Demos Head Talks Democracy

- May• 11•17
Demos President Heather McGhee with Women’s Alliance President Mary Geissman. (Photo by Chris Goodwin)

Demos President Heather McGhee with Women’s Alliance President Mary Geissman. (Photo by Chris Goodwin)

You may have first seen Heather McGhee on Meet the Press or Real Time with Bill Maher or Hardball with Chris Matthews, but on Saturday, May 6, the progressive pundit made an appearance at All Souls hosted by the Women’s Alliance. As the featured speaker at the Alliance’s Spring Event, she covered a wide range of topics from the economy to last fall’s election to immigration and racial prejudice.

And the audience of mostly women and a few intrepid men paid close attention over their strawberry shortcake and other desserts. McGhee, who holds a Bachelor’s in American studies from Yale University and a University of California law degree, also writes for the New York Times and The Nation. But it is her easy-going but focused interaction on the workings of our democracy that account for her popularity as its defender.

Demos (the people), where McGhee is president, describes itself as “a public policy organization working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy.”

Asking for a show of hands from the audience from those who participated in January’s Women’s March and getting a good response, McGhee said she believes that we are at a moment of civic renewal and awakening of deep American values. “It’s exciting, and it’s overdue.”

Most engaging of the stories McGhee told was the experience of answering a caller on a CSpan talk show last summer before the presidential election. Callers posed a wide range of questions, she said, and one, a man named Garry from North Carolina, confessed to being racially prejudiced. How, he asked, might he go about remedying the situation? “How can I become a better American?”

Taking a deep breath, McGhee made a number of simple suggestions: get to know a black family; join a black or interracial church; learn some African American history. The interchange went viral on the Internet and the story was picked up by the Washington Post and CNN. Eventually, McGhee found out Garry’s full name and that he lived in Asheville. She and her husband visited him and have remained friends. His newfound attention to racial matters (the Confederate flag among them) has lost him some friends, but McGhee assured him he has her friendship and that of others. (You can see a video of McGhee and Garry speaking live on the demos.org website.)

“We are at a moment of deep reckoning on the question of who is really American,” she said. “And what is America? Is it a competitive marketplace where we meet to discuss money and power? Is that why all the world’s people have come here? Or is it our destiny…to form a demos out of the world’s population and reject the idea that we are somehow different and that some are better than others?”

“I believe that it takes all of us.”

A lively period of Q&A followed.

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