In this episode
On this episode, we are joined by Dr. Claire Nelson, Futurist, Sustainability Engineer, Social Entrepreneur, Storyteller, the Founding President of the Institute of Caribbean Studies, and the chief ideation leader of the Futures Forum.
We invited Dr. Nelson to speak with us because as we consider the question of Repair, it helps us to broaden our view to consider what it will take to grow Black voices in a just society.
We’d love to hear your thoughts. Thread or Insta Lisa @lisasharper or to Freedom Road @freedomroad.us. We’re also on Substack! So be sure to subscribe to freedomroad.substack.com. And, keep sharing the podcast with your friends and networks and letting us know what you think!
Lisa Sharon Harper: [00:00:00] Coming to you from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection, I’m Lisa Sharon Harper, president of Freedom Road, a consulting group dedicated to shrinking the narrative gap. Welcome to the Freedom Road Podcast. Each month we speak with national faith leaders, advocates, activists, to have the kinds of conversations that we normally have on the front lines.
It’s just that this time we’ve got microphones in our faces and you are listening in. And this month we are joined by Dr. Claire Nelson. She’s a futurist, sustainability engineer, social entrepreneur, and storyteller. She’s the founding president of the Institute of Caribbean Studies and the chief ideation leader of the Futures Forum.
I invited Dr. Nelson to speak with us today because as we consider the question of what it will take to repair what [00:01:00] race has broken in the world, it helps us to broaden our view and to consider what it will take to grow black voices in a just diasporic society. We’d love to hear your thoughts, thread or insta me at Lisa s Harper or thread freedom road at freedom road.us and keep sharing the podcast with your friends.
We have a growing audience everywhere I go. I’m hearing people say, Oh, I was just listening to your podcast. I was mowing the lawn and listening to your podcast or doing whatever, doing my morning walk and I love hearing that. We love hearing that. So thank you. Thank you for listening. Thank you for sharing it with your friends.
Keep sharing it and let us know what you think. Okay. All right. So Dr. Nelson, I am so excited to talk with you today because I first was introduced to you and your work and your voice through a network that I’m a part of called Kairos. And Kairos, we know means like pregnant time. It’s like God is doing something in the world and we got [00:02:00] to see what it is. Because the baby’s coming and you can’t push it back. So, and when I was listening to you speak in that presentation, I had a really strong sense, first of all, that there’s a lot of overlap in the work that we’re doing and also a lot of common understanding, but also that you can bring you can bring a cutting edge of thinking into our network and the work that we’re doing as a black futurist.
And I love that you’re a black futurist and I’m going to ask you a little bit about that in a bit. But I want to ask you first, can you share just a bit of your story with us? Is your story, are you, are you a person who’s been grounded in faith?
Has faith been a part of your journey and has it influenced the way that you’re, you’re working and doing the, what you’re doing in the world?
Dr. Claire Nelson: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. And yes, I’m a person of faith. I actually I’m an interfaith minister these days and my ministry is global economic justice [00:03:00] and global economic sustainability Comfort is through my work in international development.
I’m an engineer by training, but I’ve always wanted to be in politics, believe it or not, I went into engineering because my dream at 16 years old growing up in Jamaica was to be the first female prime minister. And so I thought that if I did industrial engineering, I’d be this fantastic minister of industrial planning.
And therefore, I’d be recognized as the best thing since sliced bread. And therefore, people would vote for me. Now let me say, all of these dreams happened against the backdrop. of somebody who stuttered very badly. So at 16, I’m having these visions of myself being a prime minister. And it was interesting that I had this vision because quite frankly, I was also considered one of the, let’s say, problem students in my high school for girls.
I was the one that was [00:04:00] usually speaking up against injustice. And when I jumped up on my soapbox, I was quite fluent, right? So some others had jumped in my, in my personality there. And so by the time I got from America to study industrial engineering, I was very well formed around the constructs of democratic socialism and Rastafarianism, because I grew up in an era in Jamaica when everybody’s quote unquote mega class child was torn in at the center become a dirty rasta and our society was so appalled that Mrs. Son’s had become a Rastafarian! What are we going to do? So I grew up in that. I came of age in an era when Afros were the thing. And if you had an Afro, if you wore your hair in tiny plaits, the school was considered a rebel because it was not a way to be.
So I grew up as a rebel without a cause, and I was searching for a cause. And I found it in my job [00:05:00] at the Inter Market Development Bank. And that is…
Lisa Sharon Harper: Can I, before, I’m sorry, before you go there, let me just ask you this because this is kind of amazing. You didn’t just study engineering. I can already tell that Dr. Nelson is a little humble, even though she’s, you know, dreaming and ideating about being the prime minister of her nation. There’s a little humility here. She did not just study engineering. She has a PhD in engineering. I mean, it’s like, she like went all the way. And so that’s already just kind of amazing in itself.
So you did, you went all the way in that, and then you went into this next phase that you’re about to tell us about.
Dr. Claire Nelson: Right. So I became… I always saw myself as working at international development, you know, as a developing country, you want to see your country do well. And so I went to work at the, what I call, one of the big Washington institutions.
And there I met my destiny. Because I found out that I was the wrong color. I [00:06:00] had the wrong type of hair and they thought I was somebody that I did not recognize. And so when I began to be pushed against the wall and pushed against the wall and pushed against the wall, I got very much involved in theatre and dancing and culture thinking, Well, I’ll just make my life, my other life, be my primary life and this job would just be a way to live.
And despite my trying to ignore the hardships, I was pushed against the wall until I decided this is it. And as I said to people, I was called to the journey of becoming who I am today. I was called to fully become the rebel that now had a cause. And my cause was ensuring that people of African descent in Latin America had a voice in the institution.
I became the voice of the voiceless for over 150 million black people [00:07:00] living in Latin America to ensure that the institution that I work in would no longer count them as invisible.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So what is your family’s story in the Caribbean?
Dr. Claire Nelson: My mother… I grew up in a single parent household with my mother who was a teacher.
And as an only child of a teacher, I was known as Mrs. Nelson’s daughter. And she was very well known, so I didn’t have an identity of my own, I was Mrs. Nelson’s daughter. In those days, teachers were very well respected, we lived on the school street. So you can imagine, as the only child, precocious child, living on the school street.
You know, in those days, you’d go down the road and say, hey, and hello, And you’d go, And if you ever dare pass somebody without saying hello, the report gets back to your mother.
You know, I grew up in this house with lots of [00:08:00] cousins, my grandmother and my mother’s home was also what I call a way station for children being left behind as their parents migrated to America. So I grew up with a throughput of children coming through the house. I was never alone as an only child.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wait, this is a part of that story of the Caribbean story that we are not aware of. Most of us are not aware of in the U.S. So a way station for children whose parents were on their way to America. I happen to know because my ancestors, my grandfather was brought to America, I think at three years old, maybe it was 10, no, 10 years old, from Puerto Rico and his parents before him had emigrated to Puerto Rico by way of St. Kitts and Guia. And so they were, they were black Caribbean going through Puerto Rico into the US by the 1930s. Everybody was there. Everybody was up in the South Bronx actually. And it is true [00:09:00] that he, my great-grandfather came first, and then he sent for different family members.
Is that the process that you are talking about?
Dr. Claire Nelson: Yes, because in my mother’s case, because she was a respected member, people who couldn’t bring their children immediately would leave them at home and then they’d be sent for. So some would say three months, six months, nine months, a year, two years. I had cousins that probably stayed two years.
Then I had cousins who were sent from England to be finished. You know, by my mother, so even though I was an only child, I didn’t grow up alone. I grew up in a house full. And it was not a big palatial house. It was a regular middle class, you know, three bedroom home, which I think the most we ever had one time there were like eight of us children.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow. That’s a lot. That’s a lot. That’s a lot of kids.
Dr. Claire Nelson: So we got to squeeze up and live close and learn how to get along with other kids.
Because she was a very… [00:10:00] she was a disciplinarian that I would say about my mom.
Lisa Sharon Harper: I see. I see. And so, you know, I recently heard. The term black futurist at a conference for the very first time. It feels like it’s a really burgeoning stream within black ideation right now. And I’m wondering, can you just explain what is it?
And how did you come to the movement?
Dr. Claire Nelson: Well, I actually prefer to call myself a global futurist who happened to be black because I really have a different… my goal is. I come to it because I work in international development. I work in a global space, and I was just tired of being told to be quiet.
I was tired of all of these you know, pundits talking about the future of the world. And none of them had my perspective as a small island developing country person. And then also, I really [00:11:00] recognize that the design process that many that our organizations was using tended to keep this gap. So no matter how much money we borrowed, you know, Jamaica or Nigeria, Ghana, there’s always this gap between where we were and where the quote unquote the first world was that could not only be attributed to malfeasance.
So it was bad design. And so I realized that much of our design processes are focused on historical data and also what I call straight line forecasting as if to say the future will be a replica of the past. And indeed it’s not. We have this, we have these jumps because of technology and social changes.
And so foresight or futures thinking allows us to design more accurately and more effectively. So I started thinking about how would I use foresight and futures thinking in creating and shaping development so that we have less of a gap between the emerging [00:12:00] problem and emerging solution and it’s something, because obviously I’m somebody, however, who also is deeply embedded in Garvey-esque images of the history and the past and the present and the future, I’m very much a Garvey’s child, if you will.
I do use that lens through which I filter everything.
Lisa Sharon Harper: By Garvey, you mean Marcus Garvey?
Dr. Claire Nelson: Yes.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Okay. And so when you’re, you talked about your family earlier and like your upbringing with all of the kids, the eight kids in the three bedroom house, can you share a little bit more about, and really what I’m asking is, can you give us a window into the opportunity gap, the gaps that are created through the systems that were created in the midst of of the history within the Caribbean and how those gaps exist today.
Like where do they come from and what do they look like today?
Dr. Claire Nelson: Well, I grew up as a teacher’s child, quote unquote, [00:13:00] in 1960 Jamaica, I will be considered like a middle class. Middle class. Now, because I was a single parent household, obviously the finances weren’t there, but however, quote unquote, the class and the culture was there, as opposed to say, my cousins, whose parents were not college educated the way my mother was, they would be considered working class.
And so, in Jamaica at that time, to get education was the path forward. So if you didn’t pass your common entrance exam at 11 or 12 for the right high school, you automatically have less of an opportunity of making it into the next class. So getting into the right high school…. And the right high school… Most of those schools were schools that were founded by the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, the Baptist Church, the Methodist Church, and then the government schools will be considered lesser high schools. So the prestigious schools were the Catholic [00:14:00] schools. My school was St. Hugh’s High School for girls.
St. Andrew’s High School for girls, right? These schools and then boys had Jamaica College, Kingston College, St. George’s College, Wilmers. All these schools were the better high school. So get in that first exam. Was very critical and for students who didn’t pass it would be very traumatic.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And so how does, how did the, like, can you share, how did the stratification between classes come down from slavery… from the hierarchies of human belonging that were kind of put in place during the time of slavocracy.
Dr. Claire Nelson: Well, I wouldn’t say that I’m a student of history to all that, but I do know that obviously those church schools were the ones that were first formed, first and originally for the upper class, the children of the Plantocracy. And then once slavery was over, they began to [00:15:00] allow others to come in. So by the time I get to school, I am probably one of the second to last years where in my class, we had children of the plantocracy and the Jewish elite and the Chinese elite.
So for example, one of the richest people in Jamaica, who is Jewish, a Jewish family, she was chauffeur-driven to school. And then we had, quote unquote, quite a few girls in my class who were like, you know, white with blonde hair, for example. Or a very light skinned black. So that whole plantocracy then and the children who were the mulattos, if you will, would be those children whose parents were doctors and lawyers and all worked in private, owned their own business, insurance, and those companies… merchant class, if you will, the Chinese and Indian merchant class. Syrian and Lebanese, Jews, etc, who are the merchant class. And then there was this in the sixties, this beginning [00:16:00] of those people who are darker skinned like myself, who now were the children of those who were like nurses and who were the first to go to teacher’s college or nursing school, principals, police, those people who were in the beginning of the middle class in Jamaica.
So when I was growing up as a child to work in a bank, you had to have the right skin color. So in my era, that wouldn’t be me. It would have been people with like lighter skin and better hair, quote unquote, but as…
Lisa Sharon Harper: and what they considered better, better was straighter hair.
Dr. Claire Nelson: Right. So it’s not quote unquote C3 kinky.
It’s like straight. My grandmother, for example, my grandmother, I, who was. Partly Indian somewhere on my mother’s side and my grandmother on my father’s side, who was partly, you know, white somewhere, right? They would be considered color-wise, in a way, and hair-wise in a better condition than myself. [00:17:00] Even though they were both market people, right?
They were both farmers and market people, but the point is, she was older, you know, she was the worst of her sisters because they all had hair that was in the middle of their backs and her hair only stopped here. So, I mean, at 85 years old is something she took seriously. So it was very much the 60s and the Black Power Movement and the Afro Movement was very much a part of my coming of age at 10, 11, 12, and I wore an afro from the age of 11.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Was there a Black Power Movement in Jamaica, or was this black power movement one that you were watching like Stokely Carmichael raised his fist and say black power?
Dr. Claire Nelson: There was a black power movement in Jamaica like there was in Trinidad because we didn’t have that volume of Indians and getting switched to fight were mostly like black, but it was a black power movement in terms of the Rastafarian movement [00:18:00] and the hair movement.
So it was more like the young people who decided to not straighten their hair and the Rastafarians becoming more popular. So it was more that kind of a Black Power movement. And in Trinidad we had a real Black versus Indian ethnic racial contention that happened.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That is so deep. And so when you, when you look back on that time, how do you think that the movements in the Caribbean, in particular Jamaica, where you were, were impacted or influenced by the civil rights movement in America?
Were there, were there, was there struggle for rights or was it more cultural rights, rights of expression?
Dr. Claire Nelson: There was a struggle for rights around, I think, Rastafarianism and the Rastafarian movement became middle class in the 60s and 70s, right? So I think, in a sense, it mirrored each other because Rastafarians were always about African Garveyism and they were the ones that [00:19:00] kept the message of Garveyism alive.
It was not taught. Garveyism was not taught in the schools. Marcus Garvey became a national hero. But it was just like a figure on a postage stamp. Nobody really knew what it meant to be a Garveyite. So it was without Rastafarianism. I thank God that Rastafarianism existed, quite frankly, and that I grew up in that era when it was becoming no longer the black-hearted man.
Back in the days of my mother, he was the black-hearted man and he had to run from the, cause you know, these dreadlocks and they were like, you know, they were feared. So you 1960s and early 70s when middle class children now were beginning to talk about back to Africa and this whole back to Africa movement picked up steam.
Then it was like shocking for those who were like, how can you go back to Africa? We didn’t come from Africa in the first place. And then people got to recognize that their blackness was about Africanity and it’s not just something to be ashamed of. Or to be, you know, discarded. So, that [00:20:00] 60s was a very critical part.
1968, I certainly, I think I went to high school in, yeah, what, 69 I went to high school at 11, right? And so, 68, I don’t remember specifically the day, but I remember when Martin Luther King was assassinated. Harborview, my neighborhood. I remember walking with my mother to see something on this, on the drive-in cinema and the place was quiet and people were crying.
So I remember the emotion, but I didn’t know what it meant.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Uh huh. Oh, wow.
Dr. Claire Nelson: That was about 10, nine or 10.
Lisa Sharon Harper: These are our stories. You’re listening to the Freedom Road Podcast, where we bring you stories from the front lines of the struggle for justice.
So, Dr. Nelson, are [00:21:00] there core goals or principles that guide the work of global futurism?
Dr. Claire Nelson: Well, as I practice it,
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yes, yes, yes.
Dr. Claire Nelson: My core vision or mission is really to help people understand that the future is a shared space. And so the question I like to ask is, how do we share the future? How do we share the planet?
How do we share our economy? How do we share our healthcare system? How do we share our education system? This is shared space. And so, in the past, people of African descent have largely been Uh, kept away from the table, kept away from being given their fair share, even though we have created a pie, the economic pie, in which, quote unquote, a global [00:22:00] economy sits.
So in my book, Smart Futures, I spend the whole of the first chapter defending my perspective by saying this economy in which we sit is based on the fact that my great-grandparents were once part of the production system. We were owned. We were not part of the producer class. We’re actually the product.
And so for us to talk about creating a shared future in which there is inclusion and prosperity, we cannot sweep under the rug the reality that the economic system in which we are embedded was built on chattel slavery.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh, my God. Yes. Yes. And more. Yes. And I think that for some people that is such a big thought, but it is absolutely borne out all over the world.
So can I ask you, you are a, and you said it, a global futurist. When you look at the [00:23:00] diaspora how far does this reach? Because in America, we tend to just think about America, we think about the US and the fact that our economy is has as its foundations, slaveocracy, and we left slaveocracy at the end of the Civil War.
And then we didn’t write because then we instituted the 13th Amendment, which gave a loophole, but we don’t really think about. We don’t think about the ways that slavocracy was a global economic structure and system. And so, um, what do you see when you look out at the diaspora?
Dr. Claire Nelson: Well, the whole… well, first of all, if I had not probably been, if they had not tried to oppress me in my institution, if I had this… if they just made me do engineering and not try to treat me like I didn’t belong, I probably wouldn’t have really woken n up to what my true calling was, which was to be, you know, a fighter against economic justice.
But can you imagine I’m in an [00:24:00] institution which is largely Latin American and I am being pressed against the wall and all of a sudden I wake up one day and come to find out that, wait a minute, there are black people in Colombia.
Duh. How did I didn’t know that? Oh my God. I didn’t know that either. No one in the way that they treat me because they’re not used to people speaking up because guess what? Most of the black people in Uruguay, they’re mostly going to be maids and yard boys and gardeners and chauffeurs and in Colombia and even in Brazil, big, big Brazil, not even the cleaner in the office was black because those were good jobs.
So when you wake up to that reality, the way I was woken up, and I call my divine woke up, it was a divine calling. It was no… it was literally a voice, the voice of God or an angel or some spirit or somebody talking to me in my car. To [00:25:00] me, this is my plantation. And when it said to me, this is my plantation, I remember myself.
In St. Jude’s High School for Girls, in the history class, when my teacher told me if I could only write a word of history, my essay would have gotten an A. It was a fantastic piece of writing, but no history whatsoever. But, I remember saying, If I had been on a plantation, I would have become a rebel. I would have become a spy.
I would have been like Uncle Tom Shuffling, but I would be like carrying messages, and I would secretly learn to read. I had these conversations at 12 and 13 years old in Jamaica. So studying Caribbean history. So in that moment when I was called to myself, and the prodigal son and the prodigal daughter called to myself, like, this is your plantation.
That’s the flashback I had. And I said, Oh, this is why I’m here. And then a couple months later, I got the second call that said, you are here to [00:26:00] be the voice of the voiceless.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So when you say call, this is your plantation. Yeah. When you say this is your plantation, God said, this is, I mean, that’s needs some unpacking.
Dr. Claire Nelson: The message was very clear. This Is because I was crying. I was I was crying. I was being brutalized on my job emotionally, They did not give me work to do. No matter what I do, it was wrong. Trying to find ways to get me fired with a constant like, you know, ducking for cover running to cover my that was really hard.
You know, trying to get them to do work that was commiserate with my skin.
Lisa Sharon Harper: I get that. That is the plantation. Hello, somebody. Hello.
Dr. Claire Nelson: And so when somebody, so when, when, when I got, got the message, this is my plantation, it was, and it wasn’t, I thought it, I didn’t think it, the voice was clear because I was crying.
I wasn’t thinking, I was just feeling sorry for myself, [00:27:00] driving to work and the voice, in this case, I would say as a woman of God, the voice says to me. In Jamaican.
And I’m like, where’s the looking around? And then it says in Jamaican, your great grandmother took lashes on her back with a hard cane piece. And I’m like, where’s that was coming from? And I said, are you crying because the last time you’ve been lashed with them tongue? And I’m like, where’s this voice coming from?
I’m listening. And then it says this. This is your plantation.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow. Can I just say what I hear you saying? It goes back to something you said earlier, which is the future is about a shared future. And what you were being told through that job and through education and the colorism and all the things is that this is not your plantation.
You work this plantation for the benefit of [00:28:00] others, but you are not supposed to get benefit. from this land. But what God said to you in your car is this is your plantation too. You, you own this, your people, your people made this possible.
Dr. Claire Nelson: I certainly remember saying to my, one of my bosses who told me that I did not belong.
I said, my country pays, right? Pays for shares in this institution. How dare you talk to me like that? Well, I was then dispatched to the human, to HR department with a note that I should be escorted out of the building immediately. And needless to say, clearly I wasn’t escorted out of the building immediately. This was before my calling.
It was just before I got the plantation message. But all of that, I think was an orchestration for, because there’s [00:29:00] some people who have to do the work. And it was my work to do. I realized now that I was never meant to be a regular engineer. I was always meant to be a social engineer in that sense.
Because once I got the call, I realized that all of what I was to go through, somebody had to stand up. Somebody had to say, this cannot be the case. And it’s when I looked on to my right and my left. I only saw myself and I was not going to go quietly to the sunset, which I told everybody I will not ride off into the sunset.
I said, and I said, if you force me to leave in a bird of disgrace, I’m going to go down in fire. And I said… So I really. All of my rebel-without-a-causeness that I had as a child. Again, I think they miss… they thought because I stuttered, I was a mouse. I was [00:30:00] never a mouse. I was never a shy person. I just didn’t talk.
I was always a leader. In high school, I was a leader. In my church, I was a leader. At college, I was the president of the Caribbean Students Association. And I told the people who spoke what to say, and then they would stand up and say it. When I had my dance group, I couldn’t… I was… we were on TV.
Television and we’re being interviewed and I couldn’t be the interviewee. So I told them what to say and they said it. So I was like a little tyrant behind pushing people. So they mistook what they looked at. They thought because I stuttered and I looked like me that I was somebody who could be run over.
But you notice the South African saying, the woman say, you have struck a rock. When they backed me up and I couldn’t back up anymore that they struck out and I came out like, and so when I launched my movement. [00:31:00] When I launched my movement, I say my movement became our movement, but when I launched the movement to bring the black people from Latin America into the institution and I found my outside partner, we were like a perfect pair, two Jamaicans, one on the outside, one inside.
And basically ushered in the era for blacks in Latin America to now be enjoying jobs in those kinds of institutions in Washington DC.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So you are gonna have to break this down. How did this happen? This is like, okay, so when I changed the world, you know, when I found a really perfect partner to do it, this is what happened.
I’m like, wait, wait. You got it back. How did you change the world? What happened? How did that, how did the, was there like an opening in the universe and you just saw through a window and you said, Ah! This is the way we need to go. Or was it lots of twists and turns?
Dr. Claire Nelson: Right. It was, it was very clear when I saw the picture of black people and I thought automatically [00:32:00] because their bellies were distended, it had to be Africa or Haiti.
And then I read the caption that says, but I’m Kia Columbia. That was when the light bulb went off in my head. And I said, here, and that’s when I got the call. You’re here to be the voice of the voiceless. I’m so, because I was always a good… is that God has always blessed me with system thinking skills.
I’m a natural system thinker and I’m a natural leader. So once I see that, it’s like you get, you get the signals of what you’re to do. And I recognize that I was to now become the voice of these black people who obviously had no voice, because if I’m going to be beat up for nothing other than being black, then I’m going to give them a reason to beat me up.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yes. If you’re going to beat me, you’re going to beat me for something that counts, right?
Dr. Claire Nelson: Yes.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Okay. So, going back to this question of, How to move forward. What is it that you saw your systems thinker when you thought, okay, we need to change the [00:33:00] world. And in the system of how things work, this is what needs to change first.
What was the this?
Dr. Claire Nelson: Luckily for me, the institution had just created this thing about poverty alleviation has been the main thrust. And then I thought, Aha, thank you, God, the face of poverty in Latin America is black. And invisible. And that is how luckily for me, again, God always provides at least one person.
I was then moved into a new department where my Chilean boss actually was quite fair. And he said to me, I’ve been told terrible things about you, but I believe in giving everybody their own fair shot. So tell me what you like, and I’ll give you an opportunity. And then you rise and shine on your own thing.
And I said, thank you, God. He was the first boss I had that truly, truly honored me. And I truly, today I, in [00:34:00] fact, I’ve been saying, I have to find one, tell him what the hell I’m doing right now. So he’s doing well, because I really love that man. And he really saw me for who I was and who I could be.
And when I wrote the proposal to do the first study on Blacks in Latin America, he said, Ah! Karita, take Black out of the title, take Black out of the title. So he changed the title, and he went and he got the funding for me to do my first study. So the first study on Blacks in Latin America was called Poverty Alleviation for Minority Communities in Latin America.
And so he hid it under that. And because he was a nice guy, everybody liked him. He kind of, you know, I don’t know what he did, but I got the funding to do it and that’s how we got started.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That’s incredible. So the first step was getting the data, was actually doing the research to get the data and that in a systems thinking way, you can’t move forward without knowing [00:35:00] what you’re dealing with.
Dr. Claire Nelson: Right.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So what did you find? What did you find when you found that data?
Dr. Claire Nelson: We actually, and we were really working as a movement because the whole thing was concocted where I had, uh, Canadian company, and we had a back deal with them that they would hire certain people, which they did. So, again, divine intervention.
Once you say yes, when you’re called to be a change maker and you say yes, here I am, use me. Hineni, the Jewish term, right? Here I am, use me. Right? I said yes. I was prepared then to sacrifice my career. On the altar of following the footsteps of Garvey and Harriet Tubman and Nanny and all the people who I looked up to.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow.
Dr. Claire Nelson: So I was very conscious, it was an intentional decision that I was going to be this person. And so, [00:36:00] all of the… All of my natural ability to plot then, if you will, before and I’m blessed that I was gifted with that skill set, quite frankly.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah, yeah, yeah. What are the obstacles that you’ve run into as you have begun to plot this way forward?
What are the main obstacles that you continually run into?
Dr. Claire Nelson: We started this work in 1994. And it was very tough because you’re by yourself. You have to learn to be alone, truly alone, in a different way. Because obviously when you begin to take on a system, your friends can’t afford to be seen with you. So you are now dangerous, right? I was considered dangerous. So I didn’t have a lot of friends.
And the friends I had, we really couldn’t be seen in public. I didn’t want them to also be hurt. By associating with me. So there will be like private friends, right? We couldn’t have lunch together, for example. [00:37:00] So I got used to being by myself, being by myself a lot. And luckily for me, I had my outside life.
So, the Institute of Caribbean Studies was a way in which I was able to also create another space for myself. To fully experience all of my gifts and all of who I was meant to be by creating an outside space where I could be in charge of something while I’m inside dodging bullets and try to, you know, stay alive while I’m carrying this ball trying to get this black thing on the agenda.
It was really a very emotional time. And that is where I began to find faith again. Because the first couple of years, I had to rely on my mother’s faith to carry me through. And it took me, I would say, several years of serious work to get to the point where my own faith could carry me through.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow, wow.[00:38:00]
Walking Freedom Road from coast to coast and around the globe. This is the Freedom Road Podcast.
So as we consider the future. Of the diaspora and, you know, thinking about, you know, you were kind of pushed into this work when you began to understand that we have a diasporic problem that is not actually our problem, that’s how I’m interpreting it. It’s not a black problem. It’s actually a problem of how people have created the same kind of hierarchies of human belonging in the wake of slavery.
All over the formerly colonized world and actually in some cases, continuously colonized world. So the same structures, the colorism, the closer you get to the top, you are white and the whiter you [00:39:00] are, the more rights you have in the blacker you are, the less rights you have. And, and not just rights, but also right to take up space in society.
You know, so those kinds of things are, with that revelation is what pushed you into, compelled you into this work. Now, when you look forward, can I ask you to kind of paint a picture for us of what a future of flourishing for the diaspora would require? Of the way things work, how would things have to change in order for us to flourish?
Dr. Claire Nelson: This is really something I am working on and struggling with. And I love the word flourishing because I think flourishing implies a garden that is growing and implies the right amount of rain, the right amount of nutrients. And it’s, there’s no waste in this garden because everything is used just in the right amounts.[00:40:00]
And so for me, I think for people of the African diaspora, the future of flourishing requires that we really recalibrate what we consider to be the metrics that matter. I think the GDP in certain… Caribbean has not served us because the trickle down economics have not really worked. The Caribbean would be one could say is a nice test bed.
We’re fairly small. We have islands from 67,000 to, um, Jamaica, 2.5 million, what, Haiti 14 million, Dominican Republic. But by and large, I would say they have pretty small countries in which you can test out different things. The English-speaking Caribbean, which is the CARICOM countries, which includes also Haiti and Suriname, obviously has a grouping.
Most of those came out of British colonialism, but obviously we have Dutch as well, right? In the Caribbean we have both colonialism and Spanish and French. Yes. And we see the [00:41:00] same income gap. So the income inequality across Americas… From Canada to Argentina is there and is the largest in the world because of the history of slavery.
And so it means then that from people on this side of the world, Americas, I think we have to really think through what it is that we’re going to be asking of an economic future in which profit is paramount. In which people don’t matter, and the people and the well being of people are not foremost. So we have a society that is based on this from America all the way down to Latin America.
Even though we have this fight for, you know, democratic socialism to communism, there’s this big fight, but obviously the global IMF and those structures are based on the profit motive.
Lisa Sharon Harper: is [00:42:00] IMF is what? Can you, IMF is International
Dr. Claire Nelson: Monetary Fund, which is the bank of central banks. So they set the rules on money and currency by which we all have to follow the rules.
And they’re still basing their reality on what I call a 20th-century paradigm when the goods, which were our forebears, were transported on ships, and then the sugar was going this way, and the tea was going this way, and the cocoa was going this way, and the salt was going this way, and then the slaves were going this way.
And now, the economic theories Just, you know, this whole time curve and information curve and all of these things. And now, we have time and money and goods arriving instantly. When you download a Netflix video and you’re buying that content, the money and the wait time you download it is what, 0.05 seconds.
Where is the time information gap in this curve? [00:43:00] So I’m going to ask these economists who run the world. How are you possibly claiming to use the same supply and demand curve theory when we’re now in quantum time? We do not operate in a world where it’s Newtonian physics anymore. Time and money move instantly.
It’s flawed. The system is flawed. And so we are…
Lisa Sharon Harper: What are the implications? Wait, wait, wait. What are the implications of that? Because you just dropped a major bomb. And now I need to know what does that bomb do to the way that I see the world? What are the implications of what you just said?
Dr. Claire Nelson: It means that all of us have to stop and think.
What does a free democracy look like in the 21st century when we can now press a button and know everything at the same time, and everybody, if you have the right broadband. This is why this whole fight for broadband access is so critical. Because if I’m on a slow band and [00:44:00] you’re on a high band, and it takes me 20 minutes to download a file and it takes you 2 minutes to download a file, I’m disadvantaged.
So I’m saying we cannot be fighting 21st century battles on 20th century theories. And we need to have a group of people who are thinking seriously about What it is we want to have as a future of America? What is the future of the American dream? If indeed, there are no poor people to be exploited. If everything is robotized and even Tchikwana, Tekwisha, whatever, can’t even work at McDonald’s because it’s all automated.
What’s gonna happen to those people? If all the gas stations are automated and they can’t even pump gas, what is going to happen to those people? White, black, brown, and every color in between?
Lisa Sharon Harper: The response could be, well, there will be other low, like low quote, low skill jobs that they can, [00:45:00] they can do like building the robots or something like that and some kind of procession line. But another response could be the beefing up of our education system and the changing of the way that the education system is funded so that LaQuisha and Robert can actually get an equitable education.
Where do you fall in that?
Dr. Claire Nelson: I think that yes, that is true, but however, because the proper motive is still paramount and the conception patterns of the 20th century are still what is driving our living, we are going to run over the cliff as a species because of our insatiable greed and our lack of attention to the fact that we cannot continue to consume the planet at 1.5 times or however much times it is, the planet can replenish itself. And this is where we are on a very slippery slope to hell. Everybody. And for me… [00:46:00]
Lisa Sharon Harper: And this is, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. You are dropping bombs and I need you to slow down for a minute so that we can catch up. So you, what you have said is we are on a slippery slope to hell and I want to make sure I understand why.
It’s because we already consume more than what the planet can actually provide. And now we can do it in quantum time. The amount of time it takes for us to consume is. What did you say? 0.095 seconds as opposed to 20 days for something to arrive in the mail. Is that what you’re saying? Right?
Dr. Claire Nelson: Because we’re downloading our movies.
Lisa Sharon Harper: We’re downloading our news. We’re practically instant delivering our food, right?
That’s right. Literally. Yes.
Dr. Claire Nelson: Everything is sped up to match this fast. Everything fast world. And so our metrics, which are still based on profit, and can you imagine those states in which people have become alive and alert are saying, wait a minute, let’s [00:47:00] use ESG safeguards.
Let’s put in some, some social safeguards. Let’s put in some environmental safeguards. And then there’s some jokers who are saying, Oh no, your city can’t do this, you know, because, oil must still be king. I am saying all of us are the profit motive that we use to get us to this far. It might have served us well as a species. It will not serve us going forward as a species.
And I believe…
Lisa Sharon Harper: Because profit, sorry, sorry, I’m breaking in just to, to clarify, because profit, if profit is our motive, then that will only cause us to speed production from where it is even today. Because… We want more. The question is how do we get more? And you’re saying we can’t do more. We can’t sustain more.
Is that right?
Dr. Claire Nelson: Right. I’m saying we have to change our value system. So what it is that we, the formerly enslaved, the formerly oppressed have to offer the world. It cannot just be a follow [00:48:00] copycat. Economic drive to have the best bling, the best designer outfit, the best. I’m saying we need to use our spiritual intelligence that have managed to keep us on the street and our path.
Can you imagine the fact that when you… when you think about the fact, I don’t know what, what is this wide fragility madness? Because when you think about this, there has not been any major anti-white uprising by any black community, anywhere from Argentina to Jamaica and Jamaica and bring in Jamaica because Jamaicans can get quite violent, right, to Canada, right?
So this, this fear that is white fragility, that they need to wake up and smell the coffee. There is… God made enough genius across every color line possible. Amen.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Amen.
Dr. Claire Nelson: So whether you are [00:49:00] Asian, Asian, Pacific, Asian, Indian, black, from hermetic, Semitic, Bantu, whatever, there’s enough genius in every ethnic group, although forming thousands of different people that yes, by this creator, God that we all worship whether we call him Yahweh, whatever, you know, Allah, creator, right from my person, as an interfaith person.
So I believe that we need to wake up and use our emotional intelligence that has got us this far. Where we who have been so brutally oppressed and suppressed, even those of us who are quote unquote awake, do not turn around and want to bite and destroy and tear down what exists. We recognize that some of what has come out of the evil in society has produced some good things, right?
All we’re saying is, let us look at who we are now. Let us recalibrate [00:50:00] our humanity based on where we are today. Let us look on the wrongs of the slavery past. Let us ensure that the economic systems, the financial systems, don’t further punish small and poor countries in the Caribbean by giving us the same interest rate, which we cannot afford to pay as country would have more than what we have hurricane every five years or every three years.
We have to borrow the same interest rate. We don’t have more a term. How do we create a just world without borders? The right is when we now know that is one blue marble from space. Why are we pretending if we can lock off ourself from each other? It is not possible.
So, the lessons that we’ve been learning through the United Nations and these various movements and the Earth Day movement and the climate justice [00:51:00] movement and the economic justice movement, the lessons that we’ve been learning. What we need to do is cross fertilize and pick up some new metrics. Let us be smart.
Let us ask questions about sustainability. Let us talk about metrics that really matter. What matters is that we have lives, a quality of life of well being. That we feel free. That we feel like we can accomplish our full self without harming others.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yes.
Dr. Claire Nelson: It means we need to really look at the future we want as Americans for a better American for more people.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Can you, can you share what some of those metrics that you’re talking about might look like? I would
Dr. Claire Nelson: like to see some cities even test out what a wellbeing metric would look like in cities like Chicago, like New York. Like Boston,
Lisa Sharon Harper: like Baltimore, [00:52:00] Philadelphia. I’m gonna throw my, my, my city in Philly.
Dr. Claire Nelson: Absolutely. That’s small, right? Compared to New York, too much. But Baltimore is small. Why can’t Baltimore test out a wellbeing metric, run a longitudinal experiment for five to 10 years. Let’s just teach people what it means. Let’s make it so people understand what they’re looking at. Let’s just really put in place these new ideas about.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow.
Dr. Claire Nelson: Community development. Um, do you know that it costs 150,000 dollars to keep a black person in prison? Right. A black man in prison in Maryland, the state of Maryland, thereabouts, and they’re only spending 37,000 dollars per black boy in elementary school. What if we can flip that switch or even it out so that we have less black boys moving from elementary schools that are understaffed, understaffed, under everything and preparing them to be citizens that can actually contribute to society [00:53:00] instead of having them end up in jail and creating havoc on all of us.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Can I make a suggestion? I mean, some of some of the metrics that I think of, I mean, I was just, I learned recently that, I mean, actually it’s, it’s something that was like reinforced recently, but I actually learned this a couple of like a decade ago is that the more green space you have in a city, the safer the city is, right?
So one metric is how much green space do you have in your city? Like how much. Right. How much, how much oxygen are you able to pump into the atmosphere through green gardens and trees and things like that? That’s a metric that a city can easily take. Another one is, right, another one is how much light.
Dr. Claire Nelson: I love that. So that could be part of the well being metrics that we’re looking at. There’s some metrics that we want to look at because studies have shown that these metrics make a difference. How do we enquire? Community commissions at the ANC level, they already have this system or at the census tract [00:54:00] level or whatever, and say this is where they test out this because if we’re talking about a future in which we have artificial generalized intelligence.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah. Yeah.
Dr. Claire Nelson: And they say, okay, well, we’re going to pay people to stay home and do nothing. Let me tell you, the devil find work for idle hands to do. If people do not have something to do, yes, it is not that we want to be defined by our work, but the fact is people need to do something. You cannot just stay home and do nothing because it means that they are not being actualized.
They will become destructive. Is this what we want for the future? So we have to think about. What does an America look like when we have CHAT GPT now in the school system after 10 years? What is the education system? It means that this whole rote learning and taking exams is totally useless. We have to learn how to problem solve.
Critical thinking, we have to learn caring skills. How are we going to learn to care about each other? If everybody is in a charter school, a charter school for [00:55:00] Muslims, a charter school for Christians, a charter school for Blacks, a charter school for whites, charter school for Koreans. How do we learn to be American?
We need to have a proper public school where everybody mix up and we learn how to get along.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yes, and that needs to be a metric. How many spaces in your city do you have where people can come together and learn how to get along? Right? Or, and how many schools do you have where that can happen?
And what that would do is it, and I love this because it takes it and puts it into a positive thing that cities and municipalities can reach for because it’s proven, we know that these things work rather than just saying, okay, we have a school segregation problem. And then you end up like just kind of drowning in the history of the problem of school segregation, as opposed to just saying, okay.
How do we build more spaces where our children can learn how to get along, right?
Dr. Claire Nelson: Exactly.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And [00:56:00] that is so good.
Dr. Claire Nelson: I really think that we need to have a whole future of America, future of American dream policy slash people’s movement where people are consciously and intentionally trying to create these kinds of living experiments.
America for all its flaws is a great experiment in democracy.
Lisa Sharon Harper: The first major experiment,
Dr. Claire Nelson: Everybody from around the world has come to America. And my question is, are we going to allow America to self-destruct or are we going to get off of this polarized, extreme left and extreme right and find some pragmatic people like myself in the middle that really want to live and live a good life?
And find ways in which we can, as Rodney King said, learn to get along.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Hello, somebody. And you know what? We have what it [00:57:00] takes to do it. We have the money. We found the money in the middle of COVID. We were giving out money left, right, and center. We made money in order to get through COVID. We can do this.
We can do this. Wow. So last questions. What is your hope for the diaspora? Just can you paint us your hope? What’s your hope? When you look when you look 50 years from now, global futurist that you are, what do you hope to see for our people around the world?
Dr. Claire Nelson: I have my vision of Ubuntu economics and the Africa Kurban Pacific rising movement has really done a good job in creating smart futures, smart communities, and we are able to be leading and helping to lead humanity into a flourishing life. [00:58:00]
Lisa Sharon Harper: Hmm. Amen.
Dr. Claire Nelson: Amen.
Lisa Sharon Harper:The conversations leaders have on the road to justice. This is the Freedom Road podcast. Thank you for joining us today. The Freedom Road Podcast is recorded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and wherever our guests lay their head that night. This episode was engineered and edited and produced by Corey Nathan of Scan Media.
Freedom Road Podcast is executive produced by Freedom Road, LLC. We consult, coach, train, and design experiences that bring common understanding, common commitment and lead to common action. You can find out more about our work at our website, freedomroad. us. Stay in the know by signing up for our updates.
We promise we will not flood your inbox and those updates are now coming on Substack [00:59:00] somebody say Substack. Substack is where you can find Freedom Road on Substack and you know my Substack column comes out there. It’s called The Truth Is… comes out once or twice a month, actually, and then we have lots of other great content there as well.
So if you are a patron with our Patreon platform or a paid subscriber on Substack, then you get a special treat. You’re going to get a private conversation, a one-on-one conversation with us between myself and Dr. Claire Nelson.