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Catalonia Pt. 4: why Catalonia should leave Spain, and why not

Catalonia is awaiting snap elections. Candidates for the regional parliament and presidency are taking care of the final preparations. Tonight at midnight, they will launch their campaigns. Economic arguments for and against Catalan independence are expected to take centre-stage in the upcoming fifteen days. Here’s why both sides make sense, but only to a certain degree.

Political unrest is not good for business. Since the independence referendum of October 1, thousands of companies have relocates their social headquarters out of the region. The very idea of suddenly falling under the micro constitution of the Republic of Catalonia scared them off. They did not sign up for that. These companies prefer the stability that the Spanish law provides. To be able to continue operating as they do, they need to maintain their Spanish judicial identity. The same reasoning goes for the financial institutions that have left Catalonia since the referendum.

The unionist political bloc – the Catalan fraction of the Popular Party (PP), the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) and Citizens (C’s) – are seeking to pacify these disturbed companies and banks, and keep foreign investments coming, by upending the ‘secession process’ ASAP. Winning a parliamentary majority of 68 seats on December 21 and forming a coalition government would empower them in keeping independence tensions at bay.Sondeo del CISElection forecast by the Center for Sociological Investigations (CIS), visualized by El Periodico

Meanwhile, the separatist parties – the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), the Candidacy of Popular Unity (CUP)and Together for Catalonia (JuntsxCat) – are determined to proceed with the separation process. These political rivals all have varying views on the preferred final shape and form of the republic, and on how it should be established, but if there’s anything they do agree on, it’s their promise to create a Catalan state with its own constitutional and economic system.

Why? Because the citizens of Catalonia pay more taxes than in most other regions of Spain, and that’s clearly unfair. Because the money that gets transferred back to the community in the form of public investment is only a fraction of the sum contributed, with the estimated deficit ranging from €9.000 to €16.000 million. Because Catalonia owes a huge debt to the state, €52.000 as of 2016. Because more corruption cases are surfacing around the unpopular Popular Party (PP) – it’s the largest party in Spain, but only the fifth in Catalonia  –, and who would want to be represented by such criminals?

There’s clearly a perfect mix of ingredients present for narratives that portray independence as a way out of a miserable situation. But is Catalonia actually better off without Spain, economically? No? Yes? The answer is: neither. And it’s time to acknowledge that. Here’s a start.

“SPAIN ROBS US”

Reason to leave #1: a fairer tax system

In Spain, richer communities pay larger amounts of taxes. As is the case in many countries. If you earn €8 billion a year, you pay more taxes than someone with an income of €80.000. Unless, maybe, if your name is Apple, Nike or Uber. However, it’s not necessary to leave Spain over the tax deficit. Political support for reforming the fiscal contract between the Generalitat of Catalonia and the central government of Spain is growing, recently even among unionist politicians, with socialist candidate Miquel Iceta at the forefront. Catalonia may be able to negotiate an accord that would give the Generalitat the right to collect and redistribute most of its tax payments, as the government of the Basque Country already does. Such negotiations would dissolve the tax dissatisfaction with much less hassle than independence.

Reason to leave #2: no more debt

Spain serves as a creditor to its endebted autonomous communities. It helps them recover from their regional deficits by lending them money. That’s how Catalonia has indebted itself to the state. Unilateral independence could unburden Catalonia of this debt, as well as its share of the national debt. The constitution that was recently drawn up to regulate the process toward an independent Catalonia conveniently does not make any promises regarding the repayment of lent money. But if Catalonia will be left off the hook, or ratherleave itself off the hook, in this matter, is that really the right message to send to the international community? What kind of foreign investor would see someone evading a financial obligation like that, and think: “that’s the right attitude, let me invest some money into this oh-so-reliable new republic”?

“BETTER TOGETHER”

Reason to stay #1: economic isolation

The foremost argument in favour of unity is that an independent Catalonia would not only leave Spain, but would also immediately be left out of the European Union. From that, a myriad of negative developments are expected to follow. These include a loss of international trading partners, a sharp decrease – of 70% – in foreign investments and a skyrocketing unemployment rate due to the relocation of Spanish and international companies. It’s unclear how much time the new country would need to bounce back from these isolating developments. This may take several decades. But, as the optimists believe, Catalonia may also regain economic stability much sooner – by negotiating trade deals with other countries in advance, for example. The region already has a favourable geographical location and good infrastructure, both attractive traits for businesses. Moreover, the regional government is planning to add to those advantages by introducing tax incentives to attract firms, and thereby create jobs. It all remains to be seen, but, ultimately, in the long run, Catalonia might indeed be better off on its own by applying the right measures.

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Reason to stay #2: extra expenses

How much does it cost to build a state for seven and a half million people, and run it appropriately? The region would have to bear several costs that are currently, partially or entirely, taken care of at the national level. These posts include health care, social security services and national security and defence, to name a few. Catalan authorities argue that they can fill the void. At the social securities front, for example, the Catalan government affirms that the working force is large enough, and earns enough, to eventually guarantee the payment of pensions and other allowances.

These are not all the potential consequences of a split, there are many more. Nor are they the only arguments for and against Catalan independence. But they will play a major role in the upcoming regional elections. Unfortunately, drawing up a conclusive balance from them results impossible. There are too many nuances, too many if-thens, to reach a definitive conclusion about whether or not Catalonia’s economy would improve or deteriorate after separation from Spain. That being said, the takeaway is: if Catalonia’s government must continue to chase independence after December 21, let the elected officials be careful, rational, let them plan ahead, negotiate with as many parties and countries as possible, and avoid rash decisions.

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Catalonia Pt. 3: where do we go from here?

The political environment in Catalonia is still very tense and the path the region will follow remains unclear. A unilateral proclamation of independence is still on the table for many Catalan politicians, including the regional President. This article discusses some of the consequences such a one-way independence declaration may bring, short-term and long-term.

An unhappy marriage

Catalonia is stuck in an unhappy marriage to Spain, says Montse Morales, who was born in the north-eastern region and has lived there for twenty-four years. “Imagine being married to a man. You have been married to him for a very long time. But your husband does not love you. He uses you. He needs you to care for him, to do the laundry, to have and raise his children, to clean the house and to work and bring in money for the household. He does not listen to you, nor does he care about your wellbeing. He does not bother to understand how you are feeling, because he is doing well and does not have to go through any of the problems you are experiencing, himself.”

She continues with her analogy, referring to what has been happening between Catalonia and Spain in recent years, since around 2008. “You want to divorce your husband. You are tired of doing everything for him and receiving nothing in return. You want to have more freedom and live a happier life. But every time you try to bring up the subject of divorce, he does not listen to you, because he thinks it is nonsense. He tells you that there is nothing to talk about. He is willing to talk with you, but not about the things you want to discuss, which are the divorce, your rights and your freedoms. Over and over, the Catalan people are told: you are not going anywhere, you will keep on paying your taxes, there will be no divorce and you will stay by my side forever.”

But what if the unhappy wife in Morales’ metaphor decides to break free on her own? Well, there will certainly be serious consequences, because she is tied to her husband by paperwork and all the numerous things they have shared and built together over the years. It is difficult to foresee the exact consequences of such a one-sided breakup, but one thing is clear: if the Catalan government decides to proclaim independence without Spain’s permission, the conflict will be aggravated tenfold. A unilateral declaration of independence is still on the table for the governors of Catalonia. For Morales, that sparks uncertainty and fear. “Every time something starts to move, whenever there is some new development on the news, there is that fear again. I feel scared for my family in Catalonia, for the Catalan people, for everybody,” she says.

Military confrontation

Some people fear that the conflict will flow over into a military confrontation. “Our politicians have to pave a way for a solution, because without a solution, there will be war,” says Belen Jimenez, who is from Madrid. She is in favour of Spanish unity, but not through force.

“I am scared, because if independence is proclaimed now, the Spanish government may send the army to Catalonia,” says Morales. Morales resides in The Netherlands, but her whole family still lives in the Catalan region, and most of her relatives are pro-independence. “I am very concerned for the wellbeing my sisters, their children, my uncles and everyone else. If anything happens to them, that would be very difficult.” She fears that a military conflict with Catalonia is not an inconceivable next step for the Spanish government, especially after seeing that some politicians in Madrid are indeed considering calling in the armed forces. “The other day, I told my husband: we may have to open ours doors to our family and friends, if it comes to that.”

Economic decay

Whether or not an independent Catalonia would be able to sustain itself economically, depends on at least a million factors. For instance, with which countries will the new-born state trade? Will there be a brain drain? Will there be companies leaving Catalonia? Some companies that operate from the region have already taken precautions and decided to move some of their offices elsewhere. The same goes for banks. Indeed, Catalonia generates billions of revenue each year, but that could, of course, change if the economic environment and opportunities to earn money decline. “Still, we have to give it a chance. If given the chance, Catalonia will survive easily,” thinks Morales. 

Loss of EU-membership

If Catalonia breaks free from Spain, it will automatically be left out of the European Union. Moreover, Spain has repeatedly warned that they will veto any decision to grant Catalonia EU-membership and welcome it back into the Union. That would be a shame, admits Marta Torrente. Torrente was born in Barcelona and has lived in Catalonia for twenty-six years. She was brought up during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. “I think Spain and Catalonia have to be very grateful to the European Union. Spain has been able to transform itself into a modern country thanks to the EU. That is why I wholeheartedly hope that independence will not be declared today or tomorrow.” At the same time, she is also highly disappointed with the EU’s reaction to the crisis, or lack thereof. Morales feels the same way. “Catalonia needs the EU. The EU has to oblige the Spanish government to sit down and talk, but, so far, they have refused to do that. They do not want to get involved, I think. The European government has let us down.”

Of course, one of the main motives to stay more or less neutral in the Catalonia conflict and, especially, to not support Catalan independence in any shape or form, is the fear for a domino effect. If Catalonia becomes independent, the Basque Country may follow. And then Scotland. And then Flanders. And then all the other separatist regions of Europe. The map below shows how Europe may end up looking after such a domino effect.

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What Europe will look like if the domino effect happens (Source: TD Architects)

In the Catalonia referendum of 2014, EU-membership was much more of a central theme than in the poll of October 1st, according to Jorik van der Wal. Van der Wal has lived, worked and studied in Spain, off and on, for years. He has visited Catalonia in the week before the 2017 referendum and has spoken to numerous Catalan citizens to hear their opinion on the subject. He notes that the debate around Catalan independence has become more polarized over the years. “Back in 2014, the idea was ‘we want independence, but only on condition that we can stay in the EU and within the eurozone. Now, three years later, I do not hear that at all anymore. There is no middle ground left anymore.”

More division in society

Yesterday, on the 8th of October, around a million people gathered in the streets of Barcelona to protest in favour of Spanish unity and against Catalan independence. Morales can empathize with those protesters, even though most of her own family members belong to the opposite camp. “I agree with the Catalan citizens who do not want to leave Spain and want to keep things calm.” She draws a comparison with living in Frisia, a region in The Netherlands that also has its own language and culture: “Sometimes I imagine how I would feel if, from one day to the next, they would tell me: from now on, you are not Dutch anymore, from now on, you are Frisian. What would I do? Well, I think that I would pack my things and move a little bit more toward the south again,” she laughs.

The societal division in Spain is already severe and could increase even further. “Many people in Catalonia feel hurt, now more than ever. The wound that has been caused by Franco era, by the oppression, has been reopened,” says Morales. She continues, “I know that there are friends and families in Spain who argue and have problems because they do not agree politically.” Working in Catalonia, Jimenez observes the same. “The people are angry. There is an atmosphere of tension, rage and helplessness  in Catalonia. And that will only get worse and worse and worse.” 

Dialogue as the only viable option

“The other day, I heard a phrase that I liked very much: we ended up in this situation by not talking, not listening and not respecting one another. I wholeheartedly agree with that, and I hope that the situation will be resolved peacefully,” says Jimenez. “I would like Catalonia to remain a part of my country, but this is not the way to achieve that. We cannot go on like this.”

In terms of solutions, she and Torrente and Morales are all in favour of a legal referendum, organized and mutually agreed upon by Madrid and Barcelona. “This is a very sad time for democracy,” says Torrente. “I hope that, in the end, the people will be able to decide what they want and that their decision will be respected.”

But before all, they hope for a mutual dialogue between the Spanish and Catalan governments. “I hope that [Mariano] Rajoy and [Carles] Puigdemont will sit down and talk through the issues, says Torrente. “A real and honest conversation has to be set in motion soon, because without that, this conflict will end, very, very badly,” says Morales.

Catalonia Pt. 2: the history behind the movement

Carles Puigdemont, the President of Catalonia, is taking grave risks by trying to advance the Catalan independence project. He could face serious penalties for promoting last Sunday’s referendum. His predecessor Artur Mas, who organized a similar poll in 2014, was convicted for civil disobedience, fined and temporarily banned from holding  public office.

Many Catalans, however, do not view Puigdemont and other like-minded – that is to say ‘referendum-minded’ – politicians as criminals. Indeed, over 2 million of them turned up to vote last Sunday, as was the case back in 2014. “Those politicians are simply looking out for the wellbeing of the Catalan people and their country,” says Montse Morales from Palafrugell, Catalonia. “I should say ‘region’, but I call it a country,” she continues.

Although Morales does not belong to the independentistas or the ‘pro-independence camp’, the idea of Catalonia as a país or ‘country’ apparently still prevails. Where did this idea come from? How did it mobilize millions of people into a (sub)nationalist movement? What other factors have contributed to the sentiment of unity and solidarity felt so strongly among the constituents of that movement? How did Catalan nationalism change over the years? What does poetry have to do with that? And what about Francisco Franco? In other words, how did we get here?

Early history

The story of Catalonia as a unified whole began with the mystical figure of Guifré el Pilós or Wilfred the Hairy, the first Count of Barcelona, who lived in the ninth century. He ruled a vast part of the Catalan Counties under the Frankish Empire and protected them from foreign enemies. Regional folklore tells that the four red stripes on the Senyera, the flag of Catalonia, represent his blood on his yellow battle shield.

The Count merged the Catalan lands into one hereditary dynasty. After his death, the Counties gained autonomy and broke with the Frankish Crown. The formal breakup occurred in 988. Catalonia was born. Its inhabitants were described as ‘Catalan’ for the first time somewhere between the eleventh and twelfth century. This was also when the first use of the Senyera was documented.

In 1137, the Catalan dynasty became allied with the House of Aragon. The political power of this alliance lay in Barcelona and the union conquered many different regions in the years that ensued. In 1192, Catalonia-Aragon invoked the Catalan Courts, a sort of parliamentary institution, to oversee its territories, which all had different laws and  were governed by their own political organs. The Courts later evolved into the Generalitat de Catalunya, Catalonia’s government.  

Tensions between Castile and Catalonia began to boil more or less after 1469, when Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile. Their marriage united the two Kingdoms – Castile and Catalonia-Aragon – and laid the groundwork for what would later become the Spanish Empire. Catalonia retained most of its laws, but did not enjoy the same level of political power and the same economic rights as the Castilian region.

In 1641, the Generalitat had had enough of its inferior position and declared Catalonia an independent republic. Then, it quickly aligned itself with France for protection. What followed were many years of conflict and violent confrontation between Barcelona and Madrid.

In the early eighteenth century, Catalonia was retaken by the Spanish Crown. The recaptured territories – some remained under French rule – were now fully controlled by the central government. The Catalan language and laws became subjugated to those of Castile and the region’s political institutions were entirely suspended. Nevertheless, Catalonia benefited from the reunification. Economically and demographically, it prospered again.

In the nineteenth century, three cultural movements revived and uplifted the Catalan cultural identity: la Renaixença, la Modernista and la Noucentista. One of the first Catalan poets to create literature in the Catalan language and glorify his homeland through his art was Bonaventura Carles Aribau. Many more artists followed suit. The Jòcs Florals of Barcelona, where poets competed for flowers, became a popular festive occasion for showcasing such art.

Nurtured by the artistic movements, numerous Catalan intellectuals began writing about the idea of an autonomous Catalonia. In 1882, most of their political tendencies were assembled into the Centre Catalá, an umbrella group that strove for more economic, political, judicial and social rights for the inhabitants of Catalonia. After that, more political associations proliferated and the political movement expanded.

The first Catalan party, la Lliga Regionalista, was established in 1901 by Enric Prat de la Riba, who wanted Catalonia to become an autonomous region within Spain. The intellectuals that took part in the political movement around the subject of Catalan autonomy back then did not strive for independence. Only after the end of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, did they embrace a separatist ideology.

In the 1930s, tensions over sovereign rights between the Spanish and Catalan governments reared their heads again. For the second time, Catalonia declared itself an independent state within Spain. The central government did not agree with this act and cracked down on institutions and politicians that supported the initiative. This conflict flowed over into the Spanish Civil War. By the end of the 1940s, the Catalan region was captured by Francisco Franco, who would rule it with an iron fist, for decades to come.

Contemporary history

The dictatorship of Francisco Franco was of a centrist and repressive nature. Expressing Catalonia’s regional identity in any form was criminalized. “The Catalan people were very oppressed, in everything: in their language, in their customs, in their culture. They were simply not allowed to be Catalan,” recounts Morales, who now lives in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, but grew up under Franco’s rule, in Catalonia.

Certain recent events in today’s Spain remind some Catalans of the dictatorship. “There were several times when I returned from work, passed by a manifestation on the streets and saw the police chasing after the protesters and beating them up. Well, that is exactly what happened last Sunday,” says Marta Torrente. She has lived twenty-six years in Franco’s Catalonia, before moving to The Netherlands.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain’s transition toward democracy was set in motion. In terms of Catalan autonomy, things began to change for the better. The region gradually gained more and more rights, such as the right to speak its regional language and teach it in schools. Other regions of Spain obtained more self-governance rights as well. The Basque Country, for instance, obtained a considerable amount of freedom with regards to regulating its tax system.

Recent history

The most recent call for Catalan independence stems from around 2008. Among the Catalan people, the grave consequences brought on by the global financial crisis, such as cuts in public spending, were coupled with a certain feeling of being left behind by the Spanish authorities. In the words of former Catalan President Arthur Mas, “with the growing sensation that the state that we helped to construct neither protects us, nor defends us, nor respects us.”

Catalonia brings in around a fifth of Spain’s total revenue, but a part of this money is never reinvested into the region. This has been one of the central issues at stake with regards to the conflict between Spain and Catalonia. The Catalan government has tried to adjust the deficit by asking Madrid for greater fiscal independence, but its proposal was not accepted.

In addition to the economic question, some recent centralization measures laid hands on the linguistic rights of Catalonia, worsening the relationship. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Justice obliged schools to teach at least a fourth of their subjects in Spanish, which meant that less classes could be given in Catalan. “That was when the chaos that we are left with now, actually started, think: when Mariano Rajoy started removing the Catalan language from schools and other public institutions. Just like Franco did,” remarks Morales.

There were other cultural rifts as well. A heated public debate and legal battle around a proposed ban on bullfighting in Catalonia, for example, also contributed to the tense relationships between and among the Catalan people, the central and regional political and judicial institutions and the Spanish population

In 2014, the tension culminated in an unofficial referendum in which a vast majority of voters expressed a desire for Catalonia to become an independent state. Jorik van der Wal, a Dutch national who has been working, studying and living in Catalonia, off and on, for years, has noted that the independence movement has become more widespread ever since. “Since the 2014 referendum, I have been seeing increasingly more Catalan flags, and less Spanish flags. The number of pro-independence municipalities has also gone up. From what I hear, this is due to a perceived lack of respect on the part of the government of Madrid.” Some of the Spanish nationals that were interviewed for this series also feel that Catalonia has been leaning more and more toward independence in recent years. However, the data on this remains inconclusive.

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Thousands of people in Girona, Catalonia, protesting against police brutality of October 1st

It is clear, however, that the police violence that occurred on the day of the 2017 poll did intensify negative feelings toward the central governors of Spain. “I was never in favour of independence, but when I saw the police brutality on October 1st, I did think: we should leave, and the sooner the better,” says Torrente.

The speech given by the Spanish King Filipe last Tuesday, again caused feelings of resentment. “He acted as a politician, not as a King. I have already signed an online petition for organizing a referendum about the monarchy, as well as one for holding a referendum about Catalan independence” Torrente says.

Ultimately, the heart of the Catalan matter does not revolve around wanting or not wanting to secede from Spain. For the Catalan people, it is primarily about being heard and having the right to decide how they are governed. Throughout centuries, this has always been the case. “The people should be able to decide. That is democracy. And if we have to change some article in the Constitution for that to happen, well, let us just do that,” concludes Torrente.

Catalonia Pt. 1: referendum 1-O

Today, October 1st (1-O), a highly controversial independence referendum is being held in Catalonia, Spain. It is controversial, because the regional and national governments do not agree on its validity. Some three weeks ago, the government of the north-eastern region passed a law making the referendum possible, a law that was almost immediately suspended by Spain’s national Constitutional Court. The latter makes its outcome non-binding and unconstitutional; whatever comes out of the poll, the result will not be valid. The Catalan leaders know this, but have still urged their constituents to go on and cast a ballot. What is more, Carles Puigdemont, head of the regional government, has promised to proclaim Catalonia an independent state if at the end of today, the majority of the ballots are in favour of independence, regardless of the turnout percentage. Again, since becoming an independent nation necessitates legal conditions, the vote is symbolic at most. Nevertheless, as we have seen throughout today, this has not stopped millions of people from participating.

The motives of the Catalan independence movement can be divided into two categories. The first is economic. Spain invests a relatively small sum of money in Catalonia, even though the region has steadily generated about a fifth of the national gross domestic product. The anger about this discrepancy is often expressed through the popular slogan “espanya ens roba”, which translates into “Spain robs us”. The second category of arguments is related to catalanism, or subnationalism. Many Catalans claim to have an identity that is different from the Spanish identity. Throughout the years, this identity has been suppressed by many Spanish leaders, strengthening the us-versus-them sentiment. 

The referendum was preceded by a very heated political debate. Beyond striving for independence, certain political parties are now demanding the resignation of the central government of Mariano Rajoy. Other nations have tuned in as well. President Donald Trump, for example, could not resist to put in his two cents, echoing his Spanish counterpart and praising the unity of Spain. The United Nations, while not taking any substantive position, have urged the central government of Spain to let the Catalan people vote freely.

The Spanish people are also split over the issue. The popular debate about the referendum and the independence movement more broadly has become more and more polarised throughout recent years. “Before, it was possible to be pro-Spain without being seen as a rightist. Now, if you are pro-Spain, it is because you are a radical,” explains Belén Jimenez, who is from Madrid, but spends half of her time working in Catalonia. “I know both places very well and love them both very much. This whole situation makes me very sad, because it is dividing the people.” Jimenez works with children and has observed that even they have been sucked into the dispute. “I overhear 7-year-olds talking about how Spain is robbing them. That pains me. They are filled with hate. They are so small and they are filled with hate.” Even though she would like to see Spain remaining one united country, she would be keen on a legal and binding referendum. “The Catalan people should have been able to vote on this a very long time ago. The situation should have been resolved a long time ago, and it could have been resolved much better back then.” With regards to the referendum of today, Jimenez thinks it will not end well. “It will worsen the relationship between Catalonia and Spain even further, if that is even possible. The two governments are acting like little children.”

Een meisjesdroom die werkelijkheid werd: Marije (20) speelt mee in ijsshow ‘Frozen’

Kunstrijdster Marije Plat (20) wilde altijd al schitteren in een ijsspektakel. Om die droom werkelijkheid te maken, nam ze na haar middelbare school een tussenjaar, dat ze grotendeels doorbracht op de ijsbaan. Na een afwijzing bij een ander collectief, mocht ze auditie doen voor het prestigieuze Disney on Ice. Nu speelt ze mee in de voorstelling Frozen en reist samen met het gezelschap de hele wereld over.

“Het leek me op jonge leeftijd al heel erg leuk om te acteren op het ijs. Toen ik een jaar of negen was, ben ik een keer naar de voorstelling Finding Nemo geweest: een hele ervaring. Eigenlijk zag ik mezelf daar toen al helemaal staan, als een van de schaatsers. Ik had zelfs uitgekozen wie ik wilde spelen.” Marije deed toen al aan kunstschaatsen, maar een grote show opvoeren was nog niet meer dan een meisjesdroom. Tot ze die droom begon te zien als een mogelijkheid. “Op mijn veertiende kwam er een moment waarop ik besloot: oké, vanaf nu ga ik schaatsen om bij Disney on Ice te komen.”

“Het leek me op jonge leeftijd al heel erg leuk om te acteren op het ijs.”

Tijdens haar examenjaar heeft Marije auditie gedaan voor een kleiner ijsshowcollectief. “Mijn plan was eigenlijk om te beginnen bij Holiday on Ice, daar ervaring op te doen in de showwereld en vervolgens door te groeien naar Disney on Ice.”

Het liep uit op een afwijzing. “Toen ik auditie deed voor Holiday, was het heel duidelijk dat ik er nog niet klaar voor was. Er waren nog te veel schaatskwaliteiten die verbeterd moesten worden. Dat zag ik zelf ook heel goed in.

Ik wilde groeien in het schaatsen. Daarom besloot ik om na mijn havo te wachten met een studie en me te concentreren op het trainen. Ik wilde alles eruit halen wat erin zat qua kunstschaatsen.” Marije stak al haar tijd in de sport. Ze stond elke dag op het ijs en deed daarnaast ook nog aan dansen en hardlopen. “Ik sjeesde van ijshal naar ijshal. Het was allemaal heel hectisch, maar ik ben er wel veel beter van geworden.”

“Ik sjeesde van ijshal naar ijshal. Ik wilde alles eruit halen wat erin zat qua kunstschaatsen.”

“Na een half jaar zat ik al in het castingtraject van Disney. Ik had natuurlijk opnieuw auditie kunnen doen bij Holiday, maar ik dacht: waarom zou ik eigenlijk niet in één keer mijn uiteindelijke droom najagen?”

Het castingtraject duurde een jaar en er kwam heel veel bij kijken. “Ik heb een auditiefilmpje opgestuurd en live auditie gedaan voor een performance director. Dat was in Dortmund, en heel erg spannend. De feedback was, gelukkig, positief.” Behalve schaatstechnisch moet je ook op persoonlijk vlak geschikt blijken om mee te mogen doen aan de voorstellingen. Het uiteindelijke ja-of-nee zou Marije per post krijgen. “Ik rende elke dag naar de brievenbus om te kijken of er een envelop van Disney in lag. Uiteindelijk heb ik ze gemaild. De dag erop kreeg ik antwoord, waarin ze zeiden dat ze een plekje voor me hadden. Mijn droom kwam uit.”

“Ik rende elke dag naar de brievenbus om te kijken of er een envelop van Disney in lag.”

De eerste keer met het vliegtuig

“Mijn allereerste show was in Japan. Dat was voor mij de eerste keer vliegen, en dat was natuurlijk wel een ding. Voordat ik gecast werd, reisde ik weinig. Mijn leven bestond voornamelijk uit trainen, school en nog eens trainen. Ik keek mijn ogen uit tijdens die vlucht. Daar zat ik dan, alleen, in een vliegtuig vol Japanners, op weg naar Tokio.  Het was heel bizar.”

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“In Japan heb ik meteen heel veel geleerd, ook buiten het schaatsen. Thuis pak je gewoon de fiets naar de supermarkt, maar daar.. Tja, daar heb je geen fiets. Je moet uitzoeken hoe het openbaar vervoer werkt en waar alles zit. In het begin was dat eng. Ik kwam bijna nooit mijn hotelkamertje uit. Als ik boodschappen moest doen, deed ik dat altijd met mijn kamergenootje. Maar op een gegeven moment werkt dat natuurlijk niet meer. Je moet je eigen ding kunnen doen.” Stukje bij beetje durfde Marije ook zelfstandig op pad te gaan. “En dat ging eigenlijk heel goed. Ik ben veel ondernemender geworden. Nu zeg ik tegen iedereen: als ik in Japan de trein kan pakken, dan kan ik een hele hoop.”

Nog groter dan verwacht

Disney on Ice valt onder Feld Entertainment, een miljardenbedrijf met honderdduizenden werknemers. “Ik wist dat het groot was, maar toen ik daar kwam, bleek het allemaal nóg veel groter. Een show opvoeren was ingewikkelder dan ik het me ooit had kunnen voorstellen. Zo dacht ik dat de cast, wij dus, zou helpen bij het op- en afbouwen van het decor. Nou, dat was dus absoluut niet de bedoeling, haha. Dat had ik volledig verkeerd bedacht. Wij komen elke keer binnen als een soort van sterren, in een ruimte opgebouwd door andere mensen. Daar moest ik wel erg aan wennen. Vooral in het begin dacht ik vaak: maar wij kunnen ook wel wat crates verslepen, hoor. Ook gaan er altijd vijftien vrachtwagens mee op tour, volgeladen met kostuums,  decorstukken, enzovoort. Daar denk je van tevoren gewoon niet over na. Het is echt een soort circus.”

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Tijdens In Summer, Marije’s lievelingsnummer uit Frozen

Leren van de besten

“Er zitten heel veel talentvolle rijders in mijn groep: atleten die aan wereldkampioenschappen hebben meegedaan. De meesten hebben dat competitieve inmiddels wel afgesloten en gaan nu alleen nog verder met het showschaatsen, maar ikzelf vind beide nog even leuk. Ik zou het competitieschaatsen graag weer een keer oppakken. Daarom blijf ik ook nu oefenen op mijn wedstrijdelementen. Tussen de shows door is daar genoeg ruimte voor: om het ijs op te gaan en gewoon even lekker voor jezelf te trainen. En dan krijg je van die talenten nog wel eens de gouden tip. Dat is natuurlijk heel erg gaaf.”

“Het is echt een soort circus.”

“Wat ik ook leuk vind is dat er in de shows veel synchroonschaatsen, paarrijden en ijsdansen zit. Dat komt in Nederland namelijk allemaal heel weinig voor. Ik heb bij Disney de mogelijkheid om dingen te leren waar in Nederland simpelweg geen ruimte voor is.”

Geen drie-dagen-kerstgevoel

“Hoe gezellig het ook is met de cast, je blijft natuurlijk je familie missen. Ik heb dat vooral tijdens feestdagen. Afgelopen kerst, bijvoorbeeld, was het thuis supergezellig. De hele familie was er. Ze zaten gezellig met z’n allen op de bank, werd me via FaceTime meegedeeld. Iedereen behalve ik, want ik zat in Engeland en had die dag drie shows. Dan mis je toch wel dat typisch Nederlandse drie-dagen-kerstgevoel, hoor. Maar goed, dat hoort er wel een beetje bij. Gelukkig kan ik met ze praten via WhatsApp en FaceTime. En als ik weer een paar weken thuis ben voor een break, zoals nu, zijn ze extra blij om me weer te zien. Dat voel je gewoon. Dus het is niet eens per se negatief.”

De wereld rond

Er zijn weinig landen waar Marije nog niet is geweest. Ze heeft inmiddels al heel wat afgereisd. “Het is nu vanzelfsprekend dat ik elke week in het vliegtuig zit. Naast de plekken waar we hebben gespeeld, heb ik, onder andere, ook nog Denemarken en Hiroshima bezocht. We krijgen, vind ik, best wel veel vrije tijd, dus er is ook gewoon ruimte om eigen trips te doen.” De meest bijzondere ervaring was Mount Fuji beklimmen. “Het was heel vet om bij zonsopgang op de top van Mount Fuji te staan. Het was de zes uur durende klim meer dan waard.”

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Op de top van Mount Fuji (Japan)

Over een paar dagen vertrekt Marije naar de V.S. voor de volgende tour. “Ik heb nu een break van bijna twee maanden achter de rug. Het was heerlijk om weer even thuis te zijn, maar het begint nu ook wel weer een beetje te kriebelen, hoor. Ik zag dat er een paar gave steden op het programma staan en ik heb héél veel zin om weer op te treden.”

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De cast en crew van Frozen

 

Living the dream?
“Een beetje wel. Ik zou nog wel willen doorgroeien binnen Disney: meer doen tijdens de uitvoeringen. Mijn ultieme droom, nu, is om een keer als principle op te treden in Thialf, waar ik altijd al heb getraind. Helaas gaat dat waarschijnlijk nooit gebeuren. Dan zouden ze Thialf nog een keer moeten verbouwen en het nog een stukje groter moeten maken. De ijshal is te klein voor een show als Frozen. Bovendien ben ik gecast voor het ensemble. Dat betekent dat ik bijrollen speel. Alle principles spelen een hoofdrol, zoals Elsa en Anna.” De mogelijkheid om zo’n rol te krijgen is er wel. “In principe kun je doorgroeien. Ik blijf gewoon hard werken en wie weet…”

“Mijn ultieme droom, nu, is om een keer als principle op te treden in Thialf, waar ik altijd al heb getraind.”

Private vs. public: Bridging the gap

Interactions between the private and the public sector do not always run smoothly, especially when it comes to digital issues. Conflicts between state privacy watchdogs and social media companies over data breaches, encryption wars between intelligence agencies and text messaging firms, and rigorous attempts at regulating app-based ridesharing businesses by cities and municipalities in an effort to protect traditional taxi drivers are just three examples of this difficult relationship. Denmark hopes to bridge this “digital divide” between the public and the private sector by appointing a digital diplomat. His name is Casper Klynge and he will take on this new role as of today.

Creating the post of a national diplomat for digital affairs was Anders Samuelsen’s flagship proposal. Samuelsen is the Danish Minister for Foreign Affairs. He argues that reaching out to technology companies is a necessary step for his country because “there are a lot of tech issues at stake right now.” From settling data disputes to acquiring employment opportunities and even to fighting Islamic State terrorists, many of the big questions of today require close involvement from private, digital businesses. Several countries are struggling to keep companies with online platforms and disruptive business models in check by crafting new laws or filing lawsuits. Denmark has set its eyes on an extra means of interaction: direct dialogue. “Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber, and so on move at a very fast pace,” says Samuelsen. “You cannot regulate everything.”

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The ambassador model is appropriate because some tech companies are as significant as nation states, he continues. “We need a more direct dialogue with these heavy players because they affect the daily lives of Danish citizens more than some countries,” Samuelsen says. They are also akin to countries from an economic point of view, he explains: “In an economic sense, some tech companies are like countries, yes. For example, Amazon has a total value that is three times the gross domestic product of Denmark.” 

“We need a more direct dialogue with these heavy players because they affect the daily lives of Danish citizens more than some countries.”

From Silicon Valley, the tech ambassador will work with giants such as Google’s parent company, Alphabet, but also with smaller companies that might grow up to be giants in the future. “The ambassador might be able to pinpoint which small companies are going to be important in a couple of years and enter into dialogue with them from an early stage,” says Samuelsen. The many tasks the envoy will have to take on include creating job opportunities by convincing big companies to open up offices in Denmark and finding fast ways of closing down extremist social media accounts in order to prevent terrorist organisations from recruiting fighters through online channels.

Although Klynge will reside in Silicon Valley, “it’s really a world-wide job,” says Samuelsen. Akin to a traditional foreign relations ambassador, the Danish tech ambassador will have to travel all around the globe to protect Danish interests. 

“It’s really a world-wide job.”

Chances and challenges

Alec Ross, senior advisor for innovation to former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, applauds the idea. However, he warns that the Danes “are going to have to work hard to get the companies to take them very seriously.” Denmark is a relatively small country, Ross says, and although it’s quite advanced in terms of technology, it will need a really digitally savvy diplomat to accomplish anything. “If the companies see this person as a typical bureaucrat, as just the typical civil servant,” Ross says, “they will probably just ignore them.”

Besides establishing direct dialogue and fostering friendly ties with the tech sector, Ross encourages Denmark to use this opportunity to also implement more digitalisation within its ministries. For instance, he recommends the tech ambassador to use Facebook and other popular social networks to hear and understand the Danish people, their perspectives and their needs. 

Internet entrepreneur and dot-com pioneer Dan Wagner praises Samuelsen for recognizing the importance of technological development. “Sending a digital ambassador to Silicon Valley to interact with major companies and get insights from the Valley back to the Danish community is a good idea. Even if the only thing that comes out of it is that this digital ambassador comes back to Denmark with in- sights into how to create successful digital businesses in Denmark, it’s a worthwhile investment,” Wagner says. “If they’re able to create awareness of Denmark as a potential base for American companies looking to expand across Europe, then I think it’s even better. And I’m sure that there will be other benefits, too.”

Wagner does stress that the diplomat will have to bring something of real value to the negotiating table if he wants a certain company to move to Denmark. Tax breaks and talented people with strong technical skills could serve as good incentives. He also says that it might become harder to strike deals if more countries follow in Denmark’s footsteps, as Samuelsen expects. “The problem is that if every country did it, nobody would get any real value from it, because companies like Alphabet are not going to entertain every single digital ambassador,” he says. “It’s fine with one, but if there’s many, there needs to be a clear remit.” Indeed, consulates and trade representatives from multiple countries, including Austria, Canada and Ireland are already present in Silicon Valley, meaning Denmark is really going to have to work hard in order to make its mark.

“The problem is that if every country did it, nobody would get any real value from it” – Dan Wagner on Samuelsen’s idea

What sector’s next?

Samuelsen has not considered applying this form of relationship to other industries just yet. Technology companies are his priority – for now. “I think I will just work on this first. I have not considered any other sectors yet,” he says. The idea does not make sense for all industries either, he explained. The oil industry, for instance, does not need a special ambassador, because “working with oil companies fits within traditional regulation frameworks quite well.” Nothing needs to be changed there to make deals happen.

Whether appointing ambassadors to the technology field, or to any sector for that matter, is the best way to alter the love-hate relationship between the private and the public sector for the better remains unclear. Wagner does believe it will help bridge the gap, improve the interaction and possibly even stimulate the public sector to innovate for once. “Right now, I don’t think there’s any innovation coming out of the public sector at all,” Wagner says. 

These interviews were conducted during the 47th edition of the St. Gallen Symposium for the 2017 Symposium Magazine, and first published on www.symposium.org/magazine. Photos by Tobias Schreiner. 

 

Work-life balance: On the clock

For many people, the internet and the smartphone have erased the division between work and private life. It’s not uncommon for people to look at their phone every twenty minutes or so to check for new emails, even when they’re off the clock. How has the surge in online communication affected work-life balance and workforce expectations? Four super-busy people in high positions reveal their point of view.   

Tawanda Mahere, director of emerging markets at Jide Technology: “I do not mind sending work emails at night. In fact, I appreciate the flexibility that technology gives me. I live and work in China, and I flew to my home country Zimbabwe last year and surprised my mother for her 60th birthday. I was also able to visit my little sister for her graduation. I could only do that because I could carry my work with me. It enhances my life to be able to do work wherever I go. The work-life dichotomy has definitely been distorted in some industries and that is great. The amount of hours spent in the office is much less relevant now than it was thirty years ago, because the work that we do, does not have to be done at the office. I also think that it’s great to bring your family to work. Just before this symposium [the 47th St. Gallen Symposium, during which this interview was conducted], I met with a client. In the course of that meeting – a very serious meeting – my client answered a call from his son. They actually video chatted for a few minutes. I admired that. That is the kind of work-life balance model that works for me, too. It goes both ways: technology lets you bring your emails to your home, but also your family and friends to your work.

“I appreciate the flexibility that technology gives me.”

Katerina Lengold, vice president of business development at Astro Digital: “Until a couple of years ago, I had no such thing as work-life balance: I was flying back and forth all the time. Now, there are actually hours booked in my calendar for spending time with my loved ones, playing with my dog and a nice dinner. If somebody is trying to schedule a call in that time, my calendar will say I  am busy. I spend that time entirely offline. When I started doing that, I became much happier. Balance comes from equal priorities, and equal priorities means scheduling time for things that matter. I think everybody deserves offline time without work interruptions. I will not bug a person on their vacation with requests. If I need something from them, I usually send a note. I try not to call, because that is very disruptive. Availability 24/7 is a dangerous commitment. It limits your capacity to enjoy other things in life. At the end of the day, we work to be happy, not just to maximize our efficiency, and if we forget about the things that make us happy, we are not doing a good job at living our lives to the fullest.

“There are hours booked in my calendar for spending time with my loved ones.”

Susanne RuoffSwiss Post CEO: “I always spend at least one hour per day checking my phone, even on vacation. As a CEO, you need to stay connected. But you should not make Saturday morning calls to your employees over nothing. You need to have a basic level of respect. I don’t expect my employees to answer calls during night time. On the weekends, I expect nothing. It is also important to clarify your expectations and rules for online communication. That is an extra task bosses have today. It is wrong to expect employees to respond to everything within five minutes. When I worked at IBM Switzerland, we made a change from closed office to open office and we had the rule of softly knocking on somebody’s table as a way of asking for permission to disturb them. We did that in the ‘90s, but the principle is still valid today: you cannot disturb anybody at any time.

“It is important to clarify your expectations and rules for online communication.”

Dan Wagner, CEO of Rezolve: “Why would you ever be offline? Why would you need it?Being online is a way to communicate. I think that it very much depends on the job, but in the technology environment, it’s a ridiculous idea to be completely offline for hours. I am online for almost every minute of every hour of my day. Of course, I am not interacting with my devices all the time, but I am online and available for my work. In the technology service business, that is normal. You need to be available, especially if you have a job that requires some level of responsibility. For example, if there is a technical issue that is preventing people from having access to the service we offer, I would be on it every five seconds and chase the person that I need down, and I would be furious with them if I do not get a response within a reasonable period. Some might have a view that work-life balance means that the division between work time and spare hours should be protected, but I have a different view. I think that we are lucky. We are privileged. There are millions of people who have to work in far worse conditions. Worrying about getting a call on the weekend to disturb a bike ride is part of our success.

These interviews were conducted during the 47th edition of the St. Gallen Symposium for the 2017 Symposium Magazine. The original, slightly shorter, version of this article was published on www.symposium.org/magazine. Illustration by Katie Chappell.

Terreur in Spanje: Kroniek van een aangekondigde ramp

De aanslagen die gisteren plaatsvonden op verschillende plekken in Catalonië kwamen voor velen als een onprettige verrassing. Ikzelf was in shock toen ik gisteren tijdens het koken het eerste pushbericht op mijn telefoon kreeg. “Aanslag op La Rambla in Barcelona: een bestelbus rijdt in op tientallen voetgangers,” meldde de Catalaanse krant La Vanguardia.

Barcelona is voor mij een van de mooiste steden van de wereld en de leukste stad om in te wonen. Ik heb er vrienden wonen en ben er verliefd op. Dat nu ook deze prachtige stad is aangerand door een stel terroristen, doet me daarom misschien wel meer dan alle andere recente aanslagen bij mekaar. Ik kan het eigenlijk nog steeds niet geloven.

Toch is het helemaal niet gek dat nu ook Spanje bij de keel is gegrepen door de terroristen van Islamitische Staat. De terreurdreiging in het land staat al jaren op het één na hoogste niveau. Kort na de aanslagen in Parijs in 2015 ging 58% van de Spaanse burgers ervan uit dat een soortgelijke aanslag ook in hun land zou kunnen gebeuren. Bovendien is Spanje altijd al een doorn in het oog geweest voor radicale islamitische groeperingen als Islamitische Staat. De geboorte van de Spaanse staat begon namelijk met de verovering van het islamitische schiereiland Al-Andalus in de late vijftiende eeuw. Islamitische Staat ziet dit als een roof en wil het ‘gestolen’ land terug. Ook dat ze het gemikt hebben op de stad Barcelona is niet toevallig. Zo verscheen er in augustus vorig jaar een propagandafilmpje waarin de terreurgroep La Sagrada Família als een van hun beoogde doelwitten aanwees.

De Spaanse antiterreureenheden hebben de dreiging lange tijd op afstand kunnen houden. Volgens cijfers van Interpol zijn er tussen 2014 en 2016 452 mensen gearresteerd op verdenking van terrorisme. In 2016 zijn mede daardoor meerdere geplande aanslagen op Spaans grondgebied voorkomen. In dat jaar hielden de Spaanse troepen elke werkweek gemiddeld één vermoedelijke jihadist aan. Zo’n 67 in totaal. Sinds de bomaanslag van 2004 in Madrid waren dat er rond de 650. Daarmee is Spanje een van de koplopers van Europa als het gaat om het aanhouden van mogelijke terroristen.

Verschillende experts gaan ervan uit dat Spanje zo goed is in het vangen van potentiële terroristen door haar ervaring met de binnenlandse terreurgroep ETA, een Baskische gewapende groep die jarenlang agressief en met veel geweld heeft gestreden voor een onafhankelijk Baskenland. Het gevecht tegen ETA is voor Spanje nuttig geweest met het oog op de huidige internationale oorlog tegen islamitische terreur.  

Het bloedbad dat gisteren is aangericht in Spanje is tragisch. Dat geldt voor alle terroristische aanslagen. Een ander akelig aspect aan de ramp is dat het ons een ongemakkelijke waarheid voorschotelt. Het dwingt ons te beseffen dat zelfs een meermaals gewaarschuwde strijder, met misschien wel de meeste ervaring als het gaat om het bestrijden van terrorisme, niet in staat blijkt om zichzelf ertegen te beschermen. En dat is misschien wel de echte reden voor het ongeloof en onbehagen dat vandaag in heel Europa en daarbuiten wordt gevoeld.

She leads by example: An interview with Symone Sanders

 

Symone Sanders was only 25 when she was hired as Bernie Sanders’ press secretary for the 2016 US election. The call came as a surprise: She got the position after 27 other unsuccessful job applications. During the campaign, she addressed and crafted narratives around racial issues and inequality. Now, she is a political commentator on CNN. Sanders praises political disruption: “If people had not been disruptive, we’d still be sitting at segregated lunch counters,” she says. Her advice to other young people includes policies she sets for herself: Know what you want, don’t ask for permission, bring yourself into the damn room and just do well at whatever it is that you want to do.

Why did you decide to go into politics?  

I have always thought that politicians and judges belong to two of the most powerful professions in the world. Politicians enact a lot of the laws that affect all the different types of communities in America – and especially people who look like me. Judges hold people’s lives in their hands because they decide whether someone goes to jail, whether someone gets a diversion program, and so on. At one point, I really wanted to be a judge. But then I went into college and I was like: “No.” 

What changed?

I fell in love with politics. I have worked in politics since I was a freshman in college and I found that communications was my forte. Not only did I enjoy the ability to tell a story, I also found that oftentimes, the messages communicated in politics did not resonate with communities that looked like mine – with women, people of colour and, specifically, black people – so I knew that I wanted to be one of the people that put the messages together. I think that that is one of the most powerful positions. The politician is the figurehead, but it is the people behind them that help them craft their messages and help them to make a difference.

„I fell in love with politics.

Did you not feel represented in politics?

Absolutely not. In America, women make up fifty percent of the population and only seventeen percent of the members of Congress. Black people are thirteen percent of the population and we had our second female African-American senator in history appointed this year. And if you look around, you will notice that your city council people and your mayor are not necessarily women and not necessarily people of colour. But I did know some women and African-Americans who were elected officials growing up: I myself got a chance to be very engaged and involved in the community, as was my mother. So, I did get to see first-hand that that is something that I could do.

Tell me about how you got to where you are now.

I have been working in politics my whole life. I worked judges’ races, state senate races, state legislative races, governor’s races. I worked at a consumer activism thinktank as a press person doing their global trade work. And when the elections were coming around, I decided that I wanted to get into the thick of presidential politics. So, I went out on twenty-seven interviews in Washington D.C., but nobody hired me. They all told me that I was very smart, that I was very engaging, that I wrote very well, that I presented very well, but that they ‘just wanted to hire somebody else.’ A couple of days after my twenty-seventh interview, I got a phone call from Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager – whom I had not interviewed with. I do not know how he found me, but he said: ‘Hey, this is Jeff Weaver, I wanted to know if you would come work for us.’ A few weeks later I had a chance to talk to Bernie Sanders himself. We had a very engaging conversation.

What did he say to you?

Sanders asked me something that none of the other interviewers had asked me. He asked: ‘Do you have any idea of what you want to do?’ To which I said: ‘Yes, I would like to be the national press secretary. I want to be your on-the-record spokesperson, do television and radio interviews and have a hand in your messaging strategy.’ Bernie kind of laughed and asked: ‘Have you ever even done cable television before?’ I answered: ‘No, but I think I would be very good at it.’ He laughed again and three days later I was on the campaign. So, I think I got to where I am by being really focused on what I want. You know, there are a lot of people out there who would go on twenty-seven interviews – heck, eight interviews – and decide: I will just take something different. But I always knew that politics was what I wanted to do and that I just needed an opportunity to demonstrate that I could deliver on what I said I could do. And after twenty-seven interviews, I got that chance. So, of course, I really wanted interview ten, I really thought interview fifteen was my job and I was devastated that I did not get interview twenty-seven, but I know now that I did not get those jobs because I was supposed to sit down for a chat with Bernie Sanders and be his national press secretary for his presidential campaign.

“I went on twenty-seven interviews, but nobody hired me.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered as the national press secretary?

On the campaign trail, one of the biggest challenges I encountered was not being able to get into places because people did not believe that I was who I said I was. There were multiple times where I would arrive at an event and the people at the staff entrance would tell me: ‘Sorry, this is for staff only.’ I would tell them that I was the press secretary and they would go like: ‘Oh? Are you?’ I often had to get someone to validate that I was the press secretary in order to be allowed into the building. Because, you know, I am young – I was twenty-five when I got the job – and there are not many women who serve as press secretaries, let alone women of colour.

At this one event, when we were going back inside after an outdoor address, I heard somebody yelling: ‘Ma’am! Ma’am! Step to the side! Step to the side!’ Next thing I know, a police officer runs up to me and grabs my arm, pulling me out of the entourage and to the side. Then everybody stops and one event person says: ‘This is the national press secretary, what are you doing?’ Then the officer takes his hand off me and says: ‘Oh, I did not know.’ There was no other reason for that officer to attempt to yank me out of the entourage except that I was a black girl. It is discouraging to constantly be reminded of the fact that some folks do not think that you belong where you are. It is a constant reminder that even though we have made strides in the United States, there are still some strides that we have to make in terms of race relations. There is still a long way for us to go.

So, how to do more and get further?

I think it is important for folks to continue to show up. If I would have taken my proverbial ball and gone home that day I got yanked out of the entourage, or on all the days that I got denied entry into an event, or on all the days that people told me that I am only where I am because I am black… If we let such things stop us, then we do not make any progress. So, whether you are a young person, a woman or a person of colour: you have to continue to show up. It is one of the most powerful things we can do. And when we show up, we have to do well. That is how we open the door for other people to come in behind us and that is how we create institutional change.

„There are not many women who serve as press secretaries, let alone women of colour.

Speaking of change, what is the most disruptive moment you have experienced in American politics so far?

The election of Donald Trump is definitely the most disruptive political moment that I have experienced in my short little life. It was disruptive because 1) nobody thought it would happen – not even Donald Trump – and 2) it shook so many people to the core. So many people who were never engaged in politics before are involved now! With the Women’s March, for example, we saw thousands of people come out – not just in Washington, but all over the world! As a black woman in America, I wake up every day knowing that I am under attack, but lot of those people who came out that day, especially in the United States, were people who never felt threatened before. So, if the only thing that ever came out of the election of Donald Trump was that it shook people to their core, woke them up and galvanized them to action, that’s OK. It also created an opportunity for young people to step up the plate, to make their voices heard, to introduce their ideas and to act on those ideas. Even though I voted for Hillary Clinton and wanted her to win, I do not think that we would have had this unique situation had she been elected the President of the United States.

What do you say to the people who are of the opinion that accepting Donald Trump as the President and working with him would be more helpful than working against him?

It is true that there are some people who have to work with Donald Trump, but I am not one of them. I am a staunch member of the resistance. Donald Trump cannot do anything for me and I am fine with that. I do think we have to work within the confines of the system that we have, but we also have to continue to remind ourselves that this is not normal. Nothing that has happened over the last year and a half is normal. It is not helpful when folks try to normalize some of the abnormal things that Donald Trump is doing: the tweeting he does that is turning foreign policy on its head, the multiple trips to his business establishments, his children being in charge of foreign policy even though they know nothing about foreign policy and have not taken any courses. None of these things are normal. So, yes, he is the President and some people do have to work with him – members of Congress, advocacy groups, and so on – but there is also a place for activists and agitators at the moment. And the press! It is literally the press’s duty to hold Donald Trump accountable and remind everyone, every single step of the way, that what he is doing is not normal. We should not let him be comfortable.

“We should not let Donald Trump be comfortable.

Do you consider yourself a disruptor?

Absolutely! I do think of myself as a disruptor. I think that you need to be disruptive when you are working in politics. At some level, regardless of what you are doing, you have to be willing to take a risk, to step out there and do something that has never been done before. I think of it as blazing trails and trail-blazers are inherently disruptive. While disruption has negative connotations, I think we need to own it a little bit more and embrace the spirit of disruption. Disruption is the only thing that has ever changed this world. If people had not been disruptors in America, we would still be sitting at segregated lunch counters. I would not be sitting here right now. Me being on television is an act of disruption. I am a bald black girl from a little place called Omaha talking about politics on CNN: That is an act of disruption in and of itself. So, disruption leads to necessary change. I heard today, in a session: ‘It is not hearts and minds that are moved by action, it is action that moves hearts and minds.’ I fully believe that, and I also believe that oftentimes that action is a little bit disruptive.

What would you want your legacy to be?

Like any other millennial, I want to change the world. I love bringing fresh millennial perspectives to policy conversations and I would love my legacy to be that of someone who brought other people to the table and filled out the conversation. I think success is when you open the doors for other people to come in. It is great to be the first, but it is even better when there are a hundred more people behind you that look like you and that are going leaps and bounds better than you are. I would feel like I did a great job if there were more people of colour going into communications and politics, more women of colour who were serving as press secretaries for presidential campaigns, and, definitely, if there were women of colour serving as the President of the United States of America.

“Like any other millenial, I want to change the world.“ 

You have made quite a few of comments that became news themselves. What is the most radical thing you ever said? And did you regret it?

I think there are two things. The first most radical thing that I have ever said was on the topic of Hillary Clinton’s outreach to young people of colour in African-American communities during the general elections. I said that visiting churches and black colleges was not going to cut it in 2016. I said that the Clinton campaign was running an outdated form of outreach and that they were not going to win this way. This was on the front page of The New York Times and, oh, it was so controversial! Everybody told me they could not believe I said that – although it sounds normal now: clearly, it is true. In that moment, I regretted saying that. I thought: maybe I should not have said that in the newspaper. Fast-forward months later, everybody is like: ‘You were very right about what you said in the New York Times.’

The second most radical thing I have ever said was on CNN during a discussion about the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. When they asked me who I was supporting and started listing names, I said something like: ‘Well, I am not supporting anybody. I actually do not think we need white people leading the Democratic party right now.’ Again, it was so controversial and people were like: ‘Why did you say that?’ To which I said: ‘Well, forty percent of the membership of the Committee are people of colour. I think we need a person of colour.’ Mind that the Democratic Party is supposed to be this umbrella party where everybody feels represented. After that comment on CNN, they took me off four different shows. Yet I never regretted it. I intentionally said those words, because we struggle talking about race in America.

How do you deal with criticism and people telling what you can and cannot say?

Well, first of all: I do not read the comments. People can be very rude in the comment sections. But I also try to be very cautious with my words and say nothing that I am not willing to stand behind, especially on national television. I also think that I am a CNN commentator because the network thinks my views are important to share and that, for that reason, I have to speak authentically from what I believe. So, even when I am saying something that is controversial, I am okay and I need to own it because it is authentically what I believe.

Do you have any tips for young people who want to become political leaders?

You literally can do everything you want to do. I know that that is such a cliché, but it is true. Just be intentional about it. Also, I think that a lot of times, especially as young women, we are too often taught to wait for permission. They tell us to just keep our heads down, keep working and wait for somebody to pick us and give us the opportunity. What I think is that we should stop telling young women that. We need to stop telling them to raise their hand and wait for someone to pick them and start telling them that they need to pick themselves. So, do not wait for someone to give you the opportunity. Take the future in your own hands. Reach out and have the conversation that connects you to your opportunity, rather than waiting for someone else to connect you to that opportunity.

The world is better when women are more involved. I absolutely stand by that. But if we wait for the boys to get us into the room, we may wait a long time and still not get in. So, bring yourself into the damn room. Just do it. Go after your goals, wholeheartedly. There will be a moment when future generations will look back and ask themselves what we as a generation have accomplished and we should be able to be proud of the answer to that question.

This interview was conducted during the 47th edition of the St. Gallen Symposium for the 2017 Symposium Magazine, and first published on www.symposium.org/magazine. Photo by Lukas Rapp.