“Sometimes it’s not about the work that you do, but the way that you do it and the way people view you.”
A look at how freelancing can feed a diverse career with Vilissa Thompson, disability activist and social worker. Vilissa has a unique angle on freelancing as a social worker who lives with disability issues, but also having built a career of blended skills, including writing, public speaking, and consulting.
“When I tell you this has been glorious…I was scared, but I felt that if I don’t do it now, when.”
Welcome to episode 4 of The Black Freelance Podcast. I’m Megan and I keep things running around here. In this episode, we’ve got a really interesting conversation with Vilissa Thompson, disability activist and freelance writer, trainer, consultant. Vilissa does a little bit of everything, but in a way that gels together under the umbrella of macro social work. Apologies for a few bumps in the internet connection but, give it a listen to learn how she’s handled employment challenges, how the pandemic changed her goal of full-time public speaking, and how freelancing is supporting her mental health with everything going on. So, I’m not going to keep you waiting, here’s Vilissa. Vilissa, how’s everything going?
Everything’s going good, Megan. It’s a pandemic.
It’s very “the pandemic”.
[inaudible 01:03] It’s 6 months in and before we started, I was about to celebrate my birthday, which I was not expecting to do in a pandemic.
But here we are, we’re making the most of it the best we can.
Exactly. And I think you’re in a situation like me where it’s been a change, but it hasn’t been a huge change like it has for a lot of people.
Right. With my work, when I had started my activism and then when I started working full time, it’s all been online. So, work from home has been my jam. I think the biggest transition is realizing that everybody’s at home and seeing everybody at home and they’re adjusting to life at home with their partners, spouses, other family, their kids, and also seeing the school transition with the kids as well. That’s been the biggest thing to witness right now.
Yeah. That’s been a lot, I know a lot of my clients it’s been… Honestly, the biggest transition is helping them and adjusting to them adjusting. That’s been a whole thing.
Right and also, just seeing how organizations and companies are adjusting their in-person world or at the office world to virtual, with conferences and other events that they’re now having to shift online and I think that some of them are not realizing that this is going to be the way for a while. It’s not just going to be 2020, this is going to be 2021 as well and possibly 2022. Depends on how things go with the election and then with the vaccine and all of that.
So, tell me, how did you get into freelancing? What’s your freelancing backstory?
Yeah, so I kind of got into it a little bit by accident. 10 years ago, I went to grad school thinking that I was going to become a therapist and that has not been my trajectory over the past 10 years. When I graduated in 2012 with my masters in social work, I started to blog from a social work angle about disability issues to kind of fill my time as I was job hunting and a year later I created my blog and organization- Rep Your Voice, as a way to expand upon that, to discuss disability from a more intersectional lens as a black disabled woman as well as keeping the social worker aspect in there and just my perspectives of the way that I view the world and how the world responds and views me and others that look like me. It just kind of happened by accident with blogging and then coming into a space that I saw that lacked the diversity of perspectives and how I just saw a way to fill that and then it just kind of created a life on its own from there.
What kind of freelancing do you do? Are you writing in the disability space? Are you doing consulting? What does that look like?
I do a little bit of everything. I’ve called myself a Jill of all trades, a master of one, [inaudible 04:17] social work. I do writing, that’s kind of my start with the blogging, definitely with writing. Right now, I took a writing gig for about six months with an outlet, they haven’t announced it yet but, took it with the outlet that I’d be centering gender justice with them. I do a free match writing for different outlets in case somebody asks me to write on a topic or I send out a pitch, but I also do clubby speaking and I started doing that around the time I created Rep Your Voice in 2013, I started to give presentations at social work conferences, which was a very kind of low key way of dipping my toes into the speaking world, without it being so scary. It was among colleagues, It was kind of a safe space and allowed me to get a feel of what topics people may want to hear about. When I would submit these proposals to conduct workshops, I would do them from a lens of a social worker who has this disability and wants to talk about disability issues, which was something that a lot of these spaces were not used to getting, which allowed my proposal pitch to be accepted. I was slowly, unknowing to me filling this gap with [inaudible 05:39] profession of perspective, because when people would talk about disability, it’s usually from a very clinical setting, so they have this very medical model, charity model at times, very clinically based understanding of disability and when they talk about it. And it’s not really from the vein of the activism community of this population.
So, I was just able to really fill in this necessary gap. I just learned how to do public speaking, how to create presentations. What does that look like? And that kind of led me to becoming a clerical professional who handles my bookings when it comes to speaking at universities, organizations, and so forth. But in addition to that, I also do consulting work either for individuals. I have a client who’s a lawyer who’s figuring out a social media angle because I have a background in digital managing from the full time work that I used to do as a digital manager and having my own platform allowed me to gather tools about social media, blogging, how to do a website, when it comes to adding content on them. Doing that for myself allowed me to build up these skills to do digital managing.
So, I have this one client who I am assisting her with her branding and what does she want her online presence to look like as a lawyer who centers disability discrimination. And also, I’m working with organizations about different disability issues so I wanted to understand more about disability rights, disability justice so I wanted to understand more about accessibility, especially during these times where everything is online and organizations are figuring out how to reach the audiences as well as be assessable with their content, with their events so that no one is being left behind. So, definitely doing more of the consulting and the training in these times of the pandemic, which I think people are really getting more in tuned with. And also just really being into just trying new things, within all of these schools, with the writing, speaking, consulting and training the figuring out how they can all kind of mesh together in some ways, because sometimes they do kind of come together if I’m being sought after for one thing but organizations may realize, Oh, you have this skill set, let’s add this to what you’re doing. So right now, my four primary areas are finding ways to blend together, which is great for me because that means more content being done, more work is being done. Also, I’m getting money too in the time… So that’s just kind of how my career has evolved over these past seven years, really.
You have, because we didn’t really start talking on Twitter until maybe a couple of years ago, but you’ve changed my opinion on quite a few things because what you just describe, just the way that your career has shaped, probably two years ago, I wouldn’t have understood how that worked. Especially from a speaking perspective, because when I first started thinking about freelancing, speaking in my world, it’s kind of something you use for marketing it’s not really its own thing. So, talk a little bit, if you can, about how speaking fits into your income plan and just in your freelance work in general.
Yes. Speaking wasn’t really in my plans at all. I have my mentor who was a professor in my grad program. She really got me to think about macro social work because I consider myself a macro social worker. I look at the way systems impact people and communities and how people, communities react to those systems. So, within macro social work you do have advocacy, we do have political work that you do. And I know I’ve been politically involved this year with certain campaigns and you have the education piece, which I love to do and that’s kind of what speaking for me is when I do either panels, presentations, workshops, that educational piece is so important and that’s something that really drives me. I do a lot of what I call Disability 101 discussions because I saw that a lot of people are at ground zero in their understanding of disability from… It’s a sectional way, but also from a community lands and understanding who is this community? Who is a part of this community? What issues do they have? That’s not leading to stereotypes of tropes that people typically think of when it comes to disability. So in speaking, I do a lot of educating in what I do and given a lot of room for people to ask the questions that they may be scared to ask, or they may think that it’s silly to ask. So, I think for me, speaking, wasn’t a part of my plans. I really am not somebody who desires to do pro speaking, but I am good at it. And so, I really lean into the things that I may be, maybe I was scared to do, but find out that, oh yeah, I can do this. Okay. Let me figure out a way to make this not just marketable, but also impactful to those who are listening to my words or seeing my presentation and making sure that they’re getting what I wanted to get out of it.
So, speaking is a lot about preparation. It’s a lot about figuring out what is your end goal here? If I’m talking about employment and disability, what do I want those who are in positions of power to think about disabled people who desire to work and also the way that capitalism impacts their whole sense of being worthy to work because some people cannot work. So, what does that mean if a disabled person cannot work? How do you see your worth in a capitalist society? So, it’s just really getting them to think about these things. I know that especially now with the pandemic talking about the whole shift to work from home and how disabled people we’ve been doing it. This isn’t new for us at all. And I think some of the frustrations that the community has had is not just seeing a shift, but this openness, that many of us did not encounter when we desired to work from home or go to school from home and the resistance to that in ableism that we faced because of that. So that’s been a lot of conversation about the different shifts that I’ve been talking about in interviews that people reached out to me about particularly during the first half of the pandemic and just really talk about how we’ve been here, we’ve been doing this, the value of technology we utilize technology well and how particularly the labor force has been reluctant and neglected to retain disabled talent. And what has that meant to the collective society? So, speaking about different things had just allowed me to have a very diverse portfolio of what I can discuss, what I can be a part of. And I really liked that because it keeps me fresh. I don’t really want to be nailed down to one thing. That’s really not how I am as a person. I like having a variety of interests because it keeps me motivated to continue to learn and to continue to hone my skills and just really be more effective in being able to reach different audiences.
I know that one thing I love to do is pop into different spaces during the Americans with Disabilities Act anniversary in July, I got to talk to one of the favorite astrologists that I follow on Twitter about the ADA burst chart. So it just having that kind of diversity of being somebody who’s into astrology and being able to combine my interest in astrology with disability rights like just a nice little place to land and be able to have a diversity in the topics and the speaking that I’m able to do. So, like I said, it wasn’t part of my plan at all, but I’ve learned how to fine-tune it. I continue to do that, to, to do that and to be seen as somebody who can talk a little bit about everything, I don’t have to be the owner of a lot of topics, but I can be very strong in my ability to discuss them in a way that allows people to look up the different angles that they’re not considering.
What you’re talking about is so important because there’s so many really surprising freelance stories. When somebody is talking like, Oh, I just got into freelancing and Oh my career just kind of emerged. They come from a space where you’ve established an expertise and you put yourself out there and then people start to recognize you. And that’s kind of the foundation of how you build relationships and get new clients and even discover new ways to new services to present as a freelancer.
Yes, and I feel like, for me, I have a background in social work and that’s a very underrated background. And I say it’s underrated because people, sell social workers, as one thing we do child protective services, that’s not all that we do. Social workers can really be in whatever field that you allow us to if you would just broaden your understanding of what we do as a profession. And I think that being a macro social worker, I think I have that freedom to do that. I could talk about advocacy. I could talk about politics. I could talk about education. I can talk about these issues and be able to bring them down to those kind of micro social work areas like childcare, health care, and dealing with educational system and things of that nature. So I think that having that background is social work, where I had to learn how people work and how systems work just really gave me a broader understanding of the way that I can move and how I can make those connections. I have a Bachelor of Psychology, which I do love, but I see kind of limitations in that. I think that social work for me is so broad in our scope and how we able to take a little bit of everything from everywhere, like from sociology and psychology. And of course, our particular field, and just really have this unique perspective that I think other fields do not. And be able to have a set of skills that is transferable. I really feel that social work is one of those transferable type of professionals’ fields that people sleep on.
Would you say most of your network and e-market is more kind of in the social work side or disability advocacy? You’re kind of like a blend where it’s like, where are you building most of your relationships as a freelancer?
Honestly, I’m not sure I’m kind of all over the place. Social work and disability spaces, but I’m in blurred spaces. I’m in writing spaces, I think of what I’ve done it just be that true Jill of all trades. I can kind of blend in, I can see what’s going on in the community and just kind of just be an observer. I really take that as the social, my psychology background is observing people and assessing, but also, hi, I’m innately, just observing. What are people talking about? For example, in blurred spaces, understanding that, Oh yeah, there are disabled comic book characters and they said, look at how they’re depicted in comic books or how they depicted in movies and what the ableism angles are in their spaces. I’m also looking at who is in these spaces, the nerds, and blures themselves. I always discuss how I’ve been in blurred spaces. Blurred for those may not be familiar. Blur is black nerd spaces for about maybe four years. And just seeing the evolution of that space, particularly on Twitter of the black women and black men that I follow and how just my presence there has allowed them to be more open about their disabilities. Cause I remember being in a space and nobody’s ever talking about their mental health or their chronic illnesses or anything like that until me and a couple of other disabled blurs that get into the space of puff. I’m out to save a character. They’re just talking about disability in general and just risk, really seeing this openness to really be like, yeah, I have a mental illness or I have this disability or kind of learning how to really make a part of my identity.
And that’s so crucial sometimes it’s not always about the work that you do, so thoughts about the way that you do it and how people view you and how you do things ethically, morally, in certain spaces. And it’s how you live. It’s nothing special that you have to do to be a representative for people or rep or allow them to learn from you by osmosis of just kind of watching you just live your truth. So, I really feel that a lot of my work isn’t just about the actual work. It’s just about the way that I am. It’s just how people just watch that and just take in whatever they see that I’m discussing or doing and see how it fits within who they are and what work that they’re doing. Because I know I have a lot of friends that tell me your work has really influenced how I talk about disability or how I relate to people in my family with certain conditions or illnesses and how I talk about it with myself. And that just really impactful to know that your work and just your existence is shaping and reshaping, how people understand and identity that isn’t really understood well. And it’s not because people with these identities are not living their life authentically. It’s just that society doesn’t take the time to unlearn a lot of the misconceptions about different communities and to really embrace the differences that people have to really see them fully or holistically, as we say in social work.
Would you say that freelancing has expanded that reach at all?
I think so. I think that at least from me, I’m able to get into certain spaces that that would not be talking about disability if some of us weren’t seen. So, I really think that freelancing is shaping how a lot of, lot of spaces movement spaces, advocacy, nonprofit, for-profit and so forth are thinking about disabilities. They’re thinking about how their organizations handle the spools when it come to the apartments and the work culture for the hiring. So, if their missions impact society and communities, are they including a disability lens in their framework? Or are they on a personal level? Are they realizing that, Hey, these illnesses that I have qualify as a disability, this is my identity, let me live more to that. This is part of who I am and not feel either shame or othering that part of who they are. So, I think that freelancing is a very freeing ability to touch people or situations either directly or indirectly in a way that reshape who and how they function, how they are and reshape them in a way that in many cases has been truly needed
Let’s circle back around to something you brought up earlier about your employment experience. There was a situation where you went and we talked about this a while back where you were given two options by your employer about your job, that you could either move to Seattle I think it was, or take a severance. Right. So how did that impact you?
Right. So I had, well, I started to work full time at the end of 2016 at one job until I got with the current employer that you’re referring to and I started to work because my grandmother was sick, well she had dementia, the dementia progressed and she passed away. So, I figured, okay, now that she has passed away, not living at home, having needs really take care of myself. I was on social security, so that’s not going to be enough. So of course, now it’s time to work because at that point I was being her caregiver full time. So, I looked for jobs. I was looking for jobs where I can use the skills that I already had built. I knew I really didn’t want to do traditional social work jobs because that would be a little bit complicated and social work jobs are unintentionally ableist in their requirements of having a car, being able to go to a house in particular if you do traditional social work and being a wisher user and living in the South, transportation can be very tricky. People houses are not built or ramps. So, I was very limited within my own profession as to what type of jobs I can acquire, particularly if they require being out in the field. So for me, what better to do online work and I applied for a position to be a digital manager because of the blogging I was familiar with, website content doing the backend of WordPress, and things like that, handling different social media platforms. So, I had a mass of these different skill sets that was unrelated to my degree that I went to school for but allowed me to be marketable in a new way. So, I applied to be a digital manager position and had that for two and a half years. And last fall I was approached with these two options to keep my job or be given a severance package because the program I was working for decided to shift gears in its focus. And I was told that they cannot justify keeping me remote with this shift, so it has to be one the other. And honestly, Megan, at that time I was getting burnt out. There was a lot of things that I saw that I was unhappy with and I was unhappy with this job. And during the time that I was being told that the two options, the answer to me from me was automatically, no, I live in South Carolina. I’m not about to move all across the country for a job what I was being paid with was fine for South Carolina would not have been fine for Seattle. So, I just took it as a leap or roll of faith and was like, what? Let me get out while I can. You want to pay me to be out? That’s fine by me. Let me just take my chances and do this freelance thing full time because I had a fulltime work, the freelance life kind of had to be the side hustle. And so, at this point I already had an agent to handle my speaking things. My profile as an activist and writer and such was growing, and I just felt that it was time. This was my way to get out, get out, and not look back and it’ll be a year in November. I have not looked back. And when I tell you this has been glorious. It has been glorious. I was scared, l I’m a Virgo through and through sun. I am not just making chances haphazardly. I am just too Virgoan for that, but I just felt that if I don’t do it now, when?
Like I said I’ll be thirty-five, I don’t have the kids. I’m not married. I could take these types of leaps still while I’m still young-ish. I can still take these leaps and just see what happens. And I think the most assuring thing about saying no was that the no felt right. It felt right to do so, and I wasn’t scared. Cause I thought I would be like, I was nervous. I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t nervous, but I wasn’t scared because I felt like this was the time. And my ancestors got me. They got me this far. They’re not going to leave me hanging. So, when the option presented itself, I was like, you know what? This is my time ago. And I don’t have to go on my own. You are, are allowing me to go with money and, and a pretty decent deal. Why the heck not? So, over this past year, really pretty much all of 2020 had just been me kind of floating alone but fully alone down a nice stream, haven’t hit any rocks. Thankfully besides the pandemic.
How big a deal is that though? You’re basically a new full-time freelancer and you’re going through the worst [hopefully] of a pandemic as a new freelancer and you’re okay.
I think that the only thing that the pandemic has really thrown a mug in this year for me was traveling because my biggest thing was doing the public speaking full-time. That was my main thing I wanted to do. However, nobody’s traveling for right reasons. So, I had to kind of shift that, but I think that all of us are in this shift. So, I think it’s a very Communal shift we’re doing, but it allowed me to be open to different things and not just center the speaking aspect. It allowed me to think about more writing. It allowed me to also see that these jobs are unprepared because I did apply, I did apply for one position that somebody told me about and I was approached by a position and neither was a defense. The one that I applied to, I actually got, but I realized how unrealistic the organization was when it comes to the pandemic and I’m like, nah, nah, I’m good. And I just realized that this is really the season, that I really need to be on my own. And after I said that, no, I got a great freelance project that I did for the entire summer that paid me really well. And I got to do some really good work with the organization and just really seeing this shift and understanding disability and I’m like this is what I need to do. So I think that the pandemic just reassured me that this is a season for me to be freelance, to be free and not be tied down to an employer for me to be confident in that and to really be a stickler for that. I think that’s the main lesson for me from the pandemic is to be free.
Because there are so many employers who, like you said, they are not ready and they weren’t ready for the pandemic to hit, but on a larger level, they aren’t ready to navigate the way the world is changing over time. People’s markets are changing, their products need to change, their customer base needs to change. And this is something where if you are, when you’re freelance, you can kind of adjust and say, okay, this is, I need to go ABC. Of course, we have to figure that out. It’s difficult, but we can do it but when you’re employed, You’re kind of at somebody else’s mercy and hoping that they are going to make the right businesses decisions that will keep your job important enough for them to keep investing full time salary in you.
Yes. And I think that’s the thing that I’m glad that I am freelancing right now because I think that’s what has really kept my mental health, the way that it is because I’m not beholding to somebody else’s decisions. I am the decider of what I do next when I take on. And I think having that freedom that has been instrumental in a, in a world where we don’t have a say as to what’s going on, it’s nice to be able to have say in that. And I think that has really kept me afloat to not really be in the doldrums about what’s going on in the world, that’s outside of my control. At least I have this element I can control. I can say yes and no to different projects and different people and organizations that fit right for me at this time where I can shift things because my fall was pretty much lining up pretty well. I’m not trying to get burnt out and I can also send them myself to the whole self-care element is tremendous right now for me. I had a very busy summer with that big project. And now as we go into fall, I’m like what? I don’t mind being busy, but I don’t want to be overworked. So, let me space things out. Let me move things to the winter. People are okay with that. And most people are. So, I can say when I want to work, and you can either fall in line or you can get somebody else and not feel like I have to be on deadline with everything.
And this is something we were talking about on Twitter setting, setting new boundaries, just for the pandemic. And you just touched on quite a few, but you’ve said some really important ones.
Yes. I think the main thing is that I’m not taking on work that I don’t want to do. I’m not taking on work that doesn’t pay me well. It’s a pandemic, we have an incredibly high unemployment rate. This is not the time to be skipping on freelancers, whether it’s writing, speaking, consulting, training, whatever you want them to do, pay people, their rates and for those of us in this work do not lower your rates to meet the cheek demands because people are also, let’s not think that employers are not trying to get over their employees. So being stern about my rate is my rate and I’m not lowering it. And in fact, I increase, especially since I’ve seen that people want trainings and consulting more so than speaking. Definitely raising the rates for that. And also, like I said, spread things out, giving myself time. Right now, as we record this, I’m on my birthday staycation and I realized, wow, I need to take more time off. So let me plan out how my holiday season’s going to look., how long I want to take off for the Christmas break and Thanksgiving break and how, how much breaks do I want to take though in the next year to get that rest in? Because I think that’s the one thing that I love just having my time back and not being on anybody else’s time I can make my own schedule. And I really liked that type of freedom. It’s all about freedom for me. This is that freedom that I wasn’t getting as an employee and don’t get me wrong. Am I wrong? I’m a little worried about my taxes next year.
Yeah. That’s normal though. Especially because you just started full time. It’s like completely normal.
Right, right. But, I can handle that, but I just feel that especially now with this pandemic, I just, I know that if I had either my old job or another job, I would not be happy with where I am, just with the state of the world and then having demands of other people, that I have to answer to at this point, that’s just one less stressor for me to deal with it. I’m grateful for it. A little timing is everything. And I just feel that for me, this is the right time to be freelanced. And I know that from the conversations that we’ve engaged with on Twitter and just things I’ve seen you talk about, this is the time to really be glad that you have that control as a freelancer.
So, what would you say is your advice to other freelancers, lessons you’ve learned since you’ve gotten started? What would you tell everybody else?
I say that if there’s an idea that you have, start now, even if you have a full-time job. If you have a passion that you want to do. You want to write? You want to create art? Start it now. It’s nothing wrong with having those things as a passion project and that can become the main source of income. Think outside the box, I think this is a time to where we’re all taking risks. Nothing is on track like it was in January and February so don’t be scared to take risks. Be open to different things. If you’re unhappy with your job, make an exit plan. If you’re a freelancer raise your rates. Take those vacations, take days off. I just feel that don’t be so tied to anything- be willing to float a little bit, not haphazardly where you’re hitting every rock, but look at areas in which you may feel stuck or you may feel like, gosh, this is so bland, look into those areas of figuring out, okay, how can I put a little bit more life into it? How can I be a little bit more creative? Do those things. And also take some risks. I don’t know if you follow the Nap Ministry, but honey, that resting is so critical, especially now with the pandemic we’re all under stress. We’ve all experienced this trauma, some more than others right now. And that self-care, self-preservation. Those have to be priorities; they cannot be back burners.
One lesson I’ve learned recently because I’ll admit I am not very good at napping. I have nap problems, but I’ve gotten a lot better because I force myself a lot thanks to following the nap ministry. I’ve had to force myself, but it makes a huge difference.
It does and also unplugging too. I’ve been doing better at that. Getting off social media, it’s nothing wrong with knowing what’s happening, but let’s be honest the news cycle is depressing and it’s so much to take in every day throughout the day. So unplug, have days to where, you’re able to carve out a day during the week where you’re not looking online, do that, or if you have a certain time that you want to be off during the evenings or weekends, do that. That has really helped my mental state too. I know enough to know what’s going on, but I’m not constantly being bombarded 24 hours a day. And that makes a difference because there’s some things, again, there’s some things that are just completely out of our control. For me, I’m censoring what I can control, and I can control when I take in, I can control when I rest or how I rest. I can control Now that I’m freelancing what work I take on, what I don’t. What partnerships I do, what I don’t., when it comes to my relationships, what relationships are feeding me, what relationships are draining me, and make those adjustments just take control of what you can do and everything else, at least for me, will fall into place. It may not fall in all exactly how you want, but it will fall into place in a way that’s good for you, but take that control and, and just live, just breathe. Find ways to breathe, especially we not only have the pandemic, but we also have the uprisings too. Especially as black folks, it’s been an incredible summer. Just the summer.
You can’t even say the whole year. Just the summer.
So I especially am urging black people who are listening to this, take your rests, take time to unplug, take time, to love on yourself and love on those that you have in your life that pour into you and you pour into them take that. That’s how we’re going to in some way survive. However long of a time this situation last is how we going to just take care of each other in the best ways that we can. So yeah, I think all of that would be the advice I would give, whether new freelancers, those who are considering it, those who may be a little scared, just take what fit you where you are and just be good to you. I think that’s been my thing this year, especially this summer being good to me and figuring out what that looks like and then doing it.
That is beautiful advice for everybody at any stage. Like you said, Vilissa, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Thank you so much, Megan. I know we’ve talked before and I always enjoy our conversations.
I know I’m going to have you back to when you touched on a lot of stuff that I want to talk about again, we’ll narrow down things next time. So, thank you again.
Thank you so much!