Sarah : My Full name is Sarah Khouri Kiernan.
Bligh : Hometown?
Sarah : Um, This is hard. I would say New York. This year is my 18 year anniversary here, I was 18 when I moved here so half my life was in Boston but my adult life has been here. I’m a New Yorker.
Bligh : You're right, if you've spent half of your life somewhere that makes a lot of sense. Okay, occupation?
Sarah : I'm the Director of Talent for Soul Cycle. I get a lot of emails from people asking if they can get a job in engineering and I’m like, “Not from me!” I’m in charge of the instructors at Soul Cycle, the teachers. It’s overall management of their careers. I’ve been there for five years. Before that, I worked for Signature Theater Company where I ran the internship program and was the executive assistant to the executive director.
Bligh : So what initially brought you to New York?
Sarah : I was really scared of New York. Honestly. But I had this idea growing up that people thought I was cool, so I thought, “Well I can’t STAY in Boston, I’m obviously too cool for that!” But it terrified me. My brother lived here and I would visit but deep down I thought I couldn’t live here. My ego, though, it wouldn't let me stop believing I wasn’t cool enough to try so I only applied to one college, Marymount Manhattan on the Upper East Side - and I got in. I moved here, I went to college and then I stayed. I kept assuming I would I would leave eventually but nothing ever made me want to.
Bligh : Do you feel like you have friends that have gotten to that point where they decided they don't want to live in New York anymore?
Sarah : Actually most of my friends have left. I’d say most of my best friends have left. I still have a ton of friends in the city, I feel like you can make friends on every street corner, or at least I do it’s natural to me. But my closest friends have left. A lot of them wanted to go back to home, go back where they came from. A lot of people get married and have children and move back home but I’ll stay here in the city when I have a family. Or, ideally, I will have a bit of both- a place upstate where we can live on the weekends. Monday through Friday I love it here, I love the hustle, I love work, I love the people. But the energy and on the weekends? Honestly? I want to go to Target. I want outside and space and I want to live in a house and hippie out and be barefoot and kick it.
I think the city hustle is good. My Dad is very active, but I look at my Grandparents when they all passed they were sitting in chairs, doing nothing. You see old people in New York going places and that’s what I want to do. Like the retired ballerinas up here on the Upper West Side, so frail and still carrying a million things, they’re all muscle. Those little broads really do it for me.
Bligh : You’ve been here 18 years, but is there anything about your life here that has changed from your first couple of years to now?
Sarah : Well I think my first…seven years here — I was just waiting until it was my time to leave. I think that’s how my ego truly operated most of my first six or seven years in New York. I stayed here purely for the ego, I would’ve gone back to Boston because I’m close to my parents and it takes me a long time to embrace change. I remember thinking, "Is it five years? Will people think that's cool?" When I started working for Blue Man Group, things changed. The entire company is inundated with incredible artists and they were all involved with incredible projects on top of their day to day lives. When I saw all the opportunities here, that’s when I grew a bigger appreciation for living in New York. It was also around this time I started exploring upstate, outside of the city and it just seemed more attainable, to be here forever.
Michelle : And you have a car too…
Sarah : You're right I have a car. So truthfully, I mean that sounds like such a lame thing to say that made New York, "New York" for me. I remember thinking, “This can be my forever home but I will need to be able to escape. I'm a girl who moves very fast so I like to be able to move around and I don't like to be trapped anywhere. I like to be able to think that at any moment I can go somewhere else and do what I want to do. I love cars and I love driving and I love the freedom and I like to not answer to people. So I think having that independence available at the wheel, outside my apartment maybe made me know that I can have that freedom. Nothing’s better than coming back here.
New York City is like a person on the verge of a panic attack. Do you know what I mean? The whole city. Every single person. And so when you feel it coming on some people would reach for a Xanax - or take something. Really anything to calm them down. For me, my Xanax is my car. My Xanax is being able to leave the city and breathe for a minute and take time away from it.
Bligh: Tell me about going from Blue Man Group to Signature Theater.
Sarah : I moved to Signature after I left Blue Man Group in 2008- recession hit us, 200 people were let go and I was devastated. I started working at Signature soon after that and I felt out of place initially but I made a lot of friends. I was at Signature for almost five years and I absolutely loved it, and to this day I think it’s one of the best places in the city. They have a ticket initiative which brings in people from every part of New York. You could be in the lobby at any given moment and it would be filled with teenagers or 95-year-old people, black, Latino, gay, liberal and conservative people. I believe it is one of the most racially inclusive theaters- between the ticket initiative, the staff, the way they market and advertise, and the work that they do! I am so proud to have been a part of that team. I have always had a passion for inclusive environments. I can’t walk into a space and see too many of the same type of people, it makes me uncomfortable. I grew up in a diverse environment and I want to see that daily, so, Signature was that for me.
Bligh : Why does it make you uncomfortable?
Sarah : My mother is Jamaican. And my Dad is Irish from Boston. I grew up predominately in Boston but I spent a lot of time in Jamaica. I grew up in both worlds and my family is really diverse. I have two gay brothers. I think the world is more interesting when you are not around the same people who look like you, who were raised like you were raised.
Bligh : So you think because you're biracial do you feel like -- or is that how you would describe yourself?
Sarah : No. I am mostly white. Or I would at least would say I'm white presenting-- but I'm multiracial. I usually say I'm multiracial but I also feel it’s incredibly important to recognize and be aware of how white I look. There is a certain privilege that’s afforded to me for how I look. That’s why I have to be a voice. Sometimes my version of using my voice is aggressive, that’s who I am. I’ll walk into a room and say “Why are there all white people here?” I feel like I represent a multiracial background and therefore I have to use my “whiteness.” White people can say whatever they want. If a black woman states her opinion, says whatever she wants she is an “angry black woman.” I can say it. I need to say it. I feel like it’s my obligation.
Bligh : Michelle said earlier -- that she was chatting with you recently before we decided to do any of this, and she said you had a lot to say. And you do.
Sarah : That is so kind of her to say. Living here, I feel like most of the people I want to spend time with share my belief system, you know? I think most people have their war stories, the Facebook fights, and I have also had a couple random loose cannons that I have acquired along the way that will write something hateful to me. I have to brush them off. But mostly I find that my social media is filled with a community of people who agree with me. And maybe that sounds amazing for someone else but also it might have made me slightly passive at some points. Maybe I should’ve fought the battle on the internet with the stranger from high school? You know? I am really against social media armchair activism.
So I stopped saying everything I want to say. I felt like it wasn’t really worth it. Your legacy shouldn’t be about the epic political fights you’ve had on Facebook. But I also didn’t feel like I was doing enough tangible work. So I started calling people on the phone, calling my representatives. I signed petitions. I am calling organizations I believe in and getting involved. And I’ve found that an easy way to be more active politically is to prioritize in-person conversations. We can filter out anything on the internet. But if you address your differences in person- that’s where a lot of work begins.
But what’s really interesting is how many super liberal Hillary voting women, I have found, have very, very closed-minded views on race. And they are also uncomfortable talking about race and seeing things in a way that's uncomfortable to them, maybe makes them seem like the “bad guy.” I always say that there are two different types of feminism: there’s feminism and there's white women feminism. And I think that some of the biggest things that I've had to combat recently are a lot of white women feminism because it's not inclusive and it's not intersectional. And when you say that to white women it’s met with great defense, even the most liberal of white women. But you know what? These are the types of conversations I’m talking about. They need to be had.
Because you are white you're afforded privilege and it doesn't make you a bad person but you have to acknowledge it and you have to understand what your privilege is, what it looks like, what you can and cannot say. You have to talk about black women, and black people, and Latino people, and Asian people and you have to talk about how marginalized they are. White women have to because nobody is talking for any of the other women. And when they speak for themselves, no one is listening.
Bligh : I admire you, it seems like you’ve had a conscious or unconscious conversation with yourself. You’ve said, “I'm not going to waste energy anymore fighting with people on the internet. I'm going to spend my time and energy productively speaking to people one on one because that's the only way I'm going to get shit done.”
Sarah : Sometimes you have to focus on the people who you don't think you have to focus on. You should be honest and truthful in your beliefs to anybody who will listen but it’s not where real productivity lives. I’m not going to change the minds of the Trump voters. The change will come in making people already on your general wavelength hear you, make them think about how they can improve personally. That makes a real impact.
Bligh : That's another thing I’m fascinated by. You're hitting on a specific target audience and groups of people who genuinely believe that they are liberal, open-minded individuals. And they don’t have the full picture. Do you feel people say ignorant things to you because they assume you are not multiracial?
Sarah : 100 percent. I will never forget I was talking to someone and they said, “Oh well, you know, all this race stuff! We're all women and we have to fight for the same cause!” And I responded with “No. Not all women feel like we are fighting for the same cause.” Black women are not white women. Their fight is much harder. But nobody wants to be told that someone has it worse off than they do, they want to believe we are all equally marginalized. And listen, I guess I can hear their point- the overall themes of feminism, even just taking the #metoo movement and the general acknowledgment of sexual abuse all women have to deal with. That is important too, especially as a woman who’s struggled with body issues, I get it. But still- marginalized women will get it worse. If some guy slaps my ass and I’m appalled and feel degraded, I have to stop and think “I’m a woman most men think is white. What is it like for my black and Latina sisters? Do they deal with this more than I do?” The questions have to be asked.
Bligh : You are kinda the definition of grassroots activism.
Sarah : I am a woman was given no sisters at birth but I've made a lot of them. And I am very into surrounding myself with women and supporting women. I call my girlfriends my sisters and not just in a way that is kitschy or cute, in the way that I think that all women are sisters and I really believe that. But I think that it's also important to remember that the phrase and the conception of feminism is not even just about women. We want to be equals -- and we want everything that comes along with the kind of traditional feminism. But feminism is for men too. I read an article in GQ last year, British GQ, so you know -- it's a little ahead of the game. The writer referenced how we women- we hate ourselves, but it’s the men that are killing themselves. I hear that, with this terrible traditional masculinity we hold so dear in our society, where they are told they have to be more powerful than us. The reality is they don’t need to do that. They need to embrace feminism, to lift women up, not compete with them, it’s truly equality for all. But listen, I think the female aspect of feminism, and “girl power”- it’s bringing sisters together and it can make women feel connected as they should. Only women truly understand women.
Bligh : You feel like somebody who's always had a core group of girlfriends…
Sarah : Yeah for sure. I can't tell if it is because I didn't have sisters and I wanted them or if just I loved the idea of having people who always have your back. But I've always been super drawn to girlfriends and friends. Which is strange maybe because my girlfriends growing up in Boston were not affectionate, no one in Boston is. Boston is—
Michelle : Irish.
Sarah : Exactly! I never hugged them or kissed them or had that kind of loving relationship with them and they definitely never felt as loving to me as I was towards them. But I think that I crave that so much and in New York luckily I found that. New York makes you need a family.
Bligh : Do you have heroes? Like your friend heroes and then someone more well known maybe?
Sarah : You know it's interesting that you say that because I really do have mostly friend heroes. I mean listen- I love a good thought from a female leader. Loved Hillary. Michelle Obama is obviously someone whom I really do respect and I love everything that she says. But actually, the women that I know and meet are the women who get me going. Like seeing you pump (to Anna) I'm like, “YES WOMAN!” That excites me more than Hillary rallying in New Hampshire.
Bligh : Final question. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Sarah : Yes. Absolutely. But I'm very focused on being an intersectional feminist -- which goes without saying, but I like to say it anyway. I’m going to say it anyway.
All images © Michelle Kinney Photography (Minnie Kinney LLC)