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How Kellee Edwards Became The Host Of Her Own Travel Show

This woman is breaking barriers one trip at a time.

BOSS UP

The first time Kellee Edwards fell in love with travel was in the backseat of her parent's car. Buildings faded to beach scenery on her left, and neighborhoods gave way to mountain views on her right as they drove up the 405 towards San Simeon, home of the historic landmark Hearst Castle.

"My parents weren't able to buy plane tickets and fly around the world, so they provided what they could, which was the foundation—and a very important one at that. They opened me up to having the curiosity for more."

They probably, at the time, didn't imagine that their baby girl would one day fly herself around the world as a pilot, one of few black women to do so since Bessie Coleman pioneered her way into a plane in 1921. They likely didn't expect her to become a certified scuba diver, or foresee her breaking barriers as the first African-American woman to host her own show on the Travel Channel.

Courtesy of Kelle Edwards

Her list of accomplishments? Amazing.

And what she's done as a black woman in a white, male-dominated industry where black people are often counted out despite our estimated $50 billion annual contributions is nothing short of inspiring. But neither defines who she is. Instead, they speak to deeper characteristics that have enabled the adventure traveler to land on our television screens. She's a woman who is resilient and fearless, nonconforming and quite frankly, just plain badass.

I met Kellee at a small airport in Riverside in front of a private hangar owned by her mentor, also notably African-American. She's dressed in her signature outfit—green shorts, khaki tank top, jean vest, and a Ruby Red lip, full of vibrant energy that I instantly recognize from the numerous self-produced videos of her solo travels that grace the very same YouTube channel—the same videos that helped to get her in front of producers and television execs.

Courtesy of Kelle Edwards

Kellee's success didn't happen overnight. In fact, it's taken seven years for her to build what's just starting to get major press. Fresh out of California State University with a broadcast journalism degree, Kellee began putting her on-camera skills to the test. She worked as an entertainment reporter, snagging red carpet and junket interviews until one day she decided that keeping abreast of the latest gossip was depleting her energy.

So after five years, she quit.

"For me, personally, I just wanted to feel fulfilled and I was like, what type of journalism would feed my soul? I love traveling and adventure, is there a such thing as a travel journalist? I really wasn't sure."

She didn't wait to find out. She created what she didn't see.

Courtesy of Kelle Edwards

On weekdays, she worked in banking over New Accounts and Loans to fund her weekend travel adventures. "People have to understand that dream, you still have to keep a roof over your head. I moved out at 18 and I haven't been back to my parent's house. And so I had to work. You have to do what you have to do."

She saved her coins and jetset around the country, packing her tripod and camera to record her journeys along the way. Sometimes she did it solo, other times she bribed friends to come along and play videographer. Each visual was uploaded to her YouTube channel for the world to see.

But Kellee knew that mediocre wasn't going to cut it. If she wanted to stand out in the crowd of travel adventurists, she'd have to go hard or stay home. "One day I was like, you've got to up the ante a little bit. What's going to separate you from all of these people?"

While sitting at the Burbank airport waiting for her flight, Kellee caught a glimpse of a tiny airplane in the distance, taking off and landing amongst the larger 747s that flanked the runway.

"I found out later that's called a touch and go," she says with enthusiasm. "You literally touch your wheels on the ground and go back up and turn around, call the traffic pattern, and come back and land. I started doing research on taking flight lessons and I found out you can do something called a discovery flight, which is about $100 at any local airport. I won't lie; I got sick when I first went up. I'm used to being in normal airplanes where there's pressurization, but the views were so amazing, I was like whatever this feeling is I don't care, I'm going to figure out. And I was hooked! So I just decided to continue and get my pilot's license."

Courtesy of Kelle Edwards

With a scuba diving certification already under her belt and a new shiny pilot's license to match, Kellee found the sweet spot to her brand, and the very thing that separated her from her fellow travel journalists.

"I was like okay Kellee, that's your thing: travel and adventure by land, air, and sea. That's going to be your niche. And it's freaking worked. Being an African American pilot is very few and far in between, and being a woman period in aviation is even more minimal. So I definitely started to get the attention of people, and I was like I'd love to have a show on Travel Channel; that's like a one in a million chance."

Three years in, it seemed as if her dream of landing a show on the major travel network was no longer going to be a goal she pinned on her vision board. She signed her first deal with a production company, but six months later, all went quiet.

"No one really knew what to do with me," Kellee says. "I was very unique, so people were like yeah what you're doing is really cool, but at the end of the day this is a business, we have to see how this is going to translate in other ways."

It's not hard to imagine why, despite her infectious and daring personality, that mainstream had a hard time trying to box her in.

Courtesy of Kelle Edwards

"Listen, I'm a black woman and very proud of that. When you see me, you don't think I'm anything else. There's nothing about me that looks like I'm mixed with anything else. I love my chocolate skin, and I glisten and I glow, but seriously I feel like when you are one of the firsts, people are a bit selective in how they proceed. But what's funny is now they see this is working. And that's okay. I had so many no's—a yes one day and a no the next, it can mess with your mind. It was more emotionally draining—all of the ups and downs of being so close to something and then it being taken away from you. That was the test for myself because I could've easily given up."

Those moments are often where dreams become deferred, only to never actualize. The fight gets hard, damn hard. The sacrifices began to feel more like suffering, and progress can turn to pain when things don't go according to plan. For Kellee, it was yet another test—how bad did she really want it, and how hard was she willing to go?

"I was raised to believe I was special and unique, and so I'm very stubborn and I'm very persistent. You can tell me no if you want to, but I'm going to find a way. Even Travel Channel says we don't know why you're so surprised because you really had a mission to get a show with us. And it's happening.

"But for me it's like yes, I always saw that as the vision and I'm like if I keep doing what I'm doing, at some point they're not going to be able to ignore me."

Courtesy of Kelle Edwards

At the time, the Kellee Set Go brand was already gaining momentum. She initially started working with tourism boards and hotel chains, who would provide accommodations in exchange for video content, which helped to build up her personal website. As her brand grew, she also connected with travel PR companies and brands, and was later able to monetize those relationships.

"You have to build your content before you get paid, and that sometimes will take years. These brands will not mess with you unless they feel like they can get a return on investment (ROI). Once you start working with one brand, you can take it to the next one and then you go from there."

The brand has enabled Kellee to negotiate on her own terms when partnering with bigger companies—the connections with brands that took years to build relationships with are here to stay, she's not diluting her fast-talking, quirky personality, and she's going to rock her bright lipstick and short-cropped hair both on land and under water, thank you very much. And if those deal breakers can't be negotiated, she always has the brand that she built to fall back on.

"I could have a Travel Channel show today and nothing tomorrow, but I'll always have Kellee Set Go, and I make sure that it will always be mine, and never be owned by anyone else."

Courtesy of Kelle Edwards

The recent airing of Mysterious Islands has positioned Kellee at the center of a much-needed conversation on the importance of representation on the predominately white network, and in the travel sector as a whole.

"I have been told that they have never seen new talent with a new show get so much press in the history of the Travel Channel," Kellee confesses. "I know the conversation is changing. And I've been able to kind of like lock in a full sector of being an adventure traveler who's a woman and who's black, and so I made that my niche. And I want people to come up behind me and do the same thing and do it better. I'm not over here just trying to keep everything for myself. I think there's room for all of us. I hope I'm not the last black face that you see with a television show on Travel Channel. I hope that there are many more to come."

We hope so, too. And more importantly, we hope that the change doesn't stop with television. Because that same brown girl who was hard to sell because of her image, who fearlessly fought for a seat at the table, deserves to one day be beautifully packaged as a collectible for many more little brown girls to see that yeah, anything is possible.

Learn more about Kelle Edwards' career journey in the series Dope Chicks, Dope Jobs below.

Catch Kellee as the host of Mysterious Islands on Travel Channel. Follow her journey on Instagram @kelleesetgo.

Originally published on January 18, 2018

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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