Tell Me More: Resilience and Hope

Alums Christina Greer and Zerlina Maxwell talk about the intersection of politics, race, and gender—and the radical MLK—in a Tufts podcast
Christina Greer and Zerlina Maxwell at Tufts
“That’s my pitch—to work on campaigns, because I think it’s invaluable experience,” said Zerlina Maxwell, right, with Christina Greer at Tufts. Photo: Alonso Nichols
March 6, 2019

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Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.

Earlier this year, Tufts hosted its annual celebration honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., which included a conversation—inspired by him—on resilience and hope. Tufts alums Christina Greer, J00, and Zerlina Maxwell, A03, spoke at the event, “A Single Garment of Destiny.”

Greer is an associate professor of political science and American Studies at Fordham University. Her primary research and teaching interests are racial and ethnic politics, American urban centers, presidential politics, and campaigns and elections. She is the author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Maxwell is the director of progressive programming for SiriusXM and a political analyst for NBC/MSNBC. She was the director of progressive media for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. She also speaks and writes for a variety of national media outlets. Her writing focuses on national politics, candidates, and specific policy and culture issues, including race, feminism, domestic violence, sexual assault, victim blaming, and gender inequality.

In this episode of Tell Me More, Greer and Maxwell have a wide-ranging conversation with Kendra Field, associate professor of history and Africana Studies at Tufts, sharing their thoughts on gender, race, and the intersection of the two.

Recommended links:

Christina Greer: Twitter / Profile

Zerlina Maxwell: Twitter / Profile

TRANSCRIPTION

HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.

Earlier this year, Tufts hosted its annual celebration honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that included a conversation—inspired by him—on resilience and hope. This year’s program welcomed back to Tufts Christina Greer and Zerlina Maxwell. In this wide-ranging conversation, they also share their thoughts on gender, race, and the intersection of the two.

Christina Greer is an associate professor of political science and American studies at Fordham University. Greer’s research and teaching focuses on racial and ethnic politics, American urban centers, presidential politics, and campaigns and elections. Zerlina Maxwell is director of progressive programming for SiriusXM and a political analyst for NBC and MSNBC. She was also director of progressive media for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Here, Maxwell and Greer speak with Kendra Field, associate professor of history and Africana Studies at Tufts. The first voice you hear is Zerlina Maxwell’s, as she makes the case for involvement by young people in political campaigns. After she speaks, you’ll hear Christina Greer’s advice in response to Kendra Field. Let’s listen in.

ZERLINA MAXWELL: Well, my first pitch is really just if you are interested at all in politics, there are going to be at least twenty Democratic campaigns that you will be able to get plenty of experience on. Certainly, if you’re going second-tier or third-tier down, you’ll get even better experience—and more hands-on experience—because the top talent is going to go to the first-tier pretty quickly; it’s already happening.

So, that’s my pitch: to work on campaigns, because I think it’s invaluable experience. And I’m not just talking door-knocking and making phone calls; I’m talking about digital strategy, messaging strategy, communication strategy. And you will be able to do those things, particularly on one of these Democratic campaigns. Because what I learned from working on now two presidential campaigns is: there comes a point where whatever structure they have laid out—this is who does what, and this is the hierarchy—it pretty much gets thrown in the trash at a certain point. You just fill in the gaps. You see somebody is not talking to that person? OK, I’m going to take that job. Somebody needs to call this progressive media outlet? All right, I got that, that’s my job. I know that person: that girl went to high school with me, so I have her email; I can communicate with her. So my pitch for campaigns is that there are a lot of opportunities to fill in the gaps and get experience in things you probably never even thought you would be able to get experience in.

Additionally, the networking opportunities are next to none because you’re working with the top tech people in America—because, basically the tech talent is all going to be siphoned and work on these presidential campaigns, so then that can then set you up for a real job.

CHRISTINA GREER: Right. I mean I always tell my students two things. One, you should work on a campaign. Two, you should get robbed, not at gunpoint, but you should come home and not have your stuff. Working on a campaign of some sort is really important, just because you need to see structures, you need to see how communications work, your need to see your candidate give the same talk to very different communities.

MAXWELL: And they need young people.

GREER: Yeah, they do need young people.

MAXWELL: They want to reach out to millennials. There were tons of millennials on the campaign, but there need to be more.

GREER: They need to listen to the millennials next time. We have to see ourselves in whatever occupation we choose. So, here’s the thing: Everyone is good for something. Obviously, I’m going to put in a plug for political science. Join the political science department either taking classes domestically or international relations, because it’s going to help you make some sort of sense of it.

I do joke around that my American political science degree is basically like a computer science degree from the 1950s because I’m, like, “What are we doing?” I mean, our institutions are being stretched to the limit and our Constitution is weeping right now. But I think obviously we need to maintain our level of curiosity, and we have to read. I think that there is this reactionary sense that we’re all in, but there’s still something about reading that is imperative. I’m not too sure if I can state that enough.

But I would say, even if you’re not going to go into politics, it’s exhausting. I mean I can’t believe I’ve decided to dedicate my life to American politics and I actually have to read the news every single day. Obviously, you see I’m looking at my phone and I’m trying not to touch it just because I’m on a panel, but I do think, I always tell people, everyone’s good for something. Even if you go to JPMorgan or you decide to be an I-banker, or a corporate lawyer, someone needs to finance the revolution. Someone needs to pay for young candidates who want to run against an incumbent and actually mean something. So, I mean I would hope that also for those of you who might be a little discouraged by the current political moment, there are a lot of really interesting young people who are running—not just on the presidential level, but down-ticket matters.

I’ve been thinking about this idea of political tithing. Obviously, when you belong to a faith-based institution, you also tithe to that institution, because you want to see it thrive and flourish. That’s the same way I feel about my political institutions. If I see a young person or an interesting person running for some sort of elected office, it doesn’t matter if it’s not in New York City, I support them financially and I try and get other people to support them financially, because that’s my way of buying into seeing the type of democracy that I want. So I put in a little plug for that as well.

KENDRA FIELD: So I want to bring us to King and to the modern civil rights movement—to his lifetime and to five decades ago and then where things stand today. Do you have reflections upon what the relevance of King might be to our current moment?

GREER: I prefer to remember King sort of less “I Have a Dream” speech, more Letter from Birmingham Jail, sort of Vietnam speech at Riverside Church—the less sanitized King that Republicans like to quote. There’s a scholar at the University of Colorado, a legal scholar, who said that right-wing judges cite King eighty-seven times more than left-wing judges before they hand down, basically, life sentences to black people. The way he’s been utilized by particular institutions rubs me the wrong way.

I prefer to remember the King that actually fought for jobs and freedom, that was trying to organize all people, right? I mean King was assassinated—everyone keeps saying he died. He didn’t die of cancer; he was assassinated. King’s assassinated because he’s trying to mobilize poor people across not just the United States, but the world. I mean he’s assassinated organizing sanitation workers in Memphis, right? His latter writings talk about poor white people in Appalachia and how they share more in common with the Negro than they’d like to think. Going back to what LBJ says: “If you convince the poorest white man that he’s better than the Negro, you can rob his pockets all day long”—we’re seeing that now. I think the King that I like to remember is one that understood this collective identity of injustice and how we can band together to fight it.

MAXWELL: I’ve been thinking a lot about the moment we’re in, in terms of the normalization of racism in this moment. I remember on the campaign we—it was me and one other person, I think it was the Latino media person—we kind of made eye contact in a meeting. Again, very few people of color in these high-level meetings, coming up with messaging, coming up with the words that Hillary Clinton is going to say—and it felt like we needed to have a pull-aside. I don’t know if it was around the hiring of Steve Bannon or when she was going to make a speech about white nationalism in the alt-right. But we were, like, “We need to have our own meeting.” We call it the meeting before the meeting. You have the pow-wow—the people of color did this a lot on the campaign. So, if you’re ever in a large organization or even here in a campus setting, if you have the meeting before the meeting, “All right, this is what we’re going to do in the meeting.” You sit down and you have two or three people discuss—that can be really powerful in trying to communicate what you’re trying to get across in the larger meetings. That’s just a pro tip I’ve learned in my many years of being in big organizations.

But we had a pull-aside, and essentially what we landed on was Donald Trump is normalizing racism. We came out of our meeting before the meeting, and we basically decided that we needed to go into the larger meeting and communicate this to the higher-ups in the campaign, because we needed to start saying this, that he’s normalizing racism in a way that is making it socially acceptable again to be overtly racist in public without any consequences. And that was what he was doing.

It wasn’t that he was just saying things that were upsetting or racist. He didn’t just have a few supporters that were saying things that were upsetting and racist. He was actually emboldening a certain portion of the country that is really dangerous to embolden, given the fact that we had an understanding of American history in a way that—I think some of the people that were higher-up weren’t thinking in those terms.

So I say all that to say that, again, we don’t want the sanitized King. But I also don’t like the “I Have a Dream”—we’re thinking about the content of the character and not the color of the skin—as if the color of your skin is irrelevant, the color of your skin doesn’t dictate how people treat you from the moment you’re born until the moment you pass away, that it doesn’t dictate so many things about your existence on this planet.

I think, at this moment, it’s a moment where we embrace difference and actually talk about it instead of trying to assimilate; I hate that word, too. In this moment, I am celebrating difference and embracing it. I love to hear about just exactly where somebody is from and what brought them there and how many ethnicities they are, even if it’s just one. But I think it’s important to highlight and embrace difference.

I say all of that to say that I think the radical Dr. King is one that I feel like I want to embody more, because it’s necessary in this moment. It’s not sufficient, because I don’t know what would be sufficient to eradicate that. But, I think in this moment, we all have to be brave in the way that Dr. King was later, in terms of bucking the trend and coming out against the war and talking about poverty in such explicit terms. I think it’s this moment that you can’t sit it out and say that we’re just going to all sing Kumbaya and hold hands, because that’s not going to work.

FIELD: If you could perhaps speak to—we’ve talked about race and class, intersection of those—speak to kind of intersectional politics. And this might be on campus or beyond, the relationship or the experience of the two of you as women in politics today or in academia today—if you could speak about gender, race, and the intersection of the two.

MAXWELL: I have some things to say about being black and being a woman. I think that it’s an interesting thing to be in a space right now in politics, where being black and being a woman is something that people take as something valuable to the insight that you provide.

Going back to my time on the campaign, I would say that, at first, you’re like, “OK, well, I’m not as experienced as these other people who have worked ten Senate campaigns.” I mean, there’s some people that just go from campaign to campaign. I think that’s insane, but there is a type of person that does that. So, you’re in this room with all these people that you’ve read about, that are, basically, like, they’re celebrities to you, because you’re, like, “Hi, John Podesta.” That’s a celebrity to you if you are interested in politics.

So I would say that being black and being a woman in that particular space allowed me to use my lived experience to inform the people that I was working with, whether it be flags that they’re missing or messaging that they’re missing, or ways to communicate to the community that I came from or even communities that I didn’t come from, and understanding that my lived experience is actually valuable, that the value that I bring to the table isn’t necessarily something that I would’ve read in a book. I would say that, in this political moment, use every tool in your toolbox—and that includes your identity—to educate those around you. “Educate” may not be the perfect word to use in that context, but to illuminate what your lived experience was and what you bring to the table, and how that impacts the topic they are talking about.

Because I think that certainly I understand how important it is for Beyoncé to endorse Hillary Clinton, but maybe John Podesta doesn’t, right? I mean, that’s just a light example, but understanding what you bring to the table beyond just what’s on your resume, what your credentials are, and what you’ve read in a book. Because your lived experiences and your identity in living those experiences is valuable, especially in this moment when Fortune 500 companies are trying not to mess up on Twitter. You don’t want to have a Twitter moment where your company is completely humiliated and embarrassed and people have to get fired, right? You can bring your lived experiences to the table in that context, but also in the political context, because there were plenty of moments during the campaign where I stopped them from tweeting something that would’ve been a bigger problem.

All of that to say is use every single tool, and that includes what you’ve experienced growing up and how you’ve lived in your body, because you’re the only one. You’re literally the only person that has your lived experiences and your perspective, and that actually matters in this moment because every single experience, especially culturally unique experiences. Basically, on these campaigns in this political moment, it’s very homogeneous. So if you can add any new flavor, that is going to help, because the electorate that you are trying to win looks like this room, right? It doesn’t necessarily look like a boardroom or the senior leadership of a campaign, which can be very homogeneous.

GREER: As a black woman, I mean, I just always remind myself that I’m a global majority. There’s so many times where I’m sitting in meetings and everyone’s like, “Well, as a double minority, Chrissy.” I’m, like, “I’m actually a global majority.” I’m a woman, and it’s more of us in the world than men, and it’s more people of color than white people, so I don’t see myself as a minority at all. It’s one—the first thing is about the framing of it.

Then, secondly, identity politics has gotten such a bad rap these days. Everyone’s like, “Oh, I’m so tired of identity politics.” We’ve always had identity politics in the United States; it’s just been the politics of white men. Now we’re actually opening the conversation to say other people’s lived experiences matter. Now it’s like, “Oh, goodness. Now we’ve got to hear about the ladies and the coloreds.” It’s like, “No, this is actually—we’ve only prioritized white male feelings and now we’re not.” So we can actually have multiple conversations about identity. We can learn how to walk and chew gum at the same time.

I think, as a professor, recognizing my value in the classroom as someone who—I inevitably get the question once a semester, like, “How did you end up here?” I’m, like, “Well, I got three degrees on top of the one you’re trying to get, so that’s one. Two, so that’s how I ended up here.” But recognizing that just because something is new and different doesn’t make it wrong, doesn’t make it bad. Going exactly to Zerlina’s point—I mean for me, because the news is so negative these days and because it’s so easy to just be in a constant state of rage and ire, I’m really trying to practice compassion and really remembering that people are all coming from different places. They might not be where I am right now.

I read some of the papers that I wrote at Tufts and I was, like, “Did you?” I mean, I reread my senior honors thesis and I was, like, “Did you really say that broken windows was a pretty good idea? Maybe you did.” So recognizing that we all evolve, and we read, we have more experiences. And so being patient with others, but also being patient with ourselves, but putting ourselves in positions where we are not just in these homogeneous spaces, where we’re allowing ourselves to take advantage of being in intellectually diverse spaces as well—to just push ourselves. Because, to me, none of this makes sense. All of it makes sense, and none of it makes sense—simultaneously.

I’m really grappling with being kind to myself as I’m trying to sift through the historical nuances of the present moment that we’re in, and recognizing that not everyone is going to have my experience as a black woman and meet me where I am when I need them to meet me there. So I think that’s what I’m working on.

FIELD: Thank you both so much.

HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at tellmemore@tufts.edu. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, Dave Nuscher, and Anna Miller. This episode was edited by 5 to 9 Productions and Anna Miller. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to Zach Cole and the University Chaplaincy—and Somerville Media Center. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.

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