Meet the Daily Kos Emerging Fellows: Sophia Burns

Meet the Daily Kos Emerging Fellows: Sophia Burns

I arrive at Daily Kos with eager fingers, a hungry mind, and open ears. My name is Sophia, and I am excited to nudge my way into your conversations and pick your brains in the comments. Thank you for making some room for my words in your corner of the internet.

The Emerging Writers Fellowship at Daily Kos appeared to me via the generous and brilliant writing community on Twitter, where I’ve been lurking since 2018. I say “lurking” for two reasons: First my own profiles are famously inactive, and secondly, I’ve been using the platform to locate women writers of color whose work forces me to give up all my excuses and write.

When I sat down to apply, I felt audacious—calling myself a writer has always felt that way. But in 2020, when it was just me and my laptop (and all of us and our technology), the stakes felt lower. Who would care that I was writing a sappy story full of loose ends and weird references? In the face of my swirling anxieties, the best thing I could do for myself was experiment with words.

Now that I’ve given myself permission to call writing a thing I do, this opportunity to “emerge” with Daily Kos feels both fortuitous and like a natural step in the right direction. I believe this is the perfect place to merge my writer self with my activist self.

While I do not come from a family of activists, I did grow up around adults who were unapologetic critical thinkers. I spent much of my childhood with my paternal grandparents, whose overflowing, sunlit bookshelves were my playground after school.

They took care of me while both of my parents worked. This really meant that my Grandpop snored on the couch while my Grandmom read me stories from Marjorie Flack’s series about Angus the adventurous Scottish terrier. When I began reading voraciously again during the early days of the pandemic, I was reminded that it is necessary to read both fiction and nonfiction, and how they both can inform my hopes and demands.

Interspersed between books, my Grandmom would tell me about the days when she was a principal at a one-room schoolhouse, about being a mom in the women’s liberation movement, and about how both of her parents came to have aliases. My father’s mother also taught me (as all good English teachers should) that a well-written story can open the floodgates for the outward conversations and inward reflections that change us. Stories can also provide amusing ways to remember your family’s history.

Grandmom always chuckled giddily when she retold the story behind a hand-me-down family phrase used by her mother: “Whenever we’d be ready for church, she would say, ‘Now you’re dressed like a Protestant!’ Because our family were poor Irish Catholics.” Her cadence still rings in my memory.

As I recall the role that storytelling has played in my life, I remember what it was like to write publicly for the first time. I entered college with a lot of labels: first-generation student, low-income, student of color, (intended) English major. I dove headfirst into my field of interest and immediately began looking for a place to write nonacademically.

The first article I wrote for the student newspaper at Vassar College, The Miscellany News, was published in the “Opinions” section and focused on Parents’ Weekend, a polarizing event where students’ individual pasts and shared present collided, boring an uncomfortable hole in the teenage time-space continuum. For me, the discomfort was not in bringing my family to my campus; in fact, I spent most of those four years trying to maintain community amongst the few working-class people there. Instead, I was bothered by the underlying assumption that the weekend would be a nostalgic experience for parents, rather than an opportunity to educate parents about what to expect and how to support their students.

I wrote about how Parents’ Weekend must include programming targeted at parents like mine, who were navigating college for the first time—through their children. I remember collecting at least six copies of the paper from the tied-up stack in my dorm lobby, hoarding those thick warm bundles of newsprint so that my friends and family could see my 1,000 words in their beautiful published form. I also remember receiving an email from a reader who was an alumnus of one of Vassar’s first classes to include a significant number of full-need scholarship students.

In the email, the reader said that they could relate to my article and offered words of encouragement that I didn’t yet know I needed. This interaction was more than validation: It was a window into the type of work I wanted to do, but didn’t yet have the words to describe. As I later became deeply involved in economic justice movements both on- and off-campus, writing became more of a tool than an interest. Still, writing for the public exposed me to the palpable impact of speaking directly from my identities, experiences, and worldview.

During my time with Daily Kos, I plan to concentrate my writing on policies and social movements that seek to reorient economic and spatial decision-making power. After spending the last several years working with collectives like the Poor People’s Campaign, I have constantly been reminded that there cannot be enough discourse around the material impacts of racism and capitalism on our everyday lives.

In the United States, public institutions are designed to frustrate, discourage, and deter those of us who are poor and of color. I learned this at a young age as my family tried to navigate my mother’s severe mental illness and all of the dehumanizing institutions that entrapped us. From police precincts to counselor’s offices to hospitals, I felt the walls of a stale victim narrative rising up around me. The stories I tell will always identify the power imbalances at play, whether I’m discussing decisions made by Congress, the State Department, or a local judge.

In particular, I am interested in stories that uplift the stories of youth, families, educators, and advocates who are going toe to toe with issues that are caused by years of institutional neglect, surveillance, and dangerous stereotyping. I’m looking forward to bringing my curiosities together at Daily Kos, discovering new intersections, and being guided by emerging questions. I hope that you’ll share yours with me.

This story was produced through the Daily Kos Emerging Fellows Program. Read more about DKEF (and meet other Emerging Fellows) here.

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