MEET MAYA AGUAYO SCHMIDT-FENG
Co-Founder + Producer of Journal NYC
Tell us about a notable memory from your upbringing, relating to anything, maybe something that continues to shape the way you think today?
Until I was 14, my bedroom was a 4 by 10 foot walk-in closet in our one bedroom apartment’s living room, which made growing up during the advent of Harry Potter extra special. My dad built a wooden loft bed into it, and my ladder went through the doorway and into the common space. My parents managed to make an otherwise cramped situation fun and enchanting. Being an only child, it was my little zone, and I was encouraged to make it own. My room now doesn’t feel terribly different in terms of space, except that I have a door that fully closes and I pay my own rent…all that to say, your attitude and how you take accountability for your life is of the utmost importance—one of those cheesy but true reminders.
Where did you grow up and what brought you here? Tell us your “New York/Brooklyn” story.
I was born and raised in Berkeley, CA — the east coast / west coast swap is cliché but real! I was 9 when I first visited NYC, and we stayed with our family friends in the East Village. I remember it being so hot and sticky my mom could barely stand to hold my hand walking down the street. Since that first visit I would return regularly and considered attending college here, but ended up at Macalester in St. Paul, MN instead. After living in the Midwest for close to six solid years—a deeply valuable experience where I met some of my dearest friends—I felt grounded in my purpose to explore the creative infrastructure NYC has to offer, reconnect with old friends, and meet new ones. I moved in September 2016, and realized recently that in just under my year and a half in New York I’ve been three different ages haha…that technicality feels fitting: I was 23 when I arrived, turned 24 in October a month later, and now 25 this past fall. So far I have felt incredibly lucky and supported by my family and friends in my life here.
From one day to the next you are constantly juggling life as a consultant and freelancer, whether in production, modeling, or pursuing a new endeavor by the name of Journal NYC, what keeps you focused, and at the end of a long day what keeps you grounded?
I’ve always felt a multi-faceted pull in many directions, so channeling and actualizing it in concrete ways actually focuses me, rather than pull me further apart. That being said though, I am very thoughtful about who I spend my time with, and being sure to maintain connections with people who have my best interest at heart, and vice versa. Also having moved here a bit older, the novelty of simply being seen without substantive purpose or desire is really not appealing to me; that can be one of the most draining obligations.
Simple things keep me focused and happy: making my bed, making myself nourishing meals at home, lifting heavy weights and foam rolling or stretching, getting book recommendations from my bff Lou that I can pick up at the library, playing piano and enjoying time outdoors with friends. Almost most importantly, though, is practicing the acceptance of myself whether or not I’m doing any or all of the above. As a freelancer, having a strong, authoritative relationship to my own behavior is both a curse and a blessing. So what I’m continually learning is to disentangle my choices from an internal, judgmental barometer of how much self-control I’ve got, and to just keep turning to that pesky practice of deep self-acceptance no matter what.
In terms of staying grounded re: work, I am incredibly fortunate to have filmmaker and artist parents who are totally encouraging of what I’m doing. I can turn to them for advice or guidance and they can answer from experience, and I don’t take that for granted. Despite growing up around it being normal and helping out my family on shoots, only recently have I begun to intentionally work with my dad and that’s very special for both of us.
Speaking of Journal NYC, you started this project with Tasnim Ahmed, a Writer, what roles have you each taken on?
Tasnim and I met a year ago, and it quickly felt like we’d known each other much longer — the kind of connection where you can spend hours of one-on-one time together and feel energized by the interaction, not drained, and that means a lot when two introverts want to take on a labor of love. I think our combined skill sets organically complement one another’s, and that shows in our collaborative process. Journal truly feels like it synthesizes each of our natural gifts and what we most enjoy doing—elevating systematically marginalized voices, connecting with people on a deep level, and generously exchanging resources for play, humanitarian engagement, or creative and spiritual fulfillment.
It honestly feels difficult to draw boundaries around what each of our roles are because we’re both involved in every aspect—we are true co-creators. For instance, we share the responsibility of reaching out to potential contributors, coordinating logistics, writing our interview questions, both taking photos with our own cameras on shoots, and following through on all the back-end production tasks. Tasnim is a brilliant writer, so she effortlessly leads our editorial and copywriting efforts; she has strong instincts across the board. We’ve agreed that I take the lead on social media management, and I edit all of our photos, but we still brainstorm or make most decisions together. Tasnim and I have a good groove of tagging each other in at certain points, especially because we’re both juggling other work and Tasnim is also in school. I truly feel so appreciative that she’s my partner in this, literally everything about her encourages me to reconsider the limit on what I think I’m capable of. We are also incredibly grateful to our dear friend Dom Hofmann, who has been totally instrumental in launching the site. Journal wouldn’t be what it is without him.
Tell us more about what inspired the project from concept to its debut?
I remember the day Tasnim and I met, we expressed the desire to eventually be totally self-employed, for reasons ranging from serious former workplace abuse to the more banal perks of a self-determined schedule. In November, Tasnim shared that she’d always wanted to create her own publication (she had even purchased the Journal domain years ago) and asked if I would be interested in joining her. I remember very distinctly in my final year of college wanting to satisfy both my analytical and creative impulses, so Journal is an exciting way to do that. Within a few days of our initial conversation, we’d sent off our first interview questions, and now almost exactly three months later, Journal is live.
We want our work to be a corrective measure for the absolute error of exclusion, not a gesture of permissible tolerance. We want to chip away at shifting the framework that perpetuates hatred against the unfamiliar or dissimilar in any way we can—both through direct action and representation. The continued inspiration is absolutely the humbling responses from our participants and readers so far. We are delighted that our intentions have translated so clearly in so little time, and that the experience has felt truly symbiotic. A good example is a moment during our shoot with interviewee Hawa Arsala, where she shared that responding to our questions felt like she was writing in her *journal,* and only realized the Journal pun while saying it aloud…we all shared a hearty laugh!
Where do you see the Journal fitting into the current online-scape of content?
Tasnim and I feel strongly about shifting the paradigm that encourages surface-level interviews with the same recycled lists of people. This is obviously a symptom of a much deeper set of problems, which we wish to address inadvertently and directly through Journal. We have tapped some of our close friends to feature, but for a number of our shoots we’re meeting folks for the very first time, and formulating interview questions after the fact, tailored to the conversations we had. Connecting in person is so important to our process, and because we’re New York based, many of our interviewees live here — but we are intent on getting to the point where we can travel to our participants outside NYC as well. Simultaneously, we are very conscientious of the unfortunate trend to mine folks for their trauma, so our intent with Journal is to create a platform earnestly interested in empowering our interviewees and meeting them wherever they’re at, so to speak. We view this as a chance for dialogue, not a one-sided ask and answer. Our interviews and shoots have afforded me the gift of deep personal reflection as well, and that exchange of energy and information is a true blessing. In addition to our weekly interviews, we came up with Read / See / Do, a list of events or exhibits to attend, books, articles, music or films, and organizations, small businesses or causes to donate your time / energy / resources to, published every Monday. I think we’ve all experienced the overwhelming feeling of access to too much information, so we hope that this list will alleviate that paralysis! If our participants mention something during our shoots or in their interviews, we are including links in the Read/ See /Do the week that we publish their feature. Tasnim and I also have some special Journal events planned to take place IRL as well, so keep a look out for that!
Now to get a little more off topic, at what moments do you feel the most passionate, feel the most you?
When I’m spending time with someone and we’re both at ease in each other’s company, with no need to strike and hold poses of connection; you’re just as able to laugh hysterically together as you are to touch on life’s more serious underbelly. When I’m in that sweet spot of creative collaboration, where everyone is on the same page, so ideas can spring forward and you tap into that giddy sense of play. And when I’m alone and content with following my own thoughts and feelings, especially if I’m trying to give myself some grace in the difficulty of accepting the darker or more vulnerable ones—practicing feeling all the feelings non-judgmentally basically.
What is something you are currently re-discovering? (ex: food, tv show, album…etc)
I recently started taking classical piano lessons again after an eight year hiatus, which has already been transformative. I studied for 10 years, and to carve out time to be completely immersed in the physical and emotional aspects of playing music is so soothing.
What is something you are yearning to experience or learn?
I feel like every other day I’m texting with a friend to dream up our next desired trip. I’m yearning for less talking, and more doing in that regard. My mom’s parents were from Guadalajara and Tampico, Mexico, and met in Mexico City, where many of my aunts and uncles were born. I was last there about fifteen years ago and I want to visit their hometowns, and I deeply wish to solidify my almost-fluent grasp of Spanish. I’m going to make it happen!
What do you find the most harrowing topic of discussion currently and why?
God, where to start. Climate change; everything about our atrociously inept administration; income inequality between POC, LGBTQ folks, and white ppl (and misunderstanding its causes); state sanctioned police murder of black and brown people; prison industrial complex; privatization of health care; gun control; still emerging instances of red-lining; election tampering; jerrymandering; the threat to the end of DACA; access to higher education; #metoo. This still only feels like the tip of the iceberg. This level of overwhelm is precisely what Tasnim and I are hoping to counteract with small, actionable steps via our weekly read/see/do section on Journal. We hope it helps!
Maimoun comes from the Persian language word meaning to welcome guests/invite company. If you could invite anyone to a dinner party, who would it be and why? Tell us about a memorable time you hosted someone, a dinner, or a party.
I would invite author Paul Beatty, because I love his writing and my best friend met him and said he has an amazing presence. I would invite astrologer and writer Chani Nicholas because I have had the pleasure of meeting her, and she is everything. I would invite my cousin Phillippe, grandma Sanchi, great-grandmother Ermine, grandma Alicia and grandpa Guillermo, because they have all deeply informed who I am one way or another, and I miss them dearly.
I honestly love the every-day instances of getting to cook for and host my friends, it’s one of my favorite ways to spend quality time together. But a more notable memory: my last night living in Minneapolis, I drove close to two hours away with all of my best friends to Stockholm, Wisconsin, where they graciously fulfilled my long-held dream of going to A-Z Pizza Farm, which is exactly what it sounds like. Pastoral setting with all of their pizza ingredients sourced therein, BYO utensils/picnic blanket type of spot.
Photography by Mary Kang