Wealth is a word that gets thrown around a lot, especially in economic conversations and spaces. The most basic definition is what you own minus what you owe. But as Aisha Nyandoro—CEO of Springboard to Opportunity and architect of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust—argues in her recent Tedx Talk, it’s time to redefine wealth in the United States. In her words, “for too long, we have allowed financial institutions to define wealth and the process by which we buildi it.” So for this week’s episode of Off-Kilter, Rebecca sat back down Aisha for a far-ranging conversation about how we define wealth and why it matters; Aisha’s own journey to answer the question of what wealth means to her; how the women who are part of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust answer that question; the relationship between wealth and liberation; how guaranteed minimum income can be part of the path to building a society where everyone has access to true wealth; money and spirituality; and more.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas. Every week I go behind the music with visionary leaders and lightworkers working to reshape America’s off-kilter economy into one where everyone can thrive and access the shared abundance we all deserve. I think of it kind of like a weekly trip to the Marvel Universe, but the superheroes I get to talk with every week work with law and policy.
And for this week’s episode, I am so incredibly excited to sit back down with a dear, dear friend, one of my favorite people ever to talk with for Off-Kilter. That’s Aisha Nyandoro. She is the CEO of Springboard to Opportunity, she’s also the architect of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, and she recently just did her first TED Talk for TEDxWomen. It was called What Does Wealth Mean to You? She shared it with me. It’s incredibly powerful. So, I had to have her back on the podcast to dig into the topic of redefining wealth, why we need to do that, and how we do that. I’m just gonna put a little spoiler. Her TED Talk is incredible. The link is in show notes. Please check it out. Please watch it. Please listen to it. There’s a transcript too. And if you have listened to this podcast for some time, you already know Aisha Nyandoro is amazing, so I’m so excited to have you back on the show. Aisha, it’s so good to see you.
AISHA NYANDORO: Well, thank you, Rebecca. It’s always good to be here with you, and thank you so much for being a dear friend. And thank you for sharing me once again with your community.
VALLAS: Well, I have to say, you really do need no introduction for people who listen to this podcast, because I think at this point, I’ve had you on, I’m trying to count, it might be four times. It might be five times? I mean, whatever it is, you—
NYANDORO: I think it might be three or four. Yeah.
VALLAS: Whatever it is, you get the tote bag at this point, I mean, you—
VALLAS: We should probably do that, but yeah. No, for real, you are one of my favorite people ever to get to talk with for this show. But for folks who are newer listeners—and we do, you know, we do have some of those kind of on an ongoing basis—I’d love to just give you the chance to reintroduce yourself. I mentioned you’re the CEO of Springboard to Opportunity. I mentioned you’re the architect of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. That’s the nation’s first modern-day guaranteed minimum income program. Talk a little bit about that project and how it works. I feel like that’s really the right place for us to start because that’s a really big part of your own journey in how you came to understand and really begin arguing that we need to redefine wealth.
NYANDORO: Yeah, no. Thank you for that. So, the Magnolia Mother’s Trust is a guaranteed income program that we really started dreaming about in 2017. And we started dreaming about it because as an organization, Springboard to Opportunities works directly with families that live in federally subsidized affordable housing. And we pride ourselves on being radically community driven, meaning that every program, every service, every activity that we provide is one that the residents in those communities have indicated they need in order to be successful in life, school, and work. In 2017 we became concerned that we weren’t moving the needle on poverty, and what that meant for us was that we were not seeing the successful transition out of affordable housing to the [unclear] that these families live in. And it’s not as if that was our goal, but for so many of the families that we work with, that is their goal. They either wanna live in market-rate housing because they want the privacy, or they wanna move into homeownership. And so, we realized that we weren’t accomplishing that. So, we went to families, and we simply asked, “What is it that we’re missing?” And everything that families indicated they needed was more money. And so, it really was how do you go about giving individuals that live in affordable housing, mainly Black mothers, cash without restrictions? And that’s where the Magnolia Mother’s Trust came from.
So, it’s a guaranteed income program that provides $1,000 a month for 12 months, $12,000 total. We are, in essence, doubling the income of the women that we work with. We’ve been doing this work now since 2018. We are on our fifth cohort of women. Not only do we provide a guaranteed income for the moms, we also provide 529 accounts for their kids because we believe not only in investing in the moms now, but investing in the future of their kids. And I tell people all the time that cash is important, and it’s significant with the work that we do. But it is the least sexy part of what it is that we do within the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. It’s just one small piece of it. It’s the changing the narrative on poverty. It’s allowing these women to actually be able to show up in their full selves, their full abundance, their ability to show up and have their dreams actually be listened to and actualized. And the fact that we have really had a small part to play in how we talk about cash and the need for better cash-based benefits within this country, and the fact that all of this started right here in Jackson, Mississippi, from an organization that is led by Black women working with other Black women has been an amazing testament to the power of community and the power of movement work.
VALLAS: And for anyone who’s not familiar with the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, and I feel like guaranteed minimum income, universal basic income, there’s a lot of those buzz words that have gotten a lot more visibility and a lot more play in recent years, the Child Tax Credit expansion, for example, that was just a sadly one-year experiment. It was allowed to end in the earlier part of the pandemic because of pandemic legislation. And that was a piece of legislation that actually cut child poverty in half. These are things that have really raised the visibility of this idea: guaranteed minimum income. It’s taken it from being a talking point, something we heard Martin Luther King and even President Nixon arguing for decades ago, but really took that idea and said, hey, actually, this is something that we can, we really can do, and this really is something that we should do. Your project, I feel like a lot of folks increasingly have heard about it.
And for anyone who hasn’t and who is interested in the subject and wants to know more, we’ve had you on the podcast now several times talking in greater depth, so I’m gonna put a few of those links in show notes so folks can go and check out the other episodes with you because what I’m really excited to get to do with you today is to actually really zoom out and to ask that bigger picture question that you were asking in your TED Talk, which is, what does wealth mean to you? And as I mentioned, you’re, I mean, really—spoiler—a big part of that talk and a big part of what we’re gonna be talking about today and the message that you’re really getting out to the world is, it’s time for us to redefine wealth as a country. And that’s really important for us to do if we’re in the business of talking about economic justice, economic liberation, and we wanna do more than just tinker around the edges of the status quo. So, I feel like the right place to kick off that conversation—and I’m excited to spend really the entire episode getting into this in-depth with you. This is gonna be fun—but I wanna sort of ask, what was the story behind how you chose this as the theme and the lede for your talk, what does wealth mean to you though?
NYANDORO: So, actually, the theme for my talk as I was thinking about it, can we be brave enough to reimagine wealth? So, that was really where I was coming at it from. But even with the reimagining wealth and having those conversations, it really is something that I’ve been thinking about for the last year and a half, last two years. And it’s directly connected to the work that I do each day with the Magnolia Mother’s Trust and the work that I get to do with the women of Springboard as a whole. And so, as we have been doing this work, and as we see more women moving towards a place of income stability where they’re not under the backdrop of financial scarcity, they were starting to talk about wealth, and I say that in my talk. And the way that they were talking about wealth was not the way that my colleagues and friends in the space of the economy or in economic justice talk about wealth. And it made me realize that we were missing. Our language wasn’t connecting, and so since our language wasn’t connecting, that we were excluding from the conversation the very population that we need to be including if we are talking about how do we go about resolving for wealth in this country, and how do we go about making wealth accessible to everyone.
And so, it really was okay, we’re thinking about the women that we work with. How do you define wealth? What is wealth to you? And how do we use that as the entry point to the conversation, recognizing that that definition of wealth is valid, recognizing that that definition of wealth has merit? And instead of saying that, “Okay. Oh, how you define wealth isn’t actually wealth,” we meet you where you are, and we say, “Okay, you know what? That is wealth.” And that’s a reorientation for us rather than a reorientation for them because so many times we don’t do that. We are coming into the conversation with this capitalistic frame that, okay, wealth has to be six months’ worth of savings. Wealth has to be equity in your home. Wealth has to be X, Y, Z. Well, for a population that’s just moving from income instability, now saying that you have to have X, Y, Z in order to have wealth? It continues to exclude them, and they continue to not feel as if they can actually be a part of the larger conversation that we actually should be centering them. And so, that’s really where it came from, just thinking through how do we actually use the wisdom of community and use the wisdom of these women to actually reorient our conversation into a conversation that actually, it’s a conversation of equity, and it’s a conversation that actually does get us to liberation more so than this narrow frame that we have been using.
VALLAS: But just to really cut to the chase, right—and we’re gonna get into all of this—but I mean, as you were speaking, part of what was coming through for me, Aisha, is that like, money—if our definition of wealth is really just about how much money you have—money is not an end in and of itself, right? We’re not saying that people should have it just to have money. It’s because of what it can buy, which is that freedom. It is that agency. It is that liberation, right? And so, I mean, one of the things that I loved that really was early on in your talk when you were kind of laying the groundwork for why you were even proposing this radical redefinition of wealth is you quote some of my very favorite words from bell hooks.
VALLAS: You name—I’m gonna get chills as I even say this—you quote bell hooks saying, “Definitions are a vital starting point to the imagination. What one cannot imagine cannot come into being.” Point being, how we define things matters, but also, how we define things constrains us, right—
NYANDORO: That’s right.
VALLAS: —when it comes to the world that we might be able to imagine into being. You mentioned “wealth” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, right? Yes, in capitalistic spaces, but also even in economic justice spaces, some of which are actually anti-capitalist overtly, but themselves get constrained in what they might imagine because of those traditional definitions of wealth. And part of what you really name up front is that we’ve allowed financial institutions to define wealth and the process by which we build it. And that shows up even in our activism and advocacy and policy spaces. Like, for example, you named the racial wealth gap, right, where we’re saying let’s dismantle the status quo, but also, we’re still defining wealth in a limited way.
NYANDORO: Mmhmm, yeah. In our programs when we’re saying, okay, let us move towards economic liberation, but we still are talking about, oh, let’s have budgeting classes, let’s do financial literacy. So, it’s still, we’re still using these tools that go against the very thing that we say that we’re working towards, which is economic liberation. And so, it really is how do we take our power and actually begin to work towards liberatory practices that actually are liberatory practices, not just renaming or repackaging the same tools that have not served us well, and frankly, have been towards our community’s detriment?
VALLAS: Well, and part of why I was so excited to have this conversation with you for this podcast is honestly because so much of my own understanding—and this has been an evolution for me, right, ‘cause I started as a legal aid lawyer, zoomed out, and started to do this work at the national level as a person at various think tanks doing policy and systems change work—but it’s been an evolution for me. And it’s come to be that my own understanding of economic justice work has really become that it is about liberation, as you’re describing.
VALLAS: And that’s, you know, it’s right in the opening of how I introduce the show every episode. And your whole talk, I will say, is just full-body-chills powerful, right?
NYANDORO: Thank you.
VALLAS: Everyone should go watch. It’s only 12 minutes. Everyone’s got 12 minutes. And one of our fabulous producers, Kings, was saying she falls asleep listening to TED Talks. Apparently, your mom does the same thing, so everyone’s got 12 minutes. But this one line in particular just like actually tattooed itself on my brain as I was hearing it, and then I had to go hunt for the transcript so I could actually read the words. And so, I wanna use this as a jumping-off point to hear you kind of get into this as we start to re-envision what wealth could mean. “Wealth,” you say, “is about a sense of agency, a sense of freedom, the collective well-being of the whole. It is not an individual pathological pursuit.” Talk a little bit about that incredibly powerful line and unpack that for us.
NYANDORO: Yeah, no, I think it goes to what you were saying earlier about so many times we look at wealth as the consumer aspect of it. It is just capitalism. “What can I buy for the betterment of myself? I, I, I, I, I.” But in the conversations that I have with the women and the research that I’ve done and the way that they define wealth, it is about the collective whole. It is, “What does this allow? What does this sense of freedom allow for me to do for others? How does this allow my agency to be able to show up differently? How does it allow me the breathing room to be more imaginative?” It is never a, “Well, if I have more money, what will I do for myself, or what can I buy myself?” It’s “Okay, if I have more financial security, this will look like X, Y, Z for my family. That will look like X, Y, or Z for my kids.” It is a reframing that is beautiful and significant, and it’s one that if we, it’s one that if we’re willing to take the lesson from can get society as a whole to a place where we actually are operating as a society and not just a collection of individuals taking up space in the same physical location with each other.
VALLAS: I love all of that. And also, just to step back and acknowledge, this is a radical redefinition that you’re arguing for.
NYANDORO: I know.
VALLAS: It is actually a massive paradigm shift, and it’s beautiful. But also, this is, it’s a stepping onto a very different playing field when it comes to the imagination space that it takes us to. I feel like part of where I wanna take us next is to give you the chance to talk a little bit about some of what you’ve heard from the mothers in the Mother’s Magnolia Trust when you ask them the question what wealth means to them, and that was some of what you did in prep for your talk. Because you say some of how we do this, right, people might be like, “Oh yeah. Redefining wealth, that sounds great, but like, where do we start?! How do we do something that sounds that big?” You say, “Well, how we do this is by listening to others and listening to ourselves.” You started by listening to the mothers who are the co-designers of this project with you. What did you hear from mothers in the Mother’s Magnolia Trust when you asked what wealth means to them?
NYANDORO: Yeah, I’ve heard so many different things, and it’s really where this reframing came from. Like I said, about a year, I’ve been thinking about this about a year and a half, two years. And it really was as it relates to what are the next steps as it relates to our work? So, we had done the hard work of getting people to income stability, and we had more and more colleagues, and myself as well, were thinking about, okay, if you’re now at income stability, let’s begin to think about how you can go about building that wealth in that traditional definition of wealth. And as we were having conversations with our moms about, “Okay, well, what would that look like if we really help you just build wealth? Would that be….” And we were coming at it initially with the traditional setup: “Would that be helping you start a business? Would that be helping you learn more about the stock market and opening investment accounts,” and all of those pieces. And all of that was rejected, quite frankly, blatantly by the women that we work with. And it wasn’t that it was rejected with a lack of understanding. They knew very well what those pieces were. It was a rejected in the sense of, “No, that’s not what I need. That’s not how I define wealth.”
And so, and I remember the conversation, right, like I can see where I was and everything. I remember it that vividly, the conversation I was having with one of our moms where I first asked the question, “Well, how would you define wealth, if what you’re telling me is not making sense?” And she said, “Okay, if something were to happen to me, my family wouldn’t have to set up a GoFundMe account. They would have the money to bury me.” It punched me in my gut, and it took my breath away. And I was like, oh. And when I sat down and thought about it, I was like, you know, that actually does make a lot of sense. Because when you look at the data, we know that people of color, typically when they pass, they leave debt. And so, being able to think about what that does to that family and having that responsibility shift to your family, again, it was not about her. It was, okay, making sure that my family wouldn’t have that responsibility. And so, it was a reframe that I needed. And I was like, okay, let me come at this conversation a way that I always come at this conversation, which is centering the wisdom of community, and not coming in with my research economist mindset.
And so, that’s really where we started asking the question. And it was everything from the funerals. It was, I remember one mom saying, “I want to have a two-car garage because I want to be able to come into my house and put my car in my garage, and nobody knows that I’m at home.” And so, it was those very specific things that they talked about. They talked about the joy of being able to go on vacation annually with their kids, and not some lavish vacation. Talking about going down the road to the beach and those kinds of pieces. And so, it really was the, “We hear you. We’re affirming what it is that you’re saying.” And not only, I think it’s important that it’s, “We hear you,” but then also, how do we reframe the conversation for ourselves as well? Because it’s one thing to hear someone because then it’s like, “Oh, yes. Poor you. That’s how you’re defining that.” It’s another thing when we then turn it inward and say, okay, actually, let me be brave enough to interrogate what I believe about, well, do I actually believe wealth to be all of these things that I’m working towards, or have I just been caught up in a cycle of the status quo doing what it is I feel like I have to do for respectability politics? Or am I actually doing the thing that gives me joy and feeds my soul and actually aligns to my beliefs and my principles?
VALLAS: Mm, I love all of that, and I appreciate so much you bringing the voices of community into this conversation and grounding this there. Some of the other things that you name in your talk, one that really hit me, was the privilege of privacy, right?
VALLAS: Like, what a thing, right, for that as the definition of wealth. It’s something we almost never hear about. We hear about stocks and bonds, and we hear about bank accounts—
NYANDORO: Retirement accounts and equity.
VALLAS: Right. Right!
NYANDORO: And all of those things that never—and I said this in my talk—a mom has never said to me it’s equity in her home. I have never heard it is having stocks and bonds. I have never heard a retirement account. Never. And I’ve asked the same question now to hundreds of moms, and that has never come up. And again, and I don’t want people to think that I am some anti-capitalist. Let’s be very clear. I gave my talk in a money green suit. I need people to be very clear, you know? I understand. I am a cash advocate. I understand the role of cash in our day-to-day lives. But we can have a broader imagination in that, and we can understand that we can all come into this conversation about wealth in a way that actually centers our humanity, our needs, our life stories, our values, the backdrop of who we are, our culture, our desires, all of those pieces. We do not have to be pigeonholed into this very singular definition of wealth that was written very specifically for this very small subset of our population that if we’re being honest, most of us will never attain. So, why is it the gold standard?
VALLAS: Well, and you say you’re a cash advocate, and quite literally you are, because you are out there literally fighting the good fight on saying, “Hey, everyone needs cash. Let’s give people cash with no strings.” And for folks listening and saying, “Yeah, well, I’d love to get to a place where we don’t have money, and I envision a society without money,” yeah, maybe we’ll get there at some point, probably not within our lifetimes.
VALLAS: But part of what I hear you arguing is that we can radically reimagine how we understand wealth in a way that allows us to, again, as we were saying before, connect money, not as just something to have to have it. But it’s the way that our society and our economy are set up right now, you need a certain amount of money to be able to achieve these ends, right, whether it is the covering the burial expenses so you have a dignified funeral without your family having to be put on the street to give you that dignity in death when you pass, or whether it is privacy and achieving privacy, right? Or another you name is the ability to complete school, right? I mean, that’s something, like, a lot, these things at this point in time, and certainly at the stage of late-stage capitalism, I mean, these take money, right? And so, it’s not, again, money just to be Scrooge McDuck backstroking through a bunch of coins, right?! Like, it’s money so that you can have the freedom and the agency—
NYANDORO: Agency, that’s right.
VALLAS: —to do these things on your terms, right? And that’s really what I hear you saying. Another that I really love—and this is gonna be a segue into talking about what wealth means to you, ‘cause I need to ask you that question, and that’s part of what you’ve been doing as well—but something that came through as something that many of the mothers that you work with named was the thrill of being an extravagant auntie, right? Being able to spoil your people, right?
NYANDORO: That’s, right. Yes!
VALLAS: And that’s like, right? I mean, that might not rank on the list of economic necessities the way that people reduce these things in technical terms. But that’s a thing that matters, right, to the—
NYANDORO: It does. Yeah, it’s important, and it matters. You know, what’s important to you matters. And we should see that, and we should allow people that, and we should not have these very narrow A connects to B connects to C definitions. And so, yeah, that extravagant auntie and ability to spoil your people is something that came up time and time again. And I think that’s so important because of the whole, the scarcity space that so many families that we work with have been under. And so, just having that breathing room to be able to, again, be able to give to others in a way that you may not have had previously, it’s a sign of wealth, and I think is beautiful.
VALLAS: It also, it makes me think of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with another guest, a friend of mine who’s a legal aid lawyer in Philly whose name is Jen Burdick. We had a far-ranging conversation about a bunch of things regarding our public benefits system, but one of the things that she talks about is rules within a particular disability benefit program that actually prohibit parents from spending their own money on their kids in the way that they see fit. And she had a client, and she tells this story about somebody who she just wanted to buy her kid a birthday present.
VALLAS: And the Social Security Administration is like, sorry, that doesn’t fall in our rules of—
NYANDORO: Within a category, yeah. An allowable expense. Mmhmm.
VALLAS: Right! It’s not allowable expense. And she’s like, “My kid is having a birthday. I want my kid to be able to have a birthday gift.” And it’s like, sorry, no, we know better than you do. We’re a government agency. You’re a parent. We know better than you do, right?
NYANDORO: Ugh, that’s right.
VALLAS: Which just hit again with the gut punch.
So, Aisha, I wanna turn this around and focus the light on you a little bit. We’ve been talking about your talk. We’ve been talking about the mothers who are part of Magnolia Mother’s Trust and some of what you’ve heard by listening to others. But you name how we do this, how we do this work of radical reimagination is by listening to others, but also by listening to ourselves. And that’s part of what you’ve been doing as well. And so, you actually, as part of this TED Talk, you tell the story of your own journey when it comes to asking the question of what does wealth mean to you. And you, spoiler, tell the story in a way that actually really starts about 20 years ago when you first walked into a wealth management advisor’s office for the first time, and you’re all excited. And you’re like, oh, this is it. This is when I’m gonna learn how to get to wealth! Tell that story, and then we’ll cut to present day as the—
NYANDORO: We’re giving away all the spoilers. People, y’all also have to listen to the talk, even though we’re giving you all the spoilers in the talk.
VALLAS: [laughs] Sorry!
NYANDORO: [laughs] Yeah. So, and I say this in my talk, I never thought about money growing up. It just, and I don’t think it was taboo. It’s just something we just didn’t talk about, so maybe it was taboo? I’m not sure. We just did not talk about it in my family. So, being exposed to what I felt was wealth, really, the extravagant lifestyles of wealth, I did not have until I went to graduate school at Michigan State, where I was like, oh, my gosh. These people have money-money. And it really was because of the various trips and conversations about trips and different things that my friends and colleagues were having. And it was a lifestyle that I didn’t know anything about. But just hearing them talk about it made me feel like, okay, ooh yes, I want in. And so, when I finished graduate school, I got my first job, and I was making what was good money at the time for a 26-year-old. I was making $70,000, and I was like, “Oh my God. Yes, I’m rich. Let me go do what the rich people do. Let me go get a wealth advisor.” Knew nothing about a wealth advisor. Oprah Winfrey was my first entry point into 401(k)s and talking about wealth advisors. Now that’s really just how sheltered and naive I was into the world of finances.
So, I went and met a wealth advisor, and it just was not, it…. At the time, I didn’t realize what that significance, I didn’t realize that there was a significant part of my origin story—since we were talking about Marvel Comics earlier—I did not realize that there was a significant part of my origin story in how I really do come into the conversation of wealth, but then also, really how I come into the conversation about dignity and agency. Because how I was treated by that individual was one in which he did not see the full humanity of what I was or who I am. He saw a Black woman with an African name, with a little piece of money talking about wealth, and he put me in a box. And I felt that. And I didn’t know at the time what it was that I was feeling or why, but it did reorient myself to how I talk about money, how I think about money, but also how I truly believe that all people have to be treated with dignity and that no one doesn’t respect their persons. And so, that was my first entry point into really thinking about wealth and money and what it meant for myself.
Fast forward 20 years. I will say that the women that I work with in the Magnolia Mother’s Trust have been the best teachers that I have in truly teaching me what wealth is and the importance of wealth. Uh-oh…. And truly teaching me what wealth is and the importance of wealth and truly opening my eyes to what’s important. So, I know you asked me about me, and I’ll get to me in a second. But I asked my maternal grandmother who was 87, “What is wealth?” And it was one of the most beautiful conversations I’ve ever had. And this did not make the TED Talk, so you should definitely listen to this part. My maternal grandmother, my paternal grandmother, my dad’s mom, who was 87 years old, did not finish high school. And when I asked her, “What is wealth?” she said, “Well, this family and its legacy.” And she talked about her 100+ grandkids and great grandkids and great-great grandkids and what it means for her to be able to sit in her lounge chair and watch us come in and out of her house on holidays. And how she just feels so, so blessed that she gets to see that and that she gets to be here for that. And how she just feels so, so blessed, even though she did not have an opportunity to finish school, that the importance of her talking about school and completing school to her kids and her kids talking about that to their kids has led her to a family where she has all of these beautiful grandkids and great grandkids and all of these things that would never know the level of poverty that she knew growing up. And so, it just was a beautiful way to hear her really talk about it in a way that I think is attainable in the framing that so many people think about or so many people have but just haven’t been able to give themselves permission to actually think about wealth in that way.
VALLAS: I love that. And I mean, again, I’m getting chills hearing you talk a little bit about her definition. And just again, like, wealth being family. That’s just, it’s just not even something that shows up in how we define wealth, right?
NYANDORO: Not, it’s not on any metrics.
VALLAS: No, it’s not in any metrics. It’s not in any bulleted lists that think tanks publish or that banks publish or that your wealth advisor’s gonna help you talk about. That also, I mean, it makes me, yeah, think about one of the things you name in the talk is that you said to that wealth advisor, that clueless person who didn’t see you as a full human, you had a couple of goals, and one of your goals was to be able to retire comfortably at 60, and the other was to be able to provide for your mom. And he was like, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense. Why is that your responsibility?”
VALLAS: And you’re like, “Um…okay,” right? Again, with this really narrow box that doesn’t even have any space for family in it, right?
NYANDORO: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, it didn’t. And sadly, 20 years later, it still doesn’t, you know? We still don’t think about, when we’re talking about the wealth gap, when we’re talking about wealth, we still don’t talk about the role of caring for your family and what that looks like and the cost of that and the importance of that. And for me, I was very clear then, and I’m still very clear now, that being that loving daughter and being able to define wealth in that way for myself is still at the top of my definition of wealth and what I feel is important. And every decision I make is made under the backdrop of how does this really [inaudible] that I happen to be to my mom?
VALLAS: Yep, yep. And again with that theme of care being core as well. And you’ve mentioned that a few times as we’ve been talking, but which also connects to one of the other episodes I’ve done with you, which was about rethinking how we think about self-care and Audre Lorde’s famous words about self-care being political warfare. But a lot of what you were talking about in that conversation, and I sort of feel like it’s connecting here, is it’s that ability to care for yourself sufficiently so that you can go out into the world and actually do the work of caring for others.
NYANDORO: That’s right.
VALLAS: And again, that takes money, right? So, it’s not money for the sake of just having piles of money, but because it is that pathway to take care, actually.
NYANDORO: That’s right. Exactly. And that in of itself, like you said, it’s a celebratory practice and recognizing that that is important, and the ability to provide that care yourself is so important for so many cultures. And so, recognizing that as a starting point into the conversation as well is significant.
VALLAS: So, Aisha, I’ll take the spotlight off you ‘cause I know you always hate to have it on you. [laughs] So, I’ll take it off of you, and I’ll kind of take us back to the Magnolia Mother’s Trust and reconnect this conversation into where we started, which is how do you feel that the findings from all the different cohorts—you mentioned you’re on your fifth cohort now of this work—how do those findings teach us about what it will take to build a society where everyone has access to true wealth?
NYANDORO: Oof! [laughs]
VALLAS: Well, and as I ask that question, I’ll say there was a line that popped for me in your talk that I feel like really speaks to this. You actually, you say that it’s not just that people in poverty need space to dream. You say, “The space to dream mixed with cash can lead to transformation that can lead to true wealth.” What do you mean by that? Unpack that really beautiful set of words.
NYANDORO: Yeah. I was trying to make sure that I did not want people to walk away from the talk and miss the importance of having the guaranteed income and the importance of having that, being able to operate in a state where you are not under the backdrop of income instability. So, I feel like that first piece is important. You cannot be in a place where you’re constantly in scarcity, where you can, you know, where you have the space to have the bandwidth for your imagination to come forth. So, I was really trying to make sure that that detail was not missed. And I actually say that, too, in the talk. I’m like, please, if y’all walk out of here with it, I’m gonna be really unhappy, which I was. So, I was like, let’s be very clear. People gotta have money. [laughs] And so, I was trying to make sure that people got that. That you have to have income stability first, and that income stability gives you the breathing room to reimagine what wealth looks like for yourself. And that is where transformation comes from.
And that’s what I’ve seen, you know? As we’ve seen more women move towards the space of scarcity, if they begin to envision a life of what it looks like to not be under the constant threat of being evicted or something happening to their car and not being able to take care of it, as they have the breathing room, which is what happens when you have cash, you have breathing room to actually let your imagination come forward, that’s what we’re seeing that they begin to have to think about and have conversations about and dream about wealth. And that’s what we’re saying that their definition of wealth is radically, beautifully different than the traditional definition of wealth.
VALLAS: I love that. I love that so much. So, I know we’ve done a lot of spoilers here, but it’s not to say that everyone has heard anything resembling what scratches the surface of this talk. This is your teaser. This was your preview. This was the trailer. Go listen. Go listen to the talk or watch the talk. Again, the link is in show notes, and it has a transcript too if folks like to read instead of watching video. That’s sometimes how I get my content too.
But one of the things I really wanted to make a little bit of space to talk about with you, Aisha, because it feels like it’s very connected to this conversation, and it’s quite honestly something that’s been coming up in a lot of the circles that I move in, is money and spirituality and wealth and spirituality. I’ll make that connection in that way as well. And I know I can go there with you because you’re one of the people in life who I often have overtly spiritual conversations with off the air. We have different entry points maybe into faith and spirituality, but we always end up in places that are really interesting. And so, I think I’m pretty out of the broom closet at this point. A lot of folks know when I’m not doing this kind of stuff, I’m a practicing astrologer. That’s one of the types of spiritual work that I do. And so, there are some circles I move in with people who are energy healers, shamans, spiritual workers of one way or another. And we were all having a conversation, or several of us women having a conversation, the other day talking about our feelings when it comes to accepting money for that type of work. And actually, a lot of, a number of us have various mentors that we have needed to take some steps away from because they are very much in that capitalist model, charging lots of money for what is really spiritual work or any energy or healing work. And so, that was really the kind of jumping off point to this conversation. And so, I’m actually interested in bringing that into this conversation with you, in part because at a really basic level, speaking for myself, I understand money as energy, right?
VALLAS: It’s a symbol. It’s a proxy. It’s a crystallization of energy that enables us to exchange energy with each other as humans. And humans haven’t always had money, right? There are lots of parts of our history before we had cash in the way we have it now where people were relying on other forms of exchange. And there still are other forms of organizing that humans do of themselves in other types of societies that are around today, although less frequently, where people are in relation to one another using barter and other types of ways of exchanging things of value or labor or time, rather than just pieces of paper or bank accounts and debit cards and whatnot. So, speaking for myself, and bringing this around to spirituality, if you subscribe to unity consciousness, the idea that we’re all one, that we’re all interconnected—whatever kind of languaging people wanna choose for that—and if you think about money as the crystallization of energy, then it all comes from a divine source, right? You might be able to say it’s all God’s money, right? We’re just the stewards of it, right? The same way we are with the Earth and with natural resources. I’m curious your thoughts on how that connects to thinking about how we define wealth and why we need to redefine wealth.
NYANDORO: I had not thought about it that way if I actually have to process that, Rebecca. [pause] Yeah, I am stumped, so thank you for that.
VALLAS: Well, one line in your talk that I feel like made this, made a lot of this come through for me, in case this gives you sort of a jumping off point is, you have a line where you say, “We are all degraded by normalizing immoral inequity,” right? And so, obviously, people are very quick to go to talking about inequality as a moral problem. But I feel like sometimes we jump over why that is, and we just sort of start with it like it’s a truism. So, I don’t know if that helps you in any way.
NYANDORO: Yeah. No, no, that’s helpful. But what I was about to say…. I do think, so I’m coming at this differently than that line.
VALLAS: Mmhmm, mmhmm.
NYANDORO: I do think that if we are coming at the definition of wealth from a spiritual standpoint, it is the recognition that we’re all different. And it is we’re all different, and those differences…are what make us beautiful. And those differences are also what make us who we are. And it’s the shared humanity that we have with each other that should make us value whatever someone’s definition of wealth is. And we should be able to find value in that because of the fact that, because of the shared humanity that we have. And that your definition is no better than my definition. They’re just different because I’m coming at it with my own experiences, my own values, my own ideas. And so, it is the seeing your humanity and allowing my humanity to meet you where you are and choosing to allow you to have that definition, which serves you well. And not saying that, “Oh, that’s not right, or that doesn’t have value, or you’re thinking about this in a way that’s just to simplified.” So, yeah.
VALLAS: I love that. And I have to say some other conversations you and I have had also were really, I think, echoing in my ears as I was hearing your TED Talk, but also as I was thinking about this conversation we were gonna have today. Because another conversation you and I had for Off-Kilter—and I think it was maybe last year, I don’t know what time it is anymore. Time’s a flat circle at this point for me—but we were talking about how your work is not your worth, right?
NYANDORO: That’s right.
VALLAS: And we were, I think that conversation was with our mutual friend Dorian Warren, who runs Community Change. And you have a line in your talk, another one that really hit me in the gut. You said, “We are all made less wealthy by virtue of tolerating a country where anyone has to prove their worth.” And I feel like that also really cuts to the spiritual undercurrent here, right?
NYANDORO: That’s right.
VALLAS: Because just the very premise that anyone has to prove their worth, as opposed to each of us having inherent worth by virtue of being human, right, is what underlies the notion that you need a certain amount of money to have a certain level of value, or that you need a certain type of job or a job at all to have any kind of value, right? So, I don’t know where that takes you.
NYANDORO: No, no, that’s exactly right. And so, it’s about the shared humanity. And the way that we are currently defining wealth does not allow for the humanity to show up. It’s a value of stuff. And you are only valued as far as your money will take you, which is as far as your stuff will take you, and that doesn’t serve any of us well. It doesn’t allow us to live in a society in which we’re all thriving, we all have equity, we all have freedom. It allows us to have what we have now, which is a whole lot of haves and a whole lot of have-nots.
VALLAS: And it takes us right back to those words of yours, right, about how we’re degraded by normalizing immoral inequity, right?
NYANDORO: That’s right.
VALLAS: It really literally degrades our humanity.
NYANDORO: That’s right.
VALLAS: Well, go listen to the talk, folks. Go watch the talk. And now, Aisha, I’m gonna ask you a few questions about you.
VALLAS: I’m curious to hear your answers too. You heard my Marvel set-up, and so this is one of the ways I’ve been thinking about some of the conversations I’ve been having with folks is that everyone I have on this show, I believe, is some kind of a superhero. And it might be in the nerdy world of law or policy. It might be within activism and advocacy. But if you accept my premise that you are a superhero—and you are a humble one, but I believe that you are one—what would you say are your superpowers?
NYANDORO: Ooh. I am a superhero, so I’ll accept that. Thank you very much.
VALLAS: So glad to hear that.
NYANDORO: [delighted laugh] And my superpowers are I am a narrative shifter. I listen with my whole heart. And yeah, I listen with my whole heart. And I am able to weave my stuff in spaces that people may not expect me to be in and shift narratives that need to be shifted that are not serving us well with actual truth and not deception and lies.
VALLAS: Oh, I love that.
NYANDORO: And I also am a poverty disruptor, so I’m out here liberating financial capital. I just can’t say “capital” anymore since those fools actually tried to liberate the Capitol. But I also liberate financial capital.
VALLAS: [laughs] Yup. Yup to all of that. Also, I just, just to validate what your, I mean, all of that, all of that. But the part about listening with your whole heart, that is something that to be in your presence is, like, that is something that it’s impossible not to experience. You have a presence that is, it is tangible. You can feel it. And that’s, honestly, you and I have only been in space together once in person.
NYANDORO: One time, I know!
VALLAS: Which is wild! Wild. But even on Zoom with you, right, it just, that is, that is, you exude that, and you hold space beautifully. And you really do, you listen with your whole heart. That’s one of the reasons I can’t stay away from you and wanna have you on this podcast all the time. So, I love that.
Next question: What is your personal mission statement, and how did you come to find it?
NYANDORO: Oh, yeah. My personal mission statement is I liberate financial capital for the advancement of Black women. And it found me. I did not find it. I was minding my business, and it just smacked me upside my head and said, “Girl, this is what you’re doing.” And I said, “Okay, I accept.” [laughs]
VALLAS: How do you tell that story? You’ve talked about this in various ways on the podcast, but just since we’re here, for folks who don’t know you.
NYANDORO: How do I tell the story of the work that I do, or how do I tell—
VALLAS: Of how the mission found you, how it smacked you in the head.
NYANDORO: Yeah. The mission. It goes back to really me listening and being a servant of community. So, I really do pride myself in being a servant-leader and that my role in the space that I, in the space that I have, so I recognize the positional power that I have. And so, my role with the positional power that I have was to truly make space for those that don’t have the same amount of positional power. And so, in being a listener of community and being a advocate within community over the last few years, I have realized is what’s really needed is someone that can maneuver in spaces and shift narratives if they need to be shifted to actually talk about the hard conversations around cash and to disrupt the lies that we’re telling ourself about cash and poverty within this country. And so, yeah, so it just, it’s not, I’d say it hit me, but it’s not, it’s over time that it’s become more and more evident that that’s the space that I’m supposed to be working in, the space that I do work in.
VALLAS: I very much experience you first and foremost as a narrative shifter. I mean, you’re also, you’re a visionary, you’re an architect, you’re many other things.
NYANDORO: Oh, thank you.
VALLAS: But that narrative shift piece, it, I mean, and I think of that as consciousness work, right?
VALLAS: A lot of the reason I do this podcast is because it’s about having people on who are the people who are very explicitly, whether they use this languaging or not, working to shift collective consciousness in a way that will enable us to actually set ourselves all free, right? And none of us is free until all of us are free, as we know.
NYANDORO: That’s right.
VALLAS: Do you think of your work as consciousness work? I don’t know that that’s a question I’ve ever asked you in those terms.
NYANDORO: I’ve never thought about my work as consciousness work. I’m always, I think of my work, which is— I’m gonna have to process that, so you’ve given me two things to process today, Rebecca. Thank you. I think of my work as community work. I think of my work as liberatory work. I think of my work as freedom work. But I’ve never thought of that as consciousness work, so thank you for that. And I never think of myself as a visionary either, so thank you for that.
VALLAS: Well, you, I mean, you, at least from where I sit, I mean, by definition, you are a person who uses your imagination to vision something that doesn’t exist yet.
NYANDORO: Yeah, I am.
VALLAS: And then you are that person who carries that message of what could be.
NYANDORO: [big, big sigh] Yeah, I know. I get the technical definition. It fits. I get it. I get it. I get it. You know how I feel about titles. Ack!
VALLAS: All right. Well, I’ll reframe you as a reluctant visionary. There you go. All right.
NYANDORO: [laughs] It’s pretty horrible because that doesn’t serve anybody else, that doesn’t serve anybody either, you know?
VALLAS: It doesn’t!
NYANDORO: I am going to accept it. Not reluctant, not humble, just visionary. Give it to me, yes.
VALLAS: There you go. There you go.
NYANDORO: [big belly laugh]
VALLAS: I’ll take that as a win today. You gave me a practice a long time ago that was something you shared.
NYANDORO: Oh, yeah!
VALLAS: Yep. You know what I’m gonna say.
NYANDORO: Yeah, I do.
VALLAS: At the end of the day, you ask yourself the question, what did I change today, and what changed me?
NYANDORO: What changed me? That’s right.
VALLAS: I can’t say I do it every day, but I do it a lot of days. And so, tonight I get to go to bed and be like, “All right, I helped Aisha realize she’s a visionary!” [laughs]
NYANDORO: Yeah! That practice is life changing because for me, some days the work just feels so big that it allows you to zoom out, to get out of your head, and actually recognize that you are taking small bites off of this big elephant. And to celebrate the small wins, which sometimes in doing this work, all we have are the small wins.
VALLAS: And the small wins are what lead up to the big wins, right, over time.
NYANDORO: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. So, so that practice is, oh!
VALLAS: It’s a— Oh, go ahead.
NYANDORO: No, I said that practice saved my life, changes my life, all the things. So, yeah.
VALLAS: No, I love it. I absolutely find it incredibly powerful. It’s very simple, but it’s very powerful. But the small wins, I mean, that was also a conversation I was, I feel like I’ve actually had on several recent episodes of this podcast with, I mentioned Jen Burdick before, the legal aid lawyer, also Kathleen Romig, who is a think tanker at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Both of them really spoke eloquently in recent episodes about how small things, or seemingly small things, like, for example, revising a form, can actually be huge, huge wins, relatively speaking, right? We feel like they’re small, but actually, these are the things that can lead to big change ‘cause a form, that can be the entry point, for example, to someone’s eligibility for cash, maybe for cash assistance.
NYANDORO: That’s exactly right.
VALLAS: And whether they can understand the form, whether the form is full of a bunch of legalese, whether fifty pages—
NYANDORO: If the form is one page or, is it a one-page form or 100-page? I mean, so, yeah, all of those things matter. So, you’re exactly right. Mmhmm.
VALLAS: Yeah. So, those small wins, not so small.
So, another important question for you is—and this is a question I’ve been asking everybody this season, and Kings Floyd, our fabulous producer, who I’ve already invoked once in this episode and who you got to meet when we, right before we first started taping—she’s actually making a playlist of all of the songs. So, your answer, just so you know the stakes, it’s gonna get tabulated into a playlist. But what is your walk-up song? What is your hype song?
NYANDORO: Golden, Jill Scott.
VALLAS: Oh, okay! Well, all right.
NYANDORO: There you go. [laughs]
VALLAS: I love it. I’m realizing what we should’ve been doing this whole season, and I love that I’m only just thinking about this now, is we should’ve been going out, each episode should be ending with music.
NYANDORO: Oh, yeah. [unclear; crosstalk] like it’s golden. Yes! As the sun comes through my back windows, yes, “livin’ my life like it’s golden” with Jill Scott is my walk-on song. Mm.
VALLAS: I love that. I love that so much. All right. Well, you’re giving me something to listen to this evening. So, beautiful.
And then we’ve got a few minutes left, but I wanna give you the chance to talk about what’s next for the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. Anything exciting you have coming up in your work, anything you wanna plug? We’ve talked a lot about your TED Talk, which again, folks should go watch. It’s in the show notes.
VALLAS: But what else is coming up?
NYANDORO: You know, we just launched our fifth cohort, which is really exciting, the fact that we’re five years into this work that we started in 2018. So, we launched the first cohort earlier this, I mean, the fifth cohort earlier this month, so we’re really excited about those pieces. And other pieces that we’re excited about as we go into 2024 is just continue to do the work that’s necessary for policy wins. We’ve got to get policy wins at the federal level so that we can make cash more permanent in the households that need it. So, we’re excited to be able to continue to do that work with partners. And so, yeah, so it’s a golden time. So, yeah, no complaints.
VALLAS: I love that. I love that. And sort of follow-up related question ‘cause I invoked before the Child Tax Credit expansion being one of the most exciting things that’s happened within the world of guaranteed minimum income really in U.S. history, given that that was the first time we had guaranteed minimum income for all families with children in the U.S., with very few exceptions. And that was a one-year program because we had one party in Congress that thought it should just end and was perfectly comfortable plunging half of the nation’s children right back into poverty, right, you know? Eye roll, side eye as I say that. And it was still such a moment in saying, hey, we’re actually, as the U.S., gonna do this at scale even for one year. What do you see as next for the guaranteed minimum income movement, of which the Magnolia Mother’s Trust is really a leader, as I mentioned, really the first modern program in the U.S. to do this? And there now are more than 100, I think.
NYANDORO: There are more than 100, yeah. There are more than 100 guaranteed income programs. So, what I see with the movement is us to continue to have pilots and demonstration projects occurring, which we have to have until the federal government takes over the baton making cash more permanent. So, I see the demonstrations and pilot projects that continue to have a significant part in providing the data necessary to continue to build the case. But then also, I see space beginning to play a bigger part as well in having conversations about what can happen at the state level to reform some of the policy. So, perfect example, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. How do we reform that at the state level so it actually is providing more cash in the pockets of families that actually need it? And so, I see all of these working together—local, federal, state—in order to get us to what it is that we need, which is federal policy around guaranteed income. That’s the long arc. But as we get to the long arc, keeping the momentum around the movement is where I’m excited about and that Springboard and Magnolia Mother’s Trust will continue to be leaders and advocates towards.
VALLAS: And we’ll try to put a couple of links in show notes as well highlighting some of the work that’s been going on in the country. I gotta give a shoutout again to our friend Dorian Warren and all the folks who are involved in the Economic Security Project, which has been supporting a lot of those pilots. And that, I mean, the evidence base is wildly rich at this point, right?
NYANDORO: That’s exactly right.
VALLAS: Giving people cash—gasp, right—actually reduces poverty, right? Actually helps people have what they need. And folks spend that cash on the things that they need to spend it on, their basic needs, but also, as we’ve been talking about, the stuff that they know is what’s right for them to spend it on, whether that’s the birthday present for the kid or whether that’s the rent or whether that’s food or whether that’s being able to cook a nice meal on Sunday, whatever the things are that are the things that matter to that family. So, it shouldn’t be a shocker that giving people cash makes them less poor, and yet we have to say it again and again.
NYANDORO: Over and over and over again.
VALLAS: And that’s what we find from these pilots, so we shouldn’t need any more evidence at this point for policymakers to know that that is what works.
NYANDORO: [wearily] Yeah.
VALLAS: But as you said, it is gonna continue to be a slog and one that you’re gonna continue to lead the way on, along with many others in communities across the country but with Jackson, Mississippi, really being at the epicenter with the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. So, Aisha, it is so fun always getting to be in conversation with you.
NYANDORO: Thank you.
VALLAS: Thank you, thank you, thank you for your amazing work, for making time for this, for your beautiful TED Talk, which again, we have in show notes and folks should watch. And I’m not asking you any questions about self-care, even though I’ve been asking that of every single guest that we have this season because you were the kickoff conversation for that whole series about self-care as political warfare. So, in lieu of asking you any questions about that now, I’m just gonna send folks to that episode. We’re gonna put that in show notes, too. And you, I mean, I really enjoyed that conversation with you as well, and I learned so much from you as I did from everybody as part of that series.
NYANDORO: Thank you. It’s always so great to be in community and conversation with you, and I appreciate the opportunity, always, friend.
VALLAS: A lot of love for you. Aisha Nyandoro is the CEO of Springboard to Opportunity. She’s also the architect and the founder of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. You can learn a lot more about the Magnolia Mother’s Trust and Springboard in our show notes. [theme music returns] And Aisha, big hugs to you, and I look forward to talking soon.
NYANDORO: Talk soon. Thank you, friend.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals and the phenomenal Kings Floyd, who keeps us all in line week to week. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.