What’s your relationship to money? It’s complicated.
On the one hand, capitalism is killing us—our economic system is exploitive to its core. At the same time, we all need to earn a living. How do anti-capitalist feminist folks square our feelings about hating the economic system we live in with our need to feel financially stable, take care of our families, and maybe even buy a house someday?
On this episode, “Money Feelings,” feminist artists, activists, and entrepreneurs discuss their personal relationships to money. The show starts off with social justice educator and artist Roan Boucher, who cofounded the online journal Enough and now works for the worker co-op AORTA. Then, Refinery29 senior features writer Ashley C. Ford joins us to talk about the lasting impacts of growing up poor. Prolific author Michelle Tea lays down some real talk about her path from railing against the world to figuring out how to live in it. And, finally, the hosts of the popular podcast Criminal talk about the finances of turning their dream creative endeavour into a stable business.
Interview with Roan Boucher on Radical Wealth Redistribution
Interview with Ashley C. Ford on Scarcity
Interview with Michelle Tea on How to Grow Up
Interview with Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer on Creating “Criminal”
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SHOUT-OUTS AND RESOURCES
• For even more money feelings, listen to Ashley C. Ford talking about finances on comedian Gaby Dunn’s podcast “Bad With Money.”
• Roan Boucher wrote a neat zine critiquing both capitalism and philanthropy. Check it out: Privilege and Solidarity.
• Michelle Tea talks all about learning to deal with money and live in the world in her memoir How to Grow Up.
• If you want to hear the hosts of Criminal in person—you’re in luck! They’re on West Coast tour right now. Check out tour dates at Radiotopia.fm.
SARAH MIRK: Luna Pads believes that reusable menstrual products can offer a radical and transformative way to practice self-care and support body positivity. Their collection of modern cloth pads and leak-free undies are comfortable, sustainable, and effective. So you can stop getting ripped off every month by corporations trashing our planet. Get ready for a different kind of period experience. And save 20% on your order at LunaPads.com with the code Pod Squad at LunaPads.com.
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This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.
[May Day protest sounds: music, voices]
It’s May Day, and I’m in Berlin.
The city shuts down for International Workers’ Day. People from all over the world are here in Berlin, joining the protest and the giant street party. On all sides of me, I hear voices in German, in English, in Spanish, Arabic, Italian, and Turkish shouting about exploitation and violence and raising beers for a toast. As the protest takes off down a huge street, an anti-capitalist chant start up.
In the middle of this Monday afternoon, the streets of Kreuzberg—a neighborhood in the center of Berlin that’s known for being even more lefty and political than the rest of the city—are so full of people that no cars are allowed in the area. For today, the city is a full-blown anti-capitalist celebration and protest.
And then…Tuesday, it’s back to work.
[jack hammers pounding]
I have complicated feelings about my role in the workforce. I’m a little cog in a machine that I think is churning out more bad than good. It’s like one protester said in the May Day march: You are so much more than your productivity. But also, you’re paid by the hour, and you need to get this pile of work done, and your deadline is coming up. So you better get productive. Both of these realities are true. For anti-capitalist feminists like myself, what is our relationship to money? How do we square our feelings about hating the economic system we live in but also needing to earn a living, and maybe save some money, and maybe even one day buy a house?
That’s our question for today’s show. This is the first of two episodes we’re doing about money on Popaganda this year. The second, which will come out this summer, will focus more on poverty and capitalism. So stay tuned for that.
[remixed theme song from Nine to Five]
♪ Stumble outta bed and I stumble to the kitchen
Pour myself a cup of ambition
And yawn and stretch and try to come to life
Jump in the shower and the blood starts pumpin’
Out on the street the traffic starts jumpin’
With folks like me on the job from nine to five
Workin’ nine to five, what a way to make a livin’
Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’…. ♪
SARAH: I called up some smart feminist activist folks to talk about money feelings.
These are huge questions around how to live in the world. How do I, how do we, participate in our economy in the best, most ethical way?
ROAN BOO-SHAY: There’s no answer to those questions, you know? There’s never a having arrived, a landing point where you’re suddenly pure and in right relation to capitalism. There is no justice in capitalism. That’s the whole thing!
SARAH: Ah crap.
That wisdom comes from Roan Boo-shay.
ROAN: Oh, well, hi. My name’s Roan Boo-shay. I live in Carrboro, North Carolina. And I mean, honestly, my identity right now is so consumed by being a parent of two toddlers, but I also am a social justice educator and consultant. I work with a worker-owned coop called Aorta, which stands for Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance. And I’m an artist.
SARAH: In 2008, Roan was thinking a lot about money and identity and activism and co-founded this group called Enough with lawyer and transgender activist Dean Spade.
ROAN: It wasn’t really a group. It was a website; it still is a website, but it looks terrible now because something happened to the WordPress platform that we were on. But all of the writing still exists online.
SARAH: Oh yeah, not a group, an online journal that published essays about the topic that people feel really awkward about discussing: money.
ROAN: Myself and Dean Spade, who is the brilliant human being that I created Enough with, we wanted to talk about money and how we use it in our lives and in our movements. And we wanted to have that conversation with people that had anti-capitalist politics. Because capitalism isn’t just an economic system, right? It’s cultural. It gets into our heads and hearts, and it teaches us all these things like scarcity and individualism. It has all these myths and messages that affect us even when we know they aren’t true.
SARAH: I asked Roan, what are some of the ways that capitalism affects the way we see the world that take us some time to recognize? Like, what are some of the invisible impacts of capitalism on our brains?
ROAN: Yeah, I mean, I think that individualism is a huge part of it. It teaches us to look out for ourselves and not do things like talk about like, how much money do you make? How much money do you need? Are you in debt? Are you struggling? Can I help you? And I think that happens a lot more in poor and low-income communities than it does in middle class and wealthy communities for obvious reasons. But one of the things that Dean and I were thinking about when we started Enough was that it teaches us to not have these conversations. Partly sometimes it’s coming from shame, whether that’s shame about being in poverty or shame about having wealth. And sometimes it’s coming from just this really intense social conditioning to not talk about these things.
It’s those pervasive myths of capitalism where even though you know the meritocracy is fake, and people don’t get to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, it still affects people psychically on so many levels.
SARAH: So speaking of capitalism, Roan grew up as someone who benefitted a lot from that system. He’s really frank about that.
ROAN: So I grew up a rich kid, you know, the kind of rich that other rich people would call upper middle class, but only because being rich skews your perspective about those things. I went to private school for middle school and high school. I went to summer camp. My dad started making a lot of money around the time that I was born through a job in the software industry that he came into through one part luck, two parts hard work, and 100 parts privilege and nepotism.
SARAH: When Roan was in his 20s, he decided to do something pretty radical for a young person with money: to give it away to fund social justice work.
ROAN: I mean, to me it felt like a very simple choice. I learned that I had a trust fund when I was about 18, and I didn’t want it. Which [chuckles] in itself is a function of having grown up with wealth and class privilege, right? I didn’t have a feeling of scarcity. I wasn’t like, “Oh, thank god I have that money that I can use for my future!” And I didn’t get access to it until I was 25. By then, I had had a lot of time to think about it, and I had gotten involved in resource generation. I really came to understand that philanthropy is like this whole thing. I mean, there’s a thing called social justice philanthropy or social change philanthropy, which is kind of real and kind of not real. I knew I wanted to give away at least half of it. It was like $400,000 in total. I had a lot of conversations with my dad about it, where I was like, “Don’t freak out. I’m giving this away.” And he was like, “You don’t know what you’re doing, but that’s your choice.”
It was a weird experience. It was a really weird experience, and it was uncomfortable for me just because the way that people treat donors who give a few thousand dollars, that felt uncomfortable to me. I wanted to be seen as a fellow organizer and a fellow person, like a peer in the movement. But I also was very conscious of the fact that that was just my shit that I had to deal with, and I tried to be really communicative. Yeah, and it never felt like– I think people wanna talk about giving away that much money because it seems like a big deal. But for me, it never felt like my money. It felt like I was very clear that it was not fair for me to have that, and it didn’t feel like a sacrifice in any way to give it away. Because I can’t give away my safety net. You know, you can’t give away the things that come from having class privilege even as you can give away money, which is important. But I knew that I was never gonna be, I was not likely to be in a position of being destitute.
I think there’s this– I was interviewed once for The New York Times during this time for some article in the Life and Style section about these rich kids that are just giving all of their money!! And it ended up being really almost like a parody of itself because there was all of this panic about these rich kids are just gonna end up poor and destitute, and what are they thinking? And they’re just young and naive. And I just knew that that wasn’t me, that I wasn’t at any significant risk of that just because of my class position and my background. So yeah, it was an easy choice to make.
SARAH: Roan started working with a group called Resource Generation, which organizes young people with wealth to work toward transforming our society to have a more equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power.
ROAN: I had all of these people in my community coming to me to talk about their secret trust funds, and it was really frustrating on some level. Because I felt like I wish we could just talk about this collectively. There’s this lie in lefty communities that rich people are not among us, and it does so much damage. Because first, you have people lying and obfuscating, just hiding the fact that they have money because they’re ashamed. When instead they could be funding movements and giving money to other people in their communities who need it.
When we started Enough, Dean was coming from a really different place. He grew up poor and was suddenly gaining access to more money through his job. I remember he wrote this post called The Dirty Details of My New Salary where he talked about suddenly getting paid three or four times what he’d ever made before. It was just this beautifully honest and thoughtful piece of writing about the complexities of that, everything from class trauma and survivor’s guilt to all of the many, many ethical contradictions of ever doing anything with money. Like, what does it mean to pay off debt when that means sending money to evil corporations? What does it mean to save for retirement when there are people close to us in poverty now? Plus, investments are evil. What does it mean to give to people close to us versus people in greater need who we don’t know personally? What does it mean to buy a house when all land is stolen land? And that post was, I think, the post that got the most responses ever. We found out that a lot of people wanted to talk about those things but didn’t always know how to.
When I spend a lot of time talking to other young, lefty, rich people about being rich, everyone was grappling with those questions, and everyone wanted to know what is enough? How much money is OK to have? How can I restore some balance of fairness where I’m OK?
And there’s really no metric for determining that. I mean, obviously, if you have millions of dollars, you should really give that away. Nobody should have that much money. But when you’re talking about how do I have money, how do I use money, how do I engage with those millions of contradictions of my ethics that functioning in capitalism forces me into, those are the questions that everyone has to grapple with personally and be right with themselves about personally. Because what we’re really talking about is generations upon generations of stolen land and labor and resources and lives and a system that is actively murderous and exploitative and inhumane. That’s the real shit that people with wealth and all white people have to deal with and do our work around. And I think there are a lot of situations where that kind of hyper-personal, individual focus on how can I be right and pure and good can become a distraction, like a way to avoid the deeper issues. It’s a very individualist focus because everyone should have housing and health care and food and education and reproductive justice and all of those basic rights that our society currently reserves for wealthy people.
[Barbara Dane’s I Hate the Capitalist System]
♪ I hate the capitalist system
and I´ll tell you the reason why
it has caused me so much suffering
and my dearest friends to die
well I know you all are wondering…. ♪
SARAH: Thanks Roan, for laying down some real talk about capitalism. You can read the archives of Enough at their yes, rather old-school website at EnoughEnough.org.
Next up: Writer Ashley C. Ford on what money feelings stick with you from growing up poor.
[song above continues]
♪ …that my husband has TB
brought on by hardworking low wages
and never enough to eat…. ♪
SARAH: You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today, we’re talking about money feelings. Your relationship to money as a kid affects the way you relate to the economy for your whole life. Even if you’re making enough money to feel relatively stable, there can often be a lurking fear of having it all fall away.
I talked this over with Refinery29 senior features writer Ashley C. Ford.
ASHLEY C. FORD: Hi, my name is Ashley C. Ford. I am a writer, mostly, though I try to do other things as well. Nothing good yet, but I like the writing. So that works out. And I’m a senior features writer at Refinery29.
SARAH: These days, Ashley lives in New York City. And in true New York fashion, as soon as we started talking for this interview, a construction crew started jackhammering into the side of her building.
ASHLEY: ‘Cause they’re on one of those scaffolding things. Yeah, right up against the building [chuckles]. I’m sorry!
SARAH: It feels like in New York, somebody’s always jackhammering something at the most inopportune time. But anyway, you’ll hear that there’s this kind of weird, low rumbling noise in the background throughout our interview. I’m sorry about that. Instead of distracting you, I hope it helps transport you to the authentic glamour of life in the big city.
So anyway, I asked Ashley to start off by talking with me a little bit about her relationship to money growing up. I asked her, “What was your family’s relationship to money?”
ASHLEY: Well, my family’s comments around money were always just that we didn’t have enough. I definitely took a lot of responsibility for things that weren’t my responsibility and that no one was making my responsibility, you know? One of those things was money in our household. I was a kid, so I didn’t have a job or anything like that. I wasn’t bringing in any money, but I did see it as my job to be the least amount of expensive that my mom could hope for in a child.
So I didn’t ask for things that were expensive or were things that were meant to show off a certain amount of wealth or class. I never wanted those things, even when we could afford them, or even when they were available to me. I didn’t want them mostly because I never felt like we could afford them, whether my mom said we could or not.
SARAH: So two questions there, Ashley. You said your family didn’t make it your responsibility. So how did you decide it was your responsibility? Where did that idea come from? And then, what sorts of things do you remember deciding not to ask for as a kid?
ASHLEY: Well, to the first question, my mom was upset a lot about money, and she would talk a lot about how she didn’t have enough and about how the fact that she was on her own, raising four kids. And that even though she never said, “Y’all are costing me this,” or anything like that–she never said things like that to us–she did talk about our lack of money in a way that—
And also, I’m the oldest kid. I don’t know if know it, like if you’re an oldest kid, or if you know anything about oldest kids, but this is just kind of what we do. This is across the board, for the most part, oldest kids just always sort of step up and decide that they can go without so that everybody else can have. It’s just a thing that we do. And I especially have that sort of psychological leaning. I’ve always been the kind of person who took on things that weren’t necessarily mine to take on.
SARAH: It sounds like you really grew up with a feeling of scarcity, like, “I can’t do that. I can’t do that.” As an adult, do you still have that feeling of scarcity, or has your mindset changed in some big way?
ASHLEY: Both [laughs]. I am in the process of becoming a person who is not stuck in a scarcity mindset. I’m becoming that kind of person. Part of that is, in the past year, I’ve been financially stable for the first time in my life. For the first time in my life, at 29 years old. You konw what I mean? Well, I’m 30 now, but it started when I was 29. I have enough money. I’m not rich, I’m not wealthy, but I have enough money. I’m at a place right now where most emergencies that could happen, I would be able to cover them for myself and not be incredibly strained because I covered them. That’s where I am in my life right now, and that’s a first. So I am trying to get out of the scarcity mindset, but it’s really hard. It’s really hard. I am a person who spent the first 29 years of her life in survival mode, and I don’t know how to get out of that all the time. Even now that I have enough, I still don’t know how to get out of survival mode.
Earlier when you asked me about if I could remember particular instances of turning things down or not doing things because of the money, absolutely. I was invited to enroll in private school as a very young kid who was considered gifted. Like, there’s no way. In my mind, I was like, “If I go to this private school, they don’t have buses that come here. So my mom is going to have to drive me. She’s going to have to figure out that. She’s gonna have to figure out extra gas money. When I get to this private school, there’s gonna be activities. There’s gonna be sports, there’s gonna be band, and I know that those things are gonna be expensive. So no, I can’t go to private school.” I made that decision for myself: I’m not going to private school because it’s going to be too expensive.
And I can remember being a kid. You know, where I grew up, I was surrounded by Black folks, surrounded. My high school was about 90% Black. That’s how Black the area was that I grew up. So you know how Black women are. The hair was done, it was lit, there was braids and waves and everything else. And I never got my hair done. I never got my hair done as a young person. I would always tell my mom that it was because I just didn’t want to; it didn’t interest me. And it wasn’t really that it didn’t interest me. It was more so these girls would tell me how much it cost to get their hair done, and I would be like, “No.” I just know my mom can’t afford that. Why would I even ask?
SARAH: So as an adult, now that you’re financially stable, how does that feeling stick around?
ASHLEY: I get terrified about buying things for the apartment. I get terrified about are we saving enough in retirement? What does it even mean to save in retirement? Maybe I’m not doing it right. There are just all these things that I suddenly have to worry about, with more money now, make me self-conscious about the fact that I’ve never had money. And it makes me self-conscious about the fact of things like my boyfriend’s parents, if they both lost their jobs today, or if there was a medical emergency, if one of them died, if anything happened in that situation, his parents financially would be fine. We might have to support them in some other way, but we will never have to financially support his parents. That is just not part of our reality. My parents are absolutely going to need help in their older age. There’s no way around that. My mom has nothing. She has nothing.
SARAH: What you’re describing is a real fear about spending any money at all. And in some ways, that fear comes from a good place, from a responsibility about wanting to build a life where you’re independent and can take care of yourself and your family. But then there’s also that lurking terror of the floor falling out from under you because there’s no safety net. There’s no safety net in your family, but also in the United States, there’s no social safety net to pick up, like if you get sick.
ASHLEY: I’m also very aware that anything could happen. I’m not the kind of person who has the privilege of living under the delusion that things could always be like this, or that they always will be like this. I am so aware of what it’s like to have nothing. Nothing. I’ve been displaced. You know what I mean? I’ve never been homeless. I’ve never had to sleep on the street. I’ve never not had a roof over my head. But I’ve definitely been in the position where if somebody did not let me live with them for free, I would have had nowhere to go.
SARAH: That really sticks with you. That has to mark the way you forever think about money. I’m wondering how these days you now deal with that fear. In some ways, it’s very useful; It makes you save, and it makes you have to think ahead. On the other hand, it can be a terror that’s hurting you, not helping you.
ASHLEY: There is part of me that takes a lot of pride in my ability to go into survival mode and hustle. In winter of this past year, I found out the job I had, the company I was working for, was going to be closing. And Kelly loves to tell this story, because to him, it sounds like a– My boyfriend’s name is Kelly. Sorry. But my boyfriend loves to tell this story because, to him, it sounds like I have a super power. Because we were in Mexico, but we went down to La Paz, Mexico with his family for our holiday little getaway situation. And while I was there, we were on a bus to a different city, and while we were on the bus I found out that my company was closing, that they were going to close. And within an hour, I had interviews at three different companies.
SARAH: Wow. Wow.
ASHLEY: Like, within an hour on my phone, emailing people, I had interviews at three different companies. Three. And Kelly loves to tell this story because for him, he’s like, “Oh my god.” He’s just like, “How did that even happen? How does anybody do that?” And for me, it’s like, I mean, yeah I’m glad that I’m in a position that that was able to happen, that I was able to do that. But it was also I had to go back to this place that I hadn’t had to go to for most of that year, which was, “OK, now you gotta hustle. Now you’re back in survival mode becuase you need a job. If this company’s closing, you need a job. So you need to work whatever you gotta work to get a job really fast.” And I did [laughs]. I did.
There’s also stuff that it’s like, I just– You know, there are things that come with that, that you also just can’t get over. I also have this part of me that always lives in this place of, “I don’t have enough. I don’t have enough to be safe.” That’s trauma. That’s financial trauma that I’m living in.
Being in survival mode means you are always kinda living in the past and sort of trying to piece things together in the future. It’s like walking down a very, very long staircase–or running down a long staircase–and you’re having to build more stairs while you’re running down and hoping that by the time you reach that last step, you’ve built another stair to put in front of it.
SARAH: That was writer Ashley C. Ford. She’s now the senior features writer at Refinery29. You can follow her on Twitter, where she’s very funny and smart all the time @Ismashfizzle.
Coming up, writer Michelle Tea on having a nervous breakdown in the Trader Joe’s. Stay tuned.
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Michelle Tea’s books have been a light in the dark for a lot of misfit teens who grew up poor. In her books Passionate Mistakes, Valencia, and Rent Girl, she talks about growing up in a working class family and finding her own way on the streets of Boston and San Francisco as a queer woman in the early ‘90s. The books are full of vivid images of sleeping on gross mattresses in god-knows-whose apartment, of staying up all night drinking, and constantly moving in search of cheap rent. But these days, in her 40s, Michelle’s life and her relationship to money have both changed a lot. She’s sober. She’s got a stable partner, a baby, and a successful career as a writer. In recent memoir How to Grow Up, Michelle talks a lot about her changing relationship to the idea of money. She even has this money prayer. When I called her up, the first thing I asked Michelle was, “Could you recite the money prayer?”
MICHELLE: I don’t know if it’s a prayer. I guess it’s a prayer. Why not? Why not? Any intention thing, I suppose, can be a prayer. I stole this prayer. It’s not my prayer. I stole it from Inga Muscio who is another author who wrote the book, Cunt, and Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil. She was speaking at a reading series I was hosting, and somebody asked her– We had a really engaged Q and A afterwards, and money for writers came up, like how do writers support themselves? And she shared her money chant, which is, “I’m a money magnet. Money comes to me. Money is sexually attracted to me. Money wants to be me.”
I think I tacked onto it, “I love money. I am money.” And I did that because I didn’t love money [laughs], and I didn’t feel like I was money. I felt like I was the opposite of money. I felt like I was a money repellant. And that comes from growing up poor, working class, in a family that didn’t like their jobs, didn’t have jobs that were fulfilling to them. So work and the earning of money was sort of a curse that we were all enduring and struggling against. People who had money in my family were very demonized, you know, the idea of them. We didn’t actually know any people with money in real life. But there was a lot of money goes to money, and rich people are immoral and terrible and stuff like that.
So I grew up with that, and I kept it. And I kind of put more of like a punk rock aesthetic onto it and thought that it was my own, and I didn’t really see how I was just kinda following the culture of my family in a way.
I’m from Chelsea, Massachusetts. It’s a immigrant-heavy, working class, working poor city in Massachusetts. My parents: my father worked for the post office. I don’t remember what he did before that, but my mother helped him get that job when we were very young. And then, my mother stayed at home with us until I was around in I think 4th or 5th grade. My city has a free nursing school. It’s connected to the VA hospital in the city, and it’s a great place for poor women, especially poor women on the verge of leaving their husbands, which my mother was, to go and get a career. So she did that. She went through that school. She graduated. In return for the free education, you have to work for the VA hospital for a certain period of time. So my mother has stayed in that field. She does geriatric nursing, and that helped her get a career and make money to be able to leave my father. But she was still a single mom after that–he kind of vanished–with a single income, raising the two of us.
But yeah, it was a very working class place. I never grew up thinking that a job was something that you pursued that you loved. I wasn’t raised to go to college, and I actually found the process of trying to go to college without that familial support really, really difficult. Even just applying for colleges was so financially overwhelming, having to ask my mother– I remember asking my mother for $50 so that I could apply to Tulane. ‘Cause I really liked Ann Rice, and I wanted to go to school in New Orleans. And her just being like, “You already asked me for $50 to apply to the School of Visual Arts in New York City.” All of these places and all of these schools seemed so unreal that I know she just felt like I was taking her $50 and throwing it into the abyss. And I was, you know? I didn’t have the support to do that.
I ended up going to a state school in Salem, Massachusetts. I did that on my own, and I got some loans to do it. I worked for a year after high school to save money to do it. And then I just kinda couldn’t keep it up.
SARAH: What was your relationship to money at this time? Because you were saying you wanted to be a writer, you were like, “Screw it.” You were a punk. The system wasn’t working for you. Were you basically just like, “Fuck money. Fuck the system. I’m just gonna scrounge by whatever I can?”
MICHELLE: I mean, pretty much. All I knew was scrounging by on whatever I could. And I was never expected to accomplish more or gain more. Watching my family struggle and hate their work, I just saw work and money as a necessary evil that you needed. So my plan looking at all of this was like, “You just wanna get some crappy job that you don’t care about too much. You need cheap rent. And then you can do your own thing on the side.” And then to me, the way to solve the problem that I saw, growing up in my family, was to have something meaningful that you did outside your work. It wasn’t, “Get a better job so that your life is meaningful,” you know? It was more like that didn’t seem like an option. It was like, “You’re going to have a job that you hate and that’s going to oppress you because you are stuck in the bottom of this system. What you need is something that gives your life meaning outside of it.”
So for me, that was writing. So I never expected to be a writer or make money at writing, have a job that was related to literature that was inspiring to me. I thought I would work in a cafe or something for my whole life and just after work, do my writing, and that would give my life meaning. And I would have a high quality of life than my parents for that
SARAH: At what point did that really start to change for you? At what point were you like, “I’m a writer, and also, I need to get paid for my writing?”
MICHELLE: It didn’t happen to me for a very, very long time. Because the reality was I couldn’t get paid for my writing, you know? And when I see a lot of writers who are up and coming and who have that, “Writers need to get paid, and I’m not gonna work for free,” I agree theoretically with that. But the reality for most writers, especially if you are a writer who is coming into your career through small presses, and you didn’t go to Iowa and get funneled into a high-powered agent through your professor, and now you got a big book deal, that only happens to a few people, right? Or maybe it happens to lots of people. I don’t know. I worked for free because that’s all that was available to me, and I wanted to write. I wanted to put my writing out into the world. I wanted to be part of the conversation.
I’m not the kind of writer that would have written a book and put it in a drawer. I need to know that there’s a purpose to what I’m doing, that it’s getting out there, it’s reaching people. That’s why when I first moved to San Francisco I was doing spoken word. Because it was a very immediate way to have my work reach people. I would just go to a bar at night with my new poem, and I’d read it, and I’d get a response. It was a very vibrant, very engaged and engaging scene in San Francisco in the early ’90s. So I thought I would be writer. I didn’t know how to make that happen. I got to San Francisco. There was this very easy kind of populist, democratic way to just put your writing out there, and I’m so thankful for it.
SARAH: As Michelle’s books started getting more of an audience in the late ‘90s, she started making a living as a writer. But another big thing happened that changed her relationship to money: she started going to addiction counseling and got sober.
MICHELLE: Especially once I got sober, which happened, gosh, probably about like a solid decade after I started writing, I realized that without the sort of blurring and numbing effects of alcohol and the attendant denial that comes when you’re an active alcoholic, it was actually really hard to be so broke. It was hard, and it was heart-breaking, and it was scary, and I didn’t know how to pull myself out of it. I just felt for the first time the real feelings of sort of sorrow that come with being so broke and so kind of helpless in the face of your economic situation. And prior to that, I just had a lot of bravado around it. When that went away, I was sort of, I guess, humbled by it, and I wanted to know a different way. I slowly accepted that it was OK for me to want things, which I always wanted things, but I don’t know. When all I wanted was a dress I could find on the street, it was OK. And then, that just stopped being enough, I guess. I wanted more, and that was really scary, a scary and really sad moment. Because I just didn’t really know how to do it. And for the first time, I really felt trapped in my life.
Because of the way that I romanticized being a writer, I romanticized being broke. I romanticized being an alcoholic. All of that worked for a while. So I didn’t care that I was making literally $7,000 a year and just only having enough money for a 40 oz and whatever I could find at the sale rack at a thrift store, you know? But I got older, and I started seeing the full picture of the world and what’s available. I started questioning why do I think that I can’t have that? I just remember being at Trader Joe’s and my bank card being denied. I didn’t have enough money to pay for my groceries. Being so humiliated by that and embarrassed and sad and upset. I wanted those groceries, you know? And just feeling like I’m not in control of my life, like I don’t understand money. I really demonized money, and I sort of created this story about myself that money is something that I don’t understand. I hate money. I’m not a money person. Don’t put me in charge of the money. It was not true. Anybody can be a money person.
SARAH: There’s this frustrating trend of equating having money with having power as if it’s a feminist act to just be involved with gaining more money. The biggest example of this is Ivanka Trump, who this last month gave a keynote talk at the Women’s Summit of the G20, talking about how, essentially, being rich is empowering. Some of the media coverage of the event asked, “Is Ivanka Trump the new face of feminism?” I asked Michelle about this.
MICHELLE: Well, I mean power doesn’t equal feminism. Even women having power doesn’t equal feminism. To me, feminism is a suite of values and ideals that work together. It’s not just like, “I work in a bank. So I’m a feminist.” I’m sure lots of feminists work at banks, but they’re not feminists because they work at a bank, you know? Obviously, there’s lots of wealthy women who are feminists, but they’re not feminists because they’re wealthy.
To me, I don’t even know that money, the kind of awakening I had to my financial situation, I don’t necessarily see that as a feminist thing within my life. To me, it was just about accepting reality on reality’s terms and allowing myself to want more for myself and getting it. I mean, I think that it’s easy to look at all the horrible things that money has done– And obviously, income inequality is out of control, globally. Global capitalism is a menace to humans, to the earth, to animals. It’s just horrible. There has to be another system than the one that we’re all struggling with. It’s so crazy when you think about it. It’s like we’ve created this earth. We could’ve created it in any way, and this is what we’ve got. It’s so unimaginative and mean-spirited. So that said, within that, I don’t believe you have to be mean-spirited in order to make money.
I can get paralyzed by looking at the systems that are so much larger than me, that I have really limited power over. And I end up in a place where I’m suffering. At some point, I guess I just decided I didn’t wanna suffer. So to some extent, you do accept and participate in this shitty system, right? So I don’t think I’m a monster, but I do think that I’m a part of a system that is oppressing us all, including myself. And I’m not willing to live a life that’s off the grid, where I’m just growing my own food and not partaking. That’s just not my path in this life. I would be really miserable.
MICHELLE: So at some point–
SARAH: You’re like, “I’m a terrible farmer. Don’t make me farm.”
MICHELLE: Yeah. That’s just not what I’m here to do, you know? It’s just not. And so at some point, I just have to accept that I am a product of my place and time, and I support the systems that are killing me, like we all do. That is part, to me, of the bizarre paradox of our existence. Not to get so meta about it, but to me, there are really huge existential questions, which I think is why I allowed my answers to be what they were in the past and allowed myself to be sort of victimized by stuff. Is because I do see the big picture of how horrible all of this is, and it’s painful to allow yourself to become a part of it. Or it was for me.
SARAH: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point, where being anti-capitalist doesn’t mean wanting everyone to be really poor. It means wanting everyone to have enough to be stable and happy and be able to support for themselves and their families.
MICHELLE: Yeah, exactly. That was a huge switch for me, ‘cause there was a point when I was in my 20s where I did want everyone to be poor. I really did. I thought it was more righteous, and I don’t believe that anymore. I don’t believe anyone’s righteousness is solely attached to how much money they have.
SARAH: Michelle Tea’s most recent book is called Black Wave. It’s a dreamlike, dystopian meditation on sobriety and adulthood. Check it out.
You are listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today, we’re talking about something that makes many of us deeply uncomfortable: money. Money feelings. So many feelings.
I wanna talk about taking an idea, a creative idea, and making it into your work, making it into your job, your business. But in a way that’s not exploitative of anybody. Making a business without selling out [chuckles], just to be cliché about it. Can you make your art into your livelihood without starting to hate it? To talk about this idea, I called up two of America’s enterprising small business owners located in the heart of North Carolina.
PHOEBE JUDGE: I’m Phoebe Judge, and I’m the host of Criminal.
LAUREN SPOHRER: I’m Lauren Spohrer, and I’m the co-creator and producer of Criminal.
SARAH: You know Phoebe and Lauren well if you listen to lots of podcasts. They’re the host and producer of Criminal, a show that explores crime in the United States from a really thoughtful and not sensational or black-and-white, good-guys-bad-guys kind of perspective. It’s a philosophical show and one that often makes me think in new ways.
Phoebe and Lauren met while working on a more traditional radio show, The Story with Dick Gordon. When that show was cancelled, Phoebe and Lauren spent a night on a porch, having a drink, and Lauren suggested they start up their own show. Phoebe thought it was impossible. But a months later, they did. At the time, Lauren was making a living as a dog walker and an adjunct professor; Phoebe was working as a radio reporter. Now, they both work full time on Criminal. They’re on their 65th episode, and this month they’re on the West coast doing live Criminal shows. I talked with them about what it took to quit their day jobs and how money shaped their outlook on launching their own show and business.
SARAH: OK, let’s start off by talking about your relationships to money growing up. Did you two grow up in houses with enough money? Not enough money? What did you think about money as a kid?
PHOEBE: Well–this is Phoebe–I mean, I grew up in a, one could only say, kind of a perfectly fine financial household. There was enough money to do everything that we might want to do, but not so much money that we could do anything we wanted. I think my parents were both responsible with money, and I never wanted for anything that I needed at all. But I certainly wasn’t able to go shopping every week or just have a whim, get what I wanted. I mean, money was there, but both of my parents kind of worked. My father worked in public radio; my mother worked for the City of Chicago. So we were perfectly comfortable. I was aware of money and having money and not having money, and so that’s how I grew up.
LAUREN: Phoebe makes fun of me a lot and says that an important difference between our personalities and the way we grew up is that when I go to an ice cream place or a frozen yogurt place, I always want toppings.
LAUREN: You weren’t allowed to have toppings.
PHOEBE: I was never allowed to have toppings. And Lauren, with no abandon, she’s like, “I’ll have this and this and this one.”
PHOEBE: And that’s the wildest thing to me. An ice cream cone was like this gigantic treat. I think that oftentimes, we’re doing something or buying something or thinking about something, and I say, “Oh, well, it’s just like getting another topping, huh, Lauren?” So.
LAUREN: You call them “mix-ins.”
PHOEBE: Yeah, mix-ins. But I was only allowed to go to one Tastee Freez in Chicago. I never even knew that there were kind of boutique ice cream stores with mix-ins and things. So.
LAUREN: Also, what kind of ice cream did your dad buy, again? Prunes or something?
PHOEBE: No, he would only buy one type of ice cream: spumoni. Which is–
LAUREN: Every child’s favorite.
PHOEBE: –chocolate and pistachio and cherry. So we would just eat the chocolate, of course.
SARAH: [laughing] I have never heard of spumoni flavor. That sounds like the worst ice cream. Even the name sounds like baloney.
PHOEBE: Yeah, spumoni. You wouldn’t know about it. I mean, it’s the worst ice cream flavor that’s ever existed.
SARAH: So you guys are both in your 30s now. And not that 30 always marks a change, but I’m wondering, what’s your relationship to money these days? How has your thinking changed since those days of terrible spumoni ice cream?
PHOEBE: I have a lot more money now than I did when I was in my 20s. My first job I was working–my real job–was I was working as a public radio reporter in Mississippi. I got paid once a month. And when that paycheck came in, I would pay my bills, and there wouldn’t be much money left. There’d be like $400-500 for the month. And I was working really, really hard all the time. The interesting thing is like that $500 for me to buy food and gas and keep myself going, I was never struggling. I never felt like I was wanting anything, and I was always fine. Now I’m in my 30s, and I have more money than that, and I don’t feel any different than when I had $500 for the month, and I do, and I have more than that. I think my relationship to money has remained– I think well, what’s better to say is that Lauren and I constantly believe that Criminal will go under, and we will be out of jobs. So we’re never comfortable in the fact that we can actually pay ourselves now. We’re always ready at any moment. She’s gonna go back to dog walking, and I’m gonna go back to landscaping, and we’re fine with that. We’ll be perfectly fine. But we always think that might be around the corner.
SARAH: Lauren and Phoebe started talking about the idea for Criminal the night that they found out that the radio show they worked on was going off the air.
PHOEBE: We were sitting later that night, probably we were sitting on my back porch, having a beer and smoking cigarettes because we both used to get to smoke back then. We don’t anymore. That’s also something that happens in your 30s.
LAUREN: Because we’re too old.
PHOEBE: [chuckles] So we were on the back porch talking about what was next, and Lauren said, “Well, why don’t we start the show now?” And I thought, “No, we can’t do that. What do you– How do you– We’re not allowed to just start a show.” Then she said, “You know, there are lots of people who listen to public radio who also watch Law and Order, even if they don’t wanna admit it. But there’s no public radio show about crime. Let’s do a show about crime.” And I thought to myself when she said that–you know, I’ve said this a lot in interviews–like, “That’s the smartest thing I’ve ever heard. We’re never gonna run out of stories.”
So from that moment, we decided that we would do a crime show. That was in late August. We spent the next six months thinking. We tricked ourselves into believing that this was gonna be the best thing ever. We took this so seriously, and I think we took it so seriously in thinking this is gonna be important, and this is gonna be good, and this is gonna– Because if we didn’t, if we were more just haphazard, and we were more just like, “Oh, this is a hobby,” I don’t think we would’ve gotten it done because it required us doing it at night and on the weekends. We both had full time jobs, and so I think that we just pretended that this was gonna be a wonderful success. We started that night in August, and the first episode came out at the end of January.
SARAH: How did you actually start making the show?
LAUREN: Well, we set up a little recording studio in my bedroom closet, and we put blankets everywhere. We had some equipment, and we– I mean, we’ve worked in public radio for a long time. So I think that the sort of technical skill was something that we didn’t have to stress out about. We knew how to edit; we knew how to record. Phoebe had a lot of experience by that time hosting and doing interviews. So I think for us, the big challenge was the sort of design of the show. What is the show gonna sound like? What is the show for? What kinds of stories do we wanna tell? What kinds of stories aren’t we hearing? What do we think that we can make that no one else is already making?
I think we recorded three things that we thought were gonna be the first episode, and then we ended up saying, “This isn’t good enough. This would not keep me from switching over to Top 40 in the car. This story’s still not good enough.” So that was a lot of trial and error of just saying, “OK, we don’t have an editor, we don’t have a senior producer, we don’t have anyone who’s gonna tell us what to do. So we can truly make the very best story we can possibly think of.”
SARAH: So Phoebe, I’m wondering, when Lauren said you two should make a show about crime and you thought a) that’s genius, but b) WE can’t do that, what was behind that skepticism? What made you feel like it wasn’t possible for you?
PHOEBE: Yeah, I think I had this idea of because we’d always worked in public radio, and so that there’s an idea in public radio, you can’t just get a public radio show. It’s very difficult. There’s this finite amount of time on the clock, and you’re fighting for it. And so that’s how. But then she said, “Well, we’ll make a podcast.” And I thought, “Well, who the hell’s gonna listen to that?” I mean, I didn’t even know what a podcast was really. So that’s where my skepticism came from. So I was thinking about this other way of doing things where you have a boss and an editor, and someone’s giving you space to use a recording studio. You have to prove that it’s worthy and important. And we took this other path, which is we were gonna hold ourselves to the highest standards possible, but we were just gonna do it. We were just gonna make it.
SARAH: I wonder how much of that feeling ties into gender. I think about the gender gap in podcasting and in media in general, and I think women are much more likely to ask themselves, “Oh can I actually do this? I think maybe somebody else should do this instead,” when you’re perfectly qualified. Do you think gender played a role in that hesitancy?
PHOEBE: Well, I mean, I think we’re really proud of the fact that not only is it a female-hosted show, but we’re basically an all-female staff. There’s another producer, Nadia Wilson, who works with us. I also am proud of the fact that not only do I see myself as a host or a co-creator of a podcast, but also Lauren and I are business owners. We own a business: Criminal Productions. And there has never been one moment where I’ve thought to myself, “Oh, we can’t or we shouldn’t because we’re women, or I’m a woman.” Not for a second. And I think– Do you agree with that, Lauren? I mean, I’ve never–
LAUREN: Yeah, of course, I do. But I also think that’s another way in which doing it ourselves, we’ve bypassed that.
PHOEBE: We weren’t gonna ask for permission.
LAUREN: I do think a lot of women in public radio struggle to persuade people in their institution that their voice, that they don’t sound like a little girl, that they don’t sound like a Valley Girl, or having to sort of make a case for the way that their voice sounds. I think we’re really lucky that we just took another path and didn’t care.
SARAH: So tell me about the money side of this. You guys started making this in your closet. Were you worried about money at the time? What did you think about fundraising?
PHOEBE: We weren’t getting paid for our time, but I don’t ever think that we expected to get paid for our time. We were happy to not be losing too much money in terms of getting people in to studios. But we called in a lot of favors and had people do tapings for us. But we really, we didn’t make a penny. I guess we never paid ourselves. We did making Criminal for a whole year, and that December, we paid ourselves back for the money that we’d all put out of our pockets. I think then, it was only about $1,000 apiece?
LAUREN: I think it was less.
PHOEBE: Yeah, it was maybe less than that. And that felt like a crazy thing, that we could actually pay ourselves back. And then it took another, oh, it took another few months to even start seeing any revenue. I remember thinking when we got that first $1,000 check from a sponsor, that we read, I think our first ad ever was Audible, and we got this check. I just though, “This is the craziest thing. This worked. Lauren, oh my gosh. This actually worked. Someone is paying us money to make this thing, and no one’s telling us what to do.” It was a very big deal to start seeing that the show was making any type of revenue. Because we knew we were gonna do it no matter what, but I don’t think we expected we would profit from it at all.
SARAH: How do you feel like that mindset shaped the show? How does it shape the way the show sounds and feels to not have money and profit as the goal?
LAUREN: We don’t approach these stories in terms of what we think we please the maximum number of people. We don’t think, “Oh, what’s a story that we should do to grow our audience so we get more money” or something? It still really is about doing the most interesting things that we come across, the things that we are curious about. Versus sort of coming into it thinking, “OK, let’s build a business. This is the model for revenue in this field. How do we maximize our audience, maximize our revenue? What kind of content do we need to produce in order to maximize revenue?” That was never part of the thinking at the beginning, and I think we’ve really–like Phoebe said–we really hold ourselves to this standard of let’s not waste people’s time. If we don’t find this story completely fascinating, we’re not gonna do it.
SARAH: That was Phoebe Judge and Loren Spohrer. Thanks so much to them for talking with me honestly about their show, Criminal. You can find the show wherever you listen to podcasts and also at ThisIsCriminal.com. There are still a few tickets left, as of me recording this episode, to their live tapings in San Francisco and Los Angeles on May 11th and 12th as part of the Radiotopia Live tour. Look up tickets at radiotopia.fm/live.
SARAH: That’s our show for today. Never forget: I am a money magnet [laughs]. Money comes to me. Money is sexually attracted to me. Money wants to be me. I love money. I am money [laughs]. I can’t even say that with a straight face.
Huge thanks this week to our stellar guests, Roan Boo-shay, Michelle Tea, Ashley C. Ford, Phoebe Judge, and Lauren Spohrer.
Music on today’s show includes the song I Hate the Capitalist System by the great Barbara Dane, I Love You Money by Lowell, and a remix of Nine to Five by DJ Le Butch on SoundCloud. Plus music from Blue.Sessions. Check out their minimalist sounds at Sessions.Blue.
This show is produced for Bitch Media by Alex Ward at Sounds Like Pictures. Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker.
Every episode of Popaganda is transcribed by Cheryl Green at StoryMinders. We’re proud to make Popaganda available to people who are D/deaf and Hard-of-Hearing. You can find full transcripts of every show at BitchMedia.org under the Podcasts tab.
If you have thoughts or feelings or feedback on the show, please feel encouraged to send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. I read every email, and I’m always excited to hear your thoughts, whether they’re good or bad. Or both.
Popaganda is produced by Bitch Media.
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