Tell the Truth (with Cleo Wade) | Crooked Media
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March 23, 2021
Pod Save The People
Tell the Truth (with Cleo Wade)

In This Episode

DeRay, Kaya, De’Ara, and Sam dive into the underreported news of the week, including first responders, Mississippi Medicaid, pot use at the White House, and another lost Black utopia. Netta Elzie gives an update on what’s happening with the nationwide protests. DeRay sits down with Cleo Wade to discuss her new book, “What the Road Said”.

 

Links:

DeRay

Kaya

Sam

De’Ara

 

Transcript:

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, this is DeRay. Welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, Sam, Kaya, and De’Ara as usual. And we’re talking about the news that you don’t know. 

A lot of stuff happened in the past week that we should probably talk about, that you should know about, with regard to race and justice. Then Netta comes on and gives us an update about what’s happening with the protests. And then I sit down with close friend, author, poet, just all around great person Cleo Wade to talk about her new children’s book, What the Road Said, that comes out today. 

My advice is simple. Tell the truth. When you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember everything. You don’t have to spiral. You don’t have to play games. And you never want to be one of the people who causes other people not to trust anybody ever again. Tell the truth. Tell the truth. 

DE’ARA BALENGER: Family, welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People. I’m De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @DeAraBalenger. 

SAM SINYANGWE: And I’m Sam Sinyangwe, @samswey on Twitter. 

KAYA HENDERSON: I’m Kaya Henderson, @hendersonkaya on Twitter. 

DERAY MCKESSON: I’m DeRay, @deray on Twitter. 

DE’ARA BALENGER: As usual, lots to report on. I think one thing that we definitely want to touch on today, because it literally happened right after the last pod went out, is the tragic events that have happened in Atlanta. I want to describe it as a hate crime that was racist, that was committed by not just someone who was having a bad day, but someone who had an intention to do some real destruction. 

So it’s just been interesting to see what the headlines have looked like in all of this. As usual, the headlines always focus on the perpetrator. But typically, in these type of mass shootings, when it’s a white man involved, we usually focus on trying to humanize him in some way instead of focusing on the victims and humanizing them and what they endured. 

So lots to say in terms of how the reporting has happened, in terms of how the investigation has been reported out by law enforcement in Atlanta, and also just how it’s been reported widely and nationally, to not necessarily tell the truth of what happened. So just interested to hear your all thoughts. We wanted to kick it off just talking about those events. 

DERAY MCKESSON: So one of the things that this reminds me is the complicated relationship that we have to the idea of hate crimes, that hate crimes at their core are mandatory minimums. If we are sort of not in favor of mandatory minimums and we should be against mandatory minimums, we also want to make sure that people who engage in racist behavior face some accountability in ways that make sense. It was interesting for that to come up again and to just see the tension between that. 

Also, I’ve talked to a lot of leaders in the Asian community who have reached out, and who I’ve reached out to, since the attacks. And I’ve been trying to understand like, who is doing this? Like, is this white people who are visiting Chinatown? Like, who’s actually doing the harm? I’ve been trying to get a better understanding of, so I can target the way I think about responding. 

And the third is, there have been all these calls for like, what should Black people do? And it’s like, what should White people do? Like, White people are the people creating the systems that allow all of these things to happen and for there to be no accountability. And obviously, as Black activists, as Black people, we stand in solidarity with the Asian community, because we know that an attack on one marginalized community is just an attack on all of us. 

It also is like, whew, feeling like we got to come in and fight every single battle every single time. And White people continue to be off the hook. So I’m hoping that this is a moment where White people also have to step up, and it’s not only marginalized people having to come together to like defend the collective. 

SAM SINYANGWE: So sort of building on this point that you’re making, DeRay, this case clearly highlighted the layers of systemic racism in play. You had the racist narratives and motivations of the shooter. You had the Cherokee County Sheriff, who clearly aligned himself and sympathized with the shooter. That was the agency, then, that was being asked to potentially investigate it as a hate crime, that didn’t even consider it to be a hate crime. 

Then you have the layer of systemic racism, and how hate crime statutes are applied and how they are actually disproportionately used, even against Black communities. So I looked at some of the data around hate crimes, which by the way is woefully incomplete, like many other issues that disproportionately impact Black and Brown communities. But what we do know, according to the 2019 data, is that about 28% of those charged with hate crimes are Black. 28%, despite Black people being about 13% of the population. 

So this is, to your point, DeRay, giving more tools and more power to prosecutors to then do what they consistently do, which is weaponize those tools against the very communities that these laws were intended to help. So we do have to think about giving any more power to this carceral system, because we’ve seen how that can be weaponized against us. And we also have to think about like, these shooters have to be held accountable. These systems have to be held accountable. And we have to be focused on that accountability moving forward and removing the folks from power that create and sustain these systems, whether that be the Cherokee County Sheriff or throughout the system. 

DE’ARA BALENGER: All right, y’all, so my news is from Forbes. But this Forbes article is mostly reporting on a Daily Beast article that talks about how the White House has either suspended or removed several staffers with the history of marijuana use, including where this has taken place in states where it is recreational. Evidently, the Daily Beast reported on all of this last Thursday night. And this signals a U-turn from the Biden administration’s previously indicating that recreational use of marijuana would not automatically disqualify a staffer. 

Essentially, dozens of young staffers have either been suspended, asked to resign, or placed in a remote-work program after they disclosed that they used marijuana in the past as part of their background check process. Some of these staffers who were forced to resign have previously been told that the administration would likely overlook past cannabis use. The White House reportedly never explained its marijuana policy to staffers, offering no details on what amount of past use would be excusable. 

So also, last point, White House, of course, they haven’t issued a comment on any of this. I wanted to bring this up one, because this is the silliest thing that I have seen come out of this administration. And hopefully, there won’t be more reports of silliness. 

As someone who has had a top security clearance, who has read highly confidential and top secret intelligence documents– yes folks, me. I just thought this was so silly, given the fact that I got a security clearance. I told those people what I did in high school and what I did in college, which was smoke marijuana with the White people. That’s right, with the White people. So I just don’t understand how I didn’t have a problem doing anything that I needed to do. I got honors from the State Department and everything else. 

I just find it so ridiculous, first of all. And then, given who the predecessors were in the White House and how no vetting, no nothing was happening, I just see this U-turn one, as just bad policy that will end up obviously discriminating against all the Black folks, of course, because that’s what always happens. But also just in understanding that what you’ve done in the past, in terms of cannabis use, does not at all contribute to what decisions you’ll make as someone that is now in the administration. And I say that from personal experience. 

So I just wanted to highlight this one, because I just thought– I was just like, come on, man. What’s going on over there? This is some malarkey, if you have to ask me. So I just wanted to bring this to everyone’s attention, because I just think it’s really going to negatively impact some of the diverse hires I’m certain that we have in this White House. 

SAM SINYANGWE: I mean, this is wild on so many different levels and is just also a strategic mistake for this administration. One, it is unfair. It is not reflective of where we are today, in terms of DC having legalized marijuana, a number of states having legalized it, a number of other states decriminalizing and us moving in that direction. I mean, the Biden campaign was campaigning on, at the federal level at least, decriminalizing marijuana. 

And so this isn’t a signal that seems consistent with how they ran. And also, just politically, it doesn’t make sense to me, because first of all, there’s student loan debt, which still hasn’t really been substantially addressed. It’s been addressed sort of on the margins. But that was a big campaign promise that a lot of, particularly like millennials, younger people really care about and are directly impacted by. 

Now you have this issue, which frankly could alienate a lot of top talent from being able to be a part of the Biden administration, a lot of younger people, to De’Ara’s point, more diverse people. To be a part of that team– and so they’re missing out on that talent. They’re missing out on those perspectives for no good reason at all. 

There’s no science to back that being a legitimate reason to stop somebody from being employed. There’s no reason at all for this to be used as a way to exclude people. So I hope they finally answer to this and change course. And I hope that the people who’ve already been excluded, or told that they can’t be a part of that team because of that, also are invited back in after all this. 

KAYA HENDERSON: It just feels like something that is– like the rules just haven’t caught up with the times. It seems so easily fixable. But absolutely, the people who are going to suffer from this are the youngest people, and at a time where, oh my gosh, we need more young people in government at the federal level. You know somebody needs to fix this. It just doesn’t make any sense at all. 

DERAY MCKESSON: What I was struck by is it feels like this is a purity test or some signaling, but to who? The Republicans don’t care. They didn’t care. The Trump people let anybody with a pulse get every clearance you can ever get. So it’s not– these people don’t care. And the left thinks this is bad. So you’re like, who are you– who did you think you were really nailing down with this one? I don’t know. 

The second thing is that all I could think about– I used to run human resources for a big district. All I could think about was people are going to lie. You’re going to make people lie. The moment that they see this policy, everybody’s lying. So then, they’re going to get in trouble for lying later. That’s just– the people who get fired for this are people who told the truth. Like what signal does that tell? That’s like a weird– just from like a workplace, that’s weird. 

And then, in preparing for this, I looked and saw some of the past marijuana use eligibility. For the FBI, it is not being able– you can’t use marijuana in the past three years. For the NSA, it’s only one year. So like, the rules in the government and the intelligence agency are also all over the place. I mean, it’s not even like the Biden team is like, you know what? We just took the rule and applied it. There is no the rule. This is all made up. 

So I just didn’t understand. And I will say, while I’m team– This administration is certainly the better of the options we had on election day, for sure. There’s no question about that. 

And we aren’t even at 100 days yet. It’s like, these are the things that make people nervous about the midterms, make people nervous about, oh, a lot of things. Because you’re like, if you can’t nail this, then lord knows the big fights, we’re screwed on. If you can’t even get this sort of stuff right– so I don’t know. This made me nervous. And every White House statement that came out about it didn’t make me feel any better. You’re like, well, this isn’t clear. 

KAYA HENDERSON: My news comes out of The New Republic. The article is called, “The Lost Plan for a Black Utopian Town.” And it’s a story about Soul City, North Carolina. In fact, it is introducing a new book by Thomas Healy called Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia. Clearly I’m on some history stuff right now. 

But this is a story about a planned Black community that was started by a guy named Floyd McKissick in 1969, who decided– after seeing American troops rebuild France in World War II, he decided to build a new community dedicated to Black economic empowerment on the site of a former slave plantation in rural North Carolina. And this community was supposed to be about cultural uplift and jobs and egalitarian social policy. He wanted to create the conditions that would raise Black people up, considering that he was watching urban blight and all of the vicissitudes of inner city living happening in the late 60s. 

He got really far with his plan. He got $14 million in federal urban renewal funding. He had urban planners helping to design the community from the University of North Carolina, Howard University, and MIT. He got a huge initial loan from Chase Manhattan Bank. He broke ground on the property in 1973. And he did almost everything right, is what the article says. 

But in fact, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms decided to destroy Soul City. He initiated a federal audit, which delayed the corporate tenants from being able to move in. HUD attached all kinds of strings to his funding. There was hostile and racist media coverage. And then there was also the oil crisis happening in the early 70s. And HUD ended up killing the project in 1980. So over the course of seven years of this man hustling and negotiating and corralling folks to his project, it was killed in 1980. 

One of the things that was really interesting to note is that his project would have actually not just benefited the Black folks who were going to live in Soul City. But in fact, it would have brought integrated health care, sewage, water, and education systems to the entire community. But the commitment to anti-Black policies ran so deep that the White politicians were willing to sacrifice the well-being of their White constituents. In fact, there’s a quote in the article that says, reinforcing racial hierarchies was more important than the welfare of the population. 

And I thought this was interesting– again, an interesting piece of history that I didn’t know a lot about. But it also made me remember that, just this past fall, 19 families bought 97 acres in rural Georgia to create a pro-Black town. And in fact, there are histories of formerly Black towns littered all across the South. 

And this idea of creating spaces where Black people can thrive, where policies are fair, where social mobility and economic development and safety are things that we crave, it’s just interesting to see how this idea continues to come up, from the late 1800s, after slavery, all the way through a line straight through to early ’70s, but even to right now, where we’re looking for our own space where we can feel comfortable, where we can feel safe, where we can thrive. And I just thought this was an interesting remembrance. 

DERAY MCKESSON: You even– You brought the beach last week. So you are going to make sure we learn about these towns, Kaya, and I appreciate it– 

[THEY LAUGH] 

–because I definitely had never heard of Soul City before. And this is an aside, but it’s so funny. In the article, it’s like, the author says that Soul City had been forgotten, but how could it be forgotten if it was featured on this one podcast? And you’re like, buddy, stop it. Nobody heard of this town. We ain’t heard of this town. 

But what it reminded me– and you talk about Jesse Helms. It reminds me of all the people in the government who get off the hook. It’s like one elected person has the power to do a lot of stuff. Two elected people have the power to do a lot of stuff. 

And there’s something about the biggest storytellers, about Hollywood. You would think the President is the only person. You would think the mayor is the only– that’s the way we tell stories about political power. And you look at projects like this. And it was a lone senator. It was a lone representative. It’s like one person who could have used their power for good didn’t. And the consequences were dire. 

And this just made me think about how– the way we tell the story about, when people say, the system needs to change and all that. It’s like a lot of those people were really close to you. They were elected by 10,000 votes. They were elected by 700 votes. It is these not million vote districts that– these people wield a lot of power. 

And that’s the thing that stuck with me on this, is that it actually didn’t take a consortium of mean White people who are racist to block this. It took one. It took one not even executive to put enough roadblocks up that the project couldn’t happen. 

SAM SINYANGWE: So my news is about Oregon, where the legislature right now is considering HB2417, which is a bill that would create a statewide funding program to invest in alternative mental health responder programs for calls involving a mental health crisis. So if you or a loved one is having a mental health crisis, this would create an alternative system that could respond with people who are trained, professionally, to deal with that and are not the police. This is critical and interesting in the context of a wave of new legislation and initiatives and pilot programs that we’ve seen in the past year to create those types of alternatives in cities across the country. 

So many of them are modeled after the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon. It’s been around for a while and was the first program to do this. But now you’re seeing responder programs that are just the mental health provider in cities like Portland, in Oakland that is starting to move in that direction. You have a program that is now being expanded, that we talked about, in Denver. 

And this is all really important. Because when we look at the data, according to the latest analysis that we released this past week, it showed that the majority of cases in which the police killed somebody last year, in 2020, stemmed from either a person who was going through a mental health crisis and the police responded to it, a traffic stop, or another nonviolent offense or domestic disturbance. And so these alternative responder programs can be really important to creating environments where people are not being killed by the police and are actually having their needs met. 

The flip side of this, legislatively, is as we’re seeing both at the local level in cities and at states, like in Oregon and in California– proposed these types of alternative programs and funding systems. We’re also seeing states, predominately in conservative areas, that are moving in the opposite direction. So in Florida, for example, in Indiana, in Arizona, in Iowa, and in Georgia, they’re considering legislation that would actually block or ban cities from cutting their police budgets. So that would obstruct efforts to reimagine public safety and reallocate that funding to those alternative programs in those cities. 

So this is sort of, politically, what we’re seeing in terms of a wave of legislation, moving in both directions across the country. And it’ll be critical to block those efforts going on, predominately in the South, that will obstruct efforts to make progress on this issue and support the efforts in Oregon, California, and hopefully other states to create an alternative. 

DERAY MCKESSON: So the only thing I’d add is– I’m on a task force. And one of the things that we looked at recently is about CAHOOTS, and why people liked the program. And it is, in theory, a great program. It hasn’t been rigorously tested yet. So I’m interested to see if it does what people think it does. 

I’m also interested, Sam, and you would know this better than anybody on this call, for sure, is have we seen these models put in places that are either majority people of color or even almost a majority of people of color? Like Eugene, Oregon, is like 3% Black, so I’m interested in it, but I’m also like, have we seen this in a place with any Black people or people of color? 

So that’s what I think about when I think about these things, because I don’t want them to be like, whoa, the police are changing and we’re winning. And then it’s like, they’re not even in places where this might happen. Is there– do we know yet, or is this still open? 

SAM SINYANGWE: So there are a number of different models, most of which are in the biggest cities in the country or the most “progressive,” quote unquote, areas. So it tends to be like on the West Coast. So you have like Portland, San Francisco. Oakland would probably be one of the only cities in that list that had like a sizable Black population. 

LA is interesting. So LA, the county sheriff’s department, in collaboration with a mental health agency locally, has been running a co-responder program, which is not as good as just having the mental health responder alone without a police officer. But even in that program, LA County is overwhelmingly people of color, predominantly Latinos. 

And in that program, the sheriff’s department released a report summarizing and evaluating the effectiveness of the program. And in it, they admitted their deputies, according to them, would have killed nine people in a single year if not for the mental health provider being on the scene. So what is interesting about the programs is some of them have now been in operation for at least a couple of years. And so we’re starting to see the results come in. Denver was one of those. LA County is another. But we still haven’t seen them really implemented at scale in those cities. 

DERAY MCKESSON: So my news is about Medicaid expansion in Mississippi. So remember, Medicaid is for mostly people who are low income to be able to have health insurance. It’s a government-run program. And I saw that Mississippi’s governor refused to expand it, even though part of the federal government push is that there’s going to be a ton of money given to Mississippi to do it. 

There’s a 90% match. And then the stimulus bill that Biden signed would give Mississippi, which is the poorest state in the country, an estimated $600 million over two years to expand Medicaid to about 200,000 and 300,000 people in the state. And nearly 60% of the people who gain health insurance as a result of Medicaid expansion would be people of color. And the vast majority of those people of color would be Black. 

And the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that Medicaid expansion would cost about $290 million over two years, before including the $600 million in new stimulus money. So Mississippi would not lose money to do this. And he is still like, 10 toes down, being like, my position– and I quote Governor Reeves, “My position has not changed. I’m opposed to expanding Medicaid in Mississippi.” 

So I bring this up because I looked at it, and then I went down this rabbit hole of, what are the arguments against expanding Medicaid? Maybe there’s something I don’t know. Is there like a secret to Medicaid expansion that is like the dark side? 

So I start reading this stuff. And the only thing that the right wing think tanks say is that it’s going to cost a lot of money. That’s their thing. It’s going to cost states a ton of money. And then they say this idea that people should have choice you. You’re like, OK, well, if you are in deep poverty, you don’t have– this is the reason why we have Medicaid, because you don’t have a choice to just go to a private vendor. 

And then when we think about the cost, it’s like, I read a lot of studies that say, in some places, there’s a negative cost. You actually save a ton of money. But almost in all the states that Medicaid has been expanded, there are cost-saving measures that you can put in place now that people have health insurance. 

It makes– I truly couldn’t understand it besides being racist. I didn’t– I kept reading about it. And I’m like, there’s no reason not to expand Medicaid besides you just don’t want people of color and poor people to have health insurance. I literally don’t get it. So I wanted to bring it here. Maybe y’all see something I didn’t see. But I truly couldn’t understand it. 

DE’ARA BALENGER: I can only start by saying I despise this governor. I’ve been following him on Twitter. I don’t know why. I don’t know why I need more convincing that he’s racist and also just self-serving. I mean, this man spends so much time on Fox News, I don’t even know when he has time to govern. I don’t. 

But I guess he’s not governing, since he’s turning down money that would actually help a large majority of people in his state. So DeRay, I don’t think, with someone like this, we can actually find rationality in what his decisions are. All I can say is, Mississippi, where you at? What are we doing to get this dude out of here? What are we doing? 

KAYA HENDERSON: It really is– I mean, I read this twice, because– 

[ALL LAUGHING] 

–it just didn’t make sense to me. Like literally– I mean, let off for what you think about Black people or people of color or poor people or Obamacare or whatever, your state stands to make a ton of money, make hundreds of millions of dollars– effectively, make an additional $300 million. We’re going to cover the cost of the expansion. And we’re going to throw $300 million on top of it for your troubles. 

And you say, no? And again, this goes back to the line in my thing about Soul City, where preserving racial hierarchies is more important than the welfare of the population. Yo, this stuff is deep. You are willing to let people die. 

Mississippi is also the place where we’ve seen the most COVID deaths, outside of the Northeast. Your people are dying. And as a leader, a steward of the people and their resources, you turn down the money to expand Medicaid and a bonus? I mean, I feel like I’ve seen racism. We’ve all seen racism. We’ve seen hella racism. But as Nina Simone said, Mississippi, god damn. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod to the People’s coming. Tune into the HBO original documentary series The Washington Post is calling methodically reported and deeply emotional. Allen v. Farrow goes behind the sensational headlines to reveal the private story of one of Hollywood’s most notorious and public scandals. 

KAYA HENDERSON: Award-winning investigative filmmakers Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering, and Amy Herdy’s series dives into the sexual abuse accusations against Woody Allen involving his then seven-year-old daughter Dylan Farrow, the subsequent custody trial with Mia Farrow, Allen’s relationship with Farrow’s daughter Soon-Yi, and the controversial aftermath in the years that followed. Interweaving new investigative work, the series includes intimate home movie footage, court documents, police evidence, revelatory videotapes, and never-before-heard audiotapes. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Allen v. Farrow will also feature exclusive in-depth interviews with Mia, Dylan, and Ronan Farrow, relatives, investigators, experts, and more firsthand eyewitnesses, many of them speaking out for the first time. Stream Allen v. Farrow now on HBO Max, and listen to the Allen v. Farrow companion podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts. 

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[CHILL MUSIC PLAYING] 

And now, a check-in with Johnetta Elzie as she gives us an update about what’s happening with the protests. 

JOHNETTA ELZIE: Hey, what’s up, everybody? It’s me, Netta, so happy to be back with you all again this week. I spent last week in my beloved hometown, St. Louis. And I went home to get my vaccine shot, to see my family, a few friends, most who I haven’t seen since last May, which I talk about here often. So clearly, I just feel so rejuvenated. 

And it just feels so good to even be that close to my grandparents in real life. I got to fist bump and bang elbows with my grandpa. It was just so good. I care about the vaccine. I care about the dangers of the virus. But what I care about more than that is the ability to keep my family safe, especially during such uncertain times like COVID. 

I’m glad I’m doing my part to keep them and myself safe going forward. And getting the actual vaccine was pretty simple. I didn’t do much beyond actually showing my ID and health insurance info. 

After that, a volunteer actually came and escorted me over to a table where Uncle Charles, who was truly just an angel, helped me totally relax while he gave me my shot. He made me laugh. We talked about jokes. We talked about politics. We said things that only St. Louis folks would understand. And before I knew it, my vaccine shot was done. So Moderna mommy me down. 

I had big plans to go door knocking with Tishaura Jones down in St. Louis City while I was there, but the side effects definitely got me a day later. I wish I had the ability to give Tishaura my vote. But as a St. Louis County resident, I cannot vote in St. Louis City. So I’m just going to say that if I was a St. Louis City resident, I definitely would be giving Tishaura my vote. I think she is so capable and so smart and definitely has a vision for where everyone would like to see the city of St. Louis go, especially if you’re looking for progress. 

And this weekend, I went back to the gun range with my friend Jamal up in Baltimore. And y’all, my skills have improved. I walked away super proud. And it was another weekend of beautiful Black folks at the range. And now the news. 

So, it’s come to light that yet another one of the people who stormed the US Capitol on January 6 was not just a White supremacist, but also a Nazi sympathizer who wore a mustache much like Adolf Hitler’s infamous stash. The Navy conducted its own internal investigation of Timothy Hale-Cusanelli, who worked as a security contractor for a Naval weapons station. His former co-workers told investigators that he said terrible things about Jewish people, babies with special needs, women, Black people, and the list goes on. 

The Army Reserve’s man was arrested over 30 times, including, most recently, for the insurrection at the Capitol. According to a rabbi in New Jersey, people who dealt with anti-Semitism knew about Hale-Cusanelli. I would ask when this government is going to, oh, I don’t know, take people who show that they are dangerous, hateful, and violent seriously. But that’s almost like asking this country to be accountable. Ha! 

So, next story. There’s currently $15 million sitting in a fund for a newly created Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation. The Jesuit-run organization plans to raise a total of $100 million to benefit the descendants of enslaved Black people that the Roman Catholic Church owned for over 100 years. To put it simply, the Jesuits are putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to reparations for buying, selling, and enslaving Black people in the United States. The church used that money to pay Catholic priests, build churches and schools, including Georgetown University. 

Descendents of those enslaved Black folks called on the Jesuits to raise $1 billion. And this should be no surprise. It was them, not the Jesuits, who put the pressure on the church to actually take action. And as someone who’s gone to Catholic schools, with the exception of my junior and senior years of high school, I have always wondered about what role the Catholic church took in the enslavement of Black people there in Missouri. So I definitely plan to keep up with this story, as I need the blueprint on how and where to even begin to search for such information. 

Can you imagine a six year old being sent to court for picking a flower out of somebody’s yard while waiting for the bus? Well, in North Carolina, that’s completely legal. A six-year-old boy was on trial in juvenile court for injury to real property. The judge dismissed this case. But this is the ridiculous reality of being able to charge children as young as six in court. 

Though the race of this boy was not mentioned, I’m going to take a wild guess and say that he’s Black. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, 41% of children in juvenile justice systems nationwide are Black. And Black children are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than White children. And we already know that White people love to call the police on Black people. 

This includes our children. Connecticut and New York can charge kids at age seven. Washington state, age eight. And then there are 14 states, including Texas, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana, where you can charge a child as young as 10 years old. This country needs to change so much, y’all. So much. 

Last week, New York Senate passed a bill that would make putting someone in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days illegal. It would also ban solitary for people with mental or physical disabilities, pregnant women, people who are younger than 21 and older than 55. It’s called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, also known as the HALT Act. 

The Nelson Mandela rules, that have been adopted by the United Nations, define segregated confinement for more than 15 days as torture. And I honestly can’t talk about this story without thinking about Kalief Browder. Kalief was 16 years old when he was arrested by the NYPD and sent to Rikers Island. 

He spent nearly two of the three years at Rikers in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit. Kalief tried to take his life at least twice while he was wrongfully incarcerated. And it’s clear to me that solitary confinement destroyed his mental health. He said that one corrections officer encouraged him to end his life. Kalief ended up taking his own life two years after he was released. He was age 22. 

Before I close, y’all, I want to make sure that I shout out Professor Rebecca, and her class at UC Berkeley, for being so gracious with me during our talk a few weeks ago. I also want to give a special shout out to Elliot from the class, because he had great questions and his hair was everything. And I appreciated his equal love for plants. Great questions from very bright students. 

One of my favorite things about my day today is being able to connect with young people and students. I hope this is always a way of my life. Talk to y’all next week, bye. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Don’t go anywhere. There’s more to come. 

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[CHILL MUSIC PLAYING] 

DERAY MCKESSON: And here is the author, poet, artist, activist, and good friend Cleo Wade, coming back to be on the podcast. She’s one of the few people we’ve had on the podcast more than once. What the Road Said is her most recent book, and it explores the idea that it’s OK to be afraid or sometimes wander down a set of paths. Her book encourages us to lead with kindness and curiosity and remembering that the most important thing we can do in life is to keep going. Here we go. 

Cleo, Cleo, Cleo Wade, welcome back to Pod Save the People. 

CLEO WADE: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so happy to be back. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Now, you are one of the few repeat guests that we’ve ever had on the pod and always excited to just engage in your work and to see what’s up. Can you tell us, what’s been going on since the last time you? We had you on around Heart Talk. And now, you have a children’s book coming out. How has your work changed since 2018? What’s been up with you? 

CLEO WADE: What’s been up with me? Well, I’ve had a baby. Her name is Memphis. 

[DERAY WHOOPS] 

And Memphis is just– she’s the best. But I moved to California. So I’m no longer an East Coaster, which is really hard. And I’m living through a pandemic, like the rest of us. 

DERAY MCKESSON: So there are a host of things that you post that inspire me. And I know we’re going to talk about the book. But leading into that, since I have you, I wanted to talk through some of those and maybe what the inspiration was for them. 

There was one, recently, that you posted that was, we are our commitments. If you’re committed to misery, you’ll always find it. If you’re committed to joy, you’ll always find it. If you’re committed to learning, then everywhere you look, you’ll find something new to learn. If you’re committed to staying put, then everywhere you look, you’ll find the same old Sugar, Honey, Ice Tea. It’s a family podcast. Can you talk about, what led to the we are our commitments post? 

CLEO WADE: Any time I write anything that I feel could be seen as advice to someone else, the only reason I feel that I can write it confidently is because I’ve witnessed it in my own life in some way, whether it’s as a friend, whether it’s with my partner, whether it’s in my own personal struggles, where I have seen and know this to feel and be true. I noticed multiple people in my life, and in myself, where I was like, you know what? In this moment, living through this time we are living in, not even just the pandemic but what we’re seeing and feeling socially– and I guess, also just the way the pandemic has just changed our lives so drastically, as far as being in the house or being with our families or having an entirely different set of worries in all of these different things. And one of the things that we do is we immediately start to work on survival things. 

So it’s making sure the roof can stay over the head, and the kids can get fed, and that we’re safe. We usually put our emotional selves in the very last on the list, not even just last on these basic human rights and needs list, but way down on the list, where we’re just all of a sudden like– we’re trying to cope. But all of our coping strategies have nothing to do with actually creating really strong pillars to hold up our emotional selves. And I’ve always felt that the pillars that hold up our emotional happiness are our commitments. 

And so I wrote that during this time because I felt that what I kept seeing around me and in my own life was people who felt really victim of, whether it was how they were working or how they were feeling in their home situation or parenting or whatever, where I was like, you know what though? We are our commitments. So even if you’re committed to this day being the best possible day you could have, it may not be the best possible you could have, but you will definitely find every bright spot there is to see. 

And so I just wanted to kind of remind people and myself that we don’t have power over every circumstance. We don’t have power over the things that do just occur. And there’s always the things we can’t control. 

But there are these things that we do have power over. And we always have power over our perspective. And we always have the power to hold on tight to, whether you call it faith or hope or the universe or God or joy. And if you really want those things to be present in your life, you have to have the commitment to them having a presence in your life. 

DERAY MCKESSON: I’m only going to do three. So that was the first one. The second one is a recent one. “Don’t be the reason someone feels insecure. Be the reason someone feels seen, heard, and supported by the whole universe.” What led to that? 

CLEO WADE: That is something that I probably wrote for the first time– I don’t know, seven years ago. And I repost it at least, probably, twice a year. And every time, I feel like my entire community reads it like they’ve read it for the first time. And a lot of the things that I write are just also reminders to myself. 

I think sometimes we live in a very punishing society a lot of the time, where we’re not really like incentivized to zoom out and ask ourselves, does this really bother me? Am I doing the most, or the least, to help this person or myself in this situation? How do I really want to feel about it? 

Because you could have a really self-righteous moment or really revenge-y moment. But those don’t actually feel good. It always feels good to just be good to someone, regardless of what’s happening, or, at the very least, offer kindness along with the accountability, along with a boundary against or separating you from codependence or any of the things that end up endangering our personhood. 

And so, to me, I always love to post that reminder. And oddly, I don’t think it ever ended up in Heart Talk. I’m not sure why. But you really can be the reason someone can be reminded of their own fundamental OK-ness. 

And whenever I see or write or kind of repost that work, I always think of another one I have written that says, sometimes all a person needs is for someone to believe in them. It’s kind of this thing that is this maximum effect with very little effort, to just kind of remember someone throughout the day. If you just think of one person, who maybe you haven’t reached out to you in a couple of months, to just say, I just wanted to let you know that this, this, and this and this that you’re doing, I think it’s so great. Or, I’ve always just thought of you as such a great mother, and I just wanted to let you know. 

And DeRay, as a friend, you’re actually really good at that, is that you kind of send messages, apropos of nothing, to remind the people in your life and your close friends that they are seen and loved by you. And it really does, can really turn your whole day around. And I know that to be true, because I have been someone whose entire day has been turned around, because I didn’t realize that I was moving through the day and feeling maybe really unacknowledged or really unseen and really unheard, or working really hard and feeling that thankless feeling that we all get every now and again. And so just to have someone saying, I love you. For some people, if you say that to them, that might be the only time they hear it said. 

DERAY MCKESSON: There’s this post that you wrote, too, that I love and want to talk about is, “Dearest you, I wrote this book in hopes that the road can be your friend through every stage of your journey. I hope you allow it to live with you in the world as a hug on your good days and also on the days when you might feel alone or scared or confused by big questions. I wrote these words to encourage you, love you, and help you on your path to becoming who you are. You are important. You are here on purpose.” 

I love that. “You are here on purpose. And you deserve to be the leader of your life. This is a book for children. I really needed this book as a child. But this is also a book for adults. Being a grown up is hard, and the road reminds me to take it one day at a time. From my heart to yours, this book is for you. Love, Cleo.” 

That’s in the book What the Road Said. 

CLEO WADE: Yeah, that’s the– 

DERAY MCKESSON: Talk to us about the book. 

CLEO WADE: –author’s note. This book has been such a crazy journey, because I started writing this book shortly after or during Heart Talk, because maybe five years ago or so, I wrote on a post-it note and put it on my inspiration board. I said to the road, where do you lead? The road said, be a leader and find out. 

And every now and again, you just kind of have these things you write that you’re like, I know this could be something, but it’s not a thing yet. So I don’t know what it’s going to be. And so I put it there, and I looked at it for a long time. 

And a few years later, I was asked to give a speech at the Fannie Lou Hamer School, and they wanted me to talk to their eighth grade class. And I wanted to read them a poem, because I just personally felt like mixing it up. I was like, I kind of want to just write something new. And I kept looking at that. 

And I kind of wrote the first draft and started to do this dive into my own childhood in order to write it, because I had to think of myself not, maybe, just as an eighth grader, but I just kind of went back to even like six-year-old me. And in that little girl, six-year-old me until 30-year-old me, I just really thought of all the words that she didn’t get to receive as a child, the bad advice she was given, or the silence she was given in response to certain questions, or the silence that she lived in because she was alone. And I kind of skimmed that emotional doc because I realized how intense it felt for the first draft of this poem that then became the book. 

And then maybe a few months after that, I was like, I really want to turn that poem into a book, I think. But I really needed to clear the space in my life where I could just do that dive, because it was a lot. It was something that I also talked about in therapy throughout the entire process of writing, because I really did visit a lot of just– not so much painful memories but just painful feelings. When you’re not necessarily revisiting the reason you were lonely, but the saddest loneliest feeling you may have had as a child or the most defeated feeling you had as a child or the first time someone made you feel small or the first time you ever felt that you weren’t good enough to have the things you dreamed of or maybe you’d never be anything, period. And I really went through feeling all of those things. And it was really tough actually. And so I took about a year to do that. 

And I kind of had the problem, I think– about 70% done when I decided to sell it, because I also– since I don’t write in this genre, and a lot of the time people, I think, look at the kid’s book as slightly like a throw-away genre. You’re like, I have this random idea. Let’s just like put illustrations to it and make a book. And I really wanted the publishers to know that I really took this seriously, if for no other reason but because I had to revisit so much trauma to even write it. 

And so I almost finished it, probably about 70% done. As you know, usually, if you’re selling a book, you kind of sell the idea, not the writing. And so I sold it. And then I started working on it. And then maybe three months into the process of working on it, I found out I was pregnant. And so what started out as being this love letter to my childhood self ended up being a love letter to my daughter. 

DERAY MCKESSON: I have to imagine that there were a host of ways you thought about telling the story before you chose the journey down the road in this way. How did you land here, with the character literally walking down the road, engaging these big questions? Why was this the path you went in to tell the story? 

CLEO WADE: Well, I wanted to just visually show someone moving through a lot of different terrain so that you would kind of feel the metaphor of all of the different types of places and spaces you end up in life. I really wanted to– something that’s always important to me, in my own writing, is that while I do like to put my experiences into the writing, in how I write things, I really like to kind of zoom out, because I don’t want to write something that is telling you what to do with the words. I like to write things in a way where you have the space to do whatever you need to do with the words. 

And so I think that this book is very similar to Heart Talk in the way that in the same poem– that’s one reason Heart Talk, they may be using that poem or leaning on that poem. They’re going through a divorce in the middle of life, or they may be leaning on it as a high school student suffering through their first breakup or the friend or whatever they may be going through. 

And so it’s been really interesting, because as I started having conversations about this book for the first time, I’ve talked to so many different– whether it’s podcast hosts or whomever or mom friends or even when I tested the book on different age ranges and talked to different librarians and parents and teachers about it, a lot of the adults were like, I felt like this book was for me. And the kids have really liked being able to read it in a way where the kids are the traveler asking questions and the adult reading it with them might be the road replying. For me, in how the book is written, I really wanted it to be something that could speak to you wherever you are in life. It could just as easily be your high school graduation book as it could be the book for the age range it’s family especially intended for, which is probably like 40 or something like that. 

But that traveler going down the road, I just think it’s something that everyone can relate to. We all think about just carving your own path and being on your own journey and creating your own place in the world. And so I just felt that the road would really feel like something that was universal. And I just couldn’t imagine that there was anyone who was like, the road metaphor? I just can’t relate to that. 

DERAY MCKESSON: It is an easy image. And I think that you thread the needle well. Cleo, is there any way that we could get a– can we get a reading? 

CLEO WADE: Sure. I’ll read one of my favorite pages to read. So the thing about the book is that each page is basically– has its own kind of theme. So there’s some pages, some spreads, where what the traveler’s moving through might be– I don’t explicitly use words like shame or vulnerability or empathy or compassion, but that is kind of the implication of what the traveler’s actually experiencing. And then some we do really explicitly say. And so the theme of these two pages is change. 

And so the rhythm of the book is that there’s a traveler who meets a magical road and walks along the road. And she said to the road, where do you lead? And the road says, be a leader and find out. And as she steps onto the road, she gets into this magical place. And the road leads her into all these different spaces. And she continues– or, they continue. The traveler’s not gendered. The traveler continues to ask the road questions. 

And I’m just so used to calling her she, because whenever we would refer to the character in shorthand on email about the book, we always just called her Little Cleo, because we didn’t know what else to call her. And so we were always like, well, is little Cleo doing this? Is little Cleo doing that? So it’s kind of funny. 

So in this spread, it says, the traveler says, “What if I change? Come with me, said the road. And as I moved forward, the road introduced me to a caterpillar and a family of seeds. We did not stay long. The road began taking me on a journey through the seasons. I watched summer turn to fall and fall turn to winter. And as spring was upon us, I realized we had gone in one big beautiful circle. 

I looked down and found I was standing in front of the caterpillar and the seeds once more. Only, the caterpillar was no longer a caterpillar. And the seeds had turned to flowers of every color, swaying in the sun. 

The road then raised me up and said, all things grow and change. That is the magic of being alive. You, too, will find your wings. You, too, will bloom. No living thing is meant to stay the same.” 

DERAY MCKESSON: That is a message for all of us. I can’t wait to– 

CLEO WADE: Thank you. 

DERAY MCKESSON: –see you on readings, like with actual kids, like in real life. 

CLEO WADE: I can’t wait to do them. I mean, it’s so crazy because we’ve been planning the book tour. The virtual book tour starts next week. And usually, I’m just so excited about my tours. And I am this time because so many amazing friends and people in general are just supporting this book. And I feel so grateful. 

But it’s like, the main thing thing’s missing, and it’s the community. It’s like, you love touring because you love being with your readers. And I love meeting them. And it’s actually– I will admit, I’ve probably cried about it like four times, because it’s sad. It’s painful. 

It’s like, every now and again, you just have new things that just remind you of the time we’re living in, and that we’re living in a pandemic and a time of so much restraint. And one of the things that’s just been so hard is to be someone who creates things for community and to not be able to be with your community. It’s really devastating. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Where do you go for inspiration? I think about the children’s book. I think about Heart Talk. You’ve got to be– You’re pulling from somewhere, because this is a lot. You know, it is inspirational. How do you stay? 

CLEO WADE: I guess one of my most important practices is that I have really redefined creativity for myself in my experience, which is that a lot of the times when we think about being creative or being imaginative and then doing something with it, making something with that creativity or imagination, from that space of imagination, we think that we should always be doing something. So we think that it’s only about our ability to make it into a painting or into a book or into a whatever your medium may be. But for me, if I don’t feel that the writing is here and I don’t feel I have the words, I usually take that as a time to apply my imagination and creativity to how I listen and what I witness. 

And so for me, I feel like I have a perfectly productive creative day if the only thing I did that day was read bell hooks. And I don’t think of that as not being creative. So I think, a lot of the times, we’re always saying like, where’s your inspiration? How do you get inspiration? But we don’t really value taking in inspiration as part of the process a lot of the time. If you can actually say to yourself, well, being creatively challenged by how I think about the world or look at the world is a part of my creative process, then you don’t feel like, oh, what did I do or I’m not doing anything. Or I’m taking time off by researching or listening to a podcast or studying different types of art that I don’t know about or approaching life, or even your own family members, from a space of imagination and really deeply and compassionately listening to the stories and ideas and thoughts of what’s going on with the people around you. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Well, thank you for coming. We always consider you a friend of the pod. We’ll have you back for every book you write. 

CLEO WADE: Thank you so much. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Thanks for being here. 

CLEO WADE: Thank you. I love the pod. I love you all so much, all your amazing co-hosts. It’s always so– you feel so lucky whenever you get to be a part of something you’re such a huge fan of. So thank you so much. 

DERAY MCKESSON: 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. And we’ll see you next week. 

Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lanz. Executive Producers Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Sam Sinyangwe, and our special contributor, Johnetta Elzie. 

[CHILL MUSIC PLAYING]