How I Made It

Janaya Khan, Activist

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How I Made It community builders: Janaya Khan sits outside wearing a black shirt and black leggings

(Photo: Texas Isaiah)

Janaya Khan; Los Angeles; @janaya_khan

Let’s say we’ve just met at a cocktail party. How would you describe, in a nutshell, what you do?

I’m the director of a not-for-profit in Los Angeles called Gender Justice LA, which is a gender equity and trans advocacy organization, I’m one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter Toronto and I work as the international ambassador for the Black Lives Matter network, so also travel a lot for Black Lives Matter.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I went to York University and I studied English.

What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)

A consultancy contract with a small Toronto arts incubator that wanted help flesh out their social justice presence. I have no idea how I got it, but I was very, very excited.

What was your BIG break? How did you land it?

When I broke into the U.S. market. I was traveling with a Black Lives Matter contingent on a speaking tour. I was writing speeches, but I wanted to lecture. I thought to myself, OK, I’m writing these speeches and I’m getting better at it, but Keppler, the speaking company that represents Black Lives Matter, needs to see me in certain situations. So, I started doing these “open-ups” (speaking before the main speaker came on). I knew if I could make those 10 minutes really impactful I would have a chance. After doing about seven of them, Keppler offered me a contract to work for them as a speaker.

Describe the moment in which you first realized, I think this is actually going to work out?

When Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson in August 2014, I did a callout with a couple of friends outside the US Consulate in Toronto. Maybe nine people showed up. But then, in November of the same year, we did another one and this time more than 3,500 people showed up. That’s when I knew that this work could turn into something useful.

What would you say has been your biggest failure or shortcoming, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?

When I first started out, I would leave jobs or get fired really quickly. That was a hurdle for me because I thought the only place someone like me, who wanted to do social advocacy work, could fit in was a not-for-profit. But it didn’t work for me. My ideas were too far out for many of the organizations that I found myself within. It felt like failure. But then I realized I had to create options for myself.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

What you walk into the room with and how powerful you are is your decision. I work with a lot of people, especially women, who struggle with imposter syndrome and people of colour and trans people who often feel like they don’t belong in this space. I try to remind them, and myself, that there’s a lot of agency in choice.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

Someone once told me that if I want to do advocacy work, and if the organizations that existed didn’t work with some of the most marginalized populations of people, then I should just accept that, because that is the way the world is. But it’s never been people who accept things as they are who change things.

Did you deal with barriers in your field because you are a woman? If so, what were they?

Oh, 100 percent. It’s affected how people relate to me. People have perceived me as less-equipped. I remember working for a not-for-profit doing training on social justice issues. I’d be sitting in a room with these men who were forced to be in this training and they’d spend all three hours not acknowledging me at all. But that experience helped build my confidence and even my abilities—how do I reach these people?

Are you making a fair income for your work? Why or why not? Do you have a side hustle for extra cash? If so, what is it?

I’m getting paid fairly because I’m working several jobs. Aside from my work for Black Lives Matter Canada, the Black Lives Matter Network, and Gender Justice LA, I’m also a writer and speaker. There’s not one singular job that’s paying me fairly. But also want to note that no one in advocacy work is paid fairly. The type of work that people, largely women of colour, do and the ways that they put their bodies on the line is underpaid and under-valued across the board.

What’s the worst stereotype you’ve heard about millennials at work?

That millennials are lazy. It is the most ridiculous statement I have ever heard. Millennials are the inheritors of this really mass-production, super-industrialized capitalist era that isn’t sustainable. Consequently, millennials are lucky if they can get a full-time job with benefits. They are more likely to work several jobs, without benefits, being underpaid in at least half of them. It’s absurd.

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