The "Algorithms of Oppression" embedded in tech - Dr. Safiya Noble

Dr. Safiya Noble was studying Library Science when an academic colleague suggested she google ”black girls.” The top search results were images that perpetuated negative stereotypes, misogyny and exploitation. That discovery was the beginning of an investigation that eventually became Safiya’s book, “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism”.

Immediate access to powerful search engines is seen as an empowering force in this world, but what if our reliance on search engines is perpetuating oppressive ideas and hateful ideologies--even swaying elections?

And when you’re done, come on over to The Inflection Point Society, our Facebook group of everyday activists who seek to make extraordinary change through small, daily actions.

Subscribe to “Inflection Point” to get more stories of how women rise up right in your feed on Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic, Stitcher and NPROne.

We rely on listener support, please contribute today to fund the transcript of this episode!

More recommended reading: The Googlization of Everything (and why we should worry), by Jesse Daniels

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A Brief But Spectacular Conversation with Steve Goldbloom, Flossie Lewis and Mahogany L. Browne

After Brief But Spectacular creator Steve Goldbloom filmed 94-year-old retired English teacher Flossie Lewis and “Black Girl Magic” poet activist Mahogany L. Browne, their short segments on PBS NewsHour went unexpectedly viral. Although they come from entirely different backgrounds, the two women share a deep passion for language and an appreciation of its power to heal and to harm. Join our live conversation, recorded at the Commonwealth Club to learn how, despite our differences, we can find connections that bring us together.

TRANSCRIPT

Lauren Schiller:                  From KALW and PRX, this is Inflection Point, stories of how women rise up. I'm Lauren Schiller. I've always believed that when you share the story of great women, everyone wins. So that's why I want you to know about a new podcast called Great Women of Business. They focus on the little-known details of the well-know women you're always hearing about, classics like Coco Chanel, Martha Stewart, and Julia Child.

Lauren Schiller:                  Great Women in Business explains how Debbi Fields started her empire at age 20. Plus, you may never look at tupperware the same way again. With captivating and well-researched stories, each episode takes you through the harrowing journeys and struggles that led these women to greatness, as well as the business principles she utilized. Find the 12-episode series of Great Women of Business on your favorite podcatcher, or visit parcast.com/business to start listening, that's parcast, P-A-R-C-A-S-T.com/business.

Lauren Schiller:                  Just as we are kicking off the summer and I was thinking about the next season, the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco called me up to ask if I would moderate an upcoming panel. They are the nation's oldest and largest public affairs forum and every year present hundreds of forums on topics ranging across politics, culture, society, and the economy. The forum they called me about would feature the creator of Brief but Spectacular that airs on PBS NewsHour and of which I am a great fan.

Lauren Schiller:                  Steve Goldbloom and two of his most popular guests, Flossie Lewis, age 94, reminded me of my grandmother and all my brilliant great aunts, and award-winning poet Mahogany Browne, who wrote the sensational poem Black Girl Magic. They asked if I'd be available to moderate a live conversation between these seemingly different people about how despite our differences, we can find connections that bring us together.

Lauren Schiller:                  Obviously I agreed immediately. The evening finally arrived this August at her beautiful venue on the Embarcadero in San Francisco and began with a 15-minute excerpt from a film about Flossie Lewis by Steve Goldbloom and his team. So without further ado, I present a special episode of Inflection Point featuring this conversation at the Commonwealth Club of California. So we just watched this excerpt from a short documentary about you, Flossie. How does it feel to see your name in lights?

Flossie Lewis:                      It makes me feel like a fraud.

Lauren Schiller:                  Why?

Flossie Lewis:                      Because there were teachers who made me a teacher and colleagues who kept me honest. And I'd like to mention their names wherever they are.

Lauren Schiller:                  Okay.

Flossie Lewis:                      At Lincoln High School Marian Shepherd, at Lincoln High School, Genie A. Ecloff* at Lincoln High School ... Oh, I'm trying to think of a few more people, but they escape me now. At Lowell High School, Joanne Stewart*, who is still with me, and we still talk about teaching and books. At Lowell High School there was Maurice Anglenda* , there was Barbara Bates*. Thank you, Leanne Torlikson*. Thank you, Gwen Fuller. And I've left out so many. *Spellings may not be correct

Lauren Schiller:                  Always.

Flossie Lewis:                      But for me to receive all the credit when I know that every name I mentioned was as good as I shall ever be, and I still hear the sound of Genie A. Ecloff's middle English. Her middle English was better than any prof that I ever had. She taught me this sound of Chaucer. And I'm thinking of Joanne Stewart, who was littler than I am, but had as great a wallop. And I'm eternally grateful for what they taught me.

Flossie Lewis:                      And I'm grateful to this company because there is such a thing as teachers who aren't recognized. And there is such a thing as teaching. And I beg your pardon, there is such a thing as good books that deserve to be taught. I'm a little bit disenchanted with the Internet. And of course I don't like anything about Twitter.

Lauren Schiller:                  Does anyone?

Flossie Lewis:                      And not because our president is such a practitioner.

Steve Goldbloom:             Of course she went viral.

Flossie Lewis:                      But to think that we have come to the point where we accept Twitter as a form of composition is moving in the direction of duck speak in 1984. Thank you very much for the moment.

Lauren Schiller:                  A cautionary tale. Well, Steve, will you tell us a bit about how Brief But Spectacular got started? What is it that you're hoping for when people see these glimpses into other people's lives?

Steve Goldbloom:             Sure. Well, first I have to pick up on a theme, which is, Flossie, about collaboration and credit. I'm up here, but there's other people I have to mention. Zach Land-Miller, I don't know where he is, but where is he? There he is, my long-time producing partner from episode #1 makes Brief with me, and he does about 15 different jobs in one; Melissa Williams who runs my production company Second Peninsula, and she helped produce this event and countless others; and lastly is PBS NewsHour because if it was not for PBS NewsHour, nobody's up here. And two people I want to call out. Mike Rancilio is the general manager. He's here. And Sara Just is the executive producer of NewsHour, and she commissioned and greenlit this show over three years ago, and I'm eternally grateful to you for doing that. So thank you.

Steve Goldbloom:             But the intention, as you said, was always to invite viewers to walk in somebody else's shoes. And we in the beginning felt a lot of pressure to book these big guests. So we went after Alec Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Marina Abramović. And people were pretty excited to see them. But what has been heartwarming to learn from doing the series is to see the audience's overwhelming response to people that they didn't know. And the two best examples of that are Flossie and Mahogany, by the way, the two best names we've ever had on the show, Flossie and Mahogany.

Steve Goldbloom:             And all the accident involved in how we met also melts my heart. I met Flossie completely at random in her retirement home. We were shooting a movie with Rita Moreno, and we literally bumped into her and just knew she was an original force of nature. And I said, "Will you talk to me?" And she said, "Sure, I'll talk to you."

Lauren Schiller:                  My understanding is she said, "Now, what are you doing here?" 

Steve Goldbloom:             Yeah, "Who are you? Why are you here?" So I explained myself, and then I had always wanted to interview somebody about life in their 90s. That had been something I'd wanted to do. And as we were talking with Flossie, Zach and I got this rush of adrenaline that you know as a journalist too, and I got the same feeling with Mahogany, which is, "Oh my God, people are going to see this. People are really going to see this."

Steve Goldbloom:             And it was halfway through the interview we just looked at each other and said, "We have to get out of the way, and we have to go home, and we have to represent this person's story." And we just had a hunch that people were really going to spread this thing around. And they both reached millions within a day. And that just doesn't happen with everyone. I'd like it if it did, but it doesn't, so that's what they have in common: They're both truly original voices.

Lauren Schiller:                  I wanted to ask you, Flossie, I mean, you have a platform now. You have a platform about growing old with grace. So now that you have millions of people viewing you and hundreds in this room, is there anything ... not to put you on the spot. What do we all need to know? What is it you would like us to be aware of that we should talk about? Because nobody wants to talk about getting old.

Flossie Lewis:                      I want us to be aware of how tyranny asserts itself, how it comes to be. And I'm thinking now of a book by Professor Stephen Greenblatt, who was one of my profs. The name of the book is Tyranny. It came out in 2018. There were lots of authorities on Shakespeare, but he's outstanding. Sometimes he's a little bit ... he sells too many books, so that makes people suspicious, but he's worth the read. And in Tyranny he takes the great tragedies that Shakespeare has written and shows that the tyrant doesn't make himself. He needs enablers. He needs agitators. He needs people to push him. He needs people who whisper things in his ear. It may be a Steve Bannon. It may be a bunch of witches. The witch is in the eye of the beholder, the witches in the self as well.

Flossie Lewis:                      And to think about that book and remembering Shakespeare the way I taught it is to make me a better teacher and is to make me able to say, look at what we have today. Who are or who were his enablers? Who were his agitators? Why did they push him into the position he now occupies, and what's the answer to getting rid of him with some degree of our dignity? So I hope that answers the question.

Lauren Schiller:                  So that is actually a great setup for Mahogany because the role of poetry in telling the stories of the tyrants, and the saviors, and the angels, and the devils, and the truth, just telling the truth, as a poet I'm wondering for you, Mahogany, can you feel a poem coming on? How do you know when it's time to tell something through poetry?

Mahogany Browne:         I no longer write from inspiration only. For the past I guess 10 years I've been practicing every day writing and just what does that mean to exercise the muscle as a writer. I mean, I write every day about everything. I'm writing about the cigarette lady in Brooklyn. I'm writing about the fact that it cost $15 to get to Staten Island and who wants to go there on purpose. I'm writing ... That's just like one way.

Lauren Schiller:                  It's not 25 cents anymore?

Mahogany Browne:         No.

Lauren Schiller:                  What happened? All right.

Mahogany Browne:         So I have these just like everyday moments. Like it's you're talking about you're writing history as it's happening because the poets and the writers, those are the first historians. So the poem really happens when I read it into the space with other people and I see how it affects them. And then I think, okay, so I've worked on the craft of it, and I know that it needs to be said, and now I know like I have to like finesse it and make sure that it can stand alone whether I'm here or not. So usually it takes two different settings--the writing is one, which I do every day for an hour a day, even on Twitter. And I-

Flossie Lewis:                      I knew it. I saw your face. I knew it. I knew it.

Lauren Schiller:                  Okay, I will just say you're the one redeeming quality on Twitter.

Mahogany Browne:         I love it, but I can admit that like if you have a bad timeline, it could be trash. You just have a moment where you're like, "Who gave you Internet access? Net neutrality for everyone but you." So, yeah, I think when the poem hits the air, that's when I realize this poem is super necessary. Also when I'm scared, I'm realizing that a poem is happening.

Flossie Lewis:                      So, Mahogany, you and I are going to get together, and you are going to show me your Twitter fold.

Mahogany Browne:         Done.

Flossie Lewis:                      Okay?

Mahogany Browne:         Yes.

Flossie Lewis:                      That's a deal.

Mahogany Browne:         We're going to record it. That too will go viral. It's going to be good too.

Steve Goldbloom:             Yeah. Perfect. That's our next episode.

Lauren Schiller:                  There you go, a promise.

Steve Goldbloom:             We'll be there.

Lauren Schiller:                  It's that Brooklyn-Oakland thing, I'm telling you. So we want to show the clip of you reading or speaking, I should say--I'm reading Black Girl Magic, you're speaking Black Girl Magic--this poem that you wrote, which I would say actually reads two different ways. When I read it on the page and when I hear you say it, the power in your voice is so incredible, and everyone is going to get to experience this in a moment. Is there anything that you want to say about that poem before we show it, which is a weird thing to say, before we show your poem?

Mahogany Browne:         It speaks for itself.

Lauren Schiller:                  Okay. I agree.

Steve Goldbloom:             I agree.

Lauren Schiller:                  Okay. Can we play that?

Mahogany Browne:         https://www.pbs.org/newshour/brief/172844/mahogany-l-browne

Lauren Schiller:                  it's brilliant.

Mahogany Browne:         Thank you. That day was funny because I was late, and we did it in this library in Brooklyn at Pride Institute.

Steve Goldbloom:             We were going to JFK.

Mahogany Browne:         Yes.

Steve Goldbloom:             And we almost didn't make it in time. And you gave us one take and said, "That's it."

Mahogany Browne:         Yes.

Steve Goldbloom:             I hoped ... I looked at Zach. I said, "Did you get it all?" And he said, "Yeah," because that's all we have.

Mahogany Browne:         He was like, "Do you want to do the other thing?" I was like, "No. We're done."

Steve Goldbloom:             Yeah. You left it on the floor.

Flossie Lewis:                      You know, this kid and I could have hit it off.

Lauren Schiller:                  So I, in Poetry Magazine, which a poet pointed me to, you called this poem a triumphant and explosive war cry.

Mahogany Browne:         Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lauren Schiller:                  And in it you're directly addressing black girls. But yet I am clearly not a black girl, but I also feel like you're talking to me so that I can understand how it might feel. And I wonder as you ... Let's talk about that poem specifically. Are you thinking in both those terms? Is it about 'I want other people to understand where I'm coming from'? Or is it about 'I want you to know I know where you're coming from too'?

Mahogany Browne:         I wrote that poem, when I said "war cry" in the Poetry Magazine essay, I was really speaking about how the poem came to be, which was going to these community rallies and seeing the mothers of the slain victims of police brutality stand up and be there for everyone. And they asked poets all the time to share a poem. And a lot of heart-wrenching poems happened, but I just wanted a moment of redemption to say that I see you, and also I see myself, and also I see my daughter. So when I wrote the poem, I was clear that I just wanted to have a moment of joy even though we are surviving trauma. What does resilience look like?

Mahogany Browne:         And I think when people who are not black find joy in it, that is the moment of humanity. That is when you are seeing someone see themselves, revel in themselves, and that is a joyous moment, and that's where our connection is. The first thing I did wrong was look at the video and then look at the comments section. Oh, it hurt my heart. The first thing I saw was like, "What about white girl magic?" And I was like, "Really?" 

Mahogany Browne:         Like, you have America, mama. You all right. You're good. You're good. We've got two minutes, 15 seconds. Give me this. But really it was just the moment of here we are making space. Here I was trying to make space where it felt like there was none, right? And that's not true. If I'm honest, my pillars are Gwendolyn Brooks, and June Jordan, and Audre Lorde, and  Ntozake Shange. And those black women writers make, made space for me to be able to even say that, to even find the articulation of what it looks like to love yourself when everything around you says don't.

Mahogany Browne:         So when I see people loving that poem and not being a person of African or African-American descent, that is what it's supposed to do. It's supposed to show you what self-love can look like in a time where love is very hard to present itself.

Lauren Schiller:                  Well, it's also interesting just you talking about, both of you talking about people who come before you. And I will say that is one of the things that I do like about Twitter is that it leads you to people you might not otherwise discover. So if I follow who you follow, then I'm going to learn a bit more about where you're coming from.

Lauren Schiller:                  But I guess Twitter leads us to the question of polarization, and difficult conversations, and everyone getting into their own camps. And I wonder--I mean, this is really a question for all of you, and whoever would like to answer it first--how do we have these hard conversations without being at each other's throats? How do we open those doors?

Flossie Lewis:                      You start in the classroom where if the kids are going to tear at one another, you still have some authority to say, "Cool it." You start with a book that dares to touch on some of these issues. You start with a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks called Abortion, where the black mothers says, "I loved every one of you, but I couldn't feed all of you." And that's hard to take in the light of so many stereotypes because black women don't have as many abortions as white women do, and not alone because they can't afford them. So I think you start with the classroom. You start with books that you think not only should be read but that you want to teach because you have something to say about them. And then you fight it out.

Lauren Schiller:                  And how do you do that civilly? Because that's, I feel like, the skill that we all need to learn is how to find the common ground and stick to your point.

Flossie Lewis:                      You fight it out by taking a stand and letting the kid fight back, and you do that not only by office hours, you do it through composition. You do it through writing. And sometimes you have to lose a battle. I think one of the things that I learned early was that some of the kids I was teaching were 10 times smarter than I was. And once I recognized that, half the battle was over.

Mahogany Browne:         I love that idea of it starts in the classroom. I agree. I facilitate poetry workshops around the world, and the one thing I always return to with the young poet is, "I don't believe you. If you're going to write this, be honest. Don't write what you think I want to hear. Write what actually needs to be said." And that's where the hard conversations happen, when you're willing to stand up and say this thing that's super difficult, and it may not be the pleaser for the crowd, but it's necessary to start that pivot in how we deal with each other, and how we change ideas, and how we change movements. So, yeah, I love the classroom.

Flossie Lewis:                      See, you said, "I don't believe you." And I would say, "Watch out for the passive voice."

Mahogany Browne:         That's why you're the teacher.

Steve Goldbloom:             I have to say-

Lauren Schiller:                  I see a co-teaching collaboration in our future.

Steve Goldbloom:             I have to pick up something Flossie said. There's two books you should all get. First is Black Girl Magic. They should buy your book, and they should also buy a book by Flossie Lewis that I found on Amazon called Getting Engaged: Falling in Love with Your Paper, which you wrote in 1984. I got a copy of it on Amazon. And there's a stretch in the book where she ... By the way, it's all brilliant, but there's a stretch in the book where she talks about falling in love, falling in love with your paper, taking your paper out to dinner, making love to your paper, at one point you said.

Steve Goldbloom:             And here's the line she says, this is directly to the student, "I know you are sometimes stuck. You're tied to a paper you have to finish. You have this act to perform, and you want to get it done as quickly as possible. I repeat, don't. It's so boring. It's so boring to pretend to love. It's such a drag." Those are your words.

Flossie Lewis:                      Yes, it's so boring to pretend to love, yes, indeed.

Lauren Schiller:                  So I want to talk about this point of authenticity and what you really feel because I feel like we are living also in this time of totally curated personalities and that we all feel like we're not people anymore, we're brands. And we have to stand for something, and we have to look a certain way, and we have to be consistent about it or we get yelled at by other people on the Internet.

Lauren Schiller:                  How do you ... This may be a personal advice question, but how does a person stay authentic in the middle of all that pressure to be, I don't know, something they really aren't or that other people expect them to be?

Mahogany Browne:         Have a Flossie in your life. You really need a good tribe, and that means who are your circle of friends? Who do you check and balance with? Sometimes I get caught in the hype, or I could write a poem, and I think, "Oh, this person said it's amazing." And then I'll take it to a friend. I'm like, "What do you think?" And they're like, "Mmm." And I'm like, "Ugh. But he said it was great." But you need the circle of people who want you to push forward and be better. I think that's how you can be your most authentic self.

Mahogany Browne:         And also Instagram I find I feel like you feel about Twitter, I feel about Instagram, which is the curated brand. It's the perfect picture, the perfect filter. There's this filter app now where you can do this and make yourself skinnier. It's bananas, and of course I was like, "I just want to see." Oh my God, I'm a 2. That's insane. I deleted it. Don't worry.

Lauren Schiller:                  Does it work on like ankles?

Mahogany Browne:         It works everywhere.

Lauren Schiller:                  Everywhere.

Mahogany Browne:         But you look kind of like an ocean of a body instead of your actual. It's weird. But that said, I'm looking at those apps now, and I'm thinking the best way to stay authentic is to be honest with like our flaws and how we're changing. And you can love something today and not tomorrow. And you can like support someone and then find out they did something that is less desirable than humans need and say, you know what? Call that out instead of just strong and wrong. It's okay to be wrong. If we say that three times a day, we will feel much better. But then you also have to meet the "It's okay to be wrong" with "What am I going to do to make it better?"

Mahogany Browne:         You can't just walk in the wrong and it's like, "Oh, my flaws are so dope. I'm out here harming people with my flaws. It's all good because I said it three times today, so I'm okay." No.

Lauren Schiller:                  Right. Just live with it?!

Mahogany Browne:         Once you accept that it's a flaw, it's something that can be changed, then you have to accept the responsibility of how to make it better, how to do better.

Lauren Schiller:                  That sounds like good parenting advice too.

Mahogany Browne:         I have a twenty-year old, so we have these conversations often.

Lauren Schiller:                  Steve, through Brief But Spectacular it seems like you also have an opportunity to get past this sort of curated approach. It feels like when I see the stories that you produce, I feel like I'm seeing inside the person that is talking, that they really are presenting their true selves. How do you do that?

Steve Goldbloom:             We're always searching for that answer. That's what we're always looking for. And we were really lucky to meet Flossie and Mahogany. But now we have a science that we're using to find our new subjects. And so one of the things that we're doing right now with Brief but Spectacular is looking at some of the leading issues in the country like misuse of prisons, substance abuse, mental health. And we're going to areas in the country that are most underrepresented.

Steve Goldbloom:             And so to give you an example, last week Zach and I were in Tucson speaking with a young woman whose mother was deported, who raised her siblings and just graduated high school. We were the next day in Navajo Nation speaking with the lone female delegate on the Navajo Council about sexual abuse. The next day we were in Olympia, Washington, speaking to a mother whose son is incarcerated in 23-hour lockdown, has bipolar. He's bipolar.

Flossie Lewis:                      Oh my God.

Steve Goldbloom:             And we talked to her about the criminalization of mental health. By the way, we're only able to do this right now because of the Heising-Simons Foundation, whose mandate has been that we get outside the coast and tell these stories. And so what we're trying to do is plant a seed with people, find these original voices, and then come back to them.

Lauren Schiller:                  So actually on that note we have a question from the audience that says, "How will I know when I have a brief but spectacular moment? I'm in my late 60s and still waiting for it, dear Steve."

Steve Goldbloom:             "Dear Steve?" Okay. I have to say this because my parents are here. My wife is here. My dad's father is the namesake. When I was little, he lives in Nova Scotia, I would sneak out of synagogue, walk around the block, make it look like I'd been there the whole time. When I came back, he would say, "Brief but spectacular." That is the name. And he ... It's true. His name is Dick Goldbloom, and he's the 100th episode. We interviewed him on what it feels like to have memory loss or dementia, which he is experiencing now. So your brief but spectacular moment, the answer is I don't know. Email me, and make your video and make your voice known because we'll know it when we see it.

Lauren Schiller:                  But it feels like inside ourselves we should be able to recognize that too. Do you ever have a moment like that where you're like, "This is it?" Maybe it's black girl magic.

Mahogany Browne:         No. I have the moments when I'm telling the story and someone goes, "What?" And you're like, "Oh, that's odd? That's a lot?" And they're like, "How did you get out?" And I'm like, "I don't know. I just did this thing, and then I wrote this poem." And they're like inspired, and I did not know that it was brief but spectacular. Black Girl Magic wasn't even the poem they asked me for. So that's funny.

Steve Goldbloom:             That's right.

Mahogany Browne:         Yeah. You asked me for something else, and then I said, "Eh, I have this other thing I really feel good about. Can I do that?"

Steve Goldbloom:             Yeah. That's right.

Mahogany Browne:         So in the moment I didn't think of it as like, "This is it." I just thought, "It's just on my heart. I really want to share this, and hopefully it'll change someone's mind." And since it aired, I've received about five that I know of to my person account, five videos from five young girls, all ages 4th grade and lower. I don't know what age that is, but they like this. And they use the poem in oratorical contests now. And I literally am like balling on the side of a freakin' mountain watching someone send me ... And I'm like, "What is she doing?"

Mahogany Browne:         And then she starts this choreography, and she does like the voice. Like, when I say, "You are this," and she does it, and I'm like, "Are you kidding me? This is amazing." I'm going to cry now. Okay.

Steve Goldbloom:             Well, I have to say, we were typing, somebody asked us if Brief was on YouTube. And so we searched it, and we saw a couple of them on YouTube, and then I saw all these other videos called Brief but Spectacular on YouTube, and I was like, "What? What is this?" And I clicked them, and there are hundreds of user-generated videos from people around the country and saying-

Mahogany Browne:         Doing everything.

Steve Goldbloom:             ... everything. And I was like-

Lauren Schiller:                  There you go.

Steve Goldbloom:             ... I even had Sarah Jess, and I was like, "I don't know. I'd love to take credit for these videos, but we didn't shoot these. These aren't ours." So that has been one of the unintended consequences.

Lauren Schiller:                  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Steve Goldbloom:             It's beautiful, yeah. It-

Flossie Lewis:                      Steve, may I say something?

Steve Goldbloom:             Of course.

Flossie Lewis:                      She is a hard act to follow.

Steve Goldbloom:             So are you.

Mahogany Browne:         I'm staying with Flossie forever.

Flossie Lewis:                      But the world is hers. My world is passing. Her world is coming. And I think most of us realize that, and we will accept it gratefully and graciously very close.

Lauren Schiller:                  This is Inflection Point. I'm Lauren Schiller. This conversation with Steve Goldbloom, creator of Brief but Spectactular of PBS NewsHour and two of his most popular briefs, writer and teacher Flossie Lewis and poet and professor Mahogany L. Browne. It was recorded live at the Commonwealth Club in California on August 22, 2018. We'll be right back.

Lauren Schiller:                  Hey, there, it's Lauren. Before we get back to it, I want to let you know about our new Facebook group for everyday activists. If you're someone who wants to connect with other ordinary people seeking to make extraordinary change, come join The Inflection Point Society. Together we'll have important conversations and come away with simple daily actions to help each other rise up. Search for Inflection Point Society on Facebook or go to Facebook.com/groups/inflectionpointsociety.

Lauren Schiller:                  I'm Lauren Schiller, and this is Inflection Point. This conversation with Steve Goldbloom, creator of Brief but Spectacular on PBS NewsHour and two of his most popular briefs, writer and teacher Flossie Lewis and poet and professor Mahogany L. Browne. It was recorded live at the Commonwealth Club in California on August 22, 2018.

Lauren Schiller:                  I love that girls are sending you their videos because one of the things that I have been thinking about and has been sort of bothering me lately is that we have had a lot of talk of empowerment. And I want to know how are we going to get from empowerment to actual power? And what is that bridge? And how do we actually make change with the momentum that is being created around all these issues that we're tackling around racism and sexism and ageism, and add your ism? Fill in the blank.

Mahogany Browne:         I think mentorship is key. I also the young people, they have it on lock. They know the verbiage is changing so drastically and so quickly often times there is little grace when you're learning and relearning. But the young people have a great idea of the way in which we're going, and I'm talking high school, y'all. I'm talking middle school, just talking to young people about pronoun use and racial epithets.

Mahogany Browne:         They are on it, and they're super empathetic. They're super compassionate, and they're ready to like fight for what's right, which I think for some reason there was this lull. I don't know what it is. Maybe it was like reality TV, which I love. I just want people to know, I'm here for all of it, but it's anthropological research. It's research. But they like the ... But I don't know when the disconnect happened, whether it was like money, whether it was the crack epidemic, and then of course the generations that it affected. But right now, the time is now, and the youth, the young people who are writing, and speaking, and protesting, they have it on lock, so I think the power is already in their hands. It requires younger teachers to really just like show them the way, like open the door, make sure the door is open, right? Like Game of Thrones, hold the door--we're supposed to do that. That is our job, not like-

Lauren Schiller:                  [crosstalk 00:35:49]. Yeah.

Mahogany Browne:         Thank you. Not fight them on respectability, not fight them on civility. That doesn't matter when you're trying to get free. When you're trying to liberate a people, civility ain't going to work.

Lauren Schiller:                  So there is another question here about which poet should we turn to to feel like we can take their words and turn them into action? Who will inspire us to do that?

Flossie Lewis:                      Well, let's talk about gender issues or relationship between men and women. I think we start with some of the old fashion stuff. We dare to start with how Shakespeare treats men and women in love. We dare to start with Romeo and Juliet, and we dare to see how equal their relationship is and how much they're hemmed in by a society that won't let them love. But I think that language itself can be liberated. I know that sounds like a lot of malarkey, but it has worked for me. And I remember when I would teach Romeo and Juliet, and I would let the kids take over, and they would do the balcony. And I would have to separate them with hot water.

Lauren Schiller:                  You mean while they were kissing? [inaudible 00:37:20].

Flossie Lewis:                      No, they don't kiss in the balcony scene, but my kids did.

Steve Goldbloom:             I can't. Can I tell you, can I just say one things I've learned from Flossy, watching, rewatching the video just now with you? The scene in the cab, I'm so terrified in that car ride. I don't know if you know that, because I'll remind you, it was raining. I was worried about transportation, and I was worried the kids weren't going to show up. And I was worried that I was going to have wasted your time. And I was petrified in that car ride. And I remember there's a lot of silence. And I look to you and I said ... This is what you were wearing actually, and I said, "This is a beautiful whatever." And you said, "Don't make small talk."

Steve Goldbloom:             But it tells you everything you need to know about Flossie because it's the power of intention. When I called her even the other day and I said, "You've reached 100 million people. It just ran on NewsHour Friday night." And I said, "And the comment that keeps coming up is you inspire people and you remind them of teachers in their life."

Steve Goldbloom:             And you just said, "Let me internalize that. Let me think about that." And I thought, how long do we do that in the rapid form of communication or Twitter? How often do we just sit and think about what was just said? And so I've learned that from you. So thank you.

Flossie Lewis:                      Let's see what I have learned from you.

Steve Goldbloom:             Oh [crosstalk 00:39:06]. Wrap it up.

Flossie Lewis:                      But a gonif is always lovable. Don't use that term unless you are deeply for that person.

Steve Goldbloom:             Flossie called me a gonif. And-

Flossie Lewis:                      Yes, he is a gonif.

Steve Goldbloom:             Crook, thief in Yiddish. And I said, "That's not ..." But you said, "Because you steal my heart." That's what you said.

Lauren Schiller:                  Nice.

Steve Goldbloom:             I was so glad you said it because I was worried about that one.

Lauren Schiller:                  You didn't know this was actually a conversation about love, did you? It's actually what it's all about. So, Flossie, so I want to get back to this question that is so hard to talk about, which is growing old and growing old with grace, and you put it in your Brief but Spectacular story. How do you prioritize your time? How do you decide what you want to do each day as you think about the time you got-

Flossie Lewis:                      Well, if you live in a retirement community, there are activities. You can participate. You can sit. And if you sit, invariably you will fall asleep. But if you take an active part, we have a poetry class every Monday. And I work with the activity director. And we have a topic, a theme, and we have anywhere from 10 to 15 old ladies and some gentlemen who go back to find a poem that illustrates that theme. And if they can't, maybe they start writing themselves. And that's something to see at age 80 and 90 and getting up there.

Steve Goldbloom:             That's part of the film that we didn't show, which includes we were there for one of those poetry sessions, and it was unforgettable. And Flossie took a backseat to that one and really let the other residence shine, and-

Flossie Lewis:                      And were they ever good. And there was Hugh Richmond, who was dying of pancreatic cancer and said very clearly, "I've had a good life. I'm ready to go." And he, knowing that he would be dead in a few more days because, guess what, his doctors had given him permission, he could stand up and read [inaudible 00:41:44], Robert Frost, and make the room shake. He hadn't gotten yet close to, how shall I say, Derek Walcott, for example, whose poetry he would have loved too, or Langston Hughes, or Gwendolyn Brooks, or some of the other guys and girls.

Lauren Schiller:                  And this brings us to another audience questions, and I apologize, the original question was for Mahogany, which is how can we all learn to use poetry to get through hard times?

Mahogany Browne:         We had a poetic protest responding to the police brutality. And it is called Black Poets Speak Out, and that was with Jericho Brown, Sherina Rodriguez, Amanda Johnston, Jonterri Gadson, and myself. And it was a moment where all of these artist and poets and professors were like, "What are we doing? How do we respond? I feel like I'm going crazy. I feel like I don't understand. I feel silenced. I feel like I'm silencing myself." 

Mahogany Browne:         And we decided to do this initiative, which in turn still exists, and it is an archive of poetry written by all people from 40 years ago to two years ago. And I learned that poetry can be the balm that we require as citizens, as global citizens, as aware citizens, as human beings. There are times when we can't articulate the frustration. We don't know yet how to process what we're feeling. It just all feels kind of jumbled. Then you read the right poem, and it just kind of like clarifies. The room becomes still. I think someone else is doing a particular project for Poetry Review or Paris Review, Sarah Kay, who introduced us.

Steve Goldbloom:             The first episode we did it.

Mahogany Browne:         Mm-hmm (affirmative), and she did this ... She's doing it now, and you can find it on parisreview.com. And it's called Poetry Rx. And I think the basis is you ask. Someone sent in a letter: "I'm having heartbreak. What do I do?" And they prescribe a poem to read, and a specific poem, and it's really, it's such a great that you're in that moment of inarticulation, and you read that thing that thing that articulates it all, and you're like, "Oh, I'm not alone." And what does that mean to just not be alone, to not be the only one feeling this way and to know that there is, for lack of a better cliché, light at the other side of the tunnel? Gosh. Sorry.

Lauren Schiller:                  We're living in hard times. It's okay.

Mahogany Browne:         I know. That was a bad one, guys.

Lauren Schiller:                  Right. Poets are not supposed to make bad, like those cliché metaphors.

Mahogany Browne:         Yeah.

Lauren Schiller:                  Is that the ... Okay.

Mahogany Browne:         I was going to blame Twitter, and-

Lauren Schiller:                  No, no, no. It just gets ingrained in you. Sometimes you can't help it. "Dear Flossie," this is turning into an advice column, "why did you decide to get a PhD after you retired from Lowell? your PhD classmate Hillary."

Flossie Lewis:                      I'd like to answer that question. Because I was scared. The PhD, for me, was unfinished business. We had so many principals in the public schools, even in San Francisco, who were semi-literate as far as I was concerned. But they had their EdD, their doctor's degree in education. And I thought, "Well, I can do that. I can get a doctor's degree in education. I've been a teacher for a long time." But I took my sabbatical years at Cal, and since I was a teacher of English, I got to work with some of the loveliest, greatest people I've ever known in my life.

Flossie Lewis:                      And in my first sabbatical year, I met Professor AAlex Zwerdling, who died very recently and who opened my eyes to what the English language was all about. And in his class when I was already an experienced teacher, he gave me my first real taste of George Orwell, which wasn't 1984, but which was politics in the English language. And that made me a teacher, that I could see how you could lie, how you could twist, how you could kill with language. And even though I killed some of my kids by making them avoid the passive voice, it became I had something to hold onto to.

Flossie Lewis:                      And when I became disillusioned with the courses in education, I had by that time become something of a writer. I had some short stories published, and I found that I wanted the PhD in English, and I thought that when I had finished my work as a teacher in high school, I would go back as a student, and those were some of the richest years in my life. That's why I waited. I wasn't sure of myself. And when I was a little more certain, then I could take on the rigors of the PhD at UC Berkeley. And let me tell you, it was not easy. Even though I was a high school teacher, I'd get my composition slashed the way only the profs could do it.

Lauren Schiller:                  They're hardest on the good students, you know. You may have heard that.

Flossie Lewis:                      Taught me a lesson in humility too.

Lauren Schiller:                  Well, thank you so much. Thank you, Flossie, Mahogany, and Steve for joining us all this evening. I'm Lauren Schiller, and this meeting of the Commonwealth Club of California, the place where you're in the know, is adjourned. [inaudible 00:48:27]. Yeah.

Lauren Schiller:                  This conversation with Steve Goldbloom, creator of Brief but Spectacular on PBS NewsHour and two of his most popular briefs, writer and teacher 94-year-old Flossie Lewis and poet and professor Mahogany L. Browne, and me took place at the Commonwealth Club of California. Many thanks to them for inviting me to participate. I'll put a link to Brief but Spectacular and the Commonwealth Club on my website at inflectionpointradio.org.

Lauren Schiller:                  And while you're at it, remember to subscribe to Inflection Point. We're on Apple Podcast, Radio Public, Stitcher, and NPR1, and all your favorite podcatchers. I'm Lauren Schiller, and this is Inflection Point. That's our Inflection Point for today. All of our episodes are on Apple Podcast, Radio Public, Stitcher, and NPR1. Give us a five-star review and subscribe to the podcast.

Lauren Schiller:                  Know a woman with a great rising-up story? Let us know at inflectionpointradio.org. While you're there I invite you to support Inflection Point with a monthly or one-time contribution. Your support keeps women's stories front and center. Just got to inflectionpointradio.org. We're on Facebook at Inflection Point Radio. Follow us and follow me on Twitter at laschiller.

Lauren Schiller:                  To find out more about the guests you've heard today and to sign up for our email newsletter, you know where to go: inflectionpointradio.org. Inflection Point is produced in partnership with KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco and PRX. Our story editor and content manager is Alaura Weaver. Our engineer and producer is Eric Wayne. I'm your host, Lauren Schiller. Support for this podcast comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Speaker 5:                              From PRX. 

 

 Photo taken at the Commonwealth Club of California, by Ed Ritger

Photo taken at the Commonwealth Club of California, by Ed Ritger