Alencia: I feel like I’ve been called to create a community of table flippers, of disruptors, wherever they are, because that—in essence—is how my Jesus lived His life.
Jen: Welcome to the For the Love Podcast with me, Jen Hatmaker. Today we begin a very important series talking about the wholeness and goodness of Black lives, starting with a conversation with social impact and brand strategist Alencia Johnson.
Hey everybody, Jen Hatmaker here. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast. Just absolutely delighted to have you today and I’ll tell you why. Today we begin a brand new series, a really important series, an on-fire series called For the Love of Black Lives, because Black Lives Matter. And this moment in time matters. And our engagement matters. And we have some of the most incredible, brilliant, courageous, accomplished leaders in this series. They’re just the level of expertise that you are going to experience in this series that is unprecedented in any series that I’ve ever done.
So my first guest today—this is who I wanted to start with. As we were building out this series, I knew whose voice I wanted to center first, to teach us, to instruct us, to guide us, to lead us. And she is a woman whose leadership I’ve actually just come to know recently, and I remain pretty much in awe of her. So I got to know her a little better during the #sharethemicnow campaign when fifty white women of influence and at various levels and to various degrees partnered with fifty women of color. And for the day, we handed over our Instagram accounts to our partner of color. And she led and taught and challenged and pushed and instructed our communities. And it was really incredible and so powerful.
And so Alencia Johnson took over my page on the #sharethemicnow campaign—which, if you missed it, you can go to both of our Instagram accounts and just scroll back. This was in June, and you’ll be able to find all those posts, they live there now. So you can go back and pick up what you missed.
So Alencia sits at the intersection—which we will talk about—of social change and cultural change, social justice and cultural change. She’s a social impact, brand engagement, and communication strategist. And this will all become super clear to you when you hear her start talking. [She’s a] super highly sought-after commentator and advisor and coach. In fact, she was named to Ebony Magazine‘s Power 100, a list of influential African Americans, and PRWeek‘s 40 Under 40 list.
Alencia is the chief impact officer and founder of her company, 1063 West Broad, which she talks a little bit about. It’s a social impact agency. And she specializes—and I asked her exactly what this meant—as the intersection of culture, impact, and purpose. Most recently, Alencia was the National Director of Public Engagement for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. And in 2012, she served on the campaign to reelect President Obama. She began her career at Geico at their corporate headquarters in their social responsibility communications department, and then she spent six years at Planned Parenthood where she engaged political and media and entertainment and corporate organizations and influencers to help shift mainstream culture with positive and factual perceptions of gender equality and women’s rights and reproductive freedom.
I mean, what I’m just trying to say to you is look at this résumé. Her credentials are a mile long and her expertise spans this wide variety of spaces. And so I am telling you, she has her finger on the pulse and she is so highly engaged and knowledgeable about all these really high-level ideas that we are talking about as a country right now. She is the perfect leader for today.
This conversation is packed. We talk about what does “defunding the police” mean? We talk about our history books and the Confederate monuments. We talk about white fragility. And it’s just with so much respect that I’m delighted to welcome back to the show—welcome back to my space, but first time to the podcast—the very incredible Alencia Johnson.
Jen: I’m delighted to welcome my friend Alencia to the podcast. It’s so good to see you again.
Alencia: So good to see you. I’m excited to be here.
Jen: Yeah. Thank you. I want to say this first, before you and I dive into quite a few pretty heavy and hot topics to discuss. I just want to recognize and say out loud that I see this emotional and educational heavy lifting that you are offering my community today. I recognize that. And I want to also say that I know that in every capacity, when a leader of color is speaking to the white members of my audience, it is not your responsibility to teach us, because we have Google and we can read, and that’s our work to do, to be good allies and good citizens of the world. So I want to thank you in advance that you are doing this of your own volition. And you are offering your wisdom today and your expertise, and I feel privileged to get to learn from you today, so thank you for doing that, and I see that.
All right. Having said that, I’ve told my podcast community about you. Could you tell them about you? I wonder if—before we dive into a lot of the minutiae of what’s going on right now—can you talk a little bit about who you are and what you do? This one sentence that you say I really love, that your work is “at the intersection of culture, impact, and purpose.” So can you tell us what that means and what you do?
Alencia: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks so much for having me, and I’m just honored to be here.
So for me, culture, impact, and purpose is the combination of all of the experiences that I have gained over my entire life. Culture, mainstream culture, is literally the driving force of, honestly, what we believe in. It’s what we engage in, from popular culture in the entertainment industry, to corporations, to just the things that we are inundated with every single day that shape our perceptions. And so that’s one piece of it.
Impact, for me, is social justice. And it’s the common good that when I was growing up, my grandmother taught me so much, to do the most good with everything that you have. My mother also taught me the same thing. And so figuring out for me, it is imperative that we are committed to a common cause, a social justice—particularly for me, race and gender are my two expertise separately, but also inter-sectionally because you cannot dismantle the patriarchy without talking about racism and how that shows up in gender, but you also cannot talk about racism without the intersection of gender as well.
And then purpose for me, I am the daughter of a pastor. I grew up in the South. I am a woman of faith first and foremost, a daughter of Christ, and my beliefs in the world are shaped by my faith. My beliefs in fighting for justice are shaped by who I believe that Jesus was. And I’m sure we’ll talk about it even more. I am very committed to fulfilling my purpose in life in general, and it’s not just fulfilling my own purpose—I think every person has purpose. I think purpose has become like this buzzword, like “What is your purpose? I have to find my purpose.” But it’s actually what it is that you are uniquely positioned to do. And everyone’s not going to be Oprah. Whether you are a woman who is working 9:00 to 5:00 in your community, there is something that you are innately gifted in, and therefore you have to work your hardest to execute it.
And for me, I have to be obedient to the purpose that God has put in my life, or I would be obedient to what people say about me and I can’t actually afford to not live in my truth and my purpose. And so it’s the intersection of those three things, using popular culture and mainstream culture, how their beliefs are shaped using those to advance common causes and have an impact, all while people and organizations are fulfilling their purpose. That is the intersection that I sit at. And at this point in my life, I’ve had so much experience from corporate America, politics, advocacy, so many different avenues that it’s time to marry those together. And I fluidly balance the three of those things, and I want to teach other people to do that as well.
Jen: Gosh, that was like perfectly said.
So as you just mentioned, you have this very rich and diverse career history where you really have acquired expertise in culture and how social communities and commerce and history intersect and interact. And so I know this is a big question, and it’s loaded. It’s absolutely loaded, so just do your best. But would you give us your opinion as to why this moment in time, well, it seems to be the perfect cradle for a movement for racial justice and reckoning, and then ultimately reform? Like, why were George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Brianna and Elijah McClain—and an endless and untold other numbers of other Black women and men and children—the catalyst for change right now, because it isn’t new.
Alencia: Right, exactly.
Jen: It is not new.
Alencia: It’s not new. And the Civil Rights Act was only passed almost fifty years ago, right?
Alencia: My mother was just a young girl when the Civil Rights Act was passed, right? And so there had been such a movement for racial justice, for dignity, for Black lives, whether it was emancipating from slavery, whether it was being seen as a citizen in the constitution of this country that a lot of my ancestors were stolen and brought to and then putting in enslavement. There was a fight for—and still—is a fight for our voting rights, right? We might not be in the Jim Crow era, but there’s still a lot of voter suppression.
And then there have been public displays of killing of Black people for centuries in this country, from the public lynchings that, like, people would come and have picnics and watch and laugh and take pictures with Black bodies who were lynched in trees. Emmett Till—a teenager—that was one of the first times that the media took its responsibility, and of course it was Black media, Black publication, let’s be clear, who took the responsibility to show that picture, and God bless his mother. She said, “This is important.” Fast forward to the Rodney King riots, there’s so much emphasis on public killing of Black lives by white people in power, whether police or white men who, quite frankly, will get off scot-free. I mean, that just happened with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.
And so there has been a constant struggle for dignity for Black lives. [The] Trayvon Martin killing was definitely a catalyst years ago, especially under a Black president. I think people were trying to figure it out, Wait. Wait a minute. We’ve achieved having a Black president, but while he’s in office, a Black teenage boy is killed by the vigilante. And then the killer, his murderer, is actually still roaming around in Florida and is even suing Trayvon Martin’s family.
Jen: I saw that.
Alencia: I can’t even go into that.
Jen: I can’t either.
Alencia: But if you all—just a quick pause—want to support that family, Sabrina Fulton, his mother, is running for commissioner in Miami-Dade.
Jen: It’s great.
Alencia: And so out of Trayvon Martin came the movement for Black lives, Black Lives Matter, the rallying cry, and there was a push and a conversation about why police killings are so regular and that the police have this much power.
And I also think the cell phones and social media have put these things on video where people cannot ignore them.
Jen: That’s right.
Alencia: And it’s not that folks weren’t, it’s not that—like they said about Ahmaud Arbery—the people who were empowered to convict his murderers didn’t see the videos, it’s just that the world saw the video.
Jen: That’s right.
Alencia: And so I think that’s a sustained effort over the years of young Black people within the movement for Black lives in every area that they’re in—whether activists and organizers and politics, whatever it may be, the entertainment industry, back to the culture point being so important—really talking about this and saying that it doesn’t matter whether a Black person is committing a crime or just walking down the street from the grocery store, whatever it is, it still doesn’t mean that they deserve to die.
Jen: That’s right.
Alencia: And I think with George Floyd, it came after we heard about Ahmaud Arbery, we saw the video of these people literally hunting this man. Then we heard about Breonna Taylor, an EMT. We’re in the midst of this pandemic and we’re talking about saving essential employees, and then she was an essential employee, but no one is actually talking about how her life was essential. Her killers are still out there. And then we just see the brutal murder of George Floyd.
We’ve heard this from Eric Garner, “I can’t breathe, you’re on my neck.” We have heard this before. And this man is calling out for his life, saying he cannot breathe, the same with Elijah in Colorado. And I think, well, Black folks, honestly, we’re just fed up. This has been 400 years of oppression. The policing system was actually created as a way to hunt down slaves who had escaped and ensure order. And so it seems like the same thing over and over, Black folks are fed up and our culture has pushed white people who say they are allies to Black folks in a position of saying, “What can I do?” So everybody’s at home, we’re all watching this, and so that’s why the streets flooded.
And so I think this has been a flash point in this broader movement. I am hopeful to see what happens when the protest dies down. When corporations or people are kind of done saying, “Black Lives Matter.” I actually need people more committed. And so I explain all of that to show that this is historical, this is a sustained effort. And so the catalyst, though, was that we are seeing it and people are fed up. And some of it has to do with Donald Trump from the White House—a lot of it has to do with Donald Trump from the White House.
Jen: Yeah, sure.
Alencia: Especially as he is using his bully pulpit and his relationships with Kanye West and folks who say, “I am the person freeing Black people from prison.” He’s actually used this as a way to just kind of co-opt the Black vote to stay in office. People are literally fed up. And if you say that you stand with Black lives, it’s time for you to take action and that’s why this moment is so urgent and so real.
Jen: Absolutely. I feel it. I feel it in the air. And to your point, I don’t even have to look past my own family to realize how recent the civil rights movement was. My grandpa was the court reporter on Brown v. Board.
Jen: Yeah, and my mom’s high school was desegregated her sophomore year. That’s my mom.
Jen: This is not ancient history. And so there’s a cognitive dissonance, I think for a lot of white people to say, “This is so in the rear view mirror.” It’s just so absurd and willfully ignorant to say that, because here we are.
I wonder if I can talk to you about this, and this is a huge idea that it has a lot of traction right now in our cultural narrative. I think there’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation and even confusion around this idea of defunding the police. It’s just a charged phrase, and people are using it in different ways.
Is there any way, can you talk a little bit more, can you guide us through, what does it really mean? What does defunding the police really mean? What’s the merit of that? How do you see this proposal working in our cultural narrative right this minute?
Alencia: You know, I think people get hung up on the terminology.
Alencia: I actually fully believe in defunding the police, because what it means is that if you take the resources—the billions of dollars that go to our policing force—and actually move them into the programs and resources that we know will keep communities safe, whether it’s housing—which we have a lot of work to do, to undo the effects of red lining in Black communities—whether it is education and getting police out of schools. The majority of schools that are majority serving Black and brown students have more police presence than they do guidance counselors and social workers.
Jen: That’s right.
Alencia: Don’t you think that we could find a better solution in these schools if we had more social workers, more guidance counselors, more college career coaches? Speaking of education, we should be paying for trade school and community college and four-year university. We should be talking about healthcare. Part of my background is working at Planned Parenthood, and I’ve always been a proponent of universal health care. Thankfully, I have always had insurance, but that shouldn’t be a luxury or a privilege—that is a form of human rights.
Oftentimes, you hear in Washington, D.C. folks say, “We don’t have enough money for universal healthcare. We don’t have enough money for education. We don’t have enough money for these resources.” But you’re literally arming police with military equipment to patrol communities. Imagine if someone had a number to call when they saw a homeless person acting erratic, and instead of the police coming with excessive force, there was a drug intervention counselor, a substance abuse intervention counselor, as well as someone who could place them in a home. What would that do?
Imagine if a woman is dealing with a domestic violence situation, instead of police who are not trained in intervention of domestic violence and intimate partner violence, there was an intimate partner counselor that could actually talk them through that moment, provide them resources, provide them a shelter, provide all these homes.
And it’s interesting when I say that, because I volunteered for a domestic violence hotline while I was in college, mainly because a friend of mine was going through intimate partner violence. And that was the first time I realized that we are—we being those of us who write checks to non-profit organizations—the ones that are actually funding these intervention systems, instead of our government who should be taking care of it.
And so it’s proven that when you invest in the safety and the health, that’s the key piece of this: to keep communities safe, they need to be healthy and they need to be whole.
Alencia: And so that, in essence, is the argument of defunding the police. If the community is dealing with harm and there’s a question around their safety, let’s actually look at the root cause versus remilitarizing their police presence.
Your listeners, there are a lot of white women listening here. Imagine if your children walked outside every single day seeing police patrolling. What would they think about their life? Instead of the opportunities that often white kids receive of, Oh, it was just a mistake. Oh, let’s put him in this program. Let’s put her in this program. Let’s intervene there. Let’s give them some resources. Let’s do the same in Black communities. Let’s divest from the police, and the school-to-prison pipeline is something that you all should also look into about how as early as kindergarten, people can trace whether or not a Black girl or Black boy—because it’s not just an issue facing Black boys and Black men, it’s especially facing Black girls and Black women—from the way that their principals treat them and their school teachers treat them, there’s a pipeline that takes them into prison at a certain point in their life. How do we change that? And that is the essence of defunding the police. It is defunding the police, but it’s actually funding communities.
Jen: Yes. Right. I think people sometimes hear the word defunding and they think funding or whatever emotional idea we attach to that, it’s a reallocation.
Jen: And to me, maybe this is a naive assessment of it, but I would think that this would also sound and feel like good news to the police departments. Because as you mentioned, in no reasonable scenario are they equipped to deal with every emotional, health, mental health crisis that’s happening on their watch. I mean, it’s absurd. So taking some of that off their plate to me feels like this is good news for all. Let’s put this over with social departments who are equipped to deal with these sorts of crises. But it’s interesting to watch it unfold and to see how this is going to flesh out in our culture, but it’s an important conversation and I think one that’s obviously past due.
I’m going to talk about something else, because this is very deeply in your wheelhouse. One thing that we’re obviously seeing right now that you also mentioned a second ago is new and kind of innovative support from some huge brands on Black Lives Matter—and not just huge brands, small local businesses, too. I’m seeing it everywhere.
So why is it so important that in addition to the cultural outcry right now that we also see our business communities not just speak out, but really deeply address their own bias inside their systems, inside their corporations, inside their hiring structures? Why does social responsibility—racial social responsibility—need to be at the core of a business?
Alencia: Part of that is because here in the United States, we are a capitalist society. And so we are driven by money and capital, right? And the reality is a majority of people—Edelman put out a study of how consumers overwhelmingly expect for their CEOs and the brands and the companies that they invest in to actually take a stand on social issues: healthcare, race, LGBTQ, and a couple of others, gender issues as well.
And so people have a feeling and belief that, I am investing in you and you are a gatekeeper of our society, right? We are driven by brands and corporations and business, you have a responsibility to us, which is part of the reason that I started my social impact agency, 1063 West Broad, because to your point—social responsibility, when I worked in corporate America, there was a lot of, “Oh, let’s write a big check to go to this gala,” or, “Oh, let’s write this check for a conference.” Those are very important for organizations, non-profits, convenings as well. However, there’s also a model where some of that money and some of the resources, whether employees or whatever it may be, could actually do something more impactful with those resources if they had a more unique, integrated strategy with the issues and the organizations that are driving forward those issues.
And so when it comes to racial justice and Black Lives Matter, I said this in an interview the other day: It’s kind of like the wellness trend, the women empowerment trend. There is an argument that it is good for a business to be on trend.
Alencia: And so at this point, there are those of us who were doing this work that are saying, “We know it’s good for your business to be making the statement. So the reality is, if you’re going to make that statement, we need to hold you accountable.” I actually don’t care about your statement, I care about who’s in your C-suite. I care about the pipeline for leadership for your Black employees. I’m curious as to why—and this happens across industries—the majority of your Black employees are at administrative levels, but they’re not in the executive levels. Why the majority of Black, if you have Black executives or Black management, have to deal with less budgets than their white counterpart. They don’t get the same amount of staffing resources, everything that they propose is questioned.
There’s a very real reckoning of those of us who do this work for these major corporations and these brands. Let’s say your statement is great. That’s cute, because you need to be relevant with the times. However, let’s look internally. It’s why there’s this racketing happening with the NFL. “Oh, it’s great that you’re saying Black lives matter, but how did you treat one of your star athletes when he took a stand,” right?
So these are just some of the examples of what those of us who sit in the social impact and corporate social responsibility space are pushing these brands and businesses to do. You have a responsibility. You are a driver of mainstream culture, much like the LGBTQ movement used the entertainment industry and corporations to, over the years, humanize the LGBTQ experience to finally get to some policy changes. You have a great responsibility to do this in an inside [way] first, then outside way. And most importantly, sustain this when it’s not trendy or cute anymore. Sustain this when it’s not Beyoncé being able to be on Disney Plus and have a Black Is King visual album come out, right?
Alencia: Like, sustain this when you don’t think Black is in anymore. I always think Black is in, I love Black. Make sure that you are sustaining this. To your point earlier, like you said, this is not just the moment, this has to be part of the fabric of your business. And I challenge your listeners to hold the companies and the brands and the businesses that you all invest in to that.
Jen: That’s so funny, because ironically, when companies do this really important work that everything that you just mentioned, it is good for their bottom line. Like even if they’re just a capitalist, if that’s it, if that is their only motivation and there is no sense of racial reckoning at all to it, it is productive. It is lucrative when you divest your leadership in every single rank of your company, and the data’s unambiguous about what it looks like to challenge just this white-only perspective inside any one given organization.
I wonder if we could get a little personal, if you don’t mind. You have really carved out an impressive career and deeply just developed expertise. And I know that you’ve worked really hard to be where you are. Would you talk about some of the obstacles that you had to push out of your way or overcome or confront that your white colleagues didn’t necessarily have to do at all? Can you talk about what the past looked like for someone to move into this executive space like you have, in a way that maybe your white counterpart would have had a completely different experience?
Alencia: I constantly believe that every single opportunity that I have had, or every single industry that I’ve been in, and jobs that I’ve been in, or position that I’ve been in has been under a lens of a microscope. I am very clear that my purpose and my gifts are public speaking or communicating to large audiences—got very clear on that very early on in my career. Actually not even in my career, in life. In high school, really. And because of that, I was very confident in my skill set, and I was constantly [told], whether in college, high school, and throughout all of my career, “Oh, you’re too outspoken. Oh, maybe you shouldn’t do that interview or that panel, it should be someone else.” Or “Oh, we just need your opinion on this matter here and nothing else.” So my voice has been silenced.
There have also been a lot of times I’d been in positions where I would be asking for a raise for the amount of work that I was doing. And as we know, Black women are paid, I believe it’s sixty-three cents for what a white man is paid. And I believe white women, you all are…
Jen: At eighty.
Alencia: At eighty percent, and you’re not getting your whole dollar. Black women aren’t even getting the eighty, right?
Jen: That’s right.
Alencia: So we’re still behind you all, right?
Jen: And Hispanic women about fifty-five, I think.
Alencia: Absolutely. And so I would find myself in conversations having to constantly justify my value and my worth, and then I was told I was too ambitious. Or anytime that I pushed back, being told that just the language “pushback” is too aggressive. There would be times I would be passed up for expanding a team and having resources when quite frankly, my white counterpart not only was being paid more, she was doing less work than I was doing and had a team twice the size of mine.
I constantly have found myself—I am a connector. I am a great networker. And I realized, I said, “Oh my gosh, you guys are paying consultants to do this job of relationship building and management, of narrative building, of being an ambassador for the brand of this company or whatever it may be. And yet when I had this conversation of being positioned into that, you say, ‘No, no, no, absolutely not. You don’t have the experience,’ but you will pay double my salary for a consultant to do this.”
And there would be times I would find myself having to put myself on the line for change. I talked about it on Instagram Live that I did on your page about even as early in college as wanting to do something disruptive, that was very much aligned with an ultimate goal and the white woman I was supposed to be in partnership with, she bailed on me thirty minutes before a meeting.
Alencia: And that has been a trend throughout my entire career. We’re behind closed doors, having the conversation. This is a strategy. And then when it comes time for the meeting, they don’t show up, whether physically or actually even speaking in the meeting. And that betrayal has put me in positions of having to expend some capital that I don’t even have. It’s a deficit, which is part of the reason I think a lot of Black women go into entrepreneurship. We are the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs. It’s because we’re not valued, and we have experienced violence within our workspaces, from people who were supposed to be allies.
I think the hardest thing for me, too, is that I’ve been in spaces that are supposed to be progressive. They say that they believe in racial justice and equality, but are still doing the small things to hinder my career opportunities and career growth. I also get, yeah, the constant being told that I’m too ambitious when I’m very clear on my skill set has been a struggle and in to this—honestly, I’m still working through a lot of that. But it has been challenging to see that I’m considered too ambitious, but a white man or a white woman will get hired with half the credentials and no understanding of what this work is. And they are not only being promoted, but I am being told by them that my work is not valid, and they don’t even know the work.
Jen: I want to bridge that forward, because I think you’re touching on something that’s really important for us to hear. You have both experienced and then made a lot of observations as to how white women could potentially—should—utilize their unearned privilege to be good allies to their Black sisters, particularly in corporate work, in our businesses, in our companies.
Can you talk a little bit more about this? Why is it so important, number one, for white women to be dedicated allies for Black women and men and children? And then specifically, what does that look like? So let’s talk about that, if you would, in a corporate space, in our workplaces. What does it look like in our lives, in our culture?
Alencia: Well, I think the thing that white women have to realize is that yes, you are experiencing an oppression because of your gender, but your whiteness gives you a lot of privilege, which is why there’s so many conversations about how white women’s tears have literally been the catalyst for Black people dying. Literally, that is the reason that Emmett Till died, because a white woman yelled, “Rape!” and identified him and he was innocent and there was no accountability to her and he lost his life, and that has disrupted his whole family’s life, right?
And so that fragility around white womanhood is so protected. It has been so protected in this country, and that is how it has been built. But yet, as white women have been fighting for their rights, the rights of women, we look back at the Suffragist Movement. We look at the Feminist Movement. A lot of Black women, and I’ll say Latina women, women of color as well, and queer and trans women, have felt left out. Not only left out, but also experienced harm from white women.
And so, one, I think the first step is that white women have to understand the privilege that they have. And there’s no what about-ism: “But what about my gender?” I totally understand. There’s still an innate privilege. And the thing about privilege is that it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s how you use it. Privilege is about power. So what is it that you’re doing with that power? What I would like to see more white women doing, say if we’re in a meeting, it’s five of us around the table, and there’s a Black woman there. It’s a Black woman, a white woman, and these three white men, because that’s usually what it is, right?
Alencia: And the Black woman might be speaking and having a conversation, and literally has this amazing idea, but they’re being dismissive, that white woman should step up and say, “You know, Alencia’s point is valid. This is how I see it as well.” Do not take credit, because this has happened to me before, too. Do not take credit for a Black woman’s work, always uplift her voice, but show your allegiance with a Black woman over your allegiance with your whiteness and the white man in the room, right?
It sounds so small, but I have seen so many white women who are older than me, who are more experienced in their life than me, have a hard time doing that. And it’s so important for you to—my good friend, sister, Brittany Packnett Cunningham always says, “Spend your privilege.” How are you going to spend your privilege? And there’s this conversation happening around elected positions and people in leadership. And yes, we need more representation, because the other thing is, do you not have a table with only one Black person? We are not monoliths, there’s a diversity of experience that needs to be there.
But there’s also something to be said about being in a position to trust a white person, a white woman, to go to bat on racial justice issues. Because I could say that, Jen, you and I could be sitting here and saying the same thing, and you honestly might be heard because of your whiteness. And so I need to know that you are going to go to bat for this issue and be willing to lose some power or some political or social capital for it, because that is the existence that I live with white women every day. And so I know that sounds very, very practical when it seems very like, “Oh, we’re just talking about having meetings,” but it’s those small things that show, “I am willing to use my privilege to put my social capital and political capital on the line for racial justice.”
Jen: That’s so good. I love “spend your privilege.” What? It’s just a nice way to think of it.
One thing that’s near and dear to your heart that you talked to the community about recently when you and I were partnering up, is voter engagement. It’s a big deal right now. It’s always a big deal, but definitely in the forefront of our minds right now. Can you talk more about it? And it’s not just at the presidential level, as you have mentioned, which is of course monumentally important. But it’s not just there.
So what kinds of issues and policies are affected by the way we vote or don’t vote at the local level? Because I think this is where the rubber leaves the road for so many voters. I am absolutely guilty of walking in, having some pretty clear ideas at the very top of the mountain, and then all the little sub-levels, I’m like, Mmhmm, well, she’s a woman. So maybe I vote for her. That’s irresponsible. So can you talk a little bit more about the vote?
Alencia: I’m so glad you brought that up—it’s so much more important than the presidential. Absolutely. The president is important, that’s what keeps our country safe, but also sets the tone politically for our culture.
Alencia: But when we think about some of these issues we care about, so let’s take police brutality. That’s actually managed at the local level. You can elect your sheriffs, you can elect your district attorneys, you can elect your school superintendents. And that is going to be the person who determines the police boards within schools. These are very important elections that you will see change a lot faster than when you’re waiting for federal policy.
As we will look at the push to legalize marijuana, that has started in the local level, in the state level in California and Colorado, which it also impacts the criminal justice system because of the amount of Black people that have been overly sentenced for just a small bag of marijuana that white people get the privilege of calling medicine.
These are just some of the ways in which your local elections matter. And if you really want to see change, that’s where they start. But you also have to realize too, that it’s not the federally elected who are redistricting communities, who are setting the tone for how you will vote, it’s actually your state legislatures and your governors. And so if you’re concerned about whether or not you’re going to be able to mail in vote—it’s so interesting how this has become such a hot topic when the biggest people in opposition to it are people who vote by mail. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, people are just trying to stay home and be safe, right? That’s determined by your state elected leaders. And so if you don’t show up for those—and I tell young people this all the time—you’re frustrated about what’s happening in your community. I was speaking at a college, at Morehouse College, two months ago and the students were so smart, so brilliant. And they said, “I just don’t believe in the political system. I just don’t think it’s for me as a Black man.” And I said, “Well, what’s your issue?” And his issue was criminal justice. And I said, “You could run for district attorney.” I think less than ten percent of district attorneys in the country are not white men. I believe less than fifteen of them are Black women. So if we want very real change, it is at the local level.
I know this general election we’re finally getting through all the primaries. This general election seems like a lot. My forever first lady, Michelle Obama, has an amazing organization, When We All Vote, you could go to their website, and they are doing tremendous voter engagement work. And I challenge you to go there, but you can even go to vote.org, literally vote.org, put in your information and learn. But voting is the first step. And I know a lot of really young people are like, “I need to do more than voting.” I said, “Right, but you gotta start with voting.”
Jen: Totally. Quorum.
Alencia: You can’t walk up in your representatives office and say, “I don’t believe in this,” and you didn’t even vote. Right?
Jen: That’s right.
Alencia: It’s your first step. We’re their bosses. So you have every right to tell them, “Oh, I’m paying your salary, but you’re not doing your job, and so these are the ways I’m going to hold you accountable.” But voting is so important, especially at the local level. That’s how we get these policy wins.
Jen: That’s so great. I have two more questions, and then we’ll wrap it up.
It’s interesting right now to see this conversation rising on our history and what is our true American history—not the colonizer’s version, not the white version, not the virtuous version, if you will—and that’s the one I learned in school. So we’re having a look right now at our schools and our textbooks and what it is that we are actually teaching our students. And then, of course, who just grow up into adults with an erroneous idea of their own American history.
And so I’m wondering if you see—this is a big question and this is still got a lot of tendrils. But do you see a move toward a broader, truer education of our kids with a genuine American history included? I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Of course, we’re watching the monuments come down right now, and these virtuous appeal to confederate leaders. And it’s predictable, you could just see the C part of who is for it and who is against it and even how it is assessed. So I’d just like to hear your thoughts on this right now and where you see us going and what you see as the next right steps?
Alencia: Yeah. Oh, there’s so much there. Speaking of the confederacy, most people don’t even know that it only lasted five years, right?
Jen: Right. Right!
Alencia: You’re holding alarm to this history for five years that was about protecting slavery, right? Like it is mind boggling.
Jen: It is.
Alencia: It is mind boggling, and it’s ironic. You’re in Texas, and a lot of people don’t know, but there are companies that make a lot of our textbooks for public schools in Texas. And so there is a certain ideology that is perpetuated within these textbooks.
The thing about our history that is really interesting is that Black folks in the United States are very well aware that most of our ancestors are enslaved Africans. We understand that, we acknowledge that.
And when I have that conversation with white people, they’re saying, “Oh, my God, but I’m not racist.” I say, “This is not a personal indictment on you,” which first of all is actually the problem with having this conversation about race is that it immediately turns into the white person being defensive and emotional. And it’s like, Wait a minute. I’m like, I’ve been oppressed for 400 years and you’re the one crying now to coddle your tears.
Jen: That’s right.
Alencia: But I say the understanding and accepting the truth, it is just the truth. Just because it’s the truth doesn’t mean…
Jen: Right, it’s a fact.
Alencia: …it does not mean that you are also a slave owner, but it does mean that you have had a significant leg up on capital, home ownership, whatever it may be. That’s where your privilege came from. So that baseline acceptance.
And then two, again, back to these elections, right? You can elect your school board and your superintendents, and then you could push them to have more accurate curriculums about Black history, about true American history. There’s this underlying theme of when you’re challenging that history, that if we are exposing the ugly, uncomfortable truths, it’s an indictment on this nation.
I have a lot of problems with the United States, but there is no other country that I would rather live in because of the freedoms that I have. And that is because of what I understand about my history, and therefore I know where I can go. But if you don’t know your past, you’re bound to repeat it.
Jen: That’s right.
Alencia: And so I think there’s a responsibility, as folks are doing the racial justice work, to unpack all of that at home. Black folks constantly, Black students, we learn our education in school, but then we come home usually and we have to unlearn it.
Alencia: And learn the real history and then we go to—thank God for the Black church, because in the Black church, they teach us our real history.
I’ve caught the beauty of feminism, that there’s nothing wrong with women who identify that way. But I was taught the real, the ugly hard truth of feminism and the real opportunity in feminism. And so I also think that, again, spending privilege and pushing, challenging status quo, white people have an opportunity, especially white students, have an opportunity to challenge their teachers to say, “Wait a minute. That’s actually not what happened according to this text here, according to this writer.”
And also about education and writers as well, go and see how writers of different backgrounds are talking about the same moment in history, see their lens. See if James Baldwin is talking about it in the same way that this white writer was, this Latino writer was, or this is a woman writer was. Get all of their experiences so that we could get that truth, but really it boils down to like, We’ve got to be okay with some of these uncomfortable facts.
Alencia: It’s not describing who you are as a person, but it allows you to see the opportunity for you to create a more just world. And then maybe people would stop holding on to a flag that was around for five years.
Jen: That’s right.
Alencia: It was our founding flag, right? Like, it’s just mind boggling. I’m here in Virginia, which is where the first Africans were brought in servitude. And then the state that codified slavery, James Madison, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, they’re all from around here. They all had slaves.
Alencia: I, to a certain extent, am grateful for this nation, but there’s also this ugly uncomfortable truth when you’re talking about what has happened. Like people, this uprising about Thomas Jefferson, to be honest, Sally was not his lover. She was fourteen years old.
Jen: That’s right. That’s right.
Alencia: He raped her. He brutally raped her. And therefore, the descendants from Thomas and Sally also deserve the same amount, whether it’s resources or acknowledgement, as his white descendants do as well. And it is not an indictment on the good things that we want to accept of these people and these moments in history, it is just the fuller context so that we are not bound to repeat the same thing, the same levels and systems of oppression.
Jen: Just sitting with everything you’re saying right now, the first time I ever read James Baldwin’s account of the Fourth of July, which was years ago, that was the first time—that shook me down. Like, Oh, there are two very different versions of this day and what it means.
I have one more question. I love that you just mentioned Black church. You mentioned this at the top, but you have a very rich background in faith. You grew up in the church. You are a church daughter. One of the things that I loved that was incredibly poignant from our Share the Mic partnership was when you talked about meeting this moment the way Jesus would have. Girl, that just, you just went right into the belly of the beast. Can you talk more about that here?
Alencia: I challenge those of us—actually not even just Christians. I challenge people in general to study Jesus as the man He was, as the activist. He was persecuted, yes, because of His faith and what He described that He was to us. But that persecution, if you scale back and look at it, He was making a political statement. This was the political fight, right? And I always say this, but my Jesus was a brown man with hair like wool, who was an enemy of the state killed by the police, and He was also a feminist, right? That is all within the good book in the Bible. If you look at the ways in which He ministered to people, that’s who He was.
Jen: That’s right.
Alencia: And Jesus got so fed up with the ways—He would be fed up with His disciples. He would be fed up with people who said they followed God, because they were not focused on just the humanity of loving one another.
Jen: That’s right.
Alencia: Of loving one another and taking care of the least of these and that we are called to be the salt of the earth, to bring out the good of the earth, right? That’s what salt does. Salt brings out the good flavor within whatever it is. That’s why we have to put salt in when we’re baking. We’re making something sweet, we’ve got to put a little salt in it, so that the flavors come out of it, the goodness comes out of it. And that is what Jesus has called us to do. But He was so fed up that He went into the temple and flipped tables because these people were here disparaging God’s temple. He was so fed up.
And I think it’s so powerful that, in that passage of the story of His life, it was shortly before h=He was persecuted, He was crucified. And it makes me think about—and I say this all the time about flipping the tables—is that when are you going to get fed up enough that you are willing to not only disrupt and flip those tables, knowing that you are walking into a death phase, because after that death phase is a resurrection? And I think that we have to be okay with a lot of these bad things dying so that we can have a new life.
And so my Jesus, for me, is an activist and that is why I am so committed to social justice. It’s also why I am able to be a pro-choice feminist, why I can convene and I champion issues. I try to spend my privilege as a heterosexual, cisgender woman there for the trans and queer community. Jesus was a refugee. There’s a reason that we should be on the right side of immigration reform and we should be appalled, appalled at these babies in cages. And so this is why it is rooted in my faith, but it is about the disruption for the greater good. And that’s why I feel like I’ve been called to create a community of table flippers, of disruptors, wherever they are, because that in essence is how my Jesus lived His life.
And He would say, “Are you willing to follow me? And then are you willing to flip tables and do the things that they will persecute you for? But it is for the greater good.” And He did all of this in thirty-three years. And ironically, I turn thirty-three in September, and it’s just kind of funny how God works and how this is all coming full circle for me as I’m walking into my Jesus year, and I’m more confident in the disruption, but that’s who Jesus was. And He probably looked like Colin Kaepernick, the way that He was described in the Bible, right? I know for a fact that He would be on the side of the issues that, Jen, you and I are on and challenging people because it was rooted in love. Love all people, literally, just love, love.
Jen: You can preach that word all. day. long. I have goosebumps, that’s it. That is the only way I can understand Jesus. I have no other, absolutely no other way to understand His life, His work, His heartbeat, His kingdom, the one that He told us, this is worth it. This is worth fighting for. We have to end there because that is, you just dropped every mic on that question.
So I’m going to wrap this up with you. These are just kind of off the top of your head. We’re going to ask everybody in this series these questions. So here’s the first one, and this is all a doozy, so you just pick. This will be a million long, but if you had to pick a couple, who have been some of your greatest role models?
Alencia: Oh, my grandmother and my mama. Yeah.
Jen: Isn’t it always the grandmothers and the mothers?
Alencia: Yeah. And as you get older, you realize that the things that they’ve taught you, like even the things that they taught you by observation.
Jen: That’s right.
Alencia: Just by, like, they didn’t tell me this, I just observed them. Like I just, ah, yes, my grandmother and my mother.
Jen: I love that answer. Who are some—however many you’d want to name—of your favorite artists or teachers or leaders that you’d like us to learn from and support right now?
Alencia: So back to the theme of table flippers, Shirley Chisholm. She was the first Black woman to ever run for the democratic nomination of president. She was unbought and unbossed, a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus. And she said, “You’ve got to pull your own seat up at the table.” We talked about James Baldwin, read his teachings. Kimberly Crenshaw is the architect of intersectionality. That word has been thrown around, it’s the new buzzword, but she doesn’t get enough credit. It’s a Black woman professor, please, please, please look her up. Bell Hooks, that is how I came into beyond my Black feminist theory. My womaness theory.
And then in the culture space, Janet Jackson really taught me how to be an unapologetic Black woman by just growing up, watching her, and probably singing songs I didn’t really understand fully what they were, but just how she fought for her voice in her family but then also in the world. I love Janet Jackson. If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have Beyoncé being as unapologetic as she is. And I would say also everybody loves Beyoncé, watches her evolution and how she now leans into and owns her Black womaness.
Jen: She does.
Alencia: In a very mainstream way. And so that is so powerful.
Jen: It’s powerful.
Alencia: It’s so powerful. Like fan or not fan of hers—I don’t know a lot of people who aren’t fan of hers—but you got to just watch that evolution and that beauty and a lot of it goes back to what we were just talking about early, her relationship with her mother, she talks about how her mother and her sister, they helped her bring that. So those are some folks that I would say to pay attention to.
Jen: Perfect, will link to all of them.
Last question, we ask everybody this question, every single series. And so you can literally answer this however you want, because it’s a weird time right now. So this can be like a really poignant and sober-minded answer, or it could be absolutely absurd and you get to pick. It’s from a priest that I love. Her question is this: what is saving your life right now?
Alencia: Honestly, oh my God. I’m about to get emotional. I don’t know why I just got really emotional. I thought I had one answer when I would think about a question like this, but honestly, what’s saving my life right now is literally being able to be home with my parents. This pandemic, I said, “Oh, my God, I’m not staying in Boston in my apartment by myself, I’m going home. Hey, y’all, I’m here!”
Alencia: But I didn’t realize how just important that relationship is. And the small things from us having dinner together, watching movies, or going fishing—that is literally, mmm, wow. It’s saving my life, especially because…Wow. I’m so emotional. I can really see how I’ve impacted them, and they can see how they’ve impacted me, and how we’ve been teachers and students of each other. That’s what is saving my life right now. Okay, I’ll stop because I’m crying.
Jen: Oh, that’s so good. We don’t very often get an opportunity to have extended time with our parents as grown adults, stepping into our own lives. This is rare. It’s just so rare for them to see you, not a snapshot, but like day in, day out and you them. I love that answer. Thank you for sharing that.
Okay. I will have this linked everywhere, but can you tell my listeners where to find you, where your stuff is and what they can be looking for from you next?
Alencia: Yeah. So if you are on social media, Instagram is my favorite social media account. I try to do better on others. You can find me @alenciajohnson, A-L-E-N-C-I-A Johnson. And then my profile is linked to my consulting agency, 1063 West Broad. And then also Flip The Tables, my community of disruptors. Or you can go to alencia johnson.com, it has links to my agency and the disruptive community, but it also has a lot more about me as well. And I would love for you all to join the community and engage more.
Jen: Yes, everybody run—run, don’t walk—and join.
Thank you yet again for serving this community of mine so ferociously and genuinely and transparently, I’m really grateful for this labor. I am so thankful to know you and to be learning from you and to send everybody I know to every space you have and that you are living in. So I really respect you, Alencia.
Alencia: Thank you.
Jen: I really respect you and admire you and I’m learning from you. And so thank you once again for just your expertise and who you are in this world, so important and so needed. Give your mom and dad a big hug from us.
Alencia: I will.
Jen: We have taken you for an hour. Okay. With all my love, sis.
Alencia: Thank you.
Jen: I told you it was packed and I wasn’t kidding. So much gratitude to Alencia for her expertise and her knowledge, her willingness to come into the For the Love community and discuss these hugely monumental ideas right now that we’re wrestling with as a culture. I’m so grateful to her. And as always, if you go over to jenhatmaker.com under the podcast tab, we’ll have everything, including the written transcript if you’re interested in that. All of Alencia’s links, everything, everything you ever wanted, Alencia Johnson will have over there, all the places to follow her on social.
So thank you for listening. I think this is going to be a really challenging series, and I deeply invite my white listeners to not miss an episode, and to sit humbly and even quietly under the leadership of all of these women of color who are bringing their expertise to bear into our community, and listen to what they’re saying. Let’s sit in the pocket of this work and what needs to be examined and re-examined and re-imagined and rebuilt. This is our generation’s legacy.
And so come back next week, we have more to share, more to think about. We will begin doing deep dives on some of these big ideas that we tackled here, kind of on a higher level view. We’re going to parse these out one by one. And so don’t miss them, come back. I think this is going to be a really powerful experience and touch point in our work and in our growth and in our progress. So if you haven’t already subscribed to this podcast, go do it, go do it, subscribe. And we’ll just land right in your AirPods every single week without you having to try at all.
All right, you guys, love you all. See you next week.