Winnie Mwende Christensen is a storyteller. Her words, laugh and intonation ebb and flow in waves, leaving her audience in a captivated trance.
“I’m a storyteller because I’m not afraid to tell people about my journey, my history and my passion,” she said.
From a single soul on the other end of a phone call, to a room packed with a thousand people, anyone who has had the privilege of falling under Winnie’s spell leaves feeling refreshed and empowered.
When a Spark Becomes a Flame
Winnie’s passion for storytelling began in high school after she came to the United States from her home country of Kenya, Africa.
“Initially I was in complete culture shock,” said Winnie. “I didn’t feel like I fit in, and my self-esteem was going away piece by piece.”
Despite Winnie’s unsureness, a teacher saw a spark in her and invited Winnie to join speech and debate. With a stage to tell her story on, Winnie soon found an undeniable joy in sharing the details of what made her tick.
“People were curious about me and where I came from, so I decided to teach them about my culture and bridge the gap. I was a cultural ambassador.”
From that point on, the desire to create deep connections and expand the knowledge of those around her never ceased. After spending six years creating, nurturing and growing the successful Miss Africa Idaho program, Winnie met Sheli Gartman, the founder and CEO of Women Ignite.
“We met for breakfast and over our huevos rancheros she asked me not only what I do, but what I want to do,” said Winnie. “I told her I was passionate about Miss Africa Idaho and the impact it had on the growth of the girls. She asked me why I hadn’t started a non-profit yet with this kind of passion, and I said my time was limited and I was content with where I was at.”
Sheli knew Winnie could – and should – do more, so she invited her to present at a Women Ignite Conference where Sheli surprised her on stage by gathering volunteers from the crowd to help Winnie begin the non-profit she had dreamed of.
“Everyone started chiming in, saying they could help build the website and provide funding and assist with a business model,” Winnie said. “I started ugly crying and my knees were shaking. I was so humbled. I knew I couldn’t let these people down when they saw something so special in me, so I got to work right away.”
That day, the Culture for Change Foundation was born.
Culture for Change
The Culture for Change Foundation aims to empower youth to become passionate about community involvement. The foundation encourages culture, arts and financial stability for all who are involved, by working closely with community members, businesses and educational programs.
“There is so much potential in our youth,” said Winnie. “They are our trainers and it’s our responsibility to help harness their potential and turn their ideas into a product or service that the community can rally around.”
Culture for Change provides mentorship, networking opportunities and outlets for self-expression, including space for dance, art classes, spoken word, writing, design and more. One of the most popular Culture for Change projects is the Urban Culture Fashion Show.
“The fashion show started when I went to a seamstress and noticed she had some sketchbooks. I told her, ‘you’re not a seamstress, you’re a designer.’ I said, ‘if you can make me ten of these designs, I’ll provide a show for you.’”
Thanks to Winnie’s innate willingness to help and keen eye for talent, the fashion show not only provided a stage, but also created a space where designers could collaborate with boutiques, companies could sell goods, and food vendors could try their hand at catering.
“People make connections at these shows and the whole community works together,” she said. “By the time each event rolls around, you’ve already guided the participants toward finding their motivation and achieving their goals. You’re part of their success and their passion.”
When You Work Together, There’s No Competition
Although the impact of Culture of Change is far-reaching, there is always more work to be done.
“We need to work together with the city, other non-profits, businesses, and even banks in order to host events and identify resources,” said Winnie. “Our resources alone are limited, but by working with these groups we can partner to find space, funding and leadership for our youth.”
Culture for Change has already been recognized as a vital organization by anonymous donors, including one outside of Idaho who heard about the foundation’s work and donated a large sum of money to help Twin Falls women and refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were able to help over 80 families with rent and utilities, and we provided them with buckets of cleaning supplies to help with sanitization efforts,” Winnie said. “If someone outside of Twin Falls sees potential in us and decides to donate money to enrich its residents, Twin Falls should too.”
Winnie said it’s also important for non-profits like Culture for Change to help the community expand its diversity and inclusion efforts. In a city like Twin Falls where thousands of refugees have resettled, this is more important than ever.
“People often wonder why immigrants and refugees don’t reach out for help, but it’s important that someone also reach out from the other side to make them feel comfortable,” she said. “It doesn’t take much. It could be a genuine smile or the first hello. The community must have a fast, welcoming hand.”
Winnie emphasizes that simple gestures are key. By attending cultural events, trying new food, speaking with the City Council and participating in educational programs, community members inherently have more to talk about with one another and cultural exchanges happen naturally.
“When there is a guest in your house, you learn about them, you talk to them and you welcome them.”
To learn about the Culture for Change Foundation, volunteer or donate, follow their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/cultureforchangefoundation. But if you have the opportunity to speak to Winnie directly, we highlight recommend it.
“I get so enthusiastic,” she said. “You’re always in for a treat.”