With so many stories of division across racial, gender and political lines dominating the news cycle, it’s easy to feel defeated (or in my case, downright angry) about the state of things. But a new podcast from Higher Ground, the production company founded by former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, is here to let us know that all is not lost.
The Sum of Us is a podcast series hosted by New York Times bestselling author Heather McGhee based on her book by the same name. In each episode, she travels across the country on a mission to share stories of communities working together to right some of the wrongs happening around them.
And President Obama is already a fan.“These stories reminded me that we’re not as divided as we might think, that there are folks all over this country who are looking past our divisions to build a better future for all of us,” he said.
We caught up with Heather McGhee to learn more about The Sum of Us and the impact she hopes it will have on others.
McGhee says the idea for the podcast came in the beginning of 2021, when the hope she felt at the end of 2020 was deflated by the events of January 6 and other examples of backlash against positive change. “I, like everyone who believes in social progress, began to feel a little depressed,” she said. “I decided I wanted to hit the road again and talk to people in really far-flung places, many of them red and purple states, and see what the health of the movement was.”
In episode two of the series, “Memphis, TN: The Sweetest Water in the World,” Heather tells the story of a community fighting to protect their water quality after learning that a company planned to build a 49-mile oil pipeline through the city. Local environmentalists worked with a 26-year old Black man named Justin Pearson to build a multi-racial coalition that united Black and white neighborhoods in this segregated city to enact change.
And if her stories leave you with your mouth open, McGhee says she’s done her job of shining a light on stories of injustice that aren’t often covered by mainstream media. “We need to create more visibility about the challenges we still face but not leave it there. We also include stories of ordinary people taking action to solve those challenges so people feel like they can have an impact in their communities,” she said. McGhee adds that she wanted to tell stories of solidarity dividends, “coalitions that come together across race and have these real wins that wouldn’t be possible if these communities had stayed apart.”
McGhee says that while many of the stories of injustice surprised her along her journey to create The Sum of Us, she remains hopeful that more people are joining in to become part of the solution. “Even though the Black Lives Matter signs are no longer in every window and organized protests aren’t happening every day, there has been a shift in the collective consciousness since the summer of 2020,” she said. “The movement may not as visible as it was that summer, but it is still changing history because it’s changing people,” she said.