In This Episode
DeRay, Kaya, De’Ara and Myles cover the underreported news of the week— including the ongoing Tulsa race massacre reparations lawsuit, the Smithsonian plans to return looted items, the racial disparity in bar exam results, and the rise and fall of Kevin Samuels. DeRay interviews Montgomery County Council member and author Will Jawando about his new book My Seven Black Fathers: A Young Activist’s Memoir of Race, Family, and the Mentors Who Made Him Whole.
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, this is DeRay, and welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, Kaya, De’Ara, and Myles as usual talking about things that you don’t know, the news that didn’t make the headlines last week but you should know with regard to race, justice and equity. And then I sat down with Montgomery County Council member Will Jawando, who also is the author of a new book, “My Seven Black Fathers.” And this is actually a conversation that we had on his book tour just a couple of days ago. I’m excited to share with you because I love the book. I learned a lot when I read the book, and I think you will, too. Here we go. My advice for this week is to find a loving way to disagree with our friends. Sometimes our friends do things or have ideas or beliefs that don’t really gel with our ours, and we need to push them and challenge them, and there’s a way to do that in love. So that’s my advice for this week, is that we can challenge people in love, that we can be in conflict with our ideas being in conflict. Let’s go.
De’Ara Balenger: Family! Welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on the Instagram and Twitter @dearabalenger.
Kaya Henderson: I’m Kaya Henderson, @hendersonkaya.
DeRay Mckesson: And this is DeRay, @deray on Twitter.
De’Ara Balenger: So, you know, I feel like we were very much on a high a couple of weeks ago with the confirmed nomination of Justice Ketanji Brown–
Kaya Henderson: Yes. Yes.
De’Ara Balenger: –and then here we come, just getting, here we go, getting smacked in the face with this leaked Supreme Court draft of an opinion that would overturn the constitutional right to abortion. And not only that, but also, you know, it, you know, included to be okay for there to be a national ban, in some cases, in some cases classifying abortion as homicide. So it’s like overturning it, but then also doing the most. So, you know, this has been something that I think Democrats have been worried about for the past 50 years, but I think it’s something that Republicans have been organizing towards, working on with the court appoint–
Kaya Henderson: Working on.
De’Ara Balenger: –like all of it, right? So, I don’t know. I still was, I guess I’m still surprised. I guess I’m still one of those naive ones who, you know, even even though I knew this could be a possibility, it’s still so hard to believe that this actually could be reality in the United States.
Kaya Henderson: It’s so crazy to, I mean, like you De’Ara, I was not surprised and yet still surprised. I was watching Meet the Press this morning and the governor of Mississippi was on talking about why this was so important. And they asked about, like women’s rights, the women’s rights–it was Kristen Gillibrand making a passionate plea about the right of women to control their own bodies, the rights of women to be medically safe, etc.–and the governor of Mississippi, who was trying really hard to be very like authentic and you know–what did he say–I sympathize or something with these ladies who find themselves in this position or something like that. And, you know, he really he totally ignored the women’s rights question and went on and about this unborn American child. And then they asked him about, you know, well, so once we have all these babies, right, like, what are you going to do? And he was like, well, we have to strengthen our foster care system and we have to strengthen, you know, adoption services, and I just put a zillion dollars into, you know, whatever, some child welfare system or something, and Chuck Todd was like, Yeah, but Mississippi has the worst outcomes for children in America. Like, so you expect us to believe that you are going to take care of all of these things and that, you know, will support this now-born child. And he said, well, there’s you know, the key to this is we want these young people to grow up and get jobs and have educational attainment, that’s the best way. Mississippi schools are terrible considering when you look out across the state landscape. And so I really, I really, I need somebody to help me understand. This is a legit, legit question, like I’m, what is it that these people really want? Because they don’t want a whole bunch of, you know, poor children running around America, then they’re just gonna lock them up and do all kinds of other terrible things that we do to poor people. And so what is it that they are trying to accomplish? Can somebody explain to me what the point is? [long silence] Oh, okay. Well, I got to find some smarter friends, ’cause I look at . . . [laughs]
De’Ara Balenger: I mean, I mean, I think, I think, well, I think, you know, this is, it’s political, right? So I think this like, you know, abortion, gun rights, it’s like one of those thematic areas that Republicans hang their hats on to, like win elections, right? So it’s one of those things that becomes so highly politicized, but yet, when like there’s a Gallup poll that came out last week that said, you know, most Americans are okay with abortion, right? So it’s like these issues aren’t even issues that I think most like, that are, you know, most Americans are so fiery about. But I think in just the public narrative, you know, and it’s so much a part of the conservative narrative that this is a central issue, right? It’s steeped in Christian values, it’s steeped in, you know, four founders rhetoric, blah, blah, blah, but I think it’s just used as a tool to, you know, to win elections, to get people riled up, to keep, you know, to keep the evangelicals and the folks on the right very active, but I don’t think there’s any, Kaya to your point, I don’t think there’s really any intellectual or, you know, or kind of rationalized feeling for or thought around why we shouldn’t have abortions, so to speak. You know what I mean? So I just, I just, I think it’s a bunch of foolishness.
DeRay Mckesson: I will say, so I don’t know a ton about abortion. I am an activist and organizer. I do mostly criminal justice and race. So I had to learn a lot really quickly just to like know about abortion. And NPR did a really great ‘Seven Persistent Facts” and one of them was like, the things that stuck with me is that this idea that there is big support for ending Roe–like you said, De’Ara six in ten adults say abortion should be legal. This idea that after Roe, abortions skyrocketed? Actually, not true. I didn’t know that. Like, that wasn’t true. And this idea that abortion is dangerous because I have, I’ve seen so much of the fear mongering about it, but when I looked at it on the chart, and NPR is like pregnancy and childbirth are far more dangerous than getting an abortion, like not even comparable. And I just say this because I think so often on our side, we tell really good narratives–we do this in criminal justice, we tell these, we tell a lot of stories–sometimes we just have to tell the same thing over and over. It’s like, it’s like the message that people hear is what sticks. Not the message, not the most flowery story, but it’s like the thing they hear over and over is the thing that sticks. And I realized that I’d actually heard more anti-choice, I just had heard it more than I’d heard pro-choice messaging. Like I just had heard it more so when I had to recount the things I needed to go against, I’m like, Oh, I heard this thing, I heard this thing or that and I’m like, What are our messages? And like, that was a challenge for me to go do a better reading. The second thing is, I don’t know if y’all saw, but people are outside of Kavanaugh’s house and I’m all about it. They are like deep outside that man’s house and you should see it because it’s actually pretty great. But there are all these white journalists who are like, you know, Why are they outside this house? This is off limits. This is not what it should be. We should use the process literally.
Kaya Henderson: What?! So our bodies are not off limits, but his house is off limits. Miss me with that.
DeRay Mckesson: So people outside his house and really, it’s like it’s exactly that. Like you’re like, What!? How is, how is the worst thing ever this idea that people are at his house?! As opposed to what he is planning to do and the lie that he said before Congress about trusting Roe v. Wade, and to see Susan Collins just completely acknowledge that she got owned. This is the people outside his house. And it’s great. I’m all about it. Y’all should be out there. Like just, like these people shouldn’t know peace at all. You know what I mean? Like, we should stress them out. And when Clarence Thomas talks about the legitimacy of the court is really important and he’s worried about it, it’s like this should be, we should be tearing things apart for this. And I am this week going to meet with some activist to figure out how we can help in messaging and amplify the work that’s already happening. But I do, I did look up and realize that I had, I knew much more of the anti-choice messaging, just as like default because I had heard it so much.
De’Ara Balenger: And I think this is the, like for them to be outside of their house, I mean, like if our Supreme Court, if the highest court in the land is going to be political–
Kaya Henderson: Then it’s political. It’s on.
De’Ara Balenger: It’s on, it’s on. It’s on. And so, and the thing is, it’s like, you know, we’re supposed to have an independent judiciary. We are. No matter who nominates you, etc., it’s supposed to be independent and follow the letter of the law. So I just feel like if they want to step out there like this, it’s going to, it’s going to be interesting because I feel like it is going to be a new landscape for how you know, for how communities, individuals, movements respond to the Supreme Court. And I do think that impacts the legitimacy. Now, Clarence Thomas needs to be quiet seeing as his wife was sending all them crazy texts. That’s a whole ‘nother story.
Kaya Henderson: Can we deal with that? Like when does, who, how do we deal with that? Because that is worth–um hm.
De’Ara Balenger: Like you got a lot of nerve. Yeah, and when I visited the Supreme Court as a law student, he was asleep in his chair during the oral argument.
Kaya Henderson: Yikes.
De’Ara Balenger: So, sir you need to stay alert. You got nothing to do but sit there. Anyway. All right. Yeah. My news this week is about Tulsa. You know, I love Tulsa, Oklahoma, particularly Greenwood. Them my people. But this article was interesting and I was looking for some positive news this week. And let me tell you, it was hard to find. So this one came, I came across, this one and I was like, This is my news for the week. But a judge in Tulsa let this 1921 massacre reparations lawsuit proceed. And so it’s bringing hope to some of the survivors of the 1921 massacre. And so, you know, I think fortunately in the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of light and narrative change around what happened in 1921, and the fact that it was, you know, Black Wall Street was this thriving, incredible, brilliant kind of Mecca for Black people at the time. And these Black towns existed all around Oklahoma. So there were 50 of them. Now there’s 16. But Greenwood is, you know, kind of the special case study and the one we know most about. So it happened 100 years ago, Greenwood, which was, you know, 50 blocks of businesses, homes, communities, all gone, leveled. So there are still some survivors from the Greenwood Massacre. And so they’re suing–there are a number of defendants I’ll go through in a minute–but they’re suing on the basis of nuisance. And so the survivors, Lessie Benningfield Randle, who’s 107, Viola Fletcher, 107, and Hughes Van Ellis 101. Just, our people and the strength and I just, amazed. So their attorneys said that they just want, they’re just you know, trying to seek justice in their lifetime. So these folks have lived over 100 years and they’re just trying to get justice within their lifetime, right? Their attorney has seen so many survivors died in his 20-plus years working on this case: I just don’t want another, I don’t want these three to die without justice. So they’re suing “under Oklahoma’s public nuisance law, saying that the actions of the white mob that killed hundreds of Black residents and destroyed what had been the nation’s most prosperous Black business district, continued to affect the city today.” So the lawsuit seeks, it also seeks reparations for descendants of the victims of the massacre. There’s, so Eric Miller, who is a law professor at Loyola Marymount University, says that “in public nuisance cases, it is clear either criminal acts or destruction of personal property” constitutes a nuisance–which we know there was a ton of during this massacre. Now–
Kaya Henderson: This is my favorite. This is my favorite.
De’Ara Balenger: Here we go. Chamber of Commerce attorney John Tucker. He said the massacre was horrible.
Kaya Henderson: No, he didn’t say horrible. He didn’t say horrible.
De’Ara Balenger: It’s just like when that man–he did! He said the massacre was horrible.
Kaya Henderson: He said It was a really bad deal.
De’Ara Balenger: No! But listen, no, that’s the, then I get to that. I get that. Then he says, “what happened in 1921 was a really bad deal and those people did not get a fair shake . . . but that was 100 years ago.”
Kaya Henderson: Fair shake. Fair shake.
De’Ara Balenger: Sir, people were murdered. What do you mean, fair shake? What is it, I don’t, I don’t understand. A fair shake. Come on, John Tucker. Come on! So this is, so something that’s kind of like running parallel to this is another huge public nuisance case that happened in Oklahoma when the state of Oklahoma sued consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson and they use this same, they use this same state public nuisance law for its role in the, you know, the opioid crisis. But a judge ordered, in this case, the judge ordered the drug maker, drug maker to pay $465 million in damages. But then the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned the Johnson % Johnson verdict. You know, just for fun, I would love to just look at who’s on the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Imma do that for fun when I get off the pod. Anyway, they said that, they ruled that the public nuisance law did not apply because the company had no control of the drug after it was sold to pharmacies, hospitals, physicians’ offices, and then prescribed by doctors to patients. But in the case with the massacre, you know, the argument is that the legacy of the massacre is like still continuing today, right? So I think that that is the nuance here. So, again, “the massacre happened when an angry mob descended on 35-block area in Tulsa, Greenwood District”–Ok, it’s 35. I said 50 earlier–but it’s 35-block area in Tulsa’s Greenwood District, “killing people and looting and burning businesses and homes. Thousands of people were left homeless and living in a hastily-constructed internment camp. The city and insurance companies never compensated the victims for their losses, even though they had receipts and paperwork and all kinds of things to show that they had these losses. And the massacre ultimately resulted in racial and economic disparities that exist today, the lawsuit claims. In the years following the massacre, according to the lawsuit, city and county Officials actively thwarted the community’s effort to rebuild and neglected the Greenwood and predominantly Black North Tulsa community in favor of overwhelming white parts of Tulsa.” So the second part to the Greenwood story is that they actually built a highway through Greenwood. Yeah. So the other defendants of this case are the Tulsa County Board of County Commissioners, the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, the Tulsa County Sheriff, and the Oklahoma Military Department. I hope that, I don’t know what that would mean, but that doesn’t sound right to me, Oklahoma Military Department. So the lawsuit seeks for unspecified–I don’t even know what that would mean.
Kaya Henderson: It could be like the Army Corps of Engineers often does infrastructure projects in cities. It might be like that.
De’Ara Balenger: Okay. Okay. That sounds less scary, Kaya. The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive damages and calls for the creation of a hospital in North Tulsa–which would be nice–in addition to mental health and education programs in the Tulsa Massacre Victims Compensation Fund. [sigh] So I just, you know, wanted to bring this one to the pod because it is a little, little kind of flake of good news that this case is moving on. So, yeah. So that’s what I have for, that’s what I have for you.
Kaya Henderson: It really was, it’s galling to hear the attorney for the defendant say that this stuff happened a 100 years ago and “really bad deal, people didn’t get a fair shake.” And the failure to acknowledge the ramifications that exist to this day. I mean, it is no accident that they never rebuilt Greenwood. It’s not an accident that they didn’t compensate people for the assets that were held. It is not an accident that Black business has not thrived in Tulsa the way it did, you know, when Greenwood was up and running. Like, it’s been a coordinated effort, in fact, to hold folks back. And that’s why the defendants are the defendants–the planning committee, the Board of Commissioners, County Board of Commissioners, all of those people–are complicit in ensuring that that community never rebounded. And what are we asking for? Not just, you know, reparations–I’m going to say it, right? Reparations, recompense. We want some money. But people want a hospital and mental health services. People want the opportunity to rebuild community. And this is you know, this is what racism does. It destroys, it rips families and communities apart. And this community, you know, these three centegenarians–is that what you call 100-year olders–these folks, you know, to be able to see some justice in their lifetime is a small consolation to everything that we as a Black community lost in Tulsa. And so good for this one thing. You know, the cynical part of me is like we probably got 45 more, you know, opportunities for them to smack this back. But I’m going to celebrate with you for a moment that these folks and their descendants will actually get some get-back for what they took from us.
DeRay Mckesson: You know, I went to Tulsa–and De’Ara has definitely been disaster more than I have–one of the things that I’ll say, though, that always stuck with me was just the sheer scope of the horror. Like, it wasn’t like it wasn’t like, Oh, my goodness, the like garage was set on fire and that was really bad. You’re like, no, it was like a whole area, right? Like people’s lives, people’s livelihood and no recompense. You know, I do think what’s important about this is as time goes on and as you get further away from the actual incident, the first-hand accounts are going away, and, you know, and like, you know, there aren’t as many people who were alive. And like, we’re going to get past people who like lived it and saw it and I worry that like people–it’s one of things that happens with racism, is like the further we go away from the horror, people just downplay it. It becomes like, Oh, like it was like a really bad thing, but not evil, you know? Like, no, that was pretty evil. And the least they can do is have some sort of recompense for these set of people. But the other thing and I was happy to hear, that part of what they’re asking for is scholarships for the descendants, like profits from the Greenwood tourist site to go to a victim compensation fund. That in so many ways the government has tried to profit off of the terror without actually providing any recompense for people, and I do love that the claim is a forward-looking claim too. It saying like this terror was bad, also figure out how to use government funds to make sure that this like doesn’t happen again. And I love that about this.
De’Ara Balenger: And I will just say, you know, y’all, everybody go visit Greenwood, first of all. And there are some incredible Black-owned businesses there that are owned by young Black folks, like Silhouettes, which is like an amazing sneaker shop. There’s Fulton Coffee and Books, which is owned by the brilliant Onikah. So there’s the, you know, Greenwood Cultural Center, Greenwood Rising, like it is, it’s coming. It’s coming. But what does it need? It needs folks like, you know, I’m assuming us, to go to visit, to, you know, to support these businesses. Because, you know, the reason why I love Greenwood and I love Tulsa, there’s so many reasons, is because it feels like home and it feels like a place where you can have a vision and you can bring it to life, right? No matter the challenges, no matter what you’re up against. And so that’s my plug to go to Tulsa, y’all.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
Kaya Henderson: My news is a little piece of good news as well. The Smithsonian Institution has announced plans to return looted and unethically-procured items. Many of you know that the Smithsonian Institution is one of the largest museum systems in the world, and arguably one of the most important. It includes 21 museums and the National Zoo. And the head of the Smithsonian is an African-American man, Dr. Lonnie Bunch, who is also the founder of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. And now that Dr. Bunch is leading the Smithsonian Institution, the whole enchilada, he is pioneering a new policy that is actually, that will actually ensure that its constituent museums will begin the process of returning items from their collections that were looted or acquired unethically. This policy shift has a ton of implications for African art. Remember in Black Panther in the beginning when Killmonger and his white compadre, I can’t remember their cat’s name, but they go, they bust into the museum and they steal a piece of vibranium, a piece of art that had some vibranium in it, and Killmonger says, you know, Where’d get this. And he says, the curator says, Oh, it’s from somewhere such and such. And he’s like, No, it’s not. You stole this from Wakanda kind of thing. And this is, we’ve seen it, we’ve talked on the part about other pieces of art that were up for debate that I think the Germans have from an African country that I can’t remember because I can’t remember what I have for lunch yesterday, but I remember we did this on the iPad. And so it was interesting to me to see the Smithsonian take such a strong stance. And, you know, for this to be one of the leading museums for anthropology in the world, this is going to set the stage for how a lot of other museums think about their pieces that are procured illegally or from looting. And a lot of this, at least the first set of pieces that will be returned are the Benin Bronzes, which are a bunch of pieces of art, probably 10,000 items that were looted in 1897 by the British. They went into the Benin, what is, what is now Benin City in Nigeria, but was the seat of the Benin empire, and they stole all of these artifacts and pieces of art. And these artifacts are held in at least 160 museums, including 45 in the United States, 43 in the U.K., and 24 in Germany. And the Smithsonian is going to return the Benin Bronzes that we have in our collection back to Nigeria. Unfortunately, the Smithsonian policy will not include the go-back, right? We’re not going to go back and try to figure out every piece’s history and how we procured it, but when people make claims, we will then take up those–probably because we just don’t have the capacity to do it–but when people make claims of things being stolen, we will then look into the situation. Lonnie says, dr. Bunch says “the notion is to say when we’re doing exhibitions, when we’re bringing in new collections, let us look at it through an ethical lens. Or of course, if we hear from nations or communities about things, that will also trigger the kind of research that will really allow us to make decisions about where is the best place for these collections.” When you think about the importance of art, especially African art, how a people narrate their history and demonstrate their culture, having control over your own arts and artifacts is really, really important. And so for me, this is as much a culture story as it is a leadership story. When we lead, we lead differently than other people do. We are a people who were stolen. And so we know how it feels to have your stuff stolen and have other people have your stuff. And so my hat goes off to Lonnie, Dr. Lonnie Bunch for his leadership in shepherding an American institution in a new direction and setting the stage for how the world how the world should think about archeology.
De’Ara Balenger: This one was, it made me think about a couple summers ago when I was in Spain. You know, I love going to Spain as a Black woman who likes to travel and get out of this country. But then I ended up at a museum just kind of in the center of Madrid. I think it was like–I forget which museum it was, maybe anthropology or something–but they had a huge exhibit, all of these things from Egypt. So, you know, gold, jewelry, vases, like–what are the things that you keep the mummies in? What are the, like a sarcophagus–they had like all of these, and it just was like room after room after room after room, and I start to think to myself, How in the hell did they get all this stuff from Egypt? Why is all this here? So it’s just like, see how like colonization just ruins people’s vacations. So then I went to read, went to my room–dang, I can’t have a moment of peace–so then I went to read and it was in some type of diplomatic deal that like the Spanish helped build something in Egypt and because of that, kind of as payments, the Egyptians gave the Spaniards access to all of of these, all of this art and cultural artifacts, etc.. So, I mean, all that to say, like, I feel like this is the very basis of like what all of, you know, kind of like institutional museums are built off of, particularly in westernized, you know, westernized countries where so much of the artwork has been taken, stolen, exploited, from other places. So I think it’s, I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t I think it’s, you know, it’s being mindful about it and Kaya, to your point, like, you know, understanding that when you have someone like Lonnie Bunch in leadership, how things can change systemically. So yeah, thanks for bringing this one to the pod. And you know, one thing maybe we can do, and that’s what I’d like to do on like my tours at Monticello is, you know, ask irritating questions because that at least gives you some solace in the moment. So, you know, we can take tours of these places and ask really activating questions for these folks. So maybe that’s something we can spend the summer doing.
DeRay Mckesson: There’s an author, Professor Dan Hicks, who is a professor at the University of Oxford and the author of the Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution, and, you know, the Smithsonian is going to start by giving back these, the Benin Bronzes. 39 of them are slated, either are slated to be given back to Nigeria or are in the process of being reviewed. But Hicks, Professor Hicks says that more than 10,000 items looted in 1897 are held by at least 160 museums, including 45 in the U.S., 43 in the UK, and 24 in Germany. And, you know, I had no clue that the scale of the loot–10,000 items, it’s like what’s left?! When you steal, especially 10,000 items in 1897, you’re like, that was, you know, how were they collected? That had to be like almost all the collection, if not all of it. And when I also didn’t know until I was reading in Smithsonian Magazine is that the Smithsonian has actually had a history of returning artifacts to indigenous communities. The 1989 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act required the return of sacred objects, objects of cultural patrimony, and human remains to indigenous peoples. And they have gone beyond in some cases. The Natural History Museum returned human remains to Australia and New Zealand, both because it was the right thing to do and improving the Smithsonian’s relationship with Aboriginal people in the region. So I’m happy that this policy goes further with regard to looting and I’m happy that Benin is the first place that they will return artifacts–shout out to having a real leader. So my news is I learned about this on the Internet. I was like, Oh, let me bring this to you. I’m interested to see what everybody has to say. So the American Bar Association is recommending that the LSAT be dropped as a requirement for law school, and this would technically eliminate the requirement of a valid and reliable admissions test. The LSAT is the the best known test that is that test. And I was interested, I was like, okay, let’s see. I think this is fascinating. So, yes, I want to know, I like I’m always interested in standardized testing. Like, I get it. I like both am torn between there should be some sort of entrance criteria, whatever that criteria is, and trying to think about the racial disparities. But I never looked at the racial disparities of the LSAT. And then I saw, this came out 2021, but what the article says is that 66% of Black law school graduates passed the bar exam on their first try. Among white candidates, 88% succeeded, and other racial groups fell in between, ranging from a 76% first-time pass rate for LatinX candidates to an 80% rate for Asian exam takers. So, you know, there’s been a lot of scholarship on the racial gaps with the LSAT, and there are people who would suggest that the bar exam is actually a test of resources and not a test of knowledge. That the sheer amount that you have to memorize and the sheer amount that you have to know is not about how much you know in the moment, but how much prep you can get in. And that is actually a resource question, not a skill question. But I’m interested, I wanted to bring it here because I just hadn’t, I hadn’t thought about the LSAT, hadn’t looked at the racial disparities, and I didn’t know that there were proposals across the country–like an Oregon task force proposed creating to paths to licensure, one based on experiential law school curriculum and another grounded in post-graduate supervised practice. I just had no clue. That the New York State Bar Association recommended the state consider alternatives to the bar exam. This is something that was not on my radar at all until recently.
De’Ara Balenger: Well, it’s been on my radar because I did both of these tests the old fashioned way. But you know, the generation today . . . what can I say? No, but I honestly, I believe in all these things. So the LSAT is the entrance exam to law school. So there’s this whole movement now to get rid of the LSAT, which happens all of the time. And I think they’re actually more–and I’m making this up, but I think it’s true–I think there are more disparities with the LSAT than there are the bar exam, right? So the bar exam is what you take when you finish law school–unless you’re Kim Kardashian and you don’t go to law school.
Kaya Henderson: [laughs]
De’Ara Balenger: But more power to her, honestly. And in some states you can do that. You can just take a bar exam, you don’t have to do, in California, you can just take the bar exam and not go to law school.
Kaya Henderson: Wait, wait, wait, isn’t that like–I mean, yes, the Kim Kardashian thing was a joke–but isn’t that actually the point that this is making ,that if you have the right resources and the right prep, you can pass the bar, right?
De’Ara Balenger: Yeah, but it hasn’t passed yet. So back to what I was saying, Kaya.
DeRay Mckesson: De’Ara just had to put that in.
Kaya Henderson: [laughs]
De’Ara Balenger: So. So, but so, in the bar exam, yeah, so basically you finish law school and then you are supposed to literally take two months off of what you’re doing, pay thousands of dollars for a BarBri or whatever, you know, test prep class. You go to this class from, you know, 9 to 5 and then you study all night long for two months. So and then, and then with that the MBE, which is like the multiple choice part of the exam–so there’s usually a multiple choice part and then depending on the state you’re taking it and you take those state essay questions–so I think what this article is saying is that they would keep the essay questions, which makes sense because you’re actually like applying the law in having to write down–well, in my day we wrote it down, I think the young people today just use their computers–but we would sit there for hours, literally, writing with our hands, if you can believe it, our answers to the essay questions. And so I think, I can very much see how that makes sense and how that can, you know, kind of create more equity in terms of seeing who can actually apply the law based upon what you learned in law school. The MBE part, though, just seems kind of like a moneymaking apparatus. It’s like this whole, you know, national standardized test that every law student has to take. And it is based on rote memorization, right? It’s like how good you are taking a test, not necessarily how good you are at applying the law. So I’ve been kind of following these things for years just to see which way, which way they go, but it is, it is, it’s fascinating. And hopefully something is done or these tests are constructed in a way that they can be inclusive and actually reflect what people learned after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on law school.
Kaya Henderson: I thought this was interesting because it mirrors a lot of the conversations around the SAT and standardized testing in the K-12 space, which is my part of the world. Even teacher competency exams have come under fire for some of the same reasons. And I think that, you know, the bar stuff was super interesting to me because if every, if 80% of other people are passing the bar and only 66% of Black folks are passing the bar, then it seems like that is a, we need to do something about that pretty quickly. And I’m sure that, you know, people have been fighting this fight for a while. The LSAT thing felt different to me only because I wonder what would you use to figure out whether or not people are ready for law school? It also made me wonder, like are law school applications are decreasing and so we want to make it easier for people to go to law school? Like what is the, what, what else is going on? are a few of the questions that it raised for me. But I do think that like law school is a rigorous and demanding endeavor that costs a lot of money, and so I do, as much as I want it to be accessible to folks, I deeply believe that there are entrance requirements that people need to pass to make sure that this is the right thing for them before they take on the the rigor and the expense of of law school. I think this is also tied to the student loan conversation that we’re having in the country about, you know, whether or not we should forgive people student loans. And, you know, I’m not a ole hater. I paid off my student loans, but student loans were different in my time–De’Ara is laughing at me–but I’m not, I’m not a ole hater. I look at what these young people have to, the debt that they’re facing when they come out of school, or worse, the debt that they’re facing even if they haven’t finished school, and it literally kills your chances of economic success in this country. So I’m all for it. Forgive the people’s loans, figure out a way so that the rich people don’t get their loans forgiven and the people who really need it get it forgiven. Figure out a way to let people into law school who can actually do the thing and be successful, and figure out how to measure people’s competence for the legal field in ways that are not racist. Just a few small things to ask.
De’Ara Balenger: Kaya, you always make me think strategically because I feel like if you think about this in terms of the outcomes that we want to see, and, you know, I went to Texas Southern, to Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston, a historically Black university in Texas. And Thurgood came to be because a Supreme Court case and a judge decided that, you know, a Black man who wanted to go to University of Texas at Austin would have the same, you know, would have the kind of separate but equal if they created, the state of Texas created a whole ‘nother law school to keep this man from going to law school at UT in Austin. But the majority of folks that graduate from Thurgood, Black folks, go into public service or private practice, right? And so I think thinking about this in terms of the outcomes that we have seen for Black folks and for representation for Black folks in courtrooms, it’s our folks go into careers where they are making less money because they are going into service or they’re going into public interest. And I think removing barriers like these tests or removing barriers, Kaya, to your point, like student loans will only actually create better outcomes for us and our communities. So I think, I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but I think is an interesting way to kind of examine this because, you know, you come out of school with $200,000 worth of debt and are you really going to go be a public defender and make $50,000 a year? You know? So just something interesting to think about when you think about when, you know, when Black and brown folks go to law school, what they are seeking to be and how they’re seeking to use that law degree.
Myles Johnson: Today. I want to talk about Kevin Samuels. Kevin Samuels was a controversial and pretty bigoted, patriarchal YouTuber, and it just turned out that he died in this past week. And that created such a controversy, and just a lot of conversation on Twitter and on other, like, conversation platforms. And I thought it was really fascinating because A, I think it’s interesting because there’s so many divisive personalities in the public that people are, I think it used to be that people just would hear about a death or somebody’s passing and, you know, usually just feel bad, and now that there’s so many people who’ve gotten their fame and popularity through divisive and often violent language, now people are reevaluating how they just, the cordiality of experiencing death publicly. And I think that’s just really interesting. But the other thing that I found really interesting as I was researching and kind of figuring out who this person was and why everybody was so up in arms and passionate about him–I’ll be super transparent, I was not passionate or interested in him–however, one of the more interesting pieces is that he didn’t start being bigoted towards Black women and saying misogynist things towards Black women. He actually started critiquing Black men. He started critiquing Black men of how to be better people in their households and in relationships, and it turns out that that just simply didn’t bring numbers. So once he didn’t bring, once he noticed that did not bring numbers, he then went on to create content that was really targeting, in an extremely violent way, Black women and that created big numbers for him. I think two things are happening here. One thing is that targeting Black women, unprotected, people who are with some of the most unprotected class of people in the world is always going to be more profitable and more interesting, and people like to hear people who are unprotected be blamed for it. And I think that there is just a hunger and appetite for that. The other thing is that we’re living in a moment in popular culture and in popular culture and in news where you can change your marketing plan and strategy, and you can pretty much calculate how you can get numbers. If you’re willing to do the bottom denominator thing, you’ll get the biggest numbers. And I think that looking on it now without being, having too much of a commentary on, you know, should we care about his death, how does that feel, is it the right thing or wrong thing to do–without getting wrapped up into that mess, I think it’s a shame that we live in a moment where people are really willing to surrender their morality, their legacies, their reputations, all for numbers, all for the chance of maybe going big or something happening or, you know, or getting money. And I think that Kevin Samuels serve sas a reminder to anybody who’s creating content who might feel the pressure from social media or through various Internet platforms that, you know, this isn’t–your legacy should be more important than numbers and metrics, and making sure that you maintain your legacy as you are, you know, trying to grow your audience to do really well, because part of me wonders if he really agreed with what he was saying or if he was just willing to create certain conversations and use certain type of language and be a certain type of force in the world in order to get money and to get attention and to get his numbers and his metrics. And that to me is even sadder than if he just actually believed the bigoted things he was saying, that he didn’t really, truly believe it, and now he is somebody who is, you know, dead and and unable to reclaim or recreate his personality or his position in pop culture–or maybe not in pop culture, but like a subgenre of some genre of pop culture–but he’s not able to even reclaim that or reinvent that because now he’s gone. And I think that’s something to always remind people who are making art, who are creating content that, you know, one day you will be gone and what you have is what you have, and what you’ve done is what you’ve done. I believe that the thing to do is to, in each moment, no matter how sexy or enticing can be, to just be controversial or to say something or do what you think it will, what you think will work, I think that, you know, you always want to kind of keeping your head that, you know, one day this will be my legacy. This will be the thing that people remember me for and am I willing to be remembered for that? And yeah, that’s my news. Kevin Samuels, it was definitely all over Twitter, and I just told myself, Oh, I have to talk about this because it was so fascinating that it started coming up that there was actual videos of him saying, of him saying things that were critiquing Black men, but then also saying that, you know, I could easily not talk about the, you know, I could easily talk about Black women and I’ll get a lot more numbers. And then eventually he did that and he got a lot of numbers. It was, it was really prophetic. So yeah, that’s my news. And have a great week, you all.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
Alex: All right. Good evening everyone. Welcome to The Midtown Scholar Bookstore’s Virtual Event Series. My name is Alex. Thank you for joining us this evening. It’s an honor to host Will Jawando and DeRay McKesson this evening for Will’s new book, “My Seven Black Fathers.” Here it is. But now it’s my honor to introduce our speakers here this evening. Our interviewer is DeRay McKesson. DeRay is a civil rights activist focused primarily on issues of innovation, equity and justice. Of course, our featured author this evening is Will Jawando. Will is an attorney and activist, a community leader and a councilmember in Montgomery County, Maryland. Called the progressive leader we need by the late Congressman John Lewis, Jawando has worked with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Sherrod Brown, and President Barack Obama. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post and The Root and on BET and his work has been featured in The New York Times and New York Magazine and on NPR, NBC News, and MPV. He regularly appears on CNN, MSNBC and other media outlets. Once again, of course, Will’s new book is titled “My Seven Black Fathers: a Young Activist Memoir of Race, Family and the Mentors Who Made Him Whole.” I’ve got to read just a couple of blurbs here. Ibram Kendi says that, quote, “This is a story we need to hear” end quote. And Michael Eric Dyson says that, “Will Jawando’s story is a necessary and important contribution to our understanding of Black men’s grief, pain, and fulfillment.” end quote. We’re really honored to host Will tonight about this important new book. So without further ado, I’ll hand it off to Will Jawando and DeRay Mckesson.
DeRay Mckesson: It is exciting to be here. I haven’t seen you in a long time in person. So maybe, like Essence Fest I feel like might have been the last time, it feels like.
Will Jawando: I think so. Meet me there in July. Let’s, let’s meet, let’s unite in July.
DeRay Mckesson: You had four kids since the last time I saw you.
Will Jawando: I know, I know. Michelle had four kids. I contributed. Michelle had had four kids. But, I think she’s on tonight too. [unclear]
DeRay Mckesson: So I’m excited to talk about the book. I have a million questions. Let’s start zoomed all the way out with the first question of, why book why now? So you’re in elected office, you passed a very good policing bill. You helped us at the state level pass the policing bill, you’re doing good work in elected office. Why a book, or have you been writing this book for 20 years and this was like the time that it finally came out, or did you like, wake up one day you were like, Okay, I got to put a book out. Like, what, how did you get to a book?
Will Jawando: Yeah, well, first glad good to see you, man. Thank you for doing this. I know you’ve done this before, you’ve written books, and it’s just a really an honor to have you be a part of the conversation with me. Yeah, you know, a couple, a couple of things. I needed to write it. I didn’t know that, but I now know I needed to write it. And I say that for a few reasons. One, I wrote this book over the last, you know, two and a half years. And we all know what we’ve all been through, right, over the last two and a half years. And, you know, the pandemic, the health effects, the economic fallout–but obviously, for those of us with Black and brown hue, in particular, this racial justice moment, you know, watching George Floyd murdered, Breonna Taylor, you know, we had to go through this and while we’re isolated with everything else, just so traumatic. And this was it really helped me get through this moment writing this book, because it’s an affirmative book. It’s about like what has poured into me and made me who I am and I think these power of these relationships. So I needed to. It helped me get through this moment. But also there was kind of this practical thing, you know, this this I talked about this in the introduction, this awesome study came out about three years ago from Raj Chetty and Harvard and Stanford, and, you know, this study, about race and, you know, race and income. And it basically showed, it showed a whole bunch of things, but one of the top level readouts from it, and they looked at the 20 million children born between 1978 and 1983 in the country–I’m in that group and I think you might be in that group. Or am I a little older than you. I don’t know if you’re in that group. I’m a little older.
DeRay Mckesson: I was born in 85.
Will Jawando: Okay. So you weren’t in this one, but you were close. And it looked at census data, so where people live and IRS data, what their parents are making, what the structure of the families was, and it showed Black boys and white boys from the same neighborhoods with the same background, same census data had wide earnings gaps 35, 40-years later. And that was true and 99% of the country. But there were these 1% zip codes, these Black boys safe zones where Black and white boys from the same background were doing similarly well. And I actually grew up adjacent to one and my mom worked in one of those zip codes–downtown Silver Spring, 20910. And a statistically significant feature of those zip codes was that they had a higher proportion of working class Black fathers in them. And when I was featured in The New York Times releasing this data they talked to me because I grew up next to won and because I worked on My Brother’s Keeper and other things, a light bulb went off and I was like, these men who I always knew were important, who are my seven fathers in this book, I met four of them in this zip code. And I just, it helped me get the structure of the book and it just put an energy and a fire in me to say, I have to write this book now because of the moment we’re in, but also because this data is just irrefutable that these relationships are powerful, and they literally changed my life.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. Now let’s, I’ll ask you one question before we talk about the structure, because we got to have these, like, foundational things out of the way.
Will Jawando: Absolutely.
DeRay Mckesson: Does anybody still call you Yemi?
Will Jawando: Yes. About half of my family. And, you know, I proudly use both names, Will and Yemi. The first six or seven years of my life, I’m only Yemi, my parent, when my biological father, my Nigerian father and my mother are married, when they divorce, separate, my mom says, Your name is William. I said, Oh! Okay. And I talk about that whole transition in the book, and it was confusing and everything that goes with it. But, you know, I’ve embraced my name, both names at different points in my life. I tell that whole story in the book and there’s power in name, but it’s really my identity as well. And I’m a Nigerian-American. I claim both. And I’m an African-American, you know, an African American, right. And so when I met Michelle, I was using Yemi. I had come through–
DeRay Mckesson: She met you as Yemi?
Will Jawando: She he met me as Yemi. She met me as Yemi. And all of her family, for example, most of them still call me Yemi because that’s who I was. And, you know, so it just, it’s really a, depending on when you met me is what you called me, but they’re both my name and I embrace them both. So yeah there’s about 50% of the folks out there calling me Yemi.
DeRay Mckesson: When I read that part of the book, are you [unclear] your name being William? I was like, You know, what do people call him now? Because I didn’t know about Yemi until I read in the book. And then I wanted to know, and then we, so my next question after this question is going to be, why did you structure the book the way you did and walk us through that. But I wanted to know, Uncle Segun–is that how you Say his name?
Will Jawando: Shagun.
DeRay Mckesson: Shegun. Is he, did that influenced you, like, did his work influence your desire to be in politics or were they two different things?
Will Jawando: You know, I didn’t know much about his work until much later in my life. And, you know, part, one of the real unfortunate things about not being connected to my dad early on is I just miss so much about my heritage and my background, right, and especially when the divorce happened. So I don’t really connect and learn about my Nigerian side and the history of my uncle and all that that I talk about in the book and his connection to building much of southwest Nigeria and designing it as a city planner. I don’t learn that really until my early twenties, you know, when I go to Nigeria with Dean, one of my Black fathers, right? So no, I didn’t know about that. Maybe it runs in the blood or whatever, but we talk about it a lot now. He’s just turned 80. He’s still over in Nigeria.
DeRay Mckesson: I read about him and I’m like, Oh, come on Uncle!
Will Jawando: We got a place to stay any time.
DeRay Mckesson: I love it. So what, tell us how you how you structured it, and why you chose these seven.
Will Jawando: Yeah, well I mentioned, so the light bulb with the study, you know the Raj Chetty Race and Income study which I was just like Wow. I just, I was very fortunate to live near a place, and my mother worked in a place where more of these men were present statistically. And every day after school, I talk about in the book these decisions, I was–decision kids versus destination kids–I was a destination kid. I knew where I was going. I went to my mom’s job and I encountered several of these men, Dean, who was the I.T. manager, Jay Fletcher, who was a reporter there, who’s, you know, the first openly gay Black man who I meet and who is the key mentor and obviously has a chapter in the book. And then Joseph Jacob, my stepfather, with whom, who was the printer at the news letter publishing company my mom worked at. So three of these guys, three of the seven work, at the job where my mom works in the zip code. And then Mr. Williams, my math teacher, who’s my teacher in Silver Spring in fourth grade. And so I structured it, it’s chronological in a lot of ways. My father runs through all of it, my biological father, he’s the last chapter. But, you know, it starts with Joseph, who I meet like around six or seven years old when my parents–
DeRay Mckesson: It kind of starts with Khalfani. You can’t miss Khalfani. He’s a part of it.
Will Jawando: Oh, he’s a huge part. And that’s the introduction. And indeed, I kind of went back and forth. Khalfani could have been one of the seven, you know, when as I was–Khalfani for folks, you got to read the book, but he’s my friend who takes me under his wing in fifth grade and unfortunately loses his life later on. But we were in a thick as thieves. We were very close. And he didn’t have access to these fathers, these men like I did. And it sticks with me to this day. He’s also just as much a motivation for writing this book as anything. And but I structure it chronologically. And so Khalfani is in that introduction where I tee up the study and then I go through Joseph, Mr. Williams, you know, Jay, Dean, Barack Obama, of course, later in life, and then kind of comes all together with my dad. But yeah, I think it kind of naturally flowed that way. And when I thought about who were these men that had the biggest impact and just transformational in my life, it was seven of them. And, you know, I’m an Alpha, so we have seven jewels. Seven’s a nice, it’s a good biblical number. So I thought it was a good number to settle on as well.
DeRay Mckesson: So what was the hardest chapter to write, like what was the hardest story to tell? I was moved by all of them but your Black math teacher. I was the math teacher, and I was like, Go ahead Mr. Williams, go on and be the Black math teacher. But what was the hardest one to write?
Will Jawando: Yeah, they all have, they all have features, you know, of difficulty, right? You know, because I go to five schools before I’m in eighth grade.
DeRay Mckesson: Who was that teacher who is not kind? Miss Hayes? Did I make that up?
Will Jawando: Yeah, yeah, that’s that. No, that’s right. That’s right. Mrs. Hayes. Yeah, that wasn’t her real name. I kindly didn’t use her real name. But, but yeah. So I have a rough go of it and there’s different chapters and there’s different reasons it’s tough. But I would say, you know, my dad’s chapter, the last chapter was the hardest because, you know, he passed away five years ago, April 29th so I’m just, it’s another thing with this book is the book comes out basically five years after he passes. And, you know, I talk about him in the book as, you know, as an absent presence, you know, his, the void of him not being, being there, but not being engaged with me was also deeply painful, but also created the space for these men and need for them to step in. And then we come full circle. And it also created in me, gave me the love, the compassion, the skills to ultimately forgive my father and kind of reconcile with him later in life. And so that process, which is most of the seventh chapter, but he’s obviously interwoven in other chapters. That was a hard one because I obviously have to talk about his passing and he lived with us the last four years of his life. And that was a rough time, you know, watching someone basically die from cancer is not fun. And then you just think of opportunity loss. You know, he died at 64. He’s a young man. And so I think that was probably the hardest one, even though we ended in a really good place, as you’ll see. I talk about that in the book. But reliving all that is, it was hard, you know? And I did the audiobook too, myself, and, you know, having to read it too, because with emotion, that was a, that was a difficult chapter.
DeRay Mckesson: So let’s touch, let’s double click on the teacher, Mr. Williams–that is his name. I feel like, you know, I’m like remembering all the names. I’m like looking in my little highlights. There’s that moment where you when you come home and you’re like, I got a Black teacher! And somebody’s like, every day? And you’re like, Every day! What is it like to be a dad and like and to be somebody on the council and think about this moment as like such a transformative moment for you as a kid, and like, how do we scale that and like, you know, what does that you know, I’m always interested in the way that teachers live long lives in our lives, long after we’re in their classrooms, and can you talk more, help us understand that for the people that have not yet read the book.
Will Jawando: Yeah, yeah. It’s one of the, you know, this is perfect conversation on the last day of Teacher Appreciation Week, so thank you as a teacher yourself. You know, a unicorn, so to speak, the 2% of Black male teachers that exist, they’re only 2% of the population of the teaching population. And so I meet Mr. Williams at a time where I am in a desert needing affection. I’m the chubby kid in a new school, low-income, you know, living in a tough situation with my mom and my parents splitting, and I meet this this guy who, you know, and just to describe, I describe in the book, you know, he looks kind of like Morgan Freeman, you know, in Lean on Me, you know, this kind of, that kind of look, you know, chocolate brown with the little mole pimples and the small fro. And every day he’s wearing a suit and tie in a jacket. And I’ve never seen a Black man do that before. And so I’m just like, you know, who is this guy? And then obviously, he’s just the opposite of any teacher I’ve ever had. He’s kind, he’s caring, he explains things, he helps, he builds on our strengths. He helps me deal with bullying. And I even see him, he’s the first person I see Code Switch, which is, you know, talk to the janitor in the hallway in a more relaxed, slang way, and then he’s like he is in the classroom. So he’s, just teaches me so much, just from just who he is. And then he ends up teaching me to learn how to tie my first tie and gives me my first tie. And it’s something I still think about. But to your point, I only know him nine months. You know, in fourth grade. I never see him again. I don’t learn his first name until I research this book. And he passed away. His name is Chuck, Charles “Chuck” Williams. He was a Vietnam fighter pilot and this captain in the Army, retired, and then became an elementary math teacher in Montgomery County public schools.
DeRay Mckesson: You didn’t find his name until your research the book, his full name?
Will Jawando: I found it. Yeah. Charles, his name is Charles. Charles, went by Chuck. Charles Williams. I found his daughter. I’d found his grandkids. So as part of the research–and he died, he just died in 2019 so I just missed him, I just missed him. But yeah, but I think about him a lot. And it’s a perfect example of like one of the themes in the book that these relationships can all be, are all different. Every man is very different, the length of time, what they give me and but it’s all necessary and it’s all really, really a part of who I am.
DeRay Mckesson: So while the book is themed on these seven Black men, there are two women who are woven throughout the book too. It is your mom and Michelle are like big parts in different ways. And I wanted to ask, you know, I was reading the last chapter–I think it’s the last chapter–I read in the last chapter, she decided to go on the international trip with you after, what, six months?
Will Jawando: Yes, Michel. Yeah. Yeah. Much to her dad’s, much to her dad’s chagrin.
DeRay Mckesson: You, your dad, and her. Can you talk about, like, what that was like in, you know, why do you think she said yes then. Like that so early, especially back then, to decide to go across the world.
Will Jawando: I appreciate this question because, you know, like I think some people will see the title and you know, I’m really proud of the title. I came up with My Seven Black fathers. I think one of the things I hope to do is expand the definition of what fatherhood is here, you know, for people. But there are many women in this book. You know, my mom and Michelle play a big role. Carolyn, who hired me in Obama’s office and was his office manager and dated my dad for a number of years is the key. There’s a lot of people in this book. But yeah, Michelle, you know, we were it was something where we met in July of ’04. We were both in law school. She was heading into her third year. I was in in my first year. And we just connected from the beginning and, I you know, she we were together for that summer and then she came down to visit me most weekends and we just kind of knew that this was serious. And I went with her family for Thanksgiving in Atlanta. She had never brought a guy back home for Atlanta. And they grilled me really good down there. And then I invited her to go with me to Nigeria on this, what was a transformational trip for my father and I, you know, his first time back in 30 years to Nigeria, after I had taken my solo trip a couple of years prior with Dean. And she’s got a front row seat to helping navigate the logistics and the emotional complexity of this trip. And she’s right there. And it was almost like, you know, after that trip, there was no, she had to be my wife. There was no like there was no choice, you know? And all the all my family in Nigeria, by the way, were like, Oh, well, you brought her here, she must be your wife.
DeRay Mckesson: [unclear].
Will Jawando: Yeah, exactly. So but no, it was a, she was such a critical part of it to help–because you know, most delicate when you’re trying to rebuild a relationship and so many of us have issues with their with our fathers, our mothers, you know, loved ones, and as you’re trying to find your way back, she was like a lubricant to that, and just was understanding to both my dad and me. And, you know, she’s one of the heroes of my life, one of the heroes of the book. And then my mother obviously plays a big role too, is just, she was my security blanket and still is for my life and really helped me obviously become who I am just as much as anybody. But she also understood I needed these mentors, you know, and she was open to that. I’m just so thankful for that, you know, like I think about like she let Jay Fletcher take me to a Broadway play. I’m 12-years old or so, you know, her coworker, let me, takes me to New York and I see Seven Guitars an August Wilson play, Viola Davis was in it–this is like mid-90s. No one knew who she was at that time. And now both of our books are together in an airport, which is just crazy! Absolutely crazy! Someone sent me a picture today from the Denver airport. It’s Viola Davis’s memoir and My Seven Black Fathers. So whatever, whatever that means.
DeRay Mckesson: I love it.
Will Jawando: But my mom enabled those relationships. So she knew, she gave me what she could, but she also knew I needed something else, which I really always thank her for.
DeRay Mckesson: And this story of you going to the Broadway place in great too. She’s like, Wake up, wake up! You got to get dressed. And then you just gotta go.
DeRay Mckesson: Have you seen Seven Guitars, by the way?
DeRay Mckesson: I haven’t.
Will Jawando: You got to see that one. It’s really good. It’s really good.
DeRay Mckesson: You were 12, so you didn’t have, like, a good range of what was–
Will Jawando: I’ve been back. I’ve seen it since. I’ve seen it since.
You’re like, That show when I was 12 was great. I’m like, No, I don’t know. You know, you write about Caroline and your dad, or your dad walking away from Caroline, and you’re like, Dad don’t like, why are you doing this? And he’s like, I don’t know how to do anything else but this. Do you think that that was because he knew he was sick or do you think it was something else?
Will Jawando: Hmm. Interesting question. I don’t want to give–
DeRay Mckesson: The way the book is set up, it’s like it literally is that section and then it goes into the cancer diagnosis. And I didn’t know if you thought that that was, I don’t know, like that scene was so sad when he doesn’t want to break up and breaks up and you and Michelle, and so yeah. So I thought I’d ask.
Will Jawando: Yeah. You know, they were close in time, you know, I often wonder. I don’t think that’s a knowable thing. I think, like many things is probably complex and it’s multilayered and there’s probably multiple things that were going on, fear of commitment, you know, never having, not feeling enough. You know, my father just, one thing I’m really happy about this book is that I think it does him justice about who he was and who, you know, his struggles. But, you know, he was depressed for much of his life. And I don’t realize that ’til much later. And so, you know, I don’t, I don’t know. I think there are multiple things going on that. Could that been a factor? Absolutely. And maybe he didn’t want to burden her in some way with that if he knew deep down that he was getting sick. But I don’t know. You know, I don’t want to, it’s just one of those things that I think is hard to know.
DeRay Mckesson: So I want to ask you to pick three of the seven. And I want you to tell us the thing you’ll never, ever forget about them. Three of the seven, you can choose any three.
Will Jawando: Three of the Seven. Okay. Well, I told you. I’ll go, I’ll take one easy one with Mr. Williams. Because I already told you he, I’ve told you many things I’ll never forget about him. You know, just, just how cool he was, you know, just smooth, crisp. You know, like, I don’t, I’m not the best dresser, but when I do do a good job, you know, I, you know, he’s in my mind, like, I’m just like being, just being Sunday’s-best clean. And I appreciate that to this day, I think, because I first saw that, he was my first example of that. I’ll say, I’ll go to Wayne. You know, Wayne really helped me with my work ethic. You know, that’s a big theme for Wayne in his chapter. And he’s my high school choir director, but he also was an all-American football player at Penn State and trained me when I was playing basketball. And he would just, we had so many days in the gym where he just wouldn’t let me give up. And I think you know me well enough DeRay, that I don’t give up. And that, that is something that I think, I will always thank and remember him for. And then I’ll do Barack Obama. You know, my forever boss, you know, my Senate boss, campaign, White House, who really helped me prioritize and put my family in the appropriate place. I think so often, you know, a lot of people young in their career want to just do the career and then like, we’ll figure out the family. And he was always in a lot of our discussions and just what he modeled with how he, how his schedule was oriented, you know, making it home for dinner four or five nights a week. And he just was a model at a time when I was a young husband and a young father working for him. I get married and have two of my four children while I’m working for Barack Obama. And he’s there for the whole, you know, really helpful throughout that journey. So I really credit that part of my growth and development much later in my life to him. So those are some of the things I think I’ll never forget about each of them. And there’s many more in the book though. So read the book, y’all. Were just scratching the surface here.
DeRay Mckesson: It’s just a teaser. So let me get to some questions from the crew. Jason asks, Can you talk more about your time with My Brother’s Keeper? What lessons did you learn that you apply in your political and activist life going forward?
Will Jawando: Great question. It was one of the great honors of my life to be involved, along with many others in the early formation and conceptualization of My Brother’s Keeper, which, for those who don’t know, is a, started as an interagency initiative to improve the life outcomes for boys and men of color by identifying key intervention points. And DeRay knows this is a teacher. Reading, you know, reading by third grade, key point in time, avoiding contact with the criminal justice system, graduating high school on time, you know–getting into kindergarten, actually, you know, starting school, ready to ready to learn. And then career and college completion, and how do you create the right interventions along that timeline and pipeline in the life of a young man, a boy of color to trade off on ramps back on if they fall off. And that’s been a lot of my professional work and it’s really tied to this book. And that’s one of the things I’m very proud of is that, you know, if my friend Khalfani had these men, I have no doubt he’d be here today. I have no doubt of it. And so many others, we all have stories like that. People we’ve lost either to the criminal justice system or to death, early death, or to just low expectations and underachievement. And I just, I want to avoid that. And that’s what I”m dedicating my professional career to and it’s what I hope people see is a call to action out of this book to enable these relationships, right? You know, one of the key themes of this book, you know, a key intervention on that My Brother’s Keeper timeline is mentorship and the engagement of caring adults. And I think what my story proves among many others is that these relationships are so powerful. It doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be trouble because there is going to be trouble, particularly for Black folks in this country, the systemic inequities that we deal with every day but this is something we can do individually and collectively to rebut that and to, as I said before, throw a life raft out and help people deal with these shaky and troubled waters. So, yeah, it was fun to work on My Brother’s Keeper. I’ve done that as a council member, too. I’ve started a program here in Montgomery County even before I was elected. And it’s a key part of my ethos. I mentor. We intern, ton of interns started a summer jobs program here in the county. It’s a big part of who I am and hopefully something that comes out of this book too.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. And when you buy the book, you’ll read more about the inner workings, them sitting on a couch and then it becomes a thing. So John asked, Basketball has been a big part of your life. How much did you play with Barack? Do you still play today? And who are you rooting for in the NBA playoffs?
Will Jawando: Oh, these are great questions. Yes, basketball is a huge part of my life. If I didn’t have this sweater on, I have a big basketball tattoo here, which when people see me–
DeRay Mckesson: do you really!?
Will Jawando: I do. Yeah. And you didn’t even know, did you?
DeRay Mckesson: That is hilarious.
Will Jawando: When people see me at the office picnic, they’re like, oh, you have a tattoo, you know, you’re a different person! But yeah, I got that when I turned 18, but I played in high school and college, won a national championship in high school. And so I played a lot with Barack, President Obama when we were in in the White House. It was a awesome experience. And I talk about some of that in the book and some of those games and things. So you got to read the book for that. But I still play on Saturday mornings. One of the many horrible things about the pandemic was that my game was cut off for almost, you know, 18 months, little more than that. And that was a big outlet for me. But we have started playing again. And I think that I’m rooting for Golden State and Milwaukee, but there’s a lot of good teams in there. But that’s who I’d like to see in the finals but we’ll see what happens. I think it could go is, you know, when you get down to the last eight, you know, eight teams it’s anyone’s game.
DeRay Mckesson: Okay. Last couple of questions. I mean, we more than a couple, actually, so let me go from Ali. Ali said, what books or authors have inspired you growing up?
Will Jawando: That’s a great, great, great, great question. You know, I had a book when I was young, probably the first book that I remember, like, you know, like reading as a kid was Hoops by Walter Dean. Myles–Myers, I think is his name. And that, you know, talking about my basketball prowess, you know, that was a big book for me. You know, and I read a lot of comics growing up, too, wasn’t a big novel reader as a kid. I got into that later. As an adult. You know, I’m a big nonfiction guy and just for some reason I have trouble reading fiction. So like, Homo Deus is one I really liked. You know, obviously the autobiography of Malcolm X was a influential book for me as an activist and a leader. Dreams of My Father, of course. You know, but it’s funny. I didn’t read Dreams from My Father, which is Barack’s first book until after I saw him speak at the 2004 convention when he kind of came onto the national scene. So I kind of saw him, was inspired by him, and then read the book in like a couple days. And saw, you know, so many similarities in our stories, but also differences. So yeah, those are a few. I mean, I’m a big Abraham Lincoln buff. I like historical time pieces, too. So I’ve read the, his recent, his recent books–the book’s about him, rather. I’m not like Donald Trump, I don’t think he’s still alive, you know.
DeRay Mckesson: [unclear]
Will Jawando: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, yeah. He’s a real good American as–but yeah, so those are some and yeah, there’s a few.
DeRay Mckesson: Jennifer said as a white mother to a brown son and daughter, what was the best advice or lesson your mother offered that played a role in recognizing your self-worth? And how did she help teach you how to be a young man of color, being the biggest challenge for her when she was a different race and gender.
Will Jawando: Hmm. Mm hmm. I think my mom’s on tonight, so I’m going to see if she likes this question going into Mother’s Day when I see her. You know what I always appreciated about my mom, I mentioned it earlier, she enabled these relationships, didn’t get in the way of them, wasn’t, you know, and encouraged them. You know, Get up, get up! Go with Jay. Then she, but she also had a keen understanding of that I was a young Black man like. You know, one of the things I’m so thankful for and I just get sad every time I think about it, all these little boys that in the ’80s and ’90s who were put on, put into special ed and given Ritalin and other drugs, and their potential was damped out. And they wanted to put me on medication as a young child because I was inquisitive and my mother would refuse to let that happen. It’s one of the reasons I went to five schools in six years or so. And thank God she did. I think I’m doing all right, you know, and then when I got older, you know, she would say things to me like, You’re a young Black man, you have to be careful out there when you go out, you know? You know, my mom still, I’m 40-years old, just about she’ll still call me when I’m on a late night trip, make sure I got home, you know, like every mother. But she understood, and, you know, as far as she could as not being a person of color that I was and that I needed to be prepared for that. And I always appreciated that. I mean, look, she got, my mom was one of the boldest people I know. She got in she got with a Nigerian immigrant in Hayes, Kansas, in 1972. You tried doing that, you know, like people weren’t loving it. And so she’s always been a freethinker and bold and progressive. And I think she’s, you know, imparted that on to me. So I would say to you as a mom, do those things and there’s probably others, but, you know, you don’t have all the answers in you. Get help too, you know, get help. Get help.
DeRay Mckesson: Okay. So final question from the crew is from Ben. Everybody wants to know what qualities from these mentors, like what are the things that you take and apply as a father, and as a leader? Well, let’s do father first. Let’s, like I’m interested in that because the book is about how so clearly about how these men have influenced you as a man. I would love to know, what are some of the lessons that have impacted you as a father?
Will Jawando: Mm hmm. Great question. So the dedication page of the book is to my children. And I say when I say now, I say to Aleah, Addison, Ada and William Isaiah, my four children, I pray that I’ve learned these lessons of fatherhood well. And it’s a constant prayer. Because there’s a there’s always been a big, you know, when you have an absent early childhood experience with not really having your father that one of the biggest downsides to that is that you don’t learn the skill set necessarily of, you don’t have the model of what being a father is. And thank God for these men. I learned it in piece, and in component parts, but I still had to put it all together. Right? And I’m still putting it together, right? That’s the other thing in this book. Like, you’re not you’re never ending your journey of wholeness. That’s why the byline is, you know, of the men who made me whole, but I’m still on the journey to wholeness, as we all are. And you know, the love, you know, if there’s anything this book is about, it’s about love and attention and dedicated time, right? Each of these men a through-line is that they all showed me love in one way or the other. And it took different forms, right? They all took time to be with me. And I had to reciprocate that in some way because you need, it’s a two-way street. And they were, had levels of intentionality in how we spent that time. And I really and it’s, I guess I’m so busy in my job in my life, I really try to model that with, you know, when I’m with my kids. You know, just before I was here, I was having dinner with my kids and at the dinner table, that’s why I came on at like 6:55, you know. And I really try to make sure if we have an hour that they have me for that hour and we’re, and I’m intentional about it and we talk and we do whatever. And so I learned that, didn’t necessarily learn that early on, but I’ve learned that from these men. I try to do something special. I try to take them on individual trips, you know, like and I think about Jay, like when I when I take my kids to do something by themselves, I try to take every child to do something that’s just for them–I think about Jay. Like when he he was very intentional about taking me places like that. And so I think those, some of those are some of those component parts. And then just being, you know, being patient with them, you know, as much as possible, as humanly possible. You know, I was a rambunctious kid and, you know, these, all these men, you know, and not to say they all succeeded every time. But they tried to be patient with me, and I tried to do that as well. What was the other one? Or do you want me to answer, what was the other one? As a father and as a leader?
DeRay Mckesson: As a leader.
Will Jawando: Yeah, I [unclear] S,o leader. So I’ll say confidence. You know, Wayne, there’s this great, I talked about this earlier this week with Wayne, he said he saw a light in me and he saw it as his job to not let that light diminish or fade. And sometimes you just need people to lift you up and build confidence in you. And that’s something as a leader that has been given to me. Barack showed me, President Obama showed me how to be cool under pressure, how to have empathy. And so I think those are–and to be decisive, and know that you’re not always going to get everything right, but you’ve got to make decisions. So I would say those are some of the things I learned even later in life. Again, this is a journey, not a destination. We need these influences. We need this fathering, this mothering throughout our lives.
DeRay Mckesson: Remind everybody the title of the book and where they can get it.
Will Jawando: I was trying to see if, do you have one DeRay? Hold your copy up. Where’s yours?
DeRay Mckesson: I have a digital copy, I have a PDF.
Will Jawando: My Seven Black Fathers, and it is available anywhere books are sold and local bookstores. Like was said by the great folks here tonight, it would be great if you could buy one from Midtown Scholar. And that portion, and I think the discounted too, but portion goes to support local bookstores,. So it’s available–My Seven Black Fathers. And please, great gift for graduation. Great gift for Father’s Day, Mother’s Day. Appreciate the support.
DeRay Mckesson: And where can people go to stay in touch with you? So is that like Twitter? Is it Facebook? Is there a Web site?
Will Jawando: Yes. @Willjawando. @willjawando.
DeRay Mckesson: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning into Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we will see you next week. Pod Save the People is was a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by A.J. Moultrie and mixed by Veronica Simonetti, and executive produced by me. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger and Myles Johnson.