In This Episode
DeRay, Sam, Brittany and Clint discuss online diversity trainings, how low-income individuals spend more on health care, the history of slaveowners receiving reparations, and gratuitous dental procedures. In honor of Earth Day, DeRay is joined by marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Ayana Young, co-founder of For the Wild.
- PNAS: The mixed effects of online diversity training
- Axios: Poor people spend more of their income on health care
- New York Times: When Slaveowners Got Reparations – Opinion
- The Atlantic: The Truth About Dentistry
- Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
- For the Wild
- Pod Save the People Live
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DeRay: Hey, this is DeRay, and welcome to Pod Save the People. And this week, we have the news as usual with me, Brittany, Clit, and Sam. Brittany had to head out towards the end, so she joined us for most of the news but not at the end. And then in celebration of Earth Day, which was yesterday, I talked to two different Ayanas. The first is Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, she’s a marine biologist, conservation strategist, and the founder of the Ocean Collective. And then I talked Ayana Young, Co-founder and Director of For the Wild. And she also hosts the For the Wild podcast. Also, don’t forget to get your tickets for our live shows in Chicago and Minneapolis that are coming up. Go to cricket.com/events, you will not want to miss them.
DeRay: My message this week is simple. When we think about the justice work, often, we didn’t create the problem, we didn’t start it, we’re not to blame, it’s not our fault, but we often have the ability and the responsibility to change it. But when I think about the work that lies ahead it’s like remembering that we have the skills, we have the tools, and in many cases, we have a responsibility to the people that come after us and the people that we love, to do the work to make this a better world. Let’s go.
Brittany: Hey y’all, it’s the news. This is Brittany Packnett @misspackyetti on all social media.
Sam: And this is Sam Sinyangwe @samswey on Twitter.
Clint: And this is Clint Smith @clintsmithiii.
DeRay: Hey, hey, hey. And this is DeRay at D-E-R-A-Y on Twitter.
Brittany: Hey, y’all. So, if folks didn’t see it there was an ancestry.com commercial, and there was a white man and a black woman in the South during times of enslavement talking about running away together. And they were running through buildings and alleyways to be with each other in secret. And the tagline read, without you, the story stops here. In other words, come get your DNA test from us and do your research through us because otherwise, you might never know the story that lies behind your ancestry, that story being one that completely falsify and undermines the actual trauma that black women specifically experienced during enslavement.
Clint: Yeah, for this book I’m writing, I’m thinking a lot about this period of history. Because I’ve been reading so many of these first-person accounts front formerly enslaved people who had been freed after the Civil War, then in talking to these journalists and government workers in the early 20th century. The sort of cognitive dissonance of reading these narratives that are talking so deeply about basically from black women and girls that are talking about the rape that they have experienced, that they experienced on a perpetual continual basis at the hands of white men, some of whom were their slave owners, some of whom just knew that by the nature of laws of this time that they had dominion over these women’s bodies and could do what they pleased without being punished. It’s gut-wrenching to read these accounts from these women and so to go from reading that into see a commercial that is irresponsible ahistorical and attempt to paint a picture of what the relationships, the nature of relationships between black women and white men at that time looked like was really unsettling. And they ended up taking it down I think because of the very legitimate backlash, but it just makes you wonder. I feel like we have these constant examples of folks who are not cognizant or willfully ignore what history looked like in order to paint a picture of a story that’s untrue.
Sam: Every time that this happens, you have to wonder how many people saw this ad and didn’t say anything? How many people did see a problem with this ad, raised a red flag about it, and then were dismissed or ignored from teammates or higher-ups? And then on top of all of that, what is a company like ancestry.com going to do now to address that process to self reflect on how an ad was able to go from a bad idea being proposed, to a bad idea being developed, to a bad idea being released to the world without anybody sort of either having the courage or the power institutionally and internally to not only recognize there was a problem but to actually stop that from happening?
DeRay: I think, too, I was struck by the way that the imagery of the ad suggested that interracial couplings can just transcend white supremacy, like, that was going to be the fix to solve all of it. We know that that’s not true, that that reinforces this idea that proximity to whiteness is what freedom looks like. And the history of this country shows that interracial couples don’t end white supremacy or like interracial couplings, and we can even call it that because the ad clearly depicts a time of slavery. The other thing is like, who thought slavery was a good marketing technique? Just from a basic like, who thought the slavery imagery would be like, “Hey, you know what? Slavery. Let’s go buy this product.” Bad decision.
Sam: So, my news is about diversity training. Whole bunch of corporations and nonprofit organizations and even agencies like police departments now conduct some form of diversity and inclusion training. And despite all of this investment there’s very little research that these trainings actually work at shifting the attitudes and beliefs and the behaviors that perpetuate bias and inequities in the workplace. And so to address that issue and fill that gap in the research, a new study by Edward Chang, Katherine Milkman, and a number of other researchers called the Mixed Effects of Online Diversity Training conducted an experiment of more than 3,000 workers, 40% of whom were in the US, about 60% abroad, to see whether an online diversity training, one of which was focused on gender bias and support for women in the workplace and the other, which was focused on race and gender bias to see whether those online trainings could actually shift attitudes and behaviors of these employees.
Sam: And what they find was fascinating, first on the attitudes and belief side of the equation, they find that the training did actually make employees more supportive of having women in the workplace, more likely to have a positive orientation towards that if they were workers who were abroad but did not have an effect in changing the attitudes and beliefs of workers in the US. And the researchers explained this by saying that workers abroad started with a lower baseline level of support for women in the workplace and that that meant they had more room to grow in response to a training.
Sam: So, on the behavior change side of the equation, this is actually where it’s most fascinating. What the researchers find is that some of the workers did actually change their behaviors and were actually more likely to, for example, reach out to mentor a younger female employee and/or person of color or more likely to recognize the employee for their work and their excellence, that that behavior change happened, but it was limited to people who actually already had attitudes and beliefs that were most supportive of equity and inclusion in the first place. And that in many cases, those were female employees and/or people of color in more senior positions that became more likely to reach out to more junior employees to mentor or to recognize their work or to talk to a new hire as part of an interview process, for example.
Sam: And the implication of this is that the effect of the diversity training on behavior was actually limited to those folks who already had the attitudes and the beliefs that the diversity training sought to cultivate, and that the effect of the diversity training was limited to folks who were themselves women and people of color and was not effective in, for example, shifting the beliefs of white men or folks who were not already supportive of these ideas.
Sam: This is a fascinating study. I’m curious to hear what you all have to think about
Brittany: As somebody who is a diversity, equity, and inclusiveness practitioner myself and has both attended plenty of in-person trainings and led them, I’m not surprised by the mixed results for a couple of reasons. One is that when you are talking about important issues of human interaction, it can be very, very difficult to distill the important learnings online. Not impossible but difficult because there are all kinds of things that are unpredictable in those spaces that a strong facilitator going to be able to adapt to.
Brittany: More importantly, though, often we see companies, government agencies, et cetera, thinking of “diversity training”, whatever that means because it can mean a whole host of different things. We can see those folks thinking that that is the one stop shop, right? That that alone is going to change attitudes and therefore change behaviors. And the fact of the matter is for some folks, their attitudes are changed first and then their behaviors follow, and for some folks, actually, their behaviors have to change, and we don’t actually know if their mindsets follow. So, when we’re talking about the workplace and especially when we’re talking about actions of accountability by elected and appointed officials, we have to be concerned expressly with behaviors. Yes, we have to be concerned with shifting mindsets, but we also have to be concerned expressly with behaviors.
Brittany: And when folks who work for you or who belong to the agency that you run see that you will not actually measure their behaviors or attitudes toward diversity, equity, and inclusiveness such that it can alter their pay, their promotions, et cetera, then it actually goes by the wayside, right?
Clint: I was thinking about what I’ve heard from folks like Kim Foxx and DAs who are set with changing the incentive structure, right? Progressive prosecutors who go in and they’re trying to change the way that people in that office operate and the sort of culture of expectations in terms of what constitute as doing a good job as compared to what historically has. And I think that part of what Kim Foxx talks a lot about is that you have to change the incentive structure around what constitutes as efficacy, right? For a long time in the DA offices, it was like, lock people up, lock people up, lock people up as much as you can, and that’s what meant being a prosecutor was.
Clint: And instead, if you shift the expectations and you shift the notions around what doing a good job looks like, and if you … And I think you made a really important point. And if you tie that to whether or not somebody’s going to get paid or promoted or experience any sort of mobility in the workplace, upward mobility in the workplace, then the stakes become a lot higher and people who otherwise might not necessarily pay attention are far more likely to pay attention than they were before.
Clint: And I think that it’s sort of a complex, complicated thing, but in some ways and in some instances, and obviously it depends on what the specific circumstances are, but sometimes you change the law and then the attitudes follow. Right? You don’t wait for everybody to be okay with desegregating schools in order for that to happen. You don’t wait for everybody to be okay for abolishing slavery in order to do that. You don’t wait for everybody being okay with LGBTQ people having the right to marry before you make it all right. So, I think that that’s a really important point that has implications for a larger political discourse as well.
DeRay: A few things to add. One is that there is a theory of change that undergirds this study about how behaviors change, and they say in there in the discussion section, the study literally says past theory has conceptualized behaviors originating from attitude which develop into intentions and finally shape actions. I think that behavior to attitudes to attitudes to intentions and intentions to actions is an interesting model in that it’s line with both what they got coming in and what they find in the outset or in the outcomes.
DeRay: What I thought was particularly interesting is that, yes, this is about online diversity trainings, but they also note that it confirmed some findings that they had found about trainings in general before and that those findings were this notion that behaviors are more likely to change after the training from people who are already supportive of the initiative or the idea or the belief before the training. And I thought that was really interesting that … I think that some of this stuff that’s happened in the justice space certainly around race, education, all the big justice spaces is that we think people are going to come to these one- offs or like week-long or whatever, and that the people who often get the most out of it are people who already believed on the front end anyway. So, the questions like, “What you do to move the people who didn’t come in believing?” And it doesn’t seem ,this study doesn’t come out with many solutions or recommendations for solutions as much as its learnings.
DeRay: But I would just echo this idea of like, how do we make sure structures incentivize certain things? But also, how do we make sure that these trainings actually have practice components. And a lot of the trainings I’ve been to, and I’ve been to a gazillion, I used to lead human capital school system, we all have done a lot of system work, is that the number of trainings I’ve gone to that are really just talking at people. It’s like, well, no wonder people’s behavior didn’t change.
DeRay: Another thing that came out of this training that was interesting specifically on women is that it did allow for mentoring to happen between senior women and less senior women, that the conversation about diversity actually created relationships among women that didn’t exist before. That was sort of an interesting thing, and how we think about building community in these spaces where we’re sort of forcing these topics to be talked about I think could be a learning for all of us.
DeRay: Don’t go anywhere, more Pod Save the People’s coming.
DeRay: Pod Save the People’s brought to you by Oatly, the vegan plant-based oat milk, originally from Sweden that’s now making their oat milk on this side of the Atlantic.
Brittany: About 30 years ago in a small town in Sweden, a scientist invented oat milk, and everyone thought he was totally wild. But remember, back then, vegans were on the fringes of society unlike today when vegans are everywhere.
DeRay: So, is eating a plant-based diet starting to feel mainstream?
Brittany: Apparently more and more people in the US and around the world are starting to understand the benefits of eating and drinking plants. So their bodies feel good and so the planet can better cope with the impact we humans place on it. Everyone’s doing it DeRay.
DeRay: Brittany, I feel like you’re trying to tell me something. If you use peer pressure for a good cause, it’s still peer pressure.
Brittany: I’m actually getting to kind of a deep question. So, if 30 years ago, people thought oat milk was a ridiculous idea, imagine how much different people’s beliefs about eating food could be 30 years from now.
DeRay: I see what you’re saying. And it is this question of how are we going to look back at our ancestors of the early 2000s with regard to what they eat?
Brittany: Exactly. A good question. And anyway, since this is an ad for Oatly, we should mention that one easy way to drink more plant-based is just to switch from cow’s milk to oat milk, which tastes really good on your cereal or in your coffee.
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Brittany: So there’s been a lot of necessary talk about healthcare and specifically who has access to it and how much it costs during this lead up to the 2020 presidential cycle. We see a number of Democratic candidates talking about lots of different versions of Medicare-for-all and some other things. And the important thing to recognize about Medicare-for-all is that it’s not just about creating greater access to healthcare for people, but it’s also about sharing and redistributing the cost of healthcare. Here’s why that’s important. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the poorest people in this country are paying the greatest share on their healthcare. The richest folks are paying the tiniest share.
Brittany: So by dollar amounts, the richest people are paying the most money for their healthcare. This makes sense given that most of them can access the Cadillacs of healthcare, but what is also true is that the poorest Americans are paying on average 35% of their income on healthcare. This is astronomical, and the way that the statistics works is that there’s literally a direct inverse, so the lower your income is, the higher percentage you pay on healthcare, the higher your income is, the lower the percentage is you pay. This absolutely contribute to income inequality because if you have employer-paid healthcare, then your healthcare is considered a part of your compensation.
Brittany: If you remember applying for a new job, you’re not just talking about your salary or your wages, you’re also talking about your benefits. Those things are considered to be part of your compensation, and if the employer requires that you are paying a larger share of those hidden healthcare costs, then you are actually eating into your wages in a way that you’re not even realizing upfront. This can be even more difficult for people who already experience wage inequality, women, women of color, disabled people, disabled women, disabled women of color, et cetera. And so I wanted to bring this here because it feels little bit like a water is wet study, but in some ways, it actually is really illuminating when we think about the solutions that we have to have moving forward, that it’s not just a question of access, but it’s also a question of ensuring that the share of healthcare cost is distributed in a way that is equitable and fair.
Sam: What we hear from sort of the conservatives and the right-wing is this idea of, “Well, how are we going to pay for it? It’s going to be a massive amount of money to do Medicare-for-all or any of these healthcare plans, and we just don’t have the money to pay for it.” But what this data shows, Brittany, is that 35% of your total income, if you are in the lowest income decile, so, 35% of your income is already going to healthcare, so you’re already effectively being taxed a huge amount for healthcare. And then often, when you look at what you receive, the healthcare that you receive oftentimes is less good or allows you access to less quality healthcare options than folks who are paying much less proportion to their income at the higher end of the income spectrum.
Sam: So, the conversations about how we’re going to pay for healthcare have to take into account the amount that we’re already paying for healthcare, especially folks who are low income.
Clint: If you want to come back to 2009 with me, the Affordable Care Act sought to expand Medicaid’s reach by expanding eligibility to non-elderly adults with incomes at or below 138% of the federal poverty line. And if you remember why Medicaid expansion was intended to be a national endeavor, a national initiative, the 2012 Supreme Court ruling effectively made it optional for states. So as of January 2016, 19 states had not adopted the expansion, obviously, and we’ve been talking about this in terms of the midterms and in terms of local races because that has risen, made the stakes higher for who is in control of governorships and state legislatures because that’s almost 20 states that could pass Medicaid but have not and are not doing so largely because of the political orientations and ideological dispositions of the people in charge.
Clint: This is important because low-income households with Medicaid spend a smaller portion of their annual budget on healthcare as compared to non- Medicaid households. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that the difference in health spending when comparing low-income Medicaid households to low- income households with private insurance was pretty staggering in that those families in which every member of the family is covered on private insurance spent 10 times more on healthcare as compared to those on Medicaid. And this is largely because of the premiums that they have to pay that continue go up and up and up.
Clint: So, I think this is really important context for our national conversation about how we think about who deserves access … our notions of the efficacy of government sanction or federally subsidized healthcare because this has for the lowest income families for whom every dollar, every penny matters so, so much, the idea that one would spend 10 times more if you do not have access to Medicaid as compared to you having to be on private insurance is a huge number. That shapes whether or not you can pay your rent, that shapes whether or not you can keep your kids in school, that shapes whether or not you can have consistent food on your table. And so these things matter, and I’m glad you sent me down this rabbit hole, Brittany, because it gave me a lot of helpful context in order to better understand what’s happening right now.
DeRay: Another group that we don’t often talk about are seniors, and a lot of healthcare programs no longer have retiree health benefits. Three used to be a time where you worked for 30 years and you could still keep your health insurance or some semblance of the health insurance plan in retirement. And most of those programs don’t exist. And management would say it’s so costly especially because as you get older, often your medical needs are greater. So, people retire and then they are in a real disadvantage. And this made me think about the news, Brittany, because it’s something like almost seven million seniors couldn’t afford to pay for their prescribed medication in the past 12 months.
DeRay: And there’s another report that came out that found about 45% of Americans are afraid they will have to file for bankruptcy protection if faced with a major health crisis, which I thought was sort of wild in that in the past year, Americans reported borrowing an estimated 88 billion dollars to cover healthcare cost. And it was like, “Wow,” that is really incredible when you think about the number of people who are skipping medication and not going for a checkup. And it costs so much to deal with illnesses as they progress. And we actually just aren’t funding preventive medicine not only at like at the individual level but at the structural level with regard to healthcare.
DeRay: What I also didn’t know is that after housing, healthcare is likely to be one of your biggest retirement expenses. And housing made a lot of sense to me, but healthcare was something I just didn’t think about being the top two. So, I think all of this has made me think more about the structural impact of what it means that we don’t have a healthcare system that really is equitable and accessible.
Clint: For my news, I’m talking about an important piece that was written last week in the New York Times by Dr. Tera Hunter who’s a Professor of History and African- American studies at Princeton University.
Clint: Here in the DC area last week, we were celebrating the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, which celebrates how on April 16th, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill that emancipated enslaved people in the District of Columbia. Woohoo, that’s great, it’s amazing. The act is notable because it was the first time that the federal government authorized the abolition of slavery which hastened its demise in Virginia and Maryland as runaways and folks of color often fled to Washington in order to be free.
Clint: The thing about this is that what some people tend to forget about the measure is that to ease a slave owner’s pain, the act paid those loyal to the union who were willing to emancipate their slaves $300 for every enslaved person they free. Another way of putting this is that slave owners in DC received reparations while the emancipated enslaved people, the people who, to be clear, built the homes, plowed the land, planted the crops, and who built the wealth received nothing. And this is largely because Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War was anxious about preserving the alliance with slaveholders who was still loyal to the union. So, what became clear to Lincoln is that for him, the only way to persuade slave owners to release their slaves and keep them loyal to the union was to compensate them.
Clint: This put a lot of abolitionists though in a bit of a bind because while they welcomed the end to slavery, many were really offended by this idea that slaveholders rather than the emancipated enslaved people should be the ones who were payed for this and that such a transaction legitimized the right of people to own property in the first place. There’s a long history of slave owners being compensated for [inaudible 00:26:23] their slaves. And so, I think all of this is important historical context as we move forward with this national conversation on reparations and who deserves them and who doesn’t. And I think to have an honest conversation about it we have to be clear really about like who has already received them. And as Dr. Hunter points out in a way that I think many people often overlook, when enslaved people were emancipated in DC, it was the slave owners who got reparations and not the enslaved people.
Brittany: I think on its face, people could view this like, and please forgive the really awful comparison, but I heard some people talking about this almost as if it was like a gun buyback program. That you are trying to end something that you know is harmful and therefore you’re willing to do whatever it takes, including putting money in people’s hand for them to relinquish their property. But that undermines the fact that, A, people shouldn’t have ever been property in the first place, and B, that this payment in many ways operated as an absolution of the sin and the crime of owning people in the first place.
Brittany: When we think about the model of truth and reconciliation that we saw on display in South Africa, part of the requirement of the people who committed the atrocities, part of what they had to pay into that truth and reconciliation process is them actually telling the truth, is them actually owning the oppression that they created, that they promoted, that they perpetuated. And so we find that when it comes to not just the enslavement of African people, but frankly, race relations across the entire spectrum of American history, we’ve still not been told the truth. We’ve not been told the truth by so many people who are purporting to be reporting or teaching the truth. And so we have to think about this as more than just money invested to help in an unjust system. I think that Clint is absolutely right, we need to be thinking about who has already received reparations as we’re talking about this. But we also need to be thinking about all of the ways in which that money, irrespective of how much it was, actually has supposedly canceled the debt for so many people whose debt has not even been close to being repaid.
Sam: One of the things that I learned in the past couple weeks was from a study called The Intergenerational Effects of a Large Wealth Shock: White Southerners After the Civil War. And what they find is that even for those slaveholders who did not get compensated by the government in this way, we saw a massive level of wealth building after the Civil War for folks who owned slaves before the Civil War. And what the researchers find in this study is that folks who owned slaves, white slaveholders, in the 15 years after the Civil War, they were able to leverage their social networks, they were able to leverage really the proceeds of whiteness, right? Being able to continue to exist in a society that was still founded in racial equity and white supremacy. And leveraged those social connections and familial bonds. So, through marriage and through social networks to be able to completely rebuild their wealth in a period of 15 years after the Civil War.
Sam: And then, of course, once they had reconstituted their wealth after the Civil War, those white slaveholders, former slaveholders at that point, then used that social capital and those economic resources, that power to reimpose Jim Crow and the end of reconstruction and a racist regime in the South. And so, this is a really important time period to understand and to research because it is one in which the government not only allowed for the re-imposition of a white supremacist state in the South but also directly enabled it. And we have to recognize that a lot of the wealth frankly that people have today can be traced back to this time period when folks who already had money were essentially allowed to rebuild and keep that money and extend their influence for generations.
DeRay: Yeah, I’ll just say that it’s interesting when we talk about reparations in the public space. Today people are like, “It can’t be done, there’s no money, how could we do it,” and at every step of the way, we are always reminding people that we’ve done it before. It’s just a matter of commitment and will, it’s not a matter of other resources which is like what I’m always stuck with.
DeRay: The second is I’m struck here by all the things I didn’t learn in any schooling. I thought I went to a great college. I went to a good high school, I have smart friends. It’s like, “Why am I learning these things that are not insignificant?” Because it’s just a New York Times op-ed today? And the way that we’ve chosen to tell the story of resistance for sure and the story of how things actually transpired, we just haven’t cataloged these stories in ways that help us plan for the future.
DeRay: I believe that if we told these stories well as people are learning about history, they’d actually be in a better place to think about what we could do. They have a frame to imagine within that was just different than what we learn, but we learn that, you know, Lincoln freed the slaves maybe Juneteenth people got the message a little late, but the world became a better place. And it’s like, it was actually much more complicated, way more decisions and trade-offs took place in real life that actually could help us think about what we do want to repeat and what we don’t want to repeat. And I’m struck with that as we bout how we shift the balance of power.
DeRay: My news is about dentists, so we had some people talking about oral hygiene on the Pod not too long ago. I am fascinated by the science around dentistry and dentistry as a part of the health conversations, especially with people in low- income communities. There’s an article called the Truth About Dentistry in The Atlantic. It came out a while ago. And what I was fascinated by, what made me start thinking about this is that there are some dentists in low-income communities in the DC area, DC-Baltimore area, that have a really high rate of root canals. And what the article talks about are host of things.
DeRay: One is that there are a lot of dental procedures that just haven’t been scrutinized by science, and I thought that was interesting. So, there’s some things that we talked about in previous pods around things that we know works, so dental sealants, for instance. We talked about the plastics that go around teeth like nail polish, like molar, stuff like that. Especially with kids, they do actually reduce tooth decay in children and have no known risks, but there’s some things that haven’t been proven.
DeRay: So, fluoride in water, for instance, is one of those things that science says that really does help reduce tooth decay in children, but it’s unclear if it does, the same thing for adults. Even things like flossing. So, it is proven that it mitigates gum disease, but unclear if it has any relationship to combating plaque. And it made me think about how dentists, we just are like, “Dentist is a dentist. And it must work.” And it’s like, there’s an industry that makes so much money off of recommending services that you actually don’t need, but you don’t know any better, so what does it mean?
DeRay: And this article talks about one particular instance where somebody had a really high rate of charging people for procedures that were really expensive. So things like root canal, stuff like that, and in hindsight, it’s not clear that such a high proportion of people needed them. And this just made me think about a whole host of ways that you are a victim of a system that you just don’t understand but you trust.
Sam: Reading this I was reminded that some industries have a culture of using data for continuous accountability. So, everything that they do is data-driven and evidence-based, there’s data being collected, the data’s being used to make sure that whatever service or intervention or what have you is being provided is actually making the impact that you said it was going to make, and the data’s being used to hold people accountable to actually achieving the results that they’re saying that they’re achieving.
Sam: And in reading this, I became aware that dentistry is not one of those industries, that although they’re trying to work on this, it seems like so many of the most common treatments that are being provided do not appear to be driven by an understanding of what actually works to fix the problem and more so seemed to be driven by prophets. So more and more, I’m curious as to how these sort of cultures of data use and using data for accountability, like, how those cultures develop and are sustained. Why other aspects of the medical profession seem to be grounded in evidence and rigorous testing whereas dentistry does not appear to have that.
Clint: Yeah, I was truck by, in fact, I think it said 80% of dentists sort of run their own business and have their own dental centers. And they are not accountable to anyone. This is capitalism, so people often do unfortunately what is going to generate the most money for them, and oftentimes that comes at the expense of others.
DeRay: That’s the news.
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DeRay: And now my conversation with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist, policy expert, conservation strategist, and the founder and CEO of Ocean Collective.
DeRay: Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Ayana E Johnson: Thanks for having me.
Ayana E Johnson: Yeah, real big.
DeRay: You’re the ocean whisperer.
Ayana E Johnson: I wish.
DeRay: The conversation about climate change is probably more popular today than it’s been in the mainstream in a long time.
Ayana E Johnson: Yeah, thank goodness.
DeRay: We think about the Green New Deal and AOSC. We think about what Congress is sort of doing. What’s a part of the ocean space or the conservation space that you think doesn’t get talked about enough in public? Or that we could talk about more?
Ayana E Johnson: I think we don’t talk enough about how the ocean could be part of the solutions. So when I think about the Green New Deal, I think it’s great in concept, and what I would love to see as the policies are developed to implement it, I’d love to see the ocean be a big part of that because coastal ecosystems, wetlands, and marshes, mangroves, seagrasses-
DeRay: What’s a mangrove?
Ayana E Johnson: A mangrove is a tree whose roots are in salt water.
DeRay: Shut up.
Ayana E Johnson: Right on the coast. It’s pretty ridiculous, and they-
DeRay: Would I have seen that if I [crosstalk 00:38:12] starts to come out?
Ayana E Johnson: You can see them in Florida. So their feet are in salt water, but they are trees, shrubs and so and so they have this amazing essentially circulatory system where they can sweat out the excess salts. They don’t get dehydrated. And then occasionally they dump a lot of salt into one leaf and just drop the leaf.
DeRay: That’s cool.
Ayana E Johnson: And their roots are really important because they have these gnarly roots above the water that create all this habitat for juvenile fish. And they also filter runoff from shore and they buffer the coastline from storms. So, when we had that tsunami in Indonesia, the places that had mangroves along the coastline fared much better, and the places where those had been bulldozed for coastal development or shrimp aquaculture, those places were just totally decimated. So, having these coastal ecosystems there, and it’s the same for wetlands in New York City. New York City had like some hundreds of millions of dollars less damage because of the little bit of wetlands we have remaining.
DeRay: What’s a wetland?
Ayana E Johnson: A wetland is like a marsh-y swamp kind of thing. So all these coastal ecosystems can help protect us, and they also can absorb five times more carbon than a forest on land. And so it’s this amazing win-win, right? We need to sequester, we need to draw more of this carbon down out of the atmosphere, so coastal ecosystems can help us do that. And hey can protect us from the storms, which are getting more frequent and stronger because of climate change. So, it’s like this unsung solution to so many of our problems would be including the ocean in these discussions around policy for climate change.
DeRay: How do you explain the importance of the ocean to people live in the middle of the … People who don’t live around bodies of water? How do you talk about the ocean to those people?
Ayana E Johnson: That’s a scenario in which I’m really grateful for all of the wonderful filmmaking that’s happened, right? Because even people like me, it’s my job to know about what’s going on in the ocean, I haven’t been everywhere. So, even I rely on these documentaries to understand what’s happening below the surface. But everything is connected, so when we think about what’s happening with floods in the midwest that are so devastating to agriculture, and that means that the Midwest has lost topsoil that will take hundreds if not thousands of years to rebuild. And all that’s running down along with the fertilizer and the pesticides down the Mississippi to the Gulf and having massive impact on the ecosystems there.
Ayana E Johnson: And the same with plastic pollution that runs from land to the sea. There’s about a metric ton of plastic that runs into the ocean every four seconds, and that’s coming from land. It’s all coming from land. And when we want to eat seafood, we want the water to be healthy, we don’t want to eat fish that are full of pesticides and plastic, which is the direction we’re going. So, whether you just enjoy the beauty of the ocean in documentaries or you want to eat seafood or you want to go on a beach vacation one day or you want your kids to be able to, it all matters. Or you care about coastal communities and their protection from storm. But at like a very basic level, about half the oxygen that we breathe comes from tiny algae that live in the ocean.
Ayana E Johnson: Phytoplankton. Half. So, shoutout to rainforests, yeah. But it’s like phytoplankton that we should be thanking more often than we do.
DeRay: Whoa, I mean, that’s cool.
Ayana E Johnson: Yeah. There’s a-
DeRay: Those are all trees to me.
Ayana E Johnson: Ocean literacy is a thing that we are working to improve.
DeRay: Are there things that people can do in the communities besides like recycling? Or is this like a, is the battle really like a policy battle at like the national level or the state level maybe?
Ayana E Johnson: It’s all of the above. Obviously, in coastal state or cities, there’s a lot that can be done at the local level. I’m actually obsessed with the idea of urban ocean conservation because we always think of tropical stuff and coral reefs and the Arctic and dolphins, but New York City needs ocean conservation and so does LA and Miami. And so I’m actually working on launching a think tank for urban ocean policy because I feel like that’s this whole niche that’s unfilled when we think about this stuff, and cities can be such an important laboratory for policy at the state and federal level. It’s like any problem, it’s just like big and complicated and intertwined, so we have this push for beachfront property and coastal real estate leading to the destruction of coastal ecosystems and to massive wastewater and sewage problems that people often don’t want to talk about on these popular beaches.
Ayana E Johnson: We have eight billion people on the planet or almost, we’re getting close, and then in the US, 40% of people live in coastal counties. So, we really are a coastal country not just in this like coastal elite way, but that’s where a lot of Americans live.
DeRay: Right, right, right.
Ayana E Johnson: Not just in cities but in rural areas along the coastline, too, so it’s really important to figure out how we have a more balanced relationship with the sea.
DeRay: You spend, I imagine, a lot of time with policymakers and legislators and people with structural power. What are some of the misconceptions that you face in this work?
Ayana E Johnson: I think there’s just a lack of information more than misconception.
Ayana E Johnson: I think it’s just a lot of people don’t know a ton about the trade-offs inherent in the policy proposals, right? When I think about ocean zoning, I think about how can we designate different parts of the ocean for different activities so the same way as on land we have industrial and residential and park and agricultural areas we can do the same thing in the ocean so we actually have a plan for how ocean spaces used because an absence of a plan obviously there’s conflicting uses and it’s in the same space and they’re often not enough effort put into conservation because it’s not part of a larger plan.
DeRay: Is there somebody leading in the ocean zoning space? Or are you putting this out there as like where we need to go?
Ayana E Johnson: There are a bunch of organizations doing this work, one of which is the Waitt Institute that I used to be the executive director of.
DeRay: So Wait-
Ayana E Johnson: W-A-I-T-T.
DeRay: Waitt with two Ts.
Ayana E Johnson: Yes, after Tod Waitt, the Founder and Chairman. And so, that work in the Caribbean, in Barbuda, in Curacao, in Montserrat, and now in the Pacific is partnering with these local governments and communities to figure out what ocean zoning looks like for them, what kind of a plan could they come up with to use the ocean without using it up to do this conservation piece. And that was a really exciting program to help build, the Blue Halo Initiative because we were able to provide the tools that communities needed to make their own policy decisions, so the scientific research of what’s actually underwater. The GIS mapping tools so they could actually design their own plan, the legal support for policy drafting. And I found myself facilitating all of these community in town hall meetings to make sure that everyone had all the information and resources they needed.
Ayana E Johnson: I think that same kind of model of providing the tools and letting the community figure out what’s best for them obviously applies in all sorts of different scenarios, and it was really a gift to be able to apply some of those social practices to ocean conservation.
DeRay: Who owns some of the ocean property/
Ayana E Johnson: There are a few different answers. One is there are state waters out to three miles from shore, and then after that it’s federal waters. And each country has an ocean jurisdiction called an Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ, or EEZ, if you prefer, and that’s out to 200 miles from shore. But it’s less than that because you have to split the difference if there’s a country closer than 200 miles. So, in the Caribbean, because of all that string of islands, they all have these little wedges of Exclusive Economic Zones.
Ayana E Johnson: So, within that area, it’s yours to decide how you want fishing to be managed or any mining oil and gas to happen. And so individual countries have a lot of control over the waters that surrounds them, but two-thirds of the ocean is the high seas that nobody owns and that the UN is supposed to manage. And that’s really difficult.
DeRay: I also want to talk about environmental racism. How do you see that show up, if at all, when we think about conservation or the ocean work?
Ayana E Johnson: It shows up in the same way that it does on land with well-meaning white folks coming in and think they have the answers for communities. Thankfully, that has shifted a lot in the last few years, but there was this history of conservation groups coming in and saying, “We’ve determined that this place is very special and you should protect it and allow us to convince you that that is what you should do,” instead of saying, “Hey, what are your questions? You have any scientific questions we can help you answer? Do you need any help with it?” So that’s been a real problem, but I’m really happy to say that that is really shifting. People can’t really get away with that anymore so much.
Ayana E Johnson: And I think on another layer, it’s just not respecting the immense local knowledge that exists. If you go into a fishing community and start telling them about the ocean, that’s a recipe for embarrassing yourself, and so a lot of the work that I have done has been interviewing fisherman because they know more about the ocean than I ever will. I’ve learned a lot about the way the ocean used to be, so I’m really interested in understanding how things have changed and how that helps us understand how high we should be setting our goals for restoring the ocean. When I hear fisherman tell me stories about they used to go out for just two hours and their boat would be so full that they’d have to go back to shore or else they’d sink, they couldn’t catch a single additional fish. Those are the stories that I hear in contrast to what they describe as now they go out fishing, they spent all this money on gas, they didn’t catch anything and they have to figure out how to pay for McDonald’s for dinner or something because they have no fish.
DeRay: What do you … I mean, we obviously should rebuild whatever is causing the fish to die, but is there a way to, I don’t know, help out the ocean?
Ayana E Johnson: So what’s causing the fish to die is overfishing and pollution and now climate change is ruining the habitats like coral reefs where the fish live. And I think there’s a real conversation to be had around whether relying on wild fish at a global human population approaching eight billion makes any sense. We don’t do that on land, we don’t eat wild animals on land as our main source of protein. We would never assume that lions could keep up with our appetites, which is essentially what we’re assuming when we eat tuna because they are actually higher on the food chain than a lion. They would be like, whatever eats a dragon that eats a lion would be a tuna.
Ayana E Johnson: There are just so many levels of the food chain in the ocean starting from these little phytoplankton that produce half the oxygen we breathe. So I think we do need to turn to ocean farming, to aquaculture, to think about how to address food security needs in more sustainable ways.
DeRay: Ocean farming.
Ayana E Johnson: Ocean farming. And I think the shift in mentality that we need around that is not to farm tuna and salmon because they’re carnivorous fish that we need to feed them wild fish to the farmed fish, or they’re in the process of developing some insect-based plant-based proteins to feed them, but really, we should just be eating herbivorous fish. So just fish that eat plants, tilapia is one actually, and so thinking about that instead. And honestly more shellfish, more oysters and mussels and clams because they are filter feeders, they just filter the food, the nutrients they need right out of seawater, you don’t have to feed them anything. They actually improve water quality and create habitat while being a lower carbon footprint food than being vegan would be, eating shellfish like those. And then we should all be eating more seaweed.
Ayana E Johnson: Yeah. I love your face.
DeRay: I know. I’m like, “What? Seaweed? That’s so great.”
Ayana E Johnson: You’re like, “Impunity. I could eat all these oysters and feel great.” Seaweed is super high in protein and in minerals that a lot of people are deficient in like iodine. So more sea vegetables is like the rebrand that’s going on.
DeRay: See? I feel like that is such a like, you’re like, “A rebranded sea vegetables.”
Ayana E Johnson: Have you had your sea vegetables today?
DeRay: That’s great. So when you think, is ocean farming n using is ocean farming regenerative farming or are they two different things?
Ayana E Johnson: They both can be. So regenerative just basically means you’re leaving the ecosystem better than you found it. So, on land, that means restoring soil, having a healthier microbial community in the soil, building more topsoil, having more biodiversity in the soil and on the farm. And in the ocean, it means creating habitat, absorbing extra nutrients from the water. And actually, in both scenarios, making the ocean or the land healthier in the process of farming instead of the way we do it now which is very industrial agriculture really depletes these ecosystems. So, basically, regenerative is like one up above organic.
DeRay: Got it.
Ayana E Johnson: It’s like organic, fine. Don’t use pesticides, great. Like, baseline, everyone should be able to afford organic food and have access to it, but the next level is regenerative which is like, “How are we doing even better than just [crosstalk 00:52:13]?”
DeRay: Regenerative is like do good, any good.
Ayana E Johnson: Yeah. So that we can eat in the future without having to fertilize everything with industrial fertilizers made from fossil fuels.
DeRay: Do this so we can eat in the future. I like that. Everybody’s running for president on the left. Is there anybody whose approach to the ocean or the environment, climate change that you think is particularly strong? What am I supposed to be looking for when I think about the oceans or climate?
Ayana E Johnson: I think certainly their candidates’ reactions to the Green New Deal is a big one because we have to get to zero emissions, and what does that look like is the question, right?
DeRay: Can you explain for people who’ve heard zero emissions and they have no clue what that means but just smile?
Ayana E Johnson: It means we’re just not spewing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere anymore. Because we’re at this point with our climate where we actually need less of those things in the atmosphere, we just can’t keep putting more in. So figuring out zero emissions energy like wind and solar and wave energy can actually be part of it, too.
DeRay: Like ocean waves? Like the water?
Ayana E Johnson: Like ocean waves. We can harness the energy of the ocean.
DeRay: A wind farm I can see, solar panels I can see. I got to Google what wave-
Ayana E Johnson: They’re kind of like floating torpedo looking things. Definitely worth the Google.
DeRay: Have you seen one in real life?
Ayana E Johnson: I have not seen one in person. I’ve only seen pictures.
DeRay: I want to see one in real life. You know, one of the things that I think is common to all activists is like you know something really well, and you’re raw, sort of fighting to make sure we get to justice. How do you make sure that you stay fresh in the work?
Ayana E Johnson: I sometimes don’t read the news, I sometimes just take breaks from it. I actually stopped listening to podcast a few months ago because I realized that my entire day was just being bombarded by information. Waking up, reading the news, and in the shower listening to podcasts and walking around and listening to books on tape and Spotify and whatever, and you’re just like, “You don’t have any time to think.” So I think a big part of staying fresh is having just the mental space to think of things.
Ayana E Johnson: Another thing is that I don’t really hang out with a ton of ocean people, and so my inspiration comes from other social justice campaigns and movements and trying to learn lessons from the work that you and others are doing and bring those to ocean conservation.
DeRay: The two questions I ask everybody, one is there are a lot of people whose hope is challenged in this moment in the world, and they feel like they’ve done everything they’re supposed to do. They called, they emailed, they protested, they devoted and it all hasn’t changed in the way they thought it would. What do you say to those people?
Ayana E Johnson: I mean, I am one of those people, and I guess I am thankful that I don’t operate from hope. Hope is not what motivates me, it’s not what drives me. People always say, “You’re so optimistic, you’re so hopeful.” I’m like, “Actually, I read the science, and I’m not super hopeful.” But I am really driven by this desire to be useful, and so that’s what keeps me going. I just think of how can I be useful? And the answer to that will be different for everyone depending on, “What are your skills? What’s your network? How can you use your voice and your vote and your dollar and all these things add up?” Yeah, I just try to figure out how to be useful and remind myself that every 10th of a degree of warming that we avoid matters in dramatic ways for humankind. And every species we save matters. So, anything I can do to help, that’s what keeps me going. I think it would be more depressing to not do anything.
DeRay: The last question is what’s a piece of advice you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you?
Ayana E Johnson: Choose your battles. I learned this from my dad. I think in this moment in history where everything seems so urgent and terrifying and important, we have this tendency to stretch ourselves too thin, and I’m certainly guilty of that, but I think there’s a real opportunity to have a big impact if we really focus the work that we’re doing.
DeRay: Well, thank you so much for doing Pod Save the People, we consider you a friend of the Pod.
Ayana E Johnson: Thank you so much for having me.
DeRay: And now my interview with another Ayana, Ayana Young, Co-founder and Executive Director of For the Wild.
DeRay: Ayana, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Ayana Young: Thank you so much for having me, I’m really excited and looking forward to talking to you.
DeRay: You’re the Co-founder and Executive Director of For the Wild. And you also host the For the Wild podcast. How do you describe your work? How did you get into this work?
Ayana Young: I think that at some in my childhood, and I honestly think a lot of us feel this way, that something isn’t right here. We go to high school or we’re walking around the town that we grew up in, and there something wasn’t right. I remember passing oil extraction sites on the coast or looking at oil wells off in the ocean. Not that I really understood how resource extraction connected into this larger issue of global capitalism and climate change and the anthropocene extinction, but I had this intuition feeling.
Ayana Young: I didn’t really have a larger community or contacts to understand, but at some point, I thought that I needed to study the environment, and so I went to New York, I went to Columbia and started studying ecology and then the Occupy Wall Street movement broke out. I ended up meeting a dear best friend there, and we started the environmentalist solidarity working group at Occupy, and I was with him leading these hundred people marches and going to the Deutsche Bank lobby in downtown New York City and talking about these really subversive things around global capitalism and the environment. It was such an energetic time, and from that point, something clicked inside of me where I went full forward and dedicating myself to an exploration of how we got to where we’re at as humanity, as a culture, this Western dominant culture.
Ayana Young: Then I moved out to Northern Oregon, and I went from, you know, imagine very much urban girl, city girl, lived in cities and very populated areas all my life, and then I’m in this little cabin in Northern Oregon. And now I’m also working in conservation, restoration, really diving into that.
DeRay: What are some things about the environment that you think don’t get as much airtime, no pun intended, that should? What are some things that we should be talking about that we aren’t?
Ayana Young: One thing that totally shocked me was mining. I interviewed this incredible woman named Jacinda Mack who is Nuxalk from British Columbia, First Nations, and she was telling me about the gold mining on her traditional territories and the madness that is gold mining.
Ayana Young: Gold mining of 2019 is done with these huge machines that the tires are two- stories tall. They’re massive, so they’re just taking so much out of the earth. And the other thing to think about is that mining is a 90% waste industry. And so they use all this fresh water, they push it into the Earth, it comes out totally toxic, and then they put it in these things called tailings ponds which are basically like a swimming pool but not good-looking, they’re just these big swimming pools. Think about it. When it rains, it overflows, and all that toxic water spills into the land. Most of the time they do it on rivers, and most of the time even on the headwaters of the last salmon rivers on the planet.
Ayana Young: And so it gets into the water, it gets into the soil, all this toxicity actually gets uptaken by the plants, the bear eats it, the eagle eats it, the salmon eat it, the humans than eat from the ground, they eat the salmon. So, cancer rates are really high. And what I want to mention about this that I think people can really relate to is that a lot of what we’re sold in the environmental movement is the techno fixes. It’s like, “Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about your lifestyle because you can just plug your lifestyle into a renewable outlet and you can have solar panels and all is good. We don’t really have to worry about it as long as we just switch to a whole new industry that’s called renewable energy.”
Ayana Young: But let’s think about it. Let’s really break down a solar panel, let’s really break down a windmill, let’s break down any of these things, nuclear. And let’s just say solar. The minerals that actually create a solar panel, where do they come from? They come from territories like Jacinda Mack’s territory, and they pollute these incredible places that have the last biodiversity left on Earth. And then of course the raw materials go to factories. Who’s working in those factories? Are they slave labor? Probably. And then the way they’re shipped and all the fossil fuel that takes to even get the solar panel to your house.
Ayana Young: And I also want to say I have solar panels, I’m not sitting here on a high horse thinking that I’ve got it figured out. No. I just want to sit in the conundrum of it all. I want to actually sit in the truth and go, “Whoa.” We can’t just be sold theses solutions. And any solution that’s being sold, any solution that fits into consumerism is not a solution. We really have to be hyper-aware of these new industries that come on in and say, “Don’t worry about it, we’re going to save the environment, all you have to do is buy these new things.” Of course, even I feel the overwhelm talking about it, just like, “Holy moly. We really have a lot to handle,” but if we’re never going to look at it, if we’re never going to actually admit that it’s happening, we’re never going to do anything about it. So, it’s both [inaudible 01:02:00].
DeRay: How do you hook people into these issues who, this is not their passion, it’s yours?
Ayana Young: When we thinking, “Oh, these are environmental problems, these are social problems,” or, “This is social justice and this is environmental justice,” or, “This is climate justice.” But really, when you take a step back, it’s all connected. The economy is directly related to the resource extraction issue which is directly related to climate change which is directly related to the biodiversity loss and glaciers melting and so on and so forth. So, for me, it’s less about getting people to come over to my passion, it’s more about inviting and sparking the kindling of somebody else’s passion towards service. We need people on the ground everywhere, and we need people on the ground fighting for a multitude of issues but then also coming together and realizing that we can actually support each other.
DeRay: To that point, we know that climate change, for instance, has a greater impact on low-income and communities of color. And we know that a lot of the environmental outcomes actually skew that way. What can we do to to change those outcomes when it relates to race and class?
Ayana Young: One thing I think about is that we need to uplift leaders from those communities. And we need to uplift leaders of color who can actually come to the table and say, “Hey, this is how my community is affected, and these are the solutions that we need.” Because somebody creating a solution in Washington DC for a community enrichment, they don’t know. We can’t just have the higher-ups in the government or in corporations make decisions for these communities. And there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for every community. Then really looking at the source of how is this happening? And then, most of the times, there are incredible organizations that are local to these areas. And if you really care about these issues, go and just go to a meeting and say, “Hey, can I do the dishes? Hey, can I help clean the tables? Hey, can I just start supporting these people and leaders who have been at it for years? Decades? Decades upon decades?”
DeRay: One of the questions that I ask everybody is, what do you say to people who are losing hope in these moments, people who have done all the things they’re supposed to do, they protested, they called, they emailed, they ran for office, and the world isn’t changing in the way they thought it would? What do you say to those people?
Ayana Young: Let’s say you have your best friend or your lover or your mother, whoever, somebody very close to you, and they have a terminal illness. I’ll just put myself. If somebody close to me that I love very dearly have terminal illness, I wouldn’t be like, “Hey, you know what? You have a terminal illness, the doctors said to not have hope. So, I’m just going to leave you in the hospital, I hope you die nicely, but I’m going to go and live my life.” I look at it like that.
Ayana Young: Now, just put the planet in the case of the mother, the lover, the best friend or the daughter. Whoever it is. And for me, it’s like I hold the planet’s hand, the forest, the rivers, the ocean, the orcas, the sand. Whatever it is. Even like the community. If you’re in an urban setting, your park, your local community, your church. You can replace this with anybody. And I hold their hand and I say, “I love you. I love you regardless if you’re terminal or not. And I acknowledge what you’re going through, and I see my part in it and I am here.”
Ayana Young: Because we are the Earth, so that’s just true. Because I’m in relationship and because the way I show up in relationship is to be fully present and connected and I say, “I’m here for you,” it doesn’t matter how hopeless your situation is, I’m not running away. And that, to me, give me so much inner fire.
DeRay: And the last question is, what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you?
Ayana Young: One of my teachers, Joanna Macy, talks about something called Deep Time. And really being able to see generations out or a lot of indigenous peoples from Turtle Island talk about seven generations ahead. And so I think having this idea of deep time that we are just individuals coming on to this planet, depending if you believe in reincarnation, but at least for now, we have these short lives, very short in the deep time sense. So we can only do so much, but we’re going to be the most potent we can be if we take the time to care.
DeRay: Thanks so much for joining us on Pod Save the People. We can’t wait to hear more from you later.
Ayana Young: Awesome. Thank you so much for having me on today.
DeRay: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning into Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friend to check it out, make sure that you rate it, wherever you get your podcast, whether it’s Apple podcast or somewhere else. We’ll see you next week.