Bringing the Vindi to Life
Written by Brenda Castañeda Yupanqui & Tyisha Blade
The Vindicator has incredibly deep roots at Cleveland State. With almost 50 years as a publication, this magazine’s history is as rich as it is complex. Starting out as the university’s Black newspaper, the reactionary and necessary counterpart to other student media on campus, it has since grown into the arts and culture magazine that it is today. While it has not remained solely a place for Black voices, the Vindicator’s mission is one of multiculturalism and social justice, one that it’s staff—past, present and future—strive to preserve and amplify through their work. Like all forms of media, this magazine affects not only its audience, but its staff and contributing creatives, as well. We decided to check up on a few of our past staff members, who shared their experience with the Vindicator and how it made an impact on their lives and careers.
What was your involvement with the Vindicator? I started my sophomore year… I just went to the first meeting. It was so scary. So, I pitched a story about this girl who went to my high school… It was about how the dress codes treat girls and boys differently. It was the cover story for that October issue. After that, I wrote one piece per issue because I liked it so much… I was Editor-in-Chief my junior and senior year.
What do you do now? Currently, I am doing freelance and contract work wherever I can. The only consistent place I am doing work at is Cleveland Magazine. I do a bit at Ohio Magazine whenever they need me. I had a couple stories that I wrote freelance for [Cleveland Magazine’s] Doctors issue. I also have some stories for the Lakes issue as well. I have my blog, “The Battle of Arbela,” where I write about lifestyle and fashion. I post there once a week. I’m doing work wherever I can and I’m happy with it. I like working from home. Unless, they call me into the office. I need the structure sometime.
How did the Vindicator influence your experience at CSU? The Vindicator was an avenue for me to explore writing, reporting and journalism… It was only after I wrote the my first story did I declare myself a Journalism major… I thought to myself, even if it is bad, which it isn’t, I will still have the Vindicator… So, the Vindicator influenced me a lot. It changed the course of my life. I was also struggling with the death of my dad at the time. The Vindicator gave me an outlet to write, let things out and really be passionate about something… It helped me get my internship. I was able to have magazine clips to show for my experience. The Vindicator also helped me get a job that I had briefly after graduation. So, not only did it help me personally with building my confidence, but it also helped me directly professionally.
What was your favorite issue? The Black Girl Magic issue for sure… All the different aspects of our magazine that make the Vindicator such a great magazine came together. It was an awesome story that was half creative writing and half journalistic… I think it was a really important issue. We did an awesome photo shoot for it. We worked with an illustrator… I think we were at one of those times when the Vindicator started getting noticed again. We have had our ups and downs where people didn’t even know we existed. When that issue came out, maybe we distributed better, but people just really loved it.
What is your most vivid memory of working with the Vindicator? I remember different moments with different people sharing and being so genuine with me about how they love the work that we are doing… A really vivid memory was when I talked to this guy that runs an arts incubator… [it] really opened my eyes on how much the Vindicator has changed over time and what the Vindicator meant to him… Times were different. It served a different purpose. It was a community-building space. It was almost specifically for Black students, and it was their safe space… I had this really weird moment where I realized that this affected so many people. It gave me that confidence to really push us forward, to push us to talk about the people that are misrepresented or underrepresented.
Do you have any advice for student journalists/reporters/photographers, etc? My best advice would be just to take care of yourself. That’s something that I lost sight of many times. This is a very fast-paced business when you're on deadline. Whether you’re an editor, writer or photographer, it’s very fast paced. I am glad that the Vindicator prepared me for that… I really learned the power of being vulnerable with people that you work with. You make each other stronger. If you have an idea, just do it. I was really able to do that with the Vindicator… I know that I’m thrown into the real world I have to take my advice and have that same confidence.
What was your involvement with the Vindicator? I was the Multimedia Manager. My freshman year was 2014. CJ was the Editor-in-Chief and she was looking for a person to do photo and video for the magazine. So, the Vindicator had a party in the common area. They also had music and artists from CSU. I filmed that and did a good job. So, that’s how I started working; I’m so thankful for CJ.
What do you do now? I have my own business with my cousin. It’s a video production business where we do photos and record music. We have a studio, on E. 36th street. That’s pretty fun, in Tyler Village. I do freelance stuff. We work with people locally and people that come into town. We’ve done things with HBO, Fox Sports, and ESPN, and Great Lakes Publishing. The business is called Black Valve Media.
How did the Vindicator influence your experience at CSU? The Vindicator helped me meet different people. It helped understand different people’s perspectives. I am a more well-rounded person. It also gave me an opportunity to show Cleveland Magazine my work, and I got an internship with them. I still do work with them to this day. So, that was important. It’s always cool to see your work and art in print form because we don’t get to see much of that anymore. I liked working with different writers and going to protests. Covering events, video-wise, and talking to people around campus definitely made me more well-rounded. It was definitely a very valuable experience.
What was your favorite issue? It’s hard to choose, but one of my favorites was about my roommate, Dallas. She is trans and we did a photoshoot with her because she was on the cover. It was kind of scary to put that issue out there, singling her out as trans. I am very proud of her for doing that. It was beautiful to do that. That was pretty cool. There was some nervousness about it, but everything went according to plan, as far as I know. There were many great issues, but that one, to me, was particularly impressive. It was good to know that people aren’t totally horrible. The sexual assault issue was also interesting. I helped compile people’s stories anonymously. It was interesting. There were many people reaching out to me saying thank you.
What is your most vivid memory of working with the Vindicator? I was walking downtown and there was a group of Native Americans protesting about Standing Rock and clean water; I pulled my camera out. Just to know that I would have a place to put that was great. It wasn’t planned or anything. I have my camera, I can interview and have a place to share things with people. Another vivid moment was when someone put up that poster [featuring hate speech targeting LGBTQ+ students] last semester. I was able to take photos of the conversation at the meeting in Dr. Berkman’s office. I was working with Cleveland Magazine, but I also used some of the photos for the Vindicator. It feels great to be able to stand up to the people in power—not take every word they say as the truth. Being there to hold them accountable and show different perspectives is important.
Do you have any advice for student journalists/reporters/photographers, etc? Don’t be afraid to come out of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to ruffle some feathers. If you feel like it’s important and will have an impact, I think it’s worth giving it a shot. I think that the Vindicator is a place where you can do that and be creative. I think that it is very powerful to put something in print. So use that power to help people out and spread the right messages.
What was your role in the Vindicator? As Culture Editor, I worked alongside our writers to craft and edit articles, providing guidance and feedback to help curate well-written, meaningful pieces. I also produced and hosted our short-lived, though poignant and powerful radio talk show, The Vindicator Hour.
How did The Vindicator influence your experience at CSU? How has the Vindicator helped you progress after graduation? While I was with the Vindicator, I felt more connected to the university as a torchbearer of truth and an advocate for the student body. Writing with this influential magazine helped me to understand how impactful and powerful student voices are, and reaffirmed the need for a platform like the Vindicator to elevate their perspectives. It also granted me the space to observe and criticize both bureaucracy and power dynamics embedded in educational institutions. My experiences as a writer and editor helped me to expand my horizons, to look deep within myself and to reject limitations. It became a springboard for exploration, critical thinking and a healthy dose of skepticism. What do you do now? Presently I live in the city of Leipzig, Germany and am completing two master's degrees in Journalism and Global Mass Communication as part of a foreign exchange program at Leipzig University. I study critical theory, conduct social-psychological research and engage in conscious discussions about social, cultural and epistemological issues.
Do you have a favorite issue? The March 2017 issue was my favorite—we focused on Women's rights and liberation, and as a mostly female staff, it felt empowering during such a politically charged time in our nation. Myself and another writer traveled to D.C. for the Women's March on Washington in late January for the issue, and we were in the midst of a palpable social movement. It nearly engulfed us, and it was our task to relay to our readers just what people are raising their voices for. My time with the Vindicator taught me that even and especially when your perspective is that of a minority, it is utterly important to stand up and speak up.
What is your most vivid memory of working with the Vindicator? Perhaps my most vivid memories were vibrant debates held during editorial staff meetings, in which we would discuss what worked well, what didn't, and how we could grow and learn from our mistakes. So much happens behinds the scenes to bring this magazine to life, and there's a locomotive energy generated through the passion of the staff itself.
Do you have any advice for student journalists/reporters/photographers/creatives? Embrace the full spectrum of your creative self and reject any imposed labels and limitations. You need not succumb to pressures to know right now exactly what you're going to do with your life—just be who you are and love every aspect of your marvelous, colorful self.
What was your role in the Vindicator? I was a staff writer to begin with and then Managing Editor for two years—a year and a half or something. I think that my parents and I saw them at one of the freshman things and I liked their social justice stuff. At the time, I was looking to do non-profit work and thought that would align pretty well. I went to one meeting and I met Robert [Gatewood] and all of them. I just immediately fell in love with all of them because they were lovely; CJ was a bit intimidating, but she knew that.
How did the Vindi influence your experience at CSU? How has the Vindi helped you progress after graduation? It was nice because I got leadership experience with the Managing Editor position and in a different way—I was also Editor-in-Chief of the Cleveland Stater, which is the capstone for journalism majors. But managing the Vindicator is a little different because it’s contributor-based and there’s a lot of people to keep track of. There’s a lot more moving parts. It gave me access to people that I wouldn’t normally talk to, people that were outside of my graduating class… Since I work at a daily newspaper, you miss the aspects of working on a magazine. I think it was maybe a creative way to look at things. It’s a different way to look at things, which I try to do at my daily work—like “this is a different angle” or “how can I look at this differently?”
What do you do now? I am a reporter for The Chronicle Telegram out of Lorain County, so we cover the county. It’s a daily newspaper, I’ve been there about six months. Before that, I was a paginator up in St. Joseph, Michigan. That kind of brought in a little bit of the graphic design. Before that, I was a staff writer for the United Way of Greater Cleveland, which actually tied in more with what I did at the Vindicator.
Do you have any advice for student journalists/reporters/photographers/creatives? Ask a lot of questions, even if they sound asinine it’s better to understand something fully than try and make it up as you go along. This is especially true for interviews, even when you know what someone is going to say, or how they will explain something, give them the chance to put it in their own words.
What is your most vivid memory of working with the Vindi? When I interviewed the folks from INDECLINE. They were the art collective that put the naked Trump statues up, including the one in Coventry — part of their “The Emperor Has No Balls” installations. I loved that story and I remember it because I forgot the huge time difference between here and Calif. because I thought I was talking to a representative from Ohio. So I called them at the completely wrong time, and they still went with it. (And I still follow their collective because of how cool they were to work with, even though we were just a student publication and they were getting calls from national outlets).
Do you have a favorite issue? Not really, I think they all had their moments.
What was your role in the Vindicator? I was brought in as the Art Director. I changed it to “Director of Art and Communication,” because our communication was lacking at that point; there wasn’t a lot of structure. I was the art director and comm guy for two years. My Editor-in-Chief, CJ [Phifer], we both came in as the previous administration was on the rocks. She brought me in; neither of us knew what our role would be. She was a really strong leader, so she took the Editor-in-Chief role; and I was in design, so that worked for me. I did that for a full year. We came in, I wouldn’t say on a whim, but we weren’t planning on doing this.
How did the Vindicator influence your experience at CSU? How has the Vindicator helped you progress after graduation? Pretty dramatically. I was an “adult-adult” when I started school; I was 25 and I wasn’t interested in being a part of the whole undergraduate experience. I ended up being able to meet tons of people; I got an internship at the marketing department because of my experience there [at the magazine]. It made me a more public person, which was a road I didn’t know I was going to be on, but I need to be. Learning how to work with a significant variety of people. That was a big goal of CJ’s and mine—to let it represent the history of the Vindi, but also acknowledging the changes and the new people that CSU touched. Working with tons of people, hitting deadlines, working with bad vendors, learning how to react to people who disagree with you… We tried to have a lot fire-starter features and we started a couple fires, which was great.
What do you do now? I run Full Spectrum: Gamer Haven, it’s a creative coworking space… we center games, culture and technology. You can make video games here, and since you can make games, you can make everything. We’ve got audio-visual production, photography, programming, graphic design; apparel, now. Creating this network of stuff and people so that everyone can do their creative thing in my neighborhood, because I’m from Collinwood. Apart from that, I’m a graphic designer. It’s a lot—everyday is legitimately different.
Do you have any advice for student journalists/reporters/photographers/creatives? I would suggest, as hard as it is to hear, actually listening to your professors. Specifically in the design area...Listen to them, then trust your own gut when it disagrees and do what you want anyways. They know what they’re talking about, in terms of how things work now. If you’re trying to change stuff, recognize that that’s not the world they live in; you’re making it.
What is your most vivid memory of working with the Vindicator? I have many vivid memories. Our first meeting was fun because CJ’s personality is dramatically different from mine; she loves process. It was a room full of “no one knows what’s happening” people. We had an argument about a feature, if I’m not mistaken, on marriage equality. That was an amazing conversation at the Vindi office. I remember that. And the talent shows we did—wild. Running the SC [Student Center] with art, a big band person and live poetry. Smashing my toe with the DJ equipment, I remember that. It was fun.
Do you have a favorite issue? I could be cheap and lazy and say the first one because it was the first one. But, probably when TEDx came to CSU. Watching them, it was a really professional operation for that issue. Photographers and writers going out to different things, reviewing them. That whole process was probably my favorite.
What was your role in the Vindicator? First I was a contributor (Fall of 2015 and Spring 2016), then I became features editor for a semester (Fall 2016) before becoming managing editor for three semesters (Spring 2017, Fall 2017, Spring 2018).
How did the Vindi influence your experience at CSU? How has the Vindi helped you progress after graduation? The Vindicator was a place I felt I could be myself and write about things that I care about. Given it's history as a Black magazine and it's ongoing dedication to challenging social norms and initiating and highlighting social change really felt like something I wanted to invest myself in and learn more about. It is not often that you can enter a space and feel supported in your ideas, especially when the current social or political climate tends to skew against yours. The Vindicator taught me to think critically and engage with the things that I am passionate about. Most importantly, the Vindicator showed me that the world is much larger than myself, and that writing is an important tool to navigate it. The power of storytelling, much like what contributors and editors partake in with the Vindicator, is absolutely necessary for a brighter future. It was essentially an ongoing joke between the journalism department and myself that I "couldn't write about abortion and reproductive justice forever." But, the Vindicator showed me that I could, and has allowed me to do just that. Nearly all of my freelancing and career opportunities thus far are in part because of my time with the Vindicator, and in the reproductive health, rights and justice movement.
What do you do now? I have returned to work full-time at Preterm, an abortion and sexual health provider, here in Cleveland. I was previously the executive director's assistant, and after graduation I returned to assist the Development and Communications Manager and the Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator, in addition to working as intake staff for patients. I also do contracted writing work with the National Network of Abortion Funds.
Do you have any advice for student journalists/reporters/photographers/creatives? My advice to any aspiring journalist or creative is to stick with it as long as you're passionate about it. Find your niche and embrace it. If I would have gave into criticism of "only writing about abortion and reproductive rights" as if it were a bad thing I probably wouldn't be in the positions that I am right now. And for me, it's fulfilling. It gives me a reason to write and stay engaged and to continue to learn. Being passionate is an important part in anyone's future.
What is your most vivid memory of working with the Vindi? My most vivid memory of working with the Vindicator are probably all of the long nights Arbela and I spent editing Vindicator work instead of our actual homework. Perhaps it was moreso pouring all of myself into something that I cared about alongside my best friend that made my memories of the Vindicator a long, continuous string of hard work and excitement to see the finished product. Even if there were still typos after a 15 hour copy-edit binge. We truly tortured ourselves unnecessarily but it was always worth it.
Do you have a favorite issue? Every time someone asks me this question I feel my answer changes. Today, probably my last issue. I got to write about white supremacy and gun violence, and it was a risky write and print for us but I had the most positive feedback and (selfish alert) personal fulfillment from it. If I had to pick another one, it would be the issue (I can't remember which one I'm sorry) where Arbela and Evan compiled stories from folks who experienced some degree of sexual assault or violence. I co-wrote some of the cover article, but having folks trust us with their stories was a really monumental moment for me as a student journalist because it truly showed me the power writing and storytelling can have. A brief version of my sexual assault is also published in that issue anonymously.
What was your role in the Vindicator? I started off as a Managing Editor and contributor, then became Editor-in-Chief.
How has the Vindi helped you progress after graduation? Being EIC of the Vindicator was one of the first big risks I took in school. I had no idea what I was doing, which in a sense, has transcended far beyond my collegiate career. When I signed up, I had no intention of becoming the Editor-in-Chief, and when it happened, it made me believe in myself almost out of necessity. The one thing about the unknown is that you have to convince yourself more than anyone that you’re worthy of succeeding.
I’ve learned that a vital part of my own personal progression is taking healthy, constructive risks, whether it be traveling through foreign countries or competing in sprint triathlons (or taking a job even when you don’t exactly know what you’re doing at first). You learn to trust and challenge yourself in ways you otherwise wouldn't.
How did the Vindi influence your experience at CSU? Being a part of The Vindi was one of the best decisions I made while in school. It introduced me to amazing humans who inspired me every day (and still do!). It made me self-critical in a positive way. It forced me to prioritize. It taught me to deal with conflict. Overall, it built a foundation that I’ve used in every job, internship, and fellowship I've ever had.
What do you do now? Graphic design at Function of Beauty (a beauty startup) in NYC.
Do you have any advice for student journalists/reporters/photographers/creatives? Don’t take things personally and always do your best. I stole those from “The Four Agreements” (an awesome book), but for a creative, it’s true. This industry isn’t as tough as it seems—absorb everything, self-motivate, stay inspired, and you’ll get somewhere.
Oh, and surround yourself with other creatives! Collaboration has fueled a lot of my success. People are the best when you’re in a rut (or when you’re not).
What is your most vivid memory of working with the Vindi? I loved when we’d get the new issues in. Seeing all of the ideas and stories together in their beautiful layouts after such a long period of development was always a great feeling. Like phew, we did it. Something about print will always be special.
Do you have a favorite issue? I’ll always love our first issue. I remember shooting it in the art building and it’s still one of my favorite covers.
This article appeared in the October issue of The Vindicator. The online version of the issue is here!