Brittany Packnett Cunningham Says "Voting Is Just the Beginning"

Chelsey Sanchez
·18-min read
Photo credit: Reginald Cunningham
Photo credit: Reginald Cunningham

From Harper's BAZAAR

In a year overwhelmed by COVID-19, global unrest, and a historic presidential election, it would seem that bad-news fatigue is now plaguing all of us who dare try to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle. For all these reasons and more, Brittany Packnett Cunningham wants to cut through the noise.

Enter Undistracted, a new podcast series from The Meteor that she both hosts and executive-produces. In partnership with Pineapple Street Studios, the show, which debuted last week, brings today's most pressing issues to the forefront and reframes them through a lens of intersectional feminism. Undistracted's first guest star was Cecile Richards, cofounder of Supermajority, and audiences can expect to hear from Soledad O'Brien, Representative Ayanna Pressley, Sue Bird, and Sherrilyn Ifill in the coming weeks.

"At Undistracted, we really have an appetite for deep, real conversations about the things that harm us and the things that can help us," Packnett Cunningham tells BAZAAR.com. "We are really trying to take the time to not only give people an overview of what's happening in the world, but give them a chance to dive deep on the things that are not covered in a lot of mainstream places and are not included in all of the conversations in which they need to be included."

Packnett Cunningham was propelled to the national spotlight following her organizing efforts with the 2014 Ferguson protests. Since then, she became a member of President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, joined the anti-police brutality initiative Campaign Zero (which she has since left), cohosted Pod Save the People, and became an NBC News and MSNBC contributor.

"I'm really excited about all of the possibilities," she says. "I'm really grateful to the people who've already listened and downloaded and shared. I'm really prayerful that we can grow a community that holds us at Undistracted and one another accountable for being better, doing better, and always using our power."

Ahead, Packnett Cunningham talks about her new podcast (including her hope to have Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, one day guest star), the 2020 election, and radical ideas at last entering the mainstream.

The name Undistracted for this podcast seems especially keen, given the growing popularity of podcasts and the volume of new podcast series that are popping up. How did you and the rest of the team arrive at this title? And how did you know what you wanted to make the focus of the series?

We really look to the leaders of the past and the present to help us guide our way. And in this particular case, there is a quote from Toni Morrison that we play in the opening of the first episode, where she talks about the function of racism is to cause distraction. She says it keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over your reason for being. I think that's such a powerful idea. It is always powerful to understand what works against you for what it is. That idea of distraction can be applied to so many things. And it's not to say that injustice isn't real, but it is to say that, when we are undistracted, not only can we fight the injustice, we can actually design the world that we deserve. We wanted to launch a podcast to help us build the next tomorrow, to help us design the world that we deserve, and to help empower and activate everyday people to do exactly that. And in order to build a whole new world, you have to be undistracted.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

You have some prior experience in making podcasts with Pod Save the People. What do you think distinguishes Undistracted from that one?

We are taking, in particular, an intersectional and an intersectional feminist look at the world. My time on Pod Save the People was so important to me, and I'm really grateful for the time I spent with the team and for all of the things I learned about the medium of podcasting. We really want to look at the news of the day and deep-dive on the issues that matter through a lens that requires all of us to build better solutions and to ask better questions. Intersectionality, the concept [coined] by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, helps us do that. Intersectional feminism helps us ensure that women, femmes, and gender nonbinary people are centered in the solutions we create. And the podcast really is for anyone and everyone who wants to build a more just world. And what's unique is that lens of intersectional feminism that will help us focus and remain undistracted.

Undistracted also has a first-of-its-kind advertising model that showcases businesses owned by BIPOC, femmes, and gender-nonconforming people. What was the process of creating this model like?

It was my idea, but it was immediately embraced by the entire team. When Cindi Leive [one of The Meteor's founding members] and I first started talking about the concept for this podcast, we really wanted to practice equity as much as we preached it. We're really excited about what this means. So I know—I think, especially in the time of COVID—just how hard-hit BIPOC-owned businesses have been. We have an opportunity to help those businesses, those ventures reach new audiences.

Our potential advertisers seem to be very excited by it as well. And the donation of that ad space towards creating just a little bit more equity is something that was really important to the team and that I'm hoping can help enlarge that Undistracted community so that we can be supporting one another's ventures and learning about one another's ideas.

Can you tease anything for future episodes of Undistracted? I know that there are already a few special guests lined up for future episodes, but what other topics are you hoping to cover, and who would you want to speak to?

We really want to cover everything. I think we make the mistake often in media where we treat issues for women and gender-nonconforming people like a separate set of issues. In the same way that we often only talk about criminal justice when it comes to Black people, we will often only talk about childcare or reproductive justice for women. And that is incredibly limiting.

Audre Lorde reminds us that none of us need single-issue lives. So the same thing that matters to everyone else are the things that matter through a lens of intersectional feminism: the economy; the criminal legal system; health care; yes, childcare; yes, reproductive justice; but also the state of our democracy; intersectional identity. We want to talk about all of it. Nothing is off-limits at Undistracted, because if we're going to be people who come together to fix it, we have to be honest about the challenges of the current day.

I love to shoot for the stars. I'd love to talk to Senator Kamala Harris. I'm very much hoping that she will be Vice President Harris by the time that happens. I'd love to talk to Meghan Markle. I think the way she's been really exploring her civic duty and modeling that for so many people has been a very powerful example. Oprah Winfrey is a personal hero of mine. I just did a Zoom call with her to help activate over 30,000 people in Wisconsin ahead of this election. And I'd love to really understand how she's thinking about this phase of her career after the television show and thinking ever more intentionally about civic engagement and inspiration toward justice for everyday people.

I would love to have Tracee Ellis Ross and Kerry Washington and Abby Wambach on. I'd love to talk to Malala. I think she's got such a powerful viewpoint on the world, especially coming from her generation. I'd love to talk to Angelica Ross and Janet Mock about how we can be better allies as cis women to our trans sisters.

I'd love to talk to a number of men and male-identifying people for how they understand their responsibility to the women and femmes and gender-nonconforming folks from their lives, how they developed their own way of being that has been evolved for maybe some of the things that they learned. I'd love to talk to somebody like Sterling K. Brown about portraying a loving, thoughtful husband on television and what that has meant for his own understanding of relationships and how other people view love and Black love in public. I have a long wish list, and I'm very hopeful that we can get all of those folks and then some onto the podcast.

That's an amazing potential list. It's interesting what you were saying about also getting men on the podcast. It seems to speak to this idea that feminism isn't just for women. It includes all. And, again, applying that intersectional lens, I think that's really interesting.

Well, bell hooks famously said, "Feminism is for everybody." It is a way of being, a way of looking at the world, a way of operating that is oriented toward justice. Anybody and everybody should want to live that way. Feminism is not just for women and women-identifying people. Feminism is not just for people who don't identify as men. Feminism is not just for academics or the chosen few. Feminism, as bell hooks said, is for everybody. And I am of the fervent belief that if everyone were to look at not only our greatest challenges, but our most promising solutions through the lens of intersectional feminism, then we can build a world that is not just efficient, but that is sufficient. We can create progress that actually includes everyone the first try instead of us having to go back over and over to grab the people that we left behind.

I think about women's suffrage as a relevant example of that. We look at Black women and Indigenous women and immigrant women who took far more years or decades past 1920s to actually secure our right to vote—and it is still being challenged every single day. We see so much of that ahead of this election. And so what would it have looked like to build a fully inclusive suffragist movement so that the win would have been fully sufficient for all women, instead of just some women? That is the kind of approach that our most modern challenges requires of us. Cecile Richards said on our first episode that this is about learning from both the wins and the mistakes of the past, and building better institutions than the ones that some of us were even a part of. That is the challenge that is before us, but I actually really believe we can all step up and meet this moment.

The election has understandably been on so many people's minds, especially as Election Day draws closer. This year has intensified already polarizing issues in the country, whether that be health care or racial equity or the wealth gap. In the spirit of being undistracted and cutting through the noise, what kinds of issues or perspectives relative to this election do you think aren't talked about enough?

I think that there are lots of individual issues that are not being talked about enough. Education has barely been mentioned when it is so foundational to everything else. Immigration has been limited to certain conversations and certain areas of the country, which is deeply unfortunate. As we discuss universal health care, rightfully, I think that we've not done enough to talk about universal childcare, universal family care, and elder care.

But overall, I think we need to do much more talking about the vision of the next tomorrow, about our collective vision for a new America. We have an opportunity in front of us, looking at all of the things that have been really harmed under this administration. Yes, we have ground to make up. Yes, we have things to repair. But we also have a next tomorrow to design. And if we are not intentional about including everyone in that design, we will leave the most vulnerable people behind who actually should be at the forefront of creating that next world.

What would you want to say to people who are feeling disillusioned with this country's electoral process? Who maybe aren't planning on voting because they don't see a material difference between voting for Democrats or Republicans?

I think this conversation has happened in two directions. Between now and November 3rd, it's important for us to remind everyday people that we should never relinquish our power, voluntarily or involuntarily, that nothing about us should be decided without us. I always want to make sure that I have a say in my future, as should we all, because that is what we all deserve. But beyond November 3rd, I think it's going to be so important that all elected and appointed officials—from the Supreme Court to the White House to Congress and many places in between—are really diligent about making sure that they step up to give people something not just to vote against, but to vote for. That they really solidify the systems of voting and political engagement in this country, because I absolutely want and need everybody who is able to vote, but I also know that people deserve to be engaged by this system. I can't blame people for being disillusioned by a system that never even pretended to listen to them in the first place.

So political parties, elected officials, and appointed officials should be doing a lot more reaching out and a lot more listening, learning, and improving—not just during an election year, but all the years before that to the people who feel disengaged and ignored by the system, to figure out what we can be doing better so this isn't a problem in the future. If you only knock on somebody's door once every four years, they don't owe you anything. I'm hopeful that people will vote, because of what they owe themselves. But I'm also hopeful that in the future, in the very near future, our leaders will do more to make sure they are giving people what they deserve beyond an election year.

These are the tough conversations. This is part of why we wanted to build the podcast, because these are the kinds of conversations about the virtue and the value of voting as a tactic that are difficult to have sometimes with your loved ones. Sometimes they're difficult to have on social media, because people have such strong feelings, understandably so. We want Undistracted to be a place where you can come and hear and have a nuanced conversation that always reminds you of your own power and that always calls our officials into their accountability.

Right. There's this idea that no matter who wins the election, it's clear that there is still much work to be done.

Voting has always been a tool. Voting has always been a necessary tool to help us create better conditions for all of our other work, for the organizing, for the activating, for the public political education, for the civic engagement, for attending city council meetings and school board meetings, for deciding to run for office yourself, for canvassing and knocking on doors, for leading justice campaigns that result in the actions that we need to close jails and open schools—all of those activities and even more are necessary for democracy to properly function and for all of us to experience justice. Voting is never the end. It is just the beginning. I am always resolute to use every tool at my disposal; that includes the vote, and it includes so much more.

You have been a part of this fight for so long. But recently, with the pandemic still in high gear and after a summer of protests, there seems to be an air of radical possibility now, in the sense that more and more people than ever before are realizing that things not only need to change, but that there needs to be an overhaul of how things have always been. What are some actionable things you would want to see people doing in order to keep up this kind of momentum?

I said this at the end of our first episode, but we should be putting our city council meetings, our school board meetings, our firemen and police meetings on our calendar. The challenge, of course, with the pandemic, is that we can't do these things in person, but the opportunity is to Zoom into that meeting or to provide public comment digitally before that meeting. People should be joining up with the local and national organizations that are making a difference on the policies they care about.

I think it's incredibly important that everyone understands what is happening in their own community right outside their front door and how they can make a difference in that. There are petitions to be signed. There are protests to attend. There are mutual aid societies to contribute to. There are robocalls to make. There are public comments to share. There are hashtags to create. Right in your own neighborhoods, to improve everything from your street to your schools to your criminal legal system. "Thinking globally but acting locally" is a saying for a reason. I think it's something that people can do right now, today, to make a demonstrable contribution to a more just future.

And lastly, I think that people can really be auditing their own lives—not as an act of self-improvement but really as an act of world improvement. Think about how you are raising your children. Think about the films and television and literature that you are or are not exposing them and yourself to. Think about the conversations that you invite or that you refuse to allow at your virtual Thanksgiving table. Think critically about what you are talking about in your book club or on your porch with your neighbors or at your church or your mosque or your synagogue. All of these things color our perception of the world, and our perception of the world determines how we move in the world. And when we can improve our understanding of justice, when we can look at the world through a more intersectional lens, we have the power to start building better solutions right where we are—in our households, in our houses of worship, on our teams, in our classrooms, on our block. That is where change is going to happen in between election years. And that is absolutely where we need change to happen.

Right. Our political views should also translate into our interpersonal relationships.

Absolutely. If they don't, then we're not doing the most important work. Our values only mean as much as we live them. Talking about them is one thing, living them is another. And the multiplier effect of podcasting is something that I really love because you can get the word out to a lot of people that want to then share the word with somebody else about not just how to be better people, but how to push systems and structures into doing better and being better all at once.

Since you've been part of the protests in Ferguson from 2014, so much has happened. How do you feel things have changed, or how haven't they changed?

I think that things have certainly changed. Has everything changed? Absolutely not. There is a long road to freedom, and we are taking one step at a time as urgently as we possibly can. But I think that the broader societal conversation about what necessary transformation and policing has to look like has moved a lot further than it was in 2014.

In 2014, people still thought we were talking about bad apples and bad actors. Many more people in 2020 know we're talking about structures, systems, and institutions that are rooted in racism and oppression. In 2014, I think a lot of people were just getting used to the idea of reform. In 2020, people are willing to have conversations about divestment, defunding, and ensuring that these institutions fully transform or cease to exist. These were just not conversations a lot of people in mainstream spaces were ready to think about, consider, or have. That is not a minor task to move culture, and thousands of people who have contributed to this movement over the last several years and several decades have made that growth possible.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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