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.

Transcript | Episode 26: Angela Hanks and Janelle Jones

Download the transcript (PDF) for Hidden Truths: Episode 26 with Angela Hanks and Janelle Jones

[ Music ]

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Hi, and 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 my cohost, Anne Price. Hi, Anne.

 

ANNE PRICE: Hey, how are you?

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: And our guests, Angela Hanks and Janelle Jones. Angela and Janelle are two of the visionary leaders at the Groundwork Collaborative. A think tank and advocacy organization dedicated to advancing a cost-cutting economic narrative for the progressive movement. 

Angela is the deputy executive director at Groundwork Collaborative. She previously held roles at the Center for Law and Social Policy, or CLASP, the Center for American Progress, CAP, and served as counsel on Congressman Elijah E. Cummings’ legislative staff. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Atlantic, among others, and she’s a regular contributor to Forbes.com. 

Janelle is the managing director for policy and research at Groundwork Collaborative. Previously, she was a research at Economic Policy Institute, or EPI, Center for Economic Policy Research, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Her work has focused on labor markets, racial inequality, unemployment, unions, and job quality. Her research has been cited in the New Yorker, The Economist, Harper’s, The Washington Post, and The Review of Black Political Economy, as well as other publications. 

Together, Angela and Janelle are a powerhouse bringing a wealth of policy knowledge and experience with a particular focus on narrative change and advocacy around race, wealth, and the economy. You can see how we’re really, really, excited to have these two fabulous women on our podcast today. Because there’s so much intersection, I think, between the work that we here at the Insight Center do and what Angela and Janelle are leading over on the East Coast. So thank you both so much for joining us today.

 

ANGELA HANKS: Thanks for having us. We’re really excited to be here.

 

JANELLE JONES: Yeah, this is great. Thank you guys.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: So I kind of wanted to start our discussion by talking about the Groundwork Collaborative’s vision, which is really centered around this foundational concept which I love, which is, “We are the economy.” 

Can you tell us what this means and why you thought this particular message, “We are the economy,” was important?

 

ANGELA HANKS: Yeah, so Groundwork’s mission, as you mentioned, is to advance a coherent, persuasive, progressive, economic worldview and narrative. And the reason why we exist, the reason why we came together, is sort of this idea that one, frankly, doesn’t exist right now. 

On the progressive side, we have a lot of values and things we care about, but we haven’t done a great job articulating how those things fit together and our vision for the economy. So as we’ve been working on this project – and sort of the consequence of doing that means that even in progressive spaces, we tend to, all of us, tend to sort of fall back on the dominant, conservative narrative which is both damaging, and frankly, just wrong. It’s incorrect. And so much of our work is dedicated to making sure that we are advancing a worldview that is both true, that’s inclusive, and that actually reflects the reality of people’s lives. 

So that’s how we get to this, “We are the economy,” idea. The economy often is characterized as the stock market, or GDP, or all these things that, frankly, are intangible for most people and actually tell us very little, in fact, almost nothing, about actual people’s lives. So, “We are the economy,” sort of re-centers people in the economy and reflects the fact that it’s us. It’s our interactions. It’s the demands we create. It’s the labor we provide that actually creates the economy. It’s not sort of these esoteric measures that actually have nothing to do with how people live day to day.

 

ANNE PRICE: This is Anne. I want to jump in on this a little bit, especially around narrative change, and we’re really talking about how people make sense of the world and how they think about issues like our economy. And one thing you said, Angela, in really looking at these kind of intangible measures, I really think about also the narrative around the economy as being this entity that kind of, just things just kind of happen, and that basically our economy is not built on man-made decisions. 

So can you talk a little bit more about how you see those narratives kind of taking place and what really is getting in the way of achieving what you think is racial and economic justice? What kind of narratives are really getting in the way of that?

 

JANELLE JONES: That is a fantastic question and really like the question that we want to answer with our entire organization. You know, people really think that the economy is something that is separate from, you know, what they do, the labor they provide. It’s separate from how their families are doing. It’s separate from how their communities are doing, and we know that that is not true. 

We know that there are a bunch of economic narratives that are really core to the way American capitalism works that are just not true. The one that, you know, people are just born with is that it’s a meritocracy, that really you work hard, you try hard, you major in STEM – somehow everyone’s a STEM major, I’m not sure. We’re just we’re all taking math and engineering classes, everyone majors in STEM, everyone goes to college, everyone majors in STEM, and that’s it and then we all win and we’re all at the top. And that’s, I mean, as an economist, as a mathematician, that’s not really how the numbers work. But it’s also just like not how the economy works at all. 

We know that there are systems and structures in place that make sure that absolutely guarantee, everyone does not go to college, everyone cannot major in STEM, and everyone cannot be at the top. So I think this idea that it really is just individual behaviors and practices that keep people from, kind of, achieving the Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg life is something that’s really based into the way people think about the economy that is fundamentally wrong. 

I think another thing that we tend to downplay is really the importance of public power and public structures. So people, you know, we need roads to go to school, we need public teachers, we need – I was going to say we need police, but like I don’t know. We can circle back to actually whether or not we really need police. But we need some rules to keep us from anarchy. And those are things that people are paying for and investing in with public dollars that also lead to the way the economy is kind of structured. So I think people tend to kind of remove themselves and their sense of agency from what they can do in affecting their economic outcomes. And those are kind of some of the narratives and structures that we are trying to displace.

One way that Angela talks about doing that is really unlearning the conservative, dominant worldview which, you know, tells people all these things are true. And instead, focusing on people and putting the way people operate into the economy at the center of what it means for an economy to be working, for an economy to be successful.

 

ANNE PRICE: I want to just ask one point related to that and that really is around the fact that really what we’re dealing with, it’s a neoliberal narrative, one that actually puts markets first over people. That says that basically we, you know, markets work well on their own, that they reward you – and this is obviously a deep-seated narrative, one that people have poured billions of dollars into over decades, to reinforce policy change. 

How are you all looking at this dominant narrative, and do you think that given conversations around some of the economic failures of neoliberalism, that there’s a door opening to dig in on that narrative?

 

JANELLE JONES: Yeah, I think that there is. I mean I think one of the reasons, you know, now is really the time to talk about it is that we’ve been living through this lie and seeing how it has not delivered for the majority of people in this country. We have been saying that markets will make sure that everyone gets a fair shot, that everyone, you know, gets an opportunity to kind of live their best economic life and what we’ve seen is that when we do that, it actually doesn’t work well. 

We have inequality that is the highest it’s ever been since we’ve been tracking it. We have entire communities, and particularly people of color, who are not even, like, considered in terms of measuring economic success. So I think now is really the time to talk about why that narrative is not working. And because we have just like so, so, so much data, and research, and lived experience of folks on the ground who can say that, you know, when we leave things to markets, when we don’t regulate, when we don’t use public power, when we don’t invest in worker power, these things don’t work out and here’s how we’re seeing that it’s not working.

 

ANGELA HANKS: I totally am going to plus one everything Janelle said, obviously, and also add that we’ve seen the failures of neoliberalism play out, and the consequences for actual people. And to Janelle’s point, the data are really there that show that this is actually not the right path forward. 

I would just add that not only that but I think as we think about sort of what’s gone wrong, part of what our task is here is to think about what an alternative vision looks like. So, you know, the economy is not a bunch of rich people getting richer and hoarding their dollars in Swiss bank accounts and not investing in the economy, while the rest of us struggle to get by. 

A well-functioning economy is actually one that invests in people, that exercises public power, to Janelle’s point, that ensures that people are able to live a life where they are able to exercise power on the job, where they are able to invest in their communities and be invested in through the public sector. And all those things are conditions that we can create, both as folks who work on policy, but also as people who exist in this economy and in this country.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Hi. I love this discussion and I really think that we’re getting into something really meaty here, right? 

So we’re talking about neoliberalism and the narrative that it pushes particularly around kind of personal responsibility, right? And this idea that if you’re poor, it’s your fault that you’re poor, and it’s all about individual choices. And we don’t look at kind of the structure of the economy and see ourselves in the economy, right? These are kind of the big narrative themes that we’re talking about, but I want to hone in specifically. 

You know, we are four women of color on this call. Three of us – or three of you – are Black women and I think we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about gender and race specifically. I know you all have a lot to talk about how race, and gender, and specific narratives around race and gender impact our economy or the way we think about our economy or the way we think about race and gender specifically as it relates to communities and the economy.

 

ANGELA HANKS: I think going back to those narratives around personal responsibility, it’s really a powerful and very convenient narrative that it’s all individual. You know, your success or failure in the economy or in the labor market, is entirely on you. It sort of allows us to avoid real questions around race, and gender, and power that I think all of us on this call know are sort of at the heart of a well-functioning economy – effectively grappling with all of those things. 

But neoliberalism doesn’t deal with it at all, right? So you have this system where it’s like, “Oh well, it’s up to you. If you fail, let’s disregard decades or centuries of oppressive policies that have gotten us to this point, let’s just focus on where we are today.” The reality is that’s just not – it does not reflect what’s actually happening to people and it also leads to some really wrong conclusions about what we need to do to create an economy that works for everyone. 

Focusing on personal responsibility, again, it sort of allows us to think less about race, and gender, and power. But if we are thinking about those things and we’re centering, you know, for example, anti-blackness or misogyny, in the way that we’re thinking about the economy, then we come up with a different set of solutions that acknowledge both historical and current structural impediments to people engaging in the economy in all kinds of different ways. 

So going back to this, “We are the economy,” idea. When we say “we,” it’s a shorthand for emphasizing the fact that we have to center the most marginalized folks when we think about building an economy that actually works. Because if people of color are left out of the economy, if women are left out of the economy, then the economy actually isn’t really working. 

That’s really where we should start when we think about what makes the economy function – if the most marginalized among us are not doing well, then definitionally, the economy cannot be doing well.

 

JANELLE JONES: Yeah, I mean obviously all of that is absolutely correct, and I mean the Groundwork motto is, “We are the economy.” 

My own personal economic ideology is “Black women best.” It’s what I’ve been saying all across the country for months, at this point Angela’s heard me talk about it at length. And it really I mean  –

 

ANGELA HANKS: Yes, it’s a great theory.

 

JANELLE JONES: It’s a fundamental theory because even though it sounds exclusionary, it’s not. It’s like if the economy is working well for Black women, what does that mean for literally every other group of people in the economy? It means everyone else is doing absolutely fine. And it is a way to center the folks who have been completely left out, completely marginalized, in a way that, like when they are doing well, we know everyone else is doing well. So I think that it’s, you know, it’s actually a way to ensure that the rest of us are the economy, is to kind of center black women.

 

ANNE PRICE: I love how you’re talking about centering Black women. Here at Insight, we’ve also been talking about how we need to center Blackness and how that could tell us a lot about how we can lift up all Americans. 

And it seems that, you know, doing this work over many years, that kind of moving to this kind of thinking is very challenging. People are still really focused on class narratives and class issues of classicism. And while race has really become part of the discourse in the last couple of years, there’s still this not a sense that somehow centering Blackness, centering Black women, is foundational and could actually help all Americans. 

How are you all really thinking about how to push that conversation further than it’s been?

 

JANELLE JONES: Oh, yeah, I’m definitely not saying that it’s easy. I don’t think, you know, I don’t think it’s going up on billboards. I don’t think it’s going to be the leading motto for whoever is the presidential candidate, but I think it’s important. 

I think it’s a way to talk about all of the things that actually include a bunch of other communities and it’s, you’re right, it’s making that connection. People, you know, I come from the economic space where the conversation around class is like the way we get everyone’s buy in, tt’s what we lead with, it’s how we get a cross-racial coalition, and what we’ve seen is that doesn’t lead to a cross-racial coalition. The way to get to that is to, actually surprisingly, talk about race. 

So I think it’s really hard, it’s really challenging. I think the way we’re doing it is really trying to connect it through, “We are the economy.” It’s giving people the language, the idea, and also like, the research, and the data that shows that when we lift up the people who have been marginalized, it actually lifts up everyone else. When we do things that are targeted towards communities of color, it’s hard to do the economy well for people of color and white people not get any benefit, right? 

It’s hard to make sure that it’s just a small group of, you know, Black women in the Midwest who are thriving but everyone else is doing terribly. That is impossible to do in the way that our economy is set up and the way that U.S. capitalism works. So it’s really just trying to give people the language and thinking around that idea, but it’s definitely challenging.

 

ANGELA HANKS: And I would just add that so much of our sort of policies around class are incredibly racialized. So if you think about domestic workers, you know, the modern labor law was developed to explicitly exclude largely Black women workers. And the result is, you know, 80 years later, we have an economy that still largely excludes this group of people who are still largely women of color. 

And in fact, what you see in the labor market is work is actually trending more toward being worse for more people in the way that we’ve sort of set it out for this particular group of people, as well. So it’s not just if you improve the working standards of – I mean, certainly if you improve the working standards of women of color in those positions, you improve them for everyone. 

But it is also, you know, we ignore those conditions to the peril of everyone, as well.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: And this just leads me to another narrative I think that is really dominant when we’re thinking about our economy which is like the scarcity mentality, right? Like there’s only so much of the pie and so, therefore, we all have to scramble to get our piece of it. 

We’re taking plays into this idea like, if we start to talk about “I love Black women best,” I think that that’s awesome, I’m totally going to steal that. I’ll credit you but I’m going to use it.

 

JANELLE JONES: You don’t have to steal it, it’s everyone’s, please. I want it to catch on, truly.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Because we are the economy, yes, I love it. 

But this idea that, can we speak to that a little bit, about how like when we talk about something like “Black women best,” what happens to other folks? Because we’re living in this scarcity mentality, which is actually completely false.

 

ANGELA HANKS: Yeah, I mean a lot of our work is sort of dictated by an abundance frame. Again, this scarcity mindset is one, like an artifact of neoliberalism. But also one that is frankly totally pervasive in our economy and cuts along class lines, particularly across racial lines, and it’s not productive for anyone. 

If we start from the scarcity frame, we’re going to get policies that assume there is too little and most of us have to fight for scraps. And that’s not the reality, we have an incredible amount of untapped public power that we don’t use. 

We, at the federal level, don’t raise nearly enough revenue. We don’t – our anti-poverty programs, our programs around redistribution, are incredibly ungenerous and this is sort of all born out of this idea that there is very little to go around and so we’ll behave as if resources are scarce. 

I think what we are trying to advance is that a strong economy is one where there’s plenty to go around, and crucially to that, it actually does have to go around. It’s not just that we can create a bunch of millionaires and billionaires at the top and six people have enough wealth to make us one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It actually has to get around or else our economy fundamentally is not one that works.

 

JANELLE JONES: Even on the private sector side, what we’ve seen is like GDP is what, doubled, in a generation and what we know is that like the income for workers, for the typical worker, is actually, like, the same as it was 20 years ago. So it’s not even just on the public side, which is, you know, an entirely different conversation to have that’s crucial to this, but it’s also like we are actually growing the economy. 

The scarcity frame is complete and utter nonsense because the economy is always growing. Like GDP is always growing, we’re always innovating. Productivity is- it’s always moving up. What’s not moving up is security, and stability, and wages for the typical American worker. So it’s only scarcity when it comes to people who are not billionaires and millionaires. 

That’s the only time when like we’re running low, is when it’s for like the typical worker. But for everyone else, there seems to be just like, not just one yacht but like a super yacht, not just a neighborhood but like, an island. There’s plenty for people who have enough money. But it’s just when you’re poor that like, “No. I’m sorry. TANF can only be this amount of money. We’re out, we’re just out of benefits.” So it’s just- it’s nonsense all across the board.

 

ANGELA HANKS: I 100% agree and I would actually even say that when you think about scarcity, I think what we’re actually talking about is a power imbalance. It’s exactly what Janelle said, it’s that all of this is accruing somewhere. It’s just that regular folks aren’t able to access it because folks with a lot more power have been able to rig the rules so the benefits just go to them, even if it’s workers, families, and communities whose labor and demand are actually making the economy grow.

 

JANELLE JONES: Right. The thing that is scarce is the power to actually decide how policy is made, and that I’m willing to just like, take from the people who have it.

 

ANGELA HANKS: Yes.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: I love it. I’m like snapping all over the place but you can’t hear me because I’m putting myself on mute [laughs] while you’re talking. But this is amazing. 

I think that, you know, I feel this way, and I will just speak for myself. But often, for those of us that are doing this work around economic and racial justice, we’re often on the offensive, right? We’re constantly battling harmful policies and narratives that are either already present or continue coming down the pike, particularly with this administration. 

We rarely get the time to kind of, sit down, and reflect, and be proactive, and dream about what is that thing that we actually want to create, right? Rather than just reacting to stuff, like let’s actually sit, be proactive, and dream, and vision about what does this world look like, right? So I just want to do that in this podcast for a minute. 

Like let’s, kind of, close our eyes, take a minute, and dream right now. What is the economic structure that we want to create, right? What does that look like? What does that community feel like? What does it taste like, right? And what do we need to build to get us to that place?

 

ANGELA HANKS: I want to share something that I’ve been carrying around with me for a little while. So actually, we’ve been going around to different cities across the country over the last year asking a similar question to folks who are sort of front lines in the movement, so mostly people who are working locally, that are really sort of advancing racial justice and economic justice in different places across the country. 

And in one of the conversations where we had this discussion and we asked a similar question, a woman said something that I found so striking and I think it sort of speaks to the economy and the structure that I want to see, but is much better than whatever I would say, so I’ll just quote her. 

We asked what would the economy look like or what it would feel like, and the first thing she said is, “My body wouldn’t ache.” 

And I thought that was so powerful because that is the kind of economy that we should —

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Wow.

 

ANGELA HANKS: — be working toward. It is one where you are not, sort of, sacrificing your body in order to make an extra dollar or 50 cents an hour. That you have access to affordable health care and time off, time with your family, and that you’re able to work, see the fruits of your labor, and be able to enjoy that. 

And that to me is such a good way to think about what we want out of the economy, and I think there are certainly policies and structures that flow from that, but that’s been something that’s been sitting with me for a while.

 

JANELLE JONES: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think I was in the room when that woman said that and it was just silence afterwards. It was like, “Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what it looks like. That’s exactly what it feels like.” 

And I think, you know, the systems and structures, Angela, in the case would be changed is if we had different people in power. I think, you know, the economic field would look differently. We would be calling different people experts on the economy because we are the economy, and we’re all experiencing it, and we’re all contributing to it, and we’re all like reaping the benefits. You know, but the economy is entirely man-made. Right now, it’s like entirely mostly white man-made, so we would have some different people making those decisions. 

We would have people who kind of look like the folks on this call deciding how the folks who look like us are impacted by the policies and structures that are in place. So I think we would definitely see a little bit of that. We would also see kind of a redistribution of power. We talked a lot about it on this call and I mean, like, worker power, public power- all sorts of ways in which power is basically isolated and concentrated with wealthy corporations and individuals, all of that is just like, no more. It is the fundamental restructuring of who has control, who gets to decide, and who has a voice, and that’s what I would like to see.

 

ANNE PRICE:  Wow, that’s great. I love how you’re really bringing in ordinary Americans, their voices, into thinking about the economy. And really seeing this is not just an academic exercise, but one in which we’re going to have to build power to change the rules that are causing such great pain and inequality. 

I just want to kind of close my questions on one note, and just thinking and hearing you all speak and really thinking about the fact that we often don’t hear women’s voices in these spaces. We certainly are lacking women of color in these spaces. 

So I’d love to just hear on a personal note from both of you as we bring this podcast to a close, what do you think that you bring that is really adding to discussions around the economy that we’re missing? What do you think that women are adding in this space that is kind of moving this discussion forward?

 

ANGELA HANKS: I can speak totally personally. One of the things that drew me to Groundwork and to what we’re trying to build here, is that we’re doing it with women of color. We are a majority of women of color organization, majority women overall, and I think it really, frankly, changes the way that you approach this work and so I think that’s one thing that’s been incredibly beneficial. 

And I think to Janelle’s point earlier, kind of beyond our individual organization, I think something that I’ve found to be, it’s changing slowly but it is changing, is that increasingly, there are more of us in this space. It needs to change a lot more quickly but, you know, it’s hard to talk about justice, and power, and sort of upending systems that were not designed to include us, when we’re not in the room. And so I think one thing that’s really been heartening, especially as we’ve gone out to other organizations across the country, is that you are seeing women of color really at the forefront of change and really at the forefront of economic and racial justice. Whether that’s activists, economic policy experts, academics- I think that there’s a lot of exciting work going on and I’m glad to be a small part of it and to witness the incredible work that folks across the country are doing. You both included, Jhumpa and Anne, of course.

 

JANELLE JONES: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think we are, you know, this organization is something that I have not seen replicated in many other places, so I’m excited to see that. And I think, you know, the question about, kind of, making space is really important to me. 

So I think, you know, Angela and I are leading this organization and we’re really trying to make sure that something that we do is bring more people who look like us into this space. And not just as, you know, I mean everyone should be doing what they can across the movement, but we’re also bringing people into this space as experts, right? So you don’t need to have a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard to understand that like your community has not recovered from the last recession so you’re not prepared for the next recession. That is something that people know. That is something that people know to be true and those people should be on panels with Larry Summers, and Jared Bernstein, and Jason Furman because they have just as much to say. 

So I think for me, making room in the movement for other women of color is something I care a lot about doing. And I think, you know, I’m thinking a little bit of Nina Banks, a Black woman economist who has spent a lot of time talking and thinking about the way Black women have, kind of, always done the work. You know, in the history of this country, we’ve always really done this work in our families, in our churches, in our communities and I think now is the time for us to really take the platform that’s been given and do it across the country. 

And so, you know, nothing makes me more excited than seeing a movement that is led by women of color. And it’s how we get to fight for 15, right? It’s how we get to a national minimum wage of $15. So really since we’re women of color, because we just we have the tools, we know how to do it, we’ve been doing it for generations- really just kind of giving women of color a bigger platform to do the work on a national scale is something I’m super excited about, and I think is important right now.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: I love it. Let’s plot to take over the world. I think that would be so much of a better world to live in, I really do.

 

ANGELA HANKS: Yes, let’s do it.

 

JANELLE JONES: I mean, that’s something I’m really telling my boss every day and he’s like, “Breathe. Let’s breathe.” So we’re trying, we’re taking baby steps but we’re getting there. We’re getting there, tt’s true. We’re well on our way.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Thank you so much, Angela and Janelle, both of you, for sharing your time and expertise with us on our podcast today. It has been a pleasure listening to you. Seriously, I was just like sitting here in awe just listening to you speak and in complete agreement with everything that you said. 

And am excited to be a part of the economy with you all and really continue the momentum that’s been growing. I really feel like in the last year or so, I just feel like we’re – people are hungry for a change, you know, and hungry to see something different. Because everyone feels just how terrible our policies are right now and this continued, you know, priority of profits over people is hitting people and in a very distinct way. And I think people know, like deep inside that there has to be something different.

 

JANELLE JONES: We’re happy to do it with you all, for sure.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: This is awesome. Thank you, again.

And thank 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 Angela and Janelle’s work at the Groundwork Collaborative by visiting GroundworkCollaborative.org. For more information about the Insight Center, visit InsightCCED.org. Thanks, everyone.

 

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Transcript | Episode 24: Thomas W. Mitchell

Click here to download the transcript for Episode 24: Thomas W. Mitchell as a PDF.

[Music ]

ANNE PRICE: Hi. Welcome to Hidden Truths, the podcast that examines the root causes of economic and racial inequality. I’m Anne Price, President of the Insight Center, and for this episode, we’ll be talking about how struggling families can hold on and build wealth through land ownership. 

To control land is to have power, and owning land can help people build and pass on wealth to future generations. Tenancy in common ownership represents the most widespread form of common ownership of real property in the United States, but it’s also very unstable. There’s thousands of tenancy in common property owners across the country, many of them are poor but are of all races, who have lost their commonly owned property due to court order-forced partition. 

So it kind of works like this. When a landowner dies without a will, the heirs, usually a spouse and children, inherit the estate. They own the land in common with no one person owning a specific part of it. If more family members die without wills, things can get very complicated within a couple of generations with a number of relatives owning the land in common. Anyone can buy an interest in one of these family estates — it just takes one single heir willing to sell — and anyone who owns a share, no matter how small, can go to a judge and request that the entire property be sold at auction. 

Some land traders seek out such estates and buy these small shares with the intention of forcing auctions. And rarely do these families have enough money to compete, even when the bid is below market value. So this can happen to anyone who owns land in common. And some say that because some communities are particularly vulnerable that they are more likely to see their land stripped away. 

To dig into this issue further on how to protect land and build wealth, I’m very pleased to welcome Professor Thomas W. Mitchell. He is a professor of law and codirector of the Program in Real Estate and Community Development Law at Texas A&M University School of Law. He is a groundbreaking legal scholar and teacher who has worked for more than 20 years to help some of our most economically fragile communities secure strong property rights. Thomas, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast today.

 

THOMAS MITCHELL: My pleasure, Anne.

 

ANNE PRICE: I just mentioned the importance of wills, and I’ll say as a student who went to a historically black college, there was this real emphasis in teaching us to go to our families and have these very challenging conversations about having a will. We were 19 or 20 years old at the time, and I just remember, you know, why are we having this conversation? Why are you teaching us to actually have this conversation with our family members? So can you tell us a bit more about the relationship of wills to land loss, and give us a sense of what this has really meant particularly in black communities and particularly in the South?

 

THOMAS MITCHELL: Right. Sure. So I think in terms of, first of all, we have movements to help different communities acquire assets in the first instance, including real property. You know, whether we’re talking about land in rural areas or single-family homes in urban sectors and suburban sectors and in rural communities. But then in terms of intergenerational wealth building, wills and estate planning more generally are incredibly helpful in terms of having people in family structure, how they want to pass on assets from one generation to the other. 

There are implications in terms of what I think of as the quality of ownership as one has these intergenerational transfers. And a key part of that quality is, how secure is that property ownership for those who end up acquiring assets from ancestors? 

And estate planning and will-making with that advanced planning could make those transfers at a much higher quality, could help secure and stabilize ownership, and it, just in terms of effective planning, it could help deal with certain family dynamics that you can anticipate beforehand, and then structure kind of legal arrangements that would give those who acquire that land through acquiring it from an ancestor, give them a much better chance of maintaining that asset and building upon that asset so that we can have not just one generation of a family maybe kind of break out of kind of low income or impoverished backgrounds, but we could then have these families over a much longer time horizon build wealth, be able to participate in a much more effective way in our society in any number of ways.

 

ANNE PRICE: Thank you for that. Why is it that there are such low numbers of folks with wills? What’s kind of getting in the way of why we’ve seen so much land loss and particularly in some communities?

 

THOMAS MITCHELL: Sure. So as we’ll kind of get into, that the tenancy in common form of ownership, which you referred to, which when people talk about heirs’ property, heirs’ property is just a subset of tenancy in common ownership. It’s the form of ownership that the law will give you if you do not have a will or have an estate plan that makes some other arrangement in terms of an ownership structure, legal ownership structure. And so it’s the default ownership structure. It’s also well-known among lawyers and business professionals as representing the most unstable form of common ownership of real property, right? 

So if you don’t make a will and if you don’t have some other type of estate plan, and you own real property, like I said, whether it’s land in a rural area or a single-family home, and you have heirs, they’re going to then be saddled with this incredibly insecure form of ownership, a form of ownership that nobody who did any advanced planning would ever choose. It’d be maybe the last option. 

So then let’s kind of go to root, right? So you referred to there’s low levels of estate planning. So let me just kind of, you know, zero the waterfront. So generally speaking, there’s been, you know, several studies — they tend to be regional studies — that have tried to quantify the rate of will-making in this country, right? So the biggest difference — the studies are, come to a slightly different result, so it shows that — these variety of studies — at the low end, it shows that maybe 40% of Americans make wills; at the high end, maybe 60% make wills. I’m looking at a most recent study done by three economists, and in their study, it showed that 57% of Americans make a will. 

But when you start unpacking it, you find out that there’s incredible racial disparities in will-making and estate planning. And so one of the findings in this study, even for somebody like me who’s worked on this for more than 20 years, really just jumped out. And it showed that, in addition to the overall rate, they looked at their rates by different racial or ethnic groups; and then they also corrected for the level of education within different groups, right? So at the low end, people who had no high school degree, and at the high end, people who had a college degree or a college degree and a graduate and professional degree. 

So what that study showed was that, among white Americans, it turns out that 57% of white Americans that do not have a high school degree have a will. But that’s the lowest rate of will-making among white Americans. 

Among African-Americans, the highest rate of will-making is, not surprisingly, among African-Americans who have a college or college and graduate or professional degree — but that’s not surprising. That’s in every racial or ethnic group, with more education, the will-making rate goes up. 

But here’s the statistic that just jumped out at me. So among African-Americans with the highest level of education in this country, it turns out that just 32% of those African-Americans have a will, right? So 57% of white Americans without a high school degree have a will, and only 32% of African-Americans with a college or something more. 

And I think — you asked the question, “Well, what’s the root to this?” Right? So the first thing I’ll say is — you know, part of an academic who tries to make sure that there’s actually good evidence for whatever proposition you say — what I will say is that overall, this area, in terms of these racial disparities in will-making, estate plans have been undertheorized and there’s been insufficient numbers of studies, okay? So let me just kind of say that. 

But there’s been, I think, three theories about why you have the African-American communities so — the level of will-making has been so low. And I think the — you know, so one is some people think that this is just an artifact of West African kind of estate planning or succession practices, although I’ve seen some other literature that calls that into question and points out that, among the different kinds of ethnic groups or tribes where the slaves were drawn from, they actually had very different kind of estate planning or succession practices. 

Others indicate that African-Americans have become cynical about the legal system given how they’ve been taken advantage of repeatedly. But I’ve seen studies where the will-making rate during the heart of Jim Crow among African-Americans was actually higher than it is today which you’d think that in the height of Jim Crow, people would be particularly cynical about the legal system. 

And then the third one I’ve heard that, you know, wasn’t in — not in the study but it kind of rings, something about it rings true to me, was that when African-Americans at the end of the Civil War, or after the Emancipation Proclamation, first could actually become landowners, there were hardly any African-American attorneys in this country, and certainly if you look at African-American attorneys in rural areas. But for the most part, white attorneys in Southern rural counties did not want to represent African-Americans. It was kind of bad for the business. And I think that that history of a lack of access to justice, a lack of access, a very practical way, to legal services. 

Over time I think not having a will or an estate plan became normal within many families, and so I do think that it’s almost like we had that original sin in the late 1800s of being denied the opportunity to retain or hire a lawyer. We’ve now seen that cascaded across many generations. So, you know, once again, Anne, like I said, I do hope others do more in-depth studies to really get to that issue, but that, you know, those are some of the explanations.

 

ANNE PRICE: Thank you for that, and it’s just another area that has been under-studied and is so important for us to understand the trajectory of intergenerational wealth transfers. I want to really get into how you came to work on the Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act, UPHPA. Because it does represent the most significant reform to partition law in this country in this modern time. 

You were the person charged with drafting this act, promulgated by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. And I will say as a person who’s worked on race and wealth for about a decade, this probably has been the most significant advancement of addressing inequality and addressing wealth-stripping that we’ve really seen. So how did you come to lead this effort? Tell us a little bit about that.

 

THOMAS MITCHELL: Yeah. So I think for me, it kind of started with how I became a law professor in the first instance. So I knew that coming out of undergrad, coming out of law school — and I went to Howard University School of Law — I really wanted to have a career where I’d work on social justice and that my work would have an impact.  And I had practiced in a large law firm in Washington, DC, and I found out about a master’s program at the University of Wisconsin where you could spend two years doing research on a legal issue of your choosing. 

And so I applied for that and spent a lot of time thinking about, what did I actually — what actually interested me, and what animated me? And I decided not to limit it to anything I’d studied in college or studied in law school or I’d practiced when I was a practicing attorney, but you know, I did spend a week just kind of trying to get inside myself, think about, well, you know, if I really think about it, what couple issues really do I, has been a through-line in my life, whether or not I’ve followed up with any formal studying? 

It was essentially two things I kind of came to. One was I grew up, I was born and raised in San Francisco and born in 1965 and 1970 was the highwater mark for African-Americans in San Francisco. It was 13-1/2, 14%. I think as many people know, San Francisco has had the greatest loss of an African-American population of any city in the United States. 

There’s currently a movie out right now called The Last Black Man in San Francisco. And I, you know, during parts of my childhood, I very much witnessed the reduction in the African-American population in San Francisco and had long talks with people like my dad about what were the dynamics driving that. So there was just a general sense of loss that I had in the African-American community as I saw all kinds of businesses and residents having to pack up and move out of the city. 

I think the second theme that I was curious about is my — I hadn’t really had much touch with my extended family for some family complicated family dynamics, but in college I did go to the funeral of my grandfather in Newark, New Jersey, who I’d never met in my life. And then in that setting, I ended up stumbling across a bunch of family albums that showed the family’s roots in Southwest Georgia. And so I had this kind of overpowering desire to learn more about the Southern African-American groups in my family. 

And somehow I was thinking about, how can I combine this notion of gentrification and loss that I saw firsthand growing up in San Francisco with this desire to learn more about my African-American family’s history in the South? And you know, I read up a bunch of articles and, you know, newspaper accounts, and then I kind of stumbled upon this issue of these partition sales that were forcing the sales of privately-owned properties that had been acquired from the time of the Emancipation Proclamation going forward. 

It was a history I knew nothing about. It was counterintuitive when I actually read these articles about these partition actions, because we were not in law school taught that, anything about these partition actions, right, it was just portrayed as this incredibly dry, boring, you know, neutral area of law. So I think that that kind of got me started. And when I was at the University of Wisconsin, I had opportunities by working with others, including people at a center that was very important in terms of dealing with land issues called the Land Tenure Center. 

I ended up getting many opportunities to travel to the South and meet firsthand a number of African-American families who really told me in excruciating detail how the law of partition actually worked on the ground as opposed to how it was framed in our property law textbooks in law school. So I think that’s what kind of got me started down this path. You know, then of course, my pursuit of research and, you know, came out with an article in 2001 that, you know, I guess is still considered the seminal article on the topic. But I also had, going back to that I wanted to have an impact, is I didn’t just want to be a professor who wrote articles for an academic audience, like, you know, I always had this touchstone of like I wanted to have an impact in, you know, in a concrete, tangible way. 

So I began working actually with that Land Tenure Center and we basically identified several rural, poor communities throughout the US where the issue was their lack of access to legal services was undermining their ability to maintain land or property that they had acquired. And I ended up building up a whole national network of law students who would spend their summers, all across the country, including many places in the South, working on behalf of various communities or public interest, legal organizations, legal aid organizations, on that issue of providing legal services to property owners so that they could maintain ownership of their property. 

So I, you know, by the time there was an opportunity opened up to potentially have this Uniform Partition Act, part of the reason I was selected was that not only was my scholarship considered the primary or the seminal scholarship in the area, but that I also had this whole network of various organizations that had been in the trenches and working for decades on this issue. And so I think that the combined thing with my scholarship and my, kind of my network of these organizations kind of made me uniquely qualified to service the principal drafter for the Uniform Act.

 

ANNE PRICE: Wow. Thank you for that trajectory. Tell us a little bit about what you’ve seen over the years in terms of this act being passed from state to state. What do you see as some of your biggest wins and how you’ve overcome some struggles in some states?

 

THOMAS MITCHELL: Sure. So I think our biggest win was just getting this on the radar screen of the American Bar Association, which formed a task force back in 2001 or 2002 called the Property Preservation Task Force, and it was that task force that I ended up serving on that. But we advocated to — you mentioned the organization the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. [Inaudible] rebranded themselves because they think that that’s a mouthful, and they’re right. But they’ve branded themselves now as the Uniform Law Commission. And so, you know, we sent later a proposal, asking them to establish their drafting committee. 

Now, when we did that, it was considered an extreme reach, and now, you know, the Uniform Law Commission’s 127 years. They’ve drafted 450 of these uniform acts. They’re most known for drafting the Uniform Commercial Code, the UCC, which they did with one of their organizations. But there was little evidence that they had really done anything in their entire history to really take on an issue of social justice, let alone racial justice. You know, and those of us who were on the task force felt obligated to develop a proposal, submit it, you know, but internally, we thought we had at best maybe a 10% chance given the history of the Uniform Law Commission not taking on these types of issues. 

So I think, just when I found out back in 2007 that, of all the proposals that they had been submitted that year, and usually they get a lot, that ours was one of the four or five they selected. I, you know, that has then led to so many other things, right? So I, you know, so I think that was one, right? But second, because it was a uniform act that would actually kind of explicitly deal with social and racial justice, there were kind of minimal expectations of the success the Uniform Partition Act would experience. And just some context on that: in their 127 years, the Uniform Law Commission has promulgated 38 uniform real property acts; and the median number of states that have enacted into law any of their real property acts is one. 

So it’s been an area overall that they’ve had very little success. And then you layer on top of that that ours is not just a uniform real property act, but it is one that’s addressing social justice and racial. And I think there was kind of a skepticism. There was kind of a [inaudible] that no state legislature would seriously take this up because the people it impacted, you know, African-Americans primarily, others, were folks who had little wealth, little social capital and little political capital. So that was what we were starting with. 

Like the baseline was the assumption that ours would be just another uniform real property act that would sail and probably have zero enactments. So breaking through and just getting even our first state, which was Nevada — now, I don’t think Nevada’s where the heart of the problem is, but that actually, by breaking through and saying, “No, you know, we actually had one state that passed it,” that was helpful. I wouldn’t think that the success we’ve had in the Southern states has, even for somebody like me who I think, and I see myself as kind of a person who’s trying to keep the flame of hope alive that there could actually be reform, the fact that we’ve had five Southern states enact it has even surprised me, right? 

And then when I looked — you know, so those five Southern states are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas. For me, I’d say that South Carolina is one of the states that really stands out, and it stands out because, after the Emancipation Proclamation, there were a number of African-Americans in South Carolina who actually acquired land. Even when the federal government reneged on its promise — it’s said, popularly is known as the 40-acre and a mule promise — there were certain African-Americans in South Carolina who basically took the position that “We are not giving this land back, and if you want it, come take it, and we are armed.” And the federal government actually acquiesced to a certain subset of those African-Americans who had acquired land. 

So South Carolina was the state that had the greatest number of African-American landowners. It’s also the state that has had the greatest amount of land loss in the African-American community. And so I think that, you know, when we were working to get the Uniform Partition Act in South Carolina, you know, many people just, given South Carolina’s history, thought, “Okay, you know, there’s absolutely no way at the end of the day South Carolina’s going to enact this into law.” And we had, you know, we had some hurdles along the way.

I’m not going to give, you know, the full play-by-play, but let me just tell you what happened at the end. At the end, we ended up getting it passed in the South Carolina House. I think this was like in 2015. And we were able to bank that win for the next year, and so we were off to the South Carolina Senate. And everything seemed to be going well, until that I remember I got a call in mid-March that said all of a sudden that there was a problem, that two right-wing senators, one more than the other, were expressing real reservations about the act. 

And then they asked me to draft a memo that would be circulated to all of the members of the South Carolina Senate’s Judiciary Committee. And I focused on those issues that had been identified to me by two of those senators. It seemed that it convinced one of them that the act was worth supporting. But the other was, you know, hell-bent on killing our act. That other senator, who’s no longer in the South Carolina legislature, was a guy named, or is a guy named Paul Thurmond, and his dad just happens to be a guy named Strom Thurmond. So you know, now I feel like I’m battling the ghost of Strom Thurmond in South Carolina. 

And what happened at the very end was, given, you know, Paul Thurmond’s commitment to kill our act, the South Carolina senators who had sponsored the act at the very last minute changed the name of the act. So in every other state, it’s called the Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act. In South Carolina, it’s called the Clementa C. Pinkney Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act. So who’s Clementa Pinkney? Clementa Pinkney was the state senator and the pastor of Mother Emmanuel church in Charleston, and he was one of the nine people who was murdered by Dylan Roof, a white supremacist. In his prime — you know, tragically, of course. 

In his prime in South Carolina legislature, Clementa Pinkney was well-known to be the biggest advocate of property law reform to benefit heirs’ property owners. So in renaming it in his honor, which is still the only act of the South Carolina legislature that has ever been named in his honor, any state senators who were on the fence about whether or not to support it or not or were considering the arguments that Paul Thurmond was making, I mean, the reality is none of them wanted to be on record as opposing the only act named in the honor of Clementa Pinkney. And at the end of the day, the only state senator who opposed it was Paul Thurmond. 

You know, so not only, you know, did we, you know dot that — you know, I don’t want say that in light of what happened at the church. Not only did we prevail in that encounter, but the fact that is the only bill named in his honor really put South Carolina in a special spot in terms of our act. But then it, you know, afterwards, I think partially because it was named in his honor, then-Governor Nikki Haley invited three of us to her office for a ceremonial signing of the act so, and then made it quite clear this was an act that was very important to her and that it would, in her words, “help thousands and thousands of heirs’ property owners throughout the State of South Carolina.” So for South Carolina, it does have that particular sense of historical importance and importance for those other reasons that I mentioned. 

We’ve had a recent success that I think is also kind of extraordinary. So last Friday, the New York legislature just passed the Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act, and what’s important — not only is New York obviously an important state, but it came about because an investigative reporter with one of the major television stations in New York stumbled upon this phenomenon wherein gentrifying neighborhoods throughout every borough in New York, real estate investors, had been buying out one family member and then basically threatening a partition action if the other family members will not sell them their interest, right? 

So some of them, they’ve then actually followed through and filed the partition action; in others, the families felt helpless once they found out what the background partition law was, and then they did sell out. And unfortunately, many of them didn’t fully understand or appreciate the fair market value of their properties, and most of them ended up selling out for a price that was well below the market value of their properties. So I think what the New York, by broadcasting this — and the reporter just did an outstanding job — it highlighted that this is not just a rural phenomenon. 

Obviously if this is happening in a place like New York City, you know, it’s both a rural and urban phenomenon. And it’s more a phenomenon that impacts low- to moderate-income property owners who typically don’t have an estate plan, who are what we call land-rich but cash-poor. So I think that just in highlighting that, it’s actually going to help us as we go forward in additional states in terms of framing this, if your particular, you know, state senator or representative happens to be in an urban area, there’s a reason that you should be supporting this act as well. 

So there’s, you know, I could kind of go on and tell you this, almost every state I feel particularly attached to. I do think that those two states have, you know, real significance. And South Carolina really provided the opening to make our bill viable in Texas, because when I initially met with some of the legislators in Texas, they were very skeptical. I mean, they were very committed to these types of issues, but they’re like, “There’s just no way.” And then I said, “I hear you,” right? “I get why you think there’s no way. Let me tell you about South Carolina that just enacted it, you know, two years ago,” and you know, literally their jaws like dropped, and they just could not believe that we got it through South Carolina, and in an overwhelming way. 

And that, for this other state senator in Texas went from being very skeptical to, the next day, he was the sponsor of the act, and it ended up sailing through. You know, in Texas, it was unanimous, in the Texas House of Representatives and in the Texas Senate. But South Carolina played a key role in that.

 

ANNE PRICE: Thank you for that and really understanding that, when folks thinks that progress can’t be made in certain places, that it certainly can. 

I want to tell our listeners that we have a number of great resources to get into this issue even further, and I just want to kind of close with giving us a sense of how people actually get involved in this effort throughout this, across the country. What can they do?

 

THOMAS MITCHELL: So one thing I appreciate when you indicate that people across the country — so one other point I do want to make is that we’ve now, with the New York enactment, once we get the governor to sign that, within a month, we’ll have 14 states that have enacted the UPHPA into law, as well as the United States Virgin Islands, which enacted it into law last December. It has been enacted into law in every geographical region in this country, from Hawaii to the Midwest, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, the South, Connecticut, New York. 

So this is an issue that disproportionately impacts African-Americans, but not exclusively. So there are now opportunities, now that the issue has been kind of highlighted as, you know, impacting many of these communities, both rural and urban. So I’d say that if folks want to get involved, first of all, you can contact me, and I’d be happy to work with you. 

And let me just tell you about some of the other people I work with. So it’s kind of a small group of us who kind of consult every year about opportunities in different states. So the other person is, he’s the chief counsel at the Uniform Law Commission, so if you Google “Uniform Law Commission,” his name is Benjamin Orzeske, and he’s always involved in this process. 

And then there was a, just an incredible coalition that was formed when we began advocating for the act, or actually when we were drafting the act. So it’s called the Heirs’ Property Retention Coalition: HPRC. And the coordinator for that is somebody named John Pollock. So the Heirs’ Property Retention Coalition has a website with John Pollock’s contact information. So I think that, you know, contacting John or Ben or me or all of us would be a good kind of starting spot. 

The other thing is, so right now, I’m very actively working with stakeholders in a variety of different states now for the 2020 legislative session, and one of the best models I’ve actually seen is in Virginia. And what’s good about what’s happening in Virginia now is there is a coalition that has come together, they are very diverse; so there’s folks from something called Black Family Land Trust. But then the key organization in Virginia that represents land trusts, or these are not community lands; these are land trusts that tried to steward, typically rural land. They’re involved. There are some folks who are interested in historic preservation. They’re involved. And so it’s just a very diverse group of stakeholders that are working hand in hand. 

They each have their own contacts in the legislature, they’re having monthly meetings, and I think for the act to prevail, that’s kind of the best model. When we end up advocating for the act, you know, I always, when I testify in different legislatures, you know, I always make the point: this is an act that impacts, as I indicated, low- to moderate-income people, folks with low rates of estate planning, but that it impacts, you know, African-Americans, white Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, really to try to make the act as universal as possible. 

And in particular states, what has really helped as we’ve framed it is to frame it as an issue that strengthens private property rights and that protects family real estate wealth. So there’s a whole, you know, discussion that we have about, how are we going to frame it, you know, even though it has impacted disproportionately, I think, African-Americans? So anyway, I think that, you know, those are, in terms of particular contacts. 

And the last thing, as I think I shared with you, is the link — so the Uniform Law Commission has a link or a page for the Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act, so if anybody who’s interested in getting involved, they should go to that page. On that page, there’s a link that says Documents, and that has — if you click onto that, there’s something called the legislative toolkit. It has all kinds of helpful information, very good, crisp summaries of the act, and then things like why your state should adopt it. So that’s always a great resource to go, in a very kind of quick and dirty way of kind of then getting up to speed on the act, where it’s been enacted, what is kind of our talking points. I would very much encourage people to go and check out that link.

 

ANNE PRICE: Thank you for that depth of resources to get engaged in this work. And thank you for tuning in to this episode of Hidden Truths, the podcast of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. You can learn more about Thomas’s work at Texas A&M University School of Law by visiting www.law.tamu.edu, and for more information about the Insight Center, visit insightcced.org. Thank you.

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Transcript | Episode 25: Darris Young

Download the transcript for Episode 25: Darris Young as a PDF

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AISA VILLAROSA: Welcome to Hidden Truths, the podcast to reexamine the root causes of economic and racial inequalities. I’m Aisa Villarosa, Associate Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Insight Center. 

In this episode, we’re going to sit down with a dynamic advocate who works across the local, state, and national levels helping justice impacted people and youth of color pave a pathway to reach economic security and build prosperity for themselves, loved ones, and future generations. We’ll unpack some deep rooted systemic barriers that keep people from becoming economically whole, including the ability to live, work, and thrive. This means asking and analyzing what happens when a local landscape changes and leaves behind, or even works against, those that have lived in, sustained, and enriched their homes and communities for decades. 

To dig into this and more, I’m so honored to welcome Darris Young, the Lead Program Associate for the Boys and Men of Color Alliance at the Urban Strategies Council. Born in Oakland, Darris is a national organizer and former counselor who has decades of experience working and partnering with Black and Latinx youth and young adults. Darris, thank you so much for joining me on today’s podcast.

 

DARRIS YOUNG: Thank you for having me.

 

AISA VILLAROSA: Before we dive into your work, let’s take a moment to talk about your life in Oakland. Growing up, how were you shaped by the city, its leaders, and the events of the 1960s and 1970s?

 

DARRIS YOUNG: First of all, I was very young during the time that a lot of historical events were going on. I was, you know, in grammar school, grade school, and my family, my mother’s family actually, migrated out from New Orleans to West Oakland. So, I spent a considerable amount of time on the weekends, during the week, in West Oakland having lived in Berkeley. 

It was during the time when the Vietnam Movement was going on, war protests, the Civil Rights Movement, and also the Black Panther Party Movement. And I actually would drive down what we called Grove Street, but it’s Martin Luther King now, and a lot of the time I would be right in the midst of the Black Panther Party handing out pamphlets and leaflets, newspapers, in regards to their programs. 

And also with the Vietnam War and the protest that was going on there, I went to an elementary school in Berkeley, California, Washington School, which was in the heart of, almost downtown Berkeley. And I could recall, I believe it was in ’67, ’68, I was in second grade, and I remember seeing the National Guard troops, you know, stationed in the old City Hall building right on the grass over there. There were tanks in our streets. And I just recall, it’s still vivid in my mind, you know, the teargas that was in the air, and not really understanding it all, but I knew that there was something that was wrong. 

But where I got a lot of context from these things was in the barber shops. You know, when my dad would take us to the barber shop, and I would, you know, just listen to the conversations. And a lot of the conversations that happened within the barber shop, they were these political conversations. And I took that all in. 

And not actually knowing what it meant then, but I knew what it means now. And a lot of the things that I gathered were, you know, for people who look like me, people who were marginalized, the message was we can’t just stand by and be silent and expect things to change, right? Change comes when people get involved, they begin to get noisy in certain ways, however we want to define what noise is, and you begin to make a difference. 

But you can’t sit around and be silent and to expect things to change. It has to be a sacrifice and a price paid. And I believe those are the things that I held inside, and then they came to full bloom when I got older.

 

AISA VILLAROSA: I am always so impressed hearing from advocates about this idea. What is, what is your why, and so thank you for sharing, because it sounds like from a very early age, you had this growing intuition, maybe certain pieces were being crystallized at different times. And I really also appreciate that the barber shop, this hub of community was where so much of that eureka moment, that understanding, unfolded. 

Can you talk about how some of those, the laws and policies of that time have in some ways led us to where we are today? And I ask that, in part, because we are certainly at a time when these conversations, thankfully, are being had from the recent Democratic debates to really a lot of the local advocacy that’s going on.

 

DARRIS YOUNG: When we look back, especially to the 60s, you have to understand that the policies that were going on back then, and especially with policing, it was about containment. It was about containment. Especially in communities of color. And so when we understand that policing, and a lot of our modern day policing actually grew out of slave patrols, these were in black and brown communities, it was containment. 

Take, for instance, Oakland back in the 60s. It was more segregated back then. You had black communities, you had white communities, you had communities that were sectioned off by neighborhoods. And so when you look at how those communities were policed, they were actually policed to contain you in your area so that you would not go outside of your area and venture off. And when you did venture off, then you would be corralled by the police. 

And so when you look at a lot of the policies that built mass incarceration, people were being sent off to prisons and jails based on minor drug offenses, and these things were happening because of, you know, car stops, what we call pretext stops. A lot of those policies that we had in terms of our policing policies, they were meant to net, you know, African American and Latino people, and the end result was building a prison system that incarcerated more people for minor offenses than we had for what we call our major violent offenses. 

So, those policies and those practices have impacted us to where we have landed today with billions of dollars, billions of dollars invested in the prison systems and not any dollars invested in jobs, employment, housing, mental health services, all of these things needed to build people and relieve those most oppressed communities from those things that have been impacting them since the days of the Constitution of America. 

There’s a good book that’s out now, and I like to reference books, it’s called The Color of Loss. And it talks about how the United States government, every state government, they were implicit in helping to segregate America. So, when we look at the Brown v. Board of Education, that started to resegregate schools, one of the things that actually didn’t allow that to have the greatest impact was that housing was still very much segregated. And it didn’t become unsegregated where people could move into different areas until later on. But even today, we’ve gone back to certain things that look like we are redlining once again, but they’re just doing it in different ways.

 

AISA VILLAROSA: There was a recent report released by Haas over at Berkeley talking about how the Bay Area is more segregated than it was at the dawn of the Fair Housing Act. This was certainly by design. And I appreciate you really breaking open so many of those policies, and also tying it back to education. 

There was another recent report done by the ACLU saying that in California, about 400,000 students in the K through 12 system attend a school that has a police officer, but not a counselor. So, also like you said, it’s also about looking at where are the dollars going, and what are we supporting?

 

DARRIS YOUNG: And I will just add too that when you look at those policies back then, and I think it was Michelle Alexander, she pointed out in her book, The New Jim Crow, that these things always come back, but they just come back in different forms. And so the form that this has come back into that we’re dealing with today is with overcriminalization of people of color. 

So, what you have is, if you have a criminal record, can’t live in public housing. Jobs are the same way. Although we have moved forward in some policies with Ban the Box and things like that, these are recent reforms. But if you look at the fact that this type of legislation was on the books for most of the new century and going into the past century and the ending part of the century, it lets you know that they came back and they used these things, when it comes to mass incarceration, to keep people boxed into the same places and saying, “not able to progress.” 

These are some of the same things that came out of after people were released from slavery, you had peonage laws, you had sharecropping. And it impacted people, you know, African Americans, Latinos,then our Native people, and other people of color. So, these policies continue to come back in different forms and fashions in the same way. Even though we are making headway in reforming them, the fact that they were there.

 

AISA VILLAROSA: And to pick up a thread that you mentioned earlier, the ability of government to isolate community is very much an intentional move. 

I’d love to dive into a bit more of your pathway to advocacy, because I know from our previous collaborations together, you have a very unique story, and a very unique set of experiences, specifically in looking at your biography. Folks would think, oh, okay, advocacy, mental health, counseling, wait… police officer? So, walk us through that, and walk us through that time in your life and how that informs who you are professionally and personally today.

 

DARRIS YOUNG: Okay, so I can’t talk about that piece without giving you some familiar background. So, I come from a family, and from a community that believed that as African American people in the 60s, we were in a position to start thriving and making a difference within our communities, right? That was the ideal, the ideal was that now if you worked hard, if you did all of these right things, then we would be accepted. We would be living in this ideal of what Martin Luther King envisioned in his “I Have a Dream” speech. 

And so those types of things, I was brought up and raised to believe that if you’ve done X, Y and Z you can do this. So graduating from high school, I really did not have an idea of really what I wanted to be. But I knew that I was conditioned and destined to make a difference within my community, within my family, and within society as a whole. 

And I believe it was in my second year of community college, I took a course, and it was a sociology course that was given by an African American man, and he was a former Black Panther, as was his brother. At that time, he started talking to me about policing. He said, “you know, our communities need more African American police to patrol our communities, to be of power, so that we can take control of our communities and be able to have more control, and then that way we won’t have the things that are going on in our communities that were going on back then that are still going on now.” 

So, I, in 1985, ’84, applied for the Richmond Police Department. And at that time, the Richmond Police Department had been sued by a group of fraternal officers, called the Guardians of Justice, and some citizens, because Richmond had a bunch of killings. Sort of like what’s going on today. 

I applied, I was hired, January, 1985, I went through our police academy out at Lawson Dallas College. There were 40 recruits. I was the vice president of my academy class. Came out, graduated, and six weeks into field training, I was terminated for really no reason whatsoever other than the fact that I was an African American man, and they did not want me in the police department. 

And so I started to change my views, started to really, really look at what it meant to be an African American man. I was 23 years old at the time and I tell people, you know, I really was not fully, fully mature. But my value system began to change. I began to look at things through a different lens now. And I say this, you know, my mother and my father, they did a lot to prepare me and my siblings for prejudice. But in a way, we weren’t prepared for racism, because they’re really two different things, right? 

You know, racism is the ability of a system to keep you down. It has the power to keep you from getting a loan for the house, for maintaining a job, for different things. That’s power, right? Prejudice is what people think of you. They pre-judge you. All of these things, you know? So, they’re two different things. And so I was mainly prepared for prejudice in that way, but racism I was not prepared for. 

So, at the end of the day, you know, I went through a learning experience. And it was in the height of the drug era. One thing led to the other. I eventually found myself addicted to crack cocaine. It led me in and out of prison more than once until I got a long prison sentence at the age of 33, and when I came out in 2012, I was 50 years old. 

But I think that was in that time I began to really, really find myself. And I’m not saying that long prison sentence helped me to find myself, but it gave me an opportunity to reflect on what life meant and what it meant for me as an African American man, and some of the things that I needed to do. And I would say that all of the things that I internalized as a youth growing up watching the Black Panther Party, the Vietnam Movement, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X- all those things, they came into fruition, and then they made sense. 

And so I got out, I was intent on doing counseling work, but my role led me to advocacy. And it started off with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. And through my advocacy, I began to learn that in order for us to have these systems that we need to correct people or to get people back on the right track, we needed dollars and cents, whether that was for mental health, substance use and abuse, housing, all of these things, and we weren’t getting that, because all of the money was still going to enforcement. 

If we began to focus on the needs of people, we wouldn’t have to spend millions of dollars on enforcement and we can look at helping to shape people’s lives, people who have been broken by racist policies and systematic oppression. People that have been broken by the system of oppression, they can be sick and we need these systems in place to help fix people. And when all of your dollars and cents are being spent on locking broken people up, then that’s what needed to change. 

So, my advocacy began to be informed by those practices, and I led myself into advocacy. That’s where I’m at now, advocating for systems of change so that we can help build this society that Martin Luther King and others had this idea about, that we can live in a society that’s actually great. But it’s not great as we are now.

 

AISA VILLAROSA: It is a complete honor to see you at work. And we’ve been working on this Fair Chance Hiring Project for some time now. You mentioned California’s passage of a statewide Ban the Box, and while it’s helpful in bringing some reform to the background check policy, as you said, the past to realizing the promise of any law or any objective is so much bigger. 

Turning to that, you shared that you recently were in D.C. doing some advocacy at the national level and lending some testimony. As the 2020 election approaches, we are hearing from candidates, exploring more than say previous years, how to address the racial wealth gap, reparations, baby bonds. These are big bold ideas, but the question remains, can we get this done, can this be implemented?

In your experience as an advocate, is anything missing from this conversation? Is there something that you would want those leaders to know as we try to reform, not just the criminal justice system, but, as you said, building a world where folks can actually get access to quality jobs, quality services, the resources they need to not just break even, but start building savings and wealth for themselves and their families?

 

DARRIS YOUNG: It’s not just incumbent upon the person who sits in the presidency. Granted, and I don’t say the person’s name, but 45 has a lot to be desired, right? 

But even when we have Democratic presidents or great presidents, we don’t go far enough in understanding, or not understanding, but having the will- having the will to say that the damages that have been inflicted upon our people, this started with African American people, they have been validated through every institution in society from science, government, school, education, you name it. And it starts with actually looking at people in non dehumanizing ways. 

So, if we just looked at as formerly incarcerated and not as citizens needing to have their rights back, then we’re still dehumanizing. So, we have to look at, start looking at any candidate who holds that highest office, they have to look at all oppressed people, starting with the most oppressed as being humans first, and that human beings, regardless of their economic status, the color of their skin, their gender preferences- we’re humans. 

And so I think that, you know, I’m looking for not just that candidate to say that, you know, we are going to start looking at this issue from the standpoint of how we humanize people. I want those candidates to start looking at that. Then we start shaping our policies not just around how we do things in America, but how our policies affect people in other countries, in other nations. Before, in order for us to get to these better places here, it has to be how we think globally as well. So, yeah.

 

AISA VILLAROSA: Global community, yeah.

 

DARRIS YOUNG: Yeah, global community, because that’s where we’re at. 

I mean, so many of the issues that have forced people from other countries, whether they’re from Latin America, whether they’re from the Caribbeans, whether from wherever, these are countries that have been impacted directly by America’s policies that are forcing them to flee in for other places for more protection. So, we have to start with that first.

 

AISA VILLAROSA: Your discussion of this global community ties nicely into, as we close up our time together, thinking ahead to the future, because, as I’m sure you know, this is a long fight that involves a continual cycle of renewing each other’s activism, sharing collective successes, and because you work with such a diverse array of organizations and individuals, what sparks and fuels your hopefulness for the future? What keeps you fighting?

 

DARRIS YOUNG: First of all, what keeps me fighting is the fact that I have a daughter. The fact that I’m around so many young people that want better, that want to embrace these ideals of what it means to be a community, and so, that keeps me fighting. That’s one of the things that keeps me fighting. And then the other thing is that I’m always in connection with the ancestors. It’s the spirit of resistance that runs through my veins. When I have my worst days is the period of the ancestors that keep me going, keeps me fighting. 

And then also because I’m around so many great individuals, I’m in coalition. One of the things about the work at the Urban Strategies Council, we convene different tables. One of the tables that we convene is the Justice Reinvestment Coalition of Alameda County and we’re comprised of different organizations but also people from different walks of life- gender, background, race. But we all have that one common thing, and it’s that we believe in the humanity of all people. And so when you believe in the humanity of all people and you come together on that accord, then you’re able to get stuff done. 

So, I look at the little things that we have done already and I look more to the local level than I do at the national level. We tend to focus on the presidential stuff, but there’s opportunities right here at the local level to get things done. 

Take, for instance, Senator Nancy Skinner. She has a deal in right now that has already passed committee and if it goes all the way through, this will give people with convictions the right to serve on juries. One of our coalition members, All of Us or None, they have gotten on a ballot an initiative that will give voting rights to people that are still on parole, it’s called the Kindness Done Campaign. So, once you’re out of prison, you’re given the right to vote instead of waiting until you get off parole to be able to do it. These are different pieces of legislation, right here at the local level, that we’re talking about that can have an impact on how things are done. Our policing reform bill, right, these things. 

So, there’s a lot of work to do at the local level. I believe that if we get the work done here locally, statewide, then the County of Alameda, the City of Oakland, Richmond, and all throughout the Greater Bay Area, we’ll get the work done at the local level, then I think that kind of like will, neutralize what does not get done at the federal level.

 

AISA VILLAROSA: It’s all about getting noisy, as you said.

 

DARRIS YOUNG: Getting noisy. Yes, yes.

 

AISA VILLAROSA: Well, I am glad that you took a brief vacation, because we will need you for the next 50 years.

 

DARRIS YOUNG: Oh,and as long as I wake up every day and within my frame of mind, my health intact, you know, for as long as I’m around and able to get up, I’ll be in this fight until the day it’s done. I won’t rest. 

You know, people often ask me, you know, do you ever have time to rest, and I say, “I have time to take a nap every now and then,” but I figure that I’ll have time to rest in eternity. But until that day comes, I’m going to keep working and working hard at fighting.

 

AISA VILLAROSA: Well, Darris, it has been an absolute pleasure spending this time with you.

To wrap us up, you talked a little bit about some of your current projects, what else are you working on right now? What’s coming up down the road for you, for The Boys and Men of Color Alliance, and for Urban Strategies?

 

DARRIS YOUNG: Well, for the Boys and Men of Color Alliance, basically it’s getting us through a campaign here locally and there is one of three things that we can do which is education reform, workforce development, and also violence prevention. But with the Urban Strategies Council, we were the winners for the Barack Obama My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge, and we were in partnership with one of our BMOC partners through The Mentoring Center of Oakland. And so getting that off the ground, and then getting a lot of the other BMOC partners, those who sit at the table involved in the advocacy, and also getting that work off the ground, that’s really important. For the Urban Strategies Council, it’s moving our work forward in terms of our research, our advocacy, and our rebranding, because a lot of our research informs a lot of the local advocacy that goes on here in Alameda County and in Oakland. We just completed a research project for the City of Oakland that focuses on their new Department of Violence and Prevention, which we’re very optimistic that it’s going to make a great impact having this department. We’ll start looking at ways to reduce and even eradicate violence in Oakland in three areas; that’s gun violence, the commercial and sexual exploitation of children, and also domestic violence. And we know that if you look at, you know, the communities that are impacted by these the most, they are our black and brown communities. And it has to do with past traumas and things, generational traumas that are connected to a science that’s called epigenetics, these things that are passed down from generation to generation. And then with some of the things that we’re doing within the Justice Reinvestment Coalition, we are really looking to move our Alameda County Board of Supervisors into saying, you know, enough is enough with the Alameda County Sheriff, you know? Let’s audit the sheriff’s department. Let’s find where this money is so that we can take this money away from needing the sheriff operations and putting them back into the communities. So, these are some of the things that I’m optimistic that we’re working on, both as an organization and through our Justice Reinvestment Coalition of Alameda County.

 

AISA VILLAROSA: Wow. Well, that sounds like it also ties in many of your skills and experiences from the counseling to addressing trauma. You mentioned the need for multigenerational, multidisciplinary advocacies so, we’re really looking forward to everything that transpires in the next year.

 

DARRIS YOUNG: And I’m looking forward to closing out this year, closing it out with a bang, and starting the new one off with an even bigger bang. There’s some things in store. I think there’s a lot of optimism that is before us. And I think with the energy, both within the organization and through the Boys and Men of Color table, through our Justice Reinvestment Coalition, there’s a lot of work that we are going to get done. And we’re not going to rest, like I said, until it gets done. 

You know, working with great people that are great visionaries, that have great ideas, you bring all the instruments into the room, you start warming them up. It doesn’t sound like good music until everybody starts playing on key but once we start playing on key, it makes such sweet music.

 

AISA VILLAROSA: Well, let’s keep jamming away. And folks can learn more about your work and the work of Urban Strategies Council by visiting www.urbanstrategies.org. And you can follow Darris on Twitter @DarrisYoung. 

Darris, it’s been an incredible pleasure. Thank you again.

 

DARRIS YOUNG: Thank you.

 

AISA VILLAROSA: And thank you all for tuning into this episode of Hidden Truths, the podcast of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. For more information about the Insight Center, please visit insightcced.org.

 

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