Interview: Zora Ilunga-Reed on Political Podcasting, Journalism, and a Love of Public Libraries

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Zora Ilunga-Reed is a political podcaster, journalist, and works in various kinds of media, all at the fresh age of seventeen! She's a perfect example of finding a gap in the market or something you feel the world desperately needs, and going out to create it. Her podcast, We the Ppl, is a response to the idea that people her age, who cannot vote, have little to no interest in politics, and therefore shouldn't be involved in the discussions this entails. We talk in depth about this passion project of hers, along with her writing, and how she stays organised. Zora is a fantastic young woman, and I can't wait to see all of the wonderful things she's inevitably going to achieve in the future.

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Magic & Musings:
Thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions, Zora! First of all, for any readers who don’t know your background, can tell me a little bit about yourself and where you are today?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I’m an almost-seventeen-year-old rising high school senior in New York City. I guess if I had to name my career, I’d say student. I think in almost everything I do, whether that’s working on my political podcast for people who can’t vote, We the Ppl, writing for small online magazines, or working in local NYC politics, although it’s cheesy, I am foremost a learner. My work with the podcast and on other media organizations though, in a word, is “journalism.”

Magic & Musings:
If you could describe your writing in three words, what would they be?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
Concise, factual, easy-to-understand. 

Magic & Musings:
When did you first get into writing generally? Was there something that drove you to write?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I can’t remember the first time I wrote and enjoyed it. I was probably six or seven. I have these horribly grammar-free, wordy poems and short stories in a bunch of notebooks from when I was little. I was always writing when I was in kindergarten and elementary school, but mostly fiction and poetry. Back then, to me, it was just another way of expressing all the weird ideas that would pop into my head. I was also definitely driven to write by a lot of the books I read. I used to get sucked into these fantastical stories and just want to be able to create my own.

Magic & Musings:
Tell me a little about your podcast! When did you start creating this and what do you talk about? Are there any podcasts that inspired you to move in this direction?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I created We the Ppl in the summer of 2016 out of two main things: angst and boredom. The former because of this utter lack of engagement of adults with teenage political perspectives (i.e. “Why does it matter what you think if you can’t vote?”). The latter because it was summer vacation. So far, in the year we’ve been around, we’ve covered a range of topics from Obama’s immigration policies to Trump’s budget proposal. Our goal with the podcast is to cover recent news and political phenomena in a way that’s interesting and engaging from the perspective of teens for people who can’t vote. 

I always get the question of where this idea came from and what podcasts inspired it. Honestly, I’m not even sure. I’ve been listening to podcasts since I was in middle school. This American Life and The Moth were the background “music” to my childhood. Recently, though, I’ve been inspired by political podcasts like Pod Save America, the NPR Politics Podcast, and Slate Political Gabfest. I have to attribute any storytelling or editing techniques I’ve picked up, though, to Ira Glass.


Magic & Musings:
And tell me about Clover! What does your role there requires of you?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I became a member of the Clover community last fall. As an ambassador, I’m in charge of getting more people to join the community (not a hard job at all, by the way) and sharing information about Clover online. On the Teen Advisory Board, I give some advice and provide a teenage perspective to Liza and Casey. As a big fan of everything Clover does, it’s been really wonderful to have the opportunity to work on the inside and go backstage on some of the content.

Magic & Musings:
You say you’re currently interning for a city council member. What’s that like and what does this entail day-to-day?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I am an intern for City Council Member Mark Levine. Day-to-day, my schedule differs greatly. I work about six hours a day, but those are often spread out all over the district and the city. Whether it’s doing research at the Legislative Office or helping out with constituent services at the District Office, I really get to be a member of the Mark Levine team. I’ve only been working there for three weeks, but thus far it’s been a really great experience and has provided a good look into the inner-workings of local government.

Magic & Musings:
Of all of your work, what are you the proudest of and why?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
That is, by far, the most difficult interview question I’ve ever been asked. It’s also a very good one. I’d have to say that the “Why Black Lives Matter” episode of We the Ppl that I put up last August is the piece I’m most proud of. It features two interviews of teens who were at a Black Lives Matter protest in NYC that summer and one who wasn’t, as well as art and music by teenage black artists based in New York. Putting it all together was one of the most stressful, yet rewarding, moments in the life of the podcast and perhaps my life in general. I really wanted to create this collage of black, teenage life in New York and paint a picture of the BLM movement through the audio from the protest and the visual and audio art. I think I got as close as possible to my vision for that episode and it remains my favourite episode from that first season of the podcast.

Magic & Musings:
On Magic & Musings I love talking about female-identifying or non-binary artists and their work. Which creatives, if any, would you say have been influences on your work? Do you have any favourites to look at when you need a spark of inspiration?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I have a ton of influences and role models. With so many high-powered, change-making people it’s impossible not to. First, I’d say Zadie Smith is a big influence of mine. Whether in my writing or the storytelling that I try to do on the podcast, her ability to string together narrative and language in a delicate yet telling and, above all, true way is something I’ll always admire. I’m also a big fan of Elizabeth Hinton, a professor of history and African American studies at Harvard University. I read her book From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass-Incarceration in America earlier this year and loved it. Like Smith, Hinton’s ability to marry a history lesson and a looser narrative of black history in America is admirable and something I strive to achieve in a lot of my writing. Outside of writers, I’m a big fan of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor and most powerful woman in Europe. She’s one of the most down-to-earth, modest politicians I know of and has led Germany incredibly well for the past twelve years. 

I’ll keep the list short, although there are so many more (Kierkegaard, Rachel Carson, Jeffrey Eugenides, to name a few).

Magic & Musings:
This is a question I like to ask purely because of the variety of answers I get! I’m really interested in how people work and get things done. Do you have a particular place you work or find yourself the most productive? Are there a particular set of things that need to be in place for things to get done, like a milky cup of tea or a particular album of music you listen to? 

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I’m a big fan of public libraries. In New York, the library system is really amazing with stunning architecture, a range of workspaces, and pretty diverse locations. Whenever I need to get a lot of work done quickly, I’ll head over to the Schwarzman Building, that classic NYC library with the big stone lions out front, and head to the quiet research room. Music also helps me work, although I have to limit it to the lyric-free when I really need to focus. I have a couple writing and studying playlists on my Spotify (zora.ir if you wanna check them out!). My tastes range from classical (Bach, mostly) to rap (I have one playlist that’s just a ton of rap classics). Really I just like to listen to anything that’ll keep me focused.

Magic & Musings:
What do you do if you find yourself stuck in a rut creatively? Are there any books on writing and creativity you would recommend to others?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
First of all, I think being in a rut is actually a really valuable and inevitable experience. Sometimes creativity needs a little nudge and I like to use ruts or writer’s block moments to look for inspiration, visit some museums, or read some new books and articles. Specifically, David Foster Wallace has gotten me out of many a creativity slump. He has a number of short essays that I love rereading and, of course, his famous speech: This Is Water. 

Magic & Musings:
What are some things you like to do in your spare time when you’re not working?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I joined my high school’s track team in sophomore year on a whim and, since then, I’ve fallen in love with running and strength training. After a long day of screen time and a general lack of physical activity, it’s really nice to go for a quick run or do a couple reps of with weights. I definitely wouldn’t describe myself as a fitness nut or anything, but I’ve found that working out frequently is a great break from work and provides a good opportunity for head-clearing. 

Magic & Musings:
How would you describe your relationship with social media?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
It’s complicated. I use social media a lot to promote We the Ppl and for personal stuff, as well, but recently I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed by it. There are so many resources on these platforms and the possibilities are endless, which can make all the accounts difficult to manage and control. I’m definitely hoping to take a couple weeks offline and just stick with email in August before school starts up again.

Magic & Musings:
What one thing do you wish someone told you when you were first starting out writing and creating podcasts?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
Another really good question. In complete honesty, I wish someone had reminded me that fame and success don’t come quickly and patience is key. I think, particularly among my generation, there’s this prevalence of an instantaneous, immediate fame mentality, in part due to all these viral videos we see on social media. I was definitely influenced by the belief that fame comes quickly and with minimal work, so in the beginning I would get frustrated when episodes would get fewer listens or shares. Now, after over a year of working on the podcast, it’s been easier for me to accept that these things take time and not every episode is going to be incredibly successful.

Magic & Musings:
Onto a fun question! Can you recommend everyone reading a book you've enjoyed recently, as well as a film and an album or song? 

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
Yes! I just finished NW by Zadie Smith which I really enjoyed. If you’re new to her writing, though, I’d recommend reading White Teeth or her newest novel, Swing Time, before NW to get a sense of the type of narrative she likes and her style. I’m currently steadily going through an 800+ page biography of Kierkegaard. I’m not far enough along to give a definitive “yes” or “no” to it, but so far, so good. I also adore Jeffrey Eugenides, particularly his The Marriage Plot, and can’t wait for his new book this September. 

Music-wise, I’ve been listening to a lot of the Beatles lately. My personal favorite album is 1, but I also like Rubber Soul. I haven’t seen too many movies recently, unfortunately. Although it’s kinda cheating since it’s a TV show, I am a huge fan of Silicon Valley.

Magic & Musings:
Is there anything else you would like to say before we finish? How can people find out more about you and your work? What’s on the horizon for you in the next few months?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
My personal Instagram is @zilungareed and you can always email me at zora@wethepplpodcast.com. Oh, and you can find the podcast itself @wethepplpodcast on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, at wethepplpodcast.com, or on iTunes and SoundCloud at We the Ppl: Politics for Those Who Can’t Vote.

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