Category Archives: Democracy in Action

When states sue the federal government



Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro
Josh Shapiro

It seems like every few weeks, we see headlines about states banding together to block actions taken by the federal government. You might even remember former Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott quipping that he goes to the office, sues the federal government, then goes home.

How do those lawsuits take shape? How does a state decide whether to join or not? How does that impact the balance of power between federal and state governments? This week’s guest is uniquely qualified to answer all of those questions.

Since taking office in January 2017, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has been involved with more than a dozen suits brought against the federal government on matters ranging from family separation at the border to EPA emissions regulations. Though Shapiro is a Democrat, he says his chief motivation in joining these suits is the rule of law and a commitment to do what’s right for people of Pennsylvania.

Whether or not you agree with Shapiro’s politics, he does present an interesting take on the role that states play as a check on the federal government. This power is a unique part of the American experiment and speaks to the power of democracy in the states.

Before the interview, Chris and Michael dive into the origins of federalism, including Federalist 51, the 10th Amendment, and the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.

More Information

Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General

Federalist 51

Interview Highlights

[5:12] When you took this office, did you expect yourself to be this active on federal issues?

Shapiro: I said when I was sworn in that if someone was going to try to mess with Pennsylvania that they would have to go through me. I see the constitution as giving the states broad authority. States rights isn’t something progressives have pointed to, but it is something I value. If someone in the federal system is doing something to undermine our rights, I’m going to stand up to take action.

[6:32] How do one of these suits against the federal government get started?

Shapiro: The first question is whether the action comports with the rule of law. I put aside what I agree or disagree with personally and instead focus on the law. Once we deem that an illegal action has been taken, be think about what is the best way to file an action to challenge that activity. We discuss whether or not Pennsylvania should be the lead state. There are sometimes strategic reasons why we file a suit in a particular state. What we are not doing is constructing opposition to the president just for the sake of opposing him. What we are doing is organizing ourselves around the rule of law.

[8:43] What issues or possible suits have you turned down?

Shapiro: We’ve been involved in about fifteen cases since taking office. I’m very careful about what we engage in on behalf of the people of Pennsylvania. Again, it is not my job just to weigh in whenever I personally disagree with the president. It is my job to weigh in when the rule of law is being threatened.

[9:31] What is the timeline for one of these cases?

Shapiro: I spend the majority of my time going around to differnt places listening to people. I think I have a good feel for where the people of the state are. I don’t poll test these issues. Instead, I try to do what is right and what adheres to the rule of law.

[10:36] Under Obama, we saw a lot of states file suits against the federal government much like what is happening now with Trump in office. Do you think this goes to the partisan nature of government?

Shapiro: I would actually push back on that a little. Most of what I do is bipartisan. It’s just that the media usually doesn’t report that. The vast majority of the actions we take are really bipartisan.

[12:34] President Trump has stated that he thinks the attorney general office should be more of a political one. What are your thoughts on that?

Shapiro: We are above politics in this office. I’m a proud Democrat. People know I have progressive leanings. They knew that when they elected me. However, we check our political views at the door everyday when we come into the office. If you look at our track record, we’ve held democrats and republicans accountable. We do our job in a way that the people of the state can be proud that the justice system is fair. We are diverse in both appearance and thought.

[15:23] What does the term “rule of law” mean to you?

Shapiro: It is the very foundation of everything that I do. It helps you be above politics. My job is to understand the law, apply the facts and evidence, then make a decision in the best interest of the people of Pennsylvania.

Shapiro: The tenth amendment makes it really clear that states have a role to play in our democracy. I believe that if the federal government is making an overreach into our state business, then I’m going to be a shield to guard against that. However, states have also at times been the thing infringing upon rights. However, more often than not, they are expanding rights. The fight for marriage is a perfect example of that. Justice Brandies spoke eloquently about states being the laboratories for democracy. That still holds true today. States need to be a shield against overreach and a sword in promoting the rights of their citizens.


Breaking the silence in Syria



Abdalaziz Alhamza

We’ve talked before on this show about the importance of a free press, but this week’s episode brings a whole new meaning to the term. In 2014, Abdalaziz Alhamza and his friends started social media accounts to document the atrocities being committed by ISIS in their city of Raqqa. They called themselves Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) and their work quickly grew into a website and a social movement that garnered international attention.

RBSS brought the work of citizen journalists to a global audience and helped provide a counter to increasingly sophisticated ISIS propaganda. Their work was chronicled in the 2017 documentary City of Ghosts. Aziz visited Penn State for a screening of the film sponsored by Penn State’s Center for Global Studies, which is lead by friend of our podcast Sophia McClennen.

ISIS was removed from Syra last year, but that does not mean life in Raqqa has improved. Aziz and his colleagues are now working to report on the Asad regime and militias who are trying to take power from it. They are also working to empower citizen journalists in other countries and help defend the free press at a time when “fake news” has become a rallying cry for authoritarian leaders around the world.

More information

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently

City of Ghosts documentary

Interview Highlights

[5:50] What has happened in Raqqa since the end of the film?

Aziz: A campaign began to defeat ISIS. However, this brought with it a lot of violence. Nearly 80% of the city has been destroyed. Most of the people have been displaced. The media stoped paying attention once ISIS was pushed out of the city. This is why we kept out campaign going to continue to share information about the city. There are still a lot of things happening in the city. For example, people are still being killed every day. They are still finding bombs in the city. Also, they are finding mass graves at different parts of the city.

[7:29] How have the conditions there changed the work that you’re doing?

Aziz: We do have more freedom now, but we still can’t do our work legally because we’re considered terrorists by some. If we can survive ISIS, then we can survive working around other groups. We have started an online program to teach people how to become activists and how to start their own movements.

[9:10] What was your motivation for starting this movement?

Aziz: Before the revolution, I wasn’t involved with politics at all. When everything started, I had that thing inside that motivated me to get up and do something. We started by filming protests. When ISIS started taking control they prevented media from covering what was happening in the city. At this point, we felt we had a duty to do something since we were all from Raqqa. None of us had any journalist education at all. We got some training, but now we actually work to train others to be journalists.

[11:20] How do you manage still covering Raqqa while also trying to expand your coverage beyond the city? 

Aziz: Cellphones are the magic. We can do most of our work remotely. They are both tools for communication as well as tools for learning stuff.

[12:46] What do you share with those you’re training to become activists themselves? 

Aziz: We have gone through many mistakes getting to this point that we try to help others avoid. We teach them how to handle a brutal regime or movement such as ISIS. For example, I went to Columbia to help activists there. They didn’t know what encryption was or the idea that the government could track their actions and communication without encryption. Some of the mistakes we’ve made have cost us the lives of friends, so we don’t want anyone to go through those mistakes like we did.

[14:30] Do you feel the work you did have an impact to ISIS ultimately being defeated in Raqqa? 

Aziz: The war with ISIS was not like a regular war with militaries. It was a war fought online. Therefore, they worked hard to shut us down.   They threaten us and killed family members. To get this reaction from ISIS showed us that we were doing something meaningful. They are still talking about us. To ISIS, we are the bad boys. ISIS didn’t want any other alternative media sources like us for the people to learn from. They just didn’t expect a group of teenagers being around and doing this stuff.

[16:27] How did you combat ISIS as they improved their propaganda efforts? 

Aziz: They spent way too much money on the media. For example, they spent millions on one media office in one city. Media was how they recruited fighters so they put a lot of money into it.

[18:25] Did you ever question if you were the right guys to do this? 

Aziz: Yes, at the beginning. However, this changed once our friends started to be killed. Since that, no one is second guessing this movement.

[21:50] How do you feel when you hear the term “fake news”? 

Aziz: It has become a huge problem even here in the United States. One network will say one thing while another will say the opposite. People get lost within all of these platforms and don’t know who to follow. We try to simply things and always provide evidence. I don’t think there is a way to kill fake news, but provide evidence is a good way to combat it.

[23:00] Do you videos that you use come from members of your group or do you get them from citizens? 

Aziz: They are mostly from our members, but we do get some stuff from other citizens. Even taking a photo is very dangerous. It is punishable by death. One of the first things ISIS did was try to scare people. They would have public executions in the middle of town. Because of this, people were afraid to gather information about them such as taking photos or videos.

[27:00] You have lost friends and family members through this effort. What is it like receiving that information? 

Aziz: It was scary when I would wake up and have to check my phone. I would wake up and pray to God that nothing bad had happened. I would feel powerless, but that didn’t last long because I knew there was something we should do about it. We knew that ISIS was killing us because they wanted us to stop our work. So we couldn’t stop and give them what they wanted.

[29:00] What does democracy mean to you?

Aziz: It means people being able to express themselves without being afraid. For those who are used to it, they don’t understand that people are dying around the world to try to get democracy.


Middle America, Part 1: Populism and the Trump Voter



In the effort to understand the people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, a style of reporting has emerged that Chris Hayes recently described as “Trump pastoral.” You might not know the phrase, but, but you’ve probably read a piece or two like this in the past few years:

Salena Zito
Salena Zito

A reporter from a national media outlet based in a big city visits a small town in a rural community and spends a little bit of time there trying to understand the people who live there and why they are attracted to Trump. That sounds great in theory, but the life of an urban media professional and a small town working-class person can be pretty different, which makes it difficult to build the trust needed for a true window into emotions and motivations.

Salena Zito is trying to change that. She grew up in Pittsburgh and splits her time between small-town events and CNN’s airwaves. Along the way, she’s learned a thing or two about what caused parts of the country to vote for Donald Trump after voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. She captures those stories in a book called The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, which was part of our democracy summer reading list episode.

We traveled to Pittsburgh to talk with Salena about how she gets to know people and what everyone can learn about trying to understand those who live different lives than we do. The lessons she’s learned apply far beyond journalism. We also talked about the coalitions that Salena and co-author Brad Todd argue helped Donald Trump become president, and whether they will remain in tact moving forward.

This is the first episode of two that will look at what’s going on in “Middle America.” Next week, you’ll hear from Lara Putnam, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who offers a different take.


Bonus: A dose of optimism about the future of democracy



If you need a sense of hope about the future of democracy, you’ve come to the right place. Stephanie Keyaka, editor-in-chief of The Underground and one of the McCourtney Institute’s Nevins Fellows, is spending the summer interning for Zeke Cohen on the Baltimore City Council. She believes Baltimore is on the cusp of something big and is doing everything she can to help bring that change to fruition.

Stephanie Keyaka
Stephanie Keyaka

Stephanie’s spent her summer canvassing in support of an amendment that will give the council and the city’s residents more control over its budget and answering calls from city residents who are looking for help for problems ranging from the serious to the mundane. During the course of those conversations, she’s had the chance to deliver some optimism about the city’s future.

The Underground is an all-digital news platform at Penn State that covers campus and community events through a multicultural lens. Stephanie sees firsthand the power of the free press in a democracy and tries to instill a sense of passion and tenacity in the reporters she oversees.

Stephanie, like all of our Nevins Fellows, is extremely bright and very well spoken. It’s hard not to feel at least a little hopeful about the future of democracy with people like her poised to take the reins.


What should voting look like in the 21st century?



Across the U.S., the process to register to vote and cast a ballot is different in every state. And we’re not just talking about minor details. The entire registration process and timeline can vary widely from one state, as do the regulations surrounding campaign finance and electoral maps.

Kathy Boockvar
Kathy Boockvar

Pennsylvania tends to fall on the more restrictive side of things, and Governor Tom Wolf is trying to change that. Earlier this year, he announced the 21st Century Voting Reform Plan, which includes same day voter registration, changes to the absentee ballot process, as well as campaign finance reform.

Kathy Boockvar, Senior Advisor to the Governor on Election Modernization, has spent the past few months traveling to each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to build consensus the plan. We talked with her about using technology to increase voting access without compromising voter data in the process, and about the criticism from Pennsylvania Republicans that the voting reform plan is a convenient tactic for a Democratic governor in an election year.

While this episode talks specifically about Pennsylvania, the compromises that must be made across counties and municipalities exists everywhere and is indicative of why states are sometimes referred to as “laboratories of democracy.” It’s also an insight into the hard work that it takes to make large-scale change to one of the most fundamental parts of democracy.


Michael Mann on the hockey stick and the future of expertise



Michael E. Mann in the studio with Jenna Spinelle.

This episode is not about climate change. Well, not directly, anyway. Instead, we talk with Nobel Prize winner and Penn State Distinguished Professor of Meteorology Michael E. Mann about his journey through the climate wars over the past two decades and the role that experts have to play in moving out of the lab and into the spotlight to defend the scientific process.

Doing so is more important now than ever, he says, as corporation-funded think tanks continue to churn out information that deliberately sows skepticism among the public about our role in climate change. But it does beg the question: How do square the idea that in a democracy, everyone’s vote is equal but everyone’s opinion is not?

Mann was part of the team that created the now-infamous hockey stick graph that showed how quickly the rate of warming on the planet had accelerated during the latter half of the 20th century. In the 20 years since graph was published, he’s had his email hacked, been called to testify before Congress, and been hounded by Internet trolls long before social media existed.

He chronicled those experiences in his 2012 book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. Despite it all, he’s more passionate than ever about spreading the good word about science and cautiously optimistic that things might turn out ok after all.


Bonus: Democracy In Action #1



We love talking with scholars and thought leaders on Democracy Works, but we’d also like to bring you the everyday stories of democracy in action. This the first installment in that series.

We visited the central Pennsylvania chapter of Moms Demand Action and heard how they are using the power of conversation to reframe the gun debate and reinvigorating a sense of civic engagement among members. A recent meeting also included a “government 101” presentation that covered the basics of how a bill becomes a law and the best way for someone to contact an elected official.MOMS Demand Action logo

In this mini episode, you’ll hear from Lori Wieder, who is a founding member of the central Pennsylvania Moms Demand Action Chapter, and from Katie Blume, deputy political director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. Both Katie and Lori are firm believers — as we are — in the power that can come from everyone exercising their power as small-d democrats regardless of political affiliation.

Do you have a story of democracy in action? Drop us a line at democracyinst@la.psu.edu; we’d love to hear about it and consider it for a future Democracy Works episode.


A conversation about conversation



This week’s episode seeks to answer one simple, but very important, question: Why is it so hard for people to talk to each other? There are a lot of easy answers we can point to, like social media and political polarization, but there’s another explanation that goes a bit deeper.

Laurie Mulvey
Laurie Mulvey

Laurie Mulvey, executive director of World in Conversation, is the perfect person to help us explore this question. World in Conversation has facilitated more than 10,000 dialogues over the past 15 years. They bring people from all walks of life together to have dialogues about important issues from climate change to race relations. In the process, they break down the misconceptions and preconceived notions that often get in the way of one person understanding — and relating to— someone else.

Of course, most dialogues do not happen in a controlled environment with a facilitator in the room. Laurie shares some advice for how to handle your next family dinner or other situation where things might get a little heated. She also shares how the World in Conversation is preparing the next generation of democratic citizens to overcome the partisan divides that bog down political discourse.

As we say in the episode, Laurie raises the optimism quotient of this podcast quite a bit.

Interview Highlights

[6:06] Why is it so difficult for people to engage in dialogue today? 

Laurie: What I think happens is that we end up needing facilitators. Just like in sports we need referees. Here they would be dialogue referees.

[6:55] What are the elements of a good dialogue?

Laurie: Candidness and disagreement with respect is important. Having mutual respect is especially important. When we don’t talk with an understanding of each other’s positions they aren’t as productive and they don’t show us as much.

[14:00] What impact do you think social media has had on our ability and willingness to engage in dialogue? 

Laurie: Personally, I don’t notice much of a difference. We actually have a lot of conversations. However, they’re either with like minded people or they are a “hit and run” type conversation with people who don’t think like us. The only change that social media has brought is that we’re doing this with people from our living rooms.

[15:40] We have seen our culture become more polarized politically. Have you seen this reflected in the conversations you lead?

Laurie: We try to find polarizing topics and get different sides represented in our conversations. Therefore, I’m not sure if we see an increase in the extent of the polarization. Actually, we try to get people in our conversations to say the things that are controversial. At this point, the polarization becomes apparent. However, I don’t think this is real. I dont’ think most people live in this polarity that we like to talk about.

[17:40] How can we take the work you’ve done working with conversations and apply it in the real world such as at dinner table talks?

Laurie: It is important to be in the mindset for listening. The mindset you need to be in is ‘tell me something I dont’ already know’. However, I strongly believe that even in these settings we need a facilitator to help navigate the conversation.

[19:24] What skills does someone need to be a good facilitator? 

Laurie: Fundamentally, you have to be able to talk all sides. You have to find what is true in all sides of a conversation. As long as you can do that, you can sort of fumble through everything else.

[20:22] Is there a certain point in a conversation where you would advise people to end a conversation? 

Laurie: I think we all know intuitively that there is a time to end a heated conversation.

[21:30] Given all of the conversations you’ve been a part of, are there any memories that really stick out?

Laurie: There was one conversation between Israelites and Palestinians where one guest from Palestine said he couldn’t even go in the room. But by the end of his time working with me his greatest challenge was that he came to understand so much about the Israelis perspective that he wasn’t sure what it meant given his position as a Palestinian. I do the work because the people who have the hardest positions will get the most out of it.


Ten thousand democracies



One of the things we talked about in our episode with How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt is the “grinding work” that it takes to make a democracy function. School board meeting rooms around the country are some of the places where that happens at the grassroots level.

Robert Asen
Robert Asen

If you’ve ever been to a school board meeting, you know that they’re not always exciting. However, the work that these boards do directly impacts the schools, the children who attend them, and the community at large. Board positions are not full-time and the people who hold them are rarely career politicians. Rather, they’re everyday citizens who want to make an impact — exactly the type of people come together to make democracy work.

We talk about the role that school boards play in a democracy with Robert Asen, a professor of rhetoric, politics, and culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Asen is the author of Democracy, Deliberation and Education, which is based on a yearlong study of three school boards in Wisconsin. While the examples he references are specific to Wisconsin, it’s easy to hear the conversations and deliberations playing out at schools across the country.

Asen visited Penn State to deliver the 2018 Kenneth Burke lecture in the McCourtney Institute’s Center for Democratic Deliberation.


Satire is good for more than just a few laughs



Political satire has been around nearly as long as politics itself and can provide a much needed laugh in times of crisis.

Sophia McClennen
Sophia McClennen

But, as you’ll hear from our guests this week, it’s much more than that. Satire is a check on people in power and helps to engage the public around issues that might otherwise go unnoticed — both of which are essential for a healthy democracy.

But, are we reaching a place where the comedy has become the news? The success of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and most recently John Oliver suggest that we might be heading in that direction. What about fake news? It’s all fun and games until you can’t tell the real news from the satire, and that’s concerning.

On the bright side, people who consume satire tend to be more well-informed about politics than those who do not, suggesting that one needs a solid foundation of what the news actually is in order to get the jokes that are being made about it.

Steve Brodner
Steve Brodner

We discuss the current state of political satire and where it might be heading with Sophia McClennen and Steve Brodner.

Sophia, a Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at Penn State, writes regularly for Salon and recently appeared on StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Steve is a cartoonist at caricaturist who has drawn every president since Ronald Regan. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Washington Post just to name a few.

Interview Highlights

[7:02] What is the role of satire in a democracy?

Sophia: It doesn’t have that big of a role because it usually comes into the picture when things aren’t going that well. Satire emerges in moments of crisis. Today it is playing an extremely big role. Largely because the news media has shifted in how it informs the public.

[8:01] What about the nature of a crisis makes satire more popular and come out more in political conversations?

Sophia: Satire tends to come about when people are faulty or are doing stupid things. Satire is typically a contrarian position.

[8:42] What are creators of satire trying to accomplish?

Sophia: Satire is typically used to get the audience to think critically. The idea is to get people out of the binary option mindset. Many see the satirist as someone trying to tell them what to think. However, what they’re actually doing is trying to call out the way in which a conversation it being framed and recommend a change to that.

[10:05] What do we know about the types of people who consume satire?

Sophia: People who consume satire tend to be smarter. They also seem to be more creative on average. Part of the reason for this is the fact that satire depends on irony, which is art of playing with language. In terms of irony, the ability to hear a word and be able to comprehend that it has multiple meanings is a sign of an ability to be brighter and more creative.

[12:07] Is there a “my team, your team” dynamic in the application of satire to politics?

Sophia: It is suggested that we have a better ability to detect irony if it confirms our political positions.

[12:38] Where does the First Amendment fit into the creation and use of satire in politics? 

Sophia: Following the ruling in the Falwell v. Hustler case, satirists were found to be protected under the First Amendment under a particular clause of creativity. This differs from what a newspaper might be able to get away with. A key component is how the creators frame their comment. A key in Huslter was the fact that the intent of the offensive comment was to make fun of the individual rather than attempt to make a factual claim regarding their actions.

[15:38] What other effects have you seen satire bring about?

Sophia: Satire does have “boundary heightening effects”. This is the idea that it is ok to make fun of certain groups depending on ones particular membership in that group. When you cross into different groups, this can anger members of that group, or supporters of a particular individual that those members support. Therefore, one downside to satire is that it can deepen certain political gaps.

17:20 Would one then be accurate in saying that satire increases political polerization?

Sophia: Yes, this will absolutely happen. Satire does have a blowback effect on those who think the system is working. This is because the purpose of satire is often to attack the current system and the norms in which a particular issue is addressed in. However, there is research that suggests that the use of satire can create political energy and momentum and a shared narrative.

[19:40] Have you done any research looking at how satire has evolved? 

Sophia: While it has changed, I’m not sure I would use the word evolved because that suggests that it is getting better. In light of the changes we’ve seen, it might be nice if there was still a difference between the news and satire. One measurable change is how news gathering and satire have merged. Today, many people use satirical displays and shows as their first source of news. Memes are also shaping public narratives. This mergering of news and satire is one that isn’t going away. In fact, it is increasing.

[21:00] Do you have any thought on where political satire might go from here? 

Sophia: One problem going forward will be the relationship between satire and “fake news” because satirical headlines, if not understood as satire, can become taken as hard reporting and as factual. For example, the top shared “fake news” of last year was a headline that read “Pope Francis Endorses Trump.” We’re in a situation now that things are  being shared around for the reason of tricking the audience come dangerously close to looking like satire news headlines. Years ago John Stewart on the Daily Show was referred to as creating “fake news”, and that wasn’t an insult at the time.


Tommie Smith: From sharecropper to Olympic protester



Tommie Smith with the Democracy Works podcast team (Jenna Spinelle, Michael Berkman, Chris Beem)

Tommie Smith is a true living legend. He won a gold medal in the men’s 200 meter event at the 1968 Olympics, setting a world record in the process. When he took the medal stand in Mexico City that day, he made history again by raising a black-gloved fist during the National Anthem.

As you’ll hear, Tommie didn’t grow up in a political family and didn’t see himself as an activist when he enrolled at San Jose State University. That changed when he met Dr. Harry Edwards and became involved with Olympic Project for Human Rights, where he found his voice and used it to speak out against racial segregation in sports and elsewhere.

When Tommie and teammate John Carlos raised their fists on the podium in Mexico City, many interpreted the gesture as a symbol of the Black Power movement. However, as Tommie says, the action was not necessarily about one cause or movement. Rather, it was a symbol of a broader struggle for power and equality.

Tommie visited Penn State as part of a yearlong look at the events of 1968 organized by the College of the Liberal Arts.

For more on the relationship between athletes and protests, check out our episode with Abe Khan, who has studied this topic extensively and draws comparisons between Smith and modern-day athletes like Colin Kaepernick.

 

Interview Highlights

[5:10] What was your family like? Did you come form a political family? Did you talk politics at dinner or attend political rallies? 

Tommie: No, Just the opposite. My family was a sharecropper background. My father actually had no education. My parents met in Texas and we were just sharecroppers. We had no political background, but there were issues in society and the system that we knew nothing about because of where we were. We worked from grass roots up until I got to the junior or senior year of high school, and that is the time social change began. I was just in time to see it. Before I read about it, I lived it. When I read about it, I remember those times. Not in the south, but in California which shadowed the south in terms of the field work.

[6:52] Were you drawn there (San Jose State) because of Dr. Edwards? How did all of those pieces come together? 

Tommie: There were many colleges looking to recruit me. The last two colleges out of about thirty six were San Jose and USC. I visited USC. It was a little big. They shouldn’t hav taken me to Disney Land. It scared the heck out of me. I’m used to two story buildings and that was really high up. I’m from the area of cabins and not buildings. They put me on a blind date which was a no-no. San Jose State was what I wanted academically because I wanted to become a school teacher. So I made a trip to San Jose. It was simple and the buildings were short. It was also a small city.

[8:29] Tell me about meeting Dr. Edwards and making this transition into becoming an activist.

Tommie: Once I started school, he was one of the first people I met at San Jose State. He was a senior as I was coming in as a freshman. The first thing he told he was that there’s no way you can come here with me being here and not carry a book. Whenever I see you, carry a book even though you don’t read just so I think you’re reading. So I got a feel for him and his educational power when I first got there. That helped me tremendously. So I started carrying a book. Then I started carrying two books. Then I started reading the first one. Then I began to read the second one, and they would become interesting because he would start asking me questions. I was a fast learner because I had to be because I didn’t know very much once I got to San Jose State. Believe in something bigger that you that way you wouldn’t have any problem learning because someone else would help you. That faith of believing in rather than doing myself was my shot right there.

[9:56] Given that you came from this simple background and your parents weren’t very political, what did they think as you started to take on this more activist role and become more political yourself? 

Tommie: My mom and my dad didn’t know enough about the educational process, especially on the political side to ask me questions about what I was doing. They heard about it. There were people in town who would let them know that Tommie is doing pretty good. The town was a predominantly white town and they (the family) would receive a lot of threats because of what there son was doing and saying. I heard these things through my younger brothers and sisters. I was trying to make a decision as to what I should do. I learned how to take shots and how to take abuse on both ends and still make a path in the center and that’s what made me stronger in my competitions and my academic needs while in college.

[11:47] Jumping forwards to the 1968 Olympics, can you talk about some of the different pressures you were facing going into that final meet? 

Tommie: My personality was very quiet in college. I talked very little unlike now. Sometimes I didn’t talk at all during the day even in class. When I started talking, that was freedom for me because I became free to do things, which moved me into using competition and athletics to expound upon my feelings and the necessity in society for equality. Because of my athleticism, I had a platform to speak sensibly because I had a background of doing to others as I wanted done to me. Unfortunately, this was not the situation so I had to fight for that equality. This took me to the Olympic Project for Human Rights which was started by Dr. Edwards on the campus of San Jose State. I was recruited to talk about competitions, but this also gave me the opportunity to talk about the advancement of man equally. And that it what got me in trouble. But those getting in trouble for this are some of the most important people you can be around. This brought the pride of not being afraid to talk about those things. That’s highlighted a lot of issues even today. Today, young people are standing up because they’re no longer afraid.

[14:25] Do you think it’s easier today for young people to stand up and make their voices heard than it was for you and your colleagues?

Tommie: There is not such thing as easy because it saddens the human being to think that you’re being overlooked. There is also a sacrifice in speaking out for young people because they are being disallowed to do things because they’re standing up for the right of students to move forward. My personal thought, you can’t turn back. There is no relaxing. You have to continue. Those who are being active just to cause problems must be outnumbered by those looking to use this to make advancements socially in life to take the whole rock and move forward.

[17:10] The National Anthem is not a short song. What was going through your mind during that? 

Tommie: It is an hour and a half long. That is what it felt like. I was praying during that time. Even though you’re praying and hoping people see this as an ultimate value through sacrifice, that thought doesn’t help that tired arm sticking in the air with the glove on it. This implied the power that is needed for us to move forward as a society. This was not about black power or black panther. This was about human rights. The black love indicated a sight of power. The ramification of that particular move ratifying it as a positive gesture, not a gesture of hate. It takes too much energy to hate. The idea of the glove represented power. Being a black athlete, they saw it as black power. Fine, but it was not “black power” in the sense of implicating voice. The rolled up pants with the socks represented poverty and the need to end poverty. The bowed head represented prayer. I did what I did because I thought there was a need for me to do it.

[21:54] Do you think that the needle on politics crossing over into sports has moved at all over the last 50 years?

Tommie: Politics has been a part of sports since people started sitting down and watching it. If you don’t think that sport has a place for politics then you’re missing the excitement of sport because sport is politics even more so now. At the olympics the flag of each nation was shown. That was a prideful thing because you got to meet other athletes. Athletes then were used for the sensation of making money for the olympic committees. They (heads of committees) were driving nice cars while the athletes were suffering for their lunchmeat at school. Even those on full scholarship like I was. Avery Brundage was a racist person, but he didn’t know anything else to do.

[27:15] What was it like for you emotionally to go from being vilified to being praised and honored?

Tommie: I’m from an area where I was vilified as a child in the fields seeing my parents taunted. My mother died in 1971 because of pressure from that and other things around her. Vilification came way before Mexico City. So when I was vilified following the games I just resorted back to how I handled it back then.

 

 


Generation Z and the future of democracy



Over the past few months, the members of Generation Z have combined the tenets of traditional social movements with the power of social media to reimagine what it means to protest in a democracy. That energy was on display during the March for Our Lives events held around the world on March 24.

Kayla Fatemi speaks at the State College March for Our Lives event.
Kayla Fatemi speaks at the State College March for Our Lives event.

We interviewed several students from State College, Pennsylvania (where our podcast is based) who attended March for Our Lives events locally and in Washington, D.C. They speak passionately and articulately about what they believe in and how they’re working to carry forward the energy they’ve create

In this episode, you’ll hear from:

  • Kyra Gines and Kayla Fatemi, high school students who organized the March for Our Lives in State College.
  • Lilly Caldawell and Lena Adams, who organized a walk out at their middle school.
  • Hannah Strouse and Cian Nelson, who attended the March for our Lives in Washington, D.C.

If what we saw and heard from these students is any indication, the future of our democracy looks very bright.

Interview Highlights

[6:34] Kyra on activism and motivation for the march for our lives event.

With everything happening this year, it felt natural to set up these events and continue to make our voices heard. I want to do what I can within my constraints. I can’t vote for a number of years, but I can work with those who can and who set up events like this I can go up there, I can make a speech, and I can make my voice heard. I will continue to do so until I can hear and see change.

[7:48] Kayla on activism and the movement towards creating change.

One good thing about the United States in the right to free speech and the right to express ourselves and to vote. Democracy for us is voting in those who will be advocating for our lives. This was something I felt I had to do. I think many other students had the same feeling after watching the Parkland students who are our peers. We are a different generation than the millennial generation. We are a lot more vocal and a lot less afraid. We’ve seen a lot of things happen (school shootings) and if something is going to happen we are going to have to do it ourselves. Our generation is finally becoming old enough where we can go out there and do these sort of things. We are continuing to work on voter registration. We also have another school walkout scheduled for April 20th, which is not sponsored by the school.

[10:19] Lena Adams from Delta Middle School on how students created a similar march at their school.

We worked really hard at getting to participate in the walkout without any school suspensions. The majority of our school walked out to support changes in gun legislation and to memorialize the victims (Parkland). I thought that was really cool.

 [10:48] Lilly Caldawell on the student protest at Delta.

After Parkland, I had heard about the walkout and I wanted to start something similar at our school. I’ve seen some of my friends here today which is awesome. I think it’s amazing that it is the youth, even middle school students who are really starting to notice and take action. This will bring attention to politicians that they need to take more action. We can’t just say ‘thoughts and prayers’ in hopes that will fix the situation.

Interview with Hanna Strouse and Cian Nelson

[11:48] Can you describe your first impression of the March For Our Lives in Washington D.C.? 

Hanna: I had been to the Woman’s March before so I sort of expected a large crowd, but I thought it was actually tighter when I was actually out there in it, which I was not expecting at all.

Cian: There were just so many people. It made me feel good to be around people who shared my opinions. It made me feel good to stand up for something I believe in for once.

[13:44] As you’ve had a chance to reflect on your experiences, are there any moment in particular that stand out to you? 

Hanna: All of the speakers were amazing. I respect them so much. They’re my age and they’re speaking infant of 800,000 people. To be honest, all of them are doing outstanding things, and that is really resonating with me. Our generation is going to be the one that really hammers hard on this whole gun control thing. We are going to be the ones really standing up for this change.

Cian: It made me feel really good to be a part of generation Z. The one speech that really stood out to me was from Emma Gonzalez and her six minutes of silence representing all the time it took for those seventeen lives to be taken. It was sort of outstanding and horrifying at the same time.

Hanna: It (six minutes of silence) felt awkward. I was confused, but when she said this was the amount of time it took for seventeen of her classmates to die I realized that was no time at all. It felt like forever when it was silent. Imagining your in a classroom where you have to stay quiet during that amount of time is terrifying.

[15:53] Is there any characteristics of your generation that you think will maybe take things in a different direction or reach progress we haven’t seen thus far?    

Cian: Generations are becoming more progressive over time in my opinion. Our generation is the tech generation. We’re the only generation to not remember a time before the internet. We know how to utilize it. We’re set to become the most educated generation yet.

Hanna: I also feel that we’re fed up with the things that have been happening. I’m 18 and I know so much about what is happening in our government, and it is making me angry that nothing is being done to prevent things like Parkland. It just makes us angry. With this digital age, we have this opportunity to put out our anger for more people to see, which is really helping.

[17:12] So tell us about your family growing up. Are you from political households and have you guys talked about politics a lot? 

Hanna: So my family is very political. My dad is involved in the local government, so I started to get really into it. I wanted to know what he was talking about so I would research what he was saying and I made my own opinions. My family is very liberal, but I feel that we do have some differences in our opinions and in how we approach things.

[17:56] Have you noticed in these past couple of weeks since the shooting any change or increase in activism amongst your friends or other people at school?

Hanna: There are first time protestors, but I feel like it hasn’t changed very much. Our generation is stigmatized for being lazy and unengaged. But I feel like we have that stereotype because we are afraid to engage because everyone tells us we can’t.

[21:16] Do you sense any division among your generation about the best way to move forward and see the change you want to have happen? 

Hanna: There are some divisions. I know there are some people calling for a total gun ban. I know others who are calling or an assault rifle ban. I know some who are just calling for background checks. I feel any of those options would do amazing things, and would save so many lives. It’s just a matter of how far you’re willing to push it.

Cian: This might be unrealistic, but I think we should go as far as Australia and Japan.

Hanna: Also, the say they (Australia and Japan) handle giving guns is very interesting. If you look at Japan, they have to go through a background check, a physical health screening, a mental health screening, and then they do classes. They then have police who make sure you’re storing them correctly. Why don’t we do that here. It has saved so many lives in Japan.

[22:48] Did being at the march and hearing from the students talk about the communities who are not represented make you reconsider your own background and your own privilege? 

Hanna: I know that I’m have a lot of privilege because I’m a white American. While, as a woman, I couldn’t walk a city street at night, I could do it during the day time. I wouldn’t be shot for walking down the block. I know that this is a really big problem for people of color. Many of them don’t feel safe in their cities. That is so saddening to me. I have no idea how that must feel,

Cian: I know that I’m a white straight male. I feel like I don’t have any right to complain about anything and that I should just let minorities do the talking. I agree with that because they’re the ones experiencing these tragedies and inequality.

Hanna: I do think it’s amazing that the face of this movement is a bisexual Cuban female. That just speaks volumes at to how diverse the movement is going to be. The fact that we have someone not male, white, or straight as the leader is kind of amazing.

 

 


What can Pennsylvania voters do about gerrymandering?



Chris Satullo
Chris Satullo

Pennsylvania received a new congressional map earlier this year, closing the books on what was widely considered one of the most egregious examples of partisan gerrymandering after 2010 census. Chris Satullo sees that decision as winning the battle against gerrymandering, but not the war.

Satullo, a civic engagement consultant for the Committee of Seventy, is involved with several initiatives to sustain the changes that were enacted this year and ensure that a fair map is drawn after the 2020 census.

The Committee of Seventy works closely with two organizations, Fair Districts PA and Draw the Lines PA. Fair Districts is a nonpartisan grassroots advocacy group working to ensure that the map doesn’t revet back to a gerrymandered state in 2021, while Draw the Lines aims to “fix the bug in the operating system of democracy” by empowering students and other groups to draw new maps.

We talked with Chris about how Pennsylvania’s map became so gerrymandered, what drove the desire to change it, and how people across the Keystone State can get involved with the effort to create a better map. In many ways, this effort embodies the essence of Democracy Works — people coming together build something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

For more from Chris, check out his podcast, 20 by Seventy.

Interview Highlights

[5:50] What are Committee of 70, Fair Districts Pennsylvania, and Draw the Lines Pennsylvania, and how do those groups work together?

The Committee of 70 is a non-profit that is Pennsylvania’s oldest “good government group” founded more than 100 years ago in Philly. Fair Districts PA is a grassroots organization that was formed about a year and a half, two years ago, to work specifically on the redistricting, anti-gerrymandering front. Draw the Lines PA is a new initiative of us here at Committee of 70 which looks to connect with and support and sustain the work of Fair Districts PA.

[8:04] Why did it take so long for this effort to come to fruition, to get the map changed?

What changed dramatically in the last twenty years is the advent of computer technology and big data. Mapping software and big data about individual voters buying habits, not just election and political habits.

[9:44] If the 2016 election had gone a different way, would we be sitting here talking about this right now?

I’d like to assure you that Committee of 70, and I personally would’ve been talking about this issue because, it’s been a concern of mine as a journalist covering these legislatures for a long time.

[12:34] So what are you hoping people will do [with the map tools]? Why should people want to take part in this work?

What we want to show people is that, if you have the right tools in your hand, it is not difficult, in fact it is relatively easy, to draw a common sense map of Pennsylvania.

[15:06] How does the product of all this work make its way to the people who are responsible for what the states new map will look like?

A big focus of Draw the Lines will be getting this opportunity and this software and these tools into classrooms across Pennsylvania, both secondary school and colleges, professional schools, law schools and the like.  

 

[19:40] Do you think we’re heading for a crazy decade ahead of maps changing all the time and all these challenges, and people not knowing what’s what or where their districts are or where things stand?

In the short term, yes, a lot of confusion. In the long term, I think what we’re seeing is the first glimmers of voters beginning to realize how significant this issue is in how disappointed and frustrated they are with what they get out of their State governments and out of Washington D.C.

[21:00] If people only have to time to do one thing, what should that be?

Right now they should contact their representatives in the State Legislature, both Senate and House, and tell them they want them to vote for the Constitutional Amendment.


Fake news, clickbait, and the future of local journalism



Can philanthropy save local journalism? Are the calls of “fake news” from Washington impacting the work of journalists in other parts of the country? We discuss those questions and the role of the free press in a democracy with Halle Stockton, managing editor of PublicSource in Pittsburgh.

Halle Stockton
Halle Stockton

PublicSource is a nonprofit journalism organization in the style of ProPublica, funded primarily by Pittsburgh’s foundation community. Halle talks about how PublicSource’s funding model impacts its reporting, ways that the organization is breaking the fourth wall to engage with readers, how the team responds to allegations of “fake news” while doing in-depth reporting, and why they’ll never write clickbait.

Halle is a Penn State alumna and was the 2018 Hearst Visiting Professional in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.

Interview Highlights

[6:00] What is PublicSource and what is your role there?

Public Source is a non-profit independent, digital first media organization, so in human speak that means that we are focused on in depth and investigative journalism in the Pittsburgh region.

[7:37] How does PublicSource fit into Pittsburgh’s media landscape?

Public Source is fitting in in a way that people are seeing it as a more straightforward platform for the type of news that they’re not getting elsewhere and the type of voices they’re not getting elsewhere.

[8:48] What role does the community itself play in that, in terms of feedback you get?

We engage with the community quite a bit via social media but also in person. A couple of the ways that we interact with people, are one, through educational events we call citizens tool kits.

 

[13:35] How do you strike the balance between catching people’s attention and writing hard-hitting stories?

We’re never going to fall victim to clickbait. That’s just something that we’ve decided we cannot do. We firmly believe that people’s stories, seeing other people going through things is catchy enough.

[14:50] Are you and your team feeling the impact of the attacks agains the media that are coming from Washington?

Surprisingly enough, even in Pittsburgh, it started off as sources kind of laughing about it like “oh are you the fake news?” but even in the past few months when we’ve had some really important stories drop, those institutions who we’ve pressured in those stories through our reporting, we have heard rumors about them trying to cast us as fake news.

[16:38] What role do foundations play at PublicSource?

There’s a firewall between, just like in newspapers, between business and news, there’s a firewall between foundations and news, although it’s not totally the same.

[19:06] What impacts have you seen from your reporting?

One of the most recent ones was with Chatham University, it’s a small university in Pittsburgh, it used to be all female, and recently moved to co-ed, and we reported on a policy in their honor code. It was a policy that treated self-harm as a disciplinary matter. The stories of students who had been expelled or dismissed from campus housing for incidents of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and suicidal attempts , those had been never told.When we put tit [the story] out, within 24 hours the university launched a task force to review it [the policy].

[21:18] Where do you see PublicSource going looking forward?

There are a lot of opportunities. Right now, we’re really focused on the Pittsburgh region. I think in the future there’s opportunity and possibility that we could have somebody in Harrisburg covering state governmental issues in the Public Source way.


Is Colin Kaepernick a good democrat?



Abe Khan
Abe Khan

No matter how much of a sports fan you are, you probably remember seeing Colin Kaepernick kneeling during National Anthem. President Trump took the debate to a whole new level when he said that anyone who does not respect the National Anthem and the flag should be fired.

Kaepernick and those who followed him are the most recent example of athletes using their sports as a means to protest, but history is filled with others who have come before them.

In this episode, we talk with Abe Khan, assistant professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and African-American Studies at Penn State, about the impact Kaepernick’s actions had on NFL culture and the broader role that protest plays in a democracy.

Michael Berkman and Chris Beem draw parallels between modern-day sports protests and Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights protests, and discuss the public’s feelings on protests as reported in the McCourtney Institute’s Mood of the Nation Poll.

Interview Highlights

[6:28] Help us remember what happened with Colin Kapernick and where the issues have gone from there:

Kapernick’s first kneel came at the end of August in 2016, it was actually at the end of a preseason football game. It actually didn’t start as a kneel.

He used two phrases that came, at least in my mind, to define the substance of the protest. One is, bodies in the street.And the other is people getting away with murder.

[8:54] How did the protest spread after Kapernicks initial demonstration?

So I’ll admit to being surprised about how quickly the Kapernick situation spread, but the number of athletes included 48 NFL players, 8 NBA teams, 14 WNBA players, including the entire squad of the Minnesota Links, a gold medal swimmer, 45 high school teams, 22 colleges, a middle school, and a youth football team in Beaumont Texas. 34 states, 4 countries.

[10:10] To wrap up this section about the history of the protest, where do things stand now?

One thing that emerged immediately after this was of course huge outrage, especially among NFL players.

Where were at is essentially a split in the players coalition, because I think  that the NFL saw that the players coalition as an opportunity to co-op the force of the protest. Eric Reid (one of the earliest players to join Kapernick)  and Michael Thomas (player for the Miami Dolphins) left the players coalition after the NFL promised to spend 100 million dollars promoting an agenda on criminal justice reform. This was seen as a bribe.

[12:03] Let’s talk about that, NFL culture. Sports is is kind of the one non-partisan place in our society.

The problem is, is that all of the political place in sport had been consumed by simplistic and idealized images of the nation, especially in the 1980’s and 90’s. There’s been patriotic symbolism in sports forever.

Patriotism and nationalism frequently get coded as a-political. That underwrites a form of attack on the method of protest. So to the extent that the anthem ritual is apolitical, disrupting the ritual will always be seen as an inappropriate intrusion of politics into sport.

[13:04] Who were some of those [athlete protesters] that came before him [Kapernick]?

Athletes have always used moments of patriotic ritual to express dissent. Of course the most famous example is John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the 1968 Olympics.

[14:40] Kapernick and these other athletes are effectively “on the job.” What effect, if any, do you see this having on their actions?

The recognition that athletes are on the job is often used as the ground from which to criticize the protester.

[17:13] Do you think that Kapernick and those who have followed him were successful in making their points?

I think that the answer there is yes but I can understand those who say no.

[18:38] How do you think history will look back on Kapernick and the impact that he’s had?

It’s true that the problem of police violence and accountability got lost in the shuffle about free speech and angry screeds about patriotism but that, it seems to me, is a limited metric of success.