In This Episode
DeRay, Kaya, and Sam dive into the underreported news of the week, including Maryland police oversight, California child care, college admission essays, and Derek Chauvin’s trial. Netta Elzie gives an update on what’s happening with the nationwide protests. DeRay interviews Alua Arthur about what it takes to be a death doula.
DERAY: Hey, this is DeRay. And welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, Sam, and Kaya covering the news that goes unreported that you might not have heard of. And Netta comes on to give us an update about what’s happening with the protest. Then I sit down with Alua Arthur to learn more about what it takes to be a death doula.
I learned so much in this conversation. I wish we could do a part two tomorrow, just because there’s even more to talk about. Now my advice for this week is take your hand off. That sometimes we are pressing on things and we are trying to massage a situation where karma is actually the only thing to come through.
And we up here are trying to tip the scales and move the thing. And it’s not our business. So some of the stuff, you got to take your hand off. I’m telling that to myself right now. DeRay, take your hand off of this. So take your hand off of some of the stuff. Let it play out. Let karma do its thing or let the universe, whatever you want to call it.
You messing with it might only make it worse. And that’s not everything, but you know the stuff that you need to take your hand off. Let’s go. There’s another fine week here on the Pod. I’m DeRay, @deray on Twitter.
KAYA HENDERSON: I’m Kaya Henderson, @hendersonkaya on Twitter.
SAM SINYANGWE: And I’m Sam. @samsinyangwe on Twitter.
DERAY: Y’all, it’s always good to be back. De’Ara is not with us for the recording. But De’Ara is always a part of the crew. Last week was Easter, so we didn’t have a conversation then. So we haven’t talked about the trial of Derek Chauvin.
You know, it’s interesting. In so many ways, this feels to me like when I watched the Zimmerman trial. I remember being tuned in. I remember being at work and we would take breaks to watch some of it and talk about it. And as much as I’ve tried to stay away from this, I haven’t been able to.
I’ve watched more of this than I thought I would, even though I know I don’t have any questions. I know they killed George Floyd. There’s nothing that they could say on this trial that will change anything I know to be true. And yet, seeing the kids testify and hearing the woman who took the video that changed the world in so many ways, hearing her say that she wishes she could have done more, it’s just heartbreaking in a whole different way.
So I do, in some ways, think that this will be the sacrificial lamb. I think it’s clear he’ll be convicted. And this will be used as a way for people to believe that the system just worked, the system does work. But we can’t let our foot off the gas. Lord knows there’s a lot more work to be done to dismantle the system of policing.
SAM SINYANGWE: So I’m less optimistic about Derek Chauvin being convicted in–
SAM SINYANGWE: –this round. So let me set the table by saying I think it’s clear that he murdered George Floyd. I think there’s no doubt about that. What I’m reminded just looking at the data and so many cases that we’ve seen is how the presence of just one juror who is some like right wing ideologue who no matter what information they’re presented with, will never second guess or vote to hold an officer accountable for murder.
I worry about that. And I think about the case of Jeremy Lake, a Black kid who was murdered by police in Tulsa in 2014 and how there were three mistrials. So they tried to convict the officer in this case. He was a Black boy who was dating a white girl. The white girl’s parents were police officers.
And so they saw her with him. And they essentially lynched him. And it took three mistrials in which in each case, there was one or two jurors who simply would not, despite all of the evidence, would not vote to convict. And finally, on the fourth trial, they got a manslaughter conviction against the officer.
But then that was later overturned, interestingly enough, based on that Supreme Court precedent. Because the murder took place in a region in Oklahoma that because of that Supreme Court precedent is no longer governed by Oklahoma State law, that conviction has actually now been tossed out.
So there’s still been the saga going all the way back to 2014 now where four trials have not ultimately stuck a conviction to the murders. And so again, I think I am always reminded how this system at every single level makes it so difficult where it’s rare enough to actually charge the officers.
Only one in every 50 or 100 cases, the officer gets charged. And then even then, you have a jury that is comprised of a jury pool of registered voters who are disproportionately white and, in many cases, particularly in the area in which this took place in Minnesota, you have a high possibility of having jurors that just simply will not listen to the facts, will not do justice.
And I think that that is a piece of this problem and a piece of why it’s so important to continue to change the narrative, change beliefs around this. Because ultimately, those are the beliefs that inform those jurors who then have the power to convict.
KAYA HENDERSON: I’m stunned that you all are watching the trial. I cannot do it. The snippets, the highlights on the news are quite enough for me. But the trauma of reliving this situation is really real.
And watching these people talk about what they could have or should have done, including– mean I watched a little bit of testimony from the guy who called the police. And he’s like, I shouldn’t have ever called the police on George Floyd. Oh my God, I can’t take the emotion that goes with it on a day to day basis.
And I’m with you, Sam. I am worried that what we all saw before our very eyes, what our intellect and our rationality tells us that if you kneel on somebody’s neck for nine minutes, that you could kill them easily, literally, this is the– you know the Shaggy song, It Wasn’t Me?
She saw me standing on a sofa. It wasn’t me. Literally, we saw this man kill George Floyd. And the defense is like, that’s not what happened. Don’t believe your lying eyes. And Sam, you are absolutely right. It takes one juror or whatever to make this thing go the wrong way.
And I’m especially worried that what’s going to happen in the aftermath if this man is not convicted is going to– I’m just worried. I am exhausted by it. And I pray that this comes out the right way. Because if not, we’re going to be in a world of trouble.
SAM SINYANGWE: So from the topic of the Derek Chauvin trial, there is some good news in the space of addressing police violence. And that news is coming from Maryland where this past week, the state legislature successfully passed and overrode the governor’s veto of a package of three bills that number one, repealed the Police Bill of Rights law in Maryland, which is a huge, huge accomplishment, the first time this has ever happened.
Maryland was the first state to adopt a Police Bill of Rights law. Since then, a total of 21 states now had Police Bill of Rights laws. Now it’s 20 states after Maryland repealed it. And not only did they repeal that law, but they replaced it with a system that is completely different.
So in Maryland now under legislation that just passed, every county is going to be responsible for creating a police accountability board that is made up of civilians who have the power to investigate and review complaints and hold officers accountable. They get to appoint members to a charging committee, an administrative charging committee, that then has the power to charge officers with administrative violations.
So they can actually create the process of formally charging officers with misconduct. Then civilians, also two of the three members of the trial board that then sort of adjudicates that case are civilians, one an administrative law judge and one person, again, appointed by these police accountability boards.
So basically, in Maryland, the system has shifted from one in which it was an almost entirely controlled by the police to now one that is heavily civilian controlled. And not only that, but huge parts of this system are actually now being controlled by people with a vested interest in accountability, these police accountability boards that are really– this is the first state that is going to have in every single county a police accountability board that has real power to actually formally charge officers with misconduct by appointing those members of the charging committee.
So this is huge. It is part of a broader package. So the Police Bill of Rights law repeal and replacement was one big part of this. There was also a part around transparency. So Maryland, like many states, prohibited public access to information on officer misconduct, their personnel files, allegations against them, whether they were disciplined.
Now investigatory records, records of officer discipline, will be made public as long as it involves discipline related to an interaction between the police and a member of the public. And not only that, but there are additional changes that have been made to no knock raids, completely changing up the warrant application process, restricting the issuance of no knock warrants, and restricting how and when any types of raids can be conducted within the state, and requiring transparency in terms of data around SWAT operations.
So those are all good things. There are some things in the bill that are a little bit more problematic and that might need to get revised. So you know there was a change to the use of force standard in the state. But some of those changes really haven’t gone as far as other states.
So in Maryland, under the new legislation, you would need to prove that the officer willfully violated the use of force policy in order to charge them under that new statute that was created. And as we know, in places like Washington state and even the federal standard, when you have to prove the officer’s intent, we have to prove that they willfully violated a policy, oftentimes, it is almost impossible to even charge them under those statutes.
So clearly there’s work to be done to actually strengthen the use of force standard further in Maryland to permit criminal prosecution. But on the administrative discipline side, it’s actually a huge game change in the state. And I’m looking forward to seeing how this new law will be implemented in a way that can create a model for other states.
DERAY: So we worked hard working with the House leadership and some of the Senate leadership in Maryland to get this across the finish line. Shout out to all the incredible advocates, and Speaker Jones, and Bill Ferguson, Senate President in Maryland who put in a lot of work to shepherd this, Representative Adebari who led the work group.
A lot of really good things, like Sam said. So just to give it context, this is the most aggressive ban on no knock raids in the United States as of today. There’s a bill before the New York state legislature that goes a little bit further than this. But this bill is amazing.
They cut down– so in Maryland right now, a search warrant is valid for 15 days. They took that back to 10. We’d love for it to be even more restrictive. But that was actually– that was a good change, the requirement for search warrants. All search warrants have to have more information that goes to the judge. So that’s a good thing.
Officers have to be– they have to announce that they’re officers. That wasn’t in the law before. They can no longer use flash bangs or stun devices when they execute search warrants. They can’t do nighttime search warrants. They have to be in uniform. There’s all this stuff that just literally wasn’t– it’s so basic. It’s sort of common sense, just not common practice.
Whenever they execute any search warrant, they have to have a body camera, which will protect people. And then they also have to– there’s a really robust reporting requirement. Maryland is was already the only state that had robust reporting about all search warrants a long time ago. And then it sunsetted and they didn’t put it back.
So this one sort of puts that back and makes it a little stronger. And like Sam said, the accountability framework with the administrative charging committee is really incredible. Because what will happen now in Maryland is that there is a non-police body that will be able to see the vast majority of complaints that come in about the police and can actually make a decision about whether you should charge the officer or not. This scenario that was created in Maryland literally doesn’t exist anywhere else.
SAM SINYANGWE: I was inspired by this. Because I think when you look at, for example, the legalization of marijuana, once one state does it, it starts the wheels turning and other states. And it enables model. But it just makes police accountability possible for people who, I think, have felt like it hasn’t been possible for a really long time.
I also– I fundamentally believe in collective action. And the varied coalitions that it took to bring this together, to me, reminds us that the people have power. Legislatures have power, for sure. But when people are working together for a common cause, we can make big things happen.
And it was legislators, it was former prosecutors, it was moms who were affected by this, it was lots of different people working together. And I want to remind people that the people united can’t always be defeated. Maybe not never, but can’t always.
And so to me, like there are a series of things happening that are reminding us that even with a Republican governor, even with a strong police union, we can accomplish things. One really curious piece of the legislation that was interesting to me was a provision that restores the Baltimore Police Department to local control. And it has not been under local control since 1860.
And so when we think about all of the things that have happened in the last few years around policing in Baltimore, I wonder, DeRay, maybe you have some idea about what implications does this have for Baltimore police to be under local control?
DERAY: Yeah, it’s an interesting topic. We’ll see. Because right now, the Mayor can already appoint the police chief. And you know, because you were somebody appointed, that’s a big power. That’s not an insignificant power. The mayors have historically stood behind this idea that they need to go to the legislature to change things about the department.
They’ve sort of stood behind that as opposed to just holding the police chief accountable for changes. So a part of me is like, this is a little scam tactic. The second thing is, I’m interested to see what the city council do. Because every city council hasn’t been able to punt. They’ve been like, well, we can’t do so and so. We can’t do– so will they rein them in? I don’t know. I’m hopeful.
But the plan, I think, is still staggered. It’s not they’re going to get control back, but it’s still going to go to voters. And there’s going to be a longer– this isn’t going to be a one year thing. So I’m interested to see. I think the question is there.
And I will say just for the record, I am nervous. Remember that the state took away the school system from being run by the city, because of fraud, and because of mismanagement, and because of exploiting the resources of the school system. So a part of me is trying to figure out how do we make sure that giving this the police department back doesn’t actually encourage corruption, which the city of Baltimore has been plagued by for ages.
SAM SINYANGWE: Yeah, it’s interesting, because under state control, it’s not like they do it so much better. I just wonder what it means. But it was astounding to me that it’s been under state control since 1860. Wowza. My news comes from a Politico article that talks about California teachers and one of the newest wrinkles in school reopening in California.
California teachers are about to go back to the classroom. Many of the different districts have negotiated a variety of provisions in order for teachers to feel comfortable going back. And about a week ago, The Teachers Union, The United Teachers Unions of Los Angeles, has put a new demand on the table.
They are the state’s largest union and they have said that they don’t want to go back until there is free child care for teachers’ children. And this is an unprecedented ask. It is sending parents into a tizzy. Because parents and community members, frankly, are saying, well, listen front line workers, health care workers, emergency workers, they don’t have free childcare for their kids. And so why should we allow teachers to have free childcare? They didn’t have free childcare before the pandemic.
And teachers are saying, child care before the pandemic was an issue and is still an issue. And so you should take care of it now while you’re taking care of other things. And I think the reason that I brought this to the table is because this was something that I had no idea about. Didn’t even know you could ask for things like this.
And I think as I watched the school reopening saga and at a moment where it finally feels like we have agreed that for families who want to be back in school, that kids need to be back in school. And this feels quite unfair to throw up at the last minute.
And to me, what it is, it’s illustrative of I think a fraying coalition where parents were quite supportive of parents and teachers at the beginning of this pandemic. And let me be very clear, many teachers are parents, shared many of the same concerns about the safety of their kids going back to school and whatnot.
And that coalition is fraying. Many parents who have to go back to work, who are operating under conditions where things are getting back to normal, they don’t understand some of the demands. And so I’ve seen some of The Teachers Union leaders on television sort of saying, parents and teachers need to work together.
But parents are saying, I don’t have free childcare at my job. And so why do you give free childcare at your job? And I think I understand from a negotiating perspective that you want to get as much as you possibly can in this particular moment.
But the question for me is, how do we remain fair to teachers– which I think everybody wants to do– and remain fair to parents and to districts who have a responsibility to educating children and the many children who want to get back as soon as possible?
And so I lift this up to say that there are times when you can take opportunities to win things that you didn’t win in other places. And I am worried, frankly, that when the parent teacher coalition frays– I think some of the best parts of pandemic schooling has been the rebuilding of relationships between parents and teachers.
That has been one of the strongest parts of this pandemic schooling experiment. But we need parents and teachers to be on the same side in order for our kids to get what they need. And this just feels like an unforced error.
SAM SINYANGWE: Yeah, Kaya, thanks for bringing this to the Pod. I think reading through this and just seeing the context, it feels like this is what happens in an environment with scarcity where everybody is fighting each other over the resources that they all deserve. And yes, the teachers should have free child care. And the parents taking their kids to school should have free childcare also.
And by the way, it is not either of their fault that that isn’t the case. It is the government’s fault. And not only the state government in California, but the Federal Government as well. And we look at what’s happening in Congress right now around the various different rounds of relief legislation that have been planned.
We just got the first sort of round that was passed a few weeks ago. It sounds like there are one or even two packages sort of still in the pipeline that Democrats and the Senate think they can use reconciliation– or know now, because the parliamentarian told them they could, that they can use reconciliation to push these bills through with 50 votes.
But there’s been a lot of conversation around the first of those next two packages being focused on jobs and infrastructure. But conspicuously, leaving out a lot of investments in child care. We still need universal child care nationwide, not just in California, not just for teachers in California, for everybody.
And that’s the Federal Government’s job to provide those resources. And this is something that, obviously, was a part of the campaign where it was a campaign promise and something that Democrats have the votes to deliver. I’m not sure why it seems like that might be pushed to the third package now instead of the second package.
But we need that urgently. And I’m interested to see more from not only Senate Democrats, but also from the Biden administration just on why would child care be in the third package and not the second package. Can we make sure that those investments are targeted in a way that they actually reach families as quickly as possible, in a way that actually meets the scale of the need?
Because I think this is just going to keep happening in an environment with scarcity and where the Federal Government just doesn’t do its job to provide basic resources for everybody.
DERAY: So my news is something that I was legitimately– I did not know about. It’s about essays. So there’s been a big conversation, especially in the middle of COVID, people have been sort of just examining the role of standardized testing. Do we need standardized testing? Should we be test optional when we go for college admissions?
This study of 60,000 applications found that the essay characteristics correlated more closely with family income than the SAT scores. And it sort of leads to this idea that if you get rid of SAT scores, the essay will become even more important. And the essay is actually potentially more reflective of socioeconomic status than the SAT scores were.
And I hadn’t even– I don’t know– I just didn’t– A, I hadn’t thought about that. Bowdoin has been testing optional for so long that to me it made sense. I hadn’t thought about the other components of the application process besides visiting the school, for instance, where socioeconomic status would show up so clearly.
And even in the study they wrote, it says, I quote, “Essay contest is far more predictive of SAT scores than is, for example, high school GPA.” And like I just didn’t– I literally didn’t know that. I didn’t know that the essay– I didn’t think about the essay being such a big deal. But I also didn’t make the relationship between essay content and socioeconomic status.
In a way, that makes me think even more about how if we shift away from tests, what do we need to put in place that actually is a driver of equity? How do we do that? If the essay isn’t going to be one of those things in its current iteration, what does that look like? So I just want to it here, because I was shocked by this and it was new to me.
SAM SINYANGWE: Yeah, this was really surprising to me as well. I remember applying for colleges– this was in 2008 or so– and this was like the first year that they had started to implement the writing section in the SAT. So it used to be you had the reading section. You had the math section.
This was the first year that they had the writing section. And at that time, because it was the first year, they sort of alluded to the college admissions won’t really heavily weight the writing score. They don’t really know about it or how it might affect scores moving forward. So really concentrate on the math, and the reading, and you’ll be all right.
And that was the advice we were given at the time. But reading through the study, what the study showed was that it was actually the writing section, the essay writing section of the SAT was contributing substantially to the disparities in the SAT scores between folks from different socioeconomic statuses.
So we talked a lot about the SAT, and the history of the SAT, and standardized testing, and how that it was a tool designed to be an exclusionary tool to keep out people of color, to keep out Jewish students, to keep out a whole host of people who weren’t sort of like this waspy white archetype.
And it just didn’t occur to me that like the essay writing component of the SAT could actually be the most egregious part. And that that’s actually new, that that was a decision that was recent that I lived through. And the ripple effect of that, I feel like probably wasn’t fully anticipated given what we know now in the research.
So always, this article, or this study, is really important, because it pushes us to think beyond just like what is bad and what needs to be repealed, and to think more closely about if we repeal the standardized testing, what are we actually replacing it with? Because in the absence of standardized testing, then the essays get more heavily weighted. And that outcome could be even worse.
So just really want to do a deeper dive. And now I’m sort of curious to think about and what are all of these different components, GPA, there is the subject matter, which classes, which courses you had access to which courses you took. There is the college visits. There’s the essay. There’s legacy and all of these other aspects of the admissions process.
And really, I’m interested to deconstruct each of those and figure out what are the core components that are the most equitable, what are the things that need to be introduced to replace some of the things that are not equitable. But clearly, just removing standardized testing is not by itself going to be a solution.
KAYA HENDERSON: I was not surprised by this at all. The essay is the subjective part. It’s the part that you can get coaching on. And that’s what rich people do. They make sure that their kids are prepared by getting them writing coaches or getting them– this was the whole– I used to sit on the board of trustees for the College Board. And I was there when they went to the new SAT.
And the point of the new SAT– I don’t think it landed this way. I don’t think everybody understood it to be this way. But the SAT was completely jacked up, because it wasn’t anything that you learned in high school. So in order to get a good score, you had to pay for a prep course, or a coach, or whatever, learn a completely different set of things, and then take this exam.
And the new SAT sought to test kids on what they should have learned in high school, things like the founding documents being the documents for reading comprehension, things that you should have done in high school. The new SAT was supposed to be the kind of end of course exam for high school.
And at least that way, it was relevant and it provided more opportunities for kids who could not access these expensive prep courses and whatnot to do that. And the College Board teamed with Khan Academy, which shows tremendous test prep effectiveness and made Khan Academy free to people.
And they tried to do all of these things to try to even the score. But we were so far down the road on standardized testing is bad. Well, GPAs are subjective given how counselors put kids into courses and how teachers grade. Recommendations are subjective. Everything is subjective.
One of my worries with all of this test optional thing is for a lot of young people, the test was the only way that they got a halfway fair shake to show what they know and to provide access to schools where they’ve been undermatched, where their counselors didn’t think that they could go.
But if you think about– there was a study that came out some months ago about racial bias in grading amongst second grade teachers. And what they did was they gave teachers two essays that literally said– these two second grade essays– that said the exact same thing. Except one, said when I was hanging out with my friend DeQuan and the other one said, when I was hanging out my friend Connor.
Besides that, the essays were completely the same. And the essays who were hanging out with their friend Connor, or brother Connor, whatever it was, Connor, those were marked on grade level. And the ones where the friend had a more ethnic name, they were marked below grade level.
DERAY: Shut up. Really?
KAYA HENDERSON: Oh, I’m telling you. And white female teachers showed the most bias.
KAYA HENDERSON: Second grade essays with all of the inventive spelling and all of the whatever. But literally ordinary schoolwork. And so if teachers are grading the exact same essay as below grade level versus on grade level based on cultural context, what the heck do you think is going to happen in these essays where kids are really writing about stuff that goes on in their lives and whatnot?
Come on. This is not surprising at all to me. And I think it goes to show how you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. The standardized tests where to provide some level of objectivity. And they became subjective, or too aligned, or too designed to reflect socioeconomic status instead of knowledge. But throwing them out is not the answer either. Because what we have on the other side is the same, if not worse.
DERAY: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People’s coming. Pod Save the People is brought to you by We All Count, a project for equity and data. Check them out at weallcountd.com/people.
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DERAY: If you go to ziprecruiter.com/savethepeople today to try Zip Recruiter for free, we get credit for sending you. Once again, that’s ziprecruiter.com/ S-A-V-E T-H-E P-E-O-P-L-E. And now, check in with Janette Elzie as she gives us an update about what’s happening with the protests.
NETTA ELZIE: Hey, what’s up, everybody. It’s me, Netta. LA Sheriff’s deputy shot someone again. But let me read these two LA Times headlines to y’all. Headline number one, Man is Shot in an Encounter with LA County Sheriff’s Deputies. Headline number two, Man is shot by LA County Sheriff’s Deputies in Unincorporated Whitter.
Headline number one is from when I first read the article and number two is what it was changed to. But honestly, they’re both trash. One of the county’s biggest newspapers, apparently, stopped using the vague quote “officer involved shooting” nonsense.
But what exactly is this headline even talking about? What are the actual details? As short as the article itself is, you would think that the headline might include the fact that the man was likely considering hurting himself or you know the officers shot at the man during a standoff.
And this is literally less than a month after an LA County deputies shot a 25-year-old autistic man who’s still in the hospital right now fighting for his life. The LA Times could have tried something like this, LA County Sheriff’s Deputies Fire at Man Experiencing Mental Health Crisis or Eight to One Standoff Leaves Man with Mental Health Crisis Hospitalized with Gunshot Wound After Police Opened Fire.
What’s that thing in journalism? Oh, the code of ethics that says, seek truth and report it. Do better, LA Times. Do better. Imagine this, a Black couple uses their hard earned money in 1912 to buy land in California to create a Black beach resort where Black people could socialize and swim safely.
Willa and Charles Bruce call the portion of the land they own on Manhattan Beach Bruce’s Beach. And if you don’t already know, racist white people segregated beaches in addition to pools for decades. Then of course, it was just too much for the white people who had already had the world as their oyster.
So they started vandalizing the resort, harassing and attacking Black visitors in their cars traveling to Bruce’s Beach. And the KKK couldn’t miss out on the action either. So they attacked the beach in 1920. Imagine. And the government, instead of protecting Bruce’s Beach, condemned and snatched away the property that was rightfully owned by Willa and Charles.
They tried to fight the city in court knowing that it was a racially motivated removal campaign. But y’all know how it goes when it’s our word against theirs. The city claimed they needed the land to build a park. That was in 1924. And this allegedly desperately needed park didn’t get built until 1960, y’all.
Now I’m already salty. But let me put some more Lawry’s on it for y’all. The plaque at the park credits a white man with helping the Bruces buy their land. I mean, what in the white savior supremacy is this foolishness?
So fast forward to today where a member of the Bruce family said it’s time for them to be able to get their land back and collect their coins for a decade’s worth of income that the family would have made had their thriving beachfront resort actually been left alone.
But the sad thing is you can’t put a price on the memories and moments Black people throughout California could have made if they had just had one safe space to enjoy themselves. But because nothing is simple or really fair for Black folks in this country, in order for this to happen, it will take a state bill to release the land, because LA County owns and uses it for a lifeguard training center.
I also want to note, I really love Manhattan Beach. And now that I know that the land was actually owned by Black people, maybe that makes it even make more sense. But I really, really love that area. Check my Instagram, lots of pics from Manhattan beach.
Y’all, I’m not even sure how this story is a story. But apparently, Thomas Webster, a retired NYPD cop accused of beating, choking, and trying to gouge the eyes out of a DC police officer on January 6th, is in shock that he’s in jail with other people who have committed crimes.
Webster’s lawyer specifically said, people serving time for inner city crimes. Y’all, just the white audacity of it all. Excuse me? You committed treason, babe. What’s not to understand, my darling? Not you, the former police officer can’t hang in jail. Little old jail you probably sent so many folks to in good old New York. Oh, OK, this screams white fragility. And I just cannot.
I was going to have a beautiful clothing to honor the life of DMX, one of the best rappers, New York’s greatest. This man was truly– he was a whole decade of my life. In the early 2000s, DMX was that guy. And so I really do and honestly hope that the spirit of Earl Simmons is safely transitioning to the other side.
And I know our people are telling him, job well done. But in the meantime, while I was writing this beautiful closing for him, I also woke up to the news that in between writing this script, recording it, police have killed another Black man. His name is Daunte Wright and he was only 20 years old.
I’m reminded of Philando Castille, Walter Scott, and Sandra Bland in this moment, all targeted traffic stops that turned into executions. To white people, especially white police officers, Black people’s humanity is not worth as much as bragging rights, dollars, or quotas. In the words of Donald Glover, this is America. I hope next week we can end on a higher note. Talk to y’all later.
DERAY: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the the People. Don’t go anywhere. There’s more to come. Pod Save the People is brought to you by Better Help. So what interferes with your happiness? Lord knows there’s a lot going on right now. And is there anything preventing you from achieving your goals? I think about all the distractions that are going on in my world. And luckily, the world seems to be opening back up a la COVID. But still, that’s a lot.
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And now my conversation, with Alua. I learned so much. I didn’t even know what a death doula was. But Alua is a recovering attorney, a death doula, and the founder of Going with Grace, an end of life planning and death doula training organization that exists to support people as they answer the question, what must I do to be at peace of myself that I may live presently and die gracefully?
I learned a ton. Here we go. Alua, thanks so much for joining us today at Pods Save the People.
ALUA ARTHUR: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
DERAY: OK, so I’ve been waiting to talk to you forever. I have not let you respond to me when we talk personally, because I wanted it to be here. Because I have so many questions. But you’re a death doula.
ALUA ARTHUR: I am.
DERAY: And can we just start with the basics? What is a death doula? And what was your journey to this? I’ve been wanting to ask– I’ve asked you this before, but I turned my ears off when you started talking, because I wanted it to be on the podcast. But please, help– introduce us to this work and to you.
ALUA ARTHUR: A death doula is somebody who provides all the holistic non-medical care and support for the dying person and the circle of support, the family, through the dying process. But we work with three groups in particular. When people are healthy, we help them complete comprehensive end of life plans.
Some people are getting close to death, or they know what it is that they’re going to be dying of, we help them create the most ideal death for them under the circumstances. And then after death, we help family members wrap up the affairs of their loved one’s life.
And so while the focus of our work is on when people are getting close to death, we’re also working with anybody who’s come into awareness that one day they’re going to die. If you think that you’re going to die one day, which you will, you should probably seek out a death doula.
DERAY: How did you get to this work?
ALUA ARTHUR: I’m a lawyer by training. And I developed a really serious clinical depression. And I went on a leave of absence from work, because I just couldn’t anymore. And during that leave of absence, I found myself in Cuba where I was just searching for answers. I was just looking anywhere for healing and to crawl myself out of this hole that I was in.
But I was running through the street and trying to make it to return something to a woman that I had met the day before I had to make it to the bus stop, because I was running late, because I’m always running late. And a car almost hit me in the road. And I gathered myself, and got my bearings, and made it to a place that I wanted to go, and made it to the bus stop.
And in line for the bus stop, I met a woman who told me that I need to be in a different line. And we chatted briefly. And she offered to hold onto my bag for me so I could get onto the bus. And she did. She acted a fool so she could get on. And then I got on right afterwards. We started chatting.
She had uterine cancer. She was a fellow traveler from Germany trying to see the top six places in the world she wanted to see before she died. Naturally, I leaned into her and asked all types of questions about her disease. The conversation about death was already sitting in between us. And I don’t know how to leave a juicy conversation on the table, so I started asking her a bunch of questions.
And for her, it was one of the first times that somebody was asking her questions about her death. Because when she talked about death, people would ask her to focus on life instead. And so it was an opportunity for her to dig into these things out loud, and explore ideas about the afterlife and what was undone in her life, and what if this disease killed her, what meaning she would have made of her life.
And it was also one of the first times that I had one of those serious conversations with myself. Particularly in the midst of a disease like depression, it’s necessary to constantly be like checking in to see what’s going on here. Because for some, it’s merely chemical. But for me, it was a stirring within my spirit to get my life on a track that felt good to me, so that I could meet my death feeling like I made the best use of my life.
The point of this whole story is that we got off the bus– during that bus ride, I got very, very clear that I wanted to support people preparing for death no matter where along the process they were. Because I found the conversation so healing for myself. But we got off the bus together. She stayed with me. She was supposed to get off after seven hours. But she stayed for an additional seven hours.
And as we’re going to bed that night in this guest house that I’ve rented– I was living by myself and I got this stranger in the house with me. And she says to me she remembered when I almost got hit by a car before we left the town prior. And I asked her how that was possible, because we hadn’t yet met. And she said she was in that car that I had almost hit me.
So I was on a direct crash course, really, with my life’s work and didn’t know it at the time. I was just following the little breadcrumbs of life that led to me getting hit by a car and ultimately led me to discover this passion that I have for helping people prepare for death.
I came back to the States really rip roaring, ready to go, seeking out every death, anything that I knew of– hospice doctors, thought I’d go to medical school. I was just going to do whatever I needed to do. And about six months after I came back from Cuba, my brother-in-law, my older sister, Busma’s husband Peter fell ill. And I got to support him and Busma and my niece Lea to the last three months of his life.
And practically what the work of the death doula is– and that’s how I founded Going with Grace, which is the end of life planning and training organization that I learned.
DERAY: So this woman in no small way changed your life.
ALUA ARTHUR: Yes.
DERAY: How did you find– because you’re a certified death doula, what does that even mean? How do you get certified? It seems like, I think, you run your own certification program now. But you obviously didn’t certify yourself. So how did that path happen?
ALUA ARTHUR: When I was deep and searching for how to do the work in a way that felt most honest and true to me rather than becoming an estate planning attorney, because I already have a legal background, or becoming a hospice nurse, working in the funeral industry, I met a woman who had heard of this death midwife training course.
It was like an intro course. And so I went for the evening. It was called Sacred Cross and it’s here in Los Angeles. And I took that program. It was over the course of three weekends over the course of about three months. And that provided me with a lot of the practical information I needed.
And then I got my practice started. And I hung out a shingle thinking people would start running through the door to see me, people who needed a death doula. But turns out, that’s not the case. So it took a little bit more work for me to get to the point where people sought out my services.
There is no such thing as a certified death doula. I’m using air quotes. Because there is no official certifying body. For a death doula to be certified means that you’ve received a certificate of completion of your program. So you’ve done a training course and you completed it.
But we don’t have any formal organizing or certifying bodies. We do have a National End of Life Doula Alliance which organizes us. It’s a 50126 organization. But they provide standards of practice, and ethics, et cetera.
In order to become a death doula, there’s a number of different ways to do it. Sometimes people become just jealous because they are the one in their community that people go to when somebody is dying, or because they have taken a training program, such as the ones that Going with Grace offers, or they have volunteered a lot for hospice and have mentored under a death doula who’s working in the field already.
There are a lot of different ways. And I think it’s also important that people who have a call within their spirit a deep stirring somehow follow that call. Because there’s a big pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.
DERAY: Got it. OK, can you walk us through some scenarios? Because that was the framing. I get it in the frame level. So say, somebody in my family has a terminal illness and I call you, like, hey, I know you’re a death doula. Can you help? What happens next?
ALUA ARTHUR: Well, first, what I would do is ask how you are doing with the information and the news. And then I would ask how comfortable the person in your life has become with the idea of their death. Are you making this call on their behalf? Like hey, they really need you, but I haven’t talked to them about this or have they expressed some awareness that their life is ending. Because that’s a key component in me being able to work with somebody.
And then we talk through what their needs are. And then I would come visit in the before times, before a pandemic times, I would come and visit. Now we can do visits virtually. And then I’d sit with your sick family member and talk to them about what their needs are, what type of death they would like to envision for themselves, and also if there’s anything that still undone to see if I can support them in wrapping those things up.
And the needs are varying. For some people, it’s about their practical affairs. They want to figure out what to do with all their possessions, and their money, and their financial accounts. And they need to get all their passwords cataloged. And nobody knows where the safe is or how to open it, stuff like that.
For some people, it’s very emotional. They are struggling with the idea. They’re struggling with deep fears of death and the idea of no longer being around and needs somebody to discuss those ideas with. For other people, it’s spiritual. They have concerns about the afterlife where their beliefs aren’t really nailed down.
And then for a lot of other people, it’s relational. There are some relationships in their life that need some attention before they die. And so no matter what the needs are, whether practical, emotional, legal, spiritual, psychospiritual, psychosocial, the death doula can support with.
So sometimes the work is a lot of talking. Well, for me, it’s a lot of listening. It’s a lot of listening. And it’s a lot of paying attention to the words that aren’t being said. Like the music behind the lyrics, to try to glean where somebody actually is in the process.
Because this is a big one to undertake. And that punt is completely intended. But trying to get your head around the idea that your life will soon be ending is not an easy one. And people need support through the process. And so that’s what we try to do.
DERAY: I didn’t even realize there was such a range. And then when you said it, I was like, that makes sense to me. But is it like people who need to come to terms with the fact that life will end? Is that the hardest or the people who– I don’t even know what your role is with the people who need to clear up some things in their relationships.
Do you help them work through it and then you– I don’t know. What does that look like? I have a lot of questions. Is the logistics thing, is that the easiest, the logistics piece? Are you there with them when they take– is that something you talk about, like do you want me here at the end? I don’t know, all of it. Answer whatever hit your spirit, can you answer.
ALUA ARTHUR: So much of it. So much of it. Let’s start with the question about relationships. Sometimes people will say that they’re ready to die, yet the body hasn’t started the process of them moving into imminent or active dying. And there are particular signs that you can tell.
And so people with a serious end stage disease say that they’re ready to die, air quotes, but nothing’s happening, I’m like, well, what’s going on? What are you holding out for? What’s still undone? What do we need to get at? I had this one client who was non-verbal. She had lost the ability to speak years prior after a stroke. And certainly, after the disease progressed, the other bodily functions went along with it.
I’d ask her if she’d know she’s dying, she nods vigorously. Are you ready? Nods vigorously. So why are you still holding on? Faraway look in her eyes. Is there something still undone? Faraway look in her eyes. How are your relationships? Faraway look in her eyes. You have children? Faraway look in her eyes. I keep asking until we start uncovering it.
And it turns out that she was estranged from her oldest daughter. She hadn’t seen her in 30 something years and really wanted to repair that relationship. And so through the help of her granddaughter who was there and her squeezing my hand, we were able to get a letter written to her daughter to apologize for how she was as a mother where she’d abandoned her.
She said all of her sorry’s and please forgive me’s and I love you’s. Because we reached out to the daughter and she was not trying to see her mom before she died. And so we were able to help her get this letter written. And then not long after that, maybe two days later, she started moving into active dying. Because there was clearly something she was holding on to.
And it shows up in so many different ways. We have a terrible idea of what this is like because of the movies and Hollywood. You have dad who’s laying on the hospital bed. And he’s estranged from the son. And at the last minute, the son runs into the room and says, dad, I love you. And dad’s like, I’m sorry, son. I forgive you. And then he goes flatline.
Doesn’t happen like that at all. Often what happens is that people just sit in turmoil about something that they haven’t yet said to somebody that they love. And that makes it much harder for them to surrender and to let go. So that’s how the emotional and relational work often works.
The four things that we need to remember that things that we don’t say that often choke us while we’re dying are I love you, please forgive me, I’m sorry, and thank you. These are taken from the [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] prayer out of Hawaii. But these four phrases are often the ones that cause a lot of blockage in relationships that make it much harder for people to release when their lives are over.
You also asked about what was easier in the work. And no part of it is necessarily easy. Our different skills and gifts lead us toward being better at one area than another. I’d say my gifts are in talking to people about dying overall and what might still be holding them here and helping them clear those blockages.
And since that is the main thing, no matter what falls in under it, these these or now. The practical things might seem easier. But the practical things are always evidence of a greater emotional thing. And so it’s to do a job to pay attention to what emotional thing’s being pointed at through the practical thing. You want an example?
DERAY: I do. And I want to know how you carry all of this. What does it mean to be there in the end for people, for so many people, and to not be overwhelmed by that?
ALUA ARTHUR: I’d say one of my particular strengths is in being able to be with people in emotional depth. I’m not scared of the big conversations or the heavy emotions. I allow myself to have them all the time and expect that other people will as well. People’s discomfort doesn’t necessarily make me uncomfortable.
And so it doesn’t seem like a lot to carry. Also because while the work may seem heavy in nature, it’s actually really life affirming. There’s a lot of laughter, and joy, and a lot of beauty, and a lot of magic at the end of life. While it is sad, while there’s grief, and pain, and sorrow involved, people also often end up feeling like they witnessed the greatest miracle to ever exist when they watch a death similar to a birth.
And I’m right alongside with them. I’m humbled by the simplicity and the profundity of dying and of death itself. Magical and confusing.
DERAY: Is it ever too late? You talk about thank you, and I love you, and I’m sorry. And a part of me is like, is it? I could see that person’s daughter being like you had a whole life to say this stuff, and at the last minute, you want you want me to come so you can give me this letter, or story, or whatever. But you had a whole life to figure this out and you didn’t. Is it ever too late?
ALUA ARTHUR: Well, that’s on the daughter to figure on her own deathbed. Mom did what she had to do for her death, but now daughter’s going to have to reconcile the choices that she made on her own deathbed. It wasn’t too late for mom anymore. Mom said the things. Mom felt released around it. I’m sure she desired that daughter would have come. But she said what she needed to say.
Now the daughter’s going to have to figure out whether or not she made the right choice or for coming. I think that as long as we’re still living, it’s not too late. We take tomorrow for granted.
DERAY: Are there differences in the– have you have you helped people transition at all ages or is this normally older people?
ALUA ARTHUR: All ages. Well, I haven’t worked with any children. It breaks my heart.
DERAY: So you choose not to do children?
ALUA ARTHUR: Yeah, but there are plenty of other doulas I know who do, so I refer them.
DERAY: Interesting. Is there a difference in ages? Like is 18 to 25 very different transitioning than 75, for instance?
ALUA ARTHUR: Not necessarily. We all die in similar ways when we’re dying from disease. I think the challenge is in the people who are around them who assign a different level of appropriateness of grief based on how old the person who’s dying is.
When somebody is elderly and they’re dying, we say, oh, well, she lived a long life. When somebody’s young, we say their life got cut short. Whereas the grief is just as great, no matter how old the person is. But the dying itself looks similar.
DERAY: And what do you do about the heartbreak of the people who might have survivor’s guilt? Like the family members who are still here and you help this person transition. What’s your role with them?
ALUA ARTHUR: Oh, hug them and hold them. Offer them resources. Check in on them. Encourage them to be in their grief. Remind them that they don’t have to hide from the difficult things. Remind them that their feelings are valid, no matter what those feelings are. Allow them to express their grief in whatever way they need to.
Grief shows up in so many different forms. Where you see people crying, but we’re not used to people getting promiscuous. And it’s my job to remind them that however it is that shows up is valid and a perfectly good response to loss.
And then also practically, there are for some needs, like wrapping up their affairs, their clothes, and their social media accounts, and their bank accounts, and their paperwork. And there’s a lot of stuff to be done. So I help them with that as well to give them a little bit more space so that they can feel the feelings can be with the feelings.
DERAY: And you approach this secularly, I think. But how often do you see people turn to religion in the end or turn away from religion in the end?
ALUA ARTHUR: Yeah, I find that a lot of the very religious people start backing off or start asking questions outside of their main religion. Because here’s my basic understanding is that all of our religious beliefs are just that. They’re just beliefs. There’s no fact or evidence to base them in. We don’t have any “I”. It’s all based on faith.
And at the end of life, we’re about to find out the truth. And so even the most religious amongst us question our beliefs, because we’re about to get some evidence real quick. I find that people who were hysterical in they’re living, who lived these big wild lives– one in particular is in my mind– she got baptized maybe 23 hours before she died into the Catholic Church, which I found hysterical.
Because she was a devout agnostic throughout her life. And we’d often talk about her ideas of the afterlife. And then in the very 11th hour, she got baptized. And I could understand. Maybe there’s a fear that what she believed her whole life was incorrect. And she hopes to do the right thing. I’m using air quotes.
But people like to play around with questions about the afterlife, which I appreciate. It’s a big old mystery, biggest mystery known to man.
DERAY: Was there anything that surprised you in the beginning? Was it like did you think they were going to be more tears than there were?
ALUA ARTHUR: Yes.
DERAY: I want to believe too– I don’t know this, because I’ve never been there– but I’m assuming people probably tell you a lot of things in the end, like secrets or they just got to get it out, or they want to make sure the record reflects something, even if you’re the record.
ALUA ARTHUR: Yeah. Oh, it’s so juicy. It’s so juicy. I swear, sometimes I think the sole reason why I do the job is because I’m nosy. Because nearing the end of life, people are so open. They’re vulnerable. It’s intimate. There’s nothing left to lose. And they also become so much more authentic. Because there’s no more mask to wear. They’re not protecting an image largely.
They’re about to die. And to me, that’s why the invitation. When we’re thinking constantly about our deaths, when I think tomorrow I might die, I’m not so worried about other people think of me. I’m just trying to speak and live my truth every doggone day.
And that’s what the dying teach. Because that’s how the dying show up. They’re not hiding. And that’s our invitation is to not hide. We’re going to die. What are you so worried about?
DERAY: How do you find race factor into your work? Do people of all races reach out to death doulas? If I didn’t know you, I literally wouldn’t even know this was real. Why do you think this isn’t as public as it could be? Do you think that it’s shame around dying– or maybe not shame– I don’t know how. How does race factor into this or a sense of justice? And then why do some of us not know about this as much as we could?
ALUA ARTHUR: The death doula’s job in large part is to honor the unique individual lived experience of the person who’s dying. That means that we have to look at all elements of who they were. Look at different parts of their identity to ensure that whoever they are, the totality of who they is being honored in their death. Because death ends a life. It puts a period on the end of the sentence.
Part of the challenge that the death doula industry has had so far is that it’s been largely populated by older white women. And everybody dies. Part of the conversation around death has made it this trying to create a beautiful transition and a good death. And we use this language that does not look at the realities of how different people are able to access health while they’re living.
And then that elusive– and I’m using air quotes again– good deaths that everybody should have. We don’t all die from the same things. We don’t die at the same rate. The conversations around the good deaths and the death doula movement, I’d say as well, really overlooks that.
We often call death the great equalizer. But that it masks the inequalities in society definitely is a culturally constructed process that is informed by social power dynamics. And because of that, it’s not equal. We will all die, yes. But we die at different rates. We die of different things. We have different access to medicine. We have different access to health care, et cetera.
I, because of my disability and the field, end up attracting a lot more Black clients, which I’m very, very grateful for. Oftentimes people will call and be like, are you the Black death doula? And I’m like, yes. And I’m so glad that they found me. Because that’s what they’re looking for.
They want somebody at the end who looks like them, who understands that you walk into the room and you don’t start calling people by their first name, who might understand what to do with their hair. It makes a difference. One of the suggestions I often make for other doulas that are interested in providing services to people of color and just humans overall is to lead with curiosity.
You don’t know this person. You don’t know their background. You don’t their belief system. You don’t know what they care about. You don’t know who they were 35 years ago. Just lead with curiosity. Lead with curiosity So race plays a huge factor, I think, in the work, just like it does in life itself. It does also in death. It doesn’t go away just because we die.
And It’s up to those of us that are supporting people through death to pay attention to those elements of people’s identity and make sure that we’re honoring them. Colorblindness got no place here at all. Why don’t people know about death doulas? Well, I think that’s because we don’t really want to talk about death so much publicly.
But here’s the thing. When I go to parties, which a long time ago, we used to do that. But whenever I’m in public and somebody asked me what I do, there’s one of like four responses. Either they’re like, oh my gosh, tell me everything. Or they’re like, wow, I wish she was there when my brother, mother, or whatever, sister, brother died.
Or what do you think happens when we die? They get all curious. Like what happens? I’m like, I don’t know. I’m still here talking to out this mouth. I don’t know. Or they turn away altogether. But 75% of people are fascinated and want the permission to talk about death.
We don’t grant that permission socially. People who are grieving feel the need to hide. Death happens behind closed doors. People don’t have access to it. We hide the elderly away in facilities and such. We don’t live was dying as though it’s a part of everyday life.
And because of that, it makes it harder for people to access services when they actually need them. It feels so isolating. I don’t know if you’ve ever been through this. But it feels so isolating when your family member’s dying. I remember when Peter was dying, Busma’s husband. And I remember feeling like we were the only family that was happening to, even though– I looked it up– there were 250,000 other people dying the same day. Because that’s what happens every single day.
But why does it feel like we were the only ones? We need to talk about death. We need to not make it seem like the scary horrible things that happened to only terrible people. Everybody is going to die. Everybody’s going to be touched by death. Millions of people currently have been touched by it because of the pandemic. Millions of people are grieving.
And yet, it’s not a public conversation. The longer we continue to hide it, the greater of a detrimental impact it’s going to have on society. It’s time we talk about death. It’s time we talk about grief. It’s time we talk about loss, pain, suffering.
DERAY: Well, we consider you a friend of the Pod. We can’t wait to have you back. And I learned so much.
ALUA ARTHUR: I’ve done a good deal for the day. Thank you, DeRay.
DERAY: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week.
Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our executive producer is Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Samuel Sinyangwe, and our special contributor, Johnetta Elzie.