Who do you become when every part of you has been taken away? This is the question social change strategist Zakiya Harris asked herself in the confines of her closet when she discovered music.

The answer for Harris, it turned out, was finding positive outlets for her to express herself after what she described as the three most difficult years of her life. Her marriage ended, her musical group with her then-husband fell apart, her home in West Oakland went into foreclosure, she suffered a bicycle injury, and her nonprofit Grind For The Green lost funding, but Harris retained her identity and found a way “to be powerful from within.”

In 1999, Harris graduated from Rutgers University with a B.A. in political science and law school on the horizon. Then, two years into her program at what used to be the New College of Law in San Francisco, she found herself dissatisfied and dropped out to follow her passion: teaching and working with kids.

“There are things we’ve come to this world to do, and school doesn’t teach us that,” Harris said of deciding to abandon law. “We suppress what we’re good at and instead opt for something someone tells us is going to make us successful.”

Harris thinks of herself as a shapeshifter, oscillating between the many roles she plays personally and professionally while simultaneously integrating all aspects of her identity into a person she is proud to share with the world. While she has performed with different musical groups for the past 12 years as a vocalist and dancer, she released her debut album, Adventures of a Shapeshifter (v.1), in June at a sold-out release show in Oakland. The tracklist features an eclectic blend of hip hop and soul, some of Harris’s most significant musical influences. Following the success of her album, Harris will be playing several shows in London in October.

“In terms of my sound, it’s very global, so South Africa and the UK are really strong markets for what I’m doing, communities that are used to embracing something new,” Harris said. “I’m shape-shifting my reality: work, play and music — it’s all coming together.”

For-profit ventures are also part of Harris’s repertoire, beginning with Earthseed Consulting, an initiative she pioneered with Toyota in 2010 to bring a combination of media, environmental responsibility and culture to Bay Area audiences. A year later, she was involved in Impact Hub, a $2 million venture that provided funding to socially-minded entrepreneurs in Oakland. Harris is presently the co-director of Hack The Hood, a partnership with Oakland Local and United Roots Oakland committed to teaching teens how to code. Hack The Hood has received widespread recognition, including their recent victory in Google’s Impact Challenge.

Today, Zakiya Harris holds many titles: teacher, mother, social change strategist, entrepreneur, and musician. When faced with the idea of having to brand herself on the web to stay socially relevant, she redesigned and launched her website, but thought frequently about loyalty to herself and owning the titles she walks the world with.

“I define me, not my titles,” Harris said. “Your title isn’t what you do for a living. It’s who you are in the world.”

Within the next five to ten years, Harris said she sees herself refining her brand, traveling the world, touring with her music and influencing the lives of young people. Creating innovative models of business and education, she said, is something she is interested in looking at on a global scale.

“People ask me what I do and I don’t know what to say anymore,” Harris said. “I’m a cultural change strategist, all about promoting social change, pushing the paradigm shift we’re in and shape shifting within that.”

About The Author

Natalie Meier is currently writing about issues in public health, tech and small business innovation as a freelance contributor for Oakland Local. Meier is a senior at Mills College studying English and Journalism and is also cross-registered at UC Berkeley. She currently interns for ABC7 News in San Francisco and has written for The Daily Californian, Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), StuVoice, and KALW.

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