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.
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. :)