Our Body Politic

Why Voters Lose When Democrats Fight Each Other, Back to Basics with Covid-19 Prevention, and a Call to Action for Women of Color

Episode Notes

Host Farai Chideya talks with former Ohio state Senator Nina Turner about the pros and cons of being a progressive within the Democratic Party. Doctors Uché and Oni Blackstock share their family’s history with healthcare, and what we know and don’t know about the new Covid-19 variant. Dana Coester of 100 Days in Appalachia explains why she was not surprised by the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict after years studying rising, armed extremism among white youth. On Sippin’ the Political Tea, Farai and two fellow journalists and media trailblazers—S. Mitra Kalita of URL Media and Jenni Monet of Indigenously—examine what it really means to consider themselves women of color.


0:28 Progressive Democrat Nina Turner on whether the party can deliver for voters

12:50 Doctors Uché and Oni Blackstock on their sense of purpose in medicine

21:15 Journalist Dana Coester on extremist recruitment of white youth in the U.S.

31:20 Sippin’ the Political Tea: journalists S. Mitra Kalita and Jenni Monet join Farai to discuss what it means to be a woman of color, especially in media

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thank you for listening to and sharing Our Body Politic. We're always hoping to reach more listeners, so after you listen today, consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcast. We read them for feedback, and it helps others find us. Thanks so much. 

Welcome to Our Body Politic, I'm Farai Chideya. I have a question for you: What are women of color? I call it a super demographic. It's a huge umbrella category for people of different national origins and different races and different religions. And later this hour, we're going to have a rigorous discussion about what we mean when we say women of color. But first, we continue our exploration of the future of the Democratic Party.

Nina Turner is an outspoken progressive who operates within the Democratic Party and also critiques it. She served on Cleveland City Council, and also was an Ohio state Senator, and she was national co-chair of Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign, and served as president of the grassroots organization Our Revolution. This past summer, she ran in a Democratic primary to fill Marcia Fudge's Cleveland-area congressional seat. She ultimately lost to Shontel Brown, another Democrat who's considered more moderate. A small note before we begin. I had a cold while recording these interviews, and you might notice that my voice sounds different. So I hope everybody listening is also able to take care of themselves this winter. We definitely need to. Senator Turner, welcome to Our Body Politic.

Nina Turner: It's good to be here with you. So excited.

Chideya: Well, you have really had a huge impact on how people think about the Democratic Party and different branches of it through your own service, and by becoming a surrogate for Bernie Sanders when he was running for president. But let me back up a little bit to start with your origin story and your family. I read about your mother's death from complications of high blood pressure at just 42 years old. How did that and other aspects of your family life shape who you are today and what you care about?

Turner: Having my mom die so young and to die unexpectedly shook my world asunder. I mean, I had a maelstrom of emotions and circumstances and situations in my life. I would have to say thus far, that has been the most life-altering. And so when my mom died, I was in my early to mid-twenties at the time. And there's seven of us, so my baby sister was 12. And we're all kind of neatly two years apart, for the most part. I don't know how my mom did that with seven children, but she did. And for me, being the oldest, my mom definitely depended on me a lot. And so to have her die that young and have to be the one to make the decision about when to pull the plug, I remember it some days like it was yesterday, even though my mom died in 1992, and especially this time of the year. My mother was a preacher, so I often joked that we went to church eight days a week in my mama's house. And I didn't appreciate it as much as I do today, just drawing from that reservoir, but it definitely shaped the way I see public policy and politicians. And at this stage in my life, I have very little tolerance, and I will admit that, for politicians and people in powerful positions making excuses as to why they cannot help the downtrodden and to dispossess those who suffer the most, because I often think and center my mother's experience. And just one more point on that, and I'm trying not to get too emotional. My mother never lived to see me become what I call myself as a cycle-breaker. But every degree that I took, from that first associate's degree to the bachelor's to the master's to enrolling for my PhD, I did take all of those things in her name. On the one end of the spectrum, we are servants to the past, those people who came before us. And then we serve ourselves, and then we are also servants, so should be very forward-looking to the future. And so every time I took a degree, I took it both for my mother, for myself, and also for my son.

Chideya: When I hear you talking, there's this huge burden that seems to be on the backs of Black women in particular. And this country, to put it mildly, doesn't appear to be heavily invested in the wellbeing and wholeness of Black women. So how do you figure out that space and time that is Nina's, and the space and time that is your work in the world?

Turner: I mean, that is absolutely right. I think for us as Black women, centering ourselves more, not putting ourselves second... Because in order to be a caregiver in any form... And Black women have been caregivers of this nation by force, and also by choice when I think about our families, and even that might have some force to it. But when I say by force, you know exactly where I'm coming from: suckling other people's babies while we had to neglect our own, both in chattel slavery but also as we became more and more far removed from chattel slavery, being relegated to domestic work. All of these things raise up in me a righteous indignation and a anger, but also a hope and a promise, because it is absolutely irrefutable that there is nothing on the face of the earth like a Black woman. It has been certainly a complex and complicated journey for me thus far. And although certainly I am blessed, extraordinarily blessed, I still feel the same growing pains that 12-year-old or even 8-year-old Nina felt, coming up in a world that denies Black women's humanity and our agency, more importantly, and wants to police our bodies, our minds, what we say and how we say it. One of the reasons why I am not necessarily beloved by the mainstream of the Democratic Party is that I am willing to speak a type of truth that very few people are, pulling from the sheroes that came before me like the Fannie Lou Hamers of the world, and the Shirley Chisholms, the honorables of the world who dared to speak out and to speak up against the injustices in this society, both from a global perspective but also at the hands of political parties.

Chideya: Let's go deeper into that thread on political parties, and specifically on the Democratic Party. I mean, a few days before the gubernatorial election in Virginia, we had on Princess Blanding, who ran as a third-party candidate. And she said that the two parties were not delivering for people, and limiting choice was a form of voter suppression.

Turner: That's right.

Chideya: And we had asked her straight up, "If Terry McAuliffe loses the Democratic candidate," which he did lose, "will you feel blamed for it?" And I think very often... I remember covering the 2016 election and looking at all sorts of studies showing that millennials of color were not compelled by a Clinton candidacy, but very interested in supporting Sanders, and also very upset by what appeared to some to be putting a heavy thumb on the scale in the primaries. So you were a Sanders surrogate. How do you make sense of the ways in which especially younger African Americans were asked to participate in Democratic Party politics, but did not necessarily feel compelled by the way that they were unfolding?

Turner: I believe that every politician, local level from dog catcher all the way up to the presidency of the United States of America, you do have to earn people's votes. Nobody owes you anything. Voters don't owe the people running or who are serving. It's really the other way around. And so when you have the upper echelons of parties, one party just doesn't care at all, just flat out doesn't give a damn. And you got another party faking the funk, and guilt Black people, as well as working class people, of all hues to vote for them as a fear tactic. How do you put 325 million or so people into two political categories? And trust me, both of those political parties will join ranks to stop third parties and third-party candidates from breaking through. If that is not arrogance, if that is not manipulation, I don't know what is. And I say that as somebody who has voted and has served as a democratically elected official, a member of the DNC right this moment. But what I have always said, and I will continue to say, is that I do not worship at the feet of any man or any woman or any political party. I personally worship God, and I serve the people.

Chideya: So right now, we have a ongoing ideological fight within the Democratic Party over initiatives like the Build Back Better plan, which passed the House, and now it's in the Senate. You have Senators Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema being heavily courted to try to get them to sign onto this. How do you read what's going on specifically around Build Back Better, and just more generally in terms of how the Democratic Party is fighting itself?

Turner: I mean, I want to come at this from the people's perspective. And I try to center to people as much as possible, because really ultimately, that's what Build Back Better is supposed to be about. And so you go from a $10 trillion, which progressives like me and others wanted, Senator Sanders, Congresswomans Cori Bush and Ocasio-Cortez, the members of the Progressive Caucus, to 6 trillion to then 3.5 trillion being the negotiated point, and now we're at a little over $1 trillion. So the Democratic Party has actually negotiated against itself this entire time. It really does boggle my mind. The Democrats control all the levers of power, and still are making excuses about how they cannot deliver for the people. When you have a pandemic, when you have the level of suffering that has been laid bare because of the pandemic, and you have people elected to office, whether they be Democrats or Republicans who have shown just a total indifference to people's suffering, then something is absolutely wrong. When you have United States senators, or anybody in that Congress for that matter, on either house, in either party, who want to haggle about whether or not we should have paid family leave in this country, when every other industrialized nation has some type of paid family leave... And we have zero days. We have some countries that have hundreds of days, and we have zero days in the wealthiest country on the face of the earth. Do I want to see Build Back Better pass? Absolutely, I do. Do I see the flaws in this bill? Absolutely, I do. Do people in this country who are suffering, the poor, the working poor, and the barely middle class, deserve better than what they are going to get, better than crumbs? Absolutely. Both things, all of those things can be true at the same time, and they are all true. So I'm disappointed, I must say, by what's being put out there right now, and how people inside the bubble, the people who are the most secure in their lives and their livelihoods, are slapping each other on the back and trying, again, to convince the American people that all of this is so good when we all know that it could be better. It's making me think of President Nelson Mandela, who once said, "It always seems impossible until it is done." And we have really... And I'm talking about the collective we. Think about that. The psychology in this country is that we only can reach so high, we can only go so far, that people lack the imagination and the willingness to have the courage to ask for more, and in especially those people who are elected to office. It confounds me.

Chideya: Senator Turner, thanks for joining us.

Turner: My pleasure.

Chideya: That was Nina Turner, former state senator for Ohio. We started our show during the COVID-19 pandemic with a mission that included covering how it impacts communities of color, and we're continuing this focus with our next guests. Twin sisters and doctors Oni and Uché Blackstock have a deep sense of purpose about their medical careers, something they learned from their mother, who was also a physician. Now they're making their own mark in medicine through work that addresses the effects of racism on healthcare. Dr. Oni Blackstock is a primary care and HIV physician, and founder of Health Justice, a consulting firm that supports anti-racism work in healthcare. Welcome, Dr. Blackstock.

Dr. Oni Blackstock:

Thank you so much for having me.

Chideya: And Dr. Uché Blackstock is an emergency medicine physician and founder of Advancing Health Equity, which is also working to eliminate health inequities in the US. Hi, Dr. Blackstock.

Dr. Uché Blackstock:

Hi, Farai. Thanks for having me.

Chideya: In one of the many articles I saw when researching for this, there's a great picture of you as toddlers sitting on your mom, straddling her with little bonnets on, and it's very cute. And I understand that she passed away when you were just 19, which is such a tender age to lose a parent. I'll start with you, Oni. Tell us about your mom, Dale.

Dr. Oni Blackstock:

Sure, wow. And it's so interesting. I actually was thinking today... Our mother was 47 years old when she died from a very rare form of leukemia, and I'm only three years away from that age. And I realized how young she was, and how scared she must have been. She was a remarkable woman raised by a single mother, along with her five other siblings on welfare. Life was not easy for her. She often talked about having holes in her shoes, and having to put cardboard in her shoes, having rats running around their apartment. She actually had a little scar on her forehead where she had gotten bitten by a rat when she was young. All that to say our mother was very focused, very disciplined, and became the first person in her family to go to college. She then decided to apply to medical school and went to Harvard Med School, where she felt understandably like a fish out of water. She came back to Brooklyn where she grew up, it was very important for her to be there, and spent the vast majority of her career committed to caring for her people, and really passed that on to us. So she is really the reason, I think Uché would also agree, why we are doing what we're doing today.

Chideya: Uché, you this summer announced that you have a book deal for a memoir called Legacy: A Black Physician Reckons With Racism in Medicine. How does your family history figure into that?

Dr. Uché Blackstock:

Yes. This book is essentially going to also be about our mom, her upbringing, her experiences in college and medical school. And also, we'll talk about our father, who is an immigrant from Jamaica, who came here when he was 17. He worked a series of odd jobs. We'll talk about how it was because my father was a veteran. That was the only way that my parents were able to get a mortgage, through Veterans Affairs, and purchase our house in Bedside, because there were still the remnants of redlining there. There are stories that really shape us, but also there are ways of using our personal narratives to talk about these larger structural issues and to give social commentary.

Chideya: I do want to pivot to the new variant of COVID-19. And in Crown Heights, in the building I lived in, which is a big pre-war... Five people died in the first month of the pandemic. And now, nearly two years later, here we are again. Oni, let me start with you. What do we need to know?

Dr. Oni Blackstock:

Yes. Well, I'm so sorry to hear about your neighbors who passed away. I was actually working at the New York City Health Department. I was assistant commissioner up until last year, and was the senior doctor on call the week before the first case was identified here in New York City. And I are having this horrible feeling that something bad was going to happen. And then we saw it really impact disproportionately Black and Latino communities, and Native American as well. And even though so much sadness and trauma has occurred, it also has allowed us, at least as Black physicians, Black healthcare providers, to really bring these issues to light to give what we think are potential solutions. And I think sort of related to your question, "What needs to happen," we cannot continue with the current status quo. We live in a country where we don't have healthcare for all. We don't have Medicare for all, and then we wonder why people don't trust a vaccine. So I'm hoping that we can all use this experience to learn how to do things differently and take care of one another, because that's not what we've been seeing.

Chideya: Yeah. Uché, what about this new variant? And how should we pay attention to it, protect ourselves?

Dr. Uché Blackstock:

Right. I know that's the million dollar question right now, but what will protect us against this new variant is all the things that we should be doing, all these tried and true public health strategies that we call multi-layered strategies: masking, testing. Yes, getting vaccinated is also very important, but also working on infrastructure like ensuring adequate ventilations in buildings, in schools. So all of those things also matter. And then the second issue obviously is this vaccine inequity issue globally that I think that our country is not doing enough to address. Yes, we have donated more than any other high-income country to other countries, but it's just a fraction of the need of the rest of the world. So there's just still tremendous work that we need to get done, but how can we protect ourselves? Yeah, there are things that we can do individually, but there are also things that we should expect that our government does as well. And that happens by enacting policies like mask policies, making sure that there is testing available, accessible, and available to everyone. And so that's how we keep people safe.

Chideya: Do we know enough yet about the Omicron variant to make any specific recommendations for that, as opposed to just in general?

Dr. Uché Blackstock:

There are definitely more questions and answers so far. A lot remains to be seen in terms of testing and studies that will happen over the next two to four weeks. But in terms of what we do know, there's some concerns that it is highly transmissible, meaning it's very contagious, can be easily passed from one person to the next. We don't know if it causes more severe disease. We also don't know whether it has the ability to evade vaccines or monoclonal antibody treatment. That is going to be determined through lab tests that are going to be done over the next few weeks. However, we know that we have all the tools in our tool belt to protect ourselves, so it's just a matter of using those tools in the most effective way.

Chideya: Oni, as we close out here, what is your message for people who are just tired of all of this? Tired of constantly checking the threat status, tired of changes in who can be vaccinated and who can get a booster. How do you deal with people's emotional fatigue?

Dr. Oni Blackstock:

I always think about this meme that used to be on social media a lot during the first year of the pandemic, where it's like that circle where it's things that you have control of, and then outside the circle, things that you don't have control of. So really just trying to stay in the moment, stay present, focus on those things that I have control of, which I know can be incredibly challenging. But I think if we look to the future, it can be incredibly overwhelming. So just taking it really a day at a time is what I've been trying to do, and what I talk to my patients about as well.

Chideya: Oni and Uché Blackstock, the Doctors Blackstock, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Uché Blackstock:

Thank you, Farai.

Dr. Oni Blackstock:

Thank you, Farai.

Chideya: That was Doctors Oni and Uché Blackstock. 2021 has been intense, to say the least. Not just the pandemic, but also racial reckonings, trials, and questions about what comes next. For example, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted after killing two men and wounding a third with a semi-automatic rifle in the summer of 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin during protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Rittenhouse is not known to belong to a white supremacist group himself, but far-right extremists celebrated his acquittal, and former President Donald Trump hosted him at Mar-a-Lago. Our next guest, Dana Coester, has done extensive reporting on the radicalization and recruitment of white youth in extremist groups. She's the editor in chief of 100 Days in Appalachia, and leads the Rural Digital Youth Resiliency Project. Welcome, Dana.

Dana Coester: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Chideya: So you report on extremism and recruitment by white nationalists and supremacist groups. And what did you feel when you heard the Rittenhouse verdict?

Coester: Well, a couple different things. First, I actually wasn't really surprised by the verdict, but I also wasn't... I'm trying to think how to phrase this. I mean, I had felt similar to how I felt prior to the election, that it wasn't really going to change the trajectory of what we were seeing regardless of who was elected. And that has sort of played out. So I was concerned about the signal of what the verdict sent, but the many, many other signals over years that led to a teenager being at a protest with an AR-15 in the first place, believing that he was there on a mission, and knowing that he's not an anomaly. There are thousands more of those teens.

Chideya: Yeah. And it brings me to the question of: When people believe that they are on missions and are allowed to not have any legal penalty even when people die, how does that affect the overall dynamic system? I guess what you're saying in some ways is that it doesn't affect the dynamic that much, because the dynamic was already there?

Coester: I mean, first, I guess I want to emphasize is that role and that sense of being on a mission was already normalized, and that the extralegal role for armed citizens, that was already in full swing. Had there been a consequence in this instance, would that have helped to reverse this trajectory? I'm not sure, just because we've already seen this movement of boys toward the language, aesthetics, fashion, gear, allure of extralegal militia. Just even the aesthetic of it has been steadily normalized month by month over the past three years or so. So in our work, we've looked a lot at children. So while maybe there were boys we saw passing through this middle school ironic Nazi meme phase... And maybe they reject that now, and they're ashamed of that now. But now, they're sharing new cultural content, and that's ironic Kyle Rittenhouse memes, both ridiculing and valorizing him. But also, I see that these boys are armed with their air soft guns, and they're dressed in their tactical gear, and that's new. But what's not new is that they're looking for meaning and brotherhood and belonging and purpose and power, and that's what this verdict absolutely plays into.

Chideya: I found it really challenging to talk to a lot of people about whether or not they view extremism as a threat to them directly. I look at things like the group of extremists called accelerationists, who want to speed up the end of the country as we know it. Some of them have been looking at ways of acquiring a dirty bomb, nuclear material. And I'm like, "Read this, read this, read this," but I just don't get the sense that a lot of people actually take it seriously. I mean, how do we go from a specific moment, like the Rittenhouse where we don't know the motivations of the shooter, but we can ascribe some dynamics to the verdict, to this question of people who are self-declared extremists and who, in some cases, are also self-declared about wanting to end society as we know it?

Coester: Democracy is already unevenly experienced in America, so it makes sense that threats to democracy and democratic processes are also being unevenly experienced. And I often find myself as the sort of Chicken Little alarmist in a room trying to make a lot of noise about this. I think there is movement toward people understanding that, but I also think that there are people who will be comfortable in a failed democracy. It actually will not impact them. Some of the people that we see the most move toward extremist actions, or the allure of those, or the accelerationists, the burn it all down, are people who don't have anything vested in what's happening now. The status quo is not working for them. And I want to be careful saying that, because I am in no way justifying or in any way suggesting that that kind of extremist response is the appropriate response to that.

Coester: But I think that the place that they are in is where they can be manipulated by a lot of the mechanics that do move people toward extremist violence. And then when I see teens and youth express a dystopian view of their world, and see how ripe that is for manipulation, I think we have to acknowledge, from their perspective, it's pretty dystopian. I mean, I think we have to allow that in order to move toward solutions. And right now, the most coordinated effort to responding to those fears and sense of powerlessness and dystopia are these other actors.

Chideya: What kinds of conversations do you see white parents having with their children about questions of democracy, extremism, sense of place, sense of belonging? What are families saying to each other?

Coester: Well, it's funny. I was thinking every once in a while, I'll see a tweet that's, "white folks, come get your people." And I kind of laugh, because in a way, that's part of the work that we're trying to do and the work we need to do. And you know that we do this work through the lens of empathy and building social trust, no shaming. And not everyone agrees with that approach, and I totally get it. And I especially don't think it should be on people of color to carry that emotional or cognitive labor, but I do think that's on me and people like me to do that. So, yes, we talk with pastors. I talk with pediatricians and mental health professionals and teachers. And we find that when we sort of acknowledge the sort of sense of dystopia or powerlessness that people feel, when we say... The answers aren't in memes, and the enemies aren't who you think they are. Let's figure this out together. Let's get our heads on straight. Let's build on what we all want for our children. I am learning that in the same way that women can be manipulated through perceived threats to their children by extremists, that's also a place that we can connect. We all agree that there are things that we want for our children, and so that's a place we can start.

Chideya: You do a lot of research about what's happening online with recruitment into extremist groups, and also with general content on the topic. So what's the role of what's happening online?

Coester: When we first started doing this work... We're going to do all this network analysis. We were going to do predictive algorithms and AI. And then at some point, I just completely rejected the idea that there was going to be a technology solution to a technology-mediated problem. And then when I think about what are the conversations that I have on the porch with my neighbors, or in a line dropping off my kids from school, there are none of those talking points that are so widespread on social media. And I just see such a gap between the narratives and the manipulation that happen online and the opportunities we have in our homes and in our neighborhoods to steer this in a different direction. And after the verdict, I was really struck by how immediate and uniform the responses were. And not in the way that it's like, "Oh, there's consensus," but in the way that it was really obvious how manipulated a topic it is online. And so the uniformity just completely belies sort of the sense of free speech and independence in social media. And people seem to be talking to themselves in sort of an isolated, narrow frame. Meanwhile, we've got people who are armed at levels that they've never been armed before. And the Rittenhouse verdict does not change that. Addressing that is not going to be addressed on social media. That is going to be addressed in our neighborhoods and in our communities.

Chideya: Dana, thanks for joining us.

Coester: Thank you, Farai. Thank you so much for having me.

Chideya: That was Dana Coester, editor in chief of 100 Days in Appalachia. This week on Sippin' the Political Tea, I'm joined by S. Mitra Kalita, founder and publisher of Epicenter NYC, which is also part of a network she co-founded. She serves as CEO of URL Media. Welcome back to Our Body Politic, Mitra.

S. Mitra Kalita: It's great to be here, Farai.

Chideya: And I'm joined by Jenni Monet. She's a journalist and media critic reporting on indigenous affairs. She's author of the weekend newsletter Indigenously, which I recommend highly. Welcome back to Our Body Politic, Jenni.

Jenni Monet: Oh, good to be here, Farai. Thank you.

Chideya: When I founded Our Body Politic, I started describing women of color as a super demographic. We are of many races, backgrounds, religions, national origins. And do we have a lot in common, or not so much? Are we starting to find ourselves as a collective voice, or are we really living very different lives? So here's a clip from Vox of Black feminist and activist Loretta Ross talking about the history of how the term "women of color" was used when an alliance was first forming between different women's groups at the 1977 National Women's Conference in Houston.

Loretta Ross: It was in those negotiations in Houston the term "women of color" was created. And they didn't see it as a biological designation. You're born Asian, you're born Black, you're born African American, whatever. It is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work and collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been minoritized.

Chideya: Now, Mitra, you've written about this topic. So that was 45 years ago. What comes to mind when you hear it defined here as a political alliance?

Kalita: I mean, I love the idea of identity being a destination versus a construct that you're kind of born into. So I think that the idea that you owe other women of color something by describing yourself as a woman of color, though, is really powerful. So I'm going to say I agree with the construct. What I worry is that we haven't made a whole lot of progress in the decades since that was almost offered to us as a way of being.

Chideya: Yeah, yeah. I mean, for me, I definitely define myself very much as a Black woman, but my Blackness was also informed by having an African father from a specific tribe and region of Africa, the Shona people of Southern Africa, and a Black American mother with quite a lot of information we know about the history of my family on that side. So that's also complex. But Jenni, obviously Indigenous women in the US have a very different history than other women. You are the OGs. You were here before there was a United States. Does that affect how the women of color identity or umbrella does or doesn't stick?

Monet: I don't know, because for so long, I don't think people even understood who we were. I remember growing up and people thinking, "Well, you're just like me. You're white. You're here, but you're not white, and you're not Black, and you're not Hispanic. What are you?" And they don't ask. Or if you live near tribal communities, they just think that you are some stereotype of a Native American. And I remember just growing up very, very firmly couched in my own identity as a Laguna Pueblo woman, where we are distinctly of our own cultures. And I think that that has been what's carried me in so many situations. That the community that that breeds, it's incredibly matriarchal, which means that the womanhood behind how we function even in our own communities is really strong. And so I'm grateful for all of my aunties and grandmothers and all the other women. I just think that it's just been my medicine, what has carried me.

Chideya: Yeah. I mean, Mitra, one of the things I think about a lot is the ways in which class, for example, is as much of a sorting hat as race. I think most people who are working income or low income, they're not worried about stuff like this. I mean, is this even relevant?

Kalita: It's very relevant, because when we use a term like "women of color," it can erase what you're talking about. I do think that the class distinctions matter both in terms of how we are capturing communities... And of course, the data and demographics is so important to capture, but you also don't want to kind of blanket create narratives without diving into field reporting and really capturing the nuance of it. I think the other piece that feels important from a class distinction is being aware of what we're bringing to our identities, and the blind spots that inevitably arise. I see this with a lot of Indian American women, who have clung to the narrative of being women of color, but haven't necessarily understood what it means to center Black voices. And this year, what I'm really heartened by... And this is not just because Jenni's joining us today, but increasingly, I'm hearing the centering of Black and Indigenous voices in a way that I've never heard before in my life. So if you have Asian women or Indian American women who are clinging to this construct of being women of color, but they're not centering those, to your point, who really paved their path, then they're benefiting from a certain identity, but they're really not practicing what that identity... To sort of end where we began, which is... This is something that requires you to give back, that requires you to think about something greater than yourself.

Chideya: Yeah, and that can be very complicated. And I use the term "unpaid civic labor" to refer to all the work that women of color disproportionately do to just keep democracy going, and to be essential workers and so on and so on. And this brings me to some of the work you've been doing, Jenni, to bring more focus to the impact of Native women on life in the US and life around the world. And in your newsletter, Indigenously, you talk a bit about Alberta Schenck and Ada Blackjack. I'd love to hear a bit more about who they are.

Monet: Oh, well they're incredible pockets of information for... And inspiration, both information and inspiration. But I deliberately inserted them into the narrative of how some of our most remote Indigenous communities are often portrayed from folks who parachute in and exploit what are considered some of the most rich areas and environments. Alaska, they're rich in subsistence economies: fishing and hunting. Ada Blackjack is a woman who out survived four white expeditioners in their quest to colonize Wrangel Island, which is in the middle of the Bering Sea. It's just above the Bering Strait. So she goes up there with these white guys, she gets stranded, outlives all of them. And I love the fact that she just kind of knew the original instructions of how to survive in an environment like that for two years. And I don't think people know that when they come up here and they report on missing and murdered Indigenous women, or they come up here and they look at child welfare, and children getting taken away. That these women come from a legacy of strength and intelligence and tenacity, that I think if we projected that a little bit more, they might think twice before they come in here and just want to get their headlines for awards and prizes that make it into newspapers.

Chideya: Yeah. Your work really covers both the promise and the peril of life facing Indigenous women and how Indigenous women are leading and trailblazing with so much nuance and complexity. And I have to say, and I've said it on the show before, I learned nothing about Indigenous people not only in K through 12, but even in college. And your newsletter is one of the ways that I'm informing myself, because it's up to me to learn. And I think a lot of times, people are like, "Well, if they want me to know something, I guess they'd tell me." And it's like, "Yes, there are people telling." So in any case, so I want to keep going with talk about representation in the media and turn to you, Mitra. In addition to the Epicenter, you also have URL Media, which you co-founded with a Black female journalist. How do your different backgrounds within this broad umbrella, and possibly very flawed umbrella, of women of color affect what you're doing and how you're doing it?

Kalita: So I think having seen a lot of headlines of founders of companies being at odds with each other... More than a year into founding an organization with another woman of color, I just emerge in 2021 with such gratitude that we really see eye to eye on the big things. And one big thing is: What does it mean to be Black-centered when you're not Black? And that's a conversation we had early, I mean, before we literally incorporated. And there was two ways of having that conversation. One was for me to kind of say what I thought I was doing, but the other was to say, "Sarah..." My co-founder is Sara Lomax-Reese, who's the president of URL Media, but also runs WURD, a Black radio station in Philadelphia. And I said, "Sarah, what does this mean both from a business perspective, from how we run things?" And I hope it's okay to tell you this. We're upfront about it. We're co-founders, but she owns 51% of the company. And that was important to both of us. So really, when we talk about power, wealth and money is a really big part of that conversation. And we often, with a lot of journalism... I don't want to say we conflate mission with power, but we kind of put the money aside. And when you're launching a company with someone, the money conversation has to come first.

Chideya: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's absolutely fascinating, and the 51% is not a small deal. It is really a vote of confidence in a certain financial and equity structure that is putting the ball in the hand of your co-founder in this one specific way of majority ownership. That's pretty amazing. Jenni, I want to check in on the broader media universe. There have been some advances for women of color in news leadership roles. Harper's Bazaar hired its first Black editor in chief, Samira Nasr, and ABC News appointed their first Black woman as president of the network. So do you see that as in any way game-changing? Or too soon to say?

Monet: Oh, it's always game-changing when you bring women in leadership positions, and then when it starts to be less white. I mean, it's exciting. And I don't think that we have any gauge to that really, here in this country anyway. And so I think that it'll be... These are interesting times. I do always carry concern as a Native woman about how long it's going to take for them to understand that decolonizing doesn't start with slavery. Actually, we need to look at the very bones of this country. And I think that just our current climate in general is having a really slow and hard time doing that. And I don't know how long it's going to take for people to really, truly understand that Indigenous invisibility is still kind of creating part of the same problems that people are trying to correct. So I worry about that from a media perspective. 2020, for me, really laid bare how much abuse I endured, I have endured as a woman journalist of color in my industry where I've just kind of taken it, and taken it, and we move on. Our endurance, I think, is incredible when we look at 20 years in this industry. And so I'm really happy with myself these days of just kind of being really grounded in what I know needs to happen now. And it's exciting, and there's not a lot of fear involved, to be quite honest, because I feel like we're now in this new space where there is just a lot more freedom. The internet allows for that, for people like me to have a newsletter, for instance, and to push back around these more bigger brands that might just be missing the mark, even if they are trying to make progress. And I think that's what's so inspiring to have someone like Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland so visible in our spaces every day, is because she is the most credible reminder that we're still here as Native people, and that every part of our society, every law, every kind of policies that are created... I mean, they have an Indigenous story behind them. They have some kind of foundation, and I just don't see that being discussed. So I look forward to the Indigenous reality being inserted into spaces a lot more.

Chideya: And Mitra, you actually work in helping to strategize around leadership and executive placement. Seeing it from a pretty privileged, well-earned privilege, but privileged part of the pipeline where you get to really landscape from the top, what do you see happening?

Kalita: I see a lot of desire to get this right. I also see a lot of desire to just hurry up and get a woman of color in there so we could say that we did it. And so I want to be honest about that, because a lot of conversations I have in... As you mentioned, we run a wildly successful recruiting arm of URL Media, and we'll start out with conversations with the hiring manager. "What do you want? And what are the skills of this job?" And the number of times people will just, because we center diversity, will just feel comfortable saying, "We're a very white team. If you could find me a woman of color, that would solve a lot of problems." That is a real quote.

Chideya: And that's what we like to do, is solve other people's problems.

Kalita: That's right. And so I'm not even going hyperbolic with that quote. That is a real thing people have said not just once, but a few times. Yeah, I'm sure you could picture it. So what that has forced us to do, as a business for this, but also as a thought leader to that manager which comes, as you rightfully say, from a perch of privilege, is to say, "Wait, wait. Why are you thinking that a woman of color is going to solve a problem that is clearly not solvable with one position?" And then we get into the culture of the place, the hiring processes, and so on and so forth. And so it does give us a window to have that conversation. I think the names that you mentioned are fabulous women. I mean, one thing that's happening this year is that you could ask the question: What pipeline problem? For so long, it was, "We can't find someone," or, "There's a pipeline problem," was always the excuse. And so somehow, women of color are emerging every which way to fill these jobs this year, is what we've seen. However, unless we're going to solve, I would argue, a toxic work culture that allows somebody to say unchallenged, unless they're working with us, "I would love a woman of color to solve my problems," then we're actually creating more problems for said leadership. So I think that there is some ways to go.

Chideya: And that's a perfect place to leave it. Thanks for joining me, Mitra and Jenni.

Kalita: Thank you, Farai.

Monet: Thank you, Farai.

Chideya: That was S. Mitra Kalita, founder and publisher of Epicenter NYC, and CEO of URL Media, and Jenni Monet, author of the fabulous weekend newsletter Indigenously. Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. Our Body Politic is produced by LWC. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua is executive producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Our senior editor is Veralyn Williams. Paulina Velasco and Sarah McClure are our senior producers. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and makes this episode. Our political booker is Bridget McAllister. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by associate sound designer Kojin Tashiro. Production assistance from Mark Betancourt and Natyna Bean. This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, the Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe community, Katie McGrath and JJ Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “Why Voters Lose When Democrats Fight Each Other, Back to Basics with Covid-19 Prevention, and a Call to Action for Women of Color.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. December 3, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/