It’s Women’s History Month, and we’re picking the brains of bold, powerful women who represent our future. Today, meet writer and activist Ally Hickson.
Throughout time, we’ve counted on a small number of community leaders to push things forward, break perceptions, and bring change. And ladies, the past two years have been pivotal. We’ve seen–and struggled with, and spoken out against, and called shit out on–issues that have been pressing, and still continue to press, womenkind. It’s change that we want to champion throughout this month, while celebrating those who are propelling us into a far better future. So throughout March, we are focusing what matters to us most, right now: groundbreaking, culture-shifting, era-defying, and straight up goals women.
By Zarna Surti
Photos by Maya Fuhr
Ally Hickson is that girl—you know, the one that has the killer job, shows up in epic outfits everyday (her favorite is her grandmother’s purple jumpsuit), and most importantly, manages to make a true difference in her community every single day. Let me break it down for you a little, she runs Refinery29’s Unbothered—a community made for and by Black millennial women, where they focus celebrating their beauty, strength, and power through social media. And if that wasn’t enough, she also contributes to Refinery29 on the regular, makes time for bhangra and hip-hop dance classes, and of course, spends a good amount of time on IG, where we learned she’s a “feed for life” kinda girl who enjoys throwing her three favorite emojis around—the crystal ball, praise hands, and the rocket ship. We caught up with her on free bagel Fridays at Refinery29 to learn all about where she started, what it was like to take Unbothered from just an idea into a reality, and of course, what she thought about Black Panther.
First things first, Black Panther! Thoughts?
YES! I’m a major Marvel fan and I’ve already seen Black Panther twice! It was really emotional for me. I grew up loving comics and superheroes, but they rarely ever looked like me. So to see my blackness represented on screen was beautiful. It’s also just everything you want in a movie—it’s smart, it’s sexy, it’s action-packed. And Shuri is my hero. I want to be her when I grow up.
Where’d you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your childhood and what influenced you to work in journalism.
I grew up in Philadelphia, PA. When I was a kid I wanted to be a marine biologist actually, because I love sharks. But as I got older, I found that I really loved art and writing.
I never thought of journalism as a career until I took an intro class at Mount Holyoke in undergrad. It honestly changed my life. I didn’t realize that storytelling didn’t have to follow one format, that you didn’t need to write a novel; it opened my eyes to a entirely different way of telling stories, which is what I love to do. After that, I applied to a bunch of journalism schools, moved to New York City and the rest is history.
Marine Biology! That’s awesome. What inspires you about living in NYC?
It’s like a person—you’ll never know all of it. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, you turn a corner and find something you never noticed before. I generally hate surprises, but I know change is constant and I feel like change keeps you on your toes, keeps you thinking, keeps you fresh.
As a writer, we’re sure you have great book recs. What’re you currently reading that we should check out?
I’m reading three books at once because I’m such a Hermione Granger. I’m rotating between Alice Walker’s Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems, Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers, and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want To Talk About Race.
“I’m a big proponent of safe spaces for marginalized communities—spaces that let them celebrate what makes them different.”
Any other mediums that inspire your work?
So many! I’m a major film lover. Film theory is my personal pastime, so I’m always at the movies (thank God for MoviePass, BEST investment ever). I really love dancing; I used to do ballet and modern. These days I dabble in ballet, but take a lot more masala bhangra, modern, hip-hop, and I love it. Dancing still makes me happy in a way few other activities can. I love drawing too, especially with charcoal.
Who are the young, millennial creatives inspiring you most right now?
There are so many! I’m really into Kenesha Sneed, Cleo Wade, Suzanne Saroff, Bri Luna, Manthe Ribane, and Ruben Guadalupe Marquez right now. I’m also constantly inspired by my friends who are constantly creating and pushing boundaries with their art.
Also I’m really inspired by people on my own team—Refinery29 is like a hotbed of creative talent—especially, Lindsay Arakawa and Laurise McMillian, who both have an eye for elevated aesthetics and are just crazy talented.
When did you start working at Refinery29? What do you love most about it?
I started working at Refinery29 in fall 2015 and there’s a lot to love. The people are great, the office is cool, and we get free bagels on Fridays. But I think the best part of my job is that I work at a company that encourages me to be creative and trusts me to use my voice for causes I believe in.
Right now, I get to play the role of captain for Unbothered. And building that community on Instagram, but also in our own office, has been a career highlight for me. I’m a big proponent of safe spaces for marginalized communities—spaces that let them celebrate what makes them different and it’s very cool that I work at a company that not only gives me the tools to build those spaces, but encourages me to help them flourish.
How did the idea for Unbothered come about?
It was really Black women in our office coming together and wanting it. We have a lot of content that is produced for and by Black women, but we wanted a place for it all to live—and a space that was just for us. In the era that we’re living in, it’s nice to have a community that just lets you celebrate who you are. And being a Black woman is one aspect—and arguably the most important for many of us—of who we are.
“In the era that we’re living in, it’s nice to have a community that just lets you celebrate who you are. And being a Black woman is one aspect—and arguably the most important for many of us—of who we are.”
That’s so incredible and inspiring. To help other women out there, can you tell us how you took this idea from a thought into a full-fledged platform?
Hard work, to be honest. But the good news is the hard work was fun—and totally worth it. Once we had an idea, it was time to build. There was a lot of research and brainstorms. But there was also a lot of soul searching and asking, “What do we want this space to look like? What do we want to provide for our community?” I once heard Lindsey Day from CRWN magazine talk about taking ownership of your own story, and that was powerful to me. I also heard Jonathan Jackson from Blavity at a panel where he spoke about the way brands and companies frequently talk about the black community, but how rarely they’re talking to us. Those messages stuck with me. How can I make a space that is not only talking about us, but to us and from us? Using those ideas as guiding principles helped everything else fall into place.
“How can I make a space that is not only talking about us, but to us and from us? Using those ideas as guiding principles for Unbothered has helped everything else fall into place.”
What do you think are the biggest issues facing women today?
I think the biggest issues facing women all revolve around access. Access to education, access to birth control, access to water, access to health care. And your access isn’t just determined by your gender, but also by your race, religion, and sexual orientation too.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
The community we have in the office. Honestly, working on Unbothered has brought so many women—Black, white, Latinx—together in the office and it’s been incredible. People really believe in the space we’ve created and they always want to find a way to help, and that’s an amazing feeling. We had an Unbothered team outing to see Black Panther together, wearing all black, and it was so much fun! Bonds like that—especially with co-workers—are rare and I don’t take them for granted.