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Old-school Nerdfighter and writer and activist and policy strategist (and former campaign manager for Julian Castro), Maya Rupert, took the time to talk with me about police brutality toward Black people, how she's feeling, how privilege works, and what we should be doing right now and also forever.

So You Want to Talk About Race:

This video originally had a section pointing people to the work of, but that has since been removed. Ultimately, much of this conversation moved beyond their suggestions and some questions have been raised about how significantly their suggestions would reduce police violence. We're no saying is necessarily bad, but that we didn't feel wholeheartedly comfortable pointing to them as a sole resource.

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 (00:00) to (02:00)

Good morning, John.  So, as you can tell by the headphones, the different camera angle, the length of the video, we're doing something a little bit different today.  I wanted to take an opportunity to talk to somebody who is a part of this community, watched her first vlogbrothers video in 2007, and also is just a really amazing person who does a lot of amazing work doing advocacy and activism and strategy and writing.  Most recently, she was the campaign manager for Julian Castro.  She is now working with Elizabeth Warren.  I think we're really lucky to have her as part of this community, so I want to take a little bit of time to talk to Maya Rupert.  Obviously it's a hard time, so Maya, I guess I'll just start out by asking how are you feeling right now?

Maya: This is a hard time.  This has been--

H: Yeah.

M: This has been a very hard time, even as I feel like I have been someone, I've worked with these faces a lot and I feel like I have a pretty high capacity for things are going badly, but you know, there's a light at the end of the tunnel and that kind of thing.  These last couple of weeks have hit me really hard and I know they're hitting a lot of people really hard and so, you know, I'm hanging in.  I am taking a lot of solace in the fact that I know that a lot of people are feeling this right now and are making community where they can and are being there for each other, which is always the thing that I can take solace in in these moments because that kind of, that gives me hope that there is somewhere we're going to go with this, but I mean, this is a tough time and this one really does feel different.

H: From another perspective inside of, you know, presidential politics at this point, which is, you know, a world of its own, I'm sure, can you give me sort of like, a little bit of a feeling for what it looks like from that perspective?

M: A lot of leaders right now are looking to, you know, kind of, what can we put energy behind and what can people sort of, be doing, and I think that's, that is helpful and I think that, you know, people want to feel right now like there is something to do and you know , ways that they can act.

 (02:00) to (04:00)

One of the things I'm always sort of struck by when we talk about, you know, police violence, is that people feel--there's the hopelessness that comes with it that I think is understandable, but then there's a piece of hopelessness that I've never quite been able to square because there's this sense of, well, what can we do?  There's only so much that can be done.  The thing is that a system that works like this, this was policy that makes it possible for, you know, police officers to act in dangerous ways and not be held accountable, so there are policy solutions to it, so that is, I think that's just, sometimes there's kind of a disconnect.  I feel like people aren't as conscious of that as they should be and so I'm really heartened by all the work that people are doing right now to point to the policy decisions-

H: Right.

M: --that are about, you know, what can happen, you know, national use of force, standards requiring cops to de-escalate before any kind of fatal force is used.  Some of these things that will have huge, huge impacts on these situations sort of moving forward, so I think that this, that we do have a moment from just a political standpoint, to, you know, this is when we need to be calling electeds, letting people know that this is a priority and making sure that at every level of government, local, state, federal, this is something that people are prioritizing and we're getting folks in office that are going to, you know, take this issue seriously.

H: You and I are about the same age, so we, you know, we're--we've lived through some history at this point and uh, but I'm wondering how you feel about um, the youths right now and if that is a source of any encouragement for you right now.

M: You know, I'm always taken by young people and you know, how people are activating in these moments of crisis.  I'm so excited to see how people are looking at this and demanding more and you know, I think--it's always a tough thing, I think sort of generationally, when we're doing movement work or organizing.

 (04:00) to (06:00)

I think that there is this, you know, as you--just by nature of how these things work, as you get older, there are more things that you have lived through, you've seen, you've seen things work so differently and so there is, you know, you're willing to put up with things that younger people aren't, you know? And I think--one thing I always try to encourage people: it's like as you become, sort of, the older people in the movement try to, you know, sort of have the humility to recognize that the movement is changing, and as you are the younger people in the movement have the grace to realize that the people who have kind of gone through it are, you know, they just have different formative experiences so I think I'm definitely at that point in the movement now where I'm asking for the grace and calling on my humility. But, um, what's I think really cool about that cycle is that it means you get to watch this new generation of people who look at this and say, you know, this far and no further, and we are not compromising here. And so I'm really excited that I'm getting to see this generation take this issue on because it is one that needs that kind of attention, that kind of demand, that kind of, sort of, unwillingness to compromise--

H: Right.

M: I'm seeing that. I'm seeing that a lot, I'm seeing that with the folks that are taking to the streets, and it's weird because there's an urgency to it and I really--I have a lot of faith in this generation of organizers to really make sure that as much as this moment feels different, that this actually can be different this time.

H: And I think that it's important that we have fuels that burn hot and we have fuels that burn long, um, I try to, like, keep that as an anchor in my head that both of those things are vital. Are there things that look like--sort of like practical, like you were talking about this a little bit earlier, like practical things that we are imagining paths forward, like, actual policies that we need to be working on? Like what does that look like?

 (06:00) to (08:00)

M: There is a campaign that literally just launched like two days ago-- and whenever this comes out it may be longer than that--

H: It's tw--three--three days ago, yeah.

M: It literally just launched: Campaign Zero launched this initiative that they're calling 8Can'tWait and I'm obsesed with it because it is, I feel like, exactly what was needed at this moment. People want policy solutions, they want to be able to advocate, and we also recognize, unfortunately, that we just don't have the leadership at the federal level for this to get taken seriously. And so understanding all of that what they did is put together a list of eight, sort of, demands that people, you know, we can call our local leaders; call your mayors: these are things that can happen at the local level. They do not require congressional action. These are actions that, because, I mean, I think the interesting thing and one of the tough things about regulating--policing in this country is that it is kind of patchwork it's so based on cities. The other side though, of that is that we can engage in this kind of advocacy and people can call mayors and you can go to their website and actually see based on your city which of these policies your city already has in place, which ones still need to happen, who you can call. What they've put together I think is, for a lot of people, exactly what we were hoping for, exactly what we were looking for. It's something tangible that people can be working toward, and it's something that really will make a difference. Seeing in the last couple days, um, Vice President Biden talking about this stuff a lot more, like these are the things that will make a difference: banning chokeholds, requiring a universal--national use of force so that it's not whatever a police officer wants to do in a particular moment. There's gotta be more accountability for how people respond in a moment and that's what this stuff is about. 

 (08:00) to (10:00)

I mean, honestly, more than anything this is the kind of issue that will change because there is political will.

H: Right.

M: And so people finally talking about this like it is a critical, central issue; I think so many times we talk about things like police violence or anything that, sort of, touches on racial justice we treat it like it's, you know, it, sort of, it gets cordoned off and treated like it's an issue for one community. And then something like this happens and we realize that that could not be further from the truth. And so people finally just coming together and demanding action on this I think is hugely hugely important in us actually being able to do something about it.

H: So you've worked inside of government a lot and you've seen politics functioning, you've seen government functioning. There are things that are broken about this but of course I think the response to that can't be, like, 'okay, well, let's abandon it, then. Let's continue to hobble it. Let's ignore it.' Like, it has to be 'fix it.' So, how do we fix it?

M: Well...I think a piece of it is--it's people. It's people getting involved, you know, it's people getting involved for the right reasons; the people right now who are having this be one of their formative political experiences: they are going to be politatively different types of leaders, because seeing something like this and having that be the thing that sparks 'I wanna make change.' So I think that, you know, folks that, you know, if you are called to want to do something better in a moment of crisis, like, go run, do something, get involved, because if that's the thing that sparks your interest in making things better you are one of the people we want making things better. I think, beyond that, there are things about our politics that are broken, because there is, I mean, to put it simply there is, sort of, a cost to entry, right?  Any time there is a system where if you have resources your problems get greater attention and if you don't have those resources your problems get deprioritized we are not going to have a system that is best equipped to deal with the issues that impact the most of us, because most of us do not--

H: Yeah.

M: --have those kinds of resources.

 (10:00) to (12:00)

We have to fix what is, I think, a baseline issue and that is that our politics are way too consumed by who can get money into the system and therefore have their issues looked at first. And there's obviously campaign financial forms, solutions kind of everywhere, but I think acknowledging that is a big part of what we need to do. I also think we have to step away from this idea that, you know, what I was kind of saying before, that, you know, when we talk about issues like racial justice that we are talking about, sort of, issues that only are relevant to communities of color, and as a result they can sort of be pushed off to the side. I think that one of the tough things about a moment like this is that we're talking about policing but we're also talking about a system of white supremecy and we're talking about, you know, sort of just a very fundamental difference in the ways that people interact in this society and how they feel protected by this society and it's based on race. And we have conditioned ourselves to think of that as such a divisive topic that we don't even want to, sort of, talk about it until we're confronted with something like this. And then we're almost surprised that we are not super good at talking about it. Like, we give ourselves no practice, and then the biggest things happen and people are awkward around it or people say the wrong thing or people, you know--and look, there are just some people that, obviously there are some people who do not care and are not worried that they don't know what to say in this moment but I'm not really thinking about them I'm more thinking about folks--

H: Sure.

M: --who genuinely are--see a moment like this, feel the helplessness, you know, white folks who maybe haven't been as conscience of some of this stuff and are having their eyes opened but then, kind of, don't know where to go or don't know where to start and they don't wanna say the wrong thing so they don't say anything.

 (12:00) to (14:00)

And that gets read differently, you know, so I think we've created this really weird quagmire around the way that we approach and talk about race: that we only talk about it in moments of crisis when the temperatures are already so high, and the only people who feel one hundred percent comfortable talking about it are people that, like, study it and write about it and talk about it, and people who don't care how they sound talking about it, and so basically it is people who are racist or who don't care about sounding racist talking to people who make this their career to talk about and that's our national conversation about race.

H: Right.

M: And so, I think some of it is just letting ourselves--challenging ourselves to have the awkward conversations. I think it goes back to this question of grace, I think people can come in good faith and, sort of, get grace in return, um, I think that people--I think that some of these conversations can get a lot more comfortable and a lot more common. It doesn't mean they're gonna get, I mean, it doesn't mean they're not gonna be awkward because they are, and they're gonna be tough and they're gonna be corageous converstaions you have to have with people but I do think that we have to approach it as this is--it's a necessity. We can't wait until it's this to engage in it at all, and I'm realizing more and more how much that still happens.

H: You know, because it is such an important and big thing in our society I think it is important to be curious about it, engage with it. Because I think that, like, you can't help if you're not at all informed, and you also can't be, like, 'okay the first step of me helping is to place the burden on someone else to help inform me.'

M: Right!

H: But, you know, like, you can't interface with anything if you don't know about it, and so I think that that learning process is really important, it should be a bigger part of our education system, but it should also be a part of what we do as, like, citizens, like it should be something that we feel, um, you know, is part of, you know--not even necessarily just an obligation but something that we should be passionate about.

M: What you just described is,

 (14:00) to (16:00)

I think, one of the tensions that lies at the core of this.

Yeah, one of them.
there are people who want to learn, and their immediate thought is oh, well, I’ll ask someone. We do that with a lot of things in life! So I’ll ask someone who seems to know about this. And then immediately that puts a burden on someone else. Sometimes that is a burden is a people are willing to take on, and sometimes it’s not. There’s no magic ingredient when that happens. And so I think a safe way to do it— people always say ‘well, Google! Well, read!’ and I think that’s great advice and I understand why that’s people’s advice but I also appreciate that it’s not like this stuff is super accessible if you genuinely are like ‘I need to start, you know, sort of from ground zero.’ I think there are books out that that try really really hard to do that.

There’s a book called “So You Want to Talk About Race” that I think is incredible! and does a really good job, I think, from a ‘let’s meet people where they are’ standpoint. But I don’t think every every book or article about racial justice starts from standpoint of ‘I’m going to meet you where you are regardless of your level of— [laughs].’ Theres’s a disconnect there that we’re saying we want people to learn and that means that there are many people who are curious and don’t quite know where to go with that. 


And so, again, it’s— I mean, I think it varies, but I also think that, you know, a big way to handle that is having diverse friend groups. Because if you hang with people and have, already have emotional ties and a trust level, and they know that your intentions are good, and you ask them questions, people are going to be more willing to take on that burden. They’re going to be more willing to give that grace. They’re going to be more understanding of ‘you didn’t get the vocabulary quite right but I knew where you were going.’ 


But I think that it’s sort of a chicken and the egg thing.


Because it’s way too easy for friend groups to be segregated— 


—especially for white folk.

 (16:00) to (18:00)

And then for people to kind of look around and say ‘oh, wait, I don’t have anyone I’m close to I can ask about this. Let me ask... this random person!’


[laugher]. And that’s when there’s the... So I mean it’s, it’s tough but I feel like it’s sort of— the answer really does seem to be community, of closer connection. Because we can do that stuff more if we’re already in community with each other.

One thing that we do every year here is that we have a census that we run. And, I usually—

I’ve taken the census before, yes.

Okay. Thank you.

And I usually analyse it before now but haven’t. Because, uh, things got really this year.


We ask a question about race in that census. I think that you were probably aware, coming into this conversation, that that majority of the audience would be white folk. So thinking about that, like, and sort of like, introducing this topic maybe to people who have been really apprehensive about it or like, you know, really genuinely coming at it from a good place but feel... just, like, very anxious. ‘Cause, like, it’s a completely understandable thing to be anxious about.


You know, one thing that I see is, like, two bad reactions to the concept of privilege. One is like ‘I definitely don’t have privilege! I have all these hard things in my life and so that’s fake.’ And the second is like ‘I have privilege, I feel guilty about it, and I will then move through my life with guilt, but no, like, positive... anything on the other side of that. So it’s like ‘Oh, so I’ve been given this negative emotion and I will just carry it around and just do all my normal things.’ I am very resistant to the idea that what you have is something to feel ashamed of. Because I just thing that— I think that we’re all sort of like in the situation that we’re in. But I heard Baratunde Thurston say this week in a podcast that, “it’s not like everybody goes around and says to Superman, like ‘stop using your power!’ They say ‘use your power for good stuff.’

 (18:00) to (20:00)


And so that really resonates with me. That this is about what you have and what you have isn’t about how you should feel about what you have. It’s about what you should do with what you have.


So with that in mind, what should we do with what we have?

I really, I love that framing. And I think that you’re right that— there is, there is like a knee-jerk when you recognize you have—


—privilege. Like a sense of— right, like you feel bad. You feel like ‘well then...’. And I think it’s really important to work through that because, you’re right. I think that the other side of that is: ‘If I feel guilty about something, I wanna hide it, I don’t want to—‘

Or be angry or lash out or, like—


Shame is a terrible emotion that no one wants to feel, yeah.

Absolutely. And so working through it and acknowledging it and saying it out loud. And I think that’s important. You know— it just, it sort of, in and of itself. ‘Cause I think you’re right, just having that shame it’s such a— it’s so destructive. But then, right! There are so many things that come from that. The recognition of white privilege in these conversations means that there are conversations that would be easier for you to have than for me to have.


No matter how many times how many times! I talk about race a lot, I write about race a lot, I tend to be a pretty effusive, friendly person. I try really hard to say “I’m still me when I’m talking about race!” But inevitably, as soon as I start talking about race, there is— there’s more defensiveness that I feel than—


—if I were just talking about, you know, something fun and, like, cats!

Yeah. [chuckles]

Or something that people just want to talk about[laughter]


And it happens no matter what. And I feel like I’ve gotten to a point where there’s no amount of, like, “I want to be super accessible about it” that is going to completely relieve that, because as soon as it’s coming from me—


—there is an assumption of “Okay, I’ve gotta say the right thing, and I don’t know as much so I can’t say anything” and everything else that comes along with that.

 (20:00) to (22:00)

Because of that I pay a bigger penalty for bringing that kind of stuff up. One of things that white privledge is incredibly useful at doing is helping to talk about some of the issues that people of color can't bring up. And so being the one to talk about this; taking a platform that you have and elevating work that's being done and voices and stories that wouldn't otherwise get that platform, acknowledging that there are ways that privledge contributed to an ability to build that platform and therefore will being the next folks up: that kind of stuff is so valuable and it's so important, and it's only gonna come if people feel comfortable saying 'yes I have privledge, that has helped me. I am going to make sure that I use that and help other people.' I mean, I think there's a lot tied up with it but this idea that if you acknowledge privledge it means you are somehow undermining yourself: 'you haven't worked hard' that it's like either or. Like you did it one thousand percent by yourself or privledge is the only reason you are here versus here.

H: Yeah.

M: And getting to--please! I feel like you have a thought on that.

H: My thought was that you're saying like if you're recognizing your privledge that you're somehow hurting yourself. Like you're saying 'okay I have privledge and so I'm gonna start succeeding less' or something.

M: Right.

H: And, like, I see people who think that. But, to me, it's like helping people is the best part of being successful.

M: Right.

H: It's like being able to, like, meet people who are amazing and be like 'people should pay attention to this great person.' And it's also, like, it's well-known psychologically that helping other people makes you happier than helping yourself. And so it's like 'but why wouldn't we do it?' And, like, of course our brains don't think that--

M: Right.

H: --but, like, that's how we react, you know. And there's this fairly famous study that, like, if you give somebody fifty bucks and you say 'spend it on yourself' or you say 'spend it on someone else' that at the end of the day, like, they would all prefer to spend it on themselves but at the end of the day they're happier when they spend it on someone else.

 (22:00) to (24:00)

M: Right. Right.

H: And so, like, being mindful and aware of that and, like--and also, like having had that experience a number of times I know it is true, um, even if it doesn't feel intuitive all the time.

M: Right.

H: So to me it's like 'oh, like, this is so wonderful that, like, I have an opportunity to use a power that I have.'

M: Right.

H: Because that's really what privledge is it's power, you know; should be thinking more about that--how to use that because, like, it makes me happier, and it makes the world better, and, like, those are the two things I want.

M: Privledge is that easy and clear I mean come on, like, it's true. And I also think, like, you know, I think it's important to acknowledge that people who don't have privledge in some ways have privledge in other places, right--

H: Yeah!

M: --like, I have an awful lot of privledge as a straight, cis person, right, like that is--and we have this sense of you're either privledged or you're not, like it's binary, right? And so in different settings I'm the one who can say 'wait a minute there's something I can bring up here' that, like, my queer friends couldn't. Or I can be the one to call out ableism because as an ablebodied person it's easier for me, right? So I think that acknowledging that around race conversations, yes, I'm gonna rely a lot more on my friends--my white friends who want to act in allyship and bring this stuff up when I can't, but there are gonna be rooms where I absolutely have the ability to do it and so I also think that helps us sometimes because, again, we conceptualize it as 'you have it or you don't.' And that makes it way too easy to buy into this model of 'somehow it makes me less than' or, you know, that--it really is situational, and, like, I think it's important that we talk about it that way.

 (24:00) to (26:00)

You can't over DM, you can't over phone calls, and so that, I think is so much what we say when there's a sense of like, go get your people.  Like, the goal there is not go (?~24:13) on social media your people.  The idea--

(both laugh)

I--and I think, look, again, I get it, even from a standpoint that has nothing to do with external validation.  It feels good to have somebody say something awful and you to slam the door in their face.  There is something satisfying about that, but it's not helpful, and I think that's one of the tough things to remember about being an ally is that, on some level, it sucks.  Like, it's not supposed to be easy.  It's doing a lot of hard work.  It feels good because you know you're doing the right thing, not because in a moment, it's satisfying.  It, your actions are supposed to do the stuff that makes you a little uncomfortable and that gives an inch and lets that person come in enough and then say, look, I get it, and here's how I got here, because that's the conversation that stays with them, and so I only--I've been really, really excited every time I see that kind of stuff, 'cause I know that the real work has to happen behind the closed doors and it doesn't get the likes and it doesn't get the retweets but it actually might be the thing that stops someone from saying it the next time or that has someone think twice the next time they're in a situation.

H: Well, this has been a really wonderful conversation.  I appreciate you doing it.  Also, thanks for chatting with me offline a bit this morning.  So it was great to talk with you.  What was your first vlogbrothers video?

M: I saw the Harry Potter song.

H: Oh, Deathly Hallows?

M: Yeah.

H: Wow.  

M: Yes.

H: Wow!  

M: Yes.

H: So you've been a nerd the whole time.  I see what's up.  

M: I really have been.  So it was so funny, too, because I remember, I saw it, because it was featured on YouTube's--

H: Yeah.

M: Like, home page.  I was not like, a YouTuber.  I did not know about this whole community.  I saw this, I was like--

H: Well, it was 2007.  No one did.

M: Thank you.  Thank you for that, because we're gonna now pretend like I definitely know so much about YouTube.  

 (26:00) to (28:00)

H: Now you're really in.

M: (?~26:09) it.  You know, okay, I remember it was there and I like, sent it to my sister and then I just saw that like, you guys were doing this thing and I have a sister I'm very close to, and so I'm always really excited when siblings are doing stuff together.  I remember just going back and just--I was so, and have remained, and this is very genuinely true, I have remained so impressed by this community that has been built because so much of what we were just talking about is people seeking out community and trying to have some grace and trying to have some humility.  It is not always that--that doesn't always have a very natural home online, and I really saw it here, you know, like, I don't myself sort of make videos or anything, but I remember there was a period of time when people would make their own videos and share them, and I felt this very, like, you all had cultivated and brought together a group of people who genuinely seemed to want to just do good things together, and I've loved that.  I've loved the idea of the projects and like, there's a charity now because people, you know what I mean?  Like, that--

H: Yeah.

M: That is so--I've just been so consistently warmed by that and have just always been a big fan, so I'm so grateful that you, that you reached out and I'm so happy to have this conversation.

H: Well, thank you so much and I'm so grateful that you're doing all of the work you're doing.  I'm grateful you're a part of this community, but also other communities and all the stuff you're doing to help make the world a bit of a better place.  Where can people find you?

M: I'm on Twitter.  I'm--

H: Oh no!  

M: I'm--my (?~
27:39) on Twitter, I think I'm the same on Facebook.

H: So you're not on TikTok yet?

M: I had interns teach me TikTok.  

H: Oh, okay.

M: I did one.  I wish we had saved the outtakes because it was me just consistently not understanding the vehicle at all.  

H: Oh my God.  

M: Yeah, this is--I feel like my social media is limited, but I often am, yeah, on Twitter.

 (28:00) to (30:00)

H: Well, thank you so much, Maya.

M: John, I'll see you on Tuesday.


M: That was awesome.

H: If you want to check out So You Wanna Talk About Race, the book she was talking about, that's linked in the description.  Also,, the number 8, can't wait dot org.  It's a fantastic resource, makes it easy to understand how to start or continue work in advocacy, trying to get some things changed.

 (30:00) to (31:25)