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Mentorship for Black Professionals, Earbuds Not Included

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Nancy Joseph 01/31/2024 February 2024 Perspectives
Brad Blackburn III and Tiana Cole seated behind a microphone.
“We’ve met so many exceptional people who have inspired us and helped us along the way on our own journeys,” says Tiana Cole, above with Brad Blackburn III. “We thought a podcast would be a great way to learn how they’ve gotten to where they have and provide those stories of inspiration and resilience.” Photo by Sarah Wallace Photography.

In the past year, Tiana Cole and Brad Blackburn III have spoken with Black civic leaders, broadcasters, business owners, educators, nonprofit directors, and other successful professionals about their careers — including how race has factored into their journeys. Their unfiltered conversations are now streaming on Identity Unboxed, a podcast launched in 2023.

Cole (BA, Journalism and Public Interest Communication, 2021) and Blackburn (BA, Political Science, 2021, MPA, 2023) created the podcast to serve as a mentorship resource for young Black professionals. They see it as an opportunity to learn from established professionals who have been through a similar journey. 

“We’ve met so many exceptional people who have inspired us and helped us along the way on our own journeys,” Cole says. “We thought a podcast would be a great way to learn how they’ve gotten to where they have and provide those stories of inspiration and resilience.”

Learning from Listening

Blackburn and Cole met as students at Tumwater High School near Olympia, Washington. Both came to the UW with plans to pursue health-related majors, convinced that would ensure a stable and lucrative career. They quickly realized their interests lay elsewhere. Cole discovered a passion for journalism and storytelling. Blackburn’s interest in social justice led to courses in political science and law, societies & justice, and later a master’s in public administration. 

The two alums recently started their professional journeys — Cole as a program administrator in the UW’s Continuum College; Blackburn as community engagement and in-kind manager at YouthCare, a Seattle nonprofit — but their podcast has already helped them in their own lives.

One thing the podcast has shown us is that while we have different life paths, we have similar stories. Our experience is a collective experience.

Brad Blackburn III BA, Political Science, 2021; MPA, 2023

“I was going through a tough life transition when we started the podcast,” says Blackburn. “To hear from professionals who had gone through the same things was really a guiding force. Even now if I’m struggling with something at work, I‘ll go back to an episode and listen again. That’s the joy of this podcast.  We’re reaping the benefit of our mission, getting that mentorship. We hope other folks are as well.”

The hosts have a long list of potential guests for Identity Unboxed in 2024. They look forward to highlighting careers not covered in previous episodes, such as Black professionals in engineering and medicine. All guests are local to the Seattle area, by design.

“That’s been a priority for us,” says Cole. “Seattle doesn’t have the most visible Black community, so we felt it was important to show that there are Black professionals here and they’re successful. We look for folks who have been through adversity and reached a position where they can shed light on their experiences. We want young professionals to realize that if this person made it, they can too.”

A Collective Experience

While Cole and Blackburn hope their podcast will inspire listeners, their guests’ life stories are not all rainbows and sunshine. Success as a Black professional comes at a cost, and Identity Unboxed delves into those challenges. Because the hosts and guests share the experience of being Black, conversations about race in the workplace are honest and unfiltered. A frequent topic is the code switching required to succeed in a predominantly white workplace, as well as other pressures to conform.

Discussing these familiar challenges has been healing for Cole and Blackburn. “So often in professional spaces, Black folk are not comfortable speaking on our issues,” says Blackburn. “You never know if someone’s going to invalidate something you say as ‘pulling the race card.’ The vision behind Identity Unboxed was to have a space where we could speak on our experiences without fear of repercussions. Where we could just lay our stories out there. One thing the podcast has shown us is that while we have different life paths, we have similar stories. Our experience is a collective experience.”

Tiana Cole + Brad Blackburn III face each other with a microphone between them.
“We really get into the intersection of [our guests'] personal and professional life, and how their identity has influenced their decisions,” says Cole. Photos by Sarah Wallace Photography.

Another factor in the podcast’s authenticity: the in-depth conversations are unedited. Most are an hour or longer, covering everything from childhood experiences to professional crossroads. Guests discuss moments of self-doubt and moments of clarity and confidence. Many have been surprised by the range of topics that Cole and Blackburn address.

“We really get into the intersection of their personal and professional life, and how their identity has influenced their decisions,” says Cole. “After the interview, guests have told us how amazing it was to be able to reflect on their journey in its entirety.”

The hosts end each interview with the same question: What does blackness mean to you? Unsurprisingly, every guest has a different response. Flipping the question to the hosts, Blackburn shares that for him, blackness “stands for resilience, endurance, strength, and love.” Cole mentions “the collectivity in our community to pursue justice.” After a pause, she adds, “There are so many different ways to be Black.”

And so many ways to be a listener of Identity Unboxed. The audience ranges from students and recent grads to seasoned professionals reflecting on their career journey. The hosts emphasize the importance of creating an intergenerational space that highlights how we can all learn from each other. They plan to include guests from younger generations in future episodes, to provide insights into better understanding and effectively collaborating with one another in the workplace.

While most podcast listeners are Black, the hosts welcome others to listen and learn as well. “We don’t want people to feel like because you’re not Black, it’s not something you should listen to,” Blackburn says. “We also want this to be a learning space for non-Black people, so they can hear our unfiltered conversations and learn how to show up better as allies in professional spaces. Everyone is welcome to Identity Unboxed.”

Follow the Identity Unboxed project on Instagram at @identityunboxed. The full interview of this conversation with Cole and Blackburn is available as a podcast episode.

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