In This Episode
DeRay, De’Ara, Kaya, and Sam dive into the underreported news of the week, including Tanzania, suture threads, Tina Turner, and the Klan at Harvard. DeRay interviews Leigh Phillips of SaverLife and Solana Rice of Liberation in a Generation.
DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, this is DeRay. Welcome to Pod Save The People in this episode. It’s me, Sam, Kaya, and De’Ara, as usual. Kaya wasn’t with us during the recording, so she has her news separately. But she’s still here. Then Leigh Philips and Solana Rice from SaverLife come to talk to us about the racial wealth gap in the work that they’re doing. I learned a ton. My advice for this week is to trust the process. Then in the past couple of weeks, things have happened that I couldn’t have manufactured.
I couldn’t have– they happened. And part of what I had to do is surrender to the fact that they happened. And say like, you know what? There is a lesson here. There’s a message here. There is something here I need to deal with. And like I just had to be open to that. So I’d tell you be open, like follow the process. Trust the process. Here we go.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Family, welcome to another episode of Pod Save The People. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter, @DeAraBalenger.
SAM SINYANGWE: And I’m Sam Sinyangwe @samswey on Twitter.
DERAY MCKESSON: And this is DeRay, @deray.
DE’ARA BALENGER: So, lots happened this week. I think one of the things that we decided to dig into is what’s going on in Georgia with the very swift passage of a new law. It’s actually a compilation of laws, 95 pages of a bill, which essentially strips away so much of the very little voting rights that exists in Georgia. It’s going to strip away what’s existing.
I’m actually so impressed how the Democratic party is actually organizing and collaborating and being super responsive in a way that is, I think, compelling and powerful across the board. I saw Jamie Harrison on Alicia Menendez Tonight with some very, very strong words. I think, probably the strongest I’ve seen him speak against the Republicans. There’s a lot of work to do. And hopefully, we can have some solve when it comes to some federal bills that are on the Senate floor that can protect what’s happening in Georgia.
But interesting to see this, not surprised. One of the things that I found most shocking about what they’re going to pass through or try to pass through is that there will be a lot of room to actually meddle with election results. So, I feel like Donald Trump to some extent is still very, very much a part of these processes in these conversations.
SAM SINYANGWE: I hope that this backlash that we are seeing from really across the South, right? In states, Georgia is sort of the latest and most high-profile recent example. But we have seen wave after wave after wave of voter-suppression measures adopted across the South, the area where the majority of Black people live. And you can literally look at like there’s a one– almost a one-to-one alignment between the states that have the most restrictive laws when it comes to vote in the states that have the largest Black populations.
This is like a new layer on top of existing restrictions that were already in place, right? And so, you’re seeing in Georgia, it is taking a situation where you had a few narrow pathways that were created that allowed people to actually access the vote in historic numbers. And they’re trying to cut those off or render them sort of useless when it comes to being able to cast a ballot. So, like having a ballot drop box, now the drop boxes have to be in the actual polling place.
And they have to be during the hours of the polling place. So it’s actually not useful. It’s not like something that’s accessible to you outside of that. Even simple thing– I mean, being able to give people water when they’re in line to vote and recognizing that the lines are already too long because of the existing voting restriction measures that are already in place in Georgia. Now, it’s a crime to give people water in line to vote. So all of these things are egregious.
They are also all the more reason why– like to your point, De’Ara– it is good to see some initial sort of coalescing around the need to pass H.R. 1, the need to actually secure, federally, the ability to intervene and prevent these measures from being implemented, particularly in states like Georgia. But we’re not seeing enough alignment, yet. Still, there’s still a lot of work to be done to, for example, end the filibuster to even make it possible to pass that measure.
So, still have to deal with the issue of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema and others who are sort of hesitant around the filibuster. I meant all of these other procedural tricks that are standing in the way of us, actually, being able to equip the federal government to intervene effectively.
DERAY MCKESSON: It’s one of those things, too, where I think about the Voting Rights Act, right? The Voting Rights Act itself got gutted. Section 5 would have required rules like these to be approved in advance so that you couldn’t just they couldn’t do this because people anticipated this, insert the Voting Rights Act. But Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is still alive and well. And Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is what prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups that’s identified in the Act.
So, race in color is protected, but it’s only after the fact. So they’ll have to litigate after the thing has happened. We’re going to try and bring some people on to talk about what is left of the Voting Rights Act and where that stands. But it is a reminder. I’ve seen and talked to organizers in Georgia who are ready. They are like, you know what? Can’t arrest us all. We’re going to pass all the water out. It’s going to be passing the water is illegal? Just fill the jails with people passing out water after you vote. How amazing would it be if they are block parties in every single polling place.
Just like tons of parties. So, we don’t have to pass the water out. Just get the water and a cookie right there because it’s a block party. I think, they’re going to be– I think we’re going to see even more incredible organizing from the Georgia organizers to make sure that Stacey gets elected or whoever runs for governor and to just turn the legislature because it is a Republican legislature which is how they’re able to move all this stuff so quickly.
And we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the young Black woman legislator who knocked on the door and got arrested. They dragged her out of there like she actually did something wrong. And she was a chill– she was a very chill knocker on the door. It wasn’t even like a dramatic knock on the door. She wasn’t screaming or yelling. It was a very light can I come in, and they just yanked her out of there. So, we see Jim Crow 2.0 rear his head.
DE’ARA BALENGER: So, my news today, y’all, is from the Atlantic. And I want to, first of all, give a shout out to the writer of this piece. Her name is Hannah Giorgis. And apologies, Hannah, if I’m not pronouncing your last name correctly. I watched the Tina Turner documentary. It is incredible. And then, I wanted to share some news on Tina. But I had to scour the internet to find anybody of color that has written about this documentary because obviously most film critics don’t look like us.
And not that everyone doesn’t appreciate Tina because I think that’s one of the things the documentary shows us is that she actually was more appreciated in Europe than in America. Not by Black people but other people in America, just want make that caveat. But anyhow, this piece that Hannah wrote is called “The Final Word on Tina Turner.” It’s kind of her thoughts on this documentary which is on HBO. We all know Tina Turner. I hope we all know Tina Turner. Most of my childhood was in the ’80s.
And I think, I actually called my mother after I watched the documentary and said, I’m actually reconsidering my thinking about you being a good mom since you never took me to a Tina Turner concert. So, what was so beautiful about this documentary is that, yes, it did talk about her years of abuse and what she had to escape and what she had to overcome and how resilient she was. But it also talked a lot about just how she was a Black woman doing rock and roll throughout her whole career which spans 50 years.
So, really from the ’60s until– I don’t know– last week. So, it talks about, obviously, like when she kind of restarted her career. But as she put it, it was her debut because all the music she had done up until the ’80s was all music that Ike had produced or somehow really driven. And so, it just was interesting because she kind of started her career, sort to speak, at 40 something years old. And then went on to be this really incredible powerhouse and record-breaking artist but in rock and roll, right?
And so, she really made it her own. This documentary just does a wonderful job of telling this story. The filmmakers, they’ve won of Oscars before, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin. But I just loved it. I think I’m constantly looking for joy and also just looking for representation of just Black extraordinariness. And I think she is such an example of that. And I also just love how Tina Turner now is a citizen of Switzerland. She lives in Zurich. Yes, Tina. Yes. Yes.
So I think, it’s also– I think even that representationally for Black people, for Black women– yes, there’s a lot of work to do here in America, and we’re going to do the work. But when we’re ready to sit down, let’s sit down somewhere nice, right? So all that to say, I hope you all watch it. I just think it is extraordinary. I think we’re also in this space of just honoring and celebrating incredible Black women artists who just laid this groundwork that we should be reminded of, right?
And so, thinking of Billie Holiday and how incredible Andra Day was in that. Thinking about Nina Simone a few years ago, I’m hoping someone’s going to do something about Whitney, the joyful part of Whitney. So hopefully, if anybody’s looking for help on production, please call me. But any who–
DERAY MCKESSON: Are you an expert of Whitney Houston?
DE’ARA BALENGER: Just wanted to share in this–
DERAY MCKESSON: What do you mean call you for production?
DE’ARA BALENGER: I love nippy. Yes. Yes.
DERAY MCKESSON: OK. Goodbye, De’Ara. Goodbye.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Yes.
DERAY MCKESSON: Next. Next. Next.
DE’ARA BALENGER: So, watch it, y’all. It is beautiful. But interesting of what you all have to say just even around this piece because I think, it’s really interesting, her life.
SAM SINYANGWE: De’Ara, I think this is dope. And I certainly do see the documentaries, and I’m like more excited than ever. And just that image in Zurich, right? I think something about– we do need like a diversity of perspectives. We do need like a diversity of like ways to envision yourself in the world. And just like being able to have such a long-lasting and multifaceted career, where you can sort of change things up into your 40s.
And not only just sort of reinvent yourself, but do it in like a global stage, a global level, better than anybody else could. And then to go off and go to Zurich just like sounds dope. It’s like a story that I’m looking forward to learning more about. And also, just like shout out to so many different documentaries that have been coming out recently. De’Ara already mentioned Billie Holiday. I mean, I know we talked about that in a previous episode. But I think there are so many different stories that are being told now.
And we’re still sort of sitting at home like a lot of us right now, and there isn’t a whole lot of content that is like live being produced. But just the historical content, I think, is really being critical, I know. Like for me, in just having a new window and dimension of understanding the world despite the lockdown and everything that’s going on now.
DERAY MCKESSON: There were two quotes that I saw people say on Twitter that both broke my heart and reminded me that there are people putting incredible gifts out into the world who change the way we think about culture and society. And we never know their story. We never know what happened behind the scenes. There was this quote that someone quoted from her that says, I don’t necessarily want to be a, quote, strong person. I had a terrible life. I just kept going. You just keep going, and you hope that something will come.
I think about what we– what society did by making a joke out of her abuse and having her relive being abused for so long as if that was like just a cool part of the story, that that was like just a thing we– and like not even having– not even grappling with what it means for Tina Turner to be a celebrity, in a way that very few people ever be, to have to relive that as a survivor over and over. And it becomes just a cultural thing, where like domestic abuse becomes fodder for the way we talk about her story.
How incredibly disappointing of all of us that like that just was allowed to happen? And the other thing is that there was somebody who tweeted Tina Turner, proclaiming that she’s never experienced love from anyone ever is so soul crushing, considering all she’s given to the world. And she said that– before she found her current husband as she’s in her 80s. But just what does it mean to love the world, and the world didn’t love you back?
And I think about that, not only with Ike, which is really obvious, but it wasn’t loving of society to do what we did to her, to want her to sing and dance and make us happy. And we exploited her pain for our own sense of understanding. And I’m happy that people are telling that story now. I’m happy that the collective language is finally there to name that. And say, this is what happens. Same thing with Britney. Finally, people are like reckoning with like what we did to Britney Spears? Like what celebrity culture did to her that wasn’t fair, wasn’t right.
And she sort of endured it in a way that people now just want– like the world is different. But I think about them in some ways together. So, I’m excited to finish the documentary. And I totally get her being like, I’m done. Like no more. Like I did it. I’ve given you every part of my life. My last years will just be mine. And I’m like, Tina, go ahead. I want to send you some flowers. But you know what? Keep your address private at Zurich. I’m sure people are loving you now.
But I think that’s like a ball, especially because the way celebrity culture– part of celebrity is that like it just feeds and feeds and feeds. And she said, I fed the monster. I fed the monster everything he can get, and I won’t feed it anymore. It’s actually just like a powerful thing.
SAM SINYANGWE: So, my news is about Tanzania where there is a new president. Mama Samia Suluhu Hassan is now the Africa’s only female head of state and the current leader of Tanzania. This is personally relevant to me. I am a Tanzanian, like my dad’s Tanzanian. I have sort of seen from afar like the local political dynamics that were going on there.
And Tanzania is a place that, up until recently, was being led by President Magufuli who was sort of like this populist candidate. He was the son of poor farmers. He sort of represented more rural areas, more sort of traditionalist areas. They were all about sort of economic development and redistribution which was good. But also, in many cases, with an authoritarian approach increasingly.
So, in the last election, which just happened within the year, President Magufuli literally restricted social media right before the election. And then, in the context of coronavirus, Tanzania was one of the only countries in the world that just simply refused to report data on coronavirus cases. So they made a decision not to track coronavirus, not to sort of allow transparency in terms of the intervention, and then to refuse the vaccine when it was offered.
So, that was like the context in which President Magufuli, after doing all of that, suddenly died. And so, there’s a lot of speculation about why he died, whether it was coronavirus or a heart condition, which is what they reported officially. But now, we have a new situation in Tanzania which is Mama Samia. So, we wanted to bring this to the pod because it is something that is really powerful just to see a Black woman head of state in Tanzania the only head of state who has formal power over the country of any nation in Africa right now. And so–
DERAY MCKESSON: Is that right, Sam?
SAM SINYANGWE: Yes.
DERAY MCKESSON: Wow. What does that mean?
SAM SINYANGWE: In Ethiopia, there is sort of like a ceremonial role, but it’s not like the actual president who has the decision-making power.
DERAY MCKESSON: I don’t know. OK.
SAM SINYANGWE: So that’s what’s going on in Tanzania. We have yet to see sort of how Mama Samia governs. But it is sort of interesting because– just watching afar and seeing what is going on in Tanzania, like half of my family lives in Tanzania, and seeing them straight up reject the coronavirus vaccine, not do any testing, not share any data was really concerning. Now, I think they might be in a different direction.
DERAY MCKESSON: You know what I say? There was a Washington Post op-ed that was written by Maria Sarungi Tsehai who is a media professional and activist in Tanzania. And what she says about Mama Samia is really interesting. She’s like, it is unbelievably important that there is a woman leader and that not only is there a woman leader now, but there’s a woman who stands in her womanhood, that she has not shied away from challenging the sexist notions that a woman can’t be the president.
And then, she goes on to say, she is cautiously optimistic because she knows that representation isn’t enough. And that one of Mama Samia’s first statements was that she would continue where Magufuli left off. And she’s like, well, we don’t– that’s not what we need. We don’t need to continue where he left off. Sam already highlighted that. So, she goes on the op-ed to say that in 2017, Magufuli declared that pregnant schoolgirls should be permanently expelled from school, bowing that during his presidency, not a single pregnant school girl should go back to school.
That led to thousands of expulsions in the formal system. He also repeatedly opposed family planning efforts and went so far as to suggest that women should set their ovaries free, calling those who support family planning lazy. He was a colorist, saying that voters should vote for a female candidate because she was fair skinned and that he listened more to fair-skinned women than dark-skinned women. And she just highlights these things to say that like the party stood behind these things.
So now, when Mama Samia is here, she’s questioning, will the party actually shift its past practices and its beliefs? Or will it actually just stay and just have a different person leading it? She also noted that as newly elected president, she continues to appear in public and mingle without wearing a mask and that she has remained silent on the mass gatherings in urban centers even though coronavirus is a real thing.
So, I just wanted to bring that here because it is a reminder that representational politics is important, that representation often helps people see things that they wouldn’t otherwise see. And a representation sometimes can mask the status quo that hasn’t helped us. So, I’m interested to see what this looks like. Sam, I didn’t realize that the power that she has is different instead of the range of African nations. So I’m interested to see.
Somebody who is about the KKK at Harvard– so, there is this fascinating essay in The Crimson called “The Crimson Klan.” And it talks about the class of ’55. They entered Harvard at the age of 16. And they were about 15 Black students in that class. And most of them lived on the north corner of Harvard Yard. Freshman spring semester, two white Harvard freshmen put a wooden cross facing the corner of the yard. And at around midnight on February 5, 1952, these students lit the cross on fire.
And the article is recounting the presence of the Klan at Harvard. And it centers around this one guy, J. Max Bond who was at class of ’55 because he wrote a letter to The Crimson. The writers of this and the researchers had to do a lot of research to try and piece this together because it was scattered. And it wasn’t clear the University wanted people to know that this even happened. But in the letter to The Crimson, Bond wrote, some of the onlookers cheered when after 10 minutes, the cross was knocked down.
But we are sorry to say that others express indignation at its destruction. Minutes later, a Negro student passing through the yard was hailed with remarks such as might be expected in the Klan-dominated states of the South. Now, after Harvard, Bond became one of the most prominent Black architects in the 20th century. And then when he died, his widow released an 11-page retelling of his life, in which she revealed that the University, Harvard University threatened him and any Black student with suspension if they were to go to the media with news of the cross burning.
He didn’t. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He finished undergrad in three years. I’m sure because he was like, get me out of there. And he wasn’t suspended. And the two freshmen who did it were handed temporary probation, which is nothing by the administrative board. And they were seen as pranksters by the administration and students. They made a fake apology, and they said that it was a practical joke. Reading it was a reminder that there is not an institution in this country, like an old institution in this country, that did not participate in white supremacy, that did not have it as a part of its culture, that did not try and hide it.
And in the article, it is amazing because they have a picture from a commencement in 1924 of Harvard Klansmen posing for photos at the John Harvard statue. They are in their white robes and the pointy hats. And it was one of those things that like– there’s a 1923 Crimson article that talks about the Klan. And in it, some Klan members said that they thought that the presence of the Klan was redundant because the University was already, quote, 100% American, as in all Anglo-Saxon white people.
And it was one of those things that was just really– it wasn’t shocking. I went to Bowdoin, which is an old– the oldest school in Maine at 1850, blah blah blah. And I’m sure there was a KKK there, too. Bowdoin didn’t admit women until the ’70s. So the sexism was also real. But it was just really fascinating to uncover this history. And I think about how many other places this history is just not uncovered yet, that the history is there, that they participated in deep ways. And you think about what that does to the psyche of students.
I think about in my class at Bowdoin. I was one of a handful of Black students. And I can’t imagine what that would have been like in the ’50s. It was hard in 2007. There were probably 15 to 20 of us in my class out of 400 students. So, this is just a reminder that these institutions participated. And when we think about reparations and making amends, they are all culpable.
DE’ARA BALENGER: I had kind of two streams of consciousness when I read this, DeRay. One was I’m sure glad I went to a historically Black college and University. And I went for grad school. So I went to law school. I went to Texas Southern in Houston. My dad went to Morehouse and wanted me to go to Spelman. But my mom had her way. So I went to Macalester which is a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. All that to say, I feel like I didn’t really have a proper college experience.
And actually never had to really make friends until I went to an HBCU. And when I say I never had to make friends, when you go to a Bowdoin or go to a Macalester or go to wherever, name a school, you’re friends with all the other Black people, automatically. So I actually don’t have to make friends from the ground up. When you go to all-Black school and everybody’s Black, you actually have to make friends. Just want to give that perspective because we don’t hear that, I think, enough when it comes to the HBCU experience.
And it’s also like if you don’t have to deal with these types of histories, right? Most HBCUs like Texas Southern was built out of, actually, the fact that separate but equal is still going on. So instead of the Black folks going to UT, they’re like build your own law school. And that’s what happened. So I think that was one line of thinking. And then the other was I watched that documentary about the college scandal that like Felicity Huffman and all those other people got wrapped up in.
And when you start to think about how made up a lot of the perceptions around the elitism and how good these schools are. It really is just like branding and marketing like over the decades, right? And the extra layer to that is like people are actually paying money for their kids to get in. So I just feel like what’s the point of Harvard at this point? Like no disrespect, I know you guys, you love your IV League schools, especially Black folks.
But I’m just saying, I think, this article in particular just got me to thinking– and the documentary all wrapped up– like, are these universities and colleges meant for folks of color? Historically, present day, how admissions work, all of it.
DERAY MCKESSON: Yeah. I didn’t realize you went to Macalester, De’Ara.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Hm-hmm.
DERAY MCKESSON: I love that. While I think a lot of it is branding, I do think that there is something to be said for the quality of the education that comes from the sheer amount of resources, right?
DE’ARA BALENGER: I mean, I guess. I guess. And I’ll tell you why. Because we were worked to asses of all the white schools for our mock trial. So I think, yes, there’s something to the resources of it all. But it’s like, I hear you, but I also think it is this like, it’s American. This whole cloud of perception around these universities and how prestigious they are, blah blah blah.
DERAY MCKESSON: Yeah. I’m just saying that there is– I think about at Bowdoin, we had a writing center. So any paper you had, you just got a writing coach. You go, they look at your paper. They edit it for you. And then you turn it into your professor. They give you feedback. And then you go to office. Like it was just a level– it was like if you did not do well, you really– I mean, Sam, you went to Stanford. So I don’t know what the resources were, but Stanford is a ton of money. I just think about like it was– we called it a gentleman C at Bowdoin.
If you got to C, you pretty much failed the class because everything that you possibly can– I remember, at Bowdoin, if you didn’t have money, you could literally go to the bursar’s office and just ask for money. You’re like, can I have $300? They’ll be like, yeah. They just tag it on to your bill. They get– they literally just put the money on your card. I mean, it was the level of– like I went to school in Maine. And there were all these kids who like had never– they didn’t know what snow was. They hadn’t been to Maine before. The Dean’s office just bought coats for people.
If you came from the West Coast or whatever, they would have had a list. And they just be like, hey, let’s go to L.L. Bean like shop for– it was one of those places where like there really was no excuse for you not to be engaged in learning. And that was a resource thing, right? So, I think about my biggest class was three, and it was called the science of the wind. And that was a class that I thought that I might not actually graduate because the science of the wind is actually really complicated. I tried to take this class on birth that everybody said was really easy.
And then I got put in the science class. I did take the secret life of lobsters, which is my other science credit that was– I did that well. But I think about my smallest class was five and seven, you know. And I think about I have some friends who went to schools with less resources that they just couldn’t do that. And it wasn’t because the faculty didn’t care. It wasn’t because they didn’t have a commitment. It wasn’t because the talent wasn’t there. They just weren’t there resources to do that.
And I’m mindful that our schools had the resources not because they were better, not because they were founded by smarter people, it was like a race is why the HBCUs have historically been underfunded. And I just want to name that. I don’t want to walk away from the quality thing because that feels, I do think there’s a quality thing that happens. But I don’t think the quality thing is about ability. I guess, that’s what I’m trying to say.
KAYA HENDERSON: My news this week is about an amazing 17-year-old Dasia Taylor from Iowa City, Iowa, who has created a major medical innovation as her science fair project. Dasia has invented suture thread that changes color when a surgical wound becomes infected using beet juice, of all things. This is a breakthrough product especially for low- and middle-income countries where 11% of surgical wounds develop an infection, compared to only 2% to 4% of surgeries in the United States, according to the World Health Organization.
In some African nations, up to 20% of women who give birth by caesarean section then develop surgical site infections. And it’s all preventable. Dasia’s figured out a way to do that. And for her trouble, she was named one of the 40 finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the oldest and most prestigious high school math and science national competition. This is the thing that propels you into incredible careers in math and science and opportunities to advance.
So this is a huge opportunity for Dasia. Dasia’s committed to equity in global health as well as in her community. And she plans to patent her invention. She was also voted the spokesperson of the Science Search cohort by her peers. And she was able to do this work under the leadership of chemistry teachers at her local public school, Iowa City West High School. And she’s doing ongoing work with a microbiologist at the University of Iowa.
Can you believe this was her first time doing independent research, and this is what this young sister came up with? After graduation, she hopes to attend Howard University to study political science and eventually become a lawyer. And I chose this story because it’s such a great example of how much our young people can do when we stop treating them like babies and engage them as leaders in solving the world’s problems.
Dasia is a great example of the concern, the commitment, the leadership, the capability, that’s present in our young people. Right now– not 20 years from now, not 30 years from now, not when they graduate from college. But right now, as a high school senior, this young sister is out here changing the world. And with folks like her in leadership, she won’t only change the world, she’ll change things in her own community.
She’ll change things for her family and for herself. I’m really proud of her. And I think we need to hear more and more examples of young people like Dasia changing the world. And so I say, rock on, Dasia.
DERAY MCKESSON: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save The People is coming. Pod Save The People was brought to you by Scribd. Now I’d love Scribd for a long time. It was actually the platform that we released a lot of statements during the protests. We use Scribd to like put these things on the world. So I’ve known it for a long time. Such an easy platform, books on it, magazine, like the whole– they got the whole shebang. Scribd.
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DERAY MCKESSON: So SaverLife is a fintech nonprofit dedicated to creating prosperity for working families and achieving prosperity through savings. Today I sit down to discuss the racial wealth gap in America and what we hope the Biden administration can do with this, with Solana Rice and Leigh Phillips. Let’s go. Leigh and Solana. Thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save The People.
SOLANA RICE: Thanks for having us.
LEIGH PHILLIPS: Thanks so much. It’s great to be here.
DERAY MCKESSON: So I’m excited to have you on to learn more about the racial wealth gap. I have a lot of questions. And I know that you’ve studied this so excited to learn. But can we start with how you got to this work? Was it– did you always care about the wealth gap? Did you like stumble? Or did you read a book, and it changed your life? Was it a class? So like how did you get to this work?
SOLANA RICE: So this is Solana. I started doing this work pretty early on in my career. Getting out of college, I had an individual development account. And at the time, this was an experiment and a big program nationwide to help low-income people save. And what I realize is that I was in classes learning financial literacy with women, specifically Black women. And at the time, I was in St. Louis who were striving to own a home, to open a business, to get more education.
And I realized that there was this whole world, a field called Asset Building to help low-income people build wealth. And what I resolved to do at the time was to make sure that I was always giving back to and contributing to this field. That’s how it started. And more and more, I got attuned to the issues of race and racism and wealth building. And soon enough, in the economy and then decided to break off and start Liberation in a Generation.
LEIGH PHILLIPS: So from my perspective, DeRay, it was a little less purposeful than Solana’s. I think it might be a little more accidental. But I started working about 15 years ago in local government so for the city and county of San Francisco where we live. Really, one of the first things we did was to focus on increasing tax credits and access to banking for low-income San Franciscans who were being excluded from these important systems.
That work over time grew into what is now the Office of Financial Empowerment in San Francisco, which is one of a number of municipal governments who now have these types of offices that are really looking at leveraging government power in order to create a more equitable economy and financial system. So through that process, I really learned a lot about just how inequitable the systems really are, whether or not you’re talking access to banking and predatory lending and being able to afford college, access to capital for small businesses.
The list just goes on and on. And during that time, I also connected with Solana and the role she was playing at the time and became a part again of this Asset Building movement that’s really focused on how do you more fairly distribute wealth in this country. So I made the switch to working for what is now SaverLife which is a non-profit organization about five years ago.
And that was because I’ve become more interested in the use of financial technology and how all of these new technologies were being created but oftentimes by typical people that you see creating technology here in Silicon Valley. So, not really taking into consideration the perspectives and needs of underserved communities. So, I saw a lot of potential in being able to use technology to reach a wide audience, help people individually but also collectively. And that was how SaverLife was created.
DERAY MCKESSON: So there’s a report out about the economic toll of COVID-19 on SaverLife life members. What did you learn? Were people saving money? Were people still earning money at the same rate? Did people think they were going to get a stimulus check? Would a stimulus check actually help? Or would it just be sort of like icing on a bad cake? What did you learn?
LEIGH PHILLIPS: So, we’re learning a lot, and we’re learning everyday as this crisis, both health and economic crisis of COVID-19 continues to unfold. So, just to tell you a little bit about SaverLife members and who they are, right now, we’ve reached almost half a million people across the US. Over 80% of our membership are women, mostly mothers. And the majority, on average, earn around 25 to $30,000 a year. And about 60% of our membership right now are people of color.
So when you’re looking at who has been hardest hit by both the health and economic impacts of this pandemic, that really is our target population.
DERAY MCKESSON: And how does somebody become a member?
LEIGH PHILLIPS: Anyone can become a member of SaverLife. You just go to saverlife.org. And if you live in the US and you have an email address, you can sign up. So anyone can become a member of SaverLife. And we also work with a lot of our partners and others across the country to drive people to join. So when people join SaverLife, they’re really there to improve their financial situation, become better savers, stock raising, a habit of saving. And that was, I would say, going quite well before the pandemic hit.
What we’ve seen then is a complete devastation on our client population. We’ve been holding people monthly on unemployment and the impact of unemployment on this population. At the height in the summer, we had over 80% of our members tell us that their income had been reduced due to COVID. And over 50% had become unemployed. So I think that really speaks to the need to look at the data, not in the aggregates and not look at what’s happening to everybody but to really disaggregate that information and look at who is being hit.
Because those who are being hit hard are being essentially wiped out, economically. So right now, we’re looking at a situation where last poll, we found about 40% of our membership remained unemployed. Almost 60% had experienced a period of unemployment during 2020. So really high numbers of unemployment. And once those government benefits and the expanded unemployment insurance ended over the summer, what we started to see was savings rates decrease and the debt increased.
So now, we’re in a situation where unemployment remains high for this client population. And there’s other issues that are really coming about because of that are increasingly on people’s minds. So we’re talking about food insecurity, housing insecurity, wiping out savings, increasing levels of debt. So really creating significant and, unfortunately, likely long-term financial challenges.
DERAY MCKESSON: So, one of the things I want– like specifically I want to ask about was around grocery spending increasing. And the report showed that the grocery expenses increase for SNAP recipients. And it looks like just in general. Why would that increase so dramatically?
LEIGH PHILLIPS: Yeah, so we’ve seen an increase in food spending over the last few months which has been sustained. And so, for many people, you may be experiencing the pandemic is a time when you’re spending less. For many people, you’re travelling less, going out less, et cetera. But for lower-income populations, particularly with children, that’s not the case because people didn’t have that discretionary income to be spending on those things in the first place. So we attribute this to a number of factors. So first off, the cost of food has gone up. That’s something that we’ve seen nationally–
DERAY MCKESSON: It has?
LEIGH PHILLIPS: –in people. It has. And especially in those early days– we also saw people doing what we were all doing, right? Like trying to protect our families. So spending more in those early days of the pandemic when we’re being told that we need to shelter in place, and we don’t know how long for. We saw people really being very concerned about how can I make sure my fridge is full and my pantry is full, for I don’t know what’s coming.
And we heard some quite heartbreaking stories from people who were concerned that by the time their SNAP benefits came along, there wouldn’t be food to buy. Unfortunately, that didn’t end up being the case. But I think the last point is really the one that you raised, which a lot of our members are mothers with young children. And those kids aren’t in school. So that resource of school meals, getting that extra level of support is become a real burden for families.
Now you’ve got lots of people at home, eating all of their meals at home. And anyone who has kids can know that they eat a fair amount. And that’s definitely been an impact on our families. As well as the cost of utilities so obviously, you’re in the house all the time. So heat, power, all those things and the cost of internet and supportive equipment for learning.
DERAY MCKESSON: Got it. When we zoom out and think about the racial wealth gap or disparities, Solana, can you help us think about what are some of the things that people get wrong in the public conversation? Like I think this is one of those things where like there seems to be a lot of misinformation. And I say to somebody who like I’ve read a couple of things. I’ve talked to some experts. But like, that, I really know that well, which is why we want you all to help us. So what are some of the things that we should just clear out?
SOLANA RICE: Yeah. You asked earlier about my drive to work on this issue. And when I was at Prosperity Now, we were developing a lot of statistics about the racial wealth gap and trying to characterize what is it and how large is it. And one of the big things that we found was that it would take 228 years for Black wealth to meet that of white wealth. And about 84 to 85 years for Latinx wealth to meet that of white wealth.
And that’s if white wealth didn’t increase at all from that time. We also found that by 2050, by the middle of the century, that Black and Latinx wealth would be zero. I mean zero, like nothing. And when we talk about wealth, we’re talking about what you own, things like a house, things like savings, minus what you owe, all your debt, your credit card debt, student loan debt, things like that.
For me, that really got me to thinking, oh, we are not doing the huge bold, transformative things in this country to either reverse or even ameliorate those big large statistics. And this requires big federal intervention. And so, that’s why I started doing the work with Liberation in a Generation. But I think, one of the things we get really wrong is that when we hear that statistic, we think, oh, well, that’s because Black people don’t know how to save. Or that’s because Latinx people just spend too much on x, y, and z.
People are lazy, and they should just get a job. Or why didn’t they just get more education so that they could get a good job and make their way? Folks are not recognizing the fact that throughout the history of this nation, we have subsidized and we have built the wealth of mostly white folks in this country. So we know how to do it. And we know how to do it at the federal level and nationally. We did it with a GI Bill. We did it with the New Deal.
And we just decided to exclude whole swaths of people from those investments that we made throughout the nation. So I encourage folks to always do a double take when they find themselves hearing things like that and trying to blame individuals, that this is not something that people can just not buy more coffee or stop buying those shoes or those phones or whatever it is. That’s not it. This is a systematic issue across the nation. And it’s a historical one.
DERAY MCKESSON: Is it– can states do anything? Or is the federal government really the only lever? Or can philanthropy do something, or like is it literally only the federal government?
SOLANA RICE: We focus on the federal government because they print money. And not that because they print money and to go directly to people. But this is the largest source of capital that we have. So it’s not that states can’t do things. We’ve seen California start an automatic retirement savings account program. We see people subsidizing health care and that helps with wealth. But in terms of scale, we really are talking about federal investments.
And a lot of what states are working with is coming from the federal government as well in terms of resources. What we are so heartened by though, is that people are getting that connection. People are getting that connection especially over the last four years that what happens at the federal level does have a direct impact on our lives.
DERAY MCKESSON: They definitely got that.
SOLANA RICE: Yeah. I think we got the message. Right. And so, I’m hoping we continue that momentum.
DERAY MCKESSON: One of the things that– one of the reports that I wanted to see if you could help us understand is the navigating income volatility as a barrier to savings success. How would you explain income volatility to people who don’t study– well, what is the big takeaway from this?
LEIGH PHILLIPS: To build on Solana’s point, there was a piece of research that came out several years ago and has been repeated from the Federal Reserve that showed that over 40% of Americans couldn’t cover a $400 expense without going into debt of last month in 30 days. So that’s become a very important statistic because it really points to the challenge of not having any liquidity in your finances, not being able to cover emergency expenses, as a major destabilizing factor.
And so, as Solana points out, you can look at this from two different perspectives. And at SaverLife, we do look at this from both of these perspectives. So the first is the individual perspective. How can you encourage people to save? And some of that is individual action, but a lot of it is really structural. So if you look at that question, you think, well, how do you get more people to have $400 or $500 in the bank is one question. The other, but more important question is, why do so many people not have $500 in the bank? I think, that’s the real question.
And Solana says it’s not because people spend too much money. It’s not because people behave irresponsibly. It’s because of these larger structural issues. And one of the major issues that’s come out and seems to be increasing in this kind of shifting economy is that people’s income just isn’t consistent. So if you work in a job and it’s a salaried position, you’re going to get paid roughly the same amount of money every two weeks or every month. And that allows you to plan, right?
That means how know much your income is and what your household expenses are. And you can plan, and then you can save. And you can engage in all of those positive financial activities that we encourage, paying yourself first, staying on top of your bills. But for millions of people in this country and for our SaverLife members, income, if it’s hourly, fluctuates a lot from month to month. So what we found in our research is that for a lot of our families, the majority of them, their actual income goes up and down by, on average, $1,000 a month, month over month over month.
And what tends to cause that is inconsistent scheduling at work. So if you have an hourly wage job, say you work in retail or fast food or something like that, you’re not guaranteed the same hours every week or every month. If you’re self-employed, we see a lot of fluctuation in people’s incomes who are self-employed. And if you work seasonally and maybe you have a job where there’s more work at certain times of year than others.
And this volatility causes a lot of hardship in people’s lives because if you can imagine, how you’re supposed to stay on top of rent and bills and other things if you don’t really know what your paycheck looks like month over month over month. And so, that’s kind of basically what’s happening with income volatility is that income is inconsistent. So that means, when income is down, people are more likely to go into debt in order to cover those expenses because they don’t have a savings cushion.
And then when income is higher or if there’s an influx of cash, which we often see for example, tax time when people get tax refunds and credits, savings rates tend to go up. People put that money aside, and then they spend it down over the course of the year. So Solana can comment more on the policy perspectives here. But what we’ve heard from our membership at SaverLife is that a more reliable work schedule, a more consistent work schedule would be the number one thing that would improve their lives.
And it stands to reason, right? And if you think about how much of our wealth is wrapped up in our work like health insurance, access to retirement savings, all these other things. And a lot of people don’t have it [AUDIO OUT]. That’s why this is just such a big issue. And it can be addressed at the federal level and at local and state levels where people can pass regulations. Governments can pass regulations requiring more consistency from employers and the hours that they offer their workforce.
DERAY MCKESSON: What’s Biden going to do? Is there– are you hopeful? Is there a secret plan we don’t know about? Is there a plan that we should have read that we didn’t read? Like what’s– is something coming? And did it actually– did it get worse under Trump? I mean, I assume that most things got worse under Trump. But it could have just stayed as bad as it always had been. Did it get worse under Trump? And what do we do with– what’s Biden going to do?
SOLANA RICE: So under the Build Back Better banner, there is a section dedicated to racial equity. And I will say, I am heartened by the list of bullet point items under that section because they do speak quite a lot to issues of race and racial wealth inequality. The reason why Liberation in a Generation is partnering with SaverLife is because the members of color in SaverLife understand that the racial wealth gap is not their fault.
They understand that it impacts their finances everyday. And they understand that it’s structural issues and systematic issues that really create what they’re seeing, things like our history of slavery and colonization, our lack of representation in all levels of government, things like incarceration rates due to racial profiling. So they are also looking for real answers that are also structural and big. And what we’re going to need to do is to really push this next administration to make good on those bullet points and to really put some detail and meet to those.
And it’s got to go beyond entrepreneurship which they lead off with, but also it includes things like affordable housing. It includes reforming the opportunity zones. Although, my personal take on opportunity zones is that we just need to scrap that model altogether. But this is what SaverLife members and other low-income people, people of color are looking for, big bold policies.
And the surveys that we’ve done with SaverLife members tell us so. So folks want basic things like a guarantee to clean air and drinking water. People want free health care. People want debt-free college. It’s both the immediate stuff that we need, regular work schedules and regular income and these structural issues. And that’s what people are looking for from their candidates.
DERAY MCKESSON: Solana, I want to ask you, too. One of the pillars in the Liberation in a Generation is the end of the dual financial system. What is the dual financial system? Like how would you explain that to people?
SOLANA RICE: Yeah. Pretty simply that in this nation, we’ve built the wealth of white people. And we’ve drained the wealth and excluded people of color, Black, Latinx, indigenous, Asian people from building wealth in this nation. And so, it shows up in things like banking. We don’t have banks in many communities of color. So we have banking deserts. It shows up in historically in redlining. We’ve decided that there were whole communities that weren’t going to get mortgage loans.
It shows up in credit scores, right? We’ve designed this whole system for figuring out an objective way to understand someone’s risk, a consumer’s risk. But it’s essentially just blocked out millions of people of color from being able to participate in generating savings, being in a checking system, things like that. Leigh, I don’t know if you wanted to share any more from your perspective, how you’ve seen sort of the dual financial system play out for SaverLife members.
LEIGH PHILLIPS: Yeah. Absolutely. I think you summed it up pretty well. I mean, it starts from everything like your ability to have and maintain a bank account and not have fees assessed on you by your bank. Again, that relates to consistency and income and other issues. For present at SaverLife and why we’re so excited to partner with Liberation in a Generation is it’s really important that the solutions to these problems also are informed by our clients directly.
And so, we’re grateful to work with Solana and her team to really get those perspectives from our membership around how do people see the racial wealth gap? How did it impact their lives? What were the types of policy solutions that people would feel would have the most impact? And as Solana mentioned, top of the list of these kind of basic needs, access to clean air and drinking water and housing, health care, affordable college.
So what we did in terms of the research was that we actually performed this study around the racial wealth gap at the end of 2019. And then we repeated this research in July because obviously the world had changed dramatically, both because of the pandemic but also because of the protests and the movement for social justice and racial justice after the murder of George Floyd. And so, what we wanted to determine was had attitudes changed about any of these issues within that time frame?
The other thing that I think was really smart that Liberation in a Generation wanted to uncover was are people motivated to go to the polls because of these types of issues? And Solana, I think it’d be great if you could share a little bit about what stood out to you from the research or the change in that kind of six- to eight-month period of time that we saw.
SOLANA RICE: Yes. We were really heartened to see that people that took this survey understood that their vote mattered. 75% of the people that took the survey said that they were planning to vote in races at the presidential level on down ballot and that they connected that issue of voting to their financial security. It wasn’t an abstract connection. It was very direct. More people were planning on voting from when we first started the survey.
And even those that felt like their vote didn’t matter still said that they were going to vote, which is really important. And I think what we’re looking to do is to start a conversation about if we are successful in putting into office people that could possibly carry our agenda around financial liberation and economic liberation, what are our demands? What are the big economic demands that we are going to put forward? Do we want a federal jobs guarantee, so people don’t have this income volatility?
Do we want a universal health care so that we aren’t up against these huge pandemics that shut down our economy? And we really feel like that we need to talk to the folks that are most impacted to understand what is actually impactful. They’ve spoken in terms of the SaverLife members. And we look forward to having more conversations about how to convert this energy around voting, around participation into increasing advocacy around an economic policy agenda that advances economic liberation for people of color.
DERAY MCKESSON: Well, we consider you both friends of the Pod. Can’t wait to have you back and see what’s going on. And thanks for coming today.
LEIGH PHILLIPS: Thank you so much.
DERAY MCKESSON: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in at Pod Save The People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure that you raid it wherever you get your podcasts whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week. Pod Save The People as 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 Sam Sinyangwe, and our special contributor, Johnetta Elzie