Why I Must Leave Television by Jahan Sharif

Senator Obama and me in 2007

Senator Obama and me in 2007

While perched at the foot of my mom’s bed, she and I, like millions of others that summer night in 2004, gathered around our television and watched the then State Senator Barack Obama use his facility of language and rich timbre of voice to masterfully stitch himself into the story of America, bridging the past to the present and proposing a new vision for the future, one that leveraged the power of institutions to serve the hopes of an evolving people.

Starting with the presidential campaign, and lasting through his two terms in office, a new class of engaged citizens would witness in stark terms the duality and limitations of progress, the evidence of change, and the machinery and interests that work to prevent it. We saw the Affordable Care Act extend health care to tens of millions, LGBTQ+ people gain the right to marry, our environment and sacred lands protected, and two magnificent and modern women appointed to the Supreme Court. We also saw the public rise of the alt-right, birtherism, the blatant disregard of norms for short-term political gains, and the ruthless efficacy and true wickedness of Mitch McConnell. 

For eight years we were in power. And for that time, millions of people around the world learned first hand what it is like when the government works in our service, too. It felt nice, and too many of us took it for granted. Today’s administration works in the service of one. 

The idea of service is what anchored the Obama White House, and in my opinion, is a value that is practiced among the best organizations and by the most compelling individuals. 

I’ve learned a lot over these 35 weeks writing to you, but one of the most transformative and recurrent lessons is the importance of paying attention. I try to be really thoughtful about what I publish each week. I want to produce content that you might find enriching and of value. Sometimes I’ve done well, but I’ve also learned that thoughtful trash is still trash. The times when I’m most successful, though, are when I think really hard about how I can be most of service to you, my reader. 

That lesson has another side, which is that every decision, deliberate or not, is in the service of someone and something-- that nothing is neutral. When I think about my time in television and who I work in the service of, too frequently I’m nauseated by the answers. That’s not to say that I’ve worked on bad shows, with bad people, or done malicious things, but sometimes my work advances people who are threats to my communities or who don’t value human beings in the ways that I believe are critical to the improvement of our culture. 

Paying attention to all of this: the news, our politics, our recent past, our potential future, and my present; and having a sense of how I’d like for things to be, I can confidently say that keeping on as a work-for-hire freelance non-scripted television producer is not going to get me there! So really, I have no choice— if I want different outcomes, I have to change. 

The outcomes themselves might still be undefined, but I am not starting from scratch. Guiding me along the way will be those two questions I’ve seen present in every leader I’ve ever admired: Who am I serving? And why? 

October 2019
Los Angeles, CA, USA

Nobody is a Nobody by Jahan Sharif

Photo by  Ghazal Sheei

Photo by Ghazal Sheei

Today’s Jaja in was supposed to be about why President Obama is responsible for my eventual departure from television. But that will have to wait, because rarely does awareness collide so violently with reality, as it did for me this past Thursday evening.

What do we do when we learn that power has been wielded unjustly, unethically, and forcefully to abuse another, more vulnerable person? That’s the question I face. 

Last weekend, I read Rebecca Solnit’s fabulous new collection of essays called, Whose Story is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters. One of the pieces, originally published in Harper’s called Nobody Knows, is about the relationship between knowledge and power, and the circumstances under which the former becomes the latter. She says, “Perhaps it’s not that knowledge is power, but that some knowledge has power and some is stripped of the power it deserves.” Knowledge loses its power when it is held by people who are not heard or valued in the structures where they operate. 

I know this is true from my own personal experiences, but Solnit tells a better story. She starts her essay when she was eighteen years old. She was a bus girl in a diner, and was regularly sexually harassed by the cook. One day, while holding a tray of clean glasses, the cook grabbed her. She screamed and released the tray causing the glasses to shatter and make “a cacophony.” The owner of the diner rushed over and told off the cook for what he’d caused. “The glasses” she said, “were audible and valuable in a way that I was not.”

On Thursday, as I was coming out of the restroom, one of the cleaning ladies at the coworking space that I’m a member of stopped me to tell me that she’d just been fired for “not working hard enough.” 

The cleaning lady fits the stereotypical profile: She doesn’t speak english, is an immigrant, is not well educated, has few professional connections outside of her existing community, and she doesn’t work directly for the company that owns the space that she cleans (this is a very common setup). If she is like the millions of other unprotected service workers in this country, and around the world, then she works through a series of middlemen that decide everything for her: If she works, when she works, where she works, and how much she’ll make.

I don’t know the exact circumstances or conversations that preceded her and two other people’s firings, but I’m reluctant to believe that “not working hard enough” is the true reason, especially when I’ve seen all of them on their knees, hand-scrubbing steps and caulk multiple times a week. 

I also don’t know if she had planned to tell me she’d been fired, or if she told me on an impulse because we happened to run into each other moments after it happened, but regardless, I realized that in this context, I could be to her what they the tray of clean glasses was to Solnit.

So that brings us back to my original question, What am I supposed to do with this knowledge? 

Some would say that I don’t know enough of the story, that I don’t have all of the facts, and so it’s better for me “not to make trouble.” Others recommend I stay quiet because I gain nothing. Many would caution me about the risks I might bring onto myself for speaking up.

All of these concerns are valid, but Solnit has another important point. She says, “We talk about empathy and compassion as virtues, but they are also practices of valuing and paying attention to other people. In this way, we understand others and the world beyond our own experience. I pay attention to you because you matter, and if you ignore me, it’s because I don’t.”

It’s true, I learned of the firings because from the beginning, I went out of my way to form relationships with the support staff, deliberately working to counter the insulating tendencies of power. I said hi in the mornings, learned their names, and made conversation. And through my actions, I showed them that they mattered to me. 

But those aren’t the only reasons for why I’ll be bringing their stories to management in the coming days. These cleaning ladies and I are the same. For years, as a freelancer, I have been abused. My wages have been stolen multiple times, my employment can, and has been, terminated arbitrarily and without notice, and I am rarely given the resources I need to do the job I was hired to do well-- and yet I suffer the consequences and endure the blame for any work not perfectly done. 

This is what life is like as a nobody living in a world that values and protects som(e)bodies. If courage is a byproduct of empathy, then from its inverse-- the inability to make that connection-- comes ignorance. And ignorance has been a “dam holding back the consequences.” 

But things are changing. Those who are usually silenced are finding their voices heard: the #MeToo movement, R. Kelly’s accusers, the union strikers, millennials in Hong Kong, Rebecca Solnit, the cleaning ladies, home health care aides, the working poor, the upwardly mobile young professional, you, and me. It’s happening everyday, on factory floors in Detroit, in boardrooms in New York City, and in coworking spaces in Los Angeles. History proves us right every time, that when we work together, when we listen to each other, and when we stand together, we lift up that which we know is true: That “nobody is a nobody.”

Everywhere, USA
October 2019

President Obama Is Why I'm In Television by Jahan Sharif

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I set myself on the path toward television after working on President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012. Over my nine months on the ground in Florida, I spoke with hundreds of my neighbors, organizing my communities so that by Election Day, nothing would stop them from voting. When someone does something for their own reasons, they’re said to be intrinsically motivated. It’s what the best marketing campaigns do, and it was our goal. 

There are many ways to do it, but ultimately you're trying to align the story people tell themselves about themselves with the campaign’s message. President Obama did it by training thousands of organizers around the country on how to tell stories.

Here’s the basic formula for a persuasive conversation: 

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  1. Extract the other person’s personal story to understand their motivations

    1. “Why are you interested in supporting President Obama for reelection?”

  2. Relate your personal story

    1. “I’ve taken time off from school to organize for President Obama because he’s fighting for policies that will help people like me achieve our full potential, without neglecting others who are in different circumstances. 

  3. Connect my story to the message of the campaign

    1. “That’s why, while rescuing the economy, he made the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which guaranteed equal pay for equal work the first act he signed as president; and used up all of his political capital to pass the Affordable Care Act in his first two years. And now, it’s because I have that security that I can think long term about my future without worrying if I’m compromising my health in the short term.”

  4. Connect their story to the campaign’s message

    1. “Did you ever have an experience where you had to make a bad short term decision because you felt you had no other choice?”

  5. Contrast Obama’s message with the opponent’s

    1. “Mitt Romney has a different vision for the future of this country that doesn’t prioritize us. He wants to...” 

  6. Establish the stakes

    1. “Our win is not guaranteed. We’re polling neck and neck in every battleground state. Every vote counts. Don’t believe me? Remember, George Bush won Florida in 2000 by 538 votes. There are no second chances. Either we win, or we lose. And we know what happens when we lose!”

  7. Close with the hard ask

    1. “That’s why it’s so important for you to be involved. Can you join us tomorrow to call your neighbors and encourage them to join the effort to reelect President Obama?

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Stories are the vehicles that ground big or abstract ideas, and enable the personal connection required to convert awareness into self belief and then into behavior. The campaign showed me how everything in our life comes down to the stories we choose to tell ourselves, and each other. Stories (and a lot of hard work, people, and money) elected my president.

Producing, it turns out, is the business of storytelling; and television is the most far-reaching medium. I am a television producer because President Obama helped me to connect those dots. And, ironically, he is also the reason why I plan to leave television.

More on that, next week.

Los Angeles, CA, USA
September 2019

What All Successful People Have in Common by Jahan Sharif

I’ll make this one quick. 

Picture this: I’m in a stairwell backstage at this year’s Black Girls Rock taping in Newark, NJ backing full force into a wall so that Angela Bassett can pass without tripping over me. When she clears my airspace, I pop out into the green room area (where, yes, I had absolutely no business being) and run into a star struck Ari Lennox whispering to herself, “This is the best day ever.” Across the room, Regina King is hugging Issa Rae, and Common and Erykah Badu are making an entrance behind me. 

We’re all on a high. Common and Erykah just surprised the crowd with a freestyle, and Angela Bassett brought down the house with a praise worthy, spirits-raising, goosebumping testimonial to the power of Black women

The taping, for me, was the culmination of nearly two months of breakneck and backbreaking work producing the honoree packages-- interviewing Angela Bassett, Regina King, Ciara, the Mothers of the Movement, H.E.R., and Debra Martin Chase. Over the years, I have had the privilege to hear the stories of dozens of people who have achieved truly unfathomable levels of success. Many are celebrities, some are not. 

A common question people ask me, is What are they like? My answer is the same-- they’re all nice enough. Some are warmer than others. Some prefer to maintain a level of separation between themselves and the crew, while others eat lunch with the rest of us. Everyone who makes it to their level is extremely professional, and legitimately excellent at their jobs-- there are few frauds. (We can talk about Helen Mirren offline, she’s at a level even above the rest.)

Here are a few things they all have in common: 

  • Take their craft seriously and practice a lot to master it

  • Continuous and broad learners

  • Persistence and consistency over perfection

  • Faith

And there’s one more common element that I’ve yet to hear listed explicitly, but I hear in each story: Friendship. 

Each tale of eventual success has the chapter where the phone doesn’t ring. The opportunities dry up. And all the work up to that point seems to have been in vain. The hopelessness takes root, and the faith starts to waver. It’s at this point when each of these people say they made it through, because their friends held on to that faith for them. There was no conversation about it, it was just one person investing in their friend because they believed in them. 

That’s what good friends do: They help you do, you, even when you’re sick of doing you!

Be grateful for good friends, because true friendship should change your life.

Los Angeles, CA, USA
September 2019

It Might Surprise You, but... by Jahan Sharif

Photo by the magical,  Ghazal Sheei

Photo by the magical, Ghazal Sheei

Reading is probably the skill I have the most troubled relationship with. It did not come easily to me, and I still don’t feel like I’m that good at it. My style is also fairly particular. Not only can I not skim, but I have to read every single word. And if I don’t completely understand a sentence or a paragraph, I can’t move on. I also don’t have much stamina, only able to read a few pages in a sitting. My type of reading takes a lot of time, and time is not something the Western education model provides much of. 

In school, I struggled with reading comprehension. When teachers asked me to read a passage, and then tell them what I thought it meant, I typically couldn’t come up with an answer. As I got older, I got better at hiding my deficiency. I was born a good talker, and sometime around middle school, I realized that if I listened closely to what my classmates said, I could quickly come up with something that sounded good, even if it didn’t make any sense. This is also how I learned that if you say something confidently, people will usually think twice before challenging you. 

This worked for me until I faced the SATs. There were no crutches here. No arguing the validity of my interpretation over the teacher’s. No clock to run out. I got swept into the wave of prep: practice tests, speed drills, and time hacks: “Read the first and last sentences of the paragraph coseley, then skim the middle.” one test prep teacher said. “Underline the essential key words, and look for them in the questions.” instructed another.  Prep books encouraged me to read for the gist, which made absolutely no sense to me. 

None of these worked with my brain. So I supplemented all of these tools with my own strategy of reverse engineering the questions and identifying the patterns. Then in the test, I’d read the questions first and think of the type of answer I’d expect. If it was there, I’d look for the evidence in the passage. If it wasn’t, I’d skip it and come back to it in the end. I scored a 680 out of 800. 

Photo by the magical,  Ghazal Sheei

Photo by the magical, Ghazal Sheei

Somehow, by the grace of good luck and good genes, I did not graduate high school having internalized my slow reading as “slow = bad = dumb.” Instead, I internalized it as “slow = bad = insecure.” And so I went to college with a little bit of a complex. But thank god I went to college! Because in college, nobody tells you how you should complete assignments. 

This worked for me.

I read books at my own pace, and augmented them with lots of YouTube lectures and magazine articles. In time, I learned that I had no problem with reading or with comprehension, and that I am neither fast, nor slow. What I am, is meticulous. And it is simply very hard to be meticulous and in a hurry. 

In renaming my reading style I reframed it, claimed it, and flipped it into an asset. It is probably one of the most important decisions I’ve made, because books have become critical resources in my own journey into adulthood, self-actualization, and purpose. 

The Sellout.jpg

And that’s why I love sharing books and stories with people: Because, I want for them what has happened for me. It was in this spirit that I shared my favorite books of the summer with you a few weeks ago. I got loads of responses from subscribers who appreciated the recommendations, and were excited to pick up copies of their own. Others had already read them, and happily volunteered their takes. I loved it!

I’d like to continue this conversation by inviting you to join me in reading my next book: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty. It’s a comedy set in Los Angeles about a Black man who owns a slave and reinstates segregation, but is then challenged and has to take his case to the Supreme Court. From what I understand, it’s quite the risky read! 

I started reading for pleasure later than many, but earlier than too many. And I want us all to start to love reading, and to love books again!  So whether you read a book a week, or nothing longer than a tweet, I want you to join me in this; because books are important, books are fun, and books can do things that only books can do (which you’ll only understand if you’re a reader of books.) But most of all, I want you to join me in this, because like almost everything else, books are more fun when you read them with friends. 

Los Angeles, CA, USA
September 2019

I am a Lucky Man by Jahan Sharif

“The Crosby” and me. The piece is #1c from Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s 2014 series, The Beautyful Ones.

“The Crosby” and me. The piece is #1c from Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s 2014 series, The Beautyful Ones.

I didn’t even have a chance to be impressed by the home. Its double height ceilings, multiple sofas, and marble columns; the little dog protesting from inside its cage, the grams of weed in Ziplock bags, handles of Tito's set absentmindedly on an end table; Versace ashtrays and plastic cups stained by too many cycles in the dishwasher: Details that might have been significant had I not first seen the Crosby hanging on the wall. And then I saw Toyin. Then Deana. Then Derrick. And Kehinde. This is Black Art, with a capital “A.” Art that I had never in my life expected to see, let alone be surrounded by, and all in one room!

“Do you recognize how significant this is?” my friend asked me. “Black Art hanging on the walls of a house owned by a Black man? This is our art, owned by our people. I’d even call it radical.” He was right.

Only a few people in the world can afford to spend tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars on a painting, and most of those people are White. Sure, they’ll occasionally pop up at a museum, but for now the works of these Black artists—whom I love, though have never met—are owned almost exclusively by White people. It’s not a bad thing, but it does make this moment unique, and thus significant. Had my friend not raised my awareness I would have missed it, which would have been to my detriment.

“I do now,” I replied.

Derrick Adams, Floater 30 (pink donut). 2016

Derrick Adams, Floater 30 (pink donut). 2016

We sat diagonally to each other in the living room. He, esconcend in the mid-century cobalt blue couch, and I on the broad, leather armchair that was sturdy and low to the ground. I had no choice but to sit like royalty.

“So tell me about yourself,” He said casually. “It’s a hard question for me to answer.” I replied, my eyes wandering to the walls again. “There’s so much art” he said after a pause, “and it’s constantly changing. They’re all dear friends.”

My friend, whom I’m still getting to know, is a writer who moved here from Louisiana in the 90s. He said that surviving the South as a Black, gay man is enough fighting for a few lifetimes. Not that living in New York City is easy, but by the time he moved here as a young man, he had cultivated a certain amount of tenacity that served him well professionally. He published a few novels, and with their success was able to phone magazine editors around the city. He chose to advocate for these Black artists, his friends.

“I would call up some of these people and say, ‘You know? Your last issue looked awfully white… I can help you with that. And then I’d write about my friends. Sometimes it was their first little bits of press. This is one way I’m holding the doors open for others… getting us into those rooms.”

Toyin Ojih Odutola, The Act of Reading (Everything Else), 2015-2016, Pen ink, gel ink, marker and pencil on paper.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, The Act of Reading (Everything Else), 2015-2016, Pen ink, gel ink, marker and pencil on paper.

Our conversation ticked forward pleasantly through the evening, but we eventually decided it was getting late and that we should leave. Before we made our way out, I asked to take in the art once more— knowing, without an ounce of irony, that I might never see these works again.

While shifting my weight from side to side, admiring how Tyoin Ojih Odutola manipulated ink to form a figure that danced in the light, I said quietly, “Can you imagine having this, ALL OF THIS, inside of you and not being able to let it out because of something as stupid as race?!”

I looked at him for an answer, and he was already looking at me. He nodded. “Yes,” he said, “It’s an injustice. And we need to correct that injustice. And that work starts with knowing what other people are doing, and then figuring out what you can do to help them.”

We left the house and stepped into the humid silence of New York City. As we walked, I rolled his comment around in my head. When we reached the corner after which we’d go our separate ways, I asked him how he came to understand that injustice is corrected by making the personal decision to help others.

He said he lived his way into the understanding, and that now he strives to use his time with people “to show them-- sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly-- the many ways that they have power.” I realized in that moment, that that’s exactly what he’d done for me.

I thanked him for the evening and for the conversation. We hugged goodnight, and he held me until I let go. 

New York City, NY, USA
September 2019

Visit the links below to learn more about the extraordinary artists mentioned in this piece, as well as a few others you should know about.

Jaja’s Summer 2019 Reading List by Jahan Sharif

If my forever President can do it, then so can I! Here are my favorite reads from this summer. Happy reading!

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee

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The Art of Decision-Making || The New Yorker
Your life choices aren’t just about what you want to do; they’re about who you want to be.

How Mosquitos Changed Everything || The New Yorker
They slaughtered our ancestors and derailed our history. And they’re not finished with us yet.

Seattle, WA, USA
August 2019