“Moms in particular make great advocates” - Cindy Changyit Levin
Cynthia (Cindy) Changyit Levin is a mechanical engineer turned activist and global public health advocate. In this episode she explains how motherhood inspired her to leave her corporate career, and well paying job, and find her calling as an activist working on global public health issues. A little over a decade later she is now raising two young activists of her own as well as writing a book and how-to-guide for mothers who wish to go into advocacy.
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Topics discussed in this episode:
Advocacy and activism
Motherhood and raising young activists
Resources mentioned in this episode:
TRANSCRIPT EP2 - CYNTHIA (CINDY) CHANGYIT LEVIN
This text has been edited for clarity. Please don’t quote without listening to the recorded interview.
00:03 PORTIA I am so excited to have you here today because I can't think of a more important time to be talking about advocacy. One of the things that we know is this pandemic, that seems to never be ending, is disproportionately affecting women professionally and certainly personally as well. We are juggling work, homeschooling, emotional labor etc. and I think your career journey is so interesting. Before we talk a little bit about why advocacy matters especially right now I'd love for you to talk a little bit about what success means to you because you've had a really interesting journey to get to where you are and so maybe reflect a little bit about what success looks like and what it means for you today?
01:03 CINDY I think it's a really great place to start because it's such a personal definition. I think my definition of success has to do with the impact or influence that one wants to have in the world and that can vary from person to person. For instance I want to have a big impact on the lives of my daughters. Most parents want that and they do it in different ways. I personally did that by changing my career path to work from home and be very engaged with their lives and that's not for everyone, there are many ways to impact your kids lives.
01:45 From a professional sense of success that has changed a lot for me over the years. I'm seeking to have more of an impact in the world around me by helping to build movements of activists to fight poverty, gun violence and protect us from the worst effects of climate change. These are all things that I care about but I'm only one person right.
02:07 POR Really big issues by the way.
02:09 CIN They're huge so I'm now using advocacy and writing to my members of congress trying to influence them and trying to motivate other people to take action to make the world a better place. I see myself now as more successful than when I held a nine to five engineering job and back then I made quite a bit more money than I do currently. For example I'm working in partnership with people struggling in poverty to bring better health and education to millions around the world instead of my former job where I worked 40 hours a week as a sound and vibration engineer to make other people's cars marginally quieter than they might have been otherwise and I think that's more successful in my personal opinion.
03:02 POR That's a really good perspective and I want to dial back here for a second because you are an incredibly smart woman. I first got to meet you at the UN foundation Shot at Life initiative, which is focused on vaccinating children all over the world so that no child dies from a vaccine preventable death. Something that's incredibly important and frankly you probably need it in this country right now given all the anti-vax sentiment but that's a different podcast.
03:38 CIN I can be a moderator too.
03:41 POR So you are a mechanical engineer by training, automotive engineer.
03:45 CIN Yeah, that's right.
03:48 POR Talk to me a little bit about that career trajectory because I think it's a really important pivot. Oftentimes especially when I talk to younger women they feel like they get on this career path, they put all this time into their education and maybe lots of people like their family members are invested in them doing a specific thing. And then they get into that profession and they realize “wow this isn't really what I thought” and it feels scary to stop and say “this is not what I want to be doing” even if I spent many years training. Talk a little bit about that pivot from becoming an engineer going to work in a nine-to-five corporate job and then now becoming an activist and an advocate. By the way I do want to talk a little bit about if there’s a difference between being an activist and an advocate?
04:44 CIN Oh that's a really good question.
04:45 POR That question just kind of popped into my head so talk a little bit about what that pivot looked like for you?
05:00 CIN I am going to first answer just a little bit of the advocacy question because I think as I talk about it then people know what it is that I shifted to. Advocacy can be a pretty intimidating word but the concept doesn't have to be complicated and scary. I like to use a nice friendly definition of advocacy as just “speaking up about an issue to inspire an action from another person with the power to help” sometimes I even use the metaphor of The Little Engine That Could from that childrens’ story.
05:30 In my case I'm usually talking to U.S. senators and representatives and there's a lot of different ways that we can speak up but just to put that tag on there so when we start throwing the word around that's where I'm coming from.
05:46 POR That's a helpful frame.
05:49 CIN The engineering part of the question I don't think that we've talked about but I'm going to back up a little bit about why I wanted to become an engineer in the first place.
05:59 POR Oh I definitely want to hear this.
05:59 CIN I've never said it publicly in an interview before that I went to engineering school because I wanted to design ride systems for Disney theme parks. That's all I wanted to do in life, I wanted to be a Disney imagineer, but life just sort of turned out differently. I looked at what education I thought I should have for that and I went to engineering school at the University of Wisconsin. In the process of that I was offered a fantastic engineering job at the General Motors proving ground which was sort of a dream job at the time. That's the testing ground where you get to drive cars around and evaluate them. A lot of guys that I knew was like “what? that's her job!” and it was fun and it turned into a really well-paying job where they actually paid for me to get a master's degree for free in engineering.
07:06 It's like “how could you say no to that?” but that's kind of the decisions you make that change your life trajectory one at a time. It totally makes sense why I would do that but I wanted to share that imagineering piece because when you ask about career trajectory it's important to see that I wasn't actually doing what I dreamed of doing.
07:30 POR Interesting.
07:33 CIN In that process I ended up getting a wonderfully steady job with good pay and good health benefits, we know how important that is now, but I wasn't satisfying a passion. The best parts of my day were not with my job but when I would volunteer as a math tutor for kids who were struggling with math or serve food in a church soup kitchen. Those are the parts that I just really got jazzed about. It wasn't easy but it made it easier for me to walk away when I was pregnant with my first child.
08:14 It turns out that motherhood was utterly life-changing for me in that blast of full-on empathy that I gained from worrying about raising babies that opened my eyes to the real life-and-death problems that mothers in poverty around the world are facing every day. It's like my caring got jump started. I cared before but it really thrust me into a different frame of thinking. I was fortunately noticed by another mom and she invited me to volunteer with an advocacy group called Bread for the World and that eventually led to my involvement with a different group called Results and then Shot at Life, which you talked about already. I became such a rabid fan type volunteer that they hired me later and then even later after that I was elected to the board and I gained such experience from doing that, that I'm now becoming an author writing about motherhood and advocacy. So that's kind of the path.
09:25 POR I definitely relate. When I was pregnant with my son I was still working and after he was born I felt it was so transformative. I think there's actually some science behind what happens to women's brains after they give birth, it's just this unbelievable sort of serotonin rush. This feeling like you have to make this world better. But I'm wondering if there was a point where you said “okay I'm really not going to go back to my old life because there's something more out there”? I'm just wondering if there was a particular moment that made you think “okay it's time for me to cut ties with my old corporate life”?
10:42 CIN I would like to say that I saw a great shining path before me but it was much more messy than that. The oxytocin love drug pumping through you when you have a biological child, what you're talking about, that's definitely part of it but I think it was slower for me. There were a lot of dark nights and times of postpartum depression and I was led perhaps a little bit more by fear of thinking of the things that could go wrong.
11:39 As far as the moment of saying “I'm not going back” that actually had more to do with child care. My husband and I did intend for me to go back at that time and I thought I would maybe interview for another job, something slightly more aligned. But what happened is we interviewed nannies and I didn't really like any of them. They were perfectly fine people but it was just me slowly coming to the realization that I want to do this myself and I don't want to to miss this.
12:23 POR It's a remarkably honest answer and I joke that I probably ran off a lot of really good potential nanny candidates as a new mother because I was so wound up about who's going to watch my child because I only have eight weeks of paid leave. That's yet another podcast because we have to make these unbelievable decisions around who's going to care for our children when the rest of the industrialized world has affordable child care. I continue to be incredibly outraged about that, especially right now in the middle of a pandemic where it's really hard for families.
13:20 So I appreciate your honesty because again I think it's really important for listeners to understand the decision-making process that women go through to craft their journey and that there's no right or wrong way there's just what works for your family.
13:38 CIN I wholeheartedly agree with what you just said there, what's right for me may not be right for someone else. A lot of times there's just an issue of privilege and there's definitely an issue of risk. I was once asked by a high school student when I was recounting this story and he seized upon the fact that I had quit and also within that story is that my husband had also quit because he was going to start his own business at the time which he did.
14:17 POR So you both quit your jobs and had a brand new baby?
14:23 CIN Yeah, that was a little stressful.
14:24 POR So your risk tolerance as a couple is relatively high then?
14:30 CIN It was relatively high. I'm not sure we would do that again knowing how stressful that was but it all turned out alright. This high school student seized on that and he's like “so you advocate for people in poverty but weren't you afraid you'd be in poverty yourself?” and I'm like “yes, yes I was”.
14:52 POR Thank you for being honest about that too because one of the things that my co-author Jennifer and I talk about in Kick some Glass is choices and trade-offs. You make choices and when you do, whether it's to stay at a job that maybe you marginally like or to leave a job and do something else, there are always trade-offs. You can't de-risk everything but you can have some foresight into what you might be signing up for so if both of you quit it's like “do we have enough savings?”. It's like some of those block and tackle things.
So I'd love to just dig into your advocacy work and why you think this time in our history advocacy is so important? I think about the last six months we've had the Me Too movement, we've had the Black Lives Matter movement, we've had the March for Our Lives, so many advocacy movements. Activism that is being spearheaded by women or young women primarily and it's been amazing and gratifying and thrilling and also scary to see how the world is reacting to these movements. So with that in context, I wondered if you could share your own view about what advocacy means right now, why is it so important?
17:37 CIN This is a really special crossroads time and there are a number of things that make this time special. I've been an activist now for about 15 years and I can definitely feel huge changes between then and now, much less thinking about the times before I was involved. The first is connectivity, I think it's never been easier to find information about how to advocate and to learn about what's going on with your issues and especially to find other people to be in action with.
18:28 When I first started I logged on to this thing called Facebook.
18:37 POR I totally remember too
18:39 CIN Sitting at my computer alone one night in the dark I was thinking “where are all the other people who feel like me and where should I start?”. Should I look up Red for the World and all these different organizations, maybe there's other people that are in them? Now you can just find yourself a good hashtag and off you go, you've connected to everybody.
19:06 POR I didn't even think about how much easier it is now to find people who believe in the causes that you believe in.
19:16 CIN It's so much easier. The first person I found who was involved in the same causes is a guy in New Mexico that I still am connected to, named Carlos. I was like “oh he's willing to talk to me about poverty” how naive that all seems [today]. I think that connectivity is part of it and I'm not sure why a lot of movements are held by women and young women but I do know that there are populations that have been marginalized that are probably finding it easier to find each other and connect now than it was before.
20:01 The second thing I'll mention is that it's been a sea change within the last four years since Donald Trump's election. People are aware that there are deep structural injustices in our country and they're aware that advocacy is even a thing to do. When I would go out and do outreach for my various advocacy organizations I would have to beg people to come to an outreach meeting, like “this is going to be really interesting, I've got this speaker who's unique in this way and don't miss this chance”. And when I would be teaching people how to call the members of congress, people would be scared and they'd be holding the phone and not knowing what to do and needing examples and now people are like “oh yeah I've called my congressman a lot and nothing's happening, what now?”.
21:00 It's almost like people arrive with a chip on their shoulder because they've already taken some advocacy and they want to know what the next steps are or what the most impactful or effective steps are, so there's just a better education out there.
21:16 POR Speak more about that because it's interesting that people now arrive having already done some of the things that maybe a few years ago they wouldn't have done. You can now text and donate and you can call. Let's see if I can phrase this, do we have patience for how long things actually take to change, are we too impatient? I have a really good friend who's been involved in marriage equality for a really long time, before probably anyone even knew what marriage equality was about, she was on the front line.
22:08 I think what people don't understand is that there were many years of work being laid by LGBTQIA activists and only in the last few years, as the legislation started to stack up around the country, did people begin to have an awareness. So what I wonder is, are we too impatient? Because that groundwork takes a long time and how do you keep people invested over the long haul when we live in this insta culture where if I've texted, I've tweeted and I've made black squares on my Instagram page and “why isn't anything happening?”...
22:50 CIN ...and then I got criticized for the black square.
22:54 POR ….criticized for the black square or the black and white picture. It's like “that's the wrong activism” there's this right activism and so I just wonder if you have a perspective as someone who's been at it for a really long time and knows what it really takes as far as commitment goes?
23:11 CIN we definitely lose some people along the way that's for sure. That’s part of why it's really important to get involved with some good people to play in your sandbox, to use a mom metaphor. There are some organizations, Results is one of them.
23:38 POR Can [you] describe what Results is?
23:41 CIN Sure, so it's a movement of passionate, committed everyday people that work on their own, training and learning how to talk to members of congress, how to relate to members of congress and their staff. Kind of going right to the source of the decision makers. We become trusted advisors when everything's working well. You become a trusted advisor to your member of congress. This takes a lot of patience and persistence and also a lot of relationship building.
24:22 My favorite kind of advocacy has to do with the relationship building. Realizing that everybody that you're working with is human from the admin that picks up the phone in a congressional office to the aid who's handling the portfolio for several different issues to the members of congress themselves. They're all humans and so my kind of personal brand of advocacy can be very different from somebody else's who's very partisan but that is what I see is very effective in the long haul of making change.
25:05 Now going back to your observation that sometimes things take a long time, I think about the late congressman John Lewis who spent his whole life working on the same issues that are coming up on Black Lives Matter. BLM was just a different hashtag for the very same issues that he worked on, so it takes us a long time to accomplish something. Another example is the education act that I worked on. That took us 10 years from the start of introducing the legislation to reintroducing it every year. [It took] almost exactly 10 years for that to get passed and my kids advocate with me and they would come to congressional meetings and they would drop pictures and stuff.
26:10 POR You brought your kids to congressional meetings?
26:12 CIN Oh absolutely, since they were in little baby carriers. I should mention that they are 14 and 16 now.
26:18 POR They are activists in their own right, which we definitely need to dig into. They have followed in their mother's footsteps, which is awesome!
26:30 CIN They now challenge me. I would say that on racial injustices and climate change they are taking my hand and bringing me along. This particular education bill passed when they were in middle school and my eldest was like “we've been working on this my whole life” I'm like “yeah, now you get to work on something else because there's always something else [to do]”.
26:55 POR There's always something to work on. I actually want to touch on your point around effective advocacy and you've said that connecting with and building relationships with your local member of congress has been really important. I think this is really important for people to hear because we forget that our members of congress, regardless of your party, work for you and their staff are incredibly accessible if you know how to approach them. It is their job to listen to their constituency so for people who have zero idea beyond maybe calling the 800 number of their local representatives office most people probably have not had real contact with their member of congress. So can you talk a little bit about what that looks like? Whatever you're fired up about it's important to try to make active contact in a respectful way. Let's just say that because we live in highly polarized times, it is important and how to do it? Someone who's a complete novice, how do they even go about doing that?
28:21 CIN It's actually relatively easy to connect them if you know how to do it and it's a big if, right? What I learned in high school about american government is so much different from the things that I find useful today. Let's think, there were several parts in there that you brought up.
28:48 POR Let's take a real life situation. The United States postal service is under siege right now and I think there's pretty good bipartisan outrage. Especially right before an election time, our listeners should know we are less than 100 days out from the 2020 election and in the middle of a pandemic, and so people being able to vote by mail is an incredibly important issue. This administration has removed post office boxes, dismantled sorting machines and has done a steady sort of psyop warfare against absentee ballots, trying to make it unappealing. All of that is adding to a lot of fear and distress right now and so if I wanted to reach out to my member of congress and say “I'm very upset about this” what should I be doing?
29:51 CIN I love this example because people have been asking me about this one and it actually strips away some of my normal responses because some of my normal responses are “get involved with an advocacy organization that is trusted, respected and nonpartisan and can help coach you”. There is none for the post office. This just came out of left field.
30:18 POR Totally, like what the hell?
30:21 CIN Although I have heard a rumor that the ACLU is cooking something up
30:24 POR As of right now, the attorneys generals, out of 20 states at least, are banding together for some kind of loss lawsuit as well.
30:34 CIN That's great to hear but I think like you said, the average citizen is like “what can I do?” and I have already seen some online petitions about this. You can feel like you're just sitting at home smashing buttons like a video game. The first thing you can do, as we've often heard, is you can call your members of congress and if enough people are fired up about it you can actually tie up their lines.
31:16 POR Because the thing that people should know is the staff, part of their job is to say “look we're getting a lot of calls on xyz''. Let them know, and let their member know, you're getting a lot of people in your district fired up about this.
31:39 CIN When we call we're not talking to the member of congress.
31:40 POR That's right
31:42 CIN I don't think anybody actually expected that but it has happened to me on one occasion. My state senator picks up her phone once in a while but that's very rare. In 15 years that's happened once to me but we can call and even if you have to leave a message that's fine. If you're not getting through because a lot of people are calling you can try to call a different office. For instance my senator Roy Blunt here in Missouri has a Saint Louis office and a D.C. office. But because of various issues they're often jammed and you can't even leave [a message], the mailbox is full, but he also has offices in Springfield, Missouri and Cape Girardeau which is a pretty small town.
32:42 POR Would you physically go there? Would you recommend people to physically go to an office to drop off a letter or to ask to speak to a staff person?
32:56 CIN I would physically go and drop off a hundred letters because if you go with one letter and maybe it's about the post office and you didn't think it was gonna get there but even…
33:12 POR The irony.
33:15 CIN Yeah, even in better times one of the first actions that I ever took with my church was for Bread for the World and we were writing about nutrition and somebody said “hey it's more effective if you drop off the letters and actually talk to an aide”. So I scooped up my baby in the baby carrier and I had my toddler on my hip and about 120 letters from my congregation. I went and actually met an aide who I ended up working [with] for almost a decade, that was the beginning of our relationship. There's also a part of that story that involves a lot of poop too.
33:54 POR The baby poop right?
33:58 CIN Yeah but just to get back on topic. It's very powerful when groups act together. If you want to make your voice heard about this U.S. postal issue then you're going to get 10 or 20 friends to write with you and if they can, get their whole families. I often advocate with moms and there's one mom in particular, she's got like seven letter writers hanging about her house between her spouse and her kids and their boyfriends and girlfriends. I can always count on that house for a whole bunch of letters.
Somebody was saying “how do I get through if I can't do that?”. Here's my secret weapon: write a letter to the editor. Editors are really enjoying this particular topic right now because it's all over the news so that makes a letter to the editor about the U.S. postal service a little more attractive to them than writing about gun violence. Gun violence is super important but this is the hot issue right now so write a letter to the editor.
35:49 POR For your local paper?
35:53 CIN For a local paper. About 100 to 150 words and put your member of congress's name in there because it is the staff's job to scan the media, especially the local media, to see where they're being [mentioned]. Maybe you're urging them to do something, maybe you're praising them for something, maybe you're criticizing but they want to know that and that will have so much more impact than dropping off your handwritten letter because now it's out in the community. If you want to have even more impact, if you get your letter to the editor published, then put it out on your social media or call up your friends and ask them to print it and mail it in. Then it’s like “oh my god, people are actually reading about this in the newspaper and being moved to take the action”.
36:45 POR Awesome advice, we will put this in the show notes too so that people can take advantage of that.
36:54 CIN On my blog I have some advocacy made easy [advice] and one of them is writing a letter to the editor.
37:03 POR Fantastic, we’ll definitely include that.
37:07 CIN We're not really supposed to write handwritten letters or call offices where we're not constituents but I do it all the time to influence members of congress where I don't live. A friend of mine up in Illinois said “man all of my members of congress already support the post office so what am I supposed to do?” and I'm like “write in my district if you can write across state lines”.
37:37 POR That is such great advice. This is actually a perfect segway to talk about your book because when you and I were talking prior to this I was saying that the field of advocacy is so broad and I think most of us who maybe only dabble in it, it it's not our vocation but we are passionate about issues, [need] to have a resource that helps us understand what we can do. I think it is especially powerful now so talk a little bit about your book that's going to be coming out in the coming months?
38:19 CIN I'm still working on actually getting it published but the manuscript is getting close to being done. It is called From Changing Diapers to Changing the World, which reflects my journey into advocacy. I am writing this for moms that are not actively engaged in this and especially the ones that are wondering how to get started. It's part how-to guide and part emotional support. An advocacy manual for moving moms from being passive and negative to active and positive.
38:55 I feel like we have millions of American women who are taking notice of social policies with alarm. We talked about that already, people looking for an antidote to hopelessness like smashing the buttons “this isn't working, how do we do this?” All the while they're feeling that natural rise of empathy and a distressing number of moms I meet also feel a loss of identity as they move into motherhood. Maybe, like me, they were professional before and all of a sudden “I'm not an engineer, what am I?”
39:46 For me it has been a very empowering thing to add “advocate” or “activist” onto the titles. I even like to use different words for myself like Change Maker, or one of my friends likes to use the words Protectors of Children because she works on children's advocacy a lot. I'm aiming for this to be about 200 pages of inspirational stories about other moms doing their thing, my own story, lots of step-by-step instructions on how to empower yourself in this way even as you're navigating diapers and naps and that kind of thing. So yeah, that's what I'm doing.
40:40 POR I think it's going to be such a useful guide for women looking to deepen their advocacy or just even start advocacy. This question may seem a little bit out of left field but you know how the system works now and I know you've got two teenage daughters so maybe it's not right now but any aspiration to run for office yourself? To get to be on the inside? I'm sure you get asked all the time if you're going to be running for office anytime soon?
41:21 CIN I have been asked!
41:22 POR Because I will work on your campaign even though we're living in different states. I will absolutely work on your campaign.
41:29 CIN I think a lot of people think that would be the natural next step and extension of what I'm doing. I actually do not want to do that and yet I am aware that a lot of powerful women get into office not because they want to but because they think that they have to.
41:51 POR To make the change that they are trying to drive.
41:55 CIN Exactly, that is not happening. I have a friend running for the 100th state representative district here in Missouri and that's exactly how she was feeling. The incumbent was not reflecting what they want to do and she just really feels like that's the only way she can do it. Congresswoman Chakowski has shared that is how she got involved. She's the congresswoman for Chicago and the suburbs up around Evanston. She was my congresswoman for many years and she used to be an activist working on getting expiration dates on your milk. She's one of the reasons that's there.
42:49 POR Wow!
42:51 CIN Because kids were getting sick because of bad food.
42:57 POR By the way, you don't want to look in my refrigerator right now.
43:00 CIN It's COVID-19, we're just holding it together right now.
43:07 POR We're just trying to hold it together, so I'm hearing.
43:20 CIN My answer is; I really hope it doesn't come to that [having to run for office].
43:23 POR I love it! Don't make me run for office, that should be the threat.
43:29 CIN [Don’t] make me come over there.
43:29 POR Don't make me run for your congressional seat, that should be the meme!
43:40 CIN Well, see now I want to run just to use that.
43:41 POR Exactly! This is why we've reconnected so that I as a marketer can work on your campaign.
43:48 CIN Oh thank you, well it's good to know that there's somebody in the wings.
43:53 POR I think it's so interesting. I love the examples of women who have felt like it wasn't something they wanted to do and let's face it, it's hard to be a politician right now. There's very little that seems gratifying about that job, at least in terms of how under the microscope our political leaders are. I actually personally worry that good people are being driven away from running for office because it is such a blood sport in a way. It's not a kind place, right? It's kind of a nasty place.
44:40 I think I read this in Fortune that a record number of women are running this year for congress and a record number of Black, Indigenous, Asian and Latinx women are running around the country. The numbers are almost up to 200 women so that's pretty exciting and it seems also [to be] the result of some very intentional cultivation of women candidates by a number of advocacy groups trying to get more women to raise their hand and get into politics. I support those who feel called to do that.
45:25 CIN I just have all respect for the women who are doing it and I think that we're going to see more and more of this because representation matters.
45:38 POR Representation matters, absolutely.
45:41CIN What we're seeing around the St Louis area [is that] Corey Bush just won her primary for the first district of Missouri, which is held by a longtime incumbent. And I will tell you that I have met with that longtime incumbent Lacey Clay. He's held the position for years.
46:02 POR It was sort of a dydynastic type of political family right?
46:12 CIN I've worked with him quite successfully on issues of child mortality, education, vaccines and nutrition and he signed on to things. Corey Bush had her own feelings about things not moving fast enough. She's a Black Lives Matter activist, she's a nurse and she's on the front lines of protesting and I'm glad this came back around because we talked a little bit about patience and how long things take. There's people who can't wait 10 years for an education bill and for police violence reform.
47:03 POR It's real lives.
47:07 CIN Kids are going to suffer real consequences for inaction and the same with climate by the way. She's a green new deal supporter, as Lacey Clay was too actually. Many women are getting in on issues that cannot wait.
47:34 POR Former president Obama talked about the fierce urgency of now and I think there's a sort of interesting, I don’t want to say generational divide, maybe it's a difference in generational perspective, like John Lewis who was an activist from the time he was 17 years old all the way to the end of his life and saw the changes that happened from segregation Jim Crow, civil rights all the way through now. It's interesting to see younger activists who I think are often respectfully pushing the boundaries of saying “listen that's great and that was important and that change needs to happen faster”. I think it's a healthy tension between the old guard and the new. The old guard who know the way and know where the bodies are buried and know the history and the new group of young activists coming up who are wanting to wield power and influence in much more forceful ways and understand the power of social media as well to drive that. It's kind of an interesting sort of perspective that seems to be happening. I don't know if you have thoughts on that?
48:56 CIN I think that is a profound observation and our country is built on these tensions, right?
49:00 POR That's right.
49:02 CIN It was never expected that there would be a hundred senators who would be in lockstep agreement. There will be right now 435 members of congress and they're all going to agree even within the party and we see this happening at the democratic convention right now. I don't think that disagreement is bad.
49:26 POR It's not, it's good actually.
49:28 CIN It's a healthy thing and as far as pushing boundaries, my kids think it's pretty funny, I have a list that we're kind of mentally compiling of things that are a rite of passage for an activist. One of them is to be called pushy by a member of congress. In a meeting [with Lacey Clay] there was somebody on my team who was talking about U.S. poverty and then we were going to make a shift in the meeting and talk about global poverty. They asked him to sign on to something and he talked about how it was a good idea and the activist said “great and we're going to move it over to Cindy” and before I started I said ”just checking was that a yes to what she said, will you sign the bill?” And he leaned back in his chair and said “you're kind of pushy” and I went “thank you”.
50:35 POR I love it, were you offended?
50:42 CIN I didn't take it that way. I think it was more like “props to you, you caught that” and again all respect to congressman Clay, he's doing his job. You can't say “yes, I will sign something” to a bill that you've never seen. You need to read the whole thing, that's the responsible thing to do, but as an activist it is also the responsible thing to be a little pushy.
51:16 POR Of the activists I know the reason they're good is because they don't accept no for an answer. There are multiple ways to get to yes.
51:32 CIN I like that better.
51:34 POR Multiple ways to get to a yes.
51:36 CIN Right, or at least don't stop until you have a solid yes or no. The classic newbie advocate mistake to make is to go in there and get all riled up and breathless and meet with your member of congress and make your request and then walk out and go “yay” and it's like “oh honey your work has just begun”. It's the follow-ups that you need to do and this leads into one of the reasons that I feel moms in particular make great advocates. We have patience and persistence and maybe this goes for all women as well because you learn to put up [with] a lot of stuff. Your kids will test you, they will try you and ideally when you're working with your kids you are coming from a place of patience and love.
52:42 POR Ideally, after five months in quarantine sometimes that patience wears thin.
52:55 CIN I see a lot of crossover between the skills required to work with children and the skills required to work with congress. I'm not belittling them, saying they're like toddlers. It's just that it takes a while for these things to work and you have to get through the gatekeepers. Every member of congress has aids that are gatekeepers and they need to see that you aren’t a crazy person. Are you a reasonable person that has some data behind you and has information to share? Even when you get that yes you have to follow-up and make sure it actually happens because you'd like to think that a congressional office is a well-oiled machine, that it's just automatically going to work. But I've had offices where you can call up a website that publicly says whether they signed on to a bill or not and I keep watching it, day after day, week after week, that name isn't appearing so I have to keep calling and saying “did you call?” and that's when a patient mom's face is really great. It might be through gritted teeth, I’m like “did you sign the bill yet?”
54:25 POR The fact that you even know this is such a lesson. Again you're talking about the complexity of the process that those of us who are not more deeply involved don't understand. Maybe if we knew, we would be more patient? Our government is designed to work slowly, it's not designed to be fast and frankly thank God right now. Thank God for bureaucracy given all that's happened in the last few years. What you're sharing is really great because again; we've made the call, we've sent the tweet, we signed the online petition, why isn't anything happening? The process is quite real and quite methodical and it can be a little bit messy and it's important to understand what's happening behind the scenes.
55:25 CIN There are people who are passionate about the issues who never want to get into this level and I understand that. The great news is that we have a broad spectrum of activism that runs from protesting in the streets to having a personal relationship with your member of congress. Such that they know your name, they know why you're there, they can spot you down the hall which has definitely happened to me at this point. All of that is necessary. I'm not a great protester. I do go sometimes.
56:05 POR Do you think one is better than the other? I've heard, especially when the Black Lives Matter protests were happening in response to the murder of George Floyd, pundits saying “oh well you know they'll be on the street protesting and everybody'll go away” and as a matter of fact it actually went on for weeks and weeks and it was global, which nobody saw coming. Then we're starting to talk about how the police get funded and what policing looks like in the United States in 2020 and beyond, especially given the history of American policing. Conversations that we’ve never had before.
56:58 Those protests from my point of view were quite effective in, at a minimum, waking white people up to what I think Black and Brown people always knew. I think white people were stunned when they saw George Floyd being murdered on video and I think that shook people in a way that has dislodged a desire to make real substantive change.
57:27 CIN Yeah and for people who are listening to the Manifista for the first time, you are a Black woman.
57:32 POR I am a Black woman yes, I think hopefully they see it on the cover.
57:51 CIN It's less obvious when people look at me. Some people look at me and say “oh there's an Asian woman” and some people go like “oh there's a Native American woman”.
58:01 POR Right, you sort of look like you're ambiguously ethnic.
58:05 CIN Yeah, that's an accurate statement. I just wanted to say in this conversation that I am a white presenting woman and that means I move about with the privileges that come with that. So building on what you just said, I think it was a wake-up call. The protests woke people up and it spurred people like me to do more research, what does police abolition mean? I watched the documentary 13th.
58:48 POR Yes, Ava DuVernay’s documentary on the American justice system.
59:00 CIN These are things I didn't know before. You wanted to touch on my daughter's activism a little bit more.
59:06 POR Yes.
59:07 CIN For the Sunrise Movement this is where they bring me along. One of my daughters was actually teaching a class on what police abolition means and defunding the police, so I went and sat on her bed while she conducted a training session from her bedroom.
59:24 POR Remind us how old your daughter is because I want people to understand your daughters are young, they're teenagers.
59:32 CIN Yes, she's 16.
59:34 POR So this is a young woman, a teenager, doing this.
59:39 CIN I want to say to anybody who's raising young activists; stay involved, be involved. I don't take points on her issues but I'm definitely involved. She was leading phone banks for political candidates and I wanted to know what that was like so I joined one of her calls which was hilarious for her team.
60:14 POR I love that you've modeled this for your daughters and that they have found their own path around the things that they care about. The reason I feel hopeful about the future is because our young people are so engaged and passionate in ways that are very unique. And they're connected on top of it, which makes them a really powerful voice.
60:49 CIN I also think it gives us a family framework to disagree, which maybe didn't exist for my family growing up. To see how disagreement can be healthy it's something that my family of origin probably struggles with a bit and it's not easy to disagree with your kids. I still don't know what I think about police abolition but I'm better [informed].
61:23 POR You're better informed about it, yeah.
61:26 CIN Getting back to our original point about what protesting does, I think all of these things are really important and go hand in hand with each other. If the protests truly go away and we don't have any advocates that are backing this up asking for legislation and substantive change then that is a failure. What they do is they create energy and inspiration and maybe some anxiety for some members of congress who aren't on the side of the protesters. Here I'm talking wider than just Black Lives Matter but also climate protests and other issues.
62:20 POR They bring intensity, right?
62:22 I think you need both. I've decided that I’m probably more of a “call my member of congress” type of person but I think they're both really needed and I think the activists on the street bring the intensity to the issues. Sometimes it wakes up our members of congress and our political leaders in ways that other kinds of advocacy don't.
62:58 Black Lives Matter has been around for a number of years and was sort of dismissed as being really fringe in some ways. And to see politicians, sort of mainstream, middle-of-the-road progressive, middle road conservative, say they support BLM, I don't think you would have even imagined that six months ago. That you would have, let's say, Mitt Romney saying he believes in Black Lives Matter.
63:33 CIN ...and then to have actual members of congress running on that platform.
63:37 POR As we speak the MBA is in the bubble in Florida and Black Lives Matter is on his court side. That's just one example. We could probably, I mean climate change, California is burning right now and so I love that the activists, especially young people, are “bringing the fierce urgency of now”, to quote our former president. We can't wait a decade for somebody's issues to be resolved.
64:14 CIN I'm going to offer some words of comfort at this point to listeners.
64:21 POR Because we're talking about plagues and burning? I think we can all agree 2020 has been a hell of a year.
64:38 CIN Yeah, if some of the things we're talking about feel really uncomfortable, the complexities of my dealing with legislation, you're like “ugh that is not for me” or “I'm afraid to go out in the streets and protest” either because you're afraid of physical harm or just afraid of Coronavirus, that's a valid thing. Know that there's a lot of things in between. In my book I talk about the in-between steps. When you host a playdate, well don't have a playdate at your house right now during COVID but normally, can you talk to those other parents while the kids play and write letters together or learn about something?
65:27 I used to bring moms together at my house to learn to write letters to the editor and we'd all reply to the same thing. When our little local paper got 10 letters to the editor, well of course he's going to [write] because usually nobody wrote to the Morton Grove Champion at all so when you had 10 letters to the editor on the same thing he's like “okay I'll run three of them”. There's a lot of in-between things, find your niche. Sometimes it's going to talk to kids at school. When I had a teacher friend who was teaching about writing persuasive letters I went in and I taught these kids a really simple format for writing to a member of congress. I taught them a little bit about an issue and they didn't have to send them, that's okay, but they learned to write them and so there's creative ways to get at advocacy as well. There's a place for you, it's so vast.
66:38 POR I like your insight there Cindy about making advocacy seem more accessible. I really think you've given our listeners a lot to think about and I suspect you're going to get a lot of takers for your everyday advocacy tips as well as your upcoming book. I always like to close every podcast with a couple of other questions so speaking of books, do you have a favorite book or other gift that you like to give over and over? Maybe it's related to what you do, maybe it's not, but I wonder what that book is that you keep coming back to all the time?
67:34 CIN The gift I always give to moms is, and I can't remember the author right now, but it's about how to talk so your kids will listen and listen so your kids will talk (link).
67:58 POR Okay, we'll find it and put a link to that [in the snow notes].
68:00 CIN It's good for all personal communications as well but I just really like to give that one to parents and maybe it's an inspiration for how I wrote my book of trying to break things down simply but what I really like about that particular book for parents is it has little cartoons. They're not particularly well drawn cartoons but when you feel like you just don't have the energy to read anything you can look at the section of the problem that you're having with your kid and there'll be a little cartoon modeling the behavior.
68:34 POR Oh that's perfect, that's what every parent needs. Do you have a favorite motto or saying that you come back to?
68:46 CIN Yes, it's really simple and it's from my days of marathon running, which are gone by the way my knees cannot take that kind of punishment anymore. It's just simply “pace yourself” and it works for advocacy and it works for life. It's the thought that you're not good to anybody if you're burned out. You're not good to you, you're not good to your kids, you're not good to your cause if you're not taking things as they come. We've talked about a sense of urgency and that is important but self-care is such a popular catchphrase right now but I do think that's important.
69:56 POR I love it because I think especially moms and especially right now we are doing a lot for others. We're doing a lot for our families and we tend to put ourselves last and so I used to roll my eyes when I heard the term self-care because it just sounded so, I don't know, Goop-ish. Not to you know trash Goop because there are aspects of Goop that I actually really like, but I absolutely buy into self-care because I think we're all exhausted right now. I think it's coming at us [moms] fast and hard so I like “pace yourself” a lot.
70:46 CIN From an advocacy perspective we talked about John Lewis and all these things but it’s a marathon. It's not a sprint and if you don't save anything to the end you're never going to get there.
74:03 POR Maybe one final question for you Cindy; what piece of advice would you give to 20 year old Cindy?
74:11 CIN You might think that I would tell her “wake up” you know because I was not doing advocacy at age 20. I was having a lot of fun but at the same time I was really concerned about my future and this is when I had that internship with General Motors, that was right about that age and 20 year old. Right at that point I thought I was selling out and maybe giving up a dream, so it's sort of interesting. It was a time when I wanted this thing and well I thought I should work for this car company. I guess that's just the way it's going to be and why wouldn't I think that because a lot of our role models in generations past what you became after college was what you did until you retired. But if I could talk to 20 year old Cindy I would let her know that there's going to be so much more than that.
76:03 I share that advice with high school juniors and seniors when I get the chance because I think it's important for them to know that a job is a job and you can make a big difference as a volunteer if a particular job isn't fulfilling your passion. Careers can change but there's a quote from Doctor Who that was not even out when I was 20 that I would share with myself “when you're a kid they tell you it's all grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have a kid and that's it but the truth is the world is much stranger than that it's so much darker and so much matter and so much better” I wish I could tell her that.
76:51 POR I love it Cindy, thank you.