Pod Squad

Brent Johnson Executive Operations Manager The Leadership Conference
Sakira Cook Headshot Sakira Cook Justice Reform Program Director The Leadership Conference
Sonum Nerurkar Get Out the Count Manager The Leadership Conference

Interview Guest

Vanita Gupta President and CEO The Leadership Conference

Our Host

Ashley Allison Executive Vice President of Campaigns and Programs | The Leadership Conference @ashleyrallison

Contact the Team

For all inquiries related to Pod For The Cause, please contact Brittany Johnson at [email protected] and Kenny Yi at [email protected].

Episode Transcript

Ashley Allison:  Welcome to Pod for the Cause, the official podcast of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, where we expand the critical conversation of civil and human rights issues of our day.  I’m your host, Ashley Allison, coming to you from Washington, DC.  Like we start off every show, we’ve got the Pod Squad where we talk pop culture and social justice.  Today I’m joined by Brent Johnson, Executive Administrative Assistant for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Sonum Nerurkar, Get Out the Count Manager for the Census Count Campaign, and Sakira Cook, the Criminal Justice Reform Director for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Y’all, we’re coming from y’all’s apartments, homes, wherever you stay.  I’m going to start off with … I don’t know if you’re going to laugh or you’re going to cry or whatever, but Tiger King.


Sonum Nerurkar:  I feel like the reason it’s so popular right now is because it’s so crazy that it takes away from the crazy lives that we’re living right now in the pandemic, so it’s like, okay, we can watch this and be like surprised and shocked.  Because I think every day people are feeling shocked in this new reality.  But it is really crazy.  I love it.


Ashley Allison:  We don’t do spoilers.  Sakira, have you seen it?


Sakira Cook:  I think I’ve seen like the first two or three episodes.


Ashley Allison:  That’s enough.


Sakira Cook:  And I was like, I can’t watch no more of this.  What have I been sucked into?  This is too much of a vortex suck, but I don’t think my mind is ready to…I figured out, everything is not what it seems in this show.  All the players, all of them are not what they seem.  You know?


Ashley Allison:  Oh, yeah.


Sakira Cook:  Pitting people against each other in a way that I’m not really sure is appropriate.


Ashley Allison:  Yes, and we’ll circle back for a recap for when we can do spoilers.  Brent, you haven’t seen it, right?  So you don’t know what you’re missing, okay?


Brent Johnson:  I haven’t seen it, and I do not plan on watching it because there is so much better out there for us to be doing with our lives.  You know what?  I will die on this hill.


Ashley Allison:  One of the individuals ends up interacting with the justice reform system, and actually is in isolation because of coronavirus.  I know, Sakira, she has been seeing things happen around coronavirus and the justice system in particular.


Sakira Cook:  National-based organizations, state and local organizations are really using COVID-19 in this moment to highlight what we’ve been saying all along, that the real structural inequities that exist within our criminal legal system and are laying bare the challenges that people face that are incarcerated.  Incarcerated in jails, being held up for trial.  People who are there who are elderly.  People are there that have underlying health conditions.  People who should be eligible for compassionate release because they are at the end of their lives.  All of reforms that we’ve called for in the past are pretty apparent and relevant today.  If it takes this moment for us to get as many people out as possible, that is great, and that is amazing.  But we need more.  I mean Congress hasn’t really focused on this population.  The federal government is fumbling it’s response to COVID-19 in federal prisons.  While this man who has been placed in isolation to shield him off, at least eight individuals have lost their lives in federal penitentiaries because of this virus.  These are all people who are filing for seven, and were serving time for drug offenses.  And so these are all people who were supposed to have been released, and should have probably been released a long time ago, and unfortunately, lost their life in federal prison because our system is just broken.


Ashley Allison:  I couldn’t agree with you more, Sakira.  One institution that is going on right now, and I finished mine.  I’m trying to uncover it, so you can see.


Ashley Allison:  It’s my census form.  I filled it out yesterday.  I did it online.  Sonum, you work on the census – what have you seen as some of the challenges coming up because of the COVID-19 on the census?


Sonum Nerurkar:  This is the big moment for all of us to be in the field, and to be organizing around the census, and really encouraging those historically under-counted communities to get counted and fill out their forms … Because we have to shift field-tactics, like a lot of the tactics that we use historically in our communities is that face-to-face interaction – you’re going to church, you’re talking to your local person that’s selling you milk.  Things like that.  These are the ways that you engage, and that’s the way you organize.  We’re having to shift our organizing tactics completely to being virtual and digital online, going from having a rally in person to a virtual rally, which is still pretty cool, but very hard.  But then also thinking about all of the people out there that don’t have access to social media or any digital means, and there’s no way to really reach them.  So a lot of our groups on the ground and our coalition is really grappling with the fact that we have to completely shift our field tactics.  We’re doing it, but it’s taking some learning.  You know?

Then on top of that, the census operations itself is on pause right now until April 15th, and that could get delayed even further.  So we’re just trying to figure out what does this mean, not just like census operations, but also organizing.  How can we encourage people to still fill it out?  They can still go online.  They can still call in by phone.  They can wait for the paper questionnaire that should start arriving this week in people’s mailboxes.  So there are ways to fill it out, but it’s just the ability to encourage people to fill it out and shift those tactics of how we talk about the census.  It has really changed under COVID-19.


Ashley Allison:  But even though some stuff has been paused by the Census Bureau, the census is still happening, so people need to fill out your census.  It’s really important.


Ashley Allison:  Brent, I want to come to you because there’s justice reform, immigration rights, but then there’s just plain out racist comments that are being made and homophobic comments.  Civil rights is not a partisan thing.  It’s a right that all people get.  We have this President, Donald Trump, who has been saying the person who leads his prayer groups, is saying that coronavirus is because of gay people.  Then we have the President connecting it to a racial group that’s this type of flu or connecting it … I don’t even want to say it because it’s so offensive.  If you had 30 seconds to say something to the people who are saying these terrible, ridiculous things, what would you tell them about why using these derogatory terms and associating this virus with a particular group of people is more one, just wrong, but two – harmful?


Brent Johnson:  A, I would say that it’s wrong.  It’s harmful, and unfortunately, we are running out of time where we can’t trust what’s coming out of the White House.  We don’t have that moral authority and leadership in the White House that we have historically had under Republican administrations and Democratic administrations alike.  I would say listen to your public health officials first off.


Ashley Allison:  Like Dr. Fauci!


Brent Johnson:  Like Dr. Fauci, exactly.  Listen to the state-level officials across the country.  Republicans and Democrats alike in a number of states are taking this threat seriously, and they’re not resorting to racism and really some of this crazy rhetoric that I think is not helpful and quite frankly is going to result in people dying.  So listen to your public health officials.  Listen to your state-level officials who are proving across they country to be taken this really seriously.


Ashley Allison:  I’m here with Sonum Nerurkar, Sakira Cook, Brent Johnson.  All members of the Leadership Conference, all experts in their own way in different areas.  The last episode I recorded was in studio, and it was earlier in March.  We talked about coronavirus and people needing their flu shots.  Little did we know, 4 weeks later we would be here doing it on Zoom, but that Zoom has been taking a life of it’s own, somebody was like Skype lost it’s three to one lead on Zoom, like it was the NBA playoff or something.  So now Zoom has become this thing, right?  What’s the most common phrase you use on Zoom?


Brent Johnson:  Please mute your phone.


Sakira Cook:  Sorry – I was talking and I was muted.


Ashley Allison:  Yeah, I’m always like people that get on Zoom, then just use their phone and not their video,  I’m like what is that 202-229 number – who’s infiltrating? We only got a little more time.  I’ve got one more subject to talk to, and it would be like I tossed this thing and one of y’all caught it, those challenges.


Sonum Nerurkar:  Oh, yeah.


Ashley Allison:  But I’m going to start this.  Now, we have the don’t rush challenge and they’re like what’s the best version of these challenges that you’ve seen?


Sakira Cook:  I particularly like the don’t rush challenge, and as a single black woman, I fully appreciated the challenge of the black men who were medical professionals, who were doctors, anesthesiologists.  It was amazing.  I was like the white coat, and like wooo.


Ashley Allison:  Okay, that isn’t what I thought you were going to say, but yeah.  I hear you.  What about you, Sonum?


Sonum Nerurkar:  Well, I love the savage challenge because I used to dance, so I love watching dance challenges.  Kiki Palmer’s savage challenge is really great.  She’s also doing all of the TikTok challenges, and posting them on her Instagram.


Ashley Allison:  Brent, what about you?  Close this out.


Brent Johnson:  I was against TikTok before the pandemic, but I have been convinced that it’s time.  So I gotta go create a TikTok and get in on some of these challenges.


Ashley Allison:  Well, I really like the savage challenge, but I think I do like the don’t rush challenge the most.  Ya’ll, I have had such a joy catching up, not having to talk so much work because all of the Zoom calls usually are work. Thank you, Sakira, Brent, Sonum, for joining the Pod Squad.  Coming up next, we have a really special guest, Vanita Gupta, so don’t go anywhere.


[Music Interlude]


Ashley Allison:  Welcome back to Pod for the Cause, where we’ve been talking all things COVID-19 and the impact it has on civil and human rights.  Today, we have a very special guest with us, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Vanita Gupta.  Welcome to the show, Vanita.


Vanita Gupta:  Hey, Ashley.  Good to be here.


Ashley Allison:  There is so much going on in our country, and you lead a large coalition around civil and human rights.  Just a couple of weeks weeks ago, Congress passed something called the CARES Act.  What is the CARES Act about, and why is it important for our country?


Vanita Gupta:  Well, the CARES Act is about trying to help the most frontline vulnerable people during this COVID crisis.  We are seeing staggering impacts on our economy.  People losing their jobs.  Not enough funding for our public health infrastructure that can actually meet the moment.  So we’ve got hospitals without enough healthcare workers.  We have healthcare workers who are dangerously exposed to COVID because of the lack of basic equipment.  You would think because we are the richest country in the world, that we wouldn’t have any problems.  We have shortages of ventilators.  We don’t have mass testing available.  And so CARES was an effort to basically see an immediate stopgap, but in those kinds of emergent situations.  But the reality is that we haven’t even peaked with the virus in this country yet, and more and more people are dying.  We still continue to have major shortages, and there’s no end in sight to what the impact will be on the economy, so it’s pretty likely that we’re going to need a lot more than the CARES Act.  But the CARES Act is a $2 trillion stimulus package that covers a whole range of funding for the most needy, and that also has about a $500 billion part of that $2 trillion going to corporate America.  Some of that is for stimulus package for companies, there are different views on that, but it’s very important that there be federal money for some of the most vulnerable among us right now.


Ashley Allison:  Some of the most vulnerable that weren’t necessarily addressed in the CARES Act are people who are incarcerated.  What do you want people to know about what Congress, and I guess the next version of the CARES Act should be doing to protect those people?


Vanita Gupta:  Even in the best of times, the people in prison and jails and detention centers are too often invisible.  So you can imagine that in this coronavirus crisis, too many people are forgetting that there are hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in prisons, jails, and detention centers who are living in very confined spaces where the COVID transmission risk is so high.  There are staff that are going in every day that are basically exposed to COVID.  So there’s been a lot of concern, but probably not enough concern about what is going to happen.  What is the plan for people in these close confinements in our prisons?  You know?

We all know because this is the work that you and I do, and that the Leadership Conference does, but we have way too many people in our prisons and jails.  We’ve had a long-term addiction to incarceration, a problem with mass incarceration.  We are finally beginning to see some acknowledgement on the part of state and local officials, and governors, and Republican and Democratic states saying that we need to release folks.  That there are segments of people that are simply old that should have been released on compassionate release.  There’s a lot of people that you and I are arguing shouldn’t have been in our nations prison systems to begin with.  Now, kind of the irony is that governors are beginning to really realize that and are releasing more and more people as a result, really in response to the public health crisis.  I think for us, it’s begging the question of why were these folks there to begin with, and we will continue long past COVID to push on these issues and to push on these questions, but right now people are in harms way.  I think eight people have died in a federal facility in Louisiana.  That’s just in one facility.  In Rikers Island in New York, it’s a huge hot bed.  We’re really worried about folks in Rikers.  These are some of the concerns that we have right now for justice-involved communities and people.


Ashley Allison:  Yeah.  And then there is the immigrant population who was already so vulnerable.  Already terrorized by this current administration.  What’s going on with folks that are on the border, people seeking asylum?  What is happening in that community?


Vanita Gupta:  Frankly, I don’t think that we know enough about what’s happening with our immigration detention facilities.  I know organizations like the ACLU are feeling right now to get people out, particularly children out, children of asylum seekers out.  But our immigration detention facilities, our nation’s prisons and jails in the best of times are fairly inhumane in a lot of places, and now there’s a real concern about who’s paying attention to these communities right now.  There’s a whole slew of lawyers and legal communities that are filing lawsuits right now to try and get folks out.  There’s been a sealing of the border.  There’s been a lot of concern that Stephen Miller, who is behind the scenes and sometimes at the head of it orchestrating this really anti-immigrant, racist kind of agenda from the administration is now using COVID to get through the sealing of our borders and the like. I will say right now,  there has been a lot of concern about restricting travel for public health reasons.  The concerns will be that we not allow this moment for our politicians with nefarious agendas to manipulate or recognize COVID for their own partisan agenda.  We need to protect both health and safety foremost, and so we’ve got to keep an eye just as an NGO community about what’s happening to these vulnerable communities and making sure rules don’t get set up that then later on we’re through this crisis, we then regret and get pushback on.  So it’s kind of that dual purpose that we have to serve right now.


Ashley Allison:  Something that could change the way leadership is actually handling this, and by leadership, I mean the President, I mean Congress, I mean Governors and Secretaries of State, is the election.  I know the Leadership Conference has really being paying close attention on the election.  A big conversation about vote-by-mail has been brought to the forefront.  Why is vote-by-mail the thing people should be supportive of, shouldn’t be supportive of, but what is it about vote-by-mail that we need to know that we might not know?


Vanita Gupta:  Right now, a lot of states have postponed their primaries, you know, because voters are really concerned, and public health officials are saying conditions are too dangerous to have in-person voting right now.  And so a number of states have postponed, but there’s the real question about what … well, we have seven months until the November election.  Right now, states have the time if they have the political will and the money that they need from Congress to actually get ready and to put policy options in place that will give voters the options of how to participate in November.  The election in November has to happen.

We have had elections through depressions, through famines, through wars, through Spanish flu, and this November election should be no different.  But the thing is the states need to have the funding and the policy changes put in place to ensure that voters have options.  So one of the major things is giving voters the option to vote by mail, which is to vote from home.  There needs to be a whole bunch of things that ensure that voting by mail is fair.  Government needs to send ballots to every eligible voter.  You need to have prepaid or free postage so they can send it back and not be worried about money.  There can be secure drop-off boxes and community pick-ups.  There needs to be corrective measures to have Secretaries of State ensure that folks aren’t kicked off of the rolls because of misspellings and signatures.  I’m the daughter of an immigrant with a different name.  That happens all the time where my name is misspelled.  I don’t want to be kicked off of the rolls.

But the reality too though is that voting by mail is not enough.  If you move to an all-vote-by-mail option only, and you take away in-person voting, you could potentially disenfranchise certain voters of color.  For example, Native American voters, 26% of them don’t have a postal box address.

Ashley Allison: And so by not having it, they just would not be able to vote.

Vanita Gupta:  They wouldn’t be able to vote unless you have some form of safe in-person voting.  There’s a whole bunch of options that folks can put into place. It’s not just Native American voters – older African American voters have a long history of distrust of the U.S. Post Office in terms of putting their ballots in.  There’s been concerns about the urban voters about the expressive nature about going to the polls.  Going to the polls is a whole movement.  So what you need to be putting into place is other options as well.

We should be making sure that we have expanded online voter registration cause right now there are few government agencies that are open to register to vote.  You need an extended in-person voting.  If you moved it at least two weeks before the election, you can make sure that there aren’t these crushes of people on election day all showing up at the polls. You could actually ensure social distancing and follow all of the CDC compliance guidelines to make sure voting can be done in person safely and protecting people’s health.  You need these kinds of options in place that can then ensure that whether a person is voting by mail or is able to vote in person, while doing all of the social distancing.  At least, our democracy will continue to function.  And these are some of the things that The Leadership Conference has been pushing Congress on to make sure that Congress can give $2 billion of funding to the states.  It’s really a small amount when you think about the total of the $2 trillion package in the first stimulus bill, but the states need money to do this, and they need time.  It’s a really big deal to have states totally change their election process, and they can’t do it overnight.  But right now, we’ve got seven months.  They need to hear the urgency of this as a Congress.


Ashley Allison:  We see what can happen when states don’t have enough time to prepare.  We have my home state of Ohio, where there was a lot of confusion around that primary.  When the state is unprepared, the voter ultimately suffers.  Look – civil rights work was challenging in this administration before we were all confined to our homes, walking around with masks because we didn’t want to catch a virus.  What is giving you hope in this moment to stay diligent and continue to fight for people’s rights?


Vanita Gupta:  I’m not going to deny to you.  It’s been hard because COVID has thrown what has been already challenging work into [indiscernible] it has made it that much more challenging.  There’s all kinds of partisan efforts to undermine our democracy right now, and they’re trying to use COVID to do it.  But the thing that gives me hope is, again, in this moment, there’s like a whole crew of amazing people both here in Washington, but all over the country, to protect our elections, to protect our census.  They’ve been giving their life, soul, and blood for the last several years, frankly, to make sure that we can have infrastructure in place in the states.  That we can be supporting state organizations to build power and do the work that they need to do.  That we are able to kind of have the resilience to fight this effort and to make sure that COVID doesn’t torpedo our plans to make sure that we get to define the next decade of this country.

So that’s the stuff that gives me hope.  I am also hopeful, and we were both in Selma a month ago, and you think about what John Lewis went through and when we encounter him in the middle of the Edmund Pettus Bridge a month ago with pancreatic cancer telling us to have hope.  Telling us that he had had his skull cracked, billy-clubbed by Alabama State Troopers in the middle of that bridge, and saying have hope, don’t give up, give everything you’ve got to fight and defend the right to vote.  Just like thinking he was there 55 years after he was almost killed, and he has never for one day stopped that fight.

We can do this.  It’s going to be really hard, but we’re going to do it because we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and we have been preparing for this moment.  But we have to know that none of us is holding this alone.  We are working as a kind of whole community of people, and we can’t feel that burden alone.  But by working in community and kind of pushing as hard as we can right now collectively, that’s the best we can ask of ourselves.  And that’s a lot.


Ashley Allison:  So Vanita, I want to end with something new we’re doing on this show.  We’re taking questions from our audience.  So if you listen to the show, and you follow us at Pod for the Cause, you can submit a question, and you might hear it on one of our next episodes.  This question comes from Rebecca Cokley and it goes back to something we were just talking about.  She says with the push for vote by mail due to physical distancing, how will we ensure that in-person options are still available for the disability community who can’t vote by mail?  #cripthevote#weareessential.  Vanita, what would you say to Rebecca?


Vanita Gupta:  First of all, Rebecca, is an amazing advocate and activist, and she is exactly right that vote by mail is not accessible to everyone.  It’s not accessible in the ways we just talked about actually, but it’s also not accessible to all people with disabilities.  There’s a lot of online activity that remains out of reach for people with certain disabilities.  For a long time, we’ve been fighting for access polling places, physical access to polling places.  But at least there, we’ve made a lot of strides with the Americans with Disabilities Act.  We’ve got to make sure that there still is safe in-person voting.  The way to do that at a time when we need to be social distancing is to comply with the CDC guidelines, but also extend the number of days that these polling places are open.  If you extended them by at least two weeks, you would avoid the mass onslaught of a lot of people at the polling place, and you could have them spread out more to do social distancing.  So that’s why we’ve got to be able to preserve some form of in-person voting even while promoting the option of vote by mail all over the country.


Ashley Allison:  Alright, folks, you heard it from Vanita Gupta, CEO and President of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.  Stay tuned for my Hot Take where I get a few things off my chest in three minutes or less.


[Music interlude]


Ashley Allison:  Welcome back to Pod for the Cause.  Between the Pod Squad, and Vanita Gupta, and talking all things COVID-19, I have a few things I want to get off my chest.  This weekend I went to the grocery store, and it was the weekend after they said that people need to wear masks in public.  Not just if you’re at risk, but all people should be wearing masks when in public.  I thought what does that really mean when I’m at the grocery store?  But I did it.  I put my mask on.  It wasn’t an official mask – it was actually my ski mask cause it was all I had.  I covered my nose and my mouth.  The reason why I did it was because I’m healthy, even though we have seen this disease is taking the lives of people who are healthy, but my father isn’t as healthy.  He has a kidney transplant.  And so he is immune compromised.  I owe it to my father.  I owe it to everybody else out there.  I owe it to the elderly people to listen to what the public health officials are saying and wear the mask.  You aren’t too cute to wear them.  You aren’t too important to wear them.  You aren’t that sophisticated where you are the exception to the rule.  Wear the mask!  We’ve been in our homes for four weeks now because people are not following the rules.  People are on beaches having a good time as though if we weren’t just to follow the rules and flatten the curve, we could not get back out to our normal lives at some point.

Every time you think you are too important or too good to listen to what the public health officials are saying, you are prolonging this event.  You are putting me at risk.  You are putting my father at risk.  We don’t have enough tests to know what’s really happening, but I, Ashley Allison, the host of Pod for the Cause, will not be able to go see my dad until I can get a COVID-19 test because I can’t put him at risk.  I cannot go home to Ohio and see my parents until I’m able to get that. So I need everyone to listen to the public health officials.  You, right now in this moment, have more agency than you ever have had before.  You can stay at home. I know it’s boring. I know Netflix and chill is getting old, but if we just do what we need to do for the next couple of days, we could have a greater impact to make sure that people stay healthy, and the death toll goes down, and that we can come back outside of our house, and get back to normal life.

It’s on us people.  Nobody else can do it but us.  So social distance.  Wash your hands.  Sing the ABCs.  Stay inside, just to be safe.  Wear the mask.  And do what’s right. Because not just America, but people all around the world are counting on us.

Thank you for listening to Pod for the Cause, the official podcast of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund.  For more information please visit civilrights.org.  To connect with me, hit me up on Instagram and Twitter at Pod for the Cause.  Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave a five-star review.  Until then, for Pod for the Cause, I’m Ashley Allison. and remember, a cause is nothing without the people.