Meet Cat White a writer, actor, filmmaker and gender advisor for the United Nations. She is also the founder and CEO of Kusini Productions. Cat grew up between Northampton, Yorkshire and Wales before moving to Paris, Geneva and back to Paris again. She holds first-class degrees in English & French from the University of Warwick and Women’s Studies from the University of Oxford. She is proud of being both state-school educated and an Oxford University alumni. She currently juggles her time between writing her first book, providing advisory services as a gender expert for the United Nations and working both in front of and behind the camera as an actor and filmmaker.
Today we had the opportunity to interview Cat White in this article.
In your own words what do you do?
I always find this such a tricky one to answer – I am the definition of the multi-hyphenate! In my own words, I’m an actor, writer, filmmaker and gender advisor to the United Nations. I am also the founder and CEO of Kusini Productions, a production company on a mission to create opportunities, change the narrative and champion voices of Black women and girls. Recently we have been expanding our reach to focus on telling stories we don’t hear enough of, expanding into projects which have a social conscience in some way – and have something to say. Recent and upcoming projects have explored topics such as homelessness through the eyes of a Black man, sexual consent, coercive control and mental health.
How did you become an activist? What inspired you to be one?
I think I’ve always had a very keen sense of what is right and wrong – I remember being a tiny little girl and getting upset watching the news and my grandma told me that, just like her, I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. If I see something that isn’t right I can’t just avert my eyes – I have to do something about it. When all my friends were playing with Barbie I was utterly obsessed with Rosa Parks and Emmeline Pankhurst. I’ve always been drawn to strong women who changed the world – I probably owe a lot of that to my upbringing. I was raised by strong women -but also my Dad is a real feminist. That eventually translated into me studying Women’s Studies at Oxford University and becoming a ‘real world’ advocate – living the life of the women I grew up admiring.
Can you tell us about your role as a gender advisor to the UN, what do you do?
Through my work as a gender advisor to the United Nations, I focus a lot on gender equality and women’s empowerment on a global scale. Recently, it has been particularly rewarding to partner with the Premier League and the Premier League Charitable Fund and develops Premier League Changemakers, gender equality and mental health program for young women and girls in England and Wales. The program covers self and identity, leadership and empowerment and positive mental health and wellbeing – and incorporating all of this with sport! It’s so inspiring to see the response we have had already and I hope it will inspire the next wave of leaders and change-makers – that is really important to me.
How did you start with Kusini Productions? And what investment was needed?
I started with Kusini Productions out of a deep-rooted desire to change the way that Black women were perceived. Particularly in film and TV, we’ve seen such a wave of ‘feminist’ work – strong and authored by these incredible women, but I noticed that actually this was a wave of change that white women were riding – and it didn’t necessarily translate to others. Kusini Productions takes its name from 1976 American/Nigerian film Countdown at Kusini. This film was the first major motion picture ever produced by an organisation of Black women. No longer willing to accept the degraded images of Black people – and especially Black women – being foisted on them, they decided they would raise the money themselves, from among themselves, to make the kind of film they wanted to see. That’s the ethos behind my company and the projects we take on. We are the change. The initial investment was actually incredibly moderate, I crowdfunded my first film, Farewell She Goes, an eighteenth-century story exploring female friendship, race and women’s right to choose. Then, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I launched a fund offering three grants of £500 each to small-scale community-led projects that would make a different to the Black and British community. The response was overwhelming and from there we have just flown. In the space of eighteen months we have made five films – featuring Olivier, Emmy and BAFTA nominated and award-winning cast and crew – with another three in development.
What challenges did you face at the beginning of your entrepreneurial, acting, writing and activist journey?
I think the biggest challenge is the juggling of these very distinct worlds – people always look at me in a strange mixture of awe and horror and ask me how I manage to do so much. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that I LOVE everything that I do – and as long as I feel that passion and drive to make a difference then I will continue to keep striving to do more. As I always say, you sleep when you’re dead!
Tell me about what you’re working on now.
I am SO excited to be publishing my debut book If We Are Going To Heal, Let It Be Glorious with the incredible Dialogue Books. It uncovers the imprint that has been made by Black women throughout history, shining a light on their everyday acts of resistance and elevating examples of them surviving, thriving and growing. It is joyful and celebratory and I hope will go on to inspire a generation of readers.
It will be followed by essay series The Black Take, a series of books spanning topics such as politics, climate change, mental health, food and music that have been curated and edited by me and written by some of the most incredible and undiscovered voices of our time. So I am currently very busy writing!
Do you have anything exciting on the horizon that you can tell us about?
I’ve just finished shooting a very special film called Fifty-Four Days. I wrote it, produced it and starred in it, alongside the most INCREDIBLE team of cast and crew. Fifty-Four Days follows the journey of a girl who decides to start wild swimming every day for fifty-four days in the wake of losing her father to suicide. By swimming each day at dawn and forming an unlikely friendship, she learns to accept her grief and the grief of those around her.
I have been honestly overwhelmed by the response I have had to the script and project so far and have built the most incredible team including Phoebe Torrance as director, Forbes 30 under 30 honoree Ella Greenwood as producer, Ellie Gibbons, Sam Cryer, Karina Michel and BAFTA-nominated Manon Ardisson and Chiara Ventura (God’s Own Country) as executive producers. We had a dedicated mental health co-ordinator on set, something still not the norm in the film and TV industry and are also partnered with Papyrus, the young suicide prevention charity, incredible brands dryrobe and Soul Cap.
What is a skill you think all women should learn and why?
The biggest skill I have learned (and I am still working to cultivate this skill) is to say no. I think as women we are programmed to please, and that is to our detriment. If it makes you feel good, and it serves you – then do it. If you are saying yes for anything other than that, then you will most likely regret it later. Life is short, your time is precious – it is amazing how powerful it can be to take control and say no.
When did you realize you were successful/made it and how did you feel/celebrate?
I’m a total perfectionist and always striving for more, so am essentially never satisfied! However, there are two major things that spring to mind: the first was on International Women’s `Day this year when I had just finished shooting an all-female produced and directed movie and went directly from wrapping to Westminster Studios where I went live on US TV as a gender expert to talk about Gender Equality in a COVID-19 world. That was pretty surreal – and a pretty perfect way of realising that my worlds were coming together – and that I was really living the life I dreamt of. The second was when my literary agent went on submission with my manuscript and I started receiving this amazing response from all of these incredible publishers. I have dreamt of getting a book deal my entire life – never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be turning incredible offers down! So of course, I celebrated by calling my mum and then popping open a bottle of champagne!
What is the best advice you have ever received?
It’s such a cliche, but when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. There is always a bright side, it isn’t over until you want it to be. Hang in there, keep going – and make something sweet out of every bitter turn life throws at you. We have the power within us to change the world!