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summer 2021

Shaping The Narrative

For Media Executive Khadijah Sharif-Drinkard, Understanding the Past Fuels Her Drive to Change Tomorrow
Written by: WayMaker Journal Team

As Senior Vice President for Business Affairs at ABC News, Khadijah Sharif-Drinkard oversees deals for on-air talent and senior editorial staff—a role which may seem to be a long way from the childhood sense of mission that sent her to law school with the aim of becoming a human rights lawyer. But for the widely respected media executive, it’s just another way of helping make a difference. After interning with Nickelodeon— where her later near-decade service would include helping launch kids program Dora the Explorer, groundbreaking for the way it championed a minority leading character—she realized she was “really moved by what happens with media and how people are affected by media, and particularly people of color. Our community is a community that actually not just looks at what’s on screen, but we actually emulate [it].”

The media, she recognized, was “a powerful way to help shape the narrative that I thought we should be creating for people of color in particular.” That concern took her to BET Networks and Viacom, where her many successful deals included the highly-rated The New Edition miniseries, prior to her appointment at ABC earlier this year.

Sharif-Drinkard’s determination to make a difference can be traced back to her childhood in New York City’s Harlem projects. “I was a child of the movement,” she says of her family’s part in the Nation of Islam. “My parents were really involved, and activists in a number of movements in the city.”

Sharif-Drinkard followed in their steps; as a teenager, she was part of a successful legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union to the way the city used SAT scores to award scholarships, as it favored wealthier students who benefited from tutoring and test preparation.

“I just found that my educational experiences were not what they could have been,” she recalls. “I thought early on, I knew that I deserved more and I would often see my teachers who came in from other parts of the city, or Jersey, who barely wanted to teach us, quite frankly; went back home to their white picket fences… I recognized that there were things that I needed to advocate for myself, so I would often bring my mother in. I would often fight for the chance to have advanced classes.”

Rather than allow that sense of injustice to embitter her, she made it a fuel. “I had to use that impetus and that energy that I had, and even to some extent that anger, and redirect,” she says. “I would study extra time at night. I would stay up all night sometimes and make sure that I understood what the material was. And I would push myself in ways that really didn’t give me a chance to get myself off the hook.

“If I failed something, I tried harder and harder. And I ended up winning over people who really didn’t champion me, because I was relentless in trying to get my family and myself to a place I thought we deserved to be.”

I’m always inspired to give back to others because I do think it is in truth the rent that we pay to be here on this earth.


A different way of thinking

Sharif-Drinkard’s determination to overcome the odds and make a difference was forged in part by the example of a line of strong women. First there was her mother, who “always thought that I could be better than I was.” Even when Sharif-Drinkard did really well, Mom would tell her that she could “still be better.”

Then there was Miss Griffith, a teacher who was the coach of the Double Dutch team Sharif-Drinkard was part of (“we had speed ropes, we had tricks; we had everything”). “She was amazing… She adopted me, she took me home on the weekends to Inglewood, New Jersey, and let me see something outside of my project. She said she wanted me to see how other people lived, she wanted me to see what was available to me outside my block… that meant a lot to me.”

At high school there was principal Dr. Lottie Taylor. Each morning she would greet students at the door and tell them that every child would learn, could learn and must learn. “She took kids from the poorest areas of the city and poured into them all kinds of encouragement.”

Other women made an impact from a distance. Sharif-Drinkard read about pioneering Black women attorneys Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, who ran for President in 1972, and Barbara Jordan, the first Black woman elected to the Texas state senate and the first to represent her state in Congress.

The example of those two women first inspired Sharif-Drinkard to pursue law as a career when she was just nine. “I recognized that being a lawyer actually gave people a different way of thinking, and it also gave us an opportunity to advocate for people in ways that perhaps we wouldn’t be able to without those kind of skills, so that attracted me to the law at a really early age.”

Chisholm’s story, in particular, “challenged me greatly,” she reflects. “I recognized there were things that were challenges for people who had it even more difficult than I had it, and so I really had no excuse, despite the fact that I grew up on welfare, despite the fact that we were in the projects; there were things I just would not make excuses for.”

The awareness that she may not have had it easy growing up, but others had it a whole lot tougher, is something she believes young Black people need to be helped to foster by knowing their history—what their predecessors went through, and that they come from a rich lineage of people who fought and suffered and overcame.

“They have to know that, because when you know you come from that cloth, you can do anything,” she says. “That’s what I knew as a young kid, that history helped me recognize that my circumstances may have been different or maybe a little bit difficult, but guess what? There were a lot of people who had way more difficult circumstances than I did, quite frankly.”

Even if you have a challenge, it is a challenge you can overcome, it is a challenge that you can fight through.

A challenge you can overcome

Awakened in her reading of Chisholm’s life, Sharif-Drinkard’s comparative good fortune was further brought home as a college student, when she got to accompany David Dinkins, New York City’s first Black mayor, on a visit to South Africa. Waiting to meet them as they got off the plane was Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who spent more than a quarter-century in prison for his activism. It was the year before he ran for and was elected President.

“Welcome home,” he told Sharif-Drinkard, shaking her hand. “You’re so young to be here. We’re so happy to have you.”

The encounter made a deep impact. “I’m thinking, ‘This man spent 27-1/2 years in jail; I have no excuse. I can’t go home and give an excuse about anything.’” That impression was deepened by her experiences in the country, visiting the shanty towns of Durban where people lived without running water. “So my little project experience—I couldn’t complain about it,” she says.

“What I’m trying to get young people to see is that even if you have a challenge, it is a challenge that you can overcome, it is a challenge that you can fight through.” It is like history, she says: having a reference point helps you know how to navigate your circumstances.

It is also important to have a goal in mind. “Everything I do, I do with purpose,” she says. “I’m intentionally thinking about the kinds of things that I’m involved in, the kind of jobs I’ve taken, what impact I’ll be able to have in a particular sphere or place. And I really want to be super-specific about what my end goal is, right?

“How do I help people? How do I bring something to the table that might not have been something that they already had?

“So I am always trying to be intentional about the work and I’m never really trying to follow the waves, if you will, or follow other people. I’m always thinking about what’s on my list to check off.”

Well aware of how she has benefited from others who invested in her, Sharif-Drinkard makes it a point to try to help others whenever she can. “Because I have been the beneficiary of so much from so many people, so many good deeds have come my way because of what people have done and given to me and taught me, I don’t turn anybody down,” she says. “I always make time for every single young person, and even older person, who comes to me and wants to talk. Even if it’s just 15 or 20 minutes of advice or feedback, or something that I can offer to them. A good word.

“It’s so important, because we really are a mirror image of each other… I hope I give more than I took, that’s really my goal, ultimately… I’m always inspired to give back to others because I do think it is in truth the rent that we pay to be here on this earth, as a wise person has said to all of us.”

More work to be done

In addition to her leadership role at ABC News, Sharif-Drinkard is chair of the board of the Black Entertainment and Sports Lawyers Association. In 2019, she received the Ruth Whitehead Whaley Award from Fordham Law School’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA) for being an outstanding alumna and the New Jersey Muslim Lawyers Association (NJMLA) Medal of Honor for her “exemplary leadership” as a Muslim American attorney. Her commitment to diversity and inclusion earned her the National Association of Multi-Ethnicity in Communications Luminary Award.

“The work of equality and equity and inclusion and diversity has to happen on all fronts and all platforms,” she says. “So while we have people in the streets, while we have people in the boardrooms, people on the sidewalks or wherever they may sit, we have to make sure that as corporate executives we’re asking of our leadership and ourselves the same things that we’re asking outside of officials who might be in government or other places.

“So we have to challenge ourselves more. We have to ask the right kinds of questions. I think we have to push ourselves… making sure that we do not settle for the okey-doke.” It’s not just about writing a check, she goes on, but creating pathways of opportunity for Black people to excel, and opportunities for people who are deserving of them.

“We can’t be complacent,” she says. “We can’t act as if we’re removed from the challenges that other people face, because I think sometimes we think we’ve done our part by supporting the NAACP or the Urban League and those kinds of things.”

That’s one step, but it is also important to be supportive of others “inside of the hallways, inside the boardrooms,” being resources for each other, opening the door and creating pathways so that young people and people who might be marginalized, those who typically haven’t had opportunities, are given an opportunity.

“So there’s a lot of work that still has to be done,” Sharif-Drinkard says. “I think that there’s more work that has to be done in corporate America in some areas than has to be done in some other industries, quite frankly.” The number of Black CEOs is abysmal: “We’re nowhere near where we need to be in terms of leadership. We might hit certain levels, but we certainly have not nearly gotten close to the barometer of success that we need to get close to as a people.”

Fight for small wins

To young people, Sharif-Drinkard says remember that life is a marathon, not a sprint. “A lot of times, when you have really big goals and you’re super-focused on getting things done really fast in life, you sometimes lose focus and we don’t always enjoy the journey… It doesn’t all happen overnight, but it really takes that resilience and that recommitment and that re-imagining.

“Sometimes things don’t happen for us because they’re not supposed to happen for us, and so we have to reboot and we have to think, ‘OK, so what path am I supposed to take next then?’ You know what they say: rejection is protection. So we have to understand that the things that we want are not always the things that are best for us.”

She has some particular words of advice for women looking to make their way in corporate America. “First and foremost, we have to be true to ourselves and we have to protect ourselves.” Authenticity is “super important: who we are as people is more than who we are in a job, and we have to make sure that the job doesn’t define us, we define the job. The job is a part of what we do. I’m not a lawyer and that’s all I am. I’m not a business person and that’s all I am. There’s a lot more that’s complex about me, that’s outside of the role that I play in my professional life.”

Sharif-Drinkard gets concerned when people “become the job. I’ve never let the job define me because the worth is not in the physical title or the position or the office or whatever the salary is. The worth is in what you bring to it and how you see things and what you offer.”

She underscores that message for women of color “who have to really fight every day for the small wins.” Be thoughtful, she advises, about ensuring that you’re not defining yourself based upon someone else’s value system “and that you understand who you are separate and apart from all that you’re doing, so that you don’t get caught up in that trick bag.”

And what about balancing the roles of work and family? “I don’t know that exists,” she says. “I try to balance my priorities as they come up and do the best I can on a day-to-day basis. I will not lie; it is definitely hard, but it is doable, and I think the one thing I learned early on is that you can have it all, but just not all at the same exact time, and you have to figure out what the priorities are for that moment.”

From an interview with Louis Carr