A Smart New Portland-Based Magazine Covers Travel for Women of Color

Backed by advertising giant Wieden & Kennedy, On She Goes already has a lot going on.

By Rebecca Jacobson Illustrations by Lisk Feng October 16, 2017 Published in the November 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

In 2007, Rebecca Russell won a spring break Mexico trip, sponsored by Budweiser. The Chicago native—just 21—invited her sister for a week in Acapulco.

It was Russell’s first time traveling abroad. One odd wrinkle: in the Mexican resort town, she and her sister found themselves mistaken for celebrities. People hounded them for autographs. They pleaded for photographs. The locals didn’t take them for any particular celebrities, mind you—the sisters just struck Acapulco as seeming, like, generally famous.

“They were so not used to seeing black people,” Russell says, “they thought we must be somebody special.”

Earlier this year, Serita Wesley traveled to Shanghai for work. One evening, she was out to dinner with a Chinese woman who hadn’t met many black Americans. “She was like, ‘But ... you’re not dark,’” Wesley says. “And I was like, ‘Well, we’re not all dark. Black people come in all shades and colors.’ We basically had to explain the transatlantic slave trade.”

Different women, different experiences—but same conundrum, basically, which is that people of color, perhaps especially women of color, encounter some very particular strangeness when they travel the world.

Russell and Wesley now happen to work together in Portland, two young and savvy media professionals. When they parse how travel and tourism are covered by mainstream magazines, TV shows, and websites, they notice what’s missing. Where are stories of being a brown woman visiting a far-flung place? Of being black in Japan? Asian American in France? A Latina Tindering in Alabama?

“You don’t see yourself,” Wesley says. “Maybe we would be more inclined to travel if we actually saw people who looked like us doing it.”

In this void, Wesley, Russell, and a small team of collaborators also see opportunity. So, in spring of this year, they launched On She Goes, a digital travel magazine for—and by—women of color. The effort is new, but it speaks to issues and experiences rarely covered by the Travel Channel. The site rolled out with essays on biking across the US as a queer brown woman, managing anxiety while honeymooning to Mexico City for an Adele concert, and returning to Sri Lanka after decades away. The magazine now offers a TSA survival guide, a video series (from “Electrical Travel Hacks” to “The 10 Commandments of Hooking Up While Traveling”), and a podcast hosted by Aminatou Sow, who also cohosts the popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend.

A Taiwanese American woman recounts accompanying her undocumented partner as he self-deports to Mexico. A black woman gives tips on maintaining natural hair while traveling. Crissle West of the podcast The Read breaks down how to hotbox a hotel bathroom.

On She Goes is already a compelling source for introspective narratives and idiosyncratic city guides, and a fresh voice on issues more traditional travel journalism often overlooks. But perhaps most curiously, it is also a side job both for its creators and the company backing it: Wieden & Kennedy, Portland’s most prominent ad agency and one of the world’s leading “creative” firms.

Best known for its iconic Nike ads, WK works for an armada of major clients, from Procter & Gamble to Coca-Cola; its creative coups of recent years include Facebook’s epic first video ad and the instantly legendary “It's Halftime in America” Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler in 2012. In the past two years, WK has doubled down on its publishing effort—a broadly defined venture with results ranging from a Colonel Sanders romance novel (a cheeky, kinda-sorta steamy Mother’s Day stunt) and Old Spice’s spoofy, goofy “Legendary Man” videos.

In March 2016, the agency set about devising its first in-house publishing project. Input from staffers like Russell and Wesley, insight from WK culture analyst Mulu Habtemariam, and some preliminary research interviews with Portland women of color led to the concept for On She Goes. Jessica Monsey, who heads up publishing, says WK was quick to greenlight the endeavor.

 “When I took a step back and realized how much your identity can affect the travel experience, and how little travel journalism accounts for that, I was like—man, this is a huge opportunity to actually make a difference within a group of women,” Monsey says. “And folks here were really passionate about it from a creative standpoint. It was a no-brainer.”

All of On She Goes’s Portland collaborators work for WK, in various capacities. Wesley spent more than two years on the Nike global account, for instance, while Russell and fellow team member Meron Medhanie are strategists. This nascent, Portland-powered magazine is a hatchling of one of the world’s most prominent advertising agencies, currently bringing in no revenue, and not explicitly aimed at attracting new clients. But what’s life without a little adventure?

As with any of Wieden & Kennedy’s campaigns, On She Goes began with extensive research. In 2016, brand strategist Medhanie interviewed a dozen women of color in their 20s and 30s about travel experiences—glorious and ghastly—and their hang-ups and doubts, from financial barriers to public-transit horror stories. Interviewees repeatedly returned to apprehension about how they’d be perceived in unfamiliar destinations. Several black women, for example, said they’d been mistaken for prostitutes in Europe.

“That blew me away,” says Medhanie, who’s black herself. “Where would you find that information? Who openly talks about that?”

1117 feat on she goes team t63dby

The On She Goes team at the magazine's New York City launch party. From left: Rebecca Russell, Serita Wesley, Dez Ramirez, Amy Lam, and Meron Medhanie.

Wesley and Dez Ramirez, who serves as publisher for On She Goes, scoured existing resources. They recognized that their magazine would join a long lineage of travel literature for nonwhite vacationers: as far back as 1936, The Negro Motorist Green Book directed black Americans to safe lodging and restaurants. Today, virtual networks like Nomadness Travel Tribe and Travel Noire allow black travelers to swap stories, offer expertise, and share photos—a crucial step in an industry replete with images of white tourists in distant locales. Ramirez and Wesley interviewed several black and Latina women who have travel blogs—small-scale platforms that Ramirez says left them “hungry for more.”

Adds Wesley: “We didn’t really see anything that was for all women of color.”

The site’s core team comprises five full-time WK staffers—Wesley, Ramirez, Medhanie, Russell, and art director Chen Liang—plus Amy Lam, a longtime editor at Bitch Media who’s now in grad school at the University of Mississippi. (None of the group is originally from Portland.) Wesley says they envisioned a “safe, community-led space” where women could be honest about their travel experiences. They wanted to get particular and personal about anxiety.

 Six months in, the site is chatty and approachable in tone. Its look shirks both the glamorous Travel & Leisure aesthetic and the campfire shabby-chic of many millennial-geared indie travel mags and blogs. Instead, the design favors appealingly scrappy illustrations and an unfussy layout. Aspirational beach shots: out. “Travel 101 for Fat Babes,” a Thai speaker’s guide to San Francisco, and touring Los Angeles without a car: in. (So far, On She Goes has put out detailed but unorthodox city guides to LA and Portland; New York City is next.)

On a hot day in mid-August, Ramirez, Russell, Wesley, and Medhanie gathered in a glass-walled conference room at WK’s airy Pearl District headquarters. Among the meeting’s agenda items was a Nigerian filmmaker referred to them by an agency colleague. The sticking point: his gender.

 “There are so many really talented women of color, and they don’t get the opportunities,” Wesley said.

“It’s not just about featuring women of color,” Medhanie added. “The makers are women of color. He doesn’t fit that.”

Together, the four composed a diplomatic email, expressing openness to collaboration but noting a preference for “WOC artists.” A lighthearted debate followed about whether to spell out “WOC.” They decided against it. “Everyone should know WOC,” Ramirez said.

On She Goes reflects the varied backgrounds of the team behind it, from Wesley and Russell—whose families rarely left home when they were growing up—to Ramirez, who was raised traveling, thanks to parents in the airline and hospitality industries. That experience lent Ramirez an easy confidence as she began to travel on her own, while being Latina allowed her to be something of a “chameleon,” she says. 

“Going to India, the fact that I was already a brown girl, I wasn’t getting double takes,” she recalls. “I’m not saying I blended in, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable.”

Both Medhanie and Lam, meanwhile, are daughters of refugees: Medhanie’s parents are from Eritrea, while Lam’s parents, who are ethnically Chinese, fled the Vietnam War. Lam herself didn’t board an airplane until a school trip to Italy when she was 17. At 19, she traveled with her parents to Hong Kong, Thailand, and Vietnam. She went on to teach English abroad—a year in China, 18 months in Bangladesh.

The ever-vexed issue of how diverse experiences play in modern media is always front and center. “We have to remember that our existence matters,” says Lam, adding that as editor of the site, she actively courts potential contributors. “Just the fact that we paid this person to get their perspective means something.” 

On She Goes does pay: $150–200 per story, respectable enough in an era where publications sometimes compensate freelancers with “exposure.” Following a New York City launch party in June, Ramirez says several women from major magazines expressed interest; the site was on track to publish more than 100 writers by mid-fall.

The project remains underwritten by WK. That’s obviously not a sustainable long-term business model, but the team has approached the question of advertising with some trepidation—ironic, obviously, for a project from an advertising agency. “We’re so protective of the community, because we can be not so trusting as women of color,” Medhanie says. “That’s something we’re keeping in mind before we grow.” For now, they’re considering partnerships with like-minded businesses.

For Monsey, On She Goes also showcases Wieden as a full-fledged publishing outlet capable of building a robust audience. The website sees about 31,000 overall visits per month, and as of early autumn the podcast had logged 23,000 downloads. Ninety-seven percent of the audience lives outside Portland.

Katie Richards, a staff writer at Adweek who covers agency trends, speculates there might be other strategies at work. On She Goes could be “a talent attraction or retention play” for WK, she says—basically, another way to seem like a cool place to work. But she adds that unlike other creative agencies’ publications—there are many, and they tend to focus on design, tech, and, y’know, disruption—On She Goes does not appear calculated to appeal to WK’s clients.

The project is already resonating with readers. On May 15, the day of the official launch, black yoga star Jessamyn Stanley gushed about the site on her Facebook page (“THESE HACKS ARE GENIUS WHAAAT”). Lola Akinmade Åkerström, a prominent Nigerian-born, Stockholm-based photographer and writer, tweeted “Beautiful!!!” In a bit of fluke timing, a highly publicized controversy over cultural appropriation in the food industry erupted in Portland shortly after the site went live—you may remember (or wish you could forget) the outrage over a burrito cart briefly operated by two white women who told a reporter they’d copied traditional techniques in Mexico. The debate drove significant traffic to an On She Goes roundup of Latinx-owned Portland restaurants (and, later, to a guide on avoiding cultural appropriation).

New York Times travel section editor Monica Drake counts herself a fan. “It’s the sort of thing I would have loved when I was doing a lot of traveling on my own and trying to find a community,” says Drake, who is black. “I’m a little jealous that phase of freestyle travel is behind me.”

She sees the new magazine as a vital counterpoint, too, to newspapers like her own. “Publications like the Times that have this huge readership—we’re trying to cater to everyone,” she says. “I think it’s really important to have these specific, laser-targeted [platforms].” She found herself especially hooked by a story about varying perceptions of natural black hair around the world—a black filmmaker quoted in the piece was informed before visiting Nigeria that “people would think I was a bum if I wore my hair natural.” Says Drake: “I’ve never seen a piece like this anywhere else. I just thought, this is so smart.”

The site, currently on a quarterly publishing schedule, drops its third issue, “Homeland,” this month. (Earlier issues were themed “We Belong Here” and “Make It Work.”) A plucky, ’80s-style mobile game is on the way: Hair Nah will follow a black woman as she weaves through an airport, whacking away hands attempting to touch her hair. Ramirez, an avid hiker, has designs on an outdoors issue for 2018.

“The big dream would be to get so many of women of color to travel that when they go anywhere, people aren’t looking at them like they’re the only women of color they’ve ever seen,” Medhanie says. “Travel not only changes you. It changes the people you interact with and the places you go.”

“We know and understand what it means to feel otherness,” Ramirez adds. “We know what it feels like to be misunderstood and displaced. There’s a uniting factor in those experiences.”

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