S03 E01: The Horrible Storm
Ashley: Welcome to season three for 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 conversation on critical civil and human rights issues of your day. I’m your host Ashley Allison coming to you from Washington DC. And like we start off every show, we have the Pod Squad where we talk about social justice, pop culture and everything in between. Today, I have two special guests: Allyn Brooks-LaSure, Executive Vice President for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Greisa Martinez, Deputy Director for United We Dream. On today’s show, we’re talking about the horrible storm between police violence, COVID-19, and everything else happening in our country.
Greisa and Allyn are here to join me for the conversation and we want to start on a bit of a somber note. This past week, we lost two civil rights icons, Reverend C. T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis. And to start off the Pod Squad, I just want to give you all a chance to share your reflections on what their lives meant to you and to this country particularly in this moment.
Allyn: Yeah. Ashley and Greisa, you may know that I’m really a student of the movement, and I think that Reverend C. T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis were foot soldiers in the march that never left the field. They never left. They continued in the march from beginning to end, and I think that people who worked for Congressman Lewis, I have a friend of mine who worked for him, and whenever you would ask her “what was he like?” She would say whatever you see, that’s who he is. That’s who his heart is, and I think that that speaks to him, and that speaks to the enduring legacy of the movement. It makes me wonder, though, who is our John Lewis now? Who is our C.T. Vivian now? They have passed on the baton, but who is carrying the baton in the roles that they played for such a long time? So, that’s what’s on my heart right now.
Ashley: Yeah. Greisa, what are you feeling?
Greisa: As an immigrant, I didn’t grow up with my grandparents. I didn’t know any of their names, their stories. And the moment that I stepped into the movement, I remember it was 2010, and we had members of the SNCC Committee come to a United We Dream Congress. And they shared their stories, and we sang together, and from that space is where we developed the strategy that came to be the DACA Victory inspired by them. And so for me, Congressman John Lewis just feels like he is an ancestor to me, someone that very directly changed my life.
I’ve been thinking a lot about it and the beauty of all of these people that I’ve been organizing with, black organizers, really taking in this moment and feeling like we know what the charge is. We know what the sacrifices were, and we’re ready. And there was a poem (folks should check it out) but this poet Tisch who said may I have the courage to step into new movement roles and the grace to nurture new leadership. And he was the embodiment of that. I’m ready to be able to do that for the people to come.
Ashley: I had the privilege in some of my previous roles to spend a significant amount of time with both of them, particularly C. T. Vivian. We had an event at the White House once. I think it was an Easter prayer breakfast and after, we went and sat the Pete’s that’s catty corner to the White House.
Greisa: Oh yeah.
Ashley: For two hours he just poured into me about what leadership should be, and what this moment calls for. And you’re a staffer at the White House. So, you’re like oh my gosh. I’m checking my Blackberry and whatnot. But for those two hours, the world stopped and I didn’t look at my phone because my excuse would have been “I was with the Reverend” if somebody was like where were you?
Allyn: Don’t worry about where I was. -laughter-
Ashley: Yeah and I just feel so honored. There are just so many memories I have of them and how blessed I am to be. But the think, Allyn, that I’m thinking about your question is like who are the next C. T. Vivians? And I just wonder if C. T. Vivian and John Lewis knew who they were in the moment of courage when they had to step up for justice, and they didn’t know they would be written about in the history books. They didn’t know that a whole world would be mourning at their loss or that they would even transition on the same day. But they knew what was right, and they knew what was just, and they were willing to do it.
And so, it’s kind of like we all are them. We all are the next C. T. Vivian. We all are the next Gretas. We all are the next John Lewises. We all are fill the blank. And then, we all are the people who we don’t even know in this movement. So, I felt a little piece of my heart leave when I learned the news in that morning and then in that evening. But it created some space for opportunity as well. So, thanks for sharing your reflections. And Greisa, you mentioned something that we haven’t had a chance to really talk about. You had these leaders pour into your movement at the inception around this strategy, and there was a huge victory around DACA. It’s been almost a month since the Supreme Court said that the way Trump did his decision wouldn’t stand.
Allyn: It was ratchet. -laughter-
Greisa: It would be like you didn’t do your homework. -laughter-
Ashley: Yeah. Get it right.
Greisa: Go back. Try it again.
Ashley: I don’t know if you ever listened to the voicemail that day when I called you. I was like a crying, mumbling fool. But how are you feeling as one of the leaders of that movement?
Greisa: You know, to be honest with you, I was in the oral arguments last year, and I just felt like the system was in my face. It was super clear. All of the justices, the government, and I had been struggling with a lot of like what are we going to do? I had been planning for the worst and also hoping for the best. And I just feel like the moment that we won, and I remember hearing that, there was this lightness. I couldn’t even read the actual PDF of the order. But it felt like such an affirmation about the power of young organizers and what it means when people that are directly impacted are leading in the strategy not only in the streets but how do we get this.
I feel really proud that all of the members of United We Dream and the people that were talking on that day of victory both talked about the real danger that we face by these agencies of ICE, CBP, and the police and at the same time we’re saying that black lives matter, and standing in solidarity with the movement that we were in. I think there’s a lot of work to do, and I just feel like I’m going to replay your voicemail, Ashley, forever because it just made me feel so seen. So, it’s been great.
Ashley: I just remember the day of the oral arguments watching all of you come out, and you having that red dress on, and you lifting your hands up. That will be in the history books. Allyn, when you heard the news, what did you think?
Allyn: Well, one, it just reminded me of the brutality of some of our leaders. But it also said that you have to stand up to brutality, and it just reminded me that there’s no prospect for victory; there’s no prospect for right without heart. Since I have been involved in the Civil Rights Movement, I’ve always been just impressed with the heart and the courage of United We Dream. Y’all ain’t playing games. You know what I mean? You’re going to speak up for what’s right. You’re going to say it no matter who is there, who needs to hear it, and I think that that is keeping with the highest traditions of this movement of change in this country.
Ashley: Absolutely. So, I don’t know if you notice. I’m still in my home. They are all in their homes because COVID is still real. I don’t even know if this is the second wave or if this is just an inflection point of wave one. But we are seeing people who don’t social distance, people who don’t wear masks, people who are acting like there is not a pandemic in this world. People are still getting COVID, and the numbers are increasing at the thousands in states like Florida and Arizona. Where does this end y’all? Do you see an end to this Allyn?
Allyn: Listen, COVID isn’t worrying about us. COVID is doing what COVID’s going to do until we get right. You know what I mean? That pandemic is spreading and is like “oh, you all are going to play games? Watch this.” That’s what we’re seeing. People are chilling at spring break, and having a good old time, and this virus is taking lives. It’s wrecking communities. It’s wrecking homes, and we still have a bunch of people who think this is a joke. And I don’t know how you can think this is a joke with 100,000 and some deaths into it. It’s not a joke one death into it. But we were never supposed to even see this many deaths.
Our people said it’s going to go away. It’s going to disappear. People are still talking that same foolishness. I talked to somebody who said he’s on his fifth streaming funeral. He can’t even go to pay his respects. He’s watching it virtually. It’s a tragic time and in my view, the biggest tragedy is it doesn’t need to be this tragic. We have positive control over our behavior. We’re just choosing to be buckwild I guess.
Greisa: I can relate. I feel like now I need to go outside. I can’t be in my home all the time. I try to wear my mask, put my hand sanitizer on. The most people that are dying are black and brown people. So, the numbers for other people and particularly in my home state of Texas, mostly white people are refusing, like it’s a moral choice that they’re making of not wearing the mask, and it just feels kind of like you’re not the ones having to see your loved ones buried through Zoom. It does feel like a moment of as you were saying like what is my personal responsibility for my family, for my friends, and it also has pushed some conversations around boundaries. I was talking to my friend last time and she was like I was going to do this thing, but my friend invited me to the pool party. I didn’t want to say no, but then I was like “I’m not trying to die.” And so she had to be like “oh, I’m sorry. I don’t choose that for myself.” It just feels like a big moment that’s going to change the way that we are even friends with one another.
Ashley: All right. Last topic, a really lighthearted topic: hyper realistic cakes. So, Greisa, I know you feel like some kind of way about them. I’m going to kick it you girl.
Greisa: Yeah. I feel some kind of way about this one particular cake that I saw. And it was a cake about a salad. It was like this mixed green salad. I was like “don’t lie to yourself. It’s a cake. You’re going to eat it all.” Why do you have to make it like a salad? Why ruin it? Who came up with this?
Ashley: Also, I highly doubt that they’re good.
Allyn: No but one of the women who is one of the pioneers of the hyper realistic cakes says it has to be good. That’s the whole point making it delicious on the inside. I might just get freaked out trying to eat a cake that looks like an onion. I saw one and it had like filo dough on the outside to look like the layers of the onion and I was like I don’t know. My mind is thinking something when I think I’m eating an onion.
Ashley: You know who is the OG of hyper realistic cakes? And that was –
Ashley: – Steel Magnolias – the armadillo cake.
Greisa: Oh my God, yes. Wasn’t it red on the inside?
Ashley: Yes. It was a red velvet cake for Shelby’s wedding. I forget the woman who made it but yes. They’ve come a long way since then.
Allyn: That’s going to be the new transition because in the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was about bread. Now, everything is going to be about cake.
Ashley: It’ll now be about cake. Yeah.
Ashley: All right y’all. This has been so fun. I always love to be in conversation with Greisa Martínez who is the Deputy Director for Unite We Dream and Allyn Brooks-LaSure from the Leadership Conference. Earlier this week, I had a chance to sit down with the mayor of Compton, Mayor Aja Brown. That conversation is coming up next. So, don’t go anywhere.
Welcome back to Pod for the Cause, where we’ve been talking about the horrible storm between COVID, police violence, and protests, and everything else happening in our country. We need to have a serious conversation. And today, I have a very special guest joining me, the mayor of one of the most important and biggest cities in our country, Compton. We have Mayor Aja Brown. Welcome to the show, Mayor.
Aja: Thank you so very much for having me, Ashley. It’s great to be here.
Ashley: Of course. So, let’s get right to it. So, we thought we were going down for COVID, but now, we’re seeing spikes all over the country. Protests have been happening for the last 45 days where people are marching in the streets for black lives, and funding is going to run out at the end of this month for the CARES Act to ensure that people who are unemployed because of this pandemic can pay for a roof over their head and food on their table. As mayor of your city, what are you doing to prioritize and ensure that the people of Compton have the resources they need?
Aja: We are focusing heavily on ensuring that people have access to fresh and free food, and even healthy food, making sure that it’s balanced. We’re also making sure that we have testing sites. We just finished a great event called ByeCOVID that we’ve partnered with Trap Heels and Originals Nation. Communities of color have been really redlined out of receiving the appropriate resources for medical testing. When we look at the amount that’s been per capita and the infection rates, and even the mortality rate, it’s just critical that we get this care into communities of color. So, this event ensured that we were able to test the Compton residents.
We also concluded just two events in the last week and a half, as well as additional testing, and we have two additional testing events planned for next month. As many people may be aware, CVS is also providing free COVID testing by appointment. And so, our goal is just to increase the supply of free testing in the community. We’re also focusing on ensuring that our food pantries are fully equipped to weather the next shutdown. So, it’s going to be definitely a long haul.
Ashley: Well, you know, I am guilty. I have gone to a protest and had tried my best to social distance. I definitely had my mask on, but despite a pandemic, we still saw another black person on television because of a camera killed by police violence. I’m wondering how the city of Compton is handling the current discussion on race and racial tensions that we’re seeing sweep across our nation.
Aja: Well, Compton definitely has not been immune to challenges with law enforcement. Right along the time of George Floyd’s murder, unfortunately, we had some excessive force with a Compton resident and then several days later there was another incident of excessive force. Both incidents were recorded on video. And so, tensions were definitely high in the community. We did have a peaceful unity walk. People really felt it was important to come out and just come in solidarity.
It’s just an incredible time that we’re living in. I don’t think any of us came into 2020 thinking that the whole nation, the world, our cities, communities would be shut down and then dealing with the racial unrest as well. So, as people of color, we know this is nothing new unfortunately. But I think that collectively we’re at a point where we’re just not having it anymore. We’re not accepting it and that we are willing to mobilize when need be and continuously to get justice for our people.
Ashley: There are other consequences of this pandemic. I don’t have children, but I know a lot of people do. And my sister is a teacher. I’m a former teacher. The school is closed. It’s kind of up in the air whether or not schools are going to be opening again, and parents are really struggling with how to balance, how to go to work, and take care of your kids. And so, what do you think we should be doing now to be providing opportunities for young people but also supporting parents who are struggling in this moment?
Aja: This is just such a hard time, and there is just no easy answer. For many parents that relied on school, preschool, daycare, as part of the their continuum of care, and just caring for their children, many people are homeschooling. We’re in the summertime, but there has been so much uncertainty as to when or if the fall semester will be restored. Educators are concerned about their health. They are also concerned about the health of children and so, as we kind of project forward, it’s critical to think about what type of virtual resources are available. I’m even considering enrolling my daughter in a virtual preschool just to be able to have her interface with other little humans around her age because she’s around all adults.
So, we think about this whole generation and the socialization that they are going to need in order to continue on. So, I don’t have any easy answers. And I want our kids to be safe. I want our teachers to be safe, and it’s a hard call when it’s time to restore schools and learning. But at the same time, many working class parents don’t have the luxury of in-home care or nannies. And so, they need school. They need a place that’s safe for their kids. So, it’s just very difficult. The cost of providing care is increasing because of health guidelines, and social distancing, and reducing that maximum attendance. And so, it’s just a difficult time and we just have to take it one day at a time.
Ashley: I love seeing the kids on the Zoom. It’s a nice treat. But shout out to all the parents who are managing it all because I can barely keep it together for myself over the last five months. So, I don’t know how you do it with your kids at home and still having to work. So, thank you all for all that you’re doing. History may write about this period as being one of the lowest moments of our country. We’ve had other low moments, but I’ve never seen anything like this nor could have I ever imagined something like this. As an elected official, what are you doing to stay hopeful in this moment?
Aja: I have in my life been no stranger to adversity. Obviously, I haven’t lived through a pandemic but I do recognize that there is a need to provide for the immediate needs but also to forecast for the future. We’re still pushing those catalytic projects forward in the city of Compton. We’re working on a downtown revitalization that’s scheduled to break ground in winter of 2021. We have Innovation Hub that’s a part of that project so still spending the time to push those critical infrastructures forward that will move our city forward and then just open communication.
I stay live with my constituents every week. I give them critical updates regardless of maybe how challenging they are. I am just really transparent, and I think the positive feedback and just staying connected gives the community hope. It gives me hope to just see people still engaged and still pushing forward. So, we know that even in the city of Compton we’ve had some challenging times and challenging decades. And so, the good thing is we know we’ll get through tit. That’s the constant. Regardless of what happens, we’re definitely come out on the other side. The goal in between time is just how do we get stronger together? How do we focus in? And with this newfound attention that the whole nation and the world has how do we enrich ourselves? How do we strengthen our community and just learn more so that we can be better and do better? So, that’s what I’m really focused on and that alone has given me more hope, just seeing the engagement and the growth in my community.
Ashley: You’re doing all of that and you’re a black woman. You were one of the younger mayors that were elected and being a black woman is just tough in this country. It’s tough in the world. And so, what would you say to young black women out there who look at you and say how did you do it? How did you get to where you are and how are you managing all of it in this moment?
Aja: Definitely, I’m a person of faith. I believe in moving forward by faith and doing those things that may seem impossible. I’ve defied so many odds in my life and so, that defiance is what a constant in my life is. And black women have been no strangers to adversity, to having to achieve more in order to even get a basic qualification. So, I think all of the things that black women naturally have to be equipped with to achieve just makes us stronger even in times like this to navigate uncertain times so definitely just focusing on my faith and being determined.
I don’t accept no for an answer. I recognize that the “yes” may not come from that person, but there’s always an open door. And the constant is just continuing to move forward, continuing to wake up every day, continuing to stay mission minded, and having that tunnel vision because it’s so easy to be distracted. But I always think about what’s the mission? What’s my mission? What’s the mission, and how can I continue to press forward regardless of what’s happening?
Ashley: Well, Pod for the Cause wants to thank you for all you do for being a great example, not just for black women, but for everyone across this country about what leadership looks like. We know you have your hands full. So, we thank you. Thank you, Mayor Aja Brown, for joining the Horrible Storm episode with COVID and police violence and leading her city in a powerful and dynamic way.
Coming up next, I’m going to kick it over to Allyn Brooks-LaSure for his hot take, where he’s going to get a few things off of his chest in three minutes or less.
Allyn: Thank you, Ashley. Welcome back to Pod for the Cause where we’ve been talking about what we’ve been calling the Horrible Storm: COVID-19, police violence, and everything else that has been happening in our nation. And between the conversations we had on the Pod Squad and with Mayor Aja Brown, I have a few things I want to say.
Our nation, and society, and communities are still reeling from the recent losses of the Reverend C. T. Vivian and Representative John Lewis, two titans of the civil rights movement. And our society is doing something that we typically do when we see the losses of individuals who played a critical role in the fight for justice, and the fight for equality, and the fight for morality.
We like to romanticize them in the twilight of their lives and in their passing. We have all kinds of names that we want to call them. We want to make them saints after they pass away, but meanwhile when they were at their height of their advocacy, we castigated them. Society denounced them. Society disregarded them and called them all kinds of things. Some names we can’t even say on this podcast, but certainly called them agitators, and troublemakers, and said that what they were doing would not make a difference.
As we have been talking about the passing of these two titans, I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who are doing the marching right now, the people who are out in the streets at this very moment, and wondering about what messages they are hearing. They are not getting the headlines that they were getting several weeks ago. They’re not getting the attention that they were getting several weeks ago, but they’re still there. And I want to deliver a message directly to you, to those of you who are out there steady in this march.
Imagine if Representative John Lewis, who then was just John Lewis, who was just a young man, had thought that his march across the bridge that day wouldn’t have changed the world, wouldn’t have changed society? What if he had thought that it wouldn’t have made any difference at all? You have to be sure to crowd out the voices that are trying to undermine the work that you’re doing right now in the streets. Don’t listen to them – because if they had their way, the people who were saying these things wouldn’t have any change in our country. They would be happy with the status quo or even worse. They would be happy for us going back to when America was so called great. But I would encourage you to continue the marching you’re doing. Continue the fight. Stay out there. Continue your advocacy. Please don’t stop raising your voice, because we’re on the verge of something really big right now. We’re on the verge of something generational in this nation, and we will only reach that destination if you continue in the march. So, from one person in the civil rights movements to others who are fighting for justice, fighting for equality, fighting for morality, fighting for opportunity, keep marching, keeping fighting, keep raising your voice, keep agitating, keep making trouble, because that’s the only way we’re going to get the just society that we deserve. Can I get a witness?
Ashley: Thanks again 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, visit civilrights.org and to connect with me, hit me up on Twitter or Instagram @podforthecause. Be sure to text ‘podcasts,’ that’s plural with an S, to 52199 to get updates right on your phone. Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app. And don’t forget to leave a 5-star review. Until then, for Pod for the Cause, I’m Ashley Allison, and remember – a cause is nothing without the people.