An award-winning researcher, Dr. Wendy Osefo is a Nigerian-American television personality and progressive political commentator. She has been interviewed by and frequently provides commentary for CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, ABC, Fox Business, BBC, HLN, Russian TV, The Washington Post, In Touch Weekly, Business Insider, One America News Network, and TV-One to name a few. She is a Contributor to The Hill, the Founder and CEO of the 1954 Equity Project, and is an Assistant Professor at The Johns Hopkins University. Her current research examines the impact of the 2016 presidential election on black and brown communities and the role of inclusion and asset-based strategies in higher education. Wendy is the former Director of Family and Community Development for the Obama Administration’s DC Promise Neighborhood. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from Temple University, an M.A. in Government from The Johns Hopkins University, and an M.Sc. in Public Affairs from Rutgers University. Dr. Osefo made history when she became the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in Public Affairs-Community Development from Rutgers University. Dr. Osefo is a Board Trustee of the Children’s Scholarship Foundation of Baltimore and a board member for The Education Foundation, Congressman Elijah Cummings Youth to Israel Program, and The Obama Green Charter School. Dr. Osefo is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated and The National Urban League. Wendy is a 2017 recipient of the Johns Hopkins Diversity Recognition Award, a 2017 recipient of the Johns Hopkins University Outstanding Graduate Award, a 2017 40 Under 40 Honoree, a 2017 25 Women to Watch Honoree and a 2018 Black Women in Media Honoree.
Who is Dr. Osefo and what was your motivation for starting your brand?
Dr. Osefo is a wife, mom, friend, and sister. I’m just a regular girl who was given a platform. I did not necessarily start my brand on my own; it grew organically. I felt that what was going on in society around politics and civility was impacting communities of color and there were not many people speaking out about it, so I started to write. One of the articles I wrote entitled, “Donald Trump Didn’t Win, Hatred Did” went viral. From there, I was invited on different platforms and national television to speak out about the politics in our society and the ways in which they are starting to impact communities of color. That’s how my brand started, seeing that there was a need for voices that spoke directly to what people of color were feeling and speaking about it.
How did you discover your purpose?
I feel like my purpose found me. There were a lot of things that I was interested in. But what I kept stumbling upon was the politics of our society. I was really passionate about communities of color. We often look at what’s going on in black communities and ask why, but what we do not understand is that there are still policies in place today that make it so that those situations will continue to exist and flourish. In high school, I was voted most likely to sit on the Supreme Court because I was always so vocal and an advocate for issues. I went to a school where I was one of four black girls in my graduating class, but I did not conform to the standards that were given to me. I always wanted to speak out more about why even things my high school was doing were wrong, so political science seemed like a natural fit. My favorite subject in school was history. I’m fascinated by the ways in which communities and societies flourish and how all of that relates to things that we have done in our past. I think we are all born with a calling, but we have to listen to the voices around us, walk in the path, and it will all make sense later.
You were the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in Public Affairs-Community Development from Rutgers University. Tell us about that experience.
My program started at Rutgers Camden and I wanted to take a deeper dive. I wanted to do a program that had meaning and substance and allowed me to be a practitioner. A lot of times when people have Ph.D.’s they end up being in the ivy towers of some institution just writing and publishing. While there is nothing wrong with that, I feel like there is so much to do with this knowledge base on the ground. So, it is great to have a Ph.D. or doctorate, but how do you apply that? The program at Rutgers Camden gave me the opportunity to do that. Camden is like any urban epicenter, whether it is Baltimore or Detroit, it is just rooted in all of the things that you think of when you think of a community that has been dilapidated. I have to give a shout out to Dr. Santiago, a woman of color. She told me that as me being a black woman, they are not going to be receptive of me in academia and I have to go twice as hard. I could still be in that program today honestly. I could still be trying to figure out my dissertation, but she pushed me and said that she sees something special in me. I was able to graduate because of her help. I literally got married the first year of my program and had both children in my program, which could have easily caused me to stop or take longer to finish, but they pushed me so hard. With their support and love, I became the first black woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in Public Affairs-Community Development from Rutgers University. I am glad there have been others after me, but I am also happy to have achieved that milestone because those women have allowed me to stand on their shoulders.
How did you make the transition to academia?
That happened more so organically because a lot of individuals get their Ph.D. to be in academia, although it is very hard to get in. One of my Master’s degrees is from Johns Hopkins University. It was a full circle moment because I am an alum of the institution and now I am faculty. When I graduated with my Ph.D., I worked at another institution in Administration, the Director of a program. I taught a few classes, but I more so oversaw the program. After doing the first few years, I decided I wanted to dabble in academia full time to see what it is to interact with students. I do not have a story where I applied for like ten institutions because I knew where I wanted. Hopkins was my top choice and by the grace of God, I got it. I applied, interviewed, and got the job.
What was your dream career as a young woman?
I am still evolving. People think that once you achieve a certain amount of accolades, you’ve arrived. I have always seen myself on television. It is so weird because I did not know how that fit into my passion of politics. But because of God’s divine order, he merged the two things I loved and I became a political commentator. I did not have a profession in my head. I’m Nigerian so my mom always said I am going to be a doctor or lawyer. My sister took the doctor piece. She is a dope black woman, she’s a surgeon. I planned to be an attorney. It was not the title attorney that I wanted. It was the quality of the attorney, which is to advocate for people and use my voice and education to speak on issues in a knowledgeable way. I am a firm believer that as a man thinketh so shall he become. We are able to manifest our destiny and our future. I never knew I was going to transform into being a political commentator. I was not aware of that space for a long time. I thought everyone on television was a journalist, but that’s not true.
What were some of the main challenges you’ve faced?
How to balance everything. While I was getting my Ph.D., I got married in the first year. The beauty of that was that he was in law school. Since we were both graduate students, we were able to navigate being graduate students and being newlyweds together, which was a good thing. We were broke as hell, but it was a good thing because we were experiencing some of the same challenges of balancing. Another challenge was that notion of what’s next. With school, you are there for a limited amount of time, but you are there for a reason. Meaning, you want to advance your career or start your career. So I was always thinking about what am I going to do with all of the knowledge I have gained after I get out of here.
What tools if any do you use to manage your projects or career?
I am addicted to my calendar. Every night and morning, I look at my calendar. If we are talking right now and we say we are going to meet next week at 5 PM, as we are talking, I put it in my calendar because my life is so busy that if I don’t do something at that moment, I will completely forget. I need tools that will allow me to be on task. Another tool is that I have days where I have nothing scheduled professional or personally. Have days where you can reset and focus on you. You cannot put your best work out if you are not full yourself.
What was your motivation for creating The 1954 Equity Project ?
The organization looks to ensure that students of color, in particular, have equal and equitable outcomes in education at institutions of higher education. The motivation behind it was, when I was at my other institution, the Liberal Arts college, that was the time the Charleston 9 happened. When it happened, the institution did not release any email, announcements, nothing. It was like this shooting just happened where nine individuals in an establishment of worship, a church, were gunned down just for being black and as an institution, you don’t feel like you should send out an email? Because you have students who look like the very victims that were killed. A lot of students of color came to my office so sad and in disbelief, but had no one to talk to. I was one of the few faculty members of color at the time, so they all swarmed to me. I said to myself, why is it that we are an institution and for a lot of these students, we are there home away from home and when they experience these traumatic incidents, we are not addressing their needs? I wanted to start the 1954 Equity project to ensure that students of color do not feel alone and they have a safe space to have conversations when incidents arise that impact them. I felt at the time, for the next two years, we were having back to back things from Charleston 9 to Freddie Gray to Michael Brown to Alton Sterling. Every other month we were seeing a person of color getting killed, and it was too much. I took it upon myself to create something bigger than me that will address that gap.
Name a few of your accomplishments and tell us which one you’re more proud of.
Oh, that’s easy. I am most proud of being a mom to my two sons. I know that does not come with trophies, awards, or being the first, but my children are the physical manifestation of everything that I fight for and work for. I have two black boys and being their mom is hands down the greatest joy of my life. They are my number one accomplishment. Having children is the ability to create something on this earth that will outlive you and will tell your story on this earth when you are gone. A lot of people don’t have that. So my number 1, number 2, number 3, number 4, number 5, accomplishment is being their mom. My number 6 accomplishment is not necessarily an award or trophy, but just the opportunity to be given a platform to represent all of the areas that I am a part of. Often times, I am on TV and I can be on for an hour, and within that hour, I am the only black face you see. It does not come with an award, but it comes with something bigger than that. Hopefully it’s inspiring people who look like me to let them know that they are valid and there is someone out there fighting for them and number two, for the people who do not look like me, it lets them know don’t fuck with me, because there is a black girl out here who would not let you guys twist the narrative. There is someone that will check you. So, that’s an accomplishment that I get to be given a national platform to be able to rewrite the narrative in a way that accurately reflects the thinking of a lot of people I represent. That’s being a woman, black, an immigrant, Nigerian, a mom, and millennial. I fit in so many different intersections so whenever I am on television, I make sure I reflect all of them. Number 7 is all of the awards.
There seems to be a negative air around being a millennial. Sometimes older generations often think we are lazy and lack knowledge, and that may cause some tension. What advice would you give to someone who is in that situation?
Know that you do not stand alone and yes you may be the only one physically in the room, but we are all there. What you are doing is greater than you. Once you are in the room, you open the door and allow the opportunity for others that look like you to walk behind you. That is the goal. The goal is never to be the first. It’s cool, but that is not your decision. That is divine order. The goal is not to be the last. Walk into that space and be confident and know that you are there for a reason. Own it. Don’t feel like you do not matter or you are not valid or your points don’t hold water there. You have to know that you are as good, if not better, than them.
What advice would you give to someone following in your footsteps?
Study the craft. Sometimes, people just see the end result and don’t know how hard it is to get there. To be a professor, I went to school for more than fifteen years and that’s not even counting high school. Six years of my doctoral dissertation and four years undergraduate. That is already ten years, and I have two masters on top of that. It is not just like “Oh I want to be a professor”. You have to know how to get there. You have to also study the journey because it’s not going to come overnight. A lot of times people chase the end goal and do not chase the steps to get there. I wanted to be on television, but that is not how it worked. I was a writer first. You have to understand that it may not always be the exact goal. There may be steps you have to do before you get to that thing. You have to embrace that. Our generation is the microwave generation. We work for one week and wonder why we have not been promoted yet. That is how we think. Anything worth having you have to work hard for it.
Did you have any advisement or mentors on the way?
Ninety percent was on my own. I don’t have a mentor. I can reach out to individuals, but I don’t have a mentor. Ninety percent was me working hard and researching. You have to work hard! I devoted my life to this. It sounds easy, but I research. I hardly sleep. I stay up late at night and write articles. You define you. You have to be able to do it on your own and stand on your own.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, and resources?
1) As a Man Thinketh by James Allen
2) The Shack by William P. Young
Is there anything else that you would like to say that we did not cover?
Faith and family keep me motivated. I am a firm believer that anything you put your mind to, you can achieve. You have to work. I am saying this as if I am talking to my sons, but you have to work. You have to keep on working and keep on grinding and I promise you it will pay off. The seeds you plant today, you won’t eat the fruit tomorrow. So you cannot have that mindset like I worked my butt off today so tomorrow CNN is going to call me. That is not how it works. You have to work and know they might not call you tomorrow, but they are going to call you.