I'm really excited about today's interview with Live Unchained Co-Founder and PhD candidate, Kathryn Buford. Live Unchained is a global arts and media initiative featuring black women artists and writers across the African diaspora. I virtually met Kathryn earlier this year when she approached me for an interview and since then, we've been exchanging ideas, finding opportunities to collaborate and sharing life experiences. Despite the thousands of miles between us, we've become friends and I'm really honoured to know this inspiring, intelligent, thoughtful woman and to share her story with you.
What's your passion?
I'm developing Live Unchained, a global arts organization for women of African descent, with one of my dearest friends, Miriam Moore. I see this project as my brainchild and I am passionate about seeing it to its full potential as a globally recognized brand that celebrates and empowers women of African descent and their creative interests. I've learned to take all my dreams and gifts seriously and I am passionate about realizing them and, hopefully, inspiring others to do the same.
What inspired you to pursue a PhD? What inspired Live Unchained?
My undergraduate college experience was a bit rocky, but academically I performed well and wanted to teach at the collegiate level, so that meant a PhD. Honestly, I know why I started the PhD, but throughout the process I often asked myself: WHAT AM I DOING?!!! WHY AM I PUTTING MYSELF THROUGH THIS?!!! LOL I thought sociology was fascinating--exploring questions of culture, revolution and identity, so I decided that would be my doctorate. But, I didn't realize how grim and euro-centric the dominant thinking in sociology had been and learning how to navigate that took a lot of work. Learning how to handle harsh criticism and different personalities was also challenging. Now, I've learned to make my graduate work revolve around Live Unchained, and that has finally helped me answer those burning questions ;) I know anything that helps me grow Live Unchained is worth seeing through.
The co-founder of Live Unchained, Miriam Moore, and I were college roommates. She majored in Graphic Design and I studied Sociology and African American studies – as did a lot of our friends. A lot of our classes overlapped and led us to discuss topics like art, social justice and black identity. In our 19 year old eyes, at least, we had pretty radical ideologies. Negative and limited representations of black women in popular culture enraged us and learning more and more about the history behind those images added fuel to the fire. Back then we wanted to create a cultural project that would critique the mis-represenation and under-representation of black women, by satirizing the absurdity of it all. But, as we grew – putting others first and developing a global conscience – the project changed. We didn't want it to just be about what was wrong, but celebrating what black female artists were creating; we grew to see it as a platform and community to unite black women across the diaspora.
What has been your greatest obstacle/challenge? How have you dealt with/overcome it?
I think all of my challenges have been internal, stemming from fear – self-consciousness, self-criticism, insecurity. Just like any other entrepreneur, I've had to deal with being misunderstood, under-estimated and even stolen from. And, it can be hard to not see things pan out the way you want, as soon as you'd like, after you've put in tons of effort and energy. Learning to be grounded in myself and conviction has made all the obstacles easier to handle, I'm definitely not as intimidated by them as I used to be. My family and close friends, Candice and LaToya, have listened to every gripe with the utmost patience!
Learning to trust my intuition and vision and, most importantly, surrounding myself with like-minded ambitious entrepreneurial youngsters has been my saving grace. My friends Abadeu Madyun of Studio 3wd and Ciara Calbert of Everybody is a Journalist are two of the most creative, hard working and spiritually grounded people I know. Also, my roommate, Quynn Johnson is a professional dancer and author; we talk a lot about branding, marketing and artistry. I admire how responsible, down to earth and considerate she is. My good friend, Kristen Nicole, is a social media expert and my tech angel. We share so much together about our personal lives – well, I think it's really me being confused about life and her helping me sort it all out – and building our companies. I don't think they know how much their examples inspire me, but all of their hustle and optimism really keeps me motivated.
What has your greatest achievement been?
Connecting with all the amazing women we have featured and interviewed on our blog has been my greatest accomplishment. I am deeply inspired by the women that participate and have even become good friends with many that allowed us to interview them. We've also created teams of people who help out with writing for the Live Unchained blog and, hopefully, will serve on our board of directors, when we get the non-profit paperwork together. Building this community and following on Facebook and Twitter makes me very proud. I'm excited to see it grow and grow. Sometimes, I can't believe this all started with a simple idea …
Where will you be in 10 years?
I'll be Co-CEO of Live Unchained, then a world-recognized arts organization, with many stamps on my passport.
I imagine I will have met many of my entrepreneurial and personal growth inspirations in person by then, like Oprah Winfrey, Russell Simmons, Marianne Williamson, Shingai Shoniwa, Richard Branson, Pete Chatmon and Jennifer Galardi. Maybe even working on projects together – I told you I think big!
I don't have enough space to share all the things I want to do as far as travel, business, philanthropy and fun :) Still, I know it will pan out in infinitely bigger and better ways than I could imagine for myself. I definitely see myself keeping it all in focus with a lot of prayer and meditation.
How does Africa inspire you?
Africa is my everything, is the first thing that comes to mind. A friend once told me that we can't call ourselves "African American" and only care about the "American," and that still means a lot to me.
But, let me clarify what I mean when I say "Africa is my everything." Malcolm X said he didn't want to be called "Negro" because that made it seem like he didn't have a home. I took up African American studies when I realized how powerful it was for African Americans, throughout time, to ask seemingly simple questions like: "Who are you?" and "Where do you come from?" The dominant ideology in societies throughout the world would have us think that everything and everyone that is not Western is backwards or less than. I'm grateful for everyone that challenged the status quo and set their own definitions of blackness.
W.E.B. DuBois (the most famous black sociologist) said he felt a connection to Africa that he could feel better than explain. I agree because the tie is still hard for me to put into words – but, I know that I am because of Africa. I've been drawn to research enslaved African rebellions throughout the Diaspora (the topic of my master's thesis) and the sacrifices my ancestors made really matter to me. I want to honor them, and all of our communities throughout the Diaspora, with my freedom and by learning more about the continent. There's still so much for me to discover, but with Live Unchained, I've committed myself to exploration and action as a life-long process.
Anything else you'd like to share?
I'm very proud of you for everything you do with Afri-love. It's such a beautiful site that is clearly maintained with a lot of love and effort. I'm so happy we've found ways to collaborate with each other. I'm so happy I've gotten to know you! I love you Lulu :) [editor's note: me too!]
Anything we should look out for in the coming weeks/months/year?
Live Unchained was recently awarded a Ford Fellowship for participation in a media entrepreneurship bootcamp – Woop! Woop! As part of this program we'll enter a competition to receive a $10,000 grant to develop the organization. I really think the prize is ours and I know exactly how we'll put it to use to enhance the experience for our followers. Your readers can stay in touch with us via Facebook and Twitter to learn about how the competition goes and learn all about the amazing women – like yourself ;) – that we've featured on our blog.
Kathryn's email signature includes this Yoruba Proverb: "The sky is full enough for all birds to fly without colliding." What a great summation of the vision behind Live Unchained and indeed a great affirmation for life in general! Keep flying …
Photos courtesy of Kathryn Buford. They include one with her Live Unchained Co-Founder, Miriam Moore. You're Unchained When … is free to download here.