On the season finale of HearTOGETHER, PA State Representative and Philly native Joanna McClinton (D) speaks with host Tori Marchiony about the importance of music, the politics of hair, and how her faith moves her forward and keeps her focused.
Thanks to consulting producer Sofiya Ballin and audio engineer Teng Chen.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Hello! And welcome back to the HearTOGETHER podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I’m Tori Marchiony and this is a space to hear from people working hard to build a more equitable future- inside and outside the concert hall.
Our guest today is Pennsylvania Representative Joanna McClinton.
A lifelong resident of Southwest Philadelphia with degrees from LaSalle University and Villanova Law…she’s also a youth minister and a dedicated public servant- who’s championed educational opportunity, fair wages, and criminal justice reform since taking office in 2015.
In 2018, Joanna McClinton became the first African American woman to be elected as the House Democratic Caucus Chair- also making her the highest-ranking woman to serve in the General Assembly’s 244-year history.
But McClinton doesn’t get hung up on the glory- she’s focused on impact. That’s what drove her to law school, and to serve as a Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney for seven years. But it’s also what led her to quit, and pursue politics.
REP. JOANNA MCCLINTON: You know, just realize that some of these judges need better laws to make decisions from and on a case by case basis, there's only so much you can do for anyone. But if you are in fact, on the other side of the system, giving the judges, the law, giving the judges the guidelines for sentencing, um, perhaps you can do more for a lot of people who find themselves in the criminal justice system.
TORI MARCHIONY: All right, obviously, as a politician, you have to compromise what are some non-negotiables for you?
REP. JOANNA MCCLINTON: So, there are some things that we cannot compromise on. Um, the first one, for me being a former tipped wage worker, uh, waited tables all through law school is, you know, we must pay people a livable wage. You know, we go back and forth with whether or not it should be $10, $12, $15. Um, if inflation [00:02:30] kept up with the cost of living in, in Pennsylvania, um, the, the wage for an hourly minimum wage worker would be something about $20. So one of the non-negotiables is as we get in a space where we can work on, um, raising the wage, you know, I'm not for going from seven and a quarter to $8. Like we have to take this seriously and we have to realize what parameters are needed [00:03:00] for businesses to follow suit. We know small businesses are not able, um, potentially to do it.
So we need to figure out, you know, what is the number of employees? What should the revenue be like? So that it's fair. And so that plate people who are working for mega corporations, where the CEO's salaries over the last 20 years, there's not even a number to talk about how they've exponentially grown yet low wage blue collar workers have not grown since [00:03:30] the eighties. Another one is with our schools, fairly funding, the schools that is a disparity that Pennsylvania should be ashamed of. Um, we are ranking at the bottom and have been for well over 15 years with how some school districts get support they don't need. And how many other school districts don't have enough support because it's all based on our property taxes.
Um, a non-negotiable for me is investing in our children, letting them know that [00:04:00] their significance is reflected on their school buildings, no matter what there's zip code is across the state, they have safe, uh, environments that they are learning in that are modern, um, and that provide them an environment to spark learning and to spark inspiration so that they can show up bringing their best because they are the ones we have all of our hope and faith in, but if we're not investing in them right now, what are we going to expect? 25 years down the line?
TORI MARCHIONY: What happens [00:04:30] when you deal with people across the aisle, or just even on, on the Democrat side that don't align with you on some of these fundamentals? I, I can't imagine how I would even approach having a conversation in a calm or reasonable way. How do you, how do you do it? How do you find communication in between? So
REP. JOANNA MCCLINTON: Tori, at times it can be frustrating where [00:05:00] you feel that you've made the case for why there should be common ground and agreement and issues. It should just be no dispute. However, what I've come to realize, especially in Harrisburg and the state Capitol is that, you know, every single person comes to this with their own lived experience. Um, you know, not even considering their constituents, but just starting with their very own lived experience. Um, and everyone's lived experience is different, you [00:05:30] know, everybody's, uh, drive is different. Everybody's work. History is different. Uh, I'm probably more sympathetic to low wage workers because I literally was one. Um, you know, we should probably do a survey here to talk about who's made minimum wage as an adult, not as a student. Um, but as an adult, like who's done it because yeah, I was in law school, but I was 22, 23, 24.
Um, I wasn't, you know, 15. So I think that, um, [00:06:00] we all have a lot of learning to do. What I make every effort to do is recognize that, you know, there are 203 different personalities lived experiences, districts, constituents. We're never going to agree on every issue. And there may be some issues that were so opposed to that we're not going to get to common ground on, but the key for me is how do I get to 102 votes, which is what you need to pass a bill? You know, how do I get to that [00:06:30] number? Because even in my own caucus, we have some deep divides, depending on the issue.
TORI MARCHIONY: Do you think that you would have this stamina for this work if it weren't for your faith? I don't think so.
REP. JOANNA MCCLINTON: And I know that there are many members and colleagues and we have deep discussions that have totally different perspectives and are very proud like agnostics. Um, and that could be the path leads [00:07:00] a piece for each of those folks. Um, but for me, I do know that it's important to realize that there's a bigger picture and as much as I think, you know, what we're doing every single day is tremendously important. Um, it's a bigger picture and I'm focused when I'm zoomed in and focused on one thing. Like, wait a minute, think back to the bigger picture and what, how do you think this will be, you know, a few years from now. So maybe I am making arguments now that aren't turning [00:07:30] into the votes I need, but maybe it will eventually, or maybe it's inspiring someone else to get involved. So, you know, success is also metric measured differently when you have, uh, you know, so much of your ambitions, um, being built upon your face [inaudible]
TRADITIONAL, Amazing Grace, Jeffrey Lang, Anthony Prisk, & Matthew Vaughn
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): That was an excerpt of amazing grace performed by Jeffrey Lang Anthony Presque and Matthew Vaughn from the Philadelphia orchestra as November, 2020, [00:10:00] our city, your orchestra concert at valley forge national historical park. Do you have a vision for the world that you're working towards? Does that make, is it, is there a vision or is it a just sort of step, step, step towards a better whatever better could be for me?
REP. JOANNA MCCLINTON: Is definitely step, step step, because there are so many challenges that we face at times. It can be daunting if you enumerate the things that are wrong, [00:10:30] whether we're talking about how we're taking care of the environment, whether we're talking about investing into the future or the criminal justice system, um, rather than focus on like all the long laundry list of things that need to be changed. My goal is even if it seems like we're chipping away at Mount Everest, let's keep chipping away until we, or the next generation is able to push it and say, oh, it's nothing left in our way. There aren't any more hurdles. I love that.
TORI MARCHIONY: Are there any, um, [00:11:00] wins in your career thus far that you look back on with a lot of pride that really felt like a moment where you're like, yes, this is why I do it. I got it done.
REP. JOANNA MCCLINTON: So just in the fall, after really, uh, several months of uncertainty, Fu both, you know, around the world and, and locally, I was grateful to get a bill signed into law that I introduced five years ago in my very first term. It's a bill [00:11:30] that automatically clears records when you're acquitted of non-violent cases or you're pardoned by the governor. And, you know, I introduced that as an idea in October of 2015 and at the end of October in 2020, it was signed by governor Wolf. And I just felt a big sigh of relief because while I've been blessed to get a few other pieces of legislation across the finish line, this was, you know, one of my initial ideas that, um, you know, after a lot [00:12:00] of chit chatting and thinking about what's needed, came to me. And I had tried a few times and failed over five years and the last year, because the time was running out for the Senate to move the bill, you know, I sent letters, I called people who were running, who were in the committee where it was. And, you know, I just, wasn't hearing back over, we're going to move the bill. Nobody said that. And it's like, well, if it doesn't move in time for, you know, the legislative session to end, I'm going to start [00:12:30] from zero. So I got a lot of hope and encouragement when, um, you know, it moved through and went to the governor's desk and, uh, you know, got signed into law.
TORI MARCHIONY: Yes. Oh my goodness. And people think nine months is a long time to carry a child. Whew. Well done the talk about stamina and resilience. I'd love to talk to you about the C.R.O.W.N Act which stands for creating a respectful and [00:13:00] open world for natural hair. And it outlaws discrimination based on hairstyles. And this is a piece of legislation that's getting traction on the national level and has been enacted already in California, New Jersey and New York. And you and our friend, Senator Vincent Hughes are both championing it in Pennsylvania. Um, I'm wondering, what was your personal hair journey? Were you coming from a place of, oh yes. For my entire life, I've understood that my natural hair [00:13:30] is a beautiful thing. It's a gift. It's my, my crown to wear. Or did you start out thinking I have to have it pressed to look professional, um, feeling limited in styles and then eventually having a revelation that led you to this place of advocating for natural styles.
REP. JOANNA MCCLINTON: So definitely the latter I, um, you know, was never, my hair was never disparaged by my family or [00:14:00] my any, he wasn't like that. Um, my mother, um, always laughs that, you know, she's just never been a hair person. So I was, uh, the little girl sitting on a telephone books. Remember those, uh, in the hair salon from a little girl getting, you know, corn rows braids. Um, I would only have my hair out like on Sunday for church and it would only be pressed in and out for like a holiday, like Easter. It wasn't a common thing. [00:14:30] Um, but you know, once I got into, I would say law school and, uh, when you're in certain environments and you're hyper aware of your minority status, you start to think a little bit differently. Um, depending on who you are, it's not a generic statement by any means, but I became hyper self-aware that I'm a black woman, one, a few in this law school, one, a few, you know, at an internship or maybe the only [00:15:00] one I'm in a courtroom working for a judge and, you know, just a few at networking events.
And I always used to think to myself, you know, how are people going to recognize me know me? So first thing I had with my hair was that it needed to be the same way, or, you know, these folks aren't going to remember me. Right. You know, I thought to myself like, then they're not gonna pick up on my face, but they'll remember, you know, I had it pressed in a little rap style. So that was important to me. And then once I started [00:15:30] practicing law, because so many clients would always ask, how old are you? And I would be tough with their response explaining I'm old enough to be a barred attorney, but you know, I'd always get the, you look so young. Are you, are you out of school? You know, or you law student you in college, um, you know, I'm grown, I'm grown, I'm grown, but you know, fighting that war of wanting to be respected, wanting to be a professional and to look what I [00:16:00] thought was professional, I really was committed and dug down in my heels.
I never would change my hair for work. It always was the same. I'd never show up with braids or some sort of ponytail or any other style than the way I had it almost all the time. I didn't feel comfortable, uh, you know, wearing braids professionally until Mike, I needed a change out. My hair was starting to break off badly. And I said, okay, well maybe I need [00:16:30] to give it a rest. And that was the first time as a Bard lawyer, I had worn braids and it was in 2015. I passed the bar in oh seven. So, you know, that's like a lot press outs. Um, and it ended up being later that year, the same year that I ran for office, I didn't plan on any of that. Um, and at the time, um, I, you know, because the campaign was a special election, like I already had some braids.
So, you know, my first couple of pictures had [00:17:00] braids and people were like, don't, you want to just wear your hair out? How you always wear it looks nice. You know? So other people were making it an issue. Um, and long story short, um, in the fall of 16, I took one month just to do no heat. And it was literally a goal of mine to just go to the gym three times every week, that week and not say, I'm going to sweat my press out out, um, where it looks ridiculous and it's irreparable unless you wash it and do it again, which for many women [00:17:30] of color, it takes a couple hours. It's a lot of work. Um, and that month, okay. Wearing heat freestyles, a couple of people told me, um, that it looked nice, you know, have I thought about an Afro?
And I'm like, what? Never me never went like, I'm miss president. I've never thought about wearing my hair out. And, um, and the next month after doing it for one month in November, I just, um, I cut it real short [00:18:00] and it started wearing no heats. And, uh, I feel like I've gone the other extreme now, you know, I've embraced as we are online, but you know, I haven't had it straightened since 2016. Um, so that's that, well, I mean, it's a bit of freedom that I stumbled upon, but you know, I now I'm like not trying to be in a box where it's never straight again, you know, but it is. I said all that to say like many people think, no one's talking about [00:18:30] their hair when they are thinking about work or thinking about jobs or the young man in New Jersey who was just trying to wrestle. And they made him cut his naturally grown locks. I mean, crown act is needed because these are decisions that, and we're not talking about safety decisions, like a hair net or things that are needed in certain jobs. We're talking about just how you decide to present yourself to the world. And does it become a stumbling block from getting an opportunity? One of the other things I am cognizant of [00:19:00] is that it's a very powerful statement without saying anything.
It's like, you've got the lyrics to my song before you even meet me. You know, when you meet me, um, and I'm in an air fro or I'm in like, uh, these braids I have now, you know, it's saying a lot,
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Here’s a bit of Great Day from three spirituals performed by Julia Li, Chay-Hung Chen & Yumi Kendall as part of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Our City, Your Orchestra concert from May 17th, 2021, which took place alongside three naturalization ceremonies in West Philadelphia.
MUSIC: TRADITIONAL, Great Day, Julia Li, Chay-Hung Chen & Yumi Kendall
TORI MARCHIONY: [00:20:30] Um, I was just wondering to chat with you about music. How interwoven into your life and work is music. Do you have a calm down song? Do you [00:21:00] have a hype up song? Do you have a, “I'm going to fight about this bill song”?
REP. JOANNA MCCLINTON: Absolutely. So when I was more active practicing law, um, I would have a hype for court song getting ready to go to trial, but it's been so long. Um, I would say right now, uh, because of the nature of either listening to debate or I'm waiting to go back to voting session, I'm not wanting to really listen to music in the office, but music in this time, uh, transports [00:21:30] me from point a to point B and it's usually a hundred plus miles. So when I'm leaving a home to go to Harrisburg, I, uh, start off often with the same couple of gospel songs. Um, by the time I get a hundred plus miles up the road, uh, my, uh, uh, John road might've changed, uh, to a little bit of hip hop music or R and B music. And I call it my own personal karaoke show. I always say, if there's a camera in this car that said, and people are [00:22:00] entertained, you gotta be your own best company. That's right. Right. Okay.
TORI MARCHIONY: Um, would you be willing to name a couple of songs that are on that drive to Harrisburg playlist?
REP. JOANNA MCCLINTON: Sure. Sure. So I have a favorite by Beyonce. I enjoy, uh, formation. It is a really empowering song for women it's encouraging. Uh, I enjoy, uh, some of the Philadelphia artists. Um, Jill Scott is one, that's a bright light. [00:22:30] And then of course, um, I think Philadelphia's favorite rapper, uh, right now, probably not amongst young young people. I don't claim to know those songs, but I think people definitely in my age group enjoy hearing meek mill, just because of his whole story. Um, in the last few years of really, um, showing how challenged our probation system is and how people can, you know, be supervised, um, for 20 years, even with [00:23:00] careers and making money and paid and restitution that's been paid and how it can just really be counter productive. Um, I, uh, well, I won't go far off, but go ahead.
TORI MARCHIONY: No, I love it. Thank you. Um, from the legislation side, what is your view on the importance of the arts in general and music in particular as a tool for social change?
REP. JOANNA MCCLINTON: The [00:23:30] arts are very significant for social change, whether you're talking about the social justice movement, whether you're talking about the civil rights movement, uh, the women's rights movement, are there key that are attached to these, um, events and marches? Um, I could not go this year or last year, but for two or three years prior, I think three, I went to one of the state women's correctional [00:24:00] facilities. It is in Muncie, Pennsylvania, little bit of a Northeastern PA. And I went as a women's history month speaker, but it would always be at the beginning of March, right at the end of black history. And I would sing a civil rights song with the women and we would just enjoy it because even if you weren't around in the sixties, you might've seen a documentary or, you know, seeing a little movie where they sang the song, ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, [00:24:30] turn me around, turn me around.
There's amazing connectivity between acting, dancing, singing music and instruments being played, and they accompanied movements so well and can uplift you so very much. So I think every school should have the opportunity for children to play music, [00:25:30] play music, learn music, um, get involved and, and we are not all gifted. We're not all soloists. Um, we don't necessarily all pursue, uh, artistry, but I mean, it's just a great way of expression. And it also, um, even as it evolves, continues to accompany so much change, that's being demanded in this moment. So I'm appreciative for artistry and [00:26:00] for music. Um, and I understand that it needs to be a sustained invested in, and that there should be more opportunities. Um, particularly for young people to find themselves in that space. They don't have to go and study music when they get into college, but it is a wonderful way to, to be able to, you know, understand so much, you learn so many lessons just through trying to learn a wind instrument, for example. Awesome.
TORI MARCHIONY: Thank you. And, um, is there anything [00:26:30] coming up that you're working on that you're feeling really revved up about and wanted to mention
REP. JOANNA MCCLINTON: Sure thing. So we are working very hard to ensure that the funds coming from the federal government, the American rescue plan coming to the state are properly invested in our schools and our infrastructure. And in our small businesses, this has been one of the toughest times ever. So, um, as the federal government has been rather generous with looking at [00:27:00] how many people are out of work in Pennsylvania, um, how many businesses have closed, but how many are almost just on the brink of not staying open much farther, uh, house Democrats are calling all of our colleagues in the Senate, um, and across the aisle here in the house house Republicans to work with us so that we are excellent stewards over this one time investment from the federal government and that we use it so wisely that it really does help Pennsylvania, um, kind of [00:27:30] recover and be restored from the effects of this pandemic.
TORI MARCHIONY: Wow. I wish this wasn't a podcast format so people could see how your face lit up as you were talking about being a good steward of these dollars. That's I think such a testament to how you do this work, and I love that.
REP. JOANNA MCCLINTON: Thank you.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Wow. That concludes not only our episode, but also our season. Thank you so much for tuning in as always. If you enjoyed yourself, please remember to like subscribe, rate, review, comment, share, and stay tuned for season two of here together, coming this fall to play us out, please enjoy a bit of Joyful, Joyful from Sister Act Two, performed by students from the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts alongside musicians of The Philadelphia Orchestra. This collaboration was part of the 2021 Fanfare For The Future event in support of the academy of music and hosted by what Whoopie Goldberg. Until next time…
WARREN, Joyful, Joyful, CAPA Choir w/ The Philadelphia Orchestra