The inspiring journey of Sarah M. Kazadi, #Telema documentary’s director

In January 2016, The Guardian UK published an article, alongside a mini documentary #Telema, on the growing Congolese youth activism movement. Both were the work of a proud daughter of Congo, Sarah M. Kazadi. Sarah’s journey to become a journalist and filmmaker for CBS Sports and other news outlets in the United States, is inspiring and worth telling, especially to those who face barriers to reach their dreams.

Sarah M. Kazadi

Sarah M. Kazadi

At 8 years old, her family moved to the United States (US) from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Like many African immigrants in the US, Sarah was confronted to several barriers including language and cultural differences. These, however, did not hold her back; if anything they contributed to making her the confident, humble, resilient, and hard-working young woman that she is today.

I caught up with Sarah to find out more…

What was it like for you to move to the US?

It was a culture shock. It was completely different than anything I’d ever been exposed to. Not because Kinshasa is not an evolved city, but just because it was so different: people were different, the food was different, the music was different. Everything that I had known in my short lifespan was turned upside down. So I had to learn a lot, and I learned more about myself. It was an interesting experience.

You were fortunate to get a scholarship through playing basketball, could you tell us how that came about?

I played basketball competitively from the time I was 11 to when I graduated from college at 21. I first picked up a basketball in Dallas because all my cousins used to play. At first, I was just trying to fit in but then I developed a love for the sport. Every woman’s basketball player has a story about being the only girl on the court, and shutting up some guy who underestimated her.

Basketball taught me so much about life. When we moved to New York in 2001, I played in summer leagues and eventually on my high school team, and that earned me an athletic scholarship to play in college. It was a burden lifted off my parents’ shoulders. That’s part of the reason why I did it. It is really difficult to play a collegiate sport and get good grades. It was a challenge, but I accepted it because my parents wouldn’t have to pay for my schooling.

How did you manage studying and playing basketball at university?

You learn time management very quickly, because that’s the only way to stay above water in that kind of

Sarah taking a free throw

Sarah taking a free throw

environment. You’re constantly traveling, there’s always a test coming up, there’s always another responsibility that you have. So you just really learn to manage your time, and use it efficiently. Besides basketball, I was the sports editor of a campus newspaper, and a member of the African Students Union. I kept busy, but still found time for fun.

You no longer play basketball on a competitive level. When did you realise that it wasn’t going to be a career for you?

When I first started playing basketball, obviously, like every other girl who played, I thought that maybe I wanted to go to the WNBA. But, that ended relatively soon, probably in my first year of college, when I realised that there were so many other things I wanted to do. Playing basketball was one of them, but so was writing, so was traveling, so was a lot of different things.

So how did you choose journalism as your main career choice?

I’ve always been a writer, I used to write poetry and keep a journal. I never took it as something that I could get paid to do. For most of my life, I thought I wanted to be a paediatrician. So up until my second year of college, I was a Biology major. I was going to be a doctor. Academically, I was doing great, but I lost the passion for it as my interest in other fields grew. I took a couple of writing and news courses in my freshman year and my sophomore year of college. It just spoke to who I was as a person, so I decided to latch on.

How did your parents react to that major change?

My parents wanted me to pick a career that was financially stable. Back home, journalism doesn’t really fit that category. It doesn’t fit it in the US either. But sometimes, it can be a financially stable field, especially if you’re working in television. When my parents saw that this was something I naturally gravitated to, they gave me their stamp of approval. That means everything to me, having my parents’ support and backing.

After graduating, what was it like looking for a job in journalism?

When I came out of college, I wanted to do what I’m doing now –tell compelling stories to a national or international audience–but I was told that in order to do more reporting, I would have to apply to be a local news reporter. My heart wasn’t in local news. I’ve always been drawn to international stories, bigger stories. Plus, it’s really hard to break into local news in New York City, which is one of the biggest news markets. I was advised to apply to jobs in Idaho or Nebraska, but I didn’t want to be so far from New York City. I eventually took a job at Villanova University near Philadelphia, as a reporter and producer for their sports teams.

While I was working at Villanova, I also picked up a job at www.philly.com. It’s the website for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, the two biggest newspapers in Philadelphia. I was a videographer for their sports department. So I kept busy in Philly for about a year before moving back to New York for graduate school and an opportunity at CBS Sports.

As an African and woman, do you feel there are limitations on what you can report on?

Absolutely. A lot of times you will end up being the only person of colour in an editorial meeting. Think about that: Editorial meeting are where we decide what stories are worth telling. If you’re the only person of colour there, you might be the only one representing a different point of view. Diversity is critical. I think that there’s still a long way to go, especially in media. We see a lot more people of colour in TV news nowadays, so we think « oh that’s progress », « there’s change », but the people actually making the decisions are still often old, white and male. It’s tough. But in my day to day, I just try to put on my armour, mentally, physically, and just try to combat these things by existing and continuing to do the work. I try to be as positive as I can be, but I’m not oblivious to the fact that these obstacles do exist.

Sarah at work (CBS Sports)

Sarah at work (CBS Sports)

What would you say is your biggest career achievement so far?

I think your latest work is your greatest. By my work I mean something I put blood, sweat, and tears in. My latest work was my #Telema short documentary. That brings me a lot of joy. I knew that I wanted to tell a story about Congo after I did Elikya in 2012–the first time I was able to use my skills to do something related to Congo.

As passionate as I’m about some of the work that I do, none of if compares to how I feel when I am reporting on the Congo. So, I wanted that feeling back. I learned that there were young people who were willing to take a stand for a better Congo. I was fascinated by their sheer will, « by any means necessary » kind of mentality. I went to Congo to shoot the first part of #Telema and also write an article for the New York Times about the November 2016 elections.

It is through a networking opportunity that your work was published in the New York Times, what tips do you have for those who may be new to or struggling with networking?

It’s annoying, and I still struggle with it myself. I hate feeling like I have to sell myself or beg for someone’s attention. I just try to make sure that I’m doing meaningful work that could be beneficial to the person who I’m trying to network with. I’m constantly working, and if it’s something that I think is suitable for the New York Times or any other outlet, then I send links of my work to the contact. I send notes to keep them up to date with what I’m doing and also pitch story ideas that could be beneficial to them. It’s part of the work. Unfortunately, we all have to play the game.

As someone who has followed her heart, what’s your message to those struggling to do that?

When you are faced with an obstacle, it is easy to give in to the way that it shapes you. By that I mean, if you are in a situation where the resources are unavailable to you, or the odds are stacked against you, or you’re battling doubt, it’s easy for you to alter your goals and not dream as big. As difficult as it might be, fight to not fall victim to those obstacles. Fight to be authentically yourself. Hold on to you. Listen to what moves you from within. These are all lessons I’ve learned, and have to remind myself of. Ultimately, not following your heart means unhappiness and a lack of fulfillment. Life is too short to live that way.

You can read Sarah Kazadi’s articles on New York Times here and on the Guardian here. You can also watch her other work via her Youtube Channel 

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