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Higher Calling: Chatting With Podcaster Tiara Darnell of “High, Good People”

Receiving early attention from the likes of Spotify, this rising star tells stories about the cannabis space from the perspective of people of color.

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Lead photo by Ashley Anderson

In early spring of this year, Spotify put out a call for applications from woman podcasters of color for an all-expenses paid bootcamp in New York to develop their projects. The five-day workshop was aimed at supporting women, who make up roughly 22% of podcasters, and more specifically women of color, as the success of programs like 2 Dope Queens signals the powerful potential of more diverse content. Spotify received over 18,000 applications to attend the bootcamp, and Tiara Darnell — creator of the new podcast, High, Good People — was one of the ten chosen to join.

High, Good People is a podcast about cannabis from the perspective of people of color, produced in its entirety by Tiara. The D.C. native and current Portland resident writes in her bio, “I moved to Oregon to crush grapes. Now I crush herb and misconceptions about cannabis and cannabis culture from Portland, Oregon, the City of Roses.” Her move from the wine industry to weed proved to be fruitful, as she was named Oregon’s Best Budtender by Leafly in 2017. Tiara’s affinity for verbal storytelling grew while she was at the University of Oregon’s Portland campus, earning two master’s degrees in Strategic Communications and Multimedia Journalism.

We spoke with Tiara about her switch from viticulture to canna-culture, the birth of High, Good People, and her experience of being a person of color within the cannabis space.

Tiara Darnell, photo by Baker Poulshock

MERRY JANE: You moved to Oregon to make wine but turned your focus to marijuana. Tell us about that transition.

Tiara Darnell: My plan was to go to grad school for geography and I got interested in wine when I was doing the Peace Corps in Morocco...they have this thriving, on the down low, wine scene. I thought wine, being one of the most geographical things there is, I thought it might be cool to go work on a vineyard and see what that’s like before grad school.

So, with that interest in wine, two Oregonians who were also Peace Corps volunteers told me I should go to Oregon and work in the wine industry. I cold-emailed a bunch of vineyards, and found myself an internship, and that’s how I got my start in the wine industry. I realized that I much prefer drinking wine than I enjoy making it, so that was a very short-lived experience. Then I landed the front desk at OPB, Oregon Public Broadcasting, the NPR affiliate. I realized that there had always been a desire to study journalism and to be in that environment...I just realized that I should go and pursue that, and there happened to be a program here in Portland where I could. I started out at the [University of Oregon] Portland campus doing the Strategic Communications and Multimedia Journalism programs.

Is it true that the High, Good People podcast was part of your master’s thesis?

Yeah...we had one class where we had a guest instructor, Emily Harris. [She] said you should challenge yourself to work in a medium you don’t feel as comfortable with, so I chose to do an audio story. At that time, I was volunteering at KMHD, the jazz station under OPB’s umbrella, and I had been doing a Friday night vintage blues show called “The Real Deal” for a year, so I had some experience in broadcast radio, but I never really connected the dots until that class with Emily. Shortly thereafter, I met Mowgli Holmes, who’s the director and founder of Phylos Bioscience, and I told him I’m interested in the cannabis industry. He encouraged me to apply for a job at Farma, a dispensary, and I started working there in September of 2017, and then I quit in March this year.

How did your experience as a budtender influence your podcast?

Prior to working at Farma, I’d already been in the social scene in the cannabis industry for maybe six months before starting budtending. I noticed generally the lack of diversity in the industry, which is a reflection of a lack of diversity in Portland and in Oregon overall. I was thinking, ‘I really enjoy what I’m learning about cannabis, I’m going to go budtend, I really love my program at school, and I love audio storytelling. How can I combine cannabis and media, and how can I find a niche for myself within the cannabis media landscape?’

Also, when you look at all social media content, it also reflects a lot of whiteness. Especially working as a budtender, there’s people from all walks of life, all backgrounds and socioeconomic levels, all ethnicities, that come into the dispensary, and there’s also that long history of the War on Drugs and American drug policy and the communities and the people of color that [it] disproportionately effects. It just hit me like, okay, I should do a podcast about cannabis from the perspective of people of color, and let’s explore the stories that the media is not telling. I just felt like especially in a state like Oregon, in a city like Portland, this was a podcast and a topic that was desperately needed, and I thought if nobody else is going to do it, then why shouldn’t I?

You’re doing this work out of a predominantly white city within what used to be a sundown state. Can you tell us more about your experience living in Portland and how it has shaped this project? What has the response to your work within that space been like?

When I came to Oregon, I had no idea about the state’s history of exclusion laws, and what it meant to be a black person or any person of color in Oregon during a time when those exclusion laws were active. I didn’t know about redlining, I didn’t know about Albina, I didn’t know about Vanport. I felt more isolated in Cornelius, Oregon than I did when I lived in Morocco...moving into Portland it was just like, ‘Wow, where are all of the black people?’ It was a shock for me. It wasn’t until about a year after being in Oregon that I started learning about exclusion laws and why the demographic makeup of Portland is the way it is…I’d say that being in such a white space I’ve become a little more in touch with who I am as a person, as a black woman. I love the diversity of the East Coast and all that offers, but I do feel like because there are so few of us in Portland, that the communities of color tend to be more connected and more in tune with each other because we don’t take each other for granted. Within the cannabis industry, I’ve often felt isolated when I go to certain events, because they do tend to be pretty white.

Being in this industry and seeing where money is coming from, and who’s in positions of leadership and ownership of various cannabis-related businesses, it’s really stark. I’m just tired of the lack of diversity and the lack of action when it comes to being more inclusive — it’s a talking point, but not an action point. This is an industry that is new in terms of it being legal, but it’s old in terms of its history and who has been at the forefront of it, and who’s benefitted and who’s been kicked under the bus because of it. I feel like there’s a lot of tone-deaf conversations that are happening when it comes to diversity and inclusion, mainly from people who are in positions of power, which usually means white people who own their own business, or are the beneficiaries of capital that’s coming from other investors who tend to be white.

How can both the industry at large and the consumer support inclusion and social equity for people of color within the legal cannabis space?

I guess I’d approach it the way I’d approach being a consumer in other industries...I think if businesses really care about making an impact in communities they may not be directly in touch with, but they want to be more inclusive and more thoughtful, then they’re going to show you through their business practices and who they hire. So, keep a lookout for the people who are walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. It’s a tough one for me, because there’s not just one right way to do it, so I want to be careful with what I say...but I do really feel like if you’re going to spend your money in this industry, then making sure you’re aware of who your money is going to and what they stand for, is probably the most practical way that people can choose to support people of color. Be a conscious consumer just like you would in any other industry.

Business owners, people who are in local government who are in charge of distributing the licenses: if you’re in a position of power and you’re a white person, and you have the ability to make meaningful change in terms of your staff and making people feel more included, understand that because this industry has been so stigmatized for people of color, there’s a lot of mistrust and shame and traumatic feelings that still exist in communities of color. There’s a legacy of trauma that’s not even close to being overcome in the new age of legalization. As consumers, we can support people who are aware of that and who are making meaningful action to change that, but it’s not enough to just put it on the consumer because it’s definitely something that needs to come from the bottom-up and the top-down.

You were just in New York to attend the Spotify podcast bootcamp. What can we expect from you in the future?

One of the best things that I took away from the experience with Spotify, and particularly in the conversations I had with Graham Griffith and Rekha Murthy, my two instructors, [I realized] I was putting a lot of pressure on myself that I needed to produce, produce, produce. To be honest, the pilot episode that’s out, I didn’t really want to release that in May, but I also felt like there was the universe was telling me to press go on it, so I let it out into the world. A lot of people were very glad for it and asked for more, but of course there were the haters out there…I think that I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to hurry up and get something else out, so I was almost experiencing analysis paralysis, where I couldn’t quite move on to the next step.

Then the Spotify thing happened, and even when I was there I was still feeling that paralysis… like, “Oh my god, I have to produce.” But Rekha and Graham told me, “We would rather you wait and take your time and put together some amazing new episodes and release them all at once in the spring or whatever you decide to do.” For me to get those episodes together and release them as a season or something like that, I feel less pressured to hurry up and get things out now. That’s great because I’m only one person. I do everything from ideation to the interviews and the editing and all the mixing and marketing. I’m a one-woman production, so I needed to hear somebody say it’s okay to take that pressure off yourself and to take the time you need to do the best work that you can do because the world needs this podcast…especially as legalization continues, [my] story matters and the stories of people of color matter. I feel like I’ve gotten permission now to just breathe and to take my time to do my best work, and then release that into the world and be proud of it.