One woman shares how she rejected “no” and said “yes” to her best life.
– Taiia Smart-Young
I’ll allow Shonda Rhimes to take credit for inventing the Year of Yes (YOY). This TV titan did make it famous, but let the record show that I invented the concept before Rhimes’ book with the same name became an instant bestseller.
In 2014, I could be found lounging on a tan leather couch in my comfort zone. I had a cool gig as the executive editor of Juicy, a celeb life, hair, and beauty magazine, which I co-founded with my soul friend Paula. At Juicy, the riskiest thing I did was subject my skin, hair, and nails to all the free goodies beauty brands tossed at us by the boatload. Picture me as an eager test dummy for every BB Cream for mocha skin, matte red lipstick, and neon nail lacquer ever invented. I interviewed celebrities, twirled on red carpets and on the rare occasion, appeared on reality TV.
And while all of this was crazy, sexy, cool in that TLC kinda way, I never forgot that one of my purposes in life was to mentor young people and encourage them to leave their own safe havens a little bit, to grow. But as I moved from one trendy NYC venue — via car service — to watch the unveiling of the latest age-defying beauty serum that would preserve my face better than a hyperbaric chamber, I knew that I hadn’t done much to test my limits. It was time to get my own ass off the couch and do something that scared the crap out of me. And that didn’t mean dye my hair blue. A good spin around the color wheel didn’t faze me.
There was a single rule to my Year of Yes. It was this: if there was free time on my calendar, then I’d say yes to an invitation and worry about the details later. Oh, and the request had to be legal. I was completely unwilling to see if orange really is the new black.
Enter the universe to test my lady balls, in the form of an email from Monique, a contact looking for a co-host for a teen step show at Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The principal, Dr. Lopez, affectionately refers to her students as Brownsville Brilliance — something outsiders find impossible to believe. Still, Monique created Step Up or Step Aside to showcase the skills of local Black and Brown middle and high school youth.
I was available and reluctantly suggested that I would do it. Monique and I were in the same sorority, but other than that, she didn’t know much about me, except that I had participated in a girls empowerment panel at Mott Hall Bridges Academy. She didn’t know that this hosting gig was in a totally new zip code from my comfort zone — which consisted of me standing at a podium for five to seven minutes as a middle-school graduation speaker.
As it turned out, hosting was waaaaaaay more involved. There was a script to consider as well as judges, intermission, and an impatient Brooklyn crowd. And somehow, I had to figure out how to exchange witty banter with a male co-host.
And the step show was just two months away.
Monique texted me — she had a few questions:
Her: Can you be funny?
Me: Yeah, kinda.
Her: Can you engage an audience?
Me: Ummmm, I think so.
Her: Can you hold it together onstage with your co-host if things fall apart backstage?
Me: Well… Wait. What? Define “fall apart”?
Monique was definitely being cautious about this hosting gig. I had to wonder if this was a teen step show in Brooklyn or the Oscars at Dolby Theatre in Hollywood?
Part of me wanted to say: “Girl, I was just playin’. NEVERMIND.” But, I took the risk to remind my brain that playing it safe makes room for me to be mediocre and boring. And while I didn’t announce my YOY to anyone but my pillow, I held myself accountable. I owed it to myself to have adventures — big and small — to share with youth in my circle.
Still, it was tempting to walk away from this risk, especially since my pillow is not judgmental.
“I got you. I can do this,” I responded to Monique, before my nerves got the best of me. I hit send on my email and prayed for the Earth to be covered with a swarm of angry locusts, so that we’d never find out if I could engage an audience, be funny, and hold it together while adolescent mayhem erupted backstage.
On the day of the step show, I checked the forecast. Blue sky. Bright sun. No locusts. There wasn’t even a West Nile virus outbreak. Not that there would be: It was December in New York City and if a mutant mosquito was found anywhere, it would’ve been frozen to death.
Inside the middle school, the auditorium buzzed with activity. And my stomach did a double somersault that would’ve made Simone Biles jealous. It felt like being behind the scenes of a live TV show with script updates, talent changes, and small talk with my fellow co-host. I nodded in agreement as Monique handed me the script and I watched as the teams dressed in bright purple, gold, and black outfits clapped, stomped, and chanted in the hallway.
This wasn’t the Oscars — and this step show meant more to me because it wasn’t the Oscars. I was proud to be a part of this community event that put underserved kids from the five boroughs in the spotlight. The crowd wasn’t going to toss tomatoes at me if my jokes fell flat. I took a deep breath and decided not to take myself so seriously, not because I am fearless, but because I am courageous. My stomach settled by the time we hit the stage to warm up the audience and introduce the first team.
Those three hours are a fantastic blur. Afterward, three of the judges asked how long I’d been hosting events like this. “This is my first time,” I said, relieved that my inexperience didn’t show.
They loved that I didn’t seem bothered when my mic died or the lighting person took too long to dim the lights. Looking back, I remember laughing, dancing, and joking with the audience — and feeling happy, free, and energized, as if I belonged onstage.
As a writer and editor, my position is often behind the scenes, which I enjoy. But before hosting Step Up or Step Aside, I didn’t have many opportunities to bring my full creative, feminine, cultural, goofy, friendly, funny self to a large audience. There were always pieces of my personality gumbo, like my sense of humor, that I thought I had to leave at home or save for later.
Hosting helped me see that my life is more fun when I give folks a big fat ladle of this gumbo, and I am euphoric when I do. But I wouldn’t have recognized this if I hadn’t honored my Year of Yes.
The following winter, Monique emailed me. This time, there weren’t any third-degree questions about being funny or engaging an audience. This time she didn’t hesitate to offer me the gig. This time the Instagram flyer referred to me and my co-host as the “dopest MCs” in Brooklyn.