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Nneka Julia Is Giving Women A Powerful Voice With Her New Podcast ‘The Layover’

If pictures are worth a thousand words, then how much are words worth?

BOSS UP

The pathway to manifesting our ancestors' wildest dreams, is first led by becoming a living embodiment of their legacy. For storyteller, photographer, and podcast creator, Nneka Julia, it's the weight of three consciousness, "a Black American consciousness, a Nigerian consciousness, and a Cambodian consciousness," that when fused together, ignites the purpose and vision behind her work.

Being the child of immigrant parents, Nneka has been surrounded by examples of resilience that have informed every aspect of her creative pursuits. As a teen, Nneka and her family traveled to Cambodia, her mother's home country, to visit after the passing of her grandparents. It was on this trip that she'd pick up her camera for the first time, and everything would shift, "That trip really changed my life; it changed the trajectory of knowing what I was actually interested in doing. At that point in time, I knew what it meant to be able to capture my family on camera and memorialize them in that way."

Courtesy of Nneka Julia

Nneka discovered the art of audio storytelling through her father's cassette collection of motivational speakers and self-help gurus like Tony Robbins, Les Brown, and Zig Ziglar. In a fateful twist, she would find herself utilizing this same form of storytelling, on her very own roster of podcasts, Passing Through and The Layover. While listening, you'll spot the unique sonic experience the podcasts offer: it's immersive. It's poignant and captivating. It uproots you from whatever location you happen to find yourself in while listening, and teleports you into exotic destinations and the memories that were made there.

The single-narrative podcast is filled with life lessons and tangible anecdotes that strip down the highly-curated nature of travel glamour shots, revealing the humanity in each story Nneka tells, "I think when we're online, it's easy to feel like everyone's life is so perfect and that we're alone. All this stuff is so much more important to me than the image; it's that you don't feel alone."

The mission that Nneka fulfills with her platform is necessary, especially at a time where a global pandemic has warped our sense of time and connection is hard to come by. Fortunately, this time has allowed Nneka to reset and share new stories in the upcoming fourth season of Passing Through, that reflect all of the life lessons and updates that have unfolded, "I'm very excited for the next season of Passing Through because it's going to cover quite a bit. I finally caught up with myself in terms of the stories, these are very recent things, this upcoming season is very present."

xoNecole: What was the inspiration behind starting your podcast, ‘Passing Through’?

Nneka Julia: It started as a way to archive my thoughts, feelings and life lessons learned along the way from all the different people I've met and different places I've been. But now it's turned into this vehicle for people to understand that they're not alone in what they are going through.

I was tired of seeing the same things. When you see people curate and present an image of themselves that completely doesn't match what they're going through at the time, it can kind of warp your sense of worth. So how do I create a tribe in this digital space and how do I keep it real with myself while I'm doing it? We're all kind of archiving our lives online, but what if it was whipped out? What would I have to show my children? For me, legacy, become this ever-present idea and thought, and the things that I continue to go back to are written word and audio. I have to be able to create in this space not just for me, but for the people who come after me.

"For me, legacy, become this ever-present idea and thought, and the things that I continue to go back to are written word and audio. I have to be able to create in this space not just for me, but for the people who come after me."

​Courtesy of Nneka Julia

Coming from a Nigerian-Cambodian background, how has your heritage and being born to immigrant parents informed your work?

It has informed every aspect of it. I try to live by the saying that "to whom much is given, much is required," because my parents have given me so much. Not just to their children but to their community, and there's never been this ask for recognition or reward. For me, it's like I have their bones, but I'm wearing my flesh. That's really what it feels like. I owe it to them to carry us to the next level, tell their story to the world, and carry the legacy of our family.

Why is it important for you to share your space for others’ stories to be told on your secondary podcast, ‘The Layover’?

It was totally a byproduct of the live show we did for Passing Through in 2019. Now that I think about it, it was pretty wild to do: we were eight months into the podcast, people didn't know what the show was going to be, I could have Fyre Festival'd the whole thing. But it sold out at this great spot in Manhattan. I invited six black women to share their stories on stage, and it felt like church. I knew with the live show I didn't want to center myself, why not give other Black women a chance to share their stories?

For me, I've been to different storytelling shows and they've all been extremely white spaces, where the storytellers felt like they had to make people laugh and crack a joke. And I hated that. So I wanted to do away with that; I wanted people to feel like they could cry on stage, and feel whatever the story made them feel. Seeing that live with Passing Through, I thought we could do that on a week to week basis with The Layover, where people aren't scared to be vulnerable. cry, crack jokes, and run the full spectrum of who we are as Black women and WOC.

How has your work evolved since embodying photography to where you are now in the space of written and audio storytelling? 

I didn't realize that my creativity wasn't medium-specific, I didn't realize my creativity could come out in writing, it could come out in audio, photos, and multiple different ways; when I started off, I thought photography was it. As time went on and I started to travel more for pleasure and for work, I started to meet so many people and there are worlds within those people. You're not just meeting a driver in Bali, you're talking about his mother and his daughter, and where he's from and what his dreams are. Those things stay with you and it affects you. And I felt like photography, yes it was wonderful but if pictures are worth a thousand words, then how much are words worth?

Courtesy of Nneka Julia

"If pictures are worth a thousand words, then how much are words worth?"

With travel being such an intricate part of the work you do and stories you tell, what have you learned from this season of stillness?

It's been a lot. I've never shied away from myself or solitude. So I can't say that this time has been incredibly difficult. Thankfully, this time has been a reset period. Before it used to be just "hustle, hustle, hustle," but now, we're living in strange times, so it's like you have to listen to yourself. Finding a comfortable routine has helped, but also finding solace that you're going to want to break those habits sometimes but you can always get back on the horse. Be graceful with yourself, but be targeted with hitting the small things like taking a walk, writing 50 words, reading two pages - those are my goals. And if I hit it, it's a success, if I go over, it's even more of a success. The atomic things add up, they all compound.

Although the future is so uncertain right now, what does the next frontier for you look like?

For me, the next step (at least in my career) would be adapting these stories into larger-than-life works. Something that speaks to more than just Instagram, something that engages all the senses. I absolutely love audio and written work, but film is all of both of things in one. So I'd love to and am planning to branch off into film, with the ultimate goal to tell my parents' story at scale as well. Communities are niching down. Anytime we go super digital, there's always the antithesis which is analog. With my future work, I want to go analog, so people are able to touch something, feel something, and have something.

For more of Nneka Julia, follow her on Instagram and check out her podcast, Passing Through.

Featured image courtesy of Nneka Julia

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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Featured image by Shutterstock

This article is in partnership with Staples.

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