The city of Omaha, Nebraska is home to nearly 500,000 people, but it is a place that is often overlooked or misperceived. Sitting 1,500 miles away from Los Angeles and 1,200 miles away from the Big Apple, it’s a city that the majority of America associates with cornhuskers and a football powerhouse that was once guided by Tom Osborne. However, there’s more than meets the preverbal eye. In fact, the nation knows more about Omaha than it realizes. Think about WBC Welterweight Champion Terence Crawford. Think about iconic actress Gabrielle Union. Better yet, think about one of the greatest minds that this country has ever produced. His name is Malcolm X. Fortunately, the Gateway to the West has never stopped loaning the nation its best minds. Most recently, the city has offered a young, Black woman by the name of Symone D. Sanders.
Emerging from the home of former United States Army Corps Engineer Daniel Sanders and former Great Plains Black History Museum Executive Director Terri Sanders, Symone is a bold, authentic innovator who has never shied away from a challenge. Whether it was volunteering for former Mayor Jim Suttle or working with gubernatorial candidate Chuck Hassebrook, the Omaha native always sought out new opportunities to fuse her love for communications and journalism with politics. Ultimately, her passion for her work led her to key roles within Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and the current Biden-Harris administration. Now, she’s taking on a new challenge. After appearing on numerous news broadcasts over the years, Sanders is ready to host her own show. Bridging the gap between politics and pop culture, the self-titled show will provide a unique platform for her incomparable set of talents. Just days before the show debuted, Sanders chopped it up with Def Pen Culture Editor Ryan Shepard to talk about her new show, her authentic personality and how she told Bernie Sanders that she’d be great on television before ever stepping foot in front of a camera. Here’s a piece of their conversation.
While preparing for this interview, I learned about a young, talented woman by the name of Donna Burns, a fictional TV personality that you created in your younger years. When discussing your alter-ego with the New York Times in 2020, you said, “I wanted to have my own show one day.” Well, that day is approaching rapidly. Your show, Symone, will debut on MSNBC on May 7, 2022. What does it mean for you to have reached this milestone in your career?
It’s a full-circle moment. Even as a young person, I would pretend to be Donna Burns. Donna Burns was the idea that I had of a television anchor and a host. Right? Donna Burns is a little more buttoned up. I was mimicking the people that I saw on TV at the time.
I have to thank my new boss, Rashida Jones, who is the president of MSNBC because this is a special opportunity. There are young people all across the country who will turn on the TV on Saturdays and Sundays from 4-5 p.m. ET or open up Peacock, who will see me hosting Symone in my chair. I will join the ranks of people like Kristen Welker, Joy-Ann Reid, Tiffany Cross and Jonathan Capehart, who are all members of MSNBC and are people of color. Now, all of those young people that I just mentioned will turn on the TV and say, “Oh, wow! I can be a TV host and I can sound like myself.” Donna Burns sounded like what I thought a TV host would sound like. She didn’t sound like me.
As you mentioned, Rashida Jones is the president of MSNBC. She is one, if not the only, Black woman working as the head of a major news network. Also, you mentioned yourself, Joy-Ann Reid, Tiffany Cross and Jonathan Capehart as part of the collective of talented Black hosts leading news shows on network television. I wanted to ask you a question about the responsibility that may come with holding that position as a talented Black host on television today.
A few years ago, you told The Breakfast Club on Power 105.1 that you saw yourself as the “spokesperson for the culture.” More recently, you said in one of the Symone promos that you are speaking for yourself in this show. How do you balance representing your point of view and what you want to say while also representing the marginalized groups that may see themselves in you?
I do believe that Rashida Jones was the first Black woman to run a television news network. Since Rashida [took on the role of being president of MSNBC], I think there is also Kimberly Goodwin. She’s a good friend of mine. She’s the president at ABC.
I think that I have built a career as a spokesperson for other people and I would argue that I was very successful at it. However, this show is my opportunity to truly say what I want to say and introduce conversations that I feel people should be having. I think that’s the beauty of all this. Culture is a really big part of my show. Symone brings viewers the news they need to know from politics to pop culture. So, that means we’re going to talk about the White House. We’re going to talk about midterms. We’re going to talk about governors’ races, but we’re also going to talk about film, television and music. Maybe, we’ll unpack how Drake’s new deal with Universal is not just a power move for him, but it could also have an impact on the broader industry. We’re going to cover the potential for Roe v. Wade to be overturned and what that means for women who are concerned about the ability to make decisions about their own bodies.
There’s also a difference between being a guest on a show as opposed to an anchor. As a guest, I am a part of the conversation. Even when I was a spokesperson appearing on shows, I was one part of the conversation. I was there to add one piece to the conversation that the show was having. As the host and the anchor, I am creating the conversation and then I get to facilitate the conversation that is being had on my show.
With this role, you get to cover the stories that you want to cover and express your own viewpoint. However, that also may make you a target for criticism. Having worked in various front-facing roles in the past, you are not new to criticism. In fact, Ben Shapiro recently made a critical comment about something you had said on MSNBC.
Yes, I told Ben, ‘Thank you for watching. I hope you watch on May 7.’
You have this upbeat, positive energy about you. How do you manage the constant criticism that may come your way?
I’m no stranger to criticism unfortunately and I believe that if you live by the accolades then you die by the accolades. When I was younger, my Mom said, “Symone, do not wait for somebody to throw a party for you. You need to be willing to throw a party for yourself.” In honor of Mother’s Day, someone recently asked me to think of advice that my mother gave me and it wasn’t until then that I recalled that story.
I have truly lived my life by that piece of advice. I’m not waiting on anybody else to say that I did a good job or validate me with their words. I just go out there and I do it. I’m comfortable and I’m confident. That’s enough for me, but that’s not to say that harsh words don’t bother me, right? I would be lying if I said, “Oh, I never get affected by harsh words.” But I don’t have my notifications turned on, on any social media [platform]. I have notifications turned off. I turned them off years ago actually. If I want to see what somebody said about something that I did, I have to go look for it. By making the decision to check my mentions, I’m mentally preparing myself to go do it [rather than them popping up on my phone when I’m not prepared to see them].
I really appreciate your mother’s advice. We all need to celebrate ourselves for what we may achieve and carry ourselves with that level of appreciation for what we can do.
On a brighter social media note, you have received compliments as well. When you released the teaser for Symone on Twitter, one person commented, “The way this promo is shot makes it clear it’s for social media.” Given that social media is a major source of news today and it is also a playground for misinformation, how can a news show like yours cut through all of that clutter and reach viewers on Instagram, Twitter, etc.?
We’re going to parse out what we think is important and then we’re going to create innovative ways to reach people online. That video is an example of how we plan to do that. If you wanted to see promo for the show, you have to be on social media. We have a great digital producer that is joining our team and we’re going to be creating content for social. We have a show on a streaming platform, so we’re also creating content for people who are non-traditional consumers of news. I was so excited to come to MSNBC partly because of its track record when it comes to streaming.
My Peacock show airs on Mondays and Tuesdays and then it’ll be available on demand for the rest of the week. The topics on those shows will be a bit more evergreen. They will not live and die by the breaking news cycle if you will. I think that there are a lot of people that would like to consume news on demand. They want to check out what they want to check out when they want to check it out. Well, my Peacock show will allow them to do that.
“I want people to know that showing up as themselves is absolutely okay. Just make sure that you’re doing the work.”
You touched upon this a little bit earlier, but I wanted to follow up on it. When people see a show on MSNBC and they read up on your background, they may falsely conclude that your show is strictly about politics in Washington, D.C. However, you’ve been very particular about pointing out that this show is about everything from politics to pop culture. At the moment, what stories outside the world of politics are of particular interest to you?
Well, I care a lot about this and we were actually talking about this with the team today — mental health. Yesterday, a friend of mine sent me a clip. It was a tease from Red Table Talk. I don’t know if you remember Cheslie Kryst. She was Miss America in 2019. Earlier this year, she tragically jumped to her death. So, her mother was on the show talking about mental health and it made me think about how I haven’t seen anybody do something about the slew of prominent people in a short period of time who have died by suicide.
There are so many more people dealing with depression and anxiety because of the pandemic. I have my own mental health story as well. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so I was talking to the team today and that’s something we’re going to do. That’s not a Washington, D.C. story. That’s a story that everybody can relate to.
Yesterday, I asked my Instagram followers what was poppin’ in their group chats. I got a range of answers, but the topics that kept coming up were Roe v. Wade, Dave Chappelle and Ray J and these tapes. Maybe, we won’t do Ray J and those tapes, but I do think that the Dave Chappelle piece is an interesting one because it goes into this conversation about cancel culture, who can say what and when comedy isn’t just comedy anymore.
This is the last question I wanted to ask you about TV and your new show, Symone. You gave a TED Talk a few years ago that debuted on the day I graduated from college. During your monologue, you reference the first conversation you had with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. As the conversation comes to a close, it looks like your going to get the job and he asks, “Have you ever been on television before?” You responded by saying, “No, but I think I’ll be good at it.”
I did. I did.
Definitely. You hit the nail on the head. Looking back at where you were then and celebrating where you are today, what advice would you give to someone that is looking to break into this field and do what you may have done in politics or television? How do they develop the kind of confidence that you displayed in that conversation?
I think this is an excellent question. First, I would tell folks, especially young people, we need to ask for what is that we want and we know we have worked for, not what we think people are going to give us. If you think about it, how many times have you asked for the thing that is right up under the thing that you actually want and have worked for? Unfortunately, you ask for something other than what you actually want because you think people aren’t going to let you have what you actually want and have worked for. No! Ask for the thing that you want and let them tell you no. That’s how I have lived my professional life for a very long time. I’ve leaned into it even more since I moved to Washington, D.C.
I think the second thing I would tell folks is that we have got to be able to do the work. I think there’s a lot of focus on getting to places, getting the job, getting the opportunity, etc., but there’s not enough focus on doing the work that is necessary in that new job, new space and place. The reality is that I had never been a press secretary before working on a presidential campaign. I had never been a senior advisor or spokesperson to the Vice President of the United States of America. I had never been a host or an anchor before. But in every opportunity that I asked for, I executed once I got there. I did the work.
The last thing that I will say is that I got here by being myself. I don’t put on a persona when I get out of bed every morning. I have never pretended in any of the roles that I just listed off. I show up as Symone D. Sanders. I’m a bald, curvy Black girl and I’ve got bedazzled nails. If they’re going to hire me, they know I’m going to come with these nails. President Joe Biden knew I had these nails and he would ask, “Now, how do you type with those?” Sir, this is how. I would come with the nails, but I knew what I was talking about.
We stand on the shoulders of so many people who could literally never imagine the kinds of opportunities that you, I or this entire generation currently has. They could not even imagine it and those people did not fight so that we can stand here and not be ourselves. So, I want people to know that showing up as themselves is absolutely okay. Just make sure that you’re doing the work.