In 2015, a group of students at Bristol University decided to create a new digital platform, one committed to telling the stories of women and non-binary people of colour.
Today, gal-dem is preparing to publish its fourth print magazine. It’s been a dizzying ascent, fuelled by relentless creativity, business acumen, and some of the most talented writers on the internet.
Head of editorial Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff has been with gal-dem from more or less the very beginning. Like everybody involved in the project, she worked on a voluntary basis, fitting gal-dem around her Masters degree, and then freelance commitments for the likes of Dazed & Confused, Vice, and The Guardian.
This February, gal-dem was finally able to begin paying staff salaries, completing the transition to bonafide media outlet, and a cultural force to be reckoned with.
What made you want to be a writer?
It wasn't a choice: I always wrote. I wrote diaries, short stories, and I read a lot of books when I was younger. I was interested in creative writing but didn't think I'd ever be good enough to pursue it – kind of the same with journalistic writing. I just didn't find anything else that I needed to do in order to be me, and I thought, 'that probably means something'. I pursued it from there at university, and now I'm a journalist!
Tell us about your path into the industry...
I did an NCTJ at Lambeth College – I got a bursary to do that. When I came out of uni I worked at a pub while doing lots of work experience in the day. I hated that pub! It was a craft beer pub in Shoreditch, a gastropub. I hate beer, and I was made to try all the beer every day. I did my NCTJ, and then I got an internship at a radio station; they would pay us something like £400 a month and put us down as 'stationary' on the books. Then I got a job helping to edit a property supplement at the Hampstead and Highgate Express.
I successfully applied for the Guardian's Scott Trust bursary, did my Masters in journalism at City University – a Masters which I had postponed for a year because I couldn't get the funding. That's when I started working at the pub. It was a very sad time back then! [Laughs.] I'd applied to do the Masters, and hadn't expected to get it. When I went for the interview it was loads of Oxbridge-type people.
After my Masters, I did a six-month internship at the Financial Times, then I got a three-month contract at Dazed & Confused magazine. That kicked off my freelance career cos they gave me a contract to do weekend editing. I was freelancing throughout the week, and then working every Saturday and Sunday – it was very intense.
I wanted to do something to help other people, and journalism could be used very effectively in that way
What was your first published article?
My first published article was at The Guardian, when I was doing work experience there. I would've been about 17. [Is 17 too young for university? "On a cool day last September, I stood in the great grey shadow of my university for the first time – scared and excited."]
However the one that sticks out for me was a Vice article I wrote in 2015: 'This Is What it's Like to Be a Mixed-Race Girl on Tinder'. I remember it distinctly because it was a cold pitch and I wasn't expecting to get a response, but they really liked the idea. It was before everyone was talking about the racialised nature of dating apps, so it did pretty well. That was the piece that put me on the radar of the girls who started gal-dem. [Opening paragraph: "I'd love to have sex with a black girl," read the message from David, 25, who had matched with me on Tinder. "I've never been with one before. You in?"]
How did you get involved in gal-dem?
I was there from the beginning; it started as a Facebook group, and I was there for, like, the second in-person meeting. Nobody had any journalistic experience, so I felt I could offer that, which was really nice. I'd been running my uni mag for a year at that point, and was very invested in becoming a journalist – I would go to all the talks, read all these pieces online.
I knew I wanted to do something to help other people, and that journalism could be used very effectively in that way. Seeing headlines in the right-wing tabloids, and knowing I wanted to do something to counteract the negativity that was especially affecting people in my community, the broader community of people of colour in the UK.
It's fair to say you see journalism as a real vehicle for social change?
I found it so frustrating when I was studying, because you're constantly told that it's this unbiased entity. If you fall on the side of the argument that it doesn't matter what you write because you're only reflecting society instead of influencing it, I think there is a problem – because that's patently not true. As humans we are influenced by all sorts of things. You hear lines from right-wing tabloids coming out of the mouths of children because their parents have read the paper. It's as toxic and as simple as that. It's propaganda in many ways.
I have acquaintances that I met in my studies who have ended up working at institutions where I know they don't hold the same political views. It frustrates me a lot. If you don't agree with a paper or a media institution ethically, on a fundamental basis, you absolutely should not be giving your skills and services to them. There's not a lot in life that doesn't benefit from nuance, but for me that's one of the few clear 'right or wrong' situations.
Where does that conviction come from?
My dad is very left-wing, he was a punk in the Eighties. We'd have debates, talk about these things. I've always been very clear with the fact that the world is not a good place, and we should be attempting to make it a better place, and if what you're doing is not involved in that, or if you're not trying to work that into the ways you behave and spread your influence, then that's a terrible thing. [Laughs.] Well, maybe not terrible – just try harder! Try harder!
I hoped and dreamed that salaries might happen, but I didn't ever really think that we'd be able to pull it off
In the past four years, gal-dem has gone from university project to fully fledged media company. How has that journey been?
There were four big jumps. Firstly, the V & A takeover in 2016. We took over the whole museum and curated a bunch of events that were happening that night. The amount of people who came down to that was a real, physical representation that we were making a difference.
Publishing our print magazine was really exciting as well. We're now publishing our fourth print issue this year. Also, getting our first office space in 2017. Because we started off online, anything that's felt like a big deal to me has been when we've seen that translated to the real life space.
Finally, getting salaries! I hoped and dreamed that it might happen, but I didn't ever really think that we'd be able to pull it off. Like, I was aware that gal-dem had a certain amount of cultural capital, we were making moves, and considering the fact we were all volunteers up until this February we'd done amazing things. We'd done the takeover of the Guardian, worked with the Tate, the BFI, all sorts.
We all had to work, it wasn't a money-making venture for any of us. Our careers came up alongside it. Even now, with a staff base of five-to-nine people, we're still learning. We're still very young, we're nearly all under the age of 30. It's meant that we have a lot more life experiences, and understanding how the media, commercial sides of the industry work, then we would have done if we'd been given a pot of investment from the moment gal-dem started. It wasn't always enjoyable or easy to balance something I cared about so much alongside my professional responsibilities, but I can't see how we would be heading up the business if that hadn't happened.
Are there any articles you're particularly proud of?
When I was finishing at the FT, I wrote a feature on the hair salons in Peckham. I was proud of that one, it was my first long-form print feature in a respected publication. It took some time, and I had to really push myself out of my comfort zone. It felt it was doing a good thing in terms of raising a wee bit of awareness. [Hair today: can Peckham’s salons survive regeneration? "A slender brown arm is gently tugging at mine, and a finger twists a curl in my knotted Afro hair. “Want your hair done?” a woman asks me as I turn around."]
I wrote a big features after the FOSTA, SESTA bills passed in the US. [Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act; Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act] It meant a lot of sex workers couldn't advertise online anymore. At the time the article was published, there wasn't a huge amount of dialogue about it. I tried to reach out to a real range of different sex workers from different backgrounds. [Why sex workers are fighting for internet freedom and their lives. "One of the most memorable and distressing moments in journalist Noor Tagouri's new documentary on the sex industry in the US surrounds the death of 16-year-old Desiree Robinson."]
Finally, I wrote a piece off the back of the Lammy Review, which was to do with why a disproportionate amount of black people or ethnic minorities end up in prison in the UK. It was specifically looking at black women's experiences in prison, and why black women are so much more likely to be convicted for the same type of crime than a white woman. I was proud of that piece as well. [Why Are Twice the Amount of Black Women Imprisoned for Drug Crimes Than White Women? "I wasn't expecting to go to prison," says Dionne. "Even the police were really nice when they were arresting me. They said I wouldn't get a custodial sentence because it was my first offence, I'd always had a high profile job and there were mitigating circumstances – I was an addict."]
I saw in the aftermath of the Windrush scandal this real, gaping chasm of knowledge when it came to the UK's colonial history
How did your book Mother Country come about?
I wrote an article for gal-dem a few years ago about women of the Windrush generation. [The women of the Windrush Generation. "On a recent trip to Jamaica my Great Aunty Girly told me that she didn’t think she would see the rest of her family again before she died."]
A publisher read the piece, and asked if I'd be interested in doing a book around the Windrush generation. I had two months to put it all together, which is an incredibly short lead time for a book.
I wanted to do it on a personal basis, because I saw in the aftermath of the Windrush scandal this real, gaping chasm of knowledge when it came to the UK's colonial history, the UK's understanding of the intersection between that colonial history and slavery. People didn't realise how the majority of black and Asian people came to be here – this surge of migration from the Caribbean that was encouraged, not always by the government but certainly by government-affiliated organisations like Transport For London and the NHS.
I don't have a particularly close relationship with my extended family on my mother's side, which is my black / Caribbean side, so to be able to sit down and speak to all these people about what is was like when they came here, what it was like growing up here as first, second, third generation migrants was incredible.
It's that stereotype of being that mixed race, mixed up kid – if you want to rid yourself of that feeling of not knowing who you are, or what you are, then that's a very easy way to do it. By seeking out oral histories of people who have been through similar experiences to those in your family. Yeah, that was brilliant, and heartbreaking.
Would you want to write another book?
Oh, I don't know. I haven't thought of a good idea for another book yet! I think it's something that should be treated with due respect, authoring a book, and I think it's weird when I've heard people say it flippantly: 'oh, I want to write a book.' But why? Why do you want to write a book? It's not a thing in and of itself – it should be about imparting some sort of information or knowledge or creativity.
Going back to gal-dem – as head of editorial, how do you hope to shape the magazine's voice?
We very vaguely cultivated this voice when I was the opinions editor; it was very young – we've never really given a shit about using terminology that we're comfortable with, and not explaining it. It was a little bit spiky. And I guess it was always about making sure we had the right person writing each piece. That was the key thing.
We know at the moment we're not being published by mainstream media organisations, and that we should be. The best way of proving that is getting someone who has a good understanding of X thing, and is from a background that it perhaps relates to, to write each article. There's a huge diversity problem when it comes to commissioning editors choosing who they work with on a freelance basis, and also with the type of people who are hired by mainstream publications as well
Since we've been going as a business, we've been focusing on developing our features so we can start doing more investigative work into issues that affect the communities we represent. We'll also continue to publish essays which speak to underrepresented experiences – I'm going to continue repeating the same words but it's just the truth. Also, fast turnaround opinion pieces on current affairs.
I could spout you a line, but in reality with gal-dem it's just that constant balancing act of wanting to do the best by marginalised voices and giving them a platform to express themselves in the way they choose, and also having an editorial voice that is sparky, spunky, and accurate. Making sure everything we say is accurate, and unashamedly political.
Further ambitions for gal-dem?
I want us to go global, and actually do what it says on the tin – which is to continue to push and influence the media in this country, and elsewhere, in a good direction. Also, to exist as something beyond that, so we're not just seen as some kind of 'diversity plaster'. We're a lot more than that. Even though, yes, maybe we are still developing our editorial voice, we're still coming into ourselves because we're young and we still have a lot to learn.
But gal-dem has managed to do a lot of very special things over the past four years, with zero resources, so now we actually have resources the world is our oyster! We could take it in so many different directions; and we have the intelligence, the forthrightness, and the goodness of spirit – I hope – to be able to achieve that.
For more info, see charliebrinkhurstcuff.com