When opportunity knocks, you can’t say, “Come back later.” Consequently, two UCI undergrads – both aspiring journalists – didn’t waste any time when given the chance to try something innovative. They jumped at the opportunity to host a podcast delineating the Black experience on campus.
The women, Sydney Charles and Tatum Larsen, found quick success when their “Black Fam 2.5” broadcast began to air in 2019. It struck a nerve with the campus community and was soon supplemented by “The Welcome Table With Sydney and Tatum,” a prize-winning web series sponsored by the School of Humanities.
In both the podcast and the web series, the co-hosts interviewed scholars, activists and leaders in the Black community about a range of topics, including entrepreneurship, the Black Lives Matter movement and mental health. The web series additionally focused on accomplishments and pivotal moments in the lives of UCI’s Black faculty, students, staff and alumni.
Initially, “we just wanted to have open, candid conversations about issues on a college campus – how we’re all interconnected in a way,” Larsen says. “The goal was to make Black students feel like they weren’t alone on campus.”
The podcast and web series came at a particularly fraught moment in history when many people were reeling from the COVID-19 situation and ongoing problems of inequality and racial injustice.
UCI, with an undergrad population that’s just 3.4 percent Black, can be a lonely place for people of color, the women say. The campus “can be isolating because there are so few of us,” Charles says. “We’d hoped having this kind of platform would make people feel less alone.”
They knew they were on the right track, she adds, “when a Black student stopped me in a grocery store near campus after our first episode and said, ‘Oh, my God, I saw you on the video. I love it!’ Just having that reaction – from the demographic we were targeting – meant so much to us.”
The women, who earned bachelor’s degrees in literary journalism at UCI this year, are now pursuing master’s degrees at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Both hope to eventually work in broadcasting or some other journalistic field.
Their two-year stint in the livestreaming limelight would qualify as a dream come true for many career-oriented students. It certainly was for them.
“I didn’t see myself as a podcaster or broadcaster until faculty and staff at UCI stepped in to support me and my creative endeavors,” Charles says. “My time at UCI gave me the framework for my current life trajectory, and for that I will be forever grateful.”
It all began when literary journalism instructor Amy DePaul introduced the pair after she noticed they each shared a passion for diversity reporting. “I was impressed by some of the things they were working on,” notes DePaul, who knew Larsen and Charles from her reporting class.
“They were both hard workers, knowledgeable and mature,” she says. “Podcasting seemed like a perfect platform for them. But I don’t want to take credit for their success. They did the work themselves. I like and respect them very much for the time and effort they put into the project.”
On their website, the women describe “Black Fam 2.5” as a “student-run podcast focused on redefining the minority experience by ensuring to represent it accurately. By featuring Black stories and accomplishments, we aim to address topics that reflect the complexities and vibrancies of the Black community on campus.”
They add: “Our goal is to not only encourage minorities to tell their stories, but also pledge to tell narratives that inform others and inspire difficult conversations that matter.”
The first podcast, on Black entrepreneurship, received rave reviews. “It was crazy,” Charles recalls. “We got so many followers so quickly. It just blew up.”
“By featuring Black stories and accomplishments,
we aim to address topics that reflect the complexities
and vibrancies of the Black community on campus.”
In the beginning, they planned to feature only campus subjects – such as the low percentage of Black students at UCI – but national incidents intervened, such as the shooting death of jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis. “We expanded our coverage from more school-related topics to more wide-reaching ones,” Charles says.
Among those were Black womanhood, the disparities Black communities have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of Black representation in the media.
Podcasting became a favorite tool. Charles says they “jumped on this train at just the right time.” And they enjoyed gaining expertise in it, polishing their interviewing skills and learning how to engage an audience. “With podcasting, you can add more of your personality than you can with news-writing,” Larsen adds. “People can literally hear your passion, your voice, your drive.”
Their early podcasts drew the attention of Annabel Adams, executive director of marketing and communications for the School of Humanities.
By the summer of 2020, “The Welcome Table With Sydney and Tatum” was underway; it was a production of the school, funded by the dean’s office. Eventually, Adams secured a grant from the UCI Office of Inclusive Excellence to fund the project.
Larsen and Charles ultimately interviewed 25 UCI-affiliated individuals, including faculty, staff, undergraduates, graduate students and alumni.
The name of the series, “Welcome Table,” comes from a slavery-era gospel song that became a theme for the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s and was popularized in a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker. Also, Charles says, it references the period when slaves couldn’t eat at the table with the masters of the house, so they created a “welcome table” for themselves.
As the women outlined and developed the project, they decided to begin each episode of the series with a show-and-tell segment. Adams notes that the technique “helped put guests at ease before diving into the formal interview” and provided “inside glimpses into the interviewees’ lives that we would otherwise not get.” Charles once brought a photo of her great-grandmother; guests brought such items as a beloved guitar or favorite camera.
In addition to being popular with the campus community, the series won a gold award from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. It also spurred journalistic interest outside the campus. In April, Charles and Larsen went from interviewers to interviewees in a KABC-TV news segment about their accomplishments. “By giving [people] a mouthpiece, [the series] gives them the space to actually tell the truth that might not be so digestible,” Larsen told the station. “It’s just what it is. It’s the truth and might actually bridge some understanding in the long run.”
The duo’s broadcasting and podcasting experiences have also helped them narrow their career choices. “Before this, I didn’t realize I wanted to go into journalism,” Larsen says, laughing. “I changed my major five times.”
Now they’re sold on becoming part of the media. They’re also sold on continuing their collaborations. They’ve become best friends, business partners and USC roommates who are beginning the next phase of their journey.
Says Larsen: “I’m not sure what the future has in store, but the UCI community has given me the confidence to move forward, so I am hopeful.”
AMPLIFYING BLACK VOICES AND STORIES
The award-winning video web series “The Welcome Table With Sydney and Tatum” spotlights pivotal moments in the lives of 25 of UCI’s Black faculty, staff, students and alumni. “We’re creating spaces for in-depth conversations, and obviously, as the title of the series implies, we want our guests and our viewers to feel welcome,” said literary journalism major Tatum Larsen in 2020. Below and on the pages that follow are edited excerpts from four interviews.
Zani Meaders ’22, English
Larsen: So on the topic of being an English major, I think as fellow humanities majors, we know that the literary canon isn’t very inclusive sometimes. It mainly focuses on white men. Let’s be real: There’s not a lot of people of color and female representation. Has that been your observation as well?
Meaders: I believe there should be less tokenism. As far as my experience so far, it wasn’t until recently that I really realized how many books on this campus were by white men. I mainly took the creative writing courses, and within those courses, I got to read a wide variety of different perspectives from different people. I was really shocked when I first came to this campus, and I was like, “What do you mean this wasn’t written by a white, straight guy?” I was so surprised. Then I started taking more English courses, and I was like, “Oh, these are all the stories I was expecting.”
Charles: If you could choose any Black author or poet to add to the traditional canon of literature that’s circulated, who would it be and why?
Meaders: Let’s see. I would actually pick an author I have not read yet. She’s a fantasy writer, and I have really wanted to read her books. She’s been a New York Times bestseller for two years: Tomi Adeyemi.
Charles: I’ve heard a lot of good things about her work.
Meaders: I definitely want her to be on the canon roster, because not only do we need more diversity, but we need more diversity within genres as well. I want to be a fantasy writer, and we don’t really get to read a lot of fantasy books. We’re told to just go read Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. I’m like, “No, I’m good. I want to read different books.”
Larsen: What do you hope to add to the fantasy genre with your own writing?
Meaders: I just want to tell fun stories and allow people to enjoy them. I want to tackle important issues, but I honestly want that to be the background of my stories. I want readers to not even realize they’re learning something as they go through my fun story and just experience the world and characters I created.
Charles: On the subject of representation, what areas do you feel that UCI excels in? Have you found any safe spaces on campus?
Meaders: UCI excels in being willing to learn. From my other college friends on different campuses, it seems like those colleges aren’t as willing to listen to those students and work on those shortcomings as this school is. I’m not going to say UCI’s perfect because I don’t think any place can truly be perfect in terms of safe spaces and diversity. But I definitely think the school is trying to head in the right direction, and I really appreciate that.
As far as safe spaces on campus, there’s actually this creative writing club I go to every Wednesday. It’s so much fun. As a writer, I feel so safe there, just because no one’s forcing ideas down me. They’re not like, “Oh, because you’re African American, part of the Black community, you have to write this.” They’re like, “Oh, you’re working on this? That’s cool. How can I help you with that?” or “I’m also working on this; let’s work together.” So it’s just a real nice place, and I don’t feel like I’m judged based on my race.
Alonso Nichols, M.A. ’99, Spanish
Chief of photography, Tufts University
Larsen: What was your experience as a person of color, both in the realm of academia and also professionally? Did you have any significant challenges that you faced?
Nichols: UCI’s Spanish department is its own cultural space. That was kind of amazing to have an alternative space, as a person of color, where everything is shifted in a way. On the one hand, we’re still referencing ideas of Western culture in the Spanish language, but we’re also addressing the ways that Latin America, for example, has been transformed by colonialism.
We’re addressing indigenous ideas that remain in that culture and that literature but also African ideas and elements of culture that have migrated to the Americas. To have those things form in a different way was really wonderful for me and very freeing.
Professionally, a lot of the challenges that I’ve faced are similar to challenges that other professionals of color face. You’re always trying to understand the context of the workplace and who you’re working with. We’re dealing with structural inequality. I live in Boston, where, I think, there’s a lot less structural racism than there was where I grew up, in Louisville, Kentucky. On the other hand, it exists. Working with systems so that they’re more accountable is a challenge. Trying to be heard can sometimes be a challenge. As a man of color, there are times when I wonder, “If I’m being assertive, does that mean to someone that I’m being aggressive?”
If that’s the case, how do I manage my own feelings and resolve conflicts without being misinterpreted? There are things that I can’t get away with, right? This is also where, again, working in the humanities has really been an advantage, because it’s forced me to develop communication skills and interpersonal skills. Studying language and writing has been a critical tool for me to express my ideas.
Associate professor of African American studies
Larsen: What was the moment that you got really interested in some of your most prevalent research topics, like diaspora and feminist pedagogy?
Willoughby-Herard: So I was raised by activists. On my mother’s side, they were housing activists who are responsible for people being able to integrate public housing in Long Island, New York, after decades of sustained protest. My mom used to tell these stories about how, before they won, the Black people in Long Island lived in shacks. I mean, they just had terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible housing.
On my father’s side, they were third-world leftists. My stepfather left Haiti, where he was from, to escape the Duvalier regime. They were doing things to activists like my stepfather like putting them in coffins for two weeks at a time to try to just kill and torture and frighten people. So he left and was able to escape Haiti, and his whole family came with him, and then he moved to France and was able to pursue his education at the Sorbonne, so I am not a first-generation student.
I went to my mother’s undergraduate graduation when I was in third grade. Like, I took the picture of her walking across the stage. So some of the things that shaped my experience and the kind of work that I do have to do with being raised by activists and actually watching them. I didn’t come to it by accident, I didn’t fall into it, and I didn’t get recruited into it at college. My family struggled for education; they believed in education. They thought education was really important, and they were not willing to have the whiteness and white supremacy of higher education stop them from getting what they needed, because their idea was always, “We’re fighting because we’re trying to change conditions for our people.” I mean, that’s why I do what I do.
Larsen: We wanted to talk about your new role as the School of Humanities’ equity adviser for UCI’s ADVANCE Program for Equity & Diversity. What does that role entail, and why is it so important that you have this position at UCI?
Willoughby-Herard: The equity adviser has two different genealogies, or lineages, on this campus. One comes through a National Science Foundation grant for the ADVANCE Program, which is trying to expand gender equity and make sure that women earning Ph.D.s are not deprived of the opportunities to study and research and have tenure-track jobs and get tenured.
The second genealogy – and I say this with all sincerity – comes out of the heart of Vice Chancellor Doug Haynes.
I wasn’t here when he came here, because he hired me, but he just had a heart for transforming this place and making sure that there are faculty members who actually give a damn about Black people. He had to fight for that, and he’s built this incredible infrastructure that has to figure out how to respond to the false constraints and limitations that were put in place when Proposition 209 was passed.
So what VC Haynes did was set up programs, programs, programs, programs. If the law is written like this, what can we do to still create pathways that recruit people who will finish their training and stay in higher education – so that when you go into your classes, your professors have more experiences with or commitment to students who are the actual student body of the state of California?
And I’m just down to be in the struggle around that. I’m really serious about making sure people don’t get denied the opportunity to study what they came here to study.
Felix Jean-Louis III
2020-21 American Council of Learned Societies
Emerging Voices Fellow
Department of European Languages & Studies
Larsen: I feel like we tend to just focus on American history, but there’s a whole other world out there for Black history that goes beyond the bounds of the Americas.
Jean-Louis: And this is actually what I teach. I’m applying for jobs now because in academia, you have to apply the year before. So I’ve written so many times that I’m a historian of the African diaspora, looking at people of African descent in various locations. Because we do think a lot, especially in this country, about the United States’ African Americans. Just the term “African American” says that there’s more than just people in the United States. The Americas are North America, South America, Mesoamerica. So all of these people of African descent are African Americans. So there’s some tension. What I like to do is draw connections and divergences. In one of the classes I teach, I start off by saying there’s no such thing as being Black.
There are many ways to be Black. It’s not only in this country that you have Black people from different regions and in different classes; it’s transnational as well. And within each country, there are multiple ways of being Black, or being of African descent. African Americans in this country have a lot of power. They have the power of the United States behind them, whatever the level of oppression we face in this country. We still have a Barack Obama, a Colin Powell, a Condoleezza Rice – with all that power. Same thing, you could say, with Martin Luther King. So it’s important for us to sort of look out, because we can look to Brazil and see a similar reality to what we’re living here.
Larsen: What do you hope to do in the future, both personally and professionally?
Jean-Louis: Personally, to become a better guitar player, be a better dad to my daughter. Professionally, I come to academia as a form of activism.
I tell my students that the people at Harvard are not smarter than you. They just got better training. My job here is to get you better trained, because we want you in those positions, because that’s how we can create the society that we want.
If more people of color are in positions of power, some of the issues that we have will resolve themselves. If more women are in positions of power, some of those issues will resolve themselves. And so this is what I’m trying to do. We need all kinds of change. We need the people who are going to protest in the street, the people who are going to build unions and the professors who are going to say to students, “Hey, wake up to your reality. Hey, learn to make your voice clearer, sharper, more informed. Hey, this is how you write.” These things, I think, will make a better citizen to help change the world – at least how I want to see it. That’s my power, you know.
Larsen: That’s beautiful.