Plan the Visit (with Dwayne Betts) | Crooked Media
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August 30, 2022
Pod Save The People
Plan the Visit (with Dwayne Betts)

In This Episode

DeRay, De’Ara, Myles, and Kaya  cover the underreported news of the week— including the first Black woman to compose music for NYC ballet, affirmative action’s return to the Supreme Court, Torrance police officer’s racists text messages exposed, and an unexpected motivator for Democrats voting in the November election. DeRay interviews activist and founder Dwayne Betts about his non-profit organization Freedom Reads.












DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Hey, this is DeRay and welcome to Pod Save the People. On this episode. It’s me, De’Ara, Kaya, and Myles. Talking about all the news that you don’t know from the past week. The underreported, but important news around race, justice and equity. And then I sit down with Dwayne Betts, the founder of a first of its kind organization called Freedom Reads. I love this conversation y’all. That’s all I’ll say. I hope you’ll love it, too. You know, we believe in the end of punishment as a way to hold people accountable. And he really helps us think through the power of reading. His nonprofit supports the efforts of people in prison to transform their lives through increased access to books, writers and performing artists. Here we go. My advice for this week is to plan the visit. My sister is a principal at an elementary school in Delaware, and I am going to visit her school sometime in the next month to volunteer. And I’m super pumped about it. And I think that, you know, we all live these like wild lives and we’re busy and da da da da. And sometimes we just don’t plan the visit. Whether the visit is your sister, brother, cousin, parent, plan the visit, so to Ray, I hope you’re listening to this, coming to school.


De’Ara Balenger: Family! Welcome to another episode of Pod Save The People. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @DeAraBalenger


Myles E. Johnson: I’m Myles E. Johnson. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @pharaohrapture 


Kaya Henderson: I’m Kaya Henderson on Twitter @HendersonKaya 


DeRay Mckesson: This is DeRay at @deray on Twitter. 


De’Ara Balenger: So lots to cover per usual. But what I wanted to start off with is student debt cancellation. 


Kaya Henderson: Woo woo! 


De’Ara Balenger: Or student student debt, $10,000 to them to them loans. Um so I don’t I just like, you know, shout out to Joe Biden in this White House because they got this done. And, you know, they’re all you know, of course, they’re there’s the naysayers or whomever who are like they could have been doing more, yadda, yadda, yadda. But I think this was a huge thing to get done. I think it’s going to relieve so many people financially um from the constraints of just debt. It’s going to allow them, who knows, to invest in homes, to, you know, to buy a ca–. Who knows? But it is it is financially liberating, ultimately. And the other thing that I really, really, really liked that this White House did and I was very proud of was the snap backs on Twitter. [laughter]


Kaya Henderson: Oh, yes. Yes. 


De’Ara Balenger: I mean, keep it up White House digital team. 


Kaya Henderson: Yes. 


De’Ara Balenger: I don’t know who you are. 


Kaya Henderson: That’s it. 


De’Ara Balenger: But keep it up. Okay? 


DeRay Mckesson: You know who she is. It’s it’s. It’s a woman and she used to run– 


De’Ara Balenger: Who is it? 


DeRay Mckesson: She used to run uh the state of New Jersey’s Twitter account, and she got hired by– and the state of New Jersey’s Twitter account used to always snap at people. 


Kaya Henderson: Megan Coyne. 


De’Ara Balenger: Hey Meg. 


Kaya Henderson: Who until recently had run the unusual, brash New Jersey State Government Twitter account. So DeRay had that right. So, Megan. Thank you, Miss Megan. Keep it up girl. 


De’Ara Balenger: Yes. Yes Meg.


DeRay Mckesson: I know all the news on Twitter. 


Myles E. Johnson: And it’s silly, but it’s a big deal. Like, I really feel like it changed, I think how that account has been interacting with the Republicans, it’s a big deal and people feel supported and makes the Democrats seem stronger and more hipper. You know, all those things are kind of a big deal, even though it’s like silly. 


Kaya Henderson: It’s not silly. It is like, fight back mickey fickeys. 


Myles E. Johnson: Yeah. 


Kaya Henderson: Like it is. [laughter] We not going to take this laying down. [laughing] It is. Oh, wait a minute. We got a little swag back, right? Like, I mean, it is first of all, I will say for all of the people who um aren’t happy with folks getting their loans forgiven, like I’m praying for y’all because when good things happen to other people, you should just be thankful. Then good things will happen to you. But like for all of the folks who don’t, I think there are a lot of people who don’t understand how the student loan game is actually rigged so that you could basically never pay them off. The increasing prices of college and both community college, state tuition, private tuition and like the crazy interest rates. I was reading, there’s an article in The New Yorker about a lady who took out $29,000 in loans to go to law school in like 1983 or something. And like, she’s still not finished paying. She’s 91 and she owes $329,000 in student loans for the $29,000 that she took out in 1983. 


Myles E. Johnson: Oh. 


Kaya Henderson: What kind of thing is that? 


Myles E. Johnson: Oh. 


Kaya Henderson: What kind of thing is that? 


Myles E. Johnson: People are better than me. I would just, you would never see that money back. [laughter]


Kaya Henderson: Listen, same. 


De’Ara Balenger: I feel like I’ve been paying since 1972 and it just it’d be the same. 


Kaya Henderson: Yes. 


De’Ara Balenger: It be the same every year, it’s like I’m like, is it am I just paying interest? Am I paying what am I paying into this? 


Myles E. Johnson: My favorite response on Twitter was when they announced that, you know, $10,000 was going to be forgiven, then like a lot of people responded, who’s going to pay the rest? That was my favorite [laughing] response. And I would say if you have been, you know, being an upstanding, responsible person and this is alleviating something for you, like go do something. I don’t know any other way to say go do something hood rich, do something. If you’ve really been monthly paying these debts off, go go have some fun with that. With that– 


Kaya Henderson: Treat yourself. 


Myles E. Johnson: –little bit of relief. Yeah treat yo self, that’s a lot of Telfar bags, that’s what I would do. [laughter]


DeRay Mckesson: And what you can do in the world when you just don’t have to worry about debt. We are not paying off this random thing every month that you know you’ll never pay down, like we’ve all said. I mean, that will really free people up to make different choices in the world for themselves and for their families. Also shout out to the focus on people who got Pell Grants because, you know, it’s illegal for the government to uh to do things that are explicitly race based. So this was like a beautiful way to do something that targeted poor people and people of color in a really explicit way because of the way Pell is set up. So shout out, shout out to the Biden administration, take the victory laps with this and you know talk about it. 


Kaya Henderson: I started to clip it in, post it on Instagram, but I was like, That’s too petty. Maybe not. But the list of Republican um Congress people who had PPP loans forgiven and the amount that they had forgiven, and these are the main cats who are saying, you know, you should pay off your loans. Like one dude have $4.3 million dollars in PPP loans forgiven. Say what? 


De’Ara Balenger: That’s just wild. 


Kaya Henderson: And you busting people’s chops about people getting $10,000 or $20,000 dollars worth of relief for real educational debt. Come on. 


DeRay Mckesson: Let me tell you that the thing I loved the most um about the PPP loan situation is that all the loans are public and whoever made that the website that has where you can search if somebody got a loan and it literally has like a tweet here button. So if you thought you were getting these loans in secret and your cousins wouldn’t know and [?]. 


Myles E. Johnson: Messy. 


DeRay Mckesson: Like all of it is out in the in the click for a tweeting is hilarious. 


De’Ara Balenger: DeRay that is totally something that you would have thought of. [laughter] And if you had any any spare time, any spare time not fighting police violence, I feel like that would have been a call. Y’all, let’s do this. [grunt] Oh. 


Kaya Henderson: [noise in agreement] 


Myles E. Johnson: I am so excited because y’all know I am. I just love, love, love, love, love, love Solange Knowles. You know, I could write a I want to be commissioned to write a book on Solange Knowles one day, because I feel like nobody has really talked about the aesthetic intervention as the sonic and aesthetic intervention that her work has been doing. And I feel like she’s such a path maker and she’s such a blueprint, and it’s just so every single move is to me more interesting than the last one. This newest move is she is writing a original score for the New York City Ballet. She will be the first Black woman to do so. She’s doing it for Fashion Week. The rumors are it’s about Sarah Jessica Parker, but we’re going pretend that’s not true. [laughter] Even if, even if you see Sarah Jessica Parker there, just pretend that it’s not her. Pretend it’s like Lynn Whitfield. But we. [laughter] But we are super excited that Solange is getting this opportunity. And I think that because of what’s happening with streaming, because of what’s happening with um people not being able to keep anything in their hands when people are on stage, I think we’re kind of coming to this new frontier where there has to be new ways where artists, Black artists are able to express themselves and are able to get money and get notoriety and build their legacies. And I think that she’s such um an example of the possibilities that aren’t just what we normally see, and it’s just so super duper exciting to see her um do this. I’m also really interested in how because she has such a cool currency among so many, you know, people, specifically um Black youth. I’m wondering how this might influence what other people want to do and what other people will want to go and discover and create for. And um both De’Ara and Kaya before have like brought up, you know, operas and plays and all these other ways that um Black folks as of late have been infiltrating these stereotypically white spaces and recreating them. And I feel like this is like an extension of that. And an another iteration of that, and I was just excited to bring this to the podcast. I love her. She’s so interesting. She’s so cool. She has a voice like, you know, a Black exploitation cherub angel and [laughter] and she could do no wrong. If your last name is Knowles, I don’t got I don’t got much critique for you after a while child. I love it. I love it. What do you all think? 


DeRay Mckesson: I will say um this made me think about the conversation that people have been having around um gymnastics and like what’s going to happen as Black boys like start to actually go to gymnastics and will dominate this sport, da da da. And I think about this as like they’re going to be so many Black people who have never been to a ballet, wouldn’t go to a ballet, couldn’t drag me to the ballet, won’t watch a video on the ballet. But like they will be in there, bells and whistles on this launch baby. It’ll be the first ballet and it’ll completely shape the way you think about what is possible with ballet. And that is what I’m super excited about to see Solange do this and you know she’ll do it in like her own special way. It’ll be a [?] no matter what happens, which is really cool. And it’s just another like Black people come in and I think that she will like redefine a moment. And that is [?]. And I’m like super pumped about that. 


Kaya Henderson: Me too. I mean, one of the things that I love about Solange is she has created her own whole image persona, like totally outside of her sister’s shadow. Like literally is like living free, doing like, you know, I’m big on Black freedom and I feel like she is one of the best examples of Black freedom. Why can’t I score a frickin ballet? Why not? Let me do it. Let me give it a shot. I love it. I wish we all had that sense of possibility um and didn’t have it beaten out of us on a day to day basis. But you all better run and get these tickets because they only $38. They are available right now on the New York City Ballet website. And, you know, all your cousins is going and they’re going to get their tickets and you’re going to be locked out. So you might as well go do it now. Um, I’m excited for the same reasons that you are DeRay. I think this is going to open ballet to– I mean, first of all, there are loads of– didn’t we do a thing about Black ballerinas at some point on the pod a while ago? Like there are there are lots of there’s lots of Black talent in dance, even in places um that have remained white like ballet. Shout out to Misty Copeland, the GOAT. Um but like this is just going to continue to kick the door down. And, you know, when we get into these spaces, we totally transform them. Like we create ballet like people have never thought about ballet before, and I’m here for it all. So shout out to Solange. Shout out to all my little cousins who are going to the ballet this season. Let’s do it. 


De’Ara Balenger: So I had the good fortune of seeing Solange during my law school days at Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. So we’d see Solange around, hanging out sometimes in the clurb, which was always fantastic. And so I and this is like from like 2005. So this is a long time ago. Um and she just had such a vibe and such an energy. And I’m just so not surprised at all to see what her trajectory has been and always just feel so held and seen by her. And I feel like even in, A Seat At The Table, my favorite part of A Seat At The Table is the Master P parts, because I just I still get goose bumps, you know what I mean? Just like talking about Black liberation, you know, Black autonomy. We not about to let these white people take control or ownership over our music and our art and our culture. So, yeah, she is just such like a transcendent, wonderful, inspirational being and so excited to see this. So excited to see what more comes from this. Um, the other thing is, did y’all know cranes in the sky is about, like, construction cranes and not birds? [laugh in distance] Think about that. Think on that. Think on that. Think on that. Think on that. 


DeRay Mckesson: Welcome to the album De’Ara. 


De’Ara Balenger: Think on that. Think on that y’all. [laughter]


Myles E. Johnson: It was the it was the metal clouds. It was the metal clouds. And, you know. You know, we all. We all we all get to glory on our own time. [laughter] To wrap it up, the last thing I was going to say is and I also hope that this is the opening of because I know she’s doing the score now. It makes me excited because I know that she does choreography and I know that um this is I just hope that this is the beginning of an ongoing to be relationship to slowly but surely, you know, push Sarah Jessica Parker’s name out of there, you know, get an all Black ballet. You know, Misty, bring Misty Copeland in here. You know what I mean? I’m just I’m hoping that this is the beginning of an ongoing relationship. That and it gets more and more Solangified as it progresses. You know, [unsure sounds] SJP. Is just a Black people thing. 


De’Ara Balenger: What you’re saying is you don’t want it to be like the episode of Sex and the City where they had Blair Underwood on? 


Myles E. Johnson: Oh, geez. 


Kaya Henderson: Oh. ouch.


Myles E. Johnson: Ow ow ow. I wanted to. Yes, I yes, exactly. Exactly. No, no, no points. No, don’t just use me and dip. I want it to be an ongoing thing. But, you know. 


Kaya Henderson: A relationship, mm. Not a jump off. Not a jump off. 


Myles E. Johnson: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. We want an ongoing relationship. 


Kaya Henderson: My news is not about ongoing relationships, but maybe it is. Uh, my news this week is about the impending affirmative action case that is going to be heard by the Supreme Court on August the 31st. Um, there is a um a lawsuit that has been filed um by um Students for Fair Admissions that challenged the race conscious methods that Harvard and the University of North Carolina used to pick freshman classes. Basically, they are arguing that um any kind of race based consideration should be eliminated from admissions processes. And we have some historical data to uh refer to as that case comes to pass. 15 more than 15 years ago, um two of the country’s top university systems, University of California and the University of Michigan, they were forced to stop using affirmative action in admissions um because of a similar type of lawsuit. And um according to The New York Times, both of the systems have tried to build racially diverse classes through outreach, through scholarships, through a bunch of investments well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But these efforts have fallen abysmally short. In fact, we are worse off than we were 15 or 20 years ago, even though, for example, the University of California system says it spent more than a half a billion dollars since 2004 to try to increase diversity. Uh let me tell you what the numbers look like. In 2021 the entering freshman class at the University of California, Berkeley, had 258 Black students and 27 Native American students out of a class of 6931. Yeah. 


Myles E. Johnson: What? 


Kaya Henderson: Are you kidding me? And that same year, Black enrollment at Michigan’s flagship campus in Ann Arbor was 4%, only 4%, even as the university maintained a special admissions office in Detroit to recruit Black students. Basically, we are worse off, far worse off um since the the ban on using race based uh admissions tactics has come along um. In Oklahoma, which has also banned race based uh admissions stuff. In their freshman class in 2020, was 61% white, 12% Hispanic, and 3.7% black, 2.1% American Indian. And 3.7% Black, but Black people make up 7.8% of the state’s population. So this is an ongoing thing. Um a bunch of universities, something like 15 universities have just filed an amicus brief with the court saying why they need to keep race based admissions strategies in place. They talk about the diversity of perspective in the educational process and basically they’re like, look, we can’t maintain diverse classes if we don’t consider the whole student. And that’s the real headline from where I sit, it is reduced students to a test score or to a GPA. And we all know that there are lots of issues with um people of color and low income people around testing, around grade inflation, around all kinds of stuff. And basically, you’re not giving these folks a fair shot. Um I think it is. You know, this what happens on October 31st or whenever they rule on this affirmative action thing, I think has the potential to literally break higher education um because people are opting out. We just talked about the student loan debt crisis. But these kids of color are like, I’m not going to the University of Michigan. I’m going to Howard because at least I don’t have to fight around discriminatory actions. I don’t feel comfortable in these all white environments that are increasingly becoming wider and wider. And so I think that, um you know, people are like, why am I going to college? What is, why am I taking on all this debt? Why am I plunging myself into an environment, a hostile environment where people don’t want me and people don’t want to support my growth and development? And already college admissions, college numbers are down precipitously. And I think this may be the thing that cracks open higher education and forces us to look for some alternative models. 


De’Ara Balenger: Kaya, I think what’s interesting about this. Um is it’s almost like a return to separate but but equal. It’s like. 


Kaya Henderson: That’s exactly right. 


De’Ara Balenger: The public schools are going to be less and less diverse. And they’re like, you were talking about the young woman that went to Howard. There There’s more investment now, we’ve seen this like particularly since 2020, more investment in HBCU’s and just in a wide range of HBCU’s, right? Like outside of Spelman, Morehouse, Howard, Morgan, Morgan State. There’s like investment going everywhere. Uh and so I it it is going to be interesting to see how this all shakes out, because I think a lot of a lot of students are just making that decision. Right. Like, why would I go to a school where I’m not going to be supported and I’m not going to be seen? My my baby brother, who’s a golfer, uh was being recruited by College of Charleston, and he decided on Morehouse because, who was [?] Who was that, DeRay? That was was shot in the back of a bunch of times. Remember that? He was like running? 


Kaya Henderson: Oh yeah in South Carolina.


DeRay Mckesson: Walter Scott. 


De’Ara Balenger: Yes, yes. In South Carolina. And my brother was like, nope, I’m going to Morehouse. So, you know, I think those those decisions are like I mean, I can’t believe our kids are having to make decisions like that. But but but they are. Um and so, yeah, I just I just see this as something that’s like, almost like uh I’m a lawyer and I — not de facto separation. What’s the other one? 


DeRay Mckesson: Du jour? 


De’Ara Balenger: Yes. 


DeRay Mckesson: I don’t even know what du jour be but I knew that. [laughter]


Myles E. Johnson: Child. 


De’Ara Balenger: A plus, A plus plus DeRay.


Myles E. Johnson: All I know is ipso facto. [laughter] I’ll bust a good ipso facto every time I need a close a argument. [laughter] Yeah De’Ara. I was thinking the same thing. Um De’Ara and then also um I remember just being kind of like in real time educated by um Kaya and DeRay about how um its they’re studies about how Black children learn better when they’re being taught by Black people in different environments. So it makes sense that once you have the autonomy to choose those things, um you would choose to go to go Black, that makes a lot of sense to me. What doesn’t make a lot of sense is those numbers for me. And now I’m just saying what I feel and the spirit of Whitney Houston has come over me and I want to see receipts about the 500 million. I want to see how you come up with those figures and those percentages and you got that much money to go and make something a little bit more Black or more diverse and y’all still coming out with those numbers. I want to see what where that money went to and how and how it was spread in um something, some sense. Yeah, that’s a lot of money to come out with 3% [laughter] and then have four you said 400 students and there’s six that like that’s that’s a lot of money um to fill that much and give, that we can’t forgive that loan we need to know what’s going on, we need to look that up.


DeRay Mckesson: I’ll say two things really stuck out to me, the first is um it’s reminding me that the Republicans are fighting on every front. It’s like no stone unturned. 


Kaya Henderson: That’ right. 


DeRay Mckesson: They are, it’s like it’s public schools. It’s colleges and universities. It’s abortion. Like it’s all the things. And this is why when we joked about the Twitter account, it matters is that, you got to fight back like you will los– You will certainly lose if you don’t fight. The only way to win is to at least do something. And this is like one of those things where like, you know, the Supreme Court’s not on our side and let’s see what happens. And also, let’s see if, you know, universities colleges come up with the work around like like like Biden did with the work around with Pell. We shouldn’t have to do that. But like, let’s see if, if something gives be– we’ll be interesting to see what happens if we have to live through this time where, like, race just cannot be a fact. I mean, that’s just a wild thing, given that race was a factor in every single biggest in this bad boy up. Which we know and talk about all the time. The second thing is um loans and this have been a really good reminder this week of how when people are like they don’t do politics, it’s like, you know, and we joking. We always say politics is doing you. And we need like another way to say that to the people. But it’s like the people who think that, like they’re just not going to participate. Whatever participate looks like, voting, da da da, because it doesn’t matter. It’s like it really is in fact, it’s like your life, right? It’s like your kid. It might be really hard for them to go to college. You might have just gotten your loans. Like these are material things that matter to you that we need you to, we need to figure out how to get you involved in a way that speaks to your experience. And that’s what this reminds me of, because I will tell you, as clued in as I am, if you hadn’t picked this for the news, I wouldn’t have been talking about the affirmative action thing because it just wasn’t on my radar. 


De’Ara Balenger: Also, embarrassingly, I looked it up and it is de facto, not du jour. A de facto is when it happens in a fact, du jour is by law. So.


Myles E. Johnson: Well, ipso facto. 


De’Ara Balenger: State of Maryland. I hope you didn’t hear that to take my bar license. [laughter] I paid my dues. 


Kaya Henderson: I was gonna say you better ask them people for some of your money back. [laughter]


De’Ara Balenger:  I haven’t practiced law in a long time. So sad. 


DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming. 




De’Ara Balenger: Um, okay, my news. Let me just preface this. I am trying to will myself to get excited and to get involved and to get engaged around these midterm elections, mostly out of fear that we’re going to lose them. And so I feel like we were kind of on a wave, even though in the last few years our waves have had some quite up and downs. But I feel like we’re on a good wave. You know, the Biden administration came through with this loan forgiveness um and we’ve been seeing really good results in special elections. We saw that in Kansas. We and there were some elections that came out our way, too, in New York and Florida. So NPR did a really amazing just quick and dirty on four things that have come out of the most recent primaries and special elections. And so I just wanted to raise that up and get y’alls support in the continuing investment and engagement in these elections because I have a lot of PTSD around them for obvious reasons. So the four things that we’ve learned since basically since June 2022 is. The abortion rights has changed the landscape. Right. So in upstate New York, we saw that. So in upstate New York, there was an election. It it’s like it’s a swing district. So went for Obama, went for Trump, then went for Biden. But it’s always just like super, super close. But we came out in that special election, right? So um now Congressman Ryan won it by about two, two points. Right. Um. Which is wild. Which is wild. So that’s one thing. So the you know, I mean, I don’t know how to balance it, like losing abortion rights is now helping us with elections. But I mean, that’s a sad equation. Um the second thing is um and this this is one that’s a little bit controversial, but it’s the title of this kind of second thing to know is that there’s no time like the present for establishment Democrats who still mostly have the advantage. And so the argument here is, like in Florida, we saw Charlie Crist, who was like commis–, an agriculture commissioner– 


Kaya Henderson: Yes. 


De’Ara Balenger: –Or something. 


Kaya Henderson: Mm hmm. 


De’Ara Balenger: And the other– 


Kaya Henderson: Nikki Fried. Nikki Fried.


De’Ara Balenger: Nikki Fried. There. There she is. There she is. Um, came out there. And then in New York, Sean Patrick Maloney defeated Alessandra Biaggi and Alessandra had the backing of um AOC. So I think the argument here is like the more progressive leaning for some, the more, you know, on the primary side, the more establishment Democrats are going to do well. The anomaly to that is Maxwell Frost. I didn’t even know about Maxwell Frost y’all. So Maxwell Frost. 


Kaya Henderson: Yeah, 25 year old dude. 


De’Ara Balenger: Yes. Won the primary in Florida. So get down. Maxwell Frost, will get down [?] your politics. I got to look you up a little bit more. But it is it is an accomplishment nonetheless. So that’s been interesting too, right? Like these big ideological differences for like within the Democratic establishment, um how how that’s going to play out in the midterms. And so it’s it I don’t I think it’s still a little bit hard to tell on our side. Right. And I think on the on the on the right, it’s also a little bit of mixed results, too. Right. So like some of the folks that are like super pro-Trump and say crazy things and are super racist, like some of those folks are losing. Right? So I think that that’s a that’s a good sign. Like there is one candidate in here, Laura Loomer. So she has posted conspiracy theories about COVID 19 vaccine. She called herself a proud Islamophobe and pro white nationalist. Um she lost by 20 points in her uh general election. Thank goodness. Get it together. 


DeRay Mckesson: Well, the best thing about Loomer, did you see that Loomer uh she would not concede defeat. 


Kaya Henderson: Concede, mm hmm. 


DeRay Mckesson: She said the congressional seat is mine for the taking and I will be the congresswoman from Florida’s 11th District. I actually am the congresswoman in Florida’s 11th district and everyone knows it. 


Myles E. Johnson: Oh. Okay. Its giving daughter of Trump. [laughter]


Kaya Henderson: But you know what I mean? What I think that the the point of all of this. Right. Is there’s there is a bridge too far. And I think the Republicans feel like they have won on all of these issues. And we’ve all known all of the polling has shown that America is not actually with them on a lot of these far right issues. And so you see things like Kansas happening right where the abortion thing gets completely pushed back in a Republican state because people are like, yeah, sorry, we’re not having that. And so I think the what the NPR article did for me was remind us that there are still moderate people out here. 


De’Ara Balenger: Mm hmm, that’s right. 


Kaya Henderson: Who are who are voting in the midterms and the media cycle elevates all of the extremes, right, whether it’s extreme left or extreme right. But there is a middle that is active that when you roll back too many of their rights will get up and push back. And I think that is the hope that the Democratic Party has at this point that the Republicans have done are doing a little too much right now. And I think they are not keeping pace with where America is. In fact, you know, Mitch McConnell is now complaining about the quality of the candidates coming out of these Republican races because like even he knows, you can’t put all of these people in these positio– [laughter] Woo Kaya Henderson. Um yeah, and so I think I think yeah that’s all I got to say before I say something crazy. 


De’Ara Balenger: I think and I think that applies too to just something that I had not thought about is that DeSantis has to win this gubernatorial election to go on to win, like to to go on to run for president. 


Kaya Henderson: He sure does. 


De’Ara Balenger: And and if Charlie Crist can give him any sort of run for his money, that would just make me so happy. Just so happy. 


DeRay Mckesson: Did you see who Charlie Crist started as his run? 


Kaya Henderson: The head of the teachers union. 


DeRay Mckesson: Well I didn’t get that. I didn’t get a [?] where everybody’s talking about education in Florida because of don’t gay, don’t say gay and all that other stuff. I think that that actually might be a smart decision. 


Kaya Henderson: I need to do some research on this lady because you know there– [laughter] Because I think that like one of the things that I think is really interesting about Charlie Crist is he used to be a Republican and then he– 


De’Ara Balenger: That part. 


Kaya Henderson: –Turned Democrat. And so and so I think, you know, we have to watch it on both sides. You can’t be too far X or too far Y. And so I think what he offers to a moderate Republican is ah he may be a Democrat, but he’s really a Republican and I can vote for him and whatever. Whatever. Right. And we need those swing voters. But, you know, if the teacher’s union lady is too progressive, then that might kill his moderate positioning. 


De’Ara Balenger: Mm. 


Kaya Henderson: And so I think I mean, I he’s not I’m not worried about Charlie Crist getting Democrats in Florida. I’m worried about the number of Republicans that he’s going to need to. 


De’Ara Balenger: Right. 


Kaya Henderson: To pull in order to unseat DeSantis. And that is the thing. Like all of us who want to be active in elections and whatnot, go to Florida. 


De’Ara Balenger: We gotta go. 


Kaya Henderson: Go to Florida, knock on doors. 


De’Ara Balenger: We gotta go. 


Kaya Henderson: Pay your money, do your things like. 


De’Ara Balenger: Yup. 


Kaya Henderson: This is literally probably one of the most important races for the future of our country. Oh, my soul. 


De’Ara Balenger: Right. 


Kaya Henderson: Mm. 


De’Ara Balenger: And the other race out of Florida is uh Marco Rubio, who you called, whatever you called Marco? 


DeRay Mckesson: Rubix? 


De’Ara Balenger: Yeah. 


DeRay Mckesson: Val Demings is running against him. 


De’Ara Balenger: Yeah. Yeah. But that’s an interesting one, too. I think, to Kaya’s point is, like, you know, Val Demings for former Orlando police chief, you know, doesn’t support defunding the police. Like, I just think it’s going to be interesting to see how these things shake out. And even on the Democratic side, like what what some of the ideologies like what they translate into in terms of policy. 


DeRay Mckesson: Rubio losing would be. 


De’Ara Balenger: I mean the best. 


DeRay Mckesson: Amazing, amazing. So here’s here’s what I’ll say is that it’s a reminder and I think the Right does this way better than the Left is that most people are single issue voters. They might not they might not even know their issue till you tell them, but they can, like, hold one thing. I think sometimes we give people like [?] becomes 50 million [?]. Like it just. 


De’Ara Balenger: Yeah. 


DeRay Mckesson: It becomes too much. And it’s like when I talk to my aunt she got a lot going on she — she is not doing 50 issues in her head, but you give her a one or two because she has a lot like she has kids like she doesn’t the luxury of like watching events that we see all day and try you know, and I think that abortion, if you think about Kentucky, abortion was the issue it was like either you are for women or you’re not and like very black and white. And I think sometimes we don’t play in the black and white for a lot of reasons, like, you know, the left levels the nuance and we understand the complicated da da. But sometimes people really do just need a like this or that and I’m excited to see us do that. It is sad that losing the right to have an abortion is the thing that has become the issue for people, because you shouldn’t have to lose your rights for there to be an issue. But uh it is again and I’m excited about um the Gen Z-er in Congress. You know, here’s a thing. Even if this and not none of us really know him, we’ve only seen interviews. 


Myles E. Johnson: How old is he? 


De’Ara Balenger: 25. 


DeRay Mckesson: 25. He can’t be worse than any of the wild people on the other side. 


Kaya Henderson: Say that. 


DeRay Mckesson: You know, literally, like he is sane, he has some ideas like knows what working families actually believe in like that is in and of itself a win because the old people have I mean, and old old like the 70 plus, they’ve held it down for entirely too long. 


De’Ara Balenger: You know, the other thing about Maxwell is that he is Cuban. So I think it’s also fascinating to see this new generation of Cubans and how their political ideologies are changing. So I think that’s a very, very good sign. 


DeRay Mckesson: Um, my news is about Torrance, California. So in Torrance in 2021, the L.A. Times released a trove of racist and discriminatory text messages that were sent by Torrance police officers. And in those text messages they wrote, they shared images of a Black man who had been lynched and they joked, quote, “that he was hanging with the homies”. There was another text uh that said a cop break a tail light on a Black man’s car and shoot him if he was caught having an affair with one of the officer’s girlfriends. And the messages also showed officers joking about, quote, “gassing Jewish people and assaulting queer people”. And then in April 2022, a court filing showed that between 2018 and 2020, Torrance police officers had used discriminatory language in hundreds of text messages, including slurs like calling Black people savages and quote “monkeys”. Another Torrance officer said, and I quote, “His son will grow up without a father now. And it continued that standard by in the African-American family to be absent a father. He’ll be gone”. Uh and more recently, The L.A. Times has reported just last week that new court documents show a new batch of text messages that got released. One of which was, I was going to tell you, all those N-word, family members are all pissed off in front of the station. This is about Black people who are gathered because the police had just killed somebody. And officers also joked about hosting a gun cleaning party of the identities of the cops who shot the Black men become public. I say this because when we talk about the police, you know, people always try and tell us it’s like the good man with the gun just trying to get home, like just trying to and it’s like just listen to what they said, like in their own words. I ain’t got to sugarcoat it. I don’t have to wrap it up. Just in their own words. So when we talk about a world beyond policing. We’re also talking about a world beyond this culture that like you can’t convince anybody that the people who wrote that are interested in justice, equity, safety, like there’s no sell to that. It just doesn’t land. I want to bring it because so often we talk about the actions of the police, which we should. We don’t often get a glance into the mindset outside of these like individual sort of moments and the text messages I think are one of the best proof points of like the mindset is corrupt, which is why we would say we have to have something that is not this. 


Kaya Henderson: Yeah, I this, this. It just makes me weary. Right? Because one, surprised? Not at all. Right. And, you know, three police officers just beat a white man in Alabama. Alabama. Right. I mean, and if you saw the video, it was horrible and like it just keeps on going. We talked about Walter Scott, which was now years ago. Like, it just it’s par for the course. And like, literally, there is no accountability. There is no. And we have the evidence, right? We have the evidence that the system, like the people who operate in this culture, the culture is rotten to the core. It’s not one bad apple or two bad apples. The whole thing is rotten. And we are not talking at all about ways to break this thing apart and to create something different. And so this just made me like, you know, my soul is weary about police brutality and stuff. And, like, I don’t I just don’t know who we are as a people where we continue to get evidence upon evidence, body cams, recordings, text messages, evidence upon evidence upon evidence that this thing is broken irretrievably. And we’re like, uh I don’t I don’t know what to do with that. 


Myles E. Johnson: Yeah, no, I think that you’re right, Kaya. And then also, I think that when I think about the culture of just like police and how we try to, like, say or at least I try to say like, oh, it’s like a white supremacist culture. I think that these text messages were such a good example of like the culture because it’s like there’s like a brotherhood. There’s a there’s a um humor in it. It’s not just like these kind of like political um or social political like ideas, like just kind of being spat and it’s like it’s a game and it’s and it’s a culture and like, how do you reverse that? And it also is proof that it’s the culture. And the result is often the depths of the brutality, the Black folks, because there are Black people who are police officers and we just don’t have text messages of this going on and we just don’t see them. You know, for Black police officers who go and find themselves a white kid. We just don’t have is this, theres obviously uh uh an access card in order to be a police officer? And it’s obviously white supremacy. And the only thing I think that can really happen is the people who do have ideas around what does abolition look like, what does um any of these kind of more leftist extreme things look like? Um, I think that like, yeah, our only option is to kind of shout that to the mountaintops and shout those ideas to the mountaintops. So when we have these type of moments happen, there’s this tangible thing to plug into, you know, and say, well, let’s this is let’s focus on this and creating this. I feel like that’s where the helplessness comes from. So we don’t really have so many people saying like, what does the alternative look like as much anymore? 


De’Ara Balenger: [sigh] I mean, I just looked up what it, what the requirements are to become a police officer in Torrance, California. Must be 21 years of age. Must be a U.S. citizen or filed application for citizenship, must possess or maintain a valid driver’s license and must possess a high school diploma or GED. 


Myles E. Johnson: It is harder to rent a car. [laughing]


De’Ara Balenger: Like for real. So I think, yes, there’s this whole conversation and current around culture and white supremacy, but it’s also just like what is their actual professional educational experience, their their skills around, you know, problem solving, analytical thinking, all the things that you would need, I would think, to have people’s lives in your hand, to carry a gun to, you know, all those things. 


Myles E. Johnson: And De’Ara, I agree. I agree with you. I do think there should be. But I just think that you could be 15, 16 and not be somebody who is a raging white supremacist like those. 


De’Ara Balenger: I agree. 


Myles E. Johnson: Those text messages. Those text messages give me like give way of like that. That’s something that you could be really sophisticated and really educated and and be an Ivy League graduate. And if you’re steeped in that culture, that will still show up, you know? 


De’Ara Balenger: But I just feel like part of the requirement should be a lie detector test. And in the lie detector test– 


Myles E. Johnson: [laughter] Yeah. 


De’Ara Balenger: Have you ever used the N-word? 


DeRay Mckesson: Are you racist? 


Myles E. Johnson: Ipso facto. 


De’Ara Balenger: Just singing in the Ja Rule song. But have you ever– 


DeRay Mckesson: Du jour. 


De’Ara Balenger: Used a– [laughter] yeah. 


DeRay Mckesson: Itso facto, du jour, de facto. [laughter]


Myles E. Johnson: Here’s your Mickey D’s application. Go on. [laughter] You will not be carrying a gun. No, I hear that reaction. I just think that sometimes, just like when I think about this, uh educate, the access of education, poverty and I. And I think that specifically on the right, so much of um it has, so much of this white supremacist culture has been blamed on um the impoverished, the jobless, the young and all these other things. And I’m like, that’s not a good excuse. And I I get how even like we can arrive at those points, but that some that those text messages were just deeply disturbing. And I’m like, there’s not a college that washes that out of you. That’s like a spiritual moral corruption. 


Kaya Henderson: Yeah. Generational. 


Myles E. Johnson: Yeah. 


De’Ara Balenger: Oh. Thanks for bringing us that news, DeRay. 


Myles E. Johnson: Right. 


DeRay Mckesson: You know, somebody we it, it was light and we it was good and I was like, let me just make sure one of us just drops a little. Just a reminder that we got work to do y’all. So.


Myles E. Johnson: I’m gonna stay my ass at the ballet child. 


DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save The People is coming. [AD BREAK] This week, we welcome activist and 2021 MacArthur Genius fellow Dwayne Betts to talk about his nonprofit organization called Freedom Reads. Working with prison reform advocates, state and federal lawmakers, prison wardens and correction officers, the organization works with a multitude of stakeholders to improve the lives of incarcerated people and provide them with opportunities for education and advancement while in prison. They do this by installing their uniquely designed freedom libraries into prisons nationwide that have a curated selection of 500 books. And get this these libraries are built within the housing units. We talked about the transformative power of reading and literature. We talked about a lot of things. Here we go. 


DeRay Mckesson: Dwayne Betts, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People. 


Dwayne Betts: Yeah, man, it’s my pleasure to be here. 


DeRay Mckesson: I’ve known your work for a long time. I’m excited that we finally got you on the pod. And let’s just start with your story. How did you, you’ve had a long journey. A lot of things going on. I want to know about law school. I want to know about all of it. But how did you get to this work? What was your journey to the work of Freedom Reads. But also the work of how do we undo the carceral system?  


Dwayne Betts: Yeah. You know, it’s one of those things, man, where where you tell a story enough that the story becomes you. And I’ve accepted that. But I think to struggle with it is the fact that uh the most honest way to begin this story is with me carjacking a man at a at a mall in Virginia when I was 16 years old, uh December 7th, 1996. And I remember, you know, getting locked up and having to call my mom. And how do you tell your mother your in jail? And you fumble. You fumble with it. But. It’s like a man drowning. And you want to pretend that you’re not drowning. But once you start swallowing water, you can’t escape it anymore. And you figure out how to call for help or die. And um. And that’s where it starts. You know, and I get arrested and I plead guilty. Sixteen years old, carjacking carries life in Virginia. Um my guilty plea didn’t guarantee a sentence. It just guaranteed me a chance to stand before the judge and appear to have accepted guilt and responsibility. Judge sentenced me to nine years in prison. I was 125 lbs. I hadn’t won a fight since the second grade. And um. Judge sentences me to nine years and you got to be somebody other than a Black man in jail. So I told myself I would be a writer. And I was lucky because because I wasn’t around anybody who could try to challenge me and discourage me. And I didn’t even say it out loud anyway. And so I decided to be a writer, not knowing what that would mean. And then a couple of years later, I was in solitary confinement. You know, books were contraband, but the guys inside created an underground library. And the rule was simple you asked for a book. And you say we’ll sell you one and somebody slides you a book. They’ll know your name. You’ll know they name. They just give you a book if they get one. And somebody slid me Dudley Randall, who was the black poets. And I read Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, Sterling Plumpp, Sterling Brown. And I read, I read uh Etheridge Knight and Knight had done time in prison, and he was writing poems about prison. And the thing that really changed it for me uh was that he had these poems. One poem in particular called for freckle-faced Gerald and it was about a 16 year old kid who he’s like 16 years, hadn’t done a good job on his voice, he say uh with his precise speech and innocent grin, he couldn’t quite win the trust of fists of the young black cats around him. And I’m in this cell in a hole and I’m reading these these words. And and this kid, you know, he ended up getting raped in prison. And um and I was like, woe is me. I can’t believe they sent me to prison at 16. I’m around all of these grown ass men. I’m 125 lbs. I am deficient of everything that you need to survive here. And I read this poem and one I recognized that a poetry could contain a history of suffering. It could be a social critique because Knight had gotten locked up in the sixties. So that meant that they had sixteen years olds in prison in the sixties. Right. And so so suddenly I’m reading this poem and I’m no longer so self-centered. And also I’m reading this poem, and I realized that, that people loved me. You know, I ain’t have no precise speech, and no innocent grin. You know, I came from where I came from. Uh I was able to move in a world the way I moved in a world and even in prison, um people people loved me. And so so that poem made me a poet. But that poem also made me more aware of everything I had that some other folks didn’t have. And that just put me on a trajectory for everything that I’ve done um in my life from becoming something of a scholar um while I was in prison to becoming something of an educator while I was in prison, and then ultimately you know end up in law school and found Freedom Reads because well, Freedom Reads is supposed to be is a book slid under the cell doors of others and has me building these libraries in prisons so people have access to books in a way that uh can transform their lives. 


DeRay Mckesson: Well, I didn’t I had never heard you tell your story like that. So thank you. Thank you for sharing that with us. I want to know about literacy on the inside that, you know, I was a teacher. I worked in a couple school systems and help lead the human capital work in a constant refrain that comes up with our older students is that we just didn’t do a very good job of teaching people how to read that like, there are a generation of Black kids that, you know, they get to eighth grade, ninth grade, tenth grade, and like we just didn’t do a great job of teaching them how to read the basics, phonics or whole language. Whatever you were taught, was that your experience and how do we combat teaching older, you know, not first, second, third graders literacy? 


Dwayne Betts: Yeah, it is actually interesting because um one of the things about Freedom Reads that I’m trying to do is is create opportunities for these literacy gaps to become apparent. You know, what happens is if you are in a prison, and you a reader, then you find books and you gravitate towards books or you go to school and you gravitate towards education. But what about the people who can’t? And so one of the things about building these freedom libraries is to create more opportunities to interact with folks and have folks interact with each other so that you could raise the literacy rates. But I was a I was a GED instructor for a number of years. And so um it was like my job inside. And so I did, you know, struggle to teach some folks how to read, struggle to teach some folks mathematics. But the truth is, if you don’t know right, then you make yourself invisible. You know, there’s all kinds of ways to be in a world. And it’s all kinds of ways to be in prison and to just, like, hide your deficiencies. And so I do think that they say the average reading level in prison is a fourth grade reading level, but that’s just based on some of those assessments that they do when you first come in. Based on looking at what your education level is before you get locked up. I mean, I actually think that we don’t have a lot of good ways of capturing the people who don’t volunteer to reveal, like their inability to read. And that’s what I found, you know, in my own life and in my own time. 


DeRay Mckesson: That makes sense. I taught sixth grade math in East New York, Brooklyn. And I’ll never forget we had just gotten a seventh grader, great kid, and his mom was like, I read to him every night and I’ll never forget his first ELA class because it was really clear that he was fluent like he could look at words and repeat them back to you. But his comprehension was at a second grade. Like he didn’t know what it meant, but he could like say the word and repeat it, you know, and we had to get him up to speed that year. And I think about him in seventh grade and how, you know, we were lucky like we had a great teacher and like she was really amazing, but we certainly didn’t have the support to do that for a whole lot of kids, you know? 


Dwayne Betts: Well I mean that so when I came home, you know, my first job was teaching poetry. And what happens is teaching poetry. It reveals literacy in ways that that other things might not because people want to have a voice. And I was young and I was charismatic sometimes, and I would push these kids to write. And I remember like this kid that was like 12, 13. Get him I finally get him to write. You know, he was the loud kid in a classroom. He like the tough kid. I’m like, yo, look, man, we can write about whatever you want. And I had got his friends to write, right? And what happens is I get him to write. And when he starts writing I realized oh. And this kid can’t read that well. He can’t spell that well, and I work with him. But it was just me. And when you work with one student in a classroom and 22 other students want your attention. The fact that you spend an inordinate amount of time with that one kid means that everybody else feels like there’s something wrong with that one kid. And so then he’s like, I don’t know if I want to do this. And I remember running into him like three or four years later after my first book came out. As a 16 year old. He still had the shell of the 12 year old in him, and he slipped and called me Mr. Dwayne. I was at a juvenile detention center and I’ll say, hold up. Now you got a brother that goes to Hart. And mind you, this was one of my first jobs out of prison. And so the years of running into each other. And I didn’t realize that this kid was from four years ago. He was like, no, I’m an only child. But I went to Hart. And I looked at him. I mean, I used to love this kid. I remember one day I was like, look, if I beat you in basketball with my Tims on you got to do your homework for a week. He was like I’m a punish you, dude. It’s like, Oh. I was like, This kid is a fool. I weigh like 200 lbs. [laughter] I straight, like, [?] him. You know what I mean? And so I knew the kid, right? And he was like, nah, I went to Hart. And I it just broke my heart. And I realized, like, if you don’t know what a metaphor is and you 16, your odds of ending up in a jail cell, I just feel like they increased dramatically if you’re a Black boy that does’t know what a metaphor is. And he’s 16 years old. And so so yeah, I think my own experience revealed how important it is, but it’s just hard though and it’s hard to identify who needs support on every level inside because. You got to create more opportunities for people to recognize that the storytelling and the reading, and that literacy matters. 


DeRay Mckesson: How did you get to Freedom Reads? What was the moment? Was there like a thing or a conversation that you were like, okay, this is the. This is like the way that I’m going to do this work in the world? 


Dwayne Betts: I was fortunate. Somebody asked me, what would you do if you didn’t have any constraints on your dreams, on what you thought was possible? And I said I would put millions of books into prisons because we put millions of people in to prisons. And a way I thought about it is um, as you know, when you when you got a cup of water and you drop the ice cubes in, is at some point that you put so many ice cubes in, that the water overflows. Well, if the books are ice cubes and the water are the people, if you put enough books into the prison, then people will begin to flow out of the prison. And so this person, she asked, how would you do this? And so in real time, I started thinking about it. I would you know, I would put in 500 books at a time. And the reason I say 500 books at a time is because I think you could create a robust collection of literature that spans the centuries, but gives people opportunity to, like, really become well read and really explore and really sort of think about who they are and who they might become. But know the whole collection, you know, I feel like 500 was just a nice number. And it also happened to be the number of books that Sir Walter Raleigh had access to when he was locked up in the Tower of London and when he would write A History of the World. So I was thinking if he could write A History of the World with 500 books, um you could, you could understand your whole world and your whole life with 500 books. So we said I would do it that way. And then over the course of a year, I kept having these conversations with the Mellon Foundation, and then they ended up um funding me. And and then it took off. And the first step was to figure out, okay, well, what will these these libraries look like? And I’ll show you, actually. So it’s modular, right? And what happens is then you you put them together, and each of these holds about 120 to 180 books. And it does two things. The actual ones are made out of out of maple or walnut or cherry or oak. And what it does is it just adds something beautiful to the space. But because you could access the books on both sides, you create a center where people come and congregate together and they have conversations where all of a sudden you can see who the readers are, because usually the readers just they live in their cells and they come out. But you don’t know how much they love to read because they go into the library or they ordering books for themselves. But now you got the dude that spends all his time on the weight yard, picking up Walter Mosley and having a conversation with the dude who spends all his time at the poker table and now they in community in a way that they might not have been at first. And you got the ball player who sees his homie reading and is like, you know, you like books and now you might create an opportunity for the sort of literacy programs to actually matter. 


DeRay Mckesson: What is it like when you, do you just like call a prison? You’re like, hey, you know what, books. I’m bringing books. How do I like, what kind of pushback do you get from prisons? Is was it was the first two the hardest. And then once you had a proof point, you’re like, Oh, no, no, we already did this in these two. Then it was like easy because they’d seen that it could happen. And I say this because you started with this idea that books were contraband in so many places. 


Dwayne Betts: Yeah. So first I gave a presentation. I said, if I’m gonna build this organization, first, I need to think about who gives me respectability. Like, who walks into the room before me or who when you see their name associated with me said okay I, I trust this kid? And so I had um Commissioner Scott Semple, who’s the former commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Corrections. I put him on my advisory board. Dr. Ruthie Gilmore is on my advisory board. And a whole range of folks, they cover the spectrum of the kind of work that I want to do and people I admire and people who support me. So I did that. Um but then he introduced me to some folks and I ended up being a keynote speaker at a conference for correctional executives. And and so I presented the project to them, and it was um the commissioner of the DOC in Massachusetts and a commissioner of the DOC in Louisiana who heard me speak and was like, yo we want this. And I was fortunate, though, because the pandemic created this um environment where wardens and DOC officials were suddenly like, on Zoom. So I didn’t have to fly to Louisiana. I was able to get on Zoom with the commissioner and with three different wardens. And then I just talk to them about the program. And honestly, the first two were the hardest mainly because they don’t build things in prisons to put in housing units. You know, you go into a prison, a housing unit has a like a steel table with you know steel stools attached to it or plastic chairs. So I’m sort of suggesting that they should put hard wood in prison. And we had to talk about everything in terms of how to make sure that um it was safe. I had to make sure that it couldn’t get broken down and turned into weapons. Um you know, Prison Rape Elimination Act was one of the things that governed of how they would be so each one of our modules is 44 inches high so that it doesn’t disrupt the sight, the sight lines. So we had to have all of these conversations that were security side conversations um while also getting um them to send us pictures. Of what the space on the inside, looks like, you know, hey, can you send me the inside of that housing unit? And you got to imagine what a what a warden is thinking like, no, I’m not sending you pictures inside of the housing unit, but once you get a couple of people to do it. Um, you know, it’s surprisingly easy. I mean, I’ve had Wardens say, you know, Dwayne, I was skeptical about this at first, but um let me show you something. And they take me to the housing unit where the Freedom Library is. This is particularly in Colorado. And um and he takes me to where the Freedom Library is. And man, the space is radically different. I mean, these guys is coming up to me. You see them looking at the books. Um they just telling me how much they appreciated it. But then he takes me to another housing unit. So I walked in this housing unit and I felt like I was doing a bid again. I mean, it was like. Dank. It was it was eerily quiet, you know, and I felt like I was intruding into the guy’s space and and I felt like I had, I had a fedora on. And so they were looking at me like I was crazy because they were like, how does this dude got on a black t shirt and a fedora and why is he with the warden, you know? And so I started talking to them and uh and they could see the Freedom Library in the other unit from their unit, you know, they could see these shelves. And I told them who I was and what I was doing. And then we started going back and forth and I was like, you know, it’s hard to get books about Black history in here. You got Black History books on the shelf? I was like, Yeah. I was like, we got you know books in Spanish, we got poetry we can get the Illiad, you know, we got a lot of genre fiction. I mean, it’s it’s a it’s a robust collection that um I think, you know, is is basically a cannon to make you understand the world better and more deeply, more profoundly. And I talked about the fact that we used reclaimed wood and reclaimed wood is um is like wood that’s like if a tree fell down on a street and they would usually like throw it away. Worked with an organization, that takes the word and transforms it and uses it to make furniture and we make the freedom libraries out of it. But the wood, you can see the scars and it might have got struck by lightning. And you see, you see a mark in it. And I was telling them that, you know, we use wood like this because it has character and it’s like a lot of us, you know, people think that we scarred and we irredeemable. But sometimes the way we’ve suffered in a way um we’ve had to reckon with how we hurt others, make us make us beautiful in a eerie kind of meaningful needed way. Man this cat comes up to me and just got his hand out, and shake, shaking my hand. He like um thank you you know for seeing me, for seeing us for coming. And we leave. And the warden is telling me, you know, this dude was on death row for 25 years. And and a point, I guess, that I’m trying to make is that so far, warden, staffs, commissioners have appreciated the possibilities that these books hold. And in fact, we put a freedom library in in some staff area as well. So we don’t just bring it for the dudes inside, we bring it for the people who work inside as well. Because when we trying to build this this community and these conversations, we believe that the conversations have to have to go back and forth between everybody that walks through those doors. 


DeRay Mckesson: How do you choose the books? I have to imagine that there are some books you want to make the 500 and they don’t make the 500. There’s some that when you built this, you were like, now these will have to be everybody’s first ten. Because like these are the books that, you know, I say I just read Sula, um I had read all of Morrison except for Sula, and I just read it the other day and I was like, ooo I waited a long time and I want to reread Parable of the Sower, which like, you know, I remember reading it before I was a good reader. I was like an okay reader when I read it. But now I’m like, I’m an adult now. I want to like reread Octavia. 


Dwayne Betts: That’s funny, I’m about to reread Parable of the Sower too. And actually, this is a thing about privilege. You know, my kid is in the ninth grade and um and they’re reading it as the book for class. And uh Sula. 


DeRay Mckesson: Whoa! 


Dwayne Betts: Yeah, and I’m like, what? And Sula, Marlon James, loves Sula. And he talks about this line when he says um, like somebody says to a to one of the women, like, who gives you gave you permission to be like that. She says, permission? [laughs] You know, and he talks about it. It’s just like this beautiful moment. And actually, you know, when I talk about books to people, I’m like, how do you become a reader in which you’ve recognized that you could carry around a moment, put you in a moment could like radically transform your possibilities because it’s a question of, like, permission. What do you mean who gave me permission to be who I am, you know? And so many of us have lived, like for me, I mean, I’m convict. 16 years old in prison. I’m supposed to die in here. I’m supposed to be nothing, you know. And so a line like that is something that I could see my younger self living by. But–


DeRay Mckesson: What’s your line? Is there like a line from a book? 


Dwayne Betts: Yes, I have braved. I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages. Um and it’s a line from a Joseph Brodsky poem. And theres and theres another one actually, too, it’s from his book called [?] and this is a bit of a story. Its this like this woman she was um, you know, she married this dude and she was really religious and everybody in the community knew that the dude was cheating on her. Right? And um and what happens is um she catches him in the act one day and she had never believed and she catches him and she snaps as she kills both of them. Right. And a narrator says, well, she didn’t understand is that uh being human, she had to suffer like everybody else. And I always carry that around with me because I thought, man, I thought that like, woe is me and the world has done me wrong some kind of way. And which is kind of foolish because I was in prison for something that I did. But it’s really easy to think that somehow your suffering makes you unique and gives you permission to hurt other people. So that line always stuck with me. And there’s one more from Sent For You Yesterday by John Edger Wideman and it’s a line that says, don’t fall asleep in your enemy’s dream. And a lot of times man we forget that some of the things that we do are like products of what people who hate us believe that we should be in this world you know. Um but you asked how I chose the books. I did the same thing we’re doing. You know, I set up a bunch of like focus groups where I asked people to get on a zoom with their friends, this is the middle of Covid right and you can’t go to no bar, y’all can’t can’t even go hang out at each other’s house, jump on a zoom. And all I want y’all to do is talk about the books you love. And folks would do that man it would just be like, lovely. I mean, people would like talk about these books and I would hear what they say and I would take what they said as like the way that I got hipped to a book. So I remember Wesley Morris said about um Angels in America, which I had never read. Right. He said, I could read that book every day for the rest of my life and never feel like I’ve gotten to the bottom of it. It’s one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever read. It is one of the great attempts to reckon with a moment in American life. But by wrestling with that American moment, you must reckon with the centuries that lead up to it and help produce it. There’s such a wisdom in it’s anger. How you can take ideas and wrestle with them in a melodrama is really hard to do. And so this does it and it’s great. And this is like something that he said just off the cuff to a couple of his friends. And then I pick up Angels in America and I read it. And it’s a play about Kushner and it’s about the AIDS crisis in America. And it’s published in 1995, and it literally fucks me up because I got locked up in 1996, and I didn’t know that this book existed into 2021. And I thought to myself, like, how can I create a world in which the books that really, really matter, that radically touch people’s lives, exist in a cell? Because at the end of the day, you can’t have a civilization without a library. You know, its the reason why people talk about culture and literature, whether you talking about the oral tradition or the written tradition as one of the things that marks us as moving into a place of civilization. And in a lot of prisons, they just don’t have that possibility. And so I did these focus groups. Um, I did a survey where I got a bunch of people saying books they loved. I had a bunch of [?] to do reviews of books. I did one on one interviews with a bunch of writers I love and respect. And I started with the books that I couldn’t let go. And then I started adding them, adding them, adding them, pruning them, pruning them, pruning them. And then sometimes a book comes out like Honorée Jeffers, um The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. It comes out in hardback first, her publisher gives me a bunch of copies in paperback [?]. I sent it to a bunch of dudes in prison. They read it. It’s great. Like they were the first readers of her book in a real way, but then the book comes out. I read it, I love it, but oh, it’s in hardback, so we can’t put it in the Freedom Library, but then it comes in paperback, and so something gets pushed off because the Freedom Library is sort of like a river, you know, theres going to be some constants that’s always there. But as great things come up, as I’m reminded of great things that I hadn’t thought of, it changes and shifts a bit and it’s like a river, you know, you’re in the same river, but you can never step in the same spot in the river twice. 


DeRay Mckesson: I love that. I got to see one of these freedom libraries. For me, it was um. Did you read The Giver? 


Dwayne Betts: Yeah. Um Lowry. Yeah, yeah. 


DeRay Mckesson: Yeah. I read it in seventh grade. And I’ll never forget the moment where um Jonas sees color for the first time and it just like, it like, changed my whole life. I, like, had never even thought about a world where there wasn’t color. And then he sees it, and I’m like, what! And it like it was the book that um made me, I didn’t know. I didn’t know books could do that until until Lois Lowry. So that was my book. 


Dwayne Betts: Don’t. I mean, don’t you think that, you know, man, it’s so many people who who who live their whole lives and never get one of those moments and because, you know, literacy challenges are real, that’s why we bring writers in. Because you could get that moment just by hearing somebody read that part of the story. I mean, at 16. You know growing up in PG County. I ain’t think you can be no cool writer. [laughter] You know what I mean. Like writers are like the coolest people on the planet. Right? But imagine that, you know, you’re a 16 year old Black boy and you literally think that you cannot be cool and literate. Like, not not that I love books, but I literally did not think that, like, you know, Terrance Hayes existed or or Marlon James existed or oh, like Nikki Giovanni you know like that she was like. That she was somebody who would walk into a room and like, everybody pauses. Right? And so what happens is we bring writers in so that so that even if somebody um is struggling to read, we bring writers in so that those writers could read and talk and communicate with the folks inside and give them an opportunity to have the same kind of moment you had with The Giver, but um have it as a product of the oral tradition, which then might push them to be like, you know what? I could read that book because [?] is kept when people lack literacy it’s not like they lack a understanding of story, you know, they just they just lack a ability to decipher the characters on a page. But once they realize they’re story is story I think, it like knocks down one of the barriers to access. You know because you think you think that like The Iliad or The Odyssey is different from your uncle talking about last weekend. And, you know. So.


DeRay Mckesson: I get that. What’s next with Freedom Reads? 


Dwayne Betts: The organization is split into three parts. You got the Freedom Library and you have Freedom Talks and you have um Freedom X. And so our goal is to build 50 libraries in prisons before the end of this year. We put in we put freedom libraries in Angola and MCI [?]. And so you’ve got Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York. We got Illinois. We building a number of libraries in Connecticut soon. Um so that’s one aspect. In the Freedom talks. We’ll keep sending writers in. I turned my last book, Felon, into a solo show. I performed it in about ten prisons so far. I’ll keep going into prisons across the country, it’s kind of like a part of the vanguard that’s reminding writers that part of our duty is to show up in places where writers didn’t show up. You know, when I was inside, I’ve never seen a writer come in and read and remind me of what was possible. So we’ll keep doing it. And then because I am a lawyer and I got friends that’s in prison, I started representing people on clemency um and on parole. And I’ve been fortunate to get you know friends out. You know, people that I was in with 1996, 1997, I’ve gotten about five people out of prison. And so um I folded that into the organization as well, because I do think it’s important to remember that if reading is an um emancitory act, you know, we say freedom begins with a book. And if that’s true, then we also gotta push to make that happen like in the world. So even though that’s just a a 5% of what the work that we do doing frequently, I’m pulling together a team of volunteers and supporters to do that work. Um, I think it has a, a special place in my heart because, I mean, if you you know, if you ever talk with somebody that had life in prison and then they home. I mean, it’s nothing. It’s nothing like that. So um. So we do that as well. And so we’ll keep doing it. You know. We’ll keep doing it and and keep building libraries in prisons and asking folks like you to come in, you should come through with me one time and one see the library and see what it looks like. And it’s at, it’s in the national building museum. We’ve got an exhibit up at the National Building Museum that you would actually see one there. But to see one in a prison, I think. It’s special because it reminds you that if Bryon Stevenson and says part of the work is to be proximate. When you go inside and you see it as freedom liberating and then you talk to folks that you remember that um a lot of us aren’t proximate enough to that particular tragedy. And that’s why we haven’t changed it to the degree that we might. 


DeRay Mckesson: I would love to go see. I did a six hour tour of Angola uh and that is a place that desperately needs more of everything and a whole lot less people in it. Um so there are a couple of questions that we ask everybody. Before I get to those two, can you tell us how people stay in touch with your work? Is there a site people should go to you? Should they follow you on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook? How do people stay in touch with you? 


Dwayne Betts: Yeah, they should definitely they should check out um Freedom reads. You can find out. You know, you can sign up for a quarterly newsletter, get all the information about the work that we’re doing. You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook @DwayneBetts. And um and then if you go to the website, you can follow Freedom Reads on Twitter and on Instagram as well. 


DeRay Mckesson: So two questions everybody gets. The first is, what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you? 


Dwayne Betts: Oh, that’s a good question. So I met this brother, who is a, [sigh] I come out of prison and I tell myself that um I’m not going to tell anybody that I’ve been to prison. And, man, I just couldn’t escape it. You know, like I went to the University of Maryland. I came home in March. I went to University of Maryland in April and tried to enroll. I didn’t know what the word semester meant. So I go to talk to the counselor. And I’m like, yeah I want to start college. He’s like, well the semester already started. And I just act like I don’t hear him because I don’t know what the word semester means. And he’s like, well, we already chose the class of such and such. And again, I went to prison at 16, so I didn’t even understand what he meant by like the class of such and such. Right. And he looks at me and he’s like, yo, something right? And what he said was like, are you hearing me? And I was like, look, man, I just got out of prison. I don’t know what a semester is. I don’t know what a class is. I just know that I told my mom I was going to get a degree, and that’s why I’m here. And he said uh, well, look, man, we already made our decisions for who’s going to be enrolled for next year. So if you don’t want to wait an extra year, you should go to community college. I was like, huh? He’s like, you know, go to the two year school, PG Community College. So I go there and I had to take this test. I tested into honors English. I had to get signed off, and I was all excited, like, yeah, I’m still smart, I go to get signed off on it. And the woman was like, you must be pretty smart, but you’re kind of old to just be starting school. Why are you just starting? It’s like, look, I just got out of prison, you know? And so then I was like, I’m never going to tell anybody else. And then I was in this African-American studies class and somebody says something. He was talking about the all of these cliché stereotypes about men in prison. And I was like, man you don’t know what you talking about. And the kid was like, what you talking about, what you know? You know, and I’m like, and I just did nine years. And I’m telling you, you have no clue about what you’re saying. And the professor say uh, alright class. That’s enough. And then he say uh Mr. Betts can you stay after class for a moment? I was like oh man. So, Dr. Corey Haynes, man, a tall slim Black cat with a bald head. Always wore a gray suit. Stay after class and walk up to him. He says, it true that you, you know, you just got out of prison? I said, Yeah. He said, you know, I did two years man and then I went to community college that I went to Howard. He said, you can make it. And um and man it changed, you know, changed my life in a real way. And a year later, not about a year and a half later, we were talking and he said, oh Dwayne look, you know, you could talk about prison for the rest of your life. You ain’t got to be afraid. You know, you could talk about prison for the rest of your life and actually do some some good for the world and probably build a life for yourself, too. And I was I was like, at the time, I felt like, you know. To to tell somebody was to was to reveal this stigma that that was going to predict everything they believed about you. But when he told me that that was good, and he went to Oxford. So when you graduate, you know, he got the regalia from Oxford. This dude looks like he fresh out of Harry Potter. You know, he’s like the bosses are the wizards, you know? And everybody knew. And I don’t know if the other people knew, like the part of his story that I knew. But I would look at him and how everybody then looked at him and just be like, man, if he could do it. So. So that’s a that’s the advice man that I stayed with.


DeRay Mckesson: And the last question, is uh there are a lot of people who read your book, read my book, believe in these programs, protested, called, emailed, testified, and they would say they did all this work and the world is still the same it was when we started. What do you say to the people who are losing hope or the people who’ve lost hope but have tried to do something? 


Dwayne Betts: I would say um, you know, we chose the arc in some ways. I was working with some architects at Mass design and we chose arc in some ways because, you know, we were thinking about Martin Luther King’s quote, you know, the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. And I think sometimes people could say that like that doesn’t inspire them um and that doesn’t settle the despair that they feel. But I would say that, you know, even as we accumulate losses. We also accumulate victories. And I would say that uh this poet, Martín Espada has that line that says um, Leave us to those who have failed. And it comes from a Whitman line, a line from Leaves of Grass. And we tend to think that like the only thing that matters is success. I think it’s real value, man, and just struggling is real value and getting up doing it again and again because I think that, you know, who I am is possible because of the failures of a lot of folks who did time in prison and came home and wanted to be somebody and couldn’t. You know, it’s possible because there’s a lot of people who try to enroll in college and got rejected because they had criminal convictions. Um and so I like to remember that it is hard and we might accumulate losses, but but even those losses matter because those losses become a part of the narrative that the people who will keep pushing and find and build a better, more humane and just society, those losses will be a part of the narrative that keeps those folks going. 


DeRay Mckesson: I learned a ton in this conversation. It is an honor to finally get to talk to you about your work, and I can’t wait to visit one of the Freedom Reads uh Libraries. We consider you a friend of the pod and can’t wait to have you back. 


Dwayne Betts: Thanks, man. Thanks for having me. I’ve been listening to the podcast for a long time. You know Clint, my man, so um. So, you know, we kind of go way back in a different folks that have been around. You know I watched your work, man. And that’s the other thing about it is. Sometimes we think that uh we exist in this space. They’re so disconnected. And in a moment like this, it reminds me that that we are connected by the work, by the mission, by the drive. Um so I appreciate it. I’m happy to be on the pod. And uh thank you. [music break]


DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning into Pod Save The People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we will see you next week. Pod Save The People was a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by AJ Moultrié and mixed by Veronica Simonetti and executive produced by me. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger and Myles Johnson.