Browse Category: Media

4 Powerful Documentaries about African Women Everyone Should Watch

The London Feminist Film Festival opened with a bang last night — a sold out viewing of the UK premiere of Lesbiana, about the lesbians, philosophers, and activists that were key players in creating a revolutionary sisterhood. This weekend, audiences interested in more (Black feminist) lesbian history can look forward to the documentary, Audre Lorde — The Berlin Years 1984 – 1992. Note: This show is sold out — seems it’ll be a packed house!

But lesbians (and everyone else who loves them) aren’t the only group that’ll get to enjoy the London Feminist Film Festival. The organizers have made sure that the interests of African Feminists have been woven into the program as well. Four powerful documentaries highlighting the lives of African women in Kenya, Ghana, and Senegal will be making their debut with feminists this weekend.

I’ve gotten a chance to watch a number of these films, and I can assure you, they are not to be missed. So, if you’re based in London, and are on the fence about attending the inaugural festival, I encourage you to check out the synopses (and mini reviews) below.

4 Power Films about African Women at the London Feminist Film Festival

Taxi Sister (UK Premiere)

Mini ReviewTake a drive with Boury, a taxi driver in Dakar, Senegal, as she forges her way through a male-dominated profession. “There are no such things as Taxi Sisters!” a man growls. He towers over Boury, his voice loud and thunderous as he attempts to get her to submit to the idea that she is an impostor in the popular Dakar taxi stand. Boury vacillates between shaking her head and pacing back and forth in frustration while also keeping her eyes open for customers; she’s not driving a Taxi to make a point, she’s trying to make a living to support her family. When she’s on break, she and another Taxi Sister talk about being single working women, dating and relationships, and American tourists: “Watch out for people with big backpacks. They just walk.” Charting its own course, Taxi Sister takes viewers on a tour through Dakar’s streets, segregated by gender, class, and tourist visas, offering poignant, insightful, and humorous insights along the way.

Theresa Traore Dahlberg / Senegal / 2011 / 30 mins / Wolof and French with English subtitles


 The Witches of Gambaga

Synopsis: This award-winning documentary is about a community of women condemned to live in a camp for ‘witches’ in Northern Ghana. More than 1000 women accused of witchcraft in northern Ghana live in refuges, where they pay for protection from the chief who runs them. The Witches of Gambaga follows the extraordinary story of one of these communities of women. Made over the course of five years, this exposé is the product of a collaboration between members of the 100-strong ‘witches’ community, local women’s rights activists, and feminist researchers, united by their interest in ending abusive practices and improving women’s lives in Africa. Told largely by the women themselves, this is a uniquely intimate record of the lives of women ostracized from their communities.

Yaba Badoe / UK & Ghana / 2010 / 55 mins / English and local languages with English subtitles


KungFu Grandma

Synopsis: Elderly women in Kenya undertake a self-defense course to help protect themselves from rape by young men in their community. The rape of elderly women by young men is a big problem in the slums of Korogocho, Kenya. This documentary follows a group of elderly women who are taking a self-defense course to enable them to better protect themselves. The daily realities of the slums and the myths that may contribute to these violent attacks are explored. A powerful portrayal of women who have come together in solidarity to teach each other self-defense skills and to fight back. The film was shortlisted for an award at the One World Media Awards 2012.

Jeong-One Park / UK / 2012 / 27 mins / Swahili and Kikuyu with English subtitles


Ladies Turn

Synopsis: In Senegal, as in most of the world, football is largely considered a sport for men not women. Ladies’ Turn is a non-profit organisation working to give Senegalese women and girls their turn to play football and to develop important leadership and teamwork skills. Ladies’ Turn recognizes women’s football as a powerful tool for promoting gender equality, both by empowering the women who play and presenting new role models to other women and girls. This film shows the determination of the players and of the Ladies’ Turn organisation, despite the challenges and prejudices they face. With the help of Ladies’ Turn, Senegalese women fight to follow their passion for playing football all the way from small neighborhood fields to the tournament finals in Dakar’s newest stadium. An inspiring story of women pushing boundaries.

Hélène Harder / France & Senegal / 2012 / 65 mins / French and Wolof with English subtitles


About The London Feminist Film Festival

LFFF was set up as a response to the under-representation of women in the film industry, as well as to the lack of films addressing feminist issues and the fact that the representation of women on screen is often narrow and stereotypical. The festival will be a celebration of feminist films past and present, and aims are to inspire discussion about feminism and film, to support women directors, and to get feminist films seen by a wider audience.

Catch the London Feminist Film Festival this weekend at the Hackney Picturehouse. Check out the full program at the festival’s website:

Afrofeminist Film Review of “Beautiful Sentence”: Women in Prison Write Poetry for Healing and Salvation

A Beautiful Sentence, A Short Film about Women in Prison

When I read the title and synopsis of Suzanne Cohen’s short documentary about “women in prison as they experience the liberating effect of creative writing,” in the UK, I assumed that I would be watching a feel-good film about the wrongly accused; that I’d get to play jury over a group of alleged femme fatales gathered in a sister circle, discovering together the power of words as they wrote down “what really happened”.

But, thankfully, what I got instead was a poetic exploration of the meaning of “freedom”, and a refreshing re-framing of a familiar narrative, from the political and theoretical to the personal and heart warming, from the black and white of “issues” to vivid, colorful stories; from the sensationalism of harsh sentences to the mundane of living through them.

The first frame usurps the audience’s freedom as passive witness and replaces our eyes with that of a prisoner’s, through which we are forced to view the gray nothingness of the story’s landscape for three whole seconds: a barren prison ground from behind bars.

We soon meet poet Leah Thorn, a writer-in-residence at the high security women’s prison; she is standing outside an iron door as she offers instruction on “line breaks” into the window of a solitary confinement unit through which we see only a middle-aged woman’s head bobbing up and down, her eyes squinted as she smiles from ear to ear awaiting feedback on her latest poem; the contrast between the joy radiating from her face and the dark, rusted, metal door that separates her from the source of her temporary happiness takes a beat to digest.

In Beautiful Sentence, director Suzanne Cohen, holds no punches; this is a film about women in prison, in varying phases of searching and knowing, denial and confession, using poetry as a vessel to transport them to meaning, perhaps some form of self-determined salvation. Each scene in itself, feels like a poem that intentionally feeds the audience’s minds with enough personal truths to shatter single-minded perceptions, to know the prisoners as people, perhaps even, people like us.

I’m reminded of a line in a recent piece that called for transgender women to embrace writing as creative healing: “Poetry is the way I reveal the vital force that creates my being. It is the vehicle by which I can tell the world who I am,” writes Morgan, a transgender woman of color from Texas.

Incidentally, I first learned about the hardships faced by women behind bars when I became interested in better informing myself about issues facing transgender women, including the compounded hardships faced by transgender women of color.  In the US, trans women of color are particularly at risk, as they are more frequently arrested due to a racist criminal system, and experience the highest rate of hate crimes against any subset of the transgender community. And on top of that, they experience harsh sentences for their crimes, such as CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman of color who was jailed for defending herself against a violent assault.

Hence, as an LGBTI activist, I  learned to question prisons as an intrinsically flawed, racist, and sexist system. Thus, even though I hold the names and faces of the trans women of color I know in my heart as I unleash my critique of this system, my almost exclusive focus on the crimes, the sentences, the statistics, has held my perspective captive; admittedly, I’ve only been able to understand the impact of the prison system on a small segment of women, and in theory, until now.

For many of the women in Beautiful Sentence, poetry is freeing, but freedom from the confines of their quarters, and even from the memories of their crimes, and the circumstances that led up to them, remains an ever-elusive concept.

In the middle of a lively group workshop, Leah, the workshop facilitator, fans herself before she suggests, “It’s hot in this corner. Maybe we should go outside.” A woman shackled in prison garb eagerly replies, “Think we’d be allowed to?” to which Leah replies, “God, I forgot where we were.” They all laugh.

Perhaps some of the women are guilty of committing crimes, and some are not; Suzanne Cohen clearly isn’t interested in passing judgment, again. Her film doesn’t cast its subject into a shade of guilty or innocent, but rather, pleas “human”. From the margins of faceless prison statistics, she reveals her subjects as so much more: hopeful, anguished, flawed, good-humored, regretful, silly, an ambitious undertaking for 20 minutes, but, a beautiful sentence, indeed.

“This is more of a prayer than a poem,” a woman living with mental illness writes.

Narrated through vivid poetry, the experiences of these women living behind bars evoke a wide range of emotions: guilt, sadness, anger, hope, even pride. Though these women are behind bars, their lives and their feelings are familiar to those of us on the other side. Beautiful Sentence offers a poignant reminder to extend our hands (and our love) to our sisters behind bars, to celebrate their stories as our own, so that we too are never forgotten.

How to Support Women in Prison

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to watch documentaries without experiencing emotions that demand I take some kind of action. So, if you’re interested in supporting women in prison, or learning more about how the prison system impacts women in general (including the LGBTI community), here are a few resources:

1) Documentary Films about (Trans) Women in Prison: Check out Beautiful Sentence at the first annual London Feminist Film Festival being held at the Hackney Picturehouse from Thursday November 29th – Sunday December 2nd. Also, check out Cruel and Unusual, a 2006 documentary about the experiences of male-to-female transexual women in the United States prison system. You can order it from Outcast Films to support conscious filmmaking for social justice, or you can watch it via this upload I just found on YouTube.

2) Women in Prison (WIP), a UK-based organization (founded by a former woman prisoner) provides specialist services to women affected by the criminal justice system. On their website, WIP offers a number of ways for people who are interested in supporting prison reform, including writing a letter to government officials, making a donation, or joining their SWAP network which organizes campaigns to educate the general public about the impact of prisons on incarcerated women’s lives. Visit for more info.

3) Black and Pink, a US-based prison abolitionist organization, is an open family of LGBTQ prisoners and “free world” (i.e. not in prison) allies who support each other through education, direct service volunteering, and letter writing. Their pen-pal letter-writing program has reached hundreds of LGBTQ prisoners, especially the most marginalized, transgender women of color, throughout the US.  As the short film, Beautiful Sentence, highlights, writing comes with immense healing power. We may not be able to right the wrongs the prison system perpetuates against women, but through our words and our love, we may be able to make their sentences a little less gray, a little less hopeless, for them, and for us.

My Interview about LGBT Africa and the Media: “Being Gay in Africa Is Neither Good Nor Bad”

Great news! I was recently interviewed by about my work as an LGBT activist. The piece highlighted my new media volunteer project, which has been training African women and LGBTI organizations to use new media to tell their own stories. #win

My favorite part of the interview has got to be the title, African Gay Rights Activist Rewrites the Story of a Struggle. 

Because I’ve chosen to lend my talents as a wordsmith to social justice and philanthropy, and am often very immersed in discussing (and being recognized for) the issues I’m writing about, even I sometimes forget what is that I’m actually doing i.e. writing to change the world, and encouraging others to do the same.

Above anything else, I’m a writer and a storyteller. So, even though the title of the interview felt a tad grandiose (and made me do a double take: “Whoa! Is that me??”), I really am honored that decided to recognize my efforts and profile me in such a generous way.

I must admit, however, that the opening line from the article gave me pause: “Believe it or not, it’s good to be gay in Africa.” 

I should probably point out that the aim of my work isn’t just to see more “positive” news about LGBTI African in mainstream media; I believe that “Being gay in Africa is bad” and “Being gay in Africa is good” are both overly simplistic, reductive narratives we should avoid in mass scale. Instead of “positive” stories, I want real stories, authentic, complex stories. Thus, even though it was refreshing to see a positive slant to LGBTI Africa coverage, I wouldn’t be enthused if LGBTI Africa was constantly depicted wearing a smiley face.

Now, with so much sensationalism and victimization of LGBTI African people in the media, it’s understandable that a fervent call to the media to share more stories of resistance and empowerment could be taken as saying “all is good.” But let’s be clear: all is not good. While the current narrative (i.e. “Being gay in Africa is bad”) reinforces stigma within communities and chips away at the already dwindling hope of young queer Africans living on the continent, the reverse could do just as much (if not more) harm.

For instance, the article highlighted a few of the organizations I’ve worked with who are leading change;, a media advocacy organization based in South Africa, and WHER, a community-building organization for queer Nigerian women, to name a few. Many of these organizations would not be able to operate in the absence of international support; LGBTI Africans are barely permitted to exist in certain countries, let alone organize.

What if funding for LGBTI organizations like SMUG of Uganda and TIER Nigeria were left at the mercy of their homophobic governments? How would activists such as Zanele Muholi, continue to receive support from individuals overseas for her work photographing south African black lesbians in the townships if the story of LGBTI Africa was presented as “all good”?

Last I checked, all is not good. But my point is that all is not bad, either; we need complexity, we need balance.

Check out an excerpt from the interview here: 

With the spread of technology and social media, today’s African LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) communities have greater access to resources and their greatest asset to speak of: each other.

However, given the mainstream news coverage of Africa’s many LGBTI communities that exploits the narrative of a sad, shameful Africa, it’s hard to imagine that anything other than repression and brutal violence is happening. Nigerian LGBTI activist Spectra says that although Africa has its issues, gay rights activists on the continent are seeing success in their movement for equality.

“We’re constantly hearing about people being murdered, constantly hearing about women being raped,” Spectra told “It’s the very, very reductive, very simplistic narrative, and what’s missing is everything else quite honestly.”

Final Thoughts: The more stories we have in the media, the more likelihood we’ll see the range of experiences needed to reflect what is wholly true about LGBTI Africans; that our experiences are neither good, nor bad, that we face challenges from our governments and from each other, that there is pain and suffering, healing and joy in being queer and African, in being human; no single “positive” or “negative” story is capable of conveying our humanity.

My story is one of many, just as the article is one of many that contributes to LGBTI Africa’s depiction in the big picture. There’s still more work to be done. Let’s get “write” to it. ;)

Relevant Links on My Blog:

Social Media for Social Change: 10 Tips from a Queer African Media Activist

I recently spoke at a panel at NYU’s “Making It In Media” lunch panel and discussion series, which prompted a personal reflection of my non-conventional, non-linear career trajectory as a writer and a media activist.

Read “Making It In Media, Accidentally: One Queer African Writer’s Journey to Paradise” if you’d like some background.

In that post, I talked about the importance of leading from within, knowing yourself enough to carve a career path for yourself that’s beautifully unconventional. However, in addition to sharing my personal story and philosophy, I wanted to share a few tangible new media tips, tricks, and strategies that have been helpful to me in  my career so far. (Note: Join my mailing list if you’re interested in more of these.)

These tips don’t hold all the answers to “Making It In Media”, not by a stretch. But I do believe they will be helpful to anyone who’s just getting started with social media, would like to learn how to be use it more strategically, or even serve as a good refresher for someone who’s been tweeting and blogging for years.

At the core of my message is, of course, my mantra: “Love Is My Revolution”; my work serves to support and uplift others, and so I write and share from this place, always. But, also intrinsic in my message about using media for change is another simple idea: no matter how much technology we use, people are still people.

Thus, in order to achieve real influence, you’re going to have to apply the normal rules of effective communication, whether or not you’re tweeting from a smartphone, updating Facebook  via iPad, or publishing an op-ed for the HuffingtonPost. Because in order to achieve real influence, truly connect with others online, you’re going to have to dare to be human.

So, here are 10 Tips for Making it In Media, from a passionate, introverted writer who strongly believes in the power of using social media for social change, including being human enough to intermittently tweet about your cats, courageous enough to stand for what you do know, and brave enough to admit when you don’t know nearly enough about a whole lot of things:

1. Take a Position: So, you wanna be a thought leader… Well, the good news is that the digital space is filled with followers, spectators, and consumers, all passively experiencing the web. Consider this: A few studies have shown that in most online communities, 90% of the users are lurkers (i.e. they never contribute/just read and consume), 9% contribute a little, and 1% account for nearly all the action. This is VERY good news for anyone who has something important to say– the odds are already in your favor. Tap into the power of being in the 1%. The 90% are eagerly waiting for you to say something.

2. Engage in (Dis)agreement: I once dated a woman who would make outlandish statements, and then, when I would counter or challenge, would say to me, “I don’t need to defend my ideas to you.” I found that alarming, and then (with my activist hat on) really scary. To think that there are so many people moving through the world carrying the same ideas in their heads they’ve had since they were four! Why? Because they don’t enjoy confrontation. But (respectful) disagreement, though uncomfortable for some, is actually very healthy; it forces us to re-think our initial ideas, and–through debate with othersstrengthen our arguments, or can them altogether. If you’re going to take a position (as in step one), be prepared to see it through. Find people who disagree (and agree) with you, too. You can change the world, one debate at a time.

3. Choose Your Battles: So, I know I just said that debate and dialogue are good, but unfortunately–and just as in real life–they’re all not worthwhile. Use your airtime wisely. Before you engage, especially in disagreement, consider the level of influence or visibility of the person you’re debating, and the number of people watching. Don’t waste your airtime, for instance, on a Twitter troll (no pic, virtually no followers, but lots of venom/animosity) who’s just looking for a fight, someone to bully. Avoid back and forths with hecklers who have little to no influence (this is subjective, so you can assess for yourself). The way I see it, if I’m going to spend time investing in an online conversation, a whole lot of people better be watching, and possibly being swayed… ’cause again I write for influence, for change. That is always worth it.

4. Participate in Pertinent Conversations: Now, the first three tips assume you got on a soapbox one day and people started listening to you, asking you questions, agreeing or disagreeing. This assumes you already have a base network. But what if you’re just getting started? It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are. If you’re not sharing your ideas with others, you’re basically talking to yourself. Ever seen someone standing in the middle of a networking event spouting off every other minute about how much they know? Weird (and obnoxious); you’ll most likely be ignored. If that happens, how will anyone know that you could possibly hold the key to curing cancer? How can you get people to listen to you? Well, for starters, get off the soapbox and find a conversation that’s already happening; introduce yourself, chime in, contribute intelligently, let your brilliance speak for itself. You’ll find that people are more likely to engage in conversation than voluntarily sign up for (your) lecture. Use that to your advantage. And remember to always leave people with a way to get in touch with you if they want!

5. Niche Your Knowledge: Be consistent. I’m not saying you should sound like a robot, just focus. If you can, choose a niche. It’ll make it easier for people to remember why they need to stay connected with you, and when they should recommend you to someone else (e.g. “You’re writing a paper about feminism in Atlanta, I know an amazing blogger who writes about that stuff!”).  Additionally, niche-ing yourself will also help you in determining how, where, and with whom to spend your time. Some experts call this platform-building. Check it out. Dan is awesome. And his newsletter got me to stop intermittently tweeting about my cats amidst political calls to action (well, mostly).

6. Specialize, But Stand Out: So you’ve been smart about engaging in conversations related to your field of expertise, nurturing a larger, yet more focused platform to showcase your brilliance. Bravo! But now, you have a different task to conquer — distinguishing yourself from the hundreds of other self-proclaimed gurus in your field. Now that people know you’re the go-to person, say for cute cat photos feminism in Liberia, now what? What separates you from that other feminist who write about Liberia? Why would an audience choose to stay connected to you? What’s in it for them? This line of questioning may sound cynical, but the truth is that everyone wants something. You want followers, fans, and influence. What do you think your followers want from you? If you can find a way to convey nuance to your audience, you’ll get more attention. Better yet, if you can find a way to offer something of value to them, say *cough* a list of tips for Making It In Media, you’re more likely to earn their loyalty (and prove that you may actually know what you’re talking about). For example, there are hundreds of progressive/feminist blogs on the internet that tend to all say the same exact thing; I’ve managed to create a niche for myself that allows me to write about a range of issues because my brand isn’t tied to what I write about, but how I write about them. Ask, Melissa Hill Perry — she digs my principles of afrofeminism (win!).  So find out what makes you unique, even within your niche. Create value, and earn loyalty.

7. Quality over Quantity: When I first started publishing my writing online, I couldn’t imagine how bloggers could find the time or energy to crank out post after post after post, while I would slave away for days, sometimes weeks over a single piece. So, at first, I tried to “keep up” by publishing more frequently, which only resulted in my publishing more crap; I actually lost readership. See, in an effort to emulate other bloggers,  I’d begun writing about whatever I thought was “the thing” to write about; my pieces lacked focus, passion, depth, and didn’t help build my reputation. In fact, they distorted it. The minute I returned to writing the longer, personal, insightful commentary I was known for, my readership began to grow again. Moreover, publishing less frequently (but more regularly) meant that I could spend more time in between deadlines promoting each piece. I came to deeply appreciate my work as critical, thorough, and creative; eventually, the loyalty of my readers affirmed that my words are worth the wait. The lesson here: People may visit your site once for a blog post, but it’s the quality that will keep the same readers coming back, repeatedly.

8. Collaborate with Others: It’s no secret: self-absorption is quite prevalent in media spaces. So many people are trying so hard to “make it” they’ve forgotten that we’re all part of a larger ecosystem. Now, before you dismiss this as a “feel good” tip, remember tip #4; if you think engaging with other people in your space could be beneficial, consider the power of collaborating with them. Incidentally, Tyler Perry and Oprah — two highly successful and influential black media mavens — just decided to work together. What do they stand to gain? Combined clout, for one.It can’t hurt to pool their resources either; the entertainment industry is still systemically racist after all.

9: Connect and Support Others: But what about this idea of linking people to resources? Highlighting other people’s work just because? According to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, being a “Connector” has its rewards as well; if you’re genuinely helpful to others i.e. connect people to resources they need, people will appreciate you, perhaps come to rely on you, trust you, like you, and as a direct result, stay highly engaged and be eager to give you support when you need it. I saw this first-hand when my online fundraising campaign for Africans for Africa raised ~$15K; so many people donated money, connected me to resources I needed because they were eager to return the favor (some I couldn’t even remember doing!). I make it a point to list other blogs I read in my sidebar, mention other activists and organizations doing work similar to mine whenever I’m interviewed, and actively mentor young people. There’s value in connecting and supporting others. So don’t become just another self-serving loudspeaker. Give and you shall receive.

10. Be Purposeful: I haven’t necessarily put these tips in order, but if I had to think of the top three, this would certainly be one of them. Before I publish anything, speak anywhere, respond to any criticism, I ask myself three questions: “Who am I talking to?” “What is the most effective way I can deliver this message to them?” “What do I want to happen as a result of their listening?” Now, if you wanna write  or speak or be on TV etc just for the sake of being famous, then perhaps this won’t matter. If you run your blog like your personal diary, that too won’t matter. But, if you’re a bit like me, and you want to write for change i.e. you want to engage in transformational conversations with groups of people, then you must always consider these questions before you produce anything. I wouldn’t write about homophobia to a group of US college soccer players the way I would to an audience of religious African women, nor would I begin a conversation with harsh criticisms of views I don’t agree with if I really wanted them to see where I was coming from. Be purposeful in your use of media; know who you are and what you want to get out of it. And it’ll be a lot easier to navigate through the noise from feedback later.

A Word to the Wise: Practice Principled Apathy (aka Don’t Take It Personally)

This is an extra point, I know. But I simply couldn’t end without stressing this. The thing about taking a position is that you submit yourself (plus your ideas, and sometimes, even your character) to feedback and scrutiny by the 90%, spectators whose job it is in this system to validate or invalidate your position (See point #1). Simply put, you must be ready to deal with criticism, both good and bad.

Ghandi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

I have found that spending time reflecting on point #10 — leaves me better prepared to engage with comments and feedback, whether positive or negative, afterwards. When I know why I’m writing, and who I’m writing to, it’s a lot easier for me to choose who to engage with (and how) in the event of backlash. When I think about all the people I look up to, it’s easy to see that they all stood for something, and paid for it in mass criticism. That’s why it’s important to remember the why behind your use of media. If you keep your purpose — which is to help people — at the back of your mind, there’s no storm you won’t be able to weather.

And so I close with some wisdom from Spiderman, with a twist: With great influence comes a greater need for principled apathy.

You must learn to weed through the rubble for the nuggets that will either help you strengthen your message or nudge you further along the right track towards justice.

Well, there you have it! 10 Tips for Using Social Media for Social Change, after a Making It In Media, Accidentally.

Reminder: I wrote most of these tips from my experience as a writer who blogs, and uses her online social media channels for social justice, so the tips here may not be applicable to other media platforms. Hence, I encourage you to add to or adapt this list for your own purposes. You may also view what others have offered via the #howtomakeitinmedia Twitter chat archive on Storify. (Link coming soon).

Thanks for reading. I hope these get you started off in the right direction.

It would be great to hear from you, especially if you found it helpful, to encourage me to keep on sharing :) Which tips above do you often apply to your work? What other tips would you recommend to others — new and experienced — who are interested in more strategic use of media platforms for social justice? I often write these things and am never quite sure who’s reading them. 

One Love.

Making It In Media, Accidentally: One Queer African Writer’s Journey to Paradise

I recently spent some time reflecting on my work as a media activist and advocate.

This reflection came partly in preparation for my feature at New York University’s “Making it in Media” panel, a lunchtime panel series that provides an opportunity for students interested in careers in media to connect with media professionals of diverse backgrounds.

I had been looking forward to sharing my experience as a media activist with students, and hopefully, making a case for the importance of alternative media as a tool for advocacy as well as a worthwhile career path. But as the event approached, and I tried to think about what I’d say to students who were just starting out, I realized I wasn’t quite clear on what I would say exactly.

My career path in media hasn’t been linear or conventional by any means.

I went to MIT to study Mathematics, which I thoroughly enjoyed before realizing that I really enjoyed writing and had to “come out” to my parents as an artist hoping to end up with a liberal arts degree from a science school. (It went well, considering…)

In an effort to earn my stripes as a certified nerd (and rid myself of immigrant parent guilt — “you mean we sacrificed so much for you to attend the best science school just for you to be a “writer”?), I worked in the software industry for about five years. I hated it. Yes, hated it. So I channeled all the frustration that came with working 60-70 hr work weeks into my passion for new media and social justice, which culminated in my founding and growing a social networking organization for Queer Women of Color in Boston, then later on, QWOC Media Wire, a media hub for LBTQ women of color and the Diaspora.

When the recession hit and I lost my job, I realized I still had a reason to get up every day and ‘go to work.’ My organization had grown, and was receiving national exposure due to our social media campaigning efforts. So, even though I wasn’t getting paid for my work (whether as a writer or activist) the show had to go on.

With new media as my focus, I continued down the path of social justice, and very quickly, the successes in my community work earned me a reputation for “applying” what I knew about media and diversity. People started inviting me to come speak, train, coach on how to use social media for thought leadership, community outreach,  and online fundraising. I couldn’t work with everyone that asked, so I relaunched this blog, and began writing about the issues I was working on, sharing my ideas.

What Does Success in Alternative Media Look Like?

Flash forward a few years, and here I am with an international blog readership, a few more accolades, and the privilege of making a decent living through various writing, consulting, and media projects for good.

I raised over $15,000 in less than 30 days for my Africans for Africa project this year; I was just offered a contract position to advise a prominent foundation on how to re-write their site’s content to make it snappier, more engaging, and reflective of their brand; and I’m constantly invited to sit on panels that indicate people think I know a thing or two about “How to Make It In Media.”

I know my parents are proud of me, but I’m also pretty sure that this isn’t quite what they had in mind when they dropped me off at college. They hadn’t banked on my tendency to strive to be the best at nearly everything I did to manifest as my becoming the “gayest Nigerian ever” (seriously, my site stats report that this is what someone searched for one day and found my blog). And, to be honest, this isn’t what I’d imagined my life would be like either. Thus, when people ask me, “How does one make it in media, exactly?” I’m not quite sure how to answer.

I get emails all the time from younger people who want to know how it is that I get to do what I do. What did I study? What courses would I recommend? How do they get started in their own media careers?

What to tell them when my own “career path” (it feels so weird to even think of it that way!) hasn’t been straight-forward? I don’t have the answers. I’m not even sure I can say that I’ve actually “made it”. I posed the question of #howtomakeitinmedia on Twitter followers and got a few great responses. I’ll share my favorite one from Soli Philander:

“I think what’s most important is to define what “Making It In Media” means for you.”

Because I’ve felt like an outsider most of my life, “Making It In Media”, for me, has meant using media to connect with “my people”, whether African women, Nigerian feminists, LGBTI Diaspora, queer bois, and more, for the purpose of affirming each other’s experiences, growing and healing together.

“Making It In Media” has meant being able to build for myself and others, a support network, so we all can feel less alone, using my voice to advocate for people who don’t have as much access to resources as I do, filling the spaces between the black and white of political agendas with the personal stories that are often missing from policy implementation, a result which when botched, impacts marginalized communities the most.

“Making It In Media” for me means nurturing a younger generation of women (and other marginalized people) to claim their right to their own histories, by writing it; equipping them with one of the most powerful ideas I’ve ever received — that we do not need to sit around waiting to be written about; we can write our own histories, influence policy, and change the world from where we are.

And yes, “Making It In Media” means, also, one day, being interviewed by Ellen. Maybe for winning a Pulitzer.  That’s obviously nowhere near happening yet, but I’m working on it. ;)

So You Want to Make It In Media: Now What?

I don’t know what “Making It In Media” means to you — you who are still reading this, and I might guess, are interested in doing the same. I don’t know where you should begin or where you are. But, I do know this: regardless of who you are, or what your parents wanted you to be, irrespective of what you studied or didn’t study in college, whether or not you event went to college, if you can’t find your ideal job description at your school’s career fair or on Craigslist, you absolutely possess the power, more now than ever, to transform what you love into what you do for a living.

I’m more fulfilled in my work as a writer and media activist than I ever would have been as just another ivy league consultant on wall street. I’ve met smart, passionate, inspiring people from all walks of life who have taught and given me so much. The passion and drive I have for helping others has been so rewarding, and I know it will continue to be as long as I remain true to myself, and lead from within. Maya Angelou puts it best: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

So I offer this to you: Don’t drive your career with someone else’s rear view mirror. Don’t tailgate an externally constructed ambition or let someone else’s version of success distract you from the most important driver on the road… you. 

This is especially true for people you look up to. It’s easy to compare yourself–especially in media–to others who may seem more visible (more press mentions), more influential (more followers), more “successful” than you. Resist the urge to veer off your path chasing someone else, whose destination you do not know.

Be the center that guides your trajectory. Shine brightly enough from within and your path will become clearly illuminated ahead of you. And when that happens, follow it.

Follow it even though it feels endless and like you’re headed nowhere. Follow it when you’re the only one on that road and you see no other cars next to you. Follow it when the voices in your head tell you that it’s time to give up, admit that you’re wrong and turn around. Don’t turn around. Follow it, and one day you will arrive at your very own version of paradise.

I have spent years navigating awkward relationships with my parents, who couldn’t understand why I would invest so much time and energy into something that wasn’t helping me pay my bills. There were times when I went weeks with just eating ramen noodles because I couldn’t afford to go grocery shopping. I worked jobs I hated, took gigs that paid me a fraction of what I was worth. I doubted myself whenever a classmate, or a close friend got a promotion, bought a new car, or took an expensive vacation; whenever my straight friends would ask me why I write so much about LGBT issues all the time, “Isn’t it pigeon-holing you?”

I would ask myself over and over again each morning, “What are you doing?” But what’s most important is that I could always answer, “I’m doing what I love. And I’m doing it as me.” When you are down in the trenches of your own epic movie, and there’s no one to look to for inspiration (for fear of jealousy, envy, or that they’ll see that you’re not quite so sure of yourself), all you have is your own voice. Make sure it’s always honest. Make sure it’s always true to you. Listen to it. Lead with it. And you’ll make it, not the right way, but your way, and find all the love, fulfillment, and pride you were denied in your journey, waiting for you at your destination.

I haven’t “made it”. But I’m proud to say that the gains I have made came with authenticity and integrity; all of me. I’m relieved to know that I will never have to fragment myself to fit into anyone else’s narrow lane, because from the very beginning, I promised to find my own way. I wish for so many of you, the same exact thrill.

Safe journey.

Now, because I do feel strongly about giving out practical advice, I’d also like to share some grounding principles I’ve acquired and tweaked during my “career” that have helped me gain the visibility and influence I do have in my own lane. Check them out via the post “Social Media for Social Change: 10 Tips from a Queer African Media Activist“. I hope you find them useful.

But hey, before you go, leave a comment so I know you’re listening, or relate. It’s always good to know that I’m not the only crazy driver trying to find my way off the main road. :) 

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