Meet the Fellows: An Interview with Brittany Packnett Cunningham

Brittany Packnett Cunningham is a Fall 2020 Fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics, a NBC News and MSNBC Contributor, and host of UNDISTRACTED, a news and justice podcast with an intersectional lens on the world. A lifelong activist and proud member of the Ferguson Uprising, Brittany was the former co-host of the 2019 iHeartRadio Best Political Podcast, Pod Save The People. Brittany was also a member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the Ferguson Commission. 


Harvard Political Review: You were an IOP Resident Fellow in the fall of 2018. Why did you decide to return for another year, especially in a virtual environment?

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I always enjoy and appreciate my time with IOP students. They ask such profound questions that help me to ask better questions. So, for an opportunity to continue to refine my thinking about what the next step has to be for politically marginalized communities and hopefully provide an opportunity for the students as well, I was really excited to return.

HPR: Over the years you’ve used several different platforms and mediums to push people towards action and social change — podcasts, books, policy writing, and TV appearances, to name a few. What avenues have you found most effective for engaging with people? 

BPC: I have been podcasting for a while. I recently launched UNDISTRACTED, in part, because I find podcasts to be a powerful community-building tool. But I have found that with podcasts, people really engage with other listeners, and I have always found podcasts to be powerful tools of learning for myself. So I am excited about building the next tomorrow with UNDISTRACTED and focusing on intersectionality and intersectional feminism to look at what a brand new world can be. I love that medium, and I’m hopeful people will continue to engage with UNDISTRACTED. 

HPR: Activism has become heavily intertwined with social media, especially with people spending more time online due to COVID-19. Do you think performative activism is a problem we need to address? How can people ensure they’re translating social media posts and activity into sustained change? 

BPC: It’s important for all of us to understand the difference between performance as an activism topic and performative activism. Performance can be seen as anything from leveraging art as activism to making sure that we leverage media to tell untold stories and to reveal a harsh truth about American injustice. And in that way, I think social media, and media more broadly, is a really powerful tool. But the difference between performance as a helpful tactic and performative activism is outcome and ego. If your social media post centers you and not the people that you claim to be in service of, that can be a real challenge. And if the posts don’t actually accomplish anything — they don’t provide people resources; they don’t educate people; they don’t connect people to ways to get involved — then that is performative activism, and it takes up space in places where greater intention could be used. 

HPR: You’re an NBC news and MSNBC contributor. Concerns have already been raised that the media momentum after the murder of George Floyd is beginning to die down. Do you fear that publications will just go back to ignoring issues of police brutality and systemic racism as they have throughout the years prior?

BPC: I think that’s always a dangerous possibility. Part of what we have to do is further democratize media, ensuring that progressive marginalized voices are more and more at the forefront. That means having more hosts, producers, writers, and content creators who not only reflect the backgrounds that we come from, but reflect the values of a more just world. It matters that people who have been pushed out of traditional media spaces are building their own media companies, starting their own podcasts, launching their own magazines and online platforms, because those are the places where we are going to be able to see conventional wisdom be challenged. It’s also important that newsrooms continue to become more diverse. Even in my work in more mainstream spaces, I always try to carry the untold story with me and the silenced voices with me, and the more that is seen on everything from mainstream airwaves to your Twitter feed, the better for all of us. 

HPR: During your heavy involvement in the Ferguson protests, how often did you have to use Twitter and other social media to fight back against the distorted narrative the media was painting? Did you see the same amount and similar types of distortion with coverage surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests this summer? 

BPC: I saw plenty of it, but I’ve seen less of it, and I’ve seen more people who are in the news space being willing to push back against those narratives and correct those narratives in which they were incorrect before. I also think that it’s been really important that, as I said before, airways can become diversified in race, gender, ideology, and perspective. Somebody like Joy Reid, the only Black woman hosting a show in primetime on a major cable news network, has continuously pushed back against the narrative of property damage and reinforced the fact that it was police violence that brought us here in the first place. So I think that there have been places where distorted narratives have been just as bad, and there have been different voices and newer voices speaking out against the really invalid narratives that we saw in 2014 and 2015.

HPR: In your Medium post announcing your departure from Campaign Zero this June, you said, “What may have applied in 2014 is not necessarily relevant for the transformation we are precipitating today.” Can you elaborate on how our current situation with policing in 2020 differs from 2014, and what needs to be the strategy for a transformation today to occur?

BPC: In 2014 and 2015, we were just beginning to push broader society into a conversation about reform. Broader society was just beginning to identify police violence as a structural and systemic issue. People were more open to ideas about policing reform. All of those ideas were only meant to be a first step, but it seems as though, again, in the broader societal conversation about police violence, we really stalled out. People were unwilling to push their imagination beyond that first step, and in the meantime, the police didn’t kill any fewer people. And the current administration arrived and undid important work that the Obama administration had done, and all the while, they were pushing rhetoric that was emboldening police officers and their violent behavior. 

So, in 2020, people are justifiably impatient toward reform. In 2020, people are justifiably questioning if a system that is rotten at its roots can actually be reformed. And to be clear, people have been asking that essential question for decades. But, I think more people are ready to grapple with that reality and are far beyond reforms. So if the institution isn’t going to reform, then we should be divesting from it. 

HPR: As an educator and former elementary school teacher, how do you think schools and governments can ensure educational equity during this time of remote learning?

BPC: It’s very difficult. I think the most important place to be posing this question is with state departments of education and with school leadership. Teachers and educators need real support to provide an equitable education for their students, and families need support to ensure that the children in their homes are being provided with such an education. It is about solving the technology gap, both in terms of hardware and actually having the devices that one needs to learn effectively, and making sure one has the broadband internet access to be able to keep up with the pace of learning. But it’s also about practices and policies; it’s about ensuring that disabled children are getting the attention and the accommodations that they are legally entitled to, and that morally, they are deserving of. 

HPR: In May, you co-wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post “Biden still needs Black women. Here are 3 things he needs to do.” Has Biden has come closer to readdressing the needs of Black Americans, specifically Black women? If not, what is he still missing?

BPC: I think he’s certainly come closer. I am glad to see attention paid not only to criminal justice but also to closing the wealth gap and the wage gap, affording higher education, attention paid toward home ownership, and other items. The incoming Biden-Harris administration is paying close attention to COVID-19, which is critically important given that Black people have been suffering disproportionately from this pandemic. When we look at the number of small business loans that went out in this pandemic for the sake of saving the economy for everyone, and then come to find out that a majority of those loans were actually not given to Black and Brown business owners, that is something that needs immediate correction.

I’m also really hopeful that from day one, the Biden-Harris administration will prioritize expanding the courts and solidifying and cementing voting rights in this country once and for all. We will need the passing of a new and updated Voting Rights Act to ensure that the kind of widespread voter suppression we’re seeing right now cannot continue to occur. And I believe that these are things that the incoming Biden-Harris administration is paying attention to. My hope is that they will be urgent about these issues, within those first 100 days, as they plan for their transition. 

Image Source: Harvard Institute of Politics

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