Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
Charlie: So gal-dem is a media platform, a magazine which is written and produced by women and non binary people of colour. Our remit is platforming those voices because we identified that there was a problem in terms of who is currently represented in the media landscape in the UK and beyond.
Esther: How long has it been going for now?
Charlie: Gal-dem’s been going since 2015. We launched in Bristol originally and we had a launch in London as well. There was just a big gaggle of us at the beginning, it was all led from this Facebook group where we congregated, and we had the sort of IRL meetings as well.
But we just, we felt this urge to create something that was for us by us, but also for other people to engage with as well, and that was our tagline from the very beginning actually, which was this magazine created by women of colour and non-binary of people of colour, but it’s for everyone because our words are valuable, and they should be consumed and digested by the wider population.
Esther: And how many of you actually work on it at the moment?
Charlie: So since we switched from being a volunteer organisation to being a professional business in March of this year, we have five or six members of full time staff, and then we have about 4-5 freelancers. It’s a big group of people for a very young start-up.
Because we went from being huge, and we’ve gradually sort of shrunk down to the point where it was just the people who were – because everyone at the beginning had different jobs, and some of us decided not to pursue media as a career or they’d already decided like when they were 16 or whatever they want to be a doctor, so obviously they couldn’t pick up a full time job when it came around. And so now they’re columnists for us.
But we still have a lot of people that we needed to bring on right at the very beginning because we didn’t want to be in a situation where anyone felt like they’d been left behind.
Esther: Is it advertising money that’s turned that around, or have you had investment?
Charlie: We’ve had investment, we had an investment round in 2018. And that was basically all thanks to Liv Little, who’s our founder. She poured her heart and soul into developing a business plan, making it clear to investors that we were financially viable, and I think we got investment from four different sources in the end including Roxane Gay, who’s the author of Proud Feminist, from an organisation called Backstage Capital, who are based in the US, and they exclusively invest in organisations run by people of colour and the LGBTQI community. And then there were two other investors.
Esther: It must be quite nice to have investors that are looking specifically for businesses like that. You think five years ago that wouldn’t have happened, people rarely got any funding at all.
Charlie: Yeah it’s really hard and I remember reading a news piece that The Guardian published in maybe 2005, and it was about some of the struggles that black newspapers and magazines had been going through in the 90s in terms of holding on to advertisement.
Also our business model is based on brand collaboration, but we also are developing a subscription model. We have to think of a multitude of different ways in which we can keep ourselves going. It’s not going to be easy.
This first series is alright because we have investment, and we I think are doing exceptionally well in terms of the brands that we’re working with which, as far as I’m aware, I don’t think we’ve had to tap into the investment money which is brilliant. But yes it’s going to be a hard journey, I have absolutely no doubt, and I don’t know what needs to be done but it’s a shame that there isn’t more support for independent magazines out there, especially ones that are doing as valuable work as gal-dem is.
Esther: You print an annual issue, I think it’s been going for four years now. What made you decide to go into print rather than just be an online platform, because print is obviously quite expensive?
Charlie: So yeah. Liv had to go into her overdraft to print our first ever issue. Yeah we’ve only printed a thousand copies I think. But we’ve now, I think the latest one we’ve printed eight thousand, which is a big deal for us.
So the reason why we decided to go into print was just to, or the reason what I wanted to go into print certainly was because we wanted to historicise what we were doing. We knew that we were doing something incredibly special by that point, we’d been going for a year.
We knew that people would take us more seriously if we had a print publication. And we also wanted to do something to hold on to, to remember this incredible time where we were doing something that was pretty unprecedented for young people from the type of backgrounds that we were from.
Esther: So people will one day look back and hold those magazines and say, this was where it started.
Charlie: Yeah and I even have my own little collection which I sort of paw over every now and again! But yeah I think now what’s changed with the print is that we finally have the time and energy and the space to make something that is as beautiful and accurate and just as precise as I always wanted it to be, because before it was always just a bit of a rush. We didn’t have a lot of money, we couldn’t pay for a subeditor, so it was all us sort of pulling it together at the last minute.
But this print issue is sick! They’re all good, but this one is really good.
Esther: And are there challenges that, when the structure of the business got formalised, are there challenges that came up?
Charlie: You know what, it was actually for me personally on the editorial side and obviously it’s different for me because, yes I am doing editorial and although my role from the beginning has always crossed over into what we do as a business. But for me the transition has been pretty easy.
The only thing that’s been difficult for me personally has been going from being this kind of remote manager to managing people in real life, and also having to expect more from people because they are now my employees. And that has been a really interesting thing to learn about, and I didn’t ever think I’d be the type of person who’d be reading management self help books, but here we are! I’m naturally very conflict avoidant, and I like getting things done, and I don’t mind telling people what to do, but when I know that they perhaps don’t want to do things I’m telling them to do, that’s what we have problems.
So yeah it’s all good, the team is brilliant. We’ve had very few issues so far. It’s just about continuously analysing where we’re at, how we’re going to improve, how we’re going to convince people to keep on working with us as we hopefully move away from the era where diversity is just sort of a buzzword.
Esther: Yeah that was actually going to be my next question is, what next? What does gal-dem look like in five years?
Charlie: I mean, we’re still sort of developing that. I’m not going to lie and say that we have it all figured out. We are sort of going to sit down and intending on sitting down, and sort of plot out what the next five years looks like for us. In the short term, it’s about really refining our processes.
I love a good spreadsheet! I like being organised in terms of my work, and I like breaking good stories, doing good journalism. I think what gal-dem has nailed so far is our opinion pieces, we’re very precise, we’re very political.
People know us for our discourse about race, but I would love us to start doing more investigative work. I would love us to start to be known for our high standards of journalism, as soon as we’re in a financial position where we’re able to employ a full time subeditor, employ someone to fact check, copy editing. We’re working towards that.
And I’m trying so hard to make sure our standards remain high and are high. But it’s hard.
Esther: Is there stuff you’ve learned from maybe bigger publishers – because this isn’t your first job in media by any stretch – are there things you’ve learned from working at bigger publishers that you’re going to do, or not do with gal-dem?
Charlie: Yeah definitely, there’s loads of things, I mean it’s mainly the not do unfortunately. I think one of the main things for me, and maybe this is youth and inexperience or whatever, but when I was coming up in the industry, I am naturally quite a shy person, despite doing a talk on stage. I think you can still be shy and still do talks on stage!
And I really really struggled with the way in which journalism means that you have to go into these newsrooms, and be essentially ignored by senior journalists who are too busy to pay any attention to you or to help you. And the way in which you never really told exactly what it is that you need to do to become a journalist. And obviously now I know that there’s not a hard and fast rule. Like you just do have to scrabble away, and hope that it’s going to lead to something.
But when it comes to our internship scheme, that was one of the key things I tried to impress on all the interns that came through with us is like, ask us questions, we’re here to help you. Don’t ever be afraid to raise your voice. We’re going to do everything we can to support you, and help you get by in this industry. I’m going to introduce you to a bunch of people, and that’s because I had a few people throughout the years, throughout the many many – I think I once worked out I did six months in unpaid work experience at various publications across the country. And yeah I think out of those publications, there was only a few people who actually took the time to have a conversation with you.
It sounds pathetic, but you know, I think it’s good to be honest about these things. I’d be crying in the toilets on my internship at The Guardian, but everyone was like, ‘Oh congrats Charlie, you’re doing so well,’ and I couldn’t talk to anyone, I was too scared, and no one was talking to me either.
So it made me feel so uncomfortable, and I was on this panel probably a few years ago at this point with an editor at The Evening Standard, and I remember her saying, journalism isn’t for the faint hearted, you need to be cut throat, you need to be this, you need to be that.
And I was like, but why does it need to be like that, why aren’t you helping out those people who are a bit shy but might have excellent ideas if you just had the time to talk to them? And I think there does need to be journalists who are confident and bold and brave enough to work on the really tough stories that involve doing door knocks, and that kind of thing. I think that has its place.
But I do think that as we’ve seen with the conversations around Ben Stokes and Gareth Thomas recently, who are both people who have been really wronged by journalists I think mainly from tabloids who have sort of come into their lives and brought up really bad memories, or told their parents things that they should have been able to tell them themselves. That sort of journalist needs to die out in my opinion.
I just don’t think it helps anyone. It’s salacious, it’s gossipy. Yes it might get a lot of clicks, but it’s not ethical. And every paper has ethics, so to just be like, oh it does you know it doesn’t matter, it’s just journalism…that’s not a good enough excuse for me. There are certain things where they would draw the line, and their line needs to be beyond the point that it currently is, in my opinion.
Esther: You mentioned the internship you offered, which I think started this year. So can you tell us a bit about that, I think it’s in association with PressPad?
Charlie: Yes. So PressPad is an amazing new organisation who helps young journalists who are trying to get into the industry, and they’re doing an internship somewhere and they can’t afford the rent in whatever area it is, it might just be London I’m not sure.
And so it was really important for us to provide rent support if needed for the interns that we are working with. We pay them a London living wage, just because it’s about that thing of accessibility.
I shouldn’t have been in a position when I left university where I was living in a property guardianship, which is basically where you live in a place that is going to be demolished, or it’s going to be turned into flats or something, to sort of keep it safe. And you’re given really cheap rent, but there’s absolutely no security. You could be kicked out within a month’s notice, and it tends to be old hospital buildings.
I actually got quite a cushy one to be fair, I had a little basic en suite because it was an old hostel, so it was kind of made for people, but a lot of the people I know didn’t live in ones like that. And yeah we got a massive mouse infestation, and you had to bring all of your own furniture. They didn’t provide you with anything. There was no security. Anyway, I was living there, and I was working in a pub in the evenings, and I’d do work experience in the daytimes, and it was just so draining.
And it’s not the worst thing in the world. I was still incredibly lucky to have fallen into a pub job which paid a decent wage, but in an ideal world, I would have been able to just be doing my work experience, or doing my internship, and I would’ve been paid to do it, and I wouldn’t have had to work myself to the bone picking up shifts in the evening.
But it’s a real shame that the industry standard at the moment still leans in the favour of free work for people coming through, and as we all know, it means that only certain demographics of people in the main are able to access it.
Esther: So for you to offer that, to almost pass that back now, must be amazing.
Charlie: Yeah. I remember saying, interestingly I was rereading my JDF bursary application the other day, because I was passing on info onto someone else who’s applying for it, and one of the things I wrote in that was, I want to become the editor of a publication. And when I become the editor of a publication, I will make sure to bring up other people like me, well not like me, you know, other people from marginalised backgrounds, being very aware that I do not come from the most marginalised background at all.
I do come from a working class background, I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, I am an ethnic minority, but I will say I’ve been educated to a university level which is obviously a privilege. My parents, neither of them went to university but they encouraged me to…they both enjoy reading and they encourage me to do that kind of thing as well, we had newspapers in the house. And also for a black person I’m light skinned, I’m mixed race, and that’s a privilege too. So it’s just about being conscious of these things.
Esther: And gal-dem have also done a book on growing up as people of colour. Why choose a book in addition to a print magazine?
Charlie: I think it’s for similar reasons as to why you’d have a print magazine. But it also again is that idea of longevity. Books get reprinted, they end up in libraries, and they can reach people, especially younger people, which is what we specifically were doing with this, in a way that our print magazine can’t at the moment, or even that I guess it’s not suitable to.
A lot of the topics we talk about are quite difficult in our print magazine, and maybe not aimed at readers in their early teen years, whereas this book was an opportunity for us to really speak to the teenagers who we once were, aged 12 to 16 or 17, 18, and just give them some tools in terms of knowing that everything you’re going through is OK, and you will get through it, and it’s really hard, and we’ve been there as well.
Because when I was growing up in Edinburgh from age 8 to 17, I felt so alone in my experiences as a mixed race black person and that’s what I spoke about in that book.
And it’s a book that doesn’t just talk about hard things. It talks about joyfulness, it talks about boys, it talks about sex, it talks about drugs. It’s us responding to diary entries from our younger selves that were written when we were teenagers. I thought with this idea of getting the diary entries, it was just to respect our younger selves.
And also that perhaps as a young person, you would relate more to this diary entry or this poem that was written when that person was the same age as you, than you would to this 20 something year old who doesn’t know what it’s like to be part of Generation Z just being like, this what you should do with your life. Because I read essays, you know, to my younger self essays when I was a teenager, and they didn’t really resonate with me to be honest. Maybe again that was because they mainly written by white women. So I don’t know.
Esther: I suppose the more you put out there with your experiences, the more people will find that. So there’s a huge diversity issue in the UK and US. Is it a stage where hiring in newsrooms that that’s all falling apart, or do we need to go even further back and encourage teenagers…
Charlie: It’s lots of different things and there’s not one answer to it. You have the problem with hiring, yes, you have the problem with retention. There’s a lot of journalists who’ll drop out. You have the problem with retention at universities as well. You have a lot of problems in terms of graduates, from undergrads who are black graduates that I think get the worst grades in the whole country. Why is that? Like there’s not a simple answer to it.
There’s problems in terms of acknowledgment that you don’t need to go to university to be a journalist, and that we should be doing more outreach work beyond the sort of academic sphere.
There’s not one solution, and gal-dem is not a solution in and of itself to a wider problem. But what we have done quite effectively is encourage a lot of people who I think didn’t think they could be writers, but who we identified as, you know, we’d see them on social media posting these long posts and be like, have you ever thought about writing an article before?! And also aspiring journalists who have never been published elsewhere, and we’ll work with them to make their work much better. And we’ll do workshops at universities, and we’ll hold conversations with young women of colour, non-binary people of colour to try and get them interested in the media industry as a career. And then on a personal level, a lot of us mentor. So as I say quite often, we will not fix this alone.
And beyond that again, it’s not our only job. We are a magazine who produces amazing content, who everyone should read, and it’s not just about the diversity thing. It’s about acknowledging that we have a unique perspective in the UK, and that our numbers are only growing as people of colour in this country. I think from 2020 it was posited that there’ll be more mixed race kids born than any other demographic, which in turn means there’ll be more POC babies than white babies in this country, probably for the first time.
So that’s what we’re here for, we’re here to represent the kids here who are going to be growing up in a country which still isn’t comfortable as Meghan Markle proves.
Esther: Is a global expansion on the plans?
Charlie: Yeah, we’d love to be global! The second biggest place that we’re read outside of the major UK cities is New York. So we’ve been making some connections in New York, which has been cool. Interestingly America doesn’t really have anyone doing what we’re doing.
There’s other outlets who are doing amazing feminist work. [Even places like BuzzFeed have got some quite good verticals around that.] Yeah for sure, they had Cocoa Butter, but I actually think that’s closed now because they fired most of their black stuff unfortunately. But there’s no one explicitly doing what we do in terms of women or non binary people of colour, a platform which encompasses a lot of different people from lots of different backgrounds, but we’d never use women of colour as a catch all term unless it’s totally necessary.
So like we identify the fact that there is a problem in terms of diversity in general, but for instance you can say, if you’re talking about black women you say black women, if you’re talking about East Asian women you say East Asian women, and so on and so forth.
Because when it comes to intersectionality, there’s lots of different ways in which women of colour are affected. There’s a lot of nuances, and it has to be acknowledged or else you end up in a situation where a company – and some companies do do this – where they’re like, ‘Oh we have X amount of women of colour, working here we’re doing really well,’ then you find out that all the staff are of one demographic.
Esther: If you had one bit of advice you could say to publishing businesses as to how to improve the problem, what would you say to them?
Charlie: Do your research. Do it yourselves. We get contacted by people all the time who are looking to mine us for our advice, but we’re not doing anything that they couldn’t learn to do, if that makes sense. I know that’s not a particularly helpful answer but I think you can use us as inspiration. We’re doing good stuff, and we’ve thought very carefully about our processes, and we have a very clear political angle.
And if you still think in this day and age that it’s okay to publish racist, homophobic, transphobic, whatever content, you’re never going to encourage a diverse staff base. You can see it even at the Guardian with their horrible editorials on trans people, they then lost I think one of their only trans members of staff. It’s a real shame.
You have to look internally before you even think about hiring people into a company which isn’t ready for them. There’s so many people who have worked at different publications and who have left because of racism, micro aggressions, because of just structural problems, in terms of just like, they know that they’re not going to grow in that position because there’s an old white guy who’s been there for 50 million years who is never going to leave. Not to say that old white guys don’t have a place in the journalism industry! Of course they do.
It’s important to tackle your problems on the inside first. And then open it up and bring people in.
Esther: And apart from gal-dem, you do lots of cool freelance stuff as well. You’ve had quite a varied career. Have you had a particular achievement that you’re particularly proud of in your career so far?
Charlie: I obviously suffer from heinous imposter syndrome, and I’m by no means the most perfect freelancer in the world. I get distracted easily, but probably my biggest achievement so far has been, I finished a six month internship at the Financial Times, and at the end of it I managed to land my first feature, long form feature in print with them which was on hair salons in Peckham.
And I felt like that was quite an important one because I don’t think readers of the FT would have read about hair salons in Peckham. And it was also just telling an important story. And I also think it was a bit of a kick up the arse for the council at the time, because they were moving the hair salons from a really busy street to a backstreet.
And although I’m not at all going to put it down to the feature alone, I think there was a lot of people who are working hard to make sure that the hairdressers were looked after.
What I’ve seen since then is at the hairdressers have really been looked after, and they’ve really tried to put funding behind them to make sure that their businesses can still succeed. So I like to think that maybe I had a tiny tiny hand in that.
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