Ahead of the Curve: Bakari Sellers

Ahead of the Curve: Bakari Sellers

In this special edition of the Population Healthy podcast, University of Michigan School of Public Health Dean F. DuBois Bowman joins renowned civil rights activist, author, and lawyer, Bakari Sellers, in conversation as part of the school's Ahead of the Curve leadership speaker series. They discuss Sellers’ impactful journey packed with resilience, ambition, and public service.

Sellers recalls his childhood memories growing up in South Carolina in an activism-rich family and his trailblazing entrance into politics as the youngest member of the South Carolina State Legislature at just 22. He expresses his unyielding commitment towards progressive policies that aim to address entrenched issues such as education, poverty, and domestic violence. Sellers shares the invaluable lessons he learned from his family's traumatic healthcare experiences including his wife's childbirth complications and his daughter's liver transplant, which in turn strengthened his resolve to eradicate healthcare disparities.

He emphasizes how leadership can bolster the fight against health inequity, and the need for politicians to leverage personal narratives over macro data to draw attention to important issues. He promotes mental health within the Black community; his bold stance on police violence, calling for significant policy and societal changes; and his unwavering dedication towards the battle against miseducation and anti-intellectualism.

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Listen to "Ahead of the Curve: Bakari Sellers" on Spreaker.

Narrator: On Population Healthy, our mission is to bring you stories of today's public health trailblazers, those who are working tirelessly towards a healthier and more equitable world for all. Today's episode comes from Ahead of the Curve, a leadership Speaker Series from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, hosted by our own, Dean DuBois Bowman. On the series, contemporary leaders share their insights, visions, and the unwavering perseverance that keeps them Ahead of the Curve. Get ready for an inspiring ride into the heart of public health.


DuBois Bowman: Thank you for joining us for Ahead of the Curve, a Speaker Series from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. My name is DuBois Bowman, and I have the privilege of serving as the Dean of the School of Public Health. This Ahead of the Curve Speaker Series focuses on conversations about leadership, and throughout the series, we have discussions with contemporary leaders to hear about their insights, their vision, their stories of perseverance. Leadership is a critical component of navigating complex health challenges and building a better future through improved health and equity. We wanna hear about the important factors that shape great leaders and we wanna learn how they continue to evolve and grow. And we do this so that we can help to train the next generation of leaders. We have a fantastic guest with us today to explore these issues. I'm delighted to welcome Bakari Sellers, a civil rights activist, attorney and author.

DB: Bakari was born into an activist family. He's followed in the footsteps of his father, civil rights leader, Dr. Cleveland Sellers, and his tireless commitment to public service while being a champion of progressive policies that address issues ranging from education and poverty to preventing domestic violence in childhood obesity. Bakari made history in 2006 when at the young age of 22, he became the youngest member of the South Carolina State Legislature and the youngest African-American elected official in the nation. In 2014, sellers won the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor in South Carolina. Sellers is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, My Vanishing Country: A Memoir, which illustrates the lives of America's forgotten Black working class men and women. He's also written a children's book entitled, Who Are Your People? Bakari currently practices law with the Strom Law Firm, where he leads the firm's strategic communication and public affairs team, and has recently added diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting to the list of services offered. He is also a prominent political contributor for CNN. Bakari, thank you for joining us today. I'm really, really excited to have you here and looking forward to our conversation. So if you're ready, we can go ahead and dive right into questions.

Bakari Sellers: Let's dive right in.

DB: Alright, terrific. What I wanna do is just start with your background, just your time growing up and your book, My Vanishing Country gets into this quite a bit. You write about growing up in the rural south and your father's legacy of activism in the civil rights movement. And so can you tell us a little bit about these experiences and how the experiences helped to shape you and your values today? 

BS: So first, I'm from the big city of Denmark, South Carolina, where we have three stoplights and a blinking light. My mom and dad would always say that the two most important words in the English language are the word thank you, and they're not nearly set enough. And so first, lemme say thank you for the University of Michigan School of Public Health inviting me. DuBois, thank you so much for having me here and doing your best Don Lemon impersonation [chuckle] as we navigate this conversation. I'm also a product of the proverb, it takes a village to raise a child. And so my village was decently unique. My father was one of the founding members of a small fledgling civil rights organization known as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They got paid $8 a week to go into places like Philadelphia, Mississippi and register voters particularly during Freedom Summer.

BS: I grew up with the aunts and uncles of the movement, the Julian Bonds, Marian Barrys, Kathleen Cleavers. It was a unique experience being able to grow up and not have to read about our history and our history books, but actually be able to talk to people who experienced the jail-house floors and the smell of gun smoke. My father's story, as you alluded to, is somewhat unique in that he was in prison not once, but twice. My father went to prison for not going to the Vietnam War draft, and he also was incarcerated for the events of February 8th, 1968. Many people know about Kent State. To a lesser degree, some people know about Jackson State. Very few people know about South Carolina State where three young students were killed and another 27 were wounded by South Carolina state troopers who fired shots into the group of students after they protested.

BS: My dad was actually there that night, help organize the protest. He was shot. They knew him to be a member of SNCC, and they deemed him to be an outside agitator. So he actually spent time on death row because his bond was denied. He was charged, tried, and convicted of rioting. That is a part of my story. That's a part of who I am. That's what I bring to the practice of law where I do civil rights work. But one of the things that I always mention and that people sometimes don't include in my introduction is that my two most amazing tasks are being a husband and being a father to my wife Ellen, and my kids, Sadie, Stokely, and Kai. So again, just thank you for having me and I look forward to talk about some of these issues that are near and dear to my heart and try to unravel what King talked about in the book of how far have we come and where do we go from here.

DB: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I'm in awe as you're describing your upbringing and really the access that you had to such phenomenal leaders, including your father. We'll get to your college years in a moment, but that's a place where many students will get an introduction and exposure to prominent leaders, but you actually grew up with it surrounding you. And I'm wondering as a young man growing up, did you view it as a responsibility, as a commitment? Were there expectations that you would follow in your father's footsteps? Describe to me what that was like.

BS: Yeah, I don't know about following in his footsteps, but there was a expectation. It wasn't a difficult shadow. My mom and dad both talked, my brother, my sister and I, that we could be anything in the world we wanted to be as long as we were change agents. That was the phrase that's used in our home. That's the phrase I used with my children. Look, you can be a doctor, you can be a lawyer, you can be a minister, a businessman, a psychiatrist, a podiatrist, you can be a veterinarian, whatever you wanna be, but as long as you are in that field or choose that career path, lift while you climb, and also be a change agent, that's fine. There was never a, you need to do the same things that your father did when he did it, but there was also an obligation that my brother, sister, and I felt for our community that was instilled in us from our childhood. That's not everybody's ministry. If you wanna own two Teslas and live in a gated neighborhood and not care too much about anything else other than your own and your own family, I think that there is a certain right to live that life. But for me, it's about putting my shoulder to the wheel and trying to see if I can help change the world. That's kinda the goal, as colloquial as that may sound, but that is something that we try to do on a daily basis.

DB: Terrific. Terrific. Let's move ahead now again to your college experience. And you began your undergraduate studies at Morehouse College when you were 16 years old. And for the audience, a disclaimer, I am also an alumnus of Morehouse College, and so I'm in awe of thinking about Bakari beginning his studies at the young age of 16. And so while you were at Morehouse, you were active in student government. You wrote about how you experienced your first political campaigns while running for student government positions. What did those early experiences at Morehouse teach you about politics? 

BS: Well, I'm glad you you added a caveat about politics. Morehouse was a amazing experience, best four years of my life. Like you said, I went there when I was 16 years old. My weekend started on Thursday, and I had this unique skill, I believe it was a hell of an accomplishment. I lost my academic scholarship, not once, but twice. Do you guys know how difficult that actually is? My parents weren't too concerned about me navigating college. It was so dope 'cause in Atlanta, you could get into any bar or any club you wanted to at a college ID. So I was in Buckhead at 16 partying with Sierra. And back then, it was Jermaine Dupri and everybody, it was nuts and I enjoyed every single minute of it.

BS: But as you go through at Morehouse, one of the things you learn is that they have a belief that they place a crown above your head for you to grow into. And leadership is a value that is taught and honed and drilled upon. And so when I was in student government, I was junior class president, SJ president, just trying to make sure that I took my leadership outside of the gates of the campus, be remembered for something. And it actually proved to be helpful. I started plotting my run for the South Carolina State House of Representatives when I was 17, 18 years old on the campus of Morehouse College.

DB: Wow, that's remarkable. And so thinking about the experience at Morehouse, and you also wrote about this, that Morehouse is a college bred on leadership. And one of the things that you mentioned and kinda just describing your own views about leadership is that leadership is not being someone who has followers or even someone exuding maximum charisma, but instead that a leader is someone who begets other leaders. And so can you talk more about that and what you learned about leadership even during your time at Morehouse? 

BS: Yeah, no, I think the way that a lot of institutions actually, this is not an indictment of you, this is probably an over-generalization, but the way that we teach leadership is decently perverted in this country. We denote leaders by how many followers or how many parishioners they have, how many churchgoers they have, how many Instagram followers, or how many views or likes or clicks they have. And that's really not the way or should not be the way and and truly is just not the definition of leadership. I think people would inherently see value. And whether or not you have a thousand parishioners or followers or not, is not the same as having three other individuals who can go out and lead themselves. And so leadership begets other leaders, and that should be the way that it's defined and taught. That's also a value that is learned at school and particularly in institutions such as yours.

BS: And I would also go to say it also helps you look at people and treat people differently. I have a problem with the way we treat people today, particularly those individuals who we may not see. And what I mean by may not see is not that we are blind to them literally, but they're the individuals who serve us our meals in the cafeteria or clean up after us. They're the people who are doormen, who are janitors, who make our daily task that much easier. The fact that we don't acknowledge their existence, I think that if you were to pour into those people as you would expect someone to pour into you, you'll be surprised the leadership characteristics that those individuals have and how you can breed and cultivate a nexus of leadership. And again, the still king. I don't know why I'm quoting King so much, I actually hate that. But you'll find yourself tied in a single garment of destiny or network of mutuality.

DB: So I'd like to expand on that last point you made a little bit. So many people view leadership as positional. You kinda wait until you get to a certain position to begin to lead. You actually had positional leadership at young ages, but you also, just even from your remarks thus far in our conversation, you were doing things that reflected leadership along the way well before you reached those positions. And so I wanna just ask you maybe to elaborate on that a bit, in particular with some of our students in mind.

BS: I think the rigidity that was leadership is dwindling away. There was the rigidity that said that you had to be this or you had to be that. And that's not the case anymore. Friedman actually, Thomas Friedman, I'm not a big Freeman supporter, but he did write The World Is Fla. The thesis is fundamentally correct because it is flat. And we're all in this new era of social media, if you think about it, we are so interconnected that the world is fundamentally flat. You're no longer not like Kyrie Irvin like you're gonna fall off the edge of it, but it's fundamentally flat. For example, if you graduate from the University of Michigan, you're no longer just competing with somebody who graduates in Ohio, you're not competing with people who graduated in the UAE, in London, et cetera, because fundamentally the world is now flat due to our interconnectivity.

BS: And so when you think about that in the realm of leadership, what you understand now is that those rigid definitions that you have to be executive this or you have to be president of this, have fallen by the wayside because there's so much that this new generation, Generation Z, which by the way is a horrible generational name, they should come up with something else. But Generation Z has the entire wealth of knowledge of the world at their fingertips. And so they themselves without those titles are able to mold in some instances what the future will look like.

DB: Absolutely. All right. So you started Morehouse when you were 16, at 21 years old, you announced your candidacy for the South Carolina House of Representatives. And you were running against a 26-year incumbent. So an incumbent who had served in the State House for longer than you'd had been alive at that point. What compelled you to run for office and tell me just what that experience was like for you.

BS: Yeah, I had thought about it my junior and senior year. The summer of my freshman year, I worked for Jim Clyburn in Congress, I interned for. The summer of my junior year, I worked for Shirley Franklin, who was the mayor of Atlanta. And I got this bug where they taught me that it wasn't really politics, but public service. Politics is the science of it, understanding it, the gamesmanship, but the public service is the reason why we really do it. It was refreshing to see and learn from them. And I kinda got this bug to do it. And so I plotted it with my good friend Jerry Lodehout. And we said that we're gonna, we pulled the numbers, we looked at it, we're gonna run against Thomas Road.

BS: Thomas was in the State House. Before he was in the State House, he was on the county council. Before he was on the county council, he delivered the mail. And before he delivered the mail, he delivered the milk. So he knew everybody in the county, great guy. But the district wasn't growing, even stagnantly it was declining. And so I went back home, I got accepted into Harvard, Emory, and the University of South Carolina for law school. I chose the University of South Carolina because I wanted to run for the State House. I announced September 18th of 2005, although that I had already been planning and spoken to people about that and laid the groundwork and spoken to other elected and some money folk, although only raised I think $26,000 for that race. And on June 13th, 2006, we beat 'em with 55% of the vote. And made history as being the youngest in the history of South Carolina and the youngest Black elected official in the country at the time.

DB: Yeah, no remarkable aspiration in being able to follow through and execute. And so you find yourself now part of the state legislature, you're still a really young man, significantly younger than your colleagues. And how did that impact the approach to your work or maybe even how you were received in the South Carolina legislature? 

BS: So it wasn't as difficult as some may imagine. There were two things. The first is people, particularly some other Black folk, gave me some level of a past because of my father's history in the state. And they knew my last name. I was Cleve's boy. I was little CL. So I acknowledged that, it was a level of bias or prejudice or whatever that benefited me, I acknowledged that. Coming in, my family was well known, and so they treated me and gave me that level of decency and respect that another 21-year-old or 22-year-old may not have gotten. But I was also just way more prepared than anybody. And I also, I took value and pride in that preparation because I realized that I was young, I was Black, I was a Democrat, and then I was a young Black Democrat.

BS: So I had to be that much more prepared than anybody else up there. And my preparation routine for my day was and still is decently insane in terms of the information I consume. The newspapers, the national newspapers, the long form articles, The Atlantic, things like that, just surrounding myself with brilliant people like Jason Johnson or Michael Harriot or Vann Newkirk or Adam Serwer or Wesley Lowery, just people who are in my orbit who do good work and are brilliant, smarter than I. I just surround myself with those people that one of the common things I found with everybody who's attained some level of success is that they all have this insatiable desire to learn as much as possible. And you have to have that as soon as you stop wanting to learn, you're dying.

DB: No, absolutely. I wanna tap into another thing that you exude and that's confidence. People can go draw confidence from many places. I would also say your college experience is one that instills confidence. I wanna ask just the question, given the diligent and meticulous preparation that you mentioned as a part of your approach to your work that you take that seriously, how much does that help to instill confidence as you approach various endeavors? 

BS: People joke about my humility or in some cases, like they're... My confidence has to do a lot of with the fact that I'm young and I got in this thing really, really young. And when you were young, you had this sense of invincibility, you think that there's nothing you can't do, there's no obstacle you can't overcome. Sometimes that leads to stupid mistakes, which I've made my fare share of. And some of times that leads to you just being on top of the mountain and people wanna know how you got there and your responses because why not? Somebody should have done this already. Half the battle is preparation, appearance, believing in yourself. Hell, if I don't believe in myself, who will? My anxiety, it helps to conform my thought process a lot. Because I live in 24-hour increments, I'm not the best person to ask where will I be in five years? I don't know the answer to that. I try to win days. I think a lot of people try to consume the elephant hole or tackle their goals in one fell swoop. And for me, I just deal with one day at a time. Will Smith once said that if you have enough good effing days, you have a good effing life.

BS: I wanna win six out of every 10 days. So if you bat 600, you go into the majors, you go in the Hall of Fame, really. If you complete 60% of your passes, you're not doing bad. If you shoot 60% from the field, you'll take that any day of the week. And so that's what I try to do, is win as many days as I can. And if I focus on the task at hand, it helps me live my life to the fullest.

DB: Wonderful, wonderful. I think there's great advice and insights as I think about members of our audience, our students, who are still at a stage where they're establishing their foundation, but they're really trying to figure out the next steps toward their future. Now we'll move forward to 2014. You decided to give up your seat in the state legislature to run for Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina. The last time an African-American was elected to a statewide political office in South Carolina was in 1876. And in talking about the issues that motivated you to run, yeah, you commented on several things such as children attending schools that were dilapidated and falling apart, local hospitals closing, people traveling hours a day for low paying jobs and residents in some places drinking water unfit for human consumption. And as I think about that list, those are all things that I regard as core drivers of public health issues. And at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, we were fortunate in the spring to have the US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy as our graduation speaker. And when he talked to our graduates, one of the things he talked about was that when you deal with these kinda issues that we often hear people say things like, oh, stay in your lane. This isn't public health, these are political issues or other kinds of issues and you should stay out of them.

DB: And I wonder along your path if you've had similar experiences where people will have signaled to you on whatever issues to stay in your lane and if so, how do you respond and make it clear that the issues that you're addressing are in your lane? 

BS: Yeah, one, I don't care. So that is probably a very flippant, but real answer to other people's concerns about what my lane looks like and direction it's going in. But two, I think that there is a great deal of value in beginning to learn how to think critically and peeling back the layers of the onion so that you can see the secondary and even tertiary symptoms that can help you define what the cancer or cause of that cancer is. The best example I can give you is COVID. And please, I'm speaking to the School of Public Health, so I don't wanna bore you with things you already know. But in my conversations, particularly on TV with individuals who want to deduce or understand why Black folk or Native Americans are dying at higher rates and more predisposed to having severe reactions to COVID. For me, we actually missed an opportunity. Actually, Michigan did it extremely well. Shout out to Gretchen and my Big Gretch, as we call her in the CNN studios. And my good friend, Garlin Gilchrist, who ran your COVID task force. Actually, write about this in my new book, The Moment, coming out April 23rd, shameless plug.

BS: But I began to think that we missed that opportunity to truly see because COVID ripped the band-aids off the inequities in our respective communities. For example, I grew up in what's called a food desert. I'm not sure the USDA definition today, but it was where I think at one point it was two miles where you can't travel two miles and get access to fresh fruits and vegetables. That was considered a food desert. And so what does that mean? It means that many times you go in and you're eating processed meats or you're getting 10 packets of Kool-Aid for 99 cent or a dollar. You drink that consistently, you end up with the sugar as we call it. Or diabetes or the processed meats and all of those things lead to preventable illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, et cetera. You combine that with the fact that many times you have these communities, Black folk and otherwise, who are in places where they're environmental injustices are just wreaking havoc. Near brownfields, for example, or inhaling dirty or unclean air or even worse drinking unclean water, which was where I grew up, Denmark, South Carolina. So you have that food desert combined with the environmental injustices and you throw on top of that, a lack of access to care. So you're not getting the preventative treatment you need. I didn't have a hospital in my community.

BS: So when you fall down or whatever it may be, you got to go 35, 45 minutes away. You don't really have OBGYNs in every county. You can't really get the preventative medicine that you need and coupled with that, the working poor fall in this gap or did until Obamacare fall in this gap where you can't even afford insurance. And so you think about all of these kind of social layers, if I may, of environmental injustice, poverty and lack of access to quality care, and that you overlay a virus, it makes more sense as to why you have these two groups of individuals, which are Native Americans and Black folk, which are dying at higher rates than their counterpart. We did not actually have those discussions as we should have with the depth and necessity and urgency and intentionality and purposefulness to take that time to address those ills, direct funds to those ills.

BS: And part of it, this is my own framework of thinking, people can push back or think something else, but I think politically we have two phrases which are perverted. And I think one is colorblindness, like I don't see race, I think that's silly. And the other is rising tides lift all boats. You can't have race-neutral policy proposals that directly affect and address race-specific problems. The best example I can give you of that is like PPP. PPP was like here, y'all go get it. And what you realize is that the companies and businesses that were affected the hardest hit were Black businesses, particularly Black women-owned businesses, Hispanic businesses, Native American businesses.

BS: And what do you realize about that is that many of those individuals are unbanked. They literally don't have bank accounts or access to capital. And so that policy proposal, good in nature, does not necessarily address the problems. I think COVID was a great example of policy failures and a lack of intentionality and a missed opportunity when we had it to address many of the systemic ills that affect and plague our communities.

DB: Yeah, no, absolutely. My hope is that it will bring a tangible example that creates some lasting understanding. So you mentioned many of those just societal drivers that you throw on top of a highly contagious infectious disease, and we see it play out in ways where we have disproportionate impact on certain communities. But those same fault lines, if you will, in society give rise to other chronic illnesses. Things like cancer, things like diabetes, heart disease. And so those are the things that we address in public health. It was no surprise to the public health community when we began to see the inequities play out with COVID. But my hope is more broadly for society. It is a moment that we can point to just to illustrate the importance of addressing those upstream issues if we are going to try to achieve equity in health.

BS: Yes, but you started the word and that word did a lot of heavy lifting, which was hope. And I think it's in the book of James, which said that faith without works is dead. And we got a lot of good hopeful people and a lot of good, well-intentioned people in DC and in state capitals around the country. We have to begin to really fundamentally tackle these issues or... Poverty is a driving factor of death. That literally makes no sense. The number one cause in South Carolina for children underperforming in schools is hunger. The ridiculousness of me even having to articulate that is mind boggling for the greatest country in the world. And so let's figure out how to be hopeful, but also be intentional.

DB: Absolutely, absolutely. And we need contributions in many different places. One place that I'll point attention to now is policy. And advocacy is a key part of our work in the field of public health. It is important for us to be able to work with lawmakers so we can use our expertise and provide evidence just to influence policy in ways that benefit health and wellbeing for communities. We try to teach our students this. What advice would you give to the young advocates listening? And then how can we best grow their advocacy skills and learn to work effectively with policymakers? 

BS: Well, first is be fearless. I think that there is not much difference between the advocacy work that you're doing or being an advocate and the politician or elected official across the table from you. Black, White, Democrat, Republican, from wherever part of the country or world you are from, we need more people like you running for office. And so I would say that you don't just have to be an advocate if you graduate from the Michigan or University of Michigan School of Public Health. I think that you can also be the person making those decisions and we need more smart people on all sides of the aisle to be frank and honest. And so I would also say be very clear. Some of y'all talk too much and don't listen enough. Be able to articulate your data points, bring data. The best data, though, is a human being. The best data is a human story. A lot of times we get caught, bogged down in the minutia of whatever the formula may be, but sometimes I just, instead of talking about the data point of breast cancer, I want you to bring in and say, this is my aunt, she's battling breast cancer right now. This is my nephew or niece who just lost his mom to breast cancer. Let him tell you what it was like the last two or three days of their life, and then also he'll tell you that he doesn't ever remember his mom being able to go get a mammogram and why.

BS: Oh, we just didn't have any doctors in our community. Let's have those conversations and let's figure out ways in which we can communicate with people. There are a couple of things we don't do. Like we don't have enough empathy in the world. We don't talk to each other enough and we don't read enough books. Like that's it. I think if we did those three things, we'd be all right. We live in silos, so people literally only receive information and talk to people who have thoughts and ideas like their own. It's terrible. And then we don't know how to have communications that are not McDonaldized or like really quick or 280 characters or whatever it is on X now. We're used to sending DMs instead of having honest conversations with each other. And it's never good when you start the conversation on like, so tell me what your view is on abortion. Usually the conversation should start with, how are your family? How are your kid? Let me get to know you. Let's go have a beer. That is what's called true advocacy. Knowing the person that you are appealing to and seeing what level of success you can have to get them where they need to be.

DB: Absolutely, absolutely. In addition to policymakers and public health, a really important partner, communities. And so we do lots of community engaged work that gives community partners an equal seat at the table and generation of ideas and development of interventions and implementation, et cetera. And that's something that I think we have to continue to do. So you've touched on a few public health issues just in our conversation, you introduced COVID. I wanna drill down into a few more. So you're a father, you have three children, and your two youngest are twins who were born in 2019. You've spoken quite a bit about your wife Ellen's experience giving birth. Both of you have spoken about how Ellen almost lost her life due to complications from childbirth. We know that Black women are three times more likely to die during childbirth than White women. This is a critical public health issue, one that you've been a passionate advocate for. And so as a father, as a lawmaker, as a major media contributor, what is it that you want people to know about this persistent issue, and why is it important for us to prioritize it as a society? 

BS: Yeah, no, that's a good question. And I always tell people, my number one political issue, people will look at you and assume they know what that is, but my number one political issue is actually African-American female mortality. The most unique thing about African-American female mortality are the fact that Black women die at three times the rate of their White counterparts is that it cuts across socioeconomic levels. So it doesn't matter whether or not you are Serena Williams or Ellen Sellers or on Medicaid, the likelihood that you'll die is still great. I have three unique experiences with the healthcare delivery system in this country. One is as a lawmaker and just as a citizen not having access to care. We didn't expand Medicaid in 2010, which was a terrible political decision made by many southern governors. Rural hospitals began to shut down, et cetera, et cetera.

BS: And so you realize that access to care is a very huge issue. So that's one. Two, of course, African-American female mortality with my wife almost dying, she gave birth to Sadie and Stokely at 5:28 and 5:33 PM. By 11 o'clock, she had passed out while breastfeeding both of them. It was just me, her, and a lactation nurse. And she kept saying she got hot, she was getting hot, and she passed out and threw up. Then we pulled the cover back and she was been complaining for a while and I was trying to get more people to come in and they just were not listening. She was in a pool of blood, she hemorrhaged, she lost seven units of blood, I believe they said the person her size probably only had about nine units of blood in them. They took her to the ICU and she got, ironically enough, my name is Bakari, she got what's called a Bakri balloon, which is a B-A-K-R-I.

BS: It's a balloon that expands in your uterus to prevent bleeding. And she was in ICU for the first 36 hours of our children's life. And so that's number two. And number three was Sadie. She got diagnosed with biliary atresia, which is a very rare bile disorder in your liver. And so by four months, she was an end stage liver failure and she had a liver transplant when she was eight months old. And so those are the three I've learned about the disparities or inequities we have in our transplant system. The fact that basically if you're poor, you really won't have access to transplants or the fact that only 5% of live donors in the country are Black folk have been fortunate enough to raise millions of dollars for the American Liver Foundation and participate in things like that. So I've been able to see many of the fundamental and terrible underpinnings of our healthcare delivery system from three different levels.

DB: As you mentioned just in your examples, Ellen Sellers, Serena Williams, even people who cut across, again, socioeconomic lines, who we would expect to be able to navigate, but still encountering so many challenges in the case of maternal mortality and infant mortality, the disparity has also been persistent over time in ways that we have yet to be able to close. So it's an important area of work that continues, that we in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, some of our sister schools are addressing. I'm thinking about you as a father having these experiences already someone who shoulders a lot just in your own professional endeavors. You've spoken out about your own mental health and living with anxiety, not to use the examples of, as the the key drivers, but why do you think it's important for leaders to be vocal and honest about their own mental health challenges? And what have you learned from speaking about your anxiety more openly? 

BS: Fundamentally, it's about being an an example. And for a long period of time, having any... And my parents are guilty of it too, but just not dealing with mental health in the Black community is something that has been traumatizing. That we have many individuals who just have not gotten the attention, help that they deserved or needed in order to be a functioning member of society. And it's not a weakness, it's not anything to be ashamed of, but for far too long it's been treated as such. It is what it is. It's a part of who I am. It helps dictate my path. I go to therapy. I honestly don't go to therapy for my anxiety, although we deal with it a lot. I really go to therapy to deal with y'all who don't go to therapy. But that's a whole nother story.

BS: But I fundamentally believe in therapy. I think more Black men need to do it. It's hard being unloved in this country, and we're not a group of individuals who is necessarily loved. The stresses and pressors that come along with just maturation, I think all of us need to spend time on our mental health. Because if you're not mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically healthy, you're really not good for anybody, your family or anybody outside of your home. And so I fundamentally believe that we have to do a better job talking about it in ways that people understand, meeting people where they are not being ashamed of it, and then getting treated.

DB: Yeah, no, absolutely. And far too long, there's just been stigma about mental health and I think we're making progress. But you using your platform as an example and serving as a model certainly helps to benefit us in reducing that stigma. And so one other issue that you've spoken on a lot is the issue of police violence. And it's something that we discuss in the school as well because we regard police violence as a public health issue. And dealing with inequities in that area, Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than White people in the United States, just as one example. And so there are a number of policy changes that we can make to address the issue. You stated though, that even if we make all of these policy changes, we still need culture change. The issue in many ways links to cultural aspects of our country and systems of racism that are baked into our country and have been over centuries. Culture change is hard and it takes time, but it's fundamental and critical work. And so what are some of the ways that you think we can help to change the culture when it comes to police violence? 

BS: That's hard. I think the underpinning of the issue is that many individuals don't get the benefit of their humanity. And so when you don't see someone as human, it's a lot easier to treat them as such. I represent a young man named Ricky Cobb. I represent his family. Unfortunately, Ricky is deceased. He was shot and killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and his officer was just charged yesterday. And it's such a drain, psychologically and sociologically on your community and the family. And just that hold, that having someone taken from you gives you, it's very difficult. And so the solutions are policy-driven, but it's also cultural. And there are segments of our population who view others as being less than. And I think fundamentally, I kinda think it's over in terms of that cultural change for baby boomers and millennials. I think Gen Z and my kids, we have to do a better job of just raising good humans.

DB: Absolutely. So as noted in your introduction, you're an author.

BS: Yes.

DB: You've written books across different genres. And in 2022, you published a book called Who Are Your People? And it's a children's book that teaches kids about history of Black Americans. And so what inspired you to write the book, and what do you hope children learn from it? 

BS: That was fun. Who Are Your People? I wrote it because of Sadie and Stokely. And when we were shopping for them before they were born, and during their first few years of life, we realized that everything was like a blue or purple truck or something else. And I wanted them to be able to have images that reflected who they were. And I think representation is key. You can't tell a kid they can be a Black lawyer if they've never seen one. You can't tell a kid they can be a Muslim doctor if they've never seen one. You can't tell a kid that they can be a Hispanic attorney if they've never seen one. And so for me, I wanted to be able to have that representation for Black boys and girls around the world. And Who Are Your People is the saying that we use a lot in the South, like when we wanna get to know somebody, we're like, who are your people? 

BS: We can tell a lot about who your people are. Like if your cousin is the one who steals from church across town, we know we probably don't need to let you in our house. But if you come from good stock as they say, then you can roll with me any day of the week. And so Who Are Your People is a gauge of who the person is and who they're related to and what y'all might be related if their family or not, that type of deal.

DB: Got it. Got it. You're also busy at work on another book or maybe just awaiting release, but a book called The Moment will examine the modern political landscape and policies that are impacting Black families and communities. So if you can take a moment to tell us about the forthcoming book, The Moment.

BS: Yeah, it comes out April 23rd. It's a good book. It's different, it's about 200 pages. A little bit shorter than My Vanishing Country, but it's a book about the racial reckoning that wasn't. We all got in this moment in 2020, we're like, oh my God, we're here, we're about to do this thing. And we didn't. It was like a missed moment or a moment that never happened, or one that wasn't never really purposeful or intended to happen. For me, it's we talk to good people like William Barber, we talked to Garlin Gilchrist, my good friend, Antjuan Seawright. We talk about Black men, their role in the community. So we have a letter to my son, Stokely. Of course, there are a lot of tons of personal antidotes. I always talk about my father's history and SNCC. I talk about gun violence, state sanction violence, and Black on Black crime, which is a fundamental myth. I talk about all of these things in the context of understanding the problem that we have. But this book is different in that it also gives you prescriptions for the future.

DB: One of the things that we're unfortunately seeing playing out in recent years is legislation in certain states that aims to limit what teachers can teach in the classroom, what books can be read, particularly things that deal with topics such as race, racism, and gender and sexuality. And these are important topics for anyone, for any society. We regard them as really critical topics for public health because again, if we wanna improve health and wellbeing in communities, we need to understand that certain communities have been marginalized, underserved in ways that will manifest in subsequent health issues. So the trend is really disturbing. What are some ways that you think we can combat these trends in the movement toward banning books and the rise in this type of legislation? 

BS: We just need more people running for office and more good people. I also think the way we educate or miseducate people in this country is also violent. I think it's a public health crisis. I think that there are direct health outcomes that you see tied to poverty, but also in communities where schools may not perform as well, where literacy rates are not as high. I'm not making that up, I don't think, Dean, you can tell me if I am. But I do think that that is the way we miseducate a lot of young people in this country. It's violent and it's very violent. It helps keep people in poverty, which drives other outcomes, crime, health. And I find that the anti-intellectualism that we have in our communities right now is just astounding. And we know why that is, but we have to push back in a very meaningful way.

DB: Absolutely. Absolutely. So as we draw toward the end of our time together, I'd like to ask just a closing question. You've given so many insights to the audience at any stage. And again, thinking about our students who will soon be taking their first steps into their careers as future public health leaders, I'm wondering what final advice you would give to them.

BS: Be true to yourself. That's first and foremost. If you have to spend time finding out who you are, then do that, but be true to yourself. Take care of yourself. Again, if you're not mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy, you're not good to anybody else. Dream big and dream with your eyes open. There's nothing that you really can't do. Love your neighbors even when they don't love you, which I'm not there yet, but it's damn hard. But that provides a level of not being inhibited by those emotions that drive people mad. And then change the world. There's nothing that you can't do. And I don't really have advice 'cause I think that most times younger folk figure it out anyway, we just need to get out the way.

DB: Absolutely. I think our public health students are up for the task. I think that's great. Every day I'm inspired by our young people, the passion that they come in with, the talent, the poise. And we're trying to do our best to train them to provide a foundation so that they can go out in the world and thrive and have the kinda impact that is needed to address many of the challenges you discussed. So we're just about, at the end of our time here for Ahead of the Curve. I'd again like to thank Bakari for taking the time to be here with us today and for sharing some of the really great insights about his career and about leadership. Bakari, it was a fantastic conversation. I'm thankful for you being here. You started out by talking about your background, noting that it takes a village to raise a child. And as I think about you and as you described your village, the other side of that is, I know that you have made so many people and continue to make so many people immensely proud. You're the product of dreams and prayers and hard work. So continue to do the great work that you're doing that benefits all of us.

BS: I appreciate you. Thank you for the work that you're doing, and thank you. I'll end where I began, which is just to say thank you, Dean for... Your spirit is calming and dope, so thank you.

DB: Thank you again to Bakari and thanks to all of you for joining us. Be well, be safe and go blue. And because I know that our guest is headed to the South Carolina LSU Women's Basketball Game, I've never done this before, but go Gamecocks.

BS: There you go. It's the first time for everything. Thank you guys. Be blessed.

DB: Alright, Take care. Bye Bye.


Narrator: Thanks for listening to this episode of Population Healthy from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. We're glad you decided to join us and hope you learned something that'll help you improve your own health or make the world a healthier place. If you enjoyed the show, please subscribe or follow this podcast on iTunes, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Be sure to follow us at UMICHSPH on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook so you can share your perspectives on the issues we discuss, learn more from Michigan public health experts, and share episodes of the podcast with your friends on social media. You're invited to subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get the latest research news and analysis from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Visit publichealth.umich.edu/news/newsletter to sign up. You can also check out the show notes on our website, population-healthy.com for more resources on the topics discussed in this episode. We hope you can join us for our next edition where we'll dig in further to public health topics that affect all of us at a population level.


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In This Episode


Bakari sellers

Civil rights activist, Attorney, and Author

Bakari Sellers is a civil rights activist and attorney who made history in 2006 as the youngest member of the South Carolina state legislature and the youngest African American elected official in the US. Earning his undergraduate degree from Morehouse College and law degree from the University of South Carolina, Sellers championed progressive policies, focusing on education, poverty, domestic violence, and childhood obesity. Recognized as a rising star within the Democratic Party, Sellers was part of President Barack Obama's 2008 South Carolina steering committee, named in TIME Magazine's 40 Under 40, and the 2014 and 2015 "The Root 100" lists of influential African-Americans. He has served as a speaker at numerous national events, practices law with the Strom Law Firm, and offers political commentary at CNN.