I dunno about you but my first thoughts upon waking tend to vacillate between the blurry, “oh crap what have I got to do today,” to the anxiety ridden, “how can I make MY life bigger, better and richer.” Every now and again, when I’m on some self-help meditation kick, it will also include a healthy affirmation or two, but the common theme of things pretty much stays the same…let’s talk bout ME! And I was fine with that, pretty normal stuff I thought, until I sat down and chatted with my buddy Heather McGhee and she told me that her first thought upon waking were, “ How can I make America a better place…?” Pause…. brow furrows trying to comprehend…. pause…. look up from camera in confusion….pause, as the sincerity of her comment sinks in…. and finally, one more pause, as brows lift to make room for eyes now wide in disbelief?! Ah yes, cough, the welfare of others. I had forgotten that outside of the self obsessed, I want to be skinnier, prettier, more popular and successful than you, world of fashion and entertainment there are people out there that are trying to do good things, not just for themselves but for mankind as well. People like Heather who don’t think about all the things they don’t have, but vie on the side of positivity and focus on how fortunate they are to be in a position to bring about change in this world; and Heather is doing just that. As president of the public policy organization, Demos, Heather is part of a think tank that tries to set a progressive agenda for the country by coming up with policy solutions for the bigger problems facing America today….and that’s the easy part! After years of research into any one issue, they then have the hard task of convincing the policy and campaign makers that said problem should be discussed, debated and reformed up on the high rollers of Capitol Hill. However before they can even ascend to such lofty heights they have to gather traction in the public domain and the best way to do that is thru TV and live talks.
As a strikingly beautiful, intimidatingly clever, poetically articulate, Yale and Berkley law graduate, Heather is the obvious choice for this challenge and thus she spends half of any one month on the road giving speeches in front of live audiences and appears weekly on television programs like, Meet the Press. While she claims that TV still makes her feel a little nervous, which after watching her I don’t believe for a minute, she is as happy as a guy or gal with a new Celine bag, standing up in front of a live audience. A concept I just cannot even begin to fathom. As one half of the band Love Taps I get so nervous before performing on stage that I find myself wishing for Armageddon to bloody well hurry up and rain down on us, or at the very least I pray to be hit by a car. This wishful thinking is most likely the product of the broken down record player that resides in my head, whose sweet soulful melody, “you can’t sing and shouldn’t be up here,” soothingly serenades me thru out any given performance. Otherwise known as lacking in confidence, this disability is something that Heather is clearly not afflicted with. This might be because she knows her subject so well, she is free to enjoy simply getting the message across, which is a good thing especially when, as was the case earlier this year, she finds herself taking meetings with Hilary Clinton, to discuss the chronic issue of student debt. Or it might be some thing to do with the fact that she grew up performing on stage all thru school, so it feels like her second home. Heather, you see, is part of a rare breed that has access to both sides of her brain. Not only is she a left hand side clever clogs sort of person, she is also in close talks with her creative right side. This symbiotic relationship came in great use this summer when she and her brother sold a dance piece to the Guggenheim about the time line of their lives. Not only did she perform in the choreographed piece, that played once a week during those hot steamy months, she also helped put the contract together that ensured proper labor standards for all the performers involved. (She did that before she even knew she was going to be in it.)
Having once been on the board of the Freelancers Union, she is well aware of the economic injustices many people in the creative field have to deal with. (Amen to that.)
Another aspect of Heathers job will see her often taking meetings at the White House. On the wall of her corner room office there is a photo of her hanging out with Michelle Obama. It was taken when she had been asked to moderate on a panel, for an event hosted by the first lady, casual, casual, and it happened to fall on the day of her birthday. The event came to an end and Michelle Obama took to the podium to thank every one. Whilst up there she also took the time to single out Heather and wish her a very happy birthday. Girl got some friends in high places. It’s good that Heather is getting familiar with the White House, getting a feel for the smooth white walls of the Oval office, perhaps even subconsciously wondering if a warmer shade of white might calm a feisty Putin or mellow a guarded Hu Jintao. While she often contemplates a future that might possibly include opening a writers’ retreat, far off the beaten track, there is another thought that has her thinking about running for office. Heather McGhee, President of the United States of America. Sounds about right to me. If what she has done so far is any indication of what kind of President she would be then, God bless America, she sure gosh darn, got my vote!
Who is Heather McGhee?
A lover and a fighter.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
First I wanted to be a vet, because I love animals. Then my elementary school principal told me that I would have to put a lot of animals to sleep as a vet, and that ended that. Then I wanted to be an actor, and a lawyer.
How did you get to be where you are?
By listening to my mother. She’s supernaturally wise. I sometimes think she’s just visiting this planet for a while to humor us before returning to her realm full of sages somewhere beyond the stars.
If you could go back in time and give your 16-year-old self some advice what would it be?
Hah. Well, when I was 16, I kissed my best guy friend for the first time, but didn’t want to date him. If I’m honest, it’s because he liked me too much for me to like him back. For most of my teens and twenties, I mistook the feeling of longing for the feeling of loving. Once I got over that — nearly twenty years later — I realized that he’s the love of my life. And now we’re living happily ever after. But it would have been nice to have skipped some of those frogs in between.
If the cupboard in your bedroom would lead you to another world what would your Narnia look like?
My Narnia would look like the lands in the fantasy books that I read insatiably as a kid, except that in all of those books, everyone was white, particularly all the heroes. In my Narnia, all the characters – from the fairies to the elves to the warrior queens – would reflect the cultures that actually populate the world. It would be like Queens… but in Middle Earth.
By day you are …. by night you are…?
By day, I am the president of a think tank that uses research and advocacy to advance public policies that will give everyone an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy. Demos has been behind new voting laws in a dozen states that allow you to register and vote on the same day, and we crafted the 2009 Credit CARD Act that has saved borrowers over $50 billion in fees alone. By night, it’s always been the same, ever since my youngest memories: I have to create something, whether it’s writing a novel or a screenplay or taking photographs or performing.
What was one of your favorite past projects?
This summer I performed in the rotunda at the Guggenheim Museum of Art, with my genius choreographer and artist brother, Hassan Christopher. My friends Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly created the piece, called “Timelining”. We worked with them for months to create a timeline of snapshots from our lives (think phrases like, “felt beautiful for the first time” and “traveled to Cuba”) and then played an elaborate movement-based game with our overlapping timelines on the floor of the rotunda. It’s an incredible piece of performance art, mesmerizing to watch and transporting to perform. I also got to geek out with Gerard and Kelly about labor rights in the contract when the Guggenheim bought “Timelining” for their permanent collection, ensuring a fair wage for performers in perpetuity.
What are you working on now. and what do you dream of happening in the future?
I’m working on an essay about the rise of white nationalism, which has been pushed to center stage in the persona of Donald Trump. He’s broadcasting a dystopian vision of immigration and stoking fear about the rising mutli-ethnic majority in the US. But I believe deeply that demographic change is not the unmaking of America — it’s the fulfillment of it. You wouldn’t know it because our politics are being strangled right now by those who are holding on, white knuckled, to a tiny idea of “we the people”, who are denying the beauty of what we can become. But the fact is that if there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, our diversity is its source. We’re the world’s most radical experiment in democracy: a nation of ancestral strangers with ties to every community on the globe, met here with the promise that out of many, we could become one. I believe our generation will be the one to see that promise fulfilled, and I can’t wait.
What song do you love that you keep secret cause its too embarrassing to say publicly you like it?
I grew up in the golden days of hip-hop in the ‘90s but have a white stepmother who loved country music. Not country-pop, not country-rock, but country. So there are a lot of dusty, unreconstructed country records that I absolutely love.
Which version of Jolene you do you prefer, White Stripes or Dolly Parton?
Are you a morning person or night person?
On the weekends, I’m basically nocturnal. But the work week demands an early bedtime.
Any advice for peeps just starting out?
Surround yourself with people you respect and who would lay down in traffic for you (or with you at a protest if that’s your thing).
Is there a quote or mantra you live by?
“After the party it’s the after party”.