A magazine and lifestyle platform for women of colour in Australia is long overdue. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s in Sydney and never saw any images of women that looked like me on tv, in magazines, in politics, leadership roles or at school. Having come back from living in the US, Sasha Sarago was experiencing the same thing in a different part of Australia. In 2011 Sasha had the vision for 'Ascension', a means to include women of colour in Australian society. Sasha has leveraged her skills as an entrepreneur to create a platform that tells the stories of women from diverse backgrounds, using beautiful imagery and by delving deep into their different lived experiences.
I first saw Sasha speaking in Sydney in early 2018 and after months of back and forth chat I’m excited to finally get some of Sasha’s thoughts down on paper. Her story is similar to my story in some ways so this is personally a real joy to see myself and other everyday women represented in the way we should be. If you’re not a woman of colour, get ready to be enlightened and if you are, feel free to exhale — Ascension Magazine is here to help us celebrate who we truly are.
PATRICIA Sasha, you’re the Founder and Editor of Australia’s first Indigenous and Ethnic Women’s Magazine, when did this platform launch and what inspired you to give women of colour our own magazine?
SASHA The vision for Ascension came to me in 2011. I officially launched our first digital edition The Colour of Beauty in 2014. The inspiration for Ascension grew out of frustration. I was tired of importing publications like Ebony and Essence from overseas to see a reflection of myself.
The only problem with consuming overseas publications is that it doesn’t capture the Australian Black woman’s experience. Before I launched Ascension, I did my research to see if there were other mediums in Australia catering to women of colour. To my surprise those that existed only concentrated on women from one cultural diaspora. Given, I am a woman of diverse ancestry I curated Ascension to speak to women like me living in two worlds: culturally, socially and professionally.
Besides it’s 2018, it’s high time Australian women of colour have a platform where they are celebrated and feel like they belong.
PATRICIA You’re an Australian with a diverse ethnic background, which cultures are part of your heritage and how has this shaped your experiences as a woman?
SASHA I am an Aboriginal, African-American, Malay, Mauritian and Spanish woman.
In Aboriginal culture, I identify as a Wadjanbarra Yidinji and Jirrbal woman. Both my grandmother and grandfathers’ clans are known as the ‘rainforest people’ of Far North Queensland. My traditional country and family connections span across the Atherton Tablelands, Daintree, Mossman down to Tully.
I was born in Australia but lived in the United States from the age of three to nine years. During those years in the US, I was confident in my identity as a Black girl. I was surrounded by media and advertising that reflected me — imagery affirming my #BlackGirlMagic way before it was a hashtag.
I saw Black women in power suits, lab coats and robes of justice. When I first saw Jacqueline Broyer — the character played by Robin Givens in the movie Boomerang — seeing her on-screen inspired me to be a business woman. Not to mention, watching Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks and Veronica Webb strutting down runways all over the globe automatically made me fall in love with fashion.
Returning to Australia in 1990 was an eye-opener. I was confronted by a different ‘Black experience’. For the first time, I got to connect with my traditional lands — go fishing, swimming and camping on Country. I had an extended family, and my community helped strengthen my identity as an Aboriginal woman.
If I were still living in the US, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to walk on the land of my ancestors. Or spiritually connect in a way where I belong to something bigger than me. Living in the US taught me the importance of representation. Growing up in Australia instilled in me respect for my Elders — the knowledge they hold which is passed down to us from our ancestors and that the protection of Country is vital. Country is our heartbeat, it’s our lifeline.
PATRICIA It’s interesting that you link Ascension Magazine to a spiritual revolution and emancipation — how does spirituality feature in your vision for the Magazine and can you tell us more about how liberation is linked to our ethnic identities?
SASHA In 2011, I was embarking on a spiritual journey. It was a time in my life when I was ready to face my trauma and do the work. The name Ascension came from a flyer I was given which advertised a meditation session being delivered on the 11 November 2011 (11:11). The name stuck with me.
The word (meaning) Ascension embodies exactly what I want women to do; emancipate from the trauma and toxicity in our lives. I knew my evolution was inhibited by my own baggage that needed to go. I had to transmute everything that was no longer serving me. No distractions, no excuses. I think a lot of women find it hard to dedicate the time to work on themselves.
For women of colour we are learning to pinpoint our generational trauma which is a by-product of colonisation; make peace with it and move on. Holistically, Ascension is trying to provide a space akin to how women of colour across the world practised self-care before colonisation.
Ultimately, I just worked off my own spiritual blueprint and brought it to life. I curated my lived experience and it gained traction organically because other women of colour could relate and found value in it.
PATRICIA In terms of the long-term vision for Ascension Magazine, which audiences are you hoping to reach, can your initiative go bigger than an online Magazine, will men of colour be part of this conversation in the future or is the focus solely on women and why?
There is a huge long-term vision for Ascension. Right now, we are transitioning from an online magazine to a lifestyle platform.
Men of colour are on my radar. We have a tremendous amount of support from our brothers. Our readership is nearly 50% men which warms my heart. My focus right now is solely on women. We are at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to our place in society. I think once we get it right here in Australia for women of colour it will flow on to men of colour. It is an important agenda to me. I come from a matriarchal family. A lot of our Black men on both sides (Aboriginal & African-American) are not present due to sickness, death, incarceration or dispossession. I have young nephews who have a lack of male role models. My sister and I recently took them to the Refuge Barbershop, not only did they get a fresh to death cut but their whole demeanour changed. You could tell they felt empowered being surrounded by other older Black men they can look up to. I look at the footage taken before and after their cut — it’s a constant reminder that our boys and men of colour need to be seen and heard too. Women of colour need their support — therefore men of colour also require a space where they have agency and can flourish in their identities.
PATRICIA Women of colour are often misrepresented in the media and society. Either demonised as being overtly angry or sexualized and painted as being promiscuous. Based on your own experiences and what you hear from other women of colour, how do you think this affects us day to day and also in reaching our goals in life?
SASHA It forces us to work twice as hard to dispel the myths placed upon us. Growing up as a young Black girl I was taught due to the colour of my skin I will need to work 200% harder than my peers to prove I wasn’t ‘lazy’, ‘incompetent’ or ‘uneducated’ to non-people of colour.
Not only are women professionally paid 14–16% less than men, women of colour like myself have relied on Reconciliation Action Plans and Diversity and Inclusion strategies to get a foot in the door or access to opportunities readily available to non-people of colour.
When it came to dating, particularly in the 2000’s, I was fetishised by men at the height of when Brown/Black women were objectified in rap & hip-hop videos. The objectification of women of colour in these videos gave the world permission to continue to disrespect and demean us and further reinforce the stereotypes that exist. At the time I enjoyed the attention because I was clueless about the real motivation behind it. Now I know better; it was the wrong kind of attention.
As a woman of colour, I want to make decisions with the same freedom a white man does. A classic example of this recently was the controversy Serena Williams faced at the US Open Final. If not for the colour of her skin and gender no one would bat an eye at her outburst. Case in point, I want the exact privilege given to the John McEnroe’s of the world.
I am happy to see there are now active conversations around the state of women of colour’s mental health. For too long, we have worn the badge of the ‘strong Black’ woman’ — but at what cost? Women of colour are questioning its detrimental long-term effects. I think these conversations are giving women of colour piece of mind; it’s okay to say ‘no’ to being the backbone of our families and communities. Don’t get me wrong we are ‘Superwomen’, but we are HUMAN. Saying ‘no’ needs to be rife in our vocabulary — ‘no’ is there to protect us.
Can you imagine how much more women of colour could achieve if the time and energy they expended living in a patriarchal society were reimbursed to them?
Our struggle has made us resilient, but it’s time to prioritise self-care. My focus is not proving to the world how amazing I am at turning lemons into lemonade. It’s eliminating whatever jeopardises my #BlackGirlMagic. These are my new T&Cs.
PATRICIA Starting out your career as a fashion model, how did you get started on your journey as an entrepreneur? Why transition to business?
SASHA The transition from fashion model to entrepreneur was necessary. The main reason I stopped modelling was due to the limited opportunities available to models of colour in Australia. I ventured into business to create a platform to address this problem. I grew up in an entrepreneurial household. My mum owned the first Aboriginal owned and operated beauty salon in Cairns. Indigenous peoples world-wide for years have used entrepreneurship to create solutions to meet our needs, especially when we are underrepresented. That’s why the Koori Mail and NITV exist; mainstream media was not adequately representing First Nations peoples. If we look at the bigger picture, it is crucial for Indigenous peoples to embrace entrepreneurship if we are going to build our own wealth which stays and multiplies within our communities. When Indigenous peoples have the same power and resources the mainstream has — then the mainstream will well and truly become obsolete.
PATRICIA Are there any other projects that you’re working on that you can share with us?
SASHA There is, but it must stay under wraps for now.
PATRICIA What’s the greatest impact you would like to make as you continue to share the stories of other women of colour?
SASHA I want women of colour to know they matter — their voice, opinion, image, talent, creativity, beauty, journey, dreams and achievements.
PATRICIA What’s the reaction been from people from an Angle-Celtic ethnic background, both personally and professionally when you tell people that you’ve established a Magazine for women of colour? Is there support from mainstream channels for a platform that caters to minority groups?
A combination of…
“Why are you segregating yourself from other women?”
“Aren’t you being racist?”
“Wow, I had no idea this was an issue.”
“How can I help or learn more?”
At the same time, I have received a lot of support from mainstream channels. I wouldn’t have gotten this far without their help. Ascension’s biggest supporters are non-people of colour who are just as passionate to see their friend, colleague, family member walk this earth with the same confidence, representation and worth non-women of colour do.
Even recently, our relationship with brands has been challenging when it comes to marketing images. I ask for images that depict our audience and majority of times they don’t have any available. Having these conversations influences brands to be accountable. Marketing and advertising laden in Euro-centric imagery is no longer acceptable. From a social and ethical standpoint brands should reflect the society we live in and represent the customers who buy their products and services.
PATRICIA What’s been the hardest thing about creating Ascension Magazine? Can you offer any tips for women looking to launch a creative project or business?
SASHA The biggest challenge was believing in myself. It’s taken me seven years to finally be confident in my abilities and journey as a Founder. I dedicated a lot of time wallowing in perfectionism and self-doubt. A lesson learned. I am now redirecting my energies into everything that will help me achieve my own definition of success.
My tips for other women looking to venture into a creative or business space are:
- Ask questions.
- Ask for help.
- Start small. Test your idea first before investing lots of money.
- Launch. Don’t worry about what other people think.
- Don’t be afraid to pivot and go in a new direction.
- Curate your tribe carefully.
- Create a lifestyle that affirms you are ‘everything’.
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