Ryan Foland talks to Topeka K. Sam, speaker, advocate and the founder and executive director of ‘The Ladies of Hope Ministries’. She has been working relentlessly to get the voices of women heard, especially those of color and in prison, with the aim of resolving their issues and to change the way the legal system works.
In this episode of our COVID-19 special series, Ryan and Topeka talk about the gender inequality and racial injustices that have plagued our communities, and how now, under the current circumstance, the entire country is talking on this topic. Topeka shares about how she started her journey and the motivation behind talking about racial injustice.
One of the key messages in this interview is how, as speakers and as people of influence, we can use the platforms, especially digital platforms, that we have, to amplify messages that will change the U.S.A. and the way that people think.
Tune in for an interview chock full of insights on the power of visual representation, and how to pivot to virtual and adapt in these testing times of COVID-19.
Listen to the interview on iTunes or Soundcloud.
Topeka K. Sam: Hi I'm Topeka K. Sam and I just had an incredible conversation with Ryan on the World of Speakers, around racial injustice, the unrest that's happening right now in this country, and how you should, and it is your responsibility, to weave in these topics while you're speaking.
Please tune in.
Ryan Foland: Ahoy everybody, welcome to another special edition of the World of Speakers.
I mean, they're all special as far as I'm concerned, but today it's super special because we have a special guest, Topeka Sam.
She is a speaker, she's an advocate, and she's an entrepreneur.
Today we're going to be talking about her life experience, about how she's navigating this pandemic, and get some advice on how we as speakers can use the platform and our voices as agents of change.
Topeka, welcome to the show.
Topeka K. Sam: Thank you Ryan so much. I'm excited to share.
Thank you for having me a part of this.
Ryan Foland: Let's jump right into it.
You said you're excited to share, I'm excited to hear.
I always like to throw people under the love bus, this is not going to hurt.
Instead of spending days learning about your amazing past, if you had to take one blip, one sonar blip of a moment in your life, or a story that you think is a good representation of who you are as a person, and if that's the only thing, I'm like,
"Gosh, I had Topeka on my show this one time..." and then after that, they're like, "Wow!"
What story comes to mind?
Topeka K. Sam: There was this one day, I went to an NA meeting inside of a county jail in Pamunkey, Virginia.
I was there, I started going to these meetings because I wanted to know why people use drugs, because I didn't and I had an idea of why they did, and it was because they wanted to.
There was a young woman who told me that her father had been raping her and he gave her heroin.
And he told her that if she took the heroin that the pain would go away, that she would stop crying for him abusing her.
At that moment I realized that often people don't have a choice, they don't have a choice to use drugs, they don't have a choice to try to numb pain or harm that's caused to them.
And as I was going through a federal drug conspiracy case, I decided to plead guilty because I was. I did it to make amends for the harm that I had caused for many, many years prior.
Ryan Foland: Wow. It's hard to come up with a single word for that experience.
It's dynamic, it's vulnerable, it shares a lot about your wanting to listen, your wanting to learn, taking responsibility and not being afraid to share.
I think that those things definitely make me see you as an advocate and somebody who is not just from the outside, but who’s actually involved.
Topeka K. Sam: Thank you.
Ryan Foland: It actually gave me kind of like the chills.
It makes me think of the fact that everybody's going through something, right?
We all fight our own battles, but it's so easy to judge from the outside when you look at the large numbers,
"Oh, people are in jail, a lot of them do drugs. Okay, they must all be violent criminals."
But it's so easy to assume, as opposed to being willing to learn, that your perception is your perception, it's not their reality.
Topeka K. Sam: Absolutely. You said it just right on target. Because when you look at what's happening in this country today even, around all of the gender inequity, the racial injustices, a systemic racism, that it is a bold time where people are actually listening.
No more can people just deny the things that are happening because everything is so in your face.
And what is incredible about this moment is the fact that people do want to learn.
No longer is it like, "It's their problem," or, "We're not like that," they're realizing that in this country, the United States, that these are all our issues.
And while so many people come, because it's supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, but it is not that for so many. That now I'm seeing a moment in history that I have never read about and I've never seen, where people of all ethnicities, all sexual orientations, religious beliefs are coming together in order to right a wrong.
And so it's incredible right now.
So thank you, that's what just came up for me when you were talking about our perceptions and our perceptions of people.
Ryan Foland: Yeah, and it's not something that is easy.
I think it's easier to default and ignore the fact that you said, "People can't deny."
I think what is challenging is that there are some people who are still denying, and some people, I'd say for every person that's willing to learn and listen, there's maybe like a half person that is not.
If we look at this concept of the land of the free, I've been stressed out lately, like I woke up this morning and the first thing that came to my mind was just thinking of how many people are not listening, how many people are listening to just one side and there are so many deep-rooted beliefs and paradigms that it's not an easy thing to just like crack off.
I was talking with a friend yesterday because I was frustrated, I saw something on Twitter and I was sort of venting to him and he was like,
"Ryan, this doesn't happen overnight. This has been happening for centuries, It's going to take a while for things to really, really change, but what's important is that we're having this conversation now."
Topeka K. Sam: Absolutely.
I had recently, I mean, well since the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and all of these things that were happening, Ahmaud Arbery, back to back to back that everyone was seeing and being elevated in a way that it hasn't been, because it happens every day in this country.
I've been speaking a lot around racial injustice and the things that are happening as it relates to police brutality in this country.
And I've been speaking a lot to large groups of privileged or successful, wealthy, white women.
And in those conversations, there was one woman who said that she was so proud of her husband because when he had watched what happened to George Floyd that he just turned to her and was like, "Wow, I never knew how racist I was."
Because what he saw allowed him to understand the severity of the things that are happening, and he identified something in himself from watching a man get murdered.
And she said to him, she was like, "That's the sexiest thing that you've ever said."
But for her, it was like, wow, you know, for him to acknowledge how he has lived and the way that he was taught for so long based on his own life experiences. We come from our life experience, what we think, how we move, how we view people, how we view ourselves. It's really based on how other people see us, and what is imparted into us throughout our lives.
And so just the fact that he was able to acknowledge that, and he was able to share that with me, was just incredible, because for him now, he can no longer go about thinking and operating in capacity, because he has now acknowledged his own shortcomings.
And so I think that that's happening more and more right now. Seeing people on the front lines of all, like I said, races coming together, understanding, "Yeah, there's one guy in Philadelphia who ripped down," he worked for the court as a supervisor, in family court and ripped down the poster that said "Black Lives Matter" and he was like, "I don't care about black lives."
And so they videoed it, he ended up getting fired, but there were other white young men who came back and posted all of the things that he took down.
People are holding each other accountable in a different way, people are utilizing their resources and influence in order to bring conversations like this to larger audiences and that's why we have to start talking about these issues, acknowledging issues so that we can surely try to work together to make the changes that are needed in our country.
Ryan Foland: Touché.
One thing that came to my mind as you were referring to the video, and it's heartbreaking to watch.
I know people that know about it and they've heard so much about it, but they just can't watch it, but they still understand and experience it.
And this example of somebody watching it and having this revelation, it makes me think of the power of visual storytelling. I mean there is some audio but for the most part, if you just take that clip, it makes me think of like body language, there's nothing more powerful than seeing something play out in real life and you know what a cop outfit is, you can read the body language, you can see whether you hear him say, "I can't breathe," or not, it's so powerful.
And to have somebody see that and make that much of an impact on such a rooted paradigm and way that they think about things, it makes me think about your ability to take something like that and share the message behind it with these people.
So it's almost like you are taking and not only translating but amplifying and bringing relevance based on this incident as a speaker.
I think about how do you speak to the other speakers out there, both black and white, and of all colors, how do we take this moment and incorporate it into our message?
Should we be looking to incorporate it?
And for me personally, I have. I've been trying to weave this in.
But for those people who are timid, or they're not sure, or they don't want to put themselves out there to join in this conversation or use their platform or their podcast or their blogs. What can we say to encourage them that the fear they have is actually indicating that they're moving in the right direction, that they can use their platform and their speaking skills to amplify this message that people might see but you can help them hear?
Topeka K. Sam: Absolutely, and here is the thing, as speakers we have a unique job and/or responsibility to get messages out the most authentic way that we can.
And so as shy as I may be in certain spaces and at times, when it comes time for me to talk about the issues that are most passionate to me, I speak about them.
People may not agree with my viewpoint, I don't believe any woman or girl should be in prison or jail, period, irrespective of what their crime was.
I believe there are alternatives to incarceration, and there are ways to heal people while holding them accountable, and that we've seen it in other countries outside of the United States.
Germany, Norway have great practices that they use as it relates to the transformation of people and their lives, rehabilitation, and also accountability.
People sometimes look at me like I'm crazy. I said it on an MSNBC news special.
All of the feedback that I got, and they were like, "She said what?"
When you say things that are bold and often radical, it activates people to listen, to dig deeper, and to want to learn more.
And so this is not a time, a moment in history where we can be timid. It's all of our responsibilities to utilize the platforms that we have in order to amplify messages that will change this country and the way that people think, globally.
I think there are people who believe that we should have segregation and that people should stay within their own little spaces, in their little communities, and not integrate.
Some people feel that way.
I think that those conversations are often necessary, also so that people have an idea of how differently people are thinking, and how they can come about approaching the work, or approaching where their passion points are in order to make substantial changes.
So everyone is not going to say the things that I said, right. Yes, black lives matter, but you have the other side of people that say "Blue lives matter."
I may not agree and understand the dynamics around that because you don't have to amplify communities that are not oppressed. This is why there is a BLM movement happening.
However, I think it is absolutely necessary for people to use free speech, for them to talk based on their own lived experience, and that way even when I hear these types of conversations that I may not necessarily agree with, I can share from my own lived experience and perspective which often will enlighten a person in a different way.
Because they see people who are different than them as often not truly who they are, that we have more in common than we don't. I hope I answered that question.
Ryan Foland: You did, you did.
One thing visually that went on in my mind was to this image that I saw that I was compelled to put as my pinned tweet because my background on all my social is #black lives matter, I just want to make a statement and acknowledge what's going on.
But for people, they might be defensive and go, "Well, yes, blue lives matter," well yes, all lives matter, and it becomes this argument that doesn't scratch below what the meaning is.
And it's a picture of this young African American girl, and she's holding the sign, and for me, I just want to read what this says because this really connected with me.
"We said black lives matter, we never said only black lives matter. We know all lives matter, we just need your help with black lives matter, for it’s black lives that are in danger now."
And it's this like, look, we're saying all lives matter but it's sometimes that catchphrase just sort of really puts people off guard, but like if you get past that defensiveness, yeah, all lives matter, every single life matters.
But if you look at what's happened over the last 400 years and you actually look, you can't deny that there's a difference.
And I think that's where I think, I feel like this is different than it has been in the past.
Topeka K. Sam: I agree. You hit it on the nose.
I think, well thank you for pinning that on your page and utilizing your platform in order to get people to see, and also have, these conversations.
Again, this is the only way you're able to educate or know what people are missing. If they're not speaking about the things that they believe and feel, you don't know how you can impart your wisdom into helping to change the narrative around these issues and also to impart things in their lives that will have them want to move differently and think differently.
So it's all necessary and relevant.
I don't like going back and forth with people either. Often I just let them say what they need to say, and then I'll take my moment to get on my soapbox and say what I have to say and that's just how we do that.
Ryan Foland: So I want to somewhat, not fully transition, but build upon this, because we are in the middle of the pandemic, and personally, as a professional speaker everything's been cut.
I had tons of international travel, I had amazing gigs that I've worked years, literally, to build relationships for, and build my brand to get there, and now there's this feeling of like, "Okay, I've now been chopped off at the knees and I'm stumbling around," and there's this virtual platform to do.
But can you see, and maybe share, the opportunities and the bright spots in this pandemic, the fact that there are no live events happening?
It sounds like you've really taken advantage of the digital platforms.
Can you share with us how in this time of a pandemic, when typically as a speaker you should be crying miserably with a glass of wine in a hot tub with Epsom salts — how have you personally taken advantage of this slow time to sort of ramp up?
You're being featured on the news, I'm assuming that you're doing more podcasts like this?
Talk to us as speakers, how can we take advantage of the moment to build on what we said. Maybe there's an opportunity to really participate in these conversations digitally?
How are you navigating this pandemic, and how is that affecting you, and how are you using it to your advantage really?
Topeka K. Sam: Absolutely.
Of course I'm devastated about not being able to travel as much as I was. As we all are.
However, it did give me an opportunity to sit still and really think about in what direction I want to go within this time, who are the audiences that I want to tap into that necessarily I didn't before, and how can I do that.
And if I'm able to speak on podcasts. On a digital platform I'm able to impact more people.
I have access to millions and millions of viewers, as opposed to me going to a conference and only speaking to a few thousand.
And so for me, it was really building out a network, revisiting all of the conferences, the people that I've met throughout the several years, and just saying this is what we need to do. Now we're in a global pandemic, people are listening and they are listening differently.
And these are the things that I speak about, and I think the time is now to impart to them whether it's in your corporation.
I was on a call yesterday, a panel with Jane Street. It was over 350 of the employees on a call, and I was blown away. It was 6:00 eastern, but it just showed, and the numbers kept going up, and it showed that people, despite whether they're Wall Street, it's a hedge fund, it's a prison, it's a university, anything, a hospital, people want to know like,
1. How are you coping in these moments? But
2. How can we continue to push forward to get our message out and also make a living for ourselves, because as public speakers we get paid by speaking.
And so instead of crying and having a glass of wine in a hot tub with some Epsom salts, figure out what wine company you can talk to about those thingsand how they are handling it, and drink responsibly.
Ryan Foland: Yeah, maybe get an Epsom salts sponsorship, right.
Topeka K. Sam: All of it.
It's been fashion designers I've been reaching out to, having the opportunity to take over different people's Instagram pages that have millions of followers, just being creative.
And then when this breaks, the pandemic that is, and it will, things will lift up, you'll have greater opportunities, new spaces that you'll be able to impact, and more money that you can make.
So while I love being on the plane, I also love being safe.
And though I may have 3 wardrobe changes in one day for 3 different panels, that at least we're able to still get our message out, do the speaking that we need to do so that we can get the career that we all love to do.
Ryan Foland: Awesome.
Two things that I've picked up there is, well you said "sit still," and that tied in with the bathtub, and I think that I have done my fair share of sitting and being still, and I guess it's a balance between getting excited about where I can go and navigate this new world and then being like frustrated with there being so many options and it not being what I thought it was.
I'll admit it's not easy, it's not like, "Oh, I'm just going to flip the switch."
But this idea of using the time to sit still has value.
Topeka K. Sam: Yes.
Ryan Foland: The other thing I want to point out is you talked about people are listening but they're listening differently.
Topeka K. Sam: Absolutely.
Ryan Foland: So I want to know what are your 1, 2 or 3 tips that help you feel comfortable in front of the Zoom camera in these large digital panels, for somebody who maybe was focused on that live stage?
Are there a couple of practical tips that you find yourself defaulting to, that others might find value in from essentially standing on your— I mean, you're not even standing, you're sitting on your stage, right?
Topeka K. Sam: One thing is, as you see, and I don't know if they'll be able to see, but I still get myself together as if I'm going on the stage. So that's one.
It's funny because when I am on Zoom calls, people say, "Hey it's a pullback and a ponytail, women are just not together. Everything has been so relaxed”.
But, when you look good, you feel good.
And so that energy that we've had when we're on the stage and we're sharing in that capacity, you can still project that if you are still getting yourself together.
I think that's like a cardinal rule, at least for me, and I would share that, number one.
Number two, it's again, preparation around the same things. Understanding that because, as you say, people are listening differently right now, you being able to captivate them with enthusiasm and energy around whatever the topic that you speak about is is critical right now.
Because you are inspiring people in a different way, and people are aspiring to be more like you during these times.
So even if it's only 30 minutes, 20 minutes, that you're speaking, make it count as if you're on a stage.
Lastly, I play music all of the time to keep my spirit going. These are just little techniques and tactics because it can't be like moody blues if you are just sitting in a place when you're used to moving around being animated, but you can do all of that on the camera.
And if you need practice because it's uncomfortable, do Zoom with your friends.
I mean, my friends and I have a little happy hour. We do it, bring our wine, not in the tub though, but we'll talk, and it allows you to be more comfortable.
I know on stage I get nervous more, because I see the people right in front of me and I'm reading their body language differently.
On the camera, I'm not. I know I'm in my house. Even though sometimes we can see all the people out there, the way that they are engaging is different.
You can see the level of intensity differently, and for most of us I think that's how we are actually motivated to perform, if you will.
Ryan Foland: Those are great.
So speaking to those where I relate with dressing. I was in my workout outfit before, but I put on a nice little college shirt and did my hair. So I'm right on stage with you.
I'd say you definitely win in the beauty contest if we were up against each other, but that's a whole side story.
Another thing, I recently had an opportunity to speak in Nigeria, virtually, last week, and I spoke in Ghana, physically, the year before. And when I was there I had some custom kaftans made, because when I speak I like to go there early and immerse myself in the culture, and so I spoke in a kaftan and it was an amazing experience, so I had a few more made.
So here I am, I show up on this call, there are hundreds of people on the call and there are, I think, two other speakers, but when I showed up I was standing up, I had my kaftan on. Everybody was like, "What?"
Everyone else was just sitting down, right, so they're just sitting down there.
And so I really presented myself like I was there and like I had traveled thousands of miles to get there, and that did help bring my energy because I got kind of caught up in that moment.
And I love the third concept of music, and just understanding that there is a rhythm, there is a vibe.
Personally, I rap every once in a while and I'll actually turn my cellphone on with some music and like actually incorporate music.
But this idea that people are listening differently, they pick up on your voice, and I have been on calls, as you have, where people just end up losing the melody in their voice, and it's like here we are on another day. [speaking in a dull, slow voice]
It's just such a difference between making your voice musical to the people who are hearing. So those are a great 3 tips.
Now, the one thing I want to ask you, in addition, is what not to do?
What is the biggest Zoom faux pas that you can think of that you've experienced, and yeah, Jennifer is one, you don't want to bring your computer to the bathroom?
What's something we should avoid doing?
Topeka K. Sam: Bad lighting. Number one. Because remember, when we're on a stage we have a whole AV support, but now you don't, so get yourself good lighting, number one.
I would say number two is to make sure that you are muted and your camera is off if you're not ready.
That could be an epic fail.
I've seen it happen where people just come on and they are not together, and it's all bad. Funny for the people who are watching, but not so funny for the speaker.
I would say make sure — you know all those backgrounds? So yesterday I was on a Zoom call and someone had the digital backdrop in, but they had a hat on, it was like a brim hat.
And so one of the sides kept cutting off every time they moved, and so you couldn't even hear or listen to what they were saying because all I could do was laugh at that.
So make sure that whatever props you have are stable.
No noise. If you have children, make sure that they're outside playing and not running around, because although your audience is going to be considerate and understand that we're in different times, they really don't want to hear that.
They didn't come on to hear that, and they're not interested. Unless you're going to bring the baby on and share with the people, let the kids be outside playing while you're speaking.
So that's what I would say are the “do not do’s,” but bad light is number one for sure.
Ryan Foland: Yeah.
Hey, this is all great stuff, and if I think back on this conversation, I still think about that initial story you told me and that you've put yourself into an environment to experience and be uncomfortable and get uncomfortable to find some level of comfort.
And showing up to Zoom with that same type of learner mentality, also leader mentality, and I think that it's so important, not only for African Americans to share their voice but for the community of people who are not African American to take the chance to get involved in the conversation.
Because I feel those who don't, when they look back on this time they will realize that they've missed an opportunity to use their platform as an agent of change, and I don't think it's off-brand. I think if it's not something that you're weaving in, that it means you're tone-deaf, and when it comes to these large corporations who are going to be paying the 10, 20, 30 thousand dollar honorariums, they're going to sniff you out, they're going to see if your brand represents what they want to portray moving forward.
Topeka K. Sam: Especially around diversity and inclusion.
You're right. These corporations are really looking at that area, and it's not just to your point of bringing in speakers of color. Although that's where they are doing a lot of money, they are also wanting to bring socially conscious people that look more like their employees and their corporation to help to push that forth.
And to your point, adding this conversation in your platform will only help to amplify your platform and bring in new people and new opportunities for you, because everyone is listening differently.
That was so powerful, what you said there, Ryan.
Ryan Foland: I love it.
This has not only been inspiring but it's thought-provoking, and I think we've really landed on something that's underneath the ground, and we just need to start digging and find how we can all get our messages in alignment with what we really believe. And I believe that there are enough people that are on the same page that that message will continue to be amplified.
So thanks again for your time, and I look at this as an opportunity to meet you, and I look forward to staying connected.
For those people who are listening and they're like, "I want to learn more, I want to connect," and they want to be one of the million people that you have access to, where do they go?
How do people best connect with you and get you?
Topeka K. Sam: They can go to my website, which is blessings.nyc, if they want to learn more about the work that we do at The Ladies of Hope Ministries and our speakers' bureau Faces of Women Imprisoned, that would be the THELOHM.org or follow me on all social media platforms at my name, @topekaksam.
Ryan Foland: Awesome.
And I want to thank you again. I've talked with Andras and he said you've been such a great supporter of SpeakerHub and you guys have had some projects working.
Again, I think that SpeakerHub is a great platform for up and coming speakers as well, because if you've always wanted to be a speaker but you've never been able to get to the stage and you don't know how it works, this is a new time.
If you are not putting yourself out there as a speaker, you won't be found as a speaker, and SpeakerHub is a place to do that.
If you haven't gotten your profile, here's an opportunity to do that so that you can use and create a platform that you can not only share what you think but find other like-minded people, because it's not always just about the conversations you have from one to many. I want to bring it back and finish with, it's these conversations, it's you and me talking, it's connecting with people offstage, behind the stage, that's really where the work needs to happen, and it's not easy but it's fulfilling, it’s satisfying. I feel like we've had a good combo.
Topeka K. Sam: Yes we did. Thank you so much, Ryan.
Ryan Foland: All right, well that wraps it up and this is just the beginning.
We are in a new era but make sure that you are participating in a way that you feel proud of, and on behalf of myself and the World of Speakers, we will see you on the next episode.
If you like this, if you love it, which I'm sure you do, don't forget to leave your 5-star review, find us wherever you listen to podcasts, and make sure to check out Topeka.
We'll see you later.
A bit about World of Speakers
World of Speakers is a bi-weekly podcast that helps people find their own voices, and teaches them how to use their voice to develop a speaking business. This special series of episodes has been created to help speakers navigate during the coronavirus crisis.