About our Guest
Julián Esteban Torres López is a bilingual, Colombian-born culture architect with Afro-Euro-Indigenous roots. He is the creator and executive director of the social justice storytelling movement the Nasiona, where he hosts and produces The Nasiona Podcast and creates, publishes, and edits The Nasiona Magazine.
He’s a Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions nominee, a Trilogy Award in Short Fiction finalist, winner of the Rudy Dusek Philosophy of the Arts Essay Contest, author of two social justice books.
Julián has engaged with audiences as an educator, storyteller, museum director, event host, topic expert, moderator, workshop leader, activist, journalist, and podcaster throughout his career.
Smooth Podcast_Julian Torres Lopez P1: Audio automatically transcribed by Sonix
Smooth Podcast Intro:
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Hello, everyone, and welcome back to the Smooth Podcast! Today with us, we have a very special guest. His name is Julián Esteban Torres López. He’s a bilingual Colombian-born culture architect with Afro-Euro-Indigenous roots. He’s the creator and executive director of the Social Justice Storytelling Movement, the Nasiona. Where he hosts and produces the Nasiona podcast and creates, edits, and publishes the Nasiona magazine. He’s a Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fiction nominee, a Trilogy Award in short fiction finalist, winner of the Rudie Dusek Philosophy of the Arts Essay Contest, and on top of it all, he’s also the author of two social justice books. Hello Julián, welcome to the show!
Julián Esteban Torres López:
Well, hello! I’m very happy to be here.
We are so glad to have you too. Let’s jump right into this, are you OK with that?
Julián Esteban Torres López:
Let’s do it.
So, Julián, why did you choose to start a podcast and how has it evolved from the initial idea you had to where you are right now?
Julián Esteban Torres López:
I think I started the podcast because originally I had a, an idea in mind that I knew I was going to need different platforms to reach different people because not everyone reads, not everyone watches film. So the idea was and what my podcast is about is we’re trying to center, elevate and amplify the histories, voices, experiences of those who have been other, who have been marginalized by different systems of oppression and dominant cultures. I won’t go too far into it, but knowing that that was a social justice focus, I really needed to find my available means of persuasion to reach as many people, not only as allies, as co-conspirators, but also reach of many people that we could influence in terms of changing their minds, giving them an opportunity to learn as much as possible about people or about cultures, about topics that they might not have ever experienced, or if they did experience it, it was probably limited, distorted or false, because they’re getting it through television or movies that end up creating these negative caricatures of, let’s say, you go to the United States and you ask them, have you ever met a Colombian? No. But you know a lot about Colombians. How is that? Well, really.
It’s on the movies.
Julián Esteban Torres López:
Exactly. So what I wanted to do, part of what I wanted to do was inundate the culture or the cultures, specifically the dominant cultures with as many stories from ourselves, from us speaking our truths, us being those who have been othered and inundate the culture as much as possible because, I’m of the position that politics, economics, et cetera, you know, I work in those fields for a very long time and I realize things move quicker if the culture changes first, then ends up influencing where those things go. So I decided, OK, I’m going to focus more on culture now, I’m going to move away from the traditional journalism, the traditional academia. And I’ve done all that and I’m just going to really try to influence culture. So the podcast is one of the avenues that I chose to do that. We have a magazine, we have a publishing house, we have a mentorship program, we have all these different things that we offer as done. Nasiona, the podcast was one of those elements that was strategic in my plan as we created it moving forward. So I started, OK, the podcast is going to be like the third thing that we start, because first I need to build something else and build something else, in order to make that successful. So all of that came from I mean, I’ve been doing this, I consider myself a storyteller, but also a culture architect. So I’ve been the architect of a lot of different culture institutions, cultural communities, et cetera, over the past two decades. So I made a lot of mistakes. A lot was …. So I think this is kind of my chance to kind of apply all that I did and to no longer give a shit about coddling the interests of racists, homophobes, of all these different individuals who the market in most different industries will say, no, we’re just giving them what they want. And usually by saying we give them what they want means you’re giving the status quo what it wants and the status quo is very oppressive, right? So if we’re just giving them what they want, we’re part of the problem. So that’s why, as we’re talking about before, the topics in my podcast end up being very controversial, quote-unquote, but it’s really giving the microphone to people who have been oppressed historically and presently.
I love that. Yeah. And I see that you’re saying that you built this structure in which you then wanted it to go and put the podcast as maybe an amplifier for that platform. So what’s the number one way you found that the podcast has helped you build actually that movement, that perspective, and that mission-driven kind of product?
Julián Esteban Torres López:
The thing that I found very quickly because I’ve worked in the academia, I worked in profit, nonprofit, I’ve worked all over the place, big corporations to like really small startups, universities, all these different things. And one thing I learned very quickly is that in a market, especially a capitalist market, even if they’re trying to align themselves, these organizations or companies are trying to align themselves with a social justice lens, and we’ve seen that a lot this past year with regards to what happened yesterday was or this week’s George Floyd, the anniversary, all that stuff and all the different movements that kind of came out of that. I worked as a consultant for a few months with Yardstick Management, and they are the United States leading black-owned firm dealing with diversity, equity, and inclusion. So pretty much trying to get these companies to be like, hey, this is why these things are important. And if you want to do X, Y, Z, you’ve really got to take these things seriously. Even when they try to do things seriously, it’s still, was very transactional, very businesslike, which at the end of the day continues to be very performative, very optical because they’re still checking the box. Oh, well, we just need to get X number of brown and black people and then we’re OK and we don’t have to deal with anything. OK, well, what about the culture? What about your policies? Is there anything that you’re doing that’s going to make them not feel comfortable or feel safe or want to leave to a different place, all those things. So I was in a lot of those conversations with CEOs, with the C-Suite, and board members, so I got real insight, not just from that, but 20 years of doing that, to realize that what has been successful for me and what was a limitation for a lot of these organizations and companies was that they did it as business as usual, very transactional, not focusing on the relationship, the relational, which really is the human aspect, which is, you know, our tagline with the Nasiona is humanize the other, right? So once you start treating the other as simply a no or as simply as a means to an end, you remove that kind of humanity from the person you’re communicating with, the person you’re trying to coordinate action with, or the communities you’re trying to actually say that you’re trying to level up to ameliorate, to help. So that’s why I really start to focus and I realize everything that I’ve done that first and foremost focused on listening, on learning, and then acting and focusing on what their needs were, what their concerns were, what their grievances were. Then I could come in and be like, oh, well, I can help you in these things with my experience, with my skills, with my networks, with my influence and power to, power in the sense of my ability, my relative ability and capacity to generate effective action in the world. So in that sense, first and foremost, what I focus is, focus on is the community and build relationships with the community. So I don’t focus on, OK, I need to have ten thousand followers and ten thousand hits a day, my page, and how many more, I don’t track that. I know from my experience that if I focus on the right people, on the quality because I can easily I’ve done this before, I’ve run a different organization like this from the ground up, basically with no funding with like back from 2003 to 2007, like before Facebook really hit, and before we had all these opportunities to grow social networks, I did it like we were having five thousand members in our community and ten thousand views a day, visits and all the stuff. But it didn’t, I couldn’t build those relationships, and I had a limited capacity, so I learned that if I just focus on the community and do good work and do quality work, I know that any time someone who is interested in what we’re doing, once they discover us, they’re not going to want to leave us, partly because we’re also doing something that most are not doing, right? So they know we have their back to a certain extent, I’m speaking for them, I’m elevating them, I’m asking the difficult questions, and I’m going against the grain of what they see in the mainstream for their representation. So what happens is that I first and foremost, for me, social justice has to be relational, not transactional for it to be effective. So I focus on the community, which means I have a movement mentality, not a marketing mentality. Marketing focuses more on how we’re going to disseminate these funds in order to get this outcome. We need X number of people to buy this product or to go to our Web page. And that’s going to produce a certain kind of revenue or a certain kind of number of people on the email list or blah, blah, blah. That doesn’t work for me. What I’m trying to do, which is mission-driven, not profit-driven. So and that’s kind of what’s happened. Once you get someone who loves what you’re doing, who understands the mission, who supports it, it ends up being a movement, you know, in the same way that people take the streets, they’re not taking the streets because, oh, I need to fill up my resume with some extracurricular activity or I’m looking for an internship, right? I don’t want anyone in my protest movements, you know, if I’m actually on the streets, I don’t want someone who is on the streets for that reason. That’s not going to be a successful revolution. That’s not going to be a successful movement. I want the people who are listening and who are experiencing everything to want to be a part of something. And I’m not going to like I said, coddle the very structures, institutions, policies, cultures that oppress them. So I remove myself from those conflict of interests. And once they realize that, then they become the mavens, the marketing mavens. That’s the target in marketing where then they end up being the ones who go into their networks. It’s like, yo, you got to listen to this. These people are our allies, our co-conspirators. They have our back and we need to help them out and it grows organically bottom up. So I trust my content and I trust the people who I speak to and also the people who I give a platform to, not just on the podcast, but all the hundreds of stories that we have, personal stories, and memoirs we amplify in our magazine and all the different elements that we work on there. I know the quality is good, so I know that they will, they end up having our back once we have their back. And that’s the reality.
Yeah, I love that. You know, I think it’s really, one of the things I get from what you’re saying is it’s really important to build the relationship with your listener. And once that relationship like, that relationship is built, you are going to have someone that’s going to be your ally for life.
Julián Esteban Torres López:
I really like that perspective. So thank you for, Julián, for that. On that note, I wanted to ask you something. Have, then, you found any limitations regarding your content and the length of your shows? Because giving the people the platform, I guess you’re really, like, you can’t really just cut the inspiration in there. So how do you manage that?
Julián Esteban Torres López:
Yeah, I mean, I think in the beginning I had to make a very difficult decision, which I think all companies and organizations have to do. And because we are mission-driven, it was easier for me in that if I was a company and the goal was profit, then they wouldn’t want to piss people off who might pay for your content, you know? So that’s why it’s controversial in the sense that we drew a line in the sand and we’re like, no, we are not going to coddle to center oppressors, at the expense of our dignity, our humanity, because they might give us money, right? If our intent is to challenge, to deconstruct the system in order to then dismantle it and then rebuild it, taking us in mind, then I don’t want to be part of the problem. So this idea that, …, it always goes, it’s always in the back of my mind, she wrote that something like, you know, if your anti-racism work, and this could be applied to any kind of anti, any kind of bigotry work, but if your anti-racism work centers the comfort, the enlightenment, et cetera, of white supremacy, of white Americans at the expense of the, again, the dignity, humanity, and et cetera, of black and brown folks who are oppressed in that kind of system, then your anti-racism work is not anti-racism work, it’s white supremacy. So we needed to make sure that if we are centering, if we’re intentionally and actively being anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic and tribalist and tie all these different things, then we can’t just be like, well, you know, they mean well, their intention was OK, so we’re going to just soften the way we talk about these topics. No. So the difficulty, in the beginning, was making that decision. It’s like, OK, I know we can get more hits, we can get more listens, we can get more people purchasing our, you know, the books, we can get more whatever. But it’s like, no, that goes counter to what we’re trying to do. So I said, no, we’re not going to do that. We tested it out. I just wanted like to ensure, like, I wanted it to take the pulse of the market. So for the first few months, I’m like OK, what kind of content? Who is submitting? Who is, I needed the analytics. If we provided this kind of content that’s very soft. Who’s coming? Right? And then because part of the problem there is if we are trying to center, elevate, and amplify oppressed people and oppressed cultures and have them have, tell their story. Well, the same thing that happens in organizations and companies when you’re working for them is that well, if I see that your activism is performative and you’re not helping create a safe space for me to tell my story, because you’re centering all these other people because you want their money or because you want their network, then I’m not going to come to you and trust you with my vulnerability, with my story, right? I don’t think you’re an actual ally. So, you know, and I mentor a lot of people who start their own organizations and everything, and that’s usually the first things, like, well, we’re getting all these submissions for all from all these white men and white women, that’s great. But I thought your mission was to center, elevate, and amplify black, brown, indigenous voices. And if that’s the case, what are you risking when you’re doing that? Right? Again, that’s if you are mission-driven, that’s a different mindset, then it’s like, well, we’ve got to give them what they want and we are intentionally trying to change the status quo so we cannot give them what they want because a lot of what they want is the same racist and sexist and that kind of content. So that’s the very first difficult thing I had to do is like, no, we got, we got to go here and we will absorb all the death threats, all the negativity, all the hate mail, right, that in a way proves the value of what we’re doing because that is the dominant culture that’s going to try to make it as difficult for you as possible to speak up. And for us, for me, was I, you know, identifying that even the oppressed has power to a certain extent, you know, I might be in the United States, I was an undocumented migrant for a lot of years. English is my second language. You know, I am brown here, right? But I have spheres of influence because I am a man in a misogynist, sexist culture that values men over women. So I have to identify I have power in those conversations, in those circles, in those meetings, right? I, I might be brown, but I’m not black in an anti-black country and culture, so I have power to speak up, you know, the consequences and the barriers are not as hard on me as they are for my black siblings, right? So how do we identify, even though we’re oppressed in the intersectional areas of all the different systems of oppression and dominant culture¿ Well, yes, we are oppressed and we’re victims, but where do I have power to potentially influence my community, my surroundings, my own environment? So that’s what we try to do as well, is how do we empower our community? How do we create spaces for healing? How do we transform all those things? So that creates very hard situations because it’s difficult to speak up when, if you speak up in such cultures as you see going on in a lot of movements, like I’m just speaking up for my right to critique the government and then you get like military crackdown, right? So how do we then, and one of the things is I’m trying to normalize a new normal by inundating the culture with our stories, so it’s no longer like, oh, I have no idea what it’s like to be someone who is trans, right? And it’s like, oh, because I’ve never met anyone and all I get is blah, blah, blah from all these negative stories, I’m trying to make it OK for people to speak up. And part of that is normalizing a new normal that we are a part of through our voices. So that’s really been the biggest limitation in terms of that, like making a difficult decision, knowing that there is going to be a backlash, and then how do we take care of ourselves and be there for each other? Because I don’t treat my guests as like, OK, thank you. Goodbye. You know, never speak to them again, like some of my guests, you know, I become like, really intimate with, really, we’re talking about very vulnerable things in people’s lives. You know, we’ve talked about things anywhere from someone, traumatic experience of going to prison, losing her husband while she was in prison, you know, and dealing with the grief. I mean, if that’s the first conversation you have with a human being and it’s a two-hour conversation and they’re open.
How? How do you get away from it?
Julián Esteban Torres López:
You can’t. And also, you got to realize that I had to create an environment for that person to feel safe and comfortable, to even open up to a stranger, right? So so that’s another challenge is if I’m going to what conditions do I have to create for someone? Because we’re going to deep, dark places in the stories that we tell, like it’s real, it’s authentic, right, and sometimes, you know, I’ve had people cry on the show, I’ve had people feel like it’s, you know, it’s therapy or telling me something that they’ve never told anyone before. And now they feel comfortable enough telling me and then telling the world through that, right? So, I mean, that’s a different kind of skill, but it’s not a transactional kind of thing, like I got to check this box in order for them, like, that’s something that comes with just something that I’ve developed, I’m good at, you know, which is kind of partly why all these years of listening, of learning and of living with so many different people in different cultures, I’ve lived in five countries. Obviously, I’ve experienced different systems of oppression myself. I’ve had over 80 roommates from all over, walks of life. So that really sensitized me to something that I think puts me in a very extraordinary position as an interviewer to know how to kind of just instinctively now just create a safe environment, especially if our intent is to create safe environments, healing, and empowerment. And they know that, that they can entrust us with their story. That’s part of the reputation, right? So that’s also very difficult. And it kind of just, I mean, it’s hard. I mean, you know, as someone you’re interviewing, if you came, I mean, just so, for the listeners to know, like we didn’t just jump into this conversation. We talked for about twenty, thirty minutes before we jumped into this conversation, right? So there was a relationship that was built. Right. If it was simply a transactional, OK, here we go. The next minute I’m going to do this quick thing. I’m going to do a quick intro, I’m going to hand it off to you, I’m going to ask you these five questions and then you go and boom, we’re done. Thank you. Forty-five minutes later, it’s over. And, you know, I never hear from you again until you published the episode or one I wouldn’t have opened up and the interview would not have been good. And if you did publish the interview, knowing the interview wouldn’t be good and know that I cannot trust you, that you’re actually trying to exploit me and my network because I have a following and you’re only in you’re starting a new podcast and you’re trying to, like, use me in order to elevate yourself. But then you’re treating me as a transactional thing. Well, then even if I spoke to you, I’m not going to open up and I’m not going to share this podcast episode with my network because I don’t trist you, right? So those 20, 30 minutes that we spoke, whether you were intentional or not, you built the relationship with me, right? It was real. You were vulnerable with me. I could be vulnerable with you, right? And that’s, I think, something a lot of interviewers don’t, because a lot of podcasting is a skill of interviewing, which means it’s relating to human beings as human beings. Even if you’re doing something that is focused on business, right, you’re still coordinating action with human beings. So if you’re not centering the human being, the human being is not going to give you what you want to fulfill your own concerns with your business, et cetera. So giving you kudos because, you know, you kind of have to do that, especially with someone you’ve never met before. Yeah, we might have chatted here and there, again, transactional emails or whatever, or through an assistant, but I had no idea how this was going to go.
Julián Esteban Torres López:
I feel very comfortable opening up, right, and that’s for me, it’s very difficult because throughout my entire life, especially being an undocumented, being brown in the United States, and all these different things, trying to stay under the radar and treated like a criminal almost everywhere you go or feeling fearing for your life, for different things, and not just paranoia, but like actual physical things that people say to you or do to you, that you kind of just like, OK, you code switch, you mask, especially if it’s in spaces that you’re like, oh, well, people here don’t have my back and say I’m in a white majority work environment or all these different environments that have oppressed me but don’t really do anything to change the oppressive structures. Well, then I just kind of shut down and I don’t talk and I just do my job and I don’t feel safe and I don’t feel comfortable. So they’re not ever going to see the authentic me, which means those businesses, whatever role I had never were able to utilize all of me, right? And I have a lot of fucking things to bring to the table, right? So if I don’t feel safe enough to be myself because X, Y, and Z, then it’s a loss to them and it’s a loss to me. And because it’s a loss to me, because I cannot go into whatever environment every day and work toward becoming my best self, then at some point I’m going to be like, no, I don’t want to be here. I’m going to go find a different place. All those things you take to interviewing, you have to understand the position of the interviewee. What are their concerns? What did they gain from this interview? Because if you’re only just looking at like, well, how is that person helping me achieve my goals? You’re missing an opportunity there, for the …. You’re missing an opportunity to build a relationship with someone who has a network, who has influence, who has power, and who might have something for you to learn, right, so all those things is, I think, a lot of first time podcasters focus too much on the technical and the transactional in the business component and overlook the actual thing that’s going to produce the content or help you get to work, which is how can I create an environment for people to actually, that’s not only going to be valuable for the listener, anything you would have gotten from me today would be valuable to one extent or another. But how much would I have given you, right, if I didn’t feel safe or comfortable, if I didn’t trust you with my story, with my experience. Right? Because this right here, I could charge hundreds of dollars for one on one consulting kind of thing, right? Why would I speak to you to share it for free with all these different people? So you got to ask yourself, OK, well, what did they understand of what I’m trying to do with this podcast? You know, because in a way, you’re, you’ve got to tell me what it is, what I’m walking it to. But I also have to know what the value is of this. What’s the relevance of this? What’s the purpose of this? What’s the meaning? Because I need to understand fully in order to really take care of your concerns and vice versa. So I think those are big challenges that people don’t look at. Is that the people I talked to, how can I help them? How can I help them take care of their concerns and at the same time create an environment and a situation where they then can take care of me and my concerns, simultaneously.
Well, Julián, that’s awesome! Thank you for letting us know about your amazing work with the Nasiona movement. We’ll be back with the second part of this amazing interview with Julián on our next episode. So please tune in.
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- Podcasting is another way to make your stories be heard.
- Some people watch films, others read, others listen to podcasts.
- The status quo is very oppressive.
- Most companies still relate through the old transactional way instead of focusing on the power of relationships.
- The oppressed also have power to a certain extent.
- How are you opening up spaces for vulnerability?
- Podcasting requires interviewing skills.