The past few months have brought a string of wins for Sarah M. Kazadi ’12, amid a decade-long career that’s already had more than its share of accomplishments. Fresh from starting a new job as a senior producer in the Race and Culture unit at CBS Sports, Kazadi found out last month that her film “I Run With Maud: A Promise. A Movement”—which follows a community of runners and social justice activists mobilized after the murder of 25-year-old Black man Ahmaud Arbery by three white men in Georgia—has been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Short Documentary. It wouldn’t be her first: In 2020, she was part of the Emmy-winning production team behind ESPN’s “SportsCenter Presents 2020 – Heroes, History and Hope” special.
Now Kazadi, a native of D.R. Congo who moved to New York City as a child, is focusing on creating groundbreaking content for CBS Sports, which she joined after leaving ESPN in February. Her latest project is the series MINDSET, featuring elite athletes such as Megan Rapinoe talking candidly about their mental health and their journeys to wellness.
Kazadi cleared some time in her hectic schedule to chat with Alumni Affairs about her work, her inspirations and her most valuable takeaways from J-School:
When did you get the first hint you’d become a journalist?
I moved to the U.S. from the Democratic Republic of Congo when I was 8 years old. In order for me and my brothers to learn English, my mother encouraged us to read books in English, and then write summaries of the stories. The more we did it, the more we loved the language.
That’s where my love for journalism and storytelling began.
What was it like moving to the States after growing up in D.R. Congo in the 1990s?
We left Congo in 1997 after a political coup that [Laurent-Desiré] Kabila orchestrated to get Mobutu out of power. We moved to New York for a couple of months, then to Euless, Texas, for four years, and back to New York. I’ve been in New York ever since.
I have lots of memories of living in Congo, and being around my family and feeling that love, and feeling that community love as well. I think one of the best things that could’ve happened to me was being born Congolese and being able to move to the U.S. Having a foot in both of those worlds — to be able to appreciate Black American culture and my Congolese heritage — has helped me learn that Blackness is infinite. We’re everything, and we’re everywhere. I’m grateful to now be in a position where I can highlight that in my work.
How did you get your start in sports reporting?
I always loved storytelling, but then I fell in love with basketball at 11. I have three brothers, and lots of male cousins. Growing up, sports was gateway to bonding with them. I didn’t anticipate basketball playing the life-altering role that it has in my life. In high school, by playing basketball, I was able to earn an athletic scholarship to Stony Brook University. I chose that school because I thought I was going to be a doctor, and Stony Brook has a great science program. But I took a couple of journalism classes and they sparked something in me. That love of storytelling from childhood was awakened again and I changed my major to journalism.
Coming to CUNY for grad school, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. I wanted to merge my loves of sports and storytelling. I had a lot of different interests and I didn’t want to be stifled by that. Coming to the J-School allowed me to explore the different topics I was interested in, taking storytelling and applying it to all these different worlds. I did mostly hard news when I was in J-School. I went to Congo during J-School, and I made a short documentary about young women using basketball as a ticket to an education overseas. It was such an incredible trip, and I’m still grateful to CUNY for helping me have that experience back in my homeland.
I was able to put together content that reflected my different passions. That was an opportunity afforded to me at CUNY J-School, that you can bring that storytelling and perspective to a lot of different topics and you don’t have to be as limited.
But I can’t tell you that I anticipated everything working out like this. I didn’t plan on everything aligning the way it did. I am super grateful to be in the position I’m in, to be able to carve a path for myself that feels very aligned with who I am and the work I want to do in the world. Being at CUNY set me up for this.
What sparked the idea to make the documentary “I Run With Maud” last year?
The film project came from my time at ESPN. Like everyone else, I was completely devastated by what happened to Ahmaud Arbery. Part of my healing process when I see some of the horrible injustices happening in the world is to use the tool I have in storytelling, to be a small part of the solution. I’m constantly looking at things through that lens. It’s where journalism and activism align. When you’re in a position to shed light and tell the truth, you have to. I want to be able to use the tools of journalism and storytelling to be part of the solution.
[The idea started] when I found out about the runners, and I saw the hashtag #IRunWithMaud, and I saw the people collectively grieving by running and not being deterred but being empowered. I was inspired by this community of runners all over the country to finish Ahmaud Arbery’s run, until some kind of accountability was served, and until his mom could have the peace of mind to know that her son’s killers were in prison.
When a woman’s child is murdered, justice is a concept that is unattainable. There will never be justice. But to get some kind of accountability, and someone paying some kind of consequence for what happened, I wanted to use my tools to help.
Miss Wanda Cooper Jones, Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, is a central character in the film. It premiered on Oct. 29, 2021, and the verdict came out a few weeks after that.
How were you able to get Ahmaud Arbery’s mother to participate in the film?
I didn’t want to proceed with the film until I had her blessing and participation. She was the first person I reached out to, the first person I wanted to get on board.
Once she gave me that green light and trust, it enabled me to do the work with confidence and peace of mind that the family was on board. I put together a documentary pitch deck with my vision for the film, and that was enough for us to have a conversation. And then when I finally met her, she told me that being that it was me, a Black woman who cares deeply, telling the story, she felt comfortable. She felt that she was able to trust that I could understand her on a very specific level. That meant the world to me.
This speaks to a greater issue in media. We don’t have enough diversity as far as the storytellers go, those who make the decisions about what stories are told and how. Until that changes, we’re going to miss opportunities to be more authentic and genuine in the storytelling. I’m so glad she expressed that to me because it made me feel more emboldened and confident in telling that story.
What do you hope to accomplish in your leadership role at CBS Sports’s new Race and Culture unit?
In this role in particular, I want to be very intentional about addressing some of the gaps. For instance, behind the lens there is a huge lack of diversity, from the storytellers to the camera operators. When I’m talking about diversity, I don’t just mean Black folks. I mean anyone who is “other,” who is historically excluded, whether that is the LGBTQIA+ community, Black or Brown folks, or indigenous people, the list goes on. That is something I am mindful of and I want to see change. I want the work we do to reflect this commitment to a wealth of perspectives and different lived experiences.
In this role, it’s about creating content that reflects our lived experiences, both in front of and behind the camera. We’re creating documentaries, features and series, and we’re also helping to bolster some of the great work that CBS Sports is already doing—adding perspective and making sure that different points of view continue to be considered and uplifted.
How did the mental health series for CBS Sports come about?
Mental health is a topic I’m so passionate about, and I’m grateful to be in a position to explore this topic in the sports space.
Back in 2016, I did a video series about mental health in the Black community called MAYBEWELL. It was such a great learning experience for me and started me on my own mental health journey. I feel like mental health is one of the more pressing issues of our time, so it was imperative for me to touch on this topic in this new role. I wanted to talk to elite athletes about their own mental health journeys, and I was so grateful to see how many were open to talking. That’s how MINDSET was born. The ultimate goal in doing this work is to not only de-stigmatize the conversation around mental health, but to also increase access to mental health resources. I’m grateful to CBS Sports for allowing me to pursue this, as well as for the athletes who granted us their time. The content is running On CBS Sports Network throughout the month of May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month.
What classes or professors at J-School still stand out to you now?
The things I learned in Scotti Williston’s deadline reporting class—even though I’m not in breaking news or daily news right now, I apply those skills daily: critical thinking, storytelling, being on your toes, being able to shoot, edit and report.
I also learned so much from Yoruba Richen. Being able to go to Congo and to produce a documentary and have someone of her skill and brilliance teaching me was super helpful and helped mold me as a storyteller as well. Those are the two classes that stand out, but I know there are more.
I gained so much at CUNY, and I’m grateful that was one of the stops on my journey. Being there among the student body and seeing the diversity among the students was great for me. It was very beneficial for me, being around storytellers from many backgrounds and lived experiences, and seeing that early on was super important for me. As I progressed in my career, in newsrooms and spaces that weren’t as inclusive as they should have been, I always remembered my time at CUNY and that I wasn’t alone.
What advice would you give J-School students based on your own experience?
Don’t be afraid to fully believe in what you’re capable of doing and to pursue it by any means necessary. That’s a threefold thing:
Do not be afraid to dream big: I remember thinking, “I want to work at ESPN. I want to work on E60.” I watched the show from my college dorm, and that was my dream job. I set my sights on it and kept working until it became a reality. It still blows my mind that it happened, but then I think of all the work that went into it, all the doors that were opened for me, all the doors that I had to kick down, too. Dreaming big allowed me to keep going. The vision kept me going.
Commit to making the dream happen by any means necessary. When I look at my college and my grad school experiences, I spent a lot of time honing my skills, honing my craft. I still study my craft. It’s that combination of daring to dream big, and willing to commit to doing the work to making it a reality. Unfortunately we live in a world where there are many injustices. There are so many systemic obstacles that will throw a wrench in the plans. I tried to focus on what was in my control, and part of that, for me, was making sure I was putting in the work. It’s that athlete’s mentality of doing the work and trusting that it’ll show in the finished product. When I step on the court, I want the work to be evident.
Don’t be deterred by someone else not understanding the vision or not seeing it in you. And do not be deterred by someone else telling you what you are or are not capable of. Believe in you.
Keep pressing on.