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Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: MSNBC
Symone Sanders made history when she became the youngest national press secretary on record for Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. While interviewing for the position, the senator asked her what she wanted to do, and she responded, “I would like to be the national press secretary.” He laughed in response and asked her if she had any prior experience in cable news. Less than a week later, she had the job.
Since then, Sanders has not slowed down one bit. She joined the Biden campaign in 2019 as a senior adviser, was a commentator for CNN, worked as the chief spokesperson for Vice-President Kamala Harris, and wrote a memoir. Her most recent endeavor? Joining MSNBC to host her own show, Symone, which premiered on May 7.
“I’m excited to have smart conversations. I think the thing that I disliked about cable news when I was a commentator is the penchant for everyone to want to argue,” Sanders told the Cut’s editor-in-chief, Lindsay Peoples, on the latest episode of In Her Shoes. “Everybody was just waiting to get their point out or waiting on somebody to say something inflammatory so you can get them. I don’t want that to be my show.” For the full conversation, read below.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Symone Sanders: Greetings, Lindsay. It’s always great to chat with you.
Lindsay Peoples: Hi, lovely. Thank you for doing this. I know you’re so busy, and congrats on the show.
Symone: Thank you. I can’t wait. We will have to have you on. For one of our culture and lifestyle segments, I definitely want to have you.
Lindsay: To have me act like a fool on your show? I don’t know.
Symone: Yes, it will be good.
Lindsay: I’m so excited to talk. I don’t even know how long we’ve known each other. It’s been a while now, but I’m so excited to talk to you about your new show and everything because it’s so incredible to see you continuously excel and do the most amazing things.
Symone: Oh, thank you.
Lindsay: But I really want to start at the beginning because I think that young people, and specifically young Black women, look at someone like you and they’re like, How do I get there? How do I do it? How does she do it? What, even from the beginning, got you interested in working in politics and feeling like it was something that you needed to do?
Symone: My first brush with politics was when I introduced Bill Clinton at a luncheon at Girls, Inc., of Omaha. Shout out to North Omaha. I was 16 years old, and I was really excited to do it at this luncheon that Girls, Inc., has every year. They always have a girl introduce the speaker. The year before, then-Senator Obama, prior to being President Obama, before he even said he was running for election, was the speaker, and my friend Camille introduced him. So I’m like, Oh, I always looked up to Camille. I wanted to do everything Camille did. I wanted to be the person to introduce Bill Clinton. I ended up having the opportunity, which is great because people said I wasn’t a public speaker at the time.
Lindsay: Who told you that?
Symone: Oh honey, lots of people. They said I talked too fast, too loud, and too much, which was true.
Lindsay: I hope they tune in to the show.
Symone: People didn’t believe I was a public speaker, which is why it’s so funny that now I have a television show.
Symone: But Bill Clinton, he was just such a great orator. He had this whole speech that he didn’t write down. He just did it off of memory and then included things that we had all talked about backstage. I just found it so fascinating. So after that, I got a number of internships. One of which was in my mayor’s office while I was in college. They tried to recall the mayor when I first got there.
Symone: Yeah, it was crazy. So I went to volunteer in the mayor’s effort to beat the recall. I met these guys who owned a firm. They were African American men from Nashville who owned a political consulting firm. So they brought them up to Omaha to help organize north and south Omaha, which were the African American and Latino parts of the city. I volunteered with them. I got coffee. I did anything they wanted me to do. After the recall was over, they let me work with them while I was in school. Come to find out, they definitely were not paying me what I should have been paid.
Lindsay: They never are.
Symone: They never are. Chris Smith, Robert West, I see y’all. But it was the best experience. That’s where I got the bulk of my political experience. That’s when I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I did mayoral races, I worked judges’ races. This was the first time I knew that judges were elected in some places because, in Nebraska, they were appointed. I did stuff on reservations. I worked in state legislative races. It was a very formative experience, so I always say that Chris Smith and Robert West gave me my first job in politics. That is really what pushed me to want to do it. I thought it was fun, and I thought it was impactful.
Lindsay: It is. Did you have any TV dreams even back then or people that you watched and you really looked up to?
Symone: I watched the news all the time. Obviously, I watched Jacque Reid. Do you remember when BET had BET News?
Lindsay: I do.
Symone: I would watch Jacque Reid at night at home. I remember when April Ryan first started doing television. I would watch her. I would watch Soledad O’Brien. Now there are so many Black women on television. There are so many women of color. There are more women. It used to just be old, white men on TV. But back in the day, it was Soledad. I remember April Ryan. I remember Jacque Reid. I used to pretend I was a TV reporter at home. My name was Donna Burns. So I was Donna Burns, reporting live.
Lindsay: I love that. You’ve had all of this experience. When you became the youngest presidential press secretary on record, what was the experience actually like to do that, to know that you were the youngest, to carry the weight of that as a Black woman?
Symone: At the time, I assumed that I was the youngest person, but I didn’t know that I was the youngest. It was after the fact that I realized that they usually didn’t give people as young as me those kinds of jobs. But the experience was very formative. I have been very candid about my really great experiences on the campaign trail but also the not-so-great experiences. I’ve been candid about the fact that I would travel across the country with Senator Sanders. When I first started traveling with him, in some places, we would go and I couldn’t get in because we would be traveling separately and people wouldn’t believe who I was. I would have to get someone else to validate that “Yes, I was a national press secretary. Yes, I’m a senior staff member that you need to let in this building.”
There were two experiences on the campaign trail that had an imprint on me. One was when I first started, we got an inquiry from the Washington Post. So I forwarded the inquiry around to the entire communications team, just to make sure folks knew. Someone responded to me and they said, “If the Washington Post or the New York Times calls, or any of the cable news outlets, you need to send them over here. But if BET, Telemundo calls,” and I think they even said The Root or Roland Martin, “you can take those.”
Lindsay: Absolutely not.
Symone: So I did the — you know that meme where you’re typing the thing, and it’s like, delete, delete? I was typing, and I finally ended up responding, “Thank you very much, but as the national press secretary, I think I’m emboldened to speak to the national press.” There were people that I worked with at that time, but they didn’t know what my ability was. They didn’t know where I had come from, they didn’t know that I worked on all these races. They assumed that they did not have a senior Black woman on the campaign and I was just hired to be a senior Black woman.
Symone: From that, I learned that it’s not enough to just say it. So I always come with data points and facts and figures because, as often the youngest person in the room, and a Black woman, people are always like, “Hmmm, well, what about?” I have to be like, “No, this is why I’m saying it. This is the data to back it up.” Then the second thing from that campaign, I was having a very tumultuous time, like mid to end of the campaign. I had found out that people in the campaign had told some of the networks that I wasn’t to be doing TV. When I found out, it was crazy because they were asking me to do press conferences with local press in Brooklyn and Harlem. I was just like, Oh, Jesus Christ. I’m not good enough for cable television, but I could speak to the presumably Black reporters in Brooklyn and Harlem? That is the moment that just really continued to submit for me that you’re going to always have to show them better than you can tell them.
Lindsay: I identify with so much of what you’re saying because I think that, as Black women, it always feels like it’s never enough. You feel like you have to overcompensate and just prove to the point of–
Symone: How many times have you been an editor-in-chief?
Lindsay: This is my second go.
Symone: Exactly. Your second go. I’m sure people are still asking you questions, and sometimes it’s exhausting.
Lindsay: It’s extremely exhausting. I was going to ask you. I’ve seen that TikTok. They’ve probably been serving it to me on purpose because they know what I’m thinking about how Black women have been saying, “I don’t want to be just considered the strong Black woman anymore.” How do you feel about that narrative? Does it feel like we have to continue to be strong? Even watching the Supreme Court hearings, I’m like, “She is so overqualified.” The questions, everything, it just feels like Black women are continuously at the point of being disrespected but also having to be so strong. I’m wondering how you’ve dealt with that at such a young age.
Symone: Look, I think that it is something … Donna Brazile told me this once. I remember calling her once on the campaign trail in 2016 and essentially I was complaining. I was complaining. I was tired. I was like, “Nah, nah, nah, all these things.” Donna Brazile said to me on the phone that day, she said, “Well, perhaps this isn’t the job for you.” I was very offended, and I got off the phone, and it took me a couple of days. I was like, “Donna, I don’t understand.” I finally called her back. What she was saying was that if I’m having issues at this level, the issues don’t change when you get higher, they just get harder. So the isms aren’t going away — the racism, ageism, sexism — we have to learn how to navigate through it.
Of course, we need to call it out when we see it. We need to work to eradicate it and bust down doors for people that’ll come behind us, but I can’t bust down the door if I don’t navigate through it. That is how I felt when I saw Judge Jackson because she navigated through it. The door is swung open even wider for all of those Black women judges that are coming after her.
Symone: All of those aspiring young law students. I think that just comes with the territory, but I also believe that we have to allow people to be dynamic and we have to allow Black women and women, period, to be dynamic individuals. We need to allow people to be vulnerable. I don’t want to be on the grind every day. I want to rest. Rest is very sexy to me. I like taking a nap.
Lindsay: I’m going to start saying that: Rest is sexy.
Symone: Yes. Rest is very sexy. Shout out to the naps out here. That’s what I like.
Lindsay: But in this job though, obviously you being an anchor, you have a show. How are you going to balance it? What led you to feel like that was the right thing for this next phase of your life?
Symone: I’m getting married this year. I’m getting married this summer. When I left–
Symone: Very excited. When I made the decision to leave the White House, there were all these questions about why. I was very clear. I was like, “I worked on the campaign with then-candidate Biden from the beginning. So I’ve essentially been working for Joe Biden for almost three years. I’m tired.” It is a lot to go from a campaign to the White House. So I said, “I want something to allow me to take a break.” Then I ended up with this show, and people are like, “Are you really taking a break?” I would note that I have been taking a break since I left the White House. But I think that balance is really about boundaries.
I signed up to do a job. I’m committed to it. I’m excited about it. I’m excited about the opportunity because there’s nobody that looks like me on TV. There’s nobody with my experience, my background, and my perspective. I want to open up and bring the perspectives of other people beyond the Beltway. So that is why I think this is so important, but I have boundaries. That means I get days off. That means that the things that I feel are important to do, specifically when it comes to my family, I’m going to go do those because people who just grind it out and don’t have outlets are not happy, pleasant people. So we’re going to do hard work, but we want to be pleasant when we do it, Lindsay. We want to have a good time.
Lindsay: I know. I’m trying to be better about it. I promise.
Symone: You need to give us some more cooking tutorials on Instagram.
Lindsay: I’m going to do it. I promise. For the listeners who aren’t familiar, I want to talk about your book, specifically why it was called No, You Shut Up.
Symone: Yes. No, You Shut Up.
Lindsay: The former Virginia attorney who told you to shut up for a minute. In hindsight, now that you’ve had time away from that experience and that moment, how does it feel now? What goes on in your head now and thinking of that moment and how it’s changed things for you?
Symone: Well, I guess I need to tell Ken Cuccinelli thank you because he gave me the title of my book and something to write about. In writing the book and then going around talking about my book, I found that every woman in America can identify with the shut-up experience. Somebody has proverbially told you to shut up in some way, shape, or form. Most people have not actually been told to shut up. That was a very visceral experience that I had, but I often find that we go through things and we don’t know it at the moment, but in the aftermath, it’s to help people. That moment particularly helped me. I didn’t feel that way at the moment. At that moment, I felt embarrassed. At the moment, I felt belittled because you must think less of me to think that you can talk to me like that on national television.
But I also stood up for myself at that moment without using curse words, I might add, so I can keep my job at the time. So I think it was just a lesson on the fly on a number of things. It’s compounded, and I draw from that now. I wrote a whole book about it, anchored in that. The book is about a number of other things. I just think that it’s a story I always share with other women, but particularly young women, because I think we need to know that our … again, I’m going back to boundaries. One of my good girlfriends is always talking to me about her boundaries and her therapist and the boundaries that her therapist is telling her about. We used to give her a hard time about the boundaries early on. But I think, frankly, I guess she and her therapist were right. Boundaries are very important.
Lindsay: They are.
Symone: One of those boundaries is how you allow people to treat you, your personal and professional line, I like to call it. You need to know what you’re going to do when someone crosses your personal or professional line. That day, Ken Cuccinelli crossed my personal and my professional line.
Lindsay: Thank you, Ken.
Symone: Thank you, Ken.
Lindsay: The second part of your subtitle is Reclaiming America. I’m sure you’ll be talking about this a ton in the show, but I’m interested in what you think that means now. There’s obviously so much always happening in the world. It feels like the news can be very overwhelming and depressing. So what do you feel like that really feels like now for you, and what do you hope that people think about in watching the show and reclaiming America overall?
Symone: Reclaiming America is as much about democracy as it is about the we. So I talk about it in my book. I talk about that, in the preamble to the Constitution, “We the people in order to form a more perfect union,” the we was not talking to you or I, Lindsay. The we only spoke to old, rich, white men and, over time, that we has expanded to include women, to include people of color, to include differently abled people, to include the LGBTQ+ community. The we is just ever expanding. It includes a diverse number of experiences and geography. I am excited to explore the ever-expanding we in my show but also issues of democracies. We’re going to talk about voting rights. We’re going to talk about reproductive rights. We’re going to talk about the fact that the Supreme Court is likely to gut Roe come this June and what that means for millions of women across the country.
Lindsay: Don’t remind me.
Symone: Yeah, we got to talk about it. People, don’t forget.
Lindsay: It stresses me out. We’ve been working on a lot of stuff on the Cut about this, and I’m just dreading it happening in real life because it feels like things move forward, and then it feels like everything moves back.
Symone: Democracy is a fight. It is a fight. It’s a democracy if you can keep it. You have to fight for democracy every single day. I think that maybe it’s something that we have not, and I say we as younger women, millennial folks, haven’t necessarily understood in a way that the generations before us understood. We are not that far removed from the civil-rights movement.
Symone: Not at all, but we live under very different privileges. I have the privilege to have a television show as a bald Black girl with long eyelashes and bedazzled nails and a little bold lip. Someone opened the door so that could be my experience, but democracy is a fight, and frankly, we are losing it, not just in America, but around the world. So that’s one of the things I want to talk about. I want to talk about elections. We’re going to cover the midterms but from various perspectives.
I think there’s a lot of focus on one to two different types of perspectives. People talk about suburban women, for example, as though suburban women are code for white women. Well, in some suburbs, the polling says, and the data shows, that increasingly the suburbs are very much so populated with women of color, and they are millennial women. These millennial moms, they’re moms. They own businesses. They have families. How we think about the we or the who needs to expand. I’m excited that I have an opportunity to do that with my show.
Lindsay: I hear that. I’m excited to hear how you guys bring about a lot of different current events. I think exposing things that are happening to people that they need to be more aware of, midterms, all those things for sure. Do you feel like any of this political discourse has gotten any better since Trump? Do you feel like these conversations have actually been able to move forward as someone who’s been part of a lot of these conversations and at the forefront of these conversations?
Symone: I think some conversations have moved forward in that we are now talking about different things. That you are seeing … because of representation in front of and behind the camera, we’re having different conversations. But I also see that progress has stalled a little bit in terms of our discourse because people just want to talk to the people that agree with them. I just don’t want to hear from people that agree with me. I don’t think everybody in America should be a Democrat. I think that having diversity in the political parties is important. I think having a diverse discourse across age and geography and background is important. Like on my show, I want to talk to Republicans. I had a really formative experience when I was a fellow at Harvard and the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School where I lived and worked with a number of people, many of whom did not agree with me ideologically.
Some of those people are folks that I count among good friends today. That is not how I would have … I wouldn’t be thinking about politics like that had I not had that immersive informative experience. So I think we need to have more conversations that could be uncomfortable, conversations with people that don’t necessarily agree with us. But I think that we should explore these topics. Now, Lindsay, I say this. I’m not trying to explore topics with white supremacists. We’re not trying to explore topics with people that just don’t believe women should exist or have jobs.
Lindsay: Nothing with ignorance.
Symone: Yeah. We want to have smart dialogue. So I’m excited to have smart conversations. I think the thing that I disliked about cable news when I was a commentator is the pension for everyone to just want to argue. I found people would come on set and we weren’t really trying to hear what everybody else was trying to say. Everybody was just waiting to get their point out or you’re waiting on somebody to say something inflammatory so you can get them. I don’t want that to be my show.
Lindsay: Something that I spent a lot of time thinking about when I was editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue was how do we get … I felt like people were always saying, “Oh, we need to get young people involved.” Honestly, I felt like it was actually quite easy to get young people really involved and care about the world outside of themselves. You could talk to young people about sustainability in 100 ways that they could make the world more sustainable, and they would be interested in wanting to change their daily habits immediately. But often I felt like, actually, the change was like, “How do we get nonpolitical people, people who think that midterms don’t matter, people who think that these things don’t matter actually to care?” How do you view that? If you were to get one of those people to watch your show, what would you want them to understand?
Symone: So I agree with you. I think young people, in general, are the most — and I’m talking about people younger than us — are the most engaged young people we have ever met. They’re volunteering. They have very clear ideas about things they like and don’t like. They have very clear ideas about what they feel their government is not doing for them. They’re paying attention. They may not vote. Now, they could be infrequent voters, but they are definitely paying attention.
Symone: I think that there are a lot of people, though, who aren’t paying attention. I think the way to reach those people is to, one, meet them where they are, like going into the communities and talking to them. One of the things I want to be able to do is focus groups. You always see these focus groups, and when’s the last time you saw a focus group that they did with young people, younger voters, or millennial voters across the board in, like, Wisconsin? I just think we have to meet people where they are and talk to them about the things that are important to them. I don’t think you can shove politics down people’s throats. Now, in my opinion, everything is political, meaning the ability to have green lettuce in your grocery store is, in fact, political.
Lindsay: Right. No, I 100 percent agree with that. What advice would you have for young women of color who are entering politics and journalism? I have to ask this because I know you always get this question, I’m sure, and DMs about it, but it will be helpful for anyone who’s listening. What do you think in hindsight now you would say to your younger self?
Symone: Well, I would, one, tell my younger self that you are good just the way you are. Do your research and be prepared. When I got my job with Senator Sanders, at that point, he was my 29th or 30th interview. I had been to a lot of interviews before him and nobody hired me. It was to the point where I didn’t think I was going to get a job in politics. In my interview with Senator Sanders, a question at the end of our conversation he asked me was, “Do you have an idea what you’d like to do?” Nobody else that I had ever interviewed with for any other jobs had said that to me. I told Senator Sanders, “Yes, I do. I would like to be the national press secretary. I want to do cable television. I want to be your on-the-record spokesperson, and I want to have a hand in the messaging strategy, just like we discussed here.” Senator Sanders laughed at me, and he said, “Have you ever done cable television before?” I told him, “No, I had not. But I do think that I would be very good at it.” He laughed, and that was a Thursday. On a Tuesday, the then–campaign manager Jeff Weaver called me and said that I got the job. When I said, “What is the job?” He said, “National press secretary.”
Now I had never been anybody’s national press secretary before, but I had done my research. I knew what I wanted for my next level, and I knew that although I had not done it before, I could perform. I think that a lot of times we, as young women, particularly young women of color, young Black women, sometimes we don’t want to ask for the things that we believe that we have worked for. I’m not talking about things that I want. This is what I’ve worked for.
Lindsay: I love that. We talk a lot about a woman’s relationship with ambition and how they get things done on the Cut. How has your relationship with ambition changed over the past couple of years? Where’s your head at with that now? We talked a little bit about boundaries earlier, but I think a lot of people look at someone like you and they’re like, Oh, she must do this and this and that. What does that relationship internally feel like with ambition?
Symone: One, I’m grateful. I remember a meme I came across some years ago, and it says, “I remember the days I prayed for the things I had now,” because it is such a good reminder. Obviously, I think of myself as an ambitious person. Part of the reason I went into politics is I think politicians and politics are one of the most powerful people or entities you could be involved in the world. I want to be a powerful person. I want to change things. You can’t change the world if you’re not powerful.
Symone: But also, I’ve learned to kind of stop and smell the flowers and don’t just plow through things to the point where you are not seeing how your work has paid off. I’m a faith-based person, how God has really poured into and helped orchestrate what has happened — because you can miss moments. I think the thing that really cemented this for me was in March of 2017, my dad had a stroke and he died two weeks later. So unexpected. He was super healthy. He was at the gym, got off the treadmill, said he didn’t feel well, and then collapsed. He woke up maybe a couple of days later but was dead within two weeks.
Lindsay: I’m so sorry.
Symone: Thank you. Yeah, it was … well, I guess it’s five years ago now. I will never forget that I was at work when it happened, and I decided to come home. I was at work in D.C. I decided to come home to Omaha. Then I had a speaking engagement in Toronto, and I was like, Oh, dang, already took these people’s money. I’ve got to go. So my mom is just like, “People want you to go.” I go. I’m in Toronto. I gave the best speech I’ve ever given at the time. Then I woke up in the middle of the night and find out my dad passed that evening. I went right back to work after it was all over. I went to the funeral. Then I was back at work, and I was just plowing through, plowing through, plowing through. I was so upset at myself because I was looking back at text messages. I was thinking of the times I didn’t respond to text messages, the times I decided not to go home, and the things that I missed with family. I even felt like I had to plow through it and continue to work because I was building and I didn’t want to miss that moment. A friend of mine, one day I was in the airport, and she called and she said, “Oh, I heard your father died. Are you okay?” I just broke down crying in the airport. This was like two months later. She was like, “You need to get some help. You need to go see a grief counselor. You need to go to therapy.”
That phone call helped save my life and just help change my mind-set. I’m so grateful. There are more things that I want in this world. I’m not going to get less hungry, but I am now more aware. I think awareness is a really important part of ambition, and reflection is an important part of that, too, because we can’t go, go, go and miss it all and not learn from things. So I feel really grateful to be where I am right now with the people that I’m with doing a new thing that I think I’m going to love.
Lindsay: I’m so excited for you. Thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it. It’s always such a joy to talk with you.
Symone: Thank you, Lindsay. Always a joy to speak with you. We are having you on the show. Y’all, watch Symone.