S03 E09: Goodbye 2020, Hello 2021
Vanessa: Welcome to the Season 3 finale of “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 the critical civil and human rights issues of our day. I’m your host, Vanessa Gonzalez, coming to you from Washington, D.C.
And like we start off every show, we’ve got the Pod Squad, where we discuss pop culture, social justice, and everything in between. I’ve got some amazing folks on the Pod Squad today.
We have the wonderful Kelly Brewington, Director of Communications at All Voting is Local, and the fabulous LaShawn Warren, Executive Vice President for Government Affairs at The Leadership Conference. In this episode, we’re talking all about 2020 and beyond.
All right, let’s just jump right in.
For both of you, but I think for Kelly, in particular, since you really work with states in the voting space, you get to talk to partners on the ground, in the grassroots and really have a connection with folks, can you tell us a little bit about just what was it like talking to people this year? What felt different?
Kelly: Well, I can say everything was different. -laughter- I mean, 2020 was a year with challenges unlike any we’ve ever seen, not only in voting, but in just how we live our lives. COVID upended everything and there is no escaping that it has changed I think most things in our society for good. I think talking to people on the ground, All Voting is Local works in eight states – Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – the best thing about connecting with real people in our states is the resiliency that we saw from voters this year. I mean, they were challenged with barriers to the ballot unlike any we’ve seen in recent memory. I mean, listen, voter suppression is not new. Communities that we fight for, black and brown communities in particular, have been enduring it for a long time, but this COVID-19 era just blew open all of these voter suppression tactics that had been sort of undercover, right, and exposed it for what it was. The world could not look away, and I think the work that we do at All Voting is Local showed us that election officials couldn’t shirk their responsibility and their obligation to making sure voters had access. So, I take from 2020, it was tough. There was so much out there that we were challenged with, but the resiliency of voters and the resiliency of the people on our team to fight through, to push through, and to like really roll up our sleeves and say, “Look, this is our democracy and we are going to save it.”
Vanessa: And let’s be real, let’s name that, right? We have COVID-19, we have voter suppression, this isn’t just a blanket impact on everybody, right? Black women, the black community, in particular, were hit really hard, Latinos, right, farm workers, you name it. It’s these communities that’s continuing to get hit hard, right? And so, I think one of the high points that we saw was not only the resiliency, but like the movement to action and what that looks like. So, Ms. LaShawn, can you tell us a little bit in your world and in your space, how do you think some of that energy and movement is going to impact us as we go into 2021?
LaShawn: So, I think that there is a strong level of accountability right now. In the very beginning of the year, I entered the space with such optimism, primarily because this was an election year, right? Regime change I felt was on the way, and thankfully, we do have regime change. And I think we have had a year of trauma, I mean, not only with COVID…
Vanessa: Absolutely. It’s real.
LaShawn: …but when you think of George Floyd, when you think of Breonna Taylor, when you think of like just all of the things that we have gone through in the last year. At the beginning of the year, I would have never imagined that we would be in this place, right? We are in this place of historic proportion. Hopefully, we will never have to revisit this again. But I do think that there were opportunities to learn. I think even legislators learned from their constituents that they will be held accountable for the things that they do and the things that they say, and I think that was definitely made clear at the ballot box. And it was so amazing to see people press through insurmountable obstacles in the middle of a pandemic to make their voices heard. I think that that level of determination and accountability from the youngest to the oldest is real. I think it’s palpable. I think people in Washington feel it. Thankfully, we just got a COVID package that’s really not nearly enough given the hemorrhaging that is happening particularly in black and brown communities, but I think that we are in a space where people know that they have power and they are willing to register it, and I think that there are political officials who know that they need to respond in this moment, either with election administration and election protection types of legislation, with COVID response, dealing with racial inequities, dealing with employment, housing, education, like all of the issues that we work on, people know that they have power and that there is value in what they do at the polling place. And I know that leadership, they’re paying very close attention, particularly in Georgia with what is happening and what the temperature is with communities, particularly communities of color.
Vanessa: Yeah. Let’s please send all the good vibes to Georgia, that it goes the right way.
LaShawn: All of the things, all the things…
Vanessa: All the energy.
Vanessa: If you can send pizza, send pizza, send it off to Georgia. But let’s talk a little bit about that, right? We saw this wave of energy and these amazing activists. And I don’t want to say new activists because some folks have been dedicating their lives and decades and generations to this work. But we did see the upbringing of some of this energy into more national scope and conversation. Now that we’ve had the election, now that the marching is over for right now, we’ve come out of COVID, everybody’s hopeful, it feels like we’re stuck in this space again between there’s hope because maybe our lives will get back to a little bit normal, and okay, now we go back to the boring legislative processes. For the most part…sorry, LaShawn, I know it’s your world but…
LaShawn: I live in this world, but it can be exciting too. Listen, it’s not…
Kelly: It’s important. We got you.
Vanessa: It is very important.
LaShawn: Listen, not only is it important, I think, we can’t do what we do without the involvement and engagement of our constituents and people on the ground. And so, they make real what we say and do on Capitol Hill.
Vanessa: Kelly, how are you planning to keep that energy flowing and going?
Kelly: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a great question because I do think there’s a lot of optimism, but to be honest, people are tired.
LaShawn: Sure. That’s so true.
Kelly: I mean, I know…I just wanted to keep this real because we are people…like not just people in our communities who are really struggling right now, but folks who have been fighting, I mean, it’s okay to say, “That was rough.” You know, it’s okay to say, “Wait a second, maybe I need a few days to recharge.” So, I’m going to name that for y’all, because I’m going to take a nap over this vacation. I’m going to try. I don’t know how…
Vanessa: Yes. Yes.
LaShawn: Oh, we all deserve that.
Kelly: I don’t really know how to relax but I’m working on it, that’s important, as well as you know, remaining focused. It’s very easy to say, “Okay, we checked this box. This is a regime change. We have some momentum. There’s a COVID vaccine.” It is not over. There is so much work left and our work never ends, right? And particularly, the work of All Voting is Local, you know, our whole mission is to fix the barriers to the ballot that happen on election day, but before election day. We believe that our strategy can help remove these barriers so people aren’t stuck. And it’s so vital because we know as so many of us are feeling energized by this activism of this year, the other side sees this progress as a threat and they are ready to roll back all these essential reforms. They are ready. They are poised. They’re already doing it. They want to remove this progress and double down really. And so, we’re ready, right? So, we gotta get ready. We gotta take our nap, and then we gotta get ready. -laughter- And you know, in our states, these election officials are making decisions about how the next election will be run right now. They’re planning their budgets. They’re talking about their policies. They’re deciding how voters will vote by mail, will they have access to ballot drop boxes, what their voter registration policies will look like. And that’s where we come in right now, focused on those specific goals, and to keep that progress going, keep the momentum going.
Vanessa: Yeah, 100%. I want to hit on something that you said, right? The energy, we have energy coming from both sides, right?
Vanessa: We have the evil-doers and we have the heroes, right? And that energy is going to be forever in play. You are some heroes, but heroes, as you said, need a nap. You gotta take a rest.
LaShawn: Wow. We do need a nap.
Kelly: You’re a hero too, Vanessa.
Kelly: We need to rest as… I know [crosstalk 00:09:03] indeed.
Vanessa: Let’s talk a little bit about that because I think that for women of color, in particular, and then if you’re a mother, and then if you have all these different factors coming at you, 2020 was even harder. What are you all doing to take that step back and sincerely kind of just breathe and take care of yourself, recognizing the ability to do that is a privilege itself? But what are you doing to take care of yourselves as women and mothers and women of color?
LaShawn: I find this to be challenging because I think as women of color, we’re always in the posture of taking care of other people and putting ourselves last. But self-care is so incredibly important, particularly, coming off a year like we’ve just had where it was just trauma-filled. It was just one thing after another. It just felt like drinking from a fire hydrant. The things just would not stop coming. But I think that we’re in a better place to respond to some of the challenges that we face when we’re able to take care of ourselves. And for me, that means going on long walks, with my mask on, mind you. You know, it’s important to wear your mask.
Vanessa: Thank you. Thank you.
Kelly: Very good.
LaShawn: Take this stuff seriously, take COVID seriously, but to be reflective and actually give myself space to think about where I was, where I am now, and think about the future and the world that I want to see and what I need to do in order to make that happen – carving out just space for myself to relax, to reconnect actually with people that I haven’t connected with before. And, you know, it’s interesting that we can really focus sometimes on the difficulties of COVID, but one of the things that COVID did bring out was connectivity. Like I value relationships so much more than I did before. I would take walking down the hallway to see Kelly or Vanessa for granted.
Kelly: Oh, my gosh, I miss seeing you, guys, on the hallway.
LaShawn: Mm-hmm. You know, right? I miss you too. You know?
Vanessa: Just sitting there for a little bit, yeah, just sitting there.
LaShawn: I know. And so, like now, I value those things so much more. I value the conversation with my mom and my family and friends that I’ve not connected with so much more and those things feed my spirit. And so, I have really taken in the need to carve out time to feed my soul and spirit. Part of that is long walks, part of that is connecting with other people. You know, I’m a person of faith and so I read from the Bible, you know, I do my prayers. All of those things really help feed my spirit. And I need that time in order to show up in a fantastic, and exciting, energetic way for the cause, right? And I know, as you said, we’re just at the beginning. We do need a rest. We need a respite, but once we have elected people and got them in office, we need to hold them accountable, right, so the fight doesn’t stop. We just can’t assume that once they have the seat, they’re going to do the right thing. We need to hold everybody accountable and that’s going to require some energy and it’s going to require rest on the front end.
Vanessa: I love it. I appreciate it.
Vanessa: Kelly, what are you doing besides that nap?
Kelly: No, I think that’s great. I mean, I agree with so much of what LaShawn says and two parts in particular. One about just I think reflecting, right? I know I feel like I’ve been on this endless treadmill and I just keep going and going and going. And yes, can I definitely like juggle 12 plates in the air? Apparently – but is that a good thing? I don’t know. Not sustainable. But taking a moment to reflect on that, and what has this year meant for me, and what does that mean for me in the future? And I think it’s like as LaShawn was saying, you know, as women of color, and I’m a mom of two, it’s like I have to think about all the needs of everyone else first, but I do need a minute, a space to think about, “Well, what is it that I need, right? What is it that I want?” Processing this year, I mean, to be honest, I think we’re all going to be processing this year for a really long time.
Vanessa: A very long time, yeah.
Kelly: And we should, right?
Vanessa: We have to.
Kelly: Our society really should examine how we got here and what we want. But I think in building that society that we want to see, you know, we got to come to terms with like, you know, what’s inside of us? And I think that reflection is important. You know, finding moments of rest, even if it seems like frivolous or even if it seems like a luxury. You know, sometimes just I read books, I watch TV. Sometimes I watch really trashy TV. -laughter- I also watch critically acclaimed dramas, but you know, it’s okay, right? And spending time with my family…that second part, I want to come back to that, sorry, I got off on a tangent, but about connectivity, one of the things that has been so really awesome and I’m so fortunate that my family is all healthy, employed, and they seem to be doing well. They’ve all had their challenges, but they’re okay. That we’ve been doing this family Zoom once a week and, you know, and sometimes like I have a big family, they’re real loud, we’re a bunch of comedians, right? And you know, sometimes people are like, “I don’t want to do family Zoom.” But my mother is just very focused, right? She’s like, “We’re doing a Zoom.” She reminds us.
Vanessa: She gotta keep her family. Yeah.
Kelly: That’s what she does. It has been such a joy. Like we played games. We’ve…like I said, we’re kind of a family of comedians, so we make fun of each other. You know, the kids are doing dance battles. It’s just been really nice even across the miles and even amid this uncertainty to remember that we are all here for each other, and I think that’s what we need to do as a community, right?
Kelly: Like we are not alone. We are in this together. Those connections are what make us who we are, and that’s how we build the society that we want to see, right?
Vanessa: One hundred percent. No, I love it. And look, no shame on the trash TV. I have been bingeing things people have told me to binge for years.
Kelly: Fun. It’s good.
Vanessa: And I can’t get enough of it now. I mean, this is a brilliant show. I don’t know if it is, but it is for my brain at that moment.
Vanessa: So, we’re rejuvenated, we’re refreshed, we’re refocused. End of January, 2021, new president sworn in, new vice-president sworn in. We got our Congress, hey.
Kelly: Yay. Woo! -laughter-
Vanessa: We’re ready to go. What are some of the big issues, LaShawn, that are going to be popping that we really need people to focus and pay attention to?
LaShawn: There are so many, right? So, we’re in a place where we have had four years of rollbacks and devastation. We’ve had the Muslim ban. There’s been so much trauma on so many different fronts, significant rollbacks related to civil rights. And in fact, you know, the President is trying to do some things at this moment on civil rights, particularly related to disparate impact that will be problematic. So, part of what will be the focus is repairing the damage and trying to move forward and rebuild from there, right? But one of the things that we can’t go back to is the status quo. We have got to do something different. If anything, this pandemic has taught us that white supremacy and racism is real, and we have got to address those issues in a very serious way and not in a piecemeal way. We need to do it in a holistic way. And so, one of the things that we need to focus on, for sure, we will definitely be focusing on voting and empowering people to be able to overcome these barriers that have been erected, some of the things that Kelly talked about. So, it just underscores the need, in Congressman Lewis’ honor, to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. So, that’s going to be a priority for us to make sure that communities of color can participate in this process. They can participate and have a say in this country that we helped to build. So, that’s one of the key areas that we will deal with. We will also work on policing issues, but we have not fully felt the full impact of the COVID crisis. We will be dealing with this for next year and years to come. Right out of the gate, we will be dealing with issues related to COVID vaccine distribution, how they get it, like it’s going to be very important, and we have to deal with the inequities that became very apparent in this pandemic.
So, those are issues that are top of mind that we will deal with. We will definitely have to deal with issues related to immigration. We have got to address those in a very serious way. Education is a big issue as well. There have been kids who were already teetering on the edge of being left behind, and this COVID crisis has put them in a dire situation. And so, we really need to focus on communities of color, particularly, related to our education. So, the issues go on and on and it will take time to deal with all of them.
Vanessa: Thank you for that, LaShawn. Like it’s a ton of issues and they’re all intersecting, right? And we all know that this impacts people’s lives and how they’re going to be able to lead their lives, right, and move forward. One of the things that I have also found really interesting is that people who thought white supremacy was like some leftist, liberal language, it wasn’t real, right – I think, I hope some of those folks are starting to understand how embedded into our existing structures and systems this stuff really is, and that it is real. I mean, we can scream it from the mountaintops like we all have been, but I think we have seen a little bit of an evolution. And one of the interesting things I read is that books that talk specifically to white people about race, right? I think there’s even a book like, “So You Want to Talk About Race,” right? There’s “White Fragility.” There’s all these books out there that have just like skyrocketed in sales. And so, I’m really curious to see how that changes the national conversation. And I would love just to get your thoughts on that because I have hope, but I’m also a little skeptical – will we really remember the lessons learned, right? Kelly, what are your thoughts?
Kelly: I mean, I think that’s a great question, and it’s worth raising and re-raising. The only ways that things really change is with sustained work. We have to keep on working at this. I agree with you that for the first time in a long time it seemed, I mean, you had people marching in the streets who had never marched in anything before, right? People were energized. Like so many things about COVID, you know, like I said about voter suppression, people couldn’t look away. You can’t look away from police brutality and horrific injustices over and over again. You’re stuck in your house. You can’t…it’s COVID, you’re looking at the screen, right? And while yes, I think it is to be applauded that people are being awakened, it’s not enough to just read a book, right? It’s not enough to just go to a march. It’s not enough to name it, that it’s wrong. We all got to do the work. I mean, frankly, it is up to white people to do the lion’s share of this work, right? To literally re-educate themselves and their children about what this means, how white supremacy permeates all pillars of our society and how we undo it. The allies, I hear them, I see them out there, and I think it’s great, we just got to keep it going, right? Just like all of this. Everybody gets to take a nap -laughter-, what Vanessa says and New Year’s, and then we just keep going. And I think it’s okay if we don’t get it perfect tomorrow, but we gotta keep trying. There’s no excuse. There are just no excuses. People’s lives are at stake every day.
LaShawn: Yeah. Yeah.
Vanessa: And it’s scary, but you’ve got whole populations of people behind you just asking the questions, right, just felt like poking.
LaShawn: Kelly hit the nail on the head, I think that this requires resilience and it requires sustained engagement for sure. I can tell you, I won’t disclose my age, but I’ve been on this Earth for a little bit.
Kelly: No, stop.
Vanessa: We’ll celebrate your age.
LaShawn: Do I…okay. You know, 50 is knocking at the door. You know, not quite there, but I’m coming real close. I grew up in the South and have been here long enough to experience all kinds of different challenges and dynamics related to race. I have never before seen such outpouring of solidarity across communities like I did this year with the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I was invigorated. There were so many people that were invigorated because it was validating to see that other people saw the injustices that were being perpetrated in this country against people of color. And it wasn’t just America, it was around the world. It was like, “Wow, people actually see.” And like for the first time, I really felt that there were people standing in solidarity. And I really do appreciate that people are willing to say that black lives matter. But as Kelly said, we have to do more. I mean, there are so many businesses that said black lives matter, that means we need to push them, okay? That it’s not just the words, but you need to act. If you believe that black lives matter, how does that translate into your boardrooms? How does that translate to how you market your product and who you market them to? How does that matter in terms of how you adjust your price point for your products? There are so many different things. How do you invest in the communities that you are marketing to? All of these things. If black lives matter for members of Congress and businesses, we need to show it. We have to do more than the words. We have to do more than the book reading. It’s fine to educate yourself, but once you get the education… And let’s just say, it’s not going to happen with just one book. -laughter- This is a marathon. You know what I mean? This is a lifetime learning process.
Kelly: Oh, absolutely, right? Roll up your sleeves.
LaShawn: You need to act on it. You gotta do better. It is not just thinking differently, you gotta do better. Once you act, action matters. Action matters.
Vanessa: I love it. One hundred percent. I love it. Now, on this high note, let’s put our intentions out there for 2021 as we wrap up this dumpster fire of a year. Kelly?
Kelly: Can I have two? Can I say two words?
Vanessa: Of course. -laughter- Of course.
Kelly: I’m looking for some peace, you know, what LaShawn was talking about, this reflection, this relaxation, you know, taking a moment to breathe, and I am gonna put joy out there into the universe because listen – this work is hard and we love it. I mean, I love what we do. I love working along you two terrific, amazing, talented women and everyone else on our team but, you know, I don’t know if we celebrate our wins and one another enough and revel in sometimes the things that bring us joy, even if it’s just laughter, right, even if it’s just a silly joke with somebody on Zoom or that trashy television show, and then we have a conversation about it, or just like reveling in the things that make us amazing. I mean, why can’t we do that? We need to do more of that because we deserve it. We deserve to acknowledge ourselves, our communities, and uplift one another. I want to start off my year in that way, especially after what we’ve all been through. We can’t leave behind the hardships and we’re going to be processing it. We’re going to keep working. We’re going to keep making this society better and the America that we want to see, but I think we need to make sure that we are joyful and hold onto that.
Vanessa: Keeps us going. Yeah.
Vanessa: All right, LaShawn, let’s hear those intentions.
LaShawn: I concur with everything that Kelly has said.
Kelly: Yeah. Let’s go have a party, guys. Let’s go have a party. -laughter-
LaShawn: You know, I concur. So, I would say…can I have two as well, Vanessa?
Vanessa: Yes. Of course. Of course. We’re fair here. -laughter-
LaShawn: Fine. Very quickly. All right. So, I want to enter this next year with a spirit of gratefulness and not take my health for granted, take relationships for granted. And look, the reality is we are privileged. There are lots of people out there who don’t have jobs.
Vanessa: One hundred percent.
LaShawn: You know, they’re struggling with housing. I mean, there are just so many things. And so, we sit in the place of privilege and in sitting in that place, I think there’s a large responsibility for us really to lean in and speak for those who may not have a seat at the table. I just want to move in the space of like, even though I understand the difficulty that we have all had, I want to lift and really think through the privilege that we have and be really grateful for where we are and where we sit in the space. And then the second piece to that I think is hopefulness. I realize that as we move into 2021, we’re not where we want to be. We still have to live in the present. And despite some of the setbacks, I want to remain hopeful to the vision that I see that may not yet be apparent. It is with that hope that I can continue this fight and just not be dispirited if things don’t change immediately. There are certain things that need to change immediately, but this is a marathon, it’s going to take a while, right? But we need to be prepared and remain hopeful as we move through 2021.
Vanessa: I love it.
Kelly: Me too. That was great.
Vanessa: Yeah. Thank you. That was so good. Preach, Ms. LaShawn Warren. -laughter-
Vanessa: You heard it here, folks, 2021 is going to be a good year, full of all kinds of blessings, all kinds of positivity, and some rest. So, thanks again to the incredible Kelly and LaShawn for joining today’s platform.
Vanessa: Thank you for listening to the season finale of “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. And to connect with us, hit us up on Instagram and Twitter, @podforthecause. 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 Vanessa Gonzalez, wishing you the happiest of holidays and a great 2021.