This interview is the thirty-second in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership. For more about this series, click here.
Khairah L. Walker, Founder and Executive Director, tiLTFEST
Director of Communications, Newark International Film Festival
Centered. Nurturing. Determined.
Tell me about your current role?
I’m the founder and executive director of tiLTFEST, my literal baby. I decided years ago, while working on different film and music projects and more recently curating and consulting for various film festivals, that women were not being celebrated or appreciated at the forefront for their innovation. We did a lot of idea mining behind the scenes, but there was not enough of our physical presence in the outer realms of notoriety. I went to a few close friends in the industry and told them that I wanted to create this vehicle that was going to celebrate us across multiple genres: doing our thing in tech, film, and television — just all of it — and do it as an annual, mobile festival. For our inaugural year, tiLTFEST is creating events between New York and New Jersey with a few satellite offerings in Los Angeles. We are curating panels and workshops and showing film projects created, produced, directed, and executive produced by women, period. We are reveling in the achievements of the modern woman who is making massive strides in her discipline and industry of choice. Titans in the tech industry like Sheena Allen, unstoppable moguls in entertainment like Lena Waithe, and everyone in between — some you’ve heard of and some you will. Women who tiLT on a regular. (Khairah pictured at right.)
Our festival will let people know we work just as hard (most times harder than our male counterparts), and we continue to reach back to mentor, encourage, grow, and support others. Why did I start this? I felt like I had this massive amount of experience but no one really knew; I could speak to my achievements but there was no celebration, it was just the grind to do more. The name of the festival comes from the tilt technique where the camera is on a stationary pulley and gets different angle shots from various slants and perspectives, and that is literally how women work. We are forced to move through life as daughters, siblings, mothers with full lives, and not often afforded the luxury of focusing on one thing. The festival focus is on women who tilt through life while still creating their genius.
In addition to tiLT, teaching yoga, and working a full-time job at Race Forward, I also have a web-based management firm where I help people brand. I create slogans, loglines, and marketing concepts for their campaigns or businesses. Women are incredible thinkers and able to switch in and out of multiple responsibilities fluidly — we are champions at compartmentalizing.
What are some of your career highlights?
When I thought I wanted to work in the entertainment industry like one of my best friends from high school who basically took over A&R (artist(s) and repertory, used to denote employees of a record company who select and sign new artists), I interned for Angelo Ellerbee. He is the guru of public relations, publicity, and management. I worked on freshman projects for some very big names and helped behind the scenes to create sustainability for new talent. This was my first real understanding and hands-on experience with branding.
Another highlight for me was the work I did at Bet Tzedek, a legal services firm in Los Angeles. It awakened me to innumerable social injustices that are swept under the rug in the grand scheme of how the world works. We advocated for people marginalized across the board on tenants’ rights, indigent workers’ rights, the LGBTQ community, elder care, kinship law — if help was needed, we did it! This experience helped me explore philanthropy and cemented my desire to work for the disenfranchised.
Hands down, another one is my work with Glenn (Harris, President of Race Forward). He’s a dynamo. So many people around the world love Glenn Harris, and I get to have a close working relationship with him and understand what he’s passionate about, what fuels his fight. Glenn works tirelessly to move the needle in terms of policy and institutional racism — it’s a heavy lift for sure. He gave me a real understanding of structural racism and what it means to fight for people trapped in a system meant to harm them and how you get out in front and help those people, regardless of the wins or losses.
Those three roles have helped to mold who I believe I am meant to be on this earth.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
The tenets of Yoga are my way of life, personally, professionally, spiritually, philanthropically! I incorporate my practice in every arena that I am blessed to work in. I have a calm presence in chaos that helps me focus on everything I do, from writing to coordinating to planning to how I handle my children, my mate, my life. I just walk in the sense that what I’m doing is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing — in the moment and in the grand scheme. Even with the noes, I know that eventually the yeses show up. It’s very difficult for me to become frustrated or tiLT off my game. I believe in my yoga, in tiLTFEST, and in Khairah.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
Definitely physical. I enjoy teaching yoga almost as much as I enjoy taking it. I’m certified in Hot Power Vinyasa and Hatha. It’s super challenging to create sequences that challenge your students.
This festival is probably one of the most challenging things I’ve undertaken. I’m responsible for this dream, what I believe, and have a responsibility to convey it to the people who believe in me (sponsors, partners, ambassadors, etc.). Every single day, I am talking to people and literally carrying my water to them. “Here’s what I want to do, why I believe in it, and how you can help me.” Just like that.
At Race Forward, coordinating Glenn’s life is also ridiculously challenging. It’s 24/7 and is the work that gives me a break from the 24/7 creative side of my brain. He marches to the beat of his own drum, which makes it fun.
My children are also hugely challenging, but at the same time the best reward ever. My oldest son headed to Morehouse in August, which has been a journey unto itself. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, though I would trade some of the gray hair though!
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
So many…If I could pick just one, I think it’s The Tao of Muhammad Ali by Davis Miller, which is about respecting the world and maintaining a clear sense of who you are in it.
Another book that I return to often is Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo by Gene Kranz. It helps me focus on the glass is half full and reminds me that failure isn’t an option even in the midst of failing. It helped me learn the art of bouncing back and getting up and going back into rooms I was tossed from to ask for different things, especially if I believe my yes is in that room! It has also helped me gracefully leave a room.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are with me all of the time; I listen to them and read them. There’s a spiritual peace in every single sutra and they keep me grounded, period.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
The entertainment industry will always pose conflict with your values and belief systems. You are exposed to everything; there are no boundaries. Nothing is a no and everything is a yes because of instant gratification and insatiable appetites for more. Being on a set and watching an artist in a downward spiral while everyone pretended that it was okay was so hard for me. I was born and raised Muslim and the central tenet was that you help people and call out what is wrong — in the world, in your home, and in yourself. At that point in my career I was very green. There were things I wasn’t supposed to do and people I wasn’t supposed to talk to on set. This particular time, I approached the artist to check on them and got thrown off the set. It was humiliating to be sure, but I don’t regret what I did. I lost that particular gig, but it also taught me that you have to be okay to be yourself no matter the consequences. What you will remember are the choices that you make, not always the consequences associated with them.
I’ve been in the best and the worst situations, but all of them have brought me to this place where I am right now. All the experiences add up to something. What’s the purpose? Where are you going to take it? This is my brand and it is all of me. I’m ready to fully embrace all of it.
Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
So powerful. For me, reclaiming my time is literally cordoning off time that belongs solely to me. As someone who worked 24/7 — whether it was my job, email management (I have six very active accounts), writing, yoga, travelling, or innovating for the businesses I’ve birthed — I’d gotten to a point where I was completely frazzled. I didn’t have any discipline around time, I was anxious, couldn’t meditate, up all hours of the night working, reading, brainstorming, and always so short and peevish with my children. I reclaimed my time. No matter what, on Sundays (even if it means a babysitter for my little one) there are no calls and no writing. I take a few hours just to reclaim Khairah. It could be a jog, a walk, extra sleep, a television binge on nonsense, or a manicure and pedicure — at minimum I take two hours for me. If I’m feeling like a vigilante then I’ll take half a day. It is a non-negotiable must. I cannot give anything to anyone on empty. It’s ridiculous. It’s literally a lie, pouring and pouring and it’s nothing substantive — you’re a fraud if you’re doing that, take note.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
For me, yoga is part of self-care. When I am not taking class, I am completely off my game and it shows up in every area of my life. It’s a spiral: I’m not eating right, not moving my body, and being lazy. Yoga gets me laser-focused, burns off the haze, and I think a lot more clearly. When I don’t do it I know the difference, my input and output is all wrong.
And sleep! So many times, we push past exhaustion thinking there’s a medal in it and there’s not. There is a huge age difference between my kids. I have a twenty-something, a college freshman, and a four-year-old, so sleep always feels like a mirage in the distance. A nap is a luxury. To wake up from an unplanned nap feels splendid!
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
First, I would tell them to get really, really quiet and call out that voice they don’t always give the stage to — and listen. Tamp down the fear, anxiety, and disbelief to truly allow that voice to speak. Then I would say, “believe that voice.” Whatever you call it — intuition, connection to source, whatever you believe it to be — hear it and allow it to lead you.
Be your biggest advocate. Champion yourself when no one else will or is able to see the vision. I had so many negative thoughts that didn’t come from the outside world; they came from me. What do you have to offer? Eventually I began to believe in myself and that was key for me.
Trust the sages that have come before you. Read anything that has to do with your passion or your vision. There are keys in there. Yes, you have unique capabilities, but there are plenty of women who have done work from which you can glean your own personal understanding, truth, and successes!
I’m a huge advocate for coaching and mentoring. It’s very important to have someone you can talk to who will help you get clear, establish thought patterns, and push you to your next level. But you have to believe in yourself before investing in coaching. You have to trust the process AND the processor.
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
I would start with young Black women and create a process around the promotion of overqualified Black women. We are taught that we have to do so much better than our counterparts. Yet we still tread water in positions that have no power. I would create programs to bring young Black women into an arena where they could understand leadership, see themselves as leaders, and create programming that moves young girls in lock step with women promoted as leaders and executives. It starts with the way we think about ourselves, and the reflections the world is showing us. There are a few doing this work — like Angela Glover Blackwell, Tamika Mallory, Alicia Garza — but in no way, shape, or form are there enough. The benefit of showing these young women these mirrors is to prove that we can create punctures in the structure and inspire them to do it more.