Being the mentee of feminist icon Roxane Gay is no small feat. But for Indiana-born, Brooklyn-based writer Ashley Ford, the relationship is only natural. “The black writing community is very small, and it’s important that we help each other,” said Gay in an interview with the Atlantic. Ford added that Gay provided help “in a way that allowed me to maintain some sense of dignity but also didn’t allow me to count myself out, which I had a history with at that point.”
In letting us in on her internal life, Ford gives her readers permission to feel afraid without fracturing their self-worth. On Twitter, Ford openly shares her anxieties. In long-form work, she’s written about being plus-size, not reporting her sexual assault, and swimming in the ocean for the first time at age 28. She is honest without being indulgent, detailed without being overwhelming, and, when necessary, cutting.
Ford’s upcoming memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, will explore her emotionally fraught childhood and relationship with her incarcerated father. As a signal of her promising rise, it’s only suitable that it will be published under Oprah’s imprint, “An Oprah Book.”
In an interview with Quartz, Ford shares the importance of saying “no,” the futility of networking, and her mother’s advice that pulls her out of moments of despair.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
My quick answer would be that none of us can be summed up by the best or worst thing we’ve ever done—but I actually think there are more than a few people talking about this. They’re just not being heard enough. People don’t like to hear that they can’t know one or two things about a person and then make an impenetrable character judgement. It makes us feel less safe when we accept how much we can’t know about the people around us or what they’re capable of. But it also makes us more empathetic and more vulnerable in the best ways. Because pretending we know the answers to unanswerable questions probably actually makes us less safe.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
I am driven. I’m not always driven in the right direction, but I will always look for ways, and make ways, to move forward in my life. I get sad or discontent, but I don’t get stuck. I will always find a way to get closer to wherever I am trying to be, as long as it doesn’t require me to step on other people or compromise my values. I just can’t stand in the same place for too long, not when it comes to my creative desires and processes.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
I would make sure that women have access to good healthcare and good choices for managing their reproductive health, and I would also make sure that any parent/guardian/caretaker who worked for me has adequate support to maintain a good balance between their work and family life.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I wish I had known saying “no” is always an option. I wish I hadn’t believed I didn’t have what it takes to report a story.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
There was a time when I was working in a creative position that didn’t require me to write and I thought I might never write again. Before I took the position, I had been freelance writing for a year and I was super broke, and I couldn’t do the kind of writing I really wanted to do. I felt like I wanted to go back to being a person who used to write in secret and would never show anybody anything. Eventually I realized what I really wanted was time to write the kinds of things I wanted to write in the way I wanted to write them. And that’s a real luxury. I am not there yet. I am regaining my confidence in my abilities and actively working on turning this around.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
I don’t do networking: I build community. I am not talking to anybody because of what they might be able to do for me—I am always talking to people because I want a better read on who they actually are and what interests them. I know it sounds woo-woo, but when people congratulate me on my “connections,” it feels a bit icky and insincere because the people they’re talking about are usually my actual friends. These aren’t just people who know my work: These are people who’ve had to listen to me cry. Even if we find a way to work together, they’re my community, not simply my professional network. Relationships can be everything in media, but you can smell insincerity, and it reeks.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“You’re the only person who has to live your life, so you should do whatever makes you happy.” My mama said that to me when I was waffling about changing my major in college. It always stuck with me that I could ask others for advice, but at the end of the day, I really needed to be honest with myself about what I wanted.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
Do your job, and don’t take credit for women’s work.
The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that Kenny Loggins is the king of Yacht Rock.
I wish people would stop telling me… that I’m “getting famous,” because fame isn’t a skill and means nothing.
Everyone should own… a book they love and can read over and over again.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.