Brianna Zúñiga is a podcaster and a rising junior at Columbia University. She is originally from Florida and went to public school before switching to an arts school for her last two years of high school. The work Brianna does is intersectional and she often uses art as a way to convey different messages and connect with various people. I had the opportunity to interview her about her experiences and goals as an artist.
Q: Is there a story behind the name What Does She Know? If so, why did you choose it? What has been your favorite part about running a podcast?
I started my podcast, What Does She Know? during one of the biggest creativity droughts, I have ever experienced. On top of being burnt out, the majority of the summer after my first year, I felt like a complete and total failure. While everyone around me was either landing impressive internships and summer opportunities or lavishly traveling the world, I had nothing to show. At the time, my mental health had also taken a bit of a tumble; my mother lost her job, I lost health insurance, I couldn’t seek a therapist for the time being, and I felt directionless in seeking help in almost all areas of my life.
The one thing that kept me going throughout my work days was listening to podcasts. This long-time enjoyment of mine resparked when I felt my loneliest; podcasts were the closest thing I had to interpersonal connection in a solitary workroom.
The idea of starting a podcast of my own came from the realization that all of the podcasts I listened to came from already established people: experts, personalities, journalists. I had yet to find a podcast created by someone struggling, someone who had yet to “made it.” And maybe for my own self-involved reasons, I felt like I had a lot to say about the journey to “making it” and the failures along the way. The name What Does She Know? came from a brainstorm between a close friend and I, in an attempt to encompass the sentiment that I am no expert, and I relatively know nothing. I try to embody beginner’s mind, embrace my amateur-status, and my place in the podcast world through the podcast, interviewing badass artists, activists, and academics who are making strides towards their success.
I’d have to say that the most rewarding part of running the podcast is the friendships and connections that have resulted from interviews. Having the podcast is sort of a really legit way to formally ask people to befriend you. It stands as this formality that breaks down the awkward barriers of cold emailing someone you’re interested in brain-picking. It also allows us to get right into the nitty-gritty during an interview, and ask the hard questions. The podcast has allowed me to learn about people in the most raw and real manner possible, and in turn, has allowed me to learn more about myself than I ever have. Interpersonal connection is probably one of the most important things in the world for me, and the podcast has given me a vehicle to better understand what might one day be my life’s work.
Q: You mention that you are equally interested in arts as you are in academia, can you explain that a little bit more? What are your interests?
I started as a dancer. From ages 3 to 15, I was in and out of my dance studio in my hometown of West Palm Beach, Florida. From ages 11 to 13, I was dancing at a magnet arts school as well as my studio, totaling around 20 hours of dance a week. After I went through puberty and my body did not fit the ballerina standard, I found myself drawn to creative writing. During my first year of high school, after being drilled down by guidance counselors to build my summer resume for colleges, I stumbled upon a creative writing summer intensive at a boarding school in Massachusetts. On a whim, I applied and got accepted.
Once there, I instantly fell in love with the place. There was a pride flag hanging next to the U.S. flag, the campus was the first boarding school campus to offer gender-neutral housing. I had never been in such an equally challenging as accepting environment in my life. I remember Googling words my peers would say in normal conversation under the dining hall tables because I simply couldn’t keep up. I remember seeing a wall of all the colleges and universities alumni attend. The most elite and prestigious universities lined their way down the poster.
At the end of the program, I was offered a spot as a full-time student on scholarship. I had never fathomed going to anything other than public school, let alone the ability to go to anything other than an in-state college. For my junior and senior year, I attended high school as a Writing, Film, and Media Arts major.
This major opened me up to the world of sonnets, plays, documentaries, and eventually activism. I was exposed to the world of critical thinking, film analysis, and cultural studies. As much as I loved (and love) writing poems and shooting films, I wanted to use art as an avenue to learn more about the world. I wanted to study the world to then have something to say about it.
That then led me to apply to liberal arts colleges, as opposed to writing and film conservatories. I was interested in politics, race, and ethnicity. Which leads me to where I am today, a rising junior with a full-ride to Columbia, majoring in Political Science with a concentration in Race and Ethnicity Studies. Additionally, the podcast felt like this perfect intersection between writing and media, and politics and culture. I get to do a little bit of everything, but often struggle to get the perfect balance of arts and academia. I still have yet to figure out how pivotal either field will be in my professional life, whether I want to be a criminal defense attorney who writes and shoots films in her free time, or if I want to be a documentary filmmaker, journalist, and curator.
Q: On the Gen Z Girl Gang (@genzgirlgang) Instagram live, you mentioned that you are often in between things, whether that be your biraciality or your interests. Did you ever struggle or fight against this or were you encouraged to be in the “in-between” state?
I definitely struggle. No one has necessarily encouraged me to stay in this “in between state”, but rather, I haven’t had much choice but to exist in this state. What I mean by that is that I don’t think I’d be anything if I weren’t intersectional. All of my confusing intersections and interests are what make me who I am. Whether it be my biraciality, or it be constantly grappling between the creative and academic world. Many people, if not all, exist in multiple spaces and spheres, and I think I just embody another example of that.
For context, I identify as Latinx and biracial. I’m half white-Latinx and half black, and am most times racialized as a non-white Latinx, but I’m usually not racialized as biracial, let alone black. However, all of the phenotypic characteristics that identify me as Latinx are all characteristics from my black father. If I had the white-Latinx phenotypes from my mother, I would probably be racialized as just European white. Yet, I was raised entirely by my mother and have very little cultural connection to my father and his side of the family. My circumstances have led me to spend most of my adolescent life questioning where my identity comes from: is it entirely cultural upbringing? Racialization? What identity I feel most comfortable in?
These complexities have not only led to endless questions and often uncomfortable situations but has allowed me to question the construction of race altogether. Race as a construct is entirely social and outward-facing. Race is in the eye of the beholder. And for someone like me, who is considered black in Argentina, non-black in the States, and then every other race under the sun in different countries (I’ve gotten Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, Caribbean, etc.), my racialization is entirely dependent on the space that I’m in. Being racially ambiguous has gifted me with shapeshifter, chameleon-like skills, with the ability to read rooms and vibes within seconds. The discoveries and conversations that arose from basking in this messy “in-between” state have high risk and high reward. My racial and ethnic identity confused and even upsets a lot of people because it pushes back on all of the preconceived notions many carry about what race looks like, and what being Afro-Latinidad means. To me, living in this “in-between” state is a form of resistance. To hide from it and boil myself down to the most digestible version of myself for others would be a disservice to myself, my individual growth, and all of the other racially ambiguous youth trying to live their best lives.
Q: You’re just finished your internship at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. What have you learned from the experience, and what do you wish more people knew?
I learned just how important it is to have nonprofits for the community by the community. Organizations like NLIRH are so so important and must be protected at all costs. I learned how passionate and dedicated all of the womxn and femmes in the multiple branches are. I learned how important palo santo is during the workday. I learned just how necessary all womxn and femme workspaces are. I learned how deeply necessary reproductive rights work is today.
The internship gave me the tools necessary to empower communities, rather than impose on them. As an education intern, I created an educational curriculum for community organizers and activists to take back to their communities, and host cafecitos and teach-ins. I was taught how to curate the most inclusive language, to account for all folks, regardless of family size or structure, immigration status, gender, religion, or political view on difficult subjects like abortion and contraception.
Q: What are 3 things on your bucket list? Do any of the things on your bucket list tie into your raison d’etre or reason for living?
- Become a published author
- See all of Latin America
- Reform public education and criminal justice
These three things on my bucket list entirely tie into my raison d’etre! My reasons for living are to find answers to life’s most meaningful questions, to travel the world, and to make positive, lasting change in my lifetime––each bullet touches on each of these aspects.
As far as publishing a book goes, I would love to conduct research in the academic fields of interest to me and share my insights with the world. Make it a bit autobiographical, a bit educational, and a bit quirky.
Traveling through Latin America, it has been a dream of mine to study and experience all Latin American cultures, from the northernmost tip of the continent to the Caribbean.
And lastly, public education and criminal justice are one of my two strongest professional pursuits. It is a goal of mine to make strides towards a more equitable future for all, especially youth of color.
Q: What are your plans for this summer? Any exciting new things you want to explore or try?
This summer, I will be working on revamping my podcast, building a website for it, and creating new episodes. In the midst of the podcast, I will be conducting research on race and identity in biracial families, with my family in Baltimore. I’m particularly excited for this project, as it’s just as much of a passion project for me to connect with my father’s side of the family as it is a formal research project. And lastly, I will be continuing to fundraise and organize resources for my local elementary school. This is the first time I’ve had a jam-packed summer in quite some time, and I’m just thankful to stay busy and do work that I genuinely enjoy!
Featured image via Brittany Seville