Stacey Abrams: American Democracy (Dean's Symposium)

April 12, 2024 1:22:52
Kaltura Video

Voting rights activist Stacey Abrams addresses the challenges to American democracy, her work to guarantee voter access, and other civil rights battles facing the United States in 2024. April, 2024.


0:00:01.1 Celeste Watkins-Hayes: Good afternoon.

0:00:01.8 S?: Good afternoon.

0:00:05.3 CW: It is wonderful to have you here at the Ford School on this historic day, and it is wonderful to have the honorable Stacey Abrams here with us at the Ford School. Welcome.


0:00:27.4 CW: I am Celeste Watkins-Hayes, the Joan and Sanford Weill Dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and I'm the founding director of our Center for Racial Justice. I'm delighted to welcome all of you here this afternoon for our final plenary session of this Dean's Symposium. It's really been an amazing two days, and I am so grateful to all of you who have traveled to be here as part of a panel. I wanna thank our faculty and staff who have worked to put this together and to our students for their engagement with the topics. Our keynote speaker today, as you know, is my friend Stacey Abrams. As you know, Stacey is a political leader who's dedicated herself to improving our democracy, she's a business owner, a best-selling author, attacks attorney, a non-profit institution builder, and a politician. She currently serves as the Ronald W. Walters Endowed Chair for Race and Black Politics at Howard University. Stacey, welcome, and I'm really looking forward to the conversation we're about to have.

0:01:35.7 CW: So I want to acknowledge our co-sponsor, the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan and our media partner, Detroit Public Television. A quick note about our format, we will get jump right into our conversation about democracy in the United States at this juncture, and we'll have a wide-ranging conversations on a variety of topics. First though, I would like to play a message to bring someone into the room with us that Stacey and I both know. Let's have a listen.


0:02:24.3 Speaker 2: My sisters, my brothers, my siblings all. Good afternoon. I very much wish that I could be with you exactly where you are. But since I cannot, I'm grateful for this opportunity to be with you virtually at the end of this Dean's Symposium. And how special it is for me to congratulate Deans Celeste Watkins-Hayes on how she collaborated with our colleagues to imagine, to organize, and to present such a successful symposium. This is a symposium that will conclude with the opportunity to listen, to be in close communication with, a conversation between two exceptional leaders, our exceptional leaders. I'm talking about the Dean, the sister Dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, and I am referring to the social justice activist that we have all come to know and count on.

0:03:56.1 S2: A conversation between Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes and the honorable Stacey Abrams. What a joy and an honor it is for me to introduce this event, because of the times that bind me, to Celeste and to Stacey. Each is my Spelman sister, and I claim each as my mentee, there's something that is truly special about a sisterly friendship across generations. I first met Celeste and Stacey when each arrived at Spelman. Spelman college, a historically black college for women, where they not only learn so much more about themselves, their history and her story and the diverse cultures of the world, they also came to more fully own, fully own their responsibility to the activists in the ongoing struggles to bring more equity and justice to our communities, our nation, and our world.

0:05:32.3 S2: I enjoy the privilege of being one of their mentors, but how good it is that both Celeste and Stacey understand that a mentoring relationship should always involve reciprocity. Of course, the mentor should teach her mentees, but she also must learn from them as well. There's a wonderful African proverb that captures this, it says, "She who teaches must learn and she who learns must teach." As I bring closure on my brief remarks, I want to turn to the students who are here. As you surely know and feel every day, we are in the midst of an unusually challenging and indeed troubling time in our country and in our world. It is a time when policies and practices on every level in government are being enacted that attack and dismantle basic rights in a democracy.

0:06:54.6 S2: Our civil rights continue to be attacked. Our voting rights are under attack. The right of women to make autonomous decisions about their own bodies, that's under attack. The rights of the LGBTQ community are under attack. And yes, the rights of professors and their students to teach and learn basic truths about our nation's past and ongoing challenges. All of that is under attack. And so, my young sisters, brothers, and siblings, I urge you to see yourselves as next up, next up to carry on the movement for civil rights, for women's rights, for the rights of LGBTQ people, for voters rights. I urge you to carry on the struggle for attention to the health disparities that haunt our nation, to climate change that is doing such damage to our world. Whatever issues speak most strongly to you, not only care about them, do something about them.

0:08:40.1 S2: And so, dear students, please hear me when I say ever so sincerely, I and all in my generation, all of the generations before you are counting on you to carry on the struggles for a far better, more equitable and just world. My warmest greetings to my Spelman sisters, Celeste and Stacey, and to all who are gathered with them.


0:09:34.7 CW: And now I'd like to invite Stacey to join me in conversation.


0:09:50.4 Stacey Abrams: I'm older.


0:09:52.5 CW: How are you doing, friend?

0:09:54.3 SA: I'm good, how are you?

0:10:03.0 CW: As people saw on the video, Stacey and I met at Spelman College. We were student leaders together, sitting exactly where our students are seated now, and I wanna reflect back to that time. What experiences were formative for you as a student leader? And how do they show up in your political career now and in your politics?

0:10:27.0 SA: So Celeste is leaving out a little bit of the story. We met when she was a freshman and I was a sophomore, we met in line at the... Basically, the upstairs was our cafeteria, downstairs was the Student Government Association office, and you had to go and sign up to run for student government. Celeste wanted to stand... We're standing in line together, waiting to go and fill out our paperwork, and Celeste was going to run to be Student Trustee, and that role meant that you were gonna sit on the board of Trustees for Spelman college. I had a little bit of experience with that role, I did not hold that job, but I wasn't as satisfied as I should have been with the person who held the job before her, because I had crashed a board meeting my freshman year because they were raising my tuition, but not raising my scholarship. And so that's actually how Jenna [0:11:24.6] ____ Cole got to know me and still didn't kick me off campus.

0:11:27.5 SA: So my student activism began with protesting. I left the bursar's office where they were explaining to me how much more money I owed, and I'm like, Unless you suddenly found a trust fund for me, I don't know where you think it's coming from, and as I was going, I asked, How do I protest this? I didn't use that language. I was crying a little bit [laughter], but she mentioned that the board of trustees was meeting, so I had on my cleanest jeans and my nice t-shirt, and I went and knocked on the door of the board of trustees meeting and demanded to be let in and the secretary of the college opened the door. She's like, Who are you? Like she knows me, because I'd been complaining about things since I got there, [laughter] and Jenna [0:12:06.2] ____ Cole looked at me, she got up and she walked over and she looked at me and she said, We do not have a rule that forbids her entry, so let her in.


0:12:16.7 SA: And so I walk into the board meeting and one of the board members scoots over and points to the seat beside him. So I sit down and I participate in my first board meeting and they let me basically give a speech about why what they were doing was wrong, and I explained that I wanted to stay at Spelman, but if they did not close that gap, I could not stay, my family didn't have the resources and we had exhausted all of the financial aid that was available. And so in the process, I gave a pretty effective speech, and I think they were probably... I don't know if they were already thinking about it, they tell me it changed things, I don't know that I believe them, but they actually suspended the decision to raise tuition that year and they delayed it to the following year. It went up a lot the following year, but we had time.


0:13:04.4 SA: At least for that year, we had time to plan. And so my freshman year, that was my first moment. So when I'm standing in line, my sophomore year I served as the social media advisor, which means... That's before we knew what social media was. That simply meant that I ran the projector when we had movie nights.


0:13:23.5 SA: There was no internet. But when she was standing in line, I was standing in line because I was going to run to be vice president of the student body, and there had not been a sophomore who had run for that job before. I was running because the person who I knew was going to run, who is a perfectly lovely person now, but at the time, [laughter] had made a series of choices that I found objectionable and had not been voluble enough about the concerns of students on campus, especially poor students. And the transformative moment for me was that the SGA would give away turkeys during Thanksgiving. And she was responsible, the person who had the job of responsibility decided that she wanted to go to a party, and so she left all the turkeys in the baskets that we painstakingly collected sitting outside the door, basically on this plaza, locked the building, and then left.

0:14:27.7 SA: And so families who were coming to pick up this food, they hadn't expected it, and it rained, and so all of the food got ruined. She'd never experienced hunger before, she had never experienced the doubt that comes with knowing whether your family is going to be able to celebrate. I had that experience. And when we called her on it, her dismissive attitude for me was so egregious that I decided I was going, I wanted to have that job, I wanted to be the person who could make that difference. I also just wanted to beat her.


0:15:08.1 SA: And so sometimes activism is pure, and sometimes it's petty.


0:15:13.6 SA: So Celeste and I are standing in line together, and she tells me that she is standing for Student Trustee, and I told her I'm running for vice president of the student body, and we've been friends ever since. But for me, what mattered and what Celeste wanted to do, Celeste's older sister had been at Spelman, and I remember Celeste saying that her sister told her that if she wanted things to be better, she needs to be one of the people helping make the decisions. And that's the core of student activism, that's the core of activism, that's the core of democracy. It's wanting to do something to make change, and it's not waiting for an invitation because I was not someone people would have picked out to run for, in fact, people were very upset that I did, which was also very formative because that's happened a lot of times since then too.


0:16:00.9 SA: But it was for me, this moment of taking my personal experiences, my expectations of power, and my opportunity to have influence and trying to pull them all together. And that was my beginning.

0:16:12.6 CW: And I remember... And by the way, your campaign theme song, [laughter] I can't remember if it was for this first election or to a senior year...

0:16:20.0 SA: It was the second one. It was senior year.

0:16:23.2 CW: Lenny Kravitz, "Are You Gonna Go My Way."


0:16:25.5 CW: In Sisters Chapel, I can see it like it was yesterday, you laying out your platform of all the things that you wanted to do around financial aid, around how we pay the employees on Spelman's campus, around LGBTQ inclusion, and you kept going back to, "Are You Gonna Go My Way." And we would come to work together over many years, and I wonder if you can talk about... One of the things that I noticed when we were student leaders together was your awareness of the levers of power when you're at the table and inside an institution, and the levers of power when you're outside of an institution trying to agitate and the Spelman board meetings where you and I were often the only students in the room was a moment where we were at the table, but then there were also moments through your activism where you were very much outside and pushing.

0:17:23.1 CW: I wonder if you can talk about that, because so many of our students grapple with this question of, Do I wanna be a part and within an institution and try to change it from within, or do I wanna push hard against it from the outside? How have you thought about that throughout your career?

0:17:39.2 SA: The answer is yes. Because it depends on what you need, and it depends on which doors are open to you and which doors you can knock down. But sometimes you don't want to be in the institution, but you want the institution to know that you exist. So for me, what Celeste alludes to... So my second came, when I ran for student body president, my theme song was, "Are You Gonna Go My Way." When I ran for vice president, it was "Right Now" by Van Halen, because then I was righteously indignant about a completely different set of issues, and I learned that "Right Now" felt good, but it was not the answer. So instead, instead of "Right Now", like I'm gonna demand all these things change, by the time I got to my senior year, it was "Are You Gonna Go My Way" I needed people to come with me to make that change happen. And that was not only a change in theme song, it was also a change in thematic approach.

0:18:33.4 SA: When you're on the inside, you feel like and people sometimes expect you to be able to change things right now, but institutions are stubborn, problems are often... They're not intractable, but they feel that way. They're obdurate, at the very least. And there is a hope that because you're in the space, that that proximity to power makes power, yield itself to you, and that does not work. But by being in the space, you can figure out where the power lies, you can figure out the cracks and the schisms, and by being inside you can learn to exploit those things to get the things you need. But it also creates a space for you to be a reporter. And often people can learn to navigate what's happening on the outside, if someone on the inside just explains it, but it's often the black box that creates the problem. You know the input and you know the output, you have no idea what happens in the process.

0:19:30.5 SA: And so distrust grows because of a black box. Obstinacy grows. Anger grows when there's an absence of information. Full transparency is never possible because often full transparency means that you can't actually help people because everyone is paralyzed by all the eyes on them. So there is always going to be some black box to process and to change. But at least by being in the room, you have the ability to be a translations matrix, to say this is what's happened and if it didn't change, let me at least not defend why, but explain why. Because sometimes you're wrong. Sometimes you are sitting, making the choice and no one's going to like it and you may be wrong in your choice or they may just not decide they agree with your answer, but there is an integrity to being able to say this is how it happens.

0:20:17.7 SA: But when you can't be in the room, you have the right to demand to know, and that's the part of being the external agitator. If there is a black box, your job is to make somebody explain it. So either you're the person in the room who becomes the translations matrix, or you're the person on the outside demanding that the translation happen. And so that was actually preceded Celeste's time at Spelman. The first time I did this, I was after the Rodney King decision in '92, I worked with a group of students. We led this peaceful march to City Hall, and then we continued to lift our outrage. The mayor of Atlanta, the man who had been the first black man elected to be mayor in the South, he was the mayor again at the time. And Maynard Jackson was an extraordinary leader. But he decided that because there were protests, that it was going to turn into Los Angeles, so he cordoned off the Atlanta University Center, four oldest black colleges.

0:21:18.6 SA: These four black colleges and this poor area of Atlanta, he blocked off the freeway, had police cars lining the streets, and then they tear gassed us. I was not happy. So I organized students and we started calling all of the television stations, which was a lot easier because back then there were only three of them. But we started blocking and making them... We were like, this is not true, this is misinformation. We didn't use that. We're like, you're lying. This is what's actually happening. And I was at one point students were... Someone asked like who's the, what was happening, the reporters that we were calling the news stations they were like, well, who's calling? And so someone came to my room because I got like 40 students engaged and they're like they're asking for our name. I'm like, just tell them you're me. I did not think that through.

0:22:04.3 SA: So, a bunch of young women calling saying, I'm Stacey Abrams. And I'm like, that was really poor strategy because they sent a police car to get me. They knew who to ask for. But because of that, I ended up going to this town hall meeting with the mayor. I argued with him. He won that argument handily. I was not prepared. But in the aftermath, he hired me to work for the Office of Youth Services that he created in part because of the complaints I raised. And I hesitated over taking the job because I was also running this group called Students for African American Empowerment, and we were righteously indignant and we were activists. And could I do that and work for the city? And I decided yes, because there were tools and levers and responsibilities that the city had, and my job was to make them use it for good, but that didn't diminish the other problems and challenges that I saw.

0:22:58.1 SA: For example, the fact that the state of Georgia at the time had the Confederate battle flag as the flag of the state of Georgia. I couldn't walk into a public building without being confronted by the Confederacy. And I was not willing to compromise one part of myself to validate the other part. And part of the navigation of activism, of leadership, is being willing to hold all of you in tension, but also to deal with the consequences. You don't get to act with impunity. Activism has risks. That's why being still is easier. And so part of the challenge, and I think what we both learned at Spelman, is that you don't... Being right does not, or being righteous does not make you right, and being an activist does not mean that people are going to validate what you do. And there are consequences. There were consequences for the decisions we made. There are consequences for the choices we asked people to make.

0:24:02.5 SA: And part of leadership is the ability to accept that those consequences will happen, to manage those consequences, but to never lose sight of the fact that you are speaking both for and with others. And that means sometimes you want to be in the room to mitigate the harm, you want to be outside the room to amplify the need, but that you're always supposed to be a person who can be the bridge between what is and what should be.

0:24:28.7 CW: And part, so much of your career is, and what I'm hearing from you, is the maturity of an activist, right? Having that identity as core to who you are from college, still core to who you are, and you talking about the kinds of lessons learned. I wonder if you can talk about, in this moment, there is so much frustration about the state of democracy. We're starting a new initiative at the Ford School called Resilient Democracies. I'll ask you, friend, is that a bad title?

0:25:04.5 SA: It's an aspiration.

0:25:06.4 CW: It's an aspiration. Unpack that, if you would.

0:25:09.1 SA: Democracy is fragile. We are in the midst for, those of you who study foreign affairs, we're in the midst of a wave election year, 64 elections happening around the country. And democracy is not winning all of them. If you watched what happened in Senegal, that's one of the best case scenarios, where one of the stalwarts of democracy, Macky Sall, who's the president of Senegal, called off the election, stunning everyone. Luckily he reversed course and reinstituted the election, but in the process he undermined the faith in democracy that had been one of the hallmarks of Senegal. We saw what happened in El Salvador. We watched what happened with Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Democracy is a construct, and it requires this shared commitment in the shared belief system that it can work. And when the leaders, when those who are the attendants to democracy violate that trust, democracy falters. We've seen it here.

0:26:15.8 SA: Voter suppression is an attack on democracy because you cannot trust a system that does not trust you. Resilience then is how do we not stop the attacks, but how do we build the capacity to withstand them. That's what resilient democracy is. It's not that the attacks aren't going to happen. It's not that voter suppression isn't going to exist. It's not that authoritarianism and demagoguery won't rise. It's that we have built the internal capacity to withstand its assault and that we have trained our people to understand and deconstruct and therefore respond. And so when I hear resilient democracy, I hear a call to action. But it's also a practicum. It's about teaching people how to hold democracy, how to keep it, not when it's easy, but when it's hard. How to maintain it, not when everyone agrees, but when people are trying to bastardize what it means. And it's doing so when people will call into question your right to call into question whether democracy is at risk.

0:27:22.1 CW: Our Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Jenna Bednar, I don't know if she's here, is, yes, Hi Jenna, is leading up our work in resilient democracies. And one of the things that Jenna talks about is, yes, the importance of democratic institutions, but also the importance of democratic norms and democratic cultures. So I wonder if you can just take us through each of those, because you've had a lot of interaction with institutions, the norms and the culture, that piece of it that's hard to articulate but is so very important. I wonder if you can walk us through those three things.

0:28:00.1 SA: So let's start with institutions. As a nation, the United States is a study in the fragility and resilience of democracy. We began with voter suppression. We have had voter suppression for roughly 248 years. When the nation started, knowing who was here, voting was restricted to white men who were landowners. That was it. Everyone else who gets to vote had to fight to get there. Everyone else who gets to participate has had to struggle. And in fact, there's one community that had the right to vote and then lost it, and that was black people. Reconstruction gave us the right. And then if you lived in the South, which was roughly at the time, it was actually more than half the population of African Americans, we were given a right in the Constitution and then had stripped away from us. And yet we believed.

0:28:50.7 SA: Women fought for suffrage. And even after that suffrage was granted, it was muted by policies that said that women couldn't buy their own homes with only their names, even if they had the cash, until the 1970s. And so we have to remember that institutions do not change even if the language changes. That struggle requires that we continue to hold ourselves to our ideals and that we remind ourselves of what those ideals are and that the institutions have to adapt to who we say we think we are. And we can come back to it, but that's one of the reasons I'm one of my areas of interest right now is the defense of DEI, because the struggles that we have had to make democracy real sit within the DEI framework. So that's one piece. And the institutions cannot be corrupted by those who want that power for themselves. When the leaders of institutions lever power in order to benefit themselves and their ends, it undermines faith in the institution.

0:29:55.4 SA: I had some personal experience with that, where when the people in charge of being guardians of democracy are willing to corrupt that democracy for their ends, or worse, when they are willing to diminish that democracy for others, when the institution makes that decision, that's when it's problematic. That's what voter suppression is. Voter suppression is not just people don't get to vote. It's when institutions, when democratic institutions, take the onus upon themselves to limit access. Voter suppression is can you register and stay on the rolls? Can you cast a ballot? And does that ballot get counted? And so anytime institutions are undertaking rules and regulations and laws to limit, can you register? Can you stay on the rolls? Can you cast a ballot? And can that ballot get counted? That's the fight over being able to file an absentee ballot and what data's on there.

0:30:49.1 SA: That because you didn't read subsection 2.75 and because you moved from a state that had a different set of rules and you didn't go and get the voter manual, that your right to vote is now extinguished. So we have to recognize that institutions don't simply exist to create, they exist to protect. That then leads you to democratic norms. I got into a little bit of trouble in recent years because I violated a democratic norm in 2018. And I gave a speech acknowledging that I had not won an election, but refusing to countenance the existence of voter suppression. And in the process, I have been both lauded and chastened and vilified for how I did it. And I want to be really clear. I have never once denied the outcome of an election. But I did say that we have the responsibility to question the administration of elections.

0:31:52.7 SA: We should never be a nation that says that you can't ask questions. We should never be in a position where we cannot use the levers and the tools of our democracy to hold our democracy accountable. That's how we protect democracy. I was in Nigeria in February of 2023 observing an election. And I was part of a bipartisan delegation where our joint statement was, we know that there were going to be challenges. Please use the systems necessary to question the election. We encourage the opposition leader who lost to use the law, to challenge the systems. That belongs to all of us. Our norms should not be that we can't question. Our norm is that we can't lie. We can't manufacture and we can't foment unrest because we are dissatisfied. But when we decide that the norm is all or nothing, we create space for nothing. Or we give countenance to all.

0:33:00.0 SA: And we have got to return to a democratic norm that allows us to actually say, maybe this shouldn't have happened this way. Maybe we should have done something different. Maybe we can be better. That's okay. And you don't have to agree with me. You don't even have to agree with my position on this conversation. But democratic norms say that we don't treat everyone the same so that we don't have to treat anything as different. And that then leads to culture. As a cultural imperative, we have to believe in the capacity of this nation to be better than it was, that we have the right to demand more and that my elevation does not require your diminution. And right now we treat politics and democracy as the same and they are not.

0:33:51.5 SA: Politics is a tool for public policy. But we are watching policy serve as a tool for our politics. And when that happens, those who do not share your politics become weapons or become victims. But when politics are a tool for policy, you have your name, the namesake of this university, would never have voted for him in my life, but Gerald Ford understood the difference between politics as a tool versus politics as a weapon. And politics is a tool to do the public policy that needs to be done. And as a cultural norm, we have to return to a moment where it's okay to work with someone you disagree with in order to achieve your ends. I served as minority leader in Georgia for seven years. I joke that minority leader is Latin for lose well. They give you the name leader because they want you to feel good about yourself. But they put minority in front of it so you don't forget yourself.

0:34:53.8 SA: I wasn't going to pass a bill. I wasn't going to achieve a thing unless I got the majority to work with me. And so my mission, I would always say I had three jobs. My first job was cooperation. I needed to find ways I could work with the majority to get things done because Georgians didn't care about my politics, they cared about their lives. And part of our cultural approach to democracy has to be a restoration of cooperation as a native good. It is not a compromise of my values to compromise my vision. I can still imagine great things, but I've got to get there. And sometimes that means I have to narrow my vision. That doesn't mean I have to change my value system. And we have now conflated the two so much that as a cultural truth, we don't trust people who don't, who aren't so obstinate about what they want, that they can hear other people.

0:35:47.6 SA: Some of my, I mean, some of my best friends are Republican. That's not true. But I work very well and very closely with the GOP. I mean, I got along well with the Speaker of the House. I learned how to be a better legislator because of him. And some of my favorite moments in the legislature were when we would have to talk about things and he's like, Stacey, I don't agree with you. Like I don't agree with you either. But what do we need to get done today and how do we work on this together? So that's one piece. My second job was competition. I thought my ideas were better. I thought my party's ideas were better. And my job was to articulate why. It wasn't just to say I'm right because I'm right. It was to say I'm right and show why. And that's why you guys are here. If the policies that you have are good, then the politicians will take them. Maybe they'll give you credit. They probably won't.

0:36:41.3 SA: But the mission is for you to create policies that are so resonant and so effective that the competition of ideas will lift those up and that the political norms will create space for my party or the other party or if we decide we want to be pluralistic, more parties to come to the table. But we want to create space where competition is okay and is not a cage match. So it's competition. It's cooperation, competition, and then third and most important to me, it's accountability. Going back to the idea of democracy as a construct, we have to have a collective hallucination that this is working. And when we can't trust the process, when we don't trust the people, when accountability doesn't exist, then democratic resiliency cannot be. Because when the people don't believe, there is nothing to protect.

0:37:37.8 SA: And so I believe that the way we tie all of those together is to acknowledge that there are going to be fractures, there are going to be fault lines, there are going to be mistakes. Some are made with animus, a lot more made from ignorance. And that ultimately we are a nation of many ideas and many people, and while some of those ideas are repugnant, most of them are actually pretty mainstream. And I don't want to diminish the necessity. I live in a state where I no longer technically have bodily autonomy, so I'm very clear that there are bounds in my mind. But we have to get back to the place where we can have those conversations and where we can coalesce people to do something about it. And we lose so many people who just check out entirely, not because of apathy, but because they're overwhelmed, because they are despairing, because they don't see a pathway through.

0:38:34.5 SA: And that's the place where democratic resilience becomes the most important. It's not when politicians do better. It's when people believe that politicians are necessary. That's when we actually see our institutions, correct.

0:38:48.3 CW: So what you have laid out is really a democratic toolkit. And I wanna unpack a few more, unpack a little more deeply. Conversations across difference, you talked about that. And we can talk about all kinds of forms of difference that are polarizing us. If anybody has a reason to not advocate for conversations across difference, it's probably you, in the sense that you had, which we all know, a very real and visceral experience, and a very public experience, and where the other side disagreed with you, disagreed with you publicly, created a whole struggle for you, led to that speech that you gave that was not a concession speech. And yet here you are saying, we have to talk to people who disagree with you. How do you go back into the arena? How do you have a willingness to still put your hand out and have a conversation?

0:39:56.6 SA: I grew up in the South. [laughter] I mean, here's what I mean by that. There is nothing noble about having nothing. There's no nobility in losing because you are obstinate. There's nobility in trying, there's nobility in struggle, and there's nobility in loss but that loss has to be proceeded by effort. I don't define myself by the outcomes. I grew up in spaces where my outcomes were not only predetermined, they had laws about them. When I stood for governor in 2018, there were so many people who lauded, oh, she's the first black woman to ever get the nomination in American history. I'm like, it's 2018. This is ridiculous. [laughter] That is not a celebratory moment for me. That is a condemnation of systems. And I'm still the only... It still hasn't happened. And the reality is, I can either dwell on the outcomes or I can focus my attention on the effort.

0:41:10.7 SA: There is work that needs to be done. And I believe in that work. And there are platforms that make that work easier. There are platforms that have certain tools attached to them, and I want to be able to use those tools. But not getting the job does not exempt you from the work. Not getting the title doesn't absolve you of responsibility. And so my personal resilience comes in that I don't define myself by the outcome. I define myself by the effort. I am not naive enough to think that everyone thinks that way. [laughter] And there are those for whom my repeated attempts at things or my refusal to be cowed is seen as either cowardice or I'm being willfully blind. It's none of the above. I was there. I know I lost, I'm really clear about that. But what I'm not willing to do is to say that because I didn't win, I don't try again.

0:42:16.8 SA: I grew up the progeny of parents. My dad's father was conscripted into World War II and the Korean War, and when he returned from both wars, was not permitted to vote for the president who sent him to war, wasn't allowed to vote in Mississippi. My grandmother worked for 40 years in a college, and for the first 20 years she worked there, her children were legally not permitted to apply to that college. My mother's father was born 25 years after the end of slavery. And I got to be the first black woman to be the nominee for governor in any state in America. So part of my continued spirit is that I don't, I haven't earned the right to be mad yet, I haven't earned the right to give up.

0:43:11.2 SA: But more importantly, [0:43:12.6] ____ the nephews who still have barriers to their access, who have barriers to their dreams, who have barriers to their ambitions, and my responsibility, if I was telling the truth when I stood for those offices, is that I've gotta keep trying, but I also have to learn. And the way I say it is you learn your lessons, not your losses. We are taught, especially in politics, to learn our losses that if you didn't get it, you need to go. Okay? Some of us are taught that, it's not a universal lesson. [laughter] But there is this... There certainly is a norm, especially for women and people of color. You get one shot, maybe two, but after that you need to sit down. I don't buy that because my issue is when you're the first or the second, somebody's gotta go and learn. And somebody's gotta bring those lessons back. And I may not get the benefit but I can at least share the lesson.

0:44:08.9 SA: So I didn't win in '18 or in '22, but, you know, I sent some proxies ahead.


0:44:15.8 SA: And, that too matters when people believe that they have the right to participate. When we change an electorate's belief systems, that's progress. And so the other platitude I'll give you is, victory is a great marker, but so is progress. And sometimes progress is what you're going to get. And especially when you start from a position of marginalization, from a posture of imposture. I know I'm not an imposter, but when you have imposter, where you are seen as an upstart in a space, sometimes the fact that they have to acknowledge your presence is huge progress. And so I encourage everyone, when you are in an activist space, we all want the end of that great movie, but sometimes we just get a really good episode. And that's okay too, because that episode could turn into a mini series, could turn into, it could get picked up for syndication. So let's go.


0:45:14.1 CW: So friend, I have not asked you in a long time, if you intend to run for office again.

0:45:19.5 SA: You don't need to ask me now either.

0:45:22.2 CW: And I'm not gonna ask you now.


0:45:25.4 CW: And I'm not gonna ask you now. But what I'm hearing is a really interesting framework for how you think about it.

0:45:34.1 SA: Yes.

0:45:34.8 CW: And a framework that I think is very instructive for our students, because I think that so many people are afraid to run for office for a number of reasons. But one of them is, what if I don't win that election?

0:45:47.2 SA: And the word you're looking for is lose.

0:45:48.3 CW: What if you lose? Right. What if I lose? And the idea that that possibility prevents people from going into the arena.

0:46:00.1 SA: Losing is not fun. It's innervating [0:46:05.4] ____. It is humiliating, it is exhausting, and it is informative. You learn about you, you learn about people you thought liked you, [laughter] you learn about what's called the lie factor. The people are like, oh, I'm with you until you turn to them. And you're like, where'd you go? Yeah. But you also learn that it's a process. I don't know for what I will run again, but I'm not done with politics. That's clear. 'Cause it is a tool to me. It's an important and effective tool for policy. And therefore I refuse to say no to it. And there are lots of people on Twitter who have very definitive opinions about whether I should ever stand for office again. And they are not ashamed to tell me what those are. But I cannot be defined by someone else's expectations of me or the limitations they would put on me.

0:47:03.9 SA: There aren't enough of us to quit because the system didn't change overnight. There haven't been enough opportunities for us. And when I say us, I use that broadly to cover most communities that have not found representation. Representation matters. Identity matters. Respect matters. And you cannot get those things if you are not seen, and if people aren't in the arena fighting for it. The embarrassment of loss is not enough, it is not sharp enough, it is not painful enough, and it is not permanent enough to keep me from fighting again.

0:47:47.5 CW: Let's talk about another thing that you laid out as part of our conversations around resilient democracies, and that is weaponization.

0:47:55.3 SA: Yes.

0:47:56.0 CW: Weaponization of policy, politics. You talked about taking a principled stand and making a statement and questioning something. We see how others have weaponized. Well, I have questions too about the outcome of the election. I have questions too about, you know, etcetera. We've seen the explosion. You talked about being social media chair at Spelman. With social media in this information environment, what many had hoped would be a hugely democratizing tool, we're seeing weaponized. So talk about the kind of perniciousness of weaponization right now, where now you really have a cottage industry almost, of people figuring out how can this tool be used to maintain power, to do, to make money, to do any number of things beyond the kind of high ideals of a democratic process.

0:48:57.4 SA: Look, information has always been both a tool and a weapon. I mean, from the moment papyrus was found and someone learned how to use a quill, they started lying about somebody or putting out misinformation.


0:49:11.0 SA: I mean, how many of you have seen Hamilton? How many remember this third act? Okay, information is power. And so people will always manipulate information to concentrate power. What has happened is not just... Democratization did happen, but so did fracturing and so did the ability to curate at a subatomic level, lies that feel real, and lies that speak to our deepest concerns and our most fundamental animosities. When you can curate your own reality, it is a dangerous thing because that means you often cannot be disturbed by truth. That was harder to do when, and I said this, I was talking to some students earlier, like when I grew up, you had ABC, NBC and CBS. So you had Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and my personal favorite, Peter Jennings telling you the news. And then you sometimes you, could watch Jim Lehrer do it, but everyone had the same news.

0:50:19.1 SA: Everyone had the same truth. You even got it at the same time. It came at the exact same time every night, and so we all had the same information. It was just, which guy with varying degrees of gray hair was gonna tell you what was happening.


0:50:32.7 SA: You then saw the proliferation of cable television. So you saw CNN and then Fox, and then social media. But the DNA of disinformation is not new, the proliferation is. But what's also happened has been an erosion of our capacity to sift through that information, and that's the real danger. People don't know how to tell the truth from fiction anymore. And then you layer on that AI and the ability to, I mean, and I think it was in the El Salvador election to actually mimic, to a degree that has been unseen in human history, to create fake reality that feels as real as the truth. We cannot stop information. It has never worked. Well, it does, but it's called North Korea. It's called authoritarianism. I mean, when you stop information, when you curate information and you say that you can't have it or you, it won't go out the wrong way, that is often the beginning of demagoguery and authoritarianism.

0:51:42.6 SA: So instead of being able to stop the flow, you have to create the dams that help control the flow. And that is training people to understand what to look for. It is what unfortunately happens sometimes with fake photographs and people, they will pour over and go oh, that's... I can tell this. That's actually a skill we should all be learning. We need to learn how to discern the truth. And we've lost that. And part of the loss came about because we as a society have watched segments of our society devalue education, devalue learning. When segments of our society tell us that we can't learn truths that they don't like, not that they aren't real, but they don't like them, we are teaching people not to think, and we're teaching people to be susceptible to poor information, to misinformation, which is a slight skewing and disinformation, which is an outright lie.

0:52:36.4 SA: We are weakening not only our democracy, but we're weakening our competitive edge. And so my deep concern is that in the pursuit of power we are creating, we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction because we think that if we control the information or curate information that feeds our success, that that can't somehow topple us over. And we know that if you look at fallen empires, part of what fails an empire is disinformation and misinformation. When you start to believe that the person who intends for your good, actually intends for your ill, the reaction can be biblical.

0:53:15.2 CW: So talk to us about how you begin to do those things. So many of us have identified and agree with you on that challenge. We're thinking about it as a policy school. How do we train our students to be able to interpret and analyze information and tell fact from fiction?

0:53:33.7 SA: There's this amazing young woman named Esosa Osa, who worked for me at Fair Fight, worked for Fair Fight Action, and serves [0:53:40.8] ____ as the chair and the founder. She now runs her own organization called Onyx Impact, and it focuses on disinformation directed at black communities. That is one of the least studied and most effective tools of disinformation. And it is almost impossible to get people to pay attention because this is a population that is often underlooked. We know that the Latino population, Hispanic population, also incredible target of disinformation, and the reality is there has to be... And going back to your very first question, there has to be an inside, outside game. So inside this school, there should be courses on disinformation, how to identify it, how to correct it, and how to guard against it.

0:54:33.5 SA: For example, you never repeat a myth, you never repeat a lie. If you repeat the lie, people only remember the lie being repeated. They don't remember that you said it's a lie. They just remember that you said it again. And our brains are sticky, especially with stupid stuff. Like, we will hold things. And so we have to be trained. And I think this should be part of coursework, learning how to spot disinformation. There are a couple of really good websites. And every so often I'll go on the website because it's a little game. Like, can you spot the disinformation? So it'll be a fact or it'll be an image. Can you tell what's real or not? I do that to train myself because...

0:55:11.9 CW: You actually exercise your brain on it. That's interesting.

0:55:15.3 SA: I do, because I can get confused too. I mean, I didn't know... I love Idris Elba. I don't ever wanna learn something about him I don't like.


0:55:22.5 SA: But somebody might put out a photograph that makes me wonder and I need to be ready to defeat it.


0:55:27.0 SA: So we have to. So I do, I practice what I preach. The second then is that when we see or hear it, we have to call it out. But we have to call it out with fact, not with outrage. Outrage just meets fire with fire. Fact meets fire with extinguishment, with water, with foam. And so we have to be able to extinguish the fire. It's not to say that some people won't wanna still get burned, but at least you've given them an alternative. And so it's being trained in the process of how to effectively respond. And that's one thing Esosa has been really helpful with. I mean, she trained me on how to do that during my campaign. When I would get hit, when you're debating, it's gonna be a shock. But when you debate, sometimes your opponent lies, or says something that is not quite accurate.

0:56:18.7 SA: And your instinct is to repeat what they've said to then challenge it. And you have to hold, I mean, in debate 101, you learn, you don't take the bait. It's hard to remember when your blood is boiling and you know there are camera's on you. But what stayed in my mind was that she taught me. She was like, This is how you think about, this is how you respond. We've got to build that into our training, just as much as someone who is trained to write a policy paper, they have to be trained to debunk myth and to respond, and then we've gotta go outside of the confines of the conclave and do it for the public. We are all part of organizations and communities that need our help, that need your expertise, and sometimes we feel shy about sharing it or it feels not worth our time, and sometimes it just feels out of place, but we've got to be the purveyors of truth, and we've got to be the purveyors of the skills we have.

0:57:15.6 SA: You should train a Girl Scout troop, you should go and find a Girl Scout troop or go to Boys and Girls Club, and once you've learned how to do this yourself, teach someone else. If we do not teach people, especially those who don't think they need to know or don't know there's a problem, then you knowing it is insufficient because you just become not a tool or a weapon, you just become a statue of what was possible, but not an instrument of what we can accomplish.

0:57:43.1 CW: One of the other things I know people are very concerned about is within electoral politics, the electoral college, there's conversation about, what about other possibilities? What about ranked-choice voting? What about... What do we do about gerrymandering? Talk to us about the voting ecosystem, and I know all of our students have any number of ideas and suggestions about how do you deal with the kind of structural challenges of making sure that our representatives are truly representing the whole in the community and the people.

0:58:20.9 SA: You do realize I have to go back to Georgia at some point?

0:58:23.0 CW: I do. I do. I gave you a menu of things...

0:58:26.8 SA: Okay. [0:58:27.7] ____ menu.

0:58:28.5 CW: To pick up.

0:58:29.1 SA: Okay. So one, we have to have a democracy, so that's job one. So let's save that first, and then let's make it better. So electoral college is grounded in voter suppression. It is the most perfect example of it, where your geography determines the value of your vote, and given the importance that the federal government has in our lives, it is deeply concerning to me that we maintain a system that is designed to quell the voices of millions. That is a problem. It is counter to who we say we are and we should abolish through electoral college, I have no questions about that. Gerrymandering.


0:59:13.9 SA: Thank you. Gerrymandering is when politicians get to pick their voters, not voters picking their politicians. So I created an organization called Fair Count, which actually focuses on the census, because gerrymandering begins with the US census. Every 10 years, we seem to invade the privacy of others and their communities who legitimate cynicism and fear, convince them not to participate, and then they live for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years with the consequences of their lived realities and their refusal to share data. So Fair Fight actually, Fair Count focuses on how do we ensure an accurate census. We know when an accurate census happens, and there's accountability in the process, we get better voting outcomes.

1:00:09.2 SA: If you look at what happened in Alabama with the Milligan decision, it was because Alabama had a more, bless you, a more accurate census that they then were able to prove that there were enough black voters who were not being represented that they had to draw a new district. The same thing happened in Georgia, it's happened in Louisiana. And it happens not just at the state level but it should happen at the local level. School boards are determined by the census. And so we have to do a better job, and I'm telling all of you here, we have to treat the census as a 10-year organizing opportunity. It is a statistical marvel that controls trillions of dollars, and if you know of a community that could not get PPE during COVID, it was often because they were under-counted in the previous census, the funds weren't allocated for their needs, and they did not have access to the resources, and because they were already marginalized, every pathology that visits upon those communities got amplified.

1:01:09.8 SA: And so if you hear nothing else I say besides democracy is good, since it's good, make it work. So there's that. Then the next piece of that then is if you want to stop gerrymandering, you have to hold politicians accountable. We can usually maybe name our congressional leader. Most of us... I mean, I know I'm talking to the wrong community. Okay, you guys can probably find your state legislator, most people can't, let alone their city council member or their county commissioner, or the judges that decide things. And so we've gotta do a better job of making sure we connect the dots for people, that our participation in the electoral process is not just about who's on the ballot. It's about who's in the booth. If you want better juries, you have to be a registered voter. If you want better judgments, judges have to know, you know they get elected, and that you're going to show up in those elections.

1:02:09.3 SA: And so part of the way we fix the global, or at least the national architecture of democracy is by starting at the state and local level where most of the issues happen and where most of the power resides, but we are trained to focus on the bright-shiny object of Washington DC, often to the detriment of those who need attention at the local level. That's why my focus is on state and local politics, because I know that's where most of the things that I'm mad about happen and where many of the solutions can be tested and implemented. And so all of you who wanna go to DC, Congratulations, the rest of you go home, because that's where the help is needed. And then once we stabilize our democracy and we are going through a deeply fracturing polarizing moment, that is not unusual.

1:02:58.8 SA: What is unusual is that the composition of the country, because of the success of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion movement, means that more people's voices have to be heard. And here's what I mean by movement, DEI is not something that was cooked up in a laboratory, it is not a boring seminar you go to on Thursday because of HR. DEI describes 248 years of struggle to make America what it said it wanted to be. Reconstruction, suffrage, the Chicano movement, the Indian American movement, the Asian American movement, the disability movement, the Labor Rights movement, every movement in American history that has expanded the franchise, expanded access and removed barriers to the American dream is part of DEI. They are trying to relegate it and constrain it to this very narrow, misinformed, if not intentionally misleading narrative, because when we realize that we've been at it for 248 years, the reality is they're mad because we're winning.

1:04:06.7 SA: We are winning because if you are disabled, you have now the legal right to protest in ways you did not have 100 years ago or 50 years ago. 50 years ago, you did not have the right to demand accommodation. It is not just about whether a black kid gets into college, although that matters too. It is about every community that has had to struggle to make the law recognize their humanity and their citizenship, and therefore we have to defend and protect DEI with every fiber of our being because DEI is a description of every movement we have had, because every one of those movements are pointed to the American dream. And there are three ways you get there, education, economics, and elections. It's, what do you know? What can you do? And who's in charge?

1:05:04.2 SA: And therefore, if we want to defend and protect democracy, we should defend them to protect DEI, because that is the way we hold ourselves accountable. When you can constrain who participates, you can then start to eliminate whose voices matter. And so if you hear nothing else, I say, Go DEI.


1:05:31.2 CW: So much of our conversation, you have moved from the domestic to the global. I wonder if you can kind of call that out and talk more about that, because people sometimes frame you focus solely on domestic politics, but you're involved in a lot of things in terms of global democracy. And at the Ford School, it's so important for us to have that integration.

1:06:00.4 SA: So I've been involved in foreign study for a very long time, I've actually gotten into a fight, a very fervid debate with a friend of mine who was in foreign policy. We were Truman scholars together, and we were having lunch, and we got into a debate about whether domestic policy was more important than foreign policy. He was wrong and I was right, or so I thought. And then he challenged me and he said, How will you know what to ask for here if you don't know what's happening in the world? Now look, I read The Economist, I listen to NPR, I knew that the world existed, and I took a really good foreign policy class from Dr. Shafiei at Spelman. So I was informed, but I was not immersed. And then he said, When he asked me that question, I had no good rebuttal and I really, really don't like when Will can win, and so I decided I needed to expand my foreign policy understanding.

1:06:54.7 SA: And so since then, I've been to 17 countries, I've done 11 foreign policy fellowships, I've been very intentional, I've done East Asian studies, I've studied, I've been to, I've studied in Italy, I've done an Italian fellowship, I did one with, I'm doing one right now with Columbia University, thinking about foreign policy and domestic policy and how they sit cheek by jowl, I serve on the board of the National Democratic Institute, really pushing for democracy globally. It has made me better at my domestic work because one, we don't have all the answers here, we also don't have all the questions, and when you learn about the other questions, you don't lose that knowledge when you start thinking about it locally, but we are not the First Nation to grapple with issues of race and gender and equality, we have allies who grapple with this and we have examples of what it looks like to do it right.

1:08:00.0 SA: We have nations like Rwanda that have deep challenges when it comes to gender issues, but they also have more women in Parliament than we have in Congress as a percentage of the population. So there are places that are struggling, but where we can also learn, and I think that for me is the three-line because whether I'm learning from someone I oppose politically or someone who has a different life experience, or someone who lives in a different country, I am better at what I do when I know more about what needs to be done, and I am eager to gather information from whatever repository will allow me entry, but I also know that when America does better, the world does better, that our success amplify success, but then our failures and our falters also have consequences.

1:08:50.1 SA: And I want to be able to be part of us being our best version of ourselves, but I also want to see what that can look like in the places where they may have tried it before, and we now know what it can look like if we do it here.

1:09:03.1 CW: We have questions from two members of the Ford School community. I wonder if you can each introduce yourself and ask one question.

1:09:14.7 Emma Cohen: Thank you so much for this fascinating discussion. My name is Emma Cohen, I'm a second year Master of Public Policy student here at the Ford School.

1:09:21.7 Akhila Mullapudi: Hi, my name is Akhila Mullapudi, I'm a junior studying public policy and I'm an undergrad.

1:09:24.2 EC: So our first question submitted by students is you are now a household name. How did you realize that this is what you wanted to be doing or that you wanted to work in the public arena? And did any particular event or person, maybe including the first anecdote you shared influence your goals and mission.

1:09:46.7 SA: So Celeste will tell you that this is true. I am an introvert. If I could run for office in secret, I would. But apparently that's called dictatorship, so we don't do it. So I became involved in politics, in part because I grew up in what is best described as working class working poor communities. My mom called us the genteel poor, we had no money, but we watched PBS, we read books. But my parents were very intentional about service because they had grown up during the Civil Rights Movement. My dad was arrested when he was 14 for registering black people to vote in Mississippi. My mom was very actively involved and they met when they were 16 and they combined forces, and for the rest of my life, we have been called to action. My parents believe that you should do good.

1:10:37.7 SA: I would go with my parents and my five brothers and sisters, we would go and volunteer places, and I'm like, Look, I know we're doing good, but it seems like an inefficiency that these two black people and their six black children are gonna fix Mississippi that does not seem to be... The math isn't mathing. And I would ask, Why are we doing this? Shouldn't someone else be doing this? And my mom and dad said, That's government. These are things government should have done, but for various reasons, we were not. We were serving populations that weren't being served, and so I wanted to understand government. My intention was to be a really good bureaucrat. I occasionally ran for office when the bureaucrats wouldn't do what I wanted, but that was just to get things done. It was the most efficient way to do it.

1:11:20.2 SA: It was not a driving Call to Action that I wanted to be in the public eye, but I kept... Politicians don't do what you tell them all the time, it was really disappointing to learn. And so I stood for office and once I did, probably the most salient moment where there was really just sort of a light bulb for me was when I was in my fourth year in the legislature, and I decided to run for leader. You don't usually do that after four years, you're supposed to be there a little longer. But I watched a debate on the floor where the opposing party, over the course of a few bills, they passed one bill to strip poor Georgians of a $5 credit. There was a tradition in Georgia, they would get, you get a check, it's like $5 for each person in your family or some...

1:12:06.0 SA: I forget all the particulars, but it was a vestige of a tax break that had been given, and a populist Governor had demanded that this check go out. And I watched person after person, people who had never, either have never needed or didn't remember need go to the well to argue about taking this money from the poor, that we couldn't afford to give them this money and they didn't need it. Who needed an extra $5? It didn't matter. And I remembered, and it was a recent memory, just how much that could matter to a family, but also the sheer insult and the dismissal of their need by people who are supposed to support and represent them was appalling to me. And it was juxtaposed a few hours later when the same people went to the well, arguing for a tax break for wealthy retirees.

1:12:55.0 SA: And in that moment, I thought this... And I knew both bills would be signed by the governor without question, and I'm like, I'm going to be the governor. I have no idea how this is gonna happen. I thought, but we need a governor who would never countenance this, who would say that whether you were rich retiree or a struggling family, that you both belong here and deserve here. And so for me, that was the moment. I did not realize what it would become, and if I had, I may have gotten out of line when I was standing with Celeste and gone back to my dorm, but I do not regret it at all. But we're all gonna have moments and sometimes they're flashes and sometimes they're just moments where it clicks that maybe you see something other people don't, or at least you're willing to say aloud the thing you see, and so that's what I did.

1:13:46.5 EC: Thank you so much.

1:13:48.1 SA: Absolutely.

1:13:54.8 AM: Our next question is about taking action. So what opportunity should we as students be doing to take advantage of the opportunities that we have to get more involved in the political process and to receive the training that we need?

1:14:00.9 SA: Absolutely, so I said this, so if you heard me say this earlier, pretend it's new. You guys have an extraordinary opportunity, you have superior knowledge, superior resources and deep awareness. There are people who are so hungry for what you can offer right now that you don't have to wait for later. There are communities that don't imagine that they could send a child to the school. They are barely able to fathom that they can get their child out of high school, and they are assailed by challenges and public policy decisions that they can't... It's not that they don't understand the impact, they don't know how it happened.

1:14:44.6 SA: When I talked about that translations Matrix earlier, I mean that you guys have the ability to translate information, to give people information, to do a one-pager. When something happens and actually go to a community group that is activating and trying to get something done and say, Can I volunteer with you? Can I help write a one-pager for you? Can I do talking points for your leaders? Can I help you with talking points? Can I tell you who's in charge of making this decision? 'cause you think it's this guy, and it's actually this lady who shows up every week, but didn't tell you what she was doing on the side.

1:15:16.0 SA: And I've had that happen. I got involved in. One of the things I did in local politics was there was a legislator who kept voting to deny access to healthcare, and all the people in their community like, well, he's with us. I'm like, No, he's not. He's against you every time. But they had no idea. And so you have the ability to come out of that black box or at least open it up a bit, you have the ability to use just your basic knowledge and your fearlessness to be a spokesperson, not for people, do not speak on their behalf, but to speak to them about their capacity.

1:15:46.7 SA: The training you get translate it, offer it, but do not wait until somebody's paying you for it or until you're ready to be important. Do it now because it's also extraordinary training. I'm a better politician, 'cause I went to the Zoning meetings as a college student because I accidentally wrote a speech for a politician, 'cause I was supposed to type it and there were way too many typographical errors and I rewrote it and I got to be speech writer. I'm like, Ooh, I can write speeches. So we learn in the process of helping, and I think that is what we forget in politics, what we forget in policy. We're doing this to help people, so go help people now, and that will make you better at whatever it is you wanna do next.

1:16:31.0 AM: Thank you.

1:16:32.4 CW: I wanna close with a lightning round.

1:16:33.9 SA: Okay. Hold on. I need a sip of water.

1:16:38.6 CW: Okay.

1:16:41.5 SA: Hit me.

1:16:42.9 CW: You were involved in three sectors, the public, which we heard about with Fair Fight and Fair Count, the private and the non-profit. Tell us about a typical week in your life with those three sectors and the work that you're doing. Catch us up on all the different things you're doing.

1:17:03.2 SA: Okay, I'll do a few days. So I do a lot. I didn't get... Look, I applied for this job, I didn't get it, I had some time on my hands. So I am writing a novel, it is my third in the Avery Keene series, it is due, certainly soon, so I've gotta get it done. I have a production company that is taking some of... I've written a bunch of books. I have a production company that is helping turn some of my books into TV and film some time in my lifetime. And so those are two of my creative efforts on the private sector. Other private sector work is I'm a consultant for an organization called Rewiring America, and this sort of straddles my private sector and non-profit sector work. We are helping solve for the residential electrification opportunities in America.

1:17:50.2 SA: Rewiring was recently part of a consortium that has been awarded resources to make sure that low to moderate income communities get access to heat efficient, electric efficient appliances which sound small, but 42% of all of our carbon-related emissions are made based on decisions around... In and around the home. So what you drive, how you heat and cool your home, what you cook with, all of those choices. If we want to actually affect climate, those things have to change and we know how to change it, but most people either can't afford it or don't understand it. And so I work with Rewiring to do that, and one of our biggest projects is down in town called the De Soto, Georgia, population roughly... They claim 170. I think I saw 150.

1:18:35.4 SA: Technically, it says 224, but we are revitalizing all of the homes that want to. We're gonna make sure every one of them gets an appliance so that they can see what it means to actually electrify, see their costs go down. And the best part of that story, there was an elderly woman who was living without water in her home, hot water for two months, right before Christmas, and because of our program, we were able to give her a hot water heater. And there's another family that lives in a double-wide trailer, who thought they would... They basically have like six fans, just trying to keep them cool, and we are about to give them a new HVAC system that they never thought they could afford. And so that's what I do.

1:19:14.6 SA: Then I work on DEI work. So I've created a few organizations recently, and I work with a group of organizations that really are trying to protect, defend and expand DEI because it is one of the ways we are competitive nation. And I want us to know that we have the right to and the responsibility to protect, defend and expand diversity, equity and inclusion, because diversity means all people, equity means fair access to opportunity, and inclusion means a pathway to the American dream. And then I'm gonna come and talk 'cause my friend called me and said, Would you come over here? And I go to schools to do stuff, so I'm here you Michigan, but I was... I have a fellowship with Columbia, as I mentioned, where I work on issues of digital equity. So looking at Kenya and Georgia to think about what is digital equity mean in terms of global competitiveness, but also the ability, especially from women and girls to make the best lives possible.

1:20:11.3 SA: And then I'm the inaugural chair for the Ron Walters. I'm the Ron Walters inaugural chair for Race and Black Politics. So thinking about how we help Howard university continue to grow as a center of conversation for race and black politics without betraying my alma mater, Spelman College.

1:20:28.6 CW: Okay. Best piece of advice for successfully organizing and executing a grassroots campaign.

1:20:35.2 SA: Start by asking, How can I help? And then listen. We often come with a solution without understanding or bothering to ask what the problem is. My framework is this. What's the problem? Why is it a problem? And how can we solve it? And you can't get there if you don't ask, how can I help?

1:20:57.1 CW: Okay. Best, What's your vision for democracy?

1:21:03.6 SA: That we have it.

1:21:04.8 CW: That we have it.


1:21:08.7 CW: How do you encourage people to vote even when they are frustrated with the candidates or their options?

1:21:13.2 SA: I remind people that there are two things. One, it is not about who's on the ballot, it's about who's in the booth. When voting is about a candidate, then you can be frustrated by the quality of the candidate, but when voting is about you and your family and your community and your needs, then your responsibility becomes the primary driver, not their infirmities. And then the second is remembering that voting is not magic. It is medicine. Magic fixes everything or so I've heard. Medicine requires that you take it over and over again. Sometimes it's more bitter than whatever is ailing you. But we know that if we stop taking it, whatever we have is going to metastasize, and it's coming back and it's bringing friends. And so if you keep taking your medicine, things get better. If we stop taking our medicine, whatever we're ill with is going to get worse.

1:22:04.1 CW: Last question. Your friend is Dean of a school of public policy.

1:22:14.8 SA: I heard.

1:22:15.7 CW: What advice do you have for me? What advice do you have for our faculty for training this generation of students?

1:22:15.8 SA: I would say that Celeste Watkins-Hayes should be the exact person that I know her to be, someone who is thoughtful and inquisitive and a risk taker, and that you should empower and encourage everyone in your orbit to do the same. It will be awkward, it will be uncomfortable, it will sometimes challenge your leadership, but I know you are strong enough to withstand the challenge and they are better for having you in charge.

1:22:43.4 CW: Our faculty, our staff. Thank you.