Talking Politics with Zora Ilunga-Reed of We the Ppl

Starting a semester school in DC for high school juniors interested in ethics, politics, social change, and leadership was a nerve-wracking experience for me. All around me were fellow teenagers so invested in and passionate about current affairs and making a difference. I had never seen so much intelligence, courage, and drive in one place. It was easy to be overwhelmed.

But amid all this stood Zora Ilunga-Reed, a native New Yorker attending the program with me. She was, and remains, a passionate debater, Angela Merkel fan, and kindhearted leader. I've learned so much from her-- her ability to inform and teach is amazing. But you don't need to be at our semester school to hear Zora's words of wisdom. Zora is the founder and host of the podcast We the Ppl: Politics for Those Who Can't Vote. Zora covers current affairs such as the 2016 election and Black Lives Matter with a mature and unique perspective, discussing with fellow teenagers who often feel their voices are unheard in the world of politics. I sat down with Zora in our dorm's bathtub and discussed her podcast, her perspective, and her favorite German chancellor.

Penny Mack: Why did you start We the Ppl?
Zora Ilunga-Reed: So, this is a little known fact, but my mother one day, it was probably early June/late May, came into my room and she said, "Hey, what if you started a podcast?" And I was like, "shut up, Mom," and went on with my work. And I was doing my work, and school was ending, and I kind of liked the idea, and I thought about it, let it marinate in my brain or whatever, and then I decided to do it. I guess when I first started thinking about getting into it I didn't realize the kind of impact it would have on my life, and the work I'd have to put into it. I thought I would just record me talking and it would sound great and people would love it and I'd automatically just be famous and it'd be awesome. But it didn't go like that. At all. Which I think is actually what made it a really important experience, and I think it would have been less valuable if it was just like, Bam! Famous! or, Damn, this is easy.

PM: So for those who haven't listened, what kind of topics have you discussed?
ZIR: I didn't really know what the podcast would be about when I started. I just thought oh I'll talk about politics with people who are too young to vote, that's cool. And so the first one was about the election in general, Bernie Sanders mostly, because that's what a lot of teenagers were talking about back in June or July. And then from there I broadened things and got more specific in each episode. I talked about immigration, the immigration reform that was put into place by Obama, with two people who immigrated to the US, which was probably one of my favorite episodes. I've talked about Black Lives Matter movement with a bunch of teenagers from different backgrounds. I also did a little series about all the [political] conventions and I talked to someone who identifies as a Republican and I talked to someone who identifies as a Democrat, who are both under 18 obviously. I guess I've broadened because of the BLM episode, not just politics but also social issues in general. But I also would love to cover economics and finance. So I guess politics is a little bit too specific to describe what I do with the podcast, but I think it's a good cover of everything, I mean everything is basically relates back to politics and policy.

PM: So how did you choose those topics?
ZIR: I choose mostly just things I find interesting and things that I think haven't yet been done by people my age; I mean obviously I kind of forego that role sometimes... Black Lives Matter, that's been covered a lot by people my age, but that was something that I felt I really needed to say something about, just for my own personal... happiness, I guess? I felt like it was just a one or two sided issue at the time, so I wanted people of different races to talk about it and I wanted to facilitate that. But how do I choose the topics? It's usually what I find interesting, it's usually something I think that I could easily talk about at a dinner party that wouldn't completely bore people to death. That's kind of my rule of thumb. I don't think I'd be able to continue making the podcast if I had to do just boring research.

PM: It's interesting you talk about what our generation hasn't really heard about, because I feel like a lot of people our age are really interested in social justice-- racism, police brutality, feminism, sexuality-- but I never really hear anyone talk about politics. So I think that's really interesting, approaching it from that side.
ZIR: Yeah, that was part of the reason I thought it was an [important] thing to do. There's this whole taboo, and I talked about this in one of my episodes, surrounding the idea of having young people be a part of politics, because obviously there's a restriction on the voting age, you have to be a certain age to run for president; there's all of these age-based rules in the political sphere. So that makes it a taboo when young people start having ideas about actual policy change, because we're just supposed to protest in the streets, right? That's the stereotype. Which is why I think it's very empowering, or I hope it's empowering, to hear the younger generation.

PM: Yeah, well that kind of goes into my next question, which is what role can teenagers play in politics? What can we gain from just discussing it, what can we do?
ZIR: I actually did do an episode about that, but it was very specific to the [2016 presidential] campaigns. I'd say, in a broad sense... you know, I attended the youth council at the Democratic Nation Convention this year, which was really eye-opening, it was really cool. There are all of these organizations out there that you can volunteer for and get your voice heard in that way. So that's one way. The other thing I'd say is just have conversations with people. And I know people probably say that a lot, just talk to your friends about politics and maybe something will happen, but it's actually very true. Because part of the reason I started the podcast was that I was getting more and more annoyed at people I was talking to, or adults I was talking to, saying oh, your ideas are interesting, but you can't vote, as if that was a reason for me to just stop talking. And so I think continuing to have that conversation and continuing to have it in an informed and knowledgeable way and not just I hate Donald Trump or I hate Hillary Clinton, more like these are the reasons Donald Trump has happened and these are the reasons we should be worried about that. Thinking about the actual impacts and factors, talking to your friends about that, that's really important. And then the third thing I'd say is, if talking isn't you thing, just read and write if you want and try to learn more. Two years ago I didn't even know half the stuff about politics that I know now. Part of that is just getting older and worrying about the world and part of it is just making the actual effort to teach yourself about the world and learn about how things are run. We might not be able to vote now but we'll be able to vote in the next election. I'm one of the people who believe the key to democracy is an informed electorate-- if the people who are voting don't know about the issues, then democracy just doesn't work out. So, starting to work on that. You're never too young.

PM: You mentioned all these age based rules. In my opinion, they're put in place for a reason, but what are your thoughts on that? Should we be able to vote or do you think we're not ready?
ZIR: I've been asked that a lot. I think the policy put in place right now is really smart. I know enough sixteen year olds or people under the age of eighteen who, if we changed the voting laws, would be able to vote and that would be pretty detrimental to the country, because as I said before a lot of people just don't take it upon themselves to teach themselves, or they don't care, and adding more uneducated voters would just be absolutely horrible. That being said, I don't think we're being discriminated against because of the age difference because there's still ways that we can be involved.

PM: And I'm sure there's people who vote who are less informed than some sixteen year olds.
ZIR: Oh definitely, definitely. It always goes both ways.

PM: I think you're really insightful into the technicalities of politics. We were talking today on your podcast and I thought it was really interesting how you pointed out Trump using teleprompters. Like, it was just such a small detail, and I was like wow, she knows her shit!
ZIR: And that's another... it's not a challenge so much, but I've had to become a lot more informed. Before, I wasn't. I was definitely one of those people who was like I don't really care. I might be condemning them now, but I was, and easily still could be, one of those people. It's very easy to be like that. And I don't mean to condemn them on that. It's natural.

PM: So where would you like the podcast to go?
ZIR: Ahhh... [pause] So right now I'm sixteen. I don't think it'll be my place to continue the podcast after I'm eighteen. I'm not going to be able to vote in 2018 because there's no election, but I don't think it would be fair. My hope is that if I build the fanbase enough or follower base I can pass it on to someone else, do a little guidebook thing, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants... I think that would be really great. I think it will also change a lot after the election is over. I'm probably going to do fewer episodes, it's going to be more of a season two sort of thing.

PM: It was a good time to get into it then.
ZIR: Right. That was the other main reason I started it [when I did], because it's the middle of a crazy awesome election. Awesome in the sense that it creates awe. So I'm hoping to do two more years of it. If not, if people don't pick it up, I guess it will just die in the way that things on the internet sometimes do. But I don't really have a problem with that. I think it's a temporary sort of thing, like youth.

PM: Unrelated-- who are your political/activist icons?
ZIR: Oh, wow, yeah that's a good question. I talk about her a lot, but I love Angela Merkel. I wrote a paper on her this past year and I ended up researching her way more than we needed. She's just an amazing, inspirational figure to me for a couple of reasons. One is that she's a feminist rulebreaker in that she's the first female chancellor of Germany, she's also the youngest, and she's also the first East German chancellor. But asides from that, she's had an amazing career in that she's the most powerful woman in the EU, but she keeps this really low profile. She isn't afraid to eat barbecue in front of the press and wear weird pantsuits all the time, although I do love her pantsuits, and just be a lowkey person, a lowkey figure, and I just love that in someone.

PM: I love that. Imagine if Hillary ate in front of the press. Donald Trump would attack her.
ZIR: And Angela Merkel has had her fair share of attacks. I think she's stayed really strong in that aspect. Especially right now because her ratings are dropping. Another icon... it's very, very, very cliché, but obviously Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. I think both of those people have influenced me because my mom always fed us black history in February and through the rest of the year. Just the idea that you can be an activist and stick up for your rights in multiple different ways, violently, peacefully, with words, with actions. That's always really inspired me. So I'd say those three people.

PM: That's a pretty good list! So, do you identify with our generation or do you feel like because of different amounts of information that different people have we're separated? Or do you think there's a common interest?
ZIR: I think one thing that's really struck me as I've gotten older is how much people really care about their rights in our generation, me included in that. And I think it's just the amount of protests I've seen, or been to, or heard about. The amount of posts that are shared on Facebook. I think not only are we very avid social media users, we're very intense social justice people. And maybe that's just the circles that I'm around, but in general I think our generation really cares about equality and fairness and justice, which is really inspiring. And I do identify with that to some extent. I feel, though, that we're creating a lot of activists, which is not really a bad thing, but it's important to notice the different ways you can be involved in politics, like journalism and the media, and by actually making the laws, and by being the person who helps that person make the laws, being a lawyer. You don't have to be a professional activist all the time. I'd also say, this is a kind of precaution I guess, and one of the ways that I don't identify so much with out generation, is that we become very politically correct very quickly. That's a little bit of a fear I have watching the Donald Trump alt-right movement rise, because that's the backlash you receive from that. It's a little terrifying, and it's a good wakeup call because we can't always make every single person happy. That's just not the nature of things, although I'd love it to be. That's just something I've been thinking about recently. How PC people have become and how little we want conflict. It's not that I want conflict, but I think we're shying away from our differences in that sense.

PM: Do you think that has something to do with all the conflict that our generation has faced? Especially with BLM, there's been so much racial conflict, and there's conflict with trans bathroom rights, all kinds of stuff. We've seen so much change, do you think political correctness is a symptom of that?
ZIR: I would definitely agree with that. I also think we've been growing up in a very changing era. Most of us were around for [the election of] the first black president. For me, he's the only president we've had that I remember. I was born when Bush was president, but that had no effect on me, so when I think of president I think of Obama. And I think that definitely changes the way we view leadership, because even people born five, ten years before us don't see that so much. And I definitely agree. Being PC has always been around, it's always been something people hide behind when they have differences and conflict, but it's definitely become something that we now can see the real consequences of that. And, yeah, it's a response to not wanting conflict anymore.

PM: So coming off of that, my final question: do you have faith in our generation?
ZIR: Definitely. Part of it is because I'm part of the generation, if I didn't have faith in it, I don't know what I'd do. One thing I would say to commend our generation is I think we're pretty hardworking. Yes... we'll definitely be a good generation. That being said, there's things to look out for: the PC thing I said before, and also the fact that we're all beginning to overly simplify our lives, especially through technology, noticing how quickly things can be transcribed into the digital and we lose a part of real life. Yeah. I have faith in our generation, but we need to shape up a little bit before I can say that with complete confidence.

text and visual: penny mack
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