The Feministing Five: Heather McGhee

For this week’s Feministing Five, we spoke with Heather McGhee, president of Demos, a public policy organization working for an America where all have an equal say in democracy and an equal chance in the economy.

heather Heather has just finished her first year as president, where she has continued to lead Demos’ innovative efforts in centering racial inequality at the core of its economic and political strategy work. She is a national expert on how we can fix the massive inequality that is hurting America’s democracy, particularly focusing on the intersection of gender, race, and class.

And now without further ado, the Feministing Five with Heather McGee!

Suzanna Bobadilla: First off, congratulations on your first year as Demos president! How’s it going so far? 

Heather McGhee: It’s going great. I both feel like I’ve taken on a massive new leadership challenge at a point where the issues that we work on — inequality and democracy in our economy and racial justice — are at the forefront, and I also feel that I’m having a lot of fun with really old friends. Many of my co-workers have been with me for about a decade. I started working at Demos when I was 22.

SB: While preparing for this conversation, I reviewed your recent appearance on the Melissa Harris Perry show where you discussed the perennial importance of progressive organizations to seek racial justice in their communities at large, but also in their own organizational structure. How have you seen that played out in your work? 

HM: I believe that racial hierarchy and racial division has been the Achilles’ heal of our democracy since America’s founding. Even more specifically, they have been the Achilles’ heel of progressive coalition building and progressive change. Put simply, the reason why we are not the 99.9% is because the 99.9% has never been ever to overcome racial divisions to create a sense of common purpose around our shared economic insecurity and aspiration.

When I became president of Demos, my executive team and I launched a multi-year racial equity organizational transformation project. The goal was to equip all of our staff — of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds — to have a racial analysis, to be fluent of issues of racial justice, to understand their own identity in a multi-racial movement, and to be prepared to be leaders in a diverse future movement.

SB: You have highlighted the irony of how the media focuses on women like Sheryl Sandberg and Jill Abramson to discuss gender, class, and work-life balance, when their experiences and privilege are so distant from most women in America. How can we work to expand the conversation beyond the experience of wealthy white women? 

HM: I think the next wave of the women’s movement is going to have economic justice at its heart. I don’t believe it’s an accident that it got harder to make ends meet and get ahead at a time in the 1970s when women and people of color gained participation and voice in our economy and our democracy. The majority of the working class are women and people of color, and a working class life has gotten much harder than when it was a hard hat male working class.

We need to think about the new face of feminism as a woman like Patricia Locke, who is a Wal-Mart worker organizing her colleagues for respect on the job. That is going to force us as feminists to take a hard look at the classism and racism within our own movement and the institutions that we celebrate as ascension to “the top.”

SB: Moving closer to 2016, it seems that both the right and the left denounce economic inequality while taking vastly different approaches to tackle it. As we move closer to the next national election, do you have tips on how to sieve out the good economic policies from the bad? 

HM: The prime directive needs to be if a politician is saying that the solution to our problem is the same formula as the Republicans, which is the deregulation that brought us this inequality, you need to look elsewhere. We know what it takes to build a strong middle class. It takes a decent job with a voice at work, it takes enough of an infrastructure (both a social and a physical one) to invest in what really matters, which is our people and our planet. It takes a sense of broadly shared prosperity. As young people we have inherited an economy with a record low investment in the building blocks of the middle class, whether it’s college education, retirement security, childcare. We have winner-take-all corporate ethos that has kept most workers running in place.

SB: You’re stranded on a desert island. You get to take with you one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick? 

HM: The feminist would be Shirley Chisholm, the drink would be mezcal, the food would be popcorn.

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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