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Headshot of DAA recipient Chimwemwe Undi

Meet the 2024 Distinguished Alumni Award for Outstanding Young Alumni recipient

April 11, 2024 — 

Chimwemwe Undi [BA(Adv)/16, JD/20] is the recipient of the 2024 Distinguished Alumni Award for Outstanding Young Alumni 

Named one of CBC Manitoba’s 2020 Future 40, Undi is a writer, poet, editor and lawyer based in Winnipeg. Her writing has been featured at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, as well as in magazines such as Brick, Border Crossings and Canadian Literature, and on CBC Manitoba and BBC World.  

Though born in Winnipeg, Undi spent her childhood in Zambia and Namibia before returning to Canada as a teen and making Winnipeg her permanent home. 

A poet rooted in storytelling and spoken word, Undi’s interest in writing began in high school, when her Art teacher started a ‘slam’ club – a competitive spoken word team, where her love of language flourished. 

“We would hang out after school, bring in new poems and give each other comments on our writing and performance, and I never stopped doing that,” says Undi.  

After graduation, Undi chose to pursue an undergraduate degree at UM, where she majored in linguistics. While completing her degree, her fascination with the practical applications of language grew, which drew her towards a career in law.  

“In my linguistics studies, the kind of questions I was being drawn to were about institutional uses of language, like how power is justified and wielded through language, and the area where that occurs most often was in law,” explains Undi. 

“As I began thinking more about those questions, I became interested in the more practical reality of how the law works and wandered back to wanting to be a lawyer.”  

Undi is currently an associate at Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP, where she practices primarily in the areas of professional regulation, labour and employment law, administrative law and intellectual property, with a personal passion for assisting artists and arts organizations in navigating their rights and responsibilities. 

“What I really like about [being a lawyer] is that I get to walk people through questions and problems that might seem overwhelming for them, and to make the law – this big, abstract power that exists in the world, made up of language, legislation and regulations – legible to them, and help them understand what’s going on and how they can apply it to their specific circumstances, whether it’s an individual or an institution,” explains Undi.  

“I like it, it feels like dealing with a series of puzzles – these problems that you need to deal with and the tools you need to deal with them are coming from a vast body of language.” 

Undi’s perspective of language as a powerful tool for justice and her passion for helping others understand complex issues is also present in her work as a poet, where she explores themes of gender, racism, immigration and the desire to belong. 

In June 2022, she received the John Hirsch Emerging Manitoba Writer Award from the Manitoba Book Awards, and that same month was asked to read one of her poems aloud at the ceremony for Michael Benarroch’s installation as UM President, an opportunity she gladly accepted. 

Undi’s proudest moment came the following year, when she was appointed as the Winnipeg Poet Laureate for 2023 and 2024. 

“That kind of vote of confidence from the Winnipeg literary community was extremely cool, it’s incredibly humbling. I’ve been fortunate that the community in Winnipeg is so generous and open, and the poets here have always been kind to me.” 

Undi’s debut poetry collection, Scientific Marvel, was released through House of Anansi Press on April 2nd, 2024.  

“It is my first book, so I’ve drawn on my entire life for this book,” says Undi. 

“Not that writing a book is the be-all, end-all of being a writer, but it’s one of the few specific dreams and goals that I’ve had since I was small and first learning how to read. It feels strange and amazing that I did that.” 

Undi remains connected to her alma mater, and occasionally returns to the UM campus as a guest lecturer at Robson Hall. She greatly appreciates the opportunities she gets to reconnect with her teachers, peers, and current students.  

“I have very fond memories of my time at the University of Manitoba. I had the privilege of learning from so many great people, and it’s meaningful to still feel supported even though I’m no longer part of the on-campus university community,” says Undi, who served as Vice Chair (External) of the Robson Hall Outlaws (LGBT2SQ+ Student Group) from 2018 to 2020 and Chair of the Robson Hall Feminist Legal Forum from 2019 to 2020. 

“I participated in a lot of student groups when I was at the Faculty of Law, and those were some of my most meaningful experiences. Staying involved with students is good for me, because they remind me of how fortunate I am to have this job and how much I really wanted to be in this career when I was in law school. I particularly enjoy connecting with marginalized students, it’s a rewarding way to stay connected to the university.” 

Being selected as the recipient of the 2024 Distinguished Alumni Award for Outstanding Young Alumni is also very meaningful for Undi. 

“It’s great, it’s very touching. It’s meaningful that people thought of nominating me for this award and thought to write letters of support for me. It’s a lovely indication of the community that I have here and have been a part of. That’s what I’m really touched by.” 

The 2024 University of Manitoba Distinguished Alumni Awards Celebration of Excellence presented by TD Insurance will be held September 19, 2024, during Homecoming. Get your tickets now as the event is always a sell-out! 

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