An Uber driver once told 2014 journalism alumna Sofiya Ballin, “black people don’t know how to be successful.”
Ballin begged to differ.
“Black people existed before slavery,” Ballin said. “We had empires, we had villages, we were successful, we pioneered math and science and people don’t know that.”
When she lived in Mount Vernon, New York, a suburb outside the Bronx, Ballin attended a predominantly black school, where her childhood was cloaked in celebrations of black history.
She studied the story of Queen Nzinga, a powerful ruler of 17th century Angola. She memorized “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song often labeled as “The Black National Anthem.” She took day trips with her father into Harlem, which she said felt like “stepping into black culture.”
To Ballin, the driver’s comment was an indication that others had not received the history lessons she had.
Now, she’s working to change that.
The 23-year-old Inquirer staff writer is the creator of “Black History: What I Wish I Knew,” a Black History Month identity series that voices stories of black Philadelphians.
From Joan Myers Brown, founder of PhilaDanco, to Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of hip-hop group The Roots, the storytellers discuss what they learned, and didn’t learn, about black history.
Sandra Clark, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s managing editor, said the series is the first project to run every day for over a month in all three publications: the Daily News, the Inquirer and philly.com
“She really, really worked hard to come up with a diverse group of stories, and you know, I’ve just gotten nothing but good feedback about that,” Clark said.
Each interviewee—33, including Ballin—is black. Some had advised Ballin to include non-black speakers, but she remained determined not to compromise the message of the series.
“It’s important to have black people telling black stories and giving them a platform to do so,” Ballin said. “That’s empowering for a young black kid who may have only had white teachers all their entire life, and for the first time they’re learning something from a black person.”
Shortly before high school, Ballin moved from Mount Vernon to the Poconos in Pennsylvania, where her classmates and teachers were mostly white. She began noticing internalized racism in black students.
“And I’m sitting right there, and I’m listening to it and I was like, ‘Wow. When did you forget that you are great? When did you forget that you are great?’” Ballin said. “‘Do you know that you are a gem, walking through these halls?’”
When she was 17, Ballin began writing for The Coil Review, a website that celebrated natural hair. Under the influence of her parents, Ballin had never chemically straightened her hair.
“I’ve never processed her hair for a reason,” said Julie Ballin, Sofiya’s mother, “I believe that you should love yourself the way you are.”
Julie Ballin always knew her daughter could write, but did not realize the magnitude of her talent until Sofiya recited a poem at her high school’s mother’s day celebration.
“People were crying, people were holding their chests. I was a mess!,” Julie Ballin said. After seeing the effects of her daughter’s writing, she encouraged her daughter to pursue it as a career.
“From that day I knew. I said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, just be the best journalist that you can because you have something there, something in you, that is different, that is original, that is unique,’” Julie Ballin said.
Ballin began looking at Temple when her best friend applied. After reading about the urban, diverse environment at the university, she committed without visiting.
In her introductory class, she listened as the associate professor of journalism, George Miller, told the class about his then-newly created alternative music magazine, JUMP.
Immediately, Ballin offered to write for Miller.
“Who is this pompous little kid?” Miller said he remembered thinking at the time.
The first story Miller assigned to Ballin was budgeted at 600 words. Ballin turned in a 1,500-word piece.
Miller began editing Ballin’s pieces with her, line by line. She became attuned to the music scene, interviewing artists like Black Thought, covering block parties and handing out magazines at Made in America.
One day when Ballin was a sophomore, she was reading the magazine’s masthead when she noticed her name was on the list of senior staff members.
“He was the first person to really say like, your ideas are great, and to run with them,” Ballin said. “He was part of the reason why I can now have a project like this and pitch it to The Philadelphia Inquirer staff.”
While attending Temple, Ballin also interned for The Daily News. On campus, she kept busy working as the president of the Student Organization for Caribbean Awareness and contributing to Huffington Post.
Finally, Clark, who’d heard about Ballin from a colleague, reached out to the student. In September of 2014, Ballin joined the Inquirer staff.
“We get so few hires these days, that we really have to hire people who can you know who have real promise and can make a difference quickly, and I would say she’s one of those,” Clark said.
During her time at the Inquirer, Ballin has written everything from a tribute to Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen,” to a commentary on cuffing season, to a profile on Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson, to a series on black history conducted by black people.
“It’s pretty fantastic,” Miller said of “What I Wish I Knew.” “And it’s ‘cause of her, you know? She went out there and did that. It’s like the most amazing level of pride you could ever imagine.”
CORRECTION: In a version of this article that also ran in print, it was said that Ballin never chemically altered her hair. To clarify, she has never chemically straightened her hair, but she has dyed it.
Angela Gervasi can be reached at email@example.com.