When Faiza Farah walked into a local coffee shop in Oakland, California one day, a framed photo of an African American man that hung on the wall caused her to face a bitter reality.
“In that moment it just dawned on me that as we’re being pushed out of the city, who we are and our culture is being relegated to artifacts on the wall. It pissed me off,” she said passionately during our conversation over the phone. “So I thought, what can I do to push back against displacement? It isn’t gentrification. Black folks want to live in nice neighborhoods and they want frothy lattes as well, it’s not that. It’s that as soon as the neighborhoods they’ve invested in and worked so hard to uplift become really shiny and beautiful, they get pushed out.”
That displacement came as a result of the so-called gentrification taking place in the Bay Area–which now boasts a seemingly unattainable cost of living in San Francisco and rising costs in Oakland. In facing her anger around the issue, Farah began to develop the idea for “The Third Space” in her mind. After teaming up with a group of creatives, she eventually launched the online video series that features her conversing with black creatives from the Oakland area in coffee shops.
Since the success of the show which was picked up by Blavity and Kweli TV, Farah is working on a detailed business plan for Third Space Media, an online channel in which will feature work produced by the company and offer licensing deals with other black video content creators.
I spoke to Farah about the new venture, what to expect from season 2 of The Third Space, and how important it is to see brown skin presented in a positive way.
What’s your background Faiza?
I was born to Ethiopian parents. My mother was a refugee and I was born in Saudi Arabia. My father was working in Saudi Arabia at the time. When I was 2 my family moved to Italy. So I spent some of my life in Italy. I went to boarding school in Italy. It sounds really glamorous but really it was in response to some racist housing policy that my parents weren’t able to get a home with their children so they had to put us in school. Some families that didn’t have money would end up in homeless shelters so they could be with their children. My father had saved up some money for us to go to boarding school.
So we were in Italy for about 10 years then my family moved to Vancouver, Canada from Italy. I moved to the Bay area when I went to college and just kind of stayed there.
What inspired you to become a storyteller?
In terms of the work that I do and the reason that I’m doing the work particularly in Oakland, when I was growing up in Vancouver I was like the only black kid in my class and I learned English in Vancouver, so I was like this black kid that didn’t speak English, I spoke Italian, I was like an alien. The only connection to blackness I had was through art and history and culture. I was really privileged to have a teacher that noticed that I was studious and gave me really great books to read. So at a very early age I was reading Baldwin and Morrison and Hooks. That actually was my introduction or my political awakening and my connection to my blackness. I have a ferocious appetite for African American history and everything from the transatlantic slave trade, to civil rights, to Jim Crow. All of it and everything in between. Who I was wasn’t being reflected in my everyday life because there weren’t too many black folks in Vancouver at the time.
How did the idea for The Third Space come about initially?
The way that I got into this, living in Oakland and being attracted to Oakland ever since I was a little girl knowing that this was the birthplace of the black panther party and this kind of do-for-self model that really exists in Oakland, I was noticing the devastating numbers of African Americans, and black people in general who being displaced out of Oakland. There’s silicone valley and it’s super expensive to live in San Francisco. Folks who are working class in San Francisco are being pushed out because he median income to live in San Francisco is $100-$150,000 a year. Those people are being pushed out and they’re moving to Oakland. They are pushing out so many black people.
The only thing that kept coming up for me was storytelling. It’s always been something that I’ve played with for myself throughout the years. So I thought, let me see if I can teach myself these skills and do all of the research and apply the kind of rigor I had in my professional life and see if I can learn these skills and maybe create something that helped to tell the stories of the people that really make this place really awesome. I didn’t see anyone documenting these stories so I thought, let’s see if I can do it, and not only do it just to do it, but have really high production value and to have the quality meet the excellence of the folks who we were speaking to. I joke about how youtube university graduated me.
How did the initial planning for The Third Space begin?
A bunch of us got together and started thinking about what an interview format show would look like and what this web series could look like. We had our first meeting and we spent an hour and a half geeking out on sci-fi then it was like, ‘oh wait, this is the work. We are here together and we’re building and this is where it comes from.’ Like you hear stories about the Black Panther Party and you have these images or ideas that there are somehow these high level figures, but really they were young people who got together and felt like, you know what we’ve got to do something, and then did something about it. And it’s not as glamorous or unattainable as we think.
This was kind of happening around the time we all were talking about the lack of diversity in media. I was just kind of tired of complaining about it and lamenting about the lack of diversity and representation in media. So instead of being consumers complaining about it, it was like, maybe we can be producers.
How have you guys incorporated diversity into what you’re doing?
With The Third Space, after we filmed the pilot season it did really well. A lot of the time when people think of diversity it’s reactionary. They think if they have some token folks there or some figureheads that somehow the problem is solved. The way I think about it is if you are thinking, through the planning and through the ideas stage and at every single part of it, if the process is inclusive and is a reflection of your values, the product or whatever you create, will be a reflection of that. There’s no short cut. For me it was important to work with a complete black crew. That’s important to the work that we’re doing. Even in a small way like lighting black skin. It doesn’t seem like it’s a big deal but it actually is.
We were able to get a crew together, we filmed our first season, it got picked up on Blavity and Kweli TV. We had other platforms that wanted to pay us for to be on their local institutions here in the Bay, but it was important for me to collaborate with other black women who work in media.
So how did the idea to make the Third Space a full fledged online video hub come about?
After we filmed the first season, people got really excited about the work that we’re doing, so we started to think, maybe having one show doesn’t really do enough to push back against the lack of representation in media and also the work we want to be doing here in the Bay area in Oakland in particular. So we decided to evolve the idea of just being a web series to an online channel. I’m doing all of the business development for the online platform. We want to create some of the content in house, but really this is going to be an opportunity to create a platform for other black content video content creators to get the support that they need, no matter where they are. They could be in the bay area or wherever. If you’re a black content creator, going to Youtube, your content just kind of drowns in this sea of content. You don’t necessarily get the resources and support that you need to continue doing the work that you’re doing. I think to myself if Issa Rae didn’t get the deal at HBO when she got the deal at HBO would she still be working at some non-profit? Would we have lost a talent like her? And just because one person gets through the door doesn’t mean there are like thousands of people behind her that are still trying to find a way. For me it’s really important to think about creating space for other people and beyond just paying them for how many views their video gets. Thinking about a more equitable way of collaborating with people. We are really looking at revenue sharing models so we can share advertising revenue.
What sort of programming can people expect?
It’s going to be a mix. We have the interview format show. We’re going to be adding a travel show. We have an animation show. We asked black women to give us a 2 minute dating horror story and we’ve animated the stories and we’re using their voices. There are stories of black excellence and black tragedy. I’m interested in what’s in the middle. Our humanity. When I think about this work, I think about how valuable it is to see brown skin animated, or seeing the relationship between a sister and a brother, or highlighting uplifting stories about the diaspora, because our blackness is so dynamic. So the content you can expect, it really will run the gamut.
Look out for the second season of The Third Space