Waikinya Clanton’s Mississippi: The Land of Opportunity

Audio Description

While a rise through national politics is tempting, for Waikinya Clanton going back home to be of service in Mississippi is the ultimate reward.


This transcript has been generated by an A.I. tool. Please excuse any typos.

00:00 - 00:19

And it wasn't a light decision that I came to move back. I mean, once you had a bite of the DC apple is hardly letting loose. You know, it's juicy, you know, it's juicy and is full of fiber. But sometimes you have to, you know, put your own ambitions to the side to go do something greater. And so I felt like this was a part of my calling to go home and do something greater.

00:26 - 00:32

This is Changing the Trajectory. I'm James Seth Thompson, Bernstein’s Head of Diverse and Multicultural Wealth segments.

00:32 - 01:14

And I’m Maci Philitas, the emerging wealth strategist here at Bernstein. Thanks for joining us. All right, folks, it's Black History Month and we are thrilled to feature a dynamic woman who personifies servant leadership. Waikinya Clanton is a Mississippi native and a graduate of Tougaloo College. While we met way back when, at the beginning of our careers, she is now the executive director of Mississippi's Southern Poverty Law Center, where she partners with organizations throughout the region to eradicate racial and social injustice. Previously, Waikinya served as a senior advisor to the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

01:14 - 01:31

In December, The Root named Waikinya Number 42 on the 2022 list of the 100 most influential Black Americans. Our friend Waikinya is listed right there alongside Michelle Obama, Rihanna, Serena Williams and Stacey Abrams. Waikinya, thanks for joining us today for our show.

01:31 - 01:35

Thanks so much, James. Thanks so much, Maisie. This is amazing to be here with you all today.

01:36 - 01:57

So Waikinya, I've had the pleasure of watching your inspiring rise not only through national politics, but now I get to witness the impact you're making through the SPLC. Can you start by telling us and our listeners who are not familiar with your organization about the SPLC and its overall mission?

01:58 - 02:46

Thanks so much for that, Maci. At the Southern Poverty Law Center. We are committed to being a catalyst for racial justice in the Deep South and beyond. We do that by really focusing in on our four pillars of work, which involve eradicating poverty, decarcerating and decriminalizing black and brown people, strengthening democracy by protecting the right to vote and dismantling systems of white supremacy and white nationalism. So what that looks like for us on a daily is making sure that we are in deep connection with community. It looks like being intentional about the way that we show up within those communities, making sure that we are building power from the ground up so that people are equipped and they are empowered to effectuate change locally.

02:46 - 03:17

What I find most inspiring about your journey is the intentionality behind leaving a thriving career in national politics in 2021 to, as the kids say, I'm taking my skill set back home to Mississippi to do the important work there. You were chosen for the 100 list because of your trailblazing drive and inspiring leadership work with the SPLC, especially when it came to handling Jackson's water crisis.

03:17 - 03:59

I still have chills from your speech that you gave at the historic Apollo Theater, and you said the decision to forgo doing work on behalf of people who would never know my name and return home to do the work of the people who share my name. It's personal. And I took your speech personally for myriad reasons, which we’ve spoken about. But can you expand on that for us? Why did you choose to go back to Mississippi and why was the decision to leave the Southern Poverty Law Center so personal for you? But beyond that, why should others take it personally as well?

03:59 - 04:31

When I was writing this speech, you know, it was, you know, something that I wanted to be intentional about how I elevated the issues that we were dealing with here in Mississippi. Folks, often time kind of paint us with a broad brush. You know, it's always largely negative. And though this was an extremely difficult situation for more than 180,000 residents to be placed in Mississippi, it was time that the world understood exactly how personal this was.

04:31 - 05:03

Right. Like, we are beyond a stereotype. We are a place in crisis. And we sit here in the United States of America. And so, you know, people to your point, people will always, you know, say, well, how did you go from D.C. back to Mississippi? Like is like, you know, those are two very different worlds. And you're you're absolutely right. But I was always taught that the world is my oyster. And so, you know, like, no matter where I am, my job, my responsibility is to operate in my purpose. And my purpose is. Always been so uniquely focused in people.

05:03 - 05:30

Right. When I moved back, I had no idea that we were going to be in a state of crisis, particularly for this extended amount of time, but gratefully by the grace of God. You know, I feel like every test is a part of your testimony. You know, just being able to be somewhere engaging in the kind of like skill sets and knowledge and build a level of endurance and tenacity that it takes to really be in constant response.

05:30 - 05:54

Right. In a way that you can also leverage all your resources. You know, the Southern Poverty Law Center is known for the fact that we are a resourceful organization. And so we didn't take that lightly. We saw that as a part of our responsibility to be able to to reach outward and inward, to be able to kind of pool our resources and get it to where it was most needed, which was on the ground.

05:54 - 06:26

And so moving back to Mississippi, it was never my intent. First of all, when I lived to speak on, you know, was really designed to be a part of the journey in a sense, where you sometimes you have to leave home to get what you need to bring back home. And so that's how I saw it. And it wasn't a light decision that I came to that to move back. I mean, once you’ve had a bite of that DC apple it’s hard to let it loose. You know, it's juicy, you know, it's juicy and is full of fiber. But sometimes you have to, you know, put your own ambitions to the side to go do something greater.

06:26 - 06:57

And so I felt like this was a part of my calling to go home and do something greater, you know? And I could not have imagined on any given day that this would have been the thing, because I've done so much work prior to this. Right. But I think it's because there was the selflessness act of going back home and returning back home in hopes that I would inspire other people to do that. You know, because D.C. is a place that is very attractive to a lot of young, young movers and shakers. But what are you really moving and shaking if you can't move and shake for your own home?

06:57 - 07:37

You know, Maci referenced the work and leadership with the water crisis in Jackson. And so your return to your hometown was met with this catastrophic challenge. But many people mistakenly see this as only a water issue. But the crisis itself reverberates far and wide. So when you think about what really happened, how you and your organization needed to show up and stand up to really address this, can you share some additional insight for our listeners to help them better understand the wider impact on Jackson and its surrounding areas?

07:37 - 08:25

Thanks so much, James. You know, in Mississippi, one in five people live in extreme poverty. The largest epicenter for jobs is in the capital city. And when the water crisis hit, it didn't just hit households, it hit businesses, it hit schools, it churches. And so, you know, the economic impacts of it wasn't just like this kind of like surface level, you know, catastrophe, it hit people, you know, in the Mississippi Delta, it people in Southwest, because these are people who are commuting daily from these ends of the state into the capital city to try to, you know, make ends meet, because this is where all of the wealth is being generated, is generated out of the capital city.

08:25 - 08:51

And when you have a water crisis, restaurants can't open you know, teachers can't teach, schools can't function. You know, churches can't function. And so it was it was our form of a pandemic on top of a pandemic, because imagine we're still in the COVID 19 pandemic, and Mississippi has been hit extremely hard by that pandemic. And then to have that kind of be, you know, layered with this this epidemic, if you will.

08:52 - 09:23

It was a lot it was a lot for a lot of people. So people were trying to figure out, you know, how they could make up that income. You know, our service industry was extremely here. We're the hospitality state. You know, one thing we do is food. We do food real well in Mississippi. And so but so many people were displaced because of that. Parents who are already working low wage jobs and trying to figure out childcare and education on top of trying to figure out how to get to work. All of those things were impacted by this.

09:23 - 09:53

You had people who are unable to take their medicine, seniors who cannot take their medicine because we're rationing water. So people were having to make decisions about, you know, to bathe today, try to hand wash these kids clothes. Right. Or your own clothes to try to make it. And so it was just it was an unbelievable thing to witness. And, you know, for me, it was just a deeper motivation to just kind of double down on that effort.

09:53 - 10:40

So, you know, I began reaching out to, you know, friends in D.C. like, hey, who wants to help? We. Have a way to help. Here's a link to the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition. Like, We need all hands on deck. We were buying like two and 300 cases of water at a time. You're thinking about people who have children, multiple children, particularly infants, babies who need special water. Right? They can't just drink regular water. They had to have, you know, purified water. And, you know, so we were trying to source all of these different types of water. Members of my team who are placed throughout the state bringing water from their communities, like going to the Sam's going to Dollar General wherever we could get water from and bringing it into Jackson. That's how dire of a situation we were dealing with.

10:40 - 11:03

And we had tried to buy things from like forklifts to, you know, you had you think about all the things that you need to run a crisis operation, particularly when you're dealing with something as extreme as water. Right. That water is your lifeblood. Your body's 70% water. You don't have water. You can't live. You can live without food. You can't live without water. And so those are the types of things that we were talking about.

11:03 - 12:01

And then when we did get the system kind of started to kind of come back, you know, it didn't reach South Jackson, It didn't reach south west Jackson. You know, it was hitting North Jackson phase because that's where the more affluent folks in Jackson were living. And so we were still dealing with that. So when we had our governor prematurely say the water crisis is over, for who was the question, you know, for who is it over? You know, you're in the governor's mansion, you're going to get water. The National Guard is going to bring you water. They're going to set a porta potty outside of the governor's mansion if they need to. You're going to be taking care of the people here in Jackson that were not afforded that same opportunity. You're talking to people who couldn't even cook. They couldn't cook, you know, food. And you are already dealing with folks who are food insecure, transportation insecure. You know, wealth is not equally distributed in Mississippi. So you're dealing with so many challenges on top of just trying to live in the middle of crisis.

12:01 - 12:32

I really appreciate that perspective. I think the last time we all spoke, we were just kind of talking about the external appearance of how people came to the rescue and bring in cases of water right now. Wasn't that easy to solve. That's, you know, the wide impact of the unavailability of water I thought was important for you to share and obviously the great work you and the organization have done. But you're right, people can't survive without water at all.

12:32 - 13:22

That also became a sanitation issue, right? You can't even flush your toilet. It's not safe to do any of these things. You can't wash your clothes. So it was just an overwhelming experience for so many people. And I think like one of the most heart wrenching stories was one that I heard of a mother. She was a mother of six and her newest born had a heart, had a heart murmur. I think our hole in this heart horror story brought tears to my eyes about how she had to try to, you know, go out and source water in just to be able to take care of her newborn baby. Those are the types of stories we were dealing with personally when I was delivering water to one of the local churches in the area that was kind of like a distribution center.

13:22 - 13:55

And this is when the schools where I had just come back, like they were just saying, okay, you can the kids can start coming back to school. And as a little boy, he was probably about seven or eight years old and his clothes were visibly stained. And it was the look in his face as he because his mom had another baby in her arm and he's seven or eight. Lifting a case of water to put it in the back of their truck that. That image is stuck with me. It will not go away.

13:56 - 14:31

It was so heartbreaking because I'm like, I'm pretty sure this child probably also doesn't have food today because so many children, when I talk about 20% of people in Mississippi living in poverty, extreme poverty, a third of those people are children. And so to see this young boy having to stone like such extreme responsibility. Right it. No child in America. No child, period, should have to live under those conditions and have to assume that level of responsibility.

14:31 - 15:13

Wow. That is heart wrenching. It speaks to that systemic injustice that you're referencing that persists in the Deep South. I mean, when you and I have spoken about Mississippi, I mean, it's it's unbelievable that that level of poverty exists in the United States. Right. One of the wealthiest countries on the planet. And so you've reminded us also that what happens to one of us happens to all of us. We all have a role to play. We should all take this personally. And and because these issues that this little boy experiences are also our issues, right? He is a child of our community.

15:13 - 15:29

So what would you like for our listeners to really grasp about this notion? When you say you take this personally and you urge others to take it personally, what exactly is it that you're trying to get them to process and understand?

15:29 - 16:16

Well, Macy, I think you said it. When tragedy and crises happens to one of us, it happens to all of us. We are all just one step away, one generation away from this harsh reality that so many of us still have to face. When you are black in a place like Mississippi, I don't care how well well-to-do do you? I don't care how many labels you're wearing when you walk into a hospital system in a place like Mississippi, They don't see any of that. They don't care what you wrote on your forums. When you check in about where you work or what you do, they care that you're black. And you may or may not get optimal care because of that.

16:16 - 16:43

Right, Depending on who you're saying. If you don't have a primary care physician, you're at their will. And so, you know, those are the types of things that we face. When I was in a car accident and had to go to an emergency room, they didn't care. They you know, I'm sitting there with a Gucci bag or did you know that I'm a well-dressed woman? They just saw what they chose to see. Right. Which was someone who they didn't deem deserving of the best of care.

16:43 - 17:25

And when you compare that to where we are seeing in experiencing in Mississippi, it is exactly that. It is that people who have power making decisions about who they think deserves the quality of life, who they think deserve access to capital, who they think deserve to have access to clean, drinkable water. It's about people determining winners and losers in life. This is not a game for us. This is our lives. And we have people who still are very much concentrated in the ideals of the Old South and that they believe that the Confederate war is still happening is not done. And it's been said only the right has been asked and answered in so many areas.

17:25 - 17:54

But as long as you have people who are in positions of power, who can misuse that power, who can keep other people disenfranchised from a reasonable quality lifestyle, then you're going to have these issues of determining who gets access to clean water. You're going to have issues about who gets access to education, who gets access to care, who gets access to, you know, resources and finances and all of these other things to get access to clean air. We're going to still have those issues.

17:54 - 18:49

And so as I think about, you know, what we would want your listeners and viewers to kind of internalize and take back is how can I help change this? Right? You don't have to be from Mississippi to care about Mississippi, because Mississippi today can be Maine. Tomorrow, it can be Maryland, tomorrow, it can be D.C., New York, California. You know, it can be any of those places that you get the wrong people in power. And so we have to be really diligent about protecting when we talk about strengthening and protecting democracy is not just about voting. Right. Your life is a part of the democratic process. And so we have an obligation to protect. And whether you're black or not, you should care about what happens to black people, because what happens to black people impacts and influences what happens to you. Right. And I think that's the clarion call that other people should really pay close attention to.

18:50 - 19:38

We saw what is happening to women's rights in this country, right? You might not be black, but you're a woman and your rights are under attack. So when black people's rights are under attack, you should care about that, too, because it's just the precedent for how your life can be impacted as well. And so I want people to really think about that, like remove the racial lens of it, if you will, and just speak to the humanity of the situation. No human should have to be subjected to this type of life is not something that we should be. You know, carrying the banner for, you know, that's not a private thing for us to to admonish as people, as humans, We should have a deeper concern and consideration for the least of these because it is just that important. And then we've been calling to do that.

19:38 - 20:09

There's a parallel between the work Maci and I do at a global wealth manager and your work and a spouse's work focus on economic advocacy, access and justice. And I'd say for the last three years, the last three seasons, we we often use our episode in Black History Month to really have conversations. Kind of level sets the inadequacies, the injustices.

20:09 - 20:47

For the sake of this conversation, we can refer to the predatory practices that exist, and a lot of people get it twisted. We work with a lot of successful people who have access to more wealth and resources than the average person. But when you put the color lens back on, when you start to see the discrepancies that exist for people who look like us, then you see the injustice. And even in our roles, we have to close these access gaps of information and equity, even though we are working with really, really, really successful people.

20:47 - 21:04

Talk a little bit about the predatory practices, about the injustices that you and SPLC is looking to do and address to create more economic equality through economic equity.

21:05 - 21:38

Well, James, you know, the biggest predatory practices that we are actively involved in is the practice against land and the taking of land, the crises that we have in the state that involves housing in low and middle income areas and also health care. What we're doing in Mississippi as relates to Medicaid expansion and Medicaid expansion, that's a predatory practice, right, because it involves keeping people impoverished.

21:38 - 22:25

Right. So in Mississippi, particularly as it relates to the health care system, our governor refuses to expand access to care. We've set down a number of different hospitals throughout this state, particularly in rural areas. He refuses to accept the billions of dollars that the federal government is offering to the state of Mississippi to help us get healthier people in our state so that we can have a healthier workforce, a healthier education system. You know, all of those various social determinants of health are interconnected. And that's just one is an egregious act against people of color, particularly, and other marginalized people, because it's not just people of color who suffer from these systems. It's also poor people in general who suffer from these systems.

22:25 - 23:04

When you think about what's happening to black farmers in Mississippi, as well as our native land owners, what has happened to them over the history of this country? You know, that's a predatory practice because you are taking a very valuable asset land away from people and you're using it for your own gain. You know, and we've seen it happen in so many instances. We've seen the improper and unfair taxes have been levied against black owned land and black communities. You know, you can get a parcel of land, a smaller parcel of land, and the black community will bring you more in taxes. Then a brand new development, you know, and a white community.

23:04 - 23:39

We see those things happening. We saw it during COVID where our governor sent money back for housing securities back to the federal government and then evicted people. We've seen that. We've seen that happen. We've seen them take money from the town of money and give it to millionaires. You know, and Hall of Famers, we've seen all of these things. Habit of funnels are helping people rise out of poverty. Right. And work towards wealth generation. We've seen them misuse those things and strip those things away from communities who need them.

23:39 - 24:05

Right. To kind of keep this cyclical nature of poverty. Because in order for capitalism to take its place, right, you have to have consumers and people who are reliant on a system that has never been designed for them to be successful. And so we see that happening in Mississippi and we see how they place and concentrate poor people into communities and give them less access to resources, but they'll pile up your community.

24:05 - 24:52

Wait, you know, predatory lending services, right? They'll license those people to be situated in poor communities because that's the only access that they want them to have, which is a system that forces them further into debt. Right? Never in a situation where they can acquire, you know, the house that they. Been living in and renting for however many decades, because that's what happens, is that you have these poor people who can't afford and can't qualify to purchase homes, and so they end up renting homes from somebody for 20 and 30 years. And that becomes a cycle because we know for black people in particular that the way to wealth is through home ownership and land. Right. And those things have been taken away from us. We haven't been given fair compensation for our lands or any of those things. And that's because of a system that has been designed to keep us at the bottom.

24:53 - 25:39

Yeah. The way to create this generational wealth and legacy is through ownership. And I think you touched on it specifically for us and other marginalized groups from Native Americans Africa, like however you think about it, the path to ownership, as you mentioned, was land, and the ownership of land was intended to create income. And in order to create that wealth journey, you need income. So it's really hard for those in our community to create that legacy because in many instances the income opportunity has been cut because we don't have access to the things that we've previously owned that is intended to create that.

25:39 - 26:02

So I think it's just important for people to see the thread that exists. Like these conversations about these discrepancies don't exist on their own. They're interwoven and they're interconnected. And the challenge of one area creates the lack of opportunities for growth, for growth and others. I really appreciate your perspective on that for sure.

26:02 - 26:32

Particularly when you think about black farmers. 90% of their property was taken away from them. We're talking about upwards of $350 billion worth of asset that was stripped away from black farmers. You're talking about 16 million acres of land that we lost that was stripped away from black families for generations. When you think about native tribes, you're talking about more than 270 acres of land that was taken away from them, and that's 10% of U.S. land.

26:32 - 27:08

So, you know, when you talk about wealth generation, you talk about extreme poverty. These two groups in particular have been pushed further down the wealth spectrum than any other marginalized group of people, simply because of their land being taken away from them. Right. This is a country that has given other people land where they're from, but they won't they have not even allowed it to keep the land that we sustain due to our trauma. So, you know, that's something that they think about when you think about the quote unquote, greatest nation on earth and whether or not we're really truly as great as we say we are.

27:08 - 27:41

Wow. Yeah. And look, I think there's an opportunity, especially in the spirit of this episode, to make sure that we are part of the ecosystem, to really be intentionally focused on addressing these things. Like there are very intentional things we can do. Like the SPLC is very mission driven and you guys are focused on restoring power back into the hands, the people. But that also requires the people to recognize that we are the ecosystem that really needs to make that happen.

27:41 - 28:22

So you and your great organization can have thoughts and ideas and programs, but we have to execute on some of that stuff and make sure that the intel we get, we share and retain, right? Because it's the transfer of that intelligence that allows us to build the legacies, the families, the communities and things that we seek to do and just always want to make sure we put that out there. Because a lot of times in Black History Month, we focus on the things that have kept us, but we can also focus on the things that grow us by. And I think the SPLC and the work you're doing focuses a lot of your effort and energy on that.

28:22 - 28:55

Yeah, and actually, James, that brings me to what I was thinking through. This is. You know what, Kenya? Where is the light in all of this? Where are the. Areas and pockets of hope. We all know that light is more powerful than darkness and it drives out darkness. So where is the light in this and how can our listeners and even us, you know, individually help you and your organization spread that light and amplify that light?

28:55 - 29:51

Well, mostly the light lies within the resilience and the persistence and the will of the people. That is where light has always resided. I'm just so deeply connected to this. When you think about the resilience of the people of Mississippi, I mean, this is not our first crisis. We deal with the crises of racism every single day in our state, and the people are just resilient. Yeah, we won't give up. We won't lose hope. We won't lose faith. But I think there's also something to be said about the interest that is now forming around Mississippi. You know, people want to know how they can help. They're actively seeking out opportunities where they can partner or mission align around the work. And that's why we're here. That's why I feel Z is here. We are here to be kind of serve as a conduit for a lot of that matchmaking, if you will, that I think needs to take place.

29:51 - 30:30

You know, when you think about just the amount of influence we can just have with young people, right? They are the future. They're the beer. They're the now. They're not just a feature. They are the now. And they are the bears and keepers and shares of information. And so I think building the type of intentionality with them, being able to drum up the interest and leverage their genius now is what's required. It's adding to the constantly spread the light right here and make sure that it can go as far as it can reach. And I see that as the greatest opportunity that we have, because that's what's needed. That's what's required.

30:30 - 30:50

Yeah. And, you know, since this is so personal for you and quite frankly, it's personal for me, too. What is your biggest hope and dream for Mississippi, for the state at large, and then also for, you know, the communities that you touch and impact?

30:50 - 31:15

Oh, that's such a good question. My hope and dream for Mississippi is that she rises to become this beautiful blossoming flower that she really is. You know, we call ourselves the Magnolia State, and that's because of the magnolia tree. And we like to say that the people of Mississippi are as strong as the tree and mighty as the tree and as beautiful as the flower.

31:15 - 32:02

And my hope is that we can really rise and actualize that in every facet of who we are, that Mississippi becomes a place where people don't have to leave in order to succeed. You know, it becomes a place where you can call it home and mean it with pride and, you know, really be able to rest and what it really means to be at home in a place where you don't have to feel like you have to move around and travel in order to get experiences and that you can get those experiences right here and you can welcome other people into this. Like Mississippi is not a place to be here, right? To be honest, is is a place that I is us to double down on our intentionality there, to spread more of the love that we want to see in the place that that we have been called to be in.

32:03 - 32:38

So that is my hope for Mississippi. And I know we're we're coming close to it. We're working every day to achieve it. It is through strategic partnership and coalition building that we can see a lot of our work coming into reality. And so we're going to keep forward and that we're going to remain hopeful. We're going to keep challenging systems that don't want to change for the good and make them become so we're not going to let up. I think that's the most important thing. We didn't get to where we are by giving in. We get to where we are by standing up and staying vigilant, and we're going to continue on in that same pain.

32:38 - 33:06

That was good. Like homage to Mississippi. I do. As we close out here, I just want to thank you for your work and your trek back home from D.C.. Very fond of the work the SPLC is doing. And I think your leadership is much needed and needs to and will certainly be replicated in the work that we see in other spaces and places around the country, Waikinya.

33:06 - 33:56

I just want to say you really are the embodiment of servant leadership. You know, we talk about brain drain and taking talents to other cities and going there to prosper but never coming back home. And I always believe that leaders go first. And you have demonstrated that leadership and the importance of returning home by actually doing it. And I am so excited. Had to see generations of people who are inspired by you and that courageous move and see the impact that they make on the communities that they come from because they will have gone elsewhere to get the skills and then they will have brought them back home to to really make an impact. So thank you for joining us and and thank you for the incredible work that you're doing.

33:56 - 33:58

Thank you so much, Maci. Thank you so much, James.

33:59 - 34:18

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