PAW’s Allie Wenner sits down with William Pugh ’20, co-founder of the “Woke Wednesdays” podcast, a new student-produced show that gives Princeton students (and guests) a platform to discuss issues relating to race, social justice, gender, sexuality, and more. Pugh talks about what it means to be “woke,” why he thinks it’s important for young people to speak out about controversial topics, and why he really hopes that people disagree with some of things that are said on the show.
Nathan Poland: As a student on Princeton’s campus that engages in a bunch of other activities, it always has felt to me that everything I do is qualified with the label of being black. So I’m a student, but it always has to be qualified that I’m a black student.
Matthew Oakland: Words like “queer” used to be a term that someone would use towards someone who identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. And it used to be something that was pejorative. But now it’s been reclaimed by that community. I myself would not use that to describe anyone. I have no intent to use it and I am easily able to discern when someone is using that appropriately, and I think the same applies to the “N”-word.
Jacob Berman: You might have people at this school who are from Nigeria and they’re black, and they’re not African American — I mean, they’re just not American. You might have people in France, and people in our country will call them African American and I’ll say like, “no — they’re black.”
Kadence Mitchell: It’s important to still be talking to your friends, still be talking to your loved ones. And still be fostering these conversations about these massive issues that are going on today. Because if we don’t talk about them, it doesn’t make [them] not exist.
Allie Wenner: You just heard four Princeton students — Nathan Poland ’20, Matthew Oakland ’20, Jacob Berman ’20, and Kadence Mitchell ’20 — sharing their thoughts on topics like: when is it okay to use the “N-word?” and who’s allowed to say it? And what’s it like to be a black student on campus? Should the words “African American” and “black” be used interchangeably? All of these discussions took place on the “Woke Wednesdays” podcast, a new student-produced show that gives Princeton students (and …sometimes professors) a platform to discuss issues relating to race, social justice, gender, sexuality, and more. I sat down with William Pugh — he’s sophomore at Princeton and one of the co-founders of the show — to talk about what it means to be “woke,” and why he thinks it’s important for young people to put themselves out there and speak out about some of these controversial topics, and also why he really hopes that people disagree with some of things that are said on the show. We talk about all of this and more, coming up next.
William Pugh: My name is William Pugh. I am a sophomore here at Princeton, currently undecided what I’m studying, most likely politics or philosophy, but I’m involved with a lot of different things on campus, from the Black Student Union to the debate team, and obviously, cofounder and president of Woke Wednesdays.
AW: And William, so, what is Woke Wednesdays? What do you guys talk about? What’s the format of the show?
WP: So Woke Wednesdays is a student podcast centered around creating discourse and dialogue related to political issues, differences in ideology, social issues, social justice issues, and just really centered around encouraging and fostering a space for student discussion and discourse with each other, and also with faculty, and staff, and some special guests down the road, as well.
AW: And how did it start?
WP: So it’s kind of funny. We — after the election, there was obviously an interesting political climate, interesting social climate, not only on Princeton’s campus, but also in the United States. And over winter break, I was just talking with a lot of friends. It started as an idea of just inviting people over to my room every Wednesday and calling it Woke Wednesdays, and we would go live on Facebook, and just have, like, a Facebook Live stream talking about different issues going on. And then, one of my friends, Kadence, was like, “How about you do a podcast?” And before Woke Wednesdays, I had never really been a huge podcast person, never really listened to them. I liked them, but I just never really was into it. I was like, “A podcast would actually be kind of cool.” So Kadence Mitchell is the other cofounder and vice president. And with her help, we kind of assembled a board, came up with positions, wrote a constitution, became recognized by the university as a student organization, and kind of took off from there with our first podcast airing in the spring semester of last year.
AW: And I guess for you guys, why podcast versus like writing for The Prince, or the Princeton Progressive? Why not make your voice heard in a different medium?
WP: So after kind of looking into it more, I was really convinced that a podcast was a pretty interesting and dynamic way of getting a message out, and also, encouraging conversation. One, I think it’s the type of thing that if you’re walking to your, you know, 10:00 a.m. class, instead of having a newspaper in front of you, you can just put in your headphones and listen to a conversation as you’re walking, and you can, you know, then take that and share it more easily than often might have — you know, might be the case with, like, a physical newspaper. I know you can send articles and things like that online. But, I mean, I think it’s a pretty interesting way of getting a message out. It’s something that’s a little different than paper because, for some reason, my generation, we’re more into social media and things that are digital, so this is something that I think is pretty accessible. We put all of our content on SoundCloud, so obviously, you don’t have to pay for anything. But we just think that as long as it’s short and kind of to the point, people listen to it, and so far, people have been pretty receptive and have done so.
AW: And what does it mean to be “woke”?
WP: A great question, great question. So, to me, being woke is basically being socially aware, for one, being willing to challenge others but also challenge yourself, and being introspective in that regard. You can’t kind of get on your soap box and preach at people about something you believe. In my opinion, that’s not necessarily being woke. I think trying to understand where people are and a lot of times, it can stem from lack of education, lack of understanding, a lack of diversity in the environment the person may have grown up in, and just kind of understanding that and realizing how you can best share your message, but also remain introspective and realize that some people may not be able to understand it, at least maybe not at first, maybe down the road, but just kind of sharing your truth, but also realizing that there’s a lot to learn from the people around you.
AW: And this seems like a good time to talk about kind of the growth of Woke Wednesday, because it kind of got pretty big pretty fast.
WP: Yeah, it did. Things took off pretty quickly. I mean, from the idea — as soon as we got back to campus, we started recording. We used a $40 microphone, recorded in my dorm room, and the audio wasn’t as great. I always tell people to go back and listen to the first two podcasts and then listen to the subsequent podcasts, and you’ll be able to tell that we might have gone into a professional studio, which Nathan, our audio person on the board, reached out to the Lewis Center and kind of coordinated an availability for us to start using that space, which is an incredible recording studio. They are great over there to help us out. And I attribute a lot of the growth to the use of a professional studio and kind of just a growth in professionalism as a group. Everyone is extremely dedicated. Our social media has really taken off. We’re working on a website, and we think that’s going to have a big impact. But overall, I think a lot of it is also attributed to the fact that people are interested in a podcast and people enjoy having these conversations. I couldn’t even tell you the amount of times I’ve been sitting at a meal and just kind of minding my own business and someone whom I didn’t know came in and sat down next to me and said, “Hey, are you Will from Woke Wednesdays?” And, you know, I answer yes. They’re like, “Oh, I listen to X podcast the other day, do you have a second?” and just having spontaneous conversations. And, you know, I’m not the only person that’s had that and I think it’s pretty cool.
AW: So who is your audience and who do you hope is your listening?
WP: That is a great question. That’s definitely something we’ve talked about a lot as a board. Who is this for? What is this podcast represent? Who do we want to listen? Who do we not want to listen? And the answer is, like, we want everyone to listen. We don’t want — there’s not, like, a group of listeners that we’re like “Oh, we don’t really want them to engage with us.” We want people that agree with us to listen, but we also want people that may not understand our perspective, people who may even, like, strongly oppose what we’re saying to listen and engage with us. And we think that’s healthy for a dialogue. One — if you disagree with me, one, you’re listening to me, and two, you’re active enough to want to engage with my opinion, and I think that’s a pretty powerful combination. So definitely, having those conversations that are difficult, if people disagree, that’s great. If people agree, even better. But our audience is definitely the Princeton community. We want to talk about Princeton issues. We don’t want to limit ourselves to Princeton’s campus and things going on at Princeton University. We want to talk about things going on in the U.S., global issues, if they come up, because there’s a lot to talk about, but always keeping in mind that we are speaking from our perspective and our privilege as Princeton students and kind of making sure that what we say isn’t an overgeneralization, but what we say is, you know, speaking from my perspective as William Pugh, Princeton student, sophomore and not speaking on behalf of any one group or anything.
AW: And one thing that I think is kind of cool, and helps keep your podcast fresh, is that there’s always like a different cast of characters, it seems, every episode. How do you decide who’s going to be on the show what week?
WP: Yeah. So that’s another kind of long process that we’re still ironing out. What we’ve done in the past is — like, last season, each of us kind of paired up with someone else who was on the board and picked a topic that we wanted to do, and then those two of us kind of planned the format of the podcast. We planned the special guest we wanted to have, whether it be a professor or a student, and then both of us would also speak on the podcast with a moderator. So Kadence and I usually — or have always moderated the podcast. So if I’m, like, the student voice, she’d be the moderator, kind of something like that. But this year, we’ve reached out to some names that we really want to bring to campus, or at least get them to a studio in New York or Philly, where we can have like a studio-studio conversation with them or have them call in or something like that. So we’ve reached out to — obviously, we’d love to have Cornel West. We’ve reached out to Al Sharpton, Colin Kaepernick. There are a lot of names. And those are just three pretty cool, obvious ones. Toni Morrison is coming to campus for a dedication at Morrison Hall. So we also want to kind of tap into the people that are already coming to Princeton and saying, “Hey, would you also like to come speak on a podcast? We only need 30 minutes,” type of thing. Someone is coming in November, Justin Tanner, who used to work with the Obama administration, and we’re hoping to have him come talk about kind of political climate and things going on in Washington.
AW: Cool. And do you have an idea, yet, of some of the topics or things that you might be discussing in this upcoming season? Is that what you’re calling it? Or this year?
WP: Definitely. Yeah. This year. So it would be broken up in two seasons, one this fall and one this spring. The fall season will start in October, the first Wednesday in October — excuse me, November.
WP: It’s already October. Time flies. So, the first Wednesday in November, I can let you know that our first podcast of the season will air. And in terms of the topics that we have floating around right now, one is the current protest going on in the NFL related to the taking the knee and Colin Kaepernick. We also want to talk about Charlottesville, but not limited to Charlottesville, but talk more about the power of symbols and confederate memorabilia, whether it be Princeton’s connection to a lot of those things, or just general conversations about the power of symbols and what that means. We’ve also talked about appropriation versus appreciation. I know last year, there was a big event with the hockey team and a Cinco de Mayo party and it’s sickening that, you know, it seems like that conversation has to be had every year, sometimes twice a year, that that’s not okay. And that’s something we often want to partner with Princeton Latinos Amigos and invite some of them to come speak with us about, you know, what is the difference between appreciating a culture and appropriating it. And then, we want to, you know, dive into issues like the model Asian myth and Asian students feeling like they’re the model … not feeling like they’re the model ethnic group but having that perception and a lot of the struggles that come along with that, whether it be you have to do math, or you have to be a doctor, and all those things. That is a real pressure that I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about. So we’re trying to, you know, expand, and be a lot more intersectional, and inclusive, and diverse in what we talk about and include as many voices in the conversation as possible.
AW: And William, do you consider yourself to be an activist, and do you consider what you are doing with Woke Wednesdays to be activism?
WP: I do consider myself an activist. I think that now, more than ever, we need activism, and especially student activism. I think it’s easier to find someone on TV who is a professor and an adult speaking about these same topics. But it’s a little harder to see students out there really tackling issues related to race, and social justice, and gender, and sexuality. Those things just aren’t really discussed in a public domain from the student perspective. So I think it is a form of activism. I think that as long as you’re talking about things that people don’t necessarily want to talk about and educating people on things that might not otherwise be covered, you’re doing something that’s good for the general welfare, your community, or the people that you’re reaching through the podcasts.
AW: And for our interested listeners who are not sure if they may be woke or they maybe want to become more woke, what can people do to stay woke or become woke, aside from listening to your podcast, of course?
WP: Definitely listen to the podcast and you can follow us on Twitter at @WokeWednesdays or our Facebook page. No, but I would honestly say don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to engage with people who disagree. And I think that’s, like, a talking point that a lot of people use. It kind of sounds pretty obvious that, yeah, you should engage with people who you may disagree with. But even myself, sometimes, I have to double-check myself and make sure that I’m not only subscribing to one news outlet, because an unfortunate thing with media these days, not to mention social media, but just news media, it’s very divisive and we kind of go to our corners. We listen to Fox, we listen to MSNBC, and we kind of remain there. We don’t ever flip to see what the other side is thinking. And I think, you know, if you’re always listening to MSNBC, turn on Fox, even if it’s just once in your lifetime. See what it’s like. If you’ve never looked at MSNBC and you subscribe to Fox, check it out one day. And I’ve done that myself. I think it’s very valuable. And, you know, in terms of social media, definitely, that complicates the issue because some of the things on social media are just not factually true. A lot of it is partisan. And just — you know, one of the reasons we chose purple as the color of Woke Wednesdays is that, though a lot of the things that we’re talking about are political issues, and though a lot of the things that we speak about, in our opinion, kind of have a right answer, and it’s not necessarily debatable, we try and be inclusive and not politically charged in the way that a lot of media is. So, like, the color purple is a blend of blue and red, obviously, and we try and keep that in account when we’re speaking in a way that’s conducive for conversation and not polarization.
AW: And if there’s one episode that you would recommend that people start with or you think could be a good entry point for people to listen to who are curious, which episode would you recommend people listen to and why?
WP: That’s hard. I mean, those interested hopefully who are listening to this podcast will be interested because I think we’ve been able to cover a lot. Right now, I haven’t really spoken on, specifically, any one podcast. The most interesting podcast was one that I spoke on, and kind of had a debate with one of my friends, which was the use of the N-word, which is a pretty hot-topic issue, especially in the black community. And, you know, he was African American himself and we just disagreed on it, and I felt that was a pretty interesting embodiment of what Woke Wednesdays is. It’s like a place to have those sort of conversations that you may not otherwise have. That one I think is really interesting. And one that I think is really interesting is the conversation that we had about the distinction between black and African American, and we have a young man on there who is from South Africa, who is white, and just, you know, talking about the differences between the black experience versus the African American experience. But, you know, if you’re from South Africa and you’re American, you’re technically African American just as I’m African American. So what does that mean? What are the experiences like? How do you fit into spaces on campus, in the world as someone who may identify as African American, or do you choose not to? So that’s also a very interesting conversation that we recently had.
AW: Yeah. I really liked that one, too. And I guess, what would you say is the goal of Woke Wednesdays or what do you hope that listeners take away from it?
WP: First and foremost, I hope listeners don’t stop by just listening to a podcast and then closing out the SoundCloud app and going about their day. I really hope that people listen to the podcast and then feel some sort of motive or some sort of inclination or ability to go outside and then have a conversation with someone, whether it be calling your grandparents and saying, “Hey, like, you know, I heard this podcast the other day about the N-word. I know you were involved with the Civil Rights movement. Like, what’s your perspective on that?” or, “Today, we talked about microaggressions, Mom. How do you feel that’s impacted you as a doctor in the workplace?” You know, so talking about things that we talk about on the podcast, and also, like, maybe things we left out in the podcast. Maybe there’s a perspective we didn’t have, so, engaging with us, and we’re extremely receptive to that, whether it be commenting on Facebook or sending us a message. And we’ve definitely gotten a lot of those things. So, yeah. I just hope that people listen to the podcasts, use that as a springboard to have conversations, not only with us but also people around them. And hopefully, that will be a snowball effect that, you know, one podcast can have a ripple effect of conversation in the community.
AW: And why is it important to have these kinds of conversations?
WP: So I think it ties into what it means to be woke. And one of those things, in my opinion, is to be well-informed and well-informed of not only your own opinion — like, I think you should be able to articulate and why you feel that way — but also engaging with people who may disagree. And I think that Woke Wednesdays is an excellent opportunity for people to engage with opposing viewpoints. And I think that’s something that can be pretty influential.
AW: And that’s kind of everything that I have to ask you, William. But, I mean, is there anything else that I didn’t ask you that you feel would be important for our alumni, and just anybody, to know?
WP: Well, one, thank you for this opportunity to speak about Woke Wednesdays. I think I’ve been able to surround myself with some exceptional people who are dedicated to, you know, creating a platform for discourse and dialogue. I would say that if you’re listening to this and you’re interested in engaging or listening to Woke Wednesdays, definitely check us out on Facebook. You can just type in Woke Wednesdays, or on Twitter, if you use Twitter. I recently started using Twitter. So you can find us there @WokeWednesdays. And then both of those places have links to the SoundCloud, but if you go on SoundCloud, that’s where all the audio content is.
AW: Great, well thank you so much, William. It’s been great talking to you today. I appreciate your time.
WP: Appreciate it.
AW: Season two of Woke Wednesdays was set to premiere on Nov. 8, 2017, with an interview with special guest the Reverend Al Sharpton. Episodes will be posted every other week on the Woke Wednesdays Soundcloud and Facebook pages, so you can check them out there if you’d like to tune in.
If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, we invite you to subscribe in iTunes. We’ll be publishing more interviews, along with our PAW Tracks oral history podcast, all year long.