In This Episode
DeRay, Kaya, De’Ara and Myles cover the underreported news of the week— including a baby formula shortage, an all-Black cast opera show, a recent release from Kendrick Lamar, and a new historical cookbook. DeRay interviews activist and entrepreneur Joah Spearman about his candidacy for Austin City Council, District 9.
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, this is DeRay, and welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode it’s me, De’Ara, Myles, and Kaya talking about the news that you don’t know from the past week. Kaya wasn’t with us when we recorded together, but her news is here as you’ll see in a second. And then I sat down with Joah Spearman, a candidate for Austin City Council District nine. We chat about his experience as an entrepreneur and community leader, and his unique campaign that addresses issues, issues like affordability and housing, transit and mobility, equity and inclusion, and more. My advice for this week is to enjoy music. You know, like I, I’ve been lucky to go to some concerts, and I forgot how much I just enjoyed music. So if you have a chance to be around music, you know, listen to songs that used to lioe a long time ago, like, I was just catching up on Maroon 5, Songs About Jane, and I’m like, That really was a good album. It really was. So here we go.
De’Ara Balenger: Family, welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @dearabalenger.
Myles Johnson: I’m Myles E. Johnson. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @Pharaohrapture.
DeRay Mckesson: I’m DeRay. @deray on Twitter.
De’Ara Balenger: So, you know, sure, by the time this podcast comes out, everyone will be aware of the news, if not already, about the ten killed and three wounded in a shooting by white supremacists in Buffalo in a supermarket. And folks were just, you know, when you read kind of the individual accounts of just people’s families saying, you know, so-and-so was going to the store to pick up some things for dinner–yeah, it’s just a reminder, actually, I feel like Sade Lifkopf put it best on her Instagram when she said “a white supremacist drove hours to open fire on Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo. Looking over our shoulders for racist attacks, navigating daily microaggressions and trying to enjoy life simultaneously is not an easy task. Continue to protect your spirits, hearts, and bodies. Keep joy close. We are both a vulnerable and impenetrable people.” So that was one that um, kind of just help me through the processing of it, but I just feel like at this point I don’t know how to process these things. But of course . . . you know, I don’t know. I’m hoping one of you two has some some make sense, inspirational words to guide us, because I’m at a loss on this one.
Myles Johnson: Yeah. I think it’s always okay to let the melancholy of a moment, or the rage that inspires the moment, like rest in you and just process it. I think that’s a part of healing, too. But the thing that is, that kind of this particular incident reminds me of is how the the attack on the ordinary life in our, and the mundane is really under fire. That’s really to me, like where terror really like lives. When you feel like you can’t do, when you can’t go to church, you can’t go to the grocery store. And, you know, I’m literally preaching to the choir because I can’t imagine any Black person not already feeling this already getting to this type of bravery, but knowing that it’s important for us to still participate in our mundane, ordinary, beautiful activities, because that is what the resistance is. That’s what these things are, that these things are made to want to make us want to hide or separate. And I think to anybody who is of a place of racial power, you know, aka you know, white people, or anybody who is not being, you know, who’s not racially targeted by white supremacists, I think that your job would have to be to try your best to maintain safety while people are doing mundane things, and looking out and maybe looking side by side and treating every moment that you’re in community like you’re in a community, you know. I think sometimes we can be a whole bunch of moving individuals in one small space or in one neighborhood. And I think moments like this show that, no, we all need to be eyes that look around and we’re all part of the same body. We’re all cells of the same body. And that’s how we operate as a community. And I think that if you’re a place of racial power, I think that this is a chance to wake up and stand up and really use your power to ensure that people can do these mundane things safely, you know? But there’s just nothing to tell Black people at moments like this because, you know, sadly, it’s routine. And we know what to do. You know, we know the healing process. We know the rage process. We know the whole, we know that process. You know, it’s time for other people to make it so we don’t have to be so learned in this process.
DeRay Mckesson: I think there are a couple of things that sort of struck me about this. One is, I don’t know if you saw, but he livestreamed this on Twitch. So they took the video down pretty quickly. But there were still early parts of the video that were online that I saw. And I know, like, it was on my downtime. I didn’t know what it was until later because I was at a festival with no cell phone reception when everything was, when the news broke. But I will tell you, I did see one of the stills, and it was just sad and evil. And I think that there’s something about white supremacy that we just don’t talk about, the evilness of it all, enough, right? That it becomes like unkind and bad and not evil. And it’s like, you know, there’s a lot of evil in that. The other thing is that I really didn’t know much, and maybe y’all did,. I don’t know if I just wasn’t paying attention but the “great replacement theory”, like I had never heard that phrase, like I just wasn’t, I didn’t know. And then this brought it all up that he wrote that 180-page screed, 18-year old boy, 18-year old man, white guy, wrote 180 pages, but he is citing great replacement theory, which is this idea that white people are going to be overtaken by people of color, immigrants, and that they need to protect whiteness as a result of that and how that was sort of a fringe idea. It was originated, the term originated in 2011 by this writer who was actually, interestingly, a gay writer who had done really good work around queer theory, queer literature, and then was also a raging white supremacist and white nationalist. But there have been a lot of articles since the shooting just yesterday that have highlighted a great replacement theory has like been normalized on Fox News, Rick Perry, and like all these people have like actually just normalized this idea that is in a lot of ways feeding the racism of the moment today, is this idea that white people will lose their power in this particular way, which is not new. Like the idea, white people are being nervous about Black power is not new. But I hadn’t heard this phrase. And I, you know, we talk about this all the time, and this idea that it seems like a big part of white supremacy, too, is this idea that white people are afraid that they will be treated any modicum of what they’ve done to other people, even when that’s not you know, that’s not the way people are pushing back in this moment. But it was sort of, I don’t, the doctor like in Fox News, and that there are governors highlighting replacement theory or whatever it is, as like a legitimate idea feels so wild.
Myles Johnson: Yeah. And I think that’s why we need to have boundaries around what we do platform. Because I think a lot of times and I love that you brought up the piece about evil, is because I think a lot of times it’s very obvious to us that, you know, generations are smarter and we’re know more theory. And, you know, you look at Twitter or social media or even the kind of media that a lot of like younger generations want to consume is way more sophisticated. We’re having conversations about critical race theory and like, should it be in schools? Like, there’s obviously like a way that kids are thinking that are different, but, you know, intelligence and sophistication doesn’t necessarily have a moral compass. It just it just exists as a way. And these ideas, like the great replacement idea need to exist because now those people who are want to do evil, they need theories behind it and ideas behind it, and they need people who feel like scholarly when they’re talking about it. And I think that we have to be really, really careful when we platform certain people and engage them, because that’s also giving people permission to recruit other people into it, into, you know an idea family that ends up doing actions like this.
De’Ara Balenger: And just one quick thing to add, because I just feel like this all comes down to politics and the right trying to control, you know, trying to control their power in government. And I think part of this ideology is that, okay, if, you know, if all of these white folks that were leaning towards the right–and I’m not saying that people that are leaning towards the right or on the right are white supremacists–but you know, part of it is it’s how do we get those folks to vote against their own self-interest, right? And I think the way they have always done that, the way they have historically done that, the way they did that after the Civil War was to give white men power. After the Civil War, the white men had the right, poor white men had the right to use guns and Freedman, freed black men didn’t. So I think part of this is like, how can the power structure be so that they can control having the vote, having people come out in droves to support them, and part of that is getting people to subscribe to this racist ideology and white supremacy, and now with these platforms, Myles, to your point, now, it’s like, you know, it’s just times 100. The message can spread faster. The psychological effects can, you know, they can get to folks quicker. So, I think it’s the same, you know, same stuff, different toilet, basically. But I guess this is just the world that we live in.
Myles Johnson: Yeah. Unfortunately. And again I think that the big thing is white folks right now, I think the I think the real big tack, I’m pretty sure there’s probably no white person is going to be listening to this who is like, who would identify as a white supremacist or even probably like right leaning, I’m thinking unless they just like hate listening. But I think the real work is to illuminate the consciousness of, white people gotta illuminate the consciousness of other white people that, Hey, that the true power was taken once we decided to be labeled white. Once we were able to give up our Dutch-ness and our Italian-ness in our all these other like molds that we exist in, and we gave all our power to be to assimilate into this like, ambiguous white thing that guaranteed power, like that was the first violent affront. And I think that once white people illuminate the consciousness of other white people, that’s where the power struggle is. Not with Black people and with other people trying to gain the right pursue happiness. I think that’s where that conversation happened. Not like, Oh, let let’s have a far-left liberal and a Ku Klux Klan member have a conversation and maybe they’ll come to a middle ground. Like that’s not where the conversation’s happening. And just something in me feels like a lot of what happened in the Trump administration and what can kind of continue to happen on news platforms and media platforms, like this is the result of a lot of those things, is that it just validates it and snowballs until a moment like this. I’m mad.
De’Ara Balenger: The last thing I’m gonna say on this is, I last week decided to watch Barack and Michelle Obama’s last party at the White House in which they had all Black people there and just one, the one white actor–I can’t remember his name, he was in the movie Lady Gaga.
Myles Johnson: Bradley Cooper.
De’Ara Balenger: Bradley Cooper. And then they had Bell–they had everybody. And it was on BET. That was the last party they had at the White House. And I thought to myself, no wonder we had Donald Trump in that White House. Them white people probably lost their minds when they saw Poison being performed at the White House. Okay?
Myles Johnson: Listen, Eckhart totally told me a little thing. Well, Buddhism taught me a little thing about Yin and Yang, and there is nothing more yin or yanger than that. That’s the Ying and Yangest thing I’ve ever heard or seen. So I love–to know me is to know, I love hip hop–and one of just my favorite artists, but also like one of my favorite hip hop artists, Kendrick Lamar released a video and now an album this week. I’m really interested in this video because he used deepfake technology with this company called Deep Voodoo. Everybody knows, or at least I’m trying to convince everybody that I’m like a technological gal, NFTs, deepfake technology–ask me about it. I know about it–so this is me adding on to that brand myth. But I was really fascinated that he used deepfake technology, to me to make art and to make social commentary, specifically social commentary that will be interesting to the Black community. I think that sometimes specifically now when people try to make political or emotional statements through art, I feel the very real presence of the white gaze that, Oh, you’re talking about Black people to white people. I felt like he was trying to, and for me, successfully attempted to create a dialog in a provocative moment that was happening internally within the Black community and have people hate it and have people think that he’s just a flaming Hotep and have people think that he’s a genius. And I kind of, and I just will always appreciate people who see technology and create art and conversation around it. So I don’t know if anybody saw it, but he turns into Will Smith, Kanye West, and then the grand finale is that he, he turns into Jussie Smollett, he turns into, the grand finale, is that he turns into Nipsey Hussle. And the idea that I gather from it was that, kind of taking the most polarizing either because of death or because of just events that happened, taking some of the most polarizing public Black male figures and him, kind of saying, Oh, I’m all of these people, too. It really reminded me–you know, I love you know, I love a Black woman poet–but it really reminded me of Maya Angelou’s quote, where she says, “If a human has done it, it cannot be alien to me.” So I thought it was interesting because Kendrick Lamar has this really, because he does, to me he’s like almost like, he’s almost like hip hop’s Adele. Like he, like really like is loved in the community and really great. And I thought it was really interesting for him to say like, No, I am in this special pedestal moment within the community and within like even like scholarly white intellectual, like establishment, however, I still identify myself with the most provocative of me, even with the quote unquote “worse of me”. And I thought that was really interesting, no matter how I felt about those figures. And that was a really interesting statement to make for a place of power, to flatten yourself and say, No, I’m just like the Negro you hate too. I’m just like the Negro who you’re embarrassed of too. I’m just like the Negro that you’re mourning. So don’t create me and make me into that exceptional token Negro because I am a literary genius via my rap. So I just thought that was like, I was like, I’m with it, I like love. And I’ve been listening to that album. I don’t know if y’all got to listen to the album. There’s some great music on there. Obviously, there’s some music that’s been starting conversations, including, I guess for me as like a Black, non-binary trans person, like the Aunt Diaries song was super duper interesting to me, and it, just and less interesting was what I heard, but like just seeing what it sparked and seeing the conversations that other people were having with it. I personally, because I’ve been listening to hip hop my whole life and I have really foul-mouth uncles that I grew up around and cousins, so I think I have like a decent, like, I just I’m like, the words don’t, like, I think you have the right to be offended by words, but they just don’t jar me. And I really for me, because it was centered around him trying his best to explain his experience with trans people in his family and him trying to explain his maturing around ideas around gender and sexuality, and the fact that he arrived at the good, at a place of further consciousness and saying like, You know, I was a kid when I was saying that word, and now I’m grown and here are the things that kind of expand my consciousness around the human experience that’s not just me as a cis-het person. I really appreciated it. And, you know, I am, you know, I just don’t give white people any room, but when it comes to cis-het Black man or Black men in general, like in general, I just give a lot of room to. So I am that person was probably annoying where I’m like, I just love that he did that. Like just with the Jay-Z when he talked about his lesbian mother, I just grew up with Ghostface Killah. I just grew up with Scarface. I grew up with the Biggie Smalls. I grew up listening to that kind of music, so the fact that I’m listening to one of the biggest hip hop artists ever say like, man. Trans people are cool, I got a few of my family, and this was my experience. I’m like, I would have never been, I was not 12 listening to Q-Tip, who was one of the more, Common and Q-Tip was one of the more conscious rappers I would never even dare to dream that they would make a song like this. So I think part of me as a 31-year old gets excited about it because I remember even far, not that far back as 21 that like, I just would never think somebody in Kendrick Lamar’s position would do that. Yes, that’s my news and that’s my ideas. I want to see if y’all heard the album, watched the music video. What did you think? Let’s argue.
De’Ara Balenger: You’ll get no argument from me. I love Kendrick Lamar. I haven’t listened to the album yet. And I will. But I also needed, I was kind of waiting on it so I can saver it and, like, light some candles and other things and listen. So I can’t wait to do that. But as you know, as I was just digging around just about this video in particular, I pulled up the lyrics, which are profound, obviously, because it’s Kendrick, and just this, you know, it just causes you to think, to just stop in your tracks. Like what is, what is the culture? What is Black culture? And is, you know, has death become a part of our culture, has violence become a part of our culture–violence down onto us, I would say. So I don’t know. And I think also with, you know, the Will Smith and Jesse of it all is just kind of like controversy and, you know, sensationalism, is like, that part of our culture as well? And while you bring up Maya Angelou, like I wonder what Auntie Maya would say about Will Smith smacking Chris Rock. Not to bring that back up, but I’m just thinking of like, you know, how, some, how we came up with some of our elders, right? And what was respectable and what was considered culture and what wasn’t considered culture and how you needed to behave to respect the culture. I don’t know. I guess that’s just like the mindset it put me in was just kind of an examination of what we have let capitalism and social media likes do to Black culture.
DeRay Mckesson: So I did start to listen to it and I’ll tell you, I felt like an uncle for a minute, I like the first song I listened to was the one him and Emmett Taylor Page–what’s that song called?
Myles Johnson: We Cry Together.
DeRay Mckesson: I think that was it. And I was like, it’s just so many cuss words that I just, I was like the uncle. I was like, Oh, I got to ease into this. I just forgot. But it was like, I really did feel like an uncle. And I’m like, can I, do they, I couldn’t find not like, the clean version.
De’Ara Balenger: Like, where is the clean version!
DeRay Mckesson: Literally. I was like–
Myles Johnson: [unclear] I want the kids’ version.
DeRay Mckesson: I’m not gonna lie. I really was like, I need, there’s so many cuss words, I can’t focus. But like you. I was really, I was really interested on Auntie Diaries and super interested in the conversation and that it spawned that I saw online because it was all these like this cis-het Black men who like, they were like tempering their transphobia because they like Kendrick, like Kendrick saying it all of a sudden made it like okay to not be transphobic. Like I saw it happen in real time. It was like, Well, that is interesting! You know, what I mean? Because Kendrick’s analysis wasn’t, like, profound, it wasn’t like some deep, you know, like but it was a different person saying it and lending to it. And I thought that was really interesting. And somebody on Twitter– I will not say her name so that people don’t [unclear] her Twitter page–but one thing that she sort of pointed out–and I’m not going to read her tweets–but she was sort of reflecting on the album, she was like, I’m sort of neutral about him in this moment. Like, I don’t hate him and, you know, I think the art is interesting, but she was like, it does feel like straight Black men feel unheard and feel like they need a place to process things. And, you know, some of these albums feel like that sort of processing. And I’ve been interested in that, too, as somebody who’s like, you know, like you, I grew up around a range of people and I spend my work around a range of Black people and that is some, it was so interesting to see in a way that straight Black men were willing to listen differently because Kendrick said it. And not that Kendrick said anything new. There weren’t new ideas about gender identity that I heard, or family or relationship for that matter, but he said it. And like that was, and I left after seeing it real time, seeing her tweets, and then listening to the songs I did listen to, it made me think about that space. Like, where do you, where does everybody go to process, and how do people process, and what does that look like, and how can make that the most productive? And, you know, how is that still art? Like all those questions came to mind.
Myles Johnson: I just don’t understand when like, when people who have albums and make art or make anything like, like I just don’t understand when that became like, where the onus became to like say something revelatory. Like to me, like, Kendrick Lamar is like the, like, I don’t, like he’s the everyday rapper–that’s was the word I was going to use, but like, I don’t want to get wrapped up in that–but he’s like the everyday man’s rapper and I think that’s what really appeals to people. The fact that like sometimes even when he was at his like biggest, he would have like undone cornrows and he was talking about, you know, with his uncles and growing up, but I’m like, I just sometimes I think I just wonder when we do have these artists like a Kendrick Lamar do something or artists like Beyoncé, like I wonder are we, like, not putting too much on them to be revolutionary? And of course, because the same people who made homophobia and transphobia a need. You know, their songs, like but when I think about Boom Bye Bye, and like literally songs about homophobic violence like, if you made it a rite of passage in order to be in the group that you need to be transforming or homophobic, of course, somebody saying that’s not cool anymore, that’s all that needs to be done. Something new doesn’t need to be done. It just needs to be showed of how it looks like and what it sounds like. You know? And I think that it just takes a person in Kendrick Lamar’s position to show how it looks like. And that’s going to affect his position-I don’t know why I keep on referring him as the politician–but like that’s going to reflect, that’s going to affect the people who really look up to him as, Oh, wow, this is the person who’s just like me who’s able to articulate and process what’s going through my head and the philosophy that I’m thinking–like that’s what it looks like. It looks like just saying it and just being an example, to me. We didn’t argue enough.
De’Ara Balenger: But he is revelatory though. I disagree. I completely disagree. Like, I feel like he is the rule. He is the rule, not the standard. And I mean, “It’s Going to be All Right” is like the theme song of Black Lives Matter. I mean, we, like when Black people hear that song, it is like, Oh, like it is the coming. So I just feel like he, and he knows that, right? And he plays to that. And I think it’s in the things that he also doesn’t do, right? He doesn’t align himself with brands. He’s not out here just, you know, willy-nilly using his name and influence to get into conversations. I think he’s kind of like Prince almost, in that he appears with this genius that we’re all, that, you know, helps to change our consciousness, and then he goes and then he disappears, right? We see him at a Super Bowl. He’s just like Prince. So I feel like that is Kendrick. And I feel like he knows that. And I feel like for Black artists, it is a part of our culture, from my perspective that the music, that the best music and the best art has some type of component of social justice, equality, etc., etc.. I mean, I feel the same way about Tupac. And that’s why they killed him. So Kendrick hide. Just don’t go nowhere. Don’t go nowhere!
De’Ara Balenger: Get out of here. So what I, the only thing I’ll push on Myles, is that I do think that there is a responsibility that our artists have that I think is real, in agreeing with De’Ara. And the responsibility isn’t that all your music is, right? Because we need the like drop it low, back it up, do the thing, like that music is as important as any other music. But I will say, especially and you know, you and I, we’ve talked a lot about celebrity and like the role of celebrity or the function of celebrity, it is really something to think about just the abject poverty, the like, attack on rights and all this stuff that is happening day to day, and to have artists just, like, not acknowledge it or like not, it just feels really weird. And, I don’t know if we call that our responsibility or if that’s what it means to just be, like, present or aware, but it’s like the refusal to acknowledge is, that feels off, that feels wrong, that doesn’t feel like being in community, especially with the big platform.
Myles Johnson: Yeah. Yeah. I agree with everything that both of you all said. So maybe I miscommunicated what I was saying. I guess I was saying, what I was trying to say was, I think that if you are an artist, you know, and I’ve I’ve been really big on, you know, we are living in a generation where we have very sustainable, long-lasting novelty acts. That’s just the fact of it. So we don’t have one hit wonders because we have, you can, you could be one person who’s doing a whole bunch of one hits and live your whole life on it. It’s great. Live your life. Get your blessings however they come to you. And with the 8Away and Back it Up and Donk It, I love it. But we have to recognize that those people aren’t necessarily artists. And I was, what I was saying is, I was seeing a push where Kendrick’s political or spiritual awareness was at. And I think that like, and basically the means critique is the fact that like, Oh, this is all you’re thinking about or this is where you arrived at? Or whatever. So Kendrick is engaging with politics, is engaging with Blackness, is engaging with intimacy and queerness, and he didn’t arrive at an advanced enough place for some people, or a revelatory enough space for other people.
De’Ara Balenger: I see.
Myles Johnson: And I was like, well, I think it’s just, he’s just reflecting what’s going on the inside. And sometimes it’s simple, you know? And sometimes it will be sophisticated. And I think that the appeal of Kendrick Lamar was the fact that no matter what, because it’s just like I think there’s a, I think the appeal of like a Beyoncé at the core of it, is that she is that pretty popular girl that everybody likes and she was able to superstar that. And I think the appeal of Kendrick Lamar is that he’s that everyday man who’s got superstardom, and he does things that reminds him of the everyday man. And I think sometimes that everyday man has everyday thoughts and everyday thoughts aren’t, aren’t that interesting all the time. And you know, and sometimes you might arrive and be like, You know what, trans folks ain’t that bad. I had a, I had a uncle who used to be my auntie, and they were pretty cool too. And it’s not sophisticated and it’s offensive, but it’s where they’re at, and I think that that needs to be respected too, you know? Or I appreciate it too, and I wonder if we’re not pushed to a state of genius and “I have the cure for racial cancer and homophobic and transphobic cancer.” Like, I wonder if we’re not pushed to certain types of things just because we’re made into those kind of like moral icons often.
De’Ara Balenger: Right. All right. You Right.
Myles Johnson: Now it’s all coming back to be peace [unclear] I’m trying to choose chaos!
DeRay Mckesson: Sometimes the ancestors are giving us all the same answer.
De’Ara Balenger: That part.
Myles Johnson: Amen.
De’Ara Balenger: It’s that part.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
De’Ara Balenger: My news is The New York Times Review of the Detroit, it’s the now Detroit Opera. For 50 years it was the Michigan Opera, even though it’s in downtown Detroit. I don’t know the reasoning behind that. But it is now the Detroit Opera. And with that, the opera was The Autobiography of Malcolm X and they just call it X. It was my very first time going to an opera. Full transparency, Devone Tines, who plays Malcolm X, is a friend, and he’s just so talented I can’t even stand it. And so I feel like my opera experience is completely different from any traditional opera experience. Number one, I was in Detroit. Number two, I was seeing Malcolm X. Number three, Black people came out to see this opera. I don’t know if they thought a choir was going to come out. I don’t know what we were thinking in Detroit, but it was auntie’s galore up in there. I felt like felt like I was going to see, shoot, Jeffrey Osborne or something. So it was just, it was, it’s just like delightful. Everyone was dressed up. Everyone was in such a delightful, excited mood to see this all-Black cast in this opera, recounting the life of Malcolm X, and from beginning to end of the 3 hours and 5 minutes–that’s another thing for Black people to know y’all, the opera’s real, real, real, real long, but there are cocktails, so it was fine. It goes, and The New York Times article does this, but it also does it in a way that is educating, I don’t know, The New York Times audience about Malcolm X and his life, but we all know it. But it goes through from when he was a child and his father was murdered by the KKK, to his mom having a mental breakdown, to him being in foster care, from him going to pris–like all of it they were able to do through song. And it just was, it was profound. I think, you know, artistry comes in so many forms and I think for Black people, opera has been one of those things that, I guess, I mean, but I also think of like Mahalia Jackson, so I feel like it wasn’t that, it wasn’t that we weren’t able to do it or not interested in doing, it was more we didn’t have the opportunity to do it. And I think that we’re going to see opera being like everything else we’ve taken over, like tennis and golf. So, you know, white opera singers y’all better get it together because we coming. But it was it was wonderful. So I encourage everybody to go to Detroit and see it. It’s also going to Seattle. It’s going to Omaha. Symone Sanders’ mama was there. Evidently, she’s into opera. It’s going to Omaha. It’s going to, and it’s coming to New York, to the Met. So, yeah, well, we’ll be able to to chat about it once we all go together.
Myles Johnson: I want to go. Wait, so I love, so one of my first like New York experiences, I went to an opera in Harlem, actually, it was all-Black opera and they did like Negro spirituals and it was really cool. And since then I’ve had the opportunity to go to like many different operas that were like black-focused and, and just like just regular operas. I’ve really loved the drama of it. And just as somebody who’s exploring the meaning of music and film and stuff like that, operas have like really helped me do that things. And one of the things that I found out too is that like, did you know that like, well, somebody who writes an opera, they called a libretto. I know that because I’m, uh, cultured. But did you know that Toni Morrison wrote an opera called “Margaret Garner” which is about which is about the real,. It was about the real story of, so Beloved was based off of the real story of Margaret Garner, who was tried for murder, for killing her own children during chattel slavery. So I just thought that was really interesting. So I’ve actually, it was just interesting that you put this in because this is actually something that has been like in my consciousness of like, how do I–well I won’t tell my business, what I’m working on–but how, but that’s the synergy of story and stuff like that. And I’ve always, and I’ve always thought to myself, because traditionally in opera, operas are tragedies. That’s just, that’s just the traditional narrative arc of opera. So to me, I’m thinking, well, can’t nobody sing like us? And when we talk about American tragedies, it just makes a rhythm of sense that we would own, that we will own that genre. And I think that now that access is here and now that a lot more people, and I would just have to think that the flattening of both education and of like this Internet and access–because I know there’s certain opera that I saw during the pandemic on YouTube, you know? Or like I saw because I was able to like pay the $15 to see what a university was doing or whatever. And now that people have more access to it, people are able to imagine things. But I’m very excited about it because I think there’s–excuse me–I think because of Black folks’ history in America and the traditional opera arc, it just makes actually makes a lot of sense together. And I think that’s a really interesting way to honor some of the darker moments in our history, and like in a way that to me still feels–you can still digest it, because I think that I’m, I don’t think that I’m really interesting in the in the realism filmmaking anymore of stuff, but this genre has made me interested in like, Oh, I would watch Fred Hampton Opera, I would watch a Margaret Gardner opera. I would actually watch this, this, elevated, maybe dramatic but distant theatrical moment. And I also think the last thing I’ll say about it is like, I think film and how we consume film now, we consume film alone and I think that when you make things on Netflix and it’s traumatic and you’re consuming it alone, that is a different type of thing. And I think there’s something different when you can consume it with community and you’re dressing up, and I think there’s a barrier of care and aftercare available when you’re consuming these tragic moments with community. And I think if we should still review our tragedies and make it into stories, I think more people should think about doing them in this way, because A, I just think it’s cool. But also I think that it’s a more of maybe social responsibility to engage some of our more tragic moments as Black folks.
DeRay Mckesson: Yeah. I’d say, so maybe I need to go see an opera. As you both ware talking about, I’m like, I don’t think I’ve really seen any opera. I’ve been to a lot of musicals, a lot of plays, no operas. So like a three-hour opera, I’m like, I don’t even know that. Literally. I’m like–
De’Ara Balenger: It goes really fast. There’s a 20-minute intermission in the middle, so it goes, it goes, it goes fast. And the other thing I will say, Myles, that you just, I don’t, you just, I just see imagery in my mind when you’re speaking, but it’s just taking me back to yesterday, because it was, this opera was dance, it was song. It just was so multidimensional. And just to see Black people moving and arting in that way was so beautiful. So at some points, like, I really, like the words weren’t even coming into my mind, it just was like the power of the of the performers. So one, yes, like I think this is, yeah. I just, I love it as a form of communicating what’s happened to us as a people. And the last thing I’ll say is that the conductor was also Black, Kazem Abdullah. And y’all, he had his arms up that whole time. I didn’t even know that’s what they do. I mean dang! The whole, the whole time. So I don’t, I think there’s. I think there’s a movement happening in opera. And I know that a lot of Divone’s work–and check him out, Devone Tines if y’all aren’t are familiar with him–but I think it’s going to be a movement and create more accessibility in opera and with folks like Myles, obviously, who already really, really get it, I’m really, really excited to see where all this goes.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. Yeah, I’m interested in the different ways that we are telling stories these days. I’ve seen them, the musicals and plays, and I’ve been like, You know what, that is a very interesting way to tell the story. And something you said earlier, Myles, is still stuck with me, that like the danger of the evil white supremacy that we were talking about today is the attack on the ordinary. What I love about some of the art forms is that like it shows us a slice of the ordinary in the magic, you know? And you’re like, That’s actually really beautiful. And I don’t think we talk about that enough.
Myles Johnson: And just to add–I feel like we’re having really good conversation where I just love talking to you all–but to add to what you were saying, too, I think that there’s so–I used to be a part of the train of I don’t want to see any more like black tragedy or like anything else where somebody’s sad and Black. I don’t wanna see no, like, Why did you kill my son? Like, I don’t wanna see any of that like, anymore. I’m done. And I still, a part of me still really feel that way, but it was opera and like my kind of like engagement with that genre that made me feel like because the drama is, because it’s, it is almost melodramatic and fanciful. There’s deep wisdom and tragedy and personal tragedy that we’ve experienced and also in our public tragedies, and I think that opera is such an interesting way to still express the wisdom in those tragedies without re-traumatizing people, you know? And so, and again, I think there’s going to be so many–I predict, that there’s going to be so many, different limbs to that tree of like, okay, this is the fanciful, melodramatic art representation of a tragedy, I think it’s going to have, I think it’s going to have a lot of different lives. And I think that this is probably like, you know, X–I want to see it. Can I get tickets? I’m like, is it going to happen again?
De’Ara Balenger: Absolutely.
Myles Johnson: I’m like, it’s going to happen again? But yeah, I think that there’s going to be a lot of different, I think a lot of different people, I think a lot of different people and with different mediums are going to be thinking about like, Okay, how do I express the wisdom in the tragedy without re-traumatizing people? And I think that’s the challenge of like where art is right now. And I think this is like leading the punch. It just makes me excited. I like to have a whole opera.
De’Ara Balenger: Same. Now come on DeRay, what sad news do you have for us today?
DeRay Mckesson: My news is, I had, it was something I knew very little about, and it was about the baby formula shortage. So there is a baby formula shortage. I’d seen on the timeline a little bit, but it was still such a fringe topic, so I did a little digging and then that’s when I put it in the chat so we could talk about it, but nationwide, 40% of formula is out of stock, and the hard part is that it is some of the specialty formulas are the ones that are hardest to find. And trying to figure out why there is, like what’s going on, why is there such a shortage is that there were three causes. The first was bacteria, the second was a virus, and the third was trade policy, and I thought it was just so interesting. So there were at least two infants that died from a rare infection. The FDA investigated one of the few, it’s like three or four major producers of baby formula and discovered that there was this bacteria. And as a result, the FDA records several brands of the formula and parents are advised not to buy. And there was such a big recall that like, it really just happened in the confluence of all these things. That second, as you know, is the pandemic, and that’s like the other thing, that people are like hoarding resources or buying in ways that they probably wouldn’t buy. And there’s research to say that there’s a really dramatic decrease in breastfeeding that happened over the pandemic, that led to a corollary increase in the demand for formula that was like coinciding with this decrease or with the recall happening. And then the third is the one that I didn’t know at all is that FDA regulation on the formula is really tight. And it’s so tight, that buying formula out of Europe is illegal because of technicalities, and it almost supports a monopoly-style system on the producers of baby formula. And like I didn’t know that. I was like, that is really wild. And that you can import it from other places. That tax on federal imports of baby formula can be as high as 17% or even higher. And I say all this to say that like one of, why I’m bringing it here is, as you can imagine, who is disproportionately hit by things? It’s poor people, women of color like who are inevitably hit by this, these people who don’t have access to as great access to resources. And there were some ignorant comments that I saw online that were like, Well, baby formula hasn’t always existed. What do people do before baby formula? And it was so wild to see people confront for the first time that like this country forced Black women, Black, and new Black mothers to breastfeed white babies instead of their own precisely because of this issue about how do you feed babies. There are no more important issues than how we take care of kids, how do we actually feed kids? And so, like, there were so many things that came to mind. One was about like the racist history of this country that, again, is rooted in evil. Not just unkind, not just bad words, but evil actions. And the second is, what is the government’s responsibility to make sure that basic necessities taken care of? So Biden did release a statement saying that they’re going to work on it and deal with the formula shortage, but as you can imagine, remember when masks first came out and it was like you can buy masks, but only on eBay for $200 and you can only get two of them in? And it’s like, that is what’s happening with baby formula and especially the specialty formulas that that kids need. And really just, I don’t know, I brought it here because I was like, this is something that I didn’t even know about.
Myles Johnson: Okay. So the two things that really got to me that you would think that this would be like–no, you wouldn’t think this, this is the total like sarcasm radio right now–but this should be, people who are upset about Roe versus Wade and like, or people who are like trying to overturn that, this should be like their topic, like babies, like life. This should be a topic. But I’ve always thought it was really interesting that there’s like been like a democratization of who gets to make skincare products. And now there’s been more and more people who’ve been able to make skin care products for somebody who was my skin tone, who looks like me, and there’s been such a variety of people who are able to make things, right? And in my head, and you kind of talked about how there’s a monopoly, I’m like, is there any way we can push on who has the right to do that? Because I’m like, we, there should be more people who are able to enter this market and making baby formula, and making things that are like, even like more organic and maybe more aligned or specialty for a child with this type of digestive problem or whatever, there should be more people who are able to get their hands on it. And I wonder if this is not like an opportunity to push on those regulations and see if those regulations are not just to enforce a capitalist rule or and kind of like justify some things that like actually can be like tweets so more people can be in on that market. Because it was kind of, when I was thinking about like, Yeah, there’s should, just in my head, I’m like, there’s just, I just see in my head a little Black baby on some formula and somebody in Brooklyn should be able to be able to do that. Somebody who lives in, like that should be open market for us to be able to participate in. And this story made me realize, like, I don’t see that. You know, and I think that we do need a baby care revolution in the same way to me that the skincare industry has gotten like a revolution. But I think that first probably comes with those regulations being pushed and questioned.
De’Ara Balenger: All of that. And what comes up for me for this is also diapers. So I don’t know if y’all know this, but diapers aren’t covered by WIC or SNAP. No they’re not. There is, diapers are also taxed as a luxury good, so taxes in some states, sales tax in some states on diapers can be one and a half percent to 7%. So, and I know this just because my friend Kelly Sawyer runs Baby2Baby and they provide diapers to people who need them, but I think be, there’s so many things that, just that we’re missing. Like, so many pieces of these of these stories that we don’t know, so many pieces of policy that we don’t know, but all of these things are–I mean, to both of y’all’s points–I mean, they disproportionately impact women, of course, but also like families. Like I think it’s, I think it’s the other thing, is like thinking about these–we think about these issues in such a myopic way. And I think part of it is like we need to have honest conversations around what are our values, how are we ensuring that babies aren’t dying when they’re born Black? How are we ensuring that babies can eat? I just, I think some of these things, like when you break them down to the most basic level, it’s just like. What, like what, what kind of country is is this?
Myles Johnson: We couldn’t get no doctor if the baby’s got no food, child.
DeRay Mckesson: And that people are, and the people are celebrating–
De’Ara Balenger: Or diapers. The baby ain’t got no diapers. No formula.
Myles Johnson: Yeah. Yeah.
De’Ara Balenger: It’s so expensive to live in these cities. We ain’t got no housing. I mean . . .
Myles Johnson: It’s given America’s worst hits, definitely. But, yeah, I just really wonder–but do you know the, you know the answers to that, DeRay, by any chance, or like have any idea is around that? Like I just think that Black people have really, you know, I, I love entrepreneur annoying people like I love those group of entrepreneurial Black people who will make a business out or something, our of anything, but I’m just like wondering like, why that market not being like invaded, because that just seems like something that we will want to own. You know?
DeRay Mckesson: I think that, you know, in the research that I did–and I’m hoping that we can find an expert to bring on the pod to do an interview with–it just has been a heavily regulated market for so long. And they’re, as you know–
De’Ara Balenger: And they have lobbies. They have big lobbies.
DeRay Mckesson: And what I didn’t realize and I learned that and I was like, this makes total sense, is that most women will use the formula that the doctor gives them in the hospital, which makes total sense right? So the doctor, when you have a baby, you leave with Enfamil, you leave with [unclear] you just use that because the doctor gave it to you. That makes, so like even if you make a new one, like how do you make sure the doctors get–like there’s a whole industry that sells to hospitals and they’re like the exclusive. You’re like, This is, we really have made this a monopoly. And it’s not about kids and families making sure they have an abundance of food whenever they need it. But it’s about something else. It’s about profit. So I’m hopeful that out of this moment, not only do we fix this this crisis right now, but that there is some deep systemic reform. And we didn’t even talk about the Supreme Court leak and everything that’s happening with that, but the old man making decisions about things that are about families and women is just gross. And I cannot wait till until we get a different configuration of people in power.
Kaya Henderson: I’m super excited to share the story of 89-year old Emily Meggett, the keeper of centuries-old culinary traditions in the Carolinas, who is considered by many to be the most important Gullah Geechee cook alive. Some of you are asking yourself, What in the world is Gullah Geechee? It’s a good question because it’s likely something that you should learn in school, but you probably didn’t. Gullah Geechee is the language and culture of the descendants of enslaved West Africans who lived and worked in a string of coastal communities from North Carolina to Florida. They were able to preserve many African traditions, and create new ones here in America, including a Creole language that is still spoken in parts of South Carolina today. In fact, the Sea Islands of South Carolina are one of the best places to explore Gullah Geechee culture, and of course, where Mrs. Meggiet was born and learn to cook. Emily Meggett has been feeding people in South Carolina’s Lowcountry for more than 78 years, and she has never used a cookbook. She has over 150 recipes in her head, but this year she published her own cookbook, “Gullah Geechee Home Cooking, Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island.” The book has 123 recipes and focuses on the trinity of the Gullah Geechee table: rice, seafood and fresh local vegetables. Many of the dishes come from our African roots, like chicken perloo, okra soup, and other one-pot meals. Some come from making the best out of what you had to feed a family with 11 children, over 50 grand and great grandchildren, and others in a community who just might need something to eat. And some recipes come from the 45 years she spent cooking for the Dodge family and other wealthy white families who kept homes on Edisto Island. The book was prompted by a white woman who Mrs. Meggett worked for, who encouraged her to write her own cookbook. But the article points out the long and complicated history of cookbooks featuring recipes created or perfected by Black women but captured on paper by white women. The difference here, according to Tony Tipton Martin, an expert on Black American cooks, is that her techniques, her intimacy with that pot, has been recorded in her own words and is now her intellectual property–amen, sis. I brought Emily Meggett’s story to the podcast for a few reasons. First, we need to know our history and our culture, and food is such an important part of African-American culture that I wanted people to know about this book so that they can touch and feel the Lowcountry through Mrs. Meggett’s dishes. Her story was also a comfort to me and a reminder of our resilience, our perseverance, and our joy as African-Americans during a week that reminds us, once again, in the United States, that Black lives still don’t matter. Saveur magazine said it best, “The role Meggett plays in her community is one countless Black women share but are rarely celebrated for. Her story and recipes should easily be heralded alongside those of some of history’s greatest culinarians like Edna Lewis, Leah Chase, and Julia Child. Meggett’s food is unfussy. It invites home cooks from all backgrounds into the kitchen to learn how to cook fresh and flavorful dishes without the stress of perfection we often see presented on social media and television. Her love for food and her community is an essential ingredient that makes her cooking, and Gullah food as a whole, so special.”
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
DeRay Mckesson: Election season is coming up fast. You know, local elections matter a ton. Your city council people, your governor, your elected state official who represents your district has a lot more influence in your day-to-day life than almost anybody else. And I love Austin, Texas. Keep Austin weird as they say. And we’ve been close to the activists in Austin for a long time. But recently I had a chance to sit down with Joah Spearman to chat about his candidacy for Austin City Council District 9. I learned a ton. It was a fun combo. Who knew that he used to have a sneaker store? But more importantly, I want you to hear about Joah and think about how you can help his campaign and learn about people who are taking the next step and running for office. Here we go.
DeRay Mckesson: Joah, Joah, Joah! Thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Joah Spearman: Thanks for having me.
DeRay Mckesson: Now I’m excited. We don’t really get a lot of candidates on the pod anymore because they all say the same thing. But one of the things that I was excited about with you is that I’ve seen you, I’ve seen you on the campaign trail. I’ve seen some things you talk about. I’m like, Wow, this feels fresh and different and new. But before we talk about your run for Austin City Council, can you tell us what was your work before the run like? How did you even start to think about yourself as a professional in the world? And then we’ll get to the run.
Joah Spearman: Definitely. I mean, for me, I definitely think of myself as an entrepreneur and mostly as an entrepreneur focused on community. For the last, let’s see, 13 years I’ve been in Austin building companies–I’m on my fourth company right now–and all of them have been really centered around community. The first one was focused on social media, helping companies understand, you know, things like Twitter and blogging and whatnot. And then the second was a sneaker boutique and really was one of the only Black-owned businesses in downtown Austin at the time. Building community around people who were interested in sneakers, but also people who just were interested in bringing more culture and perspective and diversity to Austin, especially downtown. And then I created and ran the first-ever fashion part of South by Southwest Festival, which was, I mean, I think first year event, we had 15,000 attendees. Second year over 20,000. So very, very kind of big audience, community gathering-type events. And then for the last nine years, I’ve been running a startup called Localeur, which has built a community of locals in over 200 cities around the world. So even, you know, I tell people sometimes I’m really bad at being a capitalist because for me, even as an entrepreneur, it doesn’t make sense for me to do a business that isn’t focused on community.
DeRay Mckesson: I didn’t know you were a sneaker head. Are you a sneaker head or did you just own a sneaker store?
Joah Spearman: I think, I’ve retired from being a sneaker head. There was, there was a point in my life when I definitely had, you know, 100-plus pair of sneakers and knew everything, read all the blogs, you know, all the stuff. But over the years when I started Lucaleur actually, when I was traveling the first, you know, 2013 through 2019 before COVID, I was traveling 100, 250 days a year and so I just I got to the point where I needed to get more minimalist here in Austin. And so I consolidated, I sold a bunch of sneakers and I kind of just fell off. So now my oldest brother, Tyron, who also lives here in Austin, he’s the big sneakerhead in the family now. He’s probably still holding hundred to 200 pair sneakers.
DeRay Mckesson: Oh, my God, I love it. What was it like being a business owner in Austin in the past, like having a brick and mortar store? And how does that, how do you think the city sort of is for business owners today, especially in a COVID landscape? What does that look like?
Joah Spearman: Yeah, I mean, it’s really interesting. I would say, I mean, my, where my sneaker shop was located was actually at city hall, believe it or not. So Austin City Hall is right downtown and there are two retail centers downstairs, so one of them was a coffee shop called Austin Java and then one was my sneaker boutique, Sneak Attack.
DeRay Mckesson: Sneak attack! Sneak attack is a good name. You get to act as a good name. You get ten points for a attack. That’s good.
Joah Spearman: I’m going to bring it, I’m going to bring it back one day. Yeah. So I had this great location in downtown Austin and what I loved about it was that I would see a lot of people who were new to Austin, either they had just moved to Austin, they were down there walking around, or they were visiting. One of my good friends, Marion, who’s a young Black executive at Facebook, Meta now he had a job interview and after his job interview in downtown Austin he was randomly walking around. He walked into my shop and we’ve been friends since. That was ten, 12 years ago. And so I liked it as a place to interact with people, meet people. In a lot of ways, like that’s where I kind of got started with this idea of recommending locally-owned businesses to other people, people visiting Austin. But what I would say is owning a business in Austin is not easy for two reasons. One, this city has just a very troubled racial history. And in downtown Austin, especially, you see areas where downtown Austin, West Austin, you see where they used to be, predominantly Black areas or even, tere was a there was a certain amount of Black-owned businesses or Black residents in certain areas, like near my neighborhood or Clarksville or downtown Austin, and now you go downtown and there really aren’t Black-owned businesses, there are very few Hispanic, Latino owned businesses as well. So that part is challenging because the both the rents and how high they are downtown the affordability issues in the city but also because this city has a very troubled racial history that even exists here 100 years after, you know, the Jim Crow era. So, or 100 years after the 1928 city plan in Austin that really kind of kind of codified the Jim Crow era in Austin. So I think that’s one of the challenges. And I think the other challenge is that we are in a city where the city government itself is not well equipped to do things like expediting permitting processes and whatnot. So for example, if you trying to open a restaurant in downtown Austin, you may encounter something like a year and a half to two years before you get the right permits to be able to open. And so if you are, you know, if you have a good idea now, if you don’t have the money to kind of tie self over for two years or in some cases pay for a lobbyist to lobby the city to get the right permits to open, then you’re, you know, you’re already in a bad spot. So we’ve really done some things as a city that are not favorable to, for small business owners, especially people of color, who may not have access to the kind of capital you would need to bankroll lobbyists and things for a year and a half or two to get open.
DeRay Mckesson: So that takes us to the city council. Why the city council? You’ve been a successful businessman. You’ve been an entrepreneur. You clearly have a commitment to this city, but you’ve also traveled across the world and across the country. Why the council?
Joah Spearman: Yeah, I mean, it’s a good question. A lot of people have asked me this and a lot of people think I’m crazy, actually, like kind of, why are you doing this? I mean, for me, it’s very much like what I’ve learned as an entrepreneur. The why is really important. But another thing that’s just as important as the why is the why now? And for me, the why is, yes, I care about this city. I’ve come of age in the city. I mean, I moved to Austin. I grew up about an hour north of Austin, youngest of three boys, single mom, free school loans, food stamps, all that stuff. And when I came to Austin for the first time in 2001, it was to go to college. And I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college. Graduated from University of Texas and then even after a couple of years working in D.C. after college, I moved back because I love the city. And I kind of saw the writing on the wall that Austin was going to become the kind of city that it is today, which is this kind of growing metropolitan area, people being attracted from all over the country. And I saw that. So I, my kind of my first investment honestly wasn’t even in a business, it was in the city and just investing my kind of adulthood and career in the city. So that’s part of my why. But the why now is more important to me, which is, you know, we what we’ve seen over the last few years with the pandemic, with obviously the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and then here in Texas, here in Austin with the winter storm and the power grid failure because of the state in part last that February, as we’ve just seen, one institutional failure after another, and I realized a lot of those institutional failures are stemming from a lack of the right intersectional and nuanced perspective in positions of leadership in city and state and federal government. And so for me as an entrepreneur, like, I’ve had to think intersectional about so many things for so long, about how something works for a community, but it also works for business, how something works for Austin, but it also works around the world, and all these different ways I’ve had to think and I feel like Austin’s at a really unique inflection point where you kind of could go one of two directions. It could become a city that you have to be of someone of means, of high means, high-earning family, or come from money to afford to live in the city. Or it can go down the path of trying to become, or maintain a certain degree of affordability and creative culture while also becoming more inclusive and taking the lessons of the last two years and putting those into policy. So for me, I feel like I have a certain skillset experience that both lived and professional that just really make this time right now, a time where people like me need to be running for office, need to be taking up that space. So that’s a big part of it. The one thing that really got me to say, Yes, I’m going to do this was actually when I first moved to Austin, actually before I moved to Austin for college, I would come here for high school and cross-country, track and cross-country meet and I fell in love with the city because of the outdoor culture, the running fitness culture. And so I’ve been a distance runner for years. And last year when I learned of Ahmaud Arbery being killed, I, my wife and I went for a run and I remember, we live in a pretty affluent area in Austin, and I remember running about half mile from our house and I just broke down crying and I, I literally for the first time in my life–and I’ve grown up in the Deep South, like between South Carolina and Texas, have been running alone in streets and have people yelling at me and all these things–but that’s how that was the first day ever in my life that I did not feel physically safe running. And even in a city that I love, that I, you know, is fairly safe. And so I just felt like I needed to channel that, that feeling of fear. And then what fear led to was anger, and channel that into something that was productive for, not just me, but for the city. And running for city council felt like that thing.
DeRay Mckesson: What have you heard from people–you know, you’ve been in community talking about the race, people have reached out to you, you know, people know you’re running in town–what do you hear from people? What do they what do they say? What are the issues that are top of mind for people? You know, I think that when you read the news, people say things like it is, you know, crime or education, or–do you find that that is, is that true? Like, what do you, what do you hear? You know, it’s so different, as you know, when you like, go knock on people’s doors, it’s very different than sometimes what the polls say.
Joah Spearman: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s interesting because before I was, before I announced I was running, I was kind of slowly talking to some friends about thinking about it, and, you know, everyone’s like, Oh, that’s great, that’s great. And then once I announced, then the conversation changed a little bit into kind of like, I think, some people were like, Oh, that’s great. Now they’re now fully behind me. And then some were like, okay, now I’m going to wait to see, you know, what are are you going to be talking about? What issues you care about, things like that. And what I’m seeing and hearing here in Austin is the main issues, the number one issue that everyone is talking about, some form or another is affordability. And the reason why that’s such an issue is because Austin for decades, it’s just, it’s been a college town. It was the place where people moved from other parts of Texas, like maybe Houston or Dallas, and they sent their kids here for college and it was affordable town. And honestly, there weren’t that many jobs here up until the last 20, 25 years. So the most people, they would come here for college, have a few of kind of sleepy, relaxed, chill college years, maybe even post-college years, and then eventually have to move somewhere else for gainful employment. And then over the last two decades, especially, what’s happened is the jobs have really moved into Austin or been created in Austin, even more so from entrepreneurs, and so people graduate, and whether that’s high school or college and they can stay here, they can see themselves living here for years, decades. And so while that’s good, at the same time what’s happened is the kind of jobs that have moved here, especially in the last 5 to 10 years, have been in the tech industry, which lends itself toward higher wages, but, you know, also tech, as someone who’s been in the tech industry, it’s not at all a very inclusive and equitable industry. So even though people are, the people who are in the industry are making more money, the people who are excluded from the industry are being left behind. And so what we’re seeing in Austin is we’re seeing growing issues around lack of housing, lack of affordability, a lot of displacement of Black and brown people. And so those are those are the real the pressing issues. And then, you know, they tend to have more high-profile expressions of those issues. Like homelessness has been one of the primary issues in Austin the last couple of years especially. But to me, homelessness is just one of the tenants of a larger issue that the city and this region has around affordability. So that’s definitely one of them. Public safety is definitely one of them as well. I mean, police accountability, with Austin being being this great, you know, cool creative city that it is, we have a lot of troubled history around racism, around police profiling, around brutality. In the last few months alone, the city of Austin has paid over $12, $13 million in settlements as a result of actions of sworn officers during the protest after the murders of George Floyd. So Justin Howell, Anthony Evans, Brad Ayala, they, them and their families receive settlements from the city of Austin to the tune of 8 million, 2 million, almost 3 million. And that’s even after a couple of police-led shootings and deaths of Mike Ramos, David Joseph. David Joseph’s family received an almost three and a half million dollars from the city. So we also have a city that as it’s growing, as it has this narrative around how many people are moving here, jobs moving here, etc., We also have a lot of issues around public safety, again, the trust and the relationship that the community has with our sworn officers and our police department. So these are the kind of things that you need very intersectional, nuanced thinkers and problem solvers to try to address, because it’s not going to be something that you can just address in one news article, one headline. So, you know, these are the types of things that either I’m hearing a lot about them or if I’m not hearing about them it’s because, you know, people, these are the types of issues that people allow to simmer underneath the things that they’re paying attention to instead.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. And like how has running been from you? You know, being a candidate is literally like you think, you know what it is and then you do it and it’s like a whole different. What has that been like? What has been surprising to you? Do you spend more time fundraising than you thought? Do you, is it like the same question over and over. You know, I loved knocking doors more than I loved the the random candidate forums we had. Not because I didn’t like the candidate forums, but the only people who came to candidate forums are people who had essentially already made up their minds, but door knocking was like, really cool. So I’d love to know, like, what is the process been like for you?
Joah Spearman: Yeah. So for me, I have been trying to run a very grassroots, nontraditional campaign. And I made that decision because what I realized is that while there are a lot of candidates, there actually isn’t that much talent for campaign staff, at least high-level experienced talent. And so what that means is that, Austin is a city where you’ll have you know, you have ten city council members and you’ll have the same campaign manager running like for their campaigns. And so there’s a there’s kind of a playbook that you’re supposed to use. And I, for me, in wanting to make authenticity the center of my campaign, I just didn’t want to opt into someone else’s playbook. And so I decided very early on that one of my goals with this campaign was to be myself as long as possible. And I’m really proud that I’m, you know, several months in since I announced and it’s going really well. I’ve met, I made this goal of meeting at least 1,500 people, one-on-one, and I’m almost at 800 people. I’m meeting, something like 30 people one-on-one every week to just learn about them, learn about the issues that they care about. And then I’m also starting to do like larger events as well. So I think the biggest surprise so far, honestly, has been that the most helpful people have been people who have lost their elections or they’re no longer in office. What I’ve actually learned is that some of the least helpful people are people who are in office because they are, they’re, I think they’re more reticent to share helpful advice or to make those introductions. And they’re kind of, you know, in a lack of a better way to describe it, they’re being more political. Whereas people who, you know, they ran, they lost, they’re more willing to be open and honest about their experiences. And so I’ve been talking to a lot of former candidates, a lot of people who served maybe four or five, six years ago, and that’s been really helpful. And then also, one of the things that I’ve enjoyed the most about this process is seeing like who really pays attention. Because it’s really surprising because some people who I would think would pay close attention to what happens with city government don’t. And then some people really surprised me with how much they do know. Like whenever I meet someone randomly, I mean, my wife and I were at a gala a couple of nights ago and we were waiting outside for like the Lyft line and this woman was like, Oh, aren’t she running for council? And we started talking to her, and she ends up knowing, and she’s like, Oh yeah, I live at this part of town. And she knows exactly where the district lines are, you know, where she’s in, she’s in the district that I’m running in. And it really is interesting to meet people who are paying attention, who are engaged. And then it’s also really interesting to meet people who maybe they traditionally haven’t been included in those conversations. Like for me and this district that I’m running in, we have a lot of hospitality and restaurant workers. And so people who are, you know, they’re working one or two jobs just to try to afford their rent here in Austin, and they’re not typically sought after as a voter. And so I’ve been spending a lot of time meeting people who work at coffee shops, working restaurants, and engaging them in this process because the restaurant industry is far more inclusive and equitable and diverse in a lot of ways than something like the tech industry, where you do have people who have means and can make those max donations and things like that. So that’s what I’ve enjoyed.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. I’ve been to Austin a couple of times. The Austin activists are some of my favorite activists in the sense that like, they know the content well, they’ve gotten results. I mean, Chaz, Suki, all them, like whole great crew. People say “keep Austin weird.” What does that mean? What does what does keep Austin weird mean?
Joah Spearman: You know, it’s funny because what people, what they don’t say is what that really means is weirder than the rest of Texas. That’s what they really mean. Because I learned that more and more. I’ve been in this city almost two decades, and when you go to, you know, Ashville North Carolina or Portland, Oregon or some of these other cities, you’re going to see things that are equally weird, and these cities did kind of maybe borrow some of the terminology, they, you know, “keep this city weird” and stuff, all the cities that copied Austin in that way. But Austin, in the grand scheme of things, it’s very much like our politics where people are like, Oh, Austin’s is this blueberry in a tomato soup. It’s, you know, it’s the liberal oasis of Texas. And then when you pay really close attention, you’re like, actually is not that much more liberal than Dallas or Houston or San Antonio in a lot of issues, in a lot of ways. It’s the same thing with the weirdness. I think that what people mean is Austin has always had this penchant for doing things its own way and embracing things that maybe couldn’t happen in other parts of Texas. Like Leslie, for example, there’s a man named Leslie who lived in Austin for decades past years ago, and he would ride around on his bike in like a G-string. And so he was kind of like the official, almost like mascot or emblem of Austin’s weirdness. And people would be like, Oh, that’s just Leslie. And while those things are what people think about when they say “Keep Austin weird” I think increasingly what people are thinking about is Austin having this penchant for supporting locals, for you know, we don’t need to have, you know, a lot of chain restaurants here because we have our own homegrown local restaurants. We don’t need necessarily need to support all these national touring acts here as much as we can support our own locally-grown musicians. So I think that’s really what people are pointing to. And so that’s also under threat right now. I mean, I think that issues around affordability, the displacement that’s happening, it is attacking some of that weirdness and some of that ability of Austin to go his own way, as opposed to kind of doing what we’re seeing and, you know, whether it’s on the East Coast or the West Coast. There’s a lot of people in Austin who have there’s a strong sentiment here of like, Don’t California my Austin or, you know, Don’t turn this into San Francisco or L.A.. And I think that’s a sentiment that’s leading to a lot of contention I think, because we are getting people moving here from bigger metro areas, from the coasts. But for me, a lot of why I’m running is because my, even as an entrepreneur, I think I’ve done a good job of showing that there is a path where you can be focused on on pursuing something and growing something and building something, while also making sure that it works for people who are new to Austin and people who want to visit Austin. But also it works for people who’ve lived in Austin for years and decades and want to preserve a lot of that culture. So I think Keep Austin Weird is, it’s a tagline more than anything, but I do think that it does speak to a city that is kind of at its inflection point in terms of how are we going to kind of stick to our local roots while embracing some of the new with some of the change of the future.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom! How can people get involved?
Joah Spearman: Oh, man, even if you don’t live in Austin, you can donate to my campaign. My website is JoahforAustin dot com. And that’s J O A H forAustin dot com. And in Austin we do this thing here where it’s intended to create more equity in who can run for office. And it goes about halfway because the city still allows people to self-fund their campaign. For example, we have a Republican mayoral candidate who’s donated $300,000 to her own campaign. So that’s one of the problems with campaign finance laws here, but one of the good things is the legal limit is $400 per person. So no one can, no one individual can donate more than $400 per person to a city council candidate. So whether you live in Austin–
DeRay Mckesson: $400!? That’s low.
Joah Spearman: Yeah, it is. So, you know, it’s, you really have to know a lot of people. You have to meet a lot of people. And so anyone, whether you live in Austin or not, you can support my campaign through a donation. I’m, my social handles are @JosahSpearman on everything, Instagram, Twitter. And I talk about Austin a lot. I write a lot. I love meeting people who are new to Austin, especially, because I think newcomers, they bring political sentiments that I think are much needed in the city around issues like transit, affordable housing. You know, a lot of people move here from bigger cities like New York, L.A., San Francisco and so they understand that the local government has to play an active role in fostering an environment where people can, you know, get alternative means to work other than driving or using the highway, affordable housing and the housing affordability so that everyone, everyone can’t afford a single family home, but maybe some people need a duplex or a four-plex. So I love meeting people. You know, when people introduce me to their friends who live in Austin or friends who are moving to Austin, I love meeting those people. So I’m all ears. It’s March. I mean, sorry, it’s April and the election’s not till November 8th. And, so really what I’m doing with this time is taking time to meet people one-on-one or meet people in small group settings, because obviously later on in the campaign or the more forums and things like that, like you mentioned.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom! Two questions before you go. First question is, what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten that you’ll never forget, or that’s always stuck with you?
Joah Spearman: Yeah, piece of advice. I mean, man, I’m just going through the list. But what I would say is, well, I’m going to talk, I’m going to talk about one that I’ve got for running for office, which is something that I think I’ve had for my entrepreneurial career as well, which is do it a way that is going to make you proud. Even if the result isn’t this big result. Like when I started local or, you know, I thought, Oh, I’m going to build the next billion-dollar tech startup. That hasn’t happened, but I’ve been successful because I’ve stuck to my vision and I haven’t sacrificed any of my values to do this. I remember you had an episode, I think maybe a couple of weeks ago about sticking to your values. And I really enjoyed that because for me, I just, I realized that even if you’re really successful, if you sacrifice your values, then it’s always going to have like an asterisk on it internally. Not for anyone else, but for yourself internally. So for me, having the people tell, you know, a few people who have kind of said, you know, Hey, no matter what happens, it’s like, run the campaign that you want to run. That’s been really meaningful to me, because that’s how I’ve tried to do business as well. So that’s a piece of advice that I would give to anyone. Just whatever you do, whatever you pursue, just make sure that you’re checking in on yourself, and sticking to the values that are core to you.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. And what you say to the people who feel like they’ve done all the things, they voted, they emailed, they called, they testified, and the world didn’t change yet. What do you say to those people?
Joah Spearman: Yeah, I mean, what I would say to those people is the best, you know, if you’re not getting what you want, then you have to give more. And I know that people are like, what I’m giving, I’m voting, I’m donating, I’m paying attention, I’m doing all these things–and what I actually learned, during the pandemic especially, was that one of the ways that I could fight through some of the tiredness-feeling or the apathy of all these things aren’t changing or not going the way that they should be going, was public service. So I, when they set up one of the largest vaccine sites here in the country in Austin, I spent eight weekends in 2021 helping 20, over 20,000 people get COVID vaccines. So it was my grandmother had passed from COVID in January of 2021, and I just, I realized that there was a almost a healing nature of spending time meeting literally thousands of people, helping them get vaccinated. And that was, that played a big role in me, just feeling a deep sense of connection to this city and the people that I really want to serve. You know, like I’m not trying to serve people who are, they were paying their way to jump the line and all this stuff or flying somewhere to go get, like I was really focused on, okay, how can I help people who maybe they are on the other side of the digital divide where they don’t have access to, you know, to high-speed Internet to check their site about vaccine rollout or, you know, Hispanic grandmothers or Black families who have been displaced and now they live 20 minutes further east of Austin than they used to live. And so I was really just feeling a lot of energy and positive, like momentum, out of just feeling like I was being helpful in a way that didn’t involve like, you know, voting and things like that. So I would say for the people who are already really involved civically, like find a cause, you know, find something that maybe doesn’t even have to do with politics per se but it makes you feel like you’re connected to the community you’re giving back in that way.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. Well, we consider you a friend of the pod and can’t wait to have you on.
Joah Spearman: Awesome. Thank you so much. I mean, I listen to your show and I, you’re so intersectional, this show is so intersectional. And I think that’s a lot of the perspective that I want to bring to council because, you know, we’re in this very polarized time. Everything is very binary. And the reality is that the issues are just too big to be binary. We can’t afford to be binary. What we need to do is be problem-oriented and solution-oriented. And so that’s a lot of what I want to bring to the table.
DeRay Mckesson: Awesome. Well, I’ll see you later. I’ll see you soon, actually.
Joah Spearman: Yes, I’ll see you very soon. At TED. All right.
DeRay Mckesson: Peace. 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 it 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 a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by AJ 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.