Aaron Barksdale is a writer, producer, and previously a teacher in Brooklyn, New York. Aaron and I met while working at Vice where he was doing something totally different than what he is doing now for his full-time job. While working together I would come to learn that Aaron is not afraid to challenge himself and take on new opportunities. Aaron was a previously a teacher before deciding to enter the media industry as a writer. He wrote for companies like Refinery29, HuffPost, Blavity and more before making his way to Vice Media Group. While at Vice he has been able to expand his skillset as a writer and also a producer working on a variety of video series for the company. Aaron's willingness to learn and humble attitude is something I admire and I am so glad to have him as a guest for this season of the podcast.
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Jon Sorrentino: [00:00:00] On this episode. I'm excited to welcome a good friend of mine who is a freelance writer and associate producer who has worked with companies like HuffPost, Refinery29, Blavity, Out Magazine and is currently at VICE Media Group. Aaron Barksdale, thank you so much for joining me,
Aaron Barksdale: [00:00:15] Jon. It's a pleasure to be here.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:00:17] Excited. I'm glad that while the neighborhood has changed, the apartment that I remembered coming and hanging out here is still very much never very much the same.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:00:25] Yeah. It was good to have you back. I mean, the time that you were here before, I was actually for my roommate's birthday and I was telling her, Oh, Jon is going to come back, and she said, Jon and I said, yeah, you remember John from vice, he was here for your birthday.
G. Immediately remembered. It was really funny. I'm glad I didn't. Wheels connect.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:00:42] I made a good impression that time. So Aaron, I actually had, my parents just moved to South Carolina and I came into contact recently with the phrase, bless your heart,
Aaron Barksdale: [00:00:54] You've never heard, bless your heart before?
Jon Sorrentino: [00:00:56] I mean, I might've heard it through TV, but like in person, it takes on a completely different context. What, can you tell me a little bit about that for you?
Aaron Barksdale: [00:01:04] Bless your heart. That's actually my response to hearing, you never hearing that phrase before. Um, it is just the most endearing and yet condescending way.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:01:14] That's what I thought, right?
Aaron Barksdale: [00:01:14] Acknowledging someone in the South. Yeah. When someone says something, it's just like, Aw, that's good for you. Bless your heart. You know? It's that type of, sincere, but also lacking in sincerity, regard for somebody else. When, when you hear them today, something that's kind of funny or absurd that what garner pity in any other situation.
It's low key shade. I think that they probably said that on real Housewives of Atlanta multiple times, most likely being directed from Phaedra to to another cast member on the show. Just bless your heart.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:01:50] You, this is something that you might've heard growing up cause you're also from the South, correct?
Aaron Barksdale: [00:01:55] I would say that.
Am, but also not necessarily the South South
Jon Sorrentino: [00:01:59] South of New York. Yeah,
Aaron Barksdale: [00:02:01] Exactly. I mean, I grew up in Springfield, Virginia, which is only 20 minutes outside of DC, so I always had a really strong connection to the city and urban life, even though I grew up technically in the suburbs, and it's really funny.
Whenever people ask me where I'm from, I'm always like, do I tell them Virginia or do I tell them. See if I say Virginia, it sounds like I'm really from the South, but if I say D C that makes them think that I have a little bit more flavor. But yeah, I didn't, I didn't really feel like I grew up in the South, even though I went to a high school named Robert E.
Lee. Uh, yes, it's, it's very typical to go to a school named after a Confederate general when you live below the Mason Dixon line. Um, but yeah, I don't know. I didn't feel like the South. No one had an accent. I'll say that.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:02:55] I had never noticed any sort of accent when, you know, when I first met you or anything like that, so it was a surprise to me.
But it was also, to your point, it's not like Virginia, it's like the central area before.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:03:06] Yes, it's very mid Atlantic. I kind of would group, Northern Virginia, DC, Maryland, and Delaware, and probably even Pennsylvania, all in that same grouping of regional. Accents and cultural identity. I think as you start moving further and further South in Virginia, then you definitely see some of those genteel antebellum Southern qualities.
Southern Belles. Right, exactly. I think that Richmond, which is in the center of the state, and it's also, uh, the state capitol is kind of where it becomes a little bit more South. You'll see people walking around in cowboy boots and it's not to be ironic, it's to be stylish. And when I went to undergrad, actually, that was the first time that I was really deep and what would be considered Virginia South.
I was going to school at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. And there's kids coming from all areas of the state because it's a state school and it's very popular in Virginia, um, to apply to. So that was the first time where I felt like I was around. Real Southern people, um, people with accents, people with cowboy boots and things of that nature.
So it was really funny. It was, it's, yeah. It's interesting to kind of like think about my hometown in that regard.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:04:26] You went to, as you mentioned, William and Mary, and you got your BA in English and literature. Was that always the plan? Like we're, you know, going through high school and going through like middle school, were you creatively writing or where did that kind of, you know,
Aaron Barksdale: [00:04:38] yeah.
I mean, I think that when I was younger. That's always where my confidence came from. I was not the most skilled in terms of athletics and I think typical boy activities like sports and things of that nature. I always excelled in academia and school. So for me, writing was just something that. Came almost effortlessly and naturally, and I've always been the type of person who is extremely creative and likes to use my hands and making things or my imagination when writing things.
And I knew when I was goin into. The college application process in high school that I wanted to be a writer in some capacity, or I wanted to get involved in publishing in some capacity, but I didn't have a real concrete idea of all the ways that that could look like, I mean, none of the career fields that exists now were as established when I was growing up and when I was in those kind of formative years.
So. To answer your question, I wanted to be a writer, but I thought that I would be something like a novelist.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:05:55] What were you writing? Like what were the things that you were writing about as a kid?
Aaron Barksdale: [00:05:59] Oh man. I would journal a lot when I was in elementary school and middle school, and my mom still has some of the little notebooks and the letters.
Exactly. I think that if I went back now, I'd probably be mortified by some of the things I was writing. I remember as early as five and six years old, I would watch movies, Disney movies in particular, and I would rewrite the story on our little computer. It was this really ancient looking a typewriter machine.
And I remember looking back now, it's so, so old in comparison to today's technology, but it was just a little word processor. And I would rewrite the movies that I would see and change the characters names to let people in my family. So like the rescuers would be retold, um, with like Aaron is the main character instead of penny.
And like the mice would be like named after my friends or my siblings or, uh, other family members. And it was really, really an act of creativity. I could already see the beginnings of my interest in writing and telling stories from a really young age. And then by the time I got into high school, I was, you know, writing some creative poetry.
I was, um, mainly doing academic papers for my IB classes. I was always in advanced courses, especially in literature and language arts as read, like the areas that I excelled in the most. Um, and then on the other hand, I was also very artistic, green up I love drawing, and it was. Something that was incredibly important to me.
So I would have notebooks on notebooks that were just felt with sketches and drawings of cartoon characters or things that I saw in magazines or on TV and the movies, and also just books felt with collages. I would get these magazines like cut them up. And then paste them and create these collages. My mom still, once again, it has these notebooks with all this paraphernalia of the things that I created when I was younger.
And when I got to college, I was quite confident that I was going to be an English major, and I was, um, interested in taking some art classes, but I don't think I took an art class possibly until my, either second semester of my freshman year or my first semester of my sophomore year. Um, partly because I had to take a creative class in order to check off one of the general education requirements that we had for our school.
And, um, I remember my first English course that I'd say one of the foundational classes was basically a class about early British literature. We're talking, you know, the, the classics, um, and writing academic papers based on that. And I thought at that time that I would be able to do exceedingly well because I've always done well in school.
And I remember getting like my first C on a paper and thinking, this is not okay, that I, I was, I was completely rattled. And it was weird because, you know. I'm expecting to do super well, but I'm also like analyzing this 16th century poem before, like novels and traditional books as we think about them today were even invented.
So this analyzing of classic literature was kind of mind boggling to me. And so I'm jumping through hoops to try and once again convince myself that. I can do this thing. And even when facing difficulty, you know, there's a way to kind of work around it. Um, it was just really, it was really challenging.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:10:07] You also, you, you minored in art history.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:10:10] Yes. Yes. I minored in both art and art history. During my time at William and Mary, I took a lot of painting classes, a lot of print making classes. Actually, some of the artwork that's in my room right now is from classmates of mine and also some of my own art, uh, that I made while I was still in school.
And I realize the older that I got, the more interested I was in creating art more so than writing, it was basically a passion of mine that I hadn't nurtured and developed fully until I got into. Maybe my second or third year in school, and I realized, wow, this is actually something that I'm not only enjoy, but I'm enjoying the process of making even more so than having the final result in front of me.
And I really connected to my professors in the art studio. Um, they were more like mentors to me and advocates for me. And the type of leadership and, and, and relationship that you would want to have with an adult who sees the talent in you and the potential in you and wants you to work harder at getting that refined.
So, yeah, I basically put most of my energy into painting and print making, um, working with oil paints and acrylics, and that. In turn, kind of develop my interests. Tor grad school. Um, when I graduated from William and Mary, once again, the digital media industry was kind of just becoming a thing. I remember, you know, going on the internet, mainly Facebook, which was popular more, I think, more popular than that.
And at the time even than it is now. Um, and seeing articles from faces like Buzzfeed, Vice, Huffington Post, um, Slate, these kind of early. Foundations of what the digital media industry is now were just starting to bud. And, um, there was not a lot of preparation from our university, uh, and working in that arena.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:12:33] cause also you were like, you mean you were sort of going. It seemed like you were going from creative writing with this idea of being a novelist and publishing and doing or something, and then you fell in love with this process of like making physical, like drawings or prints, whatever.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:12:49] Exactly.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:12:50] A lot of people would say there's a relationship between those two.
Like people always encourage you. I remember while I was in school, they were like, do some creative writing courses. Like take some because it's, you're using, maybe it's like you're using a different part of your brain, um, and you're kind of the opposite, right? You were. Doing creative writing and then you decided that you were going to start doing making stuff and that sort of like again, works in that idea of like you're, you're exercising a different part of what your, your habits were before.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:13:15] Yeah. I mean, that in of itself too is really formative because when I was taking my creative writing courses, they were all in like creating short stories. And my senior thesis was actually a novel that was very much based in like James Joyce's literature style literary style. And so if you have ever read, um, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses, those are like two of my favorite books.
I had done a, uh, Joyce course, um, during my time at . William and Mary. And that kind of influenced me and the way that I wanted to approach my senior thesis, which was like, I really want to do a creative writing piece and I really want to kind of focus on developing a narrative style. And at the same time it was like working on my art.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:14:48] eventually make it to you. You go and pursue your masters.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:15:09] Right, exactly
Jon Sorrentino: [00:15:10] and you go for art education.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:15:12] Yeah. I mean, when I was, uh, in my senior year of school, you know, everyone was telling me, what are you going to do with an English degree that basically holds no merit whatsoever, unless you want to be a teacher. And I go be a teacher. And I was like, okay, I guess I'll be a teacher had apply it for TFA. Um, Teach For America, and I thought that I was going to be underprepared to serve the students that I would have been teaching had I accepted the placement that they had given me, which would have been in an urban community in Chicago.
Teaching high school English? While, I think that TFA is a really great organization and they do incredible work in terms of placing much needed attention on developing underserved communities and marginalized communities. I did not feel like there was enough of a foundational support for me to step into a program like that and be able to do a job well.
I take the responsibilities of being a teacher very seriously, and so that was one of the reasons why I had applied to grad school in the first place, and I was also in this time having a kind of creative renaissance within my head or within my own personal identity. And I was thinking. I really want to pursue art.
And so I decided to do the art education route. Um, I applied to teacher's college, which is the, uh, grad school at Columbia for education, psychology and health sciences. So for me, it was both a really good answer to adults who were asking me what I was going to do with my life after I finished college and I just needed something to say, you know what, I'm going to be productive and on the right track.
I'm going to grad school because I hadn't 100% figured out. What I wanted to be when I grew up or at that point, I guess I hadn't been grown up, but I was also just barely 22 and I think that my birthday was maybe two or three weeks before graduation, so I was like, I think that this is the path that I'm going to take and that's what brought me to New York.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:17:51] You graduate grad school?
Aaron Barksdale: [00:17:52] Yes, I did. Two years.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:17:54] You do, you start teaching afterwards for a couple months?
Aaron Barksdale: [00:17:57] Not entirely. So when I was in my grad program, it's a very intensive year. The first year of scholarly education where you're learning about developmental theory and you're also working on your own art practice, or you're taking art classes as well.
And in addition to taking classes about the history of art education and the cultural practices, they go within teaching art and the developmental things that you can look for in terms of artistic development for children. As they get older, it's almost as easy to track as someone's reading level. You can see where someone is developmentally.
Because of the way that they're able to construct a world around them with the materials that they have. And the second year was 100% student teaching with some additional coursework, but it was like predominantly student teaching during the day and then a few classes in the evening. And the student teaching was one of the most difficult but rewarding experiences. That I've ever had, especially as a young professional and as a young adult. Um, my first semester was spent teaching nine through 12th graders at a high school in East Harlem. Um, shout out to the heritage school. It was really challenging to work with students who were from a lower income community. Um, this was a predominantly black and Hispanic community.
So I also felt a sense of duty in terms of representation because I was one of the few black, uh, faculty members who was at this school. They were like, the majority of the faculty was either white or a few latinos, the cooperating teacher that I had. Was an interesting character. We had very different teaching philosophies.
So the way that we approached the type of coursework or classwork that we would want to give to the students was also different. And it was also kind of challenging for me being so young and working with students who may have only been four years younger than me at the minimum, and probably six to eight years younger than me at the max.
And I was also not closeted in my personal or social circles, and definitely not among my peers, but in the workplace. I was not comfortable being out in front of my students. And this was something that I thought of and, and almost, um, explored in my writing when I was, um, working in the media industry.
But that feeling of not being able to be fully transparent because of a lot of the tropes that are associated with adults who are queer and children. And, uh, also the like homophobia that I saw within the school itself. And then within those communities, not that homophobia exists specifically in that community, but it was incredibly present and the ways that the kids interacted with each other, which also made me not feel safe, which is kind of ironic because I knew that there were queer students in my classroom who also probably felt less safe than I did. So I wish that I could have probably created a little bit more of a inclusive environment while I was a teacher there.
And, um, it was a really big learning experience for me to go into that classroom and deal with those things. And then, um. Because in New York city, if you're applying to be a art teacher, you have to be certified K through 12 my second semester was actually spent teaching kindergarten through fourth grade.
I loved that experience. It was a much different community. It was a little bit more racially diverse in terms of the school that I was at in the upper West side. Shout out to PS4 72 and they were a more affluent community. That cooperating teacher that I had had a very similar. I'm teaching philosophy that I did and also gave me a lot more freedom in the classroom to come up with my own ideas in terms of lesson plans and materials that we would use.
And it was a phenomenal experience. And I also felt like it was more inclusive in terms of gender and sexual orientation. I had the principal at that school. I believe was queer. Um, and the environment that the other teachers had foster, it was also, um, inclusive of queer identities as well. And there was like this really sweet, um, book in our classroom called King meets King, which was just about a Prince who's on his way to becoming a King.
But in order to become a King, he needs to marry someone. And so like all these different princesses from different countries in depth coming and they're all beautiful, but none of them strikes there to his attention except a one princess who brings her brother along and then they like get together and it's my King and King.
It was a really sweet book, and there was also like, I think another book about penguins that was also in the classroom. So the like space that that teacher that I was working with had created. Uh, environment where I think it was okay for students to bring them their whole selves into the classroom.
And that was really cool.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:23:27] You're in New York at the time and you know, you're coming out of the teacher program, right. How do you get into the media industry? Like how do you start writing again? Because it sounds like you had to. Experiences on the opposite sides of each other while teaching.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:23:42] Yeah. So I mean, there were a lot of social movements that were happening at that time.
There was the black lives matters social movement that was going on following the death of Mike Brown, um, in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as in New York city. Where I felt even more personally impacted by the death of Eric Garner. And I was also thinking about the death of Trayvon Martin, um, which I believe happened in 2013.
So it was very difficult for me to witness all of the social upheavals that were happening around me and not necessarily being able to have a voice. And responding to it, especially since a lot of the communities that I was serving as a teacher were being affected by this, especially while I was working and the high school setting and the majority of my students were black and brown.
And I knew that the potential for them or even myself as a black man, to encounter the police in a situation that could end up in a not so favorable scenario, um, was highly probable. And so I was really invested in talking about social identity, community, cultural, uh, issues that affected black people and also intersect it with other identities in terms of.
Class, race, gender, sexual orientation, um, immigration status. There were so many things that I felt a strong desire to talk about. And I had returned to writing while I was still a student at Columbia. I was doing, um, the student newspaper that had started maybe my second year at the college, um, at teacher's college.
And I had a friend from undergrad who was working at HuffPost at the time, and I was also doing a internship at an LGBTQ nonprofit here in the city, um, that linked up LGBTQ teens with adults who were queer and working professionals. Um, they would bring the. Working professionals to the high schools around New York city and basically talk to the kids about how.
Their lives changed after they graduated from high school and how they were able to live their best life and be their true identity as adults in the workplace. And I had connected with one person who was a part of this mentorship group with these students who also worked at Huffington post as well.
So when I was about to graduate, I reached out to my old classmate from William and Mary, and I told him that I was interested in doing the fellowship program. At Huffington post, um, which still is an, at the time, was doing a lot of culturally responsive journalism that really tackled issues that I thought were being overlooked at some other media companies at the time.
High profile media companies at the time that weren't necessarily looking at identity as a place to analyze the current. Political and social climate that we were in. And, um, I applied for the program and I believe that the two recommendations of both my former classmate and this connection that I had through my internship, um, were the things that probably put me over the edge in terms of the application process.
But when I got the position, I was so excited. I was a fellow specifically working on black voices. And I also was. Really working at a digital media company for the first time, and I had a very low level of experience when it came to journalism, and I was walking into the office every day with a sense of imposter syndrome, like, did I really belong here?
Can I make it? I remember getting back my first story that I had written and, um. Thinking, oh my God, this is going to be the most challenging thing that I've ever had to do. Because at that time, when they will give back corrections on articles like the editor, you would send your draft to the editor, the editor would give you back notes, and the notes would be like in capital letters marked in red.
Like they were always sent back and forth via email. So it really felt like someone was shouting at you and you did something incredibly wrong. I was so humble. I was so humble throughout that entire experience because I was like, all right, I'm here to learn and soak up every single experience and everything that I can learn from any individual, from like the person who is another fellow like me, the interns, um, any editors, social media editors, video editors, like.
I'm here to basically suck up all the opportunities and learn as much as I can. And I wrote for not just black voices, but the HuffPost media site, um, that latino voices, gay voices, which eventually became queer voices in order to become more inclusive HuffPost, uh, entertainment. So I was able to kind of get a hand in covering a lot of different types of stories, but like always, primarily sticking with things that were in my beat, which were, which was racial identity, and also a queer identity too.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:30:31] I look at it as, you know, you saw the opportunity to make a difference in a, in a way that you thought could reach more people, right? Like you went from teaching and feeling really empowered to, to do that, to help the community out.
And then I think having the, the vision or the idea that writing is another way of doing that as well. On a lighter note, HuffPost was bought by AOL and your screen name when you were younger was marinewildcat22.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:30:56] Oh yeah. That was so bizarre.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:30:59] Um, I found that on your, on your Instagram, but, uh, you end up continuing down being a writer and you write for a number of magazines.
So I'm gonna hop around here a little bit, but you eventually make your way to Refinery29.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:31:12] Yeah. So when I got to the end of my fellowship, maybe about a month or so before I. Was told by the editors that there basically just wasn't enough of a budget to keep me around. So at the end of my fellowship, which was a six months June to December, I would no longer be at the company.
And I was thinking, Oh my gosh, I failed. I was trying to get secured employment from this. And it's not going to happen. And I was really racking my brain about, all right, what's going to be the next step in my career? Do I go back to teaching where I already have a degree and I already have professional contacts or do I go with this thing that I feel is going to be my real passion in life and continue on the media industry?
So I actually had applied to work as a substitute teacher and I was going to be working at LaGuardia art school for the performing arts rather. Um, which is like I famous performing arts and visual arts school here in New York city. It's where Nicki Minaj went it's, where I think Jennifer Annison is another alum of the high school.
And you know, this is a school that's known for breeding the people who are going to be the entertainers of tomorrow. And it's one of like the dream schools for any creative teacher to work at in the city. And so I was going through the process of getting my sub license to work there and at the same time, a friend of mine who was working at HuffPost had told me about an opening at her media company called Odyssey.
And I was weighing the two options back and forth. I was doing the interviews with the school and then I was also doing the interviews with Odyssey and it came together just so quickly. The interviews with Odyssey. I had gotten interviewed by HR after I had submitted a paper application in the night. I had a meeting with two assistant managing editors and a managing editor at this media company, and so I was thinking to myself, you know what?
I'm going to take a risk and I'm going to go down this path of becoming a assistant managing editor at Odyssey. And leave behind my work as a teacher. And I told the staff at LaGuardia, you know, thank you so much for this opportunity, but I feel like I'm going to pass and do this other thing instead.
And that was like a huge leap of faith. And at that time I was not necessarily just an editor at this company. I was more of a I hate to say it, but it felt very much like a recruitment person. Rather than an editor for content. So I wasn't actually writing or publishing my own content on the site, which led me to seek out other opportunities to publish my content as a freelance writer on other websites.
Um, I had a really good friend who was an editor for HuffPost women that eventually went to refinery 29. Shout out to Rebecca Adams and I was talking to her actually at a former coworkers birthday party about my interest in writing, and I'm not just editing or doing this recruitment work that I was doing for this startup digital media company.
And she said, well, you know, send me some pitches for a refinery and we can see what, whether or not it works out. And I will say, this is kind of funny, but some of the best networking experiences that I've ever had have been at birthday parties. When ever your coworkers are throwing a birthday party, you should always go because you'll never know who you're going to have a conversation with.
Who can possibly open up a door for another opportunity, and that comes from a person who is like. A waffler when it comes to being social, I think that sometimes I'm incredibly outgoing and then other times I literally just want to retreat into myself.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:35:15] I was going to ask, cause you written for so many places, like I've, I've read through a bunch of your articles and I was going to ask you, is that a result of just being in the industry and networking within that?
Or is it, you know, like you're reaching out to your friends or you're actively doing this, you know, and it sounds like you're just kind of, you're meeting these people constantly in these experiences and just getting your name out there.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:35:34] Yeah. I mean, so much of it comes from being well-connected within the industry itself.
I always say, you never know who's going to be the next person and give you your next opportunity. Which is one reason why you should treat everyone well and also work really hard and be respectful to whoever you come in contact with. And so my opportunity to work at Out, I had actually reached out to some of my old colleagues at HuffPost.
Um, when I was working at this digital media place. I was doing a lot of freelancing and so they. Gave me the name of an editor who worked it out and I said, you know, like I had this idea for a story and we're like, sure, send us the draft. And then from there on, they ended up publishing it. I had had, um, other outlets like pick up my stories that had been published in other places.
Sometimes a lot of digital media saints will say like, Oh, this is a really great story from Huffington post. We want to reshare it with our audience on. The Daily Dot. That's how I get a piece published there about gay men being more supportive of feminism. The refinery story that I had originally was about interracial dating and just talking about my experiences with that.
I wrote another story for Refinery about. My body image and low way that I was documenting. Um,
Jon Sorrentino: [00:36:55] I read that one. I, I really enjoyed that.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:36:57] Ah, well thanks. Thank you. That one was really, that was a really, I think that everything that I wrote for refinery is like deeply personal. I feel like working for that company, I was also surprised at the thinkspace community and how people were very interested and.
And really authentic stories about people's personal lives. And it also was one of the, it was some of the content that I'm most proud that I published, but also some of the, like the most emotionally draining content that I'd ever written because I was talking about my own personal experiences. And you really do open yourself up to criticism based on those things, sometimes valid criticism and other times criticism that just seems to come out of left field.
And then at Blavity, I had, um, a good friend of mine who had worked at the digital media startup where I was at. And my gosh, that was a really interesting time. Um, but when, when we both left, he was a managing editor at Blavity and who told me that they were looking for, um, writers to do different stories.
So I was really writing about the intersection of pop culture and racial identity. I wrote a story about. Rob Kardashian and black China. And I wrote a story about Frank ocean. And I wrote a story about a friend of mine who's a photographer who, um, created this one photo book, um, dedicated to, uh, celebrating black male bodies.
And then also another, uh, story about. Just celebrating query identity, um, in general, um, for queer POC people. And then eventually I wrote that piece for Out. And, um, at this point, I had quit my job at this digital media startup because it was not a good fit for a variety of reasons. And I was struggling.
I was working at a, a restaurant down the street in Bushwick. I was, uh, freelancing, my writing, um, but I wasn't making a lot of money off of it. So that was one the reasons why I had to work at the restaurant, and it was really. It was really awkward for name because there were so many people who worked, um, at HuffPost.
And like some of the other companies I had written for who would come into this restaurant all the time. And when they would see me, they'd be like, Oh, like, what are you doing here? And I said, I'm working. It was. Also very humbling as like this person with two degrees, one of which is from an Ivy league university. To just like, be asking people, you know, like, do you want, um, plastic where with your order and earn, you know, things like that. Or let me explain. To me it does. And you know, there's no type of work that is to be shamed or absolutely embarrassed about. Uh, but it was definitely a humbling experience for me.
And I was considering whether or not to go back to teaching. Um, right back again. I was like, Oh, do I go back to this degree or do I like really try and follow and pursue this passion? And at the time, my roommate, uh, was working at Vice and. She knew that I had been putting in a lot of work. It's like every day I was applying for a new job and like getting ghosted by HR teams or taking edit tests and never hearing back, and there is so many things that were happening behind the scenes that I was just like, I don't know if I'm ever going to get this break.
And it was very expensive to live in New York. I was like, I don't know if I can afford this anymore. And so right when I was ready to throw in the towel. My roommate told me about a position, advice on the product team. I'm working on the back end of the website, helping with the transition of the old CMS to a new CMS, which will link all of the Vice websites. Um. And brands under one, uh, CMS publishing platform. And I was like, okay. I had a conversation with the person who would not even be my boss, but just ended up hiring me, shout out to Nicole. And, um, maybe like a day or two later, I was told that I got accepted and I was thinking, wow, this is insane.
That that was literally no time at all, or they must be desperate for workers. Thank God this is my opportunity. And I remember showing up on my first day thinking, wow, this is so cool. Like I'm going to be working for Vice. I was given a 30 day contract and I thought, I have to basically be the most professional. The most sociable, the coolest, the just the most everything in terms of superlatives that you can think of in the workplace in order to like secure a job.
And thankfully, you know, I started on a team with seven people.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:43:20] This is where we actually met two. We met on this team.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:43:22] Yes, exactly. I think that you may have started. I started like a months after like, yeah, I was only supposed to be on this team for 30 days.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:43:31] That's surprising to hear because I was in the company, but I was working in Viceland and I had switched over after a year or so and I met you and Thyda at the same time you guys were on the back table,
Aaron Barksdale: [00:43:44] Thyda and I started the first day together. I mean, it was so funny, like we liked each other up and never like, Oh my gosh, you look cool.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:43:52] You're so cute.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:43:53] Yes, exactly. It was, it was kind of like immediate. I mean, like Thyda has that type of energy where she's. Literally magnetic and draws people to hers. Jesus is so warming and caring and also just the most endearing person that you would want to work with.
So we, we quickly became buddies. I was like one of my fav,
Jon Sorrentino: [00:44:15] How long from the 30 day con like, so it definitely got extended a few times.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:44:19] Yeah. So I mean, there were seven of us who started and I think it was kind of clear. In terms of work ethic and also cultural fit within the company who was kind of being primed for success.
And there was also like a level of competition there because we were all fighting for who knows how many spots. Um, thankfully at the end of the 30 day period, the three people who they had selected to move, there's just to stay with the company. Um, were me Thyda and another one of our coworkers. Um, he lasted for maybe about another month, but then he moved to.
Uh, California to pursue other things. And so it was just Tina and I, I'm working on the product team. We were still working on the continuation of, um, the, the new CMS platform emerging. All the other sites from their individual CMS is to this new unified platform. And at that time, I knew that, you know, I liked working in the product area, but it was not my passion. It wasn't necessarily my background either. And so I was like, this is my opportunity to see, to like move back into the editorial space where I really wanted it to be. And it was really challenging. I had applied for a position on Tonic, which was at the time Vice's, health vertical, and um, there was so much stagnation.
Um, I like done emails and edit test and submitted my resume and
Jon Sorrentino: [00:45:48] You were on the inside too. And even then it was still hard cause I remember one day you were just like, Oh, it's my last day and the next week going back to the other office, you were like writing for another vertical. Dude, Aaron, you're, you're killing this.
But even then, it was still really hard for you.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:46:05] Yeah. It took several months to kind of get the wheels going, and I also was applying to other companies at the time, and I had gotten actually really far with another media company and another, um, big name digital media company, and they were really putting me through the ringer in terms of the application process.
There was a written application and then a phone interview and then an edit test, and then we want to bring you in for an interview and then you're going to speak with this person, and then you're going to speak with that person, and then we're going to give you another edit test. That interview process was going through that.
That hiring process was going through several months of, you know, not hearing from them for maybe like a week or in a week and a half, and then getting like a new update about another thing that they wanted to put me through and I knew that. They wanted me, but they weren't necessarily sure that I was like 100% the right fit because they.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:47:00] It sounds exhausting.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:47:00] It's so exhausting, but it's also like so typical of most people's experiences. Now when you're going through the hiring process, it definitely takes at least two months before. You get that email that says congratulations, you know, like, we would love to extend an offer to you. So I was spoke really transparently with the person who was hiring me, and I said, Hey, I just wanted to ask about like, what the timeline looks like for a final confirmation for, um, this particular job, because I had been speaking to people at
Uh, Vice. And when one person heard about my background working at HuffPost, working on this type of content about queer identity and black identity and social activism and things of that nature nights and around my resume, they were like, we think that you would be good for this new vertical that we're launching called impact, which was supposed to be Vice's, extended arm for advocacy and, and activism and the social movements that young people cared about.
So I was in talks with the director of advocacy who was also functioning as the editor in chief of this vertical. And I will say my initial impression was not the best of what vice was presenting. Um, cause I didn't have like a lot of information about it.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:48:19] It was very touch and go when we were there. Right, exactly. We need, we need a new vertical. Like okay, let's launch it tomorrow,
Aaron Barksdale: [00:48:27] Right. It was literally like we're launching this vertical in a month and we need somebody who is very familiar with the company, is very familiar with the brand, who has some writing experience and who can also like run the technical aspects of the website.
And I was like. Okay. I got it.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:48:42] That's everything I just did.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:48:44] Exactly. I was like literally primed for this particular role. So when I went back to the other company that I had applied to, and I told them, I was like, Hey, I've been given an offer for this other company. Um, but I am very interested in working here as well.
Just to be fully transparent. I wanted to know when you guys were thinking of hiring for this role that I had applied for, and they said, you know what, it's probably gonna be another few weeks before we have a determination.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:49:14] That's like even short selling it. It's probably more like a few months.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:49:17] Right and I, and they were like, honestly, it's between you and one other candidate.
And I said, okay, here's an opportunity where I need to decide whether or not I'm going to go with, um. The bird in the hand or the two in the Bush, and I knew that my contract on the product team was running out, um, that they were probably extended. They were probably offered me a full time role, which is actually what they did with Thyda.
Not to put too much of her business out there. Um, shout out to you though. Yeah, I love you. But I knew that like working in the product team wasn't necessarily the thing that I wanted to commit myself to.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:49:52] It was very different from what you have been doing for the last few years anyway.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:49:56] Exactly. That would've been a complete shift in my career trajectory.
Maybe the may be more diverse. I've lived, may have made me, um, a better candidate for future jobs because I would have been gaining different skills related to coding related to data science. And, um possibly like change the way that I am now in terms of like my job and my career, but I decided in the long run it would be a better decision for me to go with Vice Impact, and it was a really.
Ambitious project, what we did. And the year that I was on that team I was very proud of. It was very, um, challenging and to develop an, uh, an identity for this new site to figure out what the audience wants, but also remaining true to what Vice's voices, and to also think of the right type of content to put out there.
How do we, we're going to present ourselves. And at this time, Vice was going through a lot of internal challenges that were being exposed publicly, um, which made the advocacy arm of the company kind of lose some credibility.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:51:10] Eventually, I mean, you know, Impact eventually condenses. Becomes more, it doesn't necessarily become more of an editorial website, but more of an outward facing initiative.
Aaron Barksdale: [00:51:30] Um I knew that the time for impact was like coming to an end as, as, um, we knew it and that it would evolve into something else, something different, um, not necessarily better or worse.
And so I. Was looking for other opportunities at Vice. I knew that if I wanted to stay at the company, I would have to adapt and shift and learn how to do something different. And I really, at this time was kind of confronted with staying as a writer or doing something else because I knew that writing is such a volatile.
Position to have within the media industry. Um, you really do need other skill sets in order to make yourself a diverse candidate who would be attractive to other employers in the future. And to also maintain like your importance within the company that you're already at. So I knew that video was the future of, uh, news and media.
The conversation of pivoting to video is happening at every media company. Large swaths of editorial teams were getting laid off so that companies could focus on video. And I was thinking, okay. I talked to then the head of content at Vice at the time, who was amazing to me. Um, a really good mentor. And I told her, you know, I'm really interested in pursuing video.
I think that this is, um, the next phase of my career, and I would love to explore that here at Vice. And so she talked to the person who was my boss, um, advice. Um, shout out to Maggie. Maggie was incredible. Um, and basically showing me the ropes and is the reason why I was brought onto our short form video team.
And what I started doing when I was working on this short form video team was basically making archival cut downs of old advice, um, docs and publishing them on our social platforms. So, you know, we had this back logged immense catalog of videos and documentaries that really just needs to be fine tuned in short into like three to four minute videos, um, that we could air on social platforms to increase visibility around this content.
And also sell ads against them and make money.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:54:17] I remember, I remember having this moment, and I think this is exactly why I wanted to talk to you for the season. It's like I remember coming down to the second floor and you're telling me, I'm thinking about getting into video, and I was like, dude, you should do it.
Like you can absolutely learn. You know how to edit. It's not that hard. And I remember you giving me updates about that. Like, yeah, I'm, I'm cutting and I'm learning how to do premiere and all that stuff. You know, I think everything that you've talked about today has been. You've had to learn new skills, like within a matter of like, weeks, you know, like what continues to give you the confidence or the drive to like take on these new opportunities?
You know, like what pushes you?
Aaron Barksdale: [00:54:55] I mean, I will say when I first started working on the production team, I wasn't editing content. I was. Basically creating scripts off of videos that had already existed and pulling the time codes and sending them to an editor. So I was creating what is called a paper at it where it's very specific in terms of the type of video that you're asking the editor to create.
So for me, it was really about thinking creatively. How do you tell a story in a condensed format? But basically I was creating, um, what I would later know to become paper edits for these videos. And the whole reason why I felt confident in it was because, you know, I'm really good at critical thinking and really good at being creative.
And I was basically using those two skillsets in order to create new video content out of something that had already existed. You know, it was really easy for me to kind of look through Vice's catalog of content and say, all right, this is a grid idea of, or this particular video in terms of telling the story for a new platform for a new audience, condensing it.
Highlighting the stories that are most interesting, most entertaining. And that was really what was giving me my eye for production later on down the line. And although I would have loved to do more editing and kind of getting my hands dirty in premiere, but I was mainly doing, was working as a post producer.
I'm working on content that had already been published and reformatting it for a new platform, so I was, I've always had to deal with imposter syndrome. You know, wherever you go and you don't feel like you're 100% qualified for the job and you wonder, you know whether or not you actually deserve the position that you're in.
It is something that I think all highly qualified people probably have encountered or dealt with at some point or another. But that level of insecurity is something that you just have to work through. I feel like if you didn't have it being overconfident and overly confident in your abilities, there's more likely to.
Lead to errors or mistakes or you know, like a certain sense of arrogance when you're not necessarily able to connect with people. But having this small level of anxiety about whether or not you're qualified for your position, I think makes you work even harder to prove to yourself and others. That you know you are deserving of this position, that you do work hard, that you are a quick learner and that it is possible for you to gain new skills and work in the confines that you've been given and also outside of them to create something new.
And really the more I did these things over and over again, the more I was assured that I am highly capable of doing almost anything. You know, all I need is time to learn and I'm ready to participate to the fullest extent. That's how I've approach everything in life. Um, being a quick learner, soaking up all the experiences around me saying, yes.
Um, to every opportunity, you know, no matter how challenging and just being the type of person to get something done, I think that, you know, I'm very self motivated and very committed to keeping my word, you know, if I say that I'm going to do X, Y, and Z, I am going to do X, Y, and Z without any questions asked.
And to the best of my ability. And I don't need a lot of handholding. You know, you tell me where the destination is and show me the path and the like. I will work towards that final destination. And that has always been the drive and the F, the work ethic that I've had. I think that it was something that was passed down to me from both my parents.
They're both really hard workers and they put a lot of investment and importance on. Um, bringing your all into the workplace. So that was basically how I developed the confidence. Sometimes I still struggle with whether or not I'm qualified for the positions that I'm in, asking for mobility, asking for more money, asking for title changes.
Um, but if you don't have the confidence in yourself, then no one else will. You know, you always have to be your best advocate.
Jon Sorrentino: [00:59:53] Meeting you, at Vice and being your friend and just seeing how you've progressed over time has been, you know, really exciting to see you grow and, and having all these different roles and opportunities and, and also, uh, and very inspiring to me as well.
So, um, I thank you for coming in and telling your story on this episode. Aaron, working more people find you and maybe get in touch with you.
Aaron Barksdale: [01:00:18] Um, definitely reach out on Twitter. I'm very active, Aaron A Barksdale, and, um, find me on Vice's website. If you just search for my name Aaron Barksdale, you'll find all the latest content that I've written and published, and then we have a new series out on Noisey, which is called Frequently Asked Questions. FAQs is where we have a vice hosts speak with a celebrity guest and they also ask questions that we've collected from fans on the street. It's a really exciting series that I developed along with my colleague Regina also very exciting.
Jon Sorrentino: [01:01:40] Aaron, thank you so much for joining me today.
Aaron Barksdale: [01:01:42] Thank you, Jon. This has been a pleasure.