At the age of 28, Symone D. Sanders has risen to prominence on the national stage with the rightfully earned title of spokesperson for the culture.
A typical day for Symone is not so typical – starting off with an early morning flight, followed by responding to the influx of emails that fill her inbox, then hopping on multiple phone calls to discuss strategy – she oftentimes finds herself tidying up right before she makes an appearance on television to discuss breaking political news. As a member of the Priorities USA team, she works daily to build permanent infrastructure to engage Americans of all backgrounds at all times — not just on the eve of an election. Even with a hectic schedule, she finds time to stop at her favorite nail salon right before an in-person meeting and heading to the next destination.
At the helm of political and communications strategy, Symone served as the national press secretary for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016 at the age of 25, making her the youngest presidential press secretary on record. She recently served as a Resident Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School this past spring. Additionally, Rolling Stone Magazine’s identified Symone as one of 16 young Americans shaping the 2016 election.
Her Agenda sat down with Symone for a conversation filled with humor, charisma, and sincerity. In this interview, she shares some of her insights on reaching major milestones at a young age, going after what you want, and creating a platform that others can learn from.
Her Agenda: How did the label spokesperson for the culture come about and what does it mean to you?
Symone D. Sanders: I was actually recording as a guest on a podcast and the host asked me to describe how I viewed myself. Automatically I responded, ‘Well, I’m a spokesperson for the culture!’ The culture encompasses so many things. It is young people. It is people of color. It is women. It is hip hop. It is everything in the realm of politics because everything we do is inherently political. Everything we do just isn’t inherently partisan. I see myself carrying out this label every time I speak. I am trying to keep the bar high and substantive, and best represent the culture. I think you can count on one hand, maybe two, the number of Black women or even women of color on television. I’m pretty sure I’m the only bald one, also. I realize every time I’m sitting on a panel or anytime I’m speaking at an event that there are millions of people watching me that may have never seen a woman of color before or interacted with a Black person. Also, maybe they don’t know a Democrat, a progressive, or a millennial very well. Thus, I try my best to keep the bar high and also represent all the intersectional parts of who I am.
Her Agenda: Where does the motivation for the work that you do stem from?
Symone D. Sanders: I am a campaign staffer. I love campaigns. I started my political career working for my former hometown mayor, Jim Suttle, in Omaha, Nebraska. When I was working for a campaign in the communication shop while I was in school, there was an attempt to recall the mayor and so I volunteered in an effort to beat the recall campaign. Ever since then I have been involved in politics. When I first moved to D.C. I worked for a consumer advocacy think tank in the global trade division. It is called Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.
When I was younger I used to say I either wanted to be a judge or a politician because to me those were two of the most powerful things anyone could be in the world. Judges hold individuals’ lives in their hands and politicians set the laws through which we all live our lives daily. I dived into communications because when I finally became involved in politics I realized that the folks creating the messages coming out of campaigns were members of the communication shop. These folks more often than not didn’t look like me. As a young woman from the Midwest, I realized I wanted to be the one setting a campaign’s message knowing I have a different perspective and the ability to relate to others who look like me. All of these things matter. In a representative democracy, elected officials should represent all of us. This should also be the case for the people that work for elected officials that are writing the policies and creating the messages. This is what encourages me to do this work every day.
Her Agenda: What is a key challenge to the work that you do as a champion for women, young people, communities of color and those in need and how have you overcome it?
Symone D. Sanders: A key challenge is addressing how often people want to sign off the issues that women, young people, and people of color care about as if they don’t resonate with the majority of the American electorate. It is simply not true. I always encounter the challenge of ensuring that when we are talking about young people we are not just talking about student debt, but we are also talking about the economy, criminal justice reform issues, and other topics. I am consistently making sure we are not putting people into these little demographic boxes. I think the second biggest challenge is my age. When I first reached the national stage I was 25-years-old. Now I’m 28. It is difficult to be the youngest person in the room. I’m also sometimes the most melanated person and the only woman in the room. Folks make assumptions about my ability to contribute or the lack, thereof, based on what they think they know about me. I fight daily to ensure that my voice is in the conversation and I’m being seen. My perspective, in fact, brings a lot of value. I am creating my own lane.
Her Agenda: Who inspires you?
Symone D. Sanders: My mom inspires me because she is amazing! She particularly inspires me at this moment because over the last two years everything that could happen to her has happened. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. She went through chemotherapy, lost all her hair, and while that was happening she lost her mother. A couple months later my father passed unexpectedly from a stroke. Her cancer is now in remission and she is literally reinventing herself. I like to call my mother a habitual entrepreneur. When I was a kid, she owned her own business as a seamstress. When I was 16, she decided to become an event planner. Now she manages the community redevelopment project and also does branding for folks. My mother is a constant inspiration for me and a reminder that no matter what life throws at you if you stay grounded, keep your faith, and continue to do the work, you can and will come out on the other side. Experiencing her perseverance encourages me to give 115 percent every day.
Her Agenda: It is no secret that the political world is stifled by biases and discrimination, what advice would you give to other millennial women looking to advance in the world of politics and communications?
Symone D. Sanders: I would tell other millennial women not to take other people’s opinion of your ability as an indicator of what you are capable of. Many people told me that I was more fit for the role of a press assistant and I should be going after that job. I went on 27 interviews before I ended up meeting with Senator Bernie Sanders’ team. When I met with Senator Sanders he asked me if I had an idea of what I’d like to do. I said I wanted to be the national press secretary. I spoke it into existence and I felt confident to do that. I wasn’t waiting on somebody else to validate my ability, I knew what I was capable of. In this day and age, it is really important that young millennial women are choosing themselves and being their own cheerleaders. We have to advocate for ourselves and work overtime to put ourselves in the room. Continue to ask for what it is you want because sometimes you can be the best, you can be the smartest, and you can be the person that is actually the most fit for the job and people still won’t pick you. I stopped leaving my hopes and dreams in the hands of others a long time ago.
Her Agenda: What is something you do on a day to day or routine basis that you believe contributes to your success?
Symone D. Sanders: I read a lot. I’m currently rereading 1984 again. I enjoy reading novels and books that aren’t necessarily about the political climate right now because I think it allows me to open my mind and think about things differently. It gives me a break from this crazy news cycle. I read and I also drink espresso because I am tired!
Her Agenda: How do you think people like yourself are shaping the future of the Democratic Party?
Symone D. Sanders: One day at a time. That is how we are shaping the future of the Democratic Party. We are all fortunate to live in a time when we know the history of people like Donna Brazile, Minyon Moore, and Leah Daughtry. We know the history of Black women that have opened doors for people like myself and Amanda Brown Lierman who currently serves as the Political and Organizing Director at Democratic National Committee. We are all shaping it one day at a time. The DNC is currently on a Seat At the Table Tour, but Black women literally built the table. We don’t need a seat at the table. It is, in fact, our table. I am humbled and privileged to play a part in setting the course of what life will look like for folks 50 to 60 years from now, much like Ida B. Wells and Fannie Lou Hamer did in their time. We are shaping the face of the party from the inside and outside every single day. We would not have been having a conversation about criminal justice reform and police brutality in 2016 if it weren’t for young Black activists who stood up and challenged presidential candidates. We are not waiting for anybody to give us permission. We are actively standing up and making moves on our own. Now sometimes that means we bump our heads. Sometimes we clash but I think that is all part of the growing pains that the Democratic Party apparatus is going through right now. There is no future of the Democratic Party without the young people of color that are currently at the table as well as outside pressuring the table. I think we should all be encouraged and refreshed by that.
[Editor’s note: This interview published on October 1, 2018. It has been edited for length and clarity.]