New SNAP Rule Is Fueled by Anti-Blackness

By Anne Price | Medium

Last week, the Trump administration issued a punitive new rule in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) that is projected to push 700,000 of the most destitute Americans off the program. The new rule not only undermines the purpose of the SNAP program, which is to expand during economic downturns and tackle food insecurity, but also intentionally harms marginally employed Americans.

Since 1996, non-disabled adults without dependents (ages 18 through 49), commonly referred to as “able-bodied” adults, are limited to 3 months of benefits out of every 36 months if they are not working 20 hours a week or showing participation in a work training program. Governors of states with high unemployment rates, however, can ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture (the entity that runs SNAP) to waive this time limit, allowing people to receive benefits beyond the statutory time limits set for the program. Thirty-six states currently have waivers from the three-month cutoff, but beginning in April 2020 the new rule imposes stricter criteria that states must meet in order to receive a waiver.

The focus on the “able-bodied” is as old as the English poor law dating back to 1601 — this set of laws laid the groundwork for social policy in the United States — distinguishing between people who we thought should be working, and those who couldn’t work for a reason. It set the foundation for who we see as deserving and undeserving today. And how we divide people into the deserving and undeserving is deeply racialized.

For decades lawmakers have peddled tropes of government dependency and painted the “able-bodied” as lazy and cheats as a cover to attack SNAP. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s announcement that “we’re taking action to reform our SNAP program in order to restore the dignity of work to a sizable segment of our population and be respectful of the taxpayers who fund the program,” was taken from a very old playbook. He was dog-whistling a tired, age-old trope of deservedness and race.

A similar, but much more racially explicit sentiment was echoed back in 2012, when Republican Rick Santorum was running for President and calling for SNAP reforms. “I don’t want to make Black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” Santorum said. “I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families.” Santorum was clearly articulating that he simply does not believe the government should be helping Black people, ignoring historic and current government-sponsored policies that contribute to the economic insecurity of Black people.

Click here to read Anne’s full piece.

Episode 28: Crushing Rural Stereotypes with Kendra Bozarth

Listen to Kendra Bozarth and Jhumpa Bhattacharya discuss how disrupting false and reductive narratives about rural America can support more inclusive and responsive policy change. 


“We have all these big ideas happening right now…but policy change cannot be real until we change the way we talk about policy and people.”

Rural America is home to a vastly more diverse population – with varied perspectives, needs, and goals – than prevailing political narratives, as well as public policies, represent. Kendra Bozarth, communications manager for the Homecomers with Sarah Smarsh podcast, joined Jhumpa Bhattacharya to discuss the importance of breaking down reductive stereotypes that serve to erase and exclude rural voices and communities. 

“We’ve really reduced entire communities, entire regions, to these really flawed and, I feel, offensive political headlines,” says Kendra. “In doing so, we’re blanketing over the real experiences of real people. When we paint Kansas, for example, with these broad strokes of red, we’re erasing tons of people, and now we can’t provide them with real solutions.”

As a Black woman who considers Kansas her home, Kendra shares her story of drawing inspiration from her rural roots in her work for progressive policy change, and she highlights revealing takeaways from the Homecomers with Sarah Smarsh podcast, which tells untold stories of rural and working-class America through the voices of its residents and advocates.

Kendra is the communications director and chief editor at the Roosevelt Institute, a New York-based think tank that promotes a progressive economic and political worldview. Previously, she worked on state budget and tax policy in Kansas, as part of the Center on Budget’s State Priorities Partnership. 

To listen to the full discussion, use the audio player above or subscribe to the Hidden Truths podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or Android. And if you like what you hear, leave a review for Hidden Truths on your favorite podcast platform.

Read the transcript here or download as a PDF.


Learn more about the Homecomers with Sarah Smarsh podcast by visiting thehomecomers.org and listening to the full series on iTunes or Spotify.

To learn more about Kendra Bozarth and her work, visit rooseveltinstitute.org and follow her on Twitter.

Transcript | Episode 29: Centering Women – It’s More Than Lip Service with Anne Price and Jhumpa Bhattacharya

Download the transcript (PDF) for Hidden Truths Episode 29: Centering Women – It’s More Than Lip Service with Anne Price and Jhumpa Bhattacharya.

[ Music ]

ANNE PRICE: Hi, I’m Anne Price, President of the Insight Center and for this special episode, I’m sitting down with our very own, Jhumpa Bhattacharya, Vice President of Programs and Strategy. Hi, Jhumpa.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Hi.

 

ANNE PRICE: So let’s start a little bit by talking about some of the challenges of 2019.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Mm-hmm.

 

ANNE PRICE: What did you see as some of the major challenges of last year?

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting, I think one of the things thatI’ll get into the challenges, this is actually talking about a high—but I think 2019, one of the things that stood out for me in 2019 is there was a lot of discussion in kind of the general public, and the public discourse, around elevating the voices of women, women of color in particular, both in politics and policymaking, in terms of elections, right? And as two women of color that are leading an economic and racial justice organization, that was really exciting. 

But I think part of the challenge though, is how do we then get supported to be innovators, right? So, like you want to uplift our voices, you want to uplift our perspectives, but to what end, right? And I think part of what we’ve really been grappling with, or grappled with, in 2019 is how do we harness that support that folks were talking about and translate that into what I think a lot of white men get the chance to be able to do, right, which is to be out there, take risks, be an innovator, right? 

We talk about this a lot I think in the space of like technology, right, like folks get to try things, or men, get to try things and fail, and that’s not considered a career blower for them, then they get to try something else, right? And they say they learned from that. But I think as women of color, I don’t know if we’re given the same leeway, right? 

And I think you and I in particular, we’re talking about a lot of innovative things, particularly when we’re talking about structures of the economy, how we want to see the economy better meet the needs of people of color and women, talking about closing racial wealth and gender wealth inequities. Like we have to be supported to be innovative, to be able to try something and possibly fail, right? Or not and learn from that, but I find it challenging to be able to do that in this space, still.

 

ANNE PRICE: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think that I’ve often talked about who gets to be an innovator, whose ideas are most valued, and how do they become valued? 

You know, it’s interesting that when you’re really trying to push out there and really try to push out some progressive ideas and take a risk, you’re constantly asked, well who’s already kind of confirmed that? You know, it’s the credibility of, who’s already said that that’s also a good idea? And it’s not until other people then weigh in and say hey, that’s a great way to go, then that idea can take shape and take hold. And oftentimes, by that time, the idea has already been, kind of, extracted and other folks are running away with it. 

So I do think that there is something about, even when we talk about, you know, gender justice and racial justice, at this time when we’reI’m hearing so much about equity in ways I don’t think I’ve ever heard in my career, I still think to some extent, that part of that is really kind of faddish and paying lip service. 

That might sound maybe a little bit jaded, but I do think that in some ways, we don’t really know what that means. Because if we really understood what it means, we would be serving more the ideas that are coming from women, coming from women of color.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: And yah, to play off of that, I think the idea of what does centering women and women of color’s voices in particular, mean? I think we have yet to explore that, still, right? And really understand and define that because like, look what you said, is it about propelling women of color who are purporting an idea you’re already behind, or is it about supporting them in their own ideas, right? And really saying that we trust you, we believe that you know what’s best for your community, and I think that’s a space where we as field can grow more.

 

ANNE PRICE: Well, I really think about some of the pioneers, I mean we can go back so many generations, when people and particularly oppressed peoplewomen, women of colorwere really thinking about what their community needed and were really coming up with the kinds of ideas about and understanding of the structure of the economy in ways that we’re talking about today, that they raised, sometimes 50-70 years ago. 

And I think, I talk about this way of knowingthere’s a way of knowing, there is a particular way of knowingI think, that women and women of color can bring to the table that is just essentially seen as, really it’s just devalued, right? It’s not seen as legitimate. It’s questioned, how do you know? 

And I just think about women who came off of, really plantations, who came off of a sharecropping system and could articulate what this economy really is all about, because they lived it first hand. I mean we are still living in a sharecropping economy in a sense, right? And so, these ideas that seem, that we’re still talking about todayfor example, talking about the use of cash to support familiesreally did come from an understanding of how our economy actually is working and who it’s working for. So, I really, I think that we still have a really long way to go in terms of really understanding what it truly means to support women and support women of color.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: I think about how women are often the backbones of our families, right? Whether it be around caregiving, emotional caregiving, physical caregiving, but also how we take care of economic needs of our families in times of distress, right? 

So I think about my grandmother, who was born and raised in India, who was not able to finish high school, right, did not have a high school education, but had to do a lot to care for my mother and her two brothers when their family fell on hard times, right? And there are so many stories of women from India who used their jewelry because that was really the only mechanism of economic security that they had, right? So wedding jewelry that they got, bracelets or necklaces that are passed down from generation to generation—this was how a mother would bestow economic security to her daughter, right? Is to give them a piece of jewelry that would often have to get sold in times of economic precarity for families. 

And these are the kinds of untold stories I think that we need to share even more, because even though we haven’t been given necessarily the economic power throughout the years through policy, it’s always happened in practice, right? 

And I think that’s how we have to think about things and when we’re talking about policy, is that nobody liveslike men don’t live in isolation from other people, and they live with women in families, right? So women’s economic security is actually talking about everyone’s economic security and I think that’s the frame in which we need to enter in these conversations. And this is why we need to trust women and then like what you were saying, like women, there’s a knowing. Because we are tasked with caring for families in a way that I’m not sure men are, right, socialized to do.

 

ANNE PRICE: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think that we’ve yet to really explore and understand the intricacies of a true lived economic experience by women. 

We often talk about wages, we often talk about things like paid leave and policies similar to that, and they’re important, there’s no doubt about it but it’s really not the complexity of our true economic lives and how they’re entangled. How there’s really kind of a multigenerational aspect to thinking about economic security that we sometimes missour data doesn’t collect itit’s very nuanced, and we don’t talk about how people bring traditions and cultural traditions to their families, right? 

What you just talked about in terms of your family, it’s often missed. And so, you know, we talk aboutwe need, you know, people need to save more, for example, we don’t really understand how women go about saving. I think we’re just, you know, in some ways, beginning to do that, but really we don’t understand in terms of translating it to policy.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Right.

 

ANNE PRICE: So let’s talk a little bit about the highs and a little bit about what we are excited about in 2020. Of course, this is going to be a very monumental year for our country, our nation. But in terms of work, what are you most excited about?

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Well, I mean one thing I’m really excited aboutlike I think I Tweeted this at the start of the yearI’m really ready to make 2020, I mean both a year and the decade of women. 

Like I’m looking forward to signing more women, to having more all-female panels, uplifting the voices and perspectives of women, because I really think that that’s what’s sorely missing, particularly around conversations around the economy, and it not being seen as a side thing. Well this is a woman’s issue, but again, like I was saying before, how women’s economic needs are all of our society’s economic needs, right? I’m really looking forward to changing the narrative and the script on that culturally, kind of as a cultural norm, and yeah, looking to help shape that narrative in a very different way.

 

ANNE PRICE: Yeah, I totally hear you, and I think that we can go deeper with the work. 

I want to see, you know, as we talk about intersectionality, to really bring that to life in more ways. And so, I really think that there’s something there around really looking at, not just the needs of women economically, but really lifting up their work in new ways.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Yeah, and I think you know, part of that, we’ve alluded to this in a lot of the thingsif you follow us on all the different ways in which you can follow uswe’ve alluded to this centering Blackness framework, right? That we’re writing about, or writing right now, and releasing soonbut this idea of what putting out a vision of what would it look like to center Black women, right? In our policies, in both our economic policies or social policies, but if we really were about what is going to be helping Black women and how does that, in turn, help everyone, right, I think is really exciting and juicy to me. 

So this idea of Black women best, which Janelle puts out from Groundwork Collaborative, I think is so exciting and I’m really juiced to be thinking about that as a concept for 2020.

 

ANNE PRICE: So talk a little bit about your passion, because I’ve seen you really, really be passionate about this project and this idea of centering Blackness and, as a non-Black person of color, why does this mean so much to you?

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: That’s a really good question and you’d think I’d have a prepared answer, but I don’t. 

You know, it means so much to me because as I’ve been doing this workI’ve been doing racial and gender justice work since I graduated from college, I would say actually even before that, right? Because the work starts at home, right? So I could say I’ve been doing this probably since I was 10 years old and I would like ask my dad, like, why aren’t you vacuuming? Like why is it that me and Mom have to clean the house and you and my brother can just like hang out not doing anything, right? Like what’s that about? 

So from the wee ages of when I could talk to now, I’ve been thinking about racial and gender justice, right? And the more and more I’ve done the work, the more I see that anti-Blackness is the thread that holds all of us down, right? 

So it obviously, in particular, impacts Black people in the U.S. context, and internationally actually, but I’m just talking about the U.S. context. And I just have seen how anti-Blackness plays out in multiple communities, right? 

And so I can speak from a South Asian community, from being part of the South Asian community, there is definite anti-Blackness that happens and it shows up in colorism, right, it shows up in all these different terms that we use. But basically the darker you are, the less pretty you arethat’s anti-Blackness, right? This idea of, as immigrants, when my parents immigrated to this country, what they wanted to be, what their gold star was, was whiteness, right? It was to be as white as possible and to blend in, not to be like Black folks, right? 

That’s anti-Blackness, right, and so I got those messages from a very, very young age, and so, I just think that what we need to do is really flip that on its head and raise up the glory of Blackness. And that will, in turn, help me, like my liberty and my justice for me is completely tied up with that of Black people, right? And when Black people are free, then I’m free. And unless Black people are free, I would not be free. Like there’s something that would be holding me back, right? Just by virtue of being a person of color and a woman. 

So, I’m passionate about it both from because I think it’s the right thing to do, like from a moral standpoint, and because I truly believe in it. I truly believe that this is what this countrywe need to really deal with anti-Blackness and, to me, the only way to do that is by centering Black people, and centering Black people’s needs and acknowledging how anti-Blackness plays out in all of ourin everything, you name a thing, anti-Blackness is there. And I really do believe that that is the hope, the vision, that will move us forward to true equality.

 

ANNE PRICE: Well, that’s powerful. I’m really excited about this work as well and I think that for me, as a Black woman, being able to actually move into this work is really exciting because it’s not anything I’ve been afforded the opportunity to do, in fact, quite the opposite, right? 

I think that over my careerand I started my career really working in human services, working on issues of foster care and kinship care, at a time when Black and brown kids were flooding the foster care systemand working on issues like food security and other kinds of social services, there’s absolutely no doubt how anti-Blackness played a role in how programs were designed, how we thought about serving people, why some people were treated better than others, and clearly the darker hue of the people needing the service, the worse it was and how it was devalued. 

And so, I can see this from the perspective of the fact that I think anti-Blackness plays a major role in how we think about economic policies, how we definitely think about social policy, and it’s never been an issue that can be really, not just only discussed, but really examined and really centered in terms of policy design and in terms of program design. It’s always kind of pushed aside, right? It’s raised maybemaybe in a particular report or suchthat anti-Black racism exists, but it’s never been something that’s been centered and examined in a way that would actually transform the way we deliver services and transform the kinds of policies that we advocate for. 

And you know, there is this very, you know, almost visceral reaction by even saying the term, by even saying Blackness, that people react to that first makes them say, what about other people? Right, I mean immediately, almost like that’s the first reaction that I havethat I’ve gotten many times on this, and the inability to just stop and actually take this in, right? 

It’s almost as if we can never focus on Black people specifically, but also that understanding that anti-Blackness does affect us all and it does hurt us all. It does hurt low income and struggling white people very, very muchparticularly in our social safety netvery much. Who is going to be denied food stamps or TANF assistance, is really predicted on anti-Blackness. 

So I do think it’s ato me, I think this is the next frontier beyond racial equity. I think racial equity has become muddied.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: It’s the new multiculturalism.

 

ANNE PRICE: It’s the new diversity and multiculturalism, it’s just actuallybut actually, I would love to see how anti-Blackness can be watered down, maybe it can. But I think that it in a way helps us deal with race and racism that actually doesn’t divide us, but actually unifies us

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Exactly.

 

ANNE PRICE: actually helps us build, kind of, multiethnic and racial solidarity. Because we can see how we’re connected through something that was constructed, through something that is threaded through systems and rules and policies and practice, so

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: And culture!

 

ANNE PRICE: —and culture, right? 

Like, it’s just interesting how we can appropriate, appropriate and hate at the same time, right? And so I really think this is an exciting frontier. I’m so excited to like, you know, explore this with you.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: But that’s the thing is, like, using centering Blackness as a multiracial organizing tool like isI know that sounds really wonkybut it means something to me and like it’s really exciting you know because anti-Blackness is the thread through all different communities. 

You see it in South Asian communities, you see it in East Asian communities, you see it in the Latinx community, you see it with white people, obviously, and you see it somewhat in Black communities, right? Because Black people are not a monolith, right?

 

ANNE PRICE: Right.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Black people are immigrants, Black people are gay, Black people are lesbians, Black people are trans, Black people are all the things, right? And there is obviously, like, different elements of anti-Blackness that plays out in all the different communities. So I think, to me, like if that is a common thread that we see, then how can wewhy can we not organize around the opposite? 

And givingand I think folks are hungry for a vision. I think folks, a lot of folks, get that racism exists but we still don’t know like what to do about it, right, and what is the thing? What is the thing we should be fighting for? Like to say, to be anti-racist, like how, right? So that’sI’m excited to add to the cannon of folks that are doing amazing work around this already, of giving folks that possibility, the how.

 

ANNE PRICE: Yeah, I agree. I think that when we think about identity, and we think about it in a monolithwhich is very challengingI mean I, you know, was asked like well what about, someone asked me, what about Latinx people? And I said, there are not Black Latinx people? Right? 

And it’s the way that we have somehow really simplified people’s identity that we need to actually do more to really understand the complexity of identity and the complexity of anti-Blackness, actually, how it plays out in all these threads. 

So, I mean it really raisesit’s a whole other conversation, right? I think this takes us to another place that we typically don’t have in conversations about race, in race right now

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: That’s right.

 

ANNE PRICE: —that could actually propel us forward and actually help us, you know, really create and build more kind of transformative types of approaches to our work.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Totally agree, so super looking forward to doing that.

 

ANNE PRICE: Great.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: You’re entering into your fourth year

 

ANNE PRICE: I think so.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: —as the president, in May?

 

ANNE PRICE: Mm-hmm.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Yeah, that’s a big year! And I’m entering into my third year?

 

ANNE PRICE: I think third year.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Yes. Second year as VPthird year at Insight, second year as VP. I mean I think it’s going to be a really exciting year and decade. I mean I don’t know if I’ll be here for 10 years, but you know! [Laughter]

 

ANNE PRICE: That’s a lot. [Laughter] I don’t know if I will, so like—

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: When the work is done, we will be done.

 

ANNE PRICE: When the work is done, that’s right.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: When people have all centered Blackness in their lives, we will be done.

 

ANNE PRICE: We will be done.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Mm-hmm.

 

ANNE PRICE: And I think we’re done with this episode right now.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Yeah.

 

ANNE PRICE: So, thank you all for tuning in to this episode of Hidden Truths, the podcast of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. 

You can learn more about our work by visiting InsightCCED.org. And be sure to follow us on Twitter; I’m @AnnePriceICCED, and Jhumpa is @jhumpa_b. Thanks so much.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Thanks, everyone.

The Power of Narrative in Economic Policy

In the summer of 2016, the Insight Center embarked on an ethnographic research project to develop a policy agenda to address economic well-being and inequality. A pioneering organization in racial wealth inequity work, we were eager to understand which bold economic policies would resonate with a cross section of Americans — rural, urban, liberal, conservative and across race.

We wanted to test how policies like baby bonds, universal childcare, federal jobs guarantee and guaranteed income — among others — held water across groups, and how they needed to be messaged to garner support. What we found was no matter what the policy platform is, our policy work could fail immensely without first tackling narrative.

Narratives — our cultural understandings, frames of reference or mental models — play a significant role in how leaders create and implement policies, and how people on the ground react to them.

More than just stories of specific people, narratives contribute to our sense of the world and helps us create order in a fairly chaotic landscape. Specific stories inform the narratives that we hold near and dear in our hearts and minds, and narratives in turn become an endless story that we build upon and continuously shape.

For example, the “Great American Pioneer” was a story that contributed to the individualistic, “pick yourself up by your own bootstraps” and “American Dream” narratives. That story has now morphed into the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, which contributes to the bootstraps and American Dream narrative. We bounce new ideas and concepts up against our deep-seated narratives, and our narratives inform who we build empathy for, and who we don’t.

What’s tremendously important to understand for those of us fighting for racial and economic justice in America, is that the narratives we hold are based on a hyper-focus on the individual versus systems, and are rooted in racism, xenophobia and sexism.

This lethal combination makes it extremely difficult to pass the policies we need to make comprehensive, transformative structural change toward economic, racial and gender justice. As Rashad Robinson says, “Narrative builds power for people.”

The question we must grapple with is, who are our current narratives building power for, and who do they purposefully leave behind?

Read the full piece on Medium here.

Episode 27: Dr. Lisa D. Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman

Listen to Dr. Lisa D. Cook, Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, and Jhumpa Bhattacharya discuss the extreme underrepresentation of Black women in economics and why that matters for the field – and for public policy. 



“If you don’t see yourself in the text, and you don’t see yourself in the classroom, where do you see yourself?”

Among all recipients of doctoral degrees in economics, only 0.6% in the U.S. are Black women. Why? To explore this issue, Jhumpa Bhattacharya welcomed to the podcast Dr. Lisa D. Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, co-authors of a New York Times op-ed spotlighting the severe underrepresentation of Black women in the field of economics. 

Dr. Lisa D. Cook is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Economics and International Relations at Michigan State University. A former faculty member at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Dr. Cook served as a Senior Advisor at the U.S. Treasury Department and as a Senior Economist on the Obama Administration’s Council of Economic Advisors. She has also held positions or conducted postdoctoral research at the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Federal Reserve Banks of New York and Philadelphia, the World Bank, and the Brookings Institution, among others.

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman is a research scholar in economics at Harvard University, as well as a visiting research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research and a predoctoral trainee of the Inaugural NYU/Schmidt Futures Program. She completed her B.A. in Mathematics, with a minor in Economics, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, as a Meyerhoff/MARC*U*STAR Scholar. Anna is also co-founder and CEO of ​the Sadie Collective, an organization that seeks to advance the representation of Black women in quantitative fields such as economics, data science, and public policy. 

Drawing on hard data and their own experiences, Dr. Cook and Ms. Opoku-Agyeman detail the intersecting barriers young Black women face in the field, from exclusionary practices going back to early education to racial and gender bias, stereotypes, and discrimination at the highest levels. Together, they explore the far-reaching consequences of the extreme lack of diversity in economics while discussing the impact of their op-ed in the field and sharing strategies for empowering Black women as scholars and leaders in economics. 

To listen to the full discussion, use the audio player above or subscribe to the Hidden Truths podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or Android. And if you like what you hear, leave a review for Hidden Truths on your favorite podcast platform.

Read the transcript here or download as a PDF.


Read the op-ed co-authored by Dr. Lisa D. Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman for the New York Times, “‘It Was a Mistake for Me to Choose this Field.’

Learn more about Dr. Lisa D. Cook’s work by visiting lisadcook.net and following her on Twitter. To learn more about Anna’s work, visit sadiecollective.org and follow her on Twitter.

A “New Normal” Fuels Instability — and Inequality — in California

By Anne Price | Medium

Under a state of emergency, Californians are watching in dismay as fast-burning fires rage across the state, destroying homes and businesses, scorching tens of thousands of acres, and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate.

These fires will continue to burn hotter, longer, and bigger without a concerted, transformational effort to address climate change in California. In the meantime, the short-sighted planned power outages implemented by energy utilities are also posing potentially dire long-term consequences.

Some experts claim the economic and human costs of preemptive power outages are incalculable. Pacific Gas & Electric deems these outages as a “new normal,” necessary to prevent its equipment from sparking a catastrophic fire under high winds and dry conditions. These types of shut-offs could last a decade as the company seeks to modernize its vast network.

While the devastating effects of both fires and outages are being felt by all Californians, they are not affecting them equally.

Skyrocketing home prices along the coast have pushed lower-income, struggling residents eastward into the most fire-prone regions of the state, putting them directly in harm’s way. And even as fires strike more affluent communities near the coast, their residents flee while domestic workers and laborers find themselves in danger after showing up, unwarned, for work.

Amid pre-emptive shutoffs, those with the most wealth can independently power their homes and businesses with generators and energy-battery storage. And when disaster does strike, they can rebuild homes sometimes worth more than the ones that burned.

Those who are already struggling the most, however, may never be able to fully recover…

Click here to read and share Anne’s full letter.

Sexual Harassment isn’t a “Women’s Issue”—It’s an Economic Epidemic

By Rakeen Mabud and Jhumpa Bhattacharya

Opera is dramatic and incisive, known for its ability to swiftly expose universal truths about human nature in just a few acts. But just as art imitates life, so too does life imitate art—and in the case of Plácido Domingo, who resigned as director of the Los Angeles Opera following multiple sexual harassment allegations last week, the line between art and reality has become increasingly blurred.

The allegations facing one of opera’s most prominent voices has exposed deep truths about power in the workplace and the compounding repercussions that women, and in turn our economy, face in the wake of workplace sexual misconduct. But we must not lose sight of the survivors of the alleged harassment.

Twenty opera singers who worked with Domingo have reported incidents of sexual harassment going back decades—including groping, unwanted physical contact and persistent contact, often late at night. In response, these women developed an “oral tradition,” as one mezzo-soprano called it, where women would warn each other about Domingo’s behavior and share tactics for how to avoid him or get out of situations alone with him. That choice often stunted their professional growth.

Read the full article here >>

1/20/18

 

Issue Brief | Latinx Families in the Golden State: When Working Hard Isn’t Enough

New Data Highlights Income and Job Inequities for California’s Largest Ethnic Group

Despite a growing economy in California, Latinx families are systematically being left behind and struggling to get by. The Insight Center report, titled Latinx Families in the Golden State: When Working Hard Isn’t Enough, shows that more than half (52%) of all Latinx households in California—or 1.6 million families—are struggling to pay for housing, put food on the table, and keep the lights on while working full-time at one or more jobs.

Latinx Families in the Golden State uses census data and Insight’s Family Needs Calculator to examine what life really looks like for the largest ethnic group in California. Among other findings, the data shows:

  • Latinx families have limited access to quality jobs and are subjected to wages far below those of other ethnic/racial groups.
  • Latinx women in particular face sexism and racism in CA’s economy and therefore face additional barriers to achieving economic security.
  • Educational attainment is not an economic equalizer for Latinx people.

The report’s findings further reveal that despite working hard:

  • The typical Latinx household has an income that is $40,000 less than their white peers.
  • 65% of Latinx families with children are not sure how they will pay all of their bills each month.
  • About 61% of Latinx immigrant households can barely make ends meet.
  • The median annual wage among the most common jobs for Latinx women is only $27,000 a year.
  • White workers with a bachelor’s degree have a median wage of $105,045, nearly $40,000 higher than Latinx people with a bachelor’s degree.

The Insight Center offers specific policy solutions to address these issues, including extending EITC expansion to ITIN filers, Universal Childcare, and Social Inheritance Accounts (Baby Bonds).

Click here to read and download the full report (PDF). Region-specific data available upon request.


Estados Unidos se enorgullece de una profunda idea arraigada en la cual a través de la determinación, el ingenio, trabajando arduo y exigiéndose a si mismos apretándose los cinturones, cualquiera puede lograrlo financieramente. Esta es una amplia creencia que se tiene alrededor de los grupos raciales y étnicos. De acuerdo a una encuesta de Pew Research en el 2018, las personas Latinxs (77%) tienen más probabilidades que el público en general (62%) que creen que la mayoría de las personas pueden salir adelante con el trabajo arduo, y que cada generación estará mejor que la anterior, eso a través de su trayectoria.1 Pero para las personas Latinxs en California, la promesa del sueño americano permanece fuera de su alcance.

Hoy, las personas Latinxs trabajan largas horas, a veces en múltiples trabajos, en la búsqueda por mantenerse a sí mismos y a sus familias. Sin embargo, muchos todavía apenas la pasan para cuidar adecuadamente a sus familias. Más de la mitad (52%) de todos los hogares Latinxs en California– ó 1.6 millones de familias – están luchando para pagar la vivienda, poner comida en la mesa y mantener las luces encendidas.

Haga clic aquí para leer y descargar el informe completo (PDF). Datos específicos de la región disponibles a pedido.

Transcript | Episode 27: Dr. Lisa D. Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman

Download the transcript (PDF) for Hidden Truths: Episode 27 with Dr. Lisa D. Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman. 

[ Music ]

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Welcome to Hidden Truths, the podcast where we examine the root causes of economic and racial inequality. I’m Jhumpa Bhattacharya and I’m thrilled to be joined by our guests, Dr. Lisa Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman. 

Dr. Lisa Cook is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics and International Relations at Michigan State University. She earned a PhD in Economics from the University of California Berkeley and has held positions or conducted post-doctoral research at the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Federal Reserve Banks of New York and Philadelphia, the World Bank, and the Brookings Institution, among others. 

Anna is a research scholar in Economics at Harvard University, as well as a visiting research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research and a predoctoral trainee at the inaugural NYU Schmidt Futures program. Anna is also the cofounder and CEO of the Sadie Collective, an organization that seeks to advance the representation of Black women in quantitative fields such as economics, data science, and public policy. 

Lisa and Anna, thank you so much for joining us on our podcast today. You both recently co-authored a powerful op-ed in the New York Times highlighting the severe underrepresentation of Black women in the field of economics and why that matters for our collective well-being. I want to start our conversation by asking, why did you decide to write this? Why does it matter that Black women are not represented as well in this field?

 

LISA COOK: Why don’t you start, Anna?

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Sure. So if you don’t have people in a room, right, the ideas that circulate won’t be representative of the people who are, you know, outside of the room in the sense that, like, for Black women not being a part of the economics profession in a significant way, the communities that Black women are a part of are, you know, tangibly affected by the decisions that are made by people who don’t look like them. Oftentimes those decisions don’t reflect the needs and concerns of the communities that Black women are a part of. And Janet Yellen is quoted saying that the financial crisis of 2008 probably would have been prevented or mitigated even faster had there been, you know, more voices in the room, had not the room been so homogeneous. 

So for us writing this op-ed was about first naming the problem, right? Because I think that people don’t want to admit that the underrepresentation of Black women in the economics profession is abysmal. And so we wanted to name that with the data that Dr. Cook so graciously analyzed and collected as well. 

But the other thing that we wanted to talk about were the solutions or some of the solutions, rather, to sort of the underrepresentation of Black women. There is actually a Tweet that Dr. Cook Tweeted out a couple months ago where she talked about how for Black women, you know, you have to cite us, you have to mentor us, you have to teach us, you have to amplify us. It’s not enough just to reTweet some diversity Tweet about, you know, we should be supporting Black women, but it’s about using the power that you have to tangibly affect our career trajectories and in part also the lives of the people that we end up impacting through our careers.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: I love that. And I think that there’s something that you said that I want to expand on a little bit when you said “Black women in the communities that we’re a part of” because I often think that people think that Black people in particular are just a monolith, right? But you’re not, obviously [Laughs]. And Black women, you know, you could be — I can see that people would be, like, “Well, that’s a community.” 

So can either of you speak more to, like, yes, this idea that Black women also are not a monolith, and there are actually multiple communities that you all belong to?

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Dr. Cook, that’s all you [Laughs].

 

LISA COOK: So [Laughs] well, you know, I’ll start with one if we’re picking up where the Janet Yellen quote left off. Just like other women, we are the primary purchasers in the economy. And if we are, there’s a lot of financial information that we have and that we use, and we might do things a little bit differently. We might pay bills a little bit differently, and that is worth knowing if we are — if there’s a calculation being done about the data that matter in, you know, in and out of a crisis, not necessarily just in crisis time. 

So we are members of many different communities — the community of women, the community of African-Americans. We wind up supporting many households, multigenerational households. So we know a lot about interacting with the economy in very different ways. So I think that’s one fundamental way, but I think that we have a lot of information that’s being overlooked and underused. 

And if I can pick up on something else that Anna was saying with respect to representation, as a professor, I am always the only Black woman. In this case, at Michigan State I’m the only Black person in the economics department and I often am visited by students of all races, many students of color, who see me as the only example of making it as an economist, of making this a real possibility. And I think that’s unfortunate. 

I never volunteered, never signed up to be in that position. But they want to feel — students want to feel as though they’re being heard, that examples are not just the negative examples that are in economics courses, negative examples are of women making mistakes in economics or somebody’s grandmother. But, you know, positive examples being used with respect to women, Black women, and underrepresented minorities. 

Or if there are films, for example, that are produced by — films, comic books, any materials — produced by the Federal Reserve system, I’d like to see Black women not just as the recipient of information from the central bank, but advising the heads of the Federal Reserve Banks or the FOMC. 

It seems intuitive to gather as much information as we can, and I think — with respect to underrepresentation — I think there’s an emergency. I wrote a Tweet thread about this. The share of Black women or the percent of Black women majoring in economics rose by 1% between 2006 and 2016, and for Black men it was 44%, the increase was 44%. There is something happening that is deterring Black women from pursuing economics. 

Now, this looks like women to a certain extent, women overall, but it’s not so stark. This is extremely stark. For 2% to 3% of all economists who have PhDs in economics to be of African descent is just a paltry number, but for 0.6% of those earning PhDs to be Black women is very small, which means that we’re missing — and our being missing is a statement in itself when we’re a much larger part of the population. 

And the information we gather, because we work in so many different sectors — and this fuels the economy — this is the highly marginal propensity to consume, especially let’s say the high marginal propensity to consume a sector of the economy. And this would be sort of middle class, working class people, this would be an important voice to have in the room at all times and not just as the recipient of economic information, but one who could help with making decisions about the economy.

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Right, so Dr. Cook and I met [Laughs] was pretty much Dr. Cook came and gave a talk at American University and I had never met a Black female economics professor until I met Dr. Cook. So I remember I heard her research on patents, African-American patents, and it’s one of her most well-known works. And after she spoke, I think I spoke to you on the spot, and I was like, “Can you be my mentor?” And she was like, “Yes. [Laughs] Also apply for the AU summer program.” [Laughs] Always plugging that. And so, you know, what she’s saying is really true, right? I’m a student, and it is really problematic that even when you read your textbooks, like textbooks in economics, for example, Black people aren’t in the textbook. 

So, like, not even white women are acknowledged in the textbook because I think that’s something that Betsy Stevenson did some research on using textual analysis. There’s just — it seems like economic textbooks, which are talking about the world supposedly, don’t actually represent the world. And so if you don’t see yourself in the text and you don’t see yourself in the classroom, then where do you see yourself? And so the question of, you know, why aren’t Black women going, even majoring in economics, right? 

Because the research that Dr. Cook just cited was Dr. Wanda V. Sharpe’s research. The question is, you know, it’s not that we’re not interested in this, right? And that’s what somebody will tell us, like, “Oh, you guys aren’t interested in this,” or “You guys can’t handle the math,” but it’s the fact that literally there are barriers in the system that are preventing us from really seeing ourselves in the space, and even thriving in the space.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: No, I think that’s a really important point. Because this is not about people’s decisions, this is not about individual choices, right? This is about personal responsibility, right? Like, we love that narrative in America, right? It’s your fault you’re poor, you made some bad decisions, if only you knew how to save better, if only you studied harder, right? Like you would be getting that PhD in economics like everybody else. 

And I think one of the things your op-ed did so well was actually talk about what it’s like to be a Black woman in the field of economics, which is mainly, you know, populated by white men, right, quite frankly. So can you get into that a little bit? Because it’s not just about, like, what you were saying, Anna. It’s not like you don’t want to, but there’s actual barriers. So, like, what is it like as two Black women in this sea of mostly white men?

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: So I’m earlier on in the pipeline, right? So Dr. Cook can speak sort of the full experience because she has gotten her PhD, and she’s had a very illustrious and impressive career. But I’m just getting started, and I can kind of talk about what it’s been like so far. 

My first experience in economics began at the annual economics meetings/conference, it’s called ASSA — I actually don’t know what it stands for. But underneath that umbrella is mainly the American Economic Association meetings, and there’s a variety of different conferences that are under that. I went to this conference in 2017 shortly after I changed my major to math and then had spoken to some folks about economics. And pretty much what ended up happening was I wanted to go to, like, a Nobel laureate lunch. I thought it was cool, so I was like, “Let me go and see how it’s like.” 

And I got there, and I sat down, and I looked at the room. And I was like, “Huh, everybody here is white and male. Like, what is this?” And so then the high table came in, and I noticed that everybody was white and male, except for, like, two white women and a dash of brown. And I think the person was Indian, or just from the southeast Asian region of the world. And I was like, “Where are the Black people [Laughs]? You know, where are the Latinx folks?” I was just really confused. 

And I left that lunch kind of questioning whether or not I was supposed to be here and if anyone had sort of considered this like, just the lack of color in the room was really confusing to me. And it contrasted all of the other sessions that I went to where there were Africans or, you know, Black Americans, or — you know what I’m saying? Like, it was a lot more diverse, I could see myself in the room. 

That same year a lot of the committees focused on, like, underrepresented groups. So, like, minorities and women were talking about the intersection of the two, which is really important. So they were talking about mentoring underrepresented minority women in the joint session between the committee on the status of women, the committee on the status of minorities, and they were also talking about in the National Economic Association — which is, like, the body of Black economists for the profession, that, you know, the pipeline which we kind of addressed here with Dr. Sharpe’s research — she was actually the one that give the address that year — was really bad for Black women. And at this time I was there with my co-founder Fanta, and we’re sitting in the audience like, “Whoa, like, how bad is it?” 

And so interestingly enough, when I was thinking about going into economics, I actually went to go speak to somebody. They’ll remain — who will remain, excuse me, nameless and that person told me on several occasions that he did not think I could get a PhD in economics. And for those who don’t know, he was definitely white [Laughs] and he was somebody who had the power to empower me, but instead undermined me by saying, you know — there was one instance where he was talking in front of other classmates, and he was telling me, like, “Do you understand the mathematical rigor that goes into a PhD in economics?” or something adjacent to that. And it’s — it was funny to me because I was like, “I’m a whole math major.” Like, of course I understand the math that it takes to do this because that’s why I’m doing it. But the fact that he had made assumptions about my ability before even meeting me — I think when I started talking to Dr. Cook more regularly and this was after we met, I believe, after the American University talk, and then we just started talking more after The Sadie Collective was created — was that this is just a sliver of my experience and this has been experienced widely by, I mean, you could name it, all minority groups obviously in the profession, but Black women in particular, face this literally at every level of their career. 

I actually Tweeted about this and it went somewhat viral [Laughs] in the Twitterspace. People were saying, like, “Oh, he’s just a bad guy.” You know, that’s the economic — bad actor, just an isolated incident — and what I was noticing was that amongst all those response, there were Black women saying, “Actually, this is the norm and you need to, you know, get a community of people who can sort of hedge against that because you’re going to be facing that as you move up in the profession.” And for me in particular where I have a little bit of visibility as, like, a pre-doctoral student, they’re saying, you know, people are really going to try to undermine you because of sort of where you are and how quickly you’re kind of moving through the profession. 

So that is something that I’ve experienced so far, and I expect to experience more pushback as I’m going through the profession. But I think Dr. Cook, as I mentioned before, can give you a fuller picture of what it means to be a Black woman in economics.

 

LISA COOK: So just to piggyback on that, I experienced the same thing 20 years or 30 years prior, that I was visiting schools, just talking about my interest in economics and without them even asking about my background — you know, didn’t ask about whether I was a Marshall Scholar or whether I had a degree from Oxford, whether, you know, I had done anything else — they started asking me about my math skills. 

And typically it was interesting, it wasn’t the professors. The professors seemed quite open to this notion of a Black woman coming into their PhD programs. I didn’t see any when I was visiting the top programs at that time, but there was a Black woman who was a post-doc, and yes, there was a Black woman enrolled at one of the top five programs — and she transferred the year after I had that conversation — but it was the graduate students who were giving me on-the-spot math tests just, you know, at a gathering and twice at dinner parties where graduate students were gathered and who were supposed to be hosting me. 

They, you know, some guy came up to me, some white guy came up to me and started quizzing me on mathematics, and it happened twice. And it was just striking. It was, like, the automatic response to Black women is you belong someplace else, and you definitely don’t have the math to be able to do this. And, you know, when I answered their questions correctly, it was only, you know, a day or two later or possibly even when I got home that I had realized what was going on — that I was being given a live math test. 

Like, why are you even here? You shouldn’t even be talking to us if you don’t know how to take a third derivative, for example. So I wrote about this in the AEA CSWEP Newsletter. And I keep telling young folks like Anna and people who would like to pursue economics who are Black women, my sisters at Spellman, you have to block out the noise. And this is something that I learned from desegregating schools in Georgia, you absolutely have to block out the noise because people will put on you their low expectations. 

I think that this is something that is, you know, commonly known as a soft bigotry of low expectations, and I see it especially pervasive for Black women. And Dania Francis’ research shows that Black women are, given all other factors, under-recommended for AP Calculus, which we know is the gateway to doing, first of all, to doing a college degree, but secondly, certainly with respect to doing an undergraduate degree in economics or in math and a STEM field. So if that is happening, this is starting really early and I suspect this is where that number, an increase of 1% versus an increase of 44%, is happening. Because Black women are being deterred early on.

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yeah, and just to add onto that point really quickly, Dr. Francis’ work, she actually found that Black girls in the seventh grade are perceived as disruptive typically by their teachers, and therefore they’re not recommended for certain courses or whatever, and then the AP stuff is actually additional work that Dr. Cook is citing that Dr. Francis also put out. And I can say this as someone who was also very, like, considered as disruptive in the classroom to the point where, you know, everything that Dr. Cook just said, I’ve lived. It’s not like this is just some arbitrary study, this is a very real experience. 

You know, there were people who thought I could never do math. There were people who looked at me and they said, “She’s too disruptive, she’s too loud. Maybe she should go do something in the humanities,” whatever. Not saying that the humanities is a bad thing, right? But this sort of mystification — I don’t think that’s a word, but [Laughs] let’s just say it’s a word for now — this mystification or mystifying math for a particular group because they look the way they look, is ridiculous. 

And it’s weird, too, because, I’ll be talking to some of my friends, and they’ll say, “What did you major in?” And I say I majored in math. “Really? Wow. Man, I could never do that.” That is really the response you get from people who look like me and look like Dr. Cook, as if math is for a select group of people in the population and only they can do that, right? 

So I think that, yeah, we have to really talk about how this is not some problem. I think a lot of people are, like, “Oh, you know, Black people are underrepresented in economics, and there should be a magic bullet solution that’s going to fix it.” No, you have to think about the problem holistically. Thinking about it holistically means you have to start from the very beginning, which is actually when you actually entered the educational pipeline, and how educators interact with Black girls from the jump. Yeah.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Yeah, it’s, like, very hard for me not to be shaking with anger as you all are talking about your experiences. Seriously. And one of the things that I find really striking is that, you know, despite the age difference, right — so, Dr. Cook, you said this was happening to you 20 years ago, and this is still happening to Anna now. We’re not seeing shifts, right? The same history is just repeating itself to the point where it’s not history, it’s present and will be the future if we don’t, you know, name it and really do something about this. 

And I think that there’s something, you know, you all obviously are both Black women, and you are talking about this from the perspective of Black women and bringing an intersectional analysis to this, which I think is really important. I think we should dive into that more. 

Like, what would you say to folks that say, “Well, this is really more about racism, like, Black men aren’t all that well represented in economics, either.” So is it racism, is it racism and sexism? I mean, I think I know the answer is that it’s both but I kind of want to speak to that a little bit [Laughs], like, what is the difference? Like, why call out the Black female experience as opposed to just the Black experience?

 

LISA COOK: Well, I think I’ll start there. Basically, we’re looking at the data on economics undergraduates. You know, again, this 44% increase versus a 1% increase suggests that it’s not race; these are both Black women and Black men between 2006 and 2015. There is something that is happening to Black women that is deterring them much more than disproportionately to study economics — deterring them from studying economics. 

So I think that it is racism, and sexism, and possibly stereotypes. It might be segregation. So if we’re living in an increasingly segregated society — and we are — the baseline of segregation is already high but it is also increasing, that means that you might not encounter people who look different from you. And you probably aren’t encountering that many Black women if, for example, they are being deterred from studying higher-level math classes. I would say that this is isn’t — you know, we can talk about this being 20 or 30 years ago for me and being, you know, now and present for Anna, but this is happening to my aunt, 60 years ago, 70 years ago. 

She’s a professor of mathematics at Virginia State University, was the chair for a long time, and she receives that kind of treatment. She was often in all-Black settings so I would say that this was a common view that women shouldn’t be taking higher-level math courses. And she passed with flying colors her courses at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign when it was one of the top, and it probably still is, one of the top math departments in the country. So that myth was debunked. 

And I think that’s why I never thought about this not being a possibility, that something that was math-intensive never seems like it was out of reach because all of the women in my family, at least on my mom’s side, were math and science folks. They never said, “This isn’t something you could do.” It’s just when we interacted with the school system or when we went beyond college that this became an issue.

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yeah, so to answer your question and sort of echo what Dr. Cook is saying, I think to understand the experience of Black women in economics, you must look at the first Black woman who has done a PhD in Economics, who also was the first Black person to get a PhD in Economics, and it’s Sadie T.M. Alexander, Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander. She got her PhD in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921. She was also the first president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated — just want to make sure I got that correctly.

 

LISA COOK: Good.

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Thank you [Laughs], Dr. Cook is a Delta [Laughs]

So that being said, one thing that I heard when we were at the first conference — the first Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference for Economics and Related Fields, that the Sadie Collective organized — from her daughter, Ray Alexander-Minter– Dr. Ray Alexander-Minter was that she never saw her mom as an economist. In fact, her mom didn’t, her mom talked about economics through her speeches, as Dr. Nina Banks has shown through her work, but her family did not — from my understanding — see her as an economist. And so the question is why, right? 

Well, it turns out that if you look at the history, racism and sexism kept Dr. Alexander out from sort of, the networks that would be needed, as well as some of the professional development and the professional trajectory that would have been required to become an economist. So a lot of people sometimes want to say, “Okay, it’s just a racism problem,” right, because we’re Black. But not necessarily. I would make an argument — and Dr. Cook can either correct me or back me up on this — that some Black men have tried to erase the fact that Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander was the first Black person to get a PhD in Economics, right? 

And I mean, let’s call a spade a spade right now, right? There are people who don’t want to explicitly state the problems that Black women have and try to absorb it into some larger issue, but this is a fairly, like, intersectional problem here. Because on one hand, Black men are doing — the Black men who are in the profession are doing fairly well. And, you know, according to the survey that we cite that Dr. Cook worked on, Black women specifically have to go through the most measures along with Latinx women to avoid discrimination, and harassment, and stuff like that. Not to say that Black men don’t face those things, but we face it a slightly different level. 

And so the sexism piece — the sexism piece comes into play as well. Because Sadie T.M. Alexander was in class with white women, and those white women kept her out. And we don’t want to say that because we want to say, “Rah, rah feminism. We’re all in this together,” um, sure. But let’s really state the facts here. My experience as a Black woman is going to be fundamentally different than your experience as a white woman. And sometimes what ends up happening is that white women will use their whiteness to get to where they need to go. We don’t want to say that, though, because it’s easier to just talk about one problem. 

So one issue that, you know, Dr. Cook and I’s op-ed is responding to as well is that you had this profession-wide media fueled conversation about sexism in economics, right? But then when you looked at the articles, all of the women they featured, except one, Dr. Cook [Laughs] were white or white-passing. And so your issues, sure, are definitely difficult obviously. 

Like, sexism is — it affects you, duh. But what about me where I have to deal with race, ethnicity at times, right, and being a woman? And I think that’s, like, really sort of the fundamental argument we’re making here, it’s a two-front battle for us. Then that’s excluding any other identifiers that you choose to, you know, associate yourself with. So if I were queer, for example, this would be an uphill mountain, okay? 

And so I think we need to talk about how, like — one thing that baffles me in just the professional space, especially the academic space, is that people can’t wrap their head around people not being in buckets, right? Like, in the sense that people assume, like, “Oh, you’re Black. Oh, you’re a woman. Oh, you’re this.” And, like, there’s no fluidity happening between those different categories, so to speak. And so then — 

 

LISA COOK: Or nuance —

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Thank you, or nuance!

I remember when this op-ed came out and people were, like, shocked, legitimately shocked that Black women had a really hard time — that’s an understatement of the century — had, like, the most difficult time like, “Oh my God, you guys are facing all of this?” And it’s like, “We did told y’all. This is not new information.”

 

LISA COOK: Right, right. To the climate study, a number of people said once that climate study came out that we didn’t necessarily need the climate study to tell us that we were sort of oppressed in the field. But I think what it showed was — first, I don’t believe that because I think that economists don’t believe it unless there’s a number attached to it. So I don’t agree with that. But I think that what it does show is that we’re not just oppressed like other women, we’re not just oppressed like other Black people. But we are the most with respect to these discriminatory activities, including reporting being discriminated against the most for promotion and pay or having to take steps. 

We’ve had to take more steps than anybody else, just counting the steps. So not even asking, you know, about discrimination itself but taking more steps to avoid these things than any other group. So I think that the evidence is clear and compelling in this regard. And I think that our pulling out the data and then pulling out the quotes —

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yeah.

 

LISA COOK:  — the quotes that appeared in the climate study, I think that while economists would like to say that they’re more convinced by quantitative evidence, I would say without the quotes from the open-ended questions, they wouldn’t have paid as much attention. In many cases they just don’t know or they don’t have to think about it, so they don’t. 

So the fact that Black women — you know, we pulled out a quote about a Black woman who is a professor. And she was saying that she knows that she’s a good teacher, and she gets much lower scores than her white and female counterparts and that this, you know, puts her in a special bucket, and this needs to change. This is one of the things that we were proposing in the op-ed piece, that this be one of the first things that’s looked at with respect to climate. 

Because I think that there’s a large and — oh, I know there’s a large and growing literature that addresses the racial and gender bias in student evaluations and they’re used everywhere and all the time, and they determine the outcome of many people’s futures. I mean, the research — one, universities are in the minority across the country. Most of the work that’s being done at universities involves teaching. So this is a real barrier to entry into and sustainability in the profession if these student evaluations continue to contain these biases.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Yeah, I think what’s really fascinating to me is that both things can exist, right? Like, yes, it’s hard for any Black person, like, racism does exist, and it’s harder for Black women, and that doesn’t take away from your experience as a Black man. It doesn’t mean that we’re not acknowledging there’s something happening to you, but let’s expand our minds and, right, like, it’s happening at a different level. 

And I think part of this is, like, this scarcity mentality or, like, everyone needs a piece of the pie, like, you can’t acknowledge more than your own experience because then it’s like, oh, you’re not giving credence to something. I don’t actually understand it, to be quite honest with you, but that’s just kind of my theory, is that it’s about wanting to be seen, right? Again, this is a response to white supremacy because most of us are not seen. People of color are not seen, and so then let’s just fight amongst each other. 

But it’s, like, yes, both things can be true. It can be hard for a Black man, and it can be harder for Black women and that shouldn’t be that difficult to wrap your heads around, but I don’t know, for some reason it seems to be for a lot of people. 

I want to talk a little bit about how the op-ed has been received, both kind of in the general public — You started talking about this a little bit, people saying like, “Wow, I had no idea, right?” I call that, like, the hidden figures problem. Like, I thought that was in the past, I thought, you know, [Laughs] that happened then, I thought things are all good now. — but and particularly within the economic field, too, I think there’s — I’m kind of fascinated to hear if the reactions were similar or different.

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yeah, I’m a digital native so I have not read the comments because comment sections are cesspools [Laughs]. Like, I’m not going to — some of my friends are, like, “Yeah, you know, this person said this.” And I’m like, “Okay, thank you. I didn’t ask for you to tell me about the negative comments that I was getting.” And people — I mean, apparently people did have, you know, their whatever racist, sexist views about what we had written. I mean, the facts are plain, so I mean, you either agree with them or you don’t. 

That being said, I think in the economic space, at least on Twitter, it was received quite well and with this element of surprise, right, which I thought was interesting [Laughs]. I think what Dr. Cook said is absolutely correct. The quotes really allow the data to be crafted in a narrative that really talks about the experience of Black women, right? 

The quote that says I would never recommend this field to my children. Like, if you have children, right, and you’re reading this, you’re like, “Whoa, what has gone on here that this person wouldn’t even — this Black mother wouldn’t even recommend this to their child?” Um, yeah, we’ve gotten some pretty good reception. Some folks have been interested in talking with us about, you know, what this means for the profession. I think that’s really important. 

And, you know, some, like, very well-known economists, aside from Dr. Cook, of course, have also responded with, you know, they’re really happy that the op-ed was written. My only qualm [Laughs] with the response is that it has stopped at just responses, right? No one has — one of my friends, Adrian Davey who’s actually a PhD student in Chemical Engineering at UC Berkeley, put a Tweet out recently saying, like, you know, when you guys — and he’s talking about white folks in particular — hear about we need more diversity or we’re addressing this lack of representation problem in the academy, what do you guys do after that? And that’s my question, right? 

Some folks are like, “Well, I’m just going to donate to the Sadie Collective.” You know, we’ll take your money [Laughs], of course, because it helps this cause, right? But I think you have to — that’s a bandage for a deep, deep wound and it’s not enough. And I think it’s something that, you know, when you write a piece like this and people suddenly say, like, oh, there’s a magic bullet solution to this problem, there’s not. And I think for — the first and foremost thing that you have to do is acknowledge the fact that the academy itself, like, by its inception was never created for Black women and more broadly Black people in mind. And that is why people have a fundamental sort of confusion that is associated with seeing Black people, and specifically Black women, in the space. 

So a good example right now would be Dr. Cook. Dr. Cook is an exceptional researcher, exceptional scholar, and on top of that — she’s, like, I’m gassing her up [Laughs] — on top of that, she is an excellent mentor. She’s all of those things. And the thing is, the mentorship component, which arguably as the Director of the ADA Summer program, which is for minority students, is facilitating the pipeline for diversity into economics. 

Would you believe me if I said the academy does not reward that? Like, they don’t see value in that, clearly, right? Because you’ll hear about people that do some more work, and they’ll be penalized for that. Or it will quote unquote “affect their research productivity,” and so then they might not be recommended for tenure, might not be recommended for a promotion. 

And then note for me — sorry, going off on a tangent — I got kind of annoyed when people were applauding the Sadie Collective for existing, right? So the Sadie Collective is a group of young Black women. They’re saying, “Oh my God, good for you guys. We love the work you’re doing.” And I’m glad you love the work we’re doing, but I also want you to acknowledge the fact that we shouldn’t be doing this work, right? It’s like applauding somebody for driving on the road that they are fixing themselves when you had the power to create the road in the first place. It’s an insult [Laughs], like it’s really insulting. Yeah, go ahead.

 

LISA COOK: And the young — I mean, young folks shouldn’t be the ones doing this. And this is a supply-side answer to a problem that has both a supply side and demand side. And we were saying in the — and much more starkly in the earlier drafts of the op-ed piece — that you have to address both. The demand side being the profession and the climate, and the supply side being what Anna and cofounders have done with the Sadie Collective. 

And I think one of the things that I would like to say about the reaction is just how emotional it has been. I mean, I don’t even think I told you about this, Anna, but I was in three different cities after the article came out besides my own. And people have been pulling me into rooms, thanking me for writing this. And it’s been, you know, it’s just been really emotional as — and some said, you’re giving voice to voices that have been ignored for so long that people were, you know, I wouldn’t say this but this is how it might be perceived, that we’re actively being silenced over the years. So I really feel that this is something, and I always felt that this is something beyond ourselves. 

I mean, my idea was just to pull out something from the climate study, you know, one of those stark results and talk about it. And it has had a reception I just could not have imagined. And I’m glad that it did that to give people voice who haven’t had voice before. I’m glad that that’s what it did. People were high-fiving me. People were — have been writing me. And I have to — I actually have to Tweet about this. There’s no way I’m going to get to all the emails that I received. [Laughs]

But I really appreciate the positive response from people across the spectrum, young and old, and not just Black women. So, you know, people throughout the profession. So I appreciate that they wanted this heard. And if it took this long for it to be said and for us to say it, I am sad. That saddens me. But I’m glad it was — I’m glad it was done. 

One of the funny things that happen was, you know, you never know how what you’re going to say is going to be received. And certainly if you’re, you know, pre-tenure or pre-decision of some sort, you might be a little bit tentative, a little bit cautious about what you’re going to say. And, you know, for a few days I didn’t go into my department. I was like, “Everybody’s going to be mad at me. I don’t know if my emails going to work. You know, [Laughs] I don’t know if I still have a job.”

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: That’s real.

 

LISA COOK: Right [Laughs]. So I was just — I kept checking, kept logging into my email to make sure, you know, my account hadn’t been deleted or my name hadn’t been removed from the roster. But, you know, that was just a bit of paranoia, I suppose, in hindsight. But still, I think that some people in the profession are very thin-skinned. If you talk generally about race as opposed to gender, they just — they receive it in a very different way. And I would like for us to proceed on both fronts. 

And that’s why we ended the op-ed piece on a hopeful note, just acknowledging it is the first step. Let’s acknowledge it first and as Anna was saying, we’ve got to come up with some real solutions that run the gamut, that go from one stage of the profession to the other. There are a lot of Black women stuck at the associate professor stage. There are a lot. 

That’s, I think, possibly because many people in the profession don’t want us to see them as — see us as their peers. And I think that that’s a stereotype. That’s a stereotype that has existed. If this — if we’re some of the people they haven’t come into contact with because we’re under-recommended for AP classes, you know, if you don’t run into people, you embrace stereotypes. And if all you’re watching is Real Housewives of Atlanta or something like that, you’re not seeing yourself as a peer and that’s not the — that’s not the right reference point. 

But I think that this is a real issue. And I would hope, as Anna’s friend was Tweeting, that more is done once this conversation has gotten started. And I hope that my work with the AEA, now that I’ve been elected to the executive committee, I hope that we’ll be able to implement some of the changes that we’ve proposed and that others have proposed.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Yeah, so I want to end on that, actually. 

What outside of donating to the Sadie Collective, which everyone listening to this podcast should do — what are kind of some concrete steps that folks can take to — I mean, I love this analogy too that you have to look at the supply and demand on this issue. That’s a very good economical answer [Laughs]. 

But yeah, so what are some kind of concrete things people can do to help address this problem? I mean, number one, it seems like naming it and acknowledging. What are some other things?

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Sure. So I think institutions need to make a commitment to foster the next generation of Black women economists. And commitment looks like going beyond just reTweeting what Dr. Cook puts out about, you know, supporting Black women or supporting the Sadie Collective. 

Commitment looks like, you know, when you see a student who’s got advice poorly by one of your colleagues, you snatch them up like Dr. Cook mentioned, and you give them the mentorship that they need to succeed. Commitment looks like making available resources that students who look like me, a Black woman, wouldn’t otherwise see had they not talked to you. So there’s different channels, for example, that people learn about — research assistantships that are something that you do after college that gets you prepared for graduate school. And I would have not known anything about that had I not had a network that facilitated those conversations for me. So commitment looks like bringing Black women into that conversation and giving them the opportunity to be known and to be cultivated in such a way that allows them to realize their full potential. 

And I think finally what I will say is that it’s really important for professionals and academics to prioritize Black women. And I think what Dr. Cook said was really powerful. We’ve been actively silenced by this profession — actively from the beginning of, like, the inception, right? Dr. Alexander was actively silenced by her peers, by her colleagues, by editors, what have you. And so my challenge to listeners who are not Black women who are part of the economic space is to use your power to empower the next generation of Black women who are coming in, as well as your Black women colleagues. 

There are a lot of people who have the potential to be incredible economists. And Sadie Alexander’s a great example of someone who had the potential to become an incredible economist, but because of racism and sexism compounded upon each other, we missed them completely. 

And so the question now becomes: What will you do to ensure that we don’t miss the next generation of Black women who are entering economics?

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Do you have anything to add, Dr. Cook?

 

LISA COOK: I just want to say that beyond mentoring, we also need sponsorship and that becomes even more important as people work their way through the economics profession. So that means, you know, when there’s a job opening in a place, you get the email. Or for many raises, for example, I hear colleagues saying all the time that they just emailed their dean and show where they had been — they had been sought out as a person who would vie for that position. You know, encouraging them to apply for that position, that would never work [Laughs], you know, with a Black woman. It just never works. 

We’re the group that is the least retained when that happens, when there’s an outside offer, for example, Black women typically leave if there’s an outside offer because the institution doesn’t stand behind them. So I think that academic leaders and those who are prominent in the profession have to take a much more substantial role. 

And everybody can take a role. As my colleague Peter Blair was saying, everybody can do something — mentor, sponsor — but it has to happen at every stage. It can’t be just at the beginning of the pipeline. And that will, you know, that’s enough to change things. Opportunity exists at every juncture. So if you’re talking about giving equal access to opportunity, you can’t do it just at the beginning, it has to be at every single stage. So that’s where the profession needs help.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Thank you so much. This has been a thrilling conversation, you both are such deeply passionate and engaging speakers. And, again, thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise with us on our podcast today.

 

LISA COOK: Thank you all so much.

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Thank you.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: And that you all for tuning into this episode of Hidden Truths, the podcast of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. 

You can learn more about Dr. Lisa Cook’s work by visiting lisadcook.net or following her on Twitter at @DrLisaDCook. 

To learn more about Anna’s work, visit sadiecollective.org and follow her on Twitter at @ItsAfronomics. 

For more information about the Insight Center, please visit insightcced.org. And if you like what you heard today, leave a review for Hidden Truths on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or other platforms where you like to listen to this podcast. And please help us spread the word. 

Thank you, everyone.

[ Music ]

Transcript | Episode 28: Crushing Rural Stereotypes with Kendra Bozarth

Download the transcript (PDF) for Hidden Truths Episode 28: Crushing Rural Stereotypes with Kendra Bozarth. 

[ Music ]

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Welcome to Hidden Truths, the podcast where we examine the root causes of economic and racial inequality. I’m Jhumpa Bhattacharya, and I’m super excited to be joined by our guest, Kendra Bozarth. 

Kendra is the Director of Communications for the Roosevelt Institute, where she sets the organization’s editorial strategy and oversees the publication’s process for all of its work, ranging from white papers and blog posts to social media content and more. Prior to joining Roosevelt, Kendra worked on state-level budget and tax policy campaigns in Kansas as a member of the State Priorities Partnership with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She earned a bachelor’s in English from the University of Kansas in her own state. Kendra is also the Communications Manager for the podcast The Homecomers with Sarah Smarsh, which shares untold stories of rural and working-class America through the voices of its residents and advocates. Kendra, thanks so much for joining me today.

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Hi! Thank you so much for having me, I’m so happy to be here.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: So I’m super excited to talk rural today. We don’t get a chance to do that, that much.

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Yes! Absolutely!

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: And I feel like there’s a lot of misconceptions about rural America that you are here to demystify.

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Yeah, let’s do it.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: I really want to hear your story. Where in Kansas did you grow up? Tell me a little bit about the town that helped produce the amazing force that is Kendra Bozarth.

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Yeah, absolutely. So, I’d say, technically I didn’t grow up in Kansas in the way that people use that term. You know, it’s my home, it’s where I evolved into who I am, it’s the place I’m heading to when I say I’m going home. But my mom was actuallywho was a single mothershe was actually in the United States Air Force for 30 years so we moved about every two to three years. 

And I moved to Kansas when I was freshly 18 to attend the University of Kansas, and I ended up staying for five more years. So it’s the longest place I’ve ever dug in roots and now for almost half my life, it’s what I call home. And it’s really defined who I am. 

I’d say my biggest connection to Kansas is that the state is really rooted in resiliency. I don’t think a lot of people connect resiliency with Kansas. The state motto is actually “ad astra per aspera,” which means, “through difficulty, through hardship, to the stars.” And Kansas was pro-abolition throughout the 1800s and Lawrence, where I’m from, was really the state’s antislavery stronghold during the Civil War. You should Google “bleeding Kansas.” 

So for many reasons, it’s just about strength and resiliency, and I think there’s a lot of Kansaswhich is labeled a conservative statethat really is about equality and fighting for people. And, you know, that’s who I am. I think Lawrence, Kansas, itself is a pretty progressive town. For me, it not only strengthened my own commitment to diversity and equality but actually living in Kansas, traveling through Kansas, really strengthened my understanding of both of those ideas. 

And so, ultimately Kansas is seen as kind of this “red state” that is super regressive and everyone there thinks the same and acts the same. But in actuality, in Lawrence and far beyond, throughout the entire state, it’s a really dynamic place with a lot of progressivism happening. And that’s where I kind of became the progressive warrior woman that I am today.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA:  I love it. So you brought this experience of living and being rooted in Kansas to the podcast that I mentioned, The Homecomers, right?

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Yes.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA:  And I’m kind of obsessed with it because it really isit’s phenomenal. And I think that it really does push the boundaries in our thinking and kind of what we think about when we think about rural America. Because I think for most folks, you know, when they think about rural America, they have a very specific picture, right?

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Mm-hmm.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: So can you tell us a little bit about the podcast for our listeners that may be not already familiar with it? Tell us a little bit about what it’s about and kind of what the goal is with that podcast.

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Yeah, absolutely. So Sarah Smarsh, you know, long-time journalist, writer, she’s actually a second-generation Kansas farm girl. And as someone who is from rural, someone who loves podcasts, she set out starting in 2018 to kind ofshe really just wanted to fill this void of shows that are by and for rural. That’s just not really a thing that exists when it comes to podcasts. And she saw that gap and said, well, if someone else won’t do it, I guess I’ll do it myself. 

I think the bigyou know, you kind of talked about stereotypes and these ideas we have about rural, and a big is that you just can’t make it there. And so The Homecomers ultimately like really aims through six I think very deep, very intimate conversations. It really aims to like, disrupt the stories we all tell ourselves about rural and working-class America while also showing you, you know, that resiliency I mentioned and progress that’s happening in a really misunderstood place. And so, I think Sarah provides some understanding. 

And for me, the way I look at it like people think rural is so unfamiliar, it’s like this foreign thing. Like oh, flyover country. Oh, you know, there’s just, you know, one store and no stoplights, and that’s what rural is. But like, it’s not really unfamiliar because the stories coming out of rural are super, super universal. 

I mean, ultimately like the term “homecomers” comes from Wes Jackson. He coined the term; he’s the founder of the Land Institute in Kansas. And so it’s really about the story of the homecomers in general, but for Sarah, it’s really about people who either return to or refuse to leave a place that society tells them they should get out of. Instead, they said, “No, I’m fighting for this place and for people and for community and for the Earth.” And so I think you see that thread, that theme, throughout every single episode in such different ways but also in the same way, right?

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Definitely. And I think like what you’re describing is really about essentially changing the narrative, right

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Oh, yeah.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: on kind of how Americas understand rural America. 

Like what significance does our kind of concept of rural America have for economic policy that we have in states right now? Like you work at the Roosevelt Institute, I can see how this podcast like falls in line with a lot of the work that Roosevelt is trying to do in terms of changing the rules, right

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Yes, yeah.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: around economics in particular. So yeah, like how is that how are the two kind of connected? I’d love for you to speak about that a little bit.

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think, if I could, my title at Roosevelt would be “Director of Narrative Change” because that is just like what I think is, like, so crucial. 

I mean, you all did, at the Insight Center, put out that great report on the power of narrative and like the whole thing had me screaming. But what has me screaming, right, is that we can’t reallywe have all these big ideas happening right now and really great debates moving throughout the country, but like policy change cannot be real and totally change the way we talk about policy and people, right? And so, you know, I say a lot my go-to mantra when it comes to public policy is, “race is not an issue, it’s every issue.” And rural is the same thing. 

And so, you know, narratives shape the way we all see the world and how we approach it. And as Sarah touches on, not only in The Homecomers but in a lot of her work, we’ve really reduced entire communities, entire regions to like these really kind of flawed, and honestly I feel, offensive like political headlines. And so in doing so, we’re like blanketing over the real experiences of real people, you know? 

Like when we paint Kansas, for me for example, when we paint Kansas with these broad strokes of red, we’re literally erasing tons of people and now we can’t provide them with real solutions. Because everyone’s facing today’s struggles in different ways, but we act and assume that they all want the same thing, in the same way. 

And so, you know, getting back to economic policies, like when policymakers write economic rules and policy and build systems for a place that they actually don’t understand, they’re quite literally jeopardizing people’s lives and their livelihoods and their well-being. 

An example I like to use a lot is healthcare when I talk about rural because rural America is truly such an expansive place. And so, you know, we have these Medicare for all debates, we have these universal healthcarewe have all these debates going on. And so when we talk about access to healthcare without actually considering the fact that some people in this country have to travel tens of miles to get to a hospital, then we’re not really talking about achieving equitable access, right? When we talk about reforms to tackle corporate power – which we do a lot at the Roosevelt Institute, which you all do a lot in your work at Insight – if we’re ignoring rural healthcare workers who are being decimated in the system, we’re not actually reining in corporate power’s might. 

You know, I actually pulled a quote for this interview. Sarah wrote in a New York Times op-ed recently that, “The future of rural is intertwined with suburban and urban outcomes by way of food production, natural resources, the economy, political movements, and beyond.” And so, like I mentioned earlier, everyone thinks the majority of peopleabout 80% of the country, 60% of the countrythinks that rural is so far removed from them. It’s just not something they understand or even want to care about, when rural is part of all of us, just as much as urban is.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: I love it, I mean, this ideathere’s a lot of talk about, kind of, how all our states are connected. And I think that people think about that in terms of race and class but not necessarily, like, rural and urban. So that’s a really beautiful quote. And just like, yes, we are connected, that we are kind of one society that is, you know, giving and taking from each other. And that how we do, we need to connect to the rural part of America, I think is a really important message, for sure.

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Absolutely, yeah.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: The first episode of The Homecomers podcast is a conversation with political scientist Veronica Womack, right? And she talks about the Black Belt on which, you know, maybe unfamiliar to a lot of our listeners. Like what is a “Black Belt?” 

I would really love it if you can give our listeners a quick overview on, kind of, what a Black Belt is. And I think there must’ve been intentionality to have that as a first episode for a podcast about rural America. So I’m just kind of curious as to why y’all decided to start with Veronica and talking about the Black Belt.

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think even myself, I was pretty unfamiliar with what the Black Belt meant. You know, I’d obviously heard of it, but like what does that mean? What does it include? And so, you know, The Homecomers taught me many things, including the Black Belt. 

So it’s actually a region of the rural South. It stretches from Texas to Virginia. It’s crescent-shaped, so it kind of does this, you know, like half-moon effect between those two. And its population is majority Black American and so it’s actually a place that’s kind of considered America’s third world. Like it’s just poor and completely disregarded. But you listen to this first episode of The Homecomers, what you really get a feel of is like the richness that the Black Belt has to it. 

From, you know, its name actually comes from the deep black soil that exists in the lands there, which is just rich and beautiful and just grows amazing crops and amazing agriculture. But also a lot of what Veronica Womack talks about is like the richness of the people and how they value the land and how they value each other. 

And so when Sarah and I were working on the episode list for The Homecomersyou know, because she started this project in 2018 she had everything recorded by, you know, May of this yearso we had all the content and just figuring out like how we wanted to tell this whole story about homecomers. If I’m remembering correctly, I don’t think there was like an explicit conversation about the Black Belt and Veronica Womack going, as a rural place, like going first? But I think there was like this implicit understanding between the two of us that a choice was this because, you know, Veronica Womack is a Black woman, who knows the real story about both Black America and rural America. 

And, you know I won’t speak for Sarah, but I personally believe that you know, Black people have been probably the most is disadvantaged by false narrative. They can really relate to what it means to have your story mistold. And so, you know, in this episode, in all of the episodes, and I’d even say in Sarah’s work more broadly, she really gets out of the way of the storyteller and lets the subject reveal their truth. And so I think starting with the Black Belt and starting with Veronica Womack was the best way to crush a whole handful of stereotypes like right out of the gate.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: I actually did not realize that the Black Belt name came from the soil. I totally thought it was because it was heavily populated by Black families, essentially right? So I learned something new.

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Yeah!

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Do you have a favorite episode of the podcast series? If not a favorite episode, maybe two or three key moments or some things that would stand out to you?

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Yeah. I mean, beyond Sarah and probably our audio editor, Jesse Brenneman, I can’t imagine anyone’s listened to these episodes more than me, you know. As I was thinking through my communication strategy, I was playing them and pulling content. And when each one dropped each week, I re-listened to them again. I go back to, like, I just want one little moment, one little nugget; I go back through like a minute of, you know, Kathleen Sebelius talking about Kansas. So I really fell in love with them over and over again in different ways every time, and so it’s hard to pick a favorite. 

I’d probably say, just for many reasons of my identity and just who I am as a person, I probably most identify and just feel seen by Dr. Womack’s episode. I mean, the first time I listened to it, it’s just like, “Well, I guess I’m quitting my job and moving to, you know, Alabama and like getting a farm.” Like, I’m returning to my homeland and I’m like taking what’s mine. 

But then I think like moments-wise, I think like the episode four, which is with Brett Rameyhe is a member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, he’s the director of the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program up in WashingtonI think that episode really amplified my commitment to the fight for a climate solution. A Green New Deal is just, you know, one of the biggest, boldest ideas we have moving around. I’d like to say, you know, ignoring the ridiculous question of how do we pay for that, which a growing chorus of economists are showing that question carries no merit and we can, in fact, afford it, but also we don’t really have a choice. 

I’m not going to quote him but he says something about how we can’t think about the health of the economy without thinking about the health of a creature like a frog. And, you know, that for me just really, I don’t know, it made me feel like really rooted in the Earth, even though I was like sitting on my couch. But it’s such a beautiful way to think about how the choices we all make, the policy choices we make, affect everything. And so like to me that speaks to, you know, we can’t fight private poweror like rebalance it leastand fight for our future, if we ignore economic security and like worker well-being and only focus on the actual Earth and vice versa, right. And so that was beautiful. 

And then I think another episode that really, really speaks to me and just, you know, elevates the “let’s crush some stereotypes” mission is Elaine McMillion Sheldon, who was in episode two. She’s from Appalachia. She’s a documentarian who does a lot of work with addicts and recovering addicts. And she is all about, you know, just like Sarah, she’s a storyteller and she really gets out of the way and lets people tell their own stories. But, you know, she really elevates the stigma around addiction and she just like made this point that just like punches me in the gut every time I think about it. But like, you know, society looks at an addict and they think, you know, what a weak person and Elaine’s point is like, they should really look around and say, what a weak society we’ve built for this person, you know

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Yeah.

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: —we’ve really failed them in so many ways. And they’re not a weak person, they’re just doing what they can in a society that doesn’t value them, that ignores them, and that honestly like stigmatizes them and leaves them in a lonely place. It’s like it’s about isolation, right? And so she really is listing these stories about, you know, how do we rebuild those connections so that people who are trying to recover feel like they have a society to connect to. 

They’re all fantastic. I mean, I think you’ve listened to the whole thing. I think there’s a part of every single episode that people can identify with or find some inspiration from.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: That’s really interesting like what you said following up from like the first comments that you were making about like being tied to the land and just being like, you know, just sitting on your couch, feeling really rooted to the Earth; talking about the frog. 

I think that that’s really interesting because I think that there’s an argument to be made that, you know, we lift up that kind of urban life and urban American as kind of the gold standard in a lot of ways I feel like. But we’ve become so disconnected from the Earth, right?

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Right.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA:  And in some ways, or I think in every way, rural America is still in so many ways connected, right? Because there are still so many farmersor like there’s more connection to the land, like living off the land, being at one with the land. We have a lot to learn from that space

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Right.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: —and maybe that’s the perspective we should be coming with more versus like this complete disconnection that we’ve created from the land, right?

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Right.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Like water is life; Earth is life. I think we’ve just completely divorced ourselves from that.

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Absolutely.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA:  Which is why we are where we are today.

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: Yeah. I mean, there’s a beautiful scene in again, to lift Brett Rameyand I’m probably a little biased because he went to Haskell University, which is also in Lawrence, Kansas—and so he talks a lot about the wetlands. And so, you know, I get to if someone’s like, “Where are you from?” And I’m like, “Lawrence, Kansas,” and they’re like, “Tell me about it.” And I’m like, “Well, listen to episode four of The Homecomers,” because he talks about it so much. 

But, you know, that was very treasured land for Indigenous people and a few years ago, there was a huge battle across the city about building this highway through the wetlands to connect one end of the town to the other. And so I lovedhe has this moment where he talks about how he was recently back out there and heultimately, I’d say corporate power won, convenience won, and the highway was built. But he goes out there and, you know, he says the wetlands are still here, you know. The frogs are still croaking, and the birds are still flying, and like you can still feel the spirit, especially for him of his own people. 

And, you know, I love New York so much, but when I think about, like, my homecoming story and returning back to Kansas, I think about, you know, getting in my Jeepand even though that highway’s there, getting to drive through the wetlands and like feeling that connection. And it’s just kind of like a unique juxtaposition again, of how we balance those things. And like what you just said, like the connection to the Earth. Like I’m driving in a car on this like man-made highway, but I still feel at one with everything that’s around me.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: That is really beautiful. I think we are going to close there with that amazing statement. 

Thank you so much again, Kendra, for sharing your story and your expertise with us today. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.

 

KENDRA BOZARTH: I appreciate you for so many things, and thank you for having me.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: And thank you all for tuning in to this episode of Hidden Truths, the podcast of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. 

You can find The Homecomers with Sarah Smarsh podcast on iTunes or Spotify and learn more about the project by visiting thehomecomers.org

To learn more about Kendra and her work, visit rooseveltinstutite.org and follow Kendra on Twitter @kendrabozarth

For more information about the Insight Center, visit insightcced.org. And if you like what you heard today, leave a review for Hidden Truths on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or other platforms and help spread the word. Thanks, all.