On Changing the Narrative and the Narrators: An Interview with Autumn McDonald

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Autumn McDonald, a senior fellow and head of New America CA —the largest hub of New America— focused on issues of economic and racial equity, income, and the changing nature of work. Before joining New America, McDonald led women’s economic empowerment efforts as a senior advisor to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

How did you become interested in economic justice?

Working for much of my career in the nonprofit sector on social impact has shown me the importance of economic justice. When I joined New America, I was asked what I saw as the biggest issues facing California. I said economic equity because I see it as the crux of so many of the issues communities face. Families’ ability to thrive, not just make it —with adequate food, shelter, health, and general well-being —is so closely linked to their economic stability. 

You are passionate about narrative change. Can you say more about that?

Yes. My hope is to elevate the voices of those with lived experiences in the issues we are talking about. We are working to accelerate change by having these voices and experiences influence policy. I am doing what I can to pass the megaphone, especially to folks who don’t have the same social capital and who are dealing with greater obstacles. 

For me, advancing equity is about changing the narrative by helping to change the narrators.


Also with narrative, it’s upsetting to me to see how folks talk about people living in poverty. Using words like vulnerable can suggest that people’s economic woes are personal, i.e. “they just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps” or “make better choices,” as opposed to calling out the systems and policies that actively marginalize them.

We need to get behind an approach that goes “hard in the paint” because inequity is not our shortcoming, it is put upon us. Advancing equity means getting radical with transforming the institutions and systems that perpetuate oppression.

Lately, I’ve also been thinking and writing about the racism inherent in narratives about “hard-to-find” qualified Black employees. I have a piece about this coming out soon in the Stanford Social Innovation Review ‘This is What Racism Looks Like’ series

I share examples of Black women going through longer recruitment processes than white men, even when they have better credentials. Also, so much hiring takes place through networks, and the majority of people’s networks are homogeneous. This means that dominant groups are going to their peers to figure out whom to hire. Again, this has nothing to do with Black women’s qualifications. It has to do with the racism inherent in many hiring practices.

So, how do we advance economic justice and equity for Black women? What can we do?

When we are in rooms where decisions are being made we can ask, where is the voice of workers? Where is the voice of residents? Where are the voices of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color?

For these perspectives and needs to be both compelling and authentic, they can’t be just a grasstop legislator reading a few lines of a cherry-picked quote. 

…or asking folks to demonstrate their trauma.

Exactly. Funders and legislators need to avoid asking people to parade their trauma. It’s about creating spaces for folks to influence policy. 

For example, in Fresno, California we will be developing Community Policy Labs for regular people to co-create policy. In one of our previous resident conversations, focused on inclusive economic development, we found that raising the minimum wage had unexpected impacts. One woman told us, 

“The more minimum wage goes up, the tighter the jobs get. I was assistant store manager for McDonald’s. When minimum wage went to $12 we were told to cut employees – only keep the best and when you rehire, hire the best of the best. It’s difficult when you know these people have families to support like you do.” 

When we advocate for these important things, like raising the minimum wage, we need to think about the policy holes we may be creating. It’s hard to plan for and address them if we don’t have the right people in the room — the ones for whom it’s not theory, but real life.

While I don’t want to run for office, I’m grateful that Black women and our allies are seeking and serving in public office. This is so important if we want to keep our platform/concerns front and center. We saw what this looks like when California State Senator Holly Mitchell led the effort to end natural hair discrimination in the workplace in California. This wouldn’t have happened without her, a woman who faced this discrimination being in a place to put forth a bill.

For more on what we can do to advance equity and power, check out two online conversations that I recently moderated. We share more about what Black women (and men), and allies can do to advance our health, education, economic status, and narrative power. 

Let me ask you the miracle question. You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and it’s April 2022 and a miracle has occurred for Black women. What happened?

Hmmm. I wouldn’t say no to reparations, but I think I’ll say the miracle is that we are seen. The external narrative about us, as Black women, is aligned with who we truly are – powerful, compassionate…and so much more. 





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