Showing Up To Fight Fires (with Gregory Washington) | Crooked Media
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September 15, 2020
Pod Save The People
Showing Up To Fight Fires (with Gregory Washington)

In This Episode

DeRay, Kaya, De’Ara, and Sam dive into recent overlooked news including Black veganism, California’s inmate firefighters, a Georgia co-op town, and self-care. Then, DeRay chats with Gregory Washington, President of George Mason University, to discuss the new reality of re-opening schools and the launch of new anti-racism policies.







DeRay [00:00:01] Hey, this is DeRay, and welcome to Pod Save the People. As usual, it’s me, Sam, Kaya and De’Ara talking about the underreported news this week. And I sit down and talk with Gregory Washington, president of George Mason University, to discuss the issues that colleges are facing as they reopen and this new reality. And my advice for this week is to show up, but showing up isn’t enough. You’ve got to show up and do something.  That people talk about, like being in the room is half the battle you got…

DeRay [00:00:26] And it is true that it is hard to make an impact in a place you just refused to go or won’t go or aren’t there for whatever reason. Right? Whether your way of being there is on the Internet or in person. I think that people confuse that as being all you got to do. Showing up is necessary, but not sufficient. Right? You got to show up to be immersed, to have proximity, to understand. You also have to ‘do’ once you show up. A lot of people are, quote, showing up, and not really doing much else. Let’s make sure that it’s always about and let’s go.

De’Ara [00:01:01] Family, welcome to another episode of Pop Save the People.

De’Ara [00:01:04] I am De’Ara Ballenger @Dearaballenger on Twitter and Instagram.

Sam [00:01:09] And I’m Sam Sinyangwe @Samswey on Twitter and Instagram.

Kaya [00:01:13] I’m Kaya Henderson @Hendersonkaya on Twitter.

DeRay [00:01:18] And this is DeRay @deray on Twitter.

De’Ara [00:01:20] So we’re happened to be recording at the same time as the iconic versus between Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight. So if we sound like we’re rushed, it’s because we are we want to know what’s going on. My money’s on Patti LaBelle. I’m a Patti LaBelle person. I don’t know where the rest of these folks stand, but I’m with Patti. So hopefully she takes an eyelash or two off tonight.

De’Ara [00:01:48] I can’t wait to see.

Kaya [00:01:49] You know, she’s going to throw a shoe, right? She is definitely going to throw a shoe.

Kaya [00:01:55] Have you seen the Apple TV commercials? I think it’s Apple TV. They have commercials where Patti and Gladys are cooking.

Kaya [00:02:03] Gladys cooks a lovely Nilla wafer banana pudding and Patty slays a whole entire Thanksgiving dinner and then pops a little Patti Pie in the oven. For good measure. Oh, my gosh.

DeRay [00:02:17] Somebody’s in the chat for the ‘Verzuz’ that I’m passing out the peanut brittle. I love it. It’s like you’ve got to go ask your grandma for that, that peppermint get that peppermint out grandma’s purse right now.

DeRay [00:02:29] This is. This is good.

DeRay [00:02:30] Let’s go, Gladys.

De’Ara [00:02:31] Wait, and Gladys and Patti have a song together, don’t they?

De’Ara [00:02:35] “Gladys, some, mm mm mm mm mm.” Yeah, they do. They do.

DeRay [00:02:39] Well, the thing is, you know they going to sing. They, they came from that generation where you had to be able to. It was no auto tune. You couldn’t spruce up the, they you had you actually had to be able to sing.

De’Ara [00:02:49] No Drake on the track.

Kaya [00:02:50] Ohhhhhh.

DeRay [00:02:52] You know, they gone be in here.

DeRay [00:02:53] Singing, So. That was a low blow to Drake. That was a low blow. OK, De’Ara.

De’Ara [00:02:59] I might listen to Drake if he can get on a song with Patti. I will buy that on iTunes.

DeRay [00:03:03] Send all of your hate e-mails about Drake to De’Ara. Do not send them to anybody else in the pod.

Kaya [00:03:10] There is a song called ‘Sisters in the Name of Love’ in 1986.

Kaya [00:03:15] How about that?

De’Ara [00:03:15] I think that’s the one I’m thinking of.

DeRay [00:03:18] How about that?.

De’Ara [00:03:18] I think that’s it.

Kaya [00:03:20] There might be some more.

Kaya [00:03:21] Yeah. They also have a song called ‘I Don’t Do Duets,’ which is probably pretty funny, but the setup. They’ve got these two little white leather chairs and Ciroc bouquet in the middle

De’Ara [00:03:33] Okay, Ciroc, we get it. We get it. You’re a sponsor. We get it , we get it.

Sam [00:03:36] Brought to you by Ciroc.

De’Ara [00:03:36] Please, nobody pour.  Gladys or patty.

DeRay [00:03:41] Kaya, You were somebodies auntie for a second right here, holding your iPad up.

DeRay [00:03:45] That was auntie right there.

DeRay [00:03:45] you’re like, baby, did you see?

Kaya [00:03:47] Listen, I had a milestone birthday this year and I am embracing auntiehood. It’s all good.

DeRay [00:03:53] I love it. One of the best comments I saw on Twitter was somebody was like my mother asked me, ‘how do I see Patti and them?’ And they were like, ‘oh, it comes out next week on YouTube.’ They were like, ‘we not even doing the whole, like, I don’t want to be the tech team today. Just watch it on YouTube.

DeRay [00:04:07] it’s like I love it.

Sam [00:04:11] And now the news.

Sam [00:04:12] So my news is about California, where, if you are on the West Coast, you definitely know this is happening. If you’re not on the West Coast, you’ve probably heard that there have been wildfires all across the West Coast and terrible air quality, some unprecedented combination of climate change, a hundred and twenty degrees in some places in L.A. County and across the state and a range of other factors that have combined to create unprecedent wildfires across the state and in the midst of that, governor Newsom just signed legislation this past week. AB 21-47, which for the first time creates a pathway for incarcerated firefighters in California to be able to petition a judge to expunge their record so that they can, after being released, work as firefighters. So this is longtime comeing. We’ve talked about this in the past. But just to refresh your memory. California is a state that ever since World War II has created a program whereby folks who are incarcerated are working as firefighters on the front lines, making a dollar an hour, plus about three dollars a day base rate to put their lives on the line for work, that after they are released because of a past felony conviction, they’re not able to actually get an EMT license and become a firefighter. And so this legislation creates a pathway for them to do it. It’s not automatic. You have to petition. That petition has to be granted by a judge. There are a set of serious offenses that if you have a conviction for things like murder, you cannot then become a firefighter. But again, this is a incremental change, but nevertheless, something that folks have been organizing for, have been pushing for for a long time. Just give you a sense of the scale of this.

Sam [00:06:07] In California, 20 percent currently of all firefighters fighting those wildfires are incarcerated firefighters. So we’re talking about about thirteen hundred incarcerated firefighters across the state that are putting their lives on the line right now to fight that massive fire.

DeRay [00:06:22] I [00:06:22]wanted, [0.0s] talk about wages and incarceration, and what does working in jail look like at scale. So there are a lot of myths that happen around prison and jail. And one of the myths is this idea that the majority of people who are incarcerated are actually working for private companies like that is this, that’s like a myth that keeps going round around. And what we know is that the majority of incarcerated people work in jobs that actually support the day to day operation of prison. So like laundry, food service. And as Sam said, they’re paid in between as little as like, you know, 80 cents a day to a little bit over three dollars a day on average. And in almost every prison, work is mandatory. There are very few rules, very few regulations and very few things that are standardized. But remember, only a small fraction of incarcerated people work for private companies. It’s less than one percent of people who are incarcerated are employed by private companies through this federal program. And about six percent of people in state prisons work for a state owned industries that make things like desks and chairs and stuff like that for lower wages. But the majority of people who are incarcerated, who work, they work for some part of the government apparatus or they work for the upkeep of the prison. And I say that to say that, like, it is even more heinous that we pay people incarcerated such low wages, given that the work is government work in the end. So this is good, Sam. I’m excited about it. And it just reminds us of how much prison labor exploits people with in the government sector.

Kaya [00:07:59] I’ll pick up on that thought, DeRay. I thought it was hopeful, in fact, for a couple of reasons. Number one, I think that giving folks opportunities to be gainfully employed when they return home is incredibly important. And beginning firefighters or just starting out, firefighters in California make forty thousand dollars a year. There are not a lot of jobs that returning citizens get that they can make forty thousand dollars a year. I think there’s also the impact around diversifying the ranks of the firefighters. Most firefighters, only 96 percent of firefighters are white and male. And there are men and women in prison who are now getting the skills and the training that they need to be firefighters, which can open up, I think, that particular field to different folks. And so I’m hopeful about what may happen as a result of this law.

De’Ara [00:08:57] I guess my feeling about this is that for a lot of these folks, you basically have to risk your life fighting a fire to be able to have the simple right of having your record expunged. Taking another look at it in terms of these are things that folks who have spent time incarcerated have served their terms, who are coming out, who want to be, Kaya, to your point, who are now going to come into, back into community, into society.

De’Ara [00:09:23] And we’re saying here’s a way to do that, risk your life in order to do that. I mean, I’m obviously like I’m reducing this a little bit, but I hope that Gavin Newsom, being as progressive as he is, also is looking at ways where folks can actually get their records expunged, particularly they don’t have. You know, and I’m sure that it’s like this in California, if you can’t get your record expunged, if it’s a violent crime, et cetera, et cetera. But I just feel like there need to be protocols in place so that folks aren’t having to wait years and years and years to get their records expunged, to be able to be an EMT or a firefighter.

Sam [00:09:53] And, you know, just to build off that point, De’Ara, and also to some of your points to DeRay, you know.

Sam [00:09:58] This is something that it seems like it is motivated in part by, you know, a recognition of how essential firefighters are, how in short supply firefighters are in California.

Sam [00:10:10] And it’s sad that it’s taken this unprecedented wildfire and natural disaster to sort of push the government and the California state legislature into finally taking action like this. And even then, it seems to be like the bare minimum that they could do. It’s not automatic. You have to, you know, petition for it. You might not get it approved. Everybody else who wasn’t fighting fires, but nevertheless was incarcerated or doing other jobs while incarcerated, like don’t get access to those benefits. So, you know, there’s a lot more work that needs to be done. And even outside of California, you know, there are states where the picture is even worse, where in places like Florida and Georgia and Alabama, the folks who are incarcerated are required to work. They’re required to work full time and they are not paid anything. I mean, overall, what I’m reminded is that, you know, this issue tends to be state level. Each state prison system sets its own rules about what work folks who are incarcerated are required to do, how much, if anything, they get paid. And those things can be changed. They can be changed by state legislatures in some places. They can be changed by Department of Corrections or prison boards. So there are real people right now who have the power to make sure that folks aren’t being exploited. And I hope that more will step up like California has started to do to actually make good on and honor the work that folks are doing incarcerated.

Kaya [00:11:30] My news comes from the BBC, which covered a few reports that show that black Americans are more likely to be vegan than other Americans. In fact, black Americans are three times as likely to be vegan or vegetarian than other Americans. The reason why many black Americans choose veganism is, in fact, because of health issues. What we’ve found is that reducing or eliminating animal products reduces the likelihood of developing chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, which plague the black community. And according to a Pew Research Center survey, eight percent of black Americans are strict vegans or vegetarians, compared to just three percent of the general population. And a recent Gallup poll found that 31 percent of nonwhite Americans had reduced their meat consumption in the past year, compared to only 19 percent of white Americans. You see a new generation of vegan influencers, people like Tabitha Brown, celebrities like Beyonce, and Lizzo and Venus Williams, who’ve all gone vegan or tried veganism. In fact, Beyoncé is partnering in a plant based meal delivery service. As I mentioned, African-Americans have higher rates of hypertension, Type two diabetes, obesity and cancer than most other groups. In part because our diet is on average, higher in salt and fat and lower in fruits and vegetables. But racial injustice, in fact, contributes to the poor diet that we eat. Socioeconomic factors like poverty and living far from green grocers and easy access to fast food make it harder for African-Americans to eat healthy. But there is a clear connection between veganism and black culture, and we are seeing that being reinforced and celebrated in new ways. First of all, there’s a long history of black veganism in the United States and abroad. Many people know about the Rastafarian religion, which started in Jamaica in the 1930s, where there’s a concentration on eating idle foods, foods that are organically and locally grown and plant based. A number of traditional African cuisines are largely plant based and rich in dark leafy greens and legumes. American civil rights movement. Dick Gregory, who marched with Dr. King, famous comedian and civil rights advocate, gave up meat in 1965. And so throughout our history there have been numerous examples and throughout our many cultures represented by the diaspora, there is veganism, there is vegetarianism. There is a plant based lifestyle. In fact, there’s a woman named Tracy McQuirter who wrote a 2010 cookbook called ‘By Any Greens Necessary,’ specifically aimed at black women. And she’s launching a campaign online to try to get 10,000 black women to go vegan. She says that chronic disease and systemic racism are inextricable and that it’s urgent for us to take care of ourselves and to eat well so that we have the energy to fight these battles.

De’Ara [00:14:41] Kaya, thank you for this, because I feel like it’s getting us one step closer to having Tabitha Brown join us.

De’Ara [00:14:47] And so.

DeRay [00:14:47] Shout out to Tabitha Brown.

De’Ara [00:14:49] If ya’ll are not following Tabitha Brown on Instagram. You are not, you are not living life. I don’t know how to follow her on the tik tok, but on the Instagram, I could do that,very well. And she’s wonderful.

Kaya [00:15:00] You know, there’s a movement to get her to be the voice of Siri, right, because her voice is so calming and soothing.

De’Ara [00:15:06] Listen, I’m all for it.

Sam [00:15:08] When is the election for that? I feel like everybody has, like, their suggestion of who they want, the voice of Siri to be. And like, there has to at some point be like a vote. We’ve got to figure this out like we need some options. I agree.

DeRay [00:15:19] I didn’t know there was a push to get her to be the voice of Siri.  That’d be great. She is the best vegan, the most popular vegan we know right now.

De’Ara [00:15:25] So as a household, we were vegan for about three months. Like at the start of the quarantine, it was wonderful. But it also was like when everybody kind of was in the spirit of, ‘oh, we’re just home, so we’re gonna cook.’ And now we’re all sick of cooking. So now we’ve kind of moved away from our plant based eating, but still try to hold on to that three to four times a week. But I think it’s a this is a real thing. And I think what we eat is obviously political. One of my favorite Tupac lines; ‘change the way we eat,  change the way we live.’

De’Ara [00:15:59] You know, when we can I think we should one, try to understand plant based living and why it’s important and why we can be healthier and stronger. Again, like we all need to be paying more attention just about food and where our food’s coming from and what that means for our communities and who has access and who and who doesn’t. So I think this conversation is a good one. And I think, you know, Kaya, also just the narrative around, you know, veganism is a white thing. That’s obviously so far from the truth. But, yeah, this is I think this is a great one to highlight. Thank you.

De’Ara [00:16:29] So my news this week is from CNN. It’s a story on 19 families, 19 black families who purchase nearly ninety seven acres of land in Georgia to create a city that’s safe for black folks. So I just thought this was I don’t know, it just hit my feed and it made me smile. I think we’re all looking for those small things to make us smile these days. But essentially, it’s about two black women because, of course, that’s where every great story starts. Two black women who saw a town for sale, in, in rural Georgia. And after doing some further investigating, the town actually wasn’t for sale, but there was a bunch of acres nearby. And so they decided to buy it.

De’Ara [00:17:11] So Ashley Scott, who is a real estate agent, and her partner, investor and entrepreneur, Renee Walters, you know, they decided that they wanted to create a safe space for black people. And so they have purchased this land. They’ve gotten other families on board. My favorite line of this is just the first line of the story; “Welcome to Freedom.” ‘Exclaims real estate agent Ashley Scott as she surveys the nearly ninety seven acres of land that she and a group of 19 black families purchased in August.” It’s just interesting the way black folks roll, because for them it’s very much about creating safe space and creating pro black space. And so they’re completely open to this being a diverse community. But again, like, they wanted to really be built on the tenants and values of black folks being safe and what that means. So this comes out of like the history, like a lot of black cooperatives and lots of black towns. You know, in D.C., I grew up really close to Anacostia. I grew up in Hillcrest and in Anacostia where Berry Farms, which is now going to be completely gentrified. But Berry Farms started as a town for freed, enslaved people. Yes. So I just I wonder what this movement will will mean. I wonder if other folks are thinking about this in terms of those who are privileged enough to be able to buy space and buy land, what their decisions will be given kind of the moment that we’re in. So I don’t I just found this one interesting.

De’Ara [00:18:33] You know,.

Kaya [00:18:34] I thought this was super inspiring, one, just as a way to self-determine, right at the end of the day. Nobody is going to come and save us. We need to save ourselves. And they have decided to, you know, take it to the land and create their own community. And this is actually quite historical for us in the period of reconstruction right after the civil war. There were Freedman’s towns that sprouted up all over the United States. And in fact, the state that had the most Freedman’s towns where Texas, which was Texas, which is sort of interesting to me. But I mean, I was walking in Central Park at the beginning of the pandemic and stumbled across Seneca Village, which was one of the first black Freedman’s towns right here in New York. Or, you know, I know about Weeksville in Brooklyn or SAG Harbor, Eastville was actually a Freedman’s town. And if you do a little Eatonville in Florida. Right, if you do a little bit of digging. There were Freeman’s towns all over the United States. And in fact, the U.S. government had set up the Freedmen’s Bureau to support the economic cooperation and development of African-Americans, except they didn’t. And saw us doing our thing, crushing it in the 12 years that was reconstruction. And then, oh, my God, the Klan and Jim Crow. And don’t get me started. But the tradition of Freeman’s towns, I think, is a rich one. I think. We’re at a point where going back to the land is going to be critically important for us and determining our own, how we want to be in community with ourselves, how we want to live together, how we want to govern ourselves, I think is an exciting opportunity. And I think we’ll start to see more cooperatives like this buying land and self.

Sam [00:20:18] Yeah, De’Ara, this was, I remember when I when this came across my timeline and it just was such a timeline cleanse. It was something that just completely changed my mood because over the past, you know, years and years and years, seeing all of the articles about black farmland diminishing over time and how white folks had sort of underhandedly exploited and confiscated and stolen black land over the years, just seeing those numbers decline over time, I hadn’t fully appreciated how we could directly fight back and like directly be like, you know what? We’re going to buy up land. We’re actually going to increase the amount of land we have in a dramatic way and create a new city or a completely new community. And that gave me hope in a way that was really powerful. Again, this is like it’s at the very beginning stages. Obviously, there are a lot of challenges historically with white people.

Sam [00:21:12] You know, we all know about Black Wall Street. We all know about how when black people have created independent communities that have generated wealth and opportunity, they have tended to be undermined or burned down or otherwise sabotaged by white folks. And so obviously, I think folks will are thinking deeply about that, have to be thinking deeply about that now. And and what does it mean to sort of protect the gains and defend and make sure that Freedom, Georgia is sustainable and not sort of susceptible to that. But I think it’s really exciting. It’s really hopeful. It’s something that was incredible to see. And I’m excited to see how it evolves.

DeRay [00:21:45] Jumping off of.

DeRay [00:21:46] What Kaya said, you know, by 1888, there were at least 200 black towns and communities that have been established all black. And what’s interesting is that one of the ways that white supremacy works is that it erases history. So we always feel like we are starting a new, that is like, that is a part of the strategy. So when you see an all black town, immediately, people are like, ‘can black eople really govern themselves? Can they set up the infrastructure to do it?’ Like it’s that line of thought that goes because you’re like, well, where’s an all black town? There are towns where, like, the leadership is all black. But is it, you know, like that. That’s how it happens. So going off of what Sam said is at one of the reasons why they destroyed those towns was to also destroy the image of black people being self-sufficient, black people managing themselves to destroy the history and the narrative of black leadership. Righ?. So I’m interested in this moment, like how freedom can run counter to that disparaging narrative that just does damage. That makes it seem like the only leaders we’ve ever had are in white led towns. You’re like, that’s not true. That part of the explicit in the reconstruction was actually to destroy the notion of black leadership and black strength. Right? So that’s why this is interesting to me. The strategy behind buying it is interesting to me like that the plan for what they want to do with it is interesting and I’m hopeful. OK. So my news is about Covid. There’s a lotta you know, Covid is still gone. And Lord knows there are a lot of experts who think that we’re going to get the second wave of Covid as soon as we get into the fall and the winter. But, you know, there’s been a lot of conversation about who gets to work from home. And, you know, all of us on the Pod get to work from home in some capacity or if not completely work from home. And there was a new study that just came out from the Census Bureau. Household Pulse survey. And I was fascinated because what they find is that more than 70 percent of households earning more than one hundred thousand dollars said they were able to substitute telecommuting for some in-person work like they were able to work from home. By comparison, only 27 percent of households with annual incomes under seventy five thousand dollars said that somebody in their home, somebody in their home, was able to telecommute. And just seeing the data and seeing it so disparate that like the wealthy people, are the people able to work from home. They are the people who are able to, like, stay safe in this moment. We have to social distance, take the least amount of risks. And then it is people who have the least amount of money are the people who don’t get to telecommute, who are forced to come into work. They are essential in the coding of the employment narrative. And it was just really interesting to see the data. We obviously had already thought this before. But just to see it laid out with all the income levels, it really is sort of wild because you just see how people with means, not because they have some gift, not because there’s like some special whatever, literally just because of a wage, they are protected in a moment where there is a pandemic in a way that poor people just are not.

Sam [00:24:53] So the other thing that was interesting about this survey, DeRay, is that they also asked about how are feeling. So they asked whether if people are feeling down, depressed or hopeless several days or more over the past week. And, you know, looking at these numbers, it was really fascinating because it shows that younger people are much more likely to report, having felt depressed over several days or more in the past week than those who report not feeling depressed. And that that shifts as you increase in age. So for folks who are above the age of 49, the majority of them are saying that they did not feel depressed recently compared to those who are younger, having a majority saying that they did feel depressed. And, you know, this is not what I would think, given that obviously Covid has done damage all across society, but in particular for folks who are older. You know, it has been a particular risk. And for folks who are in nursing homes and in other elder care facilities, it’s been a particular risk. But just seeing the numbers in the survey showing that younger people were the ones saying that they were more likely to feel depressed than older folks was just fascinating. So so that was just interesting in the polling. And we’d love to learn more about sort of what’s going on sort of in the details there.

DeRay [00:26:04] Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People’s coming.  Pod Save

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DeRay [00:30:07] Pod Save the People is brought to you by ‘Made to Fail.’ Innocent people murdered at the hands of police. A broken unemployment system in Florida, crowded elections in Wisconsin during a global pandemic, rampant political corruption in the state of Georgia.

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DeRay [00:31:46] Check your registration, vote early and encourage friends and family to join you in exercising your voice. All in the fight for democracy. Streaming on Amazon Prime Video September 18th. Gregory Washington is the new president of George Mason University, a black man, and in addition to overseeing the complicated issues of reopening a school during a pandemic, he’s also implemented some anti-racist policies for the college. Here’s our conversation about these issues. Let’s go. Gregory Washington, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.

Gregory Washington [00:32:17] It’s great to be here.

DeRay [00:32:18] I think that you might be the first president of a university that we’ve had on the pod actually in three years. So I’m excited. Excited to talk to you. This is an interesting time to be a leader in education at any level because this is unprecedented. But before we talk about that, can you talk about your path to even getting to to lead a university like. What does that how does one do that?

Gregory Washington [00:32:45] Well, it’s an it is an arduous process. I will tell you to say the least. It starts by your past experience. And most university presidents are academic. They come through the academic crucible starting, most likely as an assistant professor and then working their way up through a full professor and and then taking on some administrative jobs, of which all of which I’ve done in my career, started off at Ohio State University and then moved to the University of California, Irvine, before coming here. And it was a series of academic appointments. At Ohio State, I did my first administrative job, which was to lead the OSU Institute of Energy and Environment. I led that entity and then I became the associate Dean for research for the whole College of Engineering. And from that job became the interim Dean at Ohio State and then left Ohio State to be Dean at Irvine.

Gregory Washington [00:33:44] And then from there came here. So I have been at it. I took my first administrative job in probably 2005, 2006, and have been working ever since then in this [00:33:56]faith. [0.0s] But I’ve been a professor since the 1990s, 95.

DeRay [00:34:00] Oh. Do you still do you teach? I mean, I mean, what is teaching right now and what does the university? What is what is school, giving Covid.

Gregory Washington [00:34:08] You made the comment that, you know, this is the first time you’ve had a president of a university on Pod Save the People. And I guess because now we’re really saving the people.

Gregory Washington [00:34:18] I think that’s.

DeRay [00:34:20] Really true. Do you still teach?

Gregory Washington [00:34:23] Well, I’m not teaching currently. In most of my previous administrative jobs, I did do some teaching. I think it’s important to try to stay close to the classroom and I probably will teach over the next year or two while I’m here. I probably will teach a class or two, if nothing more than to be able to look my faculty in the eye and say, ‘look, I get it. I know what you’re dealing with right now.’ It will it will be something that I will do.

DeRay [00:34:50] Now, last question before before we jump into what it means to be a college president. Is did you, what was your favorite class to teach when you did teach?

Gregory Washington [00:34:59] So I do work in the area of automation and control. That is my expertize. I’m an engineer by training. Mechanical and aerospace is where I hold my degrees. I’d like to teach people in terms of how to move an object from one point to another, how to control the movement of that object and its control theory. And that’s the kind of thing that really excites me academically.

DeRay [00:35:25] I love it. ‘Control theory.’ I don’t even know really what that means. I mean, I heard you say it, but I’m gonna go Google ‘control theory.’ Is there a part of ‘control theory’ that I would not my regular life? Or, no, I would.

DeRay [00:35:35] There’s no reason why I would know that. Would I?

Gregory Washington [00:35:37] Actually actually, believe it or not, much of what we’re dealing with now start is starting to fit into the confines of ‘control theory.’ Right, so remember, it’s all about being able to start at point A and move to point B and and follow a trajectory of how to get there. And you can change your inputs and outputs and sometimes you can change your environment in order to help you get from point A to point B, and you’re involved in movement. You’re involved with all sorts of endeavors where you’re dealing with large numbers of people. Well, that can be envisioned as a system. And how do you move that system from point A to point B? That’s the thing that excites me. And people have tried to take ‘control theory’ in use it to say ‘how do we engage and manage large groups of people? How do we look at world economies and can we actually modify and move world economies and move them from one point to another?’ So all of those aspects are things that excite me.

DeRay [00:36:43] Okay.

Gregory Washington [00:36:44] You actually got me thinking about something really interesting here, and that is, how could you manage your movement?

Gregory Washington [00:36:50] Are there are there ways of taking some of the traditional mathematical and theoretical tools that we have and being able to employ them. You know, you’re involved in Black Lives Matter and all those other things. I wonder if because everything that happens is organic, right? It kind of springs up out of the people. Right? And so I wonder if there are ways to harness that energy and in a manner that continues to move that movement to an outcome that we would all like to see as positive. I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to those questions, but these are the kind of things that excite me.

DeRay [00:37:27] I love it. Now. Now, you recently became the president of a university, George Mason. Can you just help us understand, like the demographics of the school first before we go into sort of deeper questions about what it’s like to lead?

Gregory Washington [00:37:41] So I will tell you. So George Mason is the largest, most diverse institutions in the state of Virginia. It is what we would call an institution with no majority. There is no one racial and ethnic group that has more than 50 percent of the population here at George Mason. And we have well over 38,000 students. And so we have a significant number of African-American students. Significant numbers of Latinx students. We have Asian-American students, a smaller population of international students than what most of our peers have. And we have a significant population of Caucasian students as well.

DeRay [00:38:26] And why did you choose to become president? Like, was this on your, was this a career goal? Like, how did you how did you end up at this school?

DeRay [00:38:32] You know, I want to talk about race on campus, even like what does it mean to be on campus right now? Because, you know, Covid. And what are the decisions like? What is that? What do you do every day? What is it? I don’t know. What is it like to wake up as a college president these days, given that almost all of the things that you would normally do something about them has changed? So like research on campus, I’m interested in what that looks like in the, in the time of Covid.  Sports community, like faculty appointments, like that whole gang. I have a lot of questions. So let’s just start. Let’s start with why George Mason?

Gregory Washington [00:39:07] I’ve reached a point in my career where I had been Dean for more than 13 years, 13, 14 years. And at that point, you kind of know that job, I mean you start asking yourself. You say, look, is this kind of the job I want to do for the rest of my life? And my answer to that question was no. And so I started to look at what steps remained and in the academic sense and there were only two jobs, the Dean reports, to someone who’s called the ‘provost’ or who’s the chief academic officer of the campus. And then that person reports to a president. So they were really only two jobs above where I was. And and. And so. So I started looking at opportunities in those spaces. And, you know, you ask the question, well, how did Mason come about? It is interesting. People kind of led me to Mason. I didn’t discover Mason. Mason kind of discovered me. It was a series of individuals who knew many of the things that I was involved with on the national level, who kept pointing me to this institution. We set up as an infrastructure to help grow the number of African-American undergrads in P.H.D’s who had engineering degrees. So I led a national effort to do that. We put a national program in place. We did the same thing for women and Latinx students. And as people began to know that I was involved in that kind of thing, they said, ‘you know, there’s this institution over here who’s doing some of the same things. We think you should consider them.’ And I’ve done a lot with community engagement, having the university not just sit in the community, but actually truly be a part of that community. You know, the institutions must be vital to the community, not just as an entity that provides jobs for people, but also as an entity that goes in those communities and is actually engaged in help in in in. We had done that kind of thing in [00:41:10]Faith [0.0s] and in Irvine and, you know, individual said, ‘well, there’s this institution out of, you know right near DC who’s doing similar things you look into them, they’re looking for a president.’ So it happened like that. There was, you know, when three or four people tell you you need to look at this place. You finally say, ‘OK, I’m going to take a look at it.’ Then the more I looked at it, the more I became attracted to what was happening here. And that’s kind of what led to me interviewing for the job and going through that really long process of getting it. You know, in terms of what do we do every day, we really planned up the academic and the operational direction of the university, and we managed that on a day to day basis. I will tell you right now, these jobs are really, really difficult. Academia as we know it is being shifted under our feet. And it is changing in a dramatic way, putting up with that change and figuring out how to manage it. An institution like this one. I got ten thousand employees right, that I’m probably using 4000 of them right now, maybe 5000. And so what do you do with the other 5000 people? These aren’t easy decisions. And so it’s a tough, tough job right now.

DeRay [00:42:24] What are the decisions that you’ve made around coronavirus? How has that impacted school? Who’s on campus? Is anybody on campus? Are they coming back to campus? Like, what are the things that you have to consider when you are even in the meetings? I can only meet you know, I used to lead Human Capital for the school system in Baltimore. I can think about the gazillion decisions we would have to make or conversations we’d have to entertain or we did things that were we that were really hard. But nothing seems as complicated as this moment.

Gregory Washington [00:42:53] Right. So right now, we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000 students on campus. We normally will have 6,500 students on campus. And so we’re a little less than half of our capacity in terms of total number of students. Just to put that in perspective. So you you can get an idea of what that means. The average student on campus in terms of the costs of their room and in terms of their meal plans and the food they eat on campus will spend about 12000 dollars a year. That’s the average. Those thirty five hundred students who are not here, that’s 40 million dollars gone. Right? And you say, ‘well, what is that, 40 million dollars used for,’ well it is used to support not just those students on campus, but all of the other aspects of upkeep associated with maintaining an institution. And so now what am I doing? Figuring out how to cover that 40 plus million dollar hole. Actually, when you add up all of the costs associated with Covid.

Gregory Washington [00:43:56] It’s bigger than that. And so we’ve brought that 3000 students back for two reasons. One. I’m of the belief that we’re not going to get past Covid anytime soon. I hear the president talking about a vaccine and look, lord knows, I hope we get one. But even if we get a vaccine, I’m an engineer. And so I understand how things are made. That vaccine has to be manufactured. Then that vaccine has to be distributed. And then you got to say what is going to be the community uptake? I mean, how many people are going to allow that shot to go in there to their arms? And when you add that all up, it will be easily we’ll be late into next year before we have enough people immunized. Presuming the vaccine works as planned, before we’re ready to call this thing over. We’re going to be at least the rest of this academic year in some state of managing with the virus. We might as well learn how to live with it. We might as well learn how to educate people because the education of our country cannot stop. Right? It can’t. And it can’t shift to being totally online either. There are times where we need to be in a more face to face setting in order to make it work, in order for people to actually learn. And there are people who don’t learn well when they’re looking at a screen. My philosophy is that you’re gonna have to figure out how to live with it. We’ve got great people on our campuses who all they do is think and they’re brilliant. If anybody can figure out these problems and figure out solutions, individuals on academic campuses should be able to do that. That’s the main reason. The main driver for us and the other one is if we were to totally shut down or totally go online, I don’t know what kind of entity we would have economically on the way back. We would literally have to lay off thousands of people. You would be laying them off into an environment where those individuals can’t find jobs. If I could figure out a way to do this and do it safely, that’s the best alternative. Figure out a way to do it and to do it safely. I know it’s a hard task. But guess what? That’s why we have academic institutions to solve the burning challenges that face the world in the country today.

DeRay [00:46:17] Have you had to do any layoffs at all so far?

Gregory Washington [00:46:19] No. We we we we’ve been fortunate in that we’ve been able to manage. We had we’ve had reserves that we’re using currently for rainy day. And that’s exactly what this is. If this is not a rainy day. I don’t know what is. So we years we’re utilizing reserves. We’ve repurposed people in terms of they had one job, we’ve modified those jobs to do other jobs. And and then we are planning and managing for what that new reality will look like when it comes on the back side of this. And so all of those mechanisms are the ways in which we’re managing right now.

DeRay [00:46:57] And will you still be able to bring on, I’m assuming that there must have been hiring goals in for new faculty or. I don’t know. Have you seen anything about class enrollment change or a drop or what does that look like or is it still too early? And then how did you choose the 3000 students?

Gregory Washington [00:47:13] We prioritize students based on how far they were away from campus. So if they live 10 miles from campus, it was less, it was less likely that you’re going to get a dorm room than if you lived a thousand miles from campus. That’s really how we did our first cut in the reductions. And in some students decided they just wanted to, you know, not be on campus. They wanted to be online. So it was a series of reductions that got us down to the 3000 number. To answer your other question, in terms overall enrollment, it’s up actually we’re up two point two percent, which is amazing. If you would have asked me back in March or even in February when I took this job, that would it be possible that in September our enrollment for the fall would be higher than what it was? I would have told you absolutely no way we were growing because, you know, I think people are realizing you still have to get educated, that we can’t sit this out, that the world actually has to figure out a way to to move on and continue to operate in the human race must go on. Education is a big part of what it means to be human.

DeRay [00:48:26] Yeah, that is, you know, enrollment up isn’t what I thought.

Gregory Washington [00:48:29] You know, there are lots of institutions who are down right now. I will tell you that. So I don’t want you to think that everybody is up. So they are up number of our peer institutions who are down. We’re up. We have been relatively fairly aggressive in going after and attracting students. We’ve been very, very deliberate about making the population and the public understand that this represents a shift for us. But we’re not gonna buy out of the educational process. We’re gonna be there for our students and we’re gonna continue to give them the highest and best education possible and in the community is rewarding us for doing that. And I mean, that’s the reality of the situation. Also, we’re in an area of the country that’s growing in population and that population growth in Northern Virginia. People are saying to themselves, ‘do I want to leave and go all the way across the country to go to school with all this uncertainty? Or is there a really good school nearby that I can go to and that my parents can get to?’

Gregory Washington [00:49:34] Or the parents are saying that to the kid, ‘I need to be able to get to you if something crazy happens,’ you know? So we’re a great option for that. And we’ve been a relatively safe campus. So, you know, with large campuses in Virginia, we have the fewest cases of Covid, 19. We have 22 cases now. We started bringing students back to campus and on August 9th. So we haven’t had the big burst of cases that you hear at many other institutions because we’ve done some innovative things. You know, students don’t have to go out for their food here. The food is delivered to them by robots, which is a really cool thing to see. You know, one of the more unfortunate things that we really clamp down on student congragate activities like parties, you know, we really limit how students have parties here. You can’t have an entity with 150, 200, 300 people in a house party. And we enforce it. We’ve coupled with our student organizations and with our public safety on campus. And we we enforce that mandate. And then we have a whole host of rigorous testing strategies from pretesting to surveillance testing to diagnostic testing. You know, universities are good at giving test. And so we’re just given a whole bunch of test relative to Covid in order to make sure we keep people as safe as possible. And when we do get a case, we box it in around the student and that students connections. And since we haven’t allowed students to have big parties, when we do find a case, we don’t run into the the next step where that person was just at a party with 150 other people. Right? Which is what many universities are dealing with right now. And so that’s kind of what’s helped us.

DeRay [00:51:18] There we go. What what advice do you have for parents or for students trying to navigate the education system in a moment like this?

Gregory Washington [00:51:25] Not to give up on their educational goals.

Gregory Washington [00:51:28] This is gonna pass. There will be a time that we will move on past this. You know, when you say, what do you tell a student? I’ll tell them what I told my two youngsters. I got one who is a junior at Ohio State University and one who just started as a freshman in the same institution this year. I tell them what I told generations of students before them, and that is, what do you dream? Pursue your dream. And this is what I add to that. Be careful. Wear a mask. Don’t party. Wash your hands. Take care of yourself and limit your congregate behavior. And if you do those things, you’re probably going to be all right. Even when there’s chaos all around you.

DeRay [00:52:10] There we go. I also do want to talk to you about the anti-racism work that’s happening at George Mason. And what does that look like?

Gregory Washington [00:52:17] We have launched a major anti-racism initiative. We have a task force of more than 100 faculty and staff who are working on this.

Gregory Washington [00:52:26] And the idea here is to look at every single aspect of how we operate and how we do business from our classroom experience to our sports teams. You know, even down to the names of our buildings and food service and the like. And when the idea is where we find vestiges of institutional racism, goal number one is to call them out, get the information out there. And goal number two is to put mechanisms in place to correct it. It sounds like a very simple strategy. And I’ll be honest with you, the best strategies are simple. It’s really about finding people with the right level of commitment. I have put real money behind this effort. I don’t want at the end, you know, even though, look, we’re at a time where we are strapped for cash. I tell people I’m 50 cent away from a quarter. But for those things that are your highest priorities, you find resources to manage them. And we’ve been able to put about five million dollars as an initial down payment towards our task force and towards the work that that task force will do this year. Any ideas at the end of this year, we will, we will re-evaluate it. And if we need to put more resources behind it, we’ll do that in next year.

DeRay [00:53:42] Well, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People, we consider you a friend of the pod and can’t wait to have you back.

Gregory Washington [00:53:47] Well, I look forward to it.

DeRay [00:53:50] Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure that you rate it wherever you get your podcasts whether it’s Apple podcasts or somewhere else. We’ll see you next week.