In This Episode
DeRay, Kaya, De’Ara, and Sam dive into the underreported news of the week, including the Royal Family, Black farmers, Mariya Russell, Aya Brown, and the Bruce family. Netta Elzie gives an update on what’s happening with the nationwide protests. DeRay sits down with Evan Stone, of Educators for Excellence, about the path forward for education.
DERAY MCKESSON: This is DeRay. Welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, Sam, Kaya, and De’Ara, as usual, talking about the news that you don’t know from the past week. And then I sit down with an old colleague, Evan Stone, to talk about issues facing teachers today. I learned a lot in this conversation, and I’m excited to share with you.
Now, my advice for this week is this quote that I saw, and I loved it. I loved it. I loved it. The quote is, “self-love also includes you allowing yourself to be loved without sabotaging it.” I’ve talked before about the way we engage in self sabotage. Like, things go well. And then we’re anticipating the disaster. We’re anticipating the nightmare. And then we create a pathway to the nightmare. We allow it to begin. We walk into the nightmare. We sabotage ourselves.
And part of our work is to say that loving myself is actually not encouraging the sabotage. It’s not participating in the sabotage. It’s actually allowing good things to happen and living in that. So levelling yourself, walk away from the sabotage. Let’s go.
DE’ARA BALENGER: All right, y’all. Welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @DeAraBalenger.
SAM SINYANGWE: And I’m Sam Sinyangwe, @samswey on Twitter.
KAYA HENDERSON: I’m Kaya Henderson @HendersonKaya on Twitter.
DERAY MCKESSON: This is DeRay, @deray on Twitter.
DE’ARA BALENGER: You know, everyone is talking about this interview that Oprah so brilliantly led and navigated. Now, you know the jury’s still out on a couple of things. However, I think what is interesting is the chatter that’s happening across the pond, and I think what the consequence of the interview with Harry and Meghan has done is created a whole conversation in the UK that folks are really not equipped to have. And what’s been interesting is also following what some of the Black folks in the UK have said.
And now I think they’re in the court. They seem very aligned with the royal family. But they seem to be, at least purporting to be, Black leaders in the UK, even though they don’t even have expressions like that necessarily, from what I’ve been reading and seeing. So I think that’s been interesting in terms of how the conversation is happening, both with white folks in the UK but also with Black folks in the UK.
I think it’s pretty clear what Black American sentiment has been. But it’s interesting to see how the conversations differ. So interesting to hear what y’all had to think. Maybe not substance of the interview or impact of it.
DERAY MCKESSON: I thought it was brave, in so many ways, for her to just say I chose life, right? It meant a lot when she was like, I don’t want to be here. I went for help. They were like, just kidding. Every moment she was like, I’m willing to play the game. I’m willing to– and then you look up, and the game wasn’t helping her. They were just going to let her wither away. And I think that that is– I get it.
It’s been interesting to see, from what we’ve seen, the royal family just putting Black people everywhere. They got the Black assistant.
KAYA HENDERSON: Black friend.
DERAY MCKESSON: Right, with no coat. She outside freezing. But she going to have the print on. And then they just released the thing being like, Prince William asked the Black choir to be at the– you’re like, OK, y’all are just really digging deep here to be, like, I’m not racist, which is where you know y’all some racists. So that was really interesting.
So I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see what happens and if there is some resolution. All of us, obviously think about Princess Diana. And I thought this was a great moment where I saw more people critiquing the presence of a monarchy, in the first place, right? Being like the monarchy’s wealth is only because of the exploitation of all the other countries, including ours.
So it was good to finally see. And I thought Meghan did that really well, that one moment the interview where she’s like, my baby will be much more representative of the Commonwealth. You’re like, go ahead, Meghan. That was slick. That was true and slick.
SAM SINYANGWE: It’s been wild to see the royal family react to this. And it seems like that comment “very much not racist” trended for a while. People were talking about it. But it’s like sort of wild to have this family saying that they’re not racist after– just understand what this family still represents in the world today as an institution, right? This is not that long ago, right? Like, my dad grew up under colonial rule in Tanzania in the colonies, one of many countries of Black and Brown people that were controlled by the British, controlled. All of the wealth was being extracted.
The people had not no rights, like nothing at all compared to the white people and the British. These are the same monarchs. Some of these folks are like 80, 90 years old. These are the same folks. They’ve been there. This is the family that was presiding over that colonial rule, right? This is the legacy that they have built on that exploitation, just billions and billions and billions of dollars.
So it is a good thing that we’re having this conversation now. It was brilliant how both Duchess Meghan and Oprah sort of together, playing off one another, sort of unraveled the dynasty or unraveled the monarchy and talked about the truth of it in a way that I haven’t seen anyone remotely affiliated with the family or the firm or the monarchy being willing to come forward and say, so I hope that this conversation has a ripple effect. I hope that it leads to further critiques and further wearing down, an erosion of the power of that family and all of that wealth because it does need to be redistributed.
It does need to be dismantled. And we do need to live in a world in which there isn’t this white bloodline family that just preserves and concentrates power in perpetuity, with no input from anybody else. That model hasn’t worked for a while, certainly doesn’t work today.
DE’ARA BALENGER: And I think that’s all the more reason why I wasn’t surprised by any of this. While I won’t come close to being a princess– well, in my own mind, but in terms of this context. I think there is a little bit of, what did you expect? And also something that may be a little provocative is retreating what gives you the impact at the end of the day? And that’s like the soup of the day, the self care and the self soothing and all the things and protecting yourself and this and that and the self care.
But in terms of really a more strategic and a more long-term look at what are you trying to accomplish with that platform? And who in your camp is going to help you do that? And how do you build a camp to help you do that? Listen, I can’t judge or pick apart what her decisions are.
But I’m just thinking given we know Edward VIII was a Nazi sympathizer, and this family line is German. It’s not British. It’s German. And so I think part of it is do your homework. That whole, I didn’t Google Harry– come on, sis. We’ve been googling Prince William and Harry since 1994.
Well, we didn’t have Google then. But you know what we’ve been doing, ripping their little pictures out the magazines, putting them up on our walls. What? So I don’t know. I’m still combing through and trying to figure out exactly what my point of view is. But it’s not as cut and dry as everyone else’s is. I’ll say that
SAM SINYANGWE: I’m just imagining De’Ara in, like, 1994 on, like, America Online or like Ask Jeeves, searching for the royal family.
DE’ARA BALENGER: I love Prince William. I’m not going to like.
SAM SINYANGWE: It was around. You could have looked.
DE’ARA BALENGER: He was fine when I was in the ninth grade, OK?
KAYA HENDERSON: Oh, my soul. First of all, I just want to tip my hat to Auntie O because she is– she just came out of nowhere and was like, let me remind you that I might be the greatest interviewer of all times, lest you forgot because I haven’t been on television doing this every day. I thought her strategy was impeccable. I thought her ability to connect with them in a real way that made them more human than I’ve ever seen them before was just amazing. And it was a masterclass in journalism and interviewing and– I don’t know– whatever the thing is. So big ups to Auntie O.
I have mixed feelings about the monarchy. I have come to recognize that they are the greatest tourist attraction of the UK. They actually make money for the country. They don’t do a whole lot else but be ceremonial and whatnot. And it’s entertainment, in the same way that many of our celebrities are entertainment, right? That’s part of their celebrity class.
I thought that what Meghan and Harry are– I think what they are trying to do, and I think what they tried to do in this interview is to deconstruct the formality to help people understand that there are real people behind all of this pomp and circumstance and that there while there are tremendous benefits, financial benefits and yada, yada, there are also incredible personal liabilities. And they, I think, surfaced some of that when the whole MO has always been to cover up whatever is wrong. And so I think it humanized them.
I think it brings up real questions about the monarchy from history to current times. And I think we’re engaging in a discussion around why are we still doing this, which I think will continue to be a really important discussion in the UK and here. My news comes out of The New York Times. And it is a pretty cool article about a Black family that ran a thriving beach resort 100 years ago.
And they want their land back. You know how this story goes. Black people have something. The white people take it. The government takes it. And we want our stuff back. That is this story.
It is actually a fascinating story about Willa and Charles Bruce, who were a couple who bought a plot of land in 1912 on the shores of Southern California. They came to California from New Mexico. And they were among the first Black people to settle in what later became the city of Manhattan Beach.
Now, if you know anything about Manhattan Beach, Manhattan Beach is a pretty tony neighborhood in Los Angeles, or city just outside of Los Angeles. But when the Bruces purchased their plot of land, they built a resort, where Black families could swim and lounge and eat and dance without being subject to racist harassment. And I chose this article because I’m on some self-preservation, self-care stuff, De’Ara, where, in fact, our taking care of ourselves, our making time and space for enjoyment and for recreation is actually, I think, part of the work that we need to do in order to keep on fighting.
The Bruces story is really interesting. They bought this land in 1912, as I mentioned. And they had a thriving lodge, a beach-side cafe, a dancing space. Other notable Black people came and built around them. And so there was a thriving resort community here.
And it was all going pretty well until the white folks were angry and started to harass them. The Ku Klux Klan became active in Southern California. There was a white landowner who literally put up obstacles for people. They couldn’t park. They had to actually walk around his land in order to get to the beach.
They burned pieces of people’s property and flattened people’s tires and did everything that they could to make it as difficult as possible. But we thrive. And the resort continued to grow and prosper until they convinced the city officials to condemn the land in 1924.
The city claimed eminent domain. They said they needed to create a public park. The city paid them $14,500 after a bunch of litigation and literally didn’t build a park for 30 years. So they took these people’s property, thriving beachfront resort, left the joint barren for 30 years. And then they were like, oh, wait, their descendants might come and ask us what we did with the land, so let’s build a park.
And so they built a park. The descendants of the Bruces are seeking both restoration of land and restitution of lost funds. These descendants would have been millionaires. In fact, the current fair market value of the land that the Bruces purchased right now is $75 million, right?
And so the descendants have gone to court. The city has begun to reckon with this complicated history. Because not only did they not build a park for 30 years, when they did build a park they renamed it ultimately Bruce’s Beach in 2007, trying to recognize the injustice that was done. But the plaque talks about the fact that this white man, the same one who made them walk all the way around his property and was flattening and tires and whatnot, that the white man enabled these nice Black people to buy property.
And so the plaque says more about the white man who actually was an obstructionist than it does about the couple who purchased this beachfront resort. And so the city put together a task force. They are determining how to move forward. But LA County actually is open to returning the land to the family. There’s a historian in LA named Dr. Alison Rose Jefferson. And one of the things that she said really stuck with me.
She says, “many people think about African-American civil rights through economic and political power. They sometimes forget that recreation was a big part of the struggle.” And so I had never heard of Bruce’s Beach or this particular story. Super excited to know that the descendents are likely to get back their property and likely to get some form of restitution. But it called to mind beaches like The Inkwell in Oak Bluff, Martha’s Vineyard, or Sag Harbor, or Highland Beach in Maryland, which was founded by Frederick Douglass’ descendants.
There’s a history of Black beach going in this country that was, quite frankly, just overt stands against racism. So it’s crazy when we say things like Black people can’t swim or we’re not really beachy people. We have always been beachy people. We’ve had to create our own spaces and will continue to create our own spaces. And we’re happy to remember the Bruces for the work that they did way back in 1912.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Well, just first I want to say I am about self care and recreation and luxurious recreation and would hope to be able to get myself well dressed enough to be able to have frequented the Bruce’s Beach in the 1920s. I think more what I was talking about is just this notion of walking away when something gets too hard or retreating instead of really trying to get in there and figure out how to make it work.
But all that aside, I think, Kaya, I’m obsessed with this. And how can I help? Sign me up. But also I think it’s interesting because we don’t often have these conversations of what was taken from Black people. It’s always this narrative around we didn’t have the opportunity or we didn’t create the space for ourselves or we didn’t create the thing for ourselves, when we had, particularly in this era.
And so we see even in Tulsa after the 1921 massacre, Tulsa was built back. But then they put a highway through Greenwood. They put a highway through St. Paul, Minnesota through Rondo. This eminent domain technique was used so often once they saw that we were doing well for ourselves, right?
And so all of the wealth that would have passed down those generations is now gone. I think now that HR 40 is getting more and more attention, we’re having a serious conversation around reparations, where Black folks can point to things and say, this is where I was wronged financially. These are my receipts for it. Now what do you got to say? So I just thought this was just wonderful on so many levels. And hopefully the Bruces get the property back so that we can have everyday people there.
SAM SINYANGWE: So on the topic of Black land that was stolen from the beaches to the farmland, one of the things that is new and is a potentially important development is the American Rescue Act, and in particular, provisions that you may not have heard of that are tucked into the American Rescue Act that was just signed into law, the COVID relief legislation, $1.9 trillion in total. And within that, about $10 billion are specific to agricultural support, so agricultural relief to farmers across the country.
And part of that package, about half of that $10 billion, $5 billion in total, is specifically targeted to what they call socially disadvantaged farmers who are farmers of color. So these are Black and Brown farmers across the country who will now be eligible for significant debt relief due to this legislation. So about $4 of the $5 billion in total that’s going to farmers of color is consisting of debt relief.
And this is really important because when you look at the history, Kaya, as you talked about the history of Black folks’ land being stolen on beaches across the country or just not having access and proximity to beaches, we have seen historically over the past century is the theft of Black farmland in agricultural areas across the country in rural areas. So in the early 1900s, Black farmland peaked at about 16 to 19 million acres of farmland ownership by Black farmers across the country.
Since then, Black folks have lost about 90% of all that farmland, which is a combination of exploitation, government policies designed to help white farmers and to disadvantage and undermine Black farmers, trapping a lot of farmers in a cycle of debt, where now the government is going to step in, finally, with targeted assistance to farmers of color to the tune of about $4 to $5 billion in relief. So this is really important. It’s something that Black farmers, in particular, have been calling for a long time.
And it is something that is reflective of a history that has led to the point where now 98% of all of the acres of agricultural land and farmland in the United States are owned by white farmers, 98%. So it’s an industry that has become essentially like a whites-only industry. Black and Brown farmers have been pushed out.
And even within the industry today, there’s a huge gap in the amount of revenue that Black farmers make compared to white farmers. So today, the average farm operated by Black farmers is about 100 acres compared to about 440 acres for the average farmer. And the average amount of money made by a full-time white farmer was about $17,190 in farm income compared to only $2,400 in farm income for the average Black farmer, so huge disparity within that industry and Black farmers continuing to be pushed out.
This is an example of the government coming in and offering some support, specifically targeted to farmers of color. Again, this is not specifically targeted to Black farmers. It’s sort of more dispersed. And so I think we’ll need to see where that money actually breaks out, where it gets invested, who has access to those funds. But it is an example of what the government can do to actually make investments and correct for at least part of this history of theft of wealth from Black communities.
KAYA HENDERSON: This was– I feel like I’m going to have the same set of reactions throughout the call. On the one hand, I’m super excited that this is a bill that is going to make a substantive difference for farmers of color and that it actually seeks to acknowledge some of the previous wrongs. But I’m pissed off at the Republicans, frankly, who are worried about this disproportionately benefiting farmers of color.
First of all, only a quarter of disadvantaged farmers are Black, right? So only a quarter of the people who are going to get this are Black people. Y’all so worried about us. Why are people so afraid to let us compete on a level playing field, right?
I was looking at the figures from Trump’s COVID relief package to farmers, right? And white farmers received $6.7 billion with a B. And Black farmers received $15 million with an M, right? In Trump’s market facilitation program, which was to offset his failed trade war with China, white farmers got $21 billion, about $11,000 on average per farmer. Black farmers got $38 million, about $1,000 on average per farmer. Literally, white people got 10 times the amount that Black farmers got.
And so this, what about equal protection under the law? Kiss my grits. Are you kidding me? It’s so blatant. It’s so crazy. And you give the poor Black farmers a few little crumbs, and the people are up in arms? I hope these Black farmers farm the mess out of that land, do some new things, buy some new tractors, and dominate the way we do in fashion, the way we do in arts, the way we do– I hope that they bring their full Black creative farm selves to this little piece of money and make it happen like we always do with the crumbs that we get. Big ups to the Black farmers.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Now, while I was watching Al Sharpton Show today– that’s right. From time to time, I will turn on Reverend Al for a little bit of something. So today was interesting. They were talking about this very topic. And it was wonderful to see it getting this– it’s getting this type of coverage, right?
But I think the other thing that I learned is that for the first time ever, we have a Black person that is chair of the Agriculture Committee in Congress. He’s from Georgia. His name is David Scott. And so I think part of this effort, too, is that now we’re having folks in these leadership positions that are very, very important.
But it also dawned on me that we’re still in a space where people are becoming the first. Black folks are still becoming the first to do something. It’s shocking.
DERAY MCKESSON: And just as a reminder, the theme for these first two pieces of news is that the government intentionally used a set of tactics to steal things from Black people over time. Just a reminder that the 1850 donation land claim act delivered the entire state of Oregon, what we now know as Oregon, to US settlers, to white people only, to the tune of 320 acres of land. We have talked about the Homestead Act a million times. That was 270 million acres of land that went to essentially mostly white people. That’s about 10% of the entire US land base was distributed through a government action through the Homestead Act.
And there is a law professor at Texas A&M, Thomas Mitchell, who talks about the great land transfers of the 19th century that the conservative estimate is that the wipe out of Black farmland ownership since the early 20th century represented a transfer of wealth from Black people to white people to the tune of $300 billion. That is wild. So when we look at some of the stuff on the horizon, there’s a Senate Bill called the Justice for Black Farmers Act, came out at the end of November 2020, sponsored by Cory Booker and co-sponsored by Warren and Gillibrand.
What it would do is it would create an equitable land access service within the USDA, including a fund that devotes $8 billion annually to buying farmland on the open market and granting it to new and existing Black farmers, with the goal of making 20,000 grants per year over 9 years. So like Cory and Warren and Gillibrand, they get that a structural problem needs a structural fix. And I’m hoping that we see– the Biden administration is new. It feels like, thank god, Trump is gone. So it feels like this is we’re well into it. But it’s new. I hope that they take this act up because this would be the kind of actual structural change we need to move forward.
DE’ARA BALENGER: So my news today is from Wallpaper, and it’s about an incredible artist. Her name is Aya Brown. Y’all I love the visual aspect of things and the storytelling that happens and I think in particular, when it comes to telling stories about Black women true, honest stories of the joy, resilience, and brilliance and beauty of Black women. And that’s exactly what Aya did.
Her subjects are essential workers, most of whom are based in Brooklyn. And what she does is she uses actually brown craft paper, and then she uses these really incredible bright-colored pencils. And the reason, she says, that she uses brown paper is she says, “I use brown paper because the art school standard or when you buy paper to put in your printer, when you sign a contract, when you look at your email, everything begins on white. For me, when I’m drawing these Black women, I don’t want them to come from whiteness. Things do not need to start from white. This brown paper, this color that looks like our skin, is totally valid.”
You better come on here, Aya Brown. Come through, sis. It’s just spectacular. And I want you all to go look at these images because they are beautiful. And essentially what she’s trying to do is to tell this story, and it’s like a love letter to these workers, to these Black women.
And a lot of them are living in the neighborhoods where the– I guess I should say these images are at bus stops, right? So they’re kind of taking over these bus stops in Brooklyn, in Harlem, in the communities where these women are actually passing them on their way to work. And so part of this inspiration for Aya had actually started with– and it reminded me of because I almost forgot in these COVID times how we used to clap for the essential workers at 7:00 PM every day. It was a huge thing.
And so she wanted to take this a step further from that ritual and really document these women who she felt were “unseen, underappreciated, and risking their lives each day to keep life moving for all of us.” And those are her words. So I would check this piece out. Look at her work on Instagram, just incredible, thoughtful, forward-thinking human being. So just shout out to Aya and this incredible art that she’s sharing with us.
KAYA HENDERSON: De’Ara, I was so moved by the idea that she starts with brown paper. Just this she didn’t want these women to come out of whiteness was so profound to me– I mean, so simple, yet so profound. The other thing that I thought that was really interesting about this was her commitment to accessibility, making art accessible to regular people. Not only did she want to feature essential workers, the people that she thought were unseen and underappreciated, but she puts the art in their neighborhoods.
They’re at the bus stops closest to where they work so that they and the people that work with them see them, so that regular people in communities get to see art. She talks about how galleries are these places of exclusivity. But she’s making art for the people. And it’s a different thing when you put on your uniform every day and you go to work in a place. But the people around you see you heralded in this art piece that is installed in your neighborhood. This I think goes way further than banging a pot.
I was part of the pot banging. And I appreciated it. I think it creates a different narrative around who these people are and their importance in the community. And so hats off to Aya.
SAM SINYANGWE: The artwork was brilliant. It’s beautiful. And like you said, Kaya, it is accessible. It is in community. It is designed to lift up and center and make visible the work that is literally saving lives right now, right? So I had forgotten that in the beginning of the pandemic, the pots and all that in New York City.
But it is just wild to see the numbers, right? And the line for COVID hospitalizations and COVID deaths is plummeting dramatically as essential workers are going out there and administering this vaccine, as folks are going out there and doing their job, but more importantly, saving our society, saving our whole country, saving the world, right? And this is happening in real time, right now.
This is world historical. And they’re literally leading this work. And I hope– I really hope that as this is happening and from now on, we can actually make these investments to not only lift up and make clear who’s doing this incredible work, but also to just invest in that, and to make sure that essential workers are getting paid for the value that they’re delivering to the world right now, that their stories are being lifted up, that their voices are being centered in policymaking circles around these issues, that their insight is being centered in our conversations about now what is the value of work and how do we protect our workers on the job? How do we make sure that they’re able to do this work in a way that folks are not having to work around the clock, that folks are not having to be stressed out, that folks are not having to be isolated or to take on so much sacrifice that we’re asking of folks right now? And yet they’re doing it anyway.
And I think– I just hope that this can be a moment where you see some of this in the American Rescue Act. But also you see the hesitation even to pay folks $15 minimum wage, right? So I think there is a shift that seems to be happening. But it’s clearly not where it needs to be, still even within the Democratic Party, let alone legislatively across the country. So I just hope that this artwork can be something that other cities will do and that the broader narrative about the value and the work that is saving the world right now results in like real changes to our economy.
DERAY MCKESSON: So this reminded me that the built environment is a canvas. And I think about all the conversation that happened with the statues and the flags. And it’s like we should actually walk outside and just see us all the time, whether it’s a statue, a poster, a painting. I think about how many times I walk around any city, and it’s like I don’t see us. We’re not the posters. Or it’s like a cartoon, yellow-skinned thing that’s like sort of animated cartoon.
And I saw these, and I’m like, yes, I want the stickers. I want the graffiti on the ground. It reminded me that it’s so wild that I forgot that I don’t ever see me when I walk outside, forget the– statues aside, just these sort of things, and not in some ad trying to sell me some medicine, which is where I feel like I see Black people the most on the ads on the bus or whatever, where it’s trying to sell you.
I don’t even know what AstraZeneca is. But I feel like I’ve heard the ads a million times. So that’s how I thought about this. And De’Ara, the more and more that we can lift these things up so that they become models for people and that people start to think about their artwork as political acts. And I think about in college, I took this class about art in community.
And I didn’t even think about the power, the political significance of Black photography in Black homes or what it means that there are all these kids. I think about my niece who is growing up in a world where she sees herself on TV represented. And I sort of was like, oh, I thought it mattered. But I didn’t realize how much it mattered to me till saw kids be like I could be– I saw them make that connection. And I’m like, this is great. So yeah, so really pumped about it.
So mine is also a story about firsts. Mariya Russell is the first Black woman to earn a Michelin star. She is a chef at a Michelin-star restaurant in Chicago. She earned this star in 2019. The first Black man to earn a Michelin star was a French chef, who made history in 2014 at a restaurant in France.
Now, when I go to the Michelin website, there are about 180 starred restaurants. There are 14 3-star restaurants in the US. And I’m like, how are we making– for cooking– for cooking. How are Black people just being in the best restaurants in 20 anything for cooking? We taught the people how to cook.
KAYA HENDERSON: You better say it.
DERAY MCKESSON: We are the flavor. We are the soul. We the food! I’m like, how did a Black woman, the first Michelin of any one, two, three stars in 2019? It blew my mind. I’m like, what is a Michelin? That’s all. I went down a Michelin rabbit hole, being like, there is no way in the world that Black people are getting first awards for cooking in the United States. I don’t know.
I just brought here because it really blew my mind, for cooking. I’m like, we cooked all the meals. We are the flavor. We’re it. We are it. So if y’all are expert out there in Michelin land, please email me so we can have you on the pod to help us understand a little more about what’s going on. And her story is great.
And she started out at a really not-senior level in a restaurant, worked her way up, eventually was able to become the leader of this new restaurant in Chicago. I’m shocked, like truly shocked that she is the first Black woman and that the first Black man was in France in 2014. I don’t even know how– the math ain’t mathing.
KAYA HENDERSON: [LAUGHING] I’m laughing because I literally had the same reaction. I was like, really? The first Black people, 2019 and 2014, to win the award for cooking? That’s bananas, totally bananas because, yeah, this sister is– sister Mariya Russell is doing the thing, tasting menu, omakase, all of the fancy Japanese stuff that I don’t know how to pronounce but that takes a lot of skill and practice and whatnot.
But even as her story of triumph was being told, it also reminded me that we don’t get a pass. We don’t get a whatever. She and her husband– she had ascended to restaurantdom and was doing really well. She and her husband decided to move to Charleston for a better paced life.
She couldn’t really find a decent job in Charleston and was subject to a whole lot of overt racism and decided to come back to Chicago. And when she came back to Chicago, she literally could only get a job as a back server. I had to look up what that is.
The back server is not even your primary waiter or waitress. It’s the person who fills the bread baskets and fills your water glasses and removes your empty plates. And this sister is like, well, it gave me a chance to do front-of-house stuff and to build relationships with people and whatnot. And that’s lovely and all, that we see the silver lining in everything.
But why did a sister who was an esteemed chef have to come back and literally be the back server before she had to, again, work her way back up into sous chef and then chef de cuisine, right? And now you can’t keep people away from her restaurant. She’s amazing and whatnot.
But damn, we got to climb 10 mountains when everybody else only has to climb one. I take my hat off to her. When I go to Chicago, I’m going to do my best to pull whatever strings I can to get into her restaurant. I don’t even really like fancy food like that. But I just want to support the sister. And I’m looking forward to the next set of people, Black people, who win these Michelin stars. Y’all, come on.
SAM SINYANGWE: Yeah. So I’m a foodie, right? So I follow the Michelin Guide and which restaurants get what. I get it, right? Good food, wonderful. But you don’t have to be a fancy restaurant really to get a Michelin star. The food just is supposed to be good, right? It’s supposed to be.
They literally have given a Michelin star to– there’s like a street stall in Singapore. They whip up an incredible food for like $3.50. They got a Michelin star. So if they can find the street stall in Singapore that was just like whipping up something that was delicious for a good price, you mean to tell me that they could not find any Black chefs that could make something that was delicious? Like, really?
I don’t understand the process. I understand how they– somebody has to figure out– I think we know what’s going on. But they need some new people and some new processes because they’re missing out on a whole bunch of stuff, a whole world of food, the food, like DeRay said, the food. So I don’t get how they got there.
I’m wondering what is the competitor to the Michelin Guide, right? What is there that exists in Blackness or in general that can be the thing that puts Black chefs on, the thing that is like this is actually where the food is. This is where the flavor is, and you should be reading our guide, right? And I’m just trying to think about why are we going to– I mean, Michelin, yes, it’s the tire car company. Yes, it’s that Michelin.
We can create our own list, folks. We don’t have to read their list to figure out what good food is because clearly they don’t understand that there’s a whole lot of good food right here in our own communities, in our own cities. So that’s just what comes to mind because I’ve eaten a lot of good food. I’ve had restaurants that they’ve given a star to before. And I’ve had much better food in community than they put on that list.
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DERAY MCKESSON: Evan Stone is a co-founder and CEO of Educators for Excellence, an organization dedicated to improving student learning and the teaching profession. We are speaking on the one-year anniversary of schools in New York City being closed for COVID and the LA USD finally announcing a path back to in-person learning. Here we go.
Evan, it’s always great to talk to you. Welcome to Pod Save the People.
EVAN STONE: Thank you. It’s a real honor and pleasure to be here.
DERAY MCKESSON: Feels like forever ago that we were roommates during teacher training, 12, what, 13 years ago at this point. And since then, you’ve gone on to do all these cool things, one of which is Educators for Excellence. Can you talk to us about how you got to leading a national organization that’s focused on student quality, teacher quality, and generally changing the outcomes around public education?
EVAN STONE: Yeah. A few years after being roommates with you, I was teaching in the Bronx, where I met my co-founder Sydney Morris. We were teaching at the same school, PS 86. This organization started because like a lot of teachers, we loved the day-to-day work of being in our classrooms with our students and at the same time felt pretty stymied and frustrated with the broader system. And at first we just thought it was our school.
And so we started talking to teachers across the city, New York City, and kept hearing the same thing, the system’s broken, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Teachers kept saying that it seems like nobody wants to listen. Nobody understands what’s happening in our classrooms, not our principal, not our district, not even our union. And so we wanted to start an organization to address that.
And that sounds pretty broad. So I think a story that sort of encompasses it for me, my journey from the classroom to the beginning this organization, is with a student I had in my second year. He really struggled his previous years. He was one of those students– I’m sure you had them to– where the other teachers try to give you a heads up about them.
But those are the kids I loved. They were my favorite. So when he joined my classroom, I really invested in him. And what became pretty clear is that part of why he hated school is that each year since third grade he failed the math exam at the end of the year. And as a result, he had to go to summer and take the easier test at the end and was getting pushed through the system. But he really just wanted to go back to Puerto Rico where his family was to spend the summer with his grandmother.
And so he hated school because it forced him to miss that opportunity. And so I connected with him, and I said, look, if you come to my Saturday school, my after school, I will change that for you. You will get to go to Puerto Rico.
And while working with him, it became clear he knew the math. He just needed extra time. So we got him accommodations. And at the end of the year, after a ton of work, he passed the math exam. And he let everybody know in the whole building. He celebrated it. And his mom celebrated it.
And it was one of those moments as a teacher where you feel like, OK, I can have an impact. And then a few months later, he came back to see me with his mom. And his face was streaked with tears. And he told me he’s failing. And at his new middle school, they weren’t giving him any accommodations.
So I was sure it was just a mix up. I went to talk to the principal. And she just shut me down. She said, he doesn’t need accommodations. I don’t know why you got these for him last year.
And even though it was his legal right, I felt pretty powerless, exactly like the teachers we work with often feel. But when I shared that story with my mentor teacher the next day back at school, she got his second-grade teacher and third-grade teacher and fourth-grade teacher and his resource-room teacher and told me that all of us were going back there. And so the next week, 10 of us walked over to his middle school.
And the principal was entirely a different person. She was accommodating. And she was like, oh, I didn’t understand what you needed. Of course, we can accommodate him. And so that was the moment I walked out of the school building that I realized as teachers, we had this immense power and opportunity to shape students’ lives. But then they return to a broken system.
And it’s only through collective action, teachers coming together to fight for their students, so that we can change those. So that, to me, is why Sydney and I started E4E. We believe teachers need to be agents of change, both in and outside of their classrooms. And E4E, or Educators for Excellence, is the platform for that to happen.
DERAY MCKESSON: How do you think about the role of unions? I know that so much of your work, at least as it began, was around sort of thinking differently about the power or structure or role or membership of teachers unions. How does that factor into the work you do?
EVAN STONE: Yeah. We feel like unions are fundamental and essential to our education system and need to be part of the solution. We also think that in too many cities right now, too few teachers are engaging in their union. So when we started Educators for Excellence in New York, we found that only about 16% of teachers were voting in their union’s election.
Over half the total votes in that election came from retirees and not actually classroom teachers. And so a lot of the work that we do is trying to make our unions more democratic, more diverse, more anti-racist, by getting more teachers to vote in their unions, more teachers to go to union meetings and tell their union what they think is important, to run for union leadership. And so for, us it’s about harnessing the power of our union to drive change for our students and our profession by getting more people involved.
DERAY MCKESSON: And how many places are you in? Is this regional only? Is this–
EVAN STONE: We work with just about 35,000 teachers across the country but are organizing. And we have about 30 organizers across the country, working in 6 main communities, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, the Twin Cities, New Haven, Hartford, and Bridgeport in Connecticut, and in Boston, Massachusetts.
DERAY MCKESSON: From a former teacher and somebody who works every day with teachers across the country, how do you think about this return to school? What should we be thinking about that we aren’t? And what did you learn in the research you all did around COVID?
EVAN STONE: Yeah. So we just did our third installment of a national teacher survey. It’s the most comprehensive survey that we’ve seen of teachers out there. The questions are written by teachers and then run by a fairly reputable polling firm. We polled a representative sample of teachers, over 800 across the country.
And what it showed us isn’t that surprising. But it’s also pretty tragic when you dig in. First thing that we learned is that the pandemic has had a massive impact on student learning. Teachers are saying that student engagement is down, student assignments are down, student attendance is down, student learning is down. And they’re telling us that it’s particularly bad in classrooms that are serving a majority of students who are coming from a low-income background or a majority of students of color. And so the inequities that exist in our system are growing and getting worse.
The second thing it showed us it’s that teachers actually want to go back into schools. They’re willing to go back if there are basic safety precautions in place. But they don’t have a lot of faith in their district delivering on those. They’re saying things like, if the district struggles to clean our buildings normally, if we don’t have soap in our bathrooms normally, how can we count on them to have PPE in place or real social distancing? So for me, this is a moment that we can get back into buildings across the country if we actually prioritize education and get the resources and support of schools that they need. And we’re seeing this happen in some districts across the country but not everywhere.
The next thing that sort of shocked me is how little tools teachers feel like they had to make this shift. Even things that were already in existence, like the curriculum, teachers are saying it is not aligned to the standards. It is not culturally relevant and engaging for my student audiences. It was not adaptable to digital learning or to technology. And so we’re figuring it all out with very little support and very little guidance.
And we also saw that teachers think things can’t go back to the way they were before, that they want to seize this moment to transform education. So there’s some pretty hopeful findings in some of that, that there’s new skills that teachers have developed and that there’s new expectations that they have for students. And those are things that we’re hoping to expand back into the system when we do return.
DERAY MCKESSON: And do you think that a return is soon? Do you think the return is going to take forever? And are you doing any work around the law students, the number of students who just have not come back?
EVAN STONE: So I do think the return is going to happen. In this survey, looking across the country, 77% of teachers said that they had done some in-person teaching this year. So across the South, most districts are open. Lots of suburban districts are open. Here in New York City, schools are open for some populations of kids, elementary school students.
It is really just some of our large urban districts that haven’t opened at all and where we’re seeing the fights play out. But I do think by the end of this year, most school districts will have open. And definitely by next year, schools will be open for kids across the country. I would be really excited to see that be a part of the Biden administration’s plan to help get schools open.
And to your question, absolutely. So right now we have two big campaigns that we’re working on in different communities that are trying to first figure out what is the actual attendance data. In different districts, they’re coming up with different definitions of what it means to attend school.
Some districts it’s like you need to log in once a week or you need to submit one assignment a day. Others it’s you need to be online all day for all of your classes. And so we really need to understand how many kids are missing. But we know the number is huge.
In Los Angeles, for example, we’re thinking maybe it’s 50,000 students who have gone missing. And we need a massive campaign to find these students, re-engage them in education, remind them why this is so important. And that’s going to take a big community outreach, teachers calling homes, guidance counselors knocking on doors. The work to find kids is essential and get them back involved in our schools.
DERAY MCKESSON: And when you think about standardizing the methodology by which that is done across the country, why does how we collect that data matter to you?
EVAN STONE: It matters because if a student has been submitting one assignment a week, that’s not very engaged. And we need to know that so that we can target support and interventions for them in the future. We also need to know if they haven’t logged in at all or if they’re just not being counted in attendance because they’re missing their homeroom class in the morning.
And so one of the data points in our survey is that teachers are saying we want a lot more data on our kids’ experiences because we don’t see them each day. We want to know, do they have a safe place to learn? Are they homeless? Do they have access to food? Do they have somebody there to support their learning when they’re learning at home? And all of that data just helps us better understand which are the populations of kids that we need to wrap our arms around when we return to buildings to make sure that they have the support to make up for the lost learning opportunities that they’ve had.
DERAY MCKESSON: One of the other things that I thought was really interesting was this question you asked about tests, should kids still get the same tests? And yeah, I’d love to– can you talk about both sides of that? Because I could hear people say, well, how do you even go to the next grade? Are we just literally skipping every kid or just moving people up? Or should we hold kids back? Is this just like a free year for everybody?
EVAN STONE: Yeah. So there’s a requirement from the federal government that started under No Child Left Behind and has been maintained through all of the last four administrations that in grades three through eight and once in high school, there needs to be an end-of-year assessment for all students. Last year, under the DeVos administration, they waived that requirement and let states not give tests. That was partially because we went the distance learning right when testing was going to happen. And nobody knew how to even give the assessments to kids.
This year we asked teachers, should we postpone tests again? And there was a split, almost 50-50, 47% of teachers saying, no, we need to keep our tests in place, and 53% saying to postpone it. The interesting thing about it is the vast majority of teachers, over 60%, said we should not just promote kids to the next grade. We need to hold a high bar for expectations. We need to make sure kids are ready to move on for grade promotion or graduation. We just also need to give them the supports to help them catch up if they’ve missed those learning opportunities.
And so we’re seeing a need for that data because without that data, we’re not going to know the gaps that exist. We’re not going to really understand the damage that’s been done on individual students. We might have information in the aggregate. But it’s really critical to know how every kid is doing in this moment and that there’s a huge investment from the federal level, from states, from districts to provide interventions and supports for the kids that have fallen way behind.
DERAY MCKESSON: That makes sense. Do you have thoughts about what remediation looks like when we actually go back to school?
EVAN STONE: We asked about it. And teachers are open to lots of ideas. Some are saying it needs to be in-school remediation. We just need additional one-on-one grouping and programs for kids in the building. Some teachers are saying that it should be tutoring, that really high-quality tutoring that’s aligned to what’s going on in the school day has been demonstrated to be effective. That’s what should be in place.
Some are saying the federal government should use the resources that they’re investing to extended school year and extend the school day so that there’s additional learning time, particularly for kids in communities that were most impacted by the pandemic. So teachers are open to lots of those solutions. And those are three that have bubbled up that we’ve seen the most support for.
DERAY MCKESSON: One of the things that I was surprised by, as somebody who used to lead human capital, had to lay teachers off, not because I personally wanted to lay people off, but that was the job I had, was because I could see it now. People are like, DeRay talked about being excited about laying people off. I did not! But you ask people the factors for layoff decisions. And teachers said teacher performance. Tell me about that. I was not– I looked at that, like, really?
EVAN STONE: So it’s one of the first issues that we worked on. And I was still a teacher in the classroom when New York City was threatening to layoff 6,000 teachers. And we were saying there’s got to be a better way than just purely based on seniority. Here we are, more than a decade later, and we’re still having these conversations.
Last year we asked teachers. 46% said it should be a combination of multiple measures, including performance and seniority, with just about 25% both saying seniority or just performance. We asked this year, let’s break it down. We’ll give you a whole list. You can choose as many of them as you want. Tell us which ones you think are important.
And 50% of teachers said performance. 50% said seniority. 50% said certification areas. And so what this is showing us is that our system can’t be just based on performance, that performance is important. We know teachers improve over time. But it is not the only thing that is important.
We need to protect teachers that are serving high-needs populations of kids. We have a crisis around the teaching profession that is not very diverse, that is still 80% white. We need to protect teachers of color to ensure we’re not moving further away from that.
And what we find is that when layoffs happen, they often disproportionately impact teachers of color because of the schools they work in. And they’re often newer in terms of their time teaching. So those are the types of things that we think are really important to put in place.
And performance needs to be a factor. We can’t ignore that there are some teachers that are having an out-sized impact on kids’ development and learning. And we need to do everything we can to keep them in our classrooms.
DERAY MCKESSON: What were you most surprised by when you talked to teachers about sort of the return? And did you ask any questions about parents?
EVAN STONE: The thing that surprised me in this survey is that for the first time we saw a huge concern from teachers, that they are very concerned about racial injustice in our schools. And that grows for younger teachers. That grows for teachers of color. That grows for teachers serving students of color.
Even though they’re concerned, they’re not actually talking to their students about issues of race or talking to their colleagues about issues of race. And they don’t have any training or support to do that well. What surprised me is that even in this year, where we had the largest protest movement in the history of our country affirming the importance of Black lives, teachers aren’t contextualizing that to their students in their classroom.
We have history in action, and we’re not talking about it with our kids. And that’s really problematic. And so to me, an urgent concern coming out of this is how do we equip teachers with the ability to have these conversations with each other about how do we address racial inequity, how do we address race in our classrooms, and then support them to have those conversations with their students as well.
To your other question about parents, one of the things that came out is that teachers are saying a benefit of distance learning is that they’ve built better relationships with parents. They can talk to them more frequently. They’re in regular communication with them and that it’s no longer reliant on this like very antiquated parent-teacher conference, where parents have to trek into a school building a couple of times a year to get this 10-minute update, at best. And so teachers are saying some of this we need to keep. We need to keep this relationship and engagement with families and parents that we’ve been able to develop through the pandemic.
DERAY MCKESSON: One of the things that you asked that I was, frankly, a little surprised by, when you asked about teaching hours during the pandemic, I thought it would overwhelmingly be more hours than before. And it wasn’t. And maybe this is that teachers were already working incredibly long days, so this was more of the same. But was that surprising to you? That was surprising to me.
EVAN STONE: It was surprising. Only 44% of teachers told us that their hours are worse or they’re working more hours than they did before the pandemic. About 35% said they’re working about the same. I think there’s a couple factors for this. One, we asked this in December. So teachers had gotten up to speed a little bit.
When we asked the same series of questions last spring, the burnout was massive, as teachers were making the transition to distance learning. So I think that’s part of it, when this was asked and the timing. The other part of it, I think, to your point, teachers are working super hard. And they’re saying, yeah, I’m doing everything I can now, and I did everything I could before to try to serve my students.
The thing that was encouraging about this is we’ve heard reports about teachers flocking out of the profession, that we’re going to have mass waves of retirement. And when we ask teachers about that, only 15% of teachers said that they were not likely to spend their entire career as a classroom teacher. And so then that 15% that said that they are likely to leave, we asked them, is it because of the pandemic? And only a third of them. so 5% of all teachers, said the pandemic is the reason that I want to leave teaching. And that’s a much smaller number than media reports or than I expected. I was really worried that the disruption this has caused for teachers would be pushing many of them out of the classroom at a time we really need to keep them.
DERAY MCKESSON: We talked about a lot of things that the survey covered. What are the other things in public education that we should be thinking about? What aren’t we talking about that we should be talking about? Is it that we should have a hybrid model forever, that there were some kids who did really well in this model, and we should legitimize this option not just for kids who physically can’t make it to a building for whatever reason, but for all kids. I don’t know. What aren’t we talking about?
EVAN STONE: I think we’re talking about a lot of these issues. It’s about the prioritization, to me, because we do some of the things that work. To your point, we should have some version of hybrid education that’s available for kids. 50% of teachers are telling they had students that thrived in this learning environment. It’s not all their kids, but they had a sub-population of kids that have been able to accelerate their learning, own their own learning in a way that they hadn’t beforehand. I think that still needs to be an opportunity for kids that have been really successful in this model.
We need to supplement that with the type of engagement and social emotional development that can only come through a learning community. You can’t do all of the things that we need in school alone on your computer screen. But to your other point, one of the things we know works and I just find to be so problematic coming out of this is the very simple things like high-quality, culturally relevant curriculum. I know Kaya is working on this as one person. The dearth of quality materials for teachers to use that are representative of their students’ identities and cultures is depressing, especially as we’ve been working with the same standards for over a decade.
We still haven’t gotten teachers the tools that they need to feel like they can really engage their kids in learning. To me, that’s a simple thing that we know would have a huge impact. Just exposing the kids to grade-level reading would demonstrably improve their performance. And we’re not getting those things right.
The other thing that is very clear through this is how much the teacher matters in the classroom. We need to have the supports, the training, and, yes, the pay in place to recruit and keep great teachers. And as a society, we just haven’t decided to make that investment yet. And that’s one of the things that I think we’ve talked about for a long time, and it still goes unaddressed.
DERAY MCKESSON: Did you find any regional differences or differences by age or gender or race in the survey results?
EVAN STONE: Interestingly, we did. The biggest differences that we found– and we looked across a number of different crosstabs, and we’ll post them all on our website for anybody that wants to go in and dig in and look at the differences. But the three biggest areas of distinction that we found, one, were for younger teachers versus more veteran teachers. Younger teachers are much more aware of the inequities in the system, much more cognizant of racial injustice in their schools, much more open to innovative compensation models, less committed to systems of seniority and tenure, which makes sense.
The second big gap was for teachers of color. Very similar to younger teachers, we saw teachers of color are much more aware of the problems in the system and much more open to innovative solutions that would change the fundamental tenets of how we think of our education system. We also saw big differences between charter teachers and district teachers.
DERAY MCKESSON: Really?
EVAN STONE: So that played out across a lot of those same dimensions– much more open to assessments, much more open to shifting in curriculum, much more comfortable using technology.
DERAY MCKESSON: The charter teachers were?
EVAN STONE: Yes. And then the last thing is teachers that serve high populations of historically marginalized kids. So if you work in a school that predominantly serves students coming from a low-income background or predominantly serve students of color, you’re also much more open to these same changes. And so in the report, we list all of the tables that show these differences at the back end. And then we’ll post the crosstabs on our website because I do think what we’re seeing is an evolution. Younger teachers, teachers of color, charter teachers, and teachers serving historically under-served populations of kids are much more open to change.
DERAY MCKESSON: I love it. What advice would you have for school system leaders right now? And I ask because I know a lot of school system leaders who are really struggling. There’s a vocal group saying they don’t want to come back. There is maybe not-as-vocal group saying they do want to come back. School staff are the single-largest group of mandated reporters in the country.
And who knows what’s going on with child abuse right now. We know child suicide looks like it’s trending up, in a way that is abnormal. So how do you– what’s your advice to school system leaders having to make the call about coming back and when, given not only the learning issues, but the role that schools play in larger communities and society?
EVAN STONE: Yeah, I’m so glad you raised that. It is really scary to think about not just learning impact, but the sort of social and emotional and developmental impact that this is having, the isolation and the separation from your friends, the anxiety and fear, the trauma that so many kids and families have experienced, disproportionately communities of color have experienced as a result of the pandemic. So my advice is we need to find ways to get school buildings open. You can’t do that by fighting teachers. You need them to be partners in opening buildings.
I’ve watched a lot of the systems where we work, but in Hartford, Connecticut, the union leadership and the district worked hand in hand to build a plan to open schools. They were the first large district that we work in to open for all their students. And they prioritized the students that have the greatest need.
So how do we get to early childhood kids back in the building? How do we get students with disabilities back into buildings? How do we get English-language learners back in the building? And then gradually open for more students by saying, there’s certain kids that really have a hard time learning online that really need intense support. And so let’s start there. And that’s how we build a system that prioritizes equity.
So we’ve seen systems do it. It’s about collaboration. It’s about staying away from the political fights and the media fights if you can avoid it. It’s about finding groups of teachers that you can listen to and engage and compromise around, OK, what are things that we can put in place?
We don’t have vaccines for every teacher right now. But we should be able to give every teacher as many masks as they need. We should be able to have schools that have ventilation that works. Some of these things were problems before the pandemic. You’ve talked a lot about asthma rates and other things in certain communities.
We need school buildings that are healthy places. And that shouldn’t be a demand from teachers that is seen as unreasonable. So I think there administrators that have found that balance of compromise and focusing on getting buildings open for the kids that really, really need to be there.
DERAY MCKESSON: Well, thanks so much for joining us. And we consider you a friend of the pod.
EVAN STONE: Thanks so much for having me on and for all the work you’re leading across the country. Thanks, DeRay.
DERAY MCKESSON: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week.
Pod Save the People’s a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lanz. Our executive producer is Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors, Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Samuel Sinyangwe and our special contributor, Johnetta Elzie.