Meet The Women Making Inclusive Creative Spaces For Black Joy: "If I Don't Do This Work, Who Will?"

"There are so many Black stories out there to tell that I don't think we have even scratched the surface of, so I hope to see more of that this year."

Polly Irungu and Shavone Charles are poised to make significant changes in the photography community, and what we see when we turn on our phones.

"I’ve spent the majority of my career advocating for underrepresented creators and communities across the intersection of tech, contemporary art, entertainment, and fashion," Charles said.

Charles is a multi-hyphenate creative: model, musician, and diversity advocate, currently working at VSCO. She's also the mind behind the #BlackJoyMatters project, which has become a way for photographers and creatives around the world to spotlight their work online.

Irungu is a digital editor at New York Public Radio, and the founder of Black Women Photographers, a global community and directory of Black women and nonbinary photographers.

Their respective projects are labors of love and of duty at a time when both the photo industry and consumers are more aware of the issues of inclusivity and who is able to tell stories. As social media and apps like VSCO become increasingly common access points for people to get hired, they are making it easier for often underrepresented voices to be heard. As Brent Lewis, a cofounder of Diversify Photo put it, "Black stories need to be told by Black folks because we've been left out of that conversation for so long."

Irungu and Charles spoke through Google Chat in an interview facilitated by BuzzFeed News, which has been edited and condensed for clarity. The interview initially appeared in our photo newsletter JPG, which you can sign up for here.

Tell us about the #BlackJoyMatters project. How did it come about?

CHARLES.: #BlackJoyMatters is a VSCO initiative and ongoing series launched to celebrate and document Black Joy through the lens of multidisciplinary Black creatives. Last summer, in the midst of very trying times and ongoing exhausting news cycles around police brutality, this project was really a breath of fresh air for me, my colleague Ashley Robinson and the entire team that worked to bring #BlackJoyMatters to life. We loved working with Polly and the BWP to amplify the voices of Black Women and also highlight the amazing work across their network. We brought BWP on as a key collaborator throughout our series and we're excited to keep the momentum going.

IRUNGU: Who couldn't use a little more joy, especially Black joy in their life?


What do you want to see shared on social media, and what have you seen enough of?

IRUNGU: I don't think I can ever get tired of seeing stories highlighting Black womxn. I want to see more of our stories. There are so many Black stories out there to tell that I don't think we have even scratched the surface of, so I hope to see more of that this year.

CHARLES: Every other day, I go to VSCO’s in-app #BlackJoyMatters carousel for a window into the Black creator community and for a literal rush of euphoria looking at Black Joy, seeing Black people photographed in our natural, joyous state. With that said, I would love to see Black people and communities of color shown and archived in a light that’s true to the full spectrum of who we are, in spite of our struggles and adversities. I want to see more stories told and uplifted. I'd like for social media to be a safer, more inclusive space for underrepresented people and creators.

IRUNGU: Cannot agree more!

Q: You're both Black creatives who take it upon yourselves to promote and advocate for others in the community who may have less access or reach than you do. How does that feel at the end of the day: Rewarding? Exhausting? A mix of both?

IRUNGU: Whewww! It is definitely both. I think one thing people don’t realize is that when you’re constantly pouring into the community, it can take a toll especially if you do not have anyone pouring back into you. With that being said, it is one of the most rewarding experiences to see your advocacy and behind-the-scenes work making an impact and helping other Black creatives. Some days it feels like, "If I don’t do this work, then who will?" If I know I can make a difference now, why wait?

CHARLES: Wow. That first part Polly, whew. So so true. Can't agree enough with the need for all of us to have shared accountability around making sure the environments and communities we pour into, pour right back into us as well.

Some days are harder than others but this work is no doubt necessary. We have to be accountable for ourselves and our communities. We don’t have saviors or others coming to relieve us of systemic racism. With the internet and technology as our most vital current toolsets, we have to share our stories and lift others around us up as we climb.

We also have to take care of ourselves in the process and prioritize self-care while we carry out this very important and necessary work. Seizing Black Joy is a radical act and practice that we have to continue to prize and prioritize.

IRUNGU: Preach, Shavone!

CHARLES: You already know, P! You are living this, through your work and community. Truly!

What's a time in your career where you felt like, Wow, I've made it?

IRUNGU: When I saw my work on Nasdaq’s Tower in Times Square as part of their Amplifying Black Voices campaign, I definitely had a brief moment of the “Momma, I made it” feeling. But naturally, as a creative, I am always wanting more.

Don't get me wrong, I took time to celebrate that achievement, but I didn’t stop there. This month, I went back to Nasdaq to pitch a collaboration with Black Women Photographers. Throughout the month of February, they will be amplifying more Black voices, specifically, Black women and nonbinary photographers.

To me, it is not enough for only me to just “make it.” I am constantly thinking about how I can bring other Black women into these spaces. The work I have put in for the last seven months to build this community is just another example of that commitment. Most recently, it was truly rewarding and a “wow, *we* made it” feeling when The Kelly Clarkson Show invited me to talk about the work I am doing to help more Black women photographers get hired.

CHARLES: YASSSS, Polly! I know that's right!

IRUNGU: LOL, thank you, Shavone!!

CHARLES: Honestly on my end, I haven’t yet fully felt this, mostly because I look around and see that so many people (including my family, peers, and colleagues) are in need in some shape or form. As a Black woman and Black creator, financial freedom and access are two of the most important factors that would impact me feeling like I’ve made real progress and created positive generational impact and equity for those who need it. I’m grateful for the earned opportunities and accomplishments I’ve had thus far, but the work continues!

To Polly's point — it is important for us to stop and just breathe and celebrate our wins and progress along the way though. I am working on being better at that!

IRUNGU: It is definitely a work in progress on my end, too! Amen to that — here's to generational wealth!

CHARLES: Isn't it? Always a battle to find balance through it all!

Where do you see both of these initiatives in five years? In an ideal sense, and also kind of a societal one.

IRUNGU: Oh, man, I am trying to just get through this month, haha! But in all seriousness, I see Black Women Photographers in five years being one of the go-to destinations for anyone looking to find and hire more Black women photographers and all-around creatives. I see it being a safe space for any Black womxn looking to find community, mentorship, access to opportunities and resources like portfolio reviews, workshops, classes, and much more.

I am also just ready to see it evolve on its own. Everything that has happened these last seven months has happened in the most organic way. I never want to get to a point where I am feeling like I am no longer adding any value to the community and or industry. I am just going to continue to let this grow in its own magical way. I am a firm believer of what is for me is for me. And in that same sense, I know what is for this community will be for this community. I trust that the impact is having in such a short amount of time will continue and last longer than five, 10, 15 years.

CHARLES: To echo some of the thoughts I shared a bit earlier, my hope is to see more long-term generational shifts happen as a result of the hard work myself, Polly and many others are doing to bridge the gaps and create access for underrepresented voices. I am hoping we can all collectively scale our efforts and break down doors that remain open and more inviting for others to walk through.

With #BlackJoyMatters, I am hoping it continues to be an infinite reminder to celebrate Black joy and the full spectrum of Black existence — inclusive of but not exclusive to our trauma and resilience. My hope is that we continue to drive action and improve the Black condition in America through our efforts and community work. With all of my work in tech and across my creative projects, I want to inspire more action and conversations that have real impact toward REAL, long-lasting change.


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