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Lena Waithe On Why It’s Important To Play Your Position As A Pawn Before Becoming King

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When Lena Waithe speaks, everyone in the room stops to listen. Words of wisdom pour from her lips like honey, and her lucky spectators lean in to catch every last drop.


On a Tuesday night, just a few days after many of us gave thanks with our families, her effect was no different. A diverse group of people packed into the Melody Ehsani store for the "M.E. Speaker Series" to hear gems from a selection of noteworthy panelists, including the award-winning writer and actress of Master of None, the director of HBO's Insecure Melina Matsoukas, and actor Michael Ealy, who made a surprise guest appearance.

While many of us let out a resounding cheer as Waithe became the first Black women to win an Emmy for Comedy Writing at this year's award show, it's no surprise that she humbly acknowledges that the real prize is being able to transform lives and control the narrative through her writing.

"I think Denzel said it best, 'God gives the reward, man gives the award,'" she said to the room of attendees. "I think they are symbols and also false idols. My Emmy, on purpose, sits on a shelf that's above eye level, so I don't see it every day. It's here; it's a moment, a piece of leverage. The first thing I thought about when Whitney Houston passed, I said, 'I wonder what happened to all of her awards?' I don't want something to be tangible because I can't take it with me, but the way people feel or the conversation that I have or the connections that I made with people—the eye contact, the conversations—that's something that will live in my spirit that I would take with me."

The night carried on with a steady chorus of "mmm's" echoing throughout the space as moderator Erica Williams Simon steered the conversation around topics such as the measure of success and having seats at tables we previously weren't even allowed in the room to witness.

"There was a time when black people were hot," said Waithe. "We had all the movies coming out, then we dried up. Now, the cool thing is stuff with people of color. Now we get Dear White People and Moonlight. Now, we are getting to the office and they are like well, we want stuff with Black people in it, but it has to have a twist. So, now the challenge is on us, don't just come and be like, I'm in the door. That's fine, you can be in the room, you're your drive, talent, clocking the ten thousand hours, that's what's going to keep you there. If you are going to sit at the table, sit at the head of it."

"If you are going to sit at the table, sit at the head of it."

For Waithe, having access to rooms doesn't come without responsibility. While she's climbing up she's also reaching back, serving as a mentor and oftentimes a sister-friend to those who are coming up behind her.

"I believe the best way to start change the world is by starting your own community. What I try to do is real mentorship, not throwing somebody a bone and saying come take this opportunity when you are not ready for it. It's about us that are in the forefront of those that want to be where we are saying what is it that you want, where do you want to be? The mentoring that I do, I tell people that I am going ask you more questions than you ask me."

Mentorship isn't just lip service for Waithe, she actually lives what she speaks. As one of her mentees in attendance attested, they are given opportunities to soak up advice on everything from acting to writing and directing, they get guidance on the right classes to take and the best direction for their careers, and even sometimes are sponsored for classes if their budgets won't allow them to invest in themselves.

And for those that don't have the privilege of learning directly from the master, Waithe encourages people to look amongst their own circles and act as coaches and support systems for one another. It's something that she implements with her own mentees, breaking them into small writing groups to read each other's materials, offer feedback, and serve as shoulders to cry on when times get tough.

"Anyone can learn any lesson, you don't have to be a teacher. You don't have to be Oprah to guide. And I think there is an element of looking here [at people who are at a higher level], which is fair, but also look beside you. That is the community."

"Anyone can learn any lesson, you don't have to be a teacher. You don't have to be Oprah to guide."

Perhaps more importantly than providing people with opportunities, is preparing them for what's to come. Waithe refers to the entertainment industry as a game of human chess, where the moves you make become key calculations for constant ascension, something she too had to learn over the course of her career.

"I don't just want you to be a phenomenal writer, be a politician," she said. "And not just any politician, you have to Barack Obama."

In the game of chess, sometimes being underestimated—being the pawn—has more value than being give a position of royalty.

"For some time you have to be a pawn first; that's apart of it because some people come in here like I want to do it and I'm like okay, you got to crawl before you walk," said Waithe. "Play your position to the best of your ability, and if you play your position well, eventually you will go forward. And then when the time comes or someone puts a crown on your head, don't just shine, but know how to wear it. Don't just ask to be the king, you have to know how to lead."

As a final thought, Waithe warned against tests disguised as opportunities, and where lack of preparation can rob you of your blessing. "There are instances where people will say, 'Here is an opportunity,' be weary of that. Be weary of the desire, this dream, because it will be a bunch of stuff that feels like nothing. If you aren't ready for the opportunity, then it's wasted."

It was clear that this wasn't just a panel discussion, only worthy of a quick "I was there" snap or Instastory post, but a place of communion, where we could gather together, speak our truth, and more importantly, hear solutions from those who are winning on how to continue to make an impact as we go about our respective paths.

And we're thankful for those like Waithe who don't accept praise for their gifts as being synonymous with their purpose, but instead choose to act as servants to others, no matter how high they go.

Featured image by Getty Images

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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