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“Cancel Culture,” Going Viral, and Making Change On The Internet with Sara Li

Sara answers the phone cool and casually. It’s 1pm on a Thursday, and based on our text message exchanges I know she’s been going nonstop. She’s moving to New York City this week, but to my surprise, there is no rustling from papers, no sound of shifting duffel bags, no crunching cardboard boxes. It is quiet on the other line aside from her voice. It’s just us, and in a world where it’s hard to do — she is fully present.

The writer and internet extraordinaire has been making strides boldly but quietly. She’s appeared on Facebook Watch and on NPR’s “All Things Considered” podcast chatting about social media culture — more than once. She attends and covers New York Fashion Week almost every year. Her work has been featured in MTV News, Cosmopolitan and Complex. At just 17-years-old — before #MeToo and #TimesUp became necessary but popular buzzwords — she created a Webby Award-winning art project on sexual assault titled “Project Consent.” It went viral. Now with a social media following and content business of her own, she’s expanding how people look at culture and what the word “influencer” really means. And she’s only 22.

Like most people increasingly find one another, I found Sara Li through the internet. Last August, she made herself known as Instagram Director of The Financial Diet, an online blog and community encouraging women to talk about money. I have followed TFD since its early beginnings, and when she began this position I noticed the shift immediately: the Instagram account became bright but not gaudy, clever but not too try-hard, and informational yet entertaining.

“What’s wonderful and interesting about The Financial Diet is that they take money and talk about everything it touches. How people talk about money in relationships, friendships, with family. It really gave me a new sense of how deeply our relationship with money runs. Working with them definitely motivated me to kind of get it more together, as far as how I manage money, but also how I look at money and the accessibility of finance as a whole. Money is a privilege that not everybody in America has. So the way that we treat money, and the way that we use money ranges so differently. There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ money advice for everybody. They’re so diverse with the tips that they give. And I don’t think it’s something that any other personal finance corporation is doing right now.” 

The company is run by Chelsea Fagan, a powerhouse who built the company from a small, personal blog chronicling her own money mistakes (like maxing out a credit card after a spending spree at the age of 18) to a nationally-recognized finance blog. Fagan has infamously gone online candidly answering a multitude of questions, for example, how much she pays herself and how the outlet makes their money. “They kind of brought back my faith in media, because they are a very transparent company in how much they pay, what their mission is and what voices they want to reflect.” The biggest lesson she’s learned from Chelsea? “You don’t have to care what someone thinks of you. You’re going to make mistakes in your personal life and your professional life. It’s going to be a trial and error thing.” She makes it clear that she’s in the presence of many hardworking women at the company who believe in their mission of supporting many backgrounds, although she experienced quite the opposite growing up.

When I ask Sara if she’d be open to talking about her childhood, she responds with a laugh, “Absolutely. How much time do you have?” She grew up in Topeka, Kansas, a conservative midwest town. “They have a very narrow image of what America looks like, and that image of America is not always inclusive or, in my opinion, progressive.” Li moved from China to the United States at age six and was one of less than 10 Asian-American students at her high school. There was no real place for her to learn about her culture — or any other types of identities and peoples — in her immediate community. “The church that we went to was very much against homosexuality and a lot of things that I personally stand for. When you’re a little kid you don’t really realize what’s going on. At a certain point you start to kind of develop this idea that what they think does not align with what I think. So I became more outspoken about things I felt I needed to speak out about.”

And so she did. “A month after I started Project Consent, a guy that was in a school-sanctioned club with me made a hate account that was essentially like, ‘Fuck consent.’ It was heinous talk, and it was really degrading. I had sent him a message like, ‘Hey, I will take this up with administration. I’m not above to sharing this online, because you’re kind of living proof of why I started Project Consent in the first place.’ I brought that up with administration, and they ended up kicking me out of National Honor Society.”

“What?” I stop taking notes and the words fall out of my mouth in disbelief.

“Yup, they thought I was being way too aggressive with him, and I should have been more forgiving towards his actions. And I kind of stood my ground.” She wanted to present this issue to the colleges he applied for, warning them that someone who’s entering their campus has this mindset. The administration’s response? Don’t threaten him.

“I was just kind of like, ‘He made an account that was literally advocating for sexual assault, but I’m the one who gets in trouble because I told him that he should be held accountable?’”

It made for a very lonely senior year; Sara even stopped going to lunch. “I know that a lot of people who grow up in these small towns with sentiments also have experienced the same things, so it’s nice to know that it’s not forever. It’s at most four years, and then you can leave.” Hardly even phased while telling this story, I wonder if it’s the product of passed-time, resilience, success, or all three.

She started Project Consent during her junior year of high school after experiencing assault herself. “I just remember thinking like, ‘I feel so sad, and so lonely, and so hurt, and so angry.’ I had this giant volcano of emotions. I felt like I was just constantly going to explode. And also I just didn’t have anyone in my life that I trusted enough to talk to about what had happened with me.” So she dealt with it with the best way she knew how: photography and words.

The project went on to win a Webby Award, partner with HBO films and the White House, and reach over three million people globally. Even more impressive, all of these prestigious bodies reached out to her to collaborate — not the other way around. Sara emphasizes: “Don’t build your organization with the idea that you need another organization to come in and save you. Build your organization so that it can really stand alone. You have to have your own identity before you tie it to anyone else and start a collaboration.”

I want her to tell me the moment she realized it all went viral. Of course, her humble yet authentic answer is that there were many in the past five years. She rattled of distinct moments, like when strangers and survivors on the internet outside of Kansas started emailing her. When a neighboring high school invited her to speak. When the creator of the movie Someone Great on Netflix said she was a fan and donated to the organization. “It was one of those snowball effects, where someone shared it, and then their followers saw it, and then their followers. It just really, really snowballed. I was really overwhelmed. I was 17. I wasn’t really ready to become this face of a movement that up until five months ago I hadn’t really planned on getting myself that involved in.”

As it turns out, she wasn’t always so sure of herself. “I kind of psyched myself out for a while, because I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to say the right thing. I don’t know how comfortable I am sharing what happened to me,’ because, again, I was 17. I was still living with my parents. Most of the people in my life didn’t even know it was happening.”

But one train of thought kept her going. “What if one thing by me can change how someone else thought about themselves after an assault? What if one campaign I did could really change a whole family’s idea of consent or sex ed? What if there’s that tiny, tiny chance that we could make a difference? And I just kind of thought, ‘Well, I want to be the voice that I needed when I was younger.’” She then says one of my favorite things I’ve heard anyone say in an interview: “Instead of trying to focus on what I thought people wanted me to say or kind of my national image or that idea, I really just kind of spoke to myself the way that I would have wanted to be spoken to.”

As someone both experienced in and outspoken about influencer culture, I was curious to know Sara’s thoughts on “Stan” and “Cancel” culture. The latter immediately jumped out to her. “I have definitely seen a more harmful side of cancel culture in the last few years. Just because I think it really misses the point of what it was originally supposed to address.”

She’s fluent in this topic, full of metaphors. “It’s kind of become this culture of sportsmanship. It’s become a game, like ‘What’s the most problematic thing we can pull up on a celebrity and then cancel them.’ (Celebrities are) given a lot of range, and a lot of privilege, and a lot of power, but at the same time you have to remember that celebrities are still humans. They’re not going to be perfect. And I think that’s any human being who has ever gone through phases of adulthood or changes. They’re going to change ideologies. They’re going to look back on their past and be like, ‘I regret doing this.’ But cancel culture has, unfortunately, not given them much room to change and to grow.”

She goes on to add an important counter.

“With that being said, do I think celebrities need to be held accountable for their actions? Yes, absolutely. I think everyone should be held accountable for their actions. But I think there’s a tasteful way to do that. I think there’s an educational way that broadens the conversation so that everybody can learn, versus just tweeting someone, ‘You’re canceled.’”

She brings up the recent Shawn Mendes controversy versus Harvey Weinstein.  “There have been celebrities who have done awful, terrible things willingly, and who clearly don’t feel bad about it. I think there’s a difference between someone who slipped up in the past (versus) ‘Hey, this guy has been abusing his power, his platform, and his fame the last 10 years.’ Maybe we should stop giving him attention and acclaim.” She throws R. Kelly and Chris Brown into the conversation, as well. “They’ve proven over and over again: they don’t care about the repercussions of their actions.”

Her response?

“Just let them fade into oblivion.”

I’m about to move on, but Sara isn’t done with this topic. She’s passionate, and has similarly strong thoughts where it pertains to activism.

“Activism, in itself, is so hard, because you’re constantly going to be like, ‘Okay, I want to do this right. I want to be inclusive.’ But at some point you’re going to mess up.  I think it’s very hard for people who have well meaning intentions. You kind of put them to unfair expectations of being a perfect activist.” You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. “It’s a double-edged sword, I’m sure.”

We start to talk about Taylor Swift and her recent political stances, but for fear of diving into a hole we fear both won’t come back from (we’re both huge fans of all things Taylor) — we decide to save it for last.

With the growing and intense pressure for Instagram influencers to have a seamless visual brand and a flawless grid, I ponder if Sara has ever had trouble balancing aesthetic and meaning — especially as someone who preaches that influencer culture is not all about beautiful girls selling flat tummy tea or expensive beauty products. Sara immediately confesses that she has never had an issue with it. With an eye for creative design, she thinks it’s only really helped. She knows what trends speak to people and keeps a pulse on popular graphic trends and colors, merging her work into that.

“As far as managing a Twitter and Instagram, yes there is a certain aesthetic to my brand. You know when something is my brand, but at the same time I don’t feel limited to it. If I want to post something that’s considered ‘off brand,’ I’ll do it, because it’s something I care about. Likewise, I don’t really see the point of posting something if it has no genuine meaning behind it. Post what you want. Post what feels natural. And post what you think has meaning.”  I search for any hint of a little white lie or insecurity, but I only sense truth and confidence. It’s refreshing and hopeful.

By now, we know that Sara Li is polished but relatable. Sophisticated but not stuffy. She’s even-keeled, but the epitome of “If you don’t make noise, you don’t make change.” It’s why I continue to follow all she does. It’s clear that someone as inspiring as Sara has also been deeply inspired, and that person for her is Taylor Swift.

“I feel like I grew up with her. Every single time she released a new album, I felt like I had a new soundtrack for my life. She never felt out of touch, she always felt like someone I would love to get coffee with like, ‘Hey, let’s hang out.’ She gave me comfort. She gave me a friend. She gave me security. She gave me confidence, all those things. Whenever something bad was happening, I would put on a Taylor Swift album and I’d just be like, ‘It’s going to be okay. If we can make it past these next three minutes it’ll be okay.’”

She continues:

“I think she’s a super talented songwriter. The way she describes her songs, she just makes you want to embrace being vulnerable and being open. And that’s something that a lot of artists haven’t been able to do. There’s a lot of artists out there who write about love and write about heartbreak. But she’s really the only one that’s made me reconsider my stance on love. The ability to fall in love and stay soft in a really bad, horrible world is just a challenge, such a gift. And she kind of inspired that in me.”

Sara expresses that her circle changes and has grown smaller, because she is the sum of who she spends the most time with. “I want to surround myself with people who are high functioning, who are energetic, and have a passion for the world… who are just out there and unafraid to kill it, whether that’s starting a new business or going to their day job.”

In her 20s with her whole life ahead of her, she’s neither frightened nor has it figured it out. “I’m kind of keeping an open mind that the world is constantly changing, and I’m constantly changing. So there’s probably stuff that I’m going to be involved in that I don’t even know yet. I could discover a long lost hidden love for something.”

Sara is currently writing a book, but when I ask what she’d ultimately like to do with her influence, she gets candid about the fact that her answer has evolved over the years. “I would do the same thing with my platform if a million people were following or if two people were following. In 50 years or whatever, I want to look back and say, ‘I stayed true to the things that meant the most to me.’ I created art. I advocated for empowerment and equality. I remained a good friend, a good neighbor. All those things. I want to be able to feel that way about myself without looking through the lens of social media. So am I the same person that I am online as I am offline? I hope so. Do I treat people the same way, regardless of how many people are following me, or how many people I’m following? I hope so.”

It’s been three weeks since we spoke on the phone. She’s all moved in to her Manhattan apartment, readying herself for the next chapter. I imagine she’s walking through her new neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen right now, taking every bite of the Big Apple there is. New York just got more glow, because Sara Li is just getting started.

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by Mia Brabham

Mia Brabham is writer, media personality, content creator and people-loving pop culture enthusiast based in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. When she's not working, Mia is probably guessing strangers' astrological signs, gathering a group of friends for karaoke, planning her next day trip or writing. You can find her on Instagram (@yourstrulymia) and on Twitter (@hotmessmia).


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