In This Episode
DeRay, Sam, Kaya, and De’Ara dive into what comes next for the Biden/Harris administration. DeRay sits down with Stephanie Wittels Wachs, host of Lemonada Media’s podcast Last Day, to talk about emotional self-care in late 2020. Then, a quick check-in with Will Jawando, a council member representing one million Americans in Montgomery County, MD.
DeRay [00:00:01] Hey, in this episode of Pod Save the People, it’s me, Sam, Kaya, and De’Ara, as usual, and this episode, we exclusively talk about what happened with this last election. What do you think’s going on? Where do we go from here? And then I’m joined by two guests. So Stephanie Waittels Wachs of the podcast Last Day, who is incredible. And then a quick check in with Will Jawando, the only Black Council member in Montgomery County, the biggest county in the state of Maryland. My advice for this week is get ready for the long haul. We got a lot of work to do. Let’s celebrate and acknowledge the wins. A lot of big wins when we think about this election. And that is a good thing. We need to win Georgia, but let’s celebrate and then get ready to work. Democracy is a contact sport, so getting on the team is a part is part of it. And we are the champions right now. And now we got to keep it up. Keep it up. Keep it up.
De’Ara [00:00:46] Family, we’re coming to you. We can’t even believe how we’re coming to you and this new world we’re living in all of a sudden. Welcome to Pod save the People. The people are closer to being saved. Thank Harriet Tubman. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @DeAraBalenger.
Sam [00:01:06] And I’m Sam Sinyangwe @samswey on Twitter.
Kaya [00:01:08] I am Kaya Henderson at @HendersonKaya on Twitter.
DeRay [00:01:12] I’m DeRay @deray on Twitter.
De’Ara [00:01:14] Y’all, we are happy. We are still in shock. We are processing. We’re so used to bad news. You don’t even know what to do with good news. Don’t even know what to do with it.
De’Ara [00:01:26] I told everyone that I was going to not watch the returns and obviously was not too disciplined about that. Was with DeRay actually the night of the returns. It’s this thing. It is this thing where it’s like there’s been so much bad news and you’re so hopeless that like we just we just didn’t know what to do. We’re like, oh, well, it’s not a no. It’s looking like a maybe this is good. We can go to bed. But now here we are again, still processing, but so excited. We still you know, there’s so many unknowns.
De’Ara [00:01:58] How did you know? How are you all and what’s going on with you? What’s happening? Speechless, they’re all speechless.
De’Ara [00:02:04] They don’t know what to say, black folks are just frozen.
DeRay [00:02:08] So I thought he’s going to win. I thought it would be close. Thank God that happened. I was not expecting people to take to the streets in the middle of the day when they found out when it was called, it was like people lit outside, I thought
DeRay [00:02:20] That was beautiful. People are still outside. So that’s really cool. A couple observations is that black people won this race. So, a reminder that like black women. Black queer organizers, black organizers in general, like black people, really rallied around Biden in a way that was beautiful, a way that showed like the power that we have to organize to get somebody out the White House to put people in that we want. So, like, that is all really positive. I also think that I had hoped there would be a big repudiation of Trump that like now that we’ve seen four years of this, that, like, people would clearly vote against it. And I don’t know if they so clearly voted against it. So, yes, Biden got more votes than anybody who has ever run for president. But I was sort of surprised, I think, a little bit that so many people still chose Trump despite it all. We’ve already talked about black men. I want to learn more about what happened in Florida. I was a little confused. The Florida numbers. I’m like, whoa, we got some better organizer we got to do. And in general, I hope that we take these lessons like there are a lot of lessons about ignoring black men. We got to organize black men better. I think that we need to do better work on high schoolers. I think that we need to do a better work around people without college degrees. So, like, there are some lessons here. I don’t know, and I know, De’Ara you know, the party infrastructure. I was on the DNC transition team and I’m not convinced the DNC is structurally set up to do this Well. It seems like we recycle the same people over and over. So I’m worried about the party sort of taking these lessons and doing the right thing with them. But I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned in this election.
Sam [00:03:49] First of all, I just want to say it’s been a while to go through this experience, to have days on end of just watching sort of glued to the television, these election returns. I know you all try to stay away from the election returns. I didn’t have that discipline, so I was watching for days.
Sam [00:04:04] The numbers come in trying to do some tabulations. You’re watching Steve Kornacki break down the numbers live, trying to understand what’s going on. And it really was a lesson in how Republicans created this outcome in the way that it was presented, the way that they didn’t allow the counting of mail ballots until Election Day in key states and created a whole narrative around it being a sort of failed effort by Democrats or not good enough or, you know, us not really being able to win in those early days. It felt like. And then, of course, like the mail ballots came in, it became clear this actually was a historic election with turnout that had never been seen before for Democrats that flip states that a lot of people didn’t think would flip. But organizers have been working on for quite some time in places like Georgia to flip and prove that we can not only turn out, but we can do things that set us up to make transformational change, because if we can win Georgia just a few days ago, we can win Georgia again on January 5th and deliver the Senate to Democrats, which sets up a whole new world of possibilities in terms of legislation. So I think hope is back in a way that I haven’t felt in a while. I think possibilities and what is possible. I think if we can maintain this coalition, if we can continue to build on the historic gains in black turnout, in black organizing in key states to actually maintain these kind of numbers moving forward, I think we’ll continue to win. We’ll continue to build on the gains that happened in this election. But again, I worry about, you know, even in the past day or two some of the fighting that’s been happening, some of the efforts to critique the left and to critique folks that turned out in historic numbers to win this election. I think we have to hold it together because we won this and it was decisive. But any fracturing on this coalition, I feel like it will be tenuous and we won’t be able to sustain it moving forward.
Kaya [00:05:56] This has been a week of tremendously mixed emotions, right? High highs, low lows, you know, days of not knowing what was going on. I went into the into Election Day with a very clear sense of calm that God had not forsaken us and that and that Mr. Biden would win. And so I felt that in my bones. And I watched the returns expectant and hopeful. And I and I awaited the day’s expectant and hopeful. And it was really I don’t think that I had been processing how much it was to carry all of that. But yesterday, when we finally got word, I mean, literally it was I felt like I lost ten pounds. I am a little Covid scary, but I went out to the White House, actually, I went to Black Lives Matter Plaza. It was a world party. Like I didn’t know that I needed all types of people tall, short, skinny, fat, black, white, Asian, Latin, everything in between popping bottles dancing and putting up the craziest, funniest lines I’ve ever seen in my life, and it reminded me that like we are each other’s portion, we we are each other’s business that like, in fact, we belong to one another. And I think one of the things that was most really terrifying to me, I thought when I looked at the numbers that supported Trump, I think one of the things that was really disappointing to me is that I feel like the coronavirus is a is a real crisis. And we come together in times of crisis. We care about each other. We care about our fellow Americans. And somehow or another, this president has made us feel like it’s not our business. That’s not our concern. And so I was reminded yesterday that we do care about each other. We are kind of in it together. And it was a party. I mean, it was party all over D.C.. Horns honking I mean, people dancing on corners. It was wild and I needed that. And now it’s time to do the work. And I think in addition to the black organizers, big shout out to Latinx organizers who we don’t know what the results are from Arizona yet, but who have made unprecedented progress in Arizona. My my take away from the organizing thing is that, like, people have power and we have to do the hard work of being on the ground and organizing and things happen for us when we organize. And so I’m worried. I’m worried that our anti Trump fervor, I need it to translate into pro Biden activism. I need it to translate into support of a set of policies, is going to start to move us in the direction that we need to go. And so we’ll see how it goes.
Sam [00:08:46] You know, one of the things that was also sort of a back story here was the role of particular policies and changes that were made to actually make it easier for people to vote this year. The historic number of people who voted by mail and you had so many states that had never really invested in vote by mail that started to do it this year. You also, you know, in Georgia, Stacey Abrams, lead historic effort to register something like 800,000 new voters. And that was coupled with an administrative policy change in 2016 that basically enacted automatic voter registration. So they didn’t even pass legislation in the state. They just changed a simple form. So when you get your driver’s license, it automatically has a box checked to register to vote. And you have to uncheck that box in order not to register so it opts you in. And so that little change, administrative change without legislation, double the number of voter registrations moving forward compared to the previous trajectory. So, again, simple policy fixes combined with historic and deep organizing in communities, has delivered like a level of turnout that can win us the Senate on January 5th. Right. I think that that is a model that we need to build on in other Southern states in particular, you know, because Georgia, you know, we talk about Georgia, a lot of talk about North Carolina and Florida. But I think that model could work in South Carolina, could work in Mississippi, could work in Alabama and could work in Texas.
Sam [00:10:07] And we’re seeing, you know, election by election, steady progress towards flipping those states to0.
De’Ara [00:10:13] I’m thinking about the last four years, thinking about the loss in 2016 and from the Women’s March onward, how much organizing has been happening in these past four years. And it’s immense and it’s deep and it’s broad reaching.
De’Ara [00:10:29] I think one of the things that I hope translates is that this was a win, that was a collective effort. This was not an effort that was like singularly accomplished by the Biden campaign. While they did well and as far as I can tell from information that I’ve gotten, they ran a hell of a lot better campaign than we did in 2016.
De’Ara [00:10:50] I think the party ran a better campaign. However, our message moving forward can’t be “let’s heal everybod”y like there needs to be a coming to terms with racism in this country needs to be acknowledged, addressed, and from there, a reckoning and then a healing. So I think one in terms of what this party needs to do in terms of creating a bigger tent where we all can get underneath it. All the folks that won us, Milwaukee and won us Georgia and Arizona. You know, these folks aren’t outsiders. They’re not anti Democratic Party. They helped deliver this candidate. So one, making sure that we’re organizing collectively and all at the table and then to making sure that our message is actually a message that is a contemporary message that speaks to what is actually happening and that doesn’t alienate the people that got you here for the sake of trying to get the folks who have been radicalized by Facebook over to your side, we need to speak to those folks and figure that out. But that shouldn’t be the priority right now.
De’Ara [00:12:03] That’s just my two cents.
Kaya [00:12:05] You know, I think it is admirable that President elect Biden talked about being the president of everybody and uniting the country and not dividing the country. And, you know, my forever First Lady who tells us when they go low, we go, high, right. I was listening to my pastor this morning who talked about building bridges and whatnot. And I have to say, pray for me, saints, because it is really it’s hard to it is hard to watch the vitriol and the violence and the anger that has been hurled at people that I love and care about at me, at my kind for the last four years. And we’re just supposed to roll over and be like, OK, yes, all good. I was watching John Kasich from Ohio on CNN this afternoon talking about what Mr. Biden needed to do in order to make the Republicans work positively with him. And I literally almost jumped through the television because I thought to myself, Are you kidding me?
Kaya [00:13:07] Like, who is going to talk to the Republicans about what they need to do to work positively with Mr. Biden? And God knows, I don’t think that we fight our way to success by any stretch of the imagination and I’m Ms. Collective Action. I like who I am. I am naturally a bridge builder.
Kaya [00:13:24] But I, I don’t know how we tell hard truths and how we how we appropriately deal with these folks who feel like it’s OK to act one way on Monday in a whole different way on Tuesday. I just yell like I have to help me out.
DeRay [00:13:41] It’s right. I do think too.
DeRay [00:13:42] And, you know, AOC got to this in her the interview that she just did with The New York Times is that I think we have to own too the storytelling on the left collectively, like it’s not one part of it. But the storytelling is not that great that we are telling stories to cable news, not to real people. And I do think that one of the things moving forward for me is like how do we make sure that our organizing doesn’t turn into its own form of paternalism? This idea that, like, we just know what’s best for people like that and we know it and like however we say it and however we do whatever people don’t like it, them like they don’t really believe in like that’s not fair. And and I say to somebody who, you know, we are on and Sam knows because he’s there with me, it’s like we are in all these communities working on police stuff like all across the country. And there are some places that I’m ready to do really big things. There are some places not quite there yet. And we got to like help them understand how to get there. Right. But all of those places, they care about black people, all of those places they want to get free, all of those places they want transformational change. And it’s not their fault that like this phrase or this way that ddd is not like working for them. Like that’s our responsibility to, like, tweak it. The second thing is that we have to remember that, like, the Republicans have always shown us who they are, just like Kaya said, and we can’t be foolish.
DeRay [00:14:54] So Mitt Romney was on the news tonight. Let me let me read the quote from Romney.
DeRay [00:14:59] Romney says on CNN tonight, “I want to make sure that we conservatives keep on fighting to make sure we don’t have a Green New Deal. We don’t get rid of gas and coal and oil that we don’t have a Medicare For All Plan…”
DeRay [00:15:14] That is what Mitt Romney, in some people’s mind, the most sort of like conciliatory, work with the left, of the Republicans. That’s what he’s saying. You got to believe Mitch has dartboard with Biden’s face on it. Mitch has already said he’s not going to allow progressive people to be appointed to the cabinet. And we are talking about let’s work together. So in my mind, I’m telling myself that Biden saying that because that’s what he needs to say. And behind the scenes, they ready to slice and dice all these bad boys up. That’s what I want to believe, because they are going to play us like a fiddle.
DeRay [00:15:49] If it’s not that.
Sam [00:15:50] You know, the the comment around Mitt Romney, I hadn’t seen that remark. But that is just a reminder of how important January 5th is. Like, I’m just going to say it a million times, Georgia, like we need to flip this Senate, because if we don’t win both seats in this runoff, I mean, it is people like Mitt Romney who will be the deciding vote on all legislation for the next four years or so or two years or four years. And that’s like not a tenable situation either. So, like, we got to win the Senate, got to figure out how to message between now and January 5th to Georgia, like whatever it is that’s going to win in Georgia, like that needs to be the party needs to coalesce around that and win it, because that is like a huge, huge thing. I think the other piece of this is just thinking about what a Biden administration could do without Republicans, because I don’t think they’re going to win many, if any, Republicans any time soon. And I don’t think that that is an unreasonable expectation. I think, like after what we’ve all experienced, like the Republicans aren’t going to really come through for us. So what can Biden do on his own? And what can a Biden/Harris administration accomplish through executive action, through administrative appointments, through a range of powers that might not involve legislation for the next two years? I’m I’m wondering, like, what are some of your thoughts, on some big things that could be accomplished over the next two years, with or without Republicans involved.
De’Ara [00:17:08] I mean, first of all, Sam, the Covid, but the fact that we are now spiking across the country, I mean, I think that that’s like the first order of business. And I feel like now that we have an administration, and Kamala said it in her speech, that believes in science, that’s super helpful. So I think just ideologically, like we’re in a whole new sphere in terms of like what we’re even setting out to do and what approaches will be to things.
Kaya [00:17:39] I mean, he’s he’s on it, right, Monday morning appointing a Covid task force. Let’s go.
De’Ara [00:17:44] Yeah. And so I think in there, you know, then there’s the economy, education, immigration, criminal legal system reform there all these things that need to come under that. But I do, Sam, back to messaging. Like, I do think this is a party platform, like how are we messaging these things? Like who are we speaking to? Are we speaking to the historic number of people that have come out to vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris? Are we speaking to these other fools? No disrespect, but I’m just saying so I think really that’s what we have to get under control. And even when it comes to this January 5th and Senate races like how we run these campaigns and obviously like, you know, maybe being too hard to pivot now, do ya’ll understand how the Internet works? Do you understand that there are marketers who market for a living, who know how to speak to audiences, particularly audiences of color? So the other thing we need to get it to in some at some point is you had all these Senate races, all these congressional races. But you can count on your hand the number of people of color that were in senior leadership roles on these campaigns. But yet our base looking at Arizona, looking at Wisconsin, looking at Georgia, looking like enough is enough already, move over. Let folks who know how to reach these communities who have relationships with these communities do these jobs.
Sam [00:19:02] Yep.
Sam [00:19:03] Real talk. And, you know, just looking at the exit polls in Georgia, like 70 percent of white voters voted for Trump. Right. So who do we need to be appealing to if we want to win Georgia? I mean, it’s pretty clear that we need to be appealing to communities of color and black communities in particular. And that is the game between now and January 5th. I mean, that’s what we need to invest in. We need to invest in community based organizing to invest in the efforts that drew out turnout in the past couple of days and then build on that model all across the country.
DeRay [00:19:30] Also, the appointments are going to be huge, like they’re going to be thousands of people that flood the government. You know, De’Ara, I know you were part of that process in the past life, but it’ll be interesting to see if we do get progressives in those roles. You know, one of the things that because in some ways there wasn’t a resounding defeat of Trump ism, even though Trump himself lost a lot of people who look at that and say that like, you know, the country is not as progressive as the Internet. That is definitely like a take away that people have about these election results. And when we think about what that could mean is that we could get people who, you know, going be a hard bar to be better than Trump. But we could get some people in there who you’re like. Should Kasich be Kasich? How you say his name? Kasich.
Kaya [00:20:12] Kasich,.
De’Ara [00:20:12] Exactly. You can’t even say his name, no (mispronounces, Kasich)
DeRay [00:20:16] Yeah, Kasich, should, should, should Kasich be in the administration, should he be in the cabinet, but I can think about a million other.
Sam [00:20:25] He’s in charge of Republican outreach.
DeRay [00:20:27] Right. You’re like, well, who was he? What boat is he going to flip in the Senate? Right.
DeRay [00:20:32] I also you know, we haven’t talked about this. Who is who is Newsom going to appoint to replace Kamala? Now, that’ll be an interesting like I’m interested to see what that will look like. I also want Sherrilyn Ifill to be on the Supreme Court. I think that that would be great. I think she’d be great.
Kaya [00:20:47] Wow. That would be amazing.
DeRay [00:20:49] I also I’m OK with Barack on the Supreme Court. I mean, he has a long life, like who knows what he does next because he’s so young.
De’Ara [00:20:54] He don’t say much anyway. So that’s a good place.
DeRay [00:20:57] Oh, De’Ara.
Kaya [00:20:58] You better leave the president alone.
DeRay [00:21:01] He could he could be of the Supreme Court, too. But I think Sherrilyn would be great for the Supreme Court.
DeRay [00:21:07] Megan Vinita should be the attorney general. Right. Like, I think I hope that the appointees are like this incredible group of people.
Kaya [00:21:14] I mean, the thing is. Right. Talk about lessons learned. If we learned nothing from the Trump administration, we learned that using executive orders to do everything that your base wants you to do is a really strategic and thoughtful thing. So, Mr. Biden, the Paris Accord, rejoin the World Health Organization, transgender bathrooms for kids in schools. Let’s flip that back. What else? I don’t know.
Kaya [00:21:43] Whatever else you.
Sam [00:21:44] Student loan debt,.
Kaya [00:21:44] Student loan debt. Come on, let’s do it.
Kaya [00:21:47] Like, we should have a I mean, what I hope that the that the transition team has is literally just a list of executive orders that they can all issue on day one. And let’s just flip this stuff back.
De’Ara [00:21:58] I think with the appointments to it’s interesting because, you know, as someone now. Who was in politics, but now, you know, consults to build businesses in an equitable way for a living now
De’Ara [00:22:08] I just hope where we have shifted post George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and like when you’re running an organization, when you’re running an institution, like what that means now and what that means in terms of equity, what that means in terms of like the purpose and the mission of your company. Like, I just hope that actually translates with this government. Right, because it’s kind of like it’s a bigger conversation, like, yes, we have all these things to do, but how are we going to do it and what does that look like? And how can we be a bit aspirational in terms of how we’re getting there? Right. So I hope it’s not appointments for appointments, sake and filling seats as opposed to a real strategy around like what we want this government to look like, the approach we want this government to take. Because I think I really do think that it’s like mission critical. And like if we appoint a whole bunch of folks that, like, raised a whole lot of money or, you know, have been somehow affiliated with the Bidens for decades and decades and decades, like, that’s not going to get us there. So I think we need to really hold these folks accountable in terms of, like, your first pick was Kamala. Let’s keep it going. Let’s see. Let’s see how are we going to get this thing going because what we’re not going to allow you to do is move us backwards.
DeRay [00:23:21] But De’Ara what does that what does that even mean to hold them accountable? Like I’ve been thinking and we started this off, what we didn’t record was talking about the infighting that’s happening on the left right now, specifically about this question of like, OK, got in, good. Now we want to make sure they, like, reflect our values. What does it mean to hold the administration accountable around appointments or about like what does that look like? That’s this is like this is a push to understand not a push to challenge.
De’Ara [00:23:44] No, no. And I think I think it’s a good point.
De’Ara [00:23:46] And I think it’s also like understanding. Right. Like we’ve we’ve been doing all these awareness campaigns and that’s a lot of what Campaigns Zero does, for example, like, gives folks the tools to understand the thing they need to do. I think we need to also be transparent around how these appointments are made. Right. And like how that process works. And so I think this administration could be an administration that is transparent in a new way about these appointments. Right. And so typically, you know, you have a White House liaison office for each different agency. And the White House liaison works with the transition team to place those folks in different roles. Right. And so there’s a now we’re going back to vetting. So now that we have an administration that, you know, believes in integrity, respectively, now we’ll actually be vetting candidates. So that’s great. And so there’s a whole vetting process and depending on whether you’re a Senate confirmed position or not. So that’s usually like assistant secretary level secretaries, the secretary level, then you’ll have to go before the Senate. But there are a ton of ton of positions that aren’t Senate confirmed, but that are crucial. I mean, I had a position that wasn’t Senate confirmed, but, you know, made really huge decisions at the Department of State, which is probably ridiculous now looking back on it. But I did an OK job. So I think there really should be transparency around this process. You know, there’s a transition team who’s on that transition team? How many of those folks are folks of color? How many of those folks are women? How many of those folks are queer and trans?
De’Ara [00:25:05] And so I think us having more visibility around that is a first great step in terms of accountability.
DeRay [00:25:11] Cool. As we you know, because we don’t necessarily have news articles. Two things. One, De’Ara I wanted to say what you made me think of when that when we talk about Covid is that Trump announced that he is planning to hold rallies as he goes through the legal battle. So we will have more rallies for the next couple of weeks. He also said that he’s going to put the obituaries of people who die but voted. He’s going to show us the obituaries of those people, which is ridiculous because he’s making that up. But the second thing is, I do want to know from everybody, like, what’s your advice to people as we go? You know, we know that the left is a big tent. We know it’s a lot of you know, we all believe in freedom. How we get there sort of where people differ or like what people prioritize is different. What’s your advice to people listening who might see some of the infighting happening within the party and they are nervous or they just want to understand better or they’re trying to make sense? What do you say to them?
De’Ara [00:26:04] I actually I mean, I think the infighting is healthy. I really do, because I think part of what we need to do after this and what any normal running organization would do is say, let’s do an audit, what worked for us, what didn’t work for us? Where is there room for improvement? And the fact, as a party, we just keep operating on the same status quo over and over and over again, running the same types of campaigns over and over and over again, hiring the same type of people over and over and over again.
De’Ara [00:26:32] It’s just too much. And personally, you know, we hire the same folks and then those folks who are non folks of color call me and say, can you help me do my job? I’m over it. Absolutely not. And I’m not the only one that that happens to. So I think part of it is it’s like this is it’s good, it’s healthy. And I think we’re getting to a point now, particularly black women that are in the party. We’re not having it. We’re not having it anymore. From, you know, from the perspective of, you know, DeRay, you brought up AOC’s interview in The New York Times. I think the piece that was most compelling to me is that she had said to the Democratic Party, I want to help, let me help. And they said, no, that’s just I just I don’t know how we like how do you reconcile that? So I think this is healthy.
De’Ara [00:27:13] I think it’ll actually move us forward. I think the more folks that get involved and say, hey, listen, we want a younger party, that doesn’t necessarily mean that, like, you know, our older folks in our you know, our older folks aren’t doing a good job. But what is the legacy plan? What is that? What does that look like?
Kaya [00:27:29] Here’s the thing like beyond just critical thinking. Right. Stacey Abrams and all of the organizers in Georgia turn out 800,000 new people. Why isn’t she the next head of the DNC like that? I’m not a political strategist, but it seems to me that, like, that was my like one tweet.
De’Ara [00:27:48] That you heard it here, folks. There you go.
Kaya [00:27:50] It was, it was worth a dollar. Why wouldn’t you take your most successful mobilizer and put them in charge of the party like this is just common sense a little bit to somebody who sits outside of the process. This is what any good organization does. You take your rock stars and you put them in charge so that they can have an exponential effect on your organization.
Kaya [00:28:11] So if we’re not taking a hard look at the people who turned out for us, then shame on us.
Sam [00:28:17] So I think that there is an opportunity to with sort of the first big initiatives to really communicate very clearly what the priorities of this administration are. I think there are things that that are like broad that people, you know, across party, across ideologies support, and that Biden can build a lot of goodwill with a lot of folks on the in the middle and on the right with around covid around some of the economic stimulus work. But I think there’s also a urgent need to make sure that any effort that is happening, you know, we talk about, Covid, talk about economic stimulus, but there’s also those aren’t race neutral programs. Right. Like those have to be structured in a way that addresses the fact that black communities have been disproportionately impacted by Covid and disproportionately impacted by the economic losses due to Covid. And so I think that there is an opportunity to sort of do both at the same time to make sure that programs are structured in ways that intentionally and clearly benefit folks of color, benefit black communities that are specific to doing that in many cases, and at the same time addressing these sort of overarching issues that can build goodwill across the board. And at the same time, you think about what Trump did, and one of the things that was really challenging for us was he would just do a bunch of things at the same time and overwhelm the other side. So he would sign like six executive orders on a whole bunch of areas. And everybody we like, it would just you couldn’t even talk about each individual legislation. It would be a lot. And I think that, you know, Biden has this opportunity to do a lot really quickly in a way that could sort of overwhelm the right and not lead to, I think, what they’re trying to organize around, which is to pick, you know, a set of things that can be these wedge issues where they can try to message to white people in particular that Biden’s not on their side. And I think that Biden can overcome that by addressing the big issues that everybody cares about in ways that are really intentional and smart and designed to impact the communities that have been impacted by this most.
DeRay [00:30:16] I also just want to flag that the head of the GSA, the General Services Administration, is refusing to sign the letter allowing Biden to start a transition team, like to get money from the government to start the transition. So I think this will be the beginning of a range of obstacles that Trump will put in to make sure that Biden is struggling.
DeRay [00:30:39] And I will say, you know, I’m hoping I hope that somebody can go, De’Ara, you know, you was on the inside. We weren’t. I hope somebody changes the passwords.
DeRay [00:30:46] I hope that we, like, destroy all the computers and buy new computers that the CIA, FBI, all of them, the the B613. He just he won’t even know. I hope they come in and sweep to make sure that like the bugs are gone. I mean, he has probably done so much stuff that we don’t even know about. I hope that they like truly clean house.
De’Ara [00:31:05] But I think we also just remember, like, we have a civil service, right? So we have how many thousands of amazing folks who are always there. Right. Who are always running our federal government. And so the political appointees just they kind of direct those folks depending on what the agenda is. But we have a lot of folks there who I’m sure are willing to do the things that need to be done once the time comes. Yes. I mean, I’m sure they’re going to throw all kinds of obstacles in our way. But like, the transition team is working, like they are working right now and have been for months, I would say. And so I think, you know, none of that work is going to stop. I’m sure folks are already some of these campaign folks already, you know, making their way to D.C. They’ll figure out a way to to keep transition moving and to have it move at a pace that that will, you know, get folks in spots as soon as they can.
Sam [00:31:53] So I heard an article that Trump fired the person who was in charge of the agency overseeing nuclear weapons. Did you all hear this?
Kaya [00:32:01] I saw that.
De’Ara [00:32:01] No.
DeRay [00:32:02] No, I Didn’t see that,.
Sam [00:32:03] Yeah, So, you know, this is.
DeRay [00:32:06] Oh God.
Sam [00:32:07] We kind of skipping ahead to the whole what happens next, but we still got to deal with what’s happening right now.
De’Ara [00:32:10] That’s right. We have two, how many more months?
DeRay [00:32:13] Seventy four days. Right?
Kaya [00:32:14] Three officials to where nuclear associated. One was the first lady who’s over she’s over the nuclear stockpile. And there were two other firings with her.
DeRay [00:32:23] Yeah, he so he fired the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the first woman to oversee the agency in charge of the stockpile. He fired the deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and then he fired the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulation Commission.
DeRay [00:32:42] This man is just,.
De’Ara [00:32:43] But don’t you think that this makes sense, though?
De’Ara [00:32:45] Just I feel like they’re they’re going to be a lot of, like civil service resignations now. Like they’re these people have done as much as they could to hold on.
Kaya [00:32:52] Well, that’s why we need that. We need the civil servants to hold on.
De’Ara [00:32:56] Yeah.
Kaya [00:32:56] We need The civil servants to hold on. The political appointees can go.
Kaya [00:33:00] I read that his highest ranking African-American adviser resigned and they said, oh, it was it was expected that it was planned beforehand. Yeah. Whatever homies, that dude is out of there not going down with the ship.
De’Ara [00:33:17] It looks like Defense Secretary Mark Esper, is looking to resign.
DeRay [00:33:21] I hope that these people never, we should, the publishing industry should come together. No book deals. They should not be pundits. We should like these people no no comeback tours. I don’t want to see a single Kellyanne Conway. I don’t want to see you ever again on anything.
Sam [00:33:37] And no Dancing with the Stars,.
Kaya [00:33:38] No Dancing with the Stars!
Sam [00:33:40] It always starts with the Dancing with the Stars.
Kaya [00:33:42] Right, right?.
Sam [00:33:42] It leads to all this other stuff.
DeRay [00:33:43] Or, the Masked Singer. I don’t want to see you on that either. I don’t want to see you on Real Housewives of nothing. Real Housewives of the Right. Nope. Don’t wanna see that show.
Kaya [00:33:53] Be gone. Be gone.
De’Ara [00:33:55] You all, these folks are going to be around, unfortunately.
Kaya [00:33:58] Sure. But let them be on their TV channels somewhere.
De’Ara [00:34:02] They’ll be on they’ll be on E or Bravo.
DeRay [00:34:04] No Fox only. Get out of here. No show for Trump because you know he can run again, which is also frightening that he’ll spend four years being Trump.
Kaya [00:34:13] They say the next thing is Trump TV, his own network.
De’Ara [00:34:17] That’s right.
Sam [00:34:17] So we talked about a little bit about the infighting that we were seeing on the left, but we haven’t really talked about the right because they are going through it as well in a different way, where they are starting to critique Loeffler in Georgia,.
DeRay [00:34:32] Really?
Sam [00:34:33] And because she wasn’t sort of like the Trump picked candidate. So they are trying to critique some of the messaging around. They don’t know what to do about Trump. Like, half of them aren’t saying anything. Some of them are like he needs to step aside once the votes are counted like they are. We don’t know what’s going to happen with them, but they are not in a good place either. So that’ll be we’ll see what happens there.
DeRay [00:34:53] I did see Netanyahu supported Biden, right? Didn’t, wasn’t Netanyahu.
DeRay [00:34:58] The person who supported Biden.
Sam [00:34:59] Yeah, He called. He called. People were like after that other thing when they called him, remember when Trump called him on the in the news conference like live and then he wouldn’t say that he wouldn’t support Trump live.
DeRay [00:35:08] No!
Sam [00:35:08] Yeah. That was a thing.
De’Ara [00:35:12] That’s Like the Murdochs, too. They’ve taken a turn as well. They done kicked their boy to the curb.
Sam [00:35:17] It was real quick. I mean, on Arizona, Trump was furious about Arizona.
Kaya [00:35:21] They call so much when everybody else had 253 to 214, they had Biden at two sixty two.
Kaya [00:35:28] Sixty four. They were I mean, they were like, he’s out of here.
Sam [00:35:32] They were right Though. They were right. You know, like he’s going to win Arizona. It’s looking like. And he’s definitely got to win all these other states, too, so.
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DeRay [00:41:18] Stephanie Wettles Wachs hosts the show Last Day on the Lemonada Podcast Network. A few years ago, she lost her brother Harris to addiction. On Last Day , she interviews people about the last day in the life of a family member or best friend. Season two has just started, and the show’s scope has widened from addiction to suicide into a broader look at mental health, which is something we all need to be looking at right now.
DeRay [00:41:38] Hear our discussion about how you keep your head above water at the end of 2020.
DeRay [00:41:41] Stephanie, it’s so great to have you on Pod Save the People.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:41:44] Thank you for having me.
DeRay [00:41:45] I want to just start with Last Day. Can you talk about how you got to Last Day and why this current season on suicide like I am, you know, I never thought I hadn’t even imagined a sort of podcast focusing on suicide. And how do you even tell stories that are productive or like don’t only sit in the problem, like, how do you. Yeah, I just want to know about that.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:42:07] I mean, you and me both didn’t imagine that I would be hosting a show about suicide. But alas, here we are. So we got into last day because your executive producer, Jessica Cordova Kramer and I both lost our little brothers to heroin overdoses.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:42:26] And as a family member who felt like we did everything we could do, we were stuck with this question of what could we have done differently. We felt like we lost. And so many families are in this position right now. The numbers are climbing. And, you know, I wanted to explore was the treatment system broken? Was my brother quote unquote, broken? What’s the deal with addiction. And so we did that in season one. And I learned so much from season one. And a lot of people learned a lot. I mean, Jess and I thought maybe our moms would listen, couple other people and hundreds and thousands of people have listened to the show because it is so common. One thing that we did with Season one was to reframe addiction completely, that it is a chronic medical illness. It is not a moral failing. That recovery is something we do for life, not just 30 days. Our treatment industry is very one size fits all. The 30 day model does not work. We had a huge win this week in Oregon for harm reduction, which is, you know, reducing potential harm, not criminalizing drug users. You know, Oregon passed Measure 110, which rejected charging drug users with criminal offenses. And that is huge. It sounds radical to a lot of folks. But doing the show, you know, we realize that making criminals out of drug users is not productive for many, many reasons. So they are the first in America to do this. I hope there will be more that follow suit. But essentially learning things like that made addiction feel less insurmountable. And we knew for season two, we wanted to look at something else that was hard to explain, hard to understand, and getting worse every day. And unfortunately, that brought us to suicide. So that is why we are doing the show. We are trying to look at it through the lens of progress, through the lens of solutions. You’re right. The media gets it wrong a lot. We tell really tired tropes about it that are not helpful. And so we’re partnering with the Jed Foundation this year. First of all, Jed protects emotional health, prevent suicide, and we’re learning a ton from them about how sharing stories can really change lives and in many cases, save them.
DeRay [00:44:37] I appreciate that you are partnering with specialists in this area as you try to tell stories that help people. Have you learned anything about suicide that you didn’t know going into this?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:44:48] So much, Everything. You know, I started off I knew that it was sort of a landmine. I knew that there was a website called Reporting on Suicide, where there are rules of what you can say and what you can’t. But I, that was pretty much it and I didn’t know the route of it and why that was.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:45:06] I think the most important thing that that I’ve learned is that suicide prevention is not about suicide prevention. It’s about making a life worth living for for people. You know, that’s a really important concept. You always talk about how great therapy is, DeRay, and you’re right, that is a form of upstream intervention or addressing, you know, mental health early on where you don’t reach this point of crisis and, you know, being proactive about our mental health. So if we feel something is not right. Right. If we feel stressed or anxious or lonely, afraid, depressed, all of these things, if we can’t sleep or eat, we don’t want to connect with friends, you know, not saying, oh, it’s nothing or sort of undermining our own experience, but reaching out, whether that’s to friends or, you know, a loved one. And if that feels like something that that is scary and you feel ashamed, there are lines, there are hotlines, there are crisis lines. There is always a place to start. And the other thing I’ve learned is that it’s not just about the person who’s struggling speaking up. It’s about all of us speaking up when we see someone else who’s struggling.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:46:12] So if you see something, say something. Right. It’s about being a community gatekeeper being proactive and saying, OK, like what can we do early on to not prevent bad things from happening, you will never be able to prevent bad things from happening. But we can empower people to be, you know, more stable in the face of bad things when they do happen.
DeRay [00:46:33] As a storyteller. What did you learn from season one of last day? So you went into it being like, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know who’s going to listen. You know, I hope this story resonates with people. It’s true. You must have learned so much about how to tell stories. What stories resonate with people like that Whole gamut. What has that been like?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:46:55] Oh, my goodness. Really overwhelming. The only way that I know how to tell stories is in this very kind of meta way where I as the narrator and as the story, speak honestly about the making of the story. This is something you and I have spoken about, you know, in regards to doing storytelling on podcasts and the power of narrative, me being honest about my experience, me feeling like I can cry when I’m talking about something, if it’s moving me, me talking about how hard it is to tell particular stories. There are some stories that I don’t want to tell that are very difficult to tell. And we kind of pull the curtain back and talk about that. The other thing that we do is I make a lot of jokes about really hard things and I say a lot of bad words and I’m just like, true. I truly put it all out there. And I think, you know, that’s the thing about being human, where we are dealing with hard stuff all the time. But we’re also delightful. Most people are funny. Look at Twitter, you know, things are falling apart and people are posting the funniest things. So I think just like bringing our full self to the table and revealing all that is like ugly and messy and hard about being human, I think the stories that are most effective and most impactful are ones where people are being honest. I mean, I I loved the episode that you and your sister and your dad were on for the Last Day, you know, weaving that story together, talking honestly about things that families don’t typically want to talk about or feel comfortable talking about. You know, that’s where the power is. And knowing that you are not the only one that’s having this experience, there’s a universality in hardship, in tragedy and triumph. Everybody can feel both of those things. So that’s where we’ve landed with last day.
DeRay [00:48:46] And what is it? Zooming out a little bit and thinking about your role as co-founder of Lemonada and Chief Creative Officer, what have you learned about podcasts and just storytelling in general? Not only because you have a lot of them, but because you probably get pitched a ton of them and you’re like, yeah, this probably should’nt be a podcast. What have you what have you learned about, like, the best ways to tell stories or. I just like how we do this well?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:49:12] yeah, I have like the opposite problem. I actually all the time I’m texting Jess, we have to do the show. We have to do the show and then I’ll say no, we have to just finalize our slate and not do anymore.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:49:24] And then this incredible pitch will come our way and we’ll make it happen. You know, there’s something about, like I said, the universal human experience that’s really important. There’s something about authenticity of whomever is telling the story. Right, that they’re being honest about themselves in the world around them. There’s something about timeliness that’s important to us that we are doing shows that not only speak to what that individual is going through, but what entire communities are going going through. There is a, you know, social justice component to what we’re doing. There is a making the world a better place component to what we’re doing and not in a washed over kumbayah way, but in an authentic we’ve got to start talking about things that are hard because we’re all feeling them and let’s like put it out there. So that’s what we look for when we look at podcasst. And we have a ton of different formats. We have narrative shows, we have chat shows, interview style shows, shows that are tethered to the news shows that are evergreen. So really having a diverse slate of offerings is really important.
DeRay [00:50:29] And how has listener feedback been? You know, I think about Last Day in particular as sort of an experience that people feel really personally and they’re like, wow, I like my family member. This is their story, too. This is a story that is like their story. And I can imagine that people probably reach out to you. And I say that because, you know, my podcast is this podcast. People sometimes reach out to us because they want to like they heard a story and they’re writing something or they’re like, oh, I didn’t know that fact.
DeRay [00:50:55] But we aren’t always telling stories that people are like, wow, that’s my life. But that is sort of, what Last Day is. How has the listener feedback been?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:51:03] I’ve heard you say actually before that you felt like Pod Save the People would be successful when it was taught in classrooms. I do want to say that there is something very profound about getting, you know, DM from some stranger saying, hey, I heard your show in my master’s level psychology class and me going, what? And that happens fairly regularly, which is incredible to me that people are using it in that way and they’re using it as an educational tool. But you’re right, the most profound messages are, hey, you saw inside of my soul and you spoke to it. And I think that’s why people come to the show. I literally just like 30 minutes ago, we did this episode that came out called The Great Darkness about Sandy Hook. And it wasn’t a Sandy Hook story that we tell often. It was about the survivors of Sandy Hook and how all of them really threw themselves into advocacy. And one of the fathers died by suicide recently. We were exploring, you know, why he was like an advocate for brain health. He knew the signs more than anyone. And so we told the story and someone just tweeted, “this episode of Last Day is shredding me and pouring into me at the same damn time.” She said, “You do not know until this happens to you and your community, plain and simple.” So she was a survivor of a mass shooting. Getting those kinds of messages are why we are doing it. It’s why I keep going. Those are really important. And then the the third category that’s really meaningful that I’d say is like most meaningful is when the people whose stories we have told reach out and they say thank you. You told my story with respect and dignity. And like I heard stuff that I had never thought of before. And I appreciate you not sensationalizing it. And, you know, when people can respond to their own story being told with positive feedback, that is 100 percent everything to us.
DeRay [00:52:59] Do you have a list of the next podcasts you’re going to do?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:53:03] So we are coming out with a show on November 17th called Add to Cart and it’s hosted by Kulap Vilaysack and SuChin Pak anyone who grew up in the 90s saw her on MTV. It’s awesome. It’s about conscious consumerism. It’s about what we buy, what we buy into, what it says about us. After the election, I got onto a recording of their show and I was so tired and drained and kind of dreading it.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:53:29] And for two hours I just went on a journey to another world and was laughing and felt like I was kind of being reborn in positive way. So Add to Cart, it’s going to be amazing. We have a lot of shows that are lined up for twenty, twenty one, too many shows. Somehow they all get made. A lot more narrative deep dives. But the most exciting thing that we have coming out is Episode five of The Untold Story: Policing, that is executive produced by DeRay McKesson. It is hosted by Jay Ellis. It is a deep dove into police unions and police union contracts and data. And, you know, this is the thing that we like to do at Lemonada. We like to unpack statistics that feel sort of hard to wrap your head around and humanize them. So The Untold Story has done this beautifully. I am so proud of the show and episode five, which is coming out mid-November. So pretty soon here is going to be absolutely incredible. It is one of the most beautiful things that I have ever heard in my natural life.
DeRay [00:54:39] I also wanted to know how you deal with the potentially triggering nature of the content that you have, like how do you process it and how do you plan for it and how do you manage it?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:54:49] That has been an interesting aspect to it in and of itself. When we partner Majed Foundation, one of the things that they told us early on was that there’s actually some research about trigger warnings and that they don’t necessarily help. Right. That they in some cases have been tethered to having the opposite of impact on people, which was really surprising to me because I think, you know, we want to be really sensitive. Trigger warnings come from a really good place. But I think what happens is that we get afraid to tell stories that might actually help people. So hearing your experience reflected back to you isn’t always a negative experience. It can lead to self reflection and growth. Right. And change and progress. And so what we say at the beginning of every show is that we want to tell these stories. We want to do it responsibly, and we want to do it in a way that isn’t going to harm. But we can’t control the way that the stories unfold and we want people to be able to listen. And so if you are listening and you feel triggered and you feel overwhelmed, we encourage people to press pause, to go for a walk, get some fresh air. The cool thing about podcasts is that you can press play again. So, you know, take a minute, take a breath, walk away and come back, because a lot of people have said it was really hard for me to listen to this, but I got X, Y and Z out of it. So we encourage everyone to try to listen and to know that we. We’ll always do a story in a way that is very respectful, that does not sensationalize, and that we have every intention of being solutions oriented and not inflammatory in any way.
DeRay [00:56:27] And that makes a lot of sense. Do you have a vision for how long there is a Last Day?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:56:31] Oh, I’m in the middle of the season right now. So my answer is maybe this will be the last one. I mean, we spend so many hundreds of hours on the show, it’s not like I can do the show and then step away and just be a human being. It takes so much from my team. Right.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:56:51] We have incredible producers and editors, I think, like putting aside how sort of emotionally challenging it can be, especially now. Right. Like everyone’s dealing with so much right now. I think that unfortunately, we are not at the end of telling these stories about things that are hard to explain, things that are getting worse every day. I could see us doing a shorter season next time around, telling one very targeted story that sort of zooms out into a larger issue. I think there’s a lot of different ways to do it. As tired as I am doing the show is truly a great joy for me. I feel like every episode that we do and every episode that we publish is kind of like pushing the ball forward or up this very tall mountain. Sometimes it feels like it’s rolling down again and then but mostly we’re pushing it back up. And I feel like that is how progress is made. If I understand more about how to save a life or what addiction means or what or risk factors for suicide, that’s helpful for me personally. So I have to imagine it would be helpful for others. And at the end of the day, like that is what I am passionate about doing. So probably more probably more seasons, I will say.
DeRay [00:58:02] And how is the pandemic shaped, if at all, your understanding of the importance of storytelling or like how we do this work?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [00:58:09] I don’t think there’s a more important time to be doing this, frankly. You’re hearing about increased rates of suicide and overdose. And a lot of that is because these issues, these kinds of like quote unquote epidemics that we’re dealing with are all about hopelessness and loneliness and lack of meaning, lack of purpose, lack of connection. Right now, more than ever, we are feeling disconnected from each other. I mean, my my daughter does school in the living room, which is truly one of the saddest things I think that I see every day. I mean, being a kid is about being with friends and being social. And, you know, our kids are experiencing this. Adults are experiencing this. So I think if we can tell stories right now, it is the most critical time. It’s not like me sitting at home at my house by myself quarantining is different than what you’re experiencing. We’re all strangely experiencing the same thing at the same time right now. And so connecting with our stories and saying like, hey, hi, this is hard for me right now. Is it hard for you right now? Is really profound. And I think, you know, I learn all these little gems along the way. Like we in this episode from this week, one of the the people from Newtown, Connecticut, said, you know, it’s really hard to say to a Sandy Hook parent, how are you? Like, it’s a sort of an explosive question. It can be kind of a bomb for people. He said, like asking, how are you today is much more effective, you know, and acknowledging that today I might feel awful, but that things have the capacity to change at every moment. You I feel like of all people probably have that sentiment as well. Right, that things can change and they will over time with enough everything that that we pour into it. And so I think that stories can actually be deeply inspiring and hopeful for people at a time where the hope is kind of hard to come by.
DeRay [01:00:00] I think that makes sense. Are there any other burning things that you want to tell stories about that you don’t have a podcast for yet?
DeRay [01:00:06] But yeah, like, you know, I’ve been thinking about this.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [01:00:09] Every day, every day, every time I read a news article, I want to tell a story about it. I wanted to go into trauma more. It’s been like very you know, everyone talks about trauma now and childhood trauma and adverse childhood trauma.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [01:00:25] And it seems like it’s so deeply woven into the root of so many toxic things later in life. So I’d like to talk about that.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [01:00:34] I’d like to do a you know, some sort of version of it’s interesting now, right? There’s like these shows like Serial and In the Dark in these shows that are telling these deeply bingable stories that actually can change the course of somebody’s life. There’s true crime that’s that’s sensational. And then there’s true crime that saves lives. Right. That gets people out of jail who shouldn’t be there. So I’d like to tell stories like that.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [01:01:05] I mean, everything I’d like to talk about why we thought that the election would go one way and and we’re just living in two different realities, I mean, there’s there is so much to talk about, and podcasting is such an intimate medium that it’s the place to do it, I think.
DeRay [01:01:24] So there are two questions we ask everybody. The first is, what do you say to people who feel like they’ve done everything in the world hasn’t changed in the way they want it to? What do you say to those people?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [01:01:33] We’re literally right now, as we talk, doing an episode about this very thing, people who have felt unhappy for most of their lives, who have felt like I’ve tried this and I’ve tried this and nothing is helping. It’s like hard to have a concrete answer for that. Like I said before, I think when we talk about suicide prevention and mental health, it’s not that you just go to therapy when things are bad, right? You go all the time. You go when things are good, you go when you feel OK, so that when the tide turns, which it inevitably will, you’re ready. I say this all the time on my show. I think medication prescribed safely by a doctor is a wonderful thing and a wonderful tool that we have. So if that is something that you decide with, your doctor would work for you. I’m all for it. So thinking of mental health like any other kind of part of your body. Right. Like parody with with physical health, it’s the same thing. It’s as important. And then, like, just continuing to reach out. We talk a lot about the moment when you feel like you’re ready to end it. It comes down a lot of times to one single moment. And in that moment, if you call somebody or text somebody or post something or something, right. To reach out and connect with somebody, it’s so deeply important. And the other thing that I can’t have this conversation without saying is that if there are access to deadly means in that moment, you are more likely to die by suicide. You know, I just threw a lot at you, but I think it’s I think it’s really complicated. I think it’s really layered. I think a lot of times when we talk about why somebody decides to end their life, it’s about stuff that’s buried so, so deep inside. People like to say, oh, they died because they were bullied or they died because a relationship ended. It is rarely, if ever, just one thing. It is rarely just one event. And it’s not like an A to B. It’s not like this thing happened and then, boom, they died by suicide. It’s messy. It’s jagged. So like I said, just putting those upstream interventions in place as much as we can, really leaning into what makes a life worth living. So things that feel very out of our control but are extremely important, like living wage, health care, affordable housing, food security, you know, psychological resilience, maintaining meaningful relationships, all of this that is all suicide prevention. So there’s like a personal element to it. And then there is a societal element as well.
DeRay [01:04:05] Got it.
DeRay [01:04:06] And then what’s a piece of advice is you’ve gotten over the years that’s stuck with you.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [01:04:09] Being painfully, brutally honest about where I am whenever I am there, you know, time and time again, the way that I cope with things that don’t feel good or whenever I’ve had any sort of trauma or loss, I write about it. And then I instead of sort of like burying that, I like to put it out there and connect with other people that have felt that.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [01:04:29] So I do think there is a tremendous amount of of hope and community building and then connecting with others, whether that’s through writing, whether it’s through face to face calling friends like whatever it is, being honest about where you are when you’re there, even if it’s messy and it’s not convenient and it doesn’t feel good, that feels like something that we can all do. You know, if we stop answering the question, how are you with like, I’m good, thanks, but actually say how we are, it might take a lot longer, but I think it’s how we we get to a place where we’re where we’re better off mentally.
DeRay [01:05:04] Thanks so much for joining us on Pod Save the People and we consider you a friend of the pod. Can’t wait to have you back.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs [01:05:08] Thanks, DeRay.
DeRay [01:05:10] Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Don’t go anywhere. There’s more to come.
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DeRay [01:08:04] Will Jawando is an attorney, activist and community leader who serves as a city council member in Montgomery County outside of Washington, D.C. It’sin Maryland. He’s the only elected black official countywide representing a huge, diverse population of one point one million people, remember there are only about six million people in the state of Maryland. I chatted with him, my friend, a former Obama staffer, about the difficulties of legislating during coronavirus.
DeRay [01:08:25] Here we go. Council member Will Jawando, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Will Jawando [01:08:30] It’s great to be with you. Thanks for having me.
DeRay [01:08:32] So I met you before you were on the council this go around and it’s been cool to see everything that you’ve been up to. Can you talk about, like, what led you to public service, why you wanted to be in service at such a hyper local level and like what that means to you?
Will Jawando [01:08:48] It’s an honor and it’s a really cool thing to represent the community you grew up in, which is really a microcosm of America. You know, Montgomery County right outside the DC line, we’re a million people, one point one million people. We’ve got four of the top ten most diverse cities in the country. So it’s Really a melting pot. But we’ve got a lot of inequity and we’re also one of the wealthiest counties, but that’s not spread everywhere. And so I really grew up seeing that, you know, the son of a Nigerian immigrant immigrated here early in the civil war in Nigeria and a white mother from Kansas who came to this area for economic opportunities. I really got the kind of two sides of the American dream. And they settled here because it was welcoming, because there’s jobs they could get and there was diversity. And but, you know, we were very low income growing up. I saw the disparities in this area, some of the wealthiest communities in the country and some of the not so wealthiest. And I just really was kind of crystallized for me when in my teenage years I lost one of my really good friends to gun violence.
Will Jawando [01:09:48] And it forced me in a hard way to examine some of the reasons why my life was different from his. I had a scholarship to a private school for high school. I had after school mentorship opportunities. My mother had a stable job. His mom worked two jobs to try to make ends meet. The transportation infrastructure in our community wasn’t great, so I started to see that it was really policy things that were connected, budgetary decisions that were connected to the different outcomes we had. And that made me want to examine that. And I didn’t know I was going to be running for office twenty years later. But it led me to become a civil rights lawyer and work on Capitol Hill and work for President Obama and really try to investigate those policy budgetary considerations that impact people’s daily lives and their access to opportunity. So I’ve just really been focused on that. And I found my way to running. And I’m the only black person elected countywide in this very diverse county. And it’s been a great time trying to serve, and particularly during this very difficult time of covid in the twin pandemics of the racial and social unrest that we’ve had as a result of police violence to try to address those issues from a really deep understanding, having grown up here and been here my whole life, but also leveraging my national experience as well. So it’s been great. And I and I enjoy the job immensely. And I think it’s important now with who we have in the White House to the local stuff matters just so much more.
DeRay [01:11:10] Can you give us a lay of the land of Montgomery County? What is what’s Montgomery County like? Who’s in Montgomery County? How big is Montgomery County.
Will Jawando [01:11:16] So, yeah, as I was mentioning, McGovern County is right outside of the District, Columbia in the DMV, as we call it. We’ve got one point one million residents with the largest jurisdiction in the state of Maryland, six million people in Maryland, one point one million live here. I represent all of them as an at large member of the council. We have a six billion dollar budget which is larger than five states budgets. And I’m one of nine people who decides how that money is spent. Four of the top 10 most diverse cities in the country are in Montgomery County. You know Silver Spring, Rockville, Gaithersburg, Germantown, right up there with Chicago and New York and Houston and places like that. And we’ve got a great melting pot. We’ve got some of the great companies in life sciences and other companies, and Myriad is headquartered here. So we’ve got a good mix. But we also, like a lot of places, have segregation, both socially, economically and racially and ethnically. And we have disparities and lack of opportunity. So we’re really a microcosm of America, but we’ve got a good, good community that really wants to help people. And we’re often at the cutting edge of leading policies that try to reduce inequality and perfect this American experiment.
DeRay [01:12:22] What was the impact of the protests? So protests sweep the country again. We met after the first set of protests swept the country. And, you know, I know that there were people in Montgomery County who were like, we need change and we need to change right now. What does that look like?
Will Jawando [01:12:36] We had over 80 and counting protests, especially right in the east after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and a Ahmaud Arbery and so many others. We’ve had, unfortunately, during this pandemic, Finan Berhe, a young Eritrean American who was shot and killed in front of his home dealing with a mental health crisis. And so we’ve had our own instances here. We’ve seen, you know, peaceful protests, but very diverse. And I’ve been to purchase in Bethesda where 500 people and, you know, they’re mostly white. And I’ve been to protests in other parts of the county in Gaithersburg, where they’re much more diverse. And so I think you’re seeing what you see across the country where across the world really, where people are waking up, some for the first time. Some have known this like if you’re black or brown in America, you know that this has been a problem for a long time. And I think people have woken up and want to see change. They’re not all necessarily sure about what needs to happen, but they know something needs to happen. And what I really tried to do is try to focus that energy and that outcry and to really concrete policies that can move us forward and help us be a model not only here for the state of Maryland, but across the country.
DeRay [01:13:40] And what do you be, seem to be the hard parts about making change? Like what is it? You know, I talked to so many people who are trying to press a city council or press a legislator. It must not be as easy as people think. Or maybe it is as easy as people think. What are some of the challenges that you face? You know, you’re going into this already believing in equality and justice. And sometimes change moves slower than people want.
Will Jawando [01:14:00] If you’re not a big major city or someplace that’s always in the news for national level police incidences, even though we’ve had our share here, it’s hard for people to hold two concepts up at the same time. One, that we are a great community and we have great people here, which is true. I love this community I’m raising my, you know, my dynamic wife, Michelle. And we have four young children. No other place I’d rather be. But at the same time, we have significant challenges. 50 percent of the people arrested here last year were black in a county where we represent 18 percent of the population, 55 percent of the use of force. Incidences here in the county were against black residents. And again, we only represent 18 or 19 percent of the population here. You’re three more times more likely to be pulled over in this county. Just go down the list. We have disparities that you wouldn’t think we had in a progressive, mostly democratic, very diverse community. And I think people often, because inequality is experienced so desperately and we have such a large landmass, we have 500 square miles. If you’re in one part of the county, you might have a great experience with the police or a great experience with certain aspects of our community. And if you’re in another part, it’s a totally different experience. And I think trying to bridge that gap and make people understand that even though we’re a great community and we might not have some of the same issues as some people in other parts of the country, we do have significant issues and holding those two things up at the same time can be difficult and can inhibit progress because they can seemingly be in conflict. But actually, I don’t think they are. It just means that we’re in constant improvement and reimagining mode. And so that’s what I found to be a big challenge here, is getting people to understand that both those things can be true. And we have an opportunity to be example and to make progress that is in the suburbs, I think can be a big challenge.
DeRay [01:15:41] How did Covid change your work like this? Came out of nowhere, caught everybody off guard. I can only imagine that it meant a whole different sort of style of legislating all of a sudden.
Will Jawando [01:15:53] Covid has changed the game completely. It has exposed the fault lines and inequities in our society in a brutal way. And we’re not immune to that. And I think in some ways it’s worse because our cost of living is so high and our average median income here is around one hundred and seven thousand dollars. And you need to make every bit of that to have a chance to afford things in this. And one of the top 10 most wealthiest counties in the country and with deep inequities and so I think when you have that type of scenario and then Covid hits, you know similar to other parts of the country, who are your service workers, who are the people that our first government employee to die was a 60 year old African-American man who’s one of our bus drivers in just similar to other parts of the country, one in four, the people who to die from Covid were black. Here in Montgomery County. We have the highest death rate, highest infection rate for our Latino population. And so we have some serious challenges that have not abated. Who’s not being able to pay their rent? Who’s first up for eviction notices that have started to be processed by the courts? Who’s not getting access to testing? Which kids are most disconnected from the virtual learning environment? You just go down the list. Everything that we knew was a problem before has just been totally exacerbated with food insecurity is a huge issue, have been working a ton on that. And so I think for me it’s created an urgency. During this Covid crisis, I introduced a resolution which we passed and we became one of the first counties in the country to do so, declaring racism a public health emergency. And we passed the landmark use of force bill and worked with you and others on that. We put in a temporary rent stabilization bill to help renters. So I see this as an opportunity to address urgent needs, but also make our system stronger and more fair and more equitable as we come out of it. So even though it’s been very difficult, I’ve worked more hours than ever worked in the White House, which is a crazy job. That’s because the need is there. I mean, unemployment insurance, we’ve helped so many people with that go down the list. It’s exposed the fault lines, but also that we need a new system and that what we were doing before wasn’t working. And we certainly can’t go back to it now.
DeRay [01:17:53] And how was your time in the White House? Was it like the West Wing? Like we think it was because we all saw that incredible show. Is it sleepless nights? I don’t know.
Will Jawando [01:18:02] Like how was it working in the White House was one of the most amazing experience of my life. Certainly also being able to do it for the first African-American president, Barack Obama. You know, I’ve been fortunate to work for him as a senator in his Senate office and just be along for the ride and be there the night we passed health care, having worked on that and helped with the conceptual framework for My Brother’s Keeper, you know, mentorship and program, improving the lives of young men and boys of color. The things I was deeply passionate about. It wasn’t without its frustrations. Right at the hard wall of Mitch McConnell in the Senate, who said from day one they weren’t going to let us do anything. And I grew up fast and learned a ton. It’s like drinking from a fire hose, is what I’ll say. So that’s similar to West Wing.
Will Jawando [01:18:45] But it was an honor and it’s been really difficult to watch them just systematically and in some cases just carelessly erode and claw back everything that we tried to do. But that’s why, you know, this election right now is so important. But it was an honor. It was awesome, it was constant and it went so fast, it’s hard to believe it was 10 years ago because I worked in the first term, but one of the most highest honors of my life.
DeRay [01:19:08] Now, can you talk about the bill that passed against sexual harassment in the workplace and how that fight was it a fight like it was anybody against that bill before the council?
Will Jawando [01:19:18] No, thankfully, all my colleagues supported it. I’ve done a lot of civil rights legislation because, you know, we all do better when we all do better when we everyone gets to achieve their full potential and economic opportunity that improves the country is not only good for those people, it’s good for us as a community. And so this was a big change. We actually had a first local jurisdictions do this to lower the standard of when you can bring a sexual harassment claim in the workplace. We know that 81 percent of women, 83 percent of men have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace because vastly underreported, in part because the standard in most places in the country is a case law standard that it has to be the harassment has to be severe or pervasive. And if I ran down the list of cases that were not found to be severe and pervasive, you know, one guy knocking on his employees door at a hotel when they are at work, you’re jumping in her bed, taking his clothes off. That was not found to be severe, pervasive enough to have a claim in court. And so this standard would all be lowered so that you can seek a remedy and what, well we ultimately want is these things not to happen so that people will respect that they feel like they can be comfortable. And if something does happen, seek a redress and seek a remedy in the court of law or through our Office of Human Rights. So thankfully, my colleagues got that and we passed that law just about two weeks ago.
DeRay [01:20:38] What’s next? Is there anything that people should be looking forward to in between now and January when they think about the county council?
Will Jawando [01:20:45] Oh, yeah, it was a ton going on. This is the time where covid the pandemic, the racial social unrest that we’re having, in result of police violence and so many other forms of systemic and institutional racism. This is the time to change fundamentally the systems that we operate in because they haven’t been working for most people and everything from progressive taxation at the local level, whether it be property tax or income tax. I’ve been pushing efforts to make sure people pay their fair share. You know, Dan Snyder, who owns the Washington football team. Pay the same income tax rate as the single mother who makes forty thousand dollars a year. That’s not right. I’m also working on some proposals to improve the amount of affordable housing that we have in our community. Some innovative zoning proposals to get different types of housing, at different affordability levels. Obviously, the work continues to reimagine public safety. You know, the accountability, the Eight Can’t Wait. We passed those in the bill that I wrote with my colleague, that’s critically important. But as you know, we have to do so much other things and training and how we test psychologically who we bring into the police force, how we get them out of the mental health and homelessness business and focused on violent crime and right sizing the police department and reallocating those funds. And then we’ve got to address in a big way income inequality. There’s some proposals I’m working on that can give people, you know, a basic income here to so that they can live and thrive and not have the pressure to have to do everything all at once in the middle of a pandemic and show that that actually improves their productivity and the overall prosperity of the community. So just a couple of things and working on that list off there. But there’s so much to do. We have to take advantage of this moment and make sure we come out stronger, we build back better, and that we turn this country around and really include everyone’s ingenuity and talent in our economy and in our country.
DeRay [01:22:39] Thanks so much for coming on Pod Save the People. We consider your friend of the pod and can’t wait to have you back, can you tell people how to stay in touch with you?
Will Jawando [01:22:44] I appreciate it. It’s great. Great coming on. I’m @WillJawando, which is just WILLJAWANDO on all social media, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Look forward to hearing from folks. And thanks for having me on Pod Save the People.
DeRay [01:23:00] Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure that you rate it wherever you get your podcasts. Whether it’s Apple podcasts or somewhere else. And We’ll see you next week.
DeRay [01:23:11] Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lancz, our executive producers Jessica Cordova kramer and myself, special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Sam Sinyangwe and our special contributor Johnetta Elzie.