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Finding Purpose through the Things We Build



Kortney Ziegler talks about the different moments in life that serve as a catalyst for why we do the things we do, moments that give us a clue as to how we want to spend our time in order to make change in the ways we want to see- sometimes need. He discusses some of the projects he discovered for his purpose: STILL BLACK (Art/Film), PhD Legacy at NorthWestern, Appolition and Trans*H4CK.


Kortney Ziegler is an American filmmaker, visual artist, blogger, writer and scholar. His artistic and academic work focuses on queer/trans issues, body image, racialized sexualities, gender, performance and black queer theory. He co-founded in order to help incarcerated black people return to their families.

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Thanks, I'm really excited to be here. I'm really grateful for the opportunity to always be invited to talk about my work and I'm really grateful that you all stayed. It's like a full room. So give yourselves a round of applause because it's been a three-day conference and I know sometimes it can be a little bit difficult. So thank you all for allowing me to share a little bit about the work that I do in my life.

So my talk today is called Finding Purpose Through The Things That We Build. I was initially reached out to talk about Appolition, which I'm going to get into more later and I was really excited to talk about that, and as Wesley [Reisz] said, they were really excited for me to talk about that but also wanted me to keynote. And we’ve met a few times and he was really like, "We really want you to provide something motivational and inspirational". And it's actually an amazing time that we actually had those talks because ...

First, I'm going to give you a little bit of who am I and why this talk at this moment right now is necessary. So I am Kortney. I am a California native, love living here, born and raised in Southern California. I know a lot of folks in this room probably are not from here or are visiting, and so welcome to my home state. I am a dog dad. That is my amazing, amazing dog. Her name is Dough. She has an Instagram, @doughthepup. We live in Oakland together.

I identify as a social inventor, I guess. It's a title I've kind of given myself as someone who really is aware of the world we live in and tries to solve solutions by bringing disparate, social modalities together. That was kind of a rambling idea, but that's kind of what I define myself as. I'm also a creative entrepreneur. I believe that everything we do in terms of- I'm a founder- everything that I do in terms of my work is undergirded by creativity and imagination. That's something that I value in my life and that I know that I bring to the organization that I work with. I've also been a builder and maker for 23 years, almost half my life. I've been really aware of what I wanted to give to the world. I've spent most of my time doing those things. And again, I'm going to go over some really important projects that I've been lucky enough to produce in my life.

So I am the head of research and design at ZaMLabs. What is ZaMLabs? We are a tech incubator and media lab. We were established in 2014. And that is my amazing co-founder right next to me, Tiffany Mikell. And in this photo, we are featured this month in "Chicago" magazine for our company, which is really cool. Yeah. And we look amazing. We look amazing in this photo. I'm just like, "If you tweet, just tweet this." No. Yeah, so we are based in Oakland, where I live, and also Chicago. We just opened up a headquarters this past June or July, I think, which is really exciting for us because prior to that, we were completely remote, which, you know, comes with challenges and pros and cons. But yeah, so that's ZaMLabs. I'll talk a little bit more about that.

So I'm excited to talk about why this talk matters. This talk matters for two main reasons. I'm really, again, excited to see conferences in the tech space really focus on social impact and how we can use technology for good, and how we can be more mindful and thoughtful of the things that we create. So I think this talk, in particular, is always timely and will always be timely. I think we should always, always talk about our purpose and why we're building the things we build. This talk is also really important for me because I've actually been on a sabbatical for the past month, which doesn't seem like a long time, just a month, but in the world as a startup founder, that is a long time. And I really needed to take this past month off, all of October, because it was really- I really love the work that I do and I get excited. I'm a little bit of a workaholic and I'm actually in therapy to address that because I do not want to be that. So it was important for me to focus on my mental health and get recentered and grounded and figure out why am I doing the work that I do. Why am I dedicating my time to the things that I'm doing? And how can I actually take some time out to regroup and recenter and focus on my existence and things that make me happy?

So this talk- it was a great time to be approached by the conference. It really forced me to sit down and think about my trajectory professionally, how it's affected me personally, and how it's definitely impacted the things that I've been, again, lucky enough to create.

What is Purpose?

So what is purpose? I think it's something that we all have to define for ourselves, right? But the way I define it is, it's a force that drives us to create, right? It's something that forces us to make change or pushes us to make change, something that forces us or sustains us to exist. So that's what I think of when I think of purpose. And I was talking about this with my co-founder yesterday and she was actually helping me put my slides together. I'm not a slides person, but I know in tech, you guys love slides. So I come from a traditional academic background where we read papers and so it's nice to have slides. The point is she kept saying, "I really appreciate that you put the word 'force' in there because it almost seems it's like something that you really don't have any control over because it's pushing you, but it's also kind of nudging and reminding you, right, and it has power, so the concept of force." So that's what I think purpose is, a force that drives us to create, to make change and to exist.

We talk a lot, I think, about purpose as we build our teams. I know a lot of us, if not all of us in here are on a team. We're team leaders, working on a team. And no matter which role we play, we kind of always understand purpose as a center of what we're doing, right? It's the core of what we're doing, what we're building. It's our why. And if we don't know our why, then we really won't know what we're building.

And so, before I go to this slide, I'm going to talk about how I came to my why. There were multiple moments. I don't think that there's one moment in anything that we do in life that is really driving one purposeful thing that we should do, right? I think in my experience, I've been able to find things that want me to continue living in a number of ways and there've been a number of pivotal moments in my life that have really shaped me as a creator, as a founder and as a human being. So I identify as an elder millennial. So, you know, we were born in the early '80s and we're really cool, but our bones hurt, like I wake up and I'm stiff now and I'm like, "Oh." So that's how I identify.

I grew up in the '80s. Was a baby in the '80s and a teenager in the '90s. And I really value that period of being born because it's almost like I've been able to be, like, digital and analog, kind of seeing the on-rise of the personal computer and the internet. And that computer that you see in the screen is actually similar to one of my first computers that my grandmother bought me when I was a kid and I say this joke often. I grew up poor, raised by my grandmother. And so for her to buy a computer in the home was a major purchase and until the day she died. She died at 81 years old and I was in my early 20s. She would always remind me, "I'm still paying on that computer," you know, so, "get the most out of it." So, the most obsolete computer at that point was, like, you know.

So I mentioned my grandmother because she's been a significant force in my life. She is the person that raised me. And here's an amazing quote from her. My grandmother was one of the black folks in this country who was part of, well, her family was part of the Great Migration. So they moved from the South to the Midwest. She ended up growing up in Kansas City, Missouri. I don't know who's from Missouri in here, but Yay, Missouri. Your unofficial state motto is, Missouri is the "Show-Me" state, and I actually googled this morning about why that is and I can go on, but it is, it's the "Show-Me" state. But being raised by my grandmother, she would always say this thing, "I'm from the 'Show-Me' state, you're going to have to show me." And that was like with everything. Like, "I'm going to get good grades," "So I'm from the 'Show-Me' state, you have to show me." "I'm going to do this in my life," and that was always her playful response and also a reference to where she comes from, right? But it was also, I think, I took it, me personally, as a way to... meaning that if I don't show people literally who I am, then they don't know me or in some ways, they don't know the real me. And that it's important for me to always show people who I am, whether that be interpersonal or through the work that I do. So, even to this day, the things that I do, "I'm going to do this," I still hear the voice of my grandmother: "You're going to have to show me." And so I usually do make it a point to get those things done. And so, thank you to my grandmother who's really made me into an awesome person for sure. At least I think I'm awesome. Right?


So that really influenced the necessity of showing people who I am. That was one of the first things, I think, that really gave me purpose, professionally and creatively, as a young person. And I was really inspired from my youth that I was going to show people who I was and tell stories about who I am in all the ways that I can. And one of the first ways I was, was creative. From a young age, I thought I was going to be a scientist, but I also thought I was going to be a filmmaker. I don't know why, probably because I grew up in Los Angeles, so I grew up kind of close to a filmmaking culture in a way. But I was just influenced by the work that I saw as a young kid and television, and seeing stories that didn't really reflect myself and so wanting to change that.

So at one point in my life, I was a filmmaker. It was a really amazing time in my life. I did a lot of work specifically on identity, specifically about myself. I'm going to out myself right now, if you do not know, I am a transgender man. And so that is a picture of me. In one of my films, I used to be an experimental filmmaker. It's like really artsy and cool. And so, that's a photo of me from one of my short films that dealt with gender identity and sexuality and things like that. And to the left of that is a still from probably my most well-known pieces of work, ''Still Black: A Portrait of Black Transmen,'' which is the first and continues to remain the only feature length documentary about the lives of black transgender men, which is awesome, right? Because we're living in a moment where I think more ... Yay. Thank you. Not to toot my own horn, but toot. It's awesome, right? We're living in a moment where I think trans is so visible. It's way more mainstream, the word "transgender," it's more inclusive in the lexicon, right? More people know about it, there are TV shows. There's well-known trans women. "Still Black" was produced in 2000, I started making in 2007. I finished it 10 years ago last month in 2000. Sorry, that doesn't make sense. I finished it in 2008, so it was 10 years old last month in October. It continues to screen around the world, which is amazing. It continues to be the kind of seminal piece of black trans representation. I completed it during my doctorate and I'm really excited. I hope you all go home today at some point and maybe google it; you could go to if you'd like to watch it. And there are a couple of streaming services that you can also locate it on.

So I say all that to say that creativity was the first thing in my life that really gave me purpose, right? I was able to use who I am and tell stories that didn't exist before and really create significant change. I had something else to say before that. Yes. In addendum to that, the idea of being creative has always stuck with me. I do creative work to this day, today, and this moment in time, but I'm mostly consumed with building a company which is kind of tragic in a way because I should be more creative. But the creativity stayed with me throughout my schooling and it became the impetus and the basis of my academic work.

I really like this quote, and I'm sharing this quote, it's from Zora Neale Hurston and she says, ''Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.'' That quote is so powerful, right? I think a lot of us get intimidated or some of us could get intimidated by the concept of research. In some ways, it seems so sterile and very academic, but I appreciate how she makes it very playful, that it's just being inquisitive, it's wanting to know more about our world and everything about our existence in the world around us. I'm really a fan of Zora Neale Hurston. Are we familiar in this room with her? Show of hands? Yay. You should familiarize, "familiarize," how do you say that word, yourself with her work. She’s long gone. But one of her most recent works that just came out last year is actually called ''Barracoon,'' it's the last written oral history of an enslaved black American, which is amazing. And it was actually produced after her death. I encourage you all to read it and everything that she has done. She's one of the first kind of ethnographers really studying human socialization. Yes, so Zora Neale Hurston.


But this quote resonates with me because in addition to being creative, I'm a nerd and I love being inquisitive and I love trying to figure stuff out and I love asking questions and going on long journeys and finding the answers to those questions. And so that's why I stayed in school forever. I don't support anybody to do that. I stayed in school forever. That is me at 29 years old completing my doctorate. That's a really awesome picture that I love. That was the day of my graduation and we were leaving. I actually put the tassel on my hat. And that sign was spray-painted in the CTA, which is like the train in Chicago. And I don't know if any of you are familiar with Wu-Tang, "Cash rules everything around me”, C.R.E.A.M. And it was symbolic that I saw that because I actually thought, "Whoa, I completed my PhD”.

It was a really difficult time being who I was in that moment, even though I knew that I loved education and I was going to find solutions to problems and read all the books and do all the things. Again, as I said earlier, I'm a publicly out queer person. And that is not without difficulty, especially in spaces, institutional spaces of any kind. Spaces that have rules and things about how people are supposed to be and how people are supposed to look and perform. I'm really proud of myself that even though that was difficult, I still stuck with what I wanted to do and found my purpose by writing. I stuck with my purpose by writing.

And to the left of my photo, you see there's a blog called "Blacademic." That was something that I was having difficulty in my graduate seminars. And so I turned to the internet and started a blog, when blogging was really popular, in the early 2000s on Blogspot, which is still around, sadly. And this was at a moment where you had to hack code Blogspot yourself by using snippets to do recent comments and stuff. So it was also a way where I was learning and teaching myself to be very technical. But it was an outlet for me to talk about things that I wasn't able to talk about in school. And so that blog actually went on to become super, super popular, won multiple awards when blogging was popular again. And it helped me to become, which was mentioned earlier, the first graduate of my program. I just wanted to be done with school, and so that really lit a fire under my ass. But it was mainly creating, knowing that I did have a purpose and that I deserved to be there, but I needed to funnel my energy in another space that wasn't always my graduate seminar. So I did that with "Blacademic."

This is a quote from me. This is the first time I actually put a quote from myself in my work and I'm excited and I think you should always do this. I think it's important for people to know, if you are a researcher, if you've created any body of work to always reflect on what you've done before, it's important to do that. So this is from an article that I've written about revenge and technology and being a black American in the tech space who has created a lot of technology that challenged his boundaries and makes us think differently. So I said, ''In an industry rife with racially exclusionary practices, I remain convinced that it is on the fringes- the sites that others refuse to touch- that I am able to thrive.'' And by that, I mean, even though the tech industry has allowed me to find a different type of purpose, and again, I'm going to go into the things I've been able to create in this space, it is not without its issues. It is not a perfect space. I'm hoping that it's going to become perfect, which is, again, why this talk is important and why the other spaces of technology that are focused on social issues are important. I think this moment in time is the most critical, right?

And so being in this space, though it hasn't been easy, I've been able to navigate in the margins, in spaces where people don't necessarily always think of in the afterthought spaces and really have been able to use those to my advantage and create a different kind of dialogue and discourse that's happening in tech. So, yes.


And so I did that in, wow, 2013, launching Trans*H4CK. It is the first organization in the tech space that is focused specifically on the trans community and creating technology for transgender individuals to sustain lives.

A little story about founding Trans*H4CK. It was at a moment where I had completed my PhD. I was living in Oakland and it was the first time in my life that I experienced significant anti-trans discrimination where I could not find a job, I couldn't find anything. And though I was the first graduate in my department and I had asked them for a job, I was like, "Please don't let me ..." Because all I had known my entire life was filmmaking and art, and then finishing school at 29… being in school the entire life, well, I didn't have the networks and ideas and, I guess, courage that I do now. And so I was kind of relying on the support of people who weren't probably the people I should rely on. And I hit a really difficult time in my, I think, an important transformative time, actually.

And so I looked to the technology space. I participated in a hackathon that was for filmmakers. It was Tribeca Hacks. And I remember being in my house. I go on the internet looking for anything that I could involve myself in, that I could meet people, that I could potentially get a job. It was like, "A-B-C, how can I be in people's faces, they can see how smart and awesome I am and let me work with them or for them?" So I went to a hackathon, Tribeca Hacks. I did not show up on the last day where we did our demo. It was not a great experience for me. Even as someone who had the expertise coming into the room, it was my first introduction into ... this quote, right? I went into the room and I was like, "Yeah, it's going to be all artists and we're going to ... which is totally cool." But what it was, was a bunch of engineers, predominantly white male engineers and maybe some artists and me, right? And I was on a team and they didn't really value my input though I was the "expert" because it was a filmmakers' hackathon. We were using archives and documentaries. I'm a documentarian.

So I say that to say that it was an awesome moment because it actually inspired me to create Trans*H4CK because I was like, "Whoa, what do you mean?" After participating in that hackathon, I did a little bit of research into our lovely industry and found out there weren't any other spaces for people who were out like me to go and find community and create technology together. No meetups, no hackathons, no speaker series. And I'm not saying this because Trans*H4CK was awesome, but I was searching for that and there wasn't. And so I made it. I didn't know anybody in the tech industry. I did not go to a boot camp to create community, I was not on some operations team at a startup, didn't know anybody. I got on my computer again, did my research and figured out who were the people that were talking in this space about gender, about … at that moment, it was diversity. Who were these people that were talking about concepts that I kind of was talking about in the academy and that were applicable to me, but then also who were actually putting it into practice in the tech space?

There were maybe four people or five people that were really touching on touch points that I thought were important as a trans person. I reached out to them, emailed and said, "You don't know me from nobody. I am not in ... I don't know, but I need help. I want to do this thing, who should I turn to?" And I got so much amazing support. And I was like, "This is my purpose." Like, the universe lined up. Being a nobody in a space that is concerned with being somebodies, right? There's a lot of, like, in the tech space. Well, in any space and industry. There are experts and the experts are the people who are the go-tos, right? And so to come out from being a complete outsider and to develop something that didn't exist before in a space that has now gone on and to create significant change in the industry by helping to birth multiple organizations focused on trans folks, multiple technologies and just, overall different ways of us being safe together, even if you're not trans.

A lot of folks who attended their first Trans*H4CK were not trans at all. They were allies, and they went back to their companies trying to figure out how we created such an awesome space with about 50 people from all backgrounds. And we all had an amazing, amazing time together. And people were like, "How did you do that?" And I was like, "Because I'm not in tech," right? I come from a different space. I come from a different space where I know that, no matter what, someone's lived experience is important to the situation. So this is the first Trans*H4CK, that's ... I don't know if you can tell, I love shouting out Janet Mock because she's famous and it's really cool that she was part of our first event. So that's a great example of people who are like, "Wow," people who have some sort of leverage and power who were aligned with my mission even if we didn't know that it was going to be a success and if I was going to go through it. Yes.


And now Appolition, we talked about that a little bit. Beyond Trans*H4CK, I've continued to create or utilize the resources in the tech space to hopefully make social impact. Though in my full-time job right now we're focused on building live video software, we do have a side project called Appolition. And the inspiration from Appolition came from just me being aware of the world and what's happening. I don't know if all of you know, I hope you all are aware, actually, the idea of the cash bail system being unjust is a conversation, like trans, that has been kind of like in the mainstream lately. I think most of us who were unaware of how bail exists in our judicial system are learning a little bit more because of what's happening in movies and TV and celebrities who are fighting against it and people who are coming out and showing how unjust it is.

And so I was one of those people who were completely ignorant about a lot of what was happening with bail, but also very aware, right, and looking through the world and I'm obsessed with reading stuff online. And I heard about a group of organizers who were all on the ground, kind of grassroots fundraising for bail, for black Americans. And it blew my mind because, I mean, not because people are doing anything for black Americans, but because I've never seen a successful kind of public campaign of crowdfunding for black freedom ever in my life. And I was impressed. I was like, "Whoa." And they literally just kind of rallied different organizations together, did door to door, online forms, kind of basic traditional fundraising methods. And they raised almost a million dollars over the course of a few months. And I was like, "Whoa, that's impressive. Like, crowdfunding for black people, in real time. What? How can I help elevate the work that they do?" I feel that is my- again, I'm always reminded in this space because of who I am that I, in some ways, have an obligation, and part of my purpose is to use my platform and privilege to help others.

And so seeing that, I sent a tweet out. It's kind of like Twitter is great for market research, always test your ideas as a founder, sent a tweet out. People were like, "I'd get with that, I'd sign up. Hell yeah." And I was like, "Word, really? Okay." The tweet was sent July 23rd. About a month from that, my co-founder and I started figuring out how we can make it happen. And we did and about two months later, it launched. We were trying to have 200 people to sign up. We have over 10,000 now, which is amazing, right, to get users. Yay.

Appolition. And I think this is a great example of the solution being something so simple, because I am aware of my purpose and I've studied a lot, that spare change, things are around, like it's nothing new. The concept isn't new, right? There's a lot of apps or platforms that do that. But to apply something so simple to a problem that's so large and massive, it makes people feel like, "Wow, I can participate and I can collectively participate with others in combating something that's so unjust, something that's so wrong that I may feel small, that I can't do anything about. Oh, word, I could just spend and give money to that?" Because we're a spare change roundup app. "Yes. How come other organizations haven't thought about it?" Because it needed to happen from people who are aware of their purpose, right? The moment is timely. At this moment, we've generated over $150,000 in change. In about six months, we did. We bailed out over 50 people. This slide says 40-plus, but it’s still a bit old. Bailed out over 50 people, and we made an awesome list of one of the most innovative companies within our two months of existence. Yay for Appolition. I encourage you to sign up. Please do, and go to the website to learn more about it. I'm really excited.

This is one of my favorite memes. "So, Kortney, why did you give all those examples?" And like, "That's great. You're awesome. What does that have to do with purpose?" Do you all remember this meme? I love memes. I hope you do. This is about a few months ago where she is a real estate agent and she has a video, it's like, "I'm going to show you how to …" She's drinking wine and smashes it. "I'm going to show you how to own your own house." Anyways, I'm going to show you how to discover the purpose in the things you build. So I'm really, again, grateful for being able to share the examples that I've shared.

You Do Provide Value

The first thing is that you do provide value. That sounds so cliché and so just like, "Okay, I already know." But I think the example of me being at the hackathon and not really being valued by my team, but then that giving me purpose and drive to create something new that has been valued by the industry at large, right, is really, I think, a great representation of that no matter what we're in and what spaces we're in or what team we're on, you're valuable. You're a person who brings a particular experience and set of skills and magic that has happened to you during that day, right, to whatever is being created at the time, whatever is being built. So you do provide value. Please remember that Kortney Ziegler says it.

Find Your Community

Find your community. That's super important. I think for any of us to find purpose in our lives or any things that we're creating, it's important that we don't do it in isolation. I mentioned that our team is predominantly remote and a lot of my work is in isolation. And so it may seem a little bit that I shouldn't be saying this, but in a lot of my work, I'm yearning for community, when I am, and whatever "community" means to you. For me, it means friends who I hang out with. It's not necessarily a work community because I spend a lot of time with my colleagues. And even though they are my work community, I need to find community outside of that. I even play video games online. I love it. 12-year-olds kick my ass all the time in Fortnite. I don't know if you've ever played with 12-year-olds online. They're, like, really mean. They are not my community. But they definitely pushed me towards finding it. But finding your community is important. Finding spaces in which you are reinvigorated and supported, that's super important.

Remain Open to Growth

Remain open to growth. I think this is one of the most important, I think, that I definitely try to practice in my life. As someone who does have a credential that says I'm an expert qualified to talk about something, I'm always knowing that my expertise is at a limit, there's a limit for that and that I am always needing to reeducate myself, learn more, continue to study, meet new people, learn what they're doing. Just never stop growing and educating myself as a person. That definitely is something that drives me and sustains me to find my purpose.

Tell Your Story

The next one is tell your story. This is super important. I have learned that that is the one of the most important things that I do in my life and through my professional journey. I got the privilege to give a talk in New York at Write/Speak/Code with my co-founder about a couple of months ago, and I mentioned that I tweet a lot and, as you saw, I used to have a blog. I'm constantly documenting the things that I do because if I don't, nobody else will. It will be nice, maybe some people might have invited me somewhere or read something that I've written. But I know that it's important for me to always tell my story so that others can be aware of who I am, like the "show me," so I'm showing you who I am, but also so that I am always in tune and checking back about my journey so that I can know where I'm going, right? And so if you do follow me on Twitter, it is one of my favorite mediums to document myself and my work and what I do and it really serves as, for me, as an archive or something, again, that I can go back to and be like, "Oh, I remembered, like, three years ago, I was living in my purpose and I was doing this and it didn't work, but I did that shit," right? And I apologize for cursing, but I did that, right? So telling your story is important and don't feel ashamed, feel free to do it and do it in any medium that you want to. Again, you have value and it matters.

Help Others

And help others, Goddamn it. Just do that. I cannot stress this enough. Even if you don't know what drives you, helping others will help to help you figure that out, helping others and whatever that means to you. If that means helping someone move, helping someone code, helping someone, listen to somebody talk, helping your neighborhood, helping your lover, help whatever. I think it's important for us to be more open to helping others. I know that in some cases, it may make us a little bit vulnerable. An example is I get a lot of the times, a lot of students reach out to me who are maybe beginning graduate school or thinking about graduate school and I hated school. I had a horrible experience. But they look at me and they're like, "Well, you ..." So I have four higher ed degrees and they're like, "You were in school forever. So help me figure it out." I hate school, but I'm not gonna crap on what somebody else wants to do. So I help them. And I think that even though it sometimes triggers my anxiety about school, I feel grateful that people actually reach out to me and find my input about what their path and purpose is as something valuable. So it's important to help others as long as you have the capacity and bandwidth to do it.

That is it. I thank you guys so much. I left a little room for questions. I appreciate you so much for listening to me talk, and that is our lord and savior, Beyoncé. So, thank you.

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Recorded at:

Dec 07, 2018