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Black women leaders headline Chicago Ideas Week event
Filmmaker Lena Waithe at Ideas Week
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2017-10-25

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Chicago Ideas Week reached a milestone this year with the first all-Black women panel to appear on one stage at its "A Seat at the Table: Finding Equal Footing through Storytelling" event Oct. 19 at the Harris Theater.

Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan ( 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism ) moderated discussions with Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Elaine Welteroth, Uber Chief Brand Officer Bozoma Saint John and writer/actress Lena Waithe ( 2017 Emmy Award winner, alongside Aziz Ansari, for writing the Thanksgiving episode of Master of None ).

Givhan kicked off the discussion by asking Welteroth what place Teen Vogue has within political conversations, with Givhan mentioning the December 2016 Lauren Duca piece "Donald Trump is gaslighting America." Welteroth said that, for too long, young women had to choose between fashion/beauty/pop culture and news/politics.

Welteroth said that since she came to Teen Vogue five years ago, various developments forced the publication to change direction, including adding more diverse voices to the editorial table. She said print and digital serve each other and due to the Duca article they sold more subscriptions that month than the previous 11 months.

In terms of her public profile, Welteroth said she does not think about it much, noting that Instagram is a great platform to tell visual and written stories about one's life and, through those, platform readers know who she is and her perspectives. Welteroth added that Teen Vogue is about equality, human rights, the empowerment of young women and the building of future thought leaders.

Then, Givhan asked Saint John how she felt about her profile piece appearing in the New York Times style section instead of the business one. Saint John said it excited her because Black women in corporate America are not give the spotlight in terms of their style. She noted there will be many opportunities to show her business acumen via the media.

In terms of her Ghanian roots, Saint John said her parents were adamant about maintaining said roots—which was hard for her when she was younger because she wanted to do things like eat pizza on a Friday night, like her friends. However, she said she now appreciates what her parents instilled in her.

Saint John added that she tried to fit into corporate culture in terms of her outfits, including pearl earrings and khaki pants, but it did not last long. She called that period of time "tra-gic" ( as two words ). Changing her workplace attire to her authentic self enabled her to be freer and more open with everyone around her, Saint John added, who also emphasized that culture drives business.

Saint John ( who added that her daughter inspires her ) also talked about working at Uber, saying that after a conversation with Uber board member Arianne Huffington, she decided to work for the company, in part, to help solve Silicon Valley's diversity and inclusion problems. Saint John explained that she recently got certified as an Uber driver and will be driving for them in the San Francisco Bay area.

Givhan then asked Waithe ( who started the conversation by asking where the queer Brown people were in the audience ) about the genesis of the Thanksgiving episode. At one point, Waithe said the episode was close to her reality, except for having an Indian boy be her best friend who spent Thanksgiving with her family.

Waithe added that artists have to be extremely specific in their storytelling. People respond positively, Waithe noted, to shows like Atlanta, Insecure, Dear White People and Queen Sugar because of that specificity—something she said she did with her upcoming Showtime drama The Chi. Her mission is to find people that tell nuanced, diverse stories. She said mentoring, which she is already doing, is the key to lengthening the list of diverse storytellers so the television and movie industries are a true reflection of society.

Although Waithe is now known as an actor, she said it was not something she pursued because being the greatest television writer is her goal. Walthe said the most important thing is to be great at one thing first and then tackle the next thing.

During the group conversation, Waithe spoke about her love for her girlfriend, Alana Mayo. Waithe said that for her living publicly as a couple is a form of protest and that being an out Black woman in the industry is helping things move forward. In terms of fashion, Waithe said she wears up-and-coming designers ( including that evening's jacket by a queer woman of color ) to help them launch their careers.

Welteroth noted how lucky young people are to have so many examples of what female leadership looks like and that they inspire her every day.

Singer/poet Jamila Woods closed out the event with her new single "Blk Girl Soldier," from her debut solo album HEAVN.

See www.chicagoideas.com/ for more information .


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