The Homegirl Project interviewed Andrea Butler on her journey founding Sesi Magazine and the importance of Black representation in the media.
SB: Can you share your story of starting Sesi Magazine?
AB: I was only 17 years old when I first got the idea for Sesi. That was 20 years ago, so yeah, it's been quite a journey. I was lying on my bedroom floor one weekend night, rereading old issues of Seventeen, Teen People, and YM, when the idea just popped in my head -- like a legit spark of inspiration. It came as a complete, one-word sentence that said, "If nothing has changed by the time I'm done with school, I'll start one myself." I didn't give it anymore thought until I was about to graduate from college. I wasn't ready to get a job, so I decided I'd go to grad school. And that thought from a few years before came back to me. That's how I decided to get my master's in magazine journalism. It's been a very long journey to get the magazine to where it is now. In grad school, my master's project, which I did instead of a thesis, was a business plan for a new magazine, which would later become Sesi.
SB: How did the magazine get where it is today?
AB: I was teaching high school and the magazine idea just kept gnawing at me, so I reached out to my friend from high school, Shannon Boone, and asked if she'd like to partner with me to launch this thing. She said yes (she is our art director), and we published our first three issues. I left teaching for an editing job at LivingSocial and let the magazine fall away again. But it was back calling to me again about two years later. I called Shannon up again and we relaunched in Dec. 2012. We've been publishing ever since. There have been a ton of obstacles we've had to overcome, lots of crying sessions, but we kept pushin'. Our latest milestone came on June 15, when we officially launched on newsstands in Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million -- I'd been trying to get us there since 2012. And, the journey still continues.
SB: What inspired you to create a magazine that covers the "Black girl’s mainstream?”
AB: The fact that none of the magazines I loved reading as a teen ever represented me. Each magazine claimed they were edited for all girls, but really, they were edited for white girls, with other people being just afterthoughts. When I was flipping through those magazines on my bedroom floor back in 1998, I was thinking to myself, "Why is there basically never anyone who looks like me on the covers?" I came up with the tagline "covering the Black girl's mainstream" when I was at work one day because I was annoyed (again) that the white people I worked with never seemed to know any “Black celebs," but they always expected us to know every white celeb, like that was the default. Even when I would write things in a witty copy style, they would scrap it because it was something they didn't get. One time I used the phrase "chuck deuces to your ex," and they rewrote the whole copy because they claimed no one would know what that meant. I kept thinking their mainstream isn't quite the same as our mainstream.
SB: Why do you think it is so crucial that black girls have representation?
AB: It's crucial that Black girls get representation because we deserve to see ourselves as more than just the caricatures that have dominated magazines, TV shows, movies, etc. in the past. We deserve to have our diverse cultures, skin tones, hair textures, and every distinct feature of ours, celebrated. Black people are not a monolith, thus having representation also ensures that our various differences are represented as well -- so we can see others we identify with and hear stories we relate to, know that we're not going through something alone, and we always remember that we matter.
SB: What is your favorite part about the job?
AB: My favorite part? The writing and editing, of course! I love coming up with ideas and issue themes and hearing ideas from our amazing team of writers and designers. I also love meeting readers at events and trade shows and hearing how the magazine has effected them.
SB: If someone walked up to you and asked for a quick advice, what would the first thing you will tell them?
AB: Never. Stop. It may take you years to achieve your goals, but if you give up, you may never achieve them. Will things get hard? Definitely. But it'll all be worth it in the end.
SB: Did you face any obstacles while building Sesi? If so how did you overcome them?
AB: YES! (We still do.) Our biggest obstacle has been getting advertisers to understand the value of print and the fact that we reach a niche audience that no other magazine in existence has reached. Without that stream of income, we've had moments where I wasn't sure how we would keep going, moments over the years when I said I was just going to quit, and I'd cry and cry. But, things worked out -- the printer made a deal with us, I was able to get working capital and donations. Things are getting better with advertisers now, but it's a process. Also, getting on the newsstand -- that was a huge obstacle. I wrote to the distributor we have now once a year for five years and they told me no. The sixth year, they reached out to me and said yes!
SB: What is your favorite quote?
AB: "If it is not ink on paper, it is not a magazine." -Samir Husni (aka Mr. Magazine) Magazines are sensory experiences. You can feel the pages between your fingers as you flip each one. You can smell the paper. You can tear out your favorite ads or articles and post them on your walls or in your lockers. You can dog ear pages to revisit later. You can write on them, underline or highlight passages. You can save them and reread them and pass them on to your friends. All of these things create memories -- each issue is like a time capsule. Of course, there is plenty of space for other media platforms as well -- video, online, social media, etc. But an honest-to-goodness magazine? It's print. And I feel this quote with every part of my being.
SB: What is one issue that you want to change about the world?
AB: That's a hard one because there are so many issues that need to be tackled; however, I know that these things can't be solved quickly. For example, we can definitely continue fighting hate, bigotry, and racism and make real change, but erasing it completely is probably not achievable because there will always be people out there who don't have the best intentions. I'll say this: professionally, I would like to continue to make a change in the area of representation for Black girls by publishing Sesi and sharing our stories, and also eventually hosting events, along with some other ideas I have floating in my mind. Personally, I will never stop speaking out against the ills of society, and I will always stand against all forms of hatred to help bring about a better world, whether it be through writing, speaking, voting, canvassing, and other actions.
SB: The theme of the Homegirl Project is "female empowerment." How does this topic impact your own life?
AB: For me, female empowerment is evident in my daily life. I feel empowered to continue creating a magazine that didn't exist before. I feel empowered to help empower other girls and young women. The magazine itself is female empowerment and is brought to life by a whole lot of Black girl magic.