By Julia-Grace Sanders
Step one: write a strongly-worded, all-caps email. Step two: turn said email into insightful and humorous essay, in under an hour. Step three: send to editors, sans spellcheck.
This is the writing process, or lack thereof, for Ijeoma Oluo, named one of Seattle’s Most Influential People of 2015 by Seattle Magazine. In the time it takes most to eat lunch, Oluo writes essays on controversial topics in social justice and feminism with empathy, humor and tact.
“In all honesty that’s just how my brain works, it’s not really a process,” said Oluo, sipping chai and rocking some cheetah-print high-top kicks.
In a writing career that began just a few years ago with long-winded social media posts, Oluo has written for national and local outlets such as The Guardian and The Stranger, as well as serving as editor-at-large for online, female-run multimedia publication, The Establishment.
Coming from a career in tech and digital marketing, Oluo said that necessity drove her to start writing.
“It really wasn’t intentional, it was for my own sanity,” said Oluo.
After the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 was met with resounding silence by some in her community, Oluo said she felt the need to say something. Martin was the same age as Oluo’s teenage son, a striking parallel that Oluo could not ignore and that spurred her to communicate her pain and frustration.
She channeled her thoughts into a blog, where Jezebel picked up Oluo’s first published piece, a childhood story. From there, she worked her way up the freelance ladder, wary of losing her name to any one publication.
“Especially as a Black woman it’s really important because you have to amass enough power in your own name to be able to say ‘no,’” said Oluo. “Otherwise, your work is continuously shaped by other people.”
“I’m just honest, and for some reason it doesn’t bother people as much,” said Oluo.
She describes her writing as “curt and blaring.” Her writing reads exactly how she appears in person: a woman of color who isn’t afraid to talk about what’s wrong in the world and what needs to change.
“I’ve always been a big picture person,” said Oluo. “The things I’m passionate about writing about are the things that I feel like people are missing. If I look around and see something that would help people move forward in the conversation they’re having, that’s what I have to write about.”
Oluo guides her readers through theoretically dense topics by connecting them to personal anecdotes. Like many writers, she keeps a list of story ideas on her iPhone. The other day, she felt prompted to write about how our government tries to demonize people on food stamps. In her notes, Oluo writes “Boston Cream Pie.”
While a delicious baked good may appear to have nothing to do with the portrayal of people on food stamps, the thought of Boston Cream Pie sent Oluo back to a childhood fueled by food stamps. Sometimes, Oluo’s mother would come home with outlandish food items, even when there was no other food in the house. One day, it was a Boston Cream Pie. Oluo said stories like this are the backbone of her writing. They allow readers to resonate with complex or controversial issues.
Oluo belongs to a new generation of internet writers – voices that had have long been marginalized by the homogeneous mainstream media. The digital age has created a world of individual autonomy more accessible to those who aren’t white men.
“In a lot of ways, Ijeoma embodies exactly what we’re trying to do,” said Kelley Calkins, Co-founder and News Director of The Establishment. “From the get-go, our mission was to just take up space that so many people, because of who they are and historical and sociopolitical factors, have not had. She’s an incredible champion of these marginalized identities that have been historically silenced.”
While many look at the rise of digital media and the demise of print as a loss, Oluo views it as the next step in the evolution of writing.
“The internet has given so much power to the individual writer,” said Oluo. “In a beautiful way, it’s crowded the field to the point that you actually have to say something of substance.”
The Establishment co-founder and editorial director Nikki Glouderman views her job as a means to elevate, rather than monitor, voices such as Oluo’s.
“The fact that she can write about really whatever is on her mind is really important to us,” said Glouderman. “As gatekeepers we’re kind of just saying ‘yes, go’ where as at other outlets maybe she would face ‘oh no, that’s too touchy,’ or ‘that’s too divisive.’ There’s a lot of coded racism in the editorial process.”
Oluo has dedicated much of her writing to the gap in conversation surrounding race in relation to social and political systems. Reaching back to her degree in political science from Western Washington University, Oluo said she sees systems as the cause for social problems rather than the people who navigate them.
“Systems are finite things and you can take those apart,” said Oluo. “You take the system away and all you see are a few assholes, but people don’t want to see that because that’s where the work comes in.”
This topic will be the subject of her upcoming book, “So You Want To Talk About Race,” projected to publish in fall 2017. The book aims to update the concept of race in America from the 1940s perception that is accepted as truth.
“What is racism in 2016?” said Oluo. “Good people in a bad system.”
As discussions on race are wont to do, Oluo’s work attracts its fair share of internet trolls.
“She’s fantastic at taking on trolls,” said Gloudeman. “Which is something we watch with glee.”
Ultimately, Oluo’s “If you don’t have anything new to say, don’t say anything at all” mentality is the foundation for her work.
“Even if it’s wrong and it hasn’t been said, you can still read it and say ‘that’s wrong’, and it’s still a valid contribution,” said Oluo. “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole,” she said, referencing a quote by American writer Kurt Vonnegut.
While she continually provides new insight on some of the most important issues of our time, Oluo doesn’t claim to have all the answers or come from a pedestal of enlightenment.
“You gotta know where you are in the world and whether or not anybody really gives a fuck about what you’re saying,” said Oluo, “and that’s the only authority I really have.”