This week, continuing Off-Kilter’s ongoing series of conversations about the limiting beliefs that we as a collective must release and replace to pave the way for economic liberation, Rebecca sat down with two dear friends and leaders within guaranteed income movement—Dorian Warren and Aisha Nyandoro—to continue the conversation we started last week about one of the most toxic limiting beliefs underpinning large-scale oppression in the United States today: the notion that a human being’s worth comes from their work. Dorian Warren is co-president of Community Change and co-chair of the Economic Security Project, and Aisha Nyandoro is CEO of Springboard to Opportunities and founder of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust.
For more from this week’s guests:
- Learn more about Aisha’s work and the Springboard to Opportunity and the Magnolia Mothers’ Trust here
- Learn more about Dorian’s work with Community Change and the Economic Security Project
- Follow Aisha (@aisha_nyandoro) and Dorian (@dorianwarren) on Twitter
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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 along those lines, I wanted to open this week’s episode with some beautiful words from Dorian Warren, Anne Price, and Jhumpa Bhattacharya from an essay that they co-published early in the pandemic entitled Centering Blackness: The Path to Liberation for All. I quote, “We as a society are eager for a reboot, a different way of living in connection with one another, and are ready to vision forward. It is time to champion new thinking that is shaped by what we all deeply and collectively value in life—self-determination, dignity, and freedom of choice—to create a society where everyone can truly thrive and experience shared abundance.” So, 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 Dorian and Aisha Nyandoro, both of whom are dear friends and leaders within the guaranteed income movement, to continue the conversation we started on Off-Kilter last week about one of the most toxic limiting beliefs underpinning large scale oppression in the U.S. today: the notion that a human being’s worth comes from their work.
Dorian Warren is a co-president of Community Change. He’s also a co-chair of the Economic Security Project. And Aisha Nyandoro is CEO of Springboard to Opportunities and founder of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. You can find lots more about both of their work and the essay I mentioned as well as past episodes they’ve been on, on Off-Kilter talking about their various projects in show notes. [upbeat music break]
Dorian, Aisha, it is such a pleasure to be back in conversation with you guys. I just wish we were in person but thank you for being here!
DORIAN WARREN: Thanks for having us. It’s great to be back with you, Rebecca.
AISHA NYANDORO: Ditto. So wonderful to be having this conversation.
VALLAS: Ah, y’all are two of my favorite humans. I was saying that before we started to get rolling, but I’ll say it on air too, ‘cause it is true. I’m looking forward to getting to talk off air as well at some point soon. But in the meantime, I will take this. So, I just wanna start where we generally start these conversations. You’ve both been on the show before, but especially for the benefit of maybe some of our newer listeners, I’d love to give you each a chance to talk a little bit about how you come to this work. You each have worn a lot of different hats over the years, but also, you’re very intentional with how you enter this work. So, Dorian, I think I’m gonna start with you there. Kick us off. How did you come to this work?
WARREN: Well, I came to this work honestly through Black women, and really, my mother and my grandmother, and watching not totally what they said, but their behavior. And what I mean by that is my earliest political memory is walking a picket line of striking Chicago public school teachers at the age of seven with my mother and understanding and her explaining to me why she was taking this collective action against her employer, the Board of Education at the time, and what it would mean for our family if striking teachers won. And they did, and they won twice, actually, in the 1980s. And my mother would explain, frankly, the really concrete, material difference, like getting a raise. And we were working class and then lower middle class and middle class, like what it meant to fight for that and that no one was gonna ever give you anything. So, I think just watching my mother and my grandmother and really the range of Black women in my family, watching them take collective action to improve their lives, I think, is how I actually come to this work. And I’ve been searching for a long time now and what is the most impactful ways to make social change and to achieve social justice? But it’s really, it really comes from my family, how I came to this work.
And so, now, as you know, Rebecca, and as Aisha knows, I wear a number of different hats in the movement. I am the co-president of Community Change, and we support grassroots organizing around the country. And I’m the very proud co-founder of the Economic Security Project, which has been really focused on taking on corporate power through antimonopoly work, and of course, supporting the Aishas of the world around this radical but now mainstream idea of guaranteed income.
VALLAS: And we’re gonna get into a bunch of those different threads and make you put on a few of those different hats. But I have to confess, I don’t think, Dorian, I had ever actually heard you tell that story before. We’ve known each other for a long time, so I’m actually really glad that I asked that question and that you got to share a little bit of that personal side of how you came into the work. And I’ll just acknowledge as an aside before bringing you in, Aisha, that I don’t think I had realized that it was really from childhood, that then you were grounded in the understanding that the notion of messiah politics is a mythology.
VALLAS: You’ve known the whole time that no one’s coming to save us!
VALLAS: We’re the ones who are gonna save us. I don’t think I knew you were quite that precocious, shall we say.
WARREN: Well, I’ll let the church say amen.
VALLAS and WARREN: [laugh]
VALLAS: Aisha, how did you come to this work? And talk a little bit about your progression to the hats you wear now as well.
NYANDORO: I love this question, and Dorian, I love hearing you provide your origin story. And I think this is why we are really good friends, because our origins stories are similar. I feel like all roads of progression come from Black women, and I, too, from a very young age, was brought up with the understanding that you are blessed to be a blessing and that change begins at home. And I learned that from my mother and my aunts and my grandmother and just really sitting around the dinner table and having conversations about what it looks like to really affect change and how when you are working towards change, those who are most impacted have to be in the conversation. And it’s not about doing anything for a community, it’s doing things with the community. And from a very young age, those were my favorite conversations, to really talk about how you go about moving the needle on policy and systems change and how you go about doing that in partnership with community.
I am really blessed that I am a daughter of the South, a daughter, granddaughter of Mississippi. And so, my lessons about what it really does take to be rooted in community were learned from veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. Like I said, my grandmother, specifically at her table, she was a veteran of the movement, and just really having an ability to sit at her feet and learn that the arc of change really is long and that we have to be prepared for the ebbs and flows of what that fight actually looks like. And so, you celebrate the little wins while you also keep your eyes glued towards the North Star. And I’m so grateful for those early lessons because they really did shape my ability to do the work that I do now.
And in my capacity now, the main hat that I wear, the main seat that I sit in is as the Chief Executive Officer of Springboard to Opportunities. Springboard provides programs and services for families that live in federally-subsidized affordable housing, really providing ourselves on taking a radically resident-driven approach to how we go about supporting families as they advance in life, school, and work. And I also am the architect of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which is the first modern-day guaranteed income project in this country that provides $1,000 a month to Black mothers living in extreme poverty. And in that capacity, I’m one of the co-founders of the Guaranteed Income Community of Practice, and I sit on the Board with Dorian of the Economic Security Project.
VALLAS: It’s so many hats, but all of them have that throughline of finding the ways to advance, frankly, the notion of common human dignity, right, and moving away from the notion that one’s deservingness or worth comes from their work, which in a lot of ways is one of the core elements of the conversation we’re gonna have today. But before we get into talking about limiting beliefs and some of the most toxic limiting beliefs and agreements that, frankly, we as a collective need to figure out how to release and replace if we’re ever gonna have a shot at achieving what lies at the other end of that North Star you mentioned, Aisha, true collective liberation, I do wanna give you each a chance to respond to a quote that I mentioned earlier up top and which I actually found the piece that it comes from recently when I was thinking about what you each have been doing and saying. And I had read it when it came out, and I had forgotten about it. And Dorian, it sounds like you forgot about it, too! So, I love that we’re gonna get to talk about it for a minute. It’s an essay that Dorian, you wrote with Anne Price and Jhumpa Bhattacharya, two of your colleagues in the movement, and the essay is called Centering Blackness: The Path to Liberation for All. We’ve got a link to it in show notes, but I’m gonna quote from it, and then I’d love to give each of you a chance to respond to it, starting with you, Dorian, since you helped to write these words. But I’m gonna ask that question in the context of how you each are understanding the moment in human history that we’re currently living in.
So, I’m gonna quote here, “We as a society are eager for a reboot, a different way of living in connection with one another, and are ready to vision forward. It’s time to champion new thinking that is shaped by what we all deeply and collectively value in life—self-determination, dignity, and freedom of choice—to create a society where everyone can truly thrive and experience shared abundance.” And again, that essay is called Centering Blackness: The Path to Liberation for All. You all published that on Medium. Dorian, what was going on when you guys wrote this? Talk to me a little bit about the context for this piece and this beautiful string of words that come so much more from each of your hearts than from your heads, it feels, just to read them.
WARREN: Well, thanks for reminding me about this piece. And I have to admit, I need to reread it because I had forgotten some of these words. It was published, if I’m not mistaken, on Juneteenth 2020.
WARREN: But we had been working on it actually for a couple of years, to be honest. And so, it comes out of really the decade of the 2010s, some high moments, some very low moments. And I tend to think of any moment in history, by the way, as contradictory. There are some major opportunities all the time and some serious threats, and I’ll come back to that point. But I think we were reflecting on, and this is again before the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, there was this long decade of renewed organizing, the birth of the Movement for Black Lives in response to the killings of Black people from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown in Missouri, right, in Ferguson. And there’d been this organizing activity really shining the light on the deep issue of white supremacy in this country that continues.
And also, there had been just a range of organizing around economic justice and economic liberation. So, of course, in 2011 was the launch of Occupy Wall Street, but the following year, in 2012—and in fact, this is the 10-year anniversary—was the launch of this thing called the Fight for 15 in the union of low-wage workers organizing to say, “This is not enough. One job should be enough to survive on, much less thrive on.” And so, we were trying to reflect on the organizing that had been happening against injustice, especially the last few years leading into 2020. And then, of course, and remember, this is before the 2020 election. We were living in the midst of Trumpism. And then, of course, the murder of George Floyd. And we had this essay that we’d been working on, and we said, we have to get this out now because this is the moment. So, that is the origin of the essay.
And maybe the second thing I’ll just say quickly, Rebecca, is why those, my way of thinking about those words is, to make it really tangible and grounded for me, I really think about, I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmother. Because I have a two-year-old daughter, and 100 years ago, in 1922, my grandmother was roughly the same age. And so, I think a lot about what was her life? The year 1922, we were slowly coming out of a global pandemic, not unlike COVID. There were famous race riots a couple years before in my hometown of Chicago; there was “Revive KKK” on the march; there was Mussolini, a young Mussolini, and Hitler on the rise in terms of global fascism; our own racial authoritarianism in the Jim Crow South had consolidated by 1922; reconstruction had been over; Black voters had been purged from the polls and weren’t allowed to vote. Like, all the things that might ring familiar to our ears now, when my grandmother was three, she was also facing that.
And so, I think a lot about what were movement leaders in 1922, under those conditions, what were they thinking about? What were they organizing around? What were they strategizing around to create a better world for my grandmother? And that’s what I think about a lot in this moment of 2022 with my own daughter, of what is my charge? What is the charge of us collectively as a movement to make sense of the conditions in which we find ourselves and to hopefully transform this country and this world?
VALLAS: That’s beautiful. Aisha, how do these words land with you? And I know it’s an essay you had seen as well, but I almost feel even just saying them out loud ‘cause I had not read them out loud until just now. I had read them in my head, reading on the page. I actually got full body shivers even just speaking the words. How do these words land with you at this moment in human history?
NYANDORO: So full in so much, and specifically thinking about the small part that I play in this moment, the few words that are really resonating with me from that quote, that beautiful quote, from my friends and insight centering, Dorian, is to create a society where everyone can truly thrive and experience shared abundance. And I have been thinking about what it means to thrive, and so much of my work is really about operating in a space of a radical imagination where we all have the access to thrive and have that radical abundance. And I really have been grappling with that for the last several months as to what will that look like and also, with the reality that the work that I am actually moving towards is work that I don’t think will come into fruition in my lifetime. And that’s okay because we all play just a very small piece in a larger ecosystem of change. And being okay with that, I think, it’s the lessons that we’ve learned from our elders, from those who came before us, just to figure out what our portion is and how do we go about divorcing, in some instances, our ego from the reality that it’s not about us; it’s about the larger work of movement building, and it’s about the impact that we are working towards generation, generation, generations forward, not just for this moment in time.
And so, for me, it’s a beautiful sentiment that connects to a larger system, quite frankly, of change and helps to ground you in a lot of instances when you say, okay, I understand I am here to work towards a society where we’re all thriving. And I also recognize that just like my grandmother and my great grandmother and my great-great grandmother, the dreams that I am seeding will flourish into trees that others get to benefit from.
VALLAS: That’s so beautiful. And just to follow on that thread, one of the pieces of the conversation I had with Jeremie Greer and Solana Rice, two friends of both of yours, who are the co-founders and the visionaries behind Liberation in a Generation, in our first episode of this season of Off-Kilter was really around that exact point: that it’s not about change that we can bring about tomorrow or even within our lifetimes or nothing at all. We’re really, we’re fighting the fight for the next generation, and it’s always been in that way. It’s such an important point, given that it’s so easy, and so frequent, right, to be told, “Oh, your dreams aren’t realistic” or, “oh, that can’t get done in this Congress.” And that’s sort of the point that you’re making. If we’re only thinking about what you can do right now in this exact moment, then you aren’t dreaming, right? That isn’t vision ‘cause you’re actually—
NYANDORO: That’s exactly right.
VALLAS: —you’re talking about the now. You’re talking about improving on the status quo. So, I can’t think of a better segue way into the meat and potatoes—or the seitan and the tofu—of this conversation, depending on your leanings, which is getting to some of the collective limiting beliefs that we are invisibly allowing to serve as a net over us as a society standing in the way of the visions and the dreams that otherwise might seem unrealistic or impossible.
So, I wanna really throw that to both of you as kind of the kicking off point for the next chunk of this conversation with the prompt that I’d love to start with, in my opinion, what is sort of the mother of many of the limiting beliefs that we currently have wreaking all kinds of invisible havoc in American society today, which is the notion that one’s deservingness or one’s worth comes from their work. So, I’m gonna stay with you there, Aisha, for a moment and then bring you back in, Dorian, because it’s a core element of your work is pushing back on—and always has been throughout your career—pushing back on that limiting belief, pushing us to call it out, to name it so that we can realize how much it’s at work. We talked a good amount about this last week with Rebecca Cokley and Keith Jones, and we didn’t even scratch the surface, which is a big part of why I wanted to bring that thread into this conversation with both of you. So, Aisha, talk to me a little bit about that as a limiting belief and how that’s showing up today in American society.
NYANDORO: I think it’s showing up in the throughline and thread line of so many of our policies right now. And I think the ideal of worth coming from work is definitely among this country’s most limiting beliefs, but relatedly, whose work we see as worthy is another major challenge. Black women participate in the labor market at far greater numbers than their counterpart. Yet the disparities as it relates to income stability and wealth acquisition demonstrates that, as a society, we actually don’t value their labor efforts. And I think this pandemic has helped us see that those that we have for so long held up as the pinnacle of success in America, the white-collar workers and those individuals with their corner offices, are not actually those who are keeping the economy afloat and society afloat. It’s our teachers, our hospital workers, our grocery store clerks, all of those individuals who we deemed as frontline workers at the beginning of the pandemic. And while the public is finally recognizing this critical labor, we also need our corporations to do the same by paying workers a living wages and offering them the benefits that they need to go about actualizing the American Dream, which is closely tied to the population I serve since so many of the women that we work with are Black women overrepresented in these low-paying jobs that have no benefits in a lot of instances.
And, I think, though, another issue as it relates to a long-held belief within this country is just truly understanding how poverty works. I think the pandemic has helped me understand that most Americans just fundamentally do not understand the role of policies in determining financial stability and economic mobility. And we still view poverty as a personal failing of an individual rather than a collective failure of society.
VALLAS: Oh, that is so well said, and we need to spend some time on that piece as well. Dorian, where do you want to take that? We spent some time last week really drawing the line straight through from slavery to present day, and that is probably fairly obvious to anyone who’s listening and thinking about where that might’ve come from in the U.S. But this isn’t just an incredibly toxic limiting belief for communities of color, it’s got toxicity that impacts all of us. Talk a little bit about how this shows up in American society for you.
WARREN: Well, I’ll actually start where you just left off in a way, in terms of the throughline from slavery, because it’s a good example, and I’ll raise childcare and early learning as an example where you can root the origins of our childcare system, or frankly, lack thereof to slavery and to the role of enslaved Black domestic workers, Black women, and doing the care work for the country’s children and the lack of worth attached to that care work from the very founding of this country. And so, it’s not a surprise that we are sitting here in the 21st century with a privatized childcare system, with the devaluation of the vastly supermajority female workforce, particularly of women of color in the childcare and home care industries. We have still not made the policy and political choices to value that work. And again, there’s a throughline to domestic workers, enslaved Black women in slavery for hundreds of years doing that work for free.
The other point I would make here is, and Rebecca, you made me think of this book I read many years ago in grad school called Belated Feudalism. It’s a very academic work by a political scientist, a woman named Karen Orren. And here’s the crux of the argument. I’m gonna make it plain. We basically imported employment and labor law from England in the 17th, 18th centuries here. And that labor and employment law was rooted in a system not of capitalism, but of feudalism, where the vast majority of quote-unquote “subjects” in a society had no rights. And in fact, there were stories made up to justify that system of exploitation and unfreedom. And that’s part of the origin of these notions around work and why dignity comes from work. It’s because there have been systems throughout human history that were created to force and compel people to work for others’ profits and benefits, and then just making up a story about why that was somehow a good thing. And we’ve been combating that for hundreds of years.
Now, there was a little bit of innovation with this thing called the Protestant work ethic that’s been written about for many, many decades now. And there’s a unique American version of that where we mostly defined—we grew up hearing these stories—that we’re mostly defined by work, by notions of hard work, as opposed to having the dignity that should be afforded every human being, regardless of work. So, we have these really dominant narratives and stories about why work is supposedly worth so much, even though we don’t wanna pay people for it that justifies, frankly, exploitation and the benefit of a very few group of people at the top who benefit from all of our labor. And that seems to me to be like our long-term challenge is really busting through these narratives that have held sway for way too long and have justified so much misery and suffering for not just hundreds of years, but frankly, I can count back about four or five generations in my own family in this country who are all hard workers but never valued for the work that they did. So, we have a— Anyway, maybe I’ll end this way and to pick up on what Aisha said, we in this moment need that radical imagination of what it would mean to decouple one’s worth from work. What would it mean to say we are all, just by virtue of being human beings, valued, have dignity, have the same rights and opportunities as everybody else? And I think that is the narrative challenge in front of us.
VALLAS: And it’s a big part of why you and I and Aisha and other people spend as much time as we do talking about narrative, right? Which can somehow sound separate from policy or from reality and yet, is really about the consciousness work that we’re all collectively doing here to try to move from the limiting beliefs to the place of imagination unrestricted in the ways that we have been up to this point as a society. A notion and a metaphor that has real resonance for me in this moment, which has come through the mouths and words of a number of people I consider to be modern-day oracles and prophets is the notion that we are living in a battle of imaginations. That this is a moment where a lot of people are waking up and realizing, wait a second! We’ve been living in someone else’s imagination this whole time, and that that’s a way of understanding what oppression is. That oppression is when a person or a bunch of people are all living in someone else’s dream. And so, as you’re describing this, Dorian, and as I think back to where we started this conversation about that beautiful essay about centering Blackness, that essay, you spend a lot of time—I didn’t quote it here, but you spend a lot of time—in that essay writing about why it’s important to center Blackness and actually helping people realize that when you don’t do that, well, what are we doing by default invisibly? Well, we’re centering whiteness. And that actually is the imagination in which we’ve been living.
I wanna give you each, just to continue this thread a little bit, the chance to talk about how the push for a guaranteed minimum income fits into this conversation. Dorian, you were starting to take us to what are the narratives, what are the beliefs that we have an invitation now to replace the “your worth comes from your work” limiting belief with. Talk a little bit, Aisha, about the push for a guaranteed minimum income from the place of radical imagination that you were just describing.
NYANDORO: Yeah, thank you for that. So, a couple of pieces I think are important before we dive into the guaranteed income piece, is the narrative challenge, and then I also think it’s the harm of living in someone else’s imagination. And I think the narrative challenge for me specifically, as we have been doing this work of guaranteed income for a number of years, is how dangerous narratives are as it relates to how you view yourself and your worth. And I don’t think we talk about that enough because the mainstream narrative is very loud, and it’s everywhere. So, if you are constantly being told who you are by someone who, number one, doesn’t have permission to define you, and number two, actually has no idea of who you are, you begin to see that, and that limits your imagination. And you began to live in the imagination of someone else, and that limits your ability to dream about your future and what liberation and collective liberation should look like for yourself and your family. So, it’s all very dangerous because it disallows you to dream, and it allows you to be in a place of scarcity because that’s where the status quo wants you, and that’s where mainstream wants you. And so, that’s so, so very dangerous because it doesn’t allow us to operate in our full potential.
And so, guaranteed income comes in and disrupts that, because guaranteed income is a direct challenge to this ideal of worthiness as it relates to your job. And instead of saying, yes, you are deserving of a floor, you can not [unclear] your very existence as a human being. And not only are you deserving of that floor, you are deserving to be the narrative of your life in what it is that you do with that floor and how you go about living out your dreams. It really is a provocation to delink labor and dignity and gets us to the society I think most of us really want to live in, I hope most of us wanna live in, where we recognize everyone’s inherent humanity and the fact that we all do better when we all do better.
VALLAS: Dorian, keep pulling on that thread. Where do you wanna take that?
WARREN: I mean, my sister Aisha always says all the words! I don’t know how to follow up! I’ll just, let me just actually add to what she said and really honor her leadership and vision and radical imagination. Because one of the, as we know and I know that you’ve talked about it many times, Rebecca, the welfare queen trope. When I just said those words, in everyone’s head, popped an image. And the reason why it’s probably the same image is because the right has been so good at dominating the narrative and pushing out this racist, sexist narrative around Black women and work and welfare. And we’ve had a hard time for 50, 60 years if not longer pushing back on that narrative, much less destroying it. And what I love about the Magnolia Mother’s Trust is that Dr. Nyandoro with her team and her mothers actually, not through just words, but through actions, are going head at that narrative and saying basically, “F you. [laughs] We’re gonna show you something radically different.” And so, I just wanna appreciate her in public here on your podcast, Rebecca, for having that radical imagination and really saying, “No, we’re not. No, our mothers here in Jackson are deserving just by virtue of who they are.”
And so, the second thing I wanna say is on this continued dominant narrative around work and worthiness. I mean, we’ve seen this play out in the fight around the Child Tax Credit, for instance, the last year and a half of certain senators, typically Democratic ones, basically saying, “There has to be a work requirement. There has to be a work requirement. Otherwise, people won’t work. It’ll be a disincentive to work.” And the beauty of Aisha being the pioneer around guaranteed income pilots in this country—I would say in the modern age of this country, and now we’re at about 100 pilots around the country—the beauty of this pretty radical imagination and experimentation is that we have a whole bunch of facts about what happens when you give people money, when you give people cash. What do they do with it? Because we know the dominant narratives will say, “Oh, you just give people cash, they won’t wanna work. They’re gonna go buy cigarettes and alcohol.” And here’s the thing. First of all, if that’s what people wanna do, then let them do it! ‘Cause that’s called freedom and choice. So, either you believe in freedom of choice or you don’t, or you’re punitive and paternalistic. Number two, we also know empirically, we have so many studies now, that what people do with the money is provide for their families, keep a roof over their heads, buy food for their kids, school supplies, clothes, like the basic necessities that everybody should have. So, we know that we’re getting this rich amount of data about actually what happens when we can actually make the policy choice to provide everyone with a guaranteed income so they can meet their basic needs. And it’s not enough. It’s necessary, but not sufficient to have the data, because we have to do the deeper storytelling.
But it does remind me—this the last point, ‘cause you both have been involved in these fights, too—it reminds me of the distance we’ve traveled around fights around the minimum wage in the last decade. Because there was this theoretical debate about, “Oh, no! You can’t raise wages ‘cause you’re gonna hurt the very people you wanna help. And what will people do with the extra money?!” Blah, blah, blah. And now we just have so much more empirical data and deep storytelling of people directly affected what happens. And frankly, organizing! A lot of organizing, a lot of worker organizing right now of what happens when you raise wages. Guess what? The sky doesn’t fall, and we’re learning that around guaranteed income as well.
VALLAS: And Dorian, I so appreciate you bringing also the Child Tax Credit into this because it doesn’t go without saying. It probably just needs to be said as many times as we can, given the moment in policy development and policy realization that we’re at in that space, that the United States doesn’t have a guaranteed minimum income. We don’t have a guaranteed minimum income even for families with children at a national, totally scaled-up place. But we do have this thing called the Child Tax Credit, which briefly started to head in that direction as part of some of the legislating we saw in the wake of the pandemic when the Child Tax Credit got expanded in a particularly historic way. And now here you are bringing us back to present day and back, sort of deflating the balloons and reminding us of the political place that we’re at today, which is not just Republicans, but also Democrats saying, “Wait a second! Don’t we need a work requirement for cash?”
And it’s hard to hear that and engage with that without also then bringing in the present-day reality of where our politics and our policy-making sector is because of these limiting beliefs that we’re talking about around public assistance more broadly, right? That to say that we should have public assistance without work reporting requirements, whether that be Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, the SNAP program, formerly called food stamps; whether that be Medicaid, which briefly in the Trump era even started to have work requirements in some states. I mean, this is a very live conversation that takes us right back to the myth of the welfare queen, where you brought us before, Dorian, because of the Reagan era sort of narrative around where poverty comes from that was incredibly racialized, and which, frankly, is still with us, even if it’s been pushed somewhat underground. And that’s really what I think your comments remind me of and remind me it’s worth saying out loud, while also just saying as a person, not with my podcast hat on, but with my policy hat on, I’ve been in rooms for a number of years where I’ve been the person unpopularly saying, “Hey, shouldn’t we be talking not just about reforming work reporting requirements, but actually getting rid of them in these programs?”
VALLAS: And there’s a lot of folks who would say, “Oh, no, no, no! We can’t go there. We can’t go there. That’s too radical. We’ll be laughed out of the room. We can’t even have that conversation. We just need to talk about reform.” And yet it is so hard to be in this moment where we’re still, it should be said, in a pandemic, but still reckoning with some of the lessons, especially from earlier in the pandemic, when we saw just such dramatic and sudden, and in some cases, almost overnight disruptions within the labor market. It’s so hard for me as a human who cares about common humanity to sit here and not wanna scream from the rooftops, “Didn’t we learn what a disaster it is to tie basic needs to work?!” I’ll dismount from my soapbox. But we’re not there yet. We’re not there yet.
NYANDORO: I love a good soapbox moment. I enjoy it.
NYANDORO: I usually am the one on a soapbox rant, so thank you for that. And I will say, you didn’t ask the question, but I’m gonna say this because it’s been something I’ve been grappling with that we all have got to give ourself grace in understanding that the work that we are doing is not instantaneous. We want these pieces to move instantaneously because we know that lives are being ruined and that lives will be changed and that families are suffering and that the suffering doesn’t have to exist, it’s a choice that we are making. But so much of what it is that we are talking about is values, and values are deeply entrenched in your upbringing, in your narrative. And narrative is important, but we also have to understand that narrative depends on who is telling the story. And so, we are asking people, in a lot of instances, as we are saying, let’s create a more just economy where we all can operate in abundance, we’re asking people to discouple ideas that they have been normalized to believe for decades, if not generations.
And so, for those of us who are freedom fighters, we gotta say, [bleep]. Oh, I’m so sorry, Troy. We gotta say, dang! I gotta give myself grace in this moment and recognize that my piece in this change is even introducing a new narrative. It may not be pushing it to the goalpost or to the finish line, but it’s the seed, the idea, and that’s okay. And that this really is the long arc of the work. And how do we hold that long arc of the work in one hand while we simultaneously are holding in the other hand the need to immediately support families? And so, that’s why for me, guaranteed income, the Child Tax Credit, all of our cash-based policies that need to be reformed ought to go hand in hand as saying, okay, we can address the immediate needs that families have, but we also can hold the long vision of what is necessary to get to a society where we have the policies and systems in place that actually do honor our families’ humanity and dignity and provides them the support that they need. And that’s policy change, and that’s the long arc. So, we just have to be patient with ourselves and get on our soapboxes whenever we need to, feel good about ourselves, and drop inappropriate curse words whenever we need to, feel okay with ourselves, and just keep doing the work. [laughs]
VALLAS: I love, I love that everybody who’s been on this show now, they get to leave and curse in their own personal time and then catch themselves saying, “Sorry, Troy.” [laughs] Troy, you’re educating us all, our brilliant and fearless producer, Troy, who always bleeps out the curse words.
Dorian, I wanna take us into a few additional places before I run out of time with you both. And so, I’m gonna jump on this chance to take you into a slightly different place while also saying, Aisha, you have a permanent invitation to come and hang out on my soapbox with me.
VALLAS: Dorian, you mentioned before, one of the hats that you wear that you are a president of Community Change, and it used to be called the Center for Community Change for old-school folks who still accidentally call it CCC.
VALLAS: And it’s a lot of things, and it’s sort of hard to even put in just a couple of words how much it does, because there are so many different ways that it relates to movement work. But I wanna throw this next question to you, because organizing and supporting organizers on the ground and connecting the organizing to the policymaking that disproportionately happens in Washington, DC, is a big part of what you all do. It’s also a part of what you all do very differently, and I say that as a compliment, than a lot of other folks who are who are DC based. And so, as I ask this next question, I wanna bring in the spirit of adrienne maree brown, who I am a huge fan of, and one of my favorite things about her is that she describes herself as a scholar of magic, which I am as well, and feel very seen in her being very out about that. She describes herself as an emergent strategist.
VALLAS: And she has likened organizing to time travel, which is a comparison that I love as also a sci-fi nerd. So, I wanna ask you, how does organizing show up in your work and in movement work and in your theory of change around the work? And as I ask that question, talk a little bit about how organizing is a tool, not just for shifting collective consciousness or getting public policies to become realities, but frankly, time travel, as she describes, by shaping our collective future.
WARREN: Whoo! That’s quite the question, and I love it! So, organizing really is about one, first and foremost, the belief that when ordinary people come together, when the Davids and the Davidos come together, they can beat Goliath. And that ordinary people and those closest to the injustices in our society are also the experts around the solutions in solving those problems. And so, it’s about, you know, our tagline at Community Change is “power from the ground up,” as opposed to what we might say are some top-down strategies. And at its root, organizing, if you go to any organizing training, the first thing you’re gonna learn is to listen. Active listening. Starting where people are, hearing their stories, understanding their values and what they care about. And once you do that listening, good organizers listen much more than they talk. They lead from behind. They empower others to speak for themselves and to take action for themselves. And so, step one is active listening.
And then there is an organizing process, Rebecca, of inviting people, of invitations to an onramp, let’s say, to imagine a future, what Aisha said earlier was radical imagination. And that is time travel. Because if you’re, say, an enslaved Black person in 1851, you have no choice but to travel to the future to imagine liberation and freedom. If you’re a working-class Black woman in Mississippi in 1960, you have no choice but to time travel to the future and imagine a different world for yourself and your children and family. It is sort of the core of organizing is about the belief that a different future is possible. And to enact that belief, you have to time travel, and you have to have that radical imagination. But you can’t stop there. You then need some strategy. That’s what, in organizing, what we say are campaigns. They are the process. They are the vehicle to get from here to that future world that we want. They are the vehicle to do, to make real the time travel that we might do in our radical imagination and how to make it real. So, organizing can be joyful. It is thankless, tireless work. It is daily work. But it’s also transformative in the sense. And I’ll stop here.
When I used to be a union organizer, one of the first aha moments I had was organizing mostly Black and immigrant female housekeepers in hotels in Chicago and seeing them turn up to their first sort of collective action, kind of a rally after basically saying to their bosses, “We need a raise, and we want rights on the job.” And to see the transformation in their eyes when they looked at each other and saw the collective power they had versus assuming their problems were just as individuals, that is what organizing is about. It’s about that collective and individual transformation of consciousness, of imagination, frankly, of saying I and we deserve better. But it’s also paired with a strategy of really building power and taking power away from those that dominate our lives and changing the conditions that affect our daily lives. So, I’ve just said a lot there about what organizing is. But it is one of the only long-standing tools that we have throughout human history that requires all of us to come together who have less power than those who rule, to challenge those systems of domination that affect our lives and to transform those systems into places of liberation.
VALLAS: Aisha, what do you wanna add to that?
NYANDORO: Nothing. He dropped the mic. Let’s move on.
VALLAS and NYANDORO: [laugh]
VALLAS: End of the episode. Just kidding. Just kidding.
NYANDORO: What is the next question?! I’m like, you know?! The king of organizing just told us how to organize! That was a master class. Package that up into a TED Talk. [laughs]
VALLAS: I love it. I love it. No, but an end, right? I wanna sort of tie everything that you just offered, Dorian, to another science fiction reference, right, which is that—and actually Solana said something very similar in our first episode. I loved that she went there—that doing this work means that we’re all believers in science fiction, right?! Because we’re trying to build an economy and a society that have never existed before.
VALLAS: And so, by definition, we’re trying to create the future, right, but from a place that is not about replicating some past moment. Aisha, I wanna take you to a question next that is one I’ve been bringing up with our guests in every episode this season. And it’s because a mentor of mine said something to me recently that his words have been continuing to ring not just in my ears, but really throughout my whole soul since he said these words. And that’s that living in this time in human history is either an affliction or an assignment. And with the implication being we have a choice about which camp we’re gonna affiliate with, and then therefore, how we respond to this moment and how we show up in this moment. What advice do you have for advocates or frankly, anyone? ‘Cause we can all be advocates, even if we’re not quote-unquote “professionally doing this work.” What advice do you have for folks who are in the movement in this moment who are looking to accept the assignment? And in particular, I ask that question with real recognition because of the informational interviews that I love to do whenever anyone sends me an email, it’s one of the great honors to get to sit down with folks who are trying to figure out where to take their careers. There are so many folks out there right now who are frankly trying to find their place in the work. What advice do you have?
NYANDORO: Oh, yeah. That’s such a beautiful question. And I think you caught me on a good day as it relates to advice.
VALLAS and NYANDORO: [laugh]
NYANDORO: I won’t be cynical! [laughs] I think the advice that I have for anyone who is looking into this assignment, and I really do consider it one of my greatest privileges in life, that this is really my assignment that I had an opportunity to say yes to and to see how it has tremendously blossomed, is just one of the pieces that gives me so much joy. And as I think about advice, I will offer up that they learn pacing. I constantly think about, and I’m often, you know, when I do interviews, sometimes long-form interviews, individuals ask me about my maternal grandmother, Dr. L.C. Dorsey, who I’ve mentioned before, who I learned so many lessons from that I am so grateful for as it relates to my work. But I am often here lately reflective of what I did not learn from her and her contemporaries, and that was how to rest. And that was the pacing that’s necessary so that we are sustained to continue to fight. And unfortunately, since I did not learn that lesson from her and her contemporaries, they’re not here. They all expired prematurely because of the fact that the work is hard. And if we are not understanding that you have to pace yourself and you have to rest and you have to listen to your body and you have to say joyous nos as much as you are saying joyous yeses, the work won’t move, and the work won’t continue. And so, I really want people to divorce themselves from the idea that, “Oh, my God. I’ve been working so hard, and if I am not here, it won’t get done. And I have to be working 24/7.” If you’re working 24/7, the work won’t get done because you want won’t be here. You’ll be dead. And that doesn’t serve any of us well.
VALLAS: I love you so much for that being your answer. I’m not trying to interrupt you if you’ve got more of that medicine to share. But boy, is that the right thing, one of the right things, to be saying to so many people right now!
NYANDORO: Yeah, and it’s a refining. And I think for my grandmother, my granny and her contemporaries, that idea that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, that was probably true. And it did serve them well. And for my great grandmother and those who came before her, the idea that they did have the constantly be working because they were in the fields of Mississippi, and they could not stop because there were consequences. But for so many of us right now, that’s not our reality. That is a narrative that we are choosing to cloak ourselves with as if it’s a banner. And we need to stop. And so, we need to learn to rest. We need to take a nap. We need to be restored. We need to have random conversations with our friends in our text message groups. So, that’s the advice I would offer up. Not sure if is what’s you expected, but that’s all I got! [laughs]
VALLAS: I try not to expect an answer from you because I always know that what I’m gonna get is better than anything I’ve been expecting, just to join the Aisha fan club that Dorian founded earlier in this episode. Although I think actually, we founded an Aisha fan club on a prior episode you guys did together.
WARREN: Mmhmm, mmhmm!
VALLAS: So, maybe we’re just reinstating it. [laughs] No, I love that answer. I will also just say on a personal note how much that resonates with me as someone who is now endeavoring to be a lot more public about my own experience with working myself into the ground and living with functional burnout for years that I didn’t realize was functional burnout and the physical and the mental and the emotional and the spiritual levels that this all then plays out on, it’s hard to hear you say that and not actually feel that it takes us back full circle to where we started with the conversation around collective limiting beliefs given that the notion that your work is your worth, it plays out at every level of the socioeconomic hierarchy that our society is still wedded to. And it is not just true of people who are perhaps underpaid or undervalued in their jobs. It follows through to the folks doing the work to try to do the social change, right, and can show up in work addiction and other work codependency, and all of that can become work sickness for—
NYANDORO: Isn’t it always so amazing how strong white supremacy is? I tell you.
VALLAS: And the effect on all of us, right? All of us just for being here and in the water that we’re all swimming in together. Dorian, what thoughts do you have on that same question, if any?
WARREN: Aisha dropped the mic on that. I don’t have anything to add in return, so, yes. And I was listening intently. Yeah. Rest, thank you. Thank you, Doc. [laughs]
VALLAS: Then I’m gonna take you to one last place, and this is where we’re gonna close out. And that is it harks back to a point that both of you have made. And Aisha, you were speaking brilliantly and beautifully about this before around keeping the North Star while also celebrating the wins and the incremental progress that’s in keeping with the arc that that North Star is taking us to. It’s been said a lot of times throughout the history of movement work, including around the arc of the moral universe, right, which is perhaps the best known version of that quote. I wanna ask as our last question, how do we keep visioning forward while we also do the work of protecting the gains that we’ve made? Which can often require engaging not just in incremental offense, but day-to-day battles just to protect our communities. I ask that question as we’re obviously hurtling towards some pretty critical midterms, and we’re choosing not to make this show a news cycle-based show in this moment. So, we haven’t been doing lots of oh, my God, what are we expecting for Democrats or Republicans in the House or in the Senate? But I wanna close by asking both of you how you’re threading the needle right now and what advice you have for others as we move towards those midterms, which are incredibly important because of how much is at stake—everyone get educated and go vote—but without losing that larger perspective around the radical visioning and radical imagination we need to be doing? And I don’t know who wants to take that first, and the other will get the last word.
NYANDORO: I can take it first.
WARREN: Oh, I was gonna take that first so you can have the last, Doc.
NYANDORO: Okay. Thank you, brother.
WARREN: ‘Cause you— Mmhmm. Mmhmm. I’ll be quick. [laughs] I think to answer that question, Rebecca, two things come to mind. One is some improv principles. I’m a big fan of Second City in my hometown of Chicago. I’ve taken some improvisation classes. And there’s always a principle of “yes and,” which I interpret to mean, you can walk and chew gum at the same time. There’s a little bit of both and. So, how do we keep our sights on what’s ahead of us in this next week or month or year and the North Star that might be five, 10, 50 years away? We have to be able to do both at the same time, because surely our ancestors did. So, we have no excuse not to. There’s another improv principle that’s about playing the scene you are in, not the scene you wish you were in. And I think that’s an important insight to say, to have the sober assessment of like, what are the current conditions we’re facing right now, not the ones we’re imagining? But I would add to that play the scene you’re in and not the one you wish you were in, how do we collectively write entirely new scenes altogether, right? And again, that requires doing both at the same time.
And then last I would say is maybe this is how I think about the world, continuing to find the sacred in the mundane. And what I mean by that is whether it’s really looking at a grain of sand or a leaf falling off a tree during fall, or frankly, not taking for granted the feel of my two-year-old’s hand in my hand. Those kind of things are the things we can often be distracted from in our daily work lives. And I just think it’s so important to stay connected to family, to loved ones, to the earth, to our moral purpose. And often, you find that connectedness in what may seem to be mundane.
VALLAS: That’s absolutely beautiful, and it’s medicine on every level. Aisha, you are gonna get the last word.
NYANDORO: That was so beautiful. And this last question, since we were talking earlier a little bit about science fiction, it brings me to one of my favorite quotes from Octavia Butler: “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you.” And I think about that every day, and I have a daily practice where I actually write out what did I change today, and what changed me? And it helps me stay grounded in the here and now, and then also thinking about the future and the future-casting as necessary. And I really thread the needle by realizing that none of us got here or got into this work because it was easy. We know dismantling the systems of oppression is no simple feat, but that also none of us are here by accident. And it’s even more necessary that if we said yes to the assignment, we’re here to keep fighting in the hard times. So, yeah.
VALLAS: Aisha, there are messages going on in the chat right now that Dorian—and I’m gonna add myself to this—we’re adopting that practice immediately! [laughs] That is brilliant and beautiful, and I love that that’s where we’re ending this conversation. Aisha, I have to say your comments about rest and pacing have also inspired me that maybe it’s time for us to do a podcast episode for Off-Kilter around how to live by the cycles of the moon. There’s a lot of my witchy side that I don’t bring into these conversations that now you’re inspiring me to bring in, in the spirit of radical self-care. But that’s a beautiful practice. What did you change today, and what changed you? I love that so much.
We’re gonna run out of time, and I wish we had multiple more hours because there’s so much that we could speak to here. And I’d love to spend more time with you, but I’m gonna need to let you both go to other very important commitments. Aisha Nyandoro is CEO of Springboard to Opportunities adventure and enterprise that anyone who’s not familiar with should go and check out. Also, the architect of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which we’ve had whole episodes diving into deeply. So, for folks looking to learn more, go check out past conversations with Aisha. And Dorian Warren is co-president of Community Change, co-chair of the Economic Security Project. He wears lots of other hats too. Dorian, Aisha, thank you both for taking the time. And I just so enjoyed this conversation. I always do. But you two are, I think, especially in a strong soul-based place today.
WARREN: Well, thank you for having us together again! I don’t wanna come back on the show without my sister, Aisha. I have to say! [laughs]
NYANDORO: We’ve got to figure out how to do it in person, get you out of your closet!
WARREN: Oh, indeed, indeed.
VALLAS: Or we’ll go meet in Dorian’s closet. I don’t know. I’m flexible as long as it means sharing space with y’all.
NYANDORO: Oh, yes! [laughs]
VALLAS: All right. Best wishes to you both. We’ll make it happen soon. [theme music returns]
NYANDORO: Thank you.
WARREN: Thanks. Thanks. Talk soon. Bye, everybody.
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.