perceptions of diverse families and people.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. We don’t always get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

Upon reflecting on the story I previously shared, I had an almost epiphany. That sole moment of reflection was my wake-up call–my background was “interesting.” Therefore, it was different, or not normal. I felt ostracized, and I started to contemplate if there was something wrong with my family. Even now, that experience has prompted me to think about the current social climate of our country and where someone of my background fits into that. I came to the conclusion that, if we can start talking about race, diversity, and inclusivity at an early age, we can really impact the atmosphere of our country in a positive light. Before anything else, I knew that I wanted to orient my project around my hair, and why it was the way it was. Using my hair as a vehicle to showcase family and culture was the realization that made the cohesive narrative start to form in my head.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

One thing that really helped me was listening to the experiences of others. I think a lot of us become eager to just “do” but aren’t prepared for what some of our goals require. But through listening to those who have started to work toward change, I started to realize that my first steps didn’t have to be drastic.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

After visiting classrooms and reading my book to several 3rd-grade classes, I actually had the opportunity to see how they incorporated RayRay Paints a Self-Portrait into their curriculums. A series of character analysis charts were created analyzing “RayRay” the character. It was utterly astonishing and worthwhile to see myself portrayed as a part of the story instead of the one telling it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

When I first started writing, I actually had the “turning point” of the story centered around a conversation between the character Rayray(myself) and a childhood friend. I realized that the insight and advice the friend had shared, was almost “too wise” for that of a six-year-old. After reflecting upon my experience with my race and identity, I realized that much of the guidance I’ve received has been from both my parents. I decided to make the change from a conversation between a six-year-old and myself to my mom and me. Not only did this push me to think deeper about my cumulative experience, but I also had to keep in mind what made the most sense for the viewers of the book.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Absolutely! Most recently, my teachers have been some of my biggest supporters. The teacher that is featured in RayRay Paints a Self-Portrait– Ms.Edelman– has always encouraged me to use my voice. Recently, I reached out to her explaining that at times it is really easy to feel hopeless. The animosity and divide across our country feel more severe than ever. This especially has made it really hard for me to feel seen as a young woman of color. At times, I still second guess if my voice really matters. But in speaking with Ms.Edelman she reminded me that not only does my voice matter, but it is valued. Regardless of your racial experience, it is really easy to feel like what you have to say isn’t worth contributing. But the constant encouragement from this teacher, and the other educators in my life, have reminded me that no one else can tell your story.

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Something really moving that has happened to me since I began working on this project was a conversation I had with a 3rd grader. She actually walked me around her school (my old elementary school) and showed me all of the self-portraits they had created. I remember what she said exactly, “Before I read your book, I was worried about my picture being different from others. Now I love that it is different. We are all unique and beautiful.” That moment was so surreal. Not only being able to witness but hear firsthand the impact my story had on just one person. It was at that moment, I felt like my small contribution was making a difference in a way that extends beyond just the surface level.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

If more members of our communities, society, and even politicians worked toward presenting diversity, inclusion, and acceptance as fundamental to the learning of young people, I firmly believe that the classroom environments for countless kids across the world would no longer have to continuously search for representation. Many of us grow up in very sheltered environments with little exposure to people who may be different. If we were to start introducing, emphasizing and showcasing these topics in school curriculums more frequently, so many young people would start to recognize the role these things play in shaping who we are.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).

When I first started, I would have loved to have been told that “It is OK to be vulnerable.” I know that the goal of RayRay Paints a Self-Portrait extends far beyond my personal experience, but I didn’t realize how much of myself I would be pouring into the writing. I think with most efforts toward initiating change, a lot of us are fueled by personal experience. Although many of my childhood experiences are positive, being forced to revisit the feelings of confusion, frustration, and embarrassment was exactly the thing I needed to bring the story to life!

Another thing I wish I heard is to “Trust yourself.” Even though the book is about my real experience, I still wasn’t sure if the story was interesting or made sense. I spent days trying to rearrange and rewrite some of the most meaningful parts of the book to make it “digestible.” It was only until I realized that stripping away parts of my actual experience prevented me from authentically trying to tell the story.

Additionally, I wish I was reminded that it is okay to “start small.” So much of what I wanted to accomplish extended beyond just this book. I was overwhelmed, and I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. But instead of trying to tackle a broad and expansive issue, I reminded myself that in working toward long-term goals, the steps along the way are equally important.

I think I also really would have appreciated being told that it’s not anyone’s place to judge or challenge my personal experience. I remember when I was brainstorming what I wanted the book to be about, I was apprehensive that it would be deemed as controversial. For so much of my life, my identity has been debated by those around me. When starting the process, I occasionally became hyper-focused on what others would think, which detrimentally impacted the progress I made as far as writing the book. Ultimately, I came to this conclusion after time, but being aware that going into the process would have made things a lot easier.

Lastly, I wish someone had told me that I don’t have to know exactly who I am now either! The book uses hair as a vehicle to symbolize the concept of coming to terms with one’s identity. Even though it was about a childhood experience, I realized that even though I have evolved, I am still figuring out who I am now. People would often ask me if I was secure in “who I am” and I have been able to embrace that I am secure in finding out! I wish I had come to that conclusion before having to confront it in real life because I often felt obligated to have a set answer.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Although you may feel like your beliefs and experiences aren’t valuable enough to “Make a Difference,” think about the millions of others whose voices are being marginalized and overlooked. Invite conversation, ask challenging questions, and most importantly listen to those around you. I know I am still working toward making a positive impact, but I know that the inspiration and drive other young people have demonstrated have incentivized me to try to make an impact! I confidently believe you have, and will continue to make yours!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Zendaya has been one of my biggest role models for most of my life. Watching her navigate a plethora of challenging situations and social issues with eloquence and determination is exactly how I aspire to be!

How can our readers follow you online?

@ rayraytellsstories


This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Young Change Makers: Why and How Author Surayyah Fofana Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.