The Inexhaustible Optimist: Meet Heather McGhee, President of Demos
June 30, 2017 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
Heather McGhee became the president of Demos, a New York-based think tank focused on creating a democracy where all people have an equal chance in our economy, when she was just 33 years old (she turned down the job at least five times, she says, before her colleagues finally convinced her to take it). You might recognize her from TV, or this surprising video that went viral last December; it features a man named Garry Civitello who contacted Heather on C-Span to ask for advice on getting over his racism. Here, she talks early career frustrations, finding her footing at Demos, and how she dresses when she knows she already stands out.
WHERE I GREW UP, on the south side of Chicago, it felt like there was no other thing to do with your life than make a difference for those who struggled. When I was born, my mother was a holistic health practitioner in the community, so she was ahead of her time in terms of understanding the relationship between nutrition, health, stress, and the body, and how you can’t heal a physical body that is living in a social body that’s unwell. She started working on ideas around the social determinants of health, and moving upstream to social policy issues, and I grew up learning about structures and root causes and public policy. That oriented my path towards looking at what’s driving some of the structural barriers to opportunity for families. There was also a lot of job loss in the public sector and in the steel mills in Chicago when I was young, and that really shaped my interest in economic opportunity.
AFTER I GRADUATED FROM COLLEGE, I moved to Barcelona and studied Spanish and taught English. 9/11 happened when I was there. Then I ran out of money, I lost my job, and I had no idea what to do. There was a lot of anxiety at that time for young people who were starting their lives; it felt like the country’s innocence had ended in some ways, and so had mine. I ended up moving to Los Angeles and pursuing a long-held dream of working in TV writing, but I didn’t get very far and ended up working as an assistant to an assistant at a production company. I felt like I was neither pursuing my creative dream nor having an impact on the world at a time when I wanted to be more politically active. That’s when the job description for an entry-level role at Demos came across my desk.
WHEN I STARTED WORKING at Demos in their economic opportunity program, the big issue we were confronting was personal debt. At the time, in 2002, personal debt was not front-page news. It wasn’t widely understood by policy makers or journalists, but it was ravaging families across the country. I knew from my own experience and my family that people were taking out loans against their houses, and maxing out their credit cards to pay for prescription drugs or basically any unexpected expenses, because so many families were living paycheck to paycheck. There had also been changes to the rules regarding credit cards and mortgages that made it easier for people to get into debt and harder for people to get out. It felt great to be relevant to what ordinary people were struggling with and what families and single women were struggling with, and also be able to channel that research into policy change. We won a bill in Congress called the Credit Card Act of 2009 that saved borrowers $50 billion in fees alone.
MY PREDECESSOR AT DEMOS, Miles Rapoport, took mentorship very seriously and was always looking for ways for me and other young people in the organization to be involved. He was the one who had the vision for me to take over after he left. It was not something I thought I was ready for. There’s a saying in politics that women need to be asked five times to run for office, and it was a little bit like that for me. About a year before my predecessor transitioned out, he took me to dinner and said, “I want to know what you want to do with your life, and I want you to consider succeeding me at Demos.” I said “No.” I thought it would be too big a jump for me. I’d worked at Demos for so long, and I was just starting to do a lot of TV, and thought maybe I should pursue that, or try something else. There was always the question of running for office, although I have no idea what office I would want to run for. Then Miles got more serious and asked me again. I said no again. He told the whole executive team, and various members of the executive team asked me, and I said no again. Then one of my colleagues, the woman who initially hired me, Tamara, wrote a memo about why I should become president and why I was ready. That started a whole bunch of conversations, and the combination of their confidence as well as my love for the mission of the organization made it seem like the right decision. Looking back on it now, I can’t believe how hesitant I was. It’s been so fulfilling and so fun. I became president of Demos when I was 33, and what I know now about running a multimillion dollar organization with 50 staff is so valuable, especially at a relatively young age.
WHEN I’M ON TV OR GIVING A SPEECH, I’m often the only African-American, sometimes the only woman, and undoubtedly the youngest person. I have a natural hairstyle that’s pretty different from what you see in the halls of Congress or on a TV set. In terms of what I like to do with the rest of my appearance, I tend to want to wear something that’s not going to be distracting and that I don’t have to think about, because the rest of me—my face, my hair, what I’m going to say—will stand out plenty. I usually wear a blazer with a blouse underneath. It just feels easy to create a standard look.
I’M ALWAYS ON THE HUNT for dresses with sleeves so I don’t have to use a blazer to cover up if I’m going on TV or going into a meeting. That is the dream: a great dress with a nice neckline that has short sleeves. Also, it’s important to get dresses that are the right length. I’m pretty tall, so often dresses are too short. I’m often sitting on stage in front of a crowd, so you want dresses that are below the knee.
IN DECEMBER, I DEVELOPED A FRIENDSHIP with a man named Garry Civitello after he contacted me on live television to talk about being prejudiced. It has been incredibly moving, particularly at a time when it feels like so many Americans are succumbing to the worst instincts of hatred and fear and disgust and scapegoating. Gary is a real person with a real past and a fascinating place in the world, but in some ways could have been anyone. The fact that we’ve been able to connect, and that his perspective of the world has changed, and he is more critical about racial dynamics and his own role and responsibility to help create a better America—it’s all so inspiring to me. It’s given me hope at a time when there haven’t been too many reasons to hope, and when it feels like we are backsliding on race relations in America.
I DO BELIEVE THAT, as a leader of an organization that works to create an equal say in our economy, people of all walks of life should have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. That requires people to trust one another and not be easily manipulated by demagoguery, and to want to be part of a Demos together. The name Demos means the people of a nation or a democracy. Garry is now much more willing to believe the best about his fellow Americans of different races rather than believing the worst. That is so important if we’re going to move forward together as a country.
IT CAN BE CHALLENGING to keep a sense of perspective and optimism when all the news seems to be bad news. When I go on set, I think about the people who are watching, not the person I’m debating. I think about the single mom who’s got the TV on while she’s washing dishes and wants to hear something that resonates with the life she lives and the aspirations she has for her family and her country. That makes it easier for me to tune out the partisan nonsense and the horse race politics that so often feel divorced from real life, and allows me to remember who I’m working for, fighting for, speaking to, and speaking for.
MY MOM WILL probably read this, so I shouldn’t say I’m a very healthy person because she’ll disagree. I got married right before the election, so I was probably at my healthiest and happiest then. Right now I travel a couple times per week, and for me to take care of myself means being at home and spending time with my husband.
I ALWAYS KEEP a suitcase packed, because I don’t unpack between trips. I have a great suitcase that I love, the Away suitcase, and I keep a pair of travel shoes in a bag that I rarely wear in New York. When I’m in a hotel, I order room service in my room for breakfast so I don’t waste time going downstairs in the morning. I put the order on my doorknob before I go to bed. I can get on my laptop first thing and then the doorbell rings and I can eat and then I’m ready to go.
Photographs by Maria Karas.