Our Body Politic was founded on a mission to give a platform to and uplift the voices of Black women and women of color. This week, we hand the mic over to three of our guest hosts to showcase the amazing interviews they’ve done. First, Natasha Alford speaks with Alisha Fernandez Miranda on embracing new paths in Alisha’s memoir, “My What If Year.” Then, Karen Attiah talks business and Black hair with Janell Stephens, the CEO and founder of Camille Rose Naturals. Finally, Emmy-nominated producer Tanya Selvaratnam leads our Sippin' the Political Tea roundtable on South Asian creators and filmmaking with Academy Award winning producer and director Joseph Patel; and founder of Anthem of Us, Anurima Bhargava.
Farai Chideya [00:00:01] Hi, folks. We are so glad that you're listening to Our Body Politic. If you haven't yet, remember to follow this podcast on your podcast, your of choice like Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcast. And if you have time, please leave us a review. It helps other listeners find us and we read them for your feedback. You can also reach out to us on Instagram and Twitter @OurBodyPolitic. We are here for you with you and because of you, so keep letting us know what's on your mind. We'd also love for you to join in financially supporting the show if you are able. You can find out more at Our Body Politic.com/donate. Thanks for listening.
This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host Farai Chideya. I started this show nearly three years ago to fill a void. Women of color were sounding the alarm across our country on the pandemic, on threats to democracy, on reproductive rights. I knew I had to build a platform where Black women and all women of color would be heard. That's why I have been so excited to bring on our guest hosts. Now we're sharing three amazing interviews by them about telling stories, building businesses and finding happiness. Our first guest host is Natasha Alford. Natasha is vice president of Digital Content and a senior correspondent at the Grio, a digital media network focused on the Black community with the largest Black newsroom in America. Her forthcoming book, American Negra, comes out in 2024. Natasha has said about her work, quote, Journalism is a form of teaching. I decided to create the media I felt wasn't there, and I feel the same way, Natasha. So here she is in conversation with another trailblazer, Alisha Fernandez Miranda. At 40 years old, Miranda decided to step back from her successful career and start over as an intern in a brand new field. Her journey of self-discovery is the subject of her book My What If Year a memoir. Let's listen.
Natasha Alford [00:01:58] Welcome to the show, Alisha.
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:01:59] Natasha I am so excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
Natasha Alford [00:02:03] We are so excited to have you this journey that you went on. Got to admit, kind of sounds like a dream. I think secretly all of us wish we could do something like this. But you did not approach this lightly. You are a Harvard educated CEO of your own company. You know, living this very instagrammable life in London with your husband and twins and French bulldog. And you thought it was time for a change. Tell us about how you made this decision.
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:02:30] It really took a while. You know, it wasn't like it was just one moment to the next. I had been taking care of children for many years. That was the bulk of my life. Trying to be a working mom was all encompassing, and there was so little time to really think about anything else except just kind of getting through the next day and the next thing. And once my kids were a little bit bigger and I started to have a little bit more quiet space in my own head, I realized that I was asking myself these questions that were very scary, like, What if this is it? What else is out there? Is this the end of all of the new things, all the exciting things? Is this just going to be the rest of my life? And that was a terrifying question to be asking myself. And it took a while to get to a point where I actually realized, no, I'm actually really unhappy. I really have to do something about this. And I took quite an unorthodox approach to my pre mid-life midlife crisis.
Natasha Alford [00:03:29] It is unorthodox, but it sounds like a lot of fun. So tell me about some of these internships. Let's start with Broadway. What was the long held dream that you were getting after when you did that internship and what did you do?
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:03:45] So I have always loved musicals since I was a little kid. But it was never a career path that I thought was acceptable for me to pursue. That was something you could do if you had a different life. Maybe you didn't have to go get a job, you didn't have to make money. It seemed too risky and it just didn't seem like pursuing any kind of artistic dream in a field that wasn't sort of guaranteed to be successful was not possible. It just wasn't. It wasn't in my story and I was with a couple of girlfriends is the opening scene of my book. We were talking about all of our dreams, and it just so happens that one of them, Laura Weidman powers her dad, is a very celebrated writer of a number of musicals. And after we had this martini fueled conversation, Laura said, Let me just email my dad and see if he can do anything for you. You know, I'll see if he can get you an internship or get something on Broadway. And so that was really the very first kind of thing that happened in order to enable me to do this. And then it took a while to get there. Eventually, John wrote me and he said, Look, I'm going to introduce you to two friends. They said, Come be part of this. Don't know if we're going to have anything for you to do, but, you know, come anyway and see how it goes. So in terms of what I was actually doing, I was like desperately trying to make myself useful because I didn't just want to sit there being in the audience. I mean, I was enthralled being in the rehearsal room watching how they did everything, but I really wanted to try to make myself useful. So I spent a lot of time trying to get people to like me, and then I would like see a task that hadn't been done yet. Like the water jug is empty, so I better go fill up some water bottles for people. Or, you know, I finally, after asking enough times, they allowed me to sweep the floors after the rehearsal and to arrange the music stands in the morning. So it was very much kind of being an extra pair of hands.
Natasha Alford [00:05:38] It sounds like an internship. That is what you do when you're an intern. You're there to soak it all up to try to make the most of it. I wonder, what were the lessons from that internship? What did you take away from it?
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:05:51] Was this glimpse into this other world where I could have another job. I could have another life. I could still be me, but go do something different. So that was huge. And I think the other thing, you know, for the brief time I was able to be there that I was able to see is how these performers, they put their entire selves into what they do. They are not holding back. They are sometimes doing things that don't work. And in my head I'm like, Oh, that must be so embarrassing. They're getting on stage and trying this accent and it sounds ridiculous, but that's not at all what it's about. It's about this creative experimentation. It's about trying different things, and their entire lives are about putting themselves up for different things. And a lot of rejection, a lot of the time it doesn't always work. There's going to be failure in there. And that was incredible to see because I think that idea of chasing success had been so important to me for so long and always doing it right and always being the best and seeing these people whose entire careers sometimes they got the part, sometimes they didn't. They truly loved what they were doing and they were pursuing it no matter what. I was like, Oh, wait a minute. You can live a really fulfilling professional life like this and maybe be very happy doing that. And you don't always have to win every time.
Natasha Alford [00:07:06] It's such a good lesson for a happy life, right? As you said, redefining what success means and leaning into happiness, especially when you went to the next internship, which was being a digital intern for Retro Glow Fitness. How was that?
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:07:24] Oh, my God. That was like such an absolutely different multiverse. And of course, the entire world had changed in that period. I arrived in New York in the very end of February 2020, and when I started my Retro Glow internship, it was April 2020. So in just that short period of time, the entire world had shifted and everything was different. So I was home like everybody was not living. It was homeschooling my kids. It was trying to keep everything afloat and, you know, really kind of freaking out like every day because was so, so scary in those early days of COVID, I think when we didn't know anything and we didn't know what was going to happen. And I came across a friend of mine for a long time. She had been my personal trainer many years before, and she was in her living room dressed in the most like retro aerobics outfit, legwarmers, headband leotard in her very tiny central London, like apartment living room, doing an aerobics workout for the Instagram universe. And so I sent her a text message and I said, Do you remember when we talked about me coming to intern for you at some point? Well, would you like to have me be your retro glow intern? I will do it from home. I will do anything you need. And she very graciously said yes. And she needed the help because like many people at that time, she had to figure out how to pivot her business into an entirely new model. She had never done online fitness. And so that was a very different experience. I was doing social media posts. I had to learn about all kinds of social media, things that I did not understand.
Speaker 4 [00:09:01] And.
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:09:02] I had to try out all of these different classes from her competitor studios. So she gave me a list of like 25, 30 studios that were also transitioning to digital virtual fitness. And I had to do this kind of big spreadsheet writing, you know, what platforms are they using, how much did they cost? And then I took all the classes and I wrote reviews of them. So I tried pretty much. Everything you can imagine.
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:09:27] But it kept me sane during what was an incredibly difficult period.
Natasha Alford [00:09:31] So take us to the third internship. I'm excited to hear about this one because this is working at an art gallery, which again sounds like it just sounds like a dream opportunity. What would you say was the biggest surprise of that experience and where did the desire come from? To work? At an art gallery.
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:09:49] So I loved art in college. I minored in art history, but I did not grow up with art that was not a part of my life growing up. And so the art world for me was always this like real sliding door. There was a point after I graduated when I had to kind of to opportunities, there was a fork in the road. One was in the art world and one was in what eventually became the direction my career went in, in kind of business and philanthropy and those things. And I took that one path. So that was a really big what if for me it was always like if something had been different. So it was like really top of my list. When I was thinking about internships I wanted to do because it was something I had always wanted to try and it felt very feasible. And I ended up working with a man I had known for a long time who's an art dealer. And I think the biggest surprise was that the headlines of the contemporary art world are almost this really ridiculous space, right? You tape a banana to a wall and then somebody pays $160,000 for it. And the question is this art, Why is this art? How is this art comes up all the time. But everybody I met in the art world was really not coming to it from this place of, you know, this, Oh, we're going to make a ton of money doing this. Obviously that's part of that world and an important part of that world. But this real, genuine love for the art, for the works, for the creativity of it, you have a lot of people that have come into this because they just love art. They see a piece and it speaks to them and it moves them and they're motivated by that.
Natasha Alford [00:11:20] Okay, so my last one here, this is your fourth internship, waitressing at a Scottish lounge. Elise, you got to explain this one to me because I just where where did this come from? Like, what made you say, Oh, I got to do that?
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:11:35] I live in Scotland now full time, but it was a place when even when I was living in London, as a place that I had spent a lot of time vacationing. And there are all these, like crumbling old buildings that you can buy for a song and then, you know, turn them into A, B and B, of course, that's like the dream. So hospitality seemed like it could actually be something, you know, very another another fantasy like. See this life where the beautiful place and people are coming from all over the world to stay in my hotel. And we serve great food. And that's just you know, that's the day to day is kind of running this sort of business. And I knew exactly the place I wanted to intern, which is a beautiful hotel called Kinloch Lodge with an amazing restaurant. It's on a lake in the middle of nowhere in the rural Isle of Skye. And coming out of that first part of COVID, all I wanted to do is travel. I want to be out in the world again. I want to be with people. I want to be seeing people. And it wasn't possible for quite some time, but being part of somewhere where you had people coming in and out just seemed. I was like, I hope I'm going to be great at this. I love people. I love talking to people, I love welcoming people. So maybe we see how this works and then who knows? That's a whole nother path. We go down, we buy a crumbling castle and we turn it into a hotel or a B and B, and that could be a whole job. So that was really the impetus of wanting to go for that. And it was certainly the experience where the reality was least matched to my expectation. I very quickly found I was terrible at all of the tasks involved in like running or doing anything, anything with hand-eye coordination, just all of it. I was so bad at all of it. And I had this really was probably the first time in my life where I started something put in a ton of effort and was no better at the end of it than when I started it. Even though I had tried as hard as I could possibly try. But it was a beautiful experience and like a lot of internships, it's good to learn what you're not good at or what you don't want to do as well as what you do want to do.
Natasha Alford [00:13:31] Well, how did you make peace with that? Because your whole resumé up to this point is pretty impressive. As you said, you're used to excelling. Were you really stressed about this, this feeling of failure, or how did you find something good in that?
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:13:47] I was not stressed about it. I then had to really interrogate why that was the case, because I had spent my whole life chasing success, chasing, being the best at something. Leaning into the things I was good at and staying away from the things that I wasn't. Because I was afraid of being bad at things. I was afraid that if I did something, whether I didn't matter if I loved it or not, but if I did something and I wasn't good at it, somehow the whole world was going to come crumbling down. And yet here I was completely terrible at everything. The only reason I was not fired was because I was working for free. And every day I was excited to get up and go to work. I was excited to take on these new tasks, and at no point did I think, I'm so glad this is over because I loved it. And that was a real turning point for me and understanding what this year had been about and what I needed to do next, because it made me realize that I could love something that I wasn't good at and I could do it anyway. There were all of these other.
Speaker 4 [00:14:50] Rich.
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:14:51] Benefits that would come from trying different things and doing different things that had nothing to do with whether I was succeeding at them or whether I was the best at them. And I didn't really. It took me 40 years to get there. I didn't really realize that until that point.
Natasha Alford [00:15:06] What a gift. The permission to not be great, but just to be present and again to get that at 40 can really shift the way that you spend the rest of your life. And, you know, I'm also thinking of the practicality of all this, right. In your memoir, you describe telling your dad that you plan to pursue a gender studies graduate degree at the London School of Economics. Tell us about that moment. How did your father, who is a Cuban immigrant, impact what you've termed your second generation mentality towards success?
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:15:42] I mean, my dad, you know, he has worked his entire life. He got his first job, you know, on his uncle's newspaper route when he was eight years old. He's he's never not worked, really. And so I never felt like there was external pressure. But of course, there was external pressure to always succeed. I mean, what eight year old writes in their diary that they want to go to Harvard? That's what I had in my diary. I don't even know how I knew about Harvard, but I knew that was that was like the thing I had to do. I was delivering on the promise of, you know, the sacrifices that my dad had made, that my grandmother had made, and that my aunts and uncles had made kind of coming for a better life to the United States. And I think that now I think about what that what does it mean to be successful? What does it mean to have achieved whatever this American dream that doesn't really exist is it's a different definition than what their definition was. It's a generational thing. The world has moved on. But that success is not just about the job, the title, the paycheck. It's about all of those things that bring a richness to life. And I think about my grandmother, who sacrificed a lot, who left everything behind, who came to the U.S. with five kids and did not really speak English. And, you know, she was one of the most joyful people I've ever met in my entire life. She spent her life chasing things that make her happy and finding happiness in every situation. And so that's part of that mentality, too. That was also something that was I was growing up with and that was part of her story. And so, you know, it's complicated that identity, there's a lot of different pieces to it, and I think it's always evolving. But now my dad is like made peace with the internship idea and now he wants to go be an intern on Broadway. So he's hoping I can get a job. So he can I can hire him as an intern.
Natasha Alford [00:17:28] You can hook your dad up, make that call. Exactly. So nepotism. Oh, we love it. Napo baby in the opposite direction. Exactly.
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:17:37] Both Parent.
Natasha Alford [00:17:39] I support that. Let's dive in a little bit more with family and identity because I think there's some rich lessons here. We'd love for you to read an excerpt of your book to start us off, and let's set this up. So at this point, you're preparing for your internship at the London Art Gallery and you're fixating on what would be considered appropriate attire.
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:18:03] Was I putting too much emphasis on the wardrobe question? Absolutely. But obsessing over avoiding a fashion faux pas was only the window dressing. I had always been self-conscious about fitting into the art world since back when I was studying art history in college, in large part because I never felt like I really belonged. People throw around the term imposter syndrome a lot, and it's easy to pretend that it doesn't exist or that confident people never feel it. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In spite of generally feeling like a boss. Having been a boss, there was always a piece of the art world that made me feel like Bridget Jones laughed out of Sunday brunch for wearing a Playboy bunny costume.
Natasha Alford [00:18:45] Oh, I love that. I love that, because it speaks to, as you said. The the internal dialog, you know, the going in circles sometimes even after we have achieved so many things because we just want to do it right. We want to be right, we want to show up right. And I wonder, like, what did that experience feel like?
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:19:05] I'm still doing some work in the art world and it's not gone. Those are always spaces to me that I will never feel 100% like I belong. And. In college. I loved the art and I loved seeing the art and being part of the art. But I also never felt even with a minor, you know, from a great university in art history, I still never felt like it was a place that was open or welcome to me. It felt like it was something for people who had grown up around it, who were more refined, who had families who knew about art, and who cared about art. And, you know, when we finally made a family trip to Paris, when I was like in my twenties, we got to the loop and my dad said, What do you need, 20 minutes? I was like. What?
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:19:51] So we negotiated 45 and at the end of 45 minutes, I found him in the coffee shop, two coffees. And he was like, What took you so long? We saw the Mona Lisa. That was all we needed to do. So, you know, there's something. They are imposing spaces. I think galleries they typically are in. Well, in London, certainly a lot of them tend to be in very, very wealthy neighborhoods, not places where you'd necessarily be spending a lot of time. And so they always just felt like, should I really be here constantly questioning, should I really be here or should I really be here? And having an opportunity to work in that space made me feel for the first time like, Oh, I do. I have a purpose here. I'm here because I am part of this. I have a job to do. I still get nervous when I walk into a gallery. Even now, I feel weird about it a little bit, and the difference is that I force myself to go into the door because I don't think that those spaces can become. Ours unless we take the step to put ourselves in there. Sometimes no one's going to invite you into a gallery necessarily, if they see you on the street. So I make it a point to push through the imposter syndrome and go in anyway.
Natasha Alford [00:21:01] These are great lessons, and it makes me wonder why you decided to turn this into a book. Did you feel like you needed a reason to go out and do this, these four internships?
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:21:11] For sure. I think it was almost a throwaway comment that a friend had made when I very first shared the idea, Oh, you should write a book about it. And I just never in my wildest dreams thought that that would be possible. I mean, you know, Natasha a book is a lot of words. Like, I was like, how the heck am I going to write? It just it seemed like a fantasy. And I didn't really take the idea of writing a book about it very seriously. But I found that it was a convenient excuse. You know, this idea that I was going to pursue this project that involved leaving my husband and kids for a short period of time, leaving my job and my responsibilities for no other reason besides personal fulfillment, searching for something I wanted that was like not acceptable to people. They did not really understand why. And I found that if I said, Oh, I, I'm going to write a book about it after, then of course, it made a lot of sense. Oh, there's a goal. Oh, that makes sense. Oh, this is your Eat, Pray, Love. But so as it was happening and I was trying to figure out what the hell I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had the writing to always go to and to turn to and help me understand what I was feeling. And honestly, the fact that it has turned into a book that's like sitting on this table next to me that people have read is still just kind of beyond. My wildest dreams that that could have happened. It's nuts. But even if it hadn't been published, even if I hadn't been able to do all these great, amazing things that I've been able to do since the book came out, just the writing… act of writing, it would have been worth it 100 times over.
Natasha Alford [00:22:58] Well, we're so glad that you wrote it so we can, you know, be in that front row seat with you as much as we can. Alicia, you just talked about, like, the financial aspects of this, right? You're a mom, wife. You know, you can't intern for the rest of your life. How do you prepare for something like this? Especially for all the listeners at home who are like, Hmm, I might want to do this myself.
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:23:23] A large part of why I was able to do this is because I had spent, you know, ten years building up my own company and being my own boss and that all of the hard work and sacrifice in doing that when the kids were really young, you know, did enable me the kind of freedom to say, I don't need to ask anybody for permission, actual permission to take time off to do this. I did have a very supportive partner who said, I can step in while you go and do this. And I think, yes, if you have the privilege, if you have the financial mechanism in your life, that you can literally just like throw everything out the door and say, I'm going to go do this and, you know, goodbye, that is wonderful and I wish you the best of luck in that. And but that was not my experience. It was a lot of planning, making sure there was a plan B and a plan C and a plan D, and knowing that if I didn't need to go back in to the business, I would have to do that. It wasn't even at the very beginning, you know, it turned out to be a year, but at the beginning it was one internship, it was two weeks. So I think that those very large changes can happen in small steps or small increments, and sometimes it can feel very feel scary or impossible to think about them in a huge way. But actually, if you break it down, if you plan, you know, there are ways to to be able to do things like this. Not everybody wants to go be an intern. I get that. But something like this.
Natasha Alford [00:24:45] Alicia, what advice would you give to someone who feels just stuck right now? They're stuck in work. They're they're stuck in whatever phase of life they're in where they just feel like, okay, I am not living the life that I wanted. What would you say to them?
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:25:00] I would say that life is short and that we are guaranteed nothing. And I would ask them to question how much longer they want to be doing that, at least from my own personal experience. There were the practical barriers that were stopping me from doing what I wanted to do, and those were things that needed to be worked out. Who is going to take my children to soccer after school if I am away? Who is going to make sure that X, Y, and Z client are taken care of? And who's going to make sure that we can still pay the bills? Who's going to do all of that? Those are the practical barriers, and those could be solved with a plan. But then there were all of these kind of emotional barriers that I had put in place for myself that were stopping me from taking this leap before I did it. So, you know, this feeling like no. He could do my job but me, this feeling like, you know what? If I'm terrible at this and it was a huge mistake and I have failed, you know, that was a really big one. All of those things, they were not real barriers. They were emotional barriers, and they were things that I had set, walls I had set up for myself. I'm not a creative person, so I couldn't ever work in a creative job. I could never write a book, just take the leap. Even if it goes spectacularly wrong, you probably won't regret that you did it.
Natasha Alford [00:26:14] No regrets. We want to see you doing all the things.
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:26:18] Exactly.
Natasha Alford [00:26:19] Alicia. I don't want to give the end of the book away, but could you just tell people? So how's it going now? Now that. Now that you've scratched the itches, you've gone out there, you've done the internships, what are you up to?
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:26:31] I still have the occasional itch. Every once in a while I will email somebody and be like, Would you like an intern for like a week now? It's usually not like a month. I'm like, Can I come learn about marine Biology is the latest one. I really want to I want to go. And do you know the book has opened up so many opportunities to me that I never could have imagined. So I have spent the last two months traveling all around the U.S., meeting people, just having this these like, joyful experiences with people who have enjoyed the book, that it's touched them with people who have had their own what if moments and experiences and want to share that with me? I mean, it has been such a gift. I am working on another book, so I'm working on a novel, which is it fits all my criteria for what I want to do with my life. Now. It's scary. There's a high probability of failure. Yeah, but I do. I enjoy it and I enjoy writing it. So I'm doing that. And then without spoiling too much of the end, but I think it's fair to say that I am still working in the art world a few days a week. I'm still occasionally doing work for Kinloch, the hotel in Scotland, but never waitressing or anything that involves me being on the floor. There are only like computer related things and just really trying to be open to opportunities to see where things go, to not plan out every step. It is not easy for me. It is intentional. Every day I have to wake up and quiet all the inner voices that are like, What's the plan? What's the goal? What are we doing? What are we doing next? What's the next big step? And that is not easy for me, but I am trying to stay true to the things that I learned because they really they change my entire outlook on life. And I do not want to fall back to where I was before.
Natasha Alford [00:28:11] It sounds like a gift. Alisha, thank you so much for being on the show today.
Alisha Fernandez Miranda [00:28:14] I am so grateful. Thank you for having me.
Farai Chideya [00:28:17] We turn next to another guest host, Karen Attiah. Karen is a Washington Post columnist where she writes about gender, race and international politics. Her upcoming book, Say Your Word Then Leave, centers on the murder of her Washington Post colleague, Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia. And in 2019, she won the coveted George Polk Award and was named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists. In this interview, Karen talks with Janell Stephens, the CEO and founder of Camille Rose Naturals. They dig deep into how Black women founders are claiming their space in the billion dollar hair industry and empowering Black beauty and culture along the way. Let's listen.
Karen Attiah [00:29:00] Hey, Janelle, welcome. Thank you for having me. I want to just say, just a couple of days ago, I was in a pinch on a trip. My hair was looking, you know, real like Jurassic. And I put your products and CVS, and they are fantastic. I've been a fan for such a long time. So. So cool to talk to you today. Thank you. Thank you so much. Could you just walk us through your origin story? How did you get started with Camille Rose?
Janell Stephens [00:29:30] Absolutely. So Camille Rose is actually a hobby of mine term business. One thing that really kicked me on this whole natural path was the fact that my kids started having severe eczema and dryness. And I had kids that were born with textured, curly hair. And I knew that I did not want to do anything to alter that. You know, I loved it so much. I knew I didn't want to use a lot of steroids or a temporary Band-Aid that would fix the issue that they were having. And then the next thing you know, I stopped using it and it's back again. Right? I had to figure out this transition not only for my children, but for myself, for my household, this whole lifestyle of being natural, organic and being holistic. So I started laboring. All of the products that I was using, products that I thought were organic, so surprised that they really worked and just floored as to the things that I was using on their body and on their hair. It could be absorbed and potentially be damaging long term. And I was just like, you know what? I'm going to take it upon myself to learn different ingredients that were learned ingredients in oils and butters that actually provide less than moisture. I studied under an herbalist and just took to my kitchen. Loved it so, so much. It was just a hobby and turned my hobby, my passion into this full grown business.
Karen Attiah You know, when I hear you speak about this search, this journey starting to educate yourself, I remember 2009 2010 and like it was a moment like Black women and natural hair, there was a real kind of groundswell of a lot of us, maybe some of us for the first time, really like learning how to take care of our hair naturally without chemical relaxers, without harmful products. I'd say my journey as well started around that time. We had #naturalhair. There were all these YouTubers and mixture things and wondering if you remember even how social media maybe influenced your journey.
Janell Stephens Absolutely. I mean, I'm known as the the master mistress. I mean, I think I still use them as the master mistress. I love the fact that we are all in this together to embrace what we were born with and learn how to style our hair the natural way. I mean, it's trials and ups and downs, but I think that once you get to the point where I'm confident in my natural ness, my texture, I'm embracing my texture and I know how to work with it. Social media was a godsend. It played a huge role in the birth of male roles, the growth of male roles. We use our platforms not only to educate about our product, but to create this feel good world. We also use our platform to talk to our consumers, to talk to Black women, and to let them know that we're all in this together. This journey is not just for me. It's for all of us.
Karen Attiah Mm hmm. Now, tomorrow's Naturals is available in over 600 stores, including Target, Walmart, CVS, Whole Foods. The whole journey is probably worth a book at this point for me, as a Black woman and as a consumer, a customer, someone who cares about the ingredients. You know, I've got to confess, sometimes I am wary that in order to scale up, brands just have to make choices, concessions. As a customer, I also understand that. But I feel like in particular for Black women, that's something that hits us hard when brands go bigger. As a founder, how do you see that? How do you think about that?
Janell Stephens So I will start out by saying this You do get what you pay for. So that old saying is true. You cannot get great ingredients in a $5 product when brands sell and when it's not owned by us anymore. Formula has changed. That's been what has happened in the past. The consumer is the best person to be the judge in that. But I would guess that bigger companies are in it to make money and they will skip wherever they can skimp. However, as owner of my brand or any you know, you have the final say and you dictate what you want your products to be and if you want your products to change or not. As a consumer myself, of many different products, not just hair makeup. When brands that were home grown grow bigger and then sell, you know, products, change formulas, change, the whole energy dynamic of the whole brand tend to change because it is not by that person you fall in love with initially. You know, a lot of times when when those personalities leave, it changes.
Karen Attiah Absolutely. Like in any other industry. I think for Black women, maybe again, because we recognize, you know, someone like you is like the mixtures and you feel like we're paying and investing in. Not only you, but almost investing in…
Janell Stephens You're connected. See yourself. You can deem that person. I get them all the time now. You know, first name basis is like we're family and then it's a letdown when that person does not have a say so in the company that they started. I've been in business for ten years now and my products I own my own formulas. Let me start there. Mine, I mean, I made them in my kitchen. This is what I want to continue to use for me and my family. And this is what I want to give my consumers.
Karen Attiah I've seen that in 2022, you had a three day summit celebrating Black beauty and culture in Atlanta. So I'm just curious, how can the industry keep lifting each other up? What does long term support for Black owned businesses like yours look like?
Janell Stephens You show up, show up in those retail giants, support the products, support the brand. And speak up. Speak up for what you love about us. Speak up for what you want from us. It's so important. That's how we continue to build. You mentioned it's called Bete Noire, where we celebrate Juneteenth and our independence and how the culture and the community adopted Juneteenth. Like this is the day. This is our July 4th. We decided to bring forth the influencers that are behind the scenes, the movers and shakers that are behind the scenes that you don't typically see and hear about. You know, the real workers bring them to the forefront and let's show them some love on the Saturday. It's our big picnics like our concert series, and we're out and eating. We're just enjoying the day off. We're listening to good music.
Karen Attiah Thank you so much for joining us today.
Janell Stephens Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Farai Chideya [00:37:47] That was Janell Stephens, CEO and founder of Camille Rose Naturals, in conversation with Karen Attiah.
Farai Chideya Welcome back to Our Body Politic. I'm Farai Chideya. Each week on the show, we bring you a roundtable called Sippin’ the Political Tea. And this week, we invited Webby Award winning an Emmy nominated film producer Tanya Selvaratnam, to lead the conversation. Tanya was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Long Beach, California. She's a writer and artist with a long career at the intersection of arts and social justice. She co-founded the Federation, a coalition to unite artists and organizations through art and culture, and she was an adviser and producer for the Artist Collective: For Freedoms. She's currently the senior director of Gender Justice Narratives at the Pop Culture Collaborative. Tanya's memoir, Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence exposes the intimate partner violence she endured from former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. That book is being developed into a television series by Amazon Studios and ABC signature. Take it away, Tanya.
Tanya Selvaratnam [00:39:03] Thanks, Farai. I am so excited to be here because I am here with my sister and brother from another mother. I'm here with Joseph Patel, producer, director and writer, and Anurima Bharghava, the founder and president of Anthem of Us and advisory Firm Promoting Dignity and Justice. Welcome Anurima.
Anurima Bharghava [00:39:26] Thank you, Tanya.
Tanya Selvaratnam [00:39:27] Welcome, Joseph.
Joseph Patel [00:39:29] Thank you Tanya.
Anurima Bharghava [00:39:29] I'm wondering if Joseph and I have the same mother.
Tanya Selvaratnam [00:39:34] So this week we're talking about social injustice and coalition through the arts from the community and perspective of South Asian-American creators. Now, Joseph, you were the producer on the Oscar award winning documentary Summer of Soul (...Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Directed by Ahmir Questlove Thompson. Give us I mean, I don't know anyone who hasn't seen it, but give us a quick overview.
Joseph Patel [00:39:59] But that's the documentary tells the story of a music festival that took place in Harlem in 1969. It's not only a documentary about the festival, but also about the time period. And to show that Black history was American history, because the festival takes place the same summer as Woodstock. And yet most people have never heard of this festival. Even people in the community who live there now. So, you know, the question was really, why do we remember certain things and not others? What are the sort of cultural landmarks that are part of our remembered history and what aren't? It was sort of multilayered documentary about community and American history kind of tucked into a concert film.
Tanya Selvaratnam [00:40:43] Hearing you talk about it, I now have to watch it again. I think I've seen it three times already. I remember a former member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the Obama administration's Justice Department. Plus, you have a strong background in education and law. You worked with the documentary Writing with Fire seems to speak to this experience. Tell us about that film.
Anurima Bharghava [00:41:05] Writing with Fire is the story of a group of women who came together and started their own news network, and it started off as a newspaper and turned digital. It is the story of what a community of women can do who are fierce, who are powerful in their own voice, who find their agency and are able to tell stories in this fearless way, but that are witty and and incisive and that remind us that, you know, that there are journalists, there are people who are documenting the truth of what's going on around them. In so many ways, it is an act of education for all of us, and it is a foundation and anchor for democracy in India and in communities around the world.
Tanya Selvaratnam [00:41:51] How did you come across the story?
Anurima Bharghava [00:41:54] So I met the filmmakers and the directors and then the protagonist of the film in April of 2018. It's something called Good Pitch, which is a place where a lot of filmmakers come to pitch, how their films might actually impact movements and issues that we're all engaged in around the world. Once we get to the place where the film was near completion, I don't think that I had seen a piece that really sort of transformed how we see women that we often think of as vulnerable or oppressed or facing many, many different forms of discrimination, which is true of the women of color area, this news network. But that also showed their power and agency and kind of reminded us all of the ways in which we could exercise that even with our cell phones. And so it gave us a sense of the kind of tensions and rising ways in which we saw democracy being challenged in India.
Tanya Selvaratnam [00:42:49] Yeah, And one thing that I think about a lot is South Asian filmmakers and South Asian stories when they take risks like writing with fire. Did our filmmakers in films that couldn't really exist in South Asia. They have to exist outside of South Asia, and they are. Risking their lives to tell their stories. You know, I talk about citizen activism, but I'm a big believer in moviegoer activism that we all can do our part to be activists for these filmmakers and these films. Now, is there a scene or a part of the film that especially stays with you?
Anurima Bharghava [00:43:24] I know I think there are a few. The one that just resonated with me as someone who had gone and spent time in villages was a scene in which one of the journalist is standing in the midst of a group of men and trying to just get some basic questions answered. She's able to sort of get the focus to continue on what it is that's actually going on in that village while being taunted and challenged in a bunch of ways. And it's something that I think we all have experiences as women of having to navigate. That's a scene that just stays with me. That's a beauty of writing with Fire. It doesn't have to be dramatic because the power of some of the seeds of violence is is something that is portrayed so beautifully. And the young activists in the Hindu nationalist movement are ones that also really stay with me, because I think it's it shows how the comment is becoming something that is quite dangerous ever.
Tanya Selvaratnam [00:44:21] And Joseph, in Summer of Soul, what scene especially sticks out for you?
Joseph Patel [00:44:25] My favorite scene in the movie, or one of many, is the scene where a man lands on the moon in the summer of 69. And Josh Pearson, our editor who's brilliant against a Staple Singer song, he is cutting. What you hear is basically the reaction by white Americans to man landing on the moon. And it's universally positive, right? People are saying what an achievement and what a leap for mankind. And the sort of tone of the song changes. And what you then get is like a montage of Black opinion, which wasn't really broadcast at the time. And in fact, the clips that we used in the film came from the CBS News Archive that was never broadcast. And it's interviewing Black residents of Harlem in the lobby of the Apollo Theater. And what they're saying is, why are we spending all this money to go to the moon when we have problems down here in the community in Harlem? You know, poverty, education, hunger. It's such a juxtaposition and to me is really the central crux of the film, which is, you know, we all remember a man landing on the moon as a universally, positively accepted thing in America, but it wasn't in a lot of communities around the country. People were right to ask, Why are we spending all this money to go to the moon when we can't even take care of our communities and cities here in the States? So that speaks to the theme of the film, right? Which is whose history do we choose to remember? It speaks to the sort of divergent opinions. And in Black and white communities in 1969 specifically, and I think it's something that, you know, still sort of resonates and how we remember and tell history today.
Tanya Selvaratnam [00:46:02] In an interview with Level, you describe Summer of Soul as Amir's story to tell and how your role as producer was to support his vision. But how do you think your own experience allowed you to do that?
Joseph Patel [00:46:14] Oh, that's a great question. I mean, it was a mirror story to tell. He's the director, but he you know, on our first conversations, he said, I want this to be more than just a music performance. And my job as a producer, specifically a creative producer, was to help engineer a way to tell that story. I think, you know, just not being white. I think having that in common is really a unifying bond between a mirror. And I write, We have a long history as friends, but we kind of see the world in similar ways. And having that history and having that perspective of needing to tell a nonwhite version of American history is kind of the shared perspective that we brought to that film.
Tanya Selvaratnam [00:46:53] You're listening to. Sippin the Political Tea on Our Body Politic. I'm Tonya Silver Putnam. This week, we're doing a special roundtable on South Asian creators with film producer and director Joseph Patel and founder of Anthem of US Honor, Rima Bhargava. Now, speaking of community, so part of the American experiment orchestrated by the political powers that be has been to separate the different communities of color, the different communities of filmmakers of color, whether it's South Asian, Asian, Black, Latin, ex. What are the ways that we can encourage more coalition collaboration and unity between these communities? I'd like for both of you to answer that on Arena.
Anurima Bharghava [00:47:37] So I'll start with just to have people like Joseph and you, Tonya and myself be telling all kinds of different stories that we're not just telling stories of what people might assume we should or can be telling stories about. And to do so in a way that breaks the forces that are trying to divide and conquer us and recognize what are the links and the bridges between them. That's the way in which we do movement building. It's just the way in which we make our films. But to make them in that. Way to, which is to have, you know, those who are in front of the camera, behind the camera, all of the in between. They have that be a project that is open and feels like a space of belonging for different people. And I think we're not about just stories of identity, where the stories of community, where the stories of of movement, where the stories, you know, fierceness and wit. Those are not stories that have to associate themselves with just one identity. I think that's the way in which we break down those who have always continued to try and divide and conquer us.
Tanya Selvaratnam [00:48:37] And Joseph.
Joseph Patel [00:48:38] I generally find myself in solidarity with anyone who stands in opposition to the supremacist forces. And sometimes that community is South Asian and sometimes it's Indian. And sometimes it's even broader to say, quote unquote, Asian. I think what you said about making these films in a certain way to like all my crews, you know, I generally try to work with people who stand in opposition to those forces that are, you know, sort of supremacist forces that that run the show. And I think it takes extra work and extra effort when you're making a film to hire a team that is part of that broader community. I'm saying it in sort of a coded language, but hopefully the point is coming through. The other thing I want to say, too, though, it's like I'm South Asian, I'm Indian. My parents immigrated from Gujarat to the States in 1971, but I don't really feel the need to tell South Asian stories at this point in my life right now, and I think that's okay. Like I grew up in multiracial California, and the things that interest me are very broad. I think it's okay that I don't want to tell South Asian stories. I fully support those that do. I think that what's important is that on the films that I work on or on the projects that I work on, that we have a team, a crew, a director, a producer, an author. You know, we all share the same perspective on what we're trying to get done in this country. That part to me is really the most resonant, and those are the projects I support and the people that I support.
Tanya Selvaratnam [00:50:13] NRMA Do you remember a film that truly shifted the way you think about the world?
Anurima Bharghava [00:50:19] Ten of There are many films I could put into that category, and there's a film that won the audience award at Sundance, and I think we're on 2018 called The Sentence. And the sentence is a story of a family in Michigan where a woman was sentenced to nearly two decades in prison. And it's a story of her family and what they sort of went through in as many years. And it changed people's minds about criminal justice. Right. The story of one family allowed you to feel what it means to not have enough money to make a phone call or to be transferred to a prison halfway across the country, that people could actually feel that and resonate with that and move our country to to not continue to do that to people. We're in America today where we're bloodying our our heads, trying to move some of those work forward in the most basic of ways. And so I think of that film as a reminder of the power of storytelling, the power of film, and the power of something local to tell a story of what's happening all over the country.
Joseph Patel [00:51:22] And Joseph Mann, I wish I had as good of an answer. Is that my journey with film? You know, my father, when I was a kid, I used to buy in the movies on VHS and rent them out of our garage. And I was a latchkey kid. And, you know, I was home after school when people would come over and rent movies for a dollar. As I got older into into my pre-teen years, like, I started watching all these movies, these and these movies, and they just really were very impactful in terms of one. I didn't know the language because I wasn't raised to learn in the and that's something I really regret in my life. My parents, I think, were so paranoid about trying to fit in into our American society. They never and I was very resistant to learning the language because I was trying to fit in and I sort of learned my very passable Hindi through watching these movies like Mulan. They're catching on. There is the first indie film that I saw and I just watched it a hundred times and I didn't know what they were saying specifically in the dialog, but I understood the story. And so that was one of the first films that made a true, true impact on me later in my life. Like watching the films of Wong Kar wai, I realized, Oh, you can show communities that you don't see in typical American cinema, and then something is dumb is like, you know, there's a documentary called Helvetica that it sounds really stupid. It's a two hour documentary on a font. But what I love about that documentary was really sticks with me sometimes is like once you watch that documentary, you don't ever not see the font out in your daily life. I've used that as an example for the films that. We tell, like even Summer of Soul. We talked about Helvetica for a little bit, about like, Hey, if we can do this correctly, people will never see music festivals or historical stories the same way again. I think that is my sort of long and not as good answers on news.
Tanya Selvaratnam [00:53:22] Well, no, it's true. Like you change the frame, you change within the frame, you change people's minds, you make visible what would be invisible. And speaking about visibility, I am floored by how much explosive South Asian creativity there is all around us. What do you think is the next frontier for South Asian creatives?
Joseph Patel [00:53:47] I think that one it's extraordinary to see, but it's not enough, right? I think what you're seeing right now is what it should be. You're seeing South Asian creators being able to tell their stories. You know, as I have a lot of deep respect for the people who are doing those TV shows and movies right now, I'm hoping for the next wave of shows and movies where the stories aren't rooted in being South Asian, Right? That we can go beyond identity in terms of the stories we tell. But other than that, it's just incredible to see the amount of South Asian talent doing TV and film right now because, you know, opportunity begets more opportunity.
Anurima Bharghava [00:54:30] Or.
Tanya Selvaratnam [00:54:31] An arena.
Anurima Bharghava [00:54:32] This is all about bursting expectations, expectations of what we're supposed to tell and of what we expect ourselves to tell in terms of stories and also just the mediums of them. I want us to be animators and graphic novelist who are telling stories in all kinds of different mediums, in gaming, in creating different kinds of worlds. We have so many stories to tell. It's a monumental thing to be able to see a rom com with with a brown girl being the center of attention. I'm not suggesting otherwise, but I do want us to be all that and then some, you know, and then something is still to come.
Tanya Selvaratnam [00:55:10] All that and then some. And then some is yet to come. I love that note to close on. Thank you both so much for these important conversations. And I celebrate you and what you have done for not just the South Asian community of creatives, but for the world.
Joseph Patel [00:55:30] Thank you. Thank you for having us.
Farai Chideya [00:55:33] That was Tanya Selvaratnam producer, author and senior director of Gender Justice Narratives at the Pop Culture Collaborative, leading our roundtable with producer and director Joseph Patel, who won an Oscar for producing Summer of Soul and founder and president of the advisory firm Anthem of Us, Anurima Bharghava.
Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can also find us on Instagram and Twitter at Our Body Politic. Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora Farms and Rococo Punch.
I'm host and executive producer Farai Chideya. Nina Spensley is also executive producer. Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. This episode was produced by Kate Dellis and Emily Ho. Natyna Bean and Emily Ho are our associate producers. Monica Morales-Garcia is our fact checker.
This program is produced with support from the Luce Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Ford Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, The Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.