The team of Black collegiate creatives behind Unplug Collective have come together to build a platform for storytelling that is changing the game.

By Shalayne Pulia
Oct 08, 2020 @ 9:00 am
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When Amanda Taylor couldn’t find a safe space online for Black women and Black nonbinary people to share their stories, she created one herself. What started as a small blog in 2019 has turned into The Unplug Collective, a digital platform that shares nuanced essays about body discrimination, mental health, and more. This effort to educate, inspire, and support young Black people across the globe has become a bright light for over 40,000 of the group’s followers. “I’ve never come across a publication that I actually felt seen or felt at home in, that was talking about the issues that were impacting me,” Taylor, 22, says. “And I knew that journalism has the power to really make people feel seen and give people a space to feel like they have a platform. I just wanted that for the people who were in my community.”

In addition to sharing stories not often heard, The Unplug Collective also unabashedly takes aim at industries like fashion and beauty, with hashtags like #DearFashionIndustry, which call attention to shortfalls in industry sizing and representation. “We can’t unlearn body discrimination without addressing fat phobia; and so much of our world is fat phobic in its systems,” Taylor says. “It’s not just about the diet you’re promoting or calling someone names, it’s also the fact that systemically the world is not made to support people beyond a certain size, and that is so scary to think about.”

So, Unplug has stepped in to try to push industry leaders to shift towards true and total inclusivity. “A lot of the conversation around ‘body positivity’ now, the takeaway is that you have to feel good about yourself and that’s something that we try to stray away from,” says Taylor’s longtime friend and Unplug COO Zara Harding.Because just telling someone that they should love themselves is not necessarily realistic and doesn’t address the factors in this world that cause people not to love themselves.”

Recently, the group’s efforts caught the attention of Nike, which partnered with the collective to further this very conversation. And from here, The Unplug Collective team hopes more industry titans will follow suit. Harding adds, “The main goal really is for people to feel like they have a community to go back to of people who support them, love them, and unconditionally accept them for who they are.”

The Beginning: Taylor and Harding met in middle school back home in Jamaica. They then went to separate boarding schools but eventually reunited as college freshmen in New York City in January of 2019. Soon after arriving in the city, Taylor launched the first iteration of her site by putting a call out on her social media for young Black people, especially women and non-binary individuals, to submit their stories. She asked for these submissions to be written in first person and worked hard to build up relationships with writers to gain their trust and understanding.

“I knew was really going to have to work closely with these people to make sure that they were safe and comfortable,” she says. “And that literally has developed into our business plan.” Once Unplug was off the ground that fall, Harding, who was studying women, gender, and sexuality studies before switching gears to psychology and business management, quickly joined the team. Today, Unplug is led by seven young college students from across the globe work directly with people who submit their most sensitive personal stories to make sure their voices are respected and heard.

Wordplay: The name “Unplug” references an early subsection of Taylor’s original blog called “Body Unplugged,” which unpacked raw, vulnerable stories related to peoples' bodies. Taylor, a vocalist and guitarist in her spare time, says the name also references “unplugged” music sessions where artists perform stripped down versions of their songs. “I just feel like hearing that singer in their most vulnerable moment is when I can connect most to them,” Taylor explains. “I wanted people to associate the word with that experience.” Then, “collective” was added to further the group’s focus on collaborative content and interaction. Taylor says, “Every story relies on the response from the community to push that person’s healing process forward.”

Social Media Muse: “I mean, there’s the tendency to say social media isn’t real life; but if you’re spending that much time of your real life on social media, then isn’t it?” questions Taylor. A major focus for Unplug, and a source of the group’s success, has been reshaping conversations on social media. Theirs is designed to spotlight the group’s unique writers for increased visibility as well as call attention to the need for change. Additionally, Harding says, the group makes use of special features, primarily on Instagram, that allow for a more positive interactive experience. “There’s a lot of opportunity for people to connect in a way that transcends just what makes you desirable and what makes you look like you're living your best life on social media,” Harding adds.

For example, she says, her team is fond of posting question boxes on Instagram asking people to foster more conversation. “We can put a question box on our story and say, 'Tell us about your experience with family members commenting on your weight.’ We can then use that range of responses that to generate a post. And then we have people pouring their hearts out in the comments section with their own stories,” Harding explains. “There’s just so much potential there for people from all corners of the Earth and many different walks of life to come together and be able to see one another in their humanity.”

True Beauty: Taylor is hesitant to try to find a way to redefine “beauty.” She says instead, “It’s almost like beauty is the rent that women and [non-binary] people have to pay to exist in this world. Because the world is so misogynistic; and the only thing that makes us valuable is our appearance,” she explains. “And that’s absolutely not to take away from the fact that there is beauty in all of us. But I think ‘beauty’ almost shouldn’t be defined because it’s something that is so malleable and changes so much and has so much depth.”

Badass Women Inspirations: Harding says her idea of what makes a badass woman stems from the strong female role models in her family. “My mom has her own furniture and word artistry business. And I have a lot of other women in my family that have completely different career paths,” she says. “They all do what they do and they are who they are and they make no apologies for it. When they want something, they go after it, and if they feel a certain way, the speak up. They run the show.” Additionally, as a women, gender, and sexuality studies major, Taylor has a very simple definition of a Badass Woman. “Literally, just existing makes you badass in a world that is not made for you to exist,” she says. “I don’t have any requirements for you to be badass because you just are.”

Hope on the Horizon: Harding and Taylor agree that they are both surprised and encouraged by the amount of positive feedback and interest they have received from their community and beyond. “There is a willingness that we have seen — I won’t say universally, but like a lot more at least than I would have anticipated — across all of these different types of people to try to understand, learn more, and to try to get [the topics we cover],” Harding says. “That fuels me. Like OK, that willingness to learn is there, let’s chase after it because there is so much more for people to learn.”

Looking ahead, Taylor says that she is most excited to continue growing the group’s following and eventually become a major catalyst for change. “I think community care is the future, and social media has given us the opportunity to take care of each other in a way that we’ve never been able to before,” Taylor says. “And [I hope] fashion brands in the revolution, or whatever is going to come out in these terrible times, will source more from the community. They need to look inwards because it is so easy — it’s a question box away — to find out what your consumer needs, and to broaden who your consumer is. It’s time. And it’s so important to us to really hone in on the fact that the lack of doing so is a mental health issue in and of itself.”

Advice: When it comes to advice for young people struggling to tell their stories, Harding says, “Don’t share unless you are ready. But once you are ready, I promise you that there is a community of people who are likely experiencing the exact same thing you are going through and they will respond with open arms.”

For more information, visit theunplugcollective.com.