SheCAN: The Sista Collective Podcast Creator Jessie Aru-Phillips

The Sista Collective – is the new BBC Radio 5 Live podcast offering direct and important conversations about black British women by Black British women travelling across the UK. At the helm is BBC Radio 5 Live journalist Jessie Aru-Phillips, on a mission to explore what it means to be a woman of colour living in the UK today. Joined by fellow podcasters : Team GB Olympic athlete and five-time European Championship medallist, Anyika Onuora, Paula Akpan, Co-founder of the UK’s hugely successful BlackGirlFest and Joanna Jarjue finalist on the BBC TV show, The Apprentice. Alt spoke with Jessie who stressed the importance of having a platform for women of colour to “tell their truths”. (Image: L-R) Joanna Jarjue, Anyika Onuora, Jessie Aru-Phillips, Paula Akpan. Photograph by Mary Turner for the BBC)

All previous podcasts can be listened to here: CLICK   

ALT: Can you tell us a bit about The Sista Collective and the role you played in creating the Podcast?

It is commissioned by BBC Radio 5 Live. It started around 2017, there was a couple of motivating things for me. For instance, I was at a BBC building and a young Black girl who had come into the building for work experience, trying to get a foot hold into journalism. We got chatting and as we were chatting away I could kinda of see this confused look on her face and knew exactly what she was thinking and the next thing she said to me was where are you from and when I told her Liverpool she was so surprised that there was Black people on Liverpool. It made me laugh because I could read her face because it had happened a million and 1 times. In Liverpool we have the oldest Black community in the UK, she was absolutely flabbergasted, that was one of the driver that made me think there is a lot of amazing things going on with Black women across the board doing great things, like Tobi from Black Ballad doing her thing and Liv Little from Gal-dem and Three Shots of Tequila and you (Alt-Africa),  everyone is doing different things. For me what was interesting was finding that the narrative of what it means to be a Black British women is driven by the South that is why in 2018 an 18-year-old girl can be stunned by being told that black people are in Liverpool. The second driver was the coverage around Serena Williams and I felt there was not a space where Black women could have a conversation like the ones we are having in our house, a massive driver to set up the podcast.  With everything there is a challenge you probably have that with Alt Africa but lucky for me BBC 5 Live Digital Pilot is a specific team that was set up to tell the story of underserved audiences and under 35 women. That includes telling the story of women of colour, so  I was very lucky to be in this team, the podcast is driven by this team.

ALT: The focus of this show is women why is it important that we are having these conversations now?

I think whether it is identity,  body image, hair, I think we are having these conversations anyway and I think they need to be aired I said on the podcast recently that I think we are having a black renaissance in terms of females, using the word renaissance is to suggest we have had this before but maybe it is a movement right now where there are lots of people doing different things. There is a lot of us talking about different things but what we share is a hue in the colour of our skin in one degree or another. We are talking now from different voices which is good and so important. We are in the era of Trump and Brexit and having worked in the broadcast media in the last 10 years I feel that race is very much talked about now more than any time before in my lifetime and I think as black women and women of colour we need a separate space to speak our truth really. Not saying that the podcast is not for everyone as it is all about learning isn’t it. In one of the episodes we spoke to Black Scottish women, and I say that with clarity as these girls do not identify as British they are Black and Scottish and that is a voice you do not hear as I said race, Brexit, Trump era, all these conversations need to be had.

ALT: You mention talking to women in Scotland how are you physically going about finding out what it means to be a black woman in Britain today?

It not rocket science we are applying the rudimentary of basic journalism talking to people, talking to women that is it. It is about finding people who have something interesting to say and who are in one degree or another marginalised. With the Scottish episode, Eunice Olumide, she is an international model, she is an MBE, an author, she is doing incredible things but if you look at the dominate narrative in Scotland not many would have heard of her. We also spoke to Sarah Wild who is put of the LGBTQ community and she is a night club owner who is creating safe spaces for Black women in Scotland and LGBT women to party and feel safe, she said there was no where she could go and feel safe. As I said all these women are doing incredible things and I am just using this  opportunity utilising the podcast to have these conversations.

ALT: How do people who want to be featured get involved?

Well, we are due to finish in April 2019, so we can’t commit to doing a second season, we hope that it will be funded so people can still get on touch with me and reach out on my BBC email. Or just follow me on twitter that is probably the best thing. It is not just about featuring women it is about showcasing talent and some of the women featured have had other opportunities, like Anyika Onuora the international athletic was on A Question of Sport, we want to provide a platform for women to do other things. The founder of Black Girl Fest talked about dating someone with a different political view. It is a discussion place and a safe place for people of colour and for me as creator it to be a springboard for the other things that they can do. I am sure this has been said a million and one times black women are a monolith we do not all say the same things, we just share the commonality of skin colour.

ALT: What are some of the other topics you have discussed?

With the first season we started with identity that is very topical and we would like to continue to be topical. We had Kathryn Drysdale. (listen here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06qd915) in greater Manchester who people might know from Two Pints of Lager and she has also recently played Megan Markle and one of things we talked about was how some of us see ourselves, black, or Black British or British Nigerian or Jamaican or mixed race. She grew up in Wigan and she says quite openly she did not have many black people around her when she was growing up. And when she was going through drama school she thought that she would be cast in a variety of different roles but when she left drama school she realised that people were casting her based on her being a women of colour which surprised her. Another topic we spoke about was BMI (body mass index) which was very interesting  and important subject to talk about as the feedback we got was that it is a very real thing for women of colour because evidence suggests that we carry more muscle, so we weigh heavier and we had the most amazing Welsh woman on called Lateysha Grace who is Miss Uganda Wales Curve and her story had us in tears, she is a beautiful woman but she was going through fertility struggles and had been asked to lose half her body weight in order for her to  get fertility treatment as she put it the “gift of life”. It is those types of conversation that you do not hear anywhere else. That is why I think the podcast resonates with so many women.

ALT: Are the conversations that we are having around gender and identity making the media industry sit up and act?

I think the media is trying and the BBC are doing something in terms of representing wider voices, they have a commitment to making 50% BAME/Women on screen and behind the screen before 2020. But I think it is a slow realisation not just from the BBC but from other traditional parts of the media that people will just march with their feet and will go to other platforms to see the stories that resonate with them. So, changes are being made look at Netflix, they certainly target different demographics/ audiences .

ALT: How did you get started out in Radio?

My career started in track and field and I was a GB junior athlete and used to compete, which was brilliant, and I loved it. I did not realise as a young women how much it was helping me shape my future career, decisions and with all the other things some girl have issues with like body image. Being an athlete gave me amazing tools but then I got to a certain level, I was still doing international competitions, when I was invited to do some volunteer presenting in Toxteth which I did enjoy and thought this is something I could be more interested in but then I moved to London to do my post grad and my first degree it was then I thought I am going to hang up my spikes and pursue radio.

I did the usual thing wrote lots of letter and then I wrote to the former Head of Diversity at the BBC called Linda Mitchell who was running the Community Affairs Unit with Henry Bonsu presenting one of the shows. I really liked what they did, the ethos and at that time to see a women of colour at the head of anything. I would not advocate anyone working for free, but I would say when starting out if you could find somewhere you would happily work for free that way you would be happy, and you will get paid. I worked as a broadcast assistant for a while then the Head of Sport found out that I was once an athlete and I was invited to work on the sports team, out and about each week covering football games. Then it was the very early stages of BBC Sport Online and I moved there. Since I have worked in various places like the commonwealth games and Radio Four extra presenting a kid’s programme. I had always had an interested in defence being a Liverpool girl they recruit heavily from the north west of England, so you always know someone who know someone in the military. It was during the time if the Afghanistan conflict and I applied for a position with Forces Radio, not a place where they were many women or many black women. My thing is race should not be a factor, I have gone for jobs out of interest and that I would be good at it. So, I joined forces radio and it was great. It was an eye-opener when I went to Afghanistan in 2010 it was something I had not prepared myself for, some of the guys were super young and some had not had any normal contact for months and months and months and  everything was just all one colour. When I cam back I moved to TV reporting for Forces TV as their North West correspondent for about four years.

ALT: What advice would you give to anyone who is interested in radio?

Find what make you different what ideas can you bring, what can you bring to the table.

Highlights…

The one with Mel B: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06vchtd

#BlackGirlMagic Podcasters: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06vz0l8 with Kelechi Okafor from the Say Your Mind Podcast, Victoria Sanusi from Black Gals Livin’ and Alicia Evans and Iqra Choudry from Brown Girls Do it all shared their podcasting tips and hopes for the future.

Catch up on all the Sista Collective PODCASTS here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06ptdhf/episodes/player

For the most recent show on 23 December listen here- Family traditions, regifting and spicing up your turkey with #jollof or benachin rice. The #siscollective talk Christmas and shine a festive light on other brown girl podcasts: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06vzjhp

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