Author and former Ambassador Samantha Power joins Sinéad in Dublin to talk about embracing vulnerability, and the moment that sparked Power’s immense drive to learn about the world.
[00:43] Sinéad Burke: Hello and welcome to As Me with Sinéad. Sunday was International Women’s Day. And actually, I spent Sunday with a wonderful group of new friends. An incredible person, Annie Mack, who is a DJ on BBC Radio, brought us all together, thought that we’d have something in common, and the conversations that ebbed and flowed were just extraordinary. But the day before I was onstage at Southbank in London on behalf of British Vogue, which is as terrifying as it actually seems. I got to facilitate a conversation around how do we turn the rhetoric that is so strident in relation to diversity and particularly so frequent on something like International Women’s Day, how do we turn it into action? Not just those of us who are diverse or minority voices in some way, but how does everybody participate? Particularly in an era where coronavirus is taking hold? And not that one should take precedent over the other, but actually all of these things intersect. As we’re seeing from the coronavirus, the people who are most affected are those who are elderly, have underlying health conditions, which I think is a synonym for disabled in some way. So if we don’t think about these intersections through the lens in which we look at every other aspect of our lives, will anything change at all?
[02:06] Sinéad Burke: I am hopeful. I’m hopeful for the people who attended the discussion and thought that it was an important issue to learn more about. I’m hopeful from the panelists. Paris Lees, who spoke about her experience as a trans woman and the importance of authoring your own story when a media narrative wants to define your existence as something which everybody else should debate. I learned a lot and I’m very grateful to the team at British Vogue, which is a ridiculous sentence to be able to say, for having me on board. But what did you do for International Women’s Day? I think if I could do anything, I would surround myself with the people I love most. And not that I didn’t get to do that, but it’s something I’m going to schedule into the calendar for March 8th next year. One of the great things about this show is the number of extraordinary female voices that we’ve got to hear from and I’ve got to learn more about. It has been such a privilege. And in honor of the specific holiday of International Women’s Day, I’m so excited to share with you this thoughtful conversation that I had with Ambassador Samantha Power. She is somebody I admire enormously, not just for her diplomacy, but also for her connection to Ireland. A couple of years ago, I saw her speak in the Abbey Theater about the importance of the arts in moving hearts and minds on policy issues. And I’ve been, well, obsessed with her ever since. So what a joy to get to talk to her on the show. And specifically, we talked about how she broke through personal barriers to learn about this world that we all live in.
[03:41] Samantha Power: When you don’t know something about something, there are many reasons you don’t necessarily pursue that knowledge. You may not be curious. You may not be interested. But a major barrier to entry is no one likes feeling dumb. And so for me, when I went back to university, I was so aware of how little I knew, what the real threshold that I crossed, I think, was not amoral to moral, or uninterested in current affairs to being interested in current affairs. It was much more I would prefer to have my gaps, my mammoth canyon-like gaps in my knowledge exposed than to not learn.
[04:26] Sinéad Burke: What’s on my mind this week: I can’t stop thinking about the very surreal opportunity that I had to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they came to Ireland for their state visit. And I had really meaningful conversations with them, at least on my side. I’m not sure what they thought. But I spoke to Her Royal Highness about accessibility and institutions. She is the patron of the Victorian Albert Museum in London. And how do we create spaces like museums that are open and accessible to everybody? And the person walking past on the street who does on their way to work, on the way to school, thinks that’s a place for them. And speaking with Prince William about the use of the Internet as a tool to make others feel less. We spoke specifically about Quaden Bayles in Australia, and about bullying and feeling uncomfortable in one’s own skin internationally. How do we do better? Of course, I think conversations that happen on this podcast swing the pendulum in the most marginal way, but sometimes that’s just enough. Are you ready for this week’s episode? Let’s go!
[05:35] Sinéad Burke: Welcome to As Me with Sinéad.
[05:38] Samantha Power: Great to be here.
[05:39] Sinéad Burke: Some time ago, I sat in a lecture in the Abbey Theater in Dublin. It was the annual T.S. Eliot lecture. And there was a point raised on stage that has never left me and has changed me and transformed me. And the individuals speaking about the importance of the arts and humanities to change hearts and minds. That often when we’re designing and building a world, be it legislatively or be it socially, we forget that what we’re designing the world for is people. And the individual on stage talked about their experience at the U.N. and how when they were talking about policies in relation to immigration, they brought their counterparts to see Hamilton. And for the first time, their colleagues understood that what they were doing was more than them. And there was a very tangible aspect to the work that they were doing. And I was so moved by it that I was an admirer of this individual before then, but when I heard that they were coming to Dublin, I did everything in my power to sit across from them. Sitting opposite me is the extraordinary Samantha Power. I am so honored that you’re here.
[06:45] Samantha Power: I didn’t know you were in the audience, had I known —
[06:48] Sinéad Burke: I also have a text of that speech, and it’s one of the things I treasure most on my bookshelf.
[06:55] Samantha Power: Oh, it’s amazing. Thank you.
[06:56] Sinéad Burke: It was really wonderful. But the first question I wanted to ask is, how do you describe yourself personally and professionally?
[07:04] Samantha Power: Determined, relentless. Bruised. And I hope cognizant of the effects above all of what I’m trying to do. So, you know, sort of not blinded by my own human rights agenda or the fact that I happened to nominally be working on issues that I hope will improve people’s lives. But the fact that you have that intention doesn’t tell you much about whether it will. And so I hope very oriented around actual effects on actual people.
[07:37] Sinéad Burke: And those qualities that you describe, have you always had them?
[07:41] Samantha Power: I think I’ve always been very purposeful. I spent the first part of my life here until I was age nine. And when I was with my dad in Cardigans Pub and he was upstairs holding forth. I’d have my books and just a pile of things I wanted to get through. They were just Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books, nothing fancy. But independent-minded and I suppose able to be on my own. And given by my parents, I guess, not a confidence that I could do this or that, but a sort of sense that if I thought it, why not? Again, not that it would work, but why not try?
[08:26] Sinéad Burke: How or why do you think that was nurtured in you?
[08:29] Samantha Power: I don’t know, probably more by modeling, you know. Seeing my mother — grew up in Cork, one of five sisters, was the first in her family to go to college, but really wanted when she went to college to study medicine and was told, you haven’t done the basic science classes. It’ll be expensive. Basically, was deterred. And she went and did a basic science class so she’d get those exposures, but she never stopped wanting to be a doctor. So even after she went and stayed in the science track and got her PhD in biochemistry, she then later — which then was very late, in her mid-20s — went back to medical school. And I think just knowing, even just by lore, not that I witnessed this because I was too small, but just that like she was just undeterrable. And she was also very athletic and watching her on the squash court with this ferocity, but then also a kind of class, which is a tough combination to maintain. But just put your mind to it. Focus. Do your best. You know, less results-oriented, actually, but just, you know, go all in. I think that was the spirit that she brought to everything. And so that’s infectious, I think.
[09:40] Sinéad Burke: When did you first have the language to kind of articulate that?
[09:45] Samantha Power: I don’t know. I mean, I have just written this memoir, and I’d never really reflected — of course, in broad strokes, had we met before, I’d say, well, then this happened and then this happened and make it all seem kind of inexorable. But the why, of why one is motivated to do something, or the deeper sense of how, you know, like how internally do you get through something? I’ve sort of been one foot in front of the other, like full-speed ahead and hadn’t really reflected. So maybe again, only when you pause and you’re asked these questions do you really reflect on them. You probably feel this way as well, one is acutely aware of the serendipity that accompanies your success. And so I’m a little leery of well, it was because of my inherent work ethic and my inherent rigor. That is why, you know, one thing led to another. I mean, the truth is: right place, right time. You know, someone extends a hand to make calls on your behalf. And so just the number of people who kind of nudge you along and the number of people who have, you know, an awful lot to offer, but who don’t get those lucky breaks.
[10:58] Sinéad Burke: But it starts from the very beginning. You know, I am somebody who has also the benefit of really incredible parents. I was gifted with that family unit. And that’s important. What often interests me is how many children dream of doing things that they’re not given the permission to do so.
[11:15] Samantha Power: Yeah, no, absolutely. I had only one time with my mother, which feels like it was kind of last night that we were having this argument. But where in my early 20s, having just again stumbled into an internship with somebody, just working as a kind of lackey for someone who was carrying very much about what was happening in Bosnia. I then began to care much more. I don’t know that I would have had I not worked with him and been sort of responsible for caring on one level, but having cared and reached the limit of feeling, you know, that I could be useful from where I was. I guess I was going to go off and try to become a freelance war correspondent in the Balkans.
[11:56] Samantha Power: And my mother — it was the craziest conversation — she said, “it’s a very competitive business, journalism.” This is my mother talking. Like what? And she said I mean, do you have any idea how many people try to become journalists and fall flat on their face? And I was like, is this the person who, you know, trail blazed and became a kidney transplant doctor and played field hockey and squash competitively, you know, and has no problem standing up to the Irish court system to get custody of her children well before her time, to bring them to America, who runs away with the an Irish guy, leaves her husband, my dad, behind in Dublin? Is this — you telling me I shouldn’t take risks? Are you serious? And she’s like, it’s just it’s such a hard business. I thought, this isn’t my mother talking. Anyway, it turns out, of course, she was terrified for my safety, my physical safety. But being Irish and, you know, keeping her deepest emotions to herself, she instead sort of framed it in this way that was so clearly bogus and not true to who she was. It was very unpersuasive. But she framed it in terms of, but you may not succeed. And it was I only knew it was nonsense because that’s never the barrier to entry is your odds, right?
[13:13] Samantha Power: It’s all like there’s almost a majesty in the effort, in the plunge, and take pride and in process and risk. And it still stands out to this day is like the only time she’s ever cited odds and whether the odds are with you or against you. And there’s great vulnerability in dreaming, right? And when you capture and bound your dreams, your aspirations, you’re safe in a way because you’re not setting yourself up for failure. And so it sounds like both of us are very fortunate in having people who, you know, were not afraid of that vulnerability and that exposure. But at the same time, there’s still, you know, looking out for us and wanting us to have four walls and a roof and —
[14:00] Sinéad Burke: A mortgage and a pension. More after the break.
[16:34] Sinéad Burke: I moved secondary schools and high schools when I was 11, so I had done one year in Dublin and then I moved out to a small town in Navin when I was 12 years old. And that transition was incredibly transformative in both positive and challenging ways. I remember developing a script for myself on my first day and introducing myself to my new class. “Hi, I’m Sinéad. I have achondroplasia and I’m going to be part of your class for the rest of the year. And it was a way, almost a defense mechanism. But I only moved 50 kilometers. At age 9, you moved a continent. How was that?
[17:11] Samantha Power: I mean, you were bolder than me in the sense of you brought and — as you say, maybe defensively, but nonetheless — you’re like, this is who I am. Whereas I think the way I did it when I crossed the ocean was, “I’m Samantha. How can I be like you?” Yeah. I dropped my Dublin accent — this is my mother’s doing, and I won’t forgive her soon. But I ended up in my first day in my Pittsburgh elementary school wearing my Mount Anvil school uniform because my mother did not have the foresight to think that turning up at an American public school wearing black patent leather shoes and lace stockings was maybe not the best idea or the best first impression.
[17:58] Sinéad Burke: It doesn’t help you blend in.
[17:59] Samantha Power: I was not blending in that day. But my way of adapting was kind of like, look around and observe. I bet you did a ton of that as well. Figure out what the currency is. What’s going here and what was going in Pittsburgh was sports. The town baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, were in a deep playoff run. They would go on to win the World Series. And I kind of saw that that’s what everybody was talking about, mastered that lingo, mastered even just the rules of the game, began dressing like everybody else. But in a funny way, I suppose in my case, I thought I could afford to do that. It was almost like a not a performance, exactly, but it was like an adaptation, but it didn’t initially –iIn fact, probably never felt as if I was renouncing something. Because now I’m like, it’s sort of, you know, people say, “oh, it’s such a shame you lost your Irish accent,” and this and that. And it never dawned on me that I wouldn’t be going back to Dublin. You know, I just thought this is a temporary thing. And when in Rome, do as the Romans do. It snuck up on me. And indeed, when I was going back to write this memoir, it was even more striking because I look back as an adult on my child self and I’m like at what point did you cop on to the fact that you were becoming American? Because I was talking like an American played sports like an American. Saying truck and not lorry. The whole lingo, I was kind of taking mental notes the entire time about how to blend in. But I never felt, you know, now when I think of that, that’s giving something up. But if you’re lucky enough to have the childhood that I had had, I guess just that it’s all gravy.
[19:45] Sinéad Burke: Were you code-switching between home and school? Was it a different vocabulary at home?
[19:52] Samantha Power: Oh, for sure. There was no adaptation by my parents. No, their friends in Pittsburgh — my mother and my now-stepfather, the man she came to America with from Dublin, they lived in a kind of Irish emigré community. Every Friday night going down to the Blarney Stone, the local pub, you know, to eat Irish food and hear Irish music. And they were bringing Ireland with them. But at the same time, you know, my mother was buying me baseball cards and embracing my effort to assimilate.
[20:27] Sinéad Burke: And I think it’s interesting talking about you being in your early to mid-20s and having this voracious appetite because of the people you are influenced by and working with. But when did you first become conscious of your own moral compass?
[20:45] Samantha Power: I think it was for me and in general just most of the key way stations along the way have been sort of my gut speaking or, you know, a matter of reflex rather than much deliberation. I think that’s true. And so I suppose a very pivotal moment, at least as a gateway to what would come later, was in embracing sports, American sports, when I got to the States as a way blending in, but also because I love sports. I decided at a certain point, unable to be a professional athlete, clearly, that maybe to be a sportscaster, sports journalist would be great. And when I went to university, I was the beat sports reporter for the men’s basketball team. And I did play-by-play commentary on the radio. And was on a nightly rotating sports talk show. And this was where I was expending my energy in university when there’s a heck of a lot of other things that I could have been doing. But after, when I was 18, after my freshman year, my first year in university, I went to intern at a TV station in Atlanta, Georgia, which is where I’d gone to high school. And as I was taking notes on a Braves game, like literally with a clipboard in hand, looking at the Atlanta Braves baseball team playing the San Francisco Giants, I was taking notes in order to be able to cut the sports highlights for the evening news. And I’m in a kind of glass booth where there are screens from CBS Television from all over the world. And one of them was the live feed from Beijing.
[22:25] Samantha Power: And so I’m taking notes on my game and I’m very focused. But then out of the corner of my eye, I am seeing the Chinese government’s tanks making their way into Tiananmen Square, where young people had been protesting for weeks, demanding freedom and their rights and wanting freedom of speech above all, and an ability to do what they were doing, which is to express themselves. And it had actually gone on relatively peacefully for a few weeks. But this was the moment, one of the moments in which the crackdown occurred. And so, again, if you’d asked me in that moment, “is this your moral compass being triggered?” You know, I wouldn’t have put it that way. It was more that I looked up and felt very small next to the challenges of the world. In the sense that it wasn’t like I thought, oh, I’m gonna go do something about those Chinese tanks. It was much more, wow, there is so much happening out there. There are such brave people who are confronted by such hurdles to just basic free expression or just to be able to live their lives as young people in the way that they want. And I’m here with my little clipboard, at a minimum, I need to know more. Like that’s gonna be the first step is what the hell is happening over there and what’s motivating those students and why is the government doing that, those things? What is the government afraid of? And then, you know, again, I’m not a citizen yet, but I’ve been an American now for almost more than half my life. And it was the first time in that moment that I also asked a follow-up question, which was what is America going to do about it? You know, which maybe is the true sign that I had fully drank the Kool-Aid of being an American citizen, because that’s such an American way to think of like, well, OK, now what’s the United States going to do as if there’s always an American answer for something. And so, again, I wouldn’t have experienced what amounted to just empathy and curiosity as some major trigger for do-gooder ism or anything like that. Like I was a very apolitical person at that point my life.
[24:28] Samantha Power: But it did unleash a kind of, well, really lifelong inquiry. When you don’t know something about something, there are many reasons you don’t necessarily pursue that knowledge. You may not be curious, you may not be interested, but a major barrier to entry is no one likes feeling dumb. And so for me, when I went back to university, I was so aware of how little I knew But the real threshold that I crossed, I think was not amoral to moral, or uninterested in current affairs to being interested in current affairs. It was much more I would prefer to have my gaps, my mammoth canyon-like gaps in my knowledge exposed than to not learn. And I will, you know, now take classes with people who know what they’re talking about, who know the history of these places, who know how social change has been made. I am like starting from a relatively blank slate other than geography, which I felt I knew being Irish. I think all Irish people know geography because it’s a baseline sense that you might have to leave someday. So I knew geography, but like everything else, it was just all new. And again, the vulnerability in feeling ill-informed — once I got past that barrier to entry, then you learn a little and you’re like, OK, now, my curiosity is actually wedded and I know that I can learn.
[25:59] Sinéad Burke: I think it’s really interesting that idea that nobody wants to feel dumb. I taught in a school not far from here and I was teaching 12-year-old boys. And one of the biggest challenges in the classroom was that the spectrum of ability was so wide and the level of educational attainment. And I had one boy in my class who would spend the morning in kind of a more remedial environment, and would come in to me in the afternoon and would often demonstrate some of the most difficult behavior. And I would often use language like focus, pay attention, concentrate. And there was just no solution to that. I remember talking to one of the boys just casually and he said, “oh, do you know what he does at the weekend?” I said, no. He said, around Stephens Green, one of the biggest parks in the city in Dublin, there’s horse and carts, and at the weekends he is on those horse and carts with his dad bringing the tourists around. I said, that’s really interesting. So I sat with him and I said, “how does the horse not know to go into the traffic with the cars?” And he looked at me like I was the most unintelligent person on the entire planet. He said they wear blinkers. And I said, great. So that they’re focused and so that they can pay attention, the horses are on track with their blinkers. I said, great. And I handed him a worksheet and I said, “will you do me a favor? Would you put your blinkers on for the next 15 minutes and see how you get on with that worksheet?” He said OK. And I came back 10 minutes later and I said, “how’d you get out?” He was like, it was easy. And it was such a learning moment for me as a teacher, and coming from like a disabled working-class background. But that idea that it was easier for him to perform boldness than to ever admit that he didn’t understand the language that I was using. And he was well able to do that work but didn’t know what it was I was attempting to translate. And it has taught me since, you know, how else in the world does that occur, where there is no bridges for what it is in terms of our own vernacular of vocabulary or unlived experience that just don’t connect. And due to that, we’re at a loss.
[28:10] Samantha Power: Yeah, I mean, this bridging idea, you know, I haven’t had an experience like yours, although you’re making me think about my children and talking to my children, whether I need to put things in slightly different language. But you know, when I was a correspondent in Bosnia, that was the first experience I had of asking at least the question of how do I translate what’s happening here in what must seem like a galaxy far, far away from my readers back in the States or in the U.K. or in Ireland? And you know, what is the universal dimension of this experience that can tap something in someone who will never themselves be ethnically cleansed I hope? Who will never themselves have survived sexual violence in war, or experience shelling or sniping, but who, you know, may have had the experience of feeling impotent and unable to care for their child in some way. And so to pull out, you know, something that is the human connection, the translation. And the same was true in diplomacy. Years later, where again, you’re staring across the table at somebody who works for Vladimir Putin and I’m working for Barack Obama. We have very different leaders, very different value sets. But if I want to do anything in my work that advances the cause of preventing sexual violence in war, promoting LGBT rights, or the rights of people with disabilities or human rights of any kind, I have to get through Putin’s representative. So I can judge him for being cold to these issues or I can try to learn more about his background and whether there’s anything in his life that would make him — again, he doesn’t get to write his own instructions, my Russian counterpart, but he can be rendered an agent in his own system, potentially. Like somebody who exercises his voice on behalf of rights that his government may, you know, instinctively or ideologically deem threatening. And so that bridging, that question of like, can you step into someone else’s shoes like that young boy , like if I’m him, what is the language that would work for me as a 12-year-old boy?
[30:29] Sinéad Burke: On your most challenging day, what was the monologue that was in your head?
[30:38] Samantha Power: I was single most of my life, but once I was married, the monologues would quickly become dialogs. Because I’m lucky to have in my corner somebody who so has my back. And so there was nothing terrible that happened that I didn’t go first to Cass to discuss. And he would always say — and I would try to take this with me, but sometimes it’s hard. I’d be, for example, just heartbroken about Syria and feeling as if I myself was not finding a way of moving my government to do more. But also human and not a thousand percent sure that even if the pathway that I was recommending were embraced that that would make the pivotal difference. So just that sort of swirl, that conflict. But basically just a sense that I was disappointing people. But above all, that people were being harmed and that we were ineffective. And Cass would always say, “if you can help just one person, just one person, that’s a good day.” And so even on Syria, where we were clearly failing to help millions of people, I mean, yes, we were providing humanitarian aid, but fundamentally not bringing the war to an end or not mitigating the violence. But, you know, I’d become seized with the fate of one human rights lawyer who was in jail in one prison, and sort of track his movement from one prison where he’s being tortured to another prison where he’s being tortured. Get to know his wife, you know, get to be as specific as I could be with the Russian ambassador about just this one. And the truth is, even though the Russian ambassador, my counterpart and my friend but he defended the indefensible, but a good day for him was also to feel like he was a part of helping one person. In other words, the fact that he’s as a matter of strategy and doctrine defending horrific things in Syria doesn’t mean that he’s also not a person who would be moved by the individual welfare of someone. And so that just in your mind, like if you can help one person, that that’s a good day.
[32:47] Sinéad Burke: One of the things that I’m very conscious of within the advocacy space that I occupy and obtain is that despite wanting systems to change, and being a participator within that, being very conscious that I am white, straight, cis-gendered, disabled and workin- class to an extent, but I can’t and shouldn’t occupy all of this space in advocacy. And I imagine in diplomacy too, the difference between amplifying somebody’s voice and speaking for them. And I think we’re living in an era where more and more people either want to be allies and want to use their voice or feel like they want to speak up. From your incredible lived experience and professionalism, is there anything that you would recommend in terms of teetering between those two domains?
[33:31] Samantha Power: Well, it’s complicated and not binary, right? Teetering is the right word, or toggling or intermixing. So when I was getting to represent the United States in the Security Council, the idea of dignity is one that I think is sort of animating. And it’s animating of human history, explains a lot about why Trump won. People feeling their dignity violated or dismissed or ignored, explains Putin and his nationalism on one level, you know, him feeling like Russia was on its knees. But also just the dignity of individuals, that’s what to me human rights are about is. Seeing the individual worth of someone, irrespective of ascriptions that are kind of random and arbitrary and that no one can control, really. And so for me, from a policy standpoint, of course, I’m trying to, for example, get the U.N. Convention on Disability Rights, you know, through the Senate. Failed. Or advance the rights of LGBT people within the U.N. system, where it had been a very unforgiving place for many years, in part because there so many countries that have homophobic laws on the books and the U.N. is inevitably a kind of reflection of the countries that comprise it. But there we had a lot more success, surprisingly. So that’s good.
[35:05] Samantha Power: It’s good to aspire to have policy success on behalf of human rights. And when you do, it can be impactful over time, especially when you change norms, giving individuals in countries where the laws are regressive tools to claim their own and speak for themselves. But in the Security Council, one of the things I tried to do as much as I could was get out of the way. And use my power as representing, you know, the host country of the U.N. and the richest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world to create a space, for example, for North Korean refugees who’d fled the gulags to tell their own story. So I can tell your story, but best yet, what If I create a platform for you to come and do it in your own words, way more powerful for the audience than some mediated thing. And similarly, you know, to bring two individuals from the Middle East — actually one participated by phone because he was so afraid of his identity being revealed — but people who had fled ISIS’ attacks on LGBT people. And to hear their voices of, well before ISIS, the kind of discrimination and homophobia they encountered. And then for ISIS to come along and then be requiring gay people to be — basically pushing gay people off buildings as a form of execution and stoning them to death. I mean, just the horrors that were just unspeakable, except that they were then spoken. And these men sort of again claimed their voices, expressed themselves, took on those who thought that somehow that issue was not something that belonged within an international institution. And so, again, my role in having some power at least to set an agenda was one that best expressed itself by removing myself from the equation. And so that’s my experience.
[37:04] Samantha Power: And so basically agreeing with your point about, in effect, you know, even the notion of helping is kind of so paternalistic and patronizing. And so the help is clearing the way for people to have the voices they should have had all along. But that said, it will not be enough if those people who are marginalized and mistreated are left to their own devices. Or if somehow because we have concerns about the authenticity of one’s voice, if we thus remain on the sidelines and just say I can’t relate because, you know, I’m white and I’m middle-class and I’m privileged. If I give up on relating, you know, then I’m giving up on empathy. Maybe there are boundaries to this, but if we were in a world where because I’m not you, I’m disqualified from attempting to put myself in your shoes, again, virtually. Not that I will ever be in your shoes. Have a humility about it. But it’s really going to limit the amount of solidarity and motivation I think people who are more privileged, and who have the opportunity to stand on behalf of others — if they’re disqualified somehow —
[38:19] Sinéad Burke: But I also think it’s about removing the emotional labor and the deliberate vulnerability from people who are already marginalized. That there is an expectation on those of us who are the majority, that those who are othered, it is their job for them to educate us on their validity to exist. The world should be built and designed as if those things do not need to be explained. So I think exactly as we said, it’s the balance of the two. As a disabled woman, I spend a lot of my time asking strangers for help because I just can’t reach most of the things in this world. And it shouldn’t be my job to have to explain to people, particularly in classrooms or in different parts of the world, even on TED, about who I am in order to be recognized. But at the same time, I realize that as awful as that may be, it’s necessary in specific spaces because my narrative hasn’t been part of culture or society in the way that it should have been. So it’s this continuous juxtaposition and kind of balance between the two.
[39:26] Sinéad Burke: We’ll be back just after this break.
[40:59] We’re coming to the denouement of 2019. What is it currently like to live in your body?
[41:06] Samantha Power: You know, I guess I feel strong. And I feel as though I’m getting older and staying young at heart. I feel now, as a mother of now growing people who are getting older and developing voices of their own, that connection I feel physically with my children between my body and their body. You know, on the one hand, they’re more their own selves, they are out in the world becoming the people that they are going to be. And so when you have children who depend on you, who you’re nursing or who you’re carrying the whole time, you know, you just your body is at one with your children. And then suddenly they’re off playing songs on the piano, their fingers are working in ways that your fingers never worked. They’re hitting forehands that you can’t hit no matter how many times you try. And so your body kind of separates and you’re back to being a sort of agent unto yourself, but with a sort of tingly, more distant relationship with these independent little creatures that came out of you. I’ve always been — maybe because my dad died when I was young and he died suddenly — but very much a kind of smell-the-roses while you can kind of person. Every night I have a very close friend who I email the three things in the day for which I’m grateful. This is something I started thanks to Donald Trump. Because I realized I was just seeing a lot of black in the world and a lot of cruelty and indecency. And so John, my friend and I, we started this thing of like, OK, what would it take to look at the day differently? And to try to see the color and the kindness against this very dark backdrop. And it works. It turns out if at the end of the day, you look back on your day and through a totally different prism than you might otherwise. And so as it relates to my body, just grateful that I’m healthy and able to take advantage of the blessings that have been given to me.
[43:17] Sinéad Burke: What do you want your legacy to be?
[43:20] Samantha Power: I want to raise good people. I want my kids to look out for the people around them. My kids have all the good fortune in the world, and hopefully they’ll have healthy parents for longer than I did when I was a child. And I want them to be good, I want them to be caring. And so my universe has shrunk. And it may be that the task of being the mother that you want to be is even harder than the task of being the diplomat you want to be. Maybe raising good people has a lot in common in trying to be, you know, do something challenging like broker peace in a country or promote human rights. It is often I feel in small-scale what I was trying to do on a big stage before. When all is said and done, I had a White House badge. I could shoot hoops in Barack Obama’s pick-up court on the White House grounds. But the day comes where you turn your badge in and you’re on the outside and you don’t have those tools as readily at your disposal. But there are always people around you who influence you and who you have the scope to care for and hopefully to model the kind of behavior that you want to see around you.
[44:39] Samantha Power: And, you know, I have written this book, The Education of an Idealist, and people say what did you learn? And the way I kind of distilled it after a lot of things — what the hell did I learn after all of this? But it is that you may not be able to change the world, at least overnight, certainly, but you can change many individual worlds. And I think that that spirit of there’s nothing small about small change if it affects single individuals, I think that would be an amazing legacy if people heard that message, live that message. And again, starting with my kids.
[45:15] Sinéad Burke: What gives you hope?
[45:16] Samantha Power: Young people, their impatience, their activation now, which feels like it’s snowballing a bit. One good thing about Trump being president is I think people do think, OK, hmm. Well, if he can become president, I can run for school board. And so there’s a sense also, I think, unfortunately, of disillusionment and alienation from prior generations, a sense that we haven’t delivered for young people. But a savviness and a reverence and I think a recognition if we keep sitting on the sidelines, this is not going to go in the direction that we need it to go for our generation. And so this again, the cliche that young people give you hope, but right now we’re at a moment on guns in America, on women’s empowerment, on climate change, where young people have had enough. And I just hope it carries through. And that, as you know so well, it’s not linear. The path, if you’re lucky to make inroads, is craggy. It’s filled with a lot of disappointment along the way, but if you steel yourself upfront that that’s just the nature of making change, then then hopefully they can stay the course.
[46:37] Sinéad Burke: I think it’s really interesting the way you talk about disenfranchisement. So much of the reason why I wanted to do this podcast was because I fundamentally believe that we have more that connects us and unites us than we do that divides us. Whilst also realizing the individual challenges we face. But this world has been deliberately designed to make us feel isolated and alone because that’s both profitable and it’s useful for those who want the antithesis of what we move towards. And doing an episode with yourself, prior to meeting you, had no idea that we would find so many connections among our own selves. And what’s the power when you don’t feel alone? What’s the opportunity to either dream or to believe that you can do something. Or to believe that today is going to be OK, so tomorrow will be. And I think we need more of that. We need more to realize that that empathy, vulnerability and that dignity are three principles that unite us all. And to be brave in the sharing of our experience in public ways, because I genuinely believe human stories are a solution.
[47:40] Samantha Power: Yeah. There’s nothing like a human story, an individual’s story to cut through a mistaken sense that any one of us is just one thing. I’ve heard people talk about circles of identity. I’m a woman, a mother. I’m white. I’m Catholic. I’m originally Irish. I’m American. I’m a baseball fan. I’m a human rights lawyer. I have a lot of different identities. And when you feel fear, when you feel a loss of dignity, the salience of one identity — maybe your race or your religion or your politics. I’m a Democrat. You know that the salience of that can become so large that it sort of crowds out all these other dimensions of you with which you could forge common ground with so many people.
[48:31] Sinéad Burke: But speaking of the microcosm and what can have larger impact, I think Ireland is a case study for the importance and the validity of human stories. Looking at the two referendums that passed this country has changed not because of political leadership in many ways, but because of the dignity of so many people sharing their lack of dignity, sitting around dining room table saying, I want to get married to a person that I love. And this isn’t something I chose, it’s me. Or women having to talk about the most vulnerable parts of their lives, things that they should never have to share. And it was those individual stories around dining room tables, over cups of tea and cups of coffee, that changed people who held lots of principles that seemed inflexible. And I think if we can do that here — and there are many ways in which we need human stories to change, both in terms of immigration and direct provision and the different ways in which we treat other types of people. But if we learn anything from Ireland, it is the power of your own story.
[49:29] Samantha Power: Yeah. And just so you know, and you may know because you travel all around the world, but Ireland’s story, now a story of a nation, whatever the diversity of views within it is itself Exhibit A for people who are trying to convince other people who are skeptical about the possibility of making change — this small country, right where those individual conversations happened over so many years, individual conversations and individual experiences happened in isolation, where people at times felt very, very alone. But now the story of what Ireland achieved, and what those individual stories within Ireland achieved over time in bringing about, becomes part of, you know, what I teach Harvard students about when they’re doubting whether in an era of polarization, you know, that we can break through. So this little country where those little conversations were happening now inspire the world. Has a larger than life role, I think, in affirming the power of stories, the power of solidarity, the power of activism and the possibility of change.
[50:52] Sinéad Burke: Samantha, it was an absolute joy to speak with you. I cannot thank you enough. I have learned so much from you. And will be leaving this recording studio today with a real sense of my own power. My sense of responsibility to not just utilize that, but to get out of my own way and give platforms to other people. Thank you so much.
[51:12] Samantha Power: You’ve done so much. You’re a total inspiration to me. Thank you.
[51:19] Sinéad Burke: It’s hard to pick a favorite part of this conversation, but actually what I took from it is the importance of having different types of voices in Congress. In rooms where policy decisions are being made. And the importance of education in every aspect of our world. As a teacher, of course, I am predictably saying something like that. But so much of the ignorance and the maliciousness that we experience in the world is due to a lack of education. The question then we must ask is whose responsibility is it to educate the world? Is it advocates, individuals, a curriculum? Our politicians and leaders? And I think the answer that I came up with, having listened and been part of this conversation, is that it’s on all of us. It really, really is. And speaking of educators, next week we have the hilarious writer and podcaster, Allison Raskin. I am so excited to share with you our conversation because we talked about Allison’s experience with anxiety and OCD. Areas which I hadn’t really delved into in such detail. And she also talks about rewriting her own personal narrative. She shared so openly and she taught me an immeasurable amount.
[52:33] Allison Raskin: You get so caught up in this idea of who you are as a person that you think that you can’t change that. And I think that you really actively can. And so, you know, I was like, well, I’m uptight and like, turns out I’m I’m not uptight. I just like I have OCD and anxiety. And when I was unmedicated, that came off as uptight. In reality, I’m actually like a pretty easygoing person. And so all of these ideas that I had of myself and that I maybe didn’t love, I started to kind of deconstruct and and fiddle with and see if I could move away from them and kind of get down to the parts of me that I do like and letting that shine.
[53:13] Sinéad Burke: This week’s person you should know is actually somebody that I met at that brunch that I talked about at the very beginning of the show. Her name is Joy Crookes. She is a musician. But actually, that is just one category in which she fits into. Having grown up in Ireland and having her family in Ireland, living in the U.K. and code-switching between identities of Irish, British, Pakistani and being a woman in that space, too. Particularly in music, which historically has one definition of what success can look like. It was incredible sitting and speaking with her on the sofa about the whole world. And you’ll be pleased to know that we solved all of the world’s problems during that conversation. But I’ll let you learn more about that from her. You can find Joy on Instagram @JoyCrookes. Thanks so much for joining me this week. I will see you very, very soon. Or, maybe not see you. But you’ll hear from very, very soon.
[54:13] Sinéad Burke: As Me with Sinéad is a Lemonada Media original and is executive produced by Jessica Cordova Kramer. Assistant produced by Claire Jones and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Jerome Rankin. Our sales and distribution partner is Westwood One. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, don’t be shy. Tell your friends or listen and subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you like to listen, and rate and review as well. To continue the conversation, find me on Instagram and Twitter @thesineadburke and find Lemonada Media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @LemonadaMedia.