Is Love the Most Transformative Political Act?
Regina de Heer: What does the quote, "Love your neighbor as thyself," mean to you?
Sophia: Wait, let me think about it first.
Skye: I guess that quote is a Christian quote.
Sophia: If you put good energy into the world, you're going to get it back.
Esme: Having empathy for the people around you. I didn't grow up religious or anything but I guess it just means treat people with compassion, right? If you approach every interaction with an open heart, maybe you can feel a little bit of what they're going through.
Skye: I guess people who don't really love themselves as much tend to treat others the same way they treat themselves, poorly.
Regina: What does loving yourself mean?
Sophia: Cherishing the temple you're stuck with. Practicing self-care.
Regina: What does it mean for the communal good?
Emily: A society where everyone is only looking out for yourself is bound to fail, so for the collective good, we can all look out for each other a little bit more and be a little bit more pro-social.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. The Golden Rule, it's one of the most widely known, maybe widely misunderstood tenets of many faith traditions. It's also one that guided the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Tonight on the eve of MLK Day, we're going to unpack the big ideas embedded in those little words, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Let me say the national celebration of King's legacy has rarely felt so loaded with meaning as it does to me this week.
Last year, 19 states passed dozens of new laws restricting access to the vote. The Brennan Center says that's more than any year since it's been tracking voting bills. Some say it's the most significant constriction of democracy we've seen since the Civil Rights Movement, and there are more bills coming. Later in the show, we'll meet one of the college students from Arizona who are now on a second hunger strike, alongside a group of faith leaders, and they're demanding passage of new federal legislation to protect the right to vote.
Right now, I am joined by the Reverend Dr. Jacqui Lewis, pastor of Middle Church here in New York. She's been among the faith leaders advocating for voting rights legislation and she's also built her whole ministry around the idea that love of both thyself and thy neighbor is the necessary first act of revolution. She's the author of a new book called Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World. Reverend Lewis, thanks so much for joining us.
Rev. Jacqueline Lewis: Hi. I'm so glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Kai: I suppose we need to start by defining what you mean by this word love. In your book, you start off by sharing the idea of Ubuntu which comes from the Zulu in Southern Africa. What is Ubuntu?
Rev. Lewis: Ubuntu is this incredibly old, probably older than many of the world's religions, Kai, philosophy that comes to fruition in the cradle of civilization in South Africa, and it is a Zulu Bantu saying "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu." I learned that for you, Kai. A person is a person through other people. A human is a human through other humans. This idea is that we are inextricably connected one to the other.
Mandela in prison learned to appreciate the humanity of his captors. He was saying, Kai, they weren't born hating him. They learned to hate him, and because they did, they could learn to love him. Bishop Tutu, bless his heart, bless his soul, really put Ubuntu on the table in the Truth and Reconciliation movement, but it is this idea that I am not human all by myself. When Zulu people see each other, they say sawubona, which means I see you. The response is sikhona, which means I exist. There's a conversation about being. There's a transforming moment that says, because you see me, I am here and we are here together. Isn't that beautiful?
Kai: It is, and there's a duality there that's built into this phrase, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Right? It's dual.
Rev. Lewis: Correct. Yes.
Kai: You also write that when that duality is removed from the conversation religion becomes toxic.
Rev. Lewis: That's absolutely right. As you said, Kai, at the top of the hour, almost every major religion has this teaching, right? In Judaism, it comes from Leviticus. You are not to ignore a stranger. In fact, you're to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus, "Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you." The Quran says don't withhold something from someone that you need for yourself. The Sikh tradition says don't break anyone else's heart. All around is this idea of love neighbor as self.
I think your young guest is saying maybe what's wrong with the world is we are actually following that rule. Maybe we don't love ourselves and therefore we're loving our neighbors in the poor way that we love ourselves. I just think that's my hypothesis, that when we don't really find a way to really love, not have affection for but really have an unconditional regard for the parts of ourselves that are untenable about which we feel ashamed or embarrassed, we can't love the strangeness of the stranger. We can't love the otherness of the other, so the rehearsal ground for a compassionate revolutionary world is self-love.
Kai: I want to quote how you talk about that in the book. There's a passage where you ask, "How many folks low on self-love take to social media to post and say horrible things? Are they making decisions about budgets and policies, policing cities and towns while running empty on self-love?" That's the kind of thing I have to say that people say as a rhetorical device but I gather you mean it quite literary.
Dr. Lewis: I mean it quite literally as a girl child, Black, who grew up in the '60s, '70s, '80s in the container of the United States, Kai, where you grow up, where it's hard to love yourself, frankly. Right? The container is toxic. I'm called the N-word for the first time when I'm a baby in kindergarten. People's parents are traumatized, therefore, their children are traumatized. That's Black folks.
When I think about white folks whose, let's say, foundational story, is we leave Europe in search of the land of the free and the home of the brave, we come here, find a land inhabited by Indigenous people but think they're not human enough to regard. We harvest Black lives off the soul of Africa and think they're not human. My core thesis is those people who were deist, we might say, who were disenfranchised in Europe already had a hole in their souls. They come here with a hole in their souls and they build a culture that is built on power over, on land grabbing, on lies, and oppression because maybe where there should be a soul there's a home.
Kai: In the Christian tradition the Golden Rule comes from the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells a religious leader to love thyself as thy neighbor, and when the leader asks for clarification on the term "neighbor", Jesus tells the story. He says, "A man is robbed and beaten and left for dead, the pious walk by and leave him there but a Samaritan," which is to say someone at the time considered to be an enemy of the Jewish people, "stops to help."
Rev. Lewis: That's right.
Kai: You tell your own version of an encounter with a good Canadian, I guess.
Rev. Lewis: Yes, I do. [laughs]
Kai: Can you tell that story and what we're to take from it?
Rev. Lewis: Oh my gosh, I will. In fact, I'm a theologian so I've known this Samaritan story forever but to live it really in my life was transformational. I'm a young woman right out of college, driving across Canada on the way to a wedding with the boy I loved at the time. As we changed seats something happened, all the air went out of one of our tires and the car slid across four lanes in a highway, the Queen Elizabeth Way, and miraculously, we don't hit a car but I flip the wheel all the way back to the right to get the car straight.
The G forces, I'm not a scientist but I'll tell you that my stomach flipped before the car did. It spun around three times and then bounced tire-roof, tire-roof, tire-roof with the sunroof off. When we landed, glass and gravel, blood and torn sinus in my boyfriend's hand, but we were alive. The ambulance comes and takes us to the hospital in Windsor Canada, and, I call him Paul in the book, is kept overnight because his injuries are serious and mine aren't.
We're college kids. We'd just graduate. We've got no money. We've got no credit card. We are broke really, on a shoestring. I have to call our parents and tell them the bad news. I'm just finally overwhelmed, standing at a phone bank crying. I look up to see a petite white lady staring at me. I'm sure I'm a fright, big Afro, imagine glass in it, blood on the jacket, but she just walks to me and just says, "What's wrong and how can I help you?"
No kidding, I can see her coat, I can see her shoes. Of course, I knew her name, and I can't ever retrieve it, but she was lovely. She took me to get food and took me to the drugstore to get aspirin and cleaning supplies, took me to a hotel, checked me in, paid my way, picked me up the next morning, took me to get a car, a rental car, took me back to the hospital so I could pick up Paul and drive us home. It was--
Kai: All this with a stranger.
Rev. Lewis: You know what, I'm a Black girl and she's a white lady and both of us are breaking the rules. This is the parallel I make with this kind of rule-breaking kindness. Right? She's not supposed to pick up a woman that she doesn't know either. I'm not supposed to get in her car. I grew up in Chicago. No. Here we are both of us having this transgressive, wild experience of extravagant love. She saved me that night, Kai.
In a way, honestly, the theology that had been theoretical in my heart forever, as a real lived ethic, that love actually does break the rules, cross the street, cross the border, is transgressive and rule-breaking. That's actually what's going to make friends out of enemies. That's what's going to heal us.
Kai: You describe these kinds of moments as creating transitional spaces in which transformation can happen.
Rev. Lewis: Right.
Kai: How so and why should I even seek such a transformation?
Rev. Lewis: Well, because we're living in a hot mess, aren't we, friend? We don't have to seek transformation but I think good people everywhere are mourning the state of our union, not just the state of the United States but the brokenness of the globe, where immigration patterns threaten white people, where power is brokered in crazy ways, and the political stage where the very ones who receive the blessing of a safe new place to live want to withhold that at the southern border. It's insane.
Here's what I want to say. All of us become human. I'm a psychologist and a theologian, Kai. All of us become human in what psychologists call a container. Your mother's womb, the space in your family, your nana's knee, your titi's kitchen, kindergarten, all of those are the transitional spaces where we become human. Your classroom, the playground, church, synagogue, mosque, the basketball court, all of those are spaces where we become human because of the relationships we build and the stories we encounter.
What I'm wanting to say is that if we want a better world for our children, if we want the world to heal, we need to create these brave and safe spaces where we tell the truth to each other, where we take a look at our own stories and climate, try to make the new ones together, where we do not deny the brokenness in our history, but looking at it straight on, we think to ourselves, what's the trajectory that will make it better for all of us. To go back to Ubuntu for a second, where we think your self-interest and my self-interest are the same. Clean water, good air to breathe, enough food, enough clothing.
Who doesn't think that we deserve that? All of us. If we put our minds and love on it, we can build it together.
Kai: I'm talking with Reverend Jacqui Lewis, senior minister of Middle Church and author of the new book Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness that Can Heal the World. We'll be right back.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: Now first let us deal with this question, which is the practical question. How do you go about loving your enemies? I think the first thing is this, in order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self. I'm sure that seems strange to you, that I start out telling you this morning that you love your enemies by beginning with a look at self. It seems to me that that is the first and foremost way to come to an adequate discovery to the how of this situation.
Kousha Navidar: Hey, this is Kousha. I'm a producer. Last week, we asked you how anxious you are about the state of our democracy from 1 to 10. Here's what one of you had to say?
Jordan: Hey, Kai. My name is Jordan and I live in Park Slope. I would say right now I'm about a seven, but I'm a seven with some optimism. I just went to my first community board meeting, and as a 30-year-old, I feel pretty optimistic, inspired by the action of our city, where quite differently from the news I hear in the national headlines, we have problems that I can understand and have an opinion about, that are totally disconnected from the hyper-partisanship that I see in the national news.
I think, for me, local politics and non-partisan issues about people that I can talk to and understand are what makes me think that, although the national scene is pretty fraught, we've still got this city, and we still have our neighbors. Thanks.
Kousha: Thanks, Jordan, and everyone who's listening and talking to us, too. If you've got something to say, send us a message to firstname.lastname@example.org. That's email@example.com. Thanks.
Dr. King: Some people aren't going to like you because your skin is a little brighter than theirs, and others are not going to like you because your skin is a little darker than theirs. So that some people aren't going to like you. They're going to dislike you, not because of something that you've done to them but because of various jealous reactions and other reactions that are so prevalent in human nature.
After looking at these things and admitting these things, we must face the fact that an individual might dislike us because of something that we've done deep down in the past, some personality attributes that we present, something that we've done deep down in the past and we've forgotten about it, but it was that something that aroused the hate response within the individuals. That is why I say, begin with yourself.
Kai: Welcome back. This is United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright, and I'm joined by Reverend Dr. Jacqui Lewis, whose ministry at Middle Church here in New York is rooted in the idea that love of self and of others as thyself, that this is a crucial step in creating a more perfect union. Reverend Lewis, we heard those clips of Martin Luther King, Jr. coming in and out of the break, talking about loving your enemy and examining yourself first. I think that this part of King's message is the one that's often embraced by people who prefer to see him as only a healer, not as a radical, as something a little less threatening. I just wonder, can you speak to that dynamic and what do you hear in that part of King's message?
Rev. Lewis: Yes. I think this is the part of King's message that made people criticize him. In his book, this wonderful book, Testament of Hope, with all kinds of his writings in there, he has a couple of interviews where he's pushed back around that. People remind him that Malcolm X had a criticism of him at first, Kenneth Clark, a black psychologist, but actually, I think this part of King's message is part of his fiercest message.
He's defining love the way I define it. He wasn't talking about affection. He wasn't talking about going to dinner with folks. He wasn't talking about having tea parties. He was saying that this kind of love is agape, an unconditional regard kind of love. A love that is more about seeking understanding. To be honest, King was reading a lot of psychology when he was doing this work, a book by Erich Fromm, the Art of Loving, a white psychoanalyst, King was reading and really deeply moved by it.
What I would say as a psychologist also, is, if you flip the script, if you say to yourself, "Why do white people hate Black people?" When you say that, "Why do some white people hate Black people?" If I say, "Well, what it is, is that they hate a part of themselves that's like that Black person." They hate the part of them. Why do straight people hate gay people? Well, they fear the part of themselves that they think might be gay. That's a hypothesis we can go, "Oh, that makes sense."
I think when we flip it back around and change the colors of the actors; it seems a little harder to digest. For every human who has a huge reaction to another, I would say there's something in the self that's responding to the self of the other. They're fearful. "I'm jealous, I'm resentful. I think they're too much like me. I think they want my stuff." That's what King is describing. We see it on the playground with little babies. It's true. This kind of desire to annihilate that which you also actually admire. It is a strong truth that invites a self-critique to say, "How am I causal in this relationship with this other person? What's my role in the hatred?"
Kai: What's my role in the hatred? Ouch.
Rev. Lewis: Ouch.
Kai: Another important thinker on the intersection of love and politics was Bell Hooks. She just died before the New Year. You open one of the chapters of your book with a quote from her. Did she impact your work, I gather?
Rev. Lewis: Absolutely. Absolutely. This sister was fierce. Her call to love really changed my life. A queer Black woman really putting out there in the world in a vulnerable way that it isn't hatred, it isn't violence, it isn't demanding that's going to get us where we want to go. There's a self-reflection, there's a self-analysis, and a self-love that causes ripples of love in the world. I love her ideas of how to get to reconciliation by doing truth work. Deeply impacted by her writings.
Kai: Let's hear from Carla in Inwood. Carla, welcome to the show.
Carla: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. Reverend Lewis, how can we love our neighbors when our neighbors have done horrific things, have caused, for example, the deaths of at least 15 people, the injuries of dozens more by the people who own the building in the Bronx that the fire that happened this past week and the 100 families displaced? This is a result of negligence, not spending enough money to make sure that the building was properly maintained.
Kai: Carla, for time, I'm going to-
Carla: Someone who's responsible for that.
Kai: -stop you there and let Reverend Lewis answer because we're short on time. Go ahead, Reverend Lewis.
Rev. Lewis: Carla, first of all, giant grief we were feeling at our church for those deaths. One of my deacons was up there today at the funeral. Again, the way we define love here isn't "I have affection for," it isn't "I want to go dancing with." It's a kind of regard for their humanity that leads to understanding. This is a non-violent response. You might not know, Carla, but our church burned down last year, to the ground, because of negligence of our neighbor.
I'm just saying to you, I don't want to play with that woman; I don't want to go dancing with that woman, but I seek to understand her humanity as a way to understand my own. I seek to understand her motive. I want to understand what makes her tick, frankly, so I can transform her and our dynamic. I think that's what King meant, and I know that's what I mean. It is not reasonable to expect us to go to tea parties with the people who wound us, but it is an interesting act of faith in God to see that they also belong to God and to wonder about them, have curiosity about them, to pay attention to what about them caused that behavior so we can see if we can make it better.
Kai: My question that's an add-on to Carla's is about sustaining that kind of thing. You know what I mean?
Rev. Lewis: Yes.
Kai: Speaking for myself, just Kai, COVID alone has revealed to me just how malevolently selfish people can be.
Rev. Lewis: Absolutely, Kai. Yes.
Kai: How do you sustain this idea that you should lead with love rather than self-defense or counterattack in the face of this onslaught?
Rev. Lewis: I don't think we sustain it. I think it comes and goes. I think it ebbs and flows. If I'm honest, I think it's aspirational. If I'm honest, I think when I decide to feel hateful on a day, Kai, somebody like you needs to hold the love. We've got to pass the love baton around because we're human. I'm not trying to be Pamela E Allen Pie in the Sky, I'm trying to say it is a fierce kind of love that caused King to go to Memphis to stand up for the sanitation workers when he knew his life was in danger. That's what it is.
It's the kind of love that makes people wait in the fetid waters when the dams break in New Orleans. It's that kind of love. It's the kind of love that made that Samaritan stop and deal with the bloody dudes on the street when the religious people wouldn't. It isn't an everyday easy thing. It's a force. That's why it's fierce.
Kai: About the minute we've got left, we're going to talk about voting rights in the next part of the show and we'll meet a young activist who's putting her body on the line in the democracy fight. Thinking about this well of sustaining, in particular, do you have thoughts for particularly people who haven't lived through a time like this and have been asked to make these kinds of choices?
Dr. Lewis: Yes, I have, and have watched over a way that with tears has been watered, the John Lewises and Ella Bakers and Martin Kings and Fannie Lou Hamers, and my uncle George Jordan. Regular folks y'all, 7-year-old kids who suited up in their Sunday best and marched across the bridge, who went through the trainings, who did the hard work. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until all of us are free.
That sacrifice is an act of love. It's a sacrifice to call your senators. It's a sacrifice to join the places where people are doing movement building. It's a sacrifice to demand the passing of the John Lewis Act. It's a sacrifice to stay engaged when we want to feel numb and pulled in, because if we don't vote, and if we don't demand the vote, what our ancestors died for is in vain. I'm calling us to that kind of selflessness that keeps us moving even when we're tired, marching to freedom together.
Kai: Reverend Dr. Jacqui Lewis is pastor of Middle Church here in New York. She's author of a new book titled Fierce Love: A Bold Path To Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal The World. Thank you so very much for joining us and for your work in your ministry, Reverend Lewis.
Rev. Lewis: Thank you so much, Kai, for this amazing show. Appreciate you.
Kai: Up next, we're going to meet one of the Arizona College students who are now on a second hunger strike demanding new federal legislation to protect the right to vote. Stay with us.
Dr. King: Somehow the "isness" of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts us. This simply means this, that within the best office there is some evil, and within the worst office, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it.
When you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls "the image of God", you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God's image there. That is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. As you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.
Democracy is the greatest form of government to my mind that man has ever conceived, but the weakness is that we have never touched it. Isn't it true that we have often taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes? Isn't it true that we have often in our democracy trampled over individuals and races with the iron feet of oppression?
Kai: Martin Luther King Day was the deadline that Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set for bringing a voting rights bill to the Senate floor. He extended that deadline because of bad weather. It's moot anyway because Senator Kyrsten Sinema has announced she's absolutely not going to support changing the Senate rules to get around the Republican filibuster of the voting rights bill. It's also fitting a bill designed to stop a determined minority from rigging democracy in its favor can't even get a vote because a determined minority of senators is able to block it.
Just before the New Year, 20 college students in Arizona, Senator Sinema's constituents, tried to illustrate the urgency of the moment with a hunger strike. They met with their senator and later with the White House, and when Schumer set MLK Day as a deadline for a vote on the bill, they suspended their hunger strike. As of this weekend, they are back on strike, indefinitely, joined now by faith leaders from around the country.
Our producer Regina de Heer has been following this movement which is part of a national campus movement organized by a group called Un-PAC. Regina introduced me to one of the students this past week. We caught up with 19-year-old Michaela Schillinger just as she returned from her winter break at Arizona State University.
Michaela Schillinger: Hi.
Regina de Heer: Hello.
Kai: Nice to meet you.
Michaela: Nice to meet you as well. My first day back on campus, I had my first two classes today so--
Regina: Jumping in head first, oh my goodness.
Regina: Michaela, before we get into the strike itself, I just want to get your reaction to something. We just had our callers [crosstalk] Anxiety--
Kai: On our show last week we talked about a growing feeling among political scientists that it's actually too late to fix our democracy, that it may be past the tipping point. A lot of you called in saying that you shared that feeling. Our guest, Thomas Edsel, who is a New York Times columnist, he said, "One problem is the absence of the kind of mass student movement and youth activism that played such a huge role in broadening democracy in the first place, back during the civil rights movement." That resonated for some listeners who lived through the '60s.
Regina: Organizing and I think of what you are doing with the hunger strike so I'd love to just hear your reaction to that.
Michaela: This is a very stressful time in our democracy, and it's scary that we are inheriting such a dysfunctional democracy. A lot of movements on climate change and Black lives matter and a lot of other important subjects such as LGBTQ+ rights, women's rights is mostly led by youth. They probably just don't realize how many movements are being made by the youth. Youth, on college campuses especially, have just realized how f'd up everything is. Sorry about that.
Kai: It's okay.
Michaela: How dysfunctional everything in our country is, and in the world is right now. We are just absolutely terrified of what we will inherit. In my opinion, not enough youth, I think we need more, but I think, unfortunately, there's just not enough people willing to get into politics right now until you explain to them how urgent these issues are and how our futures are the futures that are hanging in the balance.
Kai: I hear you saying that you feel a responsibility about the world that you are inheriting.
Kai: I guess I wonder for both you and Regina, we always talk so much about, "The youth are going to save us. The youth are going to fix this, and the youth are going to fix that." I just wonder what that feels like to constantly be on the receiving end of the, "You're supposed to be the savior."
Michaela: Sure. It's so funny that you asked that because I was talking to Regina about that in our last call quite a lot. Yes, it's constantly being said that my generation is going to be the one to save the world. We are going to be the ones to solve climate change. We're going to be the ones to do something about our democracy, about our human rights. Everyone says we're going to be the ones to save it all. That is terrifying. That is a lot of pressure.
As much as I want to be the one to save it all, it is really hard going through college trying to get a degree with the weight of the world on my shoulders. I know this goes for so many of my friends and so many other people like me who want to be a part of that change, but by the time people, my age now, will be elected into office, that's still like what? 30 years away? 20 years away?
It's just extremely frustrating because everyone says that we are the people who are going to change the world but no one wants to listen to us. No one wants to actually listen to us and make the changes that we are asking for that will save our world. That is frustrating and a lot of weight to bear on our backs because-- We literally went on a hunger strike. For 15 days we did not eat. I don't know how else to make that change if physically not eating won't make that change. What is there to do bigger than that? They're still not listening.
That is extremely scary, but fortunately, as doom's day as it all looks and sounds and feels, we are still fighting. I think that's the most powerful thing about people my age and about my generation, is that we do not care how hard you kick us down, we will stand right back up and keep on fighting.
Regina: Although there's the constant criticism of Gen Zs being too sensitive or asking for too much, the spirit to ask for better and the hope for better is something that I think is really unique and special. It makes me wonder, Michaela, what made you yourself so interested in voting rights, in particular? What drew you to that issue?
Michaela: What really drove me towards voting rights was understanding that it all starts with voting rights and that we will not be able to even touch climate change, touch human rights, women's rights, LGBTQ rights. We will not be able to touch any of those, immigration rights, gun rights, literally any of it, without voting rights. It all starts there. I don't think people realize that. I don't think people realize how dysfunctional our voting system is and how hard they make it for us unnecessarily.
The overwhelming majority of voters across the country support the reforms within this act, the Freedom to Vote Act. The partisan divide is in the US Senate and not among the American people. We will lose our voices in our own country, which is terrifying. We already live in a dysfunctional democracy. We already live in a democracy where voting is made harder for people of color, for indigenous communities especially. That already should not be happening. We should pride ourselves on every single person being able to vote with ease no matter their race or ethnicity, but that's not the case in a lot of states.
Regina: What was it like when you first heard the idea of moving from organizing purely on campus to something like a hunger strike? What went through your mind when you heard about that idea?
Michaela: I think when we started talking about escalating, it really set in how important this bill was. I knew it was important, but I was just thinking, "Oh, it'll go through. It'll go through." It's not going through. I started realizing it's just not happening. I just think when we started talking about the hunger strike it really set in how urgent this movement was and how-- I was already scared for my future but--
Kai: Were you scared of not eating? I hear that.
Michaela: Oh. Sure, yes.
Kai: It's really hard for me to-- I've never done a hunger strike I'll admit.
Michaela: I hadn't either. I hadn't before this, but not eating, yes, was scary. As a college student, I probably don't eat as much as I should-
Michaela: -so I was like, "I can adjust my diet." Because it's a long process, you have to adjust your diet before so you get your stomach and your body ready for that kind of fast. Then you have to adjust when you're done, too. You have to gradually ease into food unless you just want to ruin your body.
Kai: How do you have to adjust before? What do you have to do?
Michaela: Sure. You have to cut out unnatural sugars. We were only allowed to drink water or water with electrolytes in it but it couldn't have sugars in it. Then we were only allowed to eat fruits, vegetables, and then instead of eating big meals during the day, we had to eat small portions throughout the day. By doing so, you get your body ready to fast so your body doesn't go into shock. Then during the hunger strike, we were taking supplements, and obviously, we were staying very, very hydrated, and they were monitoring our vitals twice a day. If it got to a point where we were not looking well, they were going to pull us out.
Regina: If I can pause you right there, you're preparing for this hunger strike, you explained that you're really preparing your body for this physical strenuous activity while at the same time preparing for your finals. What was that like? I really couldn't imagine the space you must have been in.
Michaela: It was very overwhelming. Honestly, it was very physically straining, don't get me wrong, but I think even more, it was mentally straining. I don't think that any of us could have gotten through it without the support of so many people who started recognizing us.
Taking finals after two days of not eating, obviously, our brains aren't functioning very well. Some people were still writing essays and just really struggling getting their brain to cooperate with them. Mentally it was very draining, as well as physically, almost to a point where you just had to desensitize yourself a little bit and just focus on what this was all about. A lot of us had loved ones' asking us to stop because they were worried about us and they didn't want to put our own health in jeopardy, especially during a pandemic.
Kai: What did your family say?
Michaela: My mom, she was so happy that I was a part of such a big movement, but it was hard because I could hear the worry in her voice. When you hear your parents worry, you feel guilty; you feel terrible for putting them in that situation. I am very fortunate to grow up with two parents that love me unconditionally and to see them just very worried about school and my body. I would just call her every day and explain to her all the progress that we had been making.
I think that made up for it. I think all of the media attention we got and all the recognition we were getting; we talked to Senator Sinema; we talked with senior year advisors from the White House; we talked to Mark Kelly; we were making a lot of progress that has not been made. That made up for it. It was comforting to her, almost, and to me. It was just like, "It's worth it." For a lot of my peers and friends, their parents were not happy. They wanted them to stop.
Regina: I am sure. I think my mom would definitely be in that camp.
Regina: You mentioned the public support that you got. You got a lot of support from very notable names like Kerry Washington, Mark Ruffalo, Leonardo DiCaprio, just to name a few. What did that public support mean to you and your fellow strikers? What was the conversations like amongst you all doing the strike at the time?
Michaela: I think personally, my initial reactions were very much like fangirling. I was like, "Oh my gosh, they know what I look like." It brought moments of clarity, for sure, because we knew we were finally being heard. It's an indescribable feeling because it reassured us that what we were doing mattered and that what we were doing was the right thing, which was very important. We're greatly appreciative of that support.
Kai: When we talked with Michaela last week, President Biden had just given his big voting rights speech down in Georgia. There was still some hope that the Senate would hold a vote tomorrow, but after Kyrsten Sinema dashed those hopes, Michaela and her fellow students returned to Washington, DC and resumed their hunger strike. We reached out to her earlier today. Michaela, hey.
Kai: What is the scene down there? How many of you are there on strike?
Michaela: Our group has nearly doubled in size. We are at about 40 young people now hunger striking, putting their bodies on the line with us.
Kai: You're joined by faith leaders as well?
Michaela: Yes. We are joined by faith leaders who have been striking about a week longer than us, started their strike last week. We have also been joined by young people across the country striking in their homes, doing 48-hour hunger strikes with us to show their support.
Kai: I know from our last conversation that it was a scary thought that you'd have to do this again, what would you like to say to your senator?
Michaela: [chuckles] The fact that we have to do this again is a little mind-blowing, honestly. I think all of us were quite speechless, but at the same time, I think it's what we expected, unfortunately. MLK weekend is here, and because one of the senators, I think it was Brian Schatz of Hawaii tested positive for COVID, and due to the impending winter storm, it's currently snowing outside right now, it's 25 degrees, the vote has been rescheduled to take place on Tuesday, January 18th instead of MLK Day.
I want to reiterate that we are not stopping our strike. We are not pausing our strike. We are motivated and still standing strong, aren't taking any breaks, and we will still be not eating even though they have adjourned for the weekend.
Kai: You didn't eat for 15 days last time and you kept going until they scheduled the vote. How long are you going to be striking this time, or what needs to happen for you to come off strike?
Michaela: Sure. They need to debate the now freedom to vote John Lewis Act on the Senate floor for us possibly to end our strike, but we are striking indefinitely as of now.
Kai: How do you feel?
Michaela: I'm very hungry. I'm very tired. I'm very scared. I'm very sad. It's also just been a whole other level of hard because of how cold it's been here on the East Coast. I know, especially the students from Arizona and Florida are struggling with this cold weather. Our cold was 68 degrees and now it's 25 and snowing like I said. Yesterday we did a press conference at Dr. Martin Luther King's memorial. We had a striker nearly faint. We have strikers with concerning abdominal pains. Some have migraines. Personally, I wake up every morning and I go to bed every night with a lot of nausea and really bad headaches, a little dizziness. That's just what I'm feeling, but I think that--
Kai: Are you hopeful that this is going to work?
Michaela: I am a lot more hopeful when I hear all the people who speak at these press conferences such as the faith leaders, they have really, really inspired all of us and me personally and have put a new sense of hope in me personally, because going into this weekend, we started Thursday, and then with everything that went on this weekend, I felt very hopeless. I was confused. I was like, "What's going on?" At the same time, it was to be expected, right?
I'm trying to put the hopeless feeling aside and just really dig in to the hope that all the people around me are giving me. I'm really feeding off of other people's optimistic energy. I think that being scared and terrified for all of our futures together brings a sense of hopefulness because I know that I'm surrounded by like-minded people who want to change our democracy to be functional just as much as I do.
Kai: Michaela Schillinger is a sophomore at Arizona State University and a student organizer with Un-PAC. She and 40 other students are on hunger strike in Washington, DC on behalf of voting rights right now. Michaela, thank you for joining us.
Michaela: Thank you so much.
Kai: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Sound designed by Jared Paul. Kevin Bristow and Matthew Marando were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann, and Kousha Navidar. I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @kai_wright. Of course, hope you join us for the live show next Sunday, 6:00 PM Eastern. Stream it at wnyc.org, or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Until then, take care of yourselves. Thanks for listening.
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