How “Them” Editor Whembley Sewell Manages Stress in Challenging Times

“There’s no substitute for taking a quick couple of breaths.”

Whembley Sewell
Whembley Sewell

Right now, we are all looking for change. The world is (finally!) waking up, becoming aware and speaking up. Whembley Sewell is one of the leaders of these conversations igniting that fire to change. The editor-in-chief of Them (a community-driven platform for the LGBTQ+ community) has made it her mission to build a platform that celebrates and amplifies the stories, experiences, and voices across the LGBTQ+ community — driving thoughtful conversations about the impact and importance of representation and inclusivity to drive all culture forward.

And she wants to give everyone a voice. During Pride 2019, Sewell launched #OneOfThem, a network of influencers that share daily posts about the important trends and news happening; as well as highlighting members of the community who tell their powerful stories in their own words. 

Then, in March 2020, soon after the stay-at-home mandate went into place, she and her team launched Themfest, an ongoing virtual music and arts festival for and by the LGBTQ+ community. And taking it another level, wanting to help reimagine the Pride 2020 celebration given the concerns of COVID-19, they developed Out Now Live which featured uplifting speeches, storytelling, messages and performances (like Elton John!) and educational vignettes centering LGBTQ+ history from the 1970s through today — including the Black trans women and queer people of color who have long been leaders in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights, and their stories were centered throughout the program. 

This inspiring change maker sat down with Thrive to share what helps her prioritize, how she manages stress, the surprising way she practices mindfulness and a sweet shout-out to her sister (who brings her optimism!).

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

Whembley Sewell:  I read. Whether it’s a feature I’m interested in or a chapter in a book I’m enjoying, I try to start my day taking things in. I prefer to take things slow in the morning, so sitting with a long read is ideal for me. I follow that up, though, with a read of the news and a scroll on Twitter… which is not exactly a peaceful exercise.

TG: What gives you energy?

WS: Getting creative and using my brain differently gives me energy. I love to play the drums, learn new instruments, draw — I draw energy from exploring my passions and getting in touch with the parts of my mind and my interests that have nothing to do with “work.”

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?

WS: I dislike that cell phones have created the illusion that people can have, or should have, access to you 24/7. With more people working from home and the boundaries between time “on” and time “off” getting blurred in ways I find harmful, I have limited how much I am on my phone and what I use it for — especially on weekends.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.

WS: Before going into any major meeting or interview, I always watch the same Maya Angelou interview. In it she rhapsodizes about the importance of kindness and having reverence for those who have, in turn, been kind to you. To me, the most important quote is: “The thing to do, it seems to me, is to prepare yourself so you can be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.”

TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?

WS: I start with a few small tasks that I can execute quickly to begin getting into a rhythm. A brief warm-up, if you will. Then, I tackle the things that cannot move forward without my attention. Things I need to read, review, sign off on. What’s left is usually the stuff I need to sit with and items that require more time: the in-depth brainstorms, content development sessions, or large-scale strategy I need to work through. With all of the smaller tasks out of the way, I give myself what feels like a luxury of slowing down and taking time with big picture priorities.

TG: What advice would you give your younger self about reducing stress?

WS: Growing up, most of my stress came from wanting to plan every step of my life in hopes of achieving my lofty “goals.” Were my grades going to be good enough to make it into X, Y, or Z school? Was I going to be able to land this internship or that internship? I wish I had understood that no matter how hard you work, nothing is ever going to work out precisely the way you imagine. In some ways, surrendering energy spent obsessing over the details allows you to see that things have the potential to end up better than you ever could have imagined. I would have told my younger self to embrace that truth and surrendered myself a bit more to the beauty of possibility.

TG: Do you have any role models for living a thriving life?

WS: All of Tracee Ellis Ross’ pool vacation videos are my personal north stars when defining what it means to thrive.

TG: When you notice you’re getting too stressed, what do you do to course correct?

WS: For me, it comes down to recentering and focusing on the bigger picture. It helps me to engage with people, or things, that remind me to adjust my perspective of what it is that is causing me stress, and reevaluate the power stress can have over my own day-to-day. And of course, there’s no substitute for taking a quick couple of breaths.

TG: What’s a surprising way you practice mindfulness?

WS: I begin and end each day with gratitude. I think taking stock of all that there is to be grateful for in my life helps me balance out and better assess stressors or other negative experiences.

TG: How do you reframe negative thinking?

WS: I think that allowing yourself the time and space to process things and feel every emotion is an essential part of getting through negative experiences or thoughts. When it comes time for me to reframe my thinking, I always start by identifying the things in my power to change and the steps I can take to do so. I have also found so much peace in letting go of things that I have no control over.

TG: What brings you optimism?

WS: I have a sister who is 15. Watching how she expresses herself with such freedom and hearing how she and her friends talk about our world makes me want to work harder and better for their future. In turn, I follow so many new platforms started by young people that revolutionize how we consume media and learn about important issues. Gen Z is so incredibly innovative, and it gives me hope to watch them build new systems to educate, inform, and empower all of us. I am also quite lucky to lead a publication that fills me with optimism. Our commitment to the community and the stories we help tell through channels like #OneOfThem is nothing short of inspiring.

TG: What was the biggest turning point in your life?

WS: I can’t look back on my life and identify a single moment where everything changed. I can, however, attest to the transformative power education has had throughout my life. Every opportunity I have had to immerse myself in a new learning experience — of any kind — has changed my life.

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