How Kweighbaye Kotee is changing Bushwick forever

Written by Khatia Mikadze



Photo by Emily Malan

On a Thursday evening in November as I was trying to find shelter from a persistent rain in a rustic and industrial street of Bushwick, I came across an entrance to a parking lot that was decorated and lit up more than the usual lot would be. I stepped inside and was greeted by a gentleman who seemed to be used to seeing many confused faces. He asked whether I was there for an event and, with my immediate confirmation, he directed me to the back of the parking lot — a huge space with screens lining the walls, comfortable vintage-looking couches and a young, tall woman on stage with a microphone, announcing, “Welcome to the TEDWomen 2016 screening and workshop!” I grabbed a seat and prepared myself for a surprise.

As I learned later on, TEDxBushwickWomen is a platform grown from the eclectic community of TEDxBushwick which creates TED-style events and workshops to provoke intelligent discussions on topics surrounding women, poverty, racism, immigration, violence, gender, and economic inequalities. This young and charming woman was Kweighbaye Kotee, a Liberian-born, New York City-raised entrepreneur, talk show host, writer, and filmmaker.  


Photo by Alonzo Maciel

Kotee came to the US with her family as a child, escaping the Liberian Civil War in the late 1980s. They first moved to Ivory Coast where they waited for the US to approve their political asylum. Finally, in 1986, they were finally able to immigrate to the US, settling in an under-served neighborhood in New Jersey.

Kotee remembers growing up care-free and happy with her four other siblings. She never realized the struggles of her parents who were both college graduates but had to work low-wage jobs for almost ten years — until they were eligible to receive their permanent residency. Kotee did what was expected of her, becoming a top student and one of the best players on her school’s basketball team. Her passion for sports and that “extra layer” of responsibility to succeed led her to one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the country through the Wight Foundation Scholarship program. She was one of two black girls in her entire class, which was predominantly made up of kids from middle and upper class New Jersey families. Though she found it hard to fit in with her peers from the beginning, her dedication and commitment to succeed eventually led her to a prestigious college (New York University) and the city where she still resides today.

While in school, Kotee discovered Bushwick — a neighborhood that she says symbolized everything she saw in herself, as an innovative, creative, and determined young woman with an immigrant and inner-city experience. So she moved in.

A couple of years later, she organized the first Bushwick Film Festival with help from other local, like-minded women. The festival was a huge success and, with increasing interest from emerging independent filmmakers, Kotee quit her job to fully dedicate herself to the project. And in 2007, Kotee founded her first company, The Bushwick Film Festival.

Under her leadership, The Bushwick Film Festival grew from a small community organization to one of Brooklyn’s most sought-after events. In 2015, ticket sales doubled, film submissions increased by 74 percent, and international submissions by 20 percent with entries from 28 different countries. That same year, Kotee also developed Slate Property Arts and Culture Endowment, a non-profit that gives up to $10,000 in funding to arts and cultural projects in North Brooklyn communities.

In addition to supporting creative culture in Brooklyn for the last ten years, Kotee is also the creator and host of Indie Cinema New York, a video series about independent filmmaking in the city that airs on BRIC TV, Time Warner, and Verizon. She’s also currently in the post-production phase of her first feature-length documentary called The Bushwick Diaries.

Kotee’s extreme success is the perfect example of what a woman who came to the US as a child can do, given the right opportunities. Her life experience as a first generation immigrant has given her a strong sense of purpose and an entrepreneurial spirit that have inspired her to help reshape local communities, diversify New York entrepreneurs, and empower fellow women by organizing events like TEDxBushwickWomen — my accidental, but one of my most precious discoveries, in Bushwick.


Photo by Alonzo Maciel

When asked what advice she has for her fellow young immigrant women — who are facing a litany of challenges as newcomers in New York, whether it be discrimination, depression, money or loneliness — Kotee said:

“I think the first thing you can do is sit down and identify what your specific challenges are. Whether it is a boss that is discriminating against you, a language barrier, finances, grief, feelings of being alone, etc. It can be different for different people. So take a moment or a few days to make a list of all the challenges that you are currently facing. Then start tackling them.

“A few years ago, I identified a few challenges that I was facing and took some important steps. I wasn’t happy at work for a long time so I eventually left my job and became a full-time entrepreneur. I grew depressed and found support groups where I could express my frustrations and feelings to help me out of it. I also sought out business and life mentors, I read a lot of self-motivation books and watched inspiring videos. I wanted to grow my businesses and my character, so I put myself way out of my comfort zone many times. I had to eat well and exercise often because I knew that if I didn’t I would be in self-defeating moods. I cut things out of my life that took time away from getting to my dreams. Finally, I absolutely had to be gentle with myself and give myself room to make mistakes — because beating yourself up is the least productive. Those are some steps I took and maybe some of those things might resonate.

“Whatever challenges you find yourself trying to overcome, here are a few things I hope you will keep in mind: First, adjusting to new environments takes a long time. But, it is okay to hold on to the parts that you love the most about yourself — especially in New York City — and change the other parts about yourself that you feel interfere with getting you where you want to be.

“Secondly, embrace and understand that it is very uncomfortable to grow and evolve. If the goal is to live a happy, fulfilling life where you can support yourself and perhaps a family (if you have one), then you have to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Last — and most importantly — in your darkest hour, when you feel the world is against you, don’t beat yourself up. Take a break, a nap, a cry and get back up the next day.”

You may also like...