Emily Tisch Sussman, SHE PIVOTS PODCAST

Emily Tisch Sussman, SHE PIVOTS PODCAST

Lawyer, political strategist, and podcast host Emily Tisch Sussman joins Zibby to talk about her new podcast, She Pivots, which grew out of her need for inspiring stories from women who have made personal and professional shifts. The two discuss Emily’s wide-ranging career, how moms can make time to get involved in local politics, and how listeners can take action by DMing @shepivotsthepodcast. Emily also shares how she’s staying involved in politics despite leaving the world of strategy and campaigning and what she is focusing on now in her personal life.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Emily. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss everything from women’s rights and your career in podcasting and writing and all the good things in your life.

Emily Tisch Sussman: Thanks so much for having me. I genuinely feel like I cannot remember the last time I got past the first chapter of a book. It really resonates. I’m thrilled to be on. Thank you.

Zibby: How old are your kids now?

Emily: Five, four, and two.

Zibby: Oh, man.

Emily: I’ll read again one day, right?

Zibby: Yes. It won’t be as long as you think. I feel like my whole goal was to get my youngest to kindergarten. Then it turned out that was during lockdown. I feel like now with my youngest in first grade, actually in school, I have time.

Emily: You can actually read again. I look forward to the day. I used to love to read. Now I feel like it’s a picture book. It’s endless emails from school. That’s what I’m reading.

Zibby: Yes, especially this time of year. I’m running from book fair to orthodontist to whatever. I can’t even keep my life straight. You have had this meteoric career. You have this new-ish podcast. You talk to all sorts of political leaders, women’s rights advocates, focusing on women. You write with such passion about the issues. You’re an advocate. When are you running for office? is my next question. How did this all come about? When did you get started? Give me the backstory.

Emily: That was such a nice intro. I’m still stuck in it. I was like, wow, that sounds so nice. I’ve always just been kind of fired up in a way that my peers were not, necessarily, in the same way. It didn’t necessarily translate to me being a great student, actually. I was just really fired up about the state of the world. I felt like I had responsibility. Because I didn’t have the confidence — I didn’t have that reinforcement from academics that I was smart. I thought, I’m so overwhelmed by what to do in the world, but I don’t know what I can do about it. It took until graduating from college. I worked on my first political campaign. I was like, yes, this is the thing. I am so good at this. changing the world. It took all of these things that I didn’t know were skills. I could bring my team along. I could bring the morale along with us. I could work endlessly long hours. I could multitask lots of different schedules at the same time. All of these things that I didn’t know were skills really helped me thrive in a campaign environment. That set me on the path of, okay, I can do something with this fired up-ness. We lost that campaign, sadly. It did set me towards law school, which, again, I did not think that I could’ve done. I didn’t have the confidence to do it. Having worked on the campaign, I did.

Law school was another place where I was like, I’m really good at this. I can do this. It just lit something under me. I thought, what can other people do versus what skills do I bring? That’s always been the mindset that I’ve gone into any work environment. I felt like there were so many issues that I cared about, but the place that I really felt like I could thrive and what I could bring to it with my skill set was seeing things that didn’t exist and putting concrete steps to them. At that point in time, it was LGBT rights. It wasn’t until LGBTQ rights. It was just LGBT rights at that time. There was only a marriage decision in Massachusetts. I felt like the gaping wide-open space with no rights, this is a place that I could work. After I graduated law school, I worked on the Obama campaign. Then I moved to Washington because I felt like everyone moved to Washington if you wanted to change the world. As a lifelong New Yorker, I never thought I would do it. I ended up working for a small nonprofit organization called the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network where we were the lawyers for people who were in the military who were being discharged under the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law. If you have some younger listeners, they may not actually be familiar with “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” It was the most discriminatory federal law that we had. It was the only law that mandated somebody be fired because of who they are.

We were their actual attorneys. I worked on the government affairs side, which meant that I worked on repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” for about two years and then stayed on with the Pentagon for about a year working on the implementation of the law, so actually going into effect. From there, Obama was going to be reelected. I thought, okay, I want to get back into this action. I ran the Young Democrats of America for his reelection campaign. After that, I went to go work for the largest progressive think tank, Center for American Progress, where I ran campaigns and strategy for about six years. I loved it. I loved everything about my job. I loved being in the work. I loved taking on hard tasks. One of the things that I would regularly say is that sometimes you can just outwork your opposition. That is the only way that I saw myself. It was my whole identity, was outworking the competition, being the hardest worker in the room, staying dedicated, never turning off. That was not a lifestyle for having three kids in three years, it turns out. It turns out you can’t do both of those things at the same time.

Zibby: You can’t do much with three kids in three years, let alone that.

Emily: My first, I had during the 2016 presidential campaign. Honestly, the biggest hardship in that for me was that I couldn’t work on the campaign. People don’t work on campaigns pregnant. People don’t work on campaigns with babies. Even just letting go of that was kind of a hit to my sense of self and what I felt like was my sense of purpose. I’d been an on-air political commentator on politics for about ten years. I was on CNN the day that I went into labor with my son. One of my friends was doing her first TV hit later that day. She was texting me for tips on it. I was like, “BRB. I’m getting an epidural.” She’s like, “Are you having a baby right now?” I was like, “Yes, I’m having a baby right now,” sending tips to the green room because that’s what I’m comfortable with. Having a baby, not comfortable. Going on Fox News to debate presidential politics, totally comfortable. That is what I was giving my friend tips on. My job changed immediately during the Trump administration because just the timing and sense of my job changed. It meant that the pace picked up a lot because nobody knew what policies he was going to announce and when. He announced a lot of new policies Friday nights and Sundays. For any mom, that means no childcare. Suddenly, I was pregnant with a baby. I got pregnant immediately after I had the first one. I was pregnant with a baby and running all of these new strategy calls that we had no preparation for with no childcare.

When I went on maternity leave with the second one, I thought, I cannot go back into this job. It killed me. It was the only sense of self that I had. It was the only way I knew myself. I knew that I was failing in my job, and I was failing with my kids. I didn’t go back after my second maternity leave. Also, I hated to play into that stereotype of someone who doesn’t come back after maternity leave. I started doing some political consulting. I felt like the thing that was really firing me up at that moment was bringing relatable, conversational, accessible information about policy to people. I knew that sounds kind of obvious. In Washington, that’s not valued. Knowledge, that’s the currency of Washington. There’s not a lot of value placed on making things really accessible to people. I started a podcast called “Your Political Playlist” where I brought on all female experts to really break down what issues were happening in the world and happening in the presidential primary at that point, the 2020 primary. The reason I brought on all female experts is because that’s who I would go to. I literally called the people that I call before I go on TV. I opened up the conversations with them. I felt like I saw a pattern in policy where women would do all the work and then not put their names out for the things that end up getting them street cred to be considered an “expert” on something. If I could give them expert podcast hits to then build their expertise and build that piece of their portfolio, that’s a hundred percent what I wanted to be doing. “Your Political Playlist” ran for about two and a half years. Then I had a third baby. I’ve now had three babies, third in a global pandemic, in three and a half years.

Zibby: I could give you some tips. If you need some advice on spacing out the next one, I think there are things you could do.

Emily: My mother will tell anyone who will listen, she’ll say, “My daughter’s a lawyer, and she can’t figure out how to not get pregnant.” She’ll tell anyone. She’s like, “She thinks she’s so smart.” Any sense of trying to have those same kind of professional benchmarks that I was still trying to be active with, even doing it as a consultant and as a political podcast host, I still couldn’t do it. I still couldn’t make it with the third baby and having two toddlers at home. They were home all the time, as we all know. I didn’t have the same support. I still couldn’t do it. I started thinking about, where am I going to get stories of inspiration? I need some stories of inspiration here. I felt like my friends needed them too. I started seeking out stories of women who had gone through something very personal, not a professional change, but a personal change. It changed their opportunities. It changed their perspective. Then they found a different kind of professional success after that, but they couldn’t have done it if they hadn’t gone through, first, the career, then the personal change, then the change in perspective. I needed those stories. I still need those stories.

Zibby: This is my story, by the way. We can talk about that another time.

Emily: Yes, exactly. We all need it. We need the stories of inspiration. The amount that you have done to be open about that provides a pathway and provides inspiration for so many women, myself included. That’s how I came to start this new podcast, “She Pivots.” It is literally just a show — just a show? It is the stories I need where every single story is totally different. I felt like if I had a whole show of women who were in the same position as me, it would be really depressing. articles, “My kids killed my career.” That’s how I felt. Everybody’s personal event is totally different. Everybody’s story is totally different. Their career is totally different. This week, we have a navy officer who served in the navy, went to the Naval Academy, came out as trans. That ended her navy career. Then she became a trauma nurse and then a lawyer after that. Now she’s a hospital executive. Things she never could’ve done had she not come out and left the navy, which was very difficult for her. Every story is so different because I really want everyone to see a pathway into it. The pandemic’s been really hard for moms and moms with young kids, but it’s been hard for everyone. I want everyone to be able to see themselves in some of these stories.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Some of the issues, of course, as a democrat and as a woman and all of that, that I read that you’ve been supporting, discussing, debating, blah, blah, blah, one of which is paid leave for women. It’s interesting to hear you talk about how you personally, you couldn’t even go back to your job of fighting for paid leave because you didn’t have paid leave. It’s so meta in a way. Paid leave, gun control with all of the stuff going on, how are you feeling about the fight for all of this? What is your take on everything at this moment? Do you see yourself going into politics on the politician side as opposed to the activism side?

Emily: I don’t think I’m going to run for office if that is the question.

Zibby: No?

Emily: No. I feel like I’ve been close enough to it. Look, I’m pro-pivot. I want everyone to explore what works for them in their life at that moment. I want other moms and other women to be running for office. I think I feel like I get the platform that I want to have now. I’m very lucky in being able to do that. Until that changes, this is the platform that I’m going to use, whether it’s podcasting or writing articles or organizing. I have, in this part year, trying to position myself in a parenting space, I’ve been pretty conscious of trying to do less political commentary because I’m kind of over-indexed there and establish myself more in a parenting, nonpolitical space. The last couple of weeks have been super tough to do that, starting with the leaking of the inevitable Supreme Court decision that’s going to overturn Roe v. Wade, seeing the increase in shootings. The fact that we haven’t passed paid leave, that has been my last political client for the last year, is trying to pass national paid leave. Seeing these things, I’m coming to it from a different perspective than I had before. Every time I saw a news alert or a crisis, my brain would turn on into campaign manager mode. I would do an evaluation of the landscape, the assets, the legislative blocks that we might have. To some degree, I do that now. I think I’ll never be able to really turn that off. Also, my instinct has always been to just throw myself into it, physically throw myself into it, not sleep, organize, just never stop. That is truly not an option now.

I picked my son up from school yesterday. I was in the middle of trying to finalize a number of things, including, I’m organizing moms in my community right now to go visit our member of congress. I picked my son up from school. The place we thought we were going was unexpectedly closed. He wanted to go to this other place. I had no cell service for two hours. I want to allow space for that in my life. The political worker in me would’ve said, sorry kid, we’re going back home to where I have my full plugged-in — it’s the opposite of Wi-Fi, my ether cord or whatever. I don’t know. My son was having a great time at the place that he wanted to go to, and so that wins for me now. I can’t help myself. I’m still organizing moms. I drove to all of my members of congress’s district offices last week to try to speak to a staff member. I literally drove around the entire district for three hours. There was nobody working in any of his offices. My member of congress is Lee Zeldin, in case anyone’s wondering. You should also be calling him to find out why there’s nobody working in his offices because he is running for governor of New York. We should find out why his staff can’t take our calls or listen to us. It’s the first time I’ve ever lived in a Republican district, so I have a Republican member of Congress for the first time. I plan on utilizing that, but as a constituent, as a mom, as a member of the community, as an organization, not necessarily as a campaign director. On the other hand, I did get on the phone with every town. They told me what they wanted us to do in the district. I said, no, we’re doing something else. I can’t totally shut it down.

Zibby: I get it. I get it. You’re trying hard to keep yourself a little bit on the bench, but you keep sneaking onto the field, basically, is what’s going on here.

Emily: That’s exactly how I feel.

Zibby: You know what? That two hours with your son is going to be one of the times you remember the most. I feel like another call at home, you never would’ve remembered that. He wouldn’t have remembered that. Hard-charging, amazing women like you should know that that is really a worthy thing. It’s awesome you did that. It’s important to take all those times and do everything else. Everybody has their own choices in life.

Emily: Right. Everybody has to figure out what works for them. I’m also open now in a way that I wasn’t before. I had a meeting yesterday morning where I had one failed potty training situation and another projectile vomiting situation, simultaneous, and a third going to school where I forgot to pack him — sent him with an empty lunch box. I had a meeting. I said, “You know what? I’m really sorry. This meeting isn’t going to work for me. My kids are sick. We’re just going to have to –” It was something that was not necessarily that time-sensitive. Sure, it looked a little bad on me to be canceling or moving a meeting, but I was open about why I was doing it. I feel like we’re not going to culturally change unless we’re open about that.

Zibby: Totally. I have someone on my team now who I know has two kids at home with COVID. She was trying to email. I just finally texted her. I was like, “Put on your autoreply. Just forward your emails. Let someone else. Don’t even try this.” Every time I talked to her, she was like, “They’re watching a movie.” I’m like, “It’s okay. This is not rocket science here. Go take care of your kids who are sick. It’s all right. It’s all going to be okay.”

Emily: You setting that example as a boss, it’ll set the tone. It’ll set the tone for them. It’ll set the tone for the next place they go work.

Zibby: I hope so, as I do my calls from the orthodontist office, seriously. It doesn’t always work out perfectly. We all have to try and make it work. It’s sort of an impossible situation that we all have to wade our way through. That’s kind of it. I do have a question about — you’re saying organizing moms and all of this stuff. This is more on a personal note. I have been, like everybody, just horrified by this latest school shooting at Robb Elementary and the incident in Buffalo and all of this stuff. I naïvely was like, is there something new we could try? I know there are these things in place. I know we are calling Congress. We are sending letters. I fill out all the stuff. Do this. I do it. Donate here. I donate. Is there anything else? Is there something we haven’t thought of? Is there something we haven’t tried? Could we go at this problem a different way? Is it through the mental health of the shooters versus the controlling of the implements of violence? Is it everything? I don’t know. My mind has been spinning in the last couple weeks totally in support of all of the organizations already fighting the good fight. I’m behind them and will do whatever, but is there anything else? I don’t know if you have also been stewing on this. Maybe there is no answer. Maybe it’s just silly to waste time. I always just like to try to look at it a little differently and see, is there another way into this that will make a difference? Do you have any?

Emily: I think we’re all spinning. It’s hard to think through trauma. We’ve been through two consistent years of trauma to begin with. I think it’s totally fair to be spinning. The thing that I do know is gun policy, less so in other areas, but I’m happy to give insights into where that stands right now. The reason that we are at kind of a deadlock in passing what feels like really — I worked on the last background checks bill that was in the senate, the background checks bill in 2013 that came out after the Newtown shooting. The reason we maintain in this deadlock is that people that are pro-gun, it’s not just cultural, but it’s engrained in their identity, and so they are extremely active and vocal about it. Even naming how much money politicians take from the NRA is actually not a very good indicator of what is motivating them because it’s actually not the money. It’s the intensity. It’s that the people who live in their district truly vote and organize big because they feel it is an attack on their identity. There needs to be equal and opposite pressure on the other side. This does end up breaking down Democratic/Republican for the most part.

It needs to be an issue where Democrats feel like they have so much pressure coming from their constituents, the people they represent, that they have to push the issue. If they live in a moderate district — at this point, the way gerrymandering and redistricting has gone, it is mostly suburbs, is where the swing districts are. New York, New Jersey, Texas, Florida, California, Ohio are the big swing districts and suburbs. Those are house versus senate. This is true of senators from those states as well. They need to feel like they’re in the middle. They need to feel like if there’s an issue that they’re going to go really left on, they need to have something from the left that they’re not satisfying. Often, that will be guns, is the thing that drops for them. They need to feel like there’s so much pressure from their constituents, they can’t drop guns. A number of background checks and other laws, like closing the Charleston loophole, have already been passed through the house. That legislation is sitting there. We have a bicameral system. Now that Biden will sign it, now the senate needs to pass something. Chris Murphy, the senator from Connecticut, is working on bipartisan legislation right now with republicans that Chuck Schumer, as the majority leader, will bring to the floor if he feels like it satisfies him. It feels like there is something potentially moving. You’re saying you call, you email, all of it. The way those work is that it’s either a message machine or an intern when you call a congressional office. You know this from calling. All they do is they take down what issue you’re calling on and if you’re for or against.

They tally them up at the end of the day. They show them to their boss. That is how it works. You do not need to have a long speech. You can just say what issue you’re calling on and if you’re for or against. You can basically do it every day. They do tally them. They look to see if they’re getting high intensity on issues, if they feel like there’s something they don’t want to have to vote on but they’re getting so many calls and they feel like they have to. I would say it is a general rule. However, whatever effort, however much effort it takes you to put something into their office, the more they have to respond to it. If it’s a form email, they’ll probably just filter them out, to be honest with you. If it’s a call, they will have to pay attention. If it’s a handwritten letter, it actually gets siphoned off into an anthrax sorting facility and will take an additional three weeks to get to their office. Even though it seems like a handwritten letter’s a great idea, it actually won’t arrive in a timely way. The same is true of social media. They tally up what issues they’re getting tagged and for and against at the end of every day. If they’re getting a big blast on something, their digital director will have to report up to their chief of staff every day. I would say as a general rule, the more contacts and the more effort it puts in, the more of an impact it makes.

Zibby: Interesting. Thank you. Excellent insight.

Emily: The way we’re organizing now is we both requested a meeting with our member of congress as concerned moms, and also, we’re organizing moms that — we’re going to have an organizing evening together. We’re going to make cards, big construction paper cards, and we’re going to drop them off at his office. We’re going to ask him to respond to us.

Zibby: Amazing. Let’s say there are people who want to join your particular fight in that neighborhood. Do you have a sign-up or something?

Emily: That is a great question. We don’t have it quite yet. We’re kind of waiting to see how it plays out with the meeting request. You could send us a DM at @shepivotsthepodcast. We’ll get you in.

Zibby: @shepivotsthepodcast. Awesome. You are so bright and inspirational. I love hearing your passion for everything. I think it’s super smart that you know your limits right this very second and yet are still in the game. Not to be condescending. My kids are only a couple years older, but I do feel like — my youngest now is seven. My oldest is almost fifteen. There will be more bandwidth very soon. This period does pass in a haze.

Emily: That is not condescending. It’s very inspirational. I need that.

Zibby: I’m like, how am I supposed to enjoy every minute when every minute lasts sixteen years? Then it’s gone. It was great chatting with you. Thank you so much for coming on. I hope to stay in touch.

Emily: Yes. Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be on with you.

Zibby: You too.

She Pivots Podcast hosted by Emily Tisch Sussman

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