Sofia Quintero is an author, cultural activist, and self-described "Ivy League Homegirl." I first learned about her work after a colleague sent me a link to her newest project, HomeGirl.TV. The site is both a video series and a social networking space, and after watching some of the videos I was eager to learn more. What follows is an edited interview conducted over email.
I hope you'll forgive me for starting with what might be a simple question, but I need to start from the beginning: What, or maybe who, is a home girl?
The simplest response is that “homegirl” is slang for “girlfriend.” While I’m pretty sure it predates hip-hop, that’s the subculture that made the term commonplace. Before that the term “Homegirl” immediately brought to mind a relatively young Black woman living in an urban, working-class environment. The term now has expanded, at least the way I use it, to embrace women who possess certain qualities that transcend race and class. A homegirl is transparent, honest and loving. She’ll give it to you straight no-chaser, but her intention is to lift you up rather than tear you down. Her impulse is to be sisterly toward other women rather than competitive with them. She is down to earth, doesn’t put on airs and has little patience for false pretenses. This is why you can trust a homegirl: what you see is what you get and what you get comes from a well-meaning place. Now, do you have to be a homegirl to be a good friend? Absolutely not. But you can’t be a homegirl if you’re not a good friend.
What prompted you to create HomeGirl.TV?
I was going through a very difficult period in my life, especially with regard to my work and creativity. After much reflection, I discovered that I needed a project that allowed me to be creative with no attachment to material gain. I happened to be on a trip visiting one of my oldest and dearest homegirls when I woke up one morning with the idea for the web series. I literally rolled over in bed, reached for my journal and wrote down a few phrases including "HomeGirl.TV" and "Dear Abby." My initial goal for the production itself was quite simple - create a web series where some of the wonderful women I know can share the lessons of their life experiences with other women in an entertaining fashion. The idea of the social network came much later as I was researching and deciding how I wanted to make the webisodes available.
As I develop it, I dream bigger. Sometimes I check these dreams because I do not want to become attached to a particular outcome. The way I see it, if millions can tune into a show like Jerry Springer that perpetuates so many harmful ideas about gender and sexuality in an obviously concocted manner, why can’t they join HomeGirl.TV and get an authentic point of view that’s likely informed by lived experience?
The bottom line is I’m aiming for a quality viewing experience that is unapologetically more progressive than what one might get watching a mainstream television program. As a cultural activist, I have never bought into the idea that popular media cannot at once have a broad audience and a social conscience.
I haven't heard that term before. Can you explain what it means to be a cultural activist?
There are many ways to affect social change -- community organizing, social work, policy advocacy to name just a few. I call myself a cultural activist because I'm using culture to promote social justice. I specifically focus on using popular media. For example, I'm a novelist and filmmaker, too, and the stories I create as such are purposefully commercial.
Creating HomeGirl.TV is a continuation of that work because even though I make no apologies for wanting to be entertaining and reaching a broad audience – including people who may not share my political and social values – those values do influence the choices I make. Nowhere is that more evident than in the kind of women I chose to participate. For the most part, my choices as a producer are quite deliberate and not primarily dictated by what might be popular or entertaining as someone whose overriding impetus is to monetize the production.
I was wondering about how you choose the women for the webisodes, and also how much direction you give them. As I watched I was struck by how, even though I often disagreed with what I was being told, and much of it didn't feel like it was for me, I felt a lot of love and acknowledgement, like I was getting access to a room full of very cool aunts who may or may not support (or even understand) the choices I'm making, but who will be there for me regardless.
Other than to encourage the women to be who they are and to share anecdotes if a particular question had personal relevance, I gave very little direction to their answers. I would attribute the affirming experience you have when watching the videos to the kind of women I chose to interview.
I’m a firm believer that how you say things is just as important as what you say. This is particularly true in cyberspace where snark has become king and people use the excuse (not to mention the anonymity) that they’re speaking their truth to be unnecessarily nasty, conveniently ignoring that such negativity discourages others from sharing their truth.
HomeGirl.TV would probably get a lot more hits if I had chosen women who were catty, but that’s not who I am nor who my friends are. There’s enough of that on the internet, and I have yet to see what value it adds.
Thank you so much for saying both of those things. I think anyone who works online for any significant time has struggled with how to deal with that cattiness (which always reminds me of what Kate Bornstein calls being mean). Can you say something more about what kinds of conversations you'd like us to be having instead. And since how we talk matters, is there a way of having those conversations with more compassion?
Many conversations in cyberspace come from a place of making the person who doesn't agree with you wrong. I personally am incredibly opinionated, but I also believe in speaking from the "I." "This is what I believe to be true because this is what my experience has taught me." And then you allow the other person to do the same. "I see it differently. I see it this way because my experience has shown me this."
Of course, you can offer each other facts to back up your opinion and challenge each other on the veracity of those facts. But too many conversations have the undercurrent, "You would agree with me if you weren't so ignorant so let me school you." Too many conversations start in that place rather than recognizing that there is a human being on the other end of that exchange who has had a wealth of experiences that you cannot even begin to know in this form of communication.
I recognize that it's a tricky balance to strike between speaking your truth and allowing others to speak theirs, especially in a world where there are so many forms of oppression that reinforce the reality that some people's truth is more important or requires the marginalization of another people's truth in order to survive. We at least have to be aware of that as a first step. I don't think we can dialogue away all "isms" because some folks are deeply invested in them. But I do believe dialogue can do more than it has -- even and perhaps especially if it's painful – if we are just as committed to being compassionate as we are to being honest.
Since you launched can you say how it's been going? Are some things working better than you expected, are others more difficult? What are your hopes for HomeGirl.TV now and moving forward?
On the positive note, people seem to enjoy the webisodes and the membership on the online social network is growing steadily. That's a pleasant surprise. I didn't really know if the only people who joined HomeGirl.TV would be those that already know me personally! One thing that is difficult -- and I did anticipate this although I haven't figured it out yet - is getting people to engage. I suspect most members are lurkers - people who watch the webisodes and maybe even play them for their friends but do not comment or otherwise participate in the community. I'm thinking of several strategies to remedy that right now so my hope is that will change over time.
This is one of the reasons why we're hosting an open house from May 29th through June 4th. For that week, HomeGirl.TV will be public. That means you can peruse the site without being a member. I've always known that it's a lot to ask people to join never mind participate in yet another social network. But this is a very special community, I believe, and the open house is an easy way for people to see for themselves what it's about and what it could be.
Another hope for HomeGirl.TV is to further diversify my co-hostesses. While there are several Black women (myself included), I do want more African American women in front of the camera. I had plenty on my interview list for the first season and yet when it came time to do the interview, something would prevent us from meeting. I can promise a greater African American presence in Season 2. Technology being what it is, I'd also like to recruit HomeGirls around the country and even draw one or two interviews from the online membership. One last goal for the near future is for the questions in future seasons to be generated by the membership. I want HomeGirl.TV to be of service to and in support of its viewer so the questions and situations we address should be ones that they are facing.