Cleo Wade has a presence about her that cuts through the digital divide, a kind of solar-powered positivity halo that recharges our batteries when we need it most. It’s rare to be a poet in 2017, but the 28-year-old made the decision to “lead my life with vulnerability,”
Poet, artist, and speaker, Cleo was born in New Orleans and moved to New York City after high school where she began interning, taking jobs in fashion, and working for designers.
She says her favorite thing about her childhood, “was attending poetry summer camp.” But though she was “always writing,” she needed “some time to grow up and get brave enough to make things with words.”
They are words that interrupt a regularly scheduled Instagram stream of humblebrags, Sometimes handwritten, sometimes typed, she’ll employs a feminist narrative: “every mother/is a boss/every woman/is the president…/of/the/universe.” Or she’ll challenge her readers with a more simple: “First things first— give a damn.”
Though she models and collaborates with big fashion brands like Barney’s, she says today she spends most her her time, “making things with words. Sometimes as poems. Sometimes as painting. Sometimes as public art installations.” She’s also currently writing her first book, sits on EMILY’s List’s creative council, supports Planned Parenthood, and canvassed neighborhoods in Charlotte, North Carolina during the last presidential election in support for Hillary Clinton. But Cleo is not a list of things or activities. “Sometimes all people need is to be seen and heard,” shares Cleo. “Sometimes I invite my friends over just to listen. Compassionate listening is the greatest and simplest form of peacekeeping.”
In a world in which picking up a phone to speak with someone, let alone talking face to face with a stranger, Cleo is an anachronism. She is the woman with a booth at the Hester Street Fair in downtown Manhattan, set up specifically with the intention of conversing, offering “peaceful and loving conversation.” She is the “hello” that pulls you out of an echo chamber.
“My life goal,” says Cleo, “is to just get up everyday and create tools that help others, listen more, and love big.”
What keeps you going?
The people who have allowed my work to be apart of their day keep me going. it is a privilege and an honor.
Who are the people you consider mentors or influences?
My brother, my best girlfriends and my parents. The people in my life who have shared with me their most intimate stories are my biggest inspirations and influences.
What is the best piece of "real talk" advice you've received?
My brother really taught me how to be radically honest with myself. The best advice he ever gave me was "seriously, it’s not that serious."
What is your favorite life advice?
There is a sign in someone’s yard in my hometown that says "Until Further Notice...celebrate everything" That is honestly the best advice anyone ever gave me and I stumbled on it on the way to the grocery store!
What is a time in your life when you thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore?’
I think we all have mini-moments of that feeling throughout our day. Our brain is constantly second guessing our decisions. I think you know you are doing something great if you have moments of feeling overwhelmed.
International Women’s Day is coming up. It's a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. If you could steer the conversation around International Women’s Day, what would that dialogue be about?
I think there are certain points in time when women feel like they are continuously fighting and they aren't sure if things are getting better because the fights feel like the same fight over and over again. There is a Coretta Scott King line that Kamala Harris sites often in her speeches that says "Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it every generation." If there is anything I would like to discuss, it is the importance of continuously recommitting yourself and rededicating yourself to the betterment of women everywhere in every aspect of life, and because all of the issues intersect we must care about and root for them all. There is no future in the economic advancement in women without a future in social advancement for all women of every race and background. I always tell my friends there is no future of feminism without a future of anti-racism.
How has your relationship to yourself changed in the last five years?
I get a little braver every day and as my audience grows, I feel a deeper responsibility and dig more deeply to create a conversation about the challenges of today.
What does female empowerment mean to you?
Knowing that you deserve to feel safe and take up space in this world and knowing that if you have the privilege to know that then you have a responsibility to help other women realize that too.