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Media In the Mix

Media in the Mix podcast is a space where we explore topics in communication at the intersection of social justice, tech + innovation, and popular culture. Media in the Mix is a production of American University School of Communication.

Production Team

Hosted & Produced by: Grace Ibrahim & The School of Communication


Latest Episode

The 3 P's of Public Speaking


On episode 9 of Media in the Mix, host Grace Ibrahim is joined by AU SOC adjunct professor and alumna, Gillie Haynes. Haynes is an executive presentation and public speaking coach. She is an accomplished communications expert, professor, author and former journalist with experience in print, broadcast journalism, public relations and social media management. 

Her professional work includes Speakers Training in a Virtual Environment for Vanguard Communications, Washington, DC, Presentation and Public Speaking Training for the Leadership Initiatives Academy at Georgetown University, Public Relations Manager for a national program within the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, DC, and in Business Development for EDS.

Stream and download episode 9 to understand the power and importance of approaching public speaking with confidence.


[00:00:06] Grace Ibrahim: Welcome to media in the mix, the only podcast produced and hosted by the School of Communication at American University. Join us as we create a safe space to explore topics and communication at the intersection of social justice, tech, innovation, and pop culture. [00:00:22]

[00:00:23] Grace Ibrahim: To give you a little more background on our guest today, Gilly Haynes is an executive presentation and public speaking coach. She is an accomplished communications expert, Professor, author and former journalist with experience in print, broadcast journalism, public relations, and social media management.[00:00:40]

[00:00:41] Grace Ibrahim: Her professional work includes speakers training in a virtual environment for Vanguard communications, Washington, DC presentation and public speaking training for the leadership initiatives academy at Georgetown University, public relations manager for a national program within the Department of Homeland Security in Washington DC, and in business development for EDS. [00:01:02] 

[00:01:03] Grace Ibrahim: She has developed, produced and served as host of two on air programs in her position as public affairs director for KBLX/KRE radio in the Bay area of California. She is also an AU alumna as she earned her Master of Arts and Communication and is currently pursuing a graduate certification and teaching design and facilitation at American University, which she will complete in 2023. [00:01:35] 

[00:01:36] Gillie Haynes: In 2019, Gilli was selected as an outstanding instructor in an adjunct position at American University. Thank you, Gilly, for being on the podcast today. [00:01:37]

[00:01:38] Gillie Haynes: Grace, thank you so much for the invitation. I am excited to be here with you. [00:01:41]

[00:01:42] Grace Ibrahim: A fun fact actually Gilly helped me prepare for my commencement speech in 2019, which feels like a lifetime ago considering everything that's happened. But yes, so happy to have you. Today we're going to be discussing everything: public speaking tips and tricks, things to remember, things that are important. [00:01:57]

[00:01:58] Grace Ibrahim: what got you into this career path? We have so many different people in the industry and just such diverse careers. So, what's the reason behind your career? And how did you kind of get into public speaking? [00:02:08]

[00:02:09] Gillie Haynes: Well, I love the question. I started as a journalist, and in many of the interviews, I did print for a while I did radio for a while. And what I noticed with some of the guests, not all some of the guests hesitated to explain something that's their background, or that they do if we're interviewing you about this particular thing. That's your thing, you should be able to talk about it pretty comfortably. [00:02:36]

[00:02:37] Gillie Haynes: I know that some people had a hard time with that. And I thought, wow, this is something I need to explore. Because if I can help people realize a comfort zone and build confidence. And so, it started there. And I just kept going from that point. [00:02:51]

[00:02:52] Grace Ibrahim: That's great. And can you just kind of dive a little bit into what you do? What you done over your career? [00:02:56]

[00:02:57] Gillie Haynes: It has not just been teaching. And I have to tell you a funny story about me teaching here at American University. I started as a journalist, as I just mentioned. I worked in print for a while. I did some radio; I've done some PR work. And so, I've kind of gone across the board. And when I worked in radio, I was trying to learn the craft. And that's with everything. [00:03:15]

[00:03:16] Gillie Haynes: So, I always say to my students, it doesn't matter if that's not the job you want, eventually. Do the job because you're going to learn something that you can use later in another part of your life. So, I've worked in R&B, jazz and country western stations, writing news copy, and also being on the air producing shows and hosting programs. So, you get a little bit of everything that all comes together to make you who you are right as a complete professional. [00:03:46]

[00:03:47] Gillie Haynes: So that was one of the things that I really enjoyed doing. Fast forward to being here at American University. I received my master's in communication here at American. [00:03:56]

[00:03:57] Gillie Haynes: At the time, one of my professors Riksdag, who has since retired, approached me and said, Hey, you should consider teaching. And I said, Oh, that's not mine. That's not my thing. I don't know, I've never thought about teaching. And he said, um, I think you should think about it. And we didn't, I let it go. [00:04:16]

[00:04:17] Gillie Haynes: And he approached me again A while later and said, Okay, can you just kind of fill in for a minute, we have a professor who has got to be out for the semester. We just need somebody to step in. So, I did, yeah, as a favor. And at the end of the semester, the professor decided to retire. And then he approached me and said, they're not coming back. [00:04:35]

[00:04:36] Gillie Haynes: How was the semester? Yeah, it was okay. He said, Do you think you want to stay? And I said, Sure. Grace, I have been here ever since. So that's how I came into the classroom. When I share that with my students. They all go You got to be kidding you. You didn't want to do this because we get such an exciting time being with you that I can't believe this is not something that you intended to do. [00:04:57]

[00:04:58] Grace Ibrahim: I love that because it goes with what you just said. Learn your craft skill builds. Yeah, you know, it's so fun. Yeah, learn new things. And then you then learn what you like and what you don't and what you don't if there's something you think you like, and you try it out. And it's an absolute no, now, you know, it's an absolute no, no more time wasted. Moving forward, which is great. That's awesome.[00:05:17] 

[00:05:18] Grace Ibrahim: Let's start with some easy little tips and tricks student or someone who has some, some big presentation, or speech or anything coming up, what are a few little, what's just a short little checklist, a few of the things that you think is a good thing for someone to write down to remember? [00:05:35] 

[00:05:36] Gillie Haynes: I like to start with things that are nuggets that you can remember. So, we got to do three P’s here. So, prepare, practice, and personality. I'm using those three P's because you have to know that whatever it is, you've been invited to do, whatever the event is, find out what the event is, what the occasion is, what the length of time is, because many people don't ask that.[00:06:02]

[00:06:03] Gillie Haynes: They don't ask, Well, how long am I being given to speak? Is it five minutes? Is it 10? Is it 15, and then plan accordingly. Because I say to my students all the time, you don't want to be on the list of people that they do not want to invite back, because you went over the time and threw off the whole program. So, remember to do that. So, find out what you're, what the event is, prepare, practice as many times as necessary. [00:06:28]

[00:06:29] Gillie Haynes: Don't be afraid to add some personality in there. You got to do that. And when you think about it, what can I do? We talk about gestures, eye contact, work on all of that and use your friends. When you're out with your friends. They don't know you are practicing. They don't know that. I've suggested that to students. And they said, over the weekend, we went to do this, and no one knew I was practicing for that for the upcoming week. And I did it. And it worked. Everything you said worked. So that's where I would start. [00:06:58]

[00:06:59] Grace Ibrahim: That's great. So, recently we were talking about this a little off the record, but I went to standup comedy recently. And that is the same advice they give us in class is to practice on people around you, people that you trust. And I have been doing that a little here and there. But it's so funny, because like you said they don't know your practice and it's really beneficial. [00:07:18]  

[00:07:19] Grace Ibrahim: I can see with a group of people that I trust, whether the reaction is good, whether it's you know, don't think they got that or maybe that's something I have to revisit. [00:07:25]

[00:07:26] Gillie Haynes: You work this. [00:07:26]

[00:07:27] Grace Ibrahim: Yeah, it's good practice. I like that. And definitely being prepared, I find that when I'm on stage, and I'm prepared, the nerves are different. They're just, they're nervous, because nerves are good, and it gets you excited, you got those butterflies, but I find that the stress is eliminated when I'm prepared. If that makes sense.[00:07:45]

[00:07:46] Gillie Haynes: Oh, it makes a lot of sense. And I use that a lot. When you are prepared. Your confidence goes way up, your nerves go down. Yeah, and with nerves and fear and anxiety, I always say to people, your audience cannot look at you and tell if you're nervous. So do not announce it, do not announce it.[00:08:01]

[00:08:02] Gillie Haynes: Nerves and fear do not have a shape or a color. I cannot look at you and tell because you come across, oh, this person is really, you know, I'm picking up some tips from watching them. Other people are thinking that you're doing great, right? They don't know how you feel inside. [00:08:16]

[00:08:17] Grace Ibrahim: That's very true. I think there was only one experience where I started a set saying that I was a little nervous. And it went a lot differently than any of the other ones because you are just. That's it. You're no I think it was even just like a don't put it back to rehearsal type of a real honest and I was like, Okay, I put it out into the universe. And lo and behold, it happened, you know, good advice. [00:08:38]

[00:08:39] Grace Ibrahim: So, this is something we wanted to focus on when we chatted a little before the podcast. But I was very intrigued by this. So, you talked a lot about how to prepare for the unexpected. [00:08:45]

[00:08:46] Gillie Haynes: For the unexpected. [00:08:47] 

[00:08:48] Grace Ibrahim: So, in a moment where you have this opportunity that you didn't expect, how can you be prepared? And you I love that you use the example because this is probably relatable to anybody that was watching the Golden Globes, So there's someone out there that went up to accept their award. And they said, I'm speechless. I didn't think I'd be winning; you know. And we see that so much. Actually, you do in this industry. [00:09:05]

[00:09:06] Gillie Haynes: You do. Here's the deal. If you are on a list of nominees walk in as though you are expecting to get the award. So at least think through what you would say, I want to thank the people that you work with on that show, thank your family, thank the people who put the event together, you come up with something, at least in your mind, you start thinking through what you think you may want to say when they call your name. [00:09:33]

[00:09:34] Gillie Haynes: I always feel like, when I walk in the room everyone's been expecting me to be here and sitting there so excited that I showed up. So, you have to have that kind of an attitude when you go somewhere. Anticipate that this is your night, they're going to invite you to the stage. What are you going to say? The one thing you don't want to say is that I'm I don't know what to say. Don’t say that. [00:09:53]

[00:09:54] Gillie Haynes: So that's one of the things to do. And sometimes I've even mentioned to you that if you're a member of an organization that gives you an opportunity to practice as well. [00:10:01]

[00:10:02] Gillie Haynes: You invited someone as a speaker to your group, maybe someone else was scheduled to do the welcome and they didn't show up, they turned and looked at you and said, Hey, do you mind stepping in? This person couldn't come up. Can you welcome our guests tonight? Just say sure. Go right up there, they may have a bio look at a couple of things. But don't try to read the entire bio. Just pick out a couple highlights. Keep it short. [00:10:25]

[00:10:26] Grace Ibrahim: Do you have any advice on maybe being a little too rehearsed? [00:10:28]

[00:10:29] Gillie Haynes: Yes. Thank you for asking that. I've had many people ask me that question. Do you think it's a good idea for me to memorize my presentation? My speech? My answer is no, do not do that. Because I've seen it go terribly wrong for someone. [00:10:42] 

[00:10:43] Gillie Haynes: People will rehearse a memorized speech. And then at some point, there's a distraction, somebody dropped something, a noise happened on one side of the room, and it throws you off. Then you forget at what point you were at, in this speech or you forgot the line. And it's hard to recover from that. [00:10:59]

[00:11:00] Gillie Haynes: So, I would say not to memorize but to give yourself a few bullet points. If you have a little card or something you want to take to the podium with you. Just think about that. Another good thing to do is to maybe know your opening, even if you're going to add some other things in the middle, have a strong opening and a strong close and fill in the blank. [00:11:17]

[00:11:18] Grace Ibrahim: Again, another thing that popped into my head. I'm trying to think of situations that are relatable to people that maybe go along with how to prepare for the unexpected. I know even just in a college or higher academia setting. Sometimes it's just getting called on in class and you don't know the answer. Do you have any advice for that? And where your confidence can come in? Even if you don't know the answer? Just any advice for that. [00:11:38]

[00:11:39] Gillie Haynes: Most people hope that someone else gets called before them. [00:11:41]

[00:11:42] Grace Ibrahim: Ask for a volunteer. And you can actually see collectively the eye contact shift from you probably too, just another part of the room. [00:11:51]

[00:11:52] Gillie Haynes: Absolutely. I've said it because I know, no one's looking at me directly. And then you always have one. That's what I'll do. I'll do it. They'll come right up. And I think that's great. Yeah, because they want to get the practice. [00:12:01] 

[00:12:02] Gillie Haynes: Yeah. And a lot of people feel that. When I was in high school, I was in this club. And we spoke a lot. But then they always say to me at the end of the semester, being on the debate team, being in this organization did not prepare me to be in a public speaking class. It's so different. [00:12:16]

[00:12:17] Gillie Haynes: But I'm, I'm happy you're here. Because you want to learn and the skills you learn for presentation and public speaking skills you will use throughout your life in many areas of your life all the time. [00:12:28]

[00:12:29] Grace Ibrahim: And I'm sure it's important to note that we change as people as well, sure when you're younger, you remember, like you almost had no filter, and then you can come into a little bit of like, okay, I'm now getting to know who I am. And I want to kind of quiet down, you change as well. [00:12:42]

[00:12:43] Grace Ibrahim: And so, I think keeping those skills up to par with who you are where you're at in your life is also important because there's a lot of different opportunities out there to public speak. I think people think sometimes it's like a graduation speech. [00:12:54]

[00:12:55] Gillie Haynes: I'm sure you use Grace, I'm sure you use a lot of the same tools. When you're on stage. [00:13:01]

[00:13:02] Grace Ibrahim: Eye contacts, confidence, personality. [00:13:03]

[00:13:04] Gillie Haynes: Yes, your gestures, all of that. When I said, prepare, practice personality, you want people to see who you are, your audience can relate to you. If you're just being authentic, you're not trying to just look like a robot just standing there and not moving. [00:13:19]

[00:13:20] Grace Ibrahim: In terms of practicing, what do you think are some good ways for people to practice? I know, sometimes it can be a little awkward talking to your group of friends. And that's totally fine. So would you have any advice for people who prefer to practice on their own time alone. [00:13:32]

[00:13:33] Gillie Haynes: Always record yourself if you can, because you will see something on your tape that you didn't realize you may do quirky movements or something, I didn't know I did that. But once you see yourself on camera, then you can make adjustments. Practicing with friends is really good. Sometimes the friends need to know that you're practicing, Sometimes they don't. [00:13:49] 

[00:13:50] Gillie Haynes: In front of a mirror, people always say that, but I think the recording is a really good one. Because you can see what you're doing. Oh, I didn't know I turned my head that way. I swear I'm scratching the slip side of my forehead, whatever it is, right. So that way you can be aware. Let me not step on stage and do this thing again. [00:14:08] 

[00:14:09] Grace Ibrahim: That's great. Just a question following up on the last, Do you think we should ever be speechless? Is there a moment where you think being speechless is appropriate? [00:14:17]

[00:14:18] Gillie Haynes: If you are surprised, a surprise party may take you a minute to gather yourself? Let me tell you something. Public speaking is one of my absolute favorite things. When I can work with someone, a client or student and then start to see the growth and the transformation from when they may have approached me and said I'm a little anxious. I'm like, my anxiety level is way up here. And then after time, I see them change. [00:14:46]

[00:14:47] Gillie Haynes: I'm so excited about that. Do I have a moment to share a story with you about several years ago, when I had a student in my class. And on the first night, we went over how many speeches we were going to do, What they were and I'm just excited. I'm just talking and talking. [00:15:03] 

[00:15:04] Gillie Haynes: At the end, everybody gets up and leaves. I suppose I'm so excited to see you guys' back here next week, and she's still standing there. And I said, Oh, did you have a question? And she said, No. She said, I just want to tell you, I'm going to drop your class. And I said, you're going to drop the class, and she's, uh, you seem like a nice enough person. But there's a lot of speeches. And I'm going to drop your class. Yeah. And I kept smiling at her. [00:15:27] 

[00:15:28] Gillie Haynes: I said, Oh, my goodness. I said, Let me tell you something. I said, I will see you here next week. Her eyes got really big. She just laid there, and he didn't hear me at all. And I said, I can probably find out where you live. And if you want, I could come and walk you to class. Her eyes got even bigger. I thought any minute she's calling security on me. She backed out of the door. She didn't turn it back to me. [00:15:46] 

[00:15:47] Gillie Haynes: I just backed away. And I thought, okay, either she's coming back next week, or I really blew it. She showed up the next week. She came in, she sat down, I smiled at her. I just kept talking. We just started going through. And then I started to notice her getting more relaxed. She's raising her hand; she wants to go first. She's doing all the speeches. She finished my class. I didn't see her anymore. [00:16:07]

[00:16:08] Gillie Haynes: Several years later, I got an email from this student, she put her picture in the email to remind me who she was and what I remembered. Yeah. And she said, just wanted to tell you that because of you. I'm doing the career that I wanted. And I thought, what if I didn't, I didn't know what she wanted to do. And she said, I was just going to go take a job where I didn't have to really talk to anybody, just try to get through life. [00:16:28]

[00:16:29] Gillie Haynes: And she said, but I want you to know right now, I'm getting ready to graduate from Catholic University with my law degree. And I'm working in the DC courts, speaking on behalf of people who cannot speak for themselves because I had the training in your class. I read her email and I just had tears running down.[00:16:45]

[00:16:46] Grace Ibrahim: I have goosebumps right now. [00:16:47] 

[00:16:48] Gillie Haynes: Yeah, tears rolling down my face, Grace. I said, Oh, my goodness. And she put her contact information in. So, I called her, and we've been in touch since then. And I'm so proud of her. She passed the bar, the one where you're barred in like 13 states across the country. She's doing extremely well. I didn't know that's what she wanted to do. But she had decided, Oh, that's a lot of talking that she's talking about doing it here a lot of speaking. [00:17:09]

[00:17:10] Gillie Haynes: And so I'm just going to do something different from what I said, but here's the deal. I can't think of a career, a job, anything that you would do in life where you're not interacting with someone, you have to talk to people. And even if you had to call them, get cable installed. Got to make a doctor's point, you gotta make an appointment. Yes, yes. [00:17:27]

[00:17:28] Grace Ibrahim: I love that. It's important. We're actually kind of talking about this today, the importance of having someone there who believes in you just a little bit, yes, such a long way, especially when you're in the academia environment. And I love that she didn't even tell you what it is she wants to do. She just saw that. You said, No, I know you can do this.[00:17:44]

[00:17:45] Grace Ibrahim: So, show up and show me that you can. And she was like, Okay, it's a two-way street. Basically, anything I'm trying to say is amazing. What do you think takes precedence most of the time, the content you're speaking or the way you're saying it, the delivery? [00:17:57]

[00:17:58] Gillie Haynes: I think the delivery and reason I say that is because I have seen students come into class, and they've chosen a topic that probably is not going to be the most favorite, or most exciting to the rest of the audience. And the way they delivered it just pulled everyone in and just blew them away. And by the time we got to the end of the presentation, and the Q&A started, so many hands went up to ask more questions. [00:18:23]

[00:18:24] Gillie Haynes: And I've seen students say, that's not even a topic I was ever interested in. But the way you talk about it, and how and how passionate you seem about it sparked my interest. I think the delivery really weighs high on that list. Content is important, right? It really is. But the delivery is the way you present it. And that's why I'm saying you have to also include personality in there. [00:18:46]

[00:18:47] Gillie Haynes: And if you have an experience that associates itself with your topic, share it, because it will probably connect with someone in the audience. Yeah. And there's Oh, man, I didn't know that. That's something that I've always thought about. Or I had that same experience, man, but don't think that you don't have you can't share it. Because I think sharing an experience along with if it fits the topic also gives them an inside view to who you are. Yes. Where I'm seeing personality comes in as well. [00:19:15]

[00:19:16] Grace Ibrahim: I like that too. Sometimes you have presentations or if you're going in for a speaking moment, or really even standup comedy. I mean, it's like a one-sided conversation. I don't have people I mean; they laugh sometimes they don't laugh, sometimes in the silent room, you don't have the opportunity for the audience to interact with you or ask questions. [00:19:34]

[00:19:35] Grace Ibrahim: Even sometimes there's no time for questions, depending on what you're doing. So, would your advice to connect to the audience be kind of sharing your experiences trying to find relatable topics to maybe throw in there? [00:19:45]

[00:19:46] Gillie Haynes: Sure. I think that would work. Because there's so many times when you share something, you start to see people nodding in the audience, and then you know, I made a connection here, and that's what you want. When you talk about, you know, the eye contact, I say I had a student one time, standing behind the podium and staring just at me wouldn't look around the whole room. [00:20:05]

[00:20:06] Gillie Haynes: And you know, I had to we had to have a conversation about that later that you have to scan your entire room, you don't have to hold the eye contact with one person long, just glance, you're acknowledging everyone, and they all feel seen, they all feel seen and included. So that's, that's important to do that. [00:20:22]

[00:20:23] Grace Ibrahim: And to be fair, it's a tough skill to get down. And then I we're talking so much about your class and what you teach in the kinds of assignments, can you go through kind of your class structure for anyone maybe interested in taking the class like what they can expect? [00:20:35]

[00:20:36] Gillie Haynes: Well, we do a lot of things. I start with just a personal story. I let people just talk about whatever for a few minutes. They sit there like, What does she mean? So sometimes I start Yeah, and I'll tell them something about my background and share a story. And then I see your shoulders kind of drop a little bit like they look a little relaxed. [00:20:57]


[00:20:58] Gillie Haynes: Okay, okay. She didn't mean anything really heavy. You know, I said you don't. And this is, if it's something about you, it doesn't have to be written down, because you know you better than I do, so you can get up and talk about an experience. You had your favorite food, some trip you took that was just fantastic that you want to share with us. [00:21:15]

[00:21:16] Gillie Haynes: And so many of them, some of the stories they tell, all of a sudden that night, we're laughing, everybody's laughing, and then it helps the next person. And so that's really good. Then throughout the semester, we do informative speeches, wow. Persuasive, ceremonial, which, which are also special occasions. So sometimes if you'd go into a wedding and you had to do toast, we practice that we practice in class. We do a welcome. [00:21:42]

[00:21:43] Gillie Haynes: How to do an acceptance because I know I said, some of you are going to be getting some big award somewhere. You need to have your acceptance speech, practice. Practice it beforehand. Okay, so you know how to do it. So, we go through all of that even if we even do a pitch assignment. And I know American University has filming. [00:22:00]

[00:22:01] Grace Ibrahim: Yes, because you came to our class. Yes. I remember. [00:22:03]

[00:22:04] Gillie Haynes: You remember me? [00:22:04] 

[00:22:05] Grace Ibrahim: Yes. Gilly pulled the same move she pulled at our class. And she went, anyone wants to pitch that moment. Everyone was silent. We were all just like should we and I felt so much better after I did it. Because I remember all the ways this sparked the idea to actually grow further. And it was a scene I ended up doing for my final project last semester. [00:22:24]

[00:22:25] Gillie Haynes: Wow yeah. That was in Professor Williams class, right? On that note, I also add extemporaneous speeches and that, and sometimes the students almost like they're about to pass out, yeah, bring this up. Because I will say to them, somewhere during the semester, I will not announce when, but I will ask you to come here. And so, what I do, I do prompts on some note cards and now hold them in my hand. [00:22:49]

[00:22:50] Gillie Haynes: And I'll say, Grace, come up, pull a card. And I said, I'm going to give you like a minute or two, just to think it through. And then you come in presented in front of the class, the rest of the class will not know what your card is. You just come up and talk about it. And then when you finished, I looked at everybody that said, you know what she was talking about? [00:23:09] 

[00:23:10] Gillie Haynes: And they'll say, oh, yeah, I said, there will be many times in life when you are somewhere. And all of a sudden, you have to get up and say something, and you haven't had time to prepare the way you would want to. So don't let that be the thing that you hesitate about. Yeah. Or that will scare you. Okay. So just go ahead and do it. [00:23:30]

[00:23:31] Grace Ibrahim: And you know, they actually do a lot of stand-up Comedy type open mic nights, where they will do that type of prompt like, really, they will just have you pull out a subject and then you have to go give it three-minute comedy said about that. And you don't have anything. [00:23:42]

[00:23:43] Gillie Haynes: I already love it. [00:23:43]

[00:23:44] Grace Ibrahim: You know, I haven't done that yet. But I really do. I want to at least try it once because I'm like, I need to put myself out. [00:23:49] 

[00:23:50] Gillie Haynes: Now that we're talking about it. Grace, you got to practice. [00:23:52] 

[00:23:53] Grace Ibrahim: I know because I think it would help those moments where sometimes you do feel a little too rehearsed. [00:23:58]

[00:23:59] Gillie Haynes: Yeah, you could do it, you could do it, you start doing it now. So, this is what you do. For your own practice. When you're at home just write down two or three different things. I'm going to put them in a little box. I'm going to pull one. What if this is what I get? What am I going to say about this? It starts to put you into practice. [00:24:14]

[00:24:15] Grace Ibrahim: I might even have my husband do it for me. So I don't know what it is. [00:24:17]

[00:24:18] Gillie Haynes: I love that. Please, please let me know. [00:24:21]

[00:24:22] Grace Ibrahim: Also, okay. This is an interesting question. At least I think it's an interesting question. I hope you do, too. In the last few years, you've had people who have had to give, like motivational speeches on Zoom. And, you know, we have staff retreats online, and you're not it's not really an environment. I mean, you can't even guarantee that the people with their camera off are actually listening to you. [00:24:41]

[00:24:42] Grace Ibrahim: What is your advice for those people kind of venturing out into the digital world that are still kind of having to do the traditional, you know, motivational speaker or you know, you're coming in with a bond team bonding idea or something? Any advice for how they can get people more engaged in those types of situations? [00:24:56]

[00:24:57] Gillie Haynes: Create some kind of interactive piece that will least be the opening, even if you have to do some of the other parts, but that gives them a participatory way that everybody can be included. That's one way to do it. I'm thinking back to a class I had during COVID, online. And I looked at all the students and I started off, I said, I had to be really creative and come up with some things that we could do that would kind of connect all of us. [00:25:26] 

[00:25:27] Gillie Haynes: So, we started doing the same kind of thing. I had the stories, I started doing mine, yeah, I could see everybody's name, we were all looking at each other. So, I kept pulling people in. And they really started to get into it, connected with each other, and started their own chat that I didn't know about. And then at the end of the semester, we got to the last night, one of them said, can you not turn the zoom off at the end of the night, because we're all still exchanging information, because we've gotten so close to being in your class. [00:25:58]

[00:25:59] Gillie Haynes: One of them said, I don't even believe this happened. This is virtual. And we all feel like we all know each other. So, I think if this is the atmosphere you create, you have to be intentional with it that will connect fine. Whatever you think will work. I'd normally send out a, a sheet, a contact sheet at the beginning of class and ask people just to fill out things that they want to tell me about public speaking, what's your thoughts? Are some of your favorite people that you'd like to hear speak about that? [00:26:25] 

[00:26:26] Gillie Haynes: And then is there anything about some of your interests that you have? Anything you want me to know about you, then I get all kinds of things. Yeah. So based on that, I kind of create some things that we do together in the class that will include them based on what they've shared with me. [00:26:40]

[00:26:41] Grace Ibrahim: That's great. Actually, I like that. I didn't even think about that to just try to do something interactive, but also pay attention to everyone's interest and what they're interested in. Yeah. What would they be willing to listen to? [00:26:52]

[00:26:53] Grace Ibrahim: Last question. We love to end with this one, in your industry, in everything that you've done. What are a few lessons, you've learned that depending on who you're talking to, whether it be your younger self, that you could tell your younger self that you've learned, or whether it be the students that you teach just things for them to know, kind of going into this career path, but any any life lessons? [00:27:15]

[00:27:16] Gillie Haynes: First of all be kind to people. You don't know when you'll see them again. You may need to work together. So at least start there, start being kind to people and pay attention. I think if you can remember all of the lessons that you learn, different experiences that you had, they will come back, and you will use them somewhere else in another space in your life. It will be exciting to have that. And that's one thing. [00:27:43]

[00:27:44] Gillie Haynes: I just think it's important to pay attention to all of the things that we're doing and be present in that moment. Because you're learning so much, and people are paying attention to you. So, if you can share something with someone, that's what you want to make sure that you share in the best of who you are, with whoever that is that's looking at you. And saying, Wow, I didn't consider that before. This is great. And I really want to just put my best self out there all the time. [00:28:13]

[00:28:14] Grace Ibrahim: Valuable lessons. Thank you, Billy, for joining us on the podcast today. It was such a pleasure to have this conversation and to learn more from you. [00:28:25]

[00:28:26] Gillie Haynes: Grace, I am so excited to have been invited onto your podcast, media in the mix. And I look forward to just watching you grow and continue to develop. I know you're going to do great with your stand-up comedy and everything else that you decide to do. Thank you so much for the invitation. It's been my pleasure. [00:28:44] 

[00:28:45] Gillie Haynes: Everyone look out for part two because there will definitely be part two, we have a lot more to talk about. If you'd like to check out our biweekly episodes dropping on Wednesdays on Anchor, Spotify, Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, or wherever you listen to your podcast. Go give us a listen. Click that subscribe button. And if you'd like to support this podcast and the School of Communication, go to to donate now. And that's a wrap. [00:29:09]

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Matchmakers in the Music Business


On episode 8 of Media and the Mix, host Grace Ibrahim is joined by Jen Tanner, Vice President of Global Brand Partnerships for RCA Records. Tanner, an alumna of AU SOC, recounts how her time in undergrad paved the way to her current passions, and sheds light on the many opportunities that her 10-year career with RCA has given her.

Tanner first came to AU in hopes of becoming a diplomat, but as her first semester came to an end, she realized that she needed to pursue a degree that she was truly passionate about.

Even though her career is much different from what her freshman-self thought it would be, Tanner recognizes the value of trying things you think you may not like, because it could be the first step of figuring out who you want to be. 

Listen now to understand how this fellow eagle made a name for herself in the music indsutry!


[00:00:06] Grace Ibrahim: Welcome to media in the mix, the only podcast produced and hosted by the School of Communication at American University. Join us as we create a safe space to explore topics and communication at the intersection of social justice, tech, innovation and pop culture. Today, we welcome Jen Tanner, another AU alumna. To give you a little more background on our guest Jen Tanner graduated from American University in 2012, where she studied public relations with a double minor in music and Spanish. [00:00:37]

[00:00:38] Grace Ibrahim: She received her master's degree in music business. After graduating from AU at New York University in New York City. She fiercely began her career with internships at MGS communications, Sirius XM radio, the 930 Club, DBC PR new media, and finally RCA Records, where she went from a strategic marketing intern to current vice president in the last 10 years. [00:01:03]

[00:01:04] Grace Ibrahim: In 2022, alone, she was named on billboards 40, under 40, as well as variety Hollywood new leader lists. As a bilingual professional, Jen continues to focus on bringing together her love and skills for music, artists, and global brands to create meaningful stories for her audience. And we are so proud to call her an AU equal. Alright, so thank you so much, Jen, for joining us on the SSC podcast today. [00:01:31]

[00:01:32] Jen Tanner: Thanks for having me. [00:01:33]

[00:01:34] Grace Ibrahim: Of course. So, okay, so I want to start first with kind of your path from AU to RCA Records. How did you kind of navigate your own path? And I know everyone's different, but hopefully our students can learn a little bit about knowing what you want and sticking to it. [00:01:47]

[00:01:48] Jen Tanner: I mean it's funny hearing it that way. Because when I first got to you, I definitely did not know what I wanted. And well, I thought I did, but I was totally wrong. I started out in SIS, and I thought I was going to be the next diplomat to a Spanish speaking country. [00:02:04]

[00:02:05] Jen Tanner: And it was really like the first semester. I was in class with a bunch of SIS students. I thought I was passionate about it until I was surrounded by people that actually were and I was like, Oh, I gotta shift because I'm never gonna make it if this is my competition, and people who are like, way more interested in this than I was. [00:02:24]


[00:02:25] Jen Tanner: So, I kind of took a step back and I was like, What am I that obsessed with? And for me it was iTunes and music discovery. Just going to shows like that was the thing that I found myself spending all my free time doing. So, I switched over to SOC. One thing I really loved about SOC is that they require you to get a minor and major in something else. So, for me that ended up being music, and I kind of just went from there. [00:02:51]


[00:02:52] Jen Tanner: I think AU given in DC and just like the AU energy in general is encouraging people to intern was really helpful for me because I knew I was interested in the music industry. But I didn't know the first thing about the music industry in the beginning. So, I just kind of hopped around and figured out like as many internships as I could do. [00:03:11]


[00:03:12] Jen Tanner: I interned at Sirius XM as a music programming intern, like editing radio shows. I interned at the 930 Club, which I thought was going to be my dream job until Honestly, I was there, and it wasn't, but I'm happy I got to experience it. I interned at a PR firm given that I was in public communication that I was like when maybe there's a publicity route. [00:03:33] 


[00:03:34] Jen Tanner: So, I think that AU prepped me really well. With my scheduling, I was able to figure out how to intern so much over the course. I mean, I started my first internship as a sophomore at Sirius XM, and by the time I graduated from AU, I tried a few things. I moved to New York, I got my master's in New York and part of my grad programs requirements was to get an internship. [00:03:59]


[00:04:00] Jen Tanner: It ended up being in brand partnerships at RCA. Like to me, it was a combination of, I really liked this work for the first time and also, I really clicked with the team that I was paired with. So, I kind of just held on for dear life. I interned for a year, which is a luxury to be able to do that. I mean, now luckily interns are paid at RCA [00:04:23]


[00:04:24] Grace Ibrahim: Changed a little bit, which is great. [00:04:24] 


[00:04:25] Jen Tanner: Yeah, we love to see to see we're getting paid for work the bare minimum, right. But I did that for a year and I kind of just held on for dear life. And what really drew me to brand partnerships specifically is that you always get to be creative, the work is not monotonous, every day is different. [00:04:41]


[00:04:42] Jen Tanner: Like the landscape has even changed so much from when I started it, where every day we're essentially becoming experts on something like a brand-new thing. That's kind of what kept me motivated. I'm constantly learning, and I like that you don't feel like you're in a rut because there's always something new to chase and kind of go after. [00:04:59]


[00:05:00] Grace Ibrahim: I'm sure it did. From projects and initiatives and yeah, everything's different. And just a side question, Did you always know you wanted to do the business side of music? [00:05:08]


[00:05:09] Jen Tanner: I never realized there were so many different ways you can go. And even that, I mean I definitely can't sing. So, I couldn't go the performance route at all. And honestly, as a music minor music theory was by far the hardest class I ever took at AU. [00:05:21] 


[00:05:22] Jen Tanner: Interesting. [00:05:22]


[00:05:23] Jen Tanner: Oh my God. It was my second semester senior year. But I knew I was always intrigued by marketing in some way. Once I figured it out, I knew I liked talking to people. I mean, even back when I thought I was going to be like a diplomat, I liked the idea of learning about new people and their stories and where they come from. [00:05:41] 


[00:05:42] Jen Tanner: So, I knew I wanted to do something a little more social. The business lends itself to that. But I do think that like, people don't realize how many ways you can go within the music industry. I think people think just like, you're an artist, or you're a producer, but like, even talking to other people like to go into brand partnerships, there's so many different ways you can go. And honestly, it's one of the things that drew me towards it. [00:06:01]


[00:06:02] Jen Tanner: Because in the beginning, when I first started at RCA, like, I don't know if record labels are even going to be around much longer at that point. So, I was like, Well, I don't want to go into radio, who knows if radio is gonna be like, relevant in five years, but I was like, least with brand partnerships. I could pivot and like, go do this somewhere else. And now it feels like brand partnerships are having a moment more than ever, which is exciting. [00:06:23]


[00:06:24] Grace Ibrahim: I was just gonna say, I feel like that's something that's like, well, now everyone needs it. [00:06:26]


[00:06:27] Jen Tanner: It used to be called strategic marketing, like nobody even knew it existed. [00:06:31]


[00:06:32] Grace Ibrahim: Right, right. And I do have to ask, Do you feel like because like, I'm sure your projects expand globally. But do you feel like your International Affairs side has kind of helped that in a way like it's all kind of come full circle? [00:06:45]


[00:06:46] Jen Tanner: A little bit. I mean, there's days I feel like I'm definitely a diplomat. So, we do a lot of deals well in like a couple of ways. One like I work a lot with me, like given the RCA is under the Sony umbrella. I work a lot with the me of other Sony Music territories across the world. So, like the UK, like an arm of brand partnerships, like they're like family to me, I talked to them all the time you talk to the German side of brand partnerships. [00:07:10]


[00:07:11] Jen Tanner: I mean, Sony as a whole we do a lot of work with like Sony Electronics, and they're based out of Tokyo. So there is a little bit of like cultural communication and adapting to just different practices and the way people do business that like you have to adjust and right II malleable to that to that portion that not everybody moves the same way, right that they do in New York or LA so you have to be able to to adjust to that. [00:07:33]


[00:07:34] Grace Ibrahim: That's awesome. I did a with my SOC degree; I did a psych minor. And I was like, Oh, am I ever gonna, you know, like, what I thought I wanted to do clinical psych. And then my career shifted entirely. But I still I'm like, You know what, I really did learn from a few of those psych classes I took because learning about people learning about how people interact, and my job is so hands-on. [00:07:55]


[00:07:56] Jen Tanner: Yeah, it comes in a lot of handy. I think it is even just like the formality of knowing how to sign off a note to certain people. And yeah, how to approach conversations, because a big part of my job is negotiating, right? So, you kind of need to know how you think the other team is going to react? Or what will be received well. [00:08:12]


[00:08:13] Grace Ibrahim: Right. And I'm sure you have to like to regulate emotion, just everything's got to be. [00:08:16]


[00:08:17] Jen Tanner: That is probably me emo with my dog. [00:08:18]


[00:08:19] Grace Ibrahim: That's awesome. And then I just have to ask, because we have been kind of talking about interviews lately, when I like to actually the conversation is happening more in general or just, you know, I'm interviewing for a job. It's not just about what I can do for you guys, but it's about what you guys can do for me. Yeah, I love that, that's the conversation happening because it is a two-way street when someone's applying for a job. So, you've been at RCA for a long time now. [00:08:42]


[00:08:43] Grace Ibrahim: So can you actually just speak a little bit of advice onto the, you know, the qualities that kind of kept you there, the qualities that you were looking for in a job because I've talked to a lot of people that have jumped from place to place, which is great. And I trust in the film industry, that is my resume. [00:08:56]


[00:08:57] Grace Ibrahim: But it's so unique to talk to somebody that's been there for quite some time, that I'm just curious so that the students can hear kind of a different perspective on what do you look for in that workplace environment and just people you're working with and such? [00:09:08]


[00:09:09] Jen Tanner: I mean, for me, there's a few things that have kept me at RCA. I mean, it sounds wild that sometime this month, I don't know if the day will be 10 years old, and it makes me feel like it’s one million years old. But it's a couple of things. One, like I mentioned, when I started as an intern, I really clicked with that team. And the team that I started with when the woman who led that department ended up being my boss for about the past seven years, she left only in like 2019 and she and I had a really great connection.[00:09:34] 


[00:09:35] Jen Tanner: I consider her a mentor but really what was rooted in that is she gave me the opportunity to kind of be a self-starter and ambitious and go out on my own and try new things. And even if they didn't work out, that was fine, but she always gave me the opportunity to try and to make something of myself. She was amazing about putting me in rooms where I had an opportunity to speak up, so I had a champ Even in that corner, which was great. [00:10:01]


[00:10:02] Jen Tanner: The other thing I'd say, though, and because it looks, it looks like everything's easy on paper, but there were a lot of a few obstacles along any path. And for me, there were a couple moments that I looked elsewhere. And I considered leaving and had a few competitive offers. And in each of those moments, RCA stepped up, and they've allowed me the opportunity to grow, which was another thing that was really important to me. [00:10:23]


[00:10:24] Jen Tanner: It's really like they let me step up, even like I said, when my mentor left, I mean, she had been at the company for 17 or 19 years or something like that. And for me, I mean, this has been my only full-time job ever. And for them to give me the opportunity to step up and attempt to lead the department rather than bringing in somebody older, and above me, was such a testament to that they really are trying to let people grow and take a risk, and it's worked out. [00:10:50]


[00:10:51] Jen Tanner: And those are things I think that I've really admired about Dobsonian, about RCA. They are looking for a team and a direct report that you think that you can trust and will be personally invested in to grow. And you hope that the company will do that. I mean, obviously, that's much easier said than done. And you don't always know it when you originally signed up for a gig. But I think really like trusting your gut on that dynamic with a direct reporter, whoever you'll be reporting into, it can be a total game changer for good or worse, depending on how that connection is. [00:11:25]


[00:11:26] Grace Ibrahim: Yeah. And I love that. It's like it goes such a long way when someone believes in you just a little bit. [00:11:30]


[00:11:31] Jen Tanner: Yeah, I was like, just let me try. Let me go for it. [00:11:33]


[00:11:34] Grace Ibrahim: I love that type of environment. And then I guess piggybacking off of that comes to the next question, which is what have you learned just in terms of creating these partnerships and brands, and whatever it may be, if you're involved in a brand campaign, and you're having to interact with another team that you may not know, like, how does that process work? And what do you look for first? [00:11:52]


[00:11:53] Jen Tanner: It's a mix. So, the thing that we always look for baseline is a natural affinity and connection, but it works both ways. So, like, on a day-to-day basis. On one side, I'm talking to artists and managers or internal marketing teams about what an artist has come up with, whether it be a new release or a new album, they're just interested in a certain brand. And on the flip side, we're talking to brands and agencies every day, sometimes they're brands that have a clear music strategy, and they know what they want. [00:12:21]


[00:12:22] Jen Tanner: But a lot of times its brands that like the idea of getting into music, or might be intrigued by it, but it's a little bit of an education process of okay, what that looks like. So like, the way we really describe it is we're matchmakers were essentially taking like what we're having a conversation with on the brand side, and also pairing it with what we think works on the artists side, or depending on what the artists say to us that they want to go after we're called reaching out to brands sometimes.[00:12:45] 


[00:12:46] Jen Tanner: And honestly, the best way to get a response sometimes it's just flattery, and hearing that like, hey, one of our artists mentioned you by name, they really want to work with you, what can we do? So it's definitely like a mix of all of it, which I really liked. Because again, you're always learning about new brands. And we work a roster of 200 artists, and we're a team of three. So it's a lot, but it's also focusing on who's coming up next, what we have, as far as new releases go, who's like starting to kind of catch a little bit of wind underneath their sails and a brand wants to hop on now. [00:13:20] 


[00:13:21] Jen Tanner: So it's about relationship building, but the root of all of it for us, is really natural brand affinity and somebody could see that happening. Like we hate. We don't want to Vanna White a product and just make it cheesy, because we're in a time where we'll get called out immediately. So yeah, natural connection is definitely the most important. [00:13:37] 


[00:13:38] Grace Ibrahim: That’s super interesting. What's been over your career like has there been any artist plus brand pairing that has surprised you the most? [00:13:45] 


[00:13:46] Jenn Tanner: The one that has been the one recently that has made me just feel so silly in some ways that like how this is work is we recently had a pink music video come out late last year for a single club never gonna not dance again. And this video takes place in a grocery store. And so it's just been brands that I never thought I would interact with like there's a stow ford product placement in that video you watch it. [00:14:13] 


[00:14:14] Jenn Tanner: It was just like, who would have thought that like they would come to like stuffers would be like we'll be in a pink music video let's do it. And we had a handful of offers in the food category which was just totally new from what we did so that would really kind of catch me off guard like you would never really expect that. [00:14:34]


[00:14:35] Jenn Tanner: I think some of it has also been like one big goal for us this year is Latto who's a female rapper on our roster and we're really excited about we learned that she loves drag racing so like that's something that like we really want to go after now because there's a natural affinity there be it with a car brand via with like GTA or video game like Formula One. There are so many ways you can go with it that we're the masters of knowing trivial things about artists that nobody does. [00:15:01]


[00:15:02] Grace Ibrahim: Okay, interesting. Can you expand on that a little bit? Like, I have to, like, really dig deep in order, I guess in order to know that it's going to be a real genuine connection though, right? [00:15:11] 


[00:15:12] Jen Tanner: Yeah, like that's the thing is we want to know like, we want to know what artists are doing in their free time or what they're into like, because the two main goals of my team are A to generate revenue and B to expand an artist audience and a lot of that we try to read as much as we can in music, but so much of it is also personality. [00:15:29]


[00:15:30] Jen Tanner: If Latto is able to, if we are able to find a really strong partner for her that ties back to her natural passion for drag racing, that could expand her to a whole new audience who might not be familiar with her yet. So it's stuff like that, that that one we're except, like, obsessed with, we know, one of the emerging artists on our roster, Sam Fisher, he's like, very vocal that if he wasn't a musician, he would probably be a professional tennis player or tennis instructor. [00:15:53]


[00:15:54] Jen Tanner: It is just like knowing that brands will reach out to us, and they'll be like, Who do you have? Like yesterday, I'm doing research on it. Today, they're like, Who do you have that’s obsessed with Star Wars? And I'm like working on it. I know one name off the top of my head, but like I'm working on it. [00:16:09]


[00:16:10] Grace Ibrahim: That's so fun. Especially in this day and age. I feel like we have got to switch it up a little bit. [00:16:12]


[00:16:13] Jen Tanner: Yeah, like, and we're the home of niche knowledge. [00:16:17]


[00:16:18] Grace Ibrahim: That's awesome. I guess I'm just gonna jump to the girls who code. I love this idea. So it's the first codable music video. Yeah. Okay. Can you expand on this, this whole project and for anyone listening? It's the music video of Dojo cats. [00:16:33]


[00:16:34] Jen Tanner: Yep. Doja cat woman music video. Grammy nominated this year. Stay tuned. [00:16:38] 


[00:16:39] Grace Ibrahim: That's amazing. Congratulations. That's awesome. But yes, please expand on this. Because I love this idea. I think it's so unique. [00:16:45] 


[00:16:46] Jen Tanner: This was by far one of my favorite projects I've ever worked on. We do a lot of video product placement. And typically, it's always very much like it's like stow ford, or like a liquor brand. It's kind of like a step and repeat a little bit of like, how a brand is working with an artist, like you'll get like a logo shot, or you'll get a certain number of seconds in a video. [00:17:08]


[00:17:09] Jen Tanner: But Girls Who Code and their agency motor supermarket came to us, and they said, Hey, we have this idea to make a codable music video, and you really want to show I mean, obviously, the coding in STEM is usually male dominated. And they wanted to show young women that coding can be fun, and coding can be cool. And it's more than just zeros and ones and they wanted to make it accessible. [00:17:36] 


[00:17:37] Jen Tanner: And while not everybody's wanting to watch a video about how to code, a lot of people are wanting to watch a dojo cat video, so we partnered with them. And going into the music video, we identified a few elements that would be really fun to kind of codify. So, if you watch the music video, you can then go to girls who there's a I think it's dojo And you can play with certain elements with code to change parts of the music videos. [00:18:02]


[00:18:03] Jen Tanner: With code, you can change one scene, the color of judges' nails, and you can make it into certain elements. There's another scene moment in the video where there's these likes, leaves falling, these petals falling in front of her and you can change the color, how many there are the speed at which they're falling, and it's just making coding really cool and really accessible. And showing Yeah, and hopefully with the with the hopes of showing young women that coding can be fun and cool. And even your favorite pop star is part of it. [00:18:35]


[00:18:36] Grace Ibrahim: Right. I love that. And that's so true, because I don't think anyone would really go watch a video on coding. Otherwise, you know that's super unique. [00:18:45]


[00:18:46] Jen Tanner: Yeah, we really love that one. It was a great idea. And we loved working with them, we actually then have now expanded that relationship with them and meta and we've brought them on board. And we're working. We've done one with Doja and we're working on one with Latto now which is breaking Instagram filters with the girls who code based on music videos for different artists. [00:19:10] 


[00:19:11] Jen Tanner: So, it ended up being like a really, really great relationship. And it's also exciting to see young girls get to work with stars they might idolize. And it makes some change that actually ends up going on their profiles. I mean, for Doja we did it with the filters as well. And they went live on her profile Coachella weekend and like they were made by teenage girls. So, like it's nice to also, we do a lot of work on the music industry side that sometimes seems silly, but when it can also do some good it is right. [00:19:41] 


[00:19:42] Grace Ibrahim: Really excited when you kind of see it making a difference than like giving these young girls opportunities that they might have never had otherwise. I mean, that's just awesome. [00:19:50]


[00:19:51] Jen Tanner: Yeah, it's been a really special one. [00:19:52]


[00:19:53] Grace Ibrahim: That's great. Let's transition into digital platforms, changing the music industry. I think it was somewhere where people were talking about how TikTok is the new SoundCloud. And I just want to get your thoughts on that, like, how is it kind of affecting your work and kind of where you go to maybe research or just learn? Yeah, like, there's so many platforms nowadays. And please educate me on any of that, you know, I just want everyone to know. But yeah, how was that just change kind of like the way you guys do things? [00:20:23] 


[00:20:24] Jen Tanner: Yeah, I mean, I think it's changed in a few ways. One thing that we really love about TikTok is it seems to be one of the few social platforms that directly ties back to streaming like, if there's a trend that goes on TikTok, there is usually a direct correlation to seeing a spike on streaming platforms like Spotify or Apple Music. [00:20:41]


[00:20:42] Jen Tanner: For us, I think there's really two things that have been adjusted because of it. One is QuickTime reactions, us moving really quickly. If we see something that's starting to bubble up on our side for one of our artists, how do we double down and really fanned the flames there, so that it's not just like a flash in the pan and might turn into like something with substantial growth that is requiring us to think creatively and react really quickly on how to capitalize on one of those moments, because they happen organically. We just want to make sure that they stick around and aren't like a fleeting moment, which many are. [00:21:18]


[00:21:19] Jen Tanner: The other thing that I think TikTok has really exacerbated and his change directly with my role a lot is word learning that we're in this like time of like very niche communities with like, massive like reach, but like you need to truly become experts in those fields, like, everyone's FYP pages are totally different. But to connect with an artist in that way, you really need to kind of like talk the talk. It's not just like pairing, and artists with a community where it doesn't make sense. [00:21:52]


[00:21:53] Jen Tanner: Like I've now like learning from my peers who are super fans in these spaces. But I'm learning about anime, even though I'm not a big anime person, because that's a very passionate community. And we have artists who are super passionate about it, but it's our job to connect those dots. So it's gaming, for sure. Like, I got a Minecraft like 101 from somebody internally the other day. [00:22:17] 


[00:22:18] Jen Tanner: Like it's a hat, they all have massive reaches, but like you need to connect in an authentic way. And I think TikTok has really kind of honed in on that, that everybody, it's so catering to these very specific communities and groups of people. So it's kind of forced us to kind of really like tailor partnerships and digital campaigns more than ever, to kind of reach those people. [00:22:42]


[00:22:43] Grace Ibrahim: Do you feel like artists have almost like a little bit less pressure nowadays, RCA or any type of similar companies having to really talk the talk, because they're like, We know you have other avenues that maybe you can explore? Like, I always think about that in terms of an artist's mind. Have you noticed that when you landed artists, it might feel like they really trust you to be like, Okay, I'm going this direction? [00:23:03] 


[00:23:04] Jen Tanner: Yeah, I think the conversation that we have a lot of with artists is that the hope is that you create a dialogue or a conversation about you but the uplift shouldn't be like, yes, is does it help when an artist is actively engaging, like regularly with their fans? Most of the time yeah, it does. [00:23:21] 


[00:23:22] Jen Tanner: But you don't want it to be cheesy to the point that you're posting five times a day and be like, Hi, I mean, like it needs to be authentic. And if done correctly, done, well, hopefully, you're starting to create a dialogue between you and your fans, that alone kind of alleviates some of the pressure off of you. Because then your fans are creating a dialogue about you amongst themselves. [00:23:43] 


[00:23:44] Grace Ibrahim: So interesting. Now I feel like fans have a lot of power in the world because, you know, fans, audiences are just, they're a big part of, I think, an artist's career nowadays. [00:23:52] 


[00:23:53] Jen Tanner: Oh, I mean, that's all of it. And we're living in a time now that you don't need to be like, only a fan of so and so like, you can be like a fan of so many like music is more accessible than ever. And there's such an element of discovery that you can be a fan of, like, five different artists or like dozens of them and it's just like growing your own kind of like 10. [00:24:15] 


[00:24:16] Grace Ibrahim: Right. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Okay, yeah, I guess on the last lesson, which I like to word it. What have you learned that you kind of wish you knew at the start of the industry? [00:24:24]


[00:24:25] Jen Tanner: I think a couple things that I wish I knew at the beginning. [00:24:27]


[00:24:28] Jen Tanner: Yes, as many as you want. [00:24:28] 


[00:24:29] Jen Tanner: One you don't need to vocalize everything you hear. And you don't need to vocalize everything that's sold to you. A lot of the music industry is relationship based. I mean, I will say I got my master's. I don't know if I necessarily need my master's in the music industry. Yeah, it's all, it's all relationships. And I think relationships need to be treated like gold. So always be mindful of that. [00:24:53]


[00:24:54] Jen Tanner: No matter what, be respectful and timely when you're responding to people in email, even if you get an opportunity and you're not interested in it, let that person know, it's also a very small community. So just be very mindful of their relationships, do everything you can to not burn bridges, because there's a very good chance, you're gonna work with those people again in another capacity. [00:25:13]


[00:25:14] Jen Tanner: So that's one thing I would say. And also, the most important thing I think I've learned is that I am, by nature, a pretty competitive person. And the music industry is competitive in many ways. Don't worry so much about what everybody else is doing. Just focus on your own game, figure out what you want, and will make you happy and what will make you succeed. And don't really worry about the speed at which other people are doing things around you, or who's moving where and don't let like all that noise come because a lot of people, A- are saying noise that might not necessarily be true and B-like it doesn't really matter. [00:25:47] 


[00:25:48] Jen Tanner: That second one, I think, is one that took me quite a bit of time to learn. And I only kind of learned it in the past, like three or four, like about the last three years, the beginning of COVID, it really became clear, and I would have saved myself a lot of sleep and anxiety. [00:26:00] 


[00:26:01] Grace Ibrahim: That's really good advice. Actually, this might be a little bit of a repetition, but I'm going to ask it anyway. What's your advice for genuine connections in the industry? And that could go for a work relationship or a friendship. So, because you're doing, you know, partnerships all week long? I mean, a device for the kind of qualities that you look for there. [00:26:19]

[00:26:20] Jen Tanner: I look for transparency, I think that is at the helm of it. Nobody likes to be dragged along only to have something not work out in the 11th hour. I think transparency is key. I think intentions being clear is also really important. And I think it's also consistency and making sure that you're coming to partner with things for them that it's a two-way street, I think is really important. [00:26:42]


[00:26:43] Jen Tanner: Nobody likes to be known as the person that only reaches out when they need a favor that all relationships are a two-way street. So, nurture those relationships. And I mean, I think personally and professionally, that's super important that don't always be the friend that that only gets calls from other people call your own friends. Like I think it's in any relationship professionally and professionally. Personally, it goes a long way. [00:27:03]


[00:27:04] Grace Ibrahim: Yeah, that's awesome. That's great advice. Is there anything you wanted to cover that we didn't go over? [00:27:08]


[00:27:09] Jen Tanner: I mean, I think this is great. I mean, like I said, I think the the internships especially that AU champions, and encourages students to do like, made such a difference for me to even be able to get the internship I did at RCA going into it, because I had that experience that outside of learning what I do like and what I don't like it, it really sets you up. So, take advantage of it. [00:27:30]


[00:27:31] Grace Ibrahim: Do you think there's value to then obviously trying things that maybe you don't like, but just to know you don't like them? [00:27:37]


[00:27:38] Jen Tanner: Yeah, I mean, I think within the music industry, especially like you don't know, unless you try. And college is such a unique four-year period. For a lot of people, we're, if you're not gonna, like put yourself out there now, when are you going to you know, like, try it, the worst thing that can happen is that you don't like it. Like at that point. It's not like you need to change, like, you're so early that you can change a career track or within music. [00:28:05]

[00:28:06] Jen Tanner: There's so many different ways you can go like that and it's a process of elimination. Like, I truly thought I was going to work at a venue forever. Like I thought that was it until I did it. And I always said that A&R was not for me. But a lot of my closest friends now work in A&R. So, like, it's just like, Yeah, you know, like, if you have an opportunity to try something even if you don't think you're gonna like it. Why not? [00:28:32]

[00:28:33] Jen Tanner: Like most internships are only for three or four months? You can use that time. Why not try for a trial and you never know. I mean, I just moved across the country like three months ago, and it's a lot of that same mindset. Am I gonna love LA? Who knows? But like, why not try it? [00:28:49]

[00:28:50] Grace Ibrahim: And I do love that AU does that with internships because we've had so many people just go off and do cool things and they're like, I did this internship when I was sophomore, junior senior, and you're just kind of like, oh wow. [00:29:00]

[00:29:01] Jen Tanner: DC may not always be the city that people first think of when they think of the music industry, but it exists. Yes. Even in DC, like there's opportunities in the entertainment industry, you can work at radio stations, you can work at venues, you can work at Brand agencies that specialize in entertainment marketing, you can work for brands and houses that might have an entertainment arm. [00:29:23]

[00:29:24] Jen Tanner: I mean, there's opportunities everywhere that shirt like music has nucleuses and like I said, we moved here to be closer to the creatives but especially if you're just getting started like there's definitely ways to get some experience under your belt in DC or wherever you are. You just got to look for it. [00:29:42]

[00:29:43] Grace Ibrahim: Yeah, you just got to look for it. That's the thing. Do your research network. Yeah, for sure. So you recently moved to LA? [00:29:48]

[00:29:49] Jen Tanner: Yeah, late October. [00:29:50]

[00:29:51] Grace Ibrahim: Okay. Are you liking it? [00:29:52]

[00:29:53] Jen Tanner: I am learning about work and the holidays. It's been like I'm pretty grateful, but I mean and as a whole, RCA has done a big shift to LA. Most of our companies are now based here pre COVID, we were largely in New York. And the thought process behind that is we're a creative company. To really succeed, we should have close relationships with our creatives or artists, and they're largely based here. [00:30:17]

[00:30:18] Jen Tanner: That makes sense. So, and that is, and I will say, I think that that's been correct. Like we're now sitting with artists and growing closer relationships with them. Now more than ever, I probably see at least one or two of our artists weeks, and before it would only be when they're in town, so or if I had a specific shoot that sent me out here or an event that sent me out here. So that part is pretty true. And I understand the reasoning behind why we did it. [00:30:42]

[00:30:43] Grace Ibrahim: Right. That makes a lot of sense. Thank you, Jen, for joining us on the podcast today. It was such a pleasure to meet you and have this conversation. [00:30:54]

[00:30:55] Jen Tanner: Thanks for having me. This is great. [00:30:56]

[00:30:57] Grace Ibrahim: If you'd like to check out our bi-weekly episodes dropping on Wednesdays on Anchor Spotify, Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Go give us a listen. Click that subscribe button. And if you'd like to support this podcast and the School of Communication, go to to donate now. And that's a wrap. [00:31:16]

Photography: Painting with Light


This week on Media in the Mix, host Grace Ibrahim is joined by American University School of Communication (AU SOC) Photography Professor Leena Jayaswal. Documentary filmmaker, award-winning photographer and director of the new BA in Photography, Jayaswal was the schools' first Inclusion Officer and Associate Dean from 2019-2022.

Her photography and film work often deals with the intersections of being Indian and American. This work has been nationally recognized in galleries around the country, including solo shows at the Gandhi Memorial Center, and International Visions Gallery. Jayaswal has photographs in group collections with the Society of Photographic Education's Multicultural Caucus at the Center for Photography, En Foco, Light Work, Photo Center Northwest and the Asian American Arts Centre.

Her award-winning films have also been screened in various film festivals around the country. Currently, Jayaswal is working with artist Monica Jahan Bose on a feature documentary about climate change, called, "Rising Up to Climate Change: Storytelling with Saris." Her latest film, Dreaming Green, profiles Monica's work. This film was part of the Futures Exhibition that was part of the re-opening of the Smithsonian's Arts + Industry Building. She was one of eight documentary filmmakers to contribute to this exhibit.


[00:00:04] Grace Ibrahim: Welcome to Media in the Mix, the only podcast produced and hosted by the School of Communication at American University. Join us as we create a safe space to explore topics and communication at the intersection of social justice, tech, innovation, and pop culture. [00:00:19]

[00:00:20] Grace Ibrahim: Today, we welcome one of the School of Communications photography experts, Professor Leena Jayaswal. Leena Jayaswal is a documentary filmmaker, award winning photographer and Professor in the School of Communication at American University, where she is the director of the new BA in photography. Jayaswal was the school's first inclusion officer and Associate Dean from 2019 to 2022. [00:00:45] 

[00:00:46] Grace Ibrahim: Her photography and film work often deals with the intersections of being Indian and American. This work has been nationally recognized in galleries around the country, including solo shows at the Gandhi Memorial Center, and international visions gallery. Jayaswal has photographs in group collections with the Society of Photographic Education multicultural caucus at the Center for photography, on photo lightwork, photo center Northwest and the Asian American Art Center. [00:01:13] 

[00:01:14] Grace Ibrahim: Her award winning films have also been screened in various film festivals around the country. Crossing lines was picked up for national distribution by NETA and has been broadcast on over 100 PBS affiliates across the country. The film has won many international and national awards including the Gracie Allen award, and is being distributed by New Day Films. [00:01:36]

[00:01:37] Grace Ibrahim: Her latest film mixed a collaboration with Professor Caty Borum explores what it means to be mixed race in America 50 years after the historic landmark Supreme Court decision Loving V Virginia, which made interracial marriage legal. Jayaswal is also working with artist Monica Jahan Boss on a feature documentary about climate change called rising up to climate change storytelling with sari’s. Her latest film Draymond Green profiles Monica's work. [00:02:03]

[00:02:04] Grace Ibrahim: This film was part of the future’s exhibition that was part of the reopening of the Smithsonian's arts and industry building. She was one of eight documentary filmmakers to contribute to this exhibit. Thank you so much, Lena, for joining us on the podcast today. It always does feel very full circle to me when I'm able to sit down with my professors and mentors that had such an impact on my career and taught me so much. So this is really awesome. [00:02:31]

[00:02:32] Leena Jayaswal: Thank you for having me. [00:02:32]

[00:02:33] Grace Ibrahim: Absolutely. Thank you for being here. Okay. So what I'd like to do at the start is hone in on everyone's expertise a little bit. And I know you have experience in both the film world and the photography world. But I would love to know a little bit about how you see art and kind of what drew you to practice it? And then what is it about capturing a still image in photography? [00:02:53]

[00:02:54] Leena Jayaswal: Sure. So I knew from a very early age, I was in third grade when I decided I was going to be a photographer, and I had incredibly supportive parents who said, Okay, we don't know what this is about. But sure, yeah. And part of it was because it came about around the same time, or shortly after my parents migrated to the United States. And so my dad was an amateur photographer, so I just loved carrying around his cameras and like playing with the buttons, hearing the shutter go off. So I was intrigued by that. [00:03:24]

[00:03:25] Leena Jayaswal: And I always wanted to be an artist, but I have no discernible talent in any other field. And because photography is mechanical, it's about training your eye and seeing, it was the one place that I felt like I could, even if I didn't naturally have the talent right away, it was something I could learn. And that's one thing that I can tell my students because it is not natural for some folks right away. [00:03:48] 

[00:03:49] Leena Jayaswal: And so I started taking classes, I made pinhole cameras, right around when I was 10 or 11 and started just photographing and it was a way for me to sort of understand American culture at the same time as Indian culture because we were immigrants. We were the first immigrants in the small community in Ohio and having the camera allowed me to participate, but also gave him protection. It allowed me to even back then just to kind of watch, read and learn. So that's what interested me first. [00:04:19]

[00:04:20] Grace Ibrahim: Observation. Yeah. And can you just for anyone listening who doesn't know can you go into what a pinhole camera is because you said I created a pinhole camera? [00:04:27]

[00:04:28] Leena Jayaswal: Pinhole cameras are the most basic of all basic cameras, anybody could make them with household objects you have there. It's basically just the light type container. We used oatmeal cans back then. You spray it inside black with black paint and it's very dark in the cover, you create just a little dot of a hole which becomes sort of your aperture. We use paper darkroom paper, but we'd expose directly into the darkroom paper and then take the paper and develop it into the darkroom. [00:04:53]

[00:04:54] Grace Ibrahim:That's really cool. [00:04:54]

[00:04:55] Leena Jayaswal: So the simplest basic camera. [00:04:56] 

[00:04:57] Grace Ibrahim: That's awesome but really cool that you can create that. That's so cool. Okay, so for anyone listening, any prospective students, students that we have that are thinking about taking an MA or MFA in film or arts or whatever it may be. I actually did the MFA program. And we used to have a mandatory three week boot camp. I remember when I first signed up for the program. And I read that I was very intimidated. [00:05:20]

[00:05:21] Grace Ibrahim: I was scared, I didn't know the equipment that we were going to be using. And the purpose of this was to familiarize ourselves with things that we'd be using in the program, whether you'd be going in for photography, or film or videography, or cinematography, or lighting, if that's your passion, we learned everything. So it was like an overload of information. [00:05:38]

[00:05:39] Grace Ibrahim: However, the one thing that intimidated me the most, which has now actually, full circle moment has helped me the most in the jobs that I've gotten, because I freelanced a lot of videography, I freelance a lot of jobs where you don't have time to really fix your camera or set up a shot or whatever it may be. I just had to move, move, move, and it was, you know, what's your shutter speed? What's this? What's that? And so all of that terminology, but really, it was using a manual camera that helped me understand how to set up a better composition. [00:06:10] 

[00:06:11] Grace Ibrahim: Now, actually, that three week boot camp has become a mandatory first semester class. And that's amazing, because it was so beneficial for us to understand manually how to do things rather than going right to of course, today, you can, I mean, snap a picture anywhere, autofocus, I mean, it's just, it's very easy. I don't wanna say it's easy, but it's very convenient. So can you explain why it's important for us to kind of go through that, that manual work so that we could better understand where we are at? [00:06:39] 

[00:06:40] Leena Jayaswal: So we start our program, we start our classes with film photography. So students are shooting on manual 35 millimeter cameras on film. And then we move into digital in the semester long classes. In the bootcamp class that you took, we just did only dark rooms, and film photography. And the reason behind it is I think that almost everybody who's privileged has a phone that has a camera attached to it. [00:07:07] 

[00:07:08] Leena Jayaswal: And so I get a lot of students coming to me and saying, Oh, look at my portfolio, you know, and it's all just iPhone shots or pictures that they've done on their phone. And while they may understand some kind of composition, some kind of lighting, what they don't understand is exposure. If you're going to be a filmmaker, you really need to look at and understand that. And so shooting on film, film is expensive, you have 36 shots, you have to be very careful in the shots you choose, I think it makes you slow down. [00:07:34]

[00:07:35] Leena Jayaswal: And everything in this world is telling us to go go go go go, and to then have a film camera in your hand, and you're looking at your exposure, and you're looking at the light. I mean, there's nothing better than beautiful, beautiful, gorgeous light, following the light, understanding the light, seeing how it changes and transforms during different times of day, when you're with a certain background, if you have certain colors pop out, I mean, lighting is everything. [00:08:00] 

[00:08:01] Leena Jayaswal: And so when you slow down, you can actually look at the light, and you can focus on the light and understand the light. And so what I want our students to do is to walk into a room and know where the light sources are, understand what that's going to do for their subject. And is that adding to the feeling that they're taking? Or is it distracting from it? And if it is, if it's distracting, then how do we change this? How do we compensate for that? [00:08:27]  


[00:08:28] Leena Jayaswal: So I always start off my first class by saying like, lighting is everything. And it really is. And the other thing that I wanted to sort of stress out is when I talk to prospective students, I asked them, you know, I asked the big groups, I'm like, Okay, pull out your cameras. Look at your camera roll. How many photos have you taken? Right? And so I think we had somebody last time had 32,000 or something on their camera roll out, right? [00:08:53]


[00:08:54] Leena Jayaswal: You know, we're getting numbers higher, higher, higher, higher, and I said why do you keep these photos? Why do you take these photos? And it's because photography is incredibly important. It's not just snap, snap, snap. And here's a couple pictures of my friends. But it's our history. It's our memories. It's our family. It's our loved ones. It tells a story. And so the power of photography is incredible. And that's why we want storytellers to start off with that first. [00:09:20]


[00:09:21] Grace Ibrahim: Yes, I vividly remember an exercise we did in your class. It was portrait photography and black and white. And that was the first time I truly understood how lighting can affect a subject you would have us put one of our classmates it was just someone we knew when whether we chose to highlight like a tattoo with their light, or we are choosing to highlight a part of their face that like told a story or had a certain emotion. [00:09:45] 


[00:09:46] Grace Ibrahim: It was the first time I really learned how lighting can affect a subject and that really took me into film so much because scenes change based on lighting. I mean lighting really does tell a story. I completely agree. And it wasn't until we really did darkroom photography, everything was in black and white that I actually remember people around me being like, Oh, I get it because you really could see the light. It's hard sometimes when it's in color, and you think something might be a perfect amount of exposure, and then you're like, Oh, this is overexposed. [00:10:12]


[00:10:13] Leena Jayaswal: I get distracted. Right, right. And I think also, for a lot of folks coming into the field right now. Everybody's used to being on your computers and using Photoshop or other image editing software. It's a lot of screen time. And so I know when the first time a student puts their print in the developer, and it starts to pop up, there is this magic that happens, and they may not say it or get excited about it, but I know it, I know it, I get excited for them. [00:10:40]


[00:10:41] Leena Jayaswal: There is this real magical moment, and you're not allowed to have your phones in the dark room. And so you really have to leave the outside world outside. And just be like, I know this sounds corny, but be Zen with the moment that you're in right there. And then with your image and yourself. and taking some time. [00:10:59] 


[00:11:00] Grace Ibrahim: For example video editing, I'd love to be in a lab with just nobody around and you're kind of like noise canceling headphones. I felt like the darkroom was the same way. It was such a nice escape one of those very few photos. By the way, I still have my darkroom photos actually framed and like they're I'm so proud of them, because I've never done that before. [00:11:16]


[00:11:17] Grace Ibrahim: When they first started to develop. And I remember when you and Sean taught us how to manually make edits in a dark room. There were a few chairs in there because we were like, This is amazing. Everything is mind blowing. [00:11:27]


[00:11:28] Leena Jayaswal: Everything in Photoshop is taken from the dark. It's just you're burning and you're dodging and it’s just switched over. [00:11:36]


[00:11:37] Grace Ibrahim: That is so cool. Oh, good times. I definitely still have this photo. It's great. Okay, so your project mixed? Yes. After having been kind of in the US for as long as you have being in an interracial marriage. I remember you talked about that. Even when we were in your class. What does being mixed in this country mean to you? And has it changed over time? [00:11:55]


[00:11:56] Leena Jayaswal: One of my latest documentaries with another professor in school communication, Professor Katie BoRam, who is the director of the Center for Media and Social Impact. Yeah, she and I both have mixed race children. And we didn't know each other very well, other than the fact that we were both colleagues. And I had done a piece called I'm not the nanny, I did a little video installation piece called I'm not the nanny, because whenever I would go places with my son, people would assume, especially here in DC that I was the nanny. [00:12:22]


[00:12:23] Leena Jayaswal: I'm the brown woman with this fairly light skinned kid. Yeah. dark haired, but light skinned kid. I had people coming up to me and asking me things like, Well, who do you work for? And I'm like, what do you mean at work? Professor at American University. They just assumed that I was the nanny, and his father, who's blond and blue eyed, would take him to the park, and people would fawn all over him and be like, what a great daddy he is. [00:12:47]  


[00:12:48] Leena Jayaswal: And he is a great dad. But that doesn't mean that I'm not a great mom. And then I'm the nanny, right? So it just started to explore these ideas. And Katie heard about it and she showed me pictures of her kids and was like, these are my kids. I've been wanting to do a documentary about this. And she's got a storied history in the documentary world. And so we just started talking. [00:13:07]


[00:13:08] Leena Jayaswal: And the more we talked, the more we recognized how we had the same kind of mindset, but just from different perspectives. One white mom, one brown mom, and then we just wanted to explore the film. So we first started off just doing a typical kind of documentary where we were not involved in it. We were just asking questions, and then we cut it together. [00:13:08]


[00:13:09] Leena Jayaswal: And then we had one of Katie's friends, she introduced me to him, he became our executive producer, Jeffrey Tuchman, and he sat down and was like, why are you telling this story? We're like, well, because our kids are beating them. Like, why are you not in it? Or like, because we don't want to be. But it just made sense. And multiple people at that time trusted souls had asked us like, Why are you all not in this film? [00:13:49]


[00:13:50] Leena Jayaswal: This film is about two moms trying to figure out because our kids at that point were pretty young. Yeah. And so they weren't first in identity. It's amazing to me how early they learned that but at that point, they weren't. So then we shifted the focus and made this journey film about two moms. Going across America, in search of mixed race stories. [00:14:08] 


[00:14:09] Leena Jayaswal: When we started the film, there was the very little representation in popular culture about mixed race in popular culture, you couldn't find pockets of it, of course, everywhere, but like, at the time, only parenthood had a interracial couple. Modern Family, I think, was the other show. My son who's half Indian and half white, we had to look at Nickelodeon, Sanjay and Craig, which is a cartoon to find representation, right? [00:14:32] 


[00:14:33] Leena Jayaswal: So there wasn't a lot that we weren't seeing in advertising and things like that. Now, there's an incredible shift. And I remember I'd be watching shows with my son and we'd see an interracial family or a mixed race kid and we'd be like, kinda like, Oh, why look at that. Now it's like, everywhere you turn there, there's some kind of representation. So we can see the shift happening, but we just have to look at the US Census. [00:14:55]


[00:14:56] Leena Jayaswal: So it was just in recent time that you were only allowed to mark more than one back, so on your identity in the census, and so because of that the multiracial population is growing like a triple the time that it was noted before. And so those changes are happening, but we haven't outside of some, we've interviewed a couple of psychologists who study the issue of mixed race, we interviewed some authors and some entrepreneurs and business people, and but mostly we interviewed families. [00:15:26]


[00:15:27] Leena Jayaswal: And so that, to me, was really the interesting part. It's like, well, I really, genuinely wanted to know, like, what is my son's identity formation going to be? And how can I make sure he feels that he can express any part of his identity when he wants to, with or without kind of doing detrimental harm to him. [00:15:44]


[00:15:45] Leena Jayaswal: We also wanted to celebrate these ideas of what it means to be mixed race, because often what we had heard in the 70s, and things like that led to like, why people didn't want interracial marriage to happen was like, Oh, well, this is a bad thing. Your children won't know who they are. And all of that kind of stuff. My son is very assured in his personality, and we didn't want to show just the negative side of those things. [00:16:07]


[00:16:08] Grace Ibrahim: What do you think are lessons you've learned from your experience in the creative world, or just in your career, or are going through projects like these, that you think also serves as a piece of wisdom that you'd like to pass down. [00:16:21] 


[00:16:22] Leena Jayaswal: I think I would say this to the students is to lean into the vulnerability, because my work is only when I started off making work, I sort of was like, I knew that that would be something that would probably be reachable, or accessible to certain people. But it felt like a little bit of an act, right? Because it was put upon, like, Oh, I know, I need to do this. [00:16:44]


[00:16:45] Leena Jayaswal: But I don't really feel this. Okay. So when you lean into the vulnerability, and you're being really your true, authentic self, I think that's where you discover what you need to learn about the process. To me making art, any kind of art, whether it's photography, or filmmaking, it's a journey. Think of it as my therapy, it's me working through some kind of problem or issue or whether it's social justice issues, or whether it's, in my own personal life, it's me working through something, right. [00:17:12]


[00:17:13] Leena Jayaswal: And so it may not matter what the end product looks like, but it matters to me what I've learned along the way, so being vulnerable and understanding that the journey may be more important than the actual end product. [00:17:25]


[00:17:26] Grace Ibrahim: It really is about the journey, kind of what you're going through what message you want to tell, I started this career, I guess you could say, being like, I want to tell stories, I want to tell my stories, I want to tell stories of people that aren't able to tell their stories and I feel like sometimes I forget that that is the goal. [00:17:42]


[00:17:43] Grace Ibrahim: And that is the path and I stray from the path a little bit. And then I have to bring myself back. And remember, like, there's a reason I'm doing this. It's not just something I woke up one day and said, what I just want to do, it's a hard, hard industry it is. So to have that will to have that why. [00:17:56]


[00:17:57] Leena Jayaswal: Your vulnerability, even if you're not doing personal work, your own vulnerability will come across when you're interviewing somebody, and maybe you get them to say something that they didn't think that they felt comfortable saying at the beginning, but because you're showing that this human interaction and you're vulnerable to that you may get something more deeper and heartfelt. [00:18:15]


[00:18:16] Grace Ibrahim: Also, do you feel like you've seen a shift in the industry? And that could be positive, negative. But do you feel that there's that shift in representation? I know we touched on that. [00:18:25]


[00:18:26] Leena Jayaswal: But yeah, I think people are trying, right. And so it's certainly from 20 years ago, when I was starting to make films and getting exhibitions and things. I was relegated to a niche kind of work, right? There was this Washington Post article that they did where I think it says three points, something percent of the artists population in the United States is Asian. So that's it. Those are people who are making a living as an artist. It's 3%. [00:18:51]


[00:18:52] Leena Jayaswal: Yeah. And so to me, I was like, that's a heavy weight on representation. Because Do they feel that they have to do work that is Asian inspired? Or like, if you're a part of the queer community? Do you always have to just do or tell stories of the queer community? Maybe that pigeon holes some artists in ways or did those 3% get to be in the zeitgeist? Because they weren't telling stories of Asian families. So to me, those are a lot of the questions that are interesting. [00:19:18]


[00:19:19] Leena Jayaswal: And I see that shift happening. When I started teaching here, I had a lot of students come up to me and tell me, well, my parents don't want me to major in photography or filmmaking, because they don't know like, it's not going to give me money. It's not going to do that. And it was mostly women. Of course I was hearing that from Yeah. So to me, that shift is changing. And if we want to tell diverse stories, we need diverse people behind every single role. [00:19:44]


[00:19:45] Leena Jayaswal: Yeah, around there. I think it's a good thing that people are being held accountable. I think the me too movement was fantastic for that. I think that black lives matter. I think all of those things are really helping to shift and change the focus of what used to be the power and now you see some films that are being held accountable to how many diverse folks that they have that are telling diverse stories, right. And so we've all seen plenty of films about people of color that have been told by not people of color. [00:20:14]


[00:20:15] Leena Jayaswal: Yeah. And so what kind of nuances are we missing from there? And I'll just tell this one quick example. I was watching the Michael Vick documentary on ESPN and it was shot by Stanley Nelson. I'm not a football person. I'm not a huge dog lover, I have it. I have a little dog myself. And I just had been under this preconceived notion of what Michael Vick was, but because Stanley Nelson who is a member of the same community, as the same racial community as Michael Vick, he told this story from a different perspective. [00:20:43]

[00:20:44] Leena Jayaswal: Like all those years, I was vilifying Michael Vick, just all of that. And not to say that, I'm pro dog fighting or anything like that. But now I suddenly understand because of the nuances of his storytelling, telling me about the culture, telling me about how Michael Vick grew up in a certain way that was sort of accepted. And then also looking at the White football owners and their reactions to like, well, this person just makes us money, we bet on it in a different way. [00:21:10]


[00:21:11] Leena Jayaswal: Right? It just gave me a perspective that I had not thought about. And it really shifted and changed my point of view, even at this age. Yeah. And so that's why I think it's important for us to have these powerful stories that are being told by the people. And so I love seeing that shift. And I think that's, that's more and more of what we're going to see. [00:21:27]


[00:21:28] Grace Ibrahim: I agree, I couldn't agree more. And I think like you said, all of these movements have a domino effect in a positive way when people lean into vulnerability. So it's a lot of spaces that I've been in, I've had really great conversations with people that are also immigrants and have gone through the immigration process, but because you could look at me, and then you hear my voice. [00:21:47]


[00:21:48] Grace Ibrahim: You see grace. you don't assume I mean, I'm Palestinian, I don't think anyone has ever guessed that on the first try. You know what I mean? So I get a lot of ethnicities thrown at me. Before, I have to say the correct one. So I also feel like, there is a big shift happening, like you said, sometimes on the screen with the stories that are being told to people that are telling the stories, but it took me a while to realize that a lot happens behind the scenes as well. [00:22:09]


[00:22:10] Grace Ibrahim: It is kind of this like realization that, especially as I got into pre production more and that producer role. There's still so much work to do in that space, because there's a lot of rooms I walk into, and I am like one of two, one of three, just women alone, forget people of color alone. Exactly. So I agree there is a definite positive shift, especially as a Middle Easterner seeing just us be represented in the light that's not negative is great. [00:22:36]


[00:22:37] Leena Jayaswal: At the same time if we don't have multiple voices coming from that from the Arabic community or the community, then you're only getting one perspective. Right. And so then you just think well, okay, well, Deepa Mehta. I mean, maybe people would know her, her filmmaking work. But if she's the only one at her and marinara are the only female filmmakers, what about the stories that are not their stories, right? [00:23:01] 


[00:23:02] Leena Jayaswal: And what about the other perspectives that are coming in. And so that's why we need it. It's great to have those ones that pop out. But we really need a whole lot more so that we can get a full story on that. Because I know a lot of times stories get really propped up in the United States, ethnic stories get really propped up in the United States, because they're sort of groundbreaking to them. [00:23:21] 


[00:23:22] Leena Jayaswal: But then when you hear from the people on the streets, they're like, No, that documentary was actually very problematic, because they didn't do this, this and this and, while the rest of the world is celebrating them, and they're becoming rising stars in the documentary world, the people who they who are there are saying this is not what right, this is not the story. This is not how it happened, right. [00:23:41]


[00:23:41] Grace Ibrahim: Other things happened to it. This is not just what we need to focus on our Yeah completely. And then can you talk a little bit going from your project mix? Can you talk a little bit about the storytelling with saris? Sure. That just intrigued me. I thought you could go a little bit. [00:23:56]


[00:23:57] Leena Jayaswal: Sure. Yes. So I just did a film for which I was one of eight filmmakers. documentary filmmakers asked to participate and put a proposal in and it was accepted for the Smithsonian's reopening of the arts and industry building and they were doing an exhibition called the futures exhibition. So within three minutes, I was asked to propose what I thought the future could look like. Yeah. And so I have been collaborating with my friend artist activist Monica Jahan Bose for probably about 10 years now. [00:24:26]


[00:24:27] Leena Jayaswal: And she has started this project called storytelling with sari’s. She's a painter, printmaker, and then we started making films and she's doing art instead. Or she does instant video installations as well. And what she does, she's a Bangladeshi American and her village in Bangladesh is threatened to be washed away because of the tides rising, rising. And Monica is a fierce climate justice activist. [00:24:52]


[00:24:53] Leena Jayaswal: And so she has worked with her village community than women there, these feminist performances the women in Kathakali to bring the stories to make the sari’s and then bring them here to do workshops teaches people about climate justice, and pledges that they could make that could help change, global warming and the planet. And so I've just been filming her and filming her installations, her video pieces so she can turn them into installations. [00:25:17]


[00:25:18] Leena Jayaswal: And so she was the focus of my piece called Draymond Green, which I used for the Smithsonian project. And it looked at how brown and black communities can work together to look at climate justice issues under an artistic perspective. [00:25:31]


[00:25:32] Grace Ibrahim: So that is so cool. That's beautiful. I have just a question on the fly. Sure. I realized this is the first episode, we've talked a little bit more about Documentary Short filmmaking, which is awesome. Can you just give maybe just a few pieces of advice to remember when it comes to documentary filmmaking? Because we've talked so much about film and short that kind of fiction world. [00:25:50]


[00:25:52] Leena Jayaswal: Sure. So the first thing with documentary is the story that you think you're going to tell us not the story that you'll end up telling and lean into it and follow the journey and let things unfold the way that you did like the example I used with mixed when we started filming, and it was going to be this real serious kind of documentary and it became about us in our journey. [00:26:07] 


[00:26:08] Leena Jayaswal: The second thing is to always keep the camera rolling. Because the best sound bites that you're gonna get or when you're setting up the microphone, when they're walking, after they're done with the interview. And they're like, Was that okay? Oh, I forgot to say this, this and this. So always keep the camera rolling as much as you possibly can. And just as the photographer and I always look at light. I know that's clearly down to sound, sound, sound is incredibly important to represent Russell Williams, if he would be upset if I didn't mention sound. [00:26:38]


[00:26:39] Grace Ibrahim: So he used to always tell me you can't edit bad sounds. [00:26:41]


[00:26:42] Leena Jayaswal: Yeah, exactly. And bad sound can ruin a beautiful film. I've taken this I watched him in class one day, say this to his students, you just say okay, everybody. Listen. What are the sounds that you hear? Hear the heater going on? I hear the vibration of a phone. I hear this. And so I just concentrated on hearing and so I took it from him. And I said, Okay, everybody, look in the room. Where's the light? Flicker the light sources? So I totally have like, adapted his ideas to work with light? And because really, ultimately, filmmaking is light and sound. Yeah, that's it. [00:27:19]


[00:27:20] Grace Ibrahim: Do you like to bring in lighting equipment? Or do you like to sometimes use from the lighting sources that you see? [00:27:24] 


[00:27:25] Leena Jayaswal: We do both. We teach both. But I prefer my own work. I prefer natural light, I think that it's a little bit more of a challenge to figure out how to tell your story. I think for photography, and this is the one thing I tell photography students is that actually your job is harder than a filmmaker, because filmmakers can rely on sound and narration and language and all of these things. [00:27:46]


[00:27:47] Leena Jayaswal: And to some extent, you could if you're advancing in fine arts, and you're using text to add to your things, but really you've got to get that right in one second with the snap of your shutter. And you've got to tell the story. Yeah. And one or two frames. [00:28:00]


[00:28:01] Grace Ibrahim: Challenging. Okay, so last thing. So you were the first inclusion officer at American University, which is awesome. I guess two part question, what does inclusion really mean? Right, we could say, oh, we have to include everyone. What does that really mean? And then part two, which I can come back to after as well? What do you think are added steps we can take in our industry? [00:28:20] 


[00:28:21] Leena Jayaswal: Sure. So I think when we talk about inclusion, people just tend to think well, it's like, well, I want people who are like minded, right? And so if you're X, Y, and Z, and I think X, Y and Z, then that means we just need to make sure that we include X and Y and Z, right. But real inclusion is not that real inclusion is adding voices that might be A, B, and C and maybe in contention with X, Y and Z. [00:28:47]


[00:28:48] Leena Jayaswal: And so the challenge of inclusion is how do you make A, B and C and X, Y, and Z all feel safe in the same space, even with differing opinions and beliefs, and all of that. So that's what I think real inclusion means. And I think that takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of trust, it takes a lot of understanding that if a person doesn't believe the same as you, it doesn't make them a bad person. And if there's no amount of you yelling at them, or telling them that they're awful, or not wanting to work with them on a project or any of that kind of stuff. [00:29:18]


[00:29:19] Leena Jayaswal: That's never going to change any hearts and minds, right? It's actually getting into the root of where they think and you might be surprised where you might change your mind and say, well, actually, I see your point of view and perspective. But this is why I think this is for the greater good and so having discussions, I'm sure you've heard that Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were the best of friends. [00:29:42]


[00:29:43] Leena Jayaswal: But they obviously were polar opposites and what and how they approach the Supreme Court and what they know what they voted on, but that to me shows that they really were serious about inclusion in certain ways. And so that is an important part of the process. It's not just hanging out with other like minded people and saying, well, we believe in these things and so let's just keep pushing this agenda. But it's really saying, Well, why doesn't everybody else believe in those things? And let's hear them out. And let's see, like, what it is, and let's include them enough to make sure that they feel safe in a workplace that allows them to be their true or authentic self. [00:30:19] 


[00:30:20] Grace Ibrahim: The most powerful thing to me in this world, especially today, is to people who are able to have opposing opinions and be friends. Yeah. So that I think that's just like a superpower, I'd absolutely venture to call it a superpower. Because it's so powerful when you can say, I think this way, and you think this way, but that's not going to change the way I see you. [00:30:38]


[00:30:39]Leena Jayaswal: So I think that speaking with somebody who has a differing opinion only strengthens my own argument, it makes me really think about like, why do I believe this? And what are some examples that I can give that would help maybe shift that person, but it only, like I said, it only strengthens me in my own work, or it makes me question things, I think, right. It's a conversation. [00:30:58]


[00:30:59] Grace Ibrahim: So I think a lot of people get caught up in the what, instead of the why. [00:31:01]


[00:31:02] Leena Jayaswal: I think we just need to be telling a lot more stories. So, like that example, that I said about the one rising star becoming the person that gets to tell the stories for that culture or for that population, we need a multitude of voices. And so we need 10 rising stars. So one thing that I think that we all can do is to not be threatened in our own positions, and like our jobs are to help those below us up. And if they get something better than us, that's great. We celebrate their successes, we want to be able to tell diverse stories and a multitude of those diverse stories. [00:31:34]


[00:31:35] Grace Ibrahim: That's a big lesson I'm learning as I'm getting older is that a lot of it is about what you're able to pass down to who you're able to help. This is my first year as a mentor in the alumni mentorship. [00:31:47]


[00:31:48] Grace Ibrahim: And at first I was like, Do I have anything I can use? And I looked at my failures, my successes, my I was like, I can teach from every single thing that I've done. [00:31:56]


[00:31:57] Leena Jayaswal: And I love that you brought up your failure. So I think that's one thing that's fantastic. It is like in this industry, like we are the most resilient people because we face failure every single day multiple times submit to a festival Nope. Yep. Didn't get into it. You know what this grant proposal is? Nope, didn't get that. [00:32:12] 


[00:32:13] Leena Jayaswal: But what keeps us going is our resilience and our belief in ourselves of telling our stories. That's the thing. Just don't let those bad days happen. Yeah, have that let you down just Yeah, being resilient. And your story will be told. [00:32:23]


[00:32:24] Grace Ibrahim: I've been my biggest cheerleader and my worst enemy. And I'm trying to learn more from the biggest cheerleader. Yeah, and you just got to really push yourself and believe in yourself. [00:32:32]


[00:32:33] Leena Jayaswal: Yeah. Good. And take risks. Yeah, no, yeah. Oh, yeah, I'll just say this one thing. One of the things that I had growing up going to art music, my parents were very different immigrant parents. They supported the arts incredibly and they, whenever we would go to some city or someplace first stops, were always the art museums, that's all. [00:32:52]


[00:32:53] Leena Jayaswal: And so I grew up looking at all these names on the walls, and I never saw anything that looked like mine. And so being able to be as part of the Smithsonian, and seeing my name there, and then telling the story of my Muslim, Bangladeshi American artist, activist, climate justice warrior friend, using traditional material that South Asians would recognize. [00:33:16]


[00:33:17] Leena Jayaswal: And seeing that on the walls in the Smithsonian, you don't know the power of what that just like somebody walking by could do and see. Yeah. And you may never know that, but like, I know, walking by the halls of artwork and seeing something that I could grab onto and saying that could be me one day, and now it's me one. [00:33:34]


[00:33:35] Leena Jayaswal: Yeah. It's about the people from your culture, being able to see that. So maybe yeah, maybe I or somebody else walking by wouldn't be able to recognize that. That's the but someone who will that's going to make their day I think, yeah, I do all the time. When I just hear Arabic in a product. I'm like, Oh my gosh, I'm so excited. I know them already. Oh, it's just like, really? [00:33:54]


[00:33:55] Leena Jayaswal: I totally understand that. Yeah. It's so funny. [00:33:57]


[00:33:58] Grace Ibrahim: I'm like, maybe they know someone. I mean, no, there's no way because countries are very big. But yeah, that's awesome. Thank you so much, Leena. This was an amazing conversation. I hope everyone learned something. I hope you could take a few pieces of advice with you. But anything you'd like to end on. [00:34:13]

[00:34:14] Leena Jayaswal: No, just thank you so much Grace. It's so incredibly humbling to see the students when they come back and where they are and how well they've done. And so congratulations to you. Oh, my gosh, this is fantastic. I love getting announcements every like, oh, that's where they are. [00:34:30]

[00:34:31] Grace Ibrahim: I love getting emails from old professors being like you're here. But that's great. It's been awesome having you if you'd like to check out our bi weekly episodes dropping on Wednesdays on Anchor, Spotify, Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Go give us a listen. Click that subscribe button. And if you'd like to support this podcast and the School of Communication, go to to donate now. And that's a wrap. [00:34:56]

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