If you've been watching the presidential campaign (even from behind your fingers), you've probably seen Symone Sanders on television representing the Sanders campaign as his national press secretary — and standing out, not only for her political savvy, depth of knowledge on the issues, and complete poise, but also because she's a rare young black female face in a sea of white talking heads. Symone left the Sanders campaign back in June and, now, after a break, is working for the Democratic National Convention Committee, prepping to nominate Hillary Clinton this week as the first female nominee of a major national political party. We spoke to her about representing black girls, being a political player, and what she's looking forward to this week.
Mikki Halpin: Let's get one thing cleared up right off the bat. In your role as Senator Sanders' national press secretary, you did a lot of press for the campaign. Every time I saw you on TV or read a quote from you in the paper, there was a little parenthesis next to your name: "no relation." You are, in fact, no relation. Did this drive you crazy, though?
Symone Sanders: Everywhere I went, I was "Symone D. Sanders (no relation)." I didn't know that was going to become my tagline, but it did, and I mostly thought it was funny. Once I was doing a radio interview, remotely, and the commentator said, "I'm here with Symone Sanders. She is not related to the senator, and I know that because I met her." I just replied, "For everyone out there listening, he said that because I'm black." I was like, "It's OK, the senator is my brother in the movement, and that's why I'm here today."
MH: How did you end up becoming the national press secretary for the Sanders campaign?
SS: I was working at a think tank in the global trade division, but I really wanted to be in the thick of it this cycle. I'm not a Hill staffer, I'm a campaign worker. I got a call from the senator's office and, eventually ended up talking to him. We talked about everything: education, trade, economic inequality. Then he asked me a question nobody else had ever asked. He said, "Do you have an idea of what you think you'd want to do here?" I said, "I'd like to be the national press secretary. I want to be your spokesperson, I want to do cable television, network, speak for the campaign on the record, and I want to help pass the message." He asked, "Have you ever done cable or network television before?" I said, "No, but I think I'd be very good at it." He laughed and said, "OK, we'll be in touch." A couple of days later they called me and gave me the job. So that's how I got to be the national press secretary. Ask for what you want, and you might get it. Shoot for the moon, the planets, and sometimes you'll get one.
MH: Why did you want that job, even though you had no experience?
SS: I believe that spokespeople are some of the most powerful people in politics, because during a campaign it's all about the message. I have always wanted to be in the communications space because I represent an important demographic all across the board, and I believe people like me should be involved in the process.
MH: There haven't been many black women with a spokesperson role.
SS: People were often very surprised when I introduced myself to them and they learned my role in the campaign. That's OK, because I am happy to jump up and demonstrate that black girls are spokeswomen, too. I, too, belong in this space. One would think that in 2016 we wouldn't have to jump up and say those kinds of things, but it still needs to be done.
The reason I had my opportunity is because of folks like Donna Brazile, who was the first African American woman to lead a presidential campaign. People like Karen Finney, who served as a spokesperson for the DNC and is now with the Clinton campaign. It's sad, but no one thinks to automatically make an African American woman or a Latino woman the spokesperson for general issues. They come to us for women's issues, or about issues connected to communities of color, but never for things like trade.
MH: Last time we spoke, you told me about some really frustrating experiences you had on the road that you felt were definitely related to being a woman of color. Do you want to talk a little bit about those?
SS: There were multiple instances. There were places where I literally I couldn't get in. I would go to the door, the staff entrance, and people would say, "This is staff only." I'd have to explain to them that I was staff, and they would question me. I would have to say, "I'm the national press secretary. Did you watch me on the news the other day?" It was consistently happening. There was one week where it happened the entire week.
My breaking point was a time when I had let the event staff know I was having trouble getting in places and asked them if they could just really make an extra effort for this particular day, because it had been a long week. Like, "Could you please just let folks know that I'm coming and that I'm black?" You don't think you'd have to say those things, but I said, "Let them know there's going to be a black girl that's going to come to the front and please let her in."
So I got past the first few checkpoints, but then I pulled into a parking spot and a gentleman came running up to my car, banging on my window, yelling all kinds of profanity and expletives, telling me to get the F out of here, this is for staff, and that I didn't belong back here. I broke down in the car. I cracked my window down and I said, "I'm the national press secretary!" I was just crying. Eventually someone came down and let me in.
Senator Sanders found out about it later, and he and his wife, Jane, were horrified. They knew it was plain old racism and nothing else. During his speech that night, he spent a little extra time on the part about race relations in America and racism. It made me feel really great to know that I was working for somebody that in that instance, got it.
This all goes to show that we have come so far in so many places in our American life, but in politics we still have some ways to go in terms of staffing and representation on various levels. Not only do we need more women and more people of color in the House, and in the Senate, and in state Houses all across this country, and more women and more people of color in executive office, like the presidency, but we also need to make sure that representation is there on the staff level.
MH: What was it like working with the Sanders campaign specifically? It was so historic.
SS: My first day out on the campaign trail was August 7, the weekend of the anniversary of Michael Brown's death, and my first rally was Seattle. There were about 15,000 people, which is huge. I think political rallies are the best example of what's great about America, because regardless of who the candidate is, the people are coming because they love what this candidate is talking about. They really care about these issues. There are people that are screaming, there are people that are crying, because they're so moved by the message that they hear. We need more people to come out to feel engaged, feel involved, feel fired up about what's going on, and that's what I felt out there on the campaign trail with the senator.
MH: What made you decide to leave the campaign? Senator Sanders was still a candidate.
SS: I had a great run with the Sanders campaign, but I believe you just have to know when it's time to go. I am very appreciative for the relationships I built there, for the opportunity that the senator afforded me, and very proud of the work that we did, but I just felt that my time with the campaign had come to an end and that I wanted to take a little break and do something just a little bit different. I am definitely committed, and I was then, and I am still now, to doing everything I can to help elect good, progressive Democrats up and down the ticket. It was clear by the time that I left that Secretary Clinton was the presumptive Democratic nominee, and I want to make sure that Hillary Clinton is the 45th president of the United States.
I do think that we are at a pointed and poignant time in our history where not only do we have the chance to elect the first woman as president of the United States, but we have a responsibility to put the issues front and center. To promote the issues that I care deeply about — like criminal-justice reform, juvenile-justice reform, education, climate change, trade, economics, addressing economic inequality, and closing that wealth gap — I cannot sit on the sidelines.
If I really care about those issues, I have to be committed to doing every single thing that I can to ensure that they stay at the front and center, and that the person at the very, very top of the ticket is somebody that's going to carry the water for those issues and my community. All those things went into my thought process about leaving, and thinking about what I was going to do next, and why I joined the Democratic National Convention Committee. Not only is there the fact that Donald Trump just can't be president, but I really do believe that in this election we have the opportunity to vote for something and not just against Donald Trump.
MH: A lot of people would say that Hillary is not known for her criminal-justice credentials.
SS: It is true — some would argue that criminal-justice reform isn't necessarily her thing. But I think that that is even more so why it's important for people like myself, and young people all over this country who do care about that issue, to get engaged and get involved. You have to do more than say "We're going to hold you accountable"; you have to work to help make sure that this issue is front and center and positioned where you want it to be. I think that while the secretary is not necessarily known for criminal-justice reform, or for being a criminal-justice reformer, if you will, I think she's indicated she's willing and ready to listen. She's noted that lots of policies that she's previously supported, or policies that have happened that she didn't necessarily have anything to do with, have been detrimental to communities of color, and that she wants to help beef up this piece of her policy apparatus.
My feeling is, you want to beef that up? I'm here to help do the work. I've worked on criminal-justice reform, I've worked on juvenile-justice reform, I've been an advocate, I've rallied folks around policy, I've brought millennial perspectives to policy conversations, I've authored recommendations for federal advisory committees, to the president, Congress, and other entities. I really do believe that Secretary Clinton is sincere, ready, and willing to get the work done, and I want to do my part on that team to get that work done, and that's why I was so eager, ready, and willing to join the Democratic National Convention Committee.
I honestly believe that this is a poignant moment. This is our chance to carry that tide, the great tide of change and progress that Barack Obama brought in 2008 through 2012, that he's bringing through his last term, to keep carrying that tide. This is the next step, and we cannot afford to have progress derailed by a Trump presidency.
MH: What are you looking forward to the most at the DNC?
SS: I'm looking forward to just really being a part of history. 2008 was a historical convention, and 2016 is going to be another historical convention. I'm very excited for when the convention officially nominates Secretary Clinton, and I'm excited to hear all the speeches: Senator Sanders, the First Lady, and President Clinton. I'm very excited to hear from the mothers of the movement. I think that's a really special piece. Unfortunately, it's extremely timely, but this is what America and the world need to hear. I'm very excited to hear their speech.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Mikki Halpin is Lenny's editor at large.