Ashley Ajayi – My ABSTalk Journey: A Story about Public Speaking

Public Matters is a creative civic engagement studio that forms strong partnerships through unconventional measures as a way to redress social ills. My involvement as a Fellow in the two-year long Urban Futures Lab Fellowship definitely falls under this purview. This round’s cohort, which consists of three women of color, aims to develop our professional and leadership skills while asking us ways to think about our “selves,” how these selves relate to the world, and the positive change we hope to affect.

Pictured from left to right Sabrina Im, Brisa Aviles, and me, Ashley Ajayi. The three Fellows of Urban Futures Lab discuss elements of their respective journeys.

For our most recent module on personal development, Fellows were asked to give a presentation on BIG life questions, in the format of a 10-minute TEDTalk. We stylized our version a bit differently, combining the first letter of each of our names to create an “ABSTalk.” Some of the prompts included “What motivates you?” and “How does this motivation propel you on a daily basis?” We didn’t necessarily have to have everything figured out, but we needed to know enough to tell others about our journey and present our story in a coherent way. The ultimate goal was and continues to be, getting people excited to hear more.

self portrait of Ashley

A screenshot from my PowerPoint presentation, with caption “Reflect, Recount, and Appreciate the Shine.”

I started preparing for my ABS talk by stressing and dreading it. TedTalks always seemed so coordinated and weren’t those people experts in their respective fields, giving them authority to talk to a room full of strangers?

I jotted down some ideas here and there, but they never seemed to succinctly communicate what I thought I should be talking about nor who I thought I was. I stress-called my mom. Then I tried to doodle down ideas. Pushed against the hard wall of a deadline, I went to a coffee shop and word vomited everything that made me feel joyous and excited. I mined my memories for stories that exemplified my values, for stories that I have told myself a thousand times and still make me chuckle, for any story, that has helped make up the person I am today. During the process of retrospection and memory mining, I came to understand that the idea of self is predicated on the stories we tell ourselves. People are their stories.

 My story, and thus what motivates me, centers largely around family, isolation, and seeking community through two identities I consistently aim to reclaim, being Black and a Woman. In my ABSTalk, I shared what it was like growing up as a young Black girl, inundated by a world of messaging from TV and my local Dollar Movie Theater. I talked about attending a racially segregated high school in the time of Facebook, and relying on my family for multifaceted representations of Blackness.  There was my Dad who always wanted me to seriously value an education, my mom and her side of the family with countless iterations of how to live boldly and beautifully as Black Women, and my sister who showed me just how healing laughter could be, especially in the face of pain. My family and their distinctive personalities are touchstones I was and continue to reflect on. Their stories help construct my own, and mirror back the complexity of the world I see around me.

Ashley stands in front of powerpoint slide invoking same posture as on screen, caption reads "Hybridity sustains my growth."

Image of me mid-presentation with caption, “Hybridity sustains my growth.”

Nowadays, public speaking still seems pretty scary to me. However, speaking at length about the one thing I am expert in, myself, is significantly less daunting. I have found that part of public speaking on any topic, is finding ways to make it your own and have fun telling your story. It requires deep reflection but is also an opportunity to journey into the things that resonate with you and that have become a part of your story. Devising the best way to tell a good story is part of what motivates me to be a filmmaker, and something I will rely on when I must inevitably embark on giving future public presentations.