Exclusive: Roxane Gay talks to Elizabeth Warren about self-care, student debt and politics

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Last month, Roxane endorsed Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic presidential nomination. Here, she interviews the US Senator exclusively for Stylist.      

Stylist’s guest editor Roxane Gay says: During the 2016 election campaign, I was confident, too confident in fact, that Hillary Clinton would be elected the first woman president of the United States. And I was excited because not only was she an excellent candidate, it was about damn time we elected a woman to run the country.

I was moderately vocal about my support of Clinton’s candidacy but I know I didn’t do everything I could have to support her campaign efforts. Partly, I was complacent and partly, I did not have the energy to deal with the obsessive trolls who froth at the mouth anytime Clinton’s name is mentioned in political discourse. Now, I am not so vain as to think that if I had done more, the outcome of that election would have been different, but I do know that if I had done everything I could, it would have been easier to accept her unexpected loss. 

When it came to the 2020 election, I knew I could not sit idly by and simply hope that the best candidate would win. Unlike the 2016 election, there are several qualified candidates running for the Democratic nomination.

There is Senator Kamala Harris, the former attorney general of California, focussing her campaign on criminal justice and challenging the unchecked actions of Wall Street. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is running as the first openly gay presidential candidate. Familiar political figures Senator Bernie Sanders and former vice-president Joe Biden are in the mix. Senator Cory Booker is running a credible campaign. A guy I went to high school with, Andrew Yang, is running a non-traditional campaign and has gotten attention not only for his vocal followers, who call themselves the “Yang Gang”, but for his support of a universal basic income, among other forward-thinking ideas. 

US Senator Elizabeth Warren at a Pride march in Las Vegas last month.

The candidate who intrigues me most, though, is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has held that position since 2013. She has had a long career of public service and before that she was a Harvard Law professor, where she was much-lauded as an excellent and passionately committed teacher. What interests me most about Warren is that she is dynamic, intelligent, and seemingly has a plan for everything, so much so that it has become a cultural meme.

When comedian Ashley Nicole Black asked on Twitter if Warren had a plan to fix her love life, Warren responded that Black should “DM me and let’s figure this out.” In terms of policy Warren has plans for protecting women’s reproductive freedom, dealing with climate change, ensuring adequate healthcare for all Americans, keeping Wall Street accountable, taxing ultra-millionaires, creating more equity in public education for students of all ages, and much more. 

She has made missteps, most notably in claiming Native American heritage because of family lore, but in early 2019, she apologised for making those claims and has worked with Native American leaders to make amends. The real measure of a political candidate is not what they say but rather what they do, and thus far, I have been impressed by Warren’s actions, how she has evolved her thinking on important issues, and the campaign team she has assembled to support her presidential bid.

Warren has spoken to the communities on the front lines of the climate crisis, pledging to elevate their voices and fight for a clean energy economy.

On the campaign trail, Warren is energetic, always walking like she has somewhere to go and really wants to get there. She is known for taking selfies with people she meets at campaign events. She regularly calls campaign donors to thank them for their support. Not long ago, my phone rang and I didn’t recognise the number. I answered brusquely, because I don’t particularly care for talking on the phone, and nearly fell off my couch when a voice said, “Roxane? It’s Elizabeth Warren, and I want to thank you for your endorsement.”

This week, I had the opportunity to ask Senator Warren a few questions, via email, about her presidential aspirations, not taking the black vote for granted, and what people should know about her political ideas. 

The most obvious question is, why do you want to be president? It seems like such a fraught and thankless job.

So I never thought I would get into politics. I grew up out in Oklahoma in a paycheque-to-paycheque family. I’ve had the same dream since I was in second grade. I wanted to be a [state] school teacher. My path was a little bumpy. My family didn’t have any money for college, so I got a debate scholarship. Then I dropped out of school at 19 to get married. My big chance came a bit later, in the form of the University of Houston – back then a commuter college that cost just $50 a semester in tuition. I graduated; I became a special needs teacher and got to teach at law school. I have lived my dream. 

Warren is proud to have been a state-educated rather than fee-paying high school student and has pledged to invest heavily in state schools.

So it’s a fair question. Why am I doing this? Because right now, we have a country that is working great for the wealthy and leaving everybody else behind. I’m running for president because I want to change that. Because I know what’s broken, I know how to fix it, and I’m building a grassroots movement to make it happen.

Plus, I’m having a great time meeting people on the trail. 75,000+ selfies and counting!

Black voters are often taken for granted by the Democratic party even though we are a powerful constituency with varied political concerns and interests. Why should black voters consider you as the best person to become president in 2020? What kinds of things are you doing to learn more about the concerns of black voters?

As a law professor and consumer advocate, I spent much of my career figuring out why families go broke. What I found is that the path to economic security is steep for so many people – but it’s even steeper and rockier for black and brown families. That’s why it’s so important to me that our movement for big, structural change centres and highlights black and brown communities. Because I know that big, structural change is not possible until we confront the systemic, government-sponsored discrimination and institutional racism that exists in this country. So for me, a lot of it starts with listening. As I travel the country, from the Mississippi Delta to Detroit, I meet with leaders from black and brown communities whenever I can, so I can hear directly from them about the local and national issues that they think are most important. 

I’m not taking anyone’s vote for granted. Black women in particular are the backbone of the Democratic party, and without their trust and support, no Democrat will be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020. I’m willing to fight for them.

Listening to black women and black voters is a big part of my agenda. My environmental justice plan was developed in part by listening to the concerns of residents of formerly redlined neighbourhoods [redlining is the systematic denial of services and financial products in mostly non-white areas] who spoke to me about their fight against drinking water pollution caused by inadequate municipal sewage systems. I’ve listened to previously incarcerated people and communities experiencing high levels of incarceration and came up with a plan to reimagine our criminal justice system. I’ve heard the stories about Tribal Nations who have been disproportionately impacted by environmental racism and the effects of climate change. I’ve listened to the most vulnerable coastal communities who face the greatest threats, from not just sea-level rise, but a century of encroaching industrial polluters. My student debt plan was designed to close the racial wealth gap. I have a plan to close the startup capital gap for entrepreneurs of colour.

I believe that government played a role in creating the racial wealth gap. It is the responsibility of government to fix it. 

A gun-control advocate, Warren met with Parkland shooting survivor Emma González in October and promised to challenge the might of the NRA.

How do you decide who to listen to when making political decisions?

My campaign is run on the principle of equal access for anybody who joins it. That means no fancy fundraisers or spending hours on the phone with wealthy donors. Instead, I’m calling to thank people who have donated $5 or $10. I’m listening to them – and to the people I meet on the campaign trail. After my town halls, I spend hours taking selfies with every single person who wants one. Partly because it’s fun, but partly because it gives me a chance to hear directly from folks about their problems and what they think the solutions should be. Those are my most important meetings.

My campaign is about living the values we fight for everyday and that includes listening to the frontline communities who have been leading the fight to create an America of our best values: from activists to community leaders to faith leaders. 

What characteristics do you value most in choosing your staff?

I believe that ultimately, personnel is policy. I want people who come from a diversity of backgrounds and life experiences. I want people who do their homework. And I want people who are optimistic about our ability to make big, structural changes in this country and who will fight tooth and nail to make it happen.

Student debt is a real problem for millions of Americans but still there are those who feel like any plan to cancel student loan debt would be unfair, or allowing people to get away with something. What do you say to those who harbour such prejudice against debt cancellation?

Cancelling student loan debt will benefit all of us. The enormous student debt burden is weighing down millions of Americans and our country’s economy. It’s preventing people from starting businesses or buying a home.

Running a grassroots campaign without federal lobbyists and high-level fundraisers, Warren calls individual supporters to thank them for donations.

Cancelling student loan debt will be a big boost for our economy. Right now we have a broken system, and my plan is designed to close the racial wealth gap by cancelling student debt for 42 million Americans. It would provide a middle-class stimulus that will boost economic growth, increase home purchases, and fuel a new wave of small business formation in America.

We’ve talked a lot about self-care in the cultural discourse. As you serve in the Senate and run for president, what kinds of things do you do to care for yourself?

I walk – a lot! I try to keep my average around seven miles or above every day. Sometimes I get my steps in walking around a hotel parking lot, or in the airport terminal. When I’m on the road, I always call my husband Bruce at the end of the day. When I’m home, we like to take our golden retriever Bailey for long walks (you’re probably sensing a pattern here). And sometimes we like to just sit on the couch and binge a new TV show. That used to be Ballers, but now that the series has ended we’re looking for something new. Any suggestions? 

I highly recommend Succession, also on HBO. It’s dark, funny, and uncomfortable, which makes for amazing television. I have one last question. What are the three most important things people unfamiliar with your politics should know?

The first is this is deeply personal for me. When I was 12, my daddy had a heart attack and he couldn’t go back to his old job. That’s when I learned words like mortgage and foreclosure, we lost our family station wagon and we almost lost our home. My mom saved us with a minimum wage job but today a minimum wage job can’t keep a mama and her baby out of poverty. That is just wrong and it’s why I am in this fight.

Second, this is my life’s work. I’ve spent my whole career studying why families go broke and how the wealthy and well-connected have used government to deliberately tilt the playing field against families. That’s corruption and we have to call it out. I know what’s broken and I’ve put out my plans on how we can fix it – so you can hold me accountable for following through. 

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Third, we can’t make our government, economy, or democracy work without millions of people pushing from the outside and building a grassroots movement to make the change we need to make. 

Photography: Instagram/@elizabethwarren, Getty Images

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