"If you find yourself tweeting about intersectionality all day, and then you look at your friend group and every person looks the same — then you actually know where work needs to be done," Wade tells PEOPLE

By Robyn Merrett
October 22, 2020 04:08 PM
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Cleo Wade
| Credit: Rony Alwin

Cleo Wade wants the best for everyone.

The activist, writer and poet tells PEOPLE — following her recent panel discussion on how to start and sustain a passion project in partnership with Aerie as part of the brand's #AerieREAL Change Initiative earlier this year — that she wants nothing more but for her work to get someone "closer to their healing or self-exploration."

Wade, who prides herself on being a "community builder" (as eloquently stated in her Instagram bio), first found herself wanting to create real change in the world when she realized her greatest skill was being a friend.

"I remember asking myself what is one the one thing I am best at. I realized it was being a friend. I knew being a friend was something I was best at so then I said, 'What would it look like to be a friend to the whole world?'"

Since then, Wade, 31, has continued to boost those around her and all over the world through her books: Heart Talk: Poetic Wisdom for a Better Life, Where to Begin and What the Road Said. She has also used her voice to advocate for others and to stress the importance of voting in the upcoming presidential election.

Keeping reading below to learn more about Wade's work and tips on how grow your own passion project as well as stepping up for your community.

What are your tips for supporting and sustaining a passion project?

“I think that when it comes to sustaining anything, whether it’s your activism, passion project, self-care routine, your relationship with yourself… anything that’s important to you — it can be different everyday. There are some days where you can work on your passion project from nine to five or five to nine, or sometimes maybe it’s only for two hours. Maybe you’re only thinking about it, and letting it blossom in your heart before it blossoms in the world. There is no kind of right way to do it. I think as long as it’s something you commit to keep in your spirit and have some sort of disciple about... that’s how you sustain all of the important things in your life. You can never fail at participating in your passion project. It will just look different everyday."

How does Aerie align with your activism — and why did you choose to partner with them?

“I was a fan before I had the opportunity to work and collaborate with them. It’s really amazing to tap into this culture of young people, and really all ages, who are kind of radically fighting to be themselves in a world that tells you that you have to be something else. I think that Aerie comes out of the gate saying, ‘Nothing is wrong with you, and we want you to be comfortable with who you are and that’s why we make everything that we make.’ That’s the spirit with which I write for young women and young non-binary people as well.”

What does it mean to you to see your words being shared across social media and helping to lead a movement?

“I feel lucky that my work can hold a space for people and help give language to things people are feeling. I think once we name something, we are better able to heal it. I feel if my work can offer one step to get someone closer to their healing or self-exploration — that makes me really proud. The coolest thing about seeing my work in the world is that I get to see the context that it’s in, so it’s such an education for me personally to be like, ‘Wow, I didn’t write that to go on a protest sign but I get to learn so much by somebody putting it on one and why they put it on that sign for that march’ and that is such a gift for me as a writer.”

What would your advice be to people who are only sharing things on social media — How should they be getting involved and staying more engaged?

“One of the things I always say when people say, ‘What can I do?’ I’m like, well what are you going to do about you? What does your company look like? What does your friend group look like? What does it look like when you gather a group of people? Are their people of color missing? Or trans people? I think what are the practical things that you can do right now that don’t need to be done in theory. When we practice anti-racism we get better at anti-racism, but when we theorize anti-racism and we don’t put ourselves in positions and spaces for those theories to go into practice then what are we really doing and what do our words actually mean?"

How do you think the industry is making strides to improve inclusivity and where is it lacking?

“I think it’s important to have a distinction between diversity and inclusivity. Diversity means the people in the room vary, and then inclusivity means that when these people are in the room they have agency and their opinions are heard. So, when it comes to inclusivity, we need to make sure it doesn’t mean you got these certain people in the room. We have to mean when the people got in the room, they had the opportunity to make change and be heard and have true equality. I think in industries right now there’s a lot of work to be done around diversity, but I think it will take time for us to see what the true inclusivity will look like. That type of work is so deep and has so much to do with dismantling certain structures and building other ones at the same time."

You have been coined by the New York Times as "everyone's BFF." What pressure comes with that?

Cleo Wade
| Credit: COURTESY Sarah McBride CAMPAIGN

"I remember thinking [years ago] I didn’t like what I was doing or who I was, and I remember asking myself what is the one thing I am best at. I knew being a friend was something I was the best at, so then I said what it would look like to be a friend to the whole world. It’s really interesting in my own bio, the first thing I say is I’m a friend, or community builder because every time I write that’s what I have in mind — that I am writing this for my best friend, no matter who you are. At this point it’s such a part of my DNA. I’m not sure I feel a pressure because it’s so much a part of the way I feel. It feels so natural to me, and I also like it.”

How do you handle social media critics?

“I actually have an hour time limit that I put on most days. Some days now, depending on what I’m doing work wise, it might be more, but I try and average around an hour or two. I realized that nothing out there is going to be the thing that makes me feel better. Everything that’s going to make me feel better is going to be found within me and only you can give to yourself. If we can’t learn to hold ourselves down, we can’t get through anything. I wouldn’t say I detox, I’m just really aware what spaces will make me feel worse after a certain amount of time or feel better?"

What steps do you take to accomplish a goal, big or small?

"One of my biggest trick for a goal is I start telling people I’m doing it before I even start. I find accountability partners are really helpful. I remember way before I wrote Heart Talk, I was like I’m writing a book of poetry that’s kind of like a self-help book, and I had not written a page of the book. I like to be a person that does what they say they’re going to do."

Who do you love following on Instagram?

"@stevie_elem — she's a Black woman and education in Louisiana. She's my favorite writer. I also love following [political commentator] @symonedsanders. Plus costume designer @shionaturni. She's goals. I also recently started following @blackownedeverything. They are amazing, and I honestly find the best brands and presents."

How are you connecting to friends and family right now and to yourself?

"I’m actually doing my own journal right now, I don’t really believe in writer’s block, but I feel things have been so hard in the world that it’s a little hard to focus on new ideas. So, I’ve been doing my own journal to ground myself and create a space of reflection. For my friends, I feel really lucky, I have a few of my friends here in LA. I’ve had some social distance backyard hangs that have been good for the soul." 

What do you wear when you want to be completely zen?

"I’ve been into leotards lately. I feel zen if whatever I’m wearing can take me through the day. I love knowing I’m not going to have to change, or something I'm wearing isn’t going to be itchy for my baby. I feel when my clothing is most versatile for writing or mothering or exercising I feel most zen."