This week, to continue the series of conversations we’ve been having on Off-Kilter about the limiting beliefs we as a collective must release and replace to pave the way for economic liberation, Rebecca sat down with Claire Guzdar—managing director of campaigns and partnerships at an organization called the Groundwork Collaborative—to unpack one of the most salient limiting beliefs hampering economic policy in the United States today: the notion that the stock market is the economy. They had a far-ranging conversation about how Groundwork is working to shift economic narratives in the United States to help us remember that we are the economy, as well as about Claire’s path from theology to social justice advocacy, and more.
- Learn more about Groundwork’s work here
- Follow Claire (@clairecmarkham) and Groundwork (@groundwork) on Twitter
- And here’s a TCF explainer with more on why the stock market is not the economy
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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, and I’m a former legal aid lawyer turned policy advocate who works with public policy and law, as well as organizing, coalition building, and narrative as tools for building a more just society, one premised on collective consciousness of our common humanity and the inherent dignity and rights that come with being human. Every week I talk with visionary leaders working to reinvigorate our shared imagination and disrupt the off-kilter imbalance of power in the U.S. to build a society where everyone can thrive and experience the shared abundance we all deserve.
And this week, to continue the series of conversations we’ve been having on Off-Kilter about the limiting beliefs we as a collective must repeal and replace to pave the way for economic liberation, I sat down with a long-time friend and colleague, Claire Guzdar, managing director of campaigns and partnerships at an organization called the Groundwork Collaborative, to unpack one of the most toxic limiting beliefs hampering economic policy in the U.S. today: the notion that the stock market is the economy. We had a far-ranging conversation about how Groundwork is working to shift economic narratives in the U.S. to help us remember that we are the economy, Claire’s path from theology to social justice advocacy, and more. You can find lots more about the Groundwork Collaborative in show notes. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
Claire, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show. And it’s been a while since our days both working at the Center for American Progress, but it’s really lovely every time I get the chance to catch up with you.
CLAIRE GUZDAR: Yeah. Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m excited for our conversation.
VALLAS: I am too! And in particular, as part of this series of conversations we’ve been having on Off-Kilter about collective limiting beliefs, I really can’t think of many people who are better suited to this series of conversations, given the work that you’re so deeply involved with at Groundwork. And before we get into Groundwork and the work that you do there, I would love to give you the chance to talk a little bit about how you come to this work. And you’ve worn a lot of different hats at different points, but that’s the place I generally like to start with guests. So, please take that wherever you wanna go. How do you come to this work?
GUZDAR: Yeah. So, I, as you know, come to this work through the faith space. I’m a theologian by training, and my deep desire to understand how we create stronger communities in a world that really is working better for folks who are on the margins is the real catalyzing factor for me. So, I, just for my own life, my own spiritual life, really pursued that through theology for a while. It was a wonderful experience, and I loved it deeply. And also, it moved too slow. [laughs] And so, I decided I wanted to make that transition into policy work in the political sphere. And so, I moved to D.C. to work with Nuns on the Bus, Sister Simone Campbell, and NETWORK Lobby and doing faith-based advocacy around the minimum wage and other kind of labor laws at first. And it was a really great introduction to policymaking and working with Congress. And then I did a stint at the Center for American Progress with you and many other talented folks who care deeply about improving our public policies and was really happy to do a number of years on the faith team there, bringing secular advocates and faith-based advocates together for impact on health care, Medicaid expansion, reproductive justice, and nondiscrimination. And then after thinking about what I wanted to do next, I followed one of my colleagues from the Center for American Progress to Groundwork when it first was founded. So, Angela Hanks, who’s now at Demos, posted a position that I thought sounded really interesting, and I decided to kind of pitch an idea for how we could engage partners on economic narratives that would advance progressive policies. And that’s how I landed here.
VALLAS: I would say it’s a great jumping off point for this conversation. And I think you know that I’m gonna wanna come back to some of the spiritual worldview that you bring to this work, which I would really love to bring more deeply into this conversation. Before we get back to that thread, as you talk a little bit about the origins of the Groundwork Collaborative and when you followed Angela over there—and there was a lot of connective tissue between the Center for American Progress and the crew that was starting Groundwork, and so I have a lot of love for that organization and a lot of the people who were—as you were really there from the beginning. But as I think about the origins of Groundwork, and I’d love to give you a chance to talk a little bit about the organization, how it came into being, what its theory of change is, but as we have this conversation, I have Michael Linden’s voice ringing in my head. He’s a friend and one of the folks who was behind the starting of Groundwork. And he often says, and so it’s become a mantra that many of us often repeat, that the stock market is a mood ring for rich people. And that speaks directly to one of the core limiting beliefs that we’re gonna be unpacking today: the notion that the stock market is the economy. But as we get into setting the table for that conversation, talk a little bit about where Groundwork came from. How did it get started? What is the Groundwork Collaborative’s mission and theory of change?
GUZDAR: Yeah. So, Groundwork comes out of a conundrum, which is that people support progressive economic policies. When you ask them if they support a higher minimum wage, they say yes. If you ask them if they support healthcare access for folks, they say yes. But ultimately, we keep bumping up against the same problem, which is that progressive policies don’t fit into the broader narrative people have about the economy, which is the neoliberal narrative, the narrative that says an unrestrained free market is gonna be strongest and best for everyone. And so, Groundwork is really founded from the idea that what progressives need to successfully advance their policies is a coherent economic narrative, something that explains what the economy is and how it works to people in a way that resonates more with the policies we all know we need. So, I sometimes like to say to people, if you stop a random stranger on the street and you ask them, “What do conservatives say makes a strong economy?” everyone can tell you it’s lower taxes and less regulation, right? The cornerstones of that neoliberal narrative. If you ask them what progressives think makes for a strong economy, you usually get a laundry list of policies. And that’s how you know we don’t have a coherent economic narrative. And so, Groundwork is really trying to do three things. We’re trying to socialize and advance that coherent economic worldview, we’re trying to be connective tissue with other progressive partners doing great work to strengthen all of our efforts to advance that worldview, and we’re trying to fill gaps in the landscape. So, any time we see something, and we think a progressive economic worldview needs to go right into that little space where no one’s working yet, we try and kind of shift our efforts to that space.
VALLAS: So, Claire, let’s dig into this and let’s make this a little bit more real, ‘cause I love how you’ve laid that out. I love the framework that you’ve offered. It’s part of why I so appreciate the role that Groundwork plays in the larger progressive advocacy ecosystem. But backing up a little bit before we get into the particulars of what a coherent economic narrative could look like or does look like that the broader progressive movement can embrace, talk to me about the role of narrative in shaping larger collective consciousness. And this is a conversation that has been popping up at points explicitly, at points implicitly throughout this series of conversations about limiting beliefs. For folks who want a little bit of a reminder about why we’re talking about collective limiting beliefs in such depth and at such length this season, I’ll refer listeners back to the opening of the fall season in October, where I speak at some length about why this is worth doing while we’re at a moment that in many ways at this point in human history feels like is the turning of the ages set of paradigm shifts that many of us, and many who are not in living form today anymore, have been fighting, for pushing for, for quite some time as part of social change movements. But Claire, talk a little bit about the role of narratives in shaping collective consciousness and how narratives end up shifting.
GUZDAR: Yeah, narratives are so powerful, and I think there are a few reasons for that. Narratives, sometimes you’re really moved by a story, right? You can hear a powerful story. It can stick with you. Years later, you can remember the details of a friend’s story or a story you heard on a podcast or the news. And so, storytelling is an incredibly important function to touching people and creating kind of lasting memories on the issues and the kind of things that we care about. Narratives also help people connect the dots. So, a narrative is kind of the throughline that runs through individual experiences. It helps explain the series of events in a broader way. And I think we can see the power of the conservative narrative on the economy when it makes people question their own support for policies. You’ll hear people say, you know, “I wanna raise the minimum wage, but I’m worried it will kill jobs.” Or “I want a robust social safety net, but I’m worried we can’t afford it.” The “but” is the neoliberal narrative making them question their support for progressive policies.
And I think the lesson there is that the narrative becomes something like the wallpaper in the rooms that we’re in. It’s behind everything, it’s in our line of vision all the time, and it’s kind of the background to all the work that we’re doing. So, the reason we need a kind of coherent progressive narrative on the economy is we have to give folks the story that sticks to all of the policies that they want to see advanced, that resonates a little bit more in line with the policies they wanna see advanced so that they feel those policies are realistic and achievable and indeed would strengthen our economy, not hurt it. So, that’s what we’re trying to do, is give, we’re trying to kind of replace the wallpaper.
VALLAS: I love that.
GUZDAR: Take down neoliberalism and hang something new that really reminds people that if everyone can participate in our economy, it will be stronger and serve us all better.
VALLAS: Oh, I love that. I love the wallpaper metaphor. I often think about us as swimming in the water that narratives and the stories that we tell sort of is infused by. I love the wallpaper metaphor, so let’s go with that for the rest of this conversation. So, Claire, [chuckles] I think to maybe keep the metaphor up a little bit as we do this segue, the wallpaper then is what needs to be made visible. Like, we need to draw attention to the wallpaper so that we can then replace the wallpaper. That’s really another way of thinking about what this whole season of Off-Kilter has really been all about: identifying then the limiting beliefs or agreements that we as a collective have as that wallpaper all around us that we need to make visible so we can strip it down, so that we can put up new wallpaper that then is consistent with a worldview that can take us to economic liberation. To get us there I feel like we need to do a quick detour just to give you a chance to explain and unpack what the neoliberal narrative is for anyone who wants a quick reminder of what is neoliberalism. Why is this at the core of so much of what the progressive movement is effectively fighting against or seeking to dismantle, whether or not it’s described in those terms?
GUZDAR: Yeah. So, a neoliberal view of the economy says that an unrestrained free market is the best economy. And I think we know observably that’s not true, right? That’s essentially, in many ways, what we have now. We have a lightly restrained free market, and it’s not working. It’s not working for most people. It’s working for the very, very wealthy and for huge corporations at the expense of the rest of us. And so, I think what we at Groundwork would like to replace the neoliberal narrative with is a progressive economic worldview that says the economy is strongest and most sustainable when three things are true: when we have broken up concentrations of private wealth and power, when we have built up all kinds of accountable public power, and when we have centered the folks who’ve been marginalized from prosperity for too long, Black and brown folks, disabled folks, immigrant communities, women, and others who participate in our economy, create value in our economy, participate in the building of the incredible abundance in this country but don’t reap the benefits like other folks do.
VALLAS: So, with that as the neoliberal narrative that you all really aim the arrow at, and then rather than feed, replace and seek to nurture and water that replacement narrative that you just outlined and will come back to, the three things that need to be true, I wanna dig into the sort of more visible or perhaps more relatable in a kitchen-table way or the way that people kind of generally have conversations kind of way, limiting belief that was really the cornerstone for you and me thinking about this episode and how we might wanna structure this conversation. And that is the notion—and so, just to bring it to kind of the kitchen table or to bring it to maybe what you hear on cable news—the notion that the stock market is the economy. I mean, just to sort of paint the picture here in a way that maybe folks can relate to as how this forms some of the wallpaper that we all have around us all the time, how much of TV news or radio or the inches in newspapers or wherever people are getting their information from all the different sources of mainstream media, how much of that is about the stock market day to day? “Oh, the market’s up. Oh, the market’s down. Oh, the Dow.” It’s become an ingrained metric that whether or not people even really have ever given any thought to what the stock market is, what it represents, who is engaged with it, who benefits from it, it becomes this metric that’s deeply, deeply ingrained in the fabric of today’s society as sort of a tacit measure—whether it’s got any level of analytical rigor to it—a measure of our economic health, of the health of our economy.
And so, the panic that comes from the stock market crashing, the great jubilation that comes from the market being up, these are all things that maybe no one, maybe very few people have ever actually asked the question, “Well, how is that connected to me? Or what does that mean for me and my family?” And yet, it is that wallpaper. It’s a big part of that wallpaper you were talking about. So, that’s part of why, it’s a big part of why, it felt like this was a place to start for this conversation with you about toxic limiting beliefs, that it’s time to acknowledge, it’s time to point to on the wallpaper and then to put ourselves in a position to release and replace as part of a larger strategy of walking towards economic liberation in this country. Talk a little bit about the notion that the stock market is the economy and the toxicity that stems from it and why Michael Linden, who is here in spirit in this conversation, spent as much time as he did for years reminding us the stock market is not the economy; it is a mood ring for rich people.
GUZDAR: Yeah. Rebecca, you make such an important point. And I think it’s really, I just wanna underscore when we’re talking about narratives we wanna replace, we do have to understand why someone might believe them. And you’re exactly right. Someone might believe the stock market is a good measure of the economy because when they hear news on the eighth on their public radio, they get the Dow. Or when they open their newspaper, there’s a whole section devoted to it. Anytime you turn on financial TV, there’s a little ticker in the background. So, it’s understandable that people might come to feel like the stock market represents how our economy is doing. We know that’s absolutely not true. Michael, the founding executive director of Groundwork, did love to say it’s a mood ring for stock people, for rich people.
One of our favorite memes to pass around at Groundwork is that one with like the mannequin that says “stonks” on it, and she’s got the arrow going up and down because the stock market is truly not representative of our economy in any way. And I think there are a couple reasons we know that. The first is that only about 55 percent of Americans own stocks. That includes people who are invested in stocks through retirement accounts. That means right away, you know the stock market cannot represent the economy because it excludes half of us. And then beyond that, if you really dig in, the wealthiest 10 percent of people in this country own almost 90 percent of stock. That means the stock market truly is just a metric for the wealthiest people to see kind of how their money’s floating on any particular day. And I think the third way we know that the stock market really doesn’t represent our economy is it can be soaring when millions of people are suffering. The economy cannot be doing well when millions of people are unemployed or struggling to feed their families or not knowing how they’re gonna make their mortgage or pay their rent next month. And if that can be going on while the stock market is soaring, it should be a huge red flag to us that the stock market can’t possibly represent our economy.
VALLAS: Yeah. Claire, I really appreciate the clarity with which you just broke all of that down. And I wanna zoom in to that third point, which really, really, to me, speaks to the kind of cornerstone of, if nothing else, right, speaks to someone, if nothing else resonates with someone, if someone wants to stay skeptical and say, “Look, I’ve heard enough about how the stock market must be an economic measure. I’m not gonna be moved from that,” that last point is, it’s undeniable. It’s unmistakable. I’m thinking back to, in recent memory, the era of Donald Trump being president and lots and lots of chest thumping about the stock market, and yet about half of the country struggling to afford food and housing and healthcare and other basics of just a basic standard of human dignity. And for the two to be true at the same time, there can’t be validity to the stock market as a measure of our overall economic well-being given that, as Groundwork often reminds us, we are the economy. What is the economy, if not the people here in this country? And that’s where I’d love to give you the chance to sort of react next and to talk a little bit about that notion that we are the economy and how that came to be as some of what Groundwork identified as a replacement narrative for the over-indexing towards the stock market.
GUZDAR: Yeah. So, at Groundwork, if we wanna say the stock market is not the economy, we have to be able to say what is the economy. And the economy is millions of interactions every day. It’s people going to work and producing value. It’s people going to the store and buying something. It’s people supporting local businesses. It’s really millions of interactions every day for workers, families, and consumers who make the money go around in our economy, who build the value, and ultimately, who should reap the benefit but don’t. And I think the stock market is a great, Michael liked to say that the stock market is a mood ring for rich people. I sometimes like to think about it as like a rich people’s casino. They’re taking the benefit of all that value created by workers and families and consumers, and they’re gambling with it in the stock market. And oftentimes that means their money doubles down; they make a lot more money. But essentially what they’re doing is taking the abundance that should be redistributed to the workers, consumers, and families that created it, and they’re just kind of running away with it and gambling with it in the stock market. So, we say we are the economy, because without those millions of interactions of folks going to work and buying products, the economy would collapse. It would crater. Workers, families, and consumers are the economy. We are the economy.
VALLAS: I love that. I appreciate that. And I wanna give you the chance to talk about other toxic limiting beliefs that connect here that you feel make sense to lift up, that Groundwork is also working to replace. You’ve given sort of that larger framework that you’re looking to advance and the notion that we are the economy. I mean there’s sort of an elegant simplicity to how obvious that kind of an affirmation or that kind of a notion is, right? It’s almost like it’s evocative of something that’s more about a collective self-remembering than it is any kind of rocket science, right? But what other toxic limiting beliefs connect here? And we were talking before about that overarching neoliberal narrative. I don’t know if you wanna connect back to that at all.
GUZDAR: I think maybe I’ll offer one kind of wonkier one that’s really timely, and then one that I’ve been thinking a lot about as we anticipate changes in Congress in January. So, one thing that you might, that lots of folks might be hearing about on the news or reading about with inflation being a little bit high right now is the Federal Reserve raising interest rates to try and bring inflation under control. And there are a lot of reasons that we don’t think that’s a very good idea. But one of the toxic limiting beliefs that we’re seeing at play right now is that a certain number of people have to be unemployed for the economy to be stable. That’s essentially what the Federal Reserve is saying by saying that we are going to continue to raise interest rates to bring inflation under control. They’re saying we are going to slow down economic churn, we’re gonna put people out of work, we’re gonna make the average family poorer so that inflation will come down.
And at Groundwork, we have to say that’s ridiculous. It’s a terrible idea to make millions of people unemployed or to insinuate that for some reason inflation is high because your family has too much money. I don’t know about you, Rebecca. I don’t feel like I have too much money. I don’t feel like I’m responsible for inflation. At Groundwork, we know that inflation is largely driven by corporate profiteering in addition to some other things. The pandemic’s honestly been very hard. Supply chains have been really stopped up. But I think it’s a little bit wonky, but right now, we’re at a decision point with our economy and our economic policy. It’s incredibly important that we don’t unnecessarily drive into a recession that will hurt millions of our most vulnerable friends and neighbors that serves kind of an ambiguous and untrue idea that we have to limit economic growth to bring down inflation right now. So, that’s maybe my wonky one, I would say.
VALLAS: Wonky, but really important given that inflation is such a dominant conversation and narrative right now and given that it is a conservative-led conversation where yet again, just like in the beginning of this conversation when you were highlighting—and this isn’t to make it about Republicans versus Democrats, right—but when you were highlighting the traditional conservative economic paradigm and how easy it is for your average person on the street to describe it, versus the absence of a similarly coherent and sticky and resonant and salient progressive narrative. I mean, I, [chuckles] yeah, I….
Claire, I also feel like there’s another piece of this that this connects to that is similarly present right now and what’s pinging for me and taking me kind of in a slightly different direction just for a second, because you mentioned the new Congress, is around the austerity narrative, right? And that’s another maybe less wonky, more relatable way of describing some of where the conversation may head that is connected to the somewhat one-dimensional and right-led narrative on inflation, but which in the new Congress could potentially be so risky, that narrative that we remember so well from the Great Recession of, “Oh, we need to cut a whole bunch of programs that are critical for American families to get ourselves out of some kind of an economic hole” as the one achieves the other. I just, I all of a sudden felt the need to throw that in as well, given the familiarity that that narrative will have for a lot of folks connected to what may feel like a little bit of a wonkier conversation right now. But I didn’t mean to interrupt you.
VALLAS: Please keep going.
GUZDAR: What happens is we’re having like a mind meld because the last wonky one I wanted to talk about is what I think we’re gonna hear a lot from a new, potentially, Speaker McCarthy and other House Republicans in January. We’re gonna hear a lot about how we can’t afford that. It’s time, we gotta tighten our belt. These kind of austerity frames that you’re talking about, that’s the thing I wanted to talk about. We have to kind of buckle up and remember what it was like in 2010 during the Great Recession, when people thought the only way to respond to an economic crisis was to slash social spending, which “social spending” is a fancy way to say the things people need. We decided to turn away from the things people need and tighten our belts for fiscal responsibility. We’re gonna hear a lot about what we can’t afford from Republicans in the House, I think, starting in January. And I wanted to raise it because I think even if you are a person who has a slightly more conservative worldview than Groundwork does, there are a lot of ways we can afford the things that we need. And so, I just wanted to say that you don’t have to believe like Groundwork does that we truly can afford whatever we want to believe that we can afford a lot more than Speaker McCarthy might say we can.
So, I just wanted to lay out a few reasons why we can afford the kind of spending we wanna see. And just to be extra, extra clear, the kind of spending we wanna see is people-centered investments that really meet the needs of workers and families. We wanna see spending on health care. We wanna see spending on paid leave. We wanna see money going into communities to serve needs as determined by folks locally. And I think we saw, during the COVID-induced recession, we saw how effectively that could work. Really robust people-centered investments helped keep our economy afloat, helped keep millions of families afloat during a really historic crisis point. And I think we need to really hold that in front of our minds, potentially heading into another recession and heading into kind of this split Congress.
So, the three ways I just want people to think about how we can afford things. We could take the money we have right now and spend it differently, right? We could spend less money on the Pentagon, as an example, and more money on human needs. So, we could not have an additional dime, and we could afford the people-centered investments we really need. We could also raise more money, right? And how do we raise more money? We tax the ultra-wealthy and corporations at a reasonable rate. I don’t even like to say, “We raise taxes on the rich and corporations.” That might spark something for people. We should just tax them at a reasonable rate. Right now, we’re leaving a lot of our money, a lot of money that the public has created and the public deserves invested back in it, on the table by not taxing the wealthy and corporations at a reasonable rate. And then the third way, which might not be for everyone, but we truly can just spend the money. I think I don’t need to tell you how old I am to tell you that we have been hearing about deficits and the national debt my entire life. And truly, the only tangible consequence of deficits and the national debt are political. Fear mongering over deficits and the national debt, that’s a tool to limit our collective imagination about how much we can afford to spend on the people we care about. And so, I’m just like, whatever it is you’re thinking about that you want in your community, I want you to know we can afford it. We can afford that. So, when you hear Speaker McCarthy or the House Republicans talking about how we’ve gotta tighten our belts and slash social spending, you should know right away that’s not true. We can afford it.
VALLAS: So, I love that it’s like you’re decoding little chunks of the wallpaper, one by one, right? [chuckles] So, we’re zooming in on a few squares the wallpaper, right? And you’re basically identifying that we have this, just to put it another way, we have this false and artificial but incredibly pervasive and dominant story about scarcity, that we don’t have enough. And yet we have plenty for everyone to have what we need. What we have is hoarding of our abundance at the very top, both in terms of actual dollars and in terms of power, which then is wielded by the few with the most at the top in terms of controlling the decisions that get made, that then end up further in a feedback loop, concentrating wealth and power at the top. That’s sort of the past several decades summarized in just a few sentences. And Claire, I appreciate your invoking the word again and again “abundance,” which is a theme that we’ve brought in throughout this particular season of Off-Kilter, and in particular, radical abundance as a paradigm that many of the folks that I’ve been speaking to as part of this season subscribe to and seek to advance.
Before we move on and bring in a little bit more of the spiritual component to this conversation, which I am eager to do, given where you come from in your journey to this work, I also wanna give you the chance to lift up and decode the square of the wallpaper, as it were, that’s about trickle-down economics. Because that’s another very interconnected narrative that you all are extremely savvy at talking about and decoding but that is another really important and pervasive part of the wallpaper that has allowed us to end up in that feedback loop that I described of wealth and power, wealth and power being concentrated at the top further and further.
GUZDAR: Yeah, I mean, you really hit the nail on the head, Rebecca. It doesn’t trickle down because it’s being hoarded, right? Trickle-down economics has never been true. The money has never trickled down. It trickles up, right? Workers and consumers create value. And the folks who own our big corporations and the ultra-wealthy capture that money, and they essentially take it out of circulation, right? They put it into a highly financialized economy like the stock market, where that money grows and grows and grows for them and never kind of circles back around, never trickles down. It never circulates through the economy, never makes its way back to the workers and the consumers. So, trickle-down economics is observably untrue. I think people are starting, it’s losing its grip a little bit on people’s collective imaginations after 50 years of being observably untrue. But it still lingers a little bit. And I think it’s really important for us to constantly be reminding folks two things.
One, the value’s created by workers and consumers, and they deserve to share in the abundance. So, however we need to get that done, we need to get that done. That’s both the right thing to do, and it’s better for our economy. And the other thing, as you mentioned, the hoarding is not just of wealth, it’s also of power. And so, another thing I learned from Michael is that concentrations of wealth and power are self-reinforcing. And without the check of public power, an accountable government, unions, tenant organizations, and other kinds of public power, concentrations of private wealth and power will continue to grow. There’s no incentive for the ultra-wealthy and mega-corporations to give up their wealth and power. So, we have to take it back ‘cause really, it’s ours. We created it, it belongs to us, and we need to take it back. So, trickle-down economics has never been true. We can observe that it’s not true by how many people don’t have enough when our economy is really recovering pretty well from a historic economic crisis, and too many people aren’t seeing the benefits of that recovery.
VALLAS: So, Claire, I’m gonna take us back to an earlier part of this conversation when you, actually, the beginning of the conversation, when you laid out your path from studying theology to ending up in progressive advocacy, and the Nuns on the Bus being one of the segue way points in that journey. Talk a little bit, if you don’t mind. And I’m actually genuinely very, very excited for this part of this conversation, given that I’ve known you for a little while, and going back to our years at CAP, I always appreciated having you in meeting spaces and in conversations that my team, the Poverty to Prosperity program, was part of in large part because you often brought, whether explicitly or quietly, a spiritual and a larger perspective that enriched what can often become very short-term and short-termist kind of political horse race conversations, that even when we’re talking about something as basic and as fundamental as, say, human dignity and basic living standards. So, I’m gonna throw the question to you, to speak a little bit about the role that spirituality plays in your economic liberation work today and in the worldview that you bring to the work that you’re doing, at least in part, at Groundwork.
GUZDAR: Yeah. I think you know, my…. I’m in theological spaces really set the scene for all the work I’m doing now. So, I come out of the Catholic intellectual tradition. I think a lot about the liberation theologians of Latin America, like Oscar Romero and John Sobrino, who were really the first thinkers I was introduced to who used an abundance frame, who thought really radically and expansively about what people deserve and how we should structure our community to serve people. And then working with Sister Simone and with Catholic sisters, that kind of added a layer to the work that we’re doing. There’s so much direct service that Catholic sisters do. They’re really close to the communities who need our economy restructured the most. They’re close to the pain that people experience, and they’re really eager to restructure our economy so that it’s working for those people. I think about the interfaith community in D.C. where Quakers and Muslims and Jews and Christians are working really, other Christians are working, really hard together to push the conversation on what people deserve and how we can achieve it beyond the bounds of political will. That, for me, was a really transformative experience.
My first lobby visit in D.C., when I had left ministry and the theological space and moved to D.C. to do advocacy, my first Hill visit was to Steny Hoyer’s office with an interfaith group of advocates who were working to raise the minimum wage. And so, we know the minimum wage has been stagnant for far too long, especially for tipped workers, but really for all minimum wage workers. And we know it’s wholly inadequate to really serve any kind of economic stability for folks who are trying to live off the minimum wage. And I remember going into this lobby visit with a group of interfaith advocates, including someone from Interfaith Worker Justice, and the staffer from Steny Hoyer’s office, who I’m sure was a wonderful guy, was kind of dismissive and said, “There just isn’t political will to raise the minimum wage right now.” And I will never forget this advocate from Interfaith Worker Justice, totally unfazed by basically being dismissed and saying, “There might not be political will, but there is divine will.”
And it was the first time I understood that what we were really trying to do as faith-based advocates in political spaces was push the bounds of what was achievable. Because in faith-based spaces, you’re not starting from where you currently are and trying to improve the situation. You’re starting from a vision of what should be and working toward that. So, the limits of political will are really nothing to you if you understand how the world should look. If you have a vision for justice and a sense of what community should look like, political will is an obstacle, but it’s not ultimately a limiting factor to what you’re trying to achieve. So, I really think about that a lot in all the work that we do now. Shifting narratives is really challenging. It’s hard because if you’re trying to change the narrative, it means you’re starting with a narrative that’s not yet popular. And that’s really hard work. So, I think about that lobby visit and the work that I’ve done in faith community all the time when people say, “That’s not feasible right now” or “we’ll get to that later. Let’s do what we can do now and come back for that.” I think about the work in the faith community all the time, and I really try to orient myself toward my ultimate vision for community and justice and really think about what the steps are to moving closer to that.
And the other thing I’ll say about working in the faith community is there’s both a responsibility and also a freedom to understanding that that ultimate vision of justice is something you have to help create but you can never create on your own. And this work, this advocacy work, is really hard. It’s lifelong work. It’s work that some of us will never see ultimately come to fruition. And that can be really paralyzing when you feel overwhelmed by how much work there is to do. And I think the faith community taught me that I am responsible for contributing in the ways that I can to achieving our ultimate vision of justice, but that’s work we do in partnership with the divine. So, I’m not ultimately responsible for seeing that work come to fruition, and that is motivating for me, but also releases me from sometimes that overwhelming sense that I can’t achieve that vision by myself.
VALLAS: That’s beautiful, Claire. And it’s so easy to forget, given the way that we, through sort of mainstream media-driven conversations, place such outsize focus on our members of Congress, on the presidency, right? It’s so easy to forget that the people who are in politics technically are there to work for the people. [laughs] They’re supposed to be our representatives, and therefore, the massive gap that so often exists, and today so deeply and so problematically exists, between where public will is and where political will is, something that Groundwork often points out, it doesn’t have to be that way. And in fact, what that is, is descriptive of a lack of political accountability, which itself is a measure of the health of our democracy, something that many of us have been talking about for some time, but which often is maybe not broken down in terms that resonate with real people.
I’ll also hearken to a political science term that maybe is familiar to folks, which I feel like speaks a lot to the anecdote you just shared. And that’s the notion of the Overton window, the window of what is considered within the realm of the possible. And so, one way to work is to work within the realm of what is already considered to be possible or where there might be political will, as just one example of how to measure the Overton window. But another is to try to shift that window, and that’s exactly what you’re describing. And it’s exactly the reason for this season we’ve been doing of Off-Kilter, talking about the limiting beliefs that we as a collective are constraining ourselves with and the release of which will then be the shifting of that Overton window, which then at some point, if democracy is working at all, translates into public policy change because of a responsiveness of our political officials to what the public wants.
But Claire, there was another aspect of what you said that I also wanted to pull a thread from. You were talking about how it can be difficult to advance and popularize and socialize narratives that aren’t already popular. I wanted to offer just a quick, friendly amendment to some of how I see the work that you all do at Groundwork and the work that folks who do narrative shift work are engaged with, which is that when done well, when done right—and I know this is the way that you all work at Groundwork—it’s not about the injection of brand-new narratives from whole cloth and then trying to tell people, “Hey, believe this.” It’s actually about a listening to the broader public about well, what is it that people actually wish could be true, even if folks might feel like it isn’t possible because of the limiting beliefs that are invisibly casting a net or keeping artificially narrow that Overton window within which we’re told that we must live.
And so, we talked a little bit about this in this episode or this season’s opener with Jeremie Greer and Solana Rice of Liberation in a Generation, that there is a going and talking to people about well, what is the world that you want to build? What is the economy that you’d like to live in? For example, it’s a liberation economy, is how Jeremie and Solana at Liberation in a Generation talk about it. And then that then becomes a spark that fuels a new narrative that, through organizing and other means, there can be a shift towards an embrace of rather than a “Oh, but I wish that could be possible, but it’s on my list of impossible wishes.” So, I just wanted to offer that, given that a big part of the way I see the work that you all do is—and “we are the economy” is such a great example—it’s almost more like support for collective self-remembering and an awareness of what actually could be possible if we all allowed it to be possible feels a little more like how you all approach the work there. But how does that land with you as I reframe it that way?
GUZDAR: Yeah, I think that that’s a great way to reframe. And it does take me back early in Groundwork’s history. We hosted a series of dinners across the country, and we got advocates and state-based policy experts together. And we were trying to develop the worldview, trying to figure out what that progressive economic narrative should sound like. And one of the things we did at these dinners was an exercise where our facilitator, Angela Peoples, would walk folks through imagining the economy that they wanted to live in, in a really down to earth, day-to-day way. You know, “Imagine you’re in your home. What does it look like and feel like? Imagine you’re leaving your home.” And those exercises were so inspiring to me. But one of the things that I always remember at one of those dinners when we were sharing out what we were envisioning, someone said, “My pockets are empty as I’m leaving the house because I don’t need keys, and I don’t need a wallet. Everything is available to me.” And I just thought, we’re fighting over raising the minimum wage a quarter over the next five years, and this person’s imagining a world where they don’t need keys because everything is available to all of us. And I just, like that, I think about that a lot and appreciate what you’re saying, that what we’re really trying to do is make a narrative that resonates with people when they imagine the world they wanna live in more popular and more present.
VALLAS: And once that the world that—and I’m getting chills while you’re saying that—that at once, the world that you’re describing and that that individual is dreaming of is, it’s at once science fiction, and it also, in so many ways, is a return to times before we built the economy that we now have and the monetary system we now have, and, and, and. And so, it again, I think, takes me back to that notion of collective self-remembering being a big part of the exercise.
Claire, I wanna pose a question to you that I’ve also offered to a few other folks in this season of conversations, and it’s to bring in some words from a mentor of mine who said to me recently that, “Living in this time in human history is either an affliction or it’s an assignment.” I referenced obliquely before this being a moment of paradigm shifts, a moment that many modern-day oracles are talking about as a battle of imaginations. What advice do you have for advocates who are working in this moment, who are looking to accept the assignment rather than to live in a place of a feeling, “Oh, my God,” the affliction kind of worldview? And I ask that question as well particularly recognizing some of who listens to this show. Maybe you’ve also got some advice for newer advocates who are just starting out in this work at this particularly historic moment in human history and maybe are trying to figure out how to find their place in the work.
GUZDAR: Yeah. I really think about abolitionists and other resistance thinkers that were inspiring me right now. And two of those folks are Miriame Kaba and Tricia Hersey. And Miriame Kaba sometimes says, “Let this radicalize you rather than lead you to despair,” which I think is kind of another way to say what your mentor has said. So, I think about that a lot when I’m feeling distraught about the state of things. She also really reminds folks to do the work they can do, which is something that’s carried through from the faith traditions that I’m really grounded in through these abolitionist thinkers, really focusing on your role and the things you can do and control. Sometimes people will say, “There’s nothing I can do.” And that, for me, is, that’s the worst thing you can hear from someone, because there’s something you can do in your own home or your own neighborhood or your own workplace. There are a few dollars you can give. There’s time you can volunteer. There’s someone, a friend or a colleague, you can help out. And so, there’s always something we can do. So, I think about that. And then Tricia Hersey is the founder of The Nap Ministry, and she’s really exploring rest as resistance. And I think in my own life, I am trying to hold these things in a healthy tension that cynicism is a luxury, so I have to get back to work. And to do that work, I have to be well-rested and resist the urge to martyr myself to capitalism. So, those are two people who are really inspiring me. And I think time to always work toward a healthy balance of doing the things I can control, doing them well, working hard when I’m at work, and then resting with gusto when I’m not working, being with my community, with my family, reading, or sleeping, really taking care of myself, and making sure that I’m recharged so I can do the work I know I can do well sustainably for the long haul.
VALLAS: “Resting with gusto” is a phrase that I love deeply and might need to borrow! Just everything you just said is resonating with me very, very deeply, not just generally, but also given that I’m just coming off of getting COVID possibly for the first time. It’s the first time that I’ve tested positive, and this is only the second episode back since I took a break to be out. And I’ll just acknowledge it’s the first time that I have not worked through major illness in my adult life. And that’s not a model that I’m looking to share with anyone except to just be public and vocal about this being a shift that I am now realizing needs to happen for me, one of embracing rest with gusto, as you said, but also not just in the context of recovering from serious illness.
In the last couple of minutes that we have, in that spirit, Claire, that actually takes me to the last question I wanted to throw to you before we close out, which is just to ask how you’re taking care of yourself in doing the work. And you started to go there, and you started to talk about rest, which also very much brought to me the words from Audre Lorde that, “Self-care is not self-indulgence. It is an act of political warfare,” which actually are words tattooed on my body and have been for a decade, and yet have not quite sunk in to be words that I live every day. Are there any tips or practices or advice that you wanna share for what helps to keep you grounded and healthy and in right relationship to the work, perhaps, is the last question that we’re gonna have time for.
GUZDAR: Yeah, I think I would say the thing that I try to use to keep me grounded both in my professional work and in my personal life is knowing my role. So, I know what Groundwork is doing, I know the role we are trying to play in advancing an economy that truly works for everyone, and I know what my job in the kind of constellation of folks that Groundwork is, owning our partnerships and our campaign’s work and supporting our research and our communications work. And I try to be really, really good at my role at Groundwork and in the broader ecosystem of partners working to advance an economy that works for everyone. And then I try to have a little bit of amnesia about everything. [laughs] Which I just think is important, because if I stop to think about what I’m not doing on democracy or on climate or on reproductive health and rights, I can feel overwhelmed. And I think that this is an exercise in my own life of trust, right? There are wonderful, smart, hardworking, strategic people in each of those other spheres who know their role and are working really hard. And so, in my professional life, it means staying kind of laser focused on the thing Groundwork is trying to achieve and I’m trying to support with my work at Groundwork.
And in my personal life the same is true, right? I try to be the best spouse and sibling and neighbor in the ways that I can in my own community, and I try to tune out the things that aren’t related to that role. And I say that not with callousness, but with care to the folks who are taking care of those things when I’m focused on my own role. So, I think the way I stay grounded is remembering I can’t do it all, not to go back to that faith-based tradition, but I can’t do it all. I just have to do the things I’m supposed to do really well.
VALLAS: Oh, I love that as the place to end this episode, and I’m getting chills again. Claire, thank you for joining us for this conversation. Thank you for your just incredible thoughtfulness and thank you for all of the phenomenal work that you lead at Groundwork. Claire Guzdar is managing director of campaigns and partnerships at the Groundwork Collaborative. You can learn lots more about Groundwork in our show notes. And Claire, I send you all love and hugs and good wishes, and I hope that there’s a lot of rest with gusto in your holiday season coming up as well. [theme music returns]
GUZDAR: Yeah, to you too, Rebecca. Take good care.
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 indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. 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.