Interview with SafeWordSociety Founder Kristen McCallum

by rachel lee
photos by amanda stosz

“Do you believe that sex is a prerequisite for commitment? Could you be in a long-term relationship without it?” “How can we liberate some of the heteronormative and toxic relationship models that we still fall into?”

These are just some of the questions included in Visibility Packs, a discussion-based card game for safe space discourse launched several weeks ago by SafeWordSociety. Originally a podcast, SafeWordSociety is a QTPOC (queer, transgender people of color) visibility company founded by CEO Kristen McCallum. Kristen started the project with a group of friends in Brooklyn last February, and now works to fill the gaps of QTPOC visibility in media in as many ways as she can; her mission to increase visibility is clearly working – the SafeWordSociety podcast has been highly reviewed by listeners across the QTPOC spectrum, and has gained an international listenership.

SafeWordSociety has grown over the last year from just a podcast to a blog, consultation and production for mission-aligned organizations, and a product line. With a live tour and new products in the works, Kristen is optimistic that “everything is going all the way up” and SafeWordSociety will become a cornerstone for queer visibility and community. Read the full interview below!

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How did SafeWordSociety get started? Where did the name come from?

I’m the friend in the group chat who starts all the discussions. At brunch, I always want to have discussions; we got into such good conversations, and I really wished everyone could hear the things we talked about. One day I thought, “Why can’t people hear what we’re talking about?”

I had never listened to a podcast, I didn’t know anything about audio equipment, but I gave myself a week to find out what to do, what equipment to buy, find out how to edit audio on YouTube. I scheduled a recording session with my friends in my living room at the end of the week, and episode 1 was created!

I was so nervous about [recording the first episode of the podcast]. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to sound like, or how long it was supposed to be. We used some janky mics from Amazon, and I had no idea what to do on the audio mixer. I had only known what I was doing for six days at the time. The concept for the episode [online dating as QTPOC] was amazing - we had just had that conversation over group text, so it was like a conversation we would normally have.

As for the name: me and my friends went to a house for my birthday, and again, I started a random discussion and we started talking about safe words.

Like sexual safe words?

Yes, sexual safe words. It got me thinking – for people who don’t experience sex with safe words, what are the safe words for [marginalized communities]? What are things that are non-negotiable for us and that allow people to understand they’re non-negotiable? To me, those are pronouns. There’s no conversation about that – this is who I am, this is how I identify, that’s it. So I thought it would be cool as a way to talk about discussions in the community, create something around what is non-negotiable. That’s why we start every episode with an introduction of our pronouns, with the guests also.

We were on a bus trip back to New York from an all-women’s day party at a strip club in DC, and I realized the name should be “SafeWordSociety.” I explained the concept to Lamika [Young, Kristen’s podcast co-host], and she loved it.

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What is an all-women’s day party at a strip club? What goes on there?

A lot. I had never been to an all-women’s day party (I didn’t even know strip clubs had day parties), but this strip club in DC shuts down the first Saturday of every month. It’s for all women-identified people to come and have a space that’s free of ogling men and have a good time. It’s essentially drinking, eating really good wings enjoying beautiful bodies and empowerment, and having a good time. It was amazing.

Circling back to SafeWordSociety, the company has branched out from being just a podcast to a blog, and a card game. Where did the idea for the Visibility Packs come from?

When I started the podcast, I didn’t think about anything past episode one. I had no idea what I was doing, I thought people wouldn’t listen to it, and that the quality wasn’t amazing. People did listen to it, because it was filling a gap. People got more interested, and our listenership started to grow – one of our biggest listenerships is in Uzbekistan, Uganda, all places outside of the country. I realized we need to expand and engage people who don’t have access to the podcast, so I created an umbrella company, SafeWordSociety, and started to make projects within it. The podcast became a project.

SafeWordSociety as a company has many services outside of the podcast. For New York Fashion Week in 2017, we produced a gender neutral evening wear show. A designer came to me and told me what they wanted to do; I had never produced a whole show before, but I’m all about visibility and I have a background in production, so I took a stab at it. This is exactly what we offer as a company: creative strategy and branding for mission-aligned brands, services, and businesses.

I’m a published writer and a lot of times, I’m wary of submitting my writing for websites. Everyone is looking for content that’s applicable; sometimes it’s difficult for a person who has a narrative like mine to send something, then be told [by a publication] they are not interested. You have to ask yourself, “What part of my marginalization are you not interested in?” It’s been difficult to get people interested in our work – it’s not less quality or less of anything, but people focus on what is trendy, and QTPOC aren’t trendy. We created the blog because I wanted to figure out a way to publish writing I care about, and a place for interviews with people I would love for this community to know more about, but might not be able to make it to the podcast. Now that we’re in season four, and we’re booked until the end of season five, so the blog is the place for writers in the community who want a platform, or aren’t ready to submit to huge publications.

I have been thinking about the visibility packs for a long time. Cards Against Humanity is triggering as fuck, and especially in this time, it’s not fun to laugh at that kind of stuff. [The Visibility Packs] are a form of learning and engagement. I’m sure other people want to have conversations but aren’t sure how to start them – I’m from a Jamaican family, and it’s really hard to have discussions when you don’t have the appropriate language. If we write the questions that we think should be asked, then you can never say the information isn’t there – you just have to go get it.  

 Visibility Packs. Image provided courtesy of SafeWordSociety

Visibility Packs. Image provided courtesy of SafeWordSociety

You mentioned there’s a gap in media that SafeWordSociety is filling – do you find that there are opportunities for queer creators of color, especially in the podcasting world?

There are other podcasts that focus on queer creators of color, or queer creators of color who focus on pop culture. We’re so inundated with [coverage on pop culture] from everywhere else, it’s not specifically something I wanted to focus on. I wanted to talk about things QTPOC are doing and allow people to tell their own stories. We’re the ones to do interviews and introduce people to a large arena of listeners. There aren’t a lot of places where I can see what my path could potentially be if I wanted to open a yoga studio as a marginalized person, or learn a victim of gun violence can focus on how to love their community. That’s a gap where tangible things are offered.  

What kinds of topics do you try to focus on when you think of episode ideas? Do you try to focus on the intersectionality between the two communities the podcast serves?

SafeWordSociety is a visibility company for all QTPOC. When I’m thinking of topics, I’m intentional in thinking just about the topic, not the identity of the person. If I want to talk about cooking, I look into the community for chefs that identify as QTPOC. Our topics cover literally everything – music, art – then we just look for guests in that field.

What is your favorite episode to date?

Season 1, episode 8. It’s about forgiveness, and it’s with Anyanwu Uwa who identifies as a love activist. She’s a survivor of gun violence, and talked to us about how that experience has helped her love her community more and be more forgiving. She went through a really heinous event, and has a response that is understanding and wants to put love into a community so these things don’t happen again. That episode was by far my favorite, because I recognized what we were doing, and what I had built.

You were featured by Autostraddle, which is every queer woman’s dream! What kind of impact is SafeWordSociety making in the queer media circles? What do you hope the listeners are taking away from it?

I think it’s making a really big impact. I know what I needed, and I don’t think I ever recognized the importance of creating things that I need. You don’t know what other people are looking for. Because it’s my genuine heart work, I recognize the impact it has on other people, because they can feel that I love it and I mean it, it’s important to me also.

I hope listeners are taking away a lot. What I try to do in each conversation is for people to see that even though we have struggles, we have grown through a lot of them. There’s a lot of trauma in the QTPOC community, but inside of that, people are having genuinely good times in their lives. We laugh too, we have bad dates, and we burn things when we cook. We get married, run businesses, make money. There are a lot of things to be proud of, and I hope listeners see things they don’t otherwise see. Before I started the podcast, I didn’t know a lot of successful QTPOC people existed as chefs, or successful entrepreneurs, because no one chooses to highlight that.

I want my eight-year-old niece who’s thinking about identity to be able to access resources that are positive and make her feel uplifted. If you don’t find them, create them!
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Who are some QTPOC you’ve been inspired by? What are some of your favorite podcasts, or queer-run media?

Lately? All my guests, seriously. We recently published an episode with Ericka Hart. She’s a breast cancer survivor and coined the term “topless activism.” I was exceptionally inspired by how she’s so positive. A lot of our guests are so positive through difficulty – our community deals with things as a part of our daily existence – but when they come on the podcast, it’s the opportunity to shoot the shit. I’m hosting the podcast through my life, while I’m going through personal issues, and my guests are helping me move forward. I’m inspired by the work they’re doing, and realizing I need to step my game up. My guests are grateful for the opportunity, which I’m always taken aback by. You’re grateful for this? I’m grateful you’re even on the podcast!

I love Dear Queer hosted by Robin Cloud, who was also one of my guests. She’s a comedian and she’s hilarious. Her podcast is essentially how she is. It’s an opportunity for me to listen to something if I want a break from everything. How many places as a queer black woman do I get to laugh about stuff?

I read a lot of Autostraddle and all of the queer media that’s up because I just want to be in the know. A lot of it is missing POC representation, and it’s hard to read sometimes. I started SafeWordSociety because I felt left out, and because I have a media company, the feeling of being left out is amplified now. I ingest as much queer media as possible because you have to be supportive of your community, but I try to stay away from it. I’m a human – feeling left out doesn’t feel good, and that’s what happens more often than not.

I don’t want this to be a super high pressure question, but what’s the future of the company, of the blog, and the podcast?

I’m a Virgo, remember? I’m high pressure all the time! [laughs]

Everything is going all the way up! That’s my intention. For the podcast, I’m completely shocked by the trajectory it’s taken. People are checking for it now. I should have expected this – I put my whole heart into the work – but do you ever do that? I still think nobody’s going to listen to it, four seasons in. We’re working on going on a tour and doing live shows. I want to go to new places, be with live audiences, and see what format a live-show takes.

In terms of the website and the blog, I want to build the blog out to an outlet where writers can submit and it’s a go-to place for QTPOC narratives of all kinds. The visibility packs are coming, and I’m so excited. I want to tour with those – we have specific workshops we’re building out for the packs, and I want to take those to conferences, college campuses, classrooms – wherever people can facilitate these conversations, and create open dialogue and safe spaces. This first visibility pack that’s coming out is the original pack, but we’re going to partner with past guests and influencers on custom packs and partnership packs [focused on specific topics]. I’m also working on another product I want to release in the summer – I can’t say anything about it yet, but the thought process is in the work.

The company itself is just going to grow. There are so many things I want to do. I want to get into TV, and that’s something I’ve never had the capacity to do it, but I can actually do anything if I teach myself how to. I have been working on pilot ideas and ways to make SafeWordSociety a huge ass media house. It’s necessary. I want us to be the staple for visibility, to have events and workshops and feel empowered to do anything they can and know anything is possible with community. There are other people who care about what you’re doing and your experience. It may not be the same experience, but they’ll work with you and help you out. I don’t know how I became this person, but I’m so dedicated to getting our voices and our work created, uplifted, and archived. It’s so important to have an archive of this moment. I want my eight-year-old niece who’s thinking about identity to be able to access resources that are positive and make her feel uplifted. If you don’t find them, create them!

Find SafeWordSociety's podcasts and resources on their website, Instagram, and Twitter. You can join the SafeWordSociety team at their first game night with the Visibility Packs on Thursday, March 22 in Brooklyn, NY – details and RSVP are on the Facebook event page.