Re-Imagination Nation, We Imagine US

Episode 6: John Legend and Michelle Alexander

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Published on: April 5, 2023

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In our sixth episode, we consider the role and funding of police. We speak with two SCoRE (Solidarity Council on Racial Equity) members who have inspired millions of people all over the globe —artist John Legend and author Michelle Alexander— who talk about their reimagined worlds free of toxic policing, jails or prisons and a future rooted in mutual care and solidarity found, in part, from listening with compassion to those whose experiences differ from our own.

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Maria Hinojosa: [00:00:06] Welcome to Re – Imagination Nation. I’m Maria Hinojosa. The historic mass protests after George Floyd’s murder last year inspired calls to end police abuse, and it paved the way for a new conversation about the role and the funding of police and about how we think about public safety and incarceration as a nation. In this episode, we’re going to speak with two score members who have inspired millions of people all over the world, the artist John Legend and the author Michelle Alexander. And we’re going to hear about their reimagined worlds free of toxic policing, jails and prisons. First, singer songwriter and philanthropist John Legend. Just to kind of get ourselves into the kind of imagining space I was really taken, John, by this notion of you as a little boy to talk about like I want to change the world and I want you to take me a little bit into that little boy’s head. 

John Legend: [00:01:15] One of the most interesting things about me as a kid was that my superheroes were people who fought for justice. So Dr. King was one of my super heroes and Harriet Tubman was one of my super heroes and Sojourner Truth and people who put their lives on the line to fight for justice were people I truly looked up to and thought were like the best human beings. And music was such a huge part of my life as well. So when I was dreaming of the kind of impact I wanted to make on the world, I was thinking I wanted to use this gift I have of music and the connection that it creates with people and make an impact on the world by making art that is connecting people and moving people, but also by using my success and my status and my influence to bring us closer to justice and equality as well. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:02:14] What’s the thing that you would want to change in the future so that we could get to this place of more equity more justice? What would it be? 

John Legend: [00:02:24] I think we need to fundamentally reimagine how we deal with crime, with harm, with violence in our communities. So much of it is about understanding what works when it comes to deterring harmful behavior, when it comes to accountability for harmful behavior and thinking about what does it mean to love people even though they may harm someone, even though they may do something that we don’t approve of, what does it mean to love them? And if we think like that, if we value George Floyds life, we know that valuing his life means there is no excuse for killing him on the street. We’ve got to reimagine what it means to love our neighbors and have public policy that reflects that kind of love we can’t value property over human life. Far too often the way our criminal legal system has worked Black people are on the losing end of these interactions. Why can’t we imagine a version of public safety that doesn’t treat black and brown people as the harm that we’re trying to protect white people from? Why can’t we imagine a world like that? 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:03:52] Actually, I want to talk about love, you brought up love, but in your work, you never shy away from the dark. It’s always there. You’re talking about love is an essential part of this next thing. But you’re also super clear. Like the darkness is always going to be there.

John Legend: [00:04:07] The darkness is there. And I think love helps us navigate through darkness and helps us get fortified and to deal with adversity and challenges. I sing a lot about resilience, too. And I’m a child of divorced parents. I’m a child of parents who dealt with all kinds of challenges. I had a mother who dealt with addiction and mental health issues when I was a child. So I’ve seen plenty of challenge and I’ve seen plenty of adversity. But I do believe love is powerful and can help us overcome these challenges. My mom is in a really good place right now. She’s really healthy and hasn’t had any addiction issues for decades now. And I think part of what rescued her was love. Her families her friends love people around her who rallied around her and helped her get to the other side of the issues that she was facing. And she didn’t need anyone to lock her up for that to happen. She needed people to show her love and help her. And I think so much of what we’re dealing with when it comes to our jails and prisons and the way the police interact with our communities could be solved if we had an approach that was about showing love and helping our neighbors and helping people going through a rough time in their lives. Most of our issues with crime and harm and violence would be much better addressed if we thought like that. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:05:33] I want you to think a little bit about solidarity now and solidarity in that future space as well. What does it actually look like for you? 

John Legend: [00:05:43] Well, hopefully it looks like us listening to and learning from each other. For instance, one of the kind of the frontiers of our social conflict these days has been around trans rights. Lately, it’s been a subject that I think conservatives believe it’s an issue that they can convince people on when it comes to the culture wars. And it feeds this narrative that the way of life that they’re used to is being taken away from them in some way. This hegemony of white male patriarchy, whenever there’s any kinds of challenges to that, then the conservative behemoth that dominates Fox News and all these other media outlets, they kind of go into full gear in defending the white male patriarchy and they think they’ve found a winning issue when it comes to trans rights, because not enough of us know a trans person. Not enough of us understand what trans people want in our society. And a lot of us don’t understand just the basics of the experiences that trans folks are going through. And so solidarity means to me, take some time to listen to our neighbors, listen to people whose lives are being talked about in these ways, talk to them, listen to them, learn from them, and lead with love and empathy and compassion for them, rather than leading with trying to find a way to squelch their dreams or trying to find a way to put the legal system in place to make it so white male patriarchy is protected. One of the most offensive parts about some of these recent bills that are put in place is criminalizing trans people for playing a sport in high school. Like if you’re leading with love and listening and empathy and solidarity, how do you ever get to the point where you’re saying, I’m going to lock up a high school student, charged them with a misdemeanor for being a trans person and trying to exist and enjoy themselves in a sport? Are you kidding me? So solidarity for me means even though I’m not a trans person, I’m going to listen to them. I’m going to love them. I’m going to value their experiences and their input. And I’m going to in a political way and in a public policy way, fight to make sure that their rights and their concerns are being addressed and then defend their right to be themselves, to be loved, to live their best lives. Then I think we’ll all be in a better place. And that’s what solidarity means to me. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:08:31] Singer songwriter and philanthropist John Legend, who is also a member of SCoRE. Author Michelle Alexander’s New York Times best seller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness came out in 2010, and it was an important, seminal work in this country. It exposed a criminal legal system plagued by racial discrimination that extends from lawmaking to policing. And more than 10 years after its publication, nothing seems to have gotten much better. Michelle is someone I have been wanting to speak to for years, and I was lucky enough to speak with her about reimagining justice and what Michelle Alexander’s dream is for a world without prisons. When Michelle is daydreaming about beautiful possibilities, what does that world look like? 

Michelle Alexander: [00:09:44] Well, I think for me that’s a world in which the evidence that we’ve learned to care for each other is everywhere. And because my work has been overwhelmingly focused on our punishment system, when I dream that world, I dream a world without prisons. I dream a world without electronic monitors strapped to people’s ankles, a world where there are no police in schools. A world where people do not freeze when they see lights in their rearview mirror because there are no cops that carry guns that might threaten you when they reach your window. I dream a world in where we are ashamed of our prison history in much the same way that so many of us are ashamed of the history and legacy of slavery. It’s a world where not just everyone has an equal opportunity to an education or access to a good job, but where those things are guaranteed, where every human being has the right to a quality education, has the right and the ability to work a meaningful job, a fair and livable wage, where people, no matter what their background or health condition or status, have access to health care, including mental health care, where we’ve developed a sharing economy instead of one based purely on competition and greed and survival of the fittest. A shift away from our hyper competitive, individualistic capitalist economy to a caring economy in which every life and every person matters. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:11:55] Can you tell us the Jarvious cotton story and what would have happened if he had received justice? 

Michelle Alexander: [00:12:03] Yeah, so Jarvious Cotton released with a felony record, but his grandfather, who had been beaten for attempting to vote and his great grandfather had been killed for attempting to vote. And I think like four generations of black men in his family who had been denied the right to vote since slavery, each one being prohibited from exercising the franchise, either due to clan terrorism or being denied the right to vote due to literacy taxes or poll taxes, or being frightened and deterred from voting due to threats. And then Jarvious Cotton was denied the right to vote because he had a felony record and was unable to to vote for those reasons. And so really, I feel like the story of Jarvious Cotton reveals how throughout our nation’s history, the methods and tactics of exclusion and control have changed over time, but have achieved the same result. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:13:18] I’m wondering if you can also talk about what solidarity and racial equity actually looked like, you know, people talk about solidarity, in fact, again. Is there a story of a moment that you’ve witnessed it that just was like, wow, that captures it? 

Michelle Alexander: [00:13:33] We’ve seen in the COVID era with all of the fantastic mutual aid networks that have sprung up, that, that is activism. It’s not just it’s not a matter of charity or service. It’s activism. It’s about reimagining how we relate to one another and how we show up for each other. I work with an organization in Columbus called Healing Broken Circles. It provides support for men at Marion Correctional Center. And I wrote a piece recently about the COVID crisis behind bars at Marion Correctional Center. In that piece, I described the letter written by a man at Marion basically explaining how he and others who were suffering from COVID behind bars were showing up and supporting each other, they weren’t receiving aid from prison staff, but they were nursing each other back to health. Ultimately, that is what solidarity is all about. It’s imagining that there is no us and them. It’s I am here with you because I see you as valuable as me. And that is a revolutionary concept. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:14:54] Michelle Alexander is a civil rights lawyer, advocate, legal scholar and author, and like me, she’s a member of SCoRE the Solidarity Council on Racial Equity. Re-Imagination Nation was produced by Futuro Unidad Hinojosa and PRX as part of the We Imagine US project. Executive producers are Diane Sylvester and me. Our senior supervising producer is Gregory Branch. Our podcast producer is Andres Caballero, project editor Khaliff Watkins. Our engineer is Leah Shaw, production manager. William Oak’s IV, production coordinator. Jessica Ellis, assistant project manager Raul Perez, post-production supervising producer is Tanya Bustos. New media manager is Alexander Garcia. Our music was composed by Michael Ramos Re-imgination Nation is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a partner with communities where children come first. This is our last episode of Re-Imagination Nation, but these conversations about future possibilities will continue to be available online at We Imagine US .org or on PRX or wherever you get your podcasts on. And don’t forget to check out our companion fiction series, it’s the podcast called The Long Way Around, be sure to listen.

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