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Affinity founder Evelyn Atieno on raising up the next generation of leaders

From starting her own magazine aged 16 to launching #OpenYourPurse – a social-media fundraiser for the Black Lives Matter movement – EVELYN ATIENO tells JESSICA GRAHAM how she gives young voices control over their own narrative

Evelyn Atieno

“One thing I always tell people is that everyone’s path is different,” says Evelyn Atieno, editor-in-chief of Affinity, the social-media-based magazine created by and for teenagers. Fusing pop culture with current affairs and issues of social justice, Affinity gives young people more than simply an opportunity to be published: Atieno founded it with the aim of amplifying voices regardless of age, gender, race and sexual orientation.

“A lot of people get threatened by women who are strong and don’t care what people think,” Atieno says. “For me, as a young Black woman, I started my own magazine with limited resources and many people looked at me and said I was crazy, but I wanted to do it, so I did.”

Atieno moved to the US from Kenya with her parents as a child and, having observed the often-inaccurate messages that teenagers were given in the media, at 16 she decided to start Affinity. Now 23, Atieno is a digital strategist in Washington DC, as well as overseeing the magazine, which – as per its Instagram bio – introduces “the next generation of leaders and thinkers” to a readership from more than 178 countries.

“If you look at teen magazines from just a decade ago, there was no mention of LGBTQ+ or mental health; everything was very surface level,” she says. Affinity, then, “came in and focused on politics and social justice to give young people control of their own narrative”.

Fast-forward to today, and Atieno’s vision remains just as important. Affinity exists for young people to have more than just an outlet but also a chance to be at the center of talking about and tackling social issues. Most recently, the magazine partnered with Plan International USA to host a digital panel during lockdown, discussing how school closures due to Covid-19 were affecting students.

In the wake of the pandemic and the recent Black Lives Matter protests, a return to ‘the way things used to be’ is not what should be aimed for, but rather a redefinition of the future. “Most of us had time to sit at home and really look at the world around us and look at the things we value and put our energy into,” says Atieno. “Being present on social media is about more than attaining vanity from attention.”

If you look at teen magazines from just a decade ago, there was no mention of LGBTQ+ or mental health; everything was very surface level

She perceived much of what was popular on social media during the pandemic and the beginning of the protests to be “tone-deaf”. So, she came up with the #OpenYourPurse initiative to encourage those with larger platforms to use their popularity to fundraise for vital causes.

“The idea was to really show us that, with a lot of the things we praise, there are teams working to cultivate an image. So now, when we are looking to them to make sense of what is going on in the world, it has to be more than a statement,” explains Atieno. “If you can’t say anything of meaning, then just open your purse to donate to organizations that are giving money to people on the ground fighting.”

Though overwhelming at times, social media has arguably become the most powerful tool of modern protesting. #OpenYourPurse resulted in celebrities, from music duo Dvsn to singer-songwriter Queen Naija, signing petitions and donating to aid funds such as the GoFundMe set up for Breonna Taylor’s family. It shows that, even during unprecedented times, there is space for hope. This space can exist digitally, where education and information has never been more accessible or impactful.

As both an editor-in-chief and an activist, Atieno demonstrates an empathetic and collaborative approach to leadership. And, while her achievements are already numerous, she’s only just getting started on the causes she is passionate about. “The Black Lives Matter movement is just about equality. We want justice,” she says. “To keep the momentum going, there needs to be a change worldwide. We need an equal playing field.”

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