The Squad is Big, Y’all: Rep. Ayanna Pressley on the Power of the People

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Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey y’all, it’s Brittany. I really can’t believe that an entire year has passed since our lives as we knew them have been completely turned upside down. I still remember hunting down paper towels and yeast and I don’t even know how to bake bread. I just knew I was afraid and I wasn’t exactly sure what to prepare for. 

The truth is nobody could have fully prepared for what we have endured. This week, our country reached the incredibly grim milestone of over five hundred thousand deaths from Covid-19. That’s half a million people. It is equivalent to the population of Atlanta proper or Sacramento, a death toll greater than the number of Americans killed in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined. Five hundred thousand deaths. It can seem like an unfathomably huge number, but these are people, parents, siblings, children, friends, neighbors, people who were not ready to leave. I asked my Instagram community to comment the names of those they’d lost that I’d speak their names that night in my prayers. And through my tears, that’s exactly what I did. So, to the loved ones of George and Crisella, Susan and Arlene, Macy and Warren, Ted and Deborah and the hundreds more names that flooded in, we are praying for you. We mourn with you. 

There is so much grief right now. We are a country in mourning. And I keep thinking about what Fatima Goss Graves said on the show, that for Black and Brown people especially, this loss is personal. It is hard to find someone who doesn’t know someone who’s died. And for us, the survivors, how many Zoom funerals have you been to this year? It is difficult to grieve without being able to cry on each other’s actual shoulders. And I wish I could give my friend Nicole, who lost her dad, James, the biggest hug. So, I just want to start this episode by saying that if you are grieving, you are not alone. We are here to see your pain and to honor your loved ones. To borrow from Jewish custom, I say may their memory be a blessing. We are UNDISTRACTED. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: On the show today, the congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. I’ll be talking to the Massachusetts representative about the Capitol insurrection, her current policy priorities, and why The Squad is more than any member of Congress. 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: The Squad is big, y’all. It is the movement that ensured the decisive election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. It is a movement that showed out twice in Georgia. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: That’s coming up but first, it’s your “UNtrending News”. 

All right y’all, so we know lots of people have done more to help Texas than snowbird Ted Cruz. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Beyoncé, Beto, you, me, a can opener. But what you may not know is how human-made this disaster is.

News Reporter: Bundled up with your family, facing yet another day of rolling power outages, many Texans are all asking the same thing. “How did this happen?” 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Officials have called it, quote, “A freakish event or a natural disaster,” but it’s anything but. Texas politicians have tried to blame the power outages on ERCOT the agency in charge of managing the state’s grid. But guess what? This is what happens after 40 years of deregulation and a grid not prepared for extreme weather. The freezing vortex should have been anticipated. Texas experienced a deep freeze back in 2011, but recommendations to winterize energy facilities were completely ignored. Residents deserve answers to how this really happened, and they deserve far swifter aid than they received. As always, the people rallied and mutual aid societies did much of the heavy lifting. 

But mutual aid is no replacement for government competence. They need policies to prevent their power from ever failing again. And due to climate change, we should all expect more extreme weather. It’s past time to wake up. 

Last week, Serena Williams lost to Naomi Osaka in the Australian Open and like, all hell broke loose on the internet. Besides all the speculation about Serena’s retirement, it’s become clear that fans have had enough of biased sports commentary coming from a lot of folks, including veteran Chris Evert. The ESPN analyst is being rightfully criticized for constantly talking about Serena and Naomi’s emotions. Evert has also been called out for previously focusing on the drama that Serena brings to her matches and not the skill. One Twitter user said, quote, “The person who needs to retire at the end of this match is Chris Evert. Serena and all players of color deserve better, more nuanced commentary that doesn’t rely on sexist and racist tropes. This includes all of the commentary that has been pitting Naomi and Serena against each other.” Like, sure, they are competitors, but they hugely admire one another. 

Naomi Osaka: I was a little kid watching her play, and just to be on the court playing against her for me is a dream. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I appreciate the Jezebel headline, which points out that, quote, “We are allowed to have more than one great Black tennis player at a time.” You folks have been doing this for forever. The era of Beyoncé versus Rihanna was no different. My favorite headline in all this fallout is from Deadspin, which reads, “Naomi Osaka isn’t Serena Williams’ rival. She’s her legacy.” Finally, the Golden Globes are this Saturday, and well, the organization that hosts the awards is in hot water. According to a new L.A. Times report, there are 87 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and none of them are Black. There are some members of color, but that’s right, zero Black members. The Golden Globes have already come under fire for being out of touch, especially with their snubbing of Michaela Coel’s brilliant masterpiece, I May Destroy You

Michaela Coel: There’s so much injustice and my job is to speak the truth.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Not to mention this year’s Black-led Oscar contenders like Da 5 Bloods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Judas and the Black Messiah didn’t receive any best picture nominations. And if you’re wondering what’s up with this disparity, the L.A. Times report has one possible clue. Get this, last year, 30 members of the HFPA were flown to France to visit the set of Emily in Paris, where they were treated to a luxurious press junket, which included a two-night stay at the five star Peninsula Paris Hotel, where rooms start at about fourteen hundred dollars a night. I guess the fact that Emily in Paris got two nominations while Michaela Coel got none suddenly makes a little bit more sense. If the Golden Globes want to be relevant, they better diversify their membership and fast. It’s literally the least they can do. 

Coming up, I’ll be talking to Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley about fighting for progressive, bold policies that truly center us. That’s happening right after this short break. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: And we are back. In November 2018, my guest today made history as Massachusetts’ first Black woman elected to Congress. Representative Ayanna Pressley arrived with a bold vision and she has not let go of it since. Focused on breaking cycles of poverty, creating a criminal legal system that actually delivers justice, and ensuring that those closest to the pain are closest to the power. Known as one of the members of The Squad, she has been unapologetically Black and unapologetically herself. Last January, the congresswoman opened up about having alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss. And now she sports a beautiful bald look and is always giving it to you honey, okay? And it’s that authenticity, that realness that she brings to her work and to her relationships. I feel so honored to call her my sister, friend, play cousin. She is always showing up and always right there with a dose of joy, a prayer and a directive. It hasn’t been easy for Congresswoman Pressley. Ever since she was sworn in, she’s been the target of relentless vitriol from the Right, and the events of January 6th well that just took things to a whole new level. 

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, thank you so, so much for joining us. 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: Good to be with you always. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: It’s been more than a month and a half since the violent mob attacked the Capitol. And since you were attacked during that, I cannot imagine how traumatic that was for you. So, before we start, I just want to ask how you’re doing. Are you okay? 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: I appreciate that question so much, because I think you know, so often we fail to see the humanity in people and certainly those who are in positions of elected office. And so, I thank you for centering that. I’m doing fine. You know, I don’t want to give short shrift to the events that occurred at all. It is a stain on our nation’s history, that a violent white supremacist mob seized the Capitol. 

It was an attempted coup to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power. However, I am struggling with the fact that it took a violent white supremacist mob literally coming to the steps of the Capitol, causing trauma, injury, loss of life, brandishing a Confederate flag and erecting a noose on the West Lawn of the Capitol. For many to appreciate for the first time the threat that white supremacy is to every American and to our democracy. And I think the image that has haunted me the most is that of the all-Black custodial staff cleaning up the mess left behind by this violent white supremacist mob. Of course, they and all of the Capitol staff, from custodians to food service workers to our aids to United States Capitol Police, all experienced their own fair share of trauma that day. But this was both a literal representation and a metaphor for what Black folks and the most marginalized have been doing for generations, and that is cleaning up the mess left by a violent white supremacist mob. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: That is quite the metaphor, and I want to keep talking about the work that Black people, Black women, you included, are often left to do to clean up the mess left by white supremacy. 

We saw your colleague, Delegate Stacey Plaskett, wearing a literal cape on the floor of Congress, helping the House managers and the Democrats put up a very strong case. And yet Trump was acquitted of inciting this insurrection during his second impeachment trial. Beyond the moral importance of holding him accountable, what do you worry might be the real concrete consequences of this acquittal? 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: Well, you know, I will invoke the words of a wise, sage Brittany Packnett Cunningham who said that this is as much about accountability as it is prevention. Because Donald J. Trump needed to be not only held accountable but barred from running for public office ever again. 

And so, we also know that Donald J. Trump is not the only culpable person. That he had many accomplices who aided and abetted in the perpetuating of this big lie of voter fraud, which became the foundation for this violent mob that seized the Capitol. And so, investigations are underway by relevant Congressional House committees. I called for these investigations within hours of these violent attacks in my role as a member of the oversight committee, because I wanted to know what individuals – and we deserve to know – what individuals and agencies aided and abetted this. So, what should have happened is impeach, then expulsion for all those members. And we thank Representative Cori Bush for her leadership in those early calls. And I’ve signed on to her resolution and now investigate. But I think it begs a larger question here. The fear certainly is that without consequences, this could happen again. And Brittany, we’ve seen that throughout history. So, what is the fear that this white supremacy is emboldened, Donald J. Trump is a martyr and that the next attack is bigger and badder. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I mean, I have to ask, these investigations are ongoing because these expulsions absolutely need to happen. But right now, these folks are still coming to work. And they are your colleagues. Do you feel safe going back to work at the Capitol? 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: I feel safe, but that’s mostly because, you know, that fear or that discomfort or that sense of fragility and vulnerability is not new to me as a Black woman navigating the corridors of a building you know, built by us but not for us in a society built by us and not for us. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: So, you are, as you’ve already said, finding ways to continue this work because it is so critically important. And I want to speak to you a bit about some of that work and really your priorities right now. One of the things we know is that white Americans are receiving Covid-19 vaccinations at much higher rates than Black and Latino people who are dying at three times the rate of white people and being hospitalized at a rate of four times higher. So, what has to be done right now to address this gross inequity? 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: You know, Brittany, of course, we knew anecdotally how the virus would play out given the comorbidities of structural racism and unequal access to healthcare. And so early on, I was banging the drum and advocating and legislating for the equitable collection of data. Myself and Senator Warren introduced a bill that would require the collection of racial demographic data so far as coronavirus infections, hospitalizations, and death rates. And again, we knew anecdotally what communities would be hardest hit. But I believe that that which gets measured gets done. So, we needed the data to inform and drive the marshaling of resources. And that did happen because prior to our bill, although our bill was not passed wholesale, tenants of it were included in previous relief packages. Without that, the CDC was only collecting age and gender, not race. And so now we’re continuing the same drumbeat when it comes to vaccine recipients to guard against what I call vaccine redlining. And myself, Senator Warren, and Markey have lobbied the administration directly, sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services to collect anonymized racial demographic data when it comes to vaccine recipients. Again, because that which gets measured gets done. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: So, I know policy is your love language, Congresswoman. I want to ask you about the other big policy thing that is on people’s minds right now, student loan debt relief. It is obviously a problem and it’s a problem that you’ve been working on. You and Senator Warren also have been pushing President Biden to cancel up to fifty thousand dollars in debt for each of the roughly 44 million Americans who have federal student loans and outstanding debt from those. What impact would this have? 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: Well, first, let’s talk about the pain that people are experiencing and it’s widespread. This is a nearly two trillion dollar crisis and this does have a disproportionate or disparate impact on Black and Brown student borrowers. Black student borrowers, 85% of them take out student loans because our families have been denied the ability to build generational wealth because of draconian and discriminatory policies like redlining. Black student borrowers are also five times more likely to default on those student loans than their white counterparts, which affects your credit score and really the trajectory of every other life decision or pursuit thereafter. I should also add that this is not just a Millennial or Gen Z issue. The fastest growing population of those who owe student debt are 50 plus. And I have constituents in my district who have told me devastating stories being as old as 76 years old, that they are still paying on student loans. So, canceling fifty thousand dollars’ worth of student debt, which President Biden does have the authority to do by way of executive action, is necessary for a just and equitable economic recovery from this pandemic. It is an economic justice issue. It is a recovery issue and it is a racial justice issue. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Well, that puts the pin on that. I don’t think I’ve heard anybody lay it out quite that clearly. But it is a serious problem. And, you know, Congresswoman, I just have always appreciated the way that you approach this work. 

You’ve said before that you often remind yourself you are not in Congress to simply occupy space, that you’re there to create it. Can you just expand on that? 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: Yeah, certainly. I strive to do that every single day. And I you know; I think it requires intention. And where I first said those words was actually in my alopecia reveal was just sort of my acknowledgment that I could have just gone through my walk and on my journey however I wanted to, and probably by my lonesome, in my own secrecy and shame. Although certainly there’s nothing to be ashamed of, but that’s how I felt. But I felt a responsibility to create space. And that is why I was transparent about living with alopecia. 

But it’s why I’ve been transparent about everything from what it is to grow up with an incarcerated parent who was battling substance use disorder. The struggles of growing up in a single parented household or being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse or campus sexual assault. Or knowing the burden of student debt with intention to not only occupy this seat in this space, but to create it and to do that boldly. To create space for as many voices and lived experiences to be seen and to be heard. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Your mother, Sandy Pressley, was an activist and an advocate and an organizer. You’ve just continued on in this legacy. And you said that she did not raise you to ask permission to lead. 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: That’s right. You know, I miss my mom every single day. I mean, losing a parent and I think a mother in particular is a permanent heartbreak. But I hope that in word and in deed I’m delivering a love letter to her every day in modeling you know, how she raised me with such thoughtfulness and so generously. My husband and I often say that we don’t think that we’re extraordinary at all but what we were was rooted in extraordinary love. And just I miss her every day. But yeah, she raised me to not ask permission to lead and just to take up space. And she also, like she placed a lot of expectation on me. You know, she told me early on, you know, to be Black is a beautiful thing, something you should be proud of and I expect you to be proud of. But make no mistake about it, that you’re being born into a struggle. And I have an expectation that you will do your part in that struggle. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Well, I didn’t know Miss Sandy, but I have absolutely no doubt that she is incredibly honored and proud by the way you are continuing this. I mean, you have been increasingly personal in how you’ve been creating that space in the light of her legacy. You mentioned coming forward and being public about alopecia and you revealed your beautiful look to the world. And it’s been a little over a year since you did that. How does it feel now versus a year ago? 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: Yeah, you know, it’s still a struggle. You know, every day I think I make progress in my own healing, in my own self-acceptance. But the reason why it hasn’t been easy is because it defies, disrupts, and challenges people’s conventional narratives and beauty standards for what is professional, what is appropriate, what is feminine, what is pretty. 

And so just how I enter a room is disruptive for many. But increasingly so when I see myself, my reflection back, I just accept that this is me. And in fact, sometimes people have said, “Well, I know that the attacks online can be hurtful and take a toll. Why don’t you just wear a wig?” Especially the elders in my life, the Black elders in my life who worry that I’m cold and it’s winter and why aren’t I just wearing a wig especially — 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Baby you going to catch a cold. 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: Yes, that’s exactly how they say it. And, you know, Brittany, I — look, there are a lot of incredible units out there and wigs and I did all of that. I mean, I’ve done extensions and weaves and wigs and, you know, I had a little Sade ponytail back in the day. You couldn’t tell me anything. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: So, I’ve done all of it. But now when I put — and you never say never — but now when I put a wig on, it just doesn’t feel in alignment with where I’m at and who I am. It feels like a costume and I feel resentful that I should have to put on one more piece of armor in order to safely negotiate the world and to navigate spaces. And I do want to give a shout out to the disability community and the alopecia community who enthusiastically and warmly embraced me right away. It is an incredible community and it goes through a lot. People think it’s just hair, but a lot of people living with alopecia battle social anxiety and depression. You have people coming up to you with all types of concoctions and prescriptions, you know, every day about what really ails you and not understanding that it is an autoimmune disease. So, I’m making progress every day. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Well, we love you for your continued power. And like you said, being yourself as a woman, a Black woman, as somebody with a disability, all of these things are so often treated as disruptions, you know, against the status quo. 

And I would say that’s how The Squad has been received by some people, including the former twice impeached president. So, you, Alexandrea Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib and more. You all have been known as The Squad. It keeps expanding and growing beautifully. But like, you know, like I said, many have tried to co-opt and weaponize this term, “The Squad.” So how do you define The Squad? 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: I don’t know if we ever talked about sort of the origin of where that came from, I think it’s important that people recognize that that was an external characterization sort of put onto us. What we are are four women who have a deep and genuine and enduring love and respect for one another. We are partners in policymaking. We have the shared kinship of an alignment of values and policy priorities and a bond that was strengthened because we were all being attacked. 

But how do I define The Squad? I define it as anyone doing the work of building a more equitable and just society. So that is certainly not limited to any members of Congress. The Squad is big y’all. It is the movement that ensured the decisive election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. It is a movement that showed out twice in Georgia. It is a multiracial, multigenerational movement of the most marginalized Black and Brown and AAPI and indigenous and disabled and young and queer who have come together fueled by issues-based activism from a green new deal to Medicare for all to canceling student debt to ending mass incarceration. And I could go on. And I think that movement has proven the old adage that the power of the people has always been greater than the people in power. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Yes. 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: And it is because that Squad is big and growing, that democracy is, in fact, breathing another day. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I hope everybody hears that, The Squad is big and always accepting new members and the membership due is just action. You ain’t got to pay nothing. You just got to show up, right, you got to show up for the work.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: I love that. I’m so stealing that.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I so appreciate the way that you define that. The Squad is big and it is growing and it is including more and more Black women every day, which, you know, I love from Madam Vice President Kamala Harris to yourself to Lauren Underwood, the youngest Black woman ever elected to Congress. So many more. There were a record breaking 130 Black women who filed to run for Congress at the start of the 2020 election cycle. So, looking out into the future, what impact do you hope this increasing representation or righteous representation as you often push us toward, what kind of impact do you hope that will have on the fight for justice? 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: Yeah, policy impact. You know, I know I’m a broken record on this, and sometimes I feel like, you know –

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Please be.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley:  People begin to glaze over when I just talk about policy. But, you know, it’s important because Brittany, for so long, I thought that the struggles my mother and I experienced, that it was some sort of mark on our lives, that we were sort of destined to struggle. And I don’t pretend that by advancing progressive, bold policies like a federal job guarantee or anti-racism and public health, that that means that people will be inoculated from hardship. But what I realized is that those hardships were legalized, they were legislated, they were precise in their harm, and it was not naturally occurring. I was growing up in the residual aftermath of redlining and the war on drugs. 

And so, you know, what do I hope the increased representation of Black women at every level of government will yield? Policies that truly center us, policies that are as committed to our liberation as they have been to our marginalization and our oppression. I just want everybody to be free. And as I’ve always asserted, the people closest to the pain should be the closest to the power. Black women sitting at the intersection of racism and sexism certainly know a lot about the pain. And we have earned our seat both based on the role that we’ve played at the ballot box and on the ballot, the role that we have played throughout society and history as the table shakers and the truth tellers and the justice seekers and the preservers of democracy. 

This moment feels like an apology. It feels like something we earned. And certainly, having Madam Vice President in that role, it feels like recognition. It’s finally crediting our labor. For too long, we have carried so much. And even when we’ve won elections, it has been credited simply to our magic. It has been credited to waves and not to strategy and not to intellectual heft and not to heavy labor, all of which are true. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Amen. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, you are indeed representing us righteously, I am always so grateful for you and to spend time with you. Thank you for letting us your brilliance today. 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley:  Thank you, Brittany. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley represents Massachusetts’ 7th District. I couldn’t agree more with the congresswoman. Injustice isn’t naturally occurring from the hardships she and her mother experienced to the fact that people of color are disproportionately being affected by the pandemic to the current crisis in Texas, things don’t have to be the way they are. No one is destined to struggle. 

But the good news is, The Squad is big and it keeps growing and there’s no need to be elected. All you got to do is show up on the things that matter. Activism is the cost of admission. When we find the intersection of our gifts and the impact we want to have on the world, we can get busy doing our work. 

And everybody, everybody is waiting on you to do your work, literally. We all benefit when everyone plays their part and your work can’t get done unless you do it. The power of the people has always been greater than the people in power. We’ve proved it, so let’s keep doing it. 

That’s it for today y’all, but never for tomorrow. 


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Matlow. 

Our associate producer is Taylor Hosking. 

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Grace Chen and Hannis Brown. 

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me @MsPackyetti on all social media, and our team @TheMeteor. 

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED y’all, and please rate and review us on Spotify, Apple Podcast or wherever you check out your favorite podcasts. 

Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. And as always, thanks for doing. I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.