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Advice / Career Paths / Career Change

I Used My Journalism Skills to Transition Into a Career Helping Young Women

L'Oreal Thompson Payton
L'Oreal Thompson Payton

L’Oreal Thompson Payton can’t remember ever being without pen and paper. “Writing,” she says, “was my safe space.” So, it makes perfect sense that she went into journalism, a career she’d aspired to for a long time.

But as Payton began to grow into her writing career, she found herself becoming increasingly numb as she covered hard topics—not exactly in line with her original career aspiration to help young women.

She explains: “I’d originally entered journalism to help young girls. As an adolescent, I didn't notice anyone who looked like me in the teen magazines I subscribed to. This was the Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera era and I thought, ‘if I don’t look like them, there must be something wrong with me.’”

She says she “internalized that self-hate and actually prayed to God” to make her white so she could be “beautiful.”

Eventually, she stopped wishing she was somebody different or that she looked a certain way, and instead made it her mission to make sure other young black girls didn’t feel marginalized the way she had. Following an internship at Girls’ Life magazine, Payton began freelancing for Sesi, a teen magazine for Black girls, while she worked full-time at The Baltimore Sun.

Payton says she distinctly remembers the Saturday night she covered Michael Brown’s murder for JET magazine. Of this time she says, “The police shootings just kept (and still keep) happening, and–in the rush to cover the story–I’d grown desensitized to the news. It was essentially the same story, just a different name and different city and I didn’t like the numbness I’d felt.”

These feelings intensified to the point that Payton decided to do something about her burnout: She made a career change, capitalizing on her transferable skills. She’s now the Director of External Affairs for the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana.

To find out how she transitioned, keep reading:

After You Recognized the Burnout, What Did You Do?

I thought back to that mission and had the epiphany that I could still achieve my goal of empowering girls without being a journalist. I started brainstorming careers that would enable me to use my gift as a writer and editor, made a short list of nonprofits that shared the mission of helping girls, and began researching people who worked in communications roles at those organizations (LinkedIn is great for this!).

Once I’d established a rapport with them through either email or social media, I’d ask them to coffee to learn more about their professional journey and explain that I was looking to switch careers.

Two things I learned are true: People enjoy talking about themselves and they’re willing to help others as well more often than not.

What’s Your Absolute Favorite Part of Your Job Right Now?

The girls, without a doubt. They’re the reason why I do what I do every day. Sometimes people think working at a nonprofit is all rainbows and butterflies and that’s not true. You have your good days and your bad days, just like any other industry. But when I’m able to positively influence the young women I come across in my work, that makes it all worth it.

In a Couple of Sentences, Can You Explain How You Successfully Transferred Your Skills to Your New Role?

Writing and editing have always been the two skills I’m really good at—my superpowers, if you will. And, luckily for me, they’re pretty transferable across industries. I intentionally focused on communications jobs that highlighted these skills and it’s been a pretty smooth transition.

I actually believe that being a journalist first has given me an advantage in my position because I’ve been in reporters’ shoes before and I know what it’s like. Newsrooms are constantly doing more with fewer people and resources, so I try to make the reporter’s job as easy as possible.  

What Keeps You Motivated?

The most rewarding part about this role is, as you might imagine, helping girls. But the truth is, they’re helping me. I'm so inspired by the work our girls do every day, such as Eva Lewis, one of our Girl Scouts, who organized a #BlackLivesMatter protest that shut down one of Chicago’s busiest streets, and Annie Rose, another Girl Scout, who petitioned Hasbro to add Rey to their Stars Wars Monopoly game in the fight for gender equity.

These young women make me want to be a better person, a better woman and role model for them. If these are the leaders of tomorrow, we’re in good hands. The future is, indeed, female.