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Natasha Alford

Building a Career that Keeps to Your Dreams

The dynamic journey of paving a career pathway marked by exploration, resilience, and the willingness to seize opportunities as they arise.

April 25, 2024
Jessica Beckman Headshot

Jessica Beckman

Jessica Beckman Headshot

Jessica Beckman

In an achievement world that often pressures young people to have their life's trajectory neatly planned out, Natasha Alford's journey stands as a testament to the unpredictable nature of career paths—and of life itself. Natasha, a Teach For America alum, is an award-winning journalist, executive, and host for TheGrio. She also works as a CNN political analyst connecting stories and shaping conversations about today’s issues. In her memoir, American Negra, she chronicles her life and career as she navigates the intricacies of her identity, gender, and class. She meanders from the corporate offices of a hedge fund to the classrooms of underserved neighborhoods and ultimately the newsroom of a growing Black media company. 

The road to career fulfillment is rarely linear, and Natasha's story exemplifies the twists and turns that it often takes to achieve a rewarding career. In the book and in a recent interview with Teach For America, Natasha shares the complexities of ambition, identity, and staying true to oneself amidst societal and familial pressures, all while trying to uncover her true purpose. 

“It's important to make sure you're actually climbing up a ladder you want to be on.”

Natasha Alford

Washington D.C. Corps Member 2010

Paving a Career Pathway

Natasha Alford was raised in a low-income community in Syracuse, New York, to an African American father and Puerto Rican mother. She graduated high school with acceptances from Howard University, Spelman College, and Harvard University, and attended the latter.

Harvard provided Natasha with the space to grow academically and personally. There she found a sense of belonging with a Black community while also creating space to explore her identity as a Latina woman. As she contemplated life after graduation, she aspired to a career that would allow her to do something meaningful, while staring into a future where the path forward felt unknown. 

“There is often so much emphasis on climbing certain career ladders quickly and being great early,” Natasha said in her interview with Teach For America. “It's important to make sure you're actually climbing up a ladder you want to be on. Because it's very possible to climb quickly up the wrong ladder, and then you're looking down at a life's work that may not really speak to your passion and your purpose.”

Natasha decided to temporarily forgo a career path rooted in social impact to pursue financial stability. Although she experienced moments of tension and doubt in making this decision, ultimately the influential nature of Ivy League culture glamorized finance and consulting careers and she felt the pressure of her upbringing, where success was defined by the ability to care for oneself without the support of others. However, the paycheck wasn’t enough to keep her invested long term. She realized that consulting wasn’t where her passion was and started exploring opportunities more closely aligned with her values—education and teaching.

“I don't want to minimize the importance of money,” she said. “You know, as much as I would love to say it doesn't matter, it does. But what I will say is that having experienced having money but not passion for the work, you realize that it's not sustainable. Making a lot of money, and knowing I didn't like the work made it so that I couldn't see a future. For me, it was worth it to break the golden handcuffs.” 

Joining Teach For America

Remembering where her true interests lay, Natasha moved to New York City to pursue a career in education, working as a Leadership Fellow in a charter school in the Washington Heights neighborhood. It was in this role that she started to grow more confident in her career pivot, and the experience prepared her to take the leap into leading her own classroom. 

Natasha was accepted to the 2009 Teach For America D.C. Region corps as a middle school English teacher. “Nothing prepares you for the grind of getting up at 5 a.m. every day, Monday through Friday, and being the adult to almost a hundred children,” Natasha wrote in her memoir. 

With a classroom of students depending on her and holding the responsibility of being an example to her students, she rose to the occasion by leaning on her fellow educators and her mother, a veteran educator. 

Natasha came into her own creating a learning environment where she could pair student lessons with real-world connections. She took her students on field trips around Washington, decorated her classroom with college pendants representing HBCUs and colleges her students could aspire to attend, and she crowdfunded books so that her students could read stories that featured Black protagonists, illustrators, and authors. Natasha’s classroom was a place where her students could feel safe and challenged. 

Natasha with students

“I had a knack for the job. Going into education was like flipping on a light switch in my head and heart. My students were my world,” she wrote in her memoir. “I felt myself becoming the leader Teach For America promised I could be. I made hundreds of decisions each day, feeling empowered both within and outside of my own classroom to do so, and I saw my students growing in character and wisdom, not just academics.”  

She soon found herself wanting to create wider change in the education system. As her Teach For America commitment was winding down, Natasha started to wonder if this was the entirety of her dream for herself. 

“I know I made an impact because my students still contact me years later,” she said.

“Every one of us has that teacher who changed our life. It's the teachers who helped you to see yourself differently, to dream bigger. Those are the people that you remember. What you have to make peace with, though, is that you can't save the system overnight.”

After her corps years, Natasha worked at an education policy firm, but soon found herself again at a career crossroads. Considering the inequities she experienced—as a child and a teacher—in our education system, she was committed to be an advocate for change. But it wouldn’t be through politics. 

Finding Her Voice as a Journalist 

The idea of a career in journalism and media had always been in the back of her mind, and Natasha decided to take the leap to see where it led. She was accepted to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and she immediately started honing her craft. 

“When I was at Northwestern, I went down the alumni contact list week by week and I asked for feedback on my TV reporting reel,” she said. 

“Being open to hearing how you can improve is a great way to build a mentor-mentee relationship because you're allowing people to guide you. Too often we think we have to present ourselves perfectly in interactions with people who are senior to us when in fact it's being coachable and teachable that makes people want to invest in you more.” 

After graduating, Natasha started as a news reporter for a local TV station in Rochester, New York. Advised by her mentors, she pursued the more traditional path of local reporting even though it wasn’t fully aligned with what she hoped to accomplish in her media career. In this new role, she committed to journalistic objectivity while simultaneously experiencing the trauma of what it is to be Black in America as the murder of Freddie Gray and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting transpired. This tension and her need to be able to speak for the Black community from a public platform continued to build inside of her.

The disconnect from what she was trying to achieve and what she was able to achieve never went away. Natasha quit the news station, reconnected with her network, and started mapping her next plan.

Natasha soon learned of an opportunity coming available as a deputy editor at TheGrio, a television network and website dedicated to Black interests and Black political news. Here she would have the opportunity to tell stories that mattered to her community and could educate others in the process. “TheGrio represented freedom—a chance to really find the answers to burning questions about America’s future and shift some of the narratives I’d seen so embedded in mainstream news coverage of Black communities,” Natasha wrote in American Negra

At TheGrio, she found the space she needed to grow personally and professionally. “It’s one thing to say that Black people deserve better media dedicated to our interests. It’s another thing to bet my career on it, and not be seduced by the conventional, traditional, mainstream media path,” she wrote. 

Natasha put in long hours and committed herself to the media organization’s mission, all while navigating a lupus diagnosis. After years of experimentation and hard work she started to find her voice as a journalist. She was named emerging journalist of the year by the National Association of Black Journalists, was promoted to vice president of digital content and senior correspondent at TheGrio, and she became a regular contributor to live segments as a CNN Political Analyst. 

She has spent nearly nine years helping to grow TheGrio into a formidable player in the media ecosystem and continues to grow herself as she pursues her master’s degree in public policy at Princeton University. 

Natasha at CNN

Connecting Teaching with a Media Career

Natasha credits her success as a journalist to her time in the classroom, drawing a clear line between her Teach For America experience and her career in media. 

”Teaching made me a better journalist,” she said. “There's so many similarities between teaching and journalism. Just the act of crafting a lesson and thinking about what the objective of this lesson is very similar to crafting a story and saying—what is the top line message that I want my audience to take away? How do I explain this in a way that is accessible and that leaves people knowing more?” 

The skills gained in the classroom can also be easily transferred to other career pathways across a variety of sectors.

“I learned the ability to think on my feet and to improvise," Natasha said. "I do it every day in television. Topics can change a couple of minutes before you go on live TV and being cool under pressure is essential. That came from teaching and having to be the adult in the classroom every day.” 

Freedom to Change Your Mind

Natasha’s path is not complete, but it’s clear that she gave herself room to experiment and experience different opportunities by allowing herself the freedom to change her mind. It can feel uncomfortable starting a career and not knowing where you will end up. 

“Because my path wasn't linear, this has allowed me to make an original contribution to the world. American Negra is original. No one else can tell this story. Only I can write it because I was witness to all of these different experiences. It happened the way it was supposed to.”

As Natasha wrote in her memoir, it’s important to keep to your dreams, and not lose sight of what has been in your heart since the beginning—maybe that’s education, medicine, nonprofit work, etc.—the path is yours to pave. 

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