She leads by example: an interview with Symone Sanders

Symone Sanders was only 25 when she was hired as Bernie Sanders’ press secretary for the 2016 US election. The call came as a surprise: She got the position after 27 other unsuccessful job applications. During the campaign, she addressed and crafted narratives around racial issues and inequality. Now, she is a political commentator on CNN. Sanders praises political disruption: “If people had not been disruptive, we’d still be sitting at segregated lunch counters,” she says. Her advice to other young people includes policies she sets for herself: Know what you want, don’t ask for permission, bring yourself into the damn room and just do well at whatever it is that you want to do.

Why did you decide to go into politics?  

I have always thought that politicians and judges belong to two of the most powerful professions in the world. Politicians enact a lot of the laws that affect all the different types of communities in America – and especially people who look like me. Judges hold people’s lives in their hands because they decide whether someone goes to jail, whether someone gets a diversion program, and so on. At one point, I really wanted to be a judge. But then I went into college and I was like: “No.”

What changed?

I fell in love with politics. I have worked in politics since I was a freshman in college and I found that communications was my forte. Not only did I enjoy the ability to tell a story, I also found that oftentimes, the messages communicated in politics did not resonate with communities that looked like mine – with women, people of colour and, specifically, black people – so I knew that I wanted to be one of the people that put the messages together. I think that that is one of the most powerful positions. The politician is the figurehead, but it is the people behind them that help them craft their messages and help them to make a difference.

„I fell in love with politics.“

Did you not feel represented in politics?

Absolutely not. In America, women make up fifty percent of the population and only seventeen percent of the members of Congress. Black people are thirteen percent of the population and we had our second female African-American senator in history appointed this year. And if you look around, you will notice that your city council people and your mayor are not necessarily women and not necessarily people of colour. But I did know some women and African-Americans who were elected officials growing up: I myself got a chance to be very engaged and involved in the community, as was my mother. So, I did get to see first-hand that that is something that I could do.

Tell me about how you got to where you are now.

I have been working in politics my whole life. I worked judges’ races, state senate races, state legislative races, governor’s races. I worked at a consumer activism thinktank as a press person doing their global trade work. And when the elections were coming around, I decided that I wanted to get into the thick of presidential politics. So, I went out on twenty-seven interviews in Washington D.C., but nobody hired me. They all told me that I was very smart, that I was very engaging, that I wrote very well, that I presented very well, but that they ‘just wanted to hire somebody else.’ A couple of days after my twenty-seventh interview, I got a phone call from Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager – whom I had not interviewed with. I do not know how he found me, but he said: ‘Hey, this is Jeff Weaver, I wanted to know if you would come work for us.’ A few weeks later I had a chance to talk to Bernie Sanders himself. We had a very engaging conversation.

What did he say to you?

Sanders asked me something that none of the other interviewers had asked me. He asked: ‘Do you have any idea of what you want to do?’ To which I said: ‘Yes, I would like to be the national press secretary. I want to be your on-the-record spokesperson, do television and radio interviews and have a hand in your messaging strategy.’ Bernie kind of laughed and asked: ‘Have you ever even done cable television before?’ I answered: ‘No, but I think I would be very good at it.’ He laughed again and three days later I was on the campaign. So, I think I got to where I am by being really focused on what I want. You know, there are a lot of people out there who would go on twenty-seven interviews – heck, eight interviews – and decide: I will just take something different. But I always knew that politics was what I wanted to do and that I just needed an opportunity to demonstrate that I could deliver on what I said I could do. And after twenty-seven interviews, I got that chance. So, of course, I really wanted interview ten, I really thought interview fifteen was my job and I was devastated that I did not get interview twenty-seven, but I know now that I did not get those jobs because I was supposed to sit down for a chat with Bernie Sanders and be his national press secretary for his presidential campaign.

“I went on twenty-seven interviews, but nobody hired me.“
Symone Sanders at the 47th St. Gallen Symposium

What was the biggest challenge you encountered as the national press secretary?

On the campaign trail, one of the biggest challenges I encountered was not being able to get into places because people did not believe that I was who I said I was. There were multiple times where I would arrive at an event and the people at the staff entrance would tell me: ‘Sorry, this is for staff only.’ I would tell them that I was the press secretary and they would go like: ‘Oh? Are you?’ I often had to get someone to validate that I was the press secretary in order to be allowed into the building. Because, you know, I am young – I was twenty-five when I got the job – and there are not many women who serve as press secretaries, let alone women of colour.

At this one event, when we were going back inside after an outdoor address, I heard somebody yelling: ‘Ma’am! Ma’am! Step to the side! Step to the side!’ Next thing I know, a police officer runs up to me and grabs my arm, pulling me out of the entourage and to the side. Then everybody stops and one event person says: ‘This is the national press secretary, what are you doing?’ Then the officer takes his hand off me and says: ‘Oh, I did not know.’ There was no other reason for that officer to attempt to yank me out of the entourage except that I was a black girl. It is discouraging to constantly be reminded of the fact that some folks do not think that you belong where you are. It is a constant reminder that even though we have made strides in the United States, there are still some strides that we have to make in terms of race relations. There is still a long way for us to go.

So, how to do more and get further?

I think it is important for folks to continue to show up. If I would have taken my proverbial ball and gone home that day I got yanked out of the entourage, or on all the days that I got denied entry into an event, or on all the days that people told me that I am only where I am because I am black… If we let such things stop us, then we do not make any progress. So, whether you are a young person, a woman or a person of colour: you have to continue to show up. It is one of the most powerful things we can do. And when we show up, we have to do well. That is how we open the door for other people to come in behind us and that is how we create institutional change.

„There are not many women who serve as press secretaries, let alone women of colour.“
Symone Sanders talks openly about police violence and racism © Lukas Rapp

Speaking of change, what is the most disruptive moment you have experienced in American politics so far?

The election of Donald Trump is definitely the most disruptive political moment that I have experienced in my short little life. It was disruptive because 1) nobody thought it would happen – not even Donald Trump – and 2) it shook so many people to the core. So many people who were never engaged in politics before are involved now! With the Women's March, for example, we saw thousands of people come out – not just in Washington, but all over the world! As a black woman in America, I wake up every day knowing that I am under attack, but lot of those people who came out that day, especially in the United States, were people who never felt threatened before. So, if the only thing that ever came out of the election of Donald Trump was that it shook people to their core, woke them up and galvanized them to action, that’s OK. It also created an opportunity for young people to step up the plate, to make their voices heard, to introduce their ideas and to act on those ideas. Even though I voted for Hillary Clinton and wanted her to win, I do not think that we would have had this unique situation had she been elected the President of the United States.

What do you say to the people who are of the opinion that accepting Donald Trump as the President and working with him would be more helpful than working against him?

It is true that there are some people who have to work with Donald Trump, but I am not one of them. I am a staunch member of the resistance. Donald Trump cannot do anything for me and I am fine with that. I do think we have to work within the confines of the system that we have, but we also have to continue to remind ourselves that this is not normal. Nothing that has happened over the last year and a half is normal. It is not helpful when folks try to normalize some of the abnormal things that Donald Trump is doing: the tweeting he does that is turning foreign policy on its head, the multiple trips to his business establishments, his children being in charge of foreign policy even though they know nothing about foreign policy and have not taken any courses. None of these things are normal. So, yes, he is the President and some people do have to work with him – members of Congress, advocacy groups, and so on – but there is also a place for activists and agitators at the moment. And the press! It is literally the press’s duty to hold Donald Trump accountable and remind everyone, every single step of the way, that what he is doing is not normal. We should not let him be comfortable.

“We should not let Donald Trump be comfortable.“

Do you consider yourself a disruptor?

Absolutely! I do think of myself as a disruptor. I think that you need to be disruptive when you are working in politics. At some level, regardless of what you are doing, you have to be willing to take a risk, to step out there and do something that has never been done before. I think of it as blazing trails and trail-blazers are inherently disruptive. While disruption has negative connotations, I think we need to own it a little bit more and embrace the spirit of disruption. Disruption is the only thing that has ever changed this world. If people had not been disruptors in America, we would still be sitting at segregated lunch counters. I would not be sitting here right now. Me being on television is an act of disruption. I am a bald black girl from a little place called Omaha talking about politics on CNN: That is an act of disruption in and of itself. So, disruption leads to necessary change. I heard today, in a session: ‘It is not hearts and minds that are moved by action, it is action that moves hearts and minds.’ I fully believe that, and I also believe that oftentimes that action is a little bit disruptive.

What would you want your legacy to be?

Like any other millennial, I want to change the world. I love bringing fresh millennial perspectives to policy conversations and I would love my legacy to be that of someone who brought other people to the table and filled out the conversation. I think success is when you open the doors for other people to come in. It is great to be the first, but it is even better when there are a hundred more people behind you that look like you and that are going leaps and bounds better than you are. I would feel like I did a great job if there were more people of colour going into communications and politics, more women of colour who were serving as press secretaries for presidential campaigns, and, definitely, if there were women of colour serving as the President of the United States of America.

“Like any other millenial, I want to change the world.“

You have made quite a few of comments that became news themselves. What is the most radical thing you ever said? And did you regret it?

I think there are two things. The first most radical thing that I have ever said was on the topic of Hillary Clinton’s outreach to young people of colour in African-American communities during the general elections. I said that visiting churches and black colleges was not going to cut it in 2016. I said that the Clinton campaign was running an outdated form of outreach and that they were not going to win this way. This was on the front page of The New York Times and, oh, it was so controversial! Everybody told me they could not believe I said that – although it sounds normal now: clearly, it is true. In that moment, I regretted saying that. I thought: maybe I should not have said that in the newspaper. Fast-forward months later, everybody is like: ‘You were very right about what you said in the New York Times.’

The second most radical thing I have ever said was on CNN during a discussion about the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. When they asked me who I was supporting and started listing names, I said something like: ‘Well, I am not supporting anybody. I actually do not think we need white people leading the Democratic party right now.’ Again, it was so controversial and people were like: ‘Why did you say that?’ To which I said: ‘Well, forty percent of the membership of the Committee are people of colour. I think we need a person of colour.’ Mind that the Democratic Party is supposed to be this umbrella party where everybody feels represented. After that comment on CNN, they took me off four different shows. Yet I never regretted it. I intentionally said those words, because we struggle talking about race in America.

How do you deal with criticism and people telling what you can and cannot say?

Well, first of all: I do not read the comments. People can be very rude in the comment sections. But I also try to be very cautious with my words and say nothing that I am not willing to stand behind, especially on national television. I also think that I am a CNN commentator because the network thinks my views are important to share and that, for that reason, I have to speak authentically from what I believe. So, even when I am saying something that is controversial, I am okay and I need to own it because it is authentically what I believe.

Do you have any tips for young people who want to become political leaders?

You literally can do everything you want to do. I know that that is such a cliché, but it is true. Just be intentional about it. Also, I think that a lot of times, especially as young women, we are too often taught to wait for permission. They tell us to just keep our heads down, keep working and wait for somebody to pick us and give us the opportunity. What I think is that we should stop telling young women that. We need to stop telling them to raise their hand and wait for someone to pick them and start telling them that they need to pick themselves. So, do not wait for someone to give you the opportunity. Take the future in your own hands. Reach out and have the conversation that connects you to your opportunity, rather than waiting for someone else to connect you to that opportunity.

The world is better when women are more involved. I absolutely stand by that. But if we wait for the boys to get us into the room, we may wait a long time and still not get in. So, bring yourself into the damn room. Just do it. Go after your goals, wholeheartedly. There will be a moment when future generations will look back and ask themselves what we as a generation have accomplished and we should be able to be proud of the answer to that question.

„If we wait for the boys to get us into the room, we may wait a long time and still not get in. So, bring yourself into the damn room.“

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