Tanzina Vega is a trailblazer. After undergrad, she decided to leave her normal life behind and take on Spain with little to her name. While working abroad, she launched her own business teaching English as second language. She expanded her reach to South Korea as well. In 2004, her passion for journalism led her back to the U.S. where she worked as an editor and produced podcasts for a technology magazine.
Vega is no stranger to hard work or embracing the road less traveled. She was a part of the inaugural class at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism where she studied multimedia journalism and urban reporting.
During graduate school, through her network she ended up connecting with the New York Times news clerk where she landed a job at one of the top news organizations in the country. Working her way up from the bottom, over a span of eight years, she went from news clerk to producer, working in print and digital on multiple platforms. She ultimately went from producer to reporter where she created the Race beat for the national desk.
Her work with The New York Times led her to her current position at CNN where she has spent the last two years working as CNNMoney’s national reporter for race and inequality in America.
In addition to being a reporter, writer, mentor, professor and speaker, Vega is an author, her book titled, “UPPITY: Women, Race and Class in America” will be released through Nation Books in 2018.
Her Agenda spoke with Tanzina Vega to discuss her journey, path to success and her advice for aspiring journalists of color.
Her Agenda: What was your early “defining” career moment– that moment when it all clicked, and you knew you were on the right path?
Tanzina Vega: The decision to leave New York, with hardly any money, with not a lot of connections in Spain, and leave my job, my apartment and everything else and take a leap of faith and live in another country, was huge. Not just at a professional level but on a personal level. It was one of the most amazing things I ever did in my life and it expanded the way I see the world. I still have friends that I met there and I considered it like a second home. It also [gave] me exposure to different kinds of media, and how the world was reacting to things like the Iraq war and 9/11. It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life.
Her Agenda: Where does your source of motivation and passion for media diversity come from?
Tanzina Vega: There is an enormous responsibility and an enormous amount of power when you are part of the media. I didn’t grow up seeing people that looked like me very often on TV or seeing bylines that look like mine in the newspaper. I know the power that we have as journalists and I respect it and I and I am deeply humbled by it.
But I also know that I have a responsibility and part of what I am grateful for in my work is that I’m not only able to write about race but we talk about it a lot. And talking about it means talking about things like media diversity, inclusion and what we need to do to make sure that our news and media coverage reflects the world that we live in and the country that we live in. That’s a really important thing because I didn’t have a lot of support in the industry. You get it little by little but I try as much as I can to create things where there seems to be a gap. I try to fill that gap. I really believe in the fact that we as individuals have a lot of power. We as media consumers have a lot of power. We’re not powerless. We just have to think about how to harness it.
Her Agenda: How do you prioritize things? What is first on your agenda?
Tanzina Vega: Work has always been a major priority especially when you’re climbing in journalism and you’re working all sorts of weird schedules. I always say cops and doctors and journalists all have similar lives because we’re usually on call we’re working nights, weekends, and holidays. Luckily, I have a pretty normal schedule now. So, that’s wonderful and I’m very grateful for that.
But I’m starting to learn how to prioritize myself. I get tons of requests to do panels, media, outreach and mentoring; and anyone that knows me knows that I try so hard to honor all of those requests as much as I can particularly for young people who are looking for mentorship. But I also have to learn how to say maybe not this one, maybe not now. You need to make sure your house is in order. I also try to make sure that I get to do some of the things that I like to do; whether that is cooking or taking a swimming class. I’m really trying to not be working and only working.
Her Agenda: What is one myth of success?
Tanzina Vega: A myth of success is that success is a meritocracy. And the older you get the more that becomes a real life lesson and some people learn those lessons a lot earlier.
And the other thing is that we’re still living in a country that has very embedded structural and institutional ways of thinking which is why we’re in this conversation about inclusivity and diversity.
Like I said, focus on doing you and the projects that you’re interested in and give it the best that you’ve got because hard work is critical but good work is also important. That’s what I tell people all the time like at the end of the day whether or not you got the executive position, whether or not you got what your ultimate goal was like a Grammy, Oscar or a Pulitzer…Listen, I want one, we all want one right. But I can also look back on the work that I’ve done and be very, very proud of what I was able to achieve.
Her Agenda: What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve received?
Tanzina Vega: One of the best pieces of advice I got was to stop paying attention to what everyone else is doing. And I’m going to say it as a metaphor: Stay in your lane. That doesn’t mean don’t go outside the lines but what it means is if you’re going to go lap swimming, your goal is to get from one side of the pool to the other side of the pool. Right? Now the minute you start looking at what the person in the lane next to you is doing and how fast they’re going and what stroke they’re doing now you’re all thrown off. You’re not going to be able to get to the other side because you can’t manage all of that.
You can create many, many, many different things but if you’re so focused on this person doing that and that person is doing this; I mean it’s the natural human tendency to do that but don’t do it to your own detriment. Focus on your project. Like a friend of mine always says, ‘they’ll come taller than you, shorter than you, smarter than you or whatever but you are you, and just focus on that.’
Her Agenda: What is one lesson you’ve learned as a woman and a journalist of color?
Tanzina Vega: I tweeted about this recently because it really hit me, I said, many women had been discouraged from trusting their gut and intuition which can have a really profound implication. I say, for women in general but specifically women of color, [our decisions are often questioned in the form of] ‘Are you sure?’ or ‘Is that really how you feel?’ Women have extremely strong powers of intuition. And, intuition is a thing that gets stronger the more you use it. I didn’t just wake up one day and say ‘okay, I’m gonna pack my bags and leave my job, and go across the country.’ These are decisions made over time. I always say when your head, heart and your gut all are in alignment, that’s when you know it’s time. That’s the signal that you’re in the right direction.
If everybody else is telling you, oh you know ‘you’re crazy’ or ‘what are you doing? or ‘how could you give this up/make that move?’ It’s [usually] because a lot of people are frightened [for you]. Not a lot of people are that courageous.
Her Agenda: As you said, it’s not easy to listen to your inner voice, especially, if that’s what you’ve been told all your life of whatever the circumstance may be. So, what could someone do?
Tanzina Vega: I think things through and really weigh the pros and cons, and pay attention to what I’m feeling. [I] take advice, but, I’m also very cautious of what kind of advice I’m getting and who’s giving the advice.
You have to understand what the motivations of other people are and what they’re advising you to do or not do. Part of what I suggest is just relentless research.
Her Agenda: If you could say one thing to encourage other women, specifically women of color, what would you say?
Tanzina Vega: You have to really think it through and sometimes change is incremental. A lot of people want to just start working at The New York Times the minute they graduate undergrad and that might happen to some people but that doesn’t happen to everyone. And so, sometimes you take incremental steps towards a larger goal. You’re not always going to get it right that’s the other thing. I think a lot of younger people that I talk to are very afraid of ‘getting it wrong,’ making a wrong turn or doing the wrong thing. If you’re deliberate and trust yourself you may not get it right but you have to remain relentless yet flexible.
Her Agenda: Lastly, how do you unplug from all of the work? Any advice on how to leave ‘work at work’?
Tanzina Vega: Get off of your phone. Oh my goodness. And I say that as somebody who picks up her phone the minute I wake up in the morning and I’m reading Twitter and I’m scrolling through it. [I especially need to do that now] because every hour something is changing and as a journalist I feel compelled to know what’s happening at all hours. But I really believe that we can’t live behind our screens or be attached to our screens. And I make it a point (and I know some people get anxiety around this) to talk to people on the phone. I know it sounds crazy. I see people in real life. [Another] thing I do is I keep my phone on silent a lot and I also turn off a lot of push notifications because they can be anxiety provoking every time you look at your phone you have something on Whatsapp something on Twitter something on signal and you’re just getting hit from every direction. So turn it off, put it down, and go outside.
[Editor’s note: This interview published on June 12th, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity.]