published Monday, October 28th, 2013

Chattanooga web designer creates website to celebrate achievements of blerds (black nerds)

A.J. Willis, 30, participated in the Female Founders edition of Co.Lab's 48Hour launch, a weekend-long contest for entrepreneurs to develop and pitch business plans. Willis pitched her line of organic, homemade lipsticks.
A.J. Willis, 30, participated in the Female Founders edition of Co.Lab's 48Hour launch, a weekend-long contest for entrepreneurs to develop and pitch business plans. Willis pitched her line of organic, homemade lipsticks.
  • photo
    Seun Erinle.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

  • photo
    Zachary Reynolds, left, artisan/carpenter, and Ayesha Reynolds, co-owner of Homespun Parties + Events.
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BLERD ALERT

Every week, Blerd Nation spotlights a “Featured Blerd.” Those interested in being featured should select “Blerd Alert” as the subject line of the contact form at BlerdNation.com. Here are some Chattanoogan blerds who have been highlighted.

• Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, 27, staff organizer for United Campus Workers-Communication Workers of America, freedomroad.org.

• Janelle Jackson, 32, spoken word “artivist” and community organizer with Concern Citizens for Justice, youtube.com/nappyjellybean.

• Christian Collier, 29, slam poet, ichristian3030.blogspot.com.

• Nikki Ellis, 27, vocalist and church musician, facebook.com/Nikki.SloJamz.

ONLINE

Visit BlerdNation.com to learn more about featured blerds from around the world, watch music videos and short films and read news and blogs by contributing writers.

From Albert Einstein and Sheldon Cooper to Tina Fey and “Weird Al” Yankovic, nerds have no shortage of celebrity icons these days.

The geeky set represents a growing presence in the cultural mainstream, but some self-described “blerds,” or black nerds, say that — with the exception of high-waisted stereotypes such as Steve “Did I Do That?” Urkel — Hollywood’s nerd spotlight primarily shines on white faces.

Growing up in New York City, Seun Erinle, 29, says her nerdy white counterparts could see themselves reflected in iconic characters such as Velma Dinkley (“Scooby-Doo”) and Dr. Egon Spengler (“Ghostbusters”). Famous black nerds, however, were a much rarer breed.

As a result, she says she felt socially disconnected — “a math geek who played basketball” —

especially once her family moved to Chattanooga when she was 9.

“Being … a black nerd … isn’t the coolest thing when you’re a young kid and don’t fit in the mold with everyone else,” recalls Erinle, now a freelance graphic designer and web developer working out of her home office off M.L. King Boulevard. “It was definitely hard growing up and not having other black friends or classmates or black mentors in my life.”

Erinle first encountered the word “blerd” a couple of years ago on Twitter. She says she felt an immediate kinship with the concept of blerd-dom and the community it implied. On March 5, she launched BlerdNation.com, a blerd culture website, to help other passionate, if marginalized, blacks socialize and celebrate each other’s achievements.

“I just coined a new phrase with [the site] that reflects a collection, an army of people, a collaborative force,” Erinle says. “Blerds … are coming to the forefront right now.

“All these people who felt misplaced and alone all these years are now finding each other, especially in this new world of social media. They’re all telling each other that it’s OK to be this way, that there’s nothing wrong with it.”

To some, the phrase “nerd” conjures up images of socially awkward shut-ins hunched over computers. The nerd label is not racially specific, but those who describe themselves as blerds say they claim the title because they are black and because they possess a nerd-like enthusiasm for a given topic, whether it’s video games, fashion, entrepreneurship or social activism.

Every week, Blerd Nation spotlights a “featured blerd.” In the last seven months, the selections have ranged from a videographer and teacher living in South Korea to a Chicago-based freelance writer and stand-up comedian.

“I think being a blerd is about … loving who you are and loving what you do,” says local small businesswoman and self-described blerd Ayesha Reynolds. “Sometimes, it does have to do with things like book smarts, but really, I think it’s about being comfortable with who you are.

“It’s not to exclude anyone,” the 33-year-old says, “but to highlight people who would not normally get highlighted.”

Reynolds co-owns Homespun Parties + Events, an event planning service based out of Warehouse Row. She is a contributing writer for Blerd Nation, and she and her husband, artisan carpenter Zachary Reynolds, 38, are among the site’s featured blerds.

Initially, Erinle says, the goal for Blerd Nation was simply “not to fail,” but in the last seven months, the site has attracted a small but growing international audience.

Based on the analytics of its user base, Erinle says Blerd Nation has been visited by people from all over the U.S. as well as from countries such as Argentina, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Australia, Germany and Kurdistan. Despite being a relative newcomer to social media, Erinle’s Twitter account, @BlerdNation, now has more than 1,000 followers.

Earlier this year, the site got a shot in the arm when a Blerd Nation T-shirt was worn onscreen by actress Issa Rae in an episode of her award-winning blerd comedy web series “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl.” It’s moments like these, rather than grand, long-term plans, that has driven Blerd Nation’s success, Erinle says.

Moving ahead, she says she’d like to establish a forum in which blerds can discuss topics and to attract more bloggers to provide a more consistent stream of content. Those are attainable ambitions, she says.

“It’s one step at a time, small goals at a time — nothing too lofty,” Erinle explains. “It’s small milestones I’m trying to reach with Blerd Nation.”

At its core, Blerd Nation isn’t about focusing on the most famous blerds, such as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson or actress/talk show host Aisha Tyler. The site instead fulfills Erinle’s lifelong desire to connect with her peers by featuring news, media and blogs celebrating the work of the black men and women who are working out of the spotlight.

Earlier this year, A.J. Willis, 30, competed against Erinle in the Female Founders edition of Co.Lab’s 48Hour Launch, a weekendlong contest at which entrepreneurs develop and pitch business plans. Erinle’s proposed start-up was Blerd Nation, while Willis proposed The Red Lipstick Experiment, a line of organic, handmade lipsticks.

Although they were friendly rivals, Willis says she identified with Erinle’s project and is glad it’s shining a light on a group that has so long gone unacknowledged.

“Blerd Nation is counteracting a lot of the negative perception about young blacks: that they’re always into hip-hop or have pants sagging or that their children are not graduating from college,” she says. “Now, someone can say, ‘That’s not us. Here’s what some of us are doing that’s just not getting that much attention.’”

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.com

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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