“The biggest things for writers is figuring out when have I paid my dues and when do I know my worth? It’s important to pay your dues but also know your worth, because you don’t want to get suckered.”-Sofiya Ballin
I met Sofiya Ballin during my sophomore year of college in Poetry as Performance, a theater class taught by the renowned Dr. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon. She was a friend of a friend, a senior journalism major and already pretty well-known as a journalist. In addition to studying the craft, she was also a writer for JUMP magazine, blogged for The Huffington Post, wrote freelance for ebony.com, and interned at the Philadelphia Daily News. The two words that come to mind when I think about the Sofiya I knew briefly in college are busy and hardworking. And those words still apply today.
During her last year of school, The Philadelphia Inquirer scouted local colleges for new journalistic talent, including Temple’s School of Media and Communication. Given her track record, it is no surprise that Sofiya’s name was on the list of recommendations. She met with the Inquirer’s representative and was encouraged to pitch some stories to them after she graduated. Sofiya ended up writing a few pieces for the Inquirer as a freelancer and they loved her work so much, they invited her to interview with the executive editors. About a month later, when she was offered the Features Reporter position, Sofiya was happy but also a little scared. The monotony she experienced during her internship with Daily News had turned her off to the idea of working 9-5 in a newsroom. While freelancing gave her freedom creatively, it offered no stability and she was afraid that she would wind up stuck in the stability of this new position. Luckily, this was not the case.
“It’s been a whirlwind. Recently I came in, it was a regular day, I had done an interview for another story, came in, sat down, I was super tired, then I got a call from Councilmen Kenyatta’s office that DMX is coming down, because he wants to donate to a homeless shelter or something like that, and they want me to come cover it, and he’s gonna be there in an hour. So having to put makeup on, do some research, figure it all out, then run down there and be prepared to ask this man questions of substance. So it’s exciting, it’s thrilling, and I think because of that it’s made me a really good listener, a really good storyteller, and a really good conversationalist. I’m glad that it has happened in this way. I think journalism and my job is so rigorous it’s kind of been like a bootcamp, now I feel like I can do anything. I was really scared of getting trapped in it and it being mundane but it hasn’t been that. And I’ve been able to find spaces in which I can be creative”
As a Features Reporter, Sofiya is responsible for a minimum of two stories a week, some of which are assigned to her and some that she pitches to the editors. After about a year of getting acclimated to pacing, Sofiya felt the urge to “spice it up a little bit.” She started a photo series called “Style and Vibes” where she did fashion features at the Odunde Festival and Roots Picnic. In 2015 she was asked to write something for Black History Month. She said, “It’s like when you have that plastic Christmas tree in the basement and when Christmas comes around, you whip it out. That’s how I felt the coverage of Black History Month was.” So, she did it their way that first year and the following year Sofiya pitched something more nuanced and innovative.
#BlackHistoryUntold is a project that focuses on Black people telling personal stories about Black history that they did not learn in school, where they learned it, and the impact it had on their lives. A new story is posted each day in February (and a couple in January too because, as Sofiya says, “Black history is more than just one month. It’s everyday”). The first installment featured 30+ stories by Philadelphians ranging from celebrities such as Black Thought, Jesse Williams, and Jazmine Sulivan, to local students, artists, and political figures. “It made me realize what could happen to your self esteem if you don’t have a strong understanding of who you are and your history. And if the first time you ever learn about your history, and the only thing you ever learn, is that it started in bondage.” While her editors were excited about this ambitious undertaking, Sofiya did face some struggle from those who thought she should diversify and get stories from non-Black people as well. But, Sofiya argued, “The last thing I’m going to do is drop a project about Black people where Black people aren’t telling their own stories.”
The project was a huge success, gaining both local and national recognition. “I knew it was important,” Sofiya told me, “but it didn’t know it would get this big.” The success of #BlackHistoryUntold was merely a reflection of the hard work and dedication that Sofiya put into this project which started way before February. She compiled her dream list and began reaching out for stories in November. The importance of the project really started to hit Sofiya when the stories began rolling in. And then the real work began. Getting 30 other people who are not journalist to adhere to deadlines, the editing, revisions, and asking people to flush out or refocus their stories was just a portion of the work. “It’s 30 stories but it feels like 80,” she admitted. Sofiya also made sure she had a hand in each part of this project from the writing to the photoshoots to the social media plan. For this year’s editions, which focused on Black Joy, Sofiya transcribed phone interviews instead of having people write them theirself.
“There was a lot of going back and forth. Even this time with Sonia Sanchez. I had a colleague help with some of the interviews. She did hers and it was great, but when she came in for her photoshoot Sanchez talked about how her joy came from her father finally saying, ‘I understand why you did the work that you did, and I’m proud of you.’ Her father was in his 90s when he said that and she was just crying, talking to me about that. And to see this woman who’s a legend, who pioneered black studies do that was just amazing. There was a lot of going back and forth and I had to build up the confidence to go to someone like Sonia Sanchez and say ‘I think this is your actual story, I think this is where the emotion is.’ When you write there’s logos, pathos, and ethos and I find that pathos is the most effective because you’re dealing with people’s emotions.”
When I asked Sofiya how this project affected her wallet she said she did receive a bonus for her work the first time around but, “In the end it was an investment because the project did so well more people wanted me to speak on panels and I was getting paid gigs and it increased my visibility. I didn’t think about how well it was gonna do for me as a reporter.” The work that Sofiya puts into everything she does has also given her a reputation that makes others excited to work with her. In addition to writing, Sofiya also makes a living organizing two incredible events, Wuk Party and The Electric Lady Series. My main takeaway from this conversation with Sofiya is how far something as simple as an excellent work ethic can take you,especially when coupled with the fearless pursual of your creative ideas.
Photo Credit: PhoByMo