By Taylor Smith
Name: Brandon Harden
Occupation: Managing Editor at Blavity
Hometown: Houston, TX
Current Neighborhood: Bushwick
School: University of Texas at Arlington
Brandon Harden took on New York City the old-fashioned way. After finishing UT Arlington with a BA in communications and a minor in journalism, the Houston native (and RoomZoom member!) secured a transfer from a Texas branch of skincare haven L’Occitane to one of their New York stores. From then on, it was straight to hustling, supplementing freelance writing work with jobs in retail.
“I literally just started from nothing,” he says of his early days as a New Yorker. “As I got more bylines and more work in the journalism field, I was able to land full-time writing gigs and one job led to another job and that job led to another job, so I just kind of worked my way up. I guess that’s really what New York is all about, right?”
After a stint as the assistant managing editor of crowdsourced online publication and writerly undergrad favorite Odyssey Online, Harden found a home as the managing editor of Blavity, AKA the black Buzzfeed, where the mission lined up with the issues about which he felt most passionate. I sat down with Brandon to chat about navigating the editorial world, writing about black culture, and the dangers of petty roommates.
What drew you to a communications major?
I changed my major like three times in school. I went to school to be a graphic design artist. I didn’t even go to classes. I looked at the curriculum and I was like, nah, I don’t want to take those classes. And then I was a PR major and that just didn’t resonate with me either. So then I started to look at communications and I was like, this may be something I can really be good at. So I started to work with the student radio at my school, and that really helped me to realize that I loved this track and I could see myself doing this long-term.
Did your communications major prepare you well for your work today?
In some ways, yes. It definitely helped me with the technical skill of writing, but I wish that I would’ve been more prepared for the real world of writing. I wish I was able to practice pitching to certain brands, to get more of an idea of what it was like to be a digital influencer. My curriculum was really based on a more traditional editorial model, and with so many people moving toward the digital side, I don’t think that I was well equipped in that respect. I had to learn that the hard way, which isn’t bad. I think that real world experience is always the best experience, so it really helped to just dive in and figure it out.
You opted to just jump in and figure things out for yourself, but did you ever consider journalism school?
I did, and I still do. But if I do go, I want to have a plan for after journalism school. I don’t want to go just as a formality. If I’m doing well in my career without a master’s degree, then I’m OK with experience over the formal education. I had ambitions to go to grad school, but then I moved here and I started to get writing gigs, so I was like well, if it’s happening, why do I need to go back and spend more money on textbooks and tuition?
Had you always planned on the editing track as opposed to writing?
I did not expect to become an editor. I went to school for writing and I was writing for a while before I even considered editing. But then I got a job with Odyssey as an assistant managing editor, and that helped me to realize I can actually edit better than I can write, and I can actually manage people and manage a brand. Whereas a writer’s job is very specific (you write content for the brand), an editor I feel is a jack of all trades. You have to know marketing, you have to know culture, you have to know video, photography, color scheme. You have to really be well-rounded in all areas of the publication to be a good editor. And I only learned that through Odyssey, through helping others amplify and fine-tune their voices and figure out what they wanted to get out of their writing.
What drew you to work for a more democratized model like Odyssey?
I was recruited by Odyssey, so I didn’t seek that out. But when I got there I was impressed with the scale that the company had accomplished and I wanted to learn more. I think that I knew that Odyssey would be an incubator for me and I wouldn’t be there forever. And they’re really great about figuring out what your next steps are. I did get a chance to learn how to really engage using social media; I learned the back end of the journalism industry, Google Analytics, I really got to track articles, I learned about the principles of virality and what makes an article successful, how to create successful pieces of content, how to engage with a larger audience. And I think that those are all useful skills, so not for a second do I regret that decision, but I walked in knowing that I was only going to be there for a season, because I knew that I eventually wanted to work with content centered around black culture.
Now Blavity did not recruit me, I applied to Blavity. It started when our co-founder Jonathan Jackson came to Odyssey to sit on a panel, as part of what’s called the Odyssey Speaker Series. I was really inspired by Jonathan and by Blavity, because I totally agree with their mission of celebrating black culture in a way that hasn’t been done before, and putting the power back in our hands. Especially in light of everything that’s happening with social justice and police brutality—these are our narratives that we should be telling ourselves. We should be the ones that are going to these events, as opposed to people from a big name like CNN. That’s important, too, for scale, but I think the passion just isn’t the same as it is for someone who is a living, breathing member of that community. So what drew me to Blavity was that our vision aligned. And I knew that that was a place where I could build a career home.
What are some of the challenges facing black writers and editors who do focus on black culture?
I think it’s in how you portray black culture. You have to have a wide scope. I think you can be the most effective by touching all points. Be black when it’s great to be black, be black when it’s not so great to be black, and don’t only talk about black things. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into only writing the sad stories, because then you’re one-dimensional. I think it’s really up to the individual writer to decide what it is they want to accomplish through their work. Because what I’ve learned as someone still in the beginning of my career, is that you will have jobs throughout your life. It’s not the jobs that create the thread of your career, it’s the work you do. When I first started I blamed the industry for a lot of things I wasn’t happy about, and I had to take accountability for myself and say if I want these opportunities, instead of complaining, create them. And I think that’s what our CEO Morgan [DeBaun] did. Instead of talking about how our stories are being told by the wrong people or they’re not being told enough, she did something to solve that problem. And that’s great leadership to be under, it’s inspiring.
After Trump was elected, a lot of young writers and editors wondered whether their work—which came under fire throughout the election and on the liberal side failed to resonate with a wider audience—still mattered. Is writing still important? And what challenges are facing writers and editors in Trump’s America?
Writing is always going to be important. Writing is your voice in a tangible form. As long as you have your voice, use that. And figure out why you’re using your voice, because just to complain is like screaming into the void. If you think that your writing is not important, and does not add cultural value to our society, then it won’t. It’s really that simple. What do you think of yourself, your career, your writing, your perspective? It’s kind of like loving yourself. If you don’t love it, why should I? Everyone else can say you suck or you don’t know what you’re talking about, but there will always be that champion who rises up to say no, our voices matter, this is what we have to say, this is why it’s important.
What’s the best advice you’ve received in your career, and what advice would you pass on to others?
The best advice I’ve received is that things that are for you will align. Don’t force opportunities to manifest. Don’t force things that aren’t happening. Things that have been most successful for me, I’ve had to do the least amount of work. The things that have been the most traumatic and negative, I did the most work. The best advice I’d give, maybe it’s a bit cliché, but really just be true to yourself. Tell the truth about yourself to yourself, and don’t be afraid to stand in that.
Any great or terrible roommate experiences?
My best roommate experience was actually my first. I was living in the Bronx when I first moved here and I wanted to move to Brooklyn because I thought it was a much better cultural fit. So I went there and moved in with two really good friends from college. If you can live with friends, do. Friends are better because you have a different kind of respect for each other. And that was the best experience I had. We cooked together, we cleaned together, we hung out outside of the apartment together, we supported each other in our endeavors. Nothing spectacular, we just all got along. The worst was actually my last roommate. I’ll just give you an example of something she did that was just beyond comprehension. So she was moving out. We hadn’t had the closest relationship. We weren’t outwardly negative towards each other but it was definitely a bit of “ugh.” We weren’t in alignment. When she moved out, she literally took everything she bought and threw it away instead of taking it with her. So she moved back to her hometown, and instead of just leaving things, she threw away things like the trash can and paper towels and cleaning supplies and spices. I’m way too lazy to be that petty. I would just grab my stuff and go. I’ve never seen a person put that much energy into being spiteful. That was a first for me and hopefully a last.
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