In This Episode
DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, this is DeRay. Welcome to Pod Save The People. In this episode, it’s me, Sam, Kaya, and De’Ara, as usual. Well, we talk about the news that you don’t know in the past week. It’s about race and justice and equity. And then I sit down and talk with Desmond Meade to discuss Florida’s voting laws. Desmond has been on the podcast before.
And then I chat with Channel Powe to talk about her time on the School Board and what she thinks comes next in education. Now, my advice is sort of simple. Let your community love you. So today, I woke up, and my stomach did not feel well. And I’m an old school like ginger ale can heal most things. So I woke up having a ginger ale, and it just wasn’t kicking in quickly. Like I’m like, oh, this is not good.
So I tweet, you know, my stomach hurt. And the ginger ale is not doing this thing. And when I tell you, people are so funny. Immediately, the response I get is like, you know, it’s not just ginger ale. It’s ginger ale and lay down. And did you lay down? People like, you need– you can’t have Schweppes. You need the other brand of ginger ale. You need to get ginger ale bold like a Canada dry. That’s with the West.
Can we just– it was one of those things that was like people were just so sweet. And people were so like my grandmother, everybody. And it was like, I just had to receive the love that people gave. So make sure you’re letting yourself be loved on. And especially in times, you don’t feel well but in general. Sometimes, we’re so bad at receiving love. And it comes in a host of ways. Let yourself be loved. Let’s go.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Family, loved ones, welcome to another episode of Pod Save The People. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram, @DeAraBalenger.
SAM SINYANGWE: And I’m Sam Sinyangwe, @samswey on Twitter.
KAYA HENDERSON: I’m Kaya Henderson, @HendersonKaya on Twitter.
DERAY MCKESSON: I’m DeRay, at D-E-R-A-Y on Twitter.
DE’ARA BALENGER: So just going to jump in with some Black girl magic news here on Pod Save The People. But just want to give a shout out and a congrats and a well deserved to Yamiche Alcindor who is now moderator of Washington Week.
KAYA HENDERSON: Yey.
SAM SINYANGWE: Yey
DE’ARA BALENGER: Yey.
DERAY MCKESSON: Woot-woot.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Amazing.
KAYA HENDERSON: Who you sexy girl?
DERAY MCKESSON: One of Yamiche’s first beats was the protests. And we met her in Ferguson. There was like a group of them. I was like, Yamiche. It was Wesley. It was Ryan. It was Matt at LA Times. And it’s been so incredible to see her career growth. It was PBS. She was White House correspondent when Trump was there. And now her own show, like following in the footsteps of Gwen Ifill who was a legend in her own right, so.
KAYA HENDERSON: Gwen was one of Yamiche’s mentors. And she said–
DERAY MCKESSON: That’s cool
KAYA HENDERSON: –when she found out that she was getting the show that she basically cried because it was just a full-circle moment. And that means a lot.
SAM SINYANGWE: It’s really incredible.
DE’ARA BALENGER: It’s just amazing. I mean, we have MSNBC on nonstop because that’s who Powe has a contract with. So it’s really nice. It’s really nice with Yamiche. When I see her face, it’s like whatever I’m doing in the kitchen or in the house, I’m just– she’s one of those folks that when I see her on screen, I just– I turn the volume up and rush to the TV, so I’m so excited for this.
KAYA HENDERSON: She’s been doing this work for a long time and doing it with a high level of excellence. And y’all’s former president tried to get at her so many times. And I was just incredibly proud as a Black woman, as a Georgetown alum, as any– as just a regular old human being, that she stood up. She stood her ground. She kept her intellectual heft. She never stooped to be as low and whatever as he was. And yeah, she makes us proud. So I’m excited that she gets this opportunity.
SAM SINYANGWE: You know, the only thing that I’ll add is– building off what Kaya said. Over the past four years, just seeing White House event after White House event, press conference after press conference, Trump would try to target women of color, in particular, repeatedly. And she never flinched. As you said, Kaya, she stood her ground.
And she made him look so small even though he was the President of the United States, right. And I think that that is excellence, right. That is like when know that you are not only holding court, but your presence in that room, the way in which that she not only handled those attacks from the President but like made him look wild and as crazy as he was in even trying, even attempting, I think was really key to see over the years.
And I think that like she is better than anybody else to be in this position just after going through the most challenging of circumstances and emerging victorious. And now, nobody even knows– I mean, we’re not even talking about Trump that much anymore. So he’s gone. We hope. So the news is actually interestingly enough. My news is a little bit about Trump.
And that is that last year, in the context of the pandemic, one of the big packages of emergency legislation that was passed, that was COVID relief, signed into law last year, broadened eligibility for folks who are incarcerated in federal prison to get released to home confinement and alternatives to incarceration. And 24,000 people who are incarcerated at the federal level were released under that policy.
But in sort of the fine print, in Executive action taken by the Trump administration, they intended for that to expire. So right now, there are as many as 24,000 people who are released under this policy. Some of whom have already sort of completed their sentences and are released. Others of whom face potentially being re-incarcerated after the broadening of the eligibility is sort of repealed.
And we go back to the policy that was in place prior to COVID. And so this is an important conversation to have because this is happening sort of behind the scenes in the context of a historic reduction in the federal prison population over the past year or so in the context of the pandemic. Already, the federal prison population has been reduced by over 20,000, from over 170,000 people incarcerated in 2019 down to 155,000 people incarcerated at the federal level in 2020.
And now it’s at 152,000, according to the latest report from the Bureau of Federal Prisons. Incarceration rates at the federal level are reducing. This policy played a huge role in releasing a substantial number of people to home confinement and alternatives to incarceration. But it is set to expire as soon as the national emergency around COVID is declared over.
So organizers are working to try to get this policy extended and made permanent and at minimum, to prevent the folks who are at risk of being re-incarcerated, many of whom already have new jobs and have already reintegrated into society to prevent them from being forced to return back to prison.
DERAY MCKESSON: There’s an incredible group of advocates who signed the letter led by the group, Families Against Mandatory Minimums. And what’s so wild is that the memo from the Office of Legal Counsel within the DOJ, it was issued on January 15, 2021. They did this literally, and like the last moment, they were just trying to screw people.
And the wildest part about it is that they didn’t even– the people who were impacted by this– if people were sent home as a part of the CARES Act, they had no clue that this is coming. The idea that they could be re-incarcerated was a complete surprise to everybody. When they issued this memo on January 15, only 21 of the 23,000 people who were put on home confinement violated the terms of their home confinement at all.
I hadn’t even imagine that the federal government or any government could release people, especially at this scale. And then even offer the idea of they to re-incarcerate them. Like that is wild to me. But to think about this coming out on January 15– and I would say, I’m sort of surprised that the Biden administration’s take on this is like that the pandemic is such a crisis that it’ll last for so long that most people will be covered under the original CARES Act to sort of like their take on it.
It’s like, just rescind the memo, just let these people stay home. Like this doesn’t need to be a wait it out and see. It doesn’t need to be like, oh, everybody will be fine. Just rescind the memo, so there is no question about the commitment here.
KAYA HENDERSON: It reemphasizes the question around what’s the point of incarceration because these people came out, got jobs. I mean, one guy got a job in a month, right. And these are people clearly with records and who’ve had challenges in their lives. But people are working. They’re taking online classes.
They’re supporting their families. They’re paying child support. They are productive citizens. And that’s ultimately what we want them to do and be. And it reopens the question around what is the point of imprisonment and confinement? What would be the point of putting these people back in when they are being quite productive?
DE’ARA BALENGER: I think what I’ve been searching for when it comes to anything around mass incarceration or criminal legal system, when it comes to this administration, is like, who in charge? So Susan Rice is Head of Domestic Policy. Biden and Garland aren’t the ones that are solving this ultimately. Like who are the people in the room that are making the decisions?
And what outreach and what engagement is happening with organizers and advocates? Me, being nosy and poking around and making phone calls, still don’t really know who the consortium, who the collective is across this administration that’s working on these issues. So I think that’s what I’m still searching for is like who’s in charge.
And like this is like a piece of everything else that we need to know around this really huge issue, which we were promised lots of things, when all of us, folks of color, young folks came out to vote. And I feel like we still just don’t have enough information about who’s in charge, what’s the thought process is, what the engagement community strategy is, and how we ultimately get at themselves here.
KAYA HENDERSON: My news this week is about my hometown, Mount Vernon, New York. Mount Vernon, New York is a predominantly Black city just outside of New York City. We are a part of Westchester County, which is one of the wealthiest and whitest counties in the United States of America. And we are 4.4 square miles, but we are mighty.
We also pay the highest tax rate in Westchester County, which then begs the question, why do we have a problem with our sewage and our wastewater infrastructure collapsing all over town? Let me tell you what it looks like. In this article comes out of The Guardian, people are using wet vacs to suck up toilet waste and tub water. People’s houses smell like sewage. Sludge floods out of people’s toilet.
Storm drains are spilling raw waste into the Hutchinson River and the Bronx River. 1,000 households are at risk of floods or unable to flush their toilets. And there’s constant sewage flooding. This is in 2021. The annual assessment by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America a D plus for our wastewater networks. This is an issue all across America.
But as you can guess, communities of color are bearing an outsized share of the burden of these crumbling infrastructures. In fact, when you read the article and you’re hearing from the perspective of all of these Black people in Mount Vernon, what they tell you is whiter towns near Mount Vernon have sewage infrastructure that works just fine. How did this happen?
The sewage pipes weren’t properly maintained for decades. They are now trying to locate all of the leaks and collapses and blockages. But this sewer network is over 100 years old. And it was made to serve a population that was 40% smaller than what Mount Vernon currently carries. In the ’80s, the County of Westchester dumped lots of Black people from other towns in the County into Mount Vernon.
And so, we’re a small place with a bulging population and an infrastructure that cannot support it. The pipes are old and corroded. They are overburdened. Oh, and by the way, they are coated in layers of grime because some of y’all don’t know how to dispose of your cooking oil. You put it in your sink, and that is a problem, so– I mean, no, my people.
DERAY MCKESSON: Go ahead
KAYA HENDERSON: My people.
DERAY MCKESSON: Oh yea people.
KAYA HENDERSON: That’s why you have a– that’s why you have a can on counter.
DE’ARA BALENGER: That’s right.
KAYA HENDERSON: So that you put your oil in the can and you dispose of your oil properly. Otherwise, you mess up the water waste systems. Anyway–
DERAY MCKESSON: Where do people put it if they don’t put in the sink?
KAYA HENDERSON: You put it in a can. You’re not supposed to put oil down the sink.
DERAY MCKESSON: Oh, don’t put it in the sink.
KAYA HENDERSON: Do not put it in the sink.
DERAY MCKESSON: I don’t cook at all.
KAYA HENDERSON: That’s good.
DERAY MCKESSON: So I don’t– not putting no anywhere.
KAYA HENDERSON: That’s good. That’s great
DERAY MCKESSON: If you didn’t get that, don’t put your oil in the sink, y’all. Y’all mess– y’all the reason why the pipes don’t work.
KAYA HENDERSON: In New York state, there is a 34.1 billion, with a B, dollar funding gap for wastewater infrastructure. As I said, this is a problem across the country. In Mount Vernon, they suspect that it’s a $100-million job. City of Mount Vernon’s budget is like $100 million. And so the County and the State have to kick in. But the State has deficiencies, and clearly the County is not doing what it’s supposed to do.
Thankfully, New York state is considering $3 billion in environmental bonds for wastewater infrastructure targeting low-income communities. That’s helpful. That goes to a vote in November. The Senate also passed a bill last week to improve water and wastewater infrastructure that is worth about $35 billion for state programs.
That was sponsored by Senator Tammy Duckworth, who has spent a lot of time in Centerville, Missouri, outside of St. Louis, which is a little Black town just like Mount Vernon, that is seeing all of the same problems that Mount Vernon is seeing. And so let’s hope that the House takes this up. But, you know, we’re talking about all kinds of other things.
And in 2021, we have Black places where the wastewater is not properly disposed of, y’all. We got things to fix and things to do. And this is no one community’s problem. This is what communities, cities, states, counties, all have to work together to do this infrastructure stuff right. It’s ridiculous that people have raw sewage floating up in their homes in 2021.
DE’ARA BALENGER: This is a series that The Guardian is actually doing in partnership with our beloved Catherine Flowers, who we’ve talked about on the pod before, who I talk about ad nauseam. Catherine is an environmental justice, activist. She’s an award-winning researcher. And if you all remember Catherine is based in Montgomery. But her work is primarily in Lowndes County, Alabama and another place where Black folks are living in waste.
And the other thing that Catherine talks about is the fact that now in rural parts of the country, new tropical diseases are surfacing that have literally not been here for 100 years because of the fact that people are living in waste and just a myriad of environmental injustice issues that are happening across the country. For y’all, if you want to learn more about this issue, Catherine Flowers is someone to follow, to read her work.
She has a book called Waste, that she actually put out last year, that is phenomenal. So thank you, Catherine, for the work that you continue to do in this partnership with The Guardian. It’s fantastic. So I think, Kaya, this story, there are going to be more of these to come to really highlight, you know, this just isn’t happening to Black folks in rural areas. It’s happening to Black folks that live 30 minutes outside of New York City, which is wild.
SAM SINYANGWE: So it’s wild to read this story and then see that in the context of the conversation that’s happening in the news around a potential infrastructure bill in Congress where– I mean, just this past week, there was an article on NBC News. And the headline is, “Biden Pursues GOP Infrastructure Deal as Anxious Democrats Watch the Clock.”
So I mean, like there’s this whole conversation around, bipartisanship and consensus. And is Biden going to be working with Republicans? Republicans who’ve offered a relatively small proposal around infrastructure compared to what Democrats have offered and who want to limit and cut out as many things that would help communities of color as possible from that bill and limit it to like roads and bridges.
And like we need to talk about water. We need to talk about sanitation. Like we need to talk about the basics, basics, basics and invest particularly in communities that have been intentionally marginalized. And so, like we need these investments yesterday. There’s no reason to hold them up on leading Republican support, which we know is not going to happen. Didn’t happen last time. Unlikely to happen this time.
Like they just need to move these things through using reconciliation and make sure that they’re actually making the investments in communities and not sort of trying to cut things out that would actually benefit communities in order to secure one or two or zero Republican votes.
DERAY MCKESSON: You know, Sam, I’m happy that you brought it up. It’s– when you look at the Biden plan, it’s $111 billion for water, just water. Like that doesn’t include the $200 billion for housing, the $300 billion for manufacturing, the $400 billion for home care services and the workforce, in general, or the $600 billion for transportation. And you look at the Republican bill, and they’re proposing $35 billion for drinking water and wastewater and $14 billion for water storage.
And it’s just like, y’all don’t even care. Y’all don’t even care. It doesn’t matter. Your water’s fine, so you’re not worried about it. You’re going to get good water. You won’t get good water in Congress or in your mansion. But you’re going to be fine. And it’s like– it’s just so nakedly selfish, you know. Like that’s just– you’re like– we can’t even help the people get water. Like I hope I’m never that– I mean, that’s just a gateway-to-hell selfish. You’re just like, wow. So that just makes me sad.
The other thing that I’d say is a reminder that when the world opens back up, there’ll be a lot of work to do. And I hope that like the sheer number of jobs that will open up– like I’m hoping that this will be an influx of cash into people’s pockets, into communities, that like does actually help the economy do all this stuff. I’m like this should be a new dealesque infusion of money back into society. And I’m hopeful for that. So I think about– we talked before about free pre-K and 3-K and 4-K. And like all of these– this is the moment that people should be pressing big.
And the third thing I’ll say is, I don’t know if y’all saw McConnell. Do you see that McConnell quote where he’s like he’s just here to stop Biden’s agenda? Did you see that quote? It’s like I don’t know why we have to be that really– that quote about relationships, have you find yourself always having to be the bigger person, like find a new place to be in or something, whatever? Well, that’s us. We always got to be the bigger person. That man is on TV. This is not a secret audio. He is very publicly like, my job is just to stop that– you like, why are you stopping water help? Like why? Why are you that guy?
I think we need to let go of being the good guys. I did see– and we can go with this in another episode– that some people are projecting that we’re not going to have a majority in the House after the next midterms, that the numbers are looking fuzzy. And that just worries me. So we should get everything in, in these two years right now and fight like hell to do it because that’s what we didn’t do at the beginning of Obama time.
SAM SINYANGWE: Actually, building on that, do you see this past week? Florida passed legislation implementing the same types of voter restrictions as were passed in Georgia. So like Florida, Georgia– I think, Texas just sent something along to the Governor that is similar. Iowa did already signed into law restrictions. So like these are all the battleground states, like that’s the map, right. Like this already passed.
So like, you know, this is wild with Republicans are doing. We need to talk about the Voting Rights Act like every single day. I feel like talking about a few House seats, if we’re going to lose the House next time, we’re not going to have the House or the Senate ever again if the Republicans just keep rigging the maps.
DE’ARA BALENGER: So my news this week is from the New York Times. It is a beautiful piece about Deana Lawson who’s an incredible photographer. I think what makes this extra special, this piece, is that it was written by Jenna Wortham. If you don’t know her, get to know her. She’s incredible. She’s a cultural critic at the New York Times. She’s co-editor of the book Black Futures. It’s an anthology of poems and essays and visual expressions. I might be in it y’all. But check it out.
KAYA HENDERSON: It’s all right. I have that book. I got to check it out.
DE’ARA BALENGER: And so she writes this incredible piece on Deana Lawson. And I first encountered Deana Lawson actually in– I think it was 2019 or ’18 at the Underground Museum where she was having an exhibition. Underground Museum is something else, I want y’all to know about. It is probably, I would say, one of the most important cultural institutions in our country. It’s in Los Angeles.
It was founded by the late Noah Davis, who’s a painter, and his wife, who’s also a brilliant artist in her own right, Karon Davis. Deana Lawson was showing her work. It was also the night that I didn’t meet Brad Pitt, but Brad Pitt was there, I wish as my date. But he just was there also enjoying her work. So we have Deana Lawson in common, Brad Pitt and I.
But I just wanted to bring this to the pod because it’s a beautiful marriage between these two incredible women in terms of Jenna’s written word and also just the reflections on Deana’s– obviously, her visual work. And it really talks a lot about, one, just how photography has been used, obviously, not in just the American context but in a kind of global context to really oppress Black people, right.
Like so are images, representations of us, now, centuries and centuries have been so negative. So it talks about photography like when it was invented essentially, how folks, like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, used photography and used imagery as a way to say, this is what Black brilliance looks like. This is who Black people are.
And it was very, very intentional to really try to change the narrative around what not just white folks but what Black people, what they thought about when they thought about a Black person. I thought of this was just so beautiful. And it really– one of the things that I did not know that was so fascinating about this is Deana Lawson’s actually from Rochester, New York. It’s her hometown.
But it’s also where the Kodak empire is headquartered. When you think of photography, you think of like Kodak and Fuji. And it’s like those two kind of massive empires. But anyway, so she’s from Rochester. That’s where Kodak is. Her paternal grandmother evidently clean the house of George Eastman, Kodak’s founder. Lawson’s mother did administrative work for the company for more than 30 years.
And then another piece of interesting history for her, as well, in terms of her family tree is that her auntie Sylvia was one of the first Black female ophthalmologist in upstate New York and a pioneer in laser surgery. So all that to say, just like the confluence of these different things as a part of her identity, a part of her history. And now, she’s gone on to be this incredible photographer and really make her life’s work the reimagining of Blackness.
I just thought it was just so fascinating. I want you all to check it out. It was a very long read. So get a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Find some quiet time, and sit through it, and read every word. You not only learn about Deana Lawson, but you learn about some other artists who also are pioneers and folks that have paved the way in Black cultural expression, Black cultural creativity.
And one of the quotes from this piece that I loved is that there’s an infinite spectrum of possibility with Black creativity. And it might not align with what you want to see. So just a fascinating piece. Check it out y’all. I just wanted to bring it to the pod because I love talking about Black culture production.
DERAY MCKESSON: I went to the Underground Museum in LA. I saw that exhibit in person. I got there like 30 minutes before they closed. You know when people are looking at you like, please, don’t linger because we’ll close in no time. I’m like, I get it. And what was so– I feel like I’ve been to so many art museums over the past five years at the very least.
And what I will always remember from seeing her– these photographs was they just felt so honest. And I’m– like sometimes people are trying to create a moment. You’re like, OK, OK. You’re trying to like get all the Black things in once photo. I got it. This one– I was like, this is my grandmother’s house. These are people at my grandmother’s house. That’s like what it felt.
Like I was like, this is my grandmother’s house. With like all this stuff everywhere but in order. There’s like an order to it. You’re like, yes, there are 50 frames on that corner. Why are there 50 frames on the counter in the living room? I don’t know. But it’s always been 50. In the next graduation, it’s going to be 51. And the next birthday, it will be 52. And like that’s what I got from her. Her images just felt honest to me.
I feel like there is like a– we went through this aesthetic of like stripping Blackness of showing Black people in like flower patches and with glitter and with all that. Like it was sort of that– that was just aesthetic. You’re like, OK, cool. There was a political purpose of that, too. Or it was like in bare moments. I was like in the kitchen, in the living room, in your house but like not really with anything or was like perfect. It was like the perfectly cropped bed. And this one was like– this is actually what my grandmother’s house looked like.
It looked like things are sort of out of place, but they weren’t really out of place. But that’s what the ceiling has always had that little thing at the top of it. And like I don’t know why the ceiling has had that thing. But it’s been there since Deana was in college. You know like– or in high school. And Sheena was in college. Like that– I don’t know. It just felt honest. And I’ve always loved and appreciated how honest her work felt to an experience that I understood.
SAM SINYANGWE: In the article, they describe it as familiarity doesn’t equate to access. Loss insiders tend not to look directly into the camera with a cool self possession that spells out the power dynamic, lest you be confused by the rawness of the scene. Her subjects are not at the viewer’s mercy. We are merely observing and lucky for the privilege to do so.
So this idea that we don’t exist for the pleasure of the viewer or for the white gaze. Like all of those things don’t– aren’t the purpose of this. This is actually about just showcasing life as it is, showcasing people in their brilliance and their beauty as they are, without the need for sort of all of this performance of Blackness, which I think is really, really cool and really stood out to me.
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DERAY MCKESSON: Pod Save The People is brought to you by Scribd. Now, I love Scribd. We’ve been using Scribd since 2014. I remember when we did these open letters, we will use Scribd as the platform, so people could read them and access them. It was super easy. Scribd has grown over time. My book is on Scribd, big Scribd fan.
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DERAY MCKESSON: Desmond Meade is amazing. He’s a formerly homeless citizen who overcame a host of obstacles to eventually become the President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Chair of Floridians for Fair Democracy, and a graduate of Florida International University College of Law. Here’s my discussion with him about how Florida can overcome its currently oppressive voting laws. Desmond Meade, the one and only. Thank you for coming back to Pod Save The People.
DESMOND MEADE: Hey, DeRay. It’s a pleasure and an honor to be back.
DERAY MCKESSON: We first talked to you when you were leading the fight around the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, around people who were convicted of felonies and giving them the right to vote back in Florida. Can you tell us how did that end. We haven’t talked to you since. And where is the state of that work right now?
DESMOND MEADE: Wow, DeRay, bae. And let me tell you, a lot has happened since I was on. You know we ended up passing Amendment 4 which restored voting rights to 1.4 million people who pass felony convictions. And immediately after that, we had a Legislature and Governor who insisted on getting involved in the implementation of Amendment 4.
And they are emerging from Legislative session were a law that required people pay outstanding legal financial obligations before they were able to enjoy the benefits of Amendment 4. And of course, there was an immediate lawsuit that was filed by the ACLU and many other groups. It was a bunch of back and forth with that. We won in the lower courts.
The state appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. And they reversed the lower court’s ruling. And as of today, individuals who have outstanding legal financial obligations cannot register to vote until they satisfy their legal financial obligations. So there are some good news and bad news there, right?
And so the bad news is that this requirement to pay these legal financial obligations has directly impacted over 774,000 of the 1.4 million returning citizens, who now are forced to choose between putting food on the table or voting or forced to choose between paying their rent or mortgage or voting.
And that’s very sad state of affairs for our democracy for any American, that we shouldn’t have to pay to have access to the ballot box. But the good news is this still remains over 600,000 individuals who do not have to pay fines and fees who can register to vote right now, the day. The other good news is the fact that we didn’t know this cry about these restrictions.
We went out and we did something about it. And we started a campaign to raise money to help people pay the fines and fees. And last year, we were able to raise over $27 million to help folks out. And we paid out over $27 million, which cleared the way for, I believe, over 44,000 returning citizens to be able to register to vote and participate in our democracy. And as of today, that fund is still going. We’re still raising money into that fund.
We’re still helping people pay off their fines and fees. And we have another alternative by using of some courts to waive those fines and fees. But we’re pushing forward. And we’re not letting these obstacles get us down too much. We’re going to take those obstacles and turn them into opportunities to organize or mobilize and turn people out to the polls.
DERAY MCKESSON: Do you know how much money you need? Like do we know the total number of what the aggregate of all the fines and fees cost?
DESMOND MEADE: You know, DeRay, that’s a good question. That’s the question that folks have been asking now over the past year and a half. You know, at the end of the day, it’s really hard to just put your finger on one set number. We know that there are billions of dollars that’s owed to the court system because our Florida legislature have really put the onus or the burden, I should say, on the courts to fund itself through the creation of funding revenues, such as fines, fees, cost, things of that nature.
And so that number really– it jumps around what we know is that a significant portion of the money that’s owed can be found in restitution that’s owed. And so for instance, in one judicial circuit in Florida, restitution accounts for a little over 75% of monies owed to the court system.
DERAY MCKESSON: Well, can you explain what restitution is to people?
DESMOND MEADE: You know, if I were to break into your car and steal your Apple iPad Pro, right, and I got caught, there is a statute that says, if I do that, I face up to five years in prison and up to a $500 fine. All right. So I’m found guilty of that. The judge sentenced me to a year in prison and ordered me to pay a $250 fine. That $250 is a legal financial obligation that is punitive in nature that’s attached to the crime that I committed.
Then the judge goes on to say, but you know what, Desmond? You broke DeRay’s window. And it cost him $400 to replace that window. So I’m ordering you to pay $400 to the rate of restitution. That’s also another form of legal financial obligation that a person must satisfy before they’re able to register to vote. And then of course, you have the other legal financial obligations which are not necessarily punitive in nature.
But they’re administrative in nature and more or less the cost of doing business in court, right, like court costs and some other weird fees. Like in Florida, if you’re too poor to afford an attorney, the court must appoint an attorney for you. And that’s usually in the form of a public defender. But once you appointed a public defender, you’re assessed a public defender fee to pay for the public defender.
DERAY MCKESSON: Wow, I didn’t– that is– that’s sort of wow. What else are you working on? Are there other things that are important that we need to think about when we think about what’s happening with Florida around civil rights or voting or criminalizing things or decriminalizing things? What else is there?
DESMOND MEADE: Well, I think that what we’re working on in Florida, I believe, should be worked on in every state in this country, especially what we’re seeing over the last several months in response to just the avalanche of legislation that’s being produced and signed into law that restricts voting, that criminalizes protesting, and all of these crazy laws that we’re seeing emerging.
The power that we possess only shows up if we’re registered to vote, and we show up at the polls. And we have the phenomena of how do we get people who are enraged or dissatisfied with how this country is being run or the systems that have been in place to brutalize and murder and marginalize our people of color.
How do we get people who are upset with that to actually make sure that they’re registered to vote and turn out to vote? As we look at returning citizens or people with previous felony convictions, just by sheer numbers, we have more than enough to make a difference in local elections, as well as statewide and national elections. But the key is actually getting those folks to be registered and turn out to the polls.
And so the work that we’re doing is that we’re like the evangelists of democracy, right, talking about how we really understand the value of the right to vote and how we honor that value by actually turning out the vote, or understanding the sacrifices and respecting the sacrifices that our ancestors made. There was so much blood that was shed on these sort of just people like me can have the right to vote.
Have ancestors that was hung, beaten, burned, beaten just so I could have the right to vote and how– the only way that we can really honor those sacrifices that folks made is by actually utilizing what they fought so hard for, gave their life for. And that’s voting. I think we’ve shown in various areas across the country that if we show up, good things can happen, right. If we show up at the polls, then justice can show up in the courts.
If we don’t show up, then bad things are going to happen in the much broader sense and probably more frequently. But we have to– the work that we’re doing is engaging returning citizens, let them know that they cover the gap, and encouraging them to turn out. Especially paying attention to local races who does local politics impact us the most.
Who’s running for judge? Who’s running for district attorney? Who’s running for sheriff? Who’s running for these mayors and the school board seat and giving the level of engagement trickle up towards top of the ticket races or national races?
DERAY MCKESSON: Now, what the– for the People Act, if it passed, would that impact your work at all? The one that’s in the Congress right now?
DESMOND MEADE: It definitely would. One aspect of it, you know– and folks have to realize that states have leeway on how they’re managing their election process. And typically– it’s definitely with the iron fist as it relates to state and local elections. But for the People Act throw the wildcard in there by mandating what states can do for federal elections, right.
The reason why I say it’s a wildcard is because if the states will be hard pressed to have two different election systems or two different election criterias and trying to run them at the same time, could you have federal elections that are held at the same time as state elections?
Just the sheer cost and logistical nightmare that would occur if they try to manage two different systems would be enough to force them to align their practices with the federal guidelines. And so, yes, I think it would have a direct impact by forcing states to change their policies to align itself.
DERAY MCKESSON: I’d love to know, too. You led this fight. It was while there was an incredible team of people who– y’all were all together. And we were proud to be amongst that team. And in certain ways, what did you learn? Like what are the lessons as an organizer you learned from this whole process? There are a lot of organizers who listened to the pod. Not many have been through a campaign all the way through in the way that you have. So what did you learn during that process?
DESMOND MEADE: One of the things that jumped out at me is the fact that we can’t limit ourselves to who can talk to us or who we can talk to. A lot of the issues that we fight for is much broader than we give credit to. And we– sometimes, because of labels, we actually forego on the opportunity to engage with other folks who can be supportive of the movement, that can be supportive of our efforts.
The thing I like about Amendment 4 was that we elevated Amendment 4 above partisan politics and even to a certain degree, above explicit racial biases, right? We took it to a place that allowed us to connect with each other along the lines of humanity, in spite of your political beliefs, religious beliefs.
In spite of your ethnicity or your socioeconomic status, we were able to connect with people in a very powerful way which then allowed us to, number one, neutralize opposition towards the work that we’re doing. Because when you think about having the ballot initiative that will restore voting rights to people with felony convictions and doing it interstate, such as divisive as Florida, that was rife with fear and hatred and division.
And yet, we were able to do so without any major opposition, right. That speaks to the fact of us being able to connect with people on a broad spectrum and move them and really insulate our issues or have it insulated with this common core value system about how we should treat other human beings, right. And it showed up on election night when we had over 5.1 million people who voted yes on Amendment 4.
And the interesting thing about that was at least a million of those people voted for our current Governor, which showed that there was a broad cross section of support. Those 5.1 million votes, they weren’t based on hate. They weren’t based on fear. It wasn’t based on division, but rather, they were based on love, forgiveness, and redemption.
I think we showed the world that we can move major issues around love, right. And that love can, in fact, win the day. Instead of having to approach a campaign in a divisive way or in a way that would marginalize people who could possibly be supporting this, we engaged in the campaign that allowed space for people from all walks of life to be a part of it.
DERAY MCKESSON: So there are people listening who followed you the first go around. They want to know how they can help you. What do you say to those people?
DESMOND MEADE: Well, I tell you. One of the things– they could directly help us by contributing to our Fines & Fees fund. They can go to our website and contribute it. It’s tax deductible. And those moneys would go towards helping us pay off fines and fees of individuals who are just too poor to pay these legal financial obligations. They could also volunteer with the organization.
There’s always a need– like I said, we have I would say, over 600,000 folks that we need to have a conversation with. What we call the Juneteenth phenomenon, right? Because, you know, the story around Juneteenth, the slaves in Galveston didn’t find out they were free until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Well, we’re experiencing that, not only in Florida but even in other states.
Last year or even– yeah, last year, we were able to engage with folks in Georgia. They were returning citizens in Georgia who did not know that they were eligible to vote, right. And I think that we have to do a better the job of getting the word out to individuals and engaging these individuals in not a transactional way but in a relational way where we have a genuine concerns about the issues that they care about and talk to them about how being a part of democracy could help change those conditions, right.
And so folks can volunteer with us, fall-back word is to reach out to folks who are eligible to be registered to vote but are not. They could help us reach out to folks who we’re going to be working with to pay their fines and fees off, get them engaged in democracy. There’s a ton of work to be done. And then folks can do work in their respective states as well. Because, I think, collectively, we do need to pick up the pace. So with this recent spate of voter suppression or what I like to call, attacks on democracy.
I believe that the perfect response to these efforts is aggression. That means that these laws that are designed to take people off from the margins and disenfranchised the people in the margins. That if they’re going to disenfranchise 2,000, that means we ought to be out there registering 4,000, right, 5,000 and turning these people out to the polls and making sure that we’re exacting consequences on these politicians that seem like they don’t mind trying to destroy our democracy.
DERAY MCKESSON: Well, we appreciate you coming on the pod. We always consider you a friend of the pod. I can’t wait to have you back.
DESMOND MEADE: Thank you so much for having me, man. I appreciate that.
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Channel Powe is a co-chair of the local progress Dare to Reimagine organization. Here in a discussion about Arizona in a reform. Channel, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save The People.
CHANNEL POWE: Thank you so much for having me, DeRay. I’m excited to be on your show.
DERAY MCKESSON: Now it feels like we met a million years ago. And since then, you have just done so much. I have a million questions. So let’s jump right in. First, can you tell people where you are, how you got involved in the work of justice, around race and equity? Let’s start there, and then we’ll go deeper.
CHANNEL POWE: First of all, my name is Channel Powe. I am a private citizen now in Phoenix, Arizona. I started getting involved in the social justice movement– I didn’t realize. I would say maybe when I was younger, my father was incarcerated. So going to see him in jail really helped shape the way I developed a relationship with him. Fast forward, I became a mother of a Black son.
And when my child first started going to school and he was enrolled in preschool, I dealt with mistreatment to my child. I started getting phone calls in preschool about different behavior. I was a mother who had to learn how to have a job that was flexible so that I can go spend time in my son’s school and classroom and volunteer to help support his education.
Even as he got older, all the way up to his senior year, even with me being an elected official in the school education system, I still had to deal with stereotypes and educators who did not believe in my son’s ability to succeed. And living here in Arizona, you know, Black folks, we are a minority. We are a culture that is not widely included in a lot of decision making. And a lot of times when it is, it’s a certain few.
And so what really fueled me to really get engaged was 2012, when it was Trayvon Martin. I had a job. I was working with the Greater Phoenix Black Chamber of Commerce. I was all about Black businesses connecting us to resources to help us strengthen ourselves. And I noticed that there were gaps that continue to persist. And when the murder of Trayvon Martin occur, I was floored, I was heart broken, and I had to do something.
We had recently had a new mayoral election of a race. And I never planned a rally before in my life. The reason I bring up that I work with the Chamber because sometimes that can be frowned upon working with the Chamber of Commerce for an organization. And you have your Membership Director essentially protesting. I called the Mayor and I said, hey, I need a permit. We need to make this happen. And that was one of the ways I first made my voice heard.
And since then, I have stood for equity and justice for those who were unjustly have excessive force used against them by police officers. Rumain Brisbon was a father in Phoenix who was born to visit his child to take them McDonald’s. And the police got a call because he was playing loud music. And they end up shooting and killing him while he was at the door to greet his child. To have some sort of community engagement is what really went– where it really started.
DERAY MCKESSON: Now, you spent a long time on the School Board. What was that like?
CHANNEL POWE: I was so appreciative that there was an opportunity for me to be a part of a governing body and to really take my social justice to the next level. And I was understanding the education system, barriers persist, gaps persist. I wanted to utilize what I’ve learned from my first-hand experience in a governance role. There are deep inequities within our educational system.
I was in a school district where we served 2,300 or 2,200 students. 90% are our Free Reduced Lunch. You have a population of 65% Latino, 21% African-American, 6% white, 6% other. And we had to do our best to meet needs. A lot of [AUDIO OUT] were not getting held when I joined the Board, DeRay.
And I gave my all– meaning, my time, expertise. That means developing myself to understand how the system actually works to create sustainable policies, to create a culture of inclusion where students can thrive. And that took a lot of work in terms of denying equity-based school board resolution that included an anti hate, also a trauma responsive as civilian oversight and community review board.
School Board members, different levels of different bodies can encourage other bodies. We were trying to encourage the city council to develop a civilian oversight board, also, no firearms on campuses. One thing that I noticed when we would receive updates from staff specifically centered around gifted, the numbers of students of color was always low. And I always wonder why were there disparities.
And also what could we do to eradicate them? So I’m really pleased before– I ended up leaving the School Board in 2020. We approve our gifted scope and sequence, which will have verbal, non-verbal, and quantitative. So therefore, every student in the district– and this is an elementary school district. This is a K through eighth grade district– will have an opportunity to be screened for gifted.
The School Board is set up typically for people, especially like in the state of Arizona, we are not compensated. This is full on volunteers. So you have people who face challenges then Black and brown trying to run for office but then, dedicating their time and not really understanding what type of structure you need to follow in order to be most successful.
So for me, it was about getting training within the state but also on a national level so that I can meet peers who are also doing this work. You know we were able to institute board retreats. We were able to institute a strategic plan. We were one of the first districts in a state to adopt the 1619 Project curriculum.
I was able to help champion teachers to receive adverse childhood experiences, professional development training, and also implicit bias and cultural competency training. We adopted a new role for pandemic officers. When we see student discipline– this was one of the things that I was most passionate about– we never even looked at the numbers in our own district.
I would attend conferences, education-based conferences. And we will always talk about the trends. But there was little talk about what districts are actually doing to combat that. So that conversation led to the district developing the first restorative justice center in the state. And also looking at our student-parent handbook and how we have harmful policies inside of there.
And quick story behind that is I participate in the African-American state legislative days that’s held annually. But they also have a youth day. What a great opportunity for students in our urban school district to attend the state legislature where laws are enacted in May. Well, our middle schoolers were able to debate whether they wanted uniforms.
And when they had that debate at the state legislature doing youth day, they brought that back to the Superintendent. Now the Board was really passionate about the Superintendent really listening to the voices of students and what they would like to see. And now, the middle schoolers don’t wear uniforms anymore.
Just before I left the district and my tenure ended at the end of December 2020, we were able to hire the first African-American female superintendent which completely changed again and was able to more so directly align with the vision and also the language and policies that the board was trying to go. It was quite the experience.
I felt very accomplished that we were able to get a lot done. But at the same time, there is still more work to be done. And I just wish that we had more school board members who truly took time to develop themselves, who could really understand how to have that balance to really be there because again, so much– I can be so grateful for that we were able to do, I mean.
I met a pastor from Chicago who had a program called Real Men Read. And this is where he wanted men of color, professional men to come to school to read to students. We ended up instituting that in one of our schools, the Arts Community. I could kind of go on, DeRay. It’s again, it’s a lot, a lot of great, great work. And I’m willing to discuss particular areas.
DERAY MCKESSON: What were some misconceptions you had. You had never been in a School Board before. So all of a sudden, you get in, you are a power player. And you’re not somebody in the outside anymore. What was that like? What did you have to learn? Like what was different? What did you think was going to be the case, and it wasn’t the case?
CHANNEL POWE: Man, it was hard for me as a Black woman, right? Somebody who is very connected to the community, someone who has came from protest to the boardroom, right? It was this thing about decorum. It was always about how do I deliver things. And that really fuel my fire to really get that development. One thing it’s interesting, DeRay.
You have some school boards who wholeheartedly believe in professional development for their board members. And then you have others who frown upon it. They see it as a waste of the district resources. And my question to you is that how can you sit on a governing body and make decisions based upon your own ideologies and your own perspective as opposed to looking at all of the facts and just really understand what’s going on and being aware of what’s happening within our system?
I mean, that was a shift. It was typical to a board president that met one on one with the Superintendent when all board members have opportunity to meet one on one. But I made a point to continually meet with the Superintendent to talk about ideas, to share things that I see as someone who have children who are step foot outside my door, who go to school in my district. And guess what? They’re looking at me.
And these families are depending on individuals like myself to make the right decisions, to improve the quality of life of their children. You know, I have been blocked from professional development as I grew in governance. Different organizations would want me to speak at their conferences. And sometimes, since it’s is something board members who have very little experience in professional development would play politics.
I’m not with that, DeRay. That was something that wasn’t for me like playing this game. This position, first of all, was not set up for people like me to want to be full time, to want to dedicate their time to try to understand and strike that balance in their lives so that they can give all that they need to, to help shift the system. Constantly being in a state where I have to defend myself and to really prove my work–
I mean, I truly had to come with receipts when putting such language on the board agenda, whether it be resolutions or even talking about coronavirus resources for our community. I tried to bring it up. And it was a board member that was just like, I don’t understand why this is on the agenda. And I said, well, we have people who are being evicted right now, who are losing their homes. We know that what our poverty rate, 13% poverty rate within our community.
We know that nutrition– you know, we provide at the school district provide Free and Reduced Lunch to all students because it was already at 90%. So again, it was about truly understand what the needs were. And I had to slay dragons in the process. You know, you have to fight in the process.
Trying to get adults to do what you want them to do or to put in as much time is very challenging. But I’m very grateful. My board members, they taught me a lot. And it was time that was necessary because the students in the District deserve better. And they deserve drastic change, not incrementally but immediately.
DERAY MCKESSON: And why didn’t you run again?
CHANNEL POWE: So it’s like this, DeRay. I did not want to take up like so much space, right. Like I felt like I put my time in. I came and did what I was supposed to do. Now let me open that space up to someone else who has a desire to want to govern and to want to improve our educational system. I felt as if it was my time. Again, one of the issues that we had was spending.
We would get audited by the auditor general that said that we were approving budgets that had inflation and administrative salaries per pupil. It was ranked very high. So pulling the veil back on how we are spending our money, making sure the governing board plays a very active role, and where dollars are going, who are getting contract.
When you look at our vendor list, there was not local small businesses who have the bond, who have the insurance to go out to provide a service that the District needs. We had to– thanks to one of my colleagues who championed a responsible contract agreement, which I thought was brilliant, so that we can back out of associations.
There was like this association where architects, contractors, and what have you, are already pre-approved. So it kind of locks out the little guy who, again, is bonded and insured. Understanding and learning those type of things– and I feel like we were able to get that implemented into policy and adopted this policy.
These are the breadcrumbs for the next board and the next set of leaders to come in to follow. They just have to understand that you have to read the board policies and resolutions and hold the district accountable. But I felt as if my job was done. And I was really grateful for the experience and for the culture shift that we were able to do collectively in the District.
DERAY MCKESSON: We can see you in front of the pod and can’t wait to have you back.
CHANNEL POWE: I would love to be back. Thank you so much for having me. People get encourage. Accountability is on the march. And we need to be a part of it. If you’re not satisfied with your elected officials, why don’t you understand and learn the office so that you potentially, one day, could be the person to help govern lives and help close the gaps that we have within our communities.
DERAY MCKESSON: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in the Pod Save The People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure that you raid it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple podcast or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week. Pod Save The People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our Executive Producer’s Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors, Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Sam Sinyangwe.