Our Body Politic

November 13, 2020: Senator Tammy Duckworth on a Lifetime of Service, Breaking Down the “WoC Vote,” and the Freedom to Imagine Liberation

Episode Notes

This week Farai Chideya speaks with Senator Tammy Duckworth about serving in the military, becoming a mother, and advocating for safe and equitable environments for veterans. Washington insider Stephanie Valencia breaks down the so-called Latino vote, and challenges the major parties to show up beyond an election year. Farai talks to our finance contributor Ruth Umoh about the significance and optics of Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris for women of color. And journalist S. Mitra Kalita and Farai get real on the role of journalists in a pandemic.

Episode Rundown

1:00 Farai gets a feel for post-election celebrations in Washington, DC, and introduces this week’s show.

1:52 Tammy Duckworth talks about serving in the military and how she would do it again, even if that meant she’d be injured again.

8:46 Duckworth shares her thoughts on the importance of Senator Kamala Harris becoming the Vice President elect.

9:38 The Senator balances being career-driven and becoming a mother.

13:20 We congratulate our political contributor Errin Haines for receiving the Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence.

15:03 Chideya and Haines talk about what the Biden-Harris administration can and should do to materially improve the lives of Black Americans. 

17:54 Looking into the Senate race in Haines’ home state, Georgia.

20:50 Stephanie Valencia breaks down the “Latino vote” and insists there’s just as much nuance to this voter group as others, but less attention paid to that complexity.

24:06 “I would like Democrats to treat Latino voters a little bit more like white swing voters. We are that diverse and that nuanced...” says Stephanie Valencia of EquisLabs.

24:58 Our weekly Covid update looks at how communities of color are continually impacted by the pandemic.

26:02 Researchers determine that there are not enough people getting the flu shot this season.

27:07 Ruth Umoh talks about the Biden Plan for Black America and how it could be accomplished.

29:26 Umoh breaks down how we hold politicians accountable by continuing to mobilize and vote. 

30:25 Forbes researches the best employers for veterans, and how to ensure veterans succeed in civilian careers.

32:18 Imagining a future of liberation for women of color, with Sharon Chang and Kamal Sinclair of The Guild of Future Architects.

33:58 Sinclair talks about how and when people feel liberated, and why imagining that liberation can be powerful.

36:16 Chang explains why she’s an optimist: “My optimism really rests on our ability to just think outside of all frameworks, all language, all understanding, all mindsets, so we can liberate ourselves in the sense that anything really is possible.”

39:25 Call into our SPEAK platform to participate in the collective envisioning of our future!

40:21 Ajón Crump decides to make the best of her time in lockdown by fundraising for and sending free sneakers to nurses on the frontline of the pandemic.

42:48 Journalist S. Mitra Kalita talks about how her own experience in the pandemic made her aware of the importance of tight-knit communities and taking care of your neighbors.

45:28 How Kalita uses her skills as a journalist to help her community survive the effects of the pandemic, and gets the idea for starting a local newsletter, Epicenter-NYC.

46:53 Kalita talks about how Epicenter-NYC could be the framework for a new model of community-based, hyperlocal journalism.

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: 

Thanks for listening and sharing Our Body Politic. As you know, we’re new and we're creating the show with lots of input from listeners like you.  So I want to ask you a small favor: after you listen today, please head over to Apple Podcasts on your phone, tablet, laptop, or anywhere you listen, and leave us a review. We read those because your ideas matter to us. Thanks so much.

This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. On Saturday night, after the election was called for the Biden-Harris ticket, I went to Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. - right by the White House - to see what people were feeling at the moment.

Alison:

Well, as a woman of color, as someone who came from a family of immigrants, it's so important that we show the world with our voice that we don't agree with the current administration, and how much we need to show the world that that's not who we are.

Chideya:

That was Alison from Orange County, California. By midweek though, people were discussing how the sitting president was delaying the transition, plus what voters want from a Biden-Harris government in terms of healthcare, COVID, and racial equity. This week, we're starting something new, a series of conversations with women of color who are visionary futurists on how we can shape our destiny and the world. And we've got plenty of conversations ahead with women who are showing leadership at every level. 

Let's start with Senator Tammy Duckworth. She's a combat veteran, a disabled American, and a leader. Born in Thailand, Senator Duckworth is the daughter of a Thai mother and an American father. Her family's military heritage goes back to the Revolutionary War. Now, that came up in a 2016 debate with her opponent, Republican

Senator Mark Kirk. Here he is on NBC News.

Senator Mark Kirk:

I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.

Chideya:

Senator Kirk was essentially implying that Duckworth was lying about her family history or saying that he didn't understand or didn't want to understand her multiethnic heritage in history. Duckworth defeated Kirk to become a U.S. senator from Illinois. And before that though, she spent years continuing her family's history of military service. She served as a helicopter pilot for the Illinois National Guard in Iraq. It was there that a rocket attack cost her both her legs and partial use of her right arm. Something she spoke about at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

Senator Tammy Duckworth:

A rocket propelled grenade hit our helicopter, exploding in my lap, ripping off one leg, crushing the other and tearing my right arm apart. But I kept trying to fly until I passed out.

Chideya:

Later, she served in positions, including assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and then in 2016 to the Senate. In 2018, Duckworth became the first senator to ever give birth while in office. After she fought to change Senate rules to allow children in the chamber, she was also the first to ever cast a vote while holding a baby. Senator Duckworth, I am so thrilled to have you on Our Body Politic.

Duckworth:

It's so good to be on. Thanks for having me.

Chideya:

So, I just wanted to tell you a little bit about my family to start out with. We have people who have been veterans, and specifically fought in wars back to the Civil War, which was my grandmother's grandfather. And up to my cousin who served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even though I've heard years of stories from my family, I don't know what it's like to be a veteran. And I want you to tell me what it's like to be a veteran and how it informs your mission today as a public servant.

Duckworth:

Well, serving in the military was the greatest privilege of my life. It truly was. And if you came up to me today and said, "Tammy, we're going to give you a magical snap of the finger. We'll take you back to being a second lieutenant, and you get to do your military service all over again." The caveat is you know that you're going to get blown up, and you're going to lose your legs and go through all that, I would take that deal in a minute. I would take it in a quick second, because it was truly the greatest privilege of my life.

Because I got to do two things. One, I got to serve next to the most amazing men and women I have ever had the privilege of knowing. People of honor, people of discipline, people of good intentions, folks who come from all different life stories and backgrounds. And that's what's so great about our military is that you could be serving next to someone who has a completely different life story than yours, but you're still sharing the same mission and you've got each other's backs.

And that was just the most incredibly personally rewarding thing I've ever been able to do in my life. And then the second thing was this idea of serving something greater than yourself. That you are serving the American people. You're serving this republic, this democracy trying to make for a more perfect union. And so I'm so proud to be a veteran because I get to stand on the shoulders of those who came before me, many of whom ... I'm assuming that someone in your family served even before they had rights as citizens, before they were citizens. So I get to stand on some amazing shoulders of forebearers who served in uniform.

Chideya:

I think about all of the veterans who I've interviewed in my journalism career, who frankly have felt lost if they become civilians again about how they're supposed to function in a chaotic job market and what healthcare benefits they're getting. As a senator or possibly in the future in other roles, what do you want to see America do for veterans?

Duckworth:

Well, there are a number of things that I would like to do, and it starts with their time in the military. I wrote a piece of legislation called the Troop Talent Act that would require the DOD to provide our military men and women with a civilian certification for their military jobs on the day that they get that qualification in military. I'll give you an example. You could have somebody who is an army medic and served four years, or 15 years, or 20 years as an army medic, but they never get their EMT license.

So then when they come out after four years of serving honorably oftentimes in battlefield conditions where they're basically doing battlefield surgery, they come home, they can't get a job as an EMT unless they go back to school, spend money, spend time. And they're shown as having zero years of experience as an EMT. So we need to make sure that our military men and women get the civilian certifications on day one. And then we have to make sure that we provide the wraparound services for them in terms of their health care.

Well, first and foremost, jobs in terms of their healthcare and make sure that we follow up with them throughout the rest of their time as veterans. The Marine Corps does this very well with their Marine For Life program. The army has started that version called Soldier For Life, but it's not consistent across the military. And I think we need to do a much better job of that. And then there are special communities of veterans that would need extra attention just because of who they are and the challenges they face.

Female veterans, for example, will need extra attention because they're oftentimes overlooked in the veteran community as being veterans. Also, women, when they leave the military experience on average, a 30% drop in pay because in the military, you get equal pay for equal work, but when you leave and you go into the civilian job market, women in the civilian job market, depending on whether you are white, Black, or Latinx, make anywhere from 80 cents on the dollar down to as low as 70 cents on the dollar.

And so female veterans immediately see a drop in their earning ability just in going into the civilian workforce. And then our Native American, our First Nation veterans have an especially hard time because they're so isolated if they go back to Native American lands where they don't have as much access. So those are some of the things I would certainly want to work on.

Chideya:

Your colleague, Senator Kamala Harris is going to be the next vice president of the United States. As an Asian American senator in particular, but as a human being, what does this mean to you?

Duckworth:

It means that the American dream is alive and well, and to lift all of us with her. And so it's so exciting for so many constituencies. And it's so exciting that I could tell my daughter, "Look, it's a woman who's vice president, and she's Asian like us."

Chideya:

And speaking of your daughters, you are the first U.S. senator to give birth while in office. And in an interview with CNN, you talked about your gynecologist saying, so many of us professional women give up our fertility. Why did you decide to proceed with fertility? And what did you feel like when your second daughter was born, who was born when you were 50, I believe?

Duckworth:

Yes. Relief. Well, I as a young professional woman, I wasn't ready to have a child. And as a helicopter pilot you get grounded and you lose your flight status if you are pregnant. And so I was on the fast track to compete with my male counterparts to be a battalion commander one day. And so my husband and I just decided we weren't ready, and we didn't know if we wanted to have children. And by the time we decided to have children, I was wounded in combat and recovering from that. And so I started with IVF treatments, and it was 10 years of struggle before we got to the point where we had our first daughter, Abigail. At the time I was about 36, 37. I had her at 46. And yes, I had Maile Pearl two weeks after I turned 50.

Chideya:

Best birthday present ever.

Duckworth:

Best birthday present ever. I'm glad I did it. I tell people I'm a new mom, not a young mom. I'm so grateful that we have the capacity for me to do that. And by the way, the men in the Senate have been doing it for years. The men in the Senate have been having babies for 200 years, and nobody bats an eye when a 65-year-old male senator has a baby, and they make it a big deal because I was 50. Let's get rid of the double standard here.

Chideya:

Absolutely. We recently had on Alice Wong who runs Disability Visibility Project and CripTheVote, which was a whole voter initiative for people with disabilities. What does America need to do in the coming years to really make sure that people with disabilities have pathways to employment, are allowed to be married regardless of economic status? There are couples that can't marry each other because of the way benefits are structured. What sorts of things do you want to see change, and what changes are you making in your role as a senator?

Duckworth:

Well, first and foremost, stop attacking the ADA. It's been 30 years since the ADA passed, and people are still attacking it. And when we have corporations that have had 30 years to make their businesses wheelchair accessible, including brand new buildings who continue to flout the ADA and try to attack it, shame on them, shame on them. We need to make all businesses wheelchair accessible, ADA compliant. We need to make all of our public transportation ADA compliant so that people can actually get to work.

And then we need to go after a lot of the healthcare regulations and rules to make sure that people ... As you said, you shouldn't have your benefits affect whether or not you can be married. Those are all things that we need to be working on. And we need to elevate persons with disabilities to the very highest levels of government, because they will help us to chart those waters. And that's why at the time Vice President Biden asked me to look at his plan for disability awareness and disability support, I asked him to please include a position in the White House for a special advisor to the president for disability issues.

That that person will answer directly to the president. And he included that. So you will see in the new Biden administration for the first time, someone at the very highest level, and then someone in every single department who will oversee every single department's efforts on disability access.

Chideya:

Senator, thank you so much.

Duckworth:

Thank you for having me on.

Chideya:

That was Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. 

Coming up later this hour ...

Stephanie Valencia:

I would like Democrats to treat Latino voters a little bit more like white swing voters.

Chideya:

You're listening to Our Body Politic. 

Politics is a three ring circus right now, and Errin Haines and I are going to get to all of it in sipping the political tea. But first, let's celebrate Errin. She received the Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence. And every year, that medal honors outstanding coverage of people of African descent and the issues that impact their lives. Errin Haines, congratulations. We are so proud of you.

Errin Haines:

Oh, thank you so much, Farai. I really appreciate it. I'm so excited. It's our first award for The 19th.

Chideya:

All right. And you have been doing such incredible work on women, Black women, political society, top to bottom. Now that we have gotten to the other side of this election, it just has a long tail, but it's crossed over the threshold. What does it mean to you to see Senator Harris on the podium when we got that notice that at least most people in the United States think the election is over?

Haines:

Right. Well, listen, regardless of your politics, we have to acknowledge that this country has hit a milestone. I have to say, hearing her talk about the Centennial of Suffrage, talking about the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, acknowledging the women, particularly the Black women who were erased at the passage of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which is what our name and logo symbolize. But also recognizing the Black suffragists who had been erased in that moment. That was really powerful.

There was so much symbolism that I think so many people are hopeful will translate into substance. And I guess we're going to find that out here in less than 70 days.

Chideya:

That's really where the conversation is now. What will the Biden-Harris team actually do to materially improve the lives of Black Americans while recognizing that racial resentment is still not only alive and well, but flourishing throughout the country?

Haines:

Yeah. I think there's two things to consider here. One, you had both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris acknowledging on the stage on Saturday night the Black voters that got them to this point, that got them the victory. At the same time, you do have the reality that 70 million plus Americans voted for President Trump. He was the second highest vote getter in the history of this country. Second only to Joe Biden, which is why Joe Biden ran a campaign saying that this was a battle for the soul of America. And I think that the election was only the first step in that battle.

He and Vice President-elect Harris are going to have a lot of work to do in uniting and healing the country, which is something that he said that he wanted to do. I think that good sportsmanship is not the responsibility of just one team. And I think that Black voters, especially this cycle, because this was an existential election for them, because racism was really on the ballot for them, this election, as much as it may have been about President Trump or Joe Biden was about them and the impact of our government on their daily lives.

And so I think that voting was the first step in holding folks accountable. I think that you're going to see Black voters continue to civically engage, to hold the people that they elected up and down the ticket, by the way, accountable.

Chideya:

But how does that happen? Who is it that gets politicians to be accountable?

Haines:

That's what I was just going to say. I think it is probably all hands on deck. I think you may see a return to the environment that you saw during an Obama-Biden administration where you did see protests because they were petitioning to an audience that was open to hearing their grievances. These past four years, certainly there has been protest, but a lot of that protest fell on deaf ears. So I do think that you can expect to see marginalized communities, Black voters in particular continuing to call for a criminal justice reform, continuing to call for all of the inequities that were laid bare in this pandemic to be addressed, and not just in an incremental way, but in a deeply meaningful way that truly confronts these issues once and for all.

And if it's not something that they get at the federal level because of the gridlock in Congress, I think you're going to see people pushing for this at all levels of government.

Chideya:

Let's wrap up with a couple of big, big, big headlines out of Georgia, your home state. And first of all, catch us up on these Senate races, the Senate hangs in the balance.

Haines:

Look, it's all eyes on Georgia now that it looks like the control of the Senate is going to come down to what happens in the Peach State. But I think that could galvanize both sides. We don't know if President Trump is going to come down and campaign. There are thousands of young people, for example, who are going to be coming of voting age in the time that this runoff election is happening. Those people could potentially be getting on the rolls. There's a lot of dynamics and a lot of moving parts happening, a lot of resources to really make both of those races very competitive.

Chideya:

And of course, Stacey Abrams has been key in all things Georgia, including now really pushing behind these Senate races-

Haines:

Absolutely.

Chideya:

... and you wrote a piece at The 19th News about the role of Stacey Abrams in Georgia. What was on your mind?

Haines:

Look, you have to give credit to Stacey Abrams for 2020, although certainly the work that she was doing builds on the work of so many grassroots organizers in Georgia, particularly Black women organizers who saw the potential to expand the electorate in Georgia. And not by going after folks who may or may not be persuadable, but by going after folks who had been unseen and unheard, and who could be Democratic voters if only somebody would encourage them to participate in the process and to understand how politics connected to their daily lives.

I think even as Democrats are celebrating a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris victory, Stacey Abrams is taking a much deserved victory lap, I would think if she's not already back to the grindstone.

Chideya:

Absolutely. And I have to say on Twitter, I am following all the people who are following how much of a fan she is of science fiction from Star Trek to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So maybe that's her next move. After she saves democracy, she can just go write a science fiction show.

Haines:

Well, Farai, she's got a new thriller coming out about the Supreme Court. She's a writer.

Chideya:

I love it. Well, Errin, congratulations again on your well-deserved award. Many more to come, and thank you.

Haines:

Thanks so much. Let's keep going.

Chideya:

That was Errin Haines, editor-at-large at The 19th and political contributor here at Our Body Politic. Coming up ...

Ruth Umoh:

In order to see successful results from Biden's economic plan, we're really going to have to mobilize and hold their feet to the fire.

Chideya:

The "Latino vote" has been a talking point for at least two decades, but what and who is it? This election made it clearer than ever that Latinx people are diverse in every way. So I spoke with Stephanie Valencia, a former aid in the Obama administration and co-founder and president of EquisLabs. EquisLabs helps politicians reach and understand the Latino electorate. Valencia is also co-founder of the digital lifestyle platform, She Se Puede, which elevates the issues that matter most to Latinas in the U.S.

Valencia:

I have spent most of the last 15 years at the intersection of Latino political power building, innovation and campaigns and elections. And part of what I have really wanted to better understand is Latinos are a great part of the population growth in this country moving forward. There were 32 million eligible Latino voters in 2020. The question I wanted to answer and will continue to want to answer is, what is it that motivates and drives Latinos to participate in elections and civic engagement?

Chideya:

Valencia says we can draw lessons from how Latinos changed the vote in Arizona.

Valencia:

What this election has illustrated is the promise and the peril of the Latino vote, which is to say what happened in Arizona was really a decades worth of organizing and work at the grassroots level. Really connecting SB 1070 and what was very much a piece of legislation that was ushered through in 2010 to really punish and criminalize immigrants and their families, and really put a target on the back of many Latinos in the state of Arizona.

Valencia:

And so you had 10 years of organizing that came out of that with organizations on the ground like LUCHA, Mi Familia Vota and others who have been organizing year in and year out. And have had other really important, critical wins in the state legislature and other places over that course of time, but this one was really the ultimate win in turning Arizona blue.

Chideya:

But Arizona's story was not Texas's story or Florida's story. There are differences between states and within states.

Valencia:

Puerto Ricans in central Florida decided they're pro-Biden and supported Biden. But that being said, and a lot of the research we've done over the last year, a couple of things really emerged about the Puerto Rican electorate in Florida, especially. The first is when you ask about Hurricane Maria, there are obviously a number of people who fled to the mainland and leaving the island because of Hurricane Maria. But one of the important things to know is that that simply as a messaging tool is not enough, because at the end of the day, what Puerto Rican voters care about is the same what every other voter cares about.

We constantly refrain that Latinos are not a monolith, but I think again, this election just really illustrated that I think our challenges is knowing that we're not a monolith. But at the same time, trying to identify a thread or threads to our identity or to our common purpose that can help us actually build power as a community.

Chideya:

So what comes next?

Valencia:

I would like Democrats to treat Latino voters a little bit more like white swing voters. We are that diverse and that nuanced to try to understand that I would like to see the same resources committed to the work that we have to do to uncover this nuance between the difference between Latinos in Florida versus Texas versus Arizona in a more real way, in a more sustained way. Not one that comes a few months before the election. And so I think both of those things are really critical to put in the work and to really solidify the support of Latino voters that we saw this election.

Chideya:

That was Stephanie Valencia, former Obama aid and co-founder and president of EquisLabs. (silence). Now it's time for our weekly update about how the COVID pandemic impacts communities of color. The U.S. has now recorded over 10 million cases of the coronavirus. The virus infection and death rates keep rising day by day as we enter colder, wetter weather in much of the country. President-elect Joe Biden has hit the ground running with a task force and a COVID plan on his website, which he spoke about at a briefing in Delaware.

Joe Biden:

A blueprint that we can put in place as soon as Kamala and I are sworn into office on January 20th, 2021.

Chideya:

Among his goals is to create a COVID 19 racial and ethnic disparities task force focusing on the hardest hit communities.

Biden:

Folks out of these communities is one of our priorities, not an afterthought.

Chideya:

Over time, their plan is to form a permanent task force to deal with racial health disparities. I personally got my flu shot two months ago, knowing that first of all, the flu itself can be no joke. It also can really impact your health, plus being hospitalized with the flu could take up beds needed for COVID patients. The Kaiser Family Foundation found not enough people are getting the flu vaccine and Black and Hispanic people had lower overall vaccination rates than white Americans.

Chideya:

But there has been some big news in the fight against COVID. Drug maker Pfizer announced that its vaccine may be 90% effective in preventing coronavirus infection. That would make it more effective than flu vaccines according to CDC numbers. However, the vaccine needs to be stored at super low temperatures, which could cause problems in transport and distribution. More importantly, the vaccine is still in clinical trials. More peer reviewed analysis needs to be done after that. And the Food and Drug Administration will need to approve the vaccine before it can be distributed. Next week we'll bring you more on what this vaccine news does and doesn't tell us about the future of the pandemic.

Chideya:

Ruth Umoh covers diversity and inclusion for Forbes. She's our business and economics contributor here at Our Body Politic for our regular segment Show Me the Money. We had her on to talk about what the Biden-Harris presidency means for Black women and how we can hold this new administration accountable to the people who voted for it. Thanks for joining us again, Ruth.

Umoh:

Thank you for having me again.

Chideya:

So now that Vice President Biden is the president-elect, he has a economic plan for Black America, and Black Americans did overwhelmingly vote for the Biden-Harris ticket. What's on his plan?

Umoh:

First of all, I want to start by saying that the Democratic Party owes Black women very simply put. Despite being overlooked by this party for years, Black women turned out in droves, as you said to support Democratic candidates. And they were really on the front lines of this election as evidenced by Stacey Abrams, as evidenced by LaTosha Brown. So as we enter Biden's presidency, it should come as no surprise that Black women and the Black community as a whole are going to hold him accountable for the promises he made regarding racial equality and the Black economic agenda.

He promised to steer federal dollars and tax credits to minority owned firms. As we know, a vast majority of them are Black and female owned. He also pledged to help close the racial wealth gap by encouraging home ownership. He pledged to provide Black communities with equal access to loans, to expand affordable housing. All of these directly impact Black women who are by and large entrepreneurially driven and who often make financial decisions as the heads of their households.

Chideya:

A lot of people look at any plan from any politician and say, "Yeah, that's great, but." As someone who covers finance, how do you think that we as individuals and as citizens can interact with these larger systems, whether it's a corporation or the government to make sure that we advocate for what we want.

Umoh:

I think that's a great question. And I think that as Americans it's good for us to have that healthy layer of skepticism when it comes to any political initiative, any political plan. I think that in order to see successful results from Biden's economic plan, we're really going to have to mobilize as a group and hold their feet to the fire. Whether that's in midterm saying, "Hey, two years ago, you promised us this, where are we?" When we're looking at the corporate sector, we have to remember that we hold power. We hold power with our dollars.

Who we give our money to, that comes with power in and of itself. And so it's about looking at where companies stand, where corporations stand and where political candidates stand and voting with our dollars in that way.

Chideya:

We just celebrated Veterans Day. And at Forbes, you compiled a list of the best employers for veterans. And there's hundreds of thousands of women of color who are veterans. What did you find?

Umoh:

Yes. So we recently compiled a list of the best employers for veterans. We surveyed more than 5,000 U.S. veterans who have served in the armed forces and who work for a company with more than 1,000 employees. And what we've found in our survey is that companies are increasingly recognizing the value add that veterans bring to the corporate workplace. And that has resulted in a roughly 50% drop in the jobless rate for veterans, specifically from 2013 until 2019. But on the flip side, veterans still face a number of challenges to securing a job within the civilian workplace because their unique skillset isn't immediately apparent to hiring managers and to recruiters.

And so it's really critical that whether you're working in HR, whether you're a talent acquisition specialist, that you really take the time to understand their experiences within the armed forces and understand how their area of expertise then translates to the private sector. So it's really about helping veterans to optimize their resume and carefully selecting the relevant areas of expertise.

Chideya:

Ruth, it's always great to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Umoh:

Thank you.

Chideya:

That was Ruth Umoh, Forbes reporter and Our Body Politic contributor. 

Coming up next ...

Kamal Sinclair:

It is essential that the power of imagination be part of our power of liberation.

Chideya:

Most of us have been disappointed at some point by the big systems that govern our society, finance and government among them. But our next guest, Sharon Chang and Kamal Sinclair have a different approach. They've created the Guild of Future Architects. The Guild is a bit like a think tank and a bit like a tech incubator, but for creatives and entrepreneurs to work together for shared prosperity. Chang is the founder and CEO of the Guild of Future Architects, and Kamal Sinclair is its executive director. Hi, Kamal.

Sinclair:

Hi, Farai.

Chideya:

Hi, Sharon.

Sharon Chang:

Hi, Farai.

Chideya:

You actually referred us to the SPEAK platform, which does narrative analysis and is allowing us to engage our listeners. And so we gave out this question based on your work. Imagine if women of color trusted the society around them and felt truly liberated. What would you do if you felt truly liberated and financially secure? And we've gotten a variety of responses, including, "I want to own instead of rent and help other women of color achieve the same." And this one stood out to me though, "If I were truly liberated and financially secure, I would be able to run for office without having to work. Currently I'm running for office, raising money and working in order to support myself without health insurance."

So that just popped for me. Kamal, why do we need to ask this question right now? And frankly, what good is asking it? Because a lot of people will say, "Well, that's not reality." This question is not even reality based.

Sinclair:

This question actually got posed to me by a PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon a few years back, African-American woman. I had just given a talk about how we need to mitigate our perceptual limitations in technology so that we're not designing bad technology. And it means we need to bring in a lot of different voices to make sure we're not missing critical parts of the design that now we can see lead to things like vulnerability, to misinformation, vulnerability, to the social dilemma of addiction.

And she came up to me after the talk. She said, "I have an issue with what you are talking about, because of myself as an African-American woman, I only find freedom or agency in the perceptual imitations or "blind spots" of the system." And that really resonated with me. But I asked her, I said, "Is there a future where you or someone like you actually feels liberated and trusts the society around you?" And she replied to me, she said, "That is beyond the limits of my imagination."

And that really impacted me, but I was really curious to ask that of other women of color if they felt that they also could not see their own liberation. And what does that mean if we cannot see our own liberation? And many women have responded, "We absolutely must see our own liberation or we will never achieve it." And I think that quite frankly, seeing Kamala Harris up there and the vice-president elect podium gave me a sense of this is why we have to imagine our own liberation. We're not there yet and we have a long way to go, but it is essential that the power of imagination be part of our power of liberation.

Chideya:

Sharon, Kamal just said that she's optimistic about the ability to use visioning to create a new world. How do you describe yourself or think of yourself in relation to this work? Are you an optimist? Are you a strategist? I'm just curious.

Chang:

I am an extreme optimist, almost like a child. And to build on some of the things Kamal was saying, I think part of what's troubling to me right now is really our limitation on imagination. So if I were truly liberated, I would actually go after the things are not currently valued from a monetary perspective to make it really concrete. So it's hard for people, not just women. It's hard for people to devout themselves to listening. You don't get paid to listen, but we need listening in order to be able to come to a place of shared prosperity and justice.

So I think when we're all liberated, we take a position of optimistically hoping for and looking for things that are gentler, that really get us into a modality of caretaking. And that's when things will start to change because that competitive nature we have, that energy can be redirected towards something that's building something much more cohesive and a broader ambition for humanity instead of being very petty about winning.

So I feel like my optimism really rests on our ability to just think outside of all frameworks, all language, all understanding, all mindset so we can liberate ourselves in the sense that anything really is possible.

Chideya:

Sharon, I'd like you to take us out with something to think about as we continue this conversation. We are going to circle back to this conversation. We're going to tell everyone how they can get involved in it. And we really want people to be engaged in this process of visioning the future. So leave us with something to head out on.

Chang:

Futurism is really about the now. I think that's something we need to remember. So, the world has undoubtedly been changed by the COVID pandemic, but COVID is the symptom, COVID is not the cause of what I consider to be a greater pandemic, which is a cultural pandemic. And that is a dangerous virus spreading short-term thinking that hurts our planet. It hurts our own wellbeing. So we need to start the thing about long-term futurism is about the ability to imagine and think long-term, so in the short-term, in the moment of now, we can take action and have the faith that our collective imagination is what's going to bring safety, generosity, and love back to our everyday life.

Chideya:

Well, Sharon and Kamal, I'm excited to continue this conversation and a whole series of conversations. Thanks so much.

Chang:

Thank you.

Sinclair:

Thank you.

Chideya:

That was Sharon Chang and Kamal Sinclair of the Guild of Future Architects. They're going to be back over the coming weeks for more conversations on envisioning our future. And you're a key part of that conversation. As you heard in the interview, we're asking for your input on our platform, SPEAK. This week, we want to hear more of your responses to this question: “Imagine if women of color trusted the society around them and felt truly liberated. What would you do if you felt truly liberated and financially secure?” You can call us at (929) 353-7006 or go to farai.com/obp and scroll down to find a Google form to respond in writing.

Most of the news about COVID-19 is understandably heavy, but some people are making the load lighter, like my next guest.

Ajón Crump:

My name is Ajón Crump, and I am the founder of a campaign called Nurses Keep Going.

Chideya:

Crump was out of work because of COVID with time on her hands when she got a phone call from her cousin.

Crump:

I wanted to do something to help out. I realized that sneakers were very important for nurses. My cousin in Florida is a nurse, and she mentioned in passing, just wanting new sneakers for her birthday. And once I realized that, I decided to purchase about four pairs of sneakers first, and I posted it on social media like, "Hey, I have these sneakers. I have the sizes. If anybody knows any nurses on the frontline of COVID-19, please let me know. And I will mail them sneakers, completely free."

My family started getting involved, and my friends started getting involved. One of my best friends reached out to me and she works for a major PR firm in the city. And she's like, "You know what? I want to pitch your story." lo and behold, we started getting put into major publications and before I knew it, the goal was 30 to 50. And then the goal was 7,500. And we're currently at about $19,400 donated.

Chideya:

Crump learned as she went, putting together a team as donations grew. They started getting requests for sneakers from nurses all across the country.

Crump:

We've had a list since May, and the language has always been, "Hey, we've got 100 nurses. We're working on it. We've got 200, we've got 300 nurses already." Early August we were featured in an NBC segment on Snapchat and we had literally received 300 requests from that one Snapchat segment. It was a lot of children and teenagers emailing and using the language like, "Hey, I'm 12 years old and my dad is a nurse, and I was wondering ..." So we've gotten a lot of requests, and we're definitely going to work to getting to as many people as we can.

Chideya:

That was Ajón Crump, founder of Nurses Keep Going. To keep up with her campaign, check out www.nurseskeepgoing.com. 

S. Mitra Kalita is a veteran journalist, a real media boss lady. She's been an executive at organizations, including the Los Angeles Times and Quartz. She's just now leaving her position as Senior Vice President for news, opinion and programming at CNN Digital. She decided to switch her focus to local, to building a network of inclusive news outlets for those who need it most, where they need it most.

And her journey starts with the new product, Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help her fellow New Yorkers get through the pandemic. She lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in New York and in America. Mitra, thanks for coming on Our Body Politic.

S. Mitra Kalita:

Thank you for having me.

Chideya:

In Brooklyn, in my building, five people died in the beginning of the pandemic. This is a direct pivot to what you're doing with Epicenter, because my neighbors are not always people who are reading the New York Times or listening to WNYC. In part, I think because those organizations tend to target upper-middle-class white people as their core audience. And my neighbors are very diverse in every way, but predominantly Black, predominantly working class, a lot of immigrants. So what is it that you are doing now in terms of planning and executing something that reaches a different audience?

Kalita:

My husband and I are very connected to our community in Jackson Heights. We don't just live here. We really engage with the community. Feel like it defines us. As you know, the area around Jackson Heights, so Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst are among the hardest hit communities in the world by COVID. And so in mid-March it started with just emails asking for help. Whether it's to get a COVID test, a hospital bed, or just figuring out what city agency can do what. Farai, I believe you play this role in your community too where you're sometimes the link to official New York, or getting help, or navigating bureaucracy. And I always say, if journalists can't play that role in their communities, then what good are they?

Chideya:

Yeah, absolutely. You and your husband are people that people turn to because you know about many things going on in the community and people needed help.

Kalita:

We started getting emails that were ... Just as examples, and this is March into April. A Nepali woman and her husband both had COVID. He was in Elmhurst Hospital on a ventilator. She was worried that she was about to be next. Her symptoms were pretty bad and they had two children under the age of five and nobody to watch them. And so those emails started to be forwarded to other friends of mine. And then came a call. The mechanic check at a cycle shop on Roosevelt Avenue is known throughout our neighborhood, because he used to be the mechanic for the Mexican cycling team. And his name is Juan.

And so we got word that Juan had passed away from COVID. He was in Elmhurst Hospital. The city has the body. Juan's daughter in Mexico wants to claim the body, but the Mexican consulate can't help her. And so this lands in our lap, and my husband looks at this picture and he says, "Oh my God. This guy helped me for years. If you need a flat, he charged me $2 or nothing at all." He just really felt like, "What do we do?" And we did what journalists do, you call one person after another person, and we figured out that they needed $2,500, which we were able to raise within a matter of days.

And then my husband and I looked at each other and we said, "We could keep it doing this, and we might go broke, but also this is not effective. We're just turning to the same people over and over to help people. There has to be a better way and yet the need feels greater than ever." And so we set about to say, how can we launch a newsletter? Having friends who are journalists, who live within 10 blocks of you is always a great thing, because everyone started to say, "How can we help? What do we want to amplify?"

So in the process of getting the newsletter, which subsequently we called Epicenter-NYC, together came the death of George Floyd. And I think this is significant because it starts to shift to what you're asking me about of how is this different from the New York Times covering Jackson Heights? How is this different from how ... At one point, the news trucks were lined up outside of Elmhurst Hospital, my employer, CNN, included. What are you building that's different? And I worried that yet again, journalists were talking about allyship when they might not even know what it means to be a good neighbor.

And if you don't engage in your own community and try to create community with what COVID for better or worse, forced, which is a 10 to 20 block radius of your house is your people, then how are we going to create that at scale, and bring those lessons from what it means to create community into our newsrooms?

Chideya:

And finally, what do you hope to do with the Epicenter as a model?

Kalita:

So I see the value of Epicenter and the ambition of Epicenter to create many like-minded networks around the country. And it might be a newsletter in some communities. It might be, as we're working with our friends, a documented immigration, news service, it might be through WhatsApp. While venture capitalists will talk about growing something at scale, there are inclusive models that allow us to say, "Actually, your point of view and my point of view in some cases match. So let's see what damage we can do together." And that's how we can operate at scale.

Chideya:

That was S. Mitra Kalita, founder of Epicenter-NYC. 

Thank you for joining us on Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts.

Our Body Politic is presented and syndicated by KCRW, KPCC, and KQED. It's produced by Lantigua Williams & Co. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is executive producer. Paulina Velasco is senior producer. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and mixed this episode. Original music by Kojin Tashiro. Our political booker is Mary Knowles. Michelle Baker and Emily Daly, are our assistant producers. Production assistance from Mark Betancourt, Mike Castañeda, Zuheera Ali, and Virginia Lora.

Funding Credit:

Funding for Our Body Politic is provided by Craig Newmark Philanthropies, and by The Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, empowering world-changing work.

CITATION:

Chideya, Farai, host. “November 13, 2020: Senator Tammy Duckworth on a Lifetime of Service, Breaking Down the “WoC Vote,” and the Freedom to Imagine Liberation.”  Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. November 13, 2020. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/