In This Episode
DeRay, Kaya, and De’Ara cover the underreported news of the week— including a national poll on racism, first two Black women in White House press corps honored with lifetime achievement awards, and New Yorkers who helped identify Brooklyn shooter in danger of being deported. DeRay interviews activist and CEO Topeka Sam about her organization The Ladies of Hope Ministries.
The Root of Haiti’s Misery:Reparations to Enslavers https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/20/world/americas/haiti-history-colonized-france.html
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, this is DeRay, and welcome to Pod Save the People. On this episode, it’s me, De’Ara and Kaya, talking about all the news that you don’t know from the past week, the news about race, injustice, and equity that went uncovered in the mainstream press, but that you should know about. Then I sat down to talk with Topeka Sam, a fearless activist and CEO of an organization called The Ladies of Hope Ministries, where she works to support women and girls who are impacted by the criminal justice system. We talk about a host of things. I learned a ton. She and I had gone on a tour of prisons in Germany before but hadn’t talked in a long time. Here we go. My advice is to speak it simple. I’ve said this before, but if you can’t convince your aunt, or if you can’t explain it to your aunt, you ain’t got it. Make sure you can explain it to your aunt.
De’Ara Balenger: Family! Welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People. It’s finally feeling like summer time. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @dearabalenger.
Kaya Henderson: I’m Kaya Henderson. You can find me on Twitter @hendersonkaya.
DeRay Mckesson: This is DeRay, @deray on Twitter.
De’Ara Balenger: So we, actually we were trying to figure out what our banter was going to be for this week, and DeRay and Kaya put me up on this New York Times article that goes through the vast history of how Haiti has gotten to where it has, not by itself, politically, socially, economically today.
Kaya Henderson: So this week, there is a beautiful and incredibly important article about Haiti in the New York Times called “The Ransom: The Root of Haiti’s Misery.” And the title is so appropriate. I had the chance to go to Haiti in, maybe a couple of years ago, three or four years ago, and I was excited to go because I wanted to understand what is wrong with Haiti? Why is Haiti in such bad shape? First of all, why do all of these climate things keep happening to Haiti? And why is Haiti so poor? Why is Haiti so devastated? Why can’t it lift itself up? And this article does all the things. It tells the history, as it is called “The roots of Haiti’s misery are reparations to enslavers.” And what this article does as it goes through the history of the Haitian Revolution, but more importantly, it surfaces what I would say is not a widely known fact about the history of Haiti, and that is that in order to stay free as an independent Black republic, Haiti had to pay reparations to the French for the land and resources that France, quote unquote, “lost” in the Haitian revolution, otherwise be faced with another war. And what makes this article so bananas is it actually calculates, these reporters have gone back and searched through a whole bunch of documents and ledgers and reports to figure out exactly how much Haiti paid. Not just the staggering amount that France demanded, but then interest, loans, continued outflows of capital, that were more than Haiti could ever get out from under. And it also talks about how the Haitian reparation payments actually fueled France, fueled the French banking industry, built the Eiffel Tower, created the wealth of what we now know as Citigroup, and created a cycle of underdevelopment where Haiti just kept having to borrow and kept having to borrow. And it begins to answer a lot of questions. I’ll say one more thing, one of my, one of the things that I learned most when I went to Haiti–and and this article does a good job of of illuminating this–is how the world was so afraid. First of all, Haiti was probably one of the most prosperous, the most prosperous colony in the world at the time. Haiti had coffee and gold and sugar and diamonds and all kinds of things. But people were so worried that other colonies, especially Black people, were going to look at the example of Haiti and rise up and overthrow all of these white folks that the world conspired to freeze Haiti out. Nobody would trade with Haiti. You think about the Cuban embargo, this was the Cuban embargo on steroids. Nobody, you know, Haitians had to pay this reparations. Literally nobody, the world decided we are not going to do, we’re not going to recognize, we’re not going to mess with Haiti at all. And part of that is why southern slavery was so brutal, because if you think about the Louisiana territory, that was French, and those French people who lost their stuff in Haiti came on up the road a piece, and they were like, we got to make sure that this stuff doesn’t happen again, so whatever we did in Haiti was not brutal enough for these Black people, we got to do worse and more. And this is in part why Southern slavery was so bad. I mean, there are so many parallels and connections to the Haitian Revolution, to world history, that we do not learn in school. Y’all, let me tell you. And this article is spilling all the tea.
De’Ara Balenger: What it also reminds me of, Kaya, is something else that doesn’t get talked about, is that even in America with the emancipation, slave owners were paid. So there was an accompanying Emancipation Act that paid folks $300 per enslaved person. And I’m just finding in The Washington Post, the highest payout was $18,000, but $18,000 in 1863, which is a ton of money, that the U.S. government paid out to slave owners to “ease their pain.”
Kaya Henderson: Reparations okay for everybody else, but not for us, huh?
De’Ara Balenger: Everybody else, everybody else. Everybody else.
DeRay Mckesson: It is so wild too, I will just say, so The New York Times article was very good. There’s been there’s a robust conversation online about people didn’t accuse The New York Times of plagiarizing outright so much as they did of just not citing the sources. That there were a lot of scholars who had told parts of these stories at some point and were not acknowledged in the piece. So I just want to say that out loud. But what I will say is one of the things that I didn’t appreciate until I went to Haiti, and I went not too long ago too, is the nationalization of so much of the basics, like water. Like there are companies, like a few companies that own all the bottled water. Like the access to basic things were, really changed after the revolution and France deciding to bankrupt the country. And the other is how much of this storytelling matters? I think this is something that I think about a lot in the organizing role, that the story shapes the way we think about the lessons. And the story of Haiti for so many people is like: failed people, can’t get their government together, like, underdeveloped because they don’t have the will or the skill, uncivilized–like, that’s what people think. And you’re like, No, this is a country that was made to fail. Country that had incredible resources, a country that, in exchange for its own freedom, was relegated to poverty that was not the condition of the country before France bankrupted it. And in some ways, in a lot of ways, was punished for being better fighters than the French. You know, what the Haitians did that was so brilliant is that they lured the French into the middle of the country, and there’s like a glorious space where they fought the battle and those French people had no clue what to do with all the mountains and hills ion Haiti. The Haitians got them, you know? And for Napoleon to be such a celebrated war hero, da, da, da –couldn’t beat the Haitians.
Kaya Henderson: He got handed his booty worse than Waterloo, which was his ultimate defeat.
DeRay Mckesson: He got handed it, but that was not the story that was told. And if you think the Haitian people screwed up, and therefore the country is experiencing cholera and sanitation issues and poverty and da, da, da, then you don’t realize everybody else’s responsibility to help fix it at this point. But when you realize they were robbed, and that robbing is what funded the French culture blossoming all across the world, that is a different story.
Kaya Henderson: Yeah, there’s so much here. I mean, the payments that the Haitians made were supposed to go to individual property owners, but The Times found that a lot of this money actually went to the French government itself. Right? And they interview all of these, like European, members of European royal families who are like, Oh, I didn’t know our money came from Haiti! It’s so like, literally, it’s astounding how cavalier we are about the fact that like the world literally, like beat this country, and beat this country into submission, all because Black people rose up and we wanted freedom. And I think this reminds us that the price of freedom is high. It reminds us that there are not individual instances where people just want their little individual stuff back. This is what systemic racism looks like.
De’Ara Balenger: All right, y’all. My news today is about the first two Black women in the White House press corps, and they were honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards. Now, let me say this, they have transitioned. So I think that these awards may be a little bit late, but here we are. So Alice Dunnigan, who is a Kentucky-born granddaughter of enslaved folks, was determined to fulfill her dream of becoming a journalist. And by the time she reached her thirties, Dunnigan had a regular column for a local paper, but she wanted more. She landed herself a job in Washington, D.C., writing for the Associated Negro Press, a wire service for Black-owned papers. And in 1947, she became the first woman African American writer–reporter rather–that was credentialed to cover the white house. Now, Ethel Payne, who had a slightly different path to journalism, she was denied admission to law school because of being Black. And this is a quote that her nephew actually said that really, really stuck with me, said this about his his Aunt Ethel: You couldn’t control your opportunities back then, so you had to be prepared for whatever opportunity came along. And writing for her always came natural and so that really led her into a career of journalism. In 1951, Ethel was hired as a Washington reporter for The Chicago Defender, one of the country’s leading Black newspapers at the time. And so I first of all, I never heard of either of these incredible women and so wanted to bring it to the pod, because there’s also kind of a video accompaniment that comes with this that you all can check out. And it has more about their stories, but also some perspectives from their family. Both of these women were honored by the White House Correspondents Association. They, unfortunately, Miss Dunnigan died in 1983, Miss Payne in 1991, but their families accepted the award on their behalf. Now, the really, really, really cool thing about Ethel Payne is that in 1954, two months after Brown versus Board of Education, she demanded to know whether Eisenhower would support a ban on segregation in interstate travel. So literally, like in a press conference with President Eisenhower, she rose her hand and said, “I’d like to know if we could assume that we have the administration’s support in getting action on this.” Eisenhower responded, “Well, I don’t know what right you say that you have to administration support.” [sighs] “The administration is trying to do what it believes to be decent and just in this country.” So that moment really sparked headlines. But yeah, just check it out. You know, I just, this is my first learning about them. Obviously won’t be forgotten. We’ll dig into more dig into more about, you know, about these incredible women and their careers.
Kaya Henderson: Thanks for bringing this to the pod, De’Ara. This was super interesting. Hidden figures for sure. I hadn’t heard of either of these ladies. But they, you know, we always say things like we stand on the shoulders of giants, and I think about how, you know, Black women, we do the things, we do all the things, even when we’re not supposed to, when people say we can’t. And there are pioneers like this in almost every industry. But I was reading another article about Dunnigan, and not only does she ask about the ban on segregation, she also asked him about segregated schools on military bases in the South, and she asked Eisenhower about his overall support of civil rights legislation, and apparently the president stopped calling on these two women at his press conferences, right? In 1961, during President John F Kennedy’s first news conference, his first news conference, Dunnigan asked about Black sharecroppers who are being evicted from their land in Tennessee simply for registering to vote. And Jet magazine reported that that was the first time Dunnigan had been called on for two years. Like two years! Can you imagine sitting in the White House press corps and not getting called on for two years? And it brought, it reminded me of the moment when former President Trump tried to get jiggy with Yamiche Alcindor, another amazing African-American woman journalist who was in the press corps, and when she asked some questions that he didn’t like, he said some things a little sideways. And so, you know, I think about Yamiche, who’s a fellow Hoya–Hoya Sexa–and I think about other Black women journalists, April Ryan, and other people who are out here asking the hard questions and doing the hard thing, and we can see a through line from Dunnigan and Payne pain to these ladies who are doing it today. And that made me happy.
DeRay Mckesson: The other story about Dunnigan that I thought was fascinating is that in 1953, she was barred from covering a speech by Eisenhower in a whites-only theater and was forced to sit with the servants to cover Robert Taft’s funeral. The stuff that Black people have had to go through to, like, just do their best is just so wild. And it is one of those things, I’m telling you, when we talk about white supremacy and I worry sometimes that it becomes, for a lot of people, like bad vibes. Like not evil behaviors, but bad vibes. Like, no, this is evil. Like, just evil. And people still did their best work, you know, like still did things that other people couldn’t do during that time. But it was cool, it was cool to read this. And, you know, I didn’t know that that Dunnigan actually went to go serve in Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign for the Democratic nomination and then worked in the Johnson administration. So there was an acknowledgment around her skills and she got to work in the White House, or in administration in a moment where that was definitely not the norm for people. So shout out to these unsung heroes.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
Kaya Henderson: My news this week is about the state of the family. Y’all, Black America is not okay. You probably already knew that, but I got some numbers for you to back it up. Washington Post and Ipsos did a poll last, a poll after last week’s horrific, what I’m calling racial massacre, right? It wasn’t a shooting, it was a massacre at a Buffalo supermarket. And this poll sheds deep insights on how Black Americans are feeling right now. So here’s the numbers. This is just by the numbers, three quarters of African-Americans worry that they or someone that they love will be attacked because of their race. Most Black Americans were saddened and angered by what happened in Buffalo, but 92% said they were not surprised. In fact, many Black people see racism as one of our greatest threats. 53% think it will get worse in their lifetimes, and only 10% think it will get better. That’s a little bit of Afro pessimism stuff that we were talking about a couple of weeks ago on the pod. In fact, Black Americans see the Buffalo shooting as reflective of broader racism in the country, not as a fringe attack or an individual with mental health issues, which is what some politicians try to sell it as. 70% think that at least half of white Americans hold white supremacist beliefs. 70%. 75% say white supremacists are a major threat to Black Americans. And 66% say white supremacy is a bigger problem today than it was five years ago. Black people are worried about hate crimes. And when asked, Why do you think people commit hate crimes against Black people? Black people say a whole bunch of reasons. 63% say access to guns contributes greatly. 57% say personal and family upbringing. Who raised y’all? 52% say social media contributes. 47% say blaming Black people for their problems is a reason. 46% say political leaders. 45% say not enough teaching of tolerance in schools. And other reasons cited include mental health issues, lack of personal connections to Black people, and cable news. Two years after George Floyd’s murder, 80% of Black Americans say there has been little to no improvement in how police treat Black people. While acknowledging small steps in the right direction, many Black folks believe criticism of critical race theory, gerrymandering, and other culture wars are all a backlash to the kind of attention in the Black Lives Matter movement that we started to pay after the murder of George Floyd. In fact, one contributor to the article said that people seem bolder than even before and making clear their anti-Black racism. 65% of Black Americans say it’s a bad time to be Black in America, y’all. 84 to 86% see racism, gun violence, and police brutality as major threats, even before Buffalo. When asked to, how we solve crime in Black communities, 72% say we should increase police officers, 86% say we need more funding for economic opportunities, 68% say violence interruption would be helpful, 61% say increasing prison sentences for gun crimes would be helpful. The truth of the matter is, though, most Black folks are feeling pretty hopeless right now about what it means to be Black in America. In fact, one young lady from Baltimore summed it up by saying, “I don’t believe there will ever be a solution for it.”
DeRay Mckesson: I think the thing that, you know, we’ve seen these sort of attacks, unfortunately, not too long ago, and the thing that I’ve been in conversations with on my actual life, like not on the Internet alone, is just how chill the police were afterwards when he walked out. And not that I’m advocating for them to have shot him and killed him, but they were really calm. You know, he just killed ten people in a grocery store and they were just chill. And that is, you know, Black people have been killed for looking like they did something wrong. The other thing that is, you know, that actually I only saw on like The Shade Room and Neighborhood Talk was about the 911 caller.
Kaya Henderson: Boom. Yes, say it, honey.
DeRay Mckesson: When she called 911 and the 911 operator hung up on her because she was whispering–
Kaya Henderson: Hung up.
DeRay Mckesson: –I was like, I mean, you know, this is my work all day, and I’m like–
Kaya Henderson: [in a sing-song voice] She about to lose her job, she about to lose her job.
DeRay Mckesson: She is. But it’s like you see why people don’t believe. I mean, this is like a capstone in why people don’t believe. Not only did the police not interact in the way you thought they were, but the 911 people didn’t think you were serious?! I mean . . .
Kaya Henderson: He was whispering because the shooter was in the place and she was trying not to get shot and the lady hung up on her.
DeRay Mckesson: I didn’t see that, literally if not for Instagram, I would not have even known that happened because that was not the story. And, you know, it was, people said this so I wasn’t the first say it, but we talked about, the news talked about Will Smith’s smack way longer–
Kaya Henderson: Longer than–that’s right. That is absolutely right.
DeRay Mckesson: –than this. This boy wrote a manifesto saying he was a white supremacist. He, all the things that like, he really is taking out any type of interpretation about his intent.
Kaya Henderson: He also planned to go to a second place and shoot up some more people. He got, I mean, he’d been planning this thing for weeks. He had done a reconnaissance trip to go check it out and all of the things. Like . . .
DeRay Mckesson: And then there was one of those local officials was like domestic, this isn’t domestic terrorism. And you’re like, whiteness is really something else. And, you know, I get it on this one, because if y’all can’t, if we can agree that this is white supremacy, then I don’t know what is.
De’Ara Balenger: I just, what are we supposed to do with this data, though? I mean, I think, I just, I think it just becomes so heavy sometimes. And I am a privileged person that can travel and go places and I think get somewhat of a relief, but I think for the, for the great majority of us, it’s like, what is the recourse? Like is the young woman from Baltimore right? Like, is just it’s never going to get better. So I think that’s what, I feel like every now and then it just comes over me that I’m just like, what are we supposed to do with all of this? And especially something that’s not actually, it’s not our problem. It’s somebody else’s problem, and yet we got to deal with it.
Kaya Henderson: I think that part of the reason why I brought these numbers to the podcast is because I don’t think that we, I think individually–I can only speak for myself–but as Black people, I think we have a collective sense of, you know, sadness and grief and depression when these things happen. I don’t think that other people deeply understand how affected we are by these things. I don’t live anywhere near Buffalo, but I am been to the grocery store since last week, for real, right? And I don’t think that people understand how this impacts our work everyday. Like 70%, 80% of people who feel like it’s a bad time to be Black in America, but you want us to work like everything is okay, and you want us to show up like it’s all good when, like, collectively, we feel a full-out assault on us as people, that going the grocery store could get us killed, that going to church could get us killed. And you treat that killer to Burger King? Like, we can’t walk down the street without accidentally getting arrested and shot by the police, but you want it to be all right. And I brought these numbers because I think people need to deeply understand how depressed, how anxious, how grieving the Black community is. And every day we get up and we do the thing, right? Every day we trail-blaze. Every day we, you know, create your culture. Every day we make your music. Every day we are asking your president hard questions. Every day we’re fighting crime. Right? We are hurt as a people. And I mean, I don’t what do we do with it? I don’t know. But I think acknowledging it is part of the process.
DeRay Mckesson: So my news is about the subway shooter. So most people remember a couple of weeks ago there’s a shooter in Brooklyn who shot a set of people on the train in the middle of the morning, and then there was a manhunt across the city trying to look for the shooter. The shooter, as perhaps one of the best examples about how the police don’t solve crimes, the shooter called the police department himself and told them where he was. And then there were people who did see him and helped to turn him in. So you already know that story. But what I didn’t know is that at least one of the people who helped to identify him and turn him in is actually in trouble now for participating and helping turn him in. There’s a woman who is 37. Her last name is Flores, Miss Flores. She was dropping her young daughter off at school and she got on the train. She on the N train at 59th Street, she was headed uptown, and she got on a second car because she was pregnant and tired, and she wanted to sit down. And soon she realized that she was where the shooter was and she shared recordings with the police that helped them figure out who he was. And then people started to realize, or like they found out that she was undocumented. Deported. She’s under threat of being deported because of this. So there are pushes for the city, for New York City, to help them, help her get a visa. There were other people, too, who also had, did not have full immigration status or weren’t completely through the process, who have been, who are relying on the city now to help them navigate the system. And I’m hoping that the city will do the right thing and help them through this, and will help them apply for a visa. And, you know, that’ll be it. But it was just so interesting to me because these are people who like ostensibly did the right thing, who really helped, who thought, and to then think about being deported for, when you could have been quiet and done nothing, I just, I wanted to bring that here because it shows to me how A, we have a problem with immigration, the process and reform. We need to do better. The system needs to work quicker. I’ve seen people, I know some people have been going through the process for years. And it’s like, you know, I think about the Ukraine. We let a whole lot of people come in the country from Ukraine in 10 seconds, and how we don’t see that sort of quickness happen with immigrants of color. And this is sort of the book end of the New York City subway shooter story to me.
Kaya Henderson: Yeah, one of the other people who helped was a guy named Francisco Puebla, another undocumented immigrant who was installing security cameras when the subway shooter walked by. He’s a manager at a hardware and garden store, and he saw the dude walk by. They called the police and the dude was arrested. Do you know who his best friend in jail is? Let me pause parenthetically–R Kelly. But that’s a whole different story. Anyway Francisco was, is partly responsible for getting the dude off the street and he too is in immigration trouble. The thing that, like the soundtrack that keeps playing to me behind this story, is “Immigrants, we get the job done” from Hamilton. Like we are a nation that was built on, that continues to be built on the hard work of immigrants. And this is just, like this is, this is like–what’s the expression? Like. a bridge too far or something, the straw that broke–like, this is too much, right? These people helped thwart a, you know, a situation that had all of New York City up in arms, and we want to deport them? Like, what kind of wretched country are we? Maybe I shouldn’t say that.
De’Ara Balenger: Also this is like, well it’s also just like this this can be solved at like a New York City-level, right? So it’s like New York City law enforcement is involved in immigration. It looks like the mayor’s office is involved in immigration. So I think it’s also what is happening in this very resourced city that, Kaya, your point, is powered by the immigrant community. Many immigrant communities! Like there’s a, it says here that, you know, New York City is able to give out 10,000 of these U-visas annually, but there’s a five-year backlog. Why, y’all? A five-year backlog, in New York City. So I think partly this is just like, this is, I mean, first of all, it’s like, you know, these folks should go to the top of the line in terms of, you know, who can get status, but it’s just also, like it just seems, what this is surfacing is New York City’s problem in actually processing and evaluating and making sure that people can seek, you know, immigration status as soon as possible. And I didn’t realize that. The mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, they denied 407 applications, 264 were referred to other agencies. Like what other agencies? Like what is, what is the system? So I guess that’s just like kind of, you know, compelling me to figure out more about how New York City and how the mayor’s office and this administration plans to address, you know, basically reforming immigration, or getting immigration to move faster even in New York City.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere, more Pod Save the People is coming.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: I’m so pumped to talk to Topeka Sam and I’m so excited that you get to hear from her. I’ve known Topeka for a while now. Topeka was formerly incarcerated, got out, and now runs an incredible organization that helps women and girls who are impacted by the criminal justice system. You got to hear it. You’ll learn. I learned. She is it. Here we go.
DeRay Mckesson: Topeka Sam, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Topeka Sam: Thank you, DeRay. I’m so happy to FINALLY be here.
DeRay Mckesson: Now we go way back to visiting prisons in Germany, which was probably the most random criminal justice field trip I’ve ever been on in my entire life. But before we talk about that, can you talk about what is your story? How did you get involved in work around ending mass incarceration? Why is this your issue? Why do you care?
Topeka Sam: All of the things. Well, I got involved with ending poverty and incarceration of women and girls, which is my epic life’s vision through my own experience of being incarcerated in federal prison for three years. And while I was there, I saw all of the disparities that women suffered and faced, from me going to visit men who had been in prison throughout my life. To then, me living in a prison. I saw where women were being sentenced harsher for the same crimes. Where women were mothers, 85% of all women who are incarcerated were mothers of dependent children, young children. Where whether women were poor, Black, brown, or white, or come from affluent backgrounds, socio-economic advancement, education, it didn’t matter, that there were the same underlying issues of sexual trauma, violence, substance misuse, intimate partner violence and all these different state violences against women. And so I was there one night in my meditation. God spoke to me, and told me I need to start an organization called The Ladies of Hope Ministries to do two things, create platforms for women to be able to use their voice, to share their experience, to change what was happening for women in prison, because I felt that if people saw the faces of women and heard the voices of women in prison, that there would not be such an uptick, a 800% increase of women in prison over the last two decades. And for me to create safe, affordable, and beautiful housing for women and girls when they come home from prison. And so I was released May 5th, 2015, and began running around the country organizing, meeting people, and hearing the same issues: no affordable housing, lack of access to quality health care, couldn’t get food, jobs, equitable opportunities, employment–just all the things. And so I created the organization in 2017, and the rest is history, or herstory, I should say.
DeRay Mckesson: Or hertory! What are the biggest misconceptions? You know, you talk about incarceration, this is your work now. You have lived experience. I have to imagine that you’re around people who say things that are off, that they just don’t know any better, that they don’t understand–like what are some of the misconceptions in the work that you experience often?
Topeka Sam: Well, one, I think people feel, you know, once you’re–I’m using their language–once a felon or once a criminal, always a felon, always a criminal. I think that people they say, you know, in theory that the system is supposed to rehabilitate or change one’s life. We know that they’re punitive, they’re racist, and it is systemic. But still, when people come home from prison, they don’t say, Well, this person has paid their debt, and now that they should have an opportunity to truly transform their life, for that, for themselves, their children, and their communities. And so it’s hard because I am a woman, a Black woman, and a previously-incarcerated Black woman, so we are the least thought about when it comes to our abilities to build something massive, to really dismantle a system that disproportionately impacts us. And so every day, you know, I have to share my experience in a way where people, you know, for me, I feel like they romanticize about what it’s like to be in prison, but then, you know, you do that, you’re not compensated the way that you should in order to truly make the changes that we need to make.
DeRay Mckesson: You are pardoned. That is, I got it right, right?
Topeka Sam: Yes. I was.
DeRay Mckesson: I’m like, did I screw it up. You were pardoned? Can you help people understand what is a pardon? What does it mean that you, because you were already out of incarceration, what does it mean that you were pardoned?
Topeka Sam: So what it says basically–you’re funny–my, I guess when I was sent to, or when I was charged, it’s the United States of America versus Topeka Kimberly Sam. That’s how it’s listed. And so, you know, they, you have all these barriers, I think it’s over 44,000 barriers to people in reentry. Something as simple as if I wanted to, you know, maybe go into cosmetology, there’s difficulty getting a license because you have a conviction. If I wanted to practice law–all of these things, new careers I couldn’t do. If I wanted to vote in certain states, I could not vote because of this conviction. If I wanted to purchase a firearm, I couldn’t do that. And so there, you know, if I wanted to go to a PTA meeting at a school, you know, certain places where they don’t allow you if you have convictions. So it’s all these different things. What a pardon does it totally restores your rights. So if I lived in a state where I could not vote, I could vote. If I wanted to purchase a firearm, then I could. If I wanted to now apply for different types of licenses or licensures, I could, and would not have to go to the board, you know, explain my situation and all the things. I could go back to school. You know, in many states we still have the box that people have to check around education. And so it’s many, many things that this allows me to do. Even when I go out of the country, I used to get stopped every single time coming back and harassed. I once I was actually made to strip search and I told them, No, I wasn’t doing it. You know, I had to get a supervisor and go through all this. It does not expunge the conviction. The conviction is always there, but it does state that in the country or in the government per law, that I’ve been fully redeemed, if you will.
DeRay Mckesson: Topeka, what is, what’s your work these days like? What is your day to day, like what do you, what is your work in the world?
Topeka Sam: So what we do at The Ladies of Hope Ministries, we fight to end poverty and incarceration of women and girls globally. And we do that through two buckets. One is direct services for sustainability, and the other bucket is advocacy and engagement. We came to that because what we know is we cannot fight for anyone else or ourselves if our basic human rights are not met, which is: safe and affordable housing, access to healthy food and equitable opportunity and job, career growth focused, career opportunity and entrepreneurship training and development, and access to quality health care. And so our programs, those four are housing, we have Hope House in New York, in the Bronx, in Louisiana, New Orleans. We’re building our first 20-unit affordable housing project in Miami, Florida. And we’re also doing our first Hope Hub, which is a shared space to bring community-based organizations, corporations, and other providers into one space. And then another house in Prince George’s County, Maryland. And also in Trinidad and Tobago. We just finished our four-apartment structure, two bedrooms in each unit, to bring women out of the prison who have been detained and kept there without being convicted of a crime into Hope House Trinidad. And so that’s our housing to date. Then we do our food insecurity program. We have our Pathways 4 Equity program, which is a growth focused opportunity, partnering with employer partners to make sure that women have opportunities in corporate America. We have our doula initiative where we provide health care services and train women on prenatal pregnancy and postpartum doula certification and lactation certification for women who are presently incarcerated, and women in community who want alternative birth practices. And then we have our Faces of Women Imprisoned program, which is a global speaker’s bureau for women to use their voice to get paid as public speakers. And our EPIC Ambassadors work, which trains women on the legislative process, how to draft legislation, partner with local elected officials, pass bills and become lobbyists. So those are all the programs.
DeRay Mckesson: There is no shortage of work happening over there at The Ladies of Hope Ministry.
Topeka Sam: So we’re actually hiring right now.
DeRay Mckesson: Got to be, because y’all are doing it from the rooter to the tooter, as grandma would say.
Topeka Sam: And back again.
DeRay Mckesson: Let them know. Let them know. And back again. How do people find, how do people find the housing?
Topeka Sam: So typically it’s through the prisons. So what will happened, we do in-reach. We have our EPIC Inside where we in-reach and meet with the case managers, reentry coordinators. It’s other people, it’s other people who also have, let’s say, community-based organizations that know about our work. It’s word of mouth. People who’ve been through the program who say, Hey, we know a house that you can go to. Legal defense funds, public defenders, probation officers, so community. That’s how they hear about us. If we have availability, then we will have them come and stay with us. If not, then we will refer them to another partner who we believe is something, or program that they can really use and benefit from.
DeRay Mckesson: And you know, what was the heart–I’m so interested–what was the hardest to set up? Like what, there’s so much work that you do. Was housing hard, was that the hardest piece? Was it the fellowship, prep, the policy piece? You know, and I ask because there’s so many, there’s so many mythologies around reentry work or incarcerated populate, formerly incarcerated populations, and I’d love to know, like I’d love to hear you talk about what it was like to set some of this stuff up.
Topeka Sam: Yeah, housing definitely is, well, we can start from just the organization in and of itself is difficult because you got to raise money to run it, right? It’s a nonprofit. So it’s that. It’s the huge sacrifice it takes, and the constant trauma that we have to go through to tell these stories, right, to get someone to provide resources in order for us to do a thing that they know needs to be done. So that in and of itself, the most challenging and draining experience each and every day. Outside of that housing, I think, is the number one barrier to any person who wants to be able to have somewhere safe to live, but when you are opening a house in a community, a residential community often, where there are homeowners, people say, Hey, this is great work, but not in our backyard. And when we came into the Bronx, at first it was, oh, we came in, met the landlord, told them what we were going to do. She was supportive, of course, gave us the lease, got the house together, did an open house, and when the neighbors heard what we were doing, it was like a witch hunt, right. It was so fascinating to me because all we’re in the Bronx and we live in a community that is predominantly of color, it was like this idea that you shouldn’t be here. I mean, one of the neighbors said she had a boyfriend who is in prison, but she didn’t want women in prison living in her neighborhood. Another woman said that she didn’t want the women to come mess with her husband. And I’m like, wait, what? Is like is it really a fear of yours? Nobody wants your husband and if they did, you need to check your husband, you know? It was all of these things. But we have to fight. We have to fight the elected officials. Senator Klein at the time was in there, they did the entire which hunt, said “no hope for Hope House” at the community board meeting.
DeRay Mckesson: No!
Topeka Sam: Yes. It was insane, okay? But we fought and we stayed. And, you know, eventually they became good neighbors because they realized, one, that we weren’t going anywhere. Two, that we were not an issue, we wanted to have a beautiful place to live, just like they did, right? And they’ve apologized since, and it’s, you know, it’s been all good. But what I did learn moving forward was when we went to New Orleans, a similar situation happened but we had a relationship with the mayor and another community-based organization that had their footing there, and so the mayor immediately came on a call with us, with the neighbors, and they simmered down quickly.
DeRay Mckesson: In what has been, when you look back on setting all of this up, is there anything that you–I mean, besides just the organization–that you dreamt about and you were like, okay, I’m like, I want us to pull this off. I don’t know if we can, but we’re going to like, I want us to nail it. And then you did it and you’re like, Oh my God, we did this thing that people said we couldn’t do! What’s one of those?
Topeka Sam: You know, to be honest, nothing. Everything that I’ve ever put my mind to, I knew that I could do. And that just goes to, you know, my upbringing, my parents, and what they showed us growing up. You know, they were entrepreneurs and it was if you want to do something, you could get it. You know, hard work and determination does that. I also believe that this was my calling and my purpose and so I knew that God would equip me what I needed in order to do this work. And so, you know, I knew there would be challenges along the way. And what I did not know that I would be doing so much so quickly. Right> I can say that. Every time we do a program launch and it successfully graduates, people, it’s exciting. You know, every time I meet sisters and they’re like, Thank you so much for this opportunity, you saved my life. Or people who are in prison and they call and say, You know what, we saw you on the news or we saw you on TV, or congratulations for this–that gives them hope. So I think it’s every day connecting with people and knowing the impact that just my existence creates will also help to change, because when we think about these systems of abolition, and systems of de-carceration, like for me, I believe providing people with tools in order to use them to change the trajectory of their lives, is a form of abolition, right? Like people get involved, unfortunately, because of all of the society systemic issues, white supremacy and all the things, that drive us into incarceration. But I also know that when you are, when you understand that there are all the alternatives, and you are equipped with those tools and exposed to them, that you don’t have to subject yourself to those experiences either. So it’s twofold. Right? And so I choose to work and direct my work on, how do I give people resources so they can even do better than I have done? And that’s what’s most important to me.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. Now, are there services for, like, family members, too? Or like, how does that work? So like, you know, a woman gets out of jail and her kids might need resources, or her partner or are there, how does that, do you do anything with that or do you connect them to other partners?
Topeka Sam: So we, again, our work is focused on all women who are directly affected by the system. So it’s whether you’ve been incarcerated yourself, you have a loved one who’s been incarcerated or a friend. So we get women who reach out because their child was incarcerated or the grandchild is incarcerated, women who reach out because their boyfriend is incarcerated and they’ve been advocating for them. And so we help any of them. If we don’t have programs that they want or can utilize that, then we will connect them to other community-based organizations that are led by directly-affected people to make sure that they also have those resources as well.
DeRay Mckesson: What’s next for you? Like, what’s the next bucket of work that you’re like, Okay, I did all these things, I got houses in all these places, is there more housing? Is there, I don’t know, like, is it, what’s next? What’s your next thing?
Topeka Sam: So there’s two next things really that I’m focusing on now. One is affordable housing development. So as we are growing, what I’ve learned was that we can bring people into the co-living living spaces, and it’s great, right? They get a community of sisters that they can live with somewhere, they don’t have to pay a lot of rent on, they can really just focus on what they want to do with their life in order to just get on their feet, right? But when people leave, because we’re not considered a shelter, the problem is that there are these laws that you have to live in a shelter in order to get access to these voucher programs. Then when you get the voucher, depending on the landlord, the landlord will determine whether or not they want to even rent from you because you have a conviction. And so there are sisters who leave us because they have to get, so they leave a beautiful space to go back in prison–which is the shelter system– and then they’re subjected to all these additional harms. They cannot find an apartment and then they end up being stuck there. You know, I just want to raise up Ms. Jean Coxcomb, who recently passed away. She was the first woman in our house, has been home for 20 years, was working successfully for the entire time she had been home, at the same job. And because of this, they told her, hey, you come live here, you’ll get an apartment quicker, and she did that, and they found her dead. Right? And so it’s the system and how this stuff, how the country doesn’t really understand the needs of people in reentry. And so we do. And so for me, I was like, all right, how do I change this? I could either continue to try to partner with someone who wants to help. I can raise a bunch of money to give to, typically a white man, to develop something, to be a program. Or I can do it myself. And so that’s where I am. How am I building beautiful, affordable housing for people in our community that needs it? So that’s the second step of support Topeka Sam [unclear] adventures, right? The other thing is building EPIC financial solutions. So EPIC Financial is a fintech platform that provides checking, savings accounts, access to loans and other financial products for people who are presently incarcerated and previously incarcerated. So it’s a community and network of financial tools. Because the other thing is the disparities and the barriers of even getting a checking and savings account, right? A lot of times people can’t get them. They walk into the bank and they only have a prison I.D. and there’s a bias of the teller or the person setting them account and they don’t get it. Or there are, you know, because you have financial crime, you can’t get this type of loan or you’re, you know, automatically have default and people don’t understand that. So we’re building partnerships and collaborations with other fintech companies and other institutions to put under one umbrella, which is EPIC Financial Solutions, which is a public benefit company. And we are launching checking and savings accounts for those of us who are directly affected, before they even get out of prison. And that will be in the next three months. So those are the two things that I’m focused on. I thought of a lot of really, production around media and film, telling our own stories because we should be doing that. We can get support by people who are experts in the space, but we need to be executive producing and producing our own stories and sharing that in a way that people really understand what’s happened in people’s lives, specifically women, in order to change for them.
DeRay Mckesson: Let them know. There’s nothing, to say after that besides “Drop the mic” but I can drop this very expensive mic. Are you accepting donations? Can people donate to you? How does that work?
Topeka Sam: Absolutely. We accepting donations always.
DeRay Mckesson: What’s the website?
Topeka Sam: The website is: the thelohm (The Ladies Of Hope Ministries) dot org for org. They can text to donate.
DeRay Mckesson: Oh! Fancy. Everybody pay attention. Here we go.
Topeka Sam: Yeah. You can text the number 41444 to the word thelohm2022 (for 2022). So you can do that and you can donate financially. There is also a link on the website, obviously. You can donate your time, right? If you have a specific skill set or you want to volunteer and deliver groceries to people or you want to help with resume writing, interviewing, all of that. If you have, if you work for a corporation that is looking at fair-chance hiring, you want to partner with us to make sure that women have opportunities for growth-focused job opportunities where they’re actually making decisions, in decision-making roles, you can help there. You know, there’s tons of things that you can help with. Creating new opportunities to platform so we can actually talk about these issues and, you know, bring awareness to the issues that are happening. So people can plug in any way. We can definitely utilize all the support. But in order for us to end poverty and incarceration, it’s going to take a lot of money to do so. So text to donate, or go on the website.
DeRay Mckesson: Let people know where they can, where they can follow you.
Topeka Sam: Yeah. So you can follow me @TopekaKSam. And you can follow the organization @thelohm on all social media platforms.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom! Everybody! The one, the only, Topeka Sam. Before we go, though, I do want to ask you two questions we ask everybody. The first is, what do you say to people who feel like they’ve done everything and it hasn’t changed? They voted, they emailed, they donated, they called, they testified, they protested, and they feel like the system is as bad today as it was yesterday. What do you say to those people?
Topeka Sam: Keep doing it. Keep voting, keep donating, keep marching, keep, put your fist in the air, go testify, call your local elected officials. But also, if you’re not seeing that change, be that change. Run for public office. That’s the other thing, right? If you are doing all the things that you think to be civically engaged, then maybe you need to be the one to change it yourself. So that’s what I would say. Be bold.
DeRay Mckesson: Be bold. And then let me know when I can volunteer in your campaign. And then the last question is what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you?
Topeka Sam: [unclear] so many of them. But I would say that the greatest piece was from my dad. It’s a Scripture, Proverbs 3, 4, and 6. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path.” And that for me has been a guide, because as long as I am trusting in God, I believe God abides in me, and if God is omnipotent and all of the things, and God lives in me, then I can do anything. And so I trust that. I’ve learned to trust myself. And that’s what drives my life, my work, and where I am today. Best advice.
DeRay Mckesson: Cool. Well, we consider you a friend of the pod and can’t wait to have you back.
Topeka Sam: I can’t wait to be back.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning into Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we will see you next week. Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by A.J. Moultrie and mixed by Veronica Simonetti, and executive produced by me. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Myles Johnson.