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Steady Habits: Shawn Wooden is ‘having trouble breathing in the country I love’
“This is the America I know,” State Treasurer Shawn Wooden says, reflecting on a lifetime spent facing systemic racism. “And this America continues to scare me.”
Date: Wednesday, June 3, 2020
State Treasurer Shawn Wooden was born and raised in Hartford. He graduated from Trinity College, worked as a corporate lawyer in the city and served as city council president.
He’s seen firsthand how systemic racism limits access to housing, education and opportunity in Connecticut’s cities. Police shootings of unarmed men and high rates of police stops of people of color in the suburbs aren’t just news reports or statistics for him.
“This is the America I’ve been working to change much of my life,” Wooden says.
He talks about with John Dankosky about his life, his work and his recent column in the Hartford Courant calling on Wall Street and corporate America to do more to combat systemic racism.
Listen to the episode using the player above or read an edited transcript of the conversation below.
Episode 15: Full Transcript
DANKOSKY: This is Steady Habits. A Connecticut Mirror podcast. I’m John Dankosky. It’s where we take a look at how things work in the Land of Steady Habits, how they don’t work and how we can make them work just a little bit better. And if this past week it seemed like nothing is working in America, not just here in Connecticut, well, you might be right. We saw nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Louisville and countless other black and brown people who’ve been killed by police and in other acts of racist violence. Some of those marches turned violent when the peaceful protests were met with military equipment and tear gas. Others escalated with looting and the burning of buildings.
In Washington, there was further escalation as President Trump brought in military, not just police and military gear, mind you, but military to beat back a peaceful crowd and working journalists. It came after he harangued U.S. governors to crack down more forcefully on protests. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont was on that call with the president. He dismissed that, of course, he said our state would handle it “the Connecticut way.” And here it has seemed police restraint and a lack of outside agitators resulted in so far peaceful, temporary shut down of highways.
But that peace does not hide the anger of state residents, especially those in cities who’ve seen police shooting of unarmed men. High rates of police stops of people of color in the suburbs. And a systemic inequality in housing and education and in opportunity. Shawn Wooden has seen all of this firsthand. He was born and raised in Hartford. He went to Trinity College here, became a corporate lawyer at a big law firm here. He was called the “Can’t Miss Kid in Hartford Politics” by The Hartford Courant back in 2001. He served as president of the city council and he was elected state treasurer in 2018.
This past weekend, Wooden wrote an op ed for the Hartford Courant titled “Corporate America It’s Time to Stand Up Against Racism.” So I wanted to ask him about the call that he makes to the companies that he invests Connecticut’s money and also about his own story of experiencing racism and about an issue that a current city councilman in Hartford has been raising. Whether Hartford should have a police force that’s more than twice as large as similar sized cities. But we started with the first line of Wooden’s op-ed. “I am a proud American and I’m having trouble breathing in the country I love.”
A Look at Wooden’s Life
WOODEN: I thought it was important to, you know, part of me feels like I shouldn’t have to say it. But our country has such a challenge with even though it’s embedded in our and our principles, kind of dissent, discourse, debate. But when it comes to issues of race, our country is challenged to talk about these things. And in some respects, have you know, some people almost feel it’s un-American.
Where in my view, it’s quite the contrary, you know, to make, to create, to promote a more perfect union is one of the most American things you can do. And I felt like it was important to say that out at the outset in terms of who I am. And that’s why I serve our state. I served my city.
DANKOSKY: A lot of people, when times like this happen, say “this is not the America that I know.” And then I have an awful lot of friends who say no, “this is exactly the America we’ve sort of made for ourselves.” Where do you fall on that spectrum?
WOODEN: That this is the America, sadly to say and acknowledge for me, but this is the America that I know. This is the America that many African-Americans have experienced, that I’ve experienced, that my parents have experienced. And that’s just our reality.
And now it’s you know, we’ve had video for for quite some time now. And but the more and more the video that we see, I think others are getting a lens into what America looks like for many of us.
And it is a sad thing to acknowledge, but I’ve come down on this is the America that I know.
And this is the America that I’ve been working to change much of my life in different respects, whether that was when I was in high school and I was in a desegregation busing program and went from Hartford to Manchester, called Project Concern. Now it’s the CREC program. Whether it was when I was a student at Trinity College and I was the president of the Black Students Organization, taking up these issues. Whether it said as a lawyer and working my way up to become a partner at a law firm and to promote diversity and inclusion. This has been my story and the story of many African-Americans as well, you know, as I wrote about in the piece now my family’s roots in Georgia. You know, it’s actually the first time I’ve shared that story about traveling south.
But I’ve often shared that my father would tell me that they left the South for three reasons: for a better economic opportunity and just they needed jobs and work, because of the Ku Klux Klan and because he hated snakes. Those are the three things that my father always told me. That’s that’s part of the family legacy. And, you know, I’ve fought hard, you know, all my life around these issues. And now as a dad, father of two teenage black boys, this America continues to scare me. And that’s why. And there was something about Ahmaud Arbery. You know, we’ve had Trayvon Martin. We’ve had so many along the way. But something about Ahmaud Arbery which triggered – I wanted to write about this. I wanted to use my voice in my platform in a way that I haven’t traditionally. You know, I’ve worked very hard to improve the community and our state in lots of ways. But with this issue in this moment, you know, it was incumbent upon all of us to to raise our voice if we care.
DANKOSKY: Tell me what it is about. About his story specifically. Because, I mean, I think you make, sadly, such an important point that the more videos that we see over time, it’s like each one of them fills in a little piece of a puzzle. Oh, I see. This can happen to a black man who’s running. This can happen to a black woman at a traffic stop. This can happen to a black man who who is just going about his business. What is it about that story specifically that triggered something in you?
WOODEN: So, you know, and to be clear, all of them know I was at the steps of the state capital after Trayvon Martin’s death. So there there’s both the culmination of these collective experiences in watching black boys and black men being killed. And now on video. But Ahmaud Arbery? It was, you know, my family’s roots in Georgia. It was those experiences, their stories about growing up there. My experiences going back for the South. It was him jogging and my son at the dinner table asking me, is it safe to jog? He’s a runner and he jogs around the neighborhood. It was in so many aspects. It was even when the subsequent video came out of him looking looking at a house under construction, as if maybe that was going to be something bad, thinking that just days before seeing that video of him in that construction site, I did the exact same thing when I was going by a house under construction and I walked in. I was curious and thinking about, you know, the curiosity of a death sentence if you’re black. All of it. All of it moved me to say “enough.”
DANKOSKY: Yeah. My folks live down in South Carolina now and they live in one of those places where houses start to get built in and the economic collapse happened and so there are a bunch of abandoned houses. And I go out walking with my parents and we do that all the time. We walk and say, “well, what’s the floor plan look like in this place?” And as a white American man, I never once think about the fact that anyone might do anything other than come up and say, “hey, get out of there.” But that really speaks directly to what you and Ahmaud and so many other people must, must, must feel.
Calling on Corporate America to Act
WOODEN: Yeah. And and I thought I was done with my my piece on Memorial Day. And then Central Park with Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper happened. And then George Floyd in Minneapolis. And the power of all of that kind of combination. It’s a lot. And as we see with the reaction of the nation, it is a lot and it’s almost too much. I for one, I’m very hopeful, though, that we we can use this moment. And that’s the intent. You know, I never write just to vent, but that the intent that we can use this moment where it’s not just another death at the hands of police, just another killing, just another moment of outrage. But it can be translated. We can take tragedy and pain and turn it into purpose in our country. And that’s why I made this call to corporate America, to act, to get off the sidelines and to be engaged.
And it’s not an indictment on corporate America for me, but more so from where I sit now as the state treasurer from I have a front row seat to Wall Street, corporate America. These are my business partners and I’m there. I’m in this space that is rare for most people and certainly rare for black men in America. And I thought it was important for me to make that call to corporate America, understanding the unique position of power and influence they have in our society, and understanding the historical precedents for their constructive engagement around social change. When we look at apartheid in South Africa, in the economic boycott efforts and how that contributed to bringing down a broken racist system of oppression, when we look at the North Carolina bathroom bill and how corporate America responded and how that changed policy. And so this is a call to action to engage significant influential players in American society that heretofore have not been consistently focused on engaging in systemically changing.
DANKOSKY: In your mind, though, what does that look like? Because I think that already we’ve seen some attempts in the last week by some corporations to make more public stands or stances. Sometimes they look, frankly, like they’re photo opportunities, a way to say that I’m doing the same thing as everyone else. It’s you know, I’m talking to you on Blackout Tuesday, and everyone’s trying to figure out a way how they can make sure that they’re signaling that they’re in solidarity. So what does it really look like to you? For corporate America to do something substantive that holistically changes it, not in the sort of piecemeal way that that happened in North Carolina, a tragically stupid piece of legislation gets, you know, sidelined by people who know better, basically, but really corporate America saying we’re going to do away with 400 years of systemic racism in America and we’re gonna make it happen. I mean, how does it look to you?
WOODEN: Yeah. And I would say, you know, one might laugh at me. But despite that, those 400 years, I still have optimism. I still have hope. And I believe that we are at a moment right now. And I would call it our Emmett Till moment in America, where people, you know, good people of all walks in law enforcement, activists, in government, in corporations are really getting the sense that this is a problem that we have to address. And so what that looks like is. Looking at economic disparities in our society rooted in those 400 years and that story, I know some people are very sensitive about drawing the dots. But the line between between slavery, Jim Crow, de jure segregation and de facto segregation to current present day conditions. But I think if you look at the history, there is no question about it. When we look at the difference in economic opportunity, when we look at housing, it was just in New Haven last week talking about the redlining that took place in the 1930s. That black community is still suffering from as redlining has happened all across Connecticut in America. Right. We’re still living with that. And we have to look at housing issues.
When we look at health care disparities and the correlation and no time in our history, is that underscored more than during this COVID-19 pandemic. We see the death rates for African-Americans higher, the infection rates higher, and the underlying conditions. There is a straight line and a correlation when we look at educational disparities in our society. And when we look at all of this, I think what it looks like for corporate America to get off the sidelines and to lead is to be serious about that comprehensive approach towards it. It’s not corporate America in isolation, but it’s working with those in government. It’s working with the faith community. It’s working all together and looking deliberately at these patterns and how to break systemic barriers.
DANKOSKY: I just want to jump in, though, because I mean, I think that’s obviously right. The problem is that corporate America has shown time and time again that when asked to give up even a modicum of power or money, they say, no, the investor value is the holy grail on Wall Street. If you’re not making money for your investors, you’re not doing your job. And what that continually comes back to is policies, it seems, that keeps us from getting health care, from tackling health care disparities, from figuring out how to solve systemic issues of poverty. We don’t get any of these things in large part because if they really want to look at how to do something about it, just don’t take so much profit for yourself. And in your top CEOs, figure out a way to get more of it into the community that buys your stuff and where you live. And they’ve consistently not done that.
WOODEN: So you’re absolutely right. And you’re speaking to the right guy about a deal in money. And I know about having a fiduciary duty, right? I know about taking care of the beneficiaries and in the best interests of their interests for pension funds. I know about as a shareholder, on behalf of the state of Connecticut in owning an interest in many of these corporations that we’re talking about. I know about the role of shareholder value, but I also want to say to you that there is lots of data now showing the relationship between some of these other policies. Sometimes we talk about human capital and the value of that towards long term value in a company. Right. But this is about protecting your customers and they’re making their lives better to buy more of your products. This is about protecting your human capital in your workforce. So there is an increasing business rationale as to why it makes sense to address these issues right now.
We’re going to some corporations go out of business as a result of this pandemic and and other conditions. And I’ve had, you know, my investment team. We have daily calls with economists, with some of the smartest money managers in the country and getting their perspective on these things. But there is a case to be made that those that take care of their workers better, that are more connected with their communities and the customer base they serve are actually going to, A, survive, B, create greater and long term shareholder value for those companies. But I think we certainly have to speak and I as a treasurer, have to speak in the language of money to the same constituency in corporate America. But I think we are coming to a point in history. I mean, it’s not an overstatement to say our nation’s at a boiling point right now. And what is corporate America going to do? Because it doesn’t work, doesn’t work for corporate America. It doesn’t work for government. It doesn’t work for local neighborhoods. If we do not figure this out. And so I think I think that business imperative, combined with the moral imperative of the moment, I am hopeful that that will bring us to the table in a constructive way to crack the code on some of these longstanding challenges.
Should State Investments be Used as Leverage?
DANKOSKY: And does this, in your mind, change the Connecticut investment strategy? I mean, do you start to look at at this and use your influence and say “we need you to change your policies because we want to be able to invest the money of the people of Connecticut in your in your product? But we can’t do it unless you do something that’s different than what you’re doing.”
WOODEN: Well, so a couple of things. And that’s that’s an excellent question. One. And it was an investment lawyer for twenty one years before becoming the state treasurer and ad buys institutional investors. Right. On how to comply with their duties and in structuring investment. So first thing is, as a fiduciary, to look out for the best long term interests and value. Great, two, And this is why I love talking about this, because oftentimes we those that do not believe capital should be used in a way to make society better. They often give this false choice between investing and making money or investing and losing money, but doing something good. I reject it. I wholeheartedly reject it in the data actually supports the fact that you can invest in ways. In fact, you have to.
So every investment that we make, our investment managers have to fill out what we call ESG environmental social governance questionnaire to figure out what are they doing? How do they see these things? How does it factor into their investment thesis? Because we believe there is a correlation between paying attention to these environmental, social and governance factors and creating value. So so that’s that’s what I’m already doing today. Looking at diversity. There is another questionnaire. Tell me about tell me about your company. Tell me about your leadership. Tell me where the diverse members of your team. There’s a study, I believe it was a McKinsey study that showed that when we look at companies, for example, Fortune 500 companies that had women on their boards as compared to those who were all male. Those with diversity of gender on their boards outperform their peers. So there is actual data from reputable consulting firms and others. It supports diversity that does create.
DANKOSKY: There’s this idea of diversity creating value, but it loops back low to to some of the story that you had growing up, going through a legal career, going through a political career, going through your college career, and probably often being in a position where you were the only black man in the room.
How much does it change things in terms of corporate America’s ability to see this as a problem, not just for creating value, but to see this as something that to do something with? If you have more black executives who have been stopped by police for no particular reason other than the color of their skin in the boardroom, if you have more people actually making those decisions. My sense is, is that you’re going to have a lot more sensitivity toward the very things that we’re talking about, whether or not that that is all about value or not. I don’t know. But it certainly seems as though the sensitivity toward the the realities is going to be there.
WOODEN: It absolutely will be. And because leadership to state the obvious leadership starts at the top. And the and right now I’m hoping we can have a confluence of kind of grassroots activism and in kind of elevating the issue, raising the voices, expressing the pain and the outrage and leadership that is sensitive to willing to listen and to bring that together. So with respect to corporate boards, diversifying the boards will lead to that level. A different perspective in the room about how corporations respond. And I can tell you already anecdotally, from the number of corporate CEOs that have already responded to me or other senior executives, be they white or black. The message is starting to get through. With respect to some of the black senior executives, you know, sharing their own stories about one, coincidentally, says his son, 17, like myself, but sharing those stories. And creating you know, I’m hopeful that, you know, my my piece in the Courant will be just one part of making it safe, making it comfortable to tell your story. And in doing so. Giving people a different lens or perspective as it as we go through this encounter. Because you know, where we come from, how we grew up, that influences what we see, even what we see on television today in the coverage. Right. I know. I see. I see outrage. I see years of pain. I see America. You do. You don’t hear me.
That’s what I see. Mm hmm. And I am hopeful.
That we take that right. And I feel like America is starting to see what will it see after the flames go down? Well, that motivation be there. It’s it’s my job as someone who cares about our country to not sit on the sidelines, to not remain in a comfortable place. And that’s all relative. As a black man in America. But not to just sit there, but then make sure that we keep pushing. And President Obama, he recently talked about, you know, the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice and borrowing from King and others. But he said but it doesn’t bend on its own. It doesn’t bend on its own. And so I’m inviting corporate America in to say, let’s bend it together. And that’s what I’m trying to do.
Is Too Much Being Spent on Policing?
DANKOSKY: Treasurer, if I can, I’d like to ask you just one more question. And I know I’ve taken a bunch of your time. I used to serve on Hartford City Council. And so you were intimately involved in helping to run a city which has had its in the past. It’s its own problems with relations between police and the people who the police are there to serve. Josh Michtom, somebody who you probably know who now serves in city council, who’s been writing a bit about about the issue of how many police Hartford has per resident compared to other cities that size. And I’m wondering with your experience, sir, if you think that we spend too much money. On police. And there’s just too many police in a place like Hartford or or Louisville or Minneapolis. It’s not just about good police and bad police. It’s not about police conduct. It’s not about even the racial makeup of the police force. But then we just have too many people who are trying to police people every day, sometimes with with very fancy equipment that they get that seems like military equipment. How do you sense that? I mean, do you feel like the public is spending too much public money right now on the on the policing problem, which would be better served by having less dollars directed at it?
WOODEN: So. I don’t believe – I believe that’s a reasonable discussion and debate, right, as it relates to allocation of resources. I, however, don’t believe that the amount of money that’s spent on it is, say, personnel. That there is a that that contributes to police violence or I think we’re talking about cultures and whether you have a police force of 200 or 400. Right. If you don’t change the culture of policing and there’s been a lot of work done on community policing efforts, you know, when I was on the city council, I launched with some colleagues a faith-based coalition working with the faith community and the police community and law enforcement in a collaborative partnership sense. Right. But changing that culture, I remember engaging with some in the police union, talking about changing the culture of reflexively defending all bad conduct because it’s undermining the social contract between the community and the police.
When when bad actors institutionally are protected. And I mean, it’s good institutionally for the force and for our community, for those to be rooted out. Body cams. That was very important to me and in some others in advocating for bringing body cams onto the police force and the discussions I had with police officers that said, you know, this is just as much about protecting the community as it is protecting good cops for doing their job right and not getting, you know, unnecessary accusations. Right. So transparency has been good. So these are the types of efforts. But fundamentally, you know, someone someone told me years ago, you know, you can’t serve the people if you don’t love the people. And I think our police forces all across this country would be well served by learning to love the people in many, many of them do.
But that culture of service, community engagement. I think that’s that’s a bigger problem is the culture, but not the size of the force. Now, one other tidbit. You talked about the militarization of police forces. I do believe that has been a problem and say get all this money and buy all these toys. And then, you know, they have things that look like tanks that they can pull out in certain circumstances. And they have them in the warehouse. They’re going to roll them out. You know, when when perhaps they should be putting out their arms and for an embrace. You know, recently the police chief in Flint, Michigan, went to went to a scene and said, “I’m with you.” And just the power of that connection. And he said the batons are laid down. It’s all over there. I’m with you. What do you want to do? And the response was instantly walk with us. Right.
But, you know, it was very unfortunate years ago when I was on the city council, when we had a police chief who decided to join marchers. I don’t want to say he was a became a protester with them, but decided before they got to the police station to walk with him. I mean, he embedded himself to talk with the protesters as they marched along. It arrived at the police station and he was criticized by some in the police force for doing that. That is counterproductive. We need to build bridges, not burn them down. And that’s that’s going to get our country to a higher level.
DANKOSKY: Treasurer Shawn Wooden it’s always good to talk with you, and I really appreciate you sharing some of your stories and your thoughts on this matter. I do appreciate your time. And thanks so much and be well, OK.
WOODEN: Thank you, John.
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On “Steady Habits,” our goal is to foster meaningful conversations with newsmakers and the journalists who cover them. We’re planning to dig into some of Connecticut’s biggest stories in policy and politics.
John Dankosky, a 25-year radio journalist in Connecticut, will serve as the program’s host.