Stick to the Values (with Dustin Gibson) | Crooked Media
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February 08, 2022
Pod Save The People
Stick to the Values (with Dustin Gibson)

In This Episode

DeRay, Kaya, and De’Ara cover the underreported news of the week— including reparations for Black Californians, representation on executive boards, and a possible resurrection of the War on Drugs. De’Ara interviews Dustin Gibson about his roots, disability justice work and recent Justice Rising Award from the Open Society Foundations.










DeRay Mckesson: Hey, this is DeRay and welcome to Pod Save the People. On this episode, it’s me, Kaya and De’Ara talking about all the news that you didn’t know from the past week. Myles isn’t with us this week, but they’ll be back for the next episode. And then De’Ara actually does the interview this week as she talks to Dustin Gibson, who’s the director of Access, Disability and Language Justice at People’s Hub. You’ll learn a ton in that conversation I learned a ton in that conversation. Make sure that you listen. And my advice for this week is that some decisions are just hard and when in doubt, go back to your values. That there are a lot of things that are just easy. It’s like a very clear yes or no. But then there’s some things that are just like hard. We gotta make sure that we like own that some things are hard, and when we get stuck, I go back to my values. I go back to like, who am I? What do I believe? What are those core things to help me wade through the really, really hard decisions? Here we go.


De’Ara Balenger: Family! Family. Welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People, I’m De’Ara Balenger, you can find me on Instagram and n Twitter @dearabalenger.


Kaya Henderson: I’m Kaya Henderson. On Twitter @hendersonkaya.


DeRay Mckesson: And this is DeRay, @deray on Twitter.


De’Ara Balenger: So you know it’s, it’s still Black History Month, everybody.


Kaya Henderson: Amen. Happy February, y’all.


De’Ara Balenger: You know I love Black History Month. And I think in honor of Black History Month, Joe Rogan wanted to apologize to all of the Black people. [laughter] He’s very, very, very sorry for saying the N-word repeatedly. So many times. He’s very, he wants you to know he’s very, very, very sorry.


Kaya Henderson: Now did he call you and tell you this? What? How did—?


De’Ara Balenger: He, listen, it’s all over the news. It’s all over the news. He’s so sorry. He’s sorry. But, he said that him saying the N-word so many times, all those times, it was taken out of context. So this apology has a “but” but you know, just sharing with you all the Joe Rogan is sorry for saying the N-word, you know, over many years. So much so that Spotify had to take down so many episodes of this podcast. But you know, be sorry. And Spotify is also celebrating Black History Month by taking down podcasts of people that say the N-word. So thank you, Spotify. And thank you Joe Rogan.


Kaya Henderson: Spotify also lost $2 billion in market value as a result of the protests, so they might want to fix their sorry. I mean, come on, y’all, it’s 2022, and like, it’s not hard. It’s just a word you don’t say, companies, you don’t endorse these people—like I don’t, this is, I don’t even know why this is even a question right now.


DeRay Mckesson: It is one of those things where you remember that the reason why people care about Joe Rogan is that he got an $100 million exclusivity deal with Spotify. That’s a lot of money. And it’s like y’all did not vet this. There are so many incredible podcasts that would have benefited from such a deal or even a fraction of a deal like that. So many incredible voices and stories to be told. And then you get Joe Rogan, who is up here using racial slurs. And not—I mean, one time is bad— but this is, they, they are now up to a hundred episodes they had to remove of Joe’s podcast. That is unreal! And remember, people keep saying free speech, free speech. Free speech applies to the government. It does not apply to private companies like this, and there’s no protection from accountability. It’s good that, it’s good that this is happening. And also like wild that he still has a podcast.


Kaya Henderson: Like De’Ara, I’m super excited about Black History Month being the kickoff to our year-long celebration of Black History. Woop woop. Come on, February. And I am excited because my news this week is about reparations. Oh, isn’t February a great time to talk about reparations? One of my friends told me that they gonna come for me because I talk about the critical race teaching on the podcast and that there’s a list somewhere and that all of us are going down for this. But that’s OK because I think we should have a conversation about reparations. And this is about the state of California, who may be the first state in the nation to seriously consider reparations for Black Americans. Governor Gavin Newsom has convened a task force, a reparations task force, and they are charged with doing two things. They are going to study the state’s role in perpetuating the legacy of slavery, and they are recommending proposals to the Legislature by next year. There are people in the state of California, state legislators who want to lead on this issue because they are of the belief that as California goes, so goes the country. And they are considering, they are listening to testimony from people. They are reading and studying research and policies. And they are going to put together a set of expansive proposals that include everything from direct payments, to housing and business grants, to recommendations to reform policies that are discriminatory against people. And a while ago, like probably more than a year ago, one of my first pieces of news on the pod was a story about Evanston, Illinois, which is the first government in the United States, city government, to approve financial reparations. If you remember, Evanston had approved a $10 million fund that included housing grants and business grants for Black Americans. So we’re in some big conversations about cash, about reparations broadly. Cash reparations are a particularly thorny issue for people. Black Americans widely back cash reparations. Me too. I just want to say for the culture, I’m down with cash reparations. But cash reparations are largely unpopular with white Americans. But people thought it was OK for the Japanese people because in 1988, President Reagan signed legislation that gave $20,000, $20,000 payments to Japanese Americans who were forced to go into internment camps during World War II. And so if we thought that cash was OK for some sets of people, I’m wondering why we aren’t thinking that cash might be part of a larger package of reparations to African-Americans. There’s a quote from Cathy Masaoka, who is the chair of the Nikkei for Redress and Civil Rights, which is a group that fought for the Japanese reparations. And she has what I think is a really interesting caution for us as we consider reparations for Black people. She says, “If a country is really serious about correcting wrongs, a country would do like what Germany did, which is to educate their whole population.” And Cathy feels like in the Japanese reparations piece, a public education campaign about the harm done was missing. Well, I thought that this was particularly interesting, given that we have a public information campaign about the harm done to Black people in slavery, and that is this whole conversation about what’s accurate, the teaching of accurate history looks like. And we’re seeing school boards and state legislatures and governors create conditions where we would not actually educate the whole population about the harms that have been done during enslavement because some, it makes people feel uncomfortable. And I’m sure that this is something that Germany reckoned with, but what they ultimately decided was to ensure that this happened never again. Everybody needed to have a clear understanding of what happened, why it happened, how it happened, so that it wouldn’t happen again. And I think that is interesting advice to think about as we see all of these policies being enforced across the country. Yeah, reparations. You know, California knows how to party. I’m down with it. If California is the first state to enact reparations, I think it would, we be having a very different conversation about reparations across this country. So happy Black History Year kick-off, February. And let’s get some reparations in California.


DeRay Mckesson: The thing that I had that I thought was interesting, Harvard, the Kennedy School just put out a piece titled “The United States Pays Reparations Every Day, Just Not to Black America.” And let me just read the first paragraph. This will be my contribution today. “Farmers, fishermen, people who’ve lost bank accounts or pensions, people who’ve had a bad reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine, people who have had a reaction to any other vaccine, indigenous people, veterans, descendants of veterans, people who get hurt on the job, people who build nuclear bombs, people exposed to pesticides, coal miners who get black lung disease, people who lose paychecks or homes from floods, droughts or other natural disasters, people who are impacted by trade agreements. That’s a long list, but it’s still a fraction of the many people and groups who receive compensation, either from or through the government for the harms they have suffered.” And then it goes on to say every day a subset of this group of people receives some sort of compensation. And for Black people, it seems to be politically unpopular, or impossible to some others. And I just say that because one of the big critiques I’ve heard about reparations is like, How could you do it, it’s taken so long? You know, what would it look like to even build the infrastructure to implement something like this? And it’s like, actually, we already built it, already done it, already tried it with other people. This is just an example of people’s understanding of who is worthy and who is not.


De’Ara Balenger: I think this is, there’s also just the examination of, yes, we’re talking about the legacy of slavery in terms of reparations and just the reparations alone for that piece, but it’s also things that have happened in our parents lifetimes, for example, that have been intentional, purposeful. And really, now we’re in a space where now there’s such a big gap between Black wealth and white wealth in a lot of that was because of kind of the intentional demise of Black people having wealth or having home ownership. So I’m reading kind of like a complimentary piece, Kaya, that’s in the Guardian and it talks about a family who purchased a home in California, Black family, in 1959, and their neighbors led a relentless harassment campaign in an effort to get them to move away. They pranked call them, they threw rocks at their windows, they burned a cross on their lawn, they spray painted their garage “Black cancer lives here, don’t let it spread.” That was in 1959. So, so many incidents like this where people actually, you know, would leave their homes in terror and fear, and the impact that that had on them financially in terms of their wealth. So I think those are the type of events that I think about. It’s like, it’s all of the injustices that have led us up to this place and for which we have so many statistics to prove. And so I think that, you know, just looking at the breadth of what would have to be considered in terms of quantifying what has happened to Black people so purposefully, so intentionally, so maliciously, is something that, you know, I hope that this conversation expands to really talk about and shine a light on.


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


[ad break]


De’Ara Balenger: Speaking of Black—well, boy, oh boy, was I excited to see this? So my news today is about Black women on corporate boards. OK, here we go. Let me start by saying that 4% of board seats at S&P 500 companies are held by Black women. Four percent. So, wow. This article, though, it is giving us hope and excitement because there are two women, Black women, Merline Saintil and Robin Washington, and they’re veteran executives and they sit on numerous boards, and they decided to start an organization called Black Women on Boards where, for free, once you’ve applied and be and have been selected, they will work with you in terms of grooming you to be on a board. So, one, helping you to get connected to a board, to actually, you know, go through the process of being considered, but then also give you all the tools to ensure that you can be successful once you’re on that board. So I just thought this was super interesting given, you know, so much we’ve talked kind of ad nauseam around corporations and brands and particularly post-, you know, the murder of George Floyd, all of these companies are now making all of these pledges to do all of these things. But I think it’s structural changes like this where you’re really having inclusivity and representation from the top and with folks who are going to hold those organizations accountable for however they’re prioritizing issues around equity, inclusion, and diversity. So I just saw this, I thought it was a really incredible first step. These Black women that have started this organization are incredibly impressive. Robin Washington is on the board of directors for Alphabet, Salesforce, and Honeywell. And Saintil is on, is the lead independent director at Rocket Lab, a board member and GitLab, Evolv Technology, and Light Speed Commerce, and TD Synnax, and Alkami Technology. That’s a lot of boards to be on. Sis is pulling in some, some coins here. These are paid boards. So I would say all that, this is great. We need more of this. We also have to put guardrails on all of this because we shouldn’t just be on any board. There are some companies that I wouldn’t advise for us to be participants in because of what those companies do. I thought this was like a purpose-driven initiative that I appreciated and that it would have taken Black women to initiate, to make to make this happen.


Kaya Henderson: I thought this was, this is a, this is a really important story, De’ Ara. Thanks for bringing it to the pod, because a lot of people don’t understand how board membership works. You alluded to it right? These sisters are making a lot of money. When you are on a paid, when you’re on a corporate board, you draw a salary. You are drawing a salary of anywhere from $25,000 to millions of dollars, right? Some boards pay by the board meeting. Some boards pay you just an annual flat salary. There are lots of people who when they retire or when they stop working, they’ll get on two or three boards and make the salary that they made previously. There is also stock in the company. And you know, a lot of us don’t understand how this stock game work. I’ll tell you, I had no idea, but I was on a board, I was on a corporate board and I was granted stock as part of my board service. And every time that company did a deal to, where there were different investors, I got paid. I got paid money that I had, like big sums of money that I had no idea I would get because I didn’t understand how board service worked. And so putting Black women on boards is not just about representation, it is about wealth building in ways that we have no idea about. It is incredibly lucrative to be on corporate boards, and you can mess yourself up if you don’t have the right approach, if you don’t have the right mentorship and coaching, if you are on the wrong board, right? There are, you know, lots of liabilities as well. But if you get on a board, especially of a company before it goes public, you stand to make a lot of money. So Black women, we need to understand how, these are the systems that reinforce black poverty and white wealth. And these women are trying to, you know, open the gate of wealth generation to Black women. And so do yourself a favor, understand what board membership looks like and consists of, network with people, support these ladies as they try to get Black women on boards. This is a way for us to completely and totally change our economic game.


DeRay Mckesson: I came from the human capital world, human resources. So did Kaya. And you know, people always say that the talent is there. That’s true. The people are there, but you also have to build a system to find them, to source them, to recruit them. And I found that in the corporate world, on boards, that whole world is often like who you know, it’s word of mouth recommendation, if those sort of things. So there are a lot of talented Black women, Black people have all of all types who could be on these boards but just are not in the room sitting next to the person who recommends them or don’t know the people who lead the nominating committee or don’t even know that a nominating committee is—like, just don’t know, just aren’t around. And what is powerful about this is that it’ll take away a nominating committee excuses to say, like, we don’t know where to look. It’s like ooop, there’s actually a place right here to look. Like that’s actually really powerful because I will say it’s somebody who’s been a part of these processes at the highest levels, and at not the highest levels, the sourcing of board talent is hard. I mean, it’s not, it’s not fun, it’s long, and sometimes you get stuck with recommendations from people you definitely don’t want. You know, like the old, it’s just recycling the same type of person. And it’s, you know, most board commitment, even for people like Kaya, was talking about who get paid, it’s not your job, right? You’re not like showing up to an office five days a week. It’s like something you come in and out of. And I think that this will make the nominating committee’s work much better. So I’m excited about that. So I brought this because I’m actually torn about it. My news is that four men have been arrested in the connection to the death of Michael K. Williams, who, as you know, overdosed on fentanyl-laced heroin. And you know, obviously, you know, I think we can live in a world without prisons and jails and I’m not convinced that arresting people is like the best strategy for this at all, or the best strategy for the majority of things that happen. But but I read it and I’m like, you know, the article’s like, what the article says they were in a narcotics conspiracy and part of a drug distribution crew, which really is like some neighborhood people, right? Drug distribution crew does not mean some, you know, massive organization. But the reason that I’m hesitant about this is that I’m just, I’m not certain that penalizing the drug dealers aggressively is actually going to get rid of the problem. Like, I’m not convinced this is going to be the root of the thing that changes this from being an epidemic. So I think about Narcan, I think about naloxone distribution, I think about making sure people have resources and people can use drugs safely if they want to, thatwe can test fentanyl and then we can dramatically decrease the ingredients that allow people to make fentanyl and distribute it in communities—I think, I worry that this is just like a repackaging of the war on drugs in order to be used to criminalize a whole new generation of Black people around this. So I want to bring you here because I really was like, I get this idea of like tough accountability around fentanyl, it’s killing a lot of people. And I’m like, I’m just not convinced this is a strategy that will lead to the impact that people believe it will.


Kaya Henderson: I take your point, DeRay. But I will tell you there were two things about this article that stood out to me. One was that according to the article, it says that even after they knew that he had died, that that Michael K. Williams had died, they continued to sell the heroin laced with fentanyl. And that, you should go to jail for that. Like, you know you got killer drugs and you’re still selling them? That didn’t sit right with me. And then I was surprised, frankly, that they actually are bringing people to justice on this because far too often when Black people die, even when they are Black people of, you know, celebrity, especially when there are drugs involved, you know, the system just chalks it up to Black on Black crime, [unclear] the drug game or whatever, whatever. If it was a white person, they would pursue relentlessly to figure out who did this and how. And so I was actually surprised that they continued to investigate until they found people in this in this particular crime. You know, the drug thing is complicated. You know, most people know that more than, more than others. This light was snuffed out. I think you suggested some very important ways to think about combating the drug crisis. Of course, arresting these four dudes is not going to stop the hustle. But I think, you know, until we really are committed to grappling with this for what it really is, then we’re going to have fits and starts around how we address drug use and drug criminality.


Dewarra Balenger: I’m taking a different angle on this. Why is it people can’t just have a good time with how they want a good time without having to die? Like whether it’s putting fentanyl in heroin or cocaine, like why, why is this, why are they putting these chemicals in these drugs? I just, I don’t, I just don’t—that part, I don’t understand. And also, I just from a business standpoint, like, are people going to continue to buy drugs from you if they know that people are dying from them? I just, I think, just philosophically, practically like, I just don’t ,I just don’t get it. It’s wild.


Kaya Henderson: But the deal is, isn’t—we’re learning together here—isn’t the deal with fentanyl that it makes, you know, the higher, stronger, it makes whatever the drug that is paired with stronger and it’s cheap., like you get more for your money when you cut your drugs with—


DeRay Mckesson: And more deadly, it’s like filler.


De’Ara Balenger: But it’s like, how strong do you need your heroin to be? And also, we don’t need cocaine to be real strong. Like, that’s not what we’re doing that cocaine for!


Kaya Henderson: Wait, wait, wait, wait, [laughs] wait, wait. Say’s three non addicts, “How strong do you need your drugs to be?”


DeRay Mckesson: Three non-users.


Kaya Henderson: Right.


De’Ara Balenger: We don’t know. It’s just, you know, we’ve all had long lives and interesting lives. I’m just saying, I just don’t—


DeRay Mckesson: The thing is, is that people aren’t, they’re not releasing their own thing with fentanyl. I mean, people don’t, fentanyl is being used as a filler in things like heroin and cocaine and even—


Kaya Henderson: In the production process


DeRay Mckesson: In the production. So the people don’t know, they don’t—


De’Ara Balenger: It’s like an efficiency. It’s just like it’s cheaper and easier and it’s what we are going to use.


Kaya Henderson: Yeah, how to make it more cheaper, stronger, drugs.


DeRay Mckesson: Better high. I mean, it’s like I’m more high-high. The problem is that it kills you and you don’t even know. You think you’re doing regular cocaine. You don’t realize you’re doing cocaine laced with fentanyl. And then you’re gone.


De’Ara Balenger: Capitalism is really, that’s what it all comes down to. It’s ruining everything. Everything. Nothing tastes the same like it did when we were young. You can’t even do on drugs no more. You can’t do nothing. We can’t do anything anymore. It’s crazy.


DeRay Mckesson: Yeah, but I’m just not sure that arresting—I hear you, Kaya. I just don’t know that arresting, arresting them s going to change anything about the corner.


Kaya Henderson: But I was going to say, I think we have to be—one of the things—this is a totally different direction, sorry—but like one of the things that I’ve been super concerned about is the level of violence that’s happening in schools right now, right? And I was talking to a friend who is the superintendent of schools. One of his kids shot another one of his kids in the head and the, and the kid is pretty matter of fact about it. And, you know, he was just sharing with me that like, people feel, what people are feeling right now is hopelessness, you know, like unbound, right? That life is meaningless. So it does, it stands to reason like where we are mentally and emotionally as a society, both from the political things that are happening, to the pandemic things that are happening—people are, you know, people are in bad shape. And so chasing higher highs seems logical right now. Like, I don’t know anything about this, I’m just saying like, we’re in a situation where you are applying a very rational “we don’t need to get that high” to the thing when like we, we’re in a situation that is wholly irrational.


De’Ara Balenger: Right.


DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Don’t go anywhere, there’s more to come.


[ad break]


De’Ara Balenger: All right, y’all. This is De’Ara. I’m doing the interview for this episode. So excited to be speaking with Dustin Gibson. You all we’ll hear from shortly. I just wanted to give you a little background on this incredible human. He’s, Dustin is currently the director of Access, Disability, and Language Justice at People’s Hub, a peer support trainer with Disability Link in Georgia. Also a board member with Straight Ahead, and HEARD, and a co-creator of the Disabled Elders and Pittsburgh Without Police funds. He is also a founding member of the Harriet Tubman collective, Us Protecting Us in Atlanta, Georgia, and Policing in Allegheny County Committee. Dustin, that’s a lot. Did I miss anything?


Dustin Gibson: No, that was good.


De’Ara Balenger: So Dustin—and we’ll, we’ll hear from him himself—but his work addresses the nexus between race, class, and disability. He does on the work ground with the Centers for Independent Living in southwest Pennsylvania with a focus on deinstitutionalization and youth self-determination. His work in the national CIO network supported youth peer support networks in policing and incarceration and disability. So Dustin, welcome to the pod. Thank you for being here with us.


Dustin Gibson: What’s up? I appreciate you having me.


De’Ara Balenger: Absolutely. So we just want to just start with a little getting to know, So where are you from? Where are you people from?


Dustin Gibson: OK, so I think those are two different questions, but I’ll start from where I’m from, which is Rock Springs, Wyoming. It’s a town of like, when I was growing up, 18,000 people. And when we say it’s like not close to anything, we mean the next town over is 14-miles away and then the next town from that is like 66 miles. So, yeah, it’s a small place in Wyoming, a rural town. My people, my father’s family is from St. Louis, specifically a place called Kinloch, the first Black incorporated town in Missouri. So my great grandmother was the one to take all of them, and his 15 siblings out to Wyoming, and I arrived after that.


De’Ara Balenger: So do you still have people in Wyoming there, you still have family there?


Dustin Gibson: Oh, for sure. Yeah, my father lives there, my uncles. So I go back and I’m still very much connected.


De’Ara Balenger: Wow. Lovely. I love that. So my people are from Minnesota. And up until 2020, the only Black people that folks thought were in Minnesota was Prince and Morris Day. So I know what it’s like to be from a place where there are seemingly few Black people, but there actually is like a strong, strong community that I feel like–I mean, I know I’ll speak for myself that actually helped me on what I’ve been able to accomplish today. And a lot of the change I want to see in the role came from kind of that legacy of folks, you know, being, kind of, not being the only, but being fewer in predominantly white spaces.


Dustin Gibson: Yeah, I think, something I often think about now is like the amount of organizing that I witnessed and didn’t know it was actual organizing because of how few Black people were there and the things that they did for protection, and, you know, community, and, yeah, I would never refer to themselves as organizers or activists, but was 1000%, and still are that.


De’Ara Balenger: Right, right. And so then Dustin, with that, obviously, that was, you know, I’m sure, a launch pad for your work today. How did you get into your, into all the many things that you’re doing? How did, how did that happen?


Dustin Gibson: Well, I think I don’t know, like I’ve always had a leaning towards justice or just being interested in people that we’re world-building and attempting to create change, even if that was like, you know, resistance and hip hop, which I think is probably the introduction to some level of like rebellion, some, like, teasing out a revolution. And from there, I mean, like, witnessing like a bunch of things that, you know, happened around me, happened to me, particularly around like disability and violence. But then I really got connected with the Centers for Independent Living once I moved out to Washington, Pennsylvania, which was a rural area like maybe an hour outside of Pittsburgh. And yeah, once I got connected to the Centers for Independent Living, I seen people moving and operating from a self-determination model. So it was disabled people being governed by disabled people and providing services for disabled people under the guise they’re the experts of their own lives. So I think that was my first real introduction to formal organizing, like apparatus. And then from there, I think I’m living in a generation in which a lot of people become conscious, or are becoming conscious because of policing and incarceration. So I think I’m one of many that were politicized and radicalized in moments like Troy Davis being executed in Georgia or Michael Brown being murdered in Ferguson and Trayvon Martin being murdered in Florida. And I mean, that list goes on.


De’Ara Balenger: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I mean, how does, how does all this really translate this into your day-to-day work at the People’s Hub? What does the day look like for you?


Dustin Gibson: Well, it’s interesting, this is the first time I’ve been remote, and remote in a time in which the world is remote. But the idea of People’s Hub is one that it’s always been remote because the idea is to connect people across geographies, like people that are rooted in local communities to be able to skill-share and strategize together and support different projects in collaboration. So the person that brought me on, Elandria Williams, who became an ancestor last year, brought me on with the intention of really thinking through how do we implement disability justice in different movement spaces that we’re concerned with, which is like solidarity economy, dismantling the global far right–which is like our ultimate goal–and disability justice. So like under, we kind of like operate as like a think tank in that realm but I think what Elandria and I like had visioned out was a real need for access to be implemented in different movement spaces, but also understanding that we don’t have a movement for disability justice right now. And that it’s absolutely critical, like the pandemic is just like heightened and illuminated that need. So I would say at the core of what’s happening at People’s Hub, at least what I’m proximate to is the attempting of building out an ecosystem of a movement, so really the base-building right now. We’re still in that phase. I don’t know how long we’ll be there, hopefully not long because it’s like urgent and they really needed right now. More than any time in my life, at least.


De’Ara Balenger: Right. Right. And I think just, you know, obviously COVID, the COVID of it all has really magnified all of the disparity issues, particularly when it comes to the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. So I’d imagine that at a time where, you know, it’s more important than ever to movement-build, you know, people are just, people are hurting. And I think, you know, and whether it’s because they were already people with living disabilities or because of COVID causing long-haul COVID now is the thing that we’re seeing is becoming more and more real, and the health care system is late to be able to assess it or commit help around it, but also just kind of the federal government’s lateness or just lack of urgency around it all, and how vulnerable people really are becoming now. I mean, I guess all that to say, like, I think with the COVID of it all, though, there may be, just may be–and I guess this is my question–are there more resources being put towards getting at critical data that we need to change policy around folks with disabilities? Like are you seeing an insurgence of resources, an insurgence of disability, and insurgence of people putting the pressure on, so that more solutions can start to, can start to really come up to the surface?


Dustin Gibson: So I mean, I wish I could answer, and that’s like, no. So the short answer is no. And I say that because like, what I come out of is people that have done deinstitutionalization work, so that’s my lineage. When I started at the Centers for Independent Living, I was doing nursing home transition, which means we’re going into nursing facilities, finding people that want to get free and supporting them in getting free. And that takes many shapes. Some people are in need of skills training, around transportation, some people are in need of housing, way to access food, a way to to have in-home care, so that takes a bunch of different shapes. And one of the things I’ve learned is like nursing homes are sites of confinement, which I don’t think that’s like a common conception or perception of what nursing facilities are. We think about them as a society where elders go and they live the last few years of their life, but what we know is at least three quarters of the people that are in nursing facilities that are elders don’t want to be in the nursing facility. And then the rest of the population there is comprised of people that are there because they don’t have funds or the state won’t provide the level of care that they need to stay in their community. We referred to this at the institutional bias, that for-profit corporations would rather have people in a nursing facility to literally extract profit from people’s bodies and beds than to be in community. And folks in those situations, in the sites of confinement, places that operate like carceral logics that are attempting to cut, to make profit off of people, they cut corners. And it’s a place that’s ripe for abuse, and people are vulnerable to viruses way before COVID. So in this time where you know, COVID is definitely targeting disabled people, people with health conditions, what we see is at least 20% of residents in a nursing facility have died from COVID. That’s like a that’s an astonishing number like 2 out of 10 people that live in a nursing facility have died from COVID, and those are only the people that have been counted. So we know it’s more and we know that there’s workers at nursing facilities and we know that there’s other congregate settings, prisons, jails. So I lay that out to say that I don’t think that people like generally care or know about it. I want to say that people don’t know because if they do and were not acting on it in a way that I deem to be like, really like we need to right now, then it just means that they don’t care. Which I don’t know. I don’t have the answers to that. I just know that not a lot is being done about it from a government standpoint. I think we’re living in a period of organized abandonment, like right in front of our faces. And what I have seen is, what I’ve always seen is communities coming together to provide mutual aid. And that’s with the acknowledgment that there is a failure on the, you know, the state to provide the care that people deserve.


De’Ara Balenger: Yeah. And I think, just to go deeper into the not knowing of it all, just, you know, just for our audience, like I, you know, as I was preparing for this interview today, I learned that 26% of Americans have a disability and that’s a, that’s a large number of people. So if you’re thinking about, OK, so that’s the percentage, how many of those people are people of color? How many of those people, you know, because of racism, because of systemic oppression, how many of those people don’t have jobs or are houseless or . . . just like the list goes on once you realize, oh my gosh, that as statistic that that exists here in this country. So I think just, you know, it was it was my own blind spot, actually not having the framework. And now because you Dustin, I see I see the framework, but also see the language and also the intersection, the proximity to incarceration and institutionalization. I think that’s something that I had not thought about in that way. And it’s interesting, so my family in Minneapolis, Black women, my cousin and aunt own assisted living facilities. And it’s interesting because I’m sure the way they run their businesses is quite different from how–and I’m just going to make a generalization–how folks who haven’t had the same lives would run these facilities. So for example, one of my cousins, my cousin that runs her–she has a record that precludes her really from getting the job she would want and so she started this business, right? And because of that, she hires formerly incarcerated people and trains them up. Because of that, she makes sure that people are taking–all that to say, yadda yadda yadda, I feel like to your point around, the people in our communities are the ones that actually are the ones that are taking care of us and taking care of one another. I know a lot of what she does, a lot of what my aunt does, isn’t necessarily state policy. It is how they would take care of a family member, right? So I don’t know. You’re just making me think of so many, of so many different things, but I think ultimately it’s getting to people with disabilities are a large percentage of our population. They’re in our families, they’re in our communities, they are us, and so we need to start paying more attention. And then also understanding how this is relating to other issues that people are pounding down doors and protesting about, right? Because I think my question, my next question for you is how did the police play into all of this, right? Is it the case that someone can get arrested and therefore end up in a nursing home or end up in an institution, other than like a prison or jail?


Dustin Gibson: Yeah. I think I want to start off by saying, like that number of like 26% of the population is people with disabilities. I think what’s been helpful for me is to like understand disability like in a much more expansive way than I think what is commonly understood, and how we organize ourselves in society is kind of based upon, you know, like the legislation that defines disability as an impairment that limits a major life function. And these are like very white-centric and stagnant definitions and understandings of disability. I think it’s important to me because I’m thinking about the response to somebody that is marginalized, somebody that is poor, or somebody that’s Black or trans, they’re not a man, they’re not–like, people that are marginalized, the response to their disabilities is almost like the same as somebody that has an enormous amount of power. Whereas though a person that is poor, lives next to a military waste dumping site or coal waste dumping site, or you’re in a prison where, like the architecture itself is disabling and violent. And the response to it should not be the same as somebody else. So it literally like lives differently in our bodies and minds based on like our positions in society. And also that those definitions of disability, I say they’re like, like stagnant and white-centric because it’s not capturing all of the ways in which disability lives in us because of these conditions that have been created. I think about like, we’ll talk about places like the South Bronx or I’m familiar with Pittsburgh and been in Pittsburgh for some time, so there’s a place called Braddock where we’ll talk about the childhood asthma rates based on the pollution, and we’ll say it’s like 80%, right? And we won’t say those kids are disabled. So the legislation around addiction even is saying like addiction is a disability if you have like documentation or a record of having that impairment, or, if you are in recovery, which is a counter to everything that I know about addiction, right? I don’t have a PhD in it, but I know people that have been with addiction my entire life. So I think what it does is misses a whole group of people. So the political understanding of it is, it’s not just like whether somebody identifies as somebody who has a disability or they’re disabled, it’s to understand that people are being politicized whether they like it or not. And disabled people are a political class. And there’s an actual like motive for people to be disabled from the state, from corporations. It’s not like this thing where it’s like, you know, people have disabilities and everyone in the world is attempting to figure out how to make quality of life better. It’s more sort of like, How do we create a disabled class that could support these other systems of oppression, like a carceral institution?


De’Ara Balenger: That’s right.


Dustin Gibson: So I think about the carceral apparatus and like the prison industrial complex–it doesn’t exist in the same way that it does if disability is not criminalized, disability is not pathologized, and the prison itself is not a disabling factor. When you think about control, when you think about auditory, or the lack of auditory stimulation, or the restrictions on freedom of mobility–like all of these things are like central in core to the prison industrial complex. And they also create and exacerbate disability. So I would argue that the majority of people in prisons and jails are disabled folks. And if they’re not now, if you stay there long enough, you will develop disabilities.


De’Ara Balenger: It’s also making me think of just like, you know, physiological trauma over generations, just like the legacy of slavery and like how how much of that is in in our bodies. You know? So I think having this more expansive language and expression around disability is so, it’s just, I think it’s critical in understanding our own, you know, just like you’re saying, like the vehicles for oppression and how it’s all working in tandem.


Dustin Gibson: And I guess I’d just like to cite one more example there.


De’Ara Balenger: Yea, please.


Dustin Gibson: There’s, like I have more questions than I have like answers, like to be honest. And my questions are around like, OK, if we organize society in a way where we have to capture data around like who has a disability and who doesn’t, and then we provide services based on that, then what does it mean when people are erased from it? And then also, who is in control of, like, you know, classifying people as disabled? Like, I think about a place like Palestine that has like literally been under occupation for decades, that has extreme amounts of violence that has inflicted upon them, and a place where it’s like because of restrictions and sanctions, they’re not able to produce the amount of prosthetic limbs that are required for the amount of people that have lost limbs, right? And the numbers that come out about like, how many people are disabled, it’s like very low. So like, what does that mean? Like, these are things I just have, like more questions about because it doesn’t happen in the exact same way, but that happens to our Black communities all throughout the U.S and that question of, you know, how can people experience like a phenomena that literally changes the water, changes the land like slavery, and you have like the same disabilities as somebody else and it’s living in your body in the same way if your people have survived that. Like, these are some of the questions I have. And it’s like, Yeah, I don’t know. I just have questions around it, I guess. And that’s kind of what animates the work that we do, and the reason why we say we need a disability justice movement that has a ecosystem because of part of that is like people thinking about this in a very deep way, in ways that I don’t think has happened up until this point.


De’Ara Balenger: I think Dustin, I think that’s absolutely right. And even, you know, Bryan Stevenson talks a lot about, you know, the dignity of incarcerated people, or the lack of dignity–just the lack of dignity that our culture, you know, through pop culture or through media or through narrative, it’s like when someone’s incarcerated, there is no longer a part of our society. They’re no longer, you know, no longer valued or are no longer seen, which couldn’t be further from the truth, obviously. And just given that we, our folks that we have incurred, there’s so many folks that are incarcerated that they’re, you know, I feel like there hasn’t been a panel or discussion that I’ve been at when you ask somebody if they know of or have a family member that’s incarcerated, every, mostly everybody raises their hand, right, no matter color or creed. So, you know, I say all that to say that I think we have a–and you’re hitting on this–I think we have a cultural problem in this country for when it comes to people that have been other’ized, somehow it’s so easy to not see those people or not to make the very easy connection about your similarities to that person, right? I just, I don’t know. I think it is, I think these ar, you have questions, I have questions. I think for me, it’s like, how can we, how can we have a culture that completely disregards the aging, for example? I just don’t understand why we have these systems in place where literally folks get lost, people who have contributed to society, folks who have created opportunities and communities–and maybe even not. I Just, you know, I feel like even as I’m aging–I just turned 41–I think about that all the time. Like what would it mean for me to be a Black queer woman in America? What services will there be for me when I’m elderly, if any at all? So all that to say, I’m picking up what you’re putting down, but if you also want to talk a little bit about the work you were doing around the Disabled Elders Fund, that would be great for the audience to hear that as well.


Dustin Gibson: Yeah, I should say I don’t think those connections are necessarily like an easy one. I think there’s so many valid reasons in which, like oppressed people would reject labels of disability, just given the history of how people have been treated once the label has been projected upon people in some situations, and then also put on people. So I think there’s like a very valid resistance to that. That like, awareness campaigns totally miss, I should say.


De’Ara Balenger: And what I meant by that is just, it’s the humanity, right? Like how often in American culture we categorize someone and then therefore they lose their value or lose their humanity, when you know, when clearly those categorizations are systems of oppression. But also there’s systems that keep our families and our friends and our communities isolated and therefore less protected. You know what I’m saying? So I think it’s kind of just me and my own body, my own personhood being, you know, making sure that whether it is a family member or somebody that I don’t know that’s a part of my community, that I’m making sure that I’m seeing that person and therefore acting against the system that is trying to keep me and said person apart or seemingly different.


Dustin Gibson: Yeah. I totally agree. Yeah, the Disabled Elders Fund, that’s something that came out of–we did a fund called the Pittsburgh Without Police Fund with a young organizer, Nia Harrington, who has, feels like she has been active as long as I have been. But we did that fund to just like, distribute $1,200 to–we started out to say 12 young people, but it ended up being like 20–young people that were doing abolitionist work. So it was people that were doing farming, aquaponics farming to Kumba and Homewood. Or there was a 12-year old Celeste that was writing poems and advocating for African-American history in her middle school. So it was a range of people doing things that we thought were abolitionist. And we’ve seen like how we could distribute, like literally just money to people. So we did the same with the Disabled Elder’s Fund. In a pandemic in a time where we felt like, well we know that the government wasn’t providing the resources necessary to survive, let alone have some quality of life. That we wanted to just like raise money and give a $1,000 to different disabled elders. And we ended up raising enough to give to 22 disabled elders. So some of these folks, like the last person we gave to, had spent 47 years in prison and as a juvenile lifer and is now attempting to pay bills. Somebody else, like we gave money to folks that were on the ground in Haiti, working with Death Elders. We gave $1,000 to the Palestinian Medical Relief Society after people that are attempting to get medical supplies into the West Bank. So it was just like an array of people. It was beautiful experience to be able to sit with the elders and listen to stories and hear their ideas for like, you know, what is happening right now, what we should do. So I think those are connections that we deepened and will carry with us. And I did that with Talila Lewis. Somebody that I value as like a friend, coworker, everything.


De’Ara Balenger: I love that. So, so beautiful. And so we’ll make sure that our listeners know more about that and all the people that you’re naming. So thank you for that. And, so speaking about grant dollars, you’re a Justice Rising awardee, which is an inaugural award that they are giving to folks in the community who are doing Black liberation and justice work, putting–Open Society Foundations is supporting it. Adam Culbreath and Tara Huffman are the creators of it. Tom Perriello, who is executive director of Open Society U.S., very much championed this award. But this award, to what you were listing earlier, is just for you to do with what you want. So one, how are you feeling about that? And also, do you think this is the right move for philanthropy to grant money in this way?


Dustin Gibson: I think that people that do work on the ground, and I mean other work in other areas too–I think I’m exposed mostly to people that do on-the-ground work and understand the experiences like in an intimate way I think. I think those people need to be supported. I think those are the people that were here yesterday, they’ll be the people that are here tomorrow. And I see like how many of, how many of us struggle, I would say. And I mean, we’re proximate to a lot of things like, I think there’s like a weight that people carry when they do this type of work that is detrimental to a lot of things–relationships, health–like, so there’s so many sacrifices that people make. So I think that any ways folks that do this type of work could be supported, yeah, I champion. I don’t think that, I mean, obviously, like liberation is not going to be produced by foundations and philanthropy. I think the existence of it itself is, you know, a part of like a colonial project. So yeah, I would say that for people to get support is, yeah, I don’t–and for myself, like I haven’t processed it to be honest. So I’m just kind of like, continued to go and then like, you know, when the word comes out and it happens, I think I’ll sit with it then. But I know my parents is happy. They like, Yeah. Because they don’t understand what I do. So my pops is like, Yo, somebody thinks that you’re doing something good. Like, yeah. So I’m happy that he’s happy.


De’Ara Balenger: Good. That’s a blessing.


Dustin Gibson: I’m telling him to show up to the awards show. He doesn’t do internet. He doesn’t have a smart phone. I’m trying to figure out how we can get him connected.


De’Ara Balenger: How to make it happen.


Dustin Gibson: Yeah.


De’Ara Balenger: OK, OK. We can end it with this question: What piece of advice that you have gotten over the years, what advice is that with you, basically?


Dustin Gibson: I don’t know. That’s a very hard question because I’ve got so much advice and continue to. I think one that sticks out to me is when my brother told me, how to swallow my mother’s shepherd’s pie, which is like a terrible meal. And yeah, she’ll probably listen and be upset about that. But he taught me like that I could actually swallow it without like smelling or breathing it or tasting it. That was like the best advice as a young me. And then I would say, there’s like, there’s two people I’m thinking on. One Makani who is also getting an award, Makani Themba. I don’t know if she remembers or not. I was just like in a room one time and I heard her say the questions that animates the work for the rest of her life. And that, to me, became like an invitation into the just not knowing. I think up until that point, like I was so angry. And I mean, I still am angry and full of rage with the things that like we’re up against. And I came from such a place of like, I know exactly what we need to do. And when I heard Makani say that it was probably one of the only epiphany moments that I could remember of finding myself questioning, like, what I knew and why I thought I knew what, and being comfortable with like operating in this, this thing that I might not ever answer or no one might ever answer. But knowing that those questions are very important. And now, since I’ve learned more, I’ve learned about Grace Lee, Jimmy Lee Boggs who talk about like these questions that are very important to organize around. And then Miriame Kaba too, who I heard say something about just, we don’t need a lot of people always to like, actually change things. If we look at history, it’s been like the small amount of people that have actually gotten things moving in. And yeah, that’s been important because I think so much of my young like–and I say young, like this is like seven, eight years ago–so much of my energy was directed towards getting as many people aware and moving. And in instead now it’s kind of like, you know, small groups of dedicated and committed people. I see like how monumental change can happen over time if people are just, you know, continuing to grind and do work, I guess. We’re not grinding in a global optimistic way, but grinding like pushing–


De’Ara Balenger: Love it. Yeah. Right. Pushing ahead. That’s right. Well, Dustin, it has been a pleasure. So thank you. Where can we find you on the social medias, if you are open to being found?


Dustin Gibson: Yeah, I would say three places. So I would say one, letsgetfree, which is the Women and Trans Prisoners Defense Committee. On IG, it’s called Women in Prison. HEARD, which is the organization of deaf and disabled folks that, the abolitionist organization of deaf and disabled people, and the tag is BEHEARDDC. And then People’s Hub, which is just People’s Hub. So those three places is where, either they’re things I care about or where I located sometimes.


De’Ara Balenger: Perfect. Well, we, I know–well I’ve already been checking those things out because I’ve just been in awe of you–but I’m sure our listeners will get all the things and all the directions, and like you, be on the journey to be open to the questions and the exploration so one day we can be free. So thanks so much again, Dustin. Hope to see you in real life.


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 is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by AJ Moultrie and mixed by Veronica Simonetti, and executive produced by me. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger and Myles Johnson.