March marked 12 months that New America’s staff have been fully remote, and it’s been an incredibly difficult year in so many ways. What have the last 12 months been like for you?
At the end of March last year, I left Brooklyn (for what I thought would be a couple weeks) and I came back to Atlanta. It was just about a month after Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed while he was jogging in Brunswick, GA. As the weeks slowly turned into months, my friends and I started to try and settle into some routines. One would go running in the evenings. One would go walking in the mornings. And, to whoever was going out on that run or walk, every now and again in our group chats, one of us would drop this quick note: “Don’t get dead.” That’s what I, and we, have been coping with over the last 12 months. The fear, frustration, and anger that the very simplest activities of everyday life could be, in a word, deadly.
Then, because I, and we, were all people and leaders of color in our professional lives, we had to show up the next morning. Not just show up, but then also solve. We were witnessing and carrying our own set of personal emotions and then had to, at the same time, be fully present as professionals to create space for our colleagues at work to manage their emotions, and also design organization-wide solutions to respond to the crises around us. People were looking to us, and to each other, and looking to other people of color asking, “Help! What do we do? How do we engage?” But we were trying to process at the same time that we were trying to plan. That was a struggle.
Now, in short hindsight and reflection, I suppose that tension of the personal and professional is what brought me to New America. In part, perhaps my journey over the last 12 months is the realization that the professional is very much personal—that perhaps, in fact, it should be for me. On many levels, this has been a journey “home,” not only back to the geographic area where I grew up and to where my family is, but also an attempt to recenter or harmonize that tension: to engage professionally on issues that I (must) care about personally.
How has the pandemic impacted your life?
I’ll start by acknowledging I’m one of the lucky ones. My family is okay. The hardest part of the year was just the uncertainty of it all. You just didn’t know what was going to happen or where we were going to be. Two weeks became two months, then six months, now 12. 2020 was a year of such immense loss. On many levels, nobody was safe. No matter how well I planned, how carefully I coordinated, I never felt safe and worried about the safety of my family and friends. The more people we lost and the more random that loss was, the more that uncertainty permeated my life. This is one thing that’s permanently changed: I’ve always been a planner. I’ve always wanted to have a plan in mind. I now have a little more patience with uncertainty.
You have a somewhat unconventional background for a think tank president, having come from working in social justice, to cultural trend prediction, to entertainment with cultural influencers like Queen Latifah and Magic Johnson. What drew you to New America?
I’ve always been a generalist, not just by job function but even with my interests. I never wanted to work on just one thing, in one functional area, on one project. I love having a mix of projects and I get energy from bringing many pieces together into a whole. So, one thing that drew me to New America and this particular role is the breadth of the work. It’s a big challenge to say “we have to be thinking about education and international security and technology and climate change” and how and where they intersect. Second, I add in the opportunity to collaborate on bringing equity into all of that work. That was very important to me, as someone who has supported these issues in a number of different spaces—including The Brotherhood SisterSol, a nonprofit and social justice organization where I’ve been on the board for more than 20 years. And, finally, there’s the opportunity to tell stories and build. There’s an understanding and commitment here to use a variety of formats to do the work and to amplify it. We will continue to show our expertise through reports and events but we want to create more podcasts, to develop technology tools and platforms, and to use other narrative formats to tell stories with people who are impacted by the work.
It’s clear that storytelling is a huge part of your identity and work, and New America has been an incubator and a home for storytellers since our beginnings. How would you bring that commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion into New America’s story?
I think a lot about not only making sure that the stories we’re covering are real stories about how our work impacts people, and the outcomes and impact of our policies—but also to center those voices as the storytellers themselves. Part of what we need to change as a society is who actually gets to tell the stories and why those particular stories matter. That requires us to recenter the work around different perspectives, including those of marginalized communities that have been excluded.
New America obviously has done an amazing job of storytelling—a large part of our work is in the power of the written word and that’s valuable and really important. But my idea and hope is that we can expand the mediums. The thing about visual storytelling is that it’s a way to propel the work and give it a human-centered approach. I really believe in the power of visuals and narratives to help center new voices. That’s where I hope to bring some of my expertise. From the diversity and equity standpoint, we have to expand our understanding of what we believe is an “important” story. There’s typically a pattern to what we want to say when we go for mass media. We’re typically starting with a certain lens of what we think will be most important to a general audience. But very specific stories, about experiences of one person or one family, can be powerful ways to show universal truths that relate to equity and inclusion.
I appreciate you talking about how individual stories can be a more effective impetus for transformation. When New America talks about how policy is personal — we’re recognizing that policy change requires a variety of tools, including sharing the stories of people most impacted by policy. So, how does a think tank play a role in elevating those individual voices that don’t often play a role in policy conversations?
2020 reminded us that policies in and of themselves can be very distant—and on some level meaningless—from the way that people really live. It’s one thing to say we have a policy of not using the chokehold when the police detain people. It’s a very different thing on the street. Will the policy matter if the people who are implementing and executing it don’t abide by that policy? Will the policy matter if it doesn’t actually affect the daily lived experiences of the people who are most impacted by it? What we’ve seen in the last year are the individual stories of people who've lost their lives and been hurt physically or emotionally by individuals who are supposed to be responsible for enforcing those policies. By telling their stories, we learn where the policies don’t go far enough, or whether they are incomplete or even inadequate as a whole. But, the power of stories doesn’t just apply to the fight for racial and social justice. These stories are important tools for all of the spaces that we’re working in—from education to health care to foreign policy. They bring us closer to make human-centered public policy.
We’re talking a lot about diversity and elevating diverse voices. But the think tank sector is unfortunately not a very diverse one—how can New America be a part of changing that?
We’re working on transformation at three levels: individual, organizational, and societal. The challenge is to make sure we’re working towards change at all three levels and that we’re clear on where we’re focusing our efforts. This is where I feel like New America has an opportunity. We can commit to making that better future real, as we’ve said in our mission statement. The question is “how.”
I think it’s really important to start with a focused set of questions. First, how might we change as individuals? We’re a part of the organization and society, so these intersect, but we want to examine and unlearn our own implicit and explicit biases, our own views and perceptions about each other, individually and collectively. Second, how might we change as an organization? Here we are focusing on the way we work, and how the systems of our organization often replicate and reinforce the larger systems and systemic inequity. Finally, what do we have to change structurally as a society? These issues of racism have been with us for a long time. They have permeated our institutions and are embedded into our policies. Part of our work is to identify and examine those and develop new systems, better accountability, and more equitable programs and policies.
I think we have the intellectual and organizational willingness to transform, and in the broader think tank space, that’s our head start. I’m still trying to figure out where we go from here, but a lot of the foundation has already been set. Ideally, by doing this work ourselves, we can also create models for other organizations, in and outside of our sector, to borrow and improve.
As you’ve said, this is challenging stuff, and it feels like change never happens fast enough. How do you stay optimistic?
I don’t know if “optimistic” is the right word. But I don’t know if “pessimistic” is the right word either. Change has to happen. Period. It’s going to happen one way or another, and I think we have to be honest about the need for it and committed to the work to make it happen. So I guess you could say I’m holding my optimism in reserve.
Part of the question for me is: What do we imagine we are going to see in that better future we’re working towards? Are we clear about the outcomes we’re hoping for? More importantly, are we clear about the outcomes that people in our community are hoping for? Are we guided by their words, their ideas, and their hopes and concerns for their future? I’ll take some cues from young members and alumni from places like The Brotherhood Sister Sol. If you’re 14 years old and looking towards your future, are you certain that your future is fully available to you and not limited by who you are, where you’re from, or who your parents are? If I’m listening to the answers, that will inform my hope and my work. That’s why I have a hard time with optimism. We’re not going to live in a society that’s stable and peaceful if it’s not just and fair. But I wouldn’t do it if I think it couldn’t be done. Is that optimism?
Where do you want New America to be a year from now? And what does our mission—renewing the promise of America—mean to you?
I’m thinking farther out: Where do we want New America to be in 2050? To envision the organization and our role, we need a long view of where we want to go. We’re dedicated to renewing the promise of America—what does that actually look like, in the daily lived experiences of people? Look, America itself is still an experiment. In the grand scheme of civilizations and societies, America is relatively new. And in the construct of an American identity and society, we are still evolving. For example, we’re not that far removed from slavery and Jim Crow. We are a society that held slaves longer than we’ve been a society that has not held slaves. That institution, the cultural norms that sustained it, and the policies that replicated it, still define and shape us. In many ways, we’re very much experimenting, which should remind us that we still have so much work to do to be able to articulate “this is who we are.”