Activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham’s Post-Election Road Map

The exit polls are a sobering reminder that white supremacy is “still incredibly appealing,” with or without a President Trump.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham
Reginald Cunningham

In 2015, President Barack Obama told Brittany Packnett Cunningham her voice was “going to be making a difference for years to come.” That was just one year into her pivot to activism; before a police officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in her hometown, St. Louis, Packnett Cunningham was an elementary school teacher.

Obama was right. In the five years since, Packnett Cunningham has taken her voice to NBC, MSNBC, Pod Save America; the anti-police brutality platform she cofounded, Campaign Zero; and the feminist media platform The Meteor, which she also cofounded. Last week, she added another outlet to that roster: Undistracted, a podcast she hosts and executive produces. Each episode begins with a look at the “untrending news” (like how a record 574 LGBTQ candidates were up for election on Tuesday), followed by a conversation with fellow intersectional feminists like Nikki Giovanni, Cecile Richards, and Soledad O’Brien. The latter took place on Election Day, which was most definitely still trending when she spoke with W on Thursday.

The Meteor is named after an Audre Lorde quote. I noticed Undistracted also references a quote: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work,” by Toni Morrison.

We definitely have a pattern here. I find that Toni Morrison quote so inspiring. What was so powerful about her was not just how beautiful her words were, but how piercing they are. And there’s something really clarifying about seeing and understanding racism to be a distraction—that, as she says, it keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining your reason for being. And when we decide to stop, justifying who we are and remain focused on what we have to do—I just believe there’s so much power in that. So we want to build a group of people who are relentlessly undistracted—who are focused on matters of intersectional justice, who are focused on leveraging all of their power toward that end, and who are committed to doing the work necessary, even when it’s difficult.

What about your guests so far—have there been any particularly insightful quotables?

I think that’s quickly becoming my favorite part of hosting my own podcast: how much my own perspectives are shifted and how many things I learn and pick up from the guests. This phrase that Cecile Richards used in our first episode, about patriarchy and white supremacy being these twins that grew up together. That is a very clear metaphor for two things that grew up together and that operate functionally very in the same ways, because they were raised in the same house.

And with Soledad, I just continue to be so inspired by how incisive she is about not only critiques of news media, but how intentional she is about not replicating those herself. It’s one thing to tell other people what they need to do, but it’s another thing to say, Okay, so how am I going to meet that bar? She really held nothing back and I was really glad to hear her talk about why it’s important for folks in the political space to better differentiate and understand the diversity in the Latinx community—that we do a disservice when we continue to lump people of various nationalities into one social and political identity. And I think the same can be said of Black folks, of Asian-American Pacific Islander folks. The nuance of diversity among people of color has to be a story we tell better in the future.

And right now, when talking about the election results.

Yeah. It’s all about pushing political institutions and politicians to be more intersectional. Intersectional solutions are ones that better serve everyone, not just a certain subset of people. So when you speak more accurately about how diverse everyone actually is, the better we can build solutions, the better we can tell more accurate stories, the better we can help have people see themselves reflected in spaces of power and decision-making. And because news media greatly influences public opinion and politics, it’s important that we talk about those things with a level of accuracy and nuance,

Going back to that Cecile Richards metaphor, I think podcasts in general, especially ones with conversations, are such a helpful medium for explaining things like theory.

Exactly. It’s very millennial of me to talk about a meme in an interview, but I saw this meme once with a person laughing at an advertisement that had four friends laughing with each other. The person was laughing with them, and someone said “this is what it’s like listening to podcasts.” That’s exactly how I want it to feel—like the listener, you, is fully a part of the conversation, laughing along and talking back to your phone or radio. And then you are finding community in this space that we’re building. I’m really hopeful that we can get back outside soon because I really miss live podcasting. I love feeling that energy and I think it’s always helpful to get that kind of immediate feedback from people about what they’re really looking for when they press play. I love podcasts as a medium, both because they are so clarifying, but also I believe that even while we are distanced, they can really build community.

The podcast sponsors have committed to giving advertising time to a BIPOC woman-owned business. When it comes to the brands that have been trying to adapt since this summer, how much does intention matter?

I mean, I think that’s a really fair question. The truth is transformation is a business imperative just as much as it is a moral one. I’m obviously—I mean, hopefully obviously—in this for the moral imperative, but I think businesses are coming more clear that their bottom line going to be dramatically affected, especially as younger generations put more and more emphasis on the genuine altruism of the brands they support, and not just the performative allyship that they might represent. Culture is shifting very quickly, and if they don’t figure that out, they will be irrelevant. So I think that question really is for them.

What podcasts have you been listening to?

I’ve been a fan of The Read for a long time. I just find Kid Fury hilarious. I do such difficult work day in and day out, between activism and political stuff and the podcast. It can all feel very heavy, and every single week they bring me a dose of laughter and joy. Some of my friends’ podcasts I absolutely love, like Jemele Hill Is Unbothered and On One with Angela Rye. And then I love in-depth stuff, so I’m very into Slow Burn. Obviously I thought the first season about the Clinton administration was amazing, and I loved the one my friend Joel Anderson hosted about Biggie and Tupac. And the one about David Duke, you know, in the shadow of the 2020 election. I think it’s really excellent and thorough storytelling.

How do you get your news?

I probably get too much of it on Twitter. But to be serious about it, what I actually like about getting news from Twitter is that I can skip the filter of civility—that I can hear directly from people on the ground without their voices being filtered through access and through who the news channels are willing to invite. And we can get things in real time. I personally understood the value of Twitter as a more democratized way to tell stories and what’s happening to us when we were on the streets of Ferguson. There were many nights that I believe would have been far more violent than they already were. And to be clear, they were extremely violent in terms of how the police acted toward us and peaceful protesters. But there are many nights that I believe could have been even worse had we not been able to get out the message of what was really happening versus what television was saying was happening.

The degree to which access depends on verification, like Instagram’s limits on link-sharing, really struck me this summer. Twitter is so much better for sharing information.

It is, it really is. None of these social media channels are perfect. They uplift big accounts and they push down small accounts. I sometimes feel strange about being verified myself because for me, the only function of verification is that nobody can impersonate me, because when I first started to kind of gain momentum on these platforms, people started making fake accounts. There are still two on Instagram that I can’t seem to get taken down. But I also realize that the backend of that can actually be really damaging to people who don’t have that blue check, but whose voices deserve to be heard. I try my best to amplify lots of others who are not verified, because making these spaces more democratic really matters. The election has once again laid bare how a lot of the rules of the road really aren’t functional. The President of the United States should not be allowed to just lie, without following the same rules the rest of us have to follow, especially given his amount of influence. Thankfully—knock on wood—it seems like the majority of the American people are not falling for his shenanigans, but it’s still incredibly dangerous.

So I get some of my news from Twitter, and certainly from traditional spaces, like the New York Times and the Washington Post. I also look to places with a lot of cultural content, so Essence, Refinery29, Bustle, and Zora, an online magazine on Medium run by Essence’s former editor-in-chief. When I’m looking for some good, uplifting news, I head over to Because of Them We Can, a brand built by my friend Eunique Jones Gibson with a blog specifically about stories from the Black community. And I love the places that take a deep dive. I’m a big fan of Vox explainers. The number of times I’ve been like wait a minute. I really want to know what I’m talking about here…

How tuned in have you been this week? Are you trying to limit your news consumption for sanity’s sake?

I’ve been pacing myself. I’ve been looking a lot to my group chats—we let each other know when there’s something that’s happened. Something I talked about with Soledad O’Brien is this kind of false urgency that the news media can rely on for ratings, and the really adverse effect it has on viewers. We are constantly at the edge of our seats. And I say this as a person who is in the news media. So every time I’m given a microphone, I try my best to be as clarifying as possible, because I don’t want to contribute to the anxiety of it all. That’s part of the reason why Undistracted is so important to me. We really can craft how we tell stories from with our own autonomy and authority. So, yeah—I’ve been pacing myself, only looking when it seems like there’s really important news to be told. I’m still staying up to speed on international news, especially around the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria and the war to end femicide in Namibia, that went from no. 1 topics to officially untrending news.Other than that, I’ve been really trying to get into the things that ground me. Reading Nikki Giovanni’s new book this week has been just a beautiful balm for the soul. And I’m a woman of faith, so I’m reading my Bible like it’s the news, because I’m like, Jesus, please tell me. [Laughs.]

What are your thoughts on the election results so far?

I feel as resolute as I usually do, and I say “usually” because there are certainly nights of anxiety and sadness and frustration. But I woke up on Election Day feeling really calm and at peace because no matter what was going to happen, no matter what will happen, we still have work to do so. I always believe that being realistic and unflinching about our reality helps us to build more strategic plans for how we move forward. The exit polls are a sobering reminder for some, and a new piece of information for others, that white supremacy is still incredibly appealing and that voter suppression is still incredibly pervasive. And fighting back both of those things are at the top of the agenda. I feel as resolute about working on them at the local state and federal level as I ever was, whether or not we are given a Biden-Harris administration at the end of this.

On the other hand, I’m feeling a lot of joy and gratitude and hope for the hundreds, if not thousands, of organizers around the country. Especially organizers of color, and especially Black women who did the hard labor and who are closing gaps. Without the work that LaTosha Brown has done with Black Voters Matter, that Desmond Meade has done with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the work that Stacey Abrams has done with Fair Fight, the work that so many others who work with them and are yet unnamed, we would not be having a conversation about a very likely Biden presidency right now. That is a beautiful bright spot, and a good story for us to be telling, both because we should give credit where credit is deserved and because it helps us push what the agenda coming out of this White House and spaces of power should be: directly committed to those folks who put you in power. I’m really keen to make sure that narrative is not given away to anybody else, because it was Black and brown and indigenous organizers who will have done this. And they did it for our communities to have not just a seat at the table, but to be a real priority.

Do you think we’ll get a Biden-Harris administration?

I have disciplined hope. I’m waiting with as much patience as I can muster, and I’m telling other people to remain patient. But I am hopeful. I believe that the path is clear. I mean, I know we have not heard the last of Donald Trump, because narcissists do not take losing lightly. I’m cautiously optimistic, and my hope is informed by data.

Do you think the “moment” of racial reckoning that began this summer will last?

I mean, whether or not people decide they want to move on, we will last. That is what I always know to be true about Black people, about marginalized people, about Black organizers. Even if you think this movement is a trend, we are not a trend. We are not a flash in the pan, even if someone’s commitment may be a flash in the pan. But I don’t think we can take lightly the fact that people who had never marched before, when never engaged before, who had never spoken up before, found their place in this reckoning. So whether it is the leading headline or not, we will still be here and we will continue to do the work that needs to be done.

You know, I sat on President Obama’s policing task force, and even President Obama has said there are things we discussed back in 2014 and 2015 that need updating—that in a lot of ways we are beyond some of those solutions, and we need to talk even more critically about how fully reimagining public safety. One of the first things that I learned on that task force was that there are 18,000 police departments in this country, which means that yes, there are national organizations that are doing important work on issues of police violence. But then a lot of the organizations that are really making headway are local—either local chapters of national organizations or completely localized ones that sprang up organically out of the community, like Black Lives Matter L.A. with the People’s Budget. When it was time to provide bail funds for protestors this summer in Minnesota, we weren’t donating to large national organizations. We were donating to local Minnesota organizations that had been on the ground and doing the work for decades, in what was now ground zero because of the murder of George Floyd. So for me, a really powerful part of this moment is how so many more people are connected to the organizations and the people moving the needle that are right there on their block. Being connected locally while thinking globally is work for all of us to do if we’re going to truly make a difference.

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