Suzanne Nossel, DARE TO SPEAK

Suzanne Nossel, DARE TO SPEAK

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Suzanne. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Suzanne Nossel: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: Let’s discuss your book, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All. Amazing that you wrote this. There is so much information in here. It must have taken you a really long time to write and research and get it all perfect with all the bullet points. I feel like it’s almost like a — a textbook sounds pejorative in some way, but it’s the resource on free speech. That’s what it is. Every lawyer should have it. Everybody should have it on their shelf in terms of any questions related to this whole topic. That wasn’t really a question, just a rave.

Suzanne: Thank you so much. Moms don’t have time to write books is more like it. It was a bit of a high-wire act.

Zibby: Tell me about it. You’re also a CEO of PEN America. When did you decide to write this book? How did you decide what form it should take? Then how did you get it done?

Suzanne: The ideas, I would say, were germinating for some time. In the daily work of PEN America, we confront so many free speech controversies. We began work on free speech on college campuses several years ago. Whether it was professors being disciplined for something that they said in class or controversies over messages chalked on walkways on campuses, demands for trigger warnings, arguments that the campus should become a safe space, all of that really came to the foreground. What I saw was a real generational and cultural divide in how people thought about these issues. A lot of older people are really pretty horrified that young people seem so unfamiliar with and even alienated from the concept of free speech and are ready to ask to be protected from uncomfortable ideas by their institutions even if that meant letting the institution, the university administration, have more power over them. Young people ready to do that, and older people saying, have you lost your mind? This is freedom of speech. You ought to be more resilient. If you hear ideas you don’t like, you just push back. The answer to offensive speech is more speech.

I felt like the two sides were really sort of talking past each other. That was something that has guided our work on campus free speech where we really make the argument time and again through trainings and workshops and engagements on individual campuses that the drive for a more equal, inclusive, and just society, which is what a lot of young people are striving for and working towards, is compatible with robust protections for free speech. In fact, free speech can be an enabler of those social justice causes. That basic idea which undergirds the book was something that I came to feel very passionate about and feel like it needed to make its way out more widely into the world. I really conceived the book in the beginning part of 2019. It was an editor, honestly — I had a morass of ideas. She, when I met with her, said, “Why don’t you make it into a set of principles?” The moment she said that, suddenly something clicked. I felt like, okay, I could imagine doing that. I could see how that seems like a manageable task, whereas wrestling to the ground all these complex issues without a clear structure felt a bit overwhelming. That’s how I started.

Zibby: Wow. Then what happened? How long did it take to write it? How did you structure it and fit it into the rest of your life?

Suzanne: It was hard. One really important thing was I hired two really smart research assistants. It was a process to find them. I had to test out a lot of people. I knew, sort of, what I wanted the twenty chapters to be. I had ideas for each one, but I needed them to pull examples of different kinds of phenomena and to look through the secondary literature. I put them to work. They helped by creating memos. Then I took five weeks off last summer. My job is really busy and demanding. There’s a lot of evening work and weekend work. I knew I needed a concentrated block of time. My kids were at camp, which also really helped. I was pretty free and clear. I worked in the Performing Arts Library on the Upper West Side. I would just force myself to be there when it opened. I basically had to rough out a chapter each day. It was really pretty grueling. By the end of that five weeks I kind of had a skeleton of the whole thing. Then it was months of revisions and back and forth and engaging with different experts who I wanted to review different parts of the manuscript. The psychological hurdle of climbing the mountain was really last summer.

Zibby: Tell me also a little more about your amazing background. You worked within the White House for the UN. You have done everything, Harvard — two Harvards, right? You went to undergrad and the law school. This is an amazing career trajectory that you’ve had. Now it’s ended — not ended. Now we’re at the steppingstone of your career where there’s a book and you’re leading this great company helping enhance speech and thought throughout the world, really. Tell me a little about, when you were a kid, did you think this is what you wanted to do? When did you know this is sort of the path you wanted to be on? How did you start out? How did you end up here?

Suzanne: I was always sort of interested in human rights issues, international affairs. As a young child, I was involved in the movement to free Soviet Jews who were stuck under that authoritarian government, couldn’t practice their religion, weren’t allowed to emigrate. There was big movement here in the US to support them. My family, at one point, traveled over to meet with some of those, they were called refuseniks. I think that made a big impression on me. My parents were also from South Africa. They grew up in apartheid South Africa. I had a lot of relatives in South Africa who we would visit growing up. My parents were not terribly political. For me, it was jarring growing up in the liberal suburbs of New York and then going to visit what was still apartheid South Africa in the 1980s and seeing segregated buses and beaches and water fountains and trying to make sense of that. Actually, after college, it was in the beginning of the opening up in South Africa, and I spent two years working in Johannesburg. Most of the time, it was as part of an effort to combat political violence in the townships during the transition. It was working with all the different political parties, the police, the churches, the businesses, civics unions. That was amazing and really inspired the rest of my career in human rights and international affairs. Being part of that momentous transition and how it teetered on the precipice of erupting into explosive violence but managed to push it through relatively peaceful and just being very close to the action with that, which was the luck of being in the right place at the right time, I would say kindled a fire that sort of kept me going my whole career.

Zibby: Wow. That’s a very unique way. I remember in fifth grade we all had these political prisoner bracelets. Do you know what I mean? They were copper. Everybody had a name. My guy’s name was David something or other. I wore it around my wrist for like a year because it was such a big thing. It was just the issue of the time. It was captivating everybody’s consciousness then, for people who might not have lived through that.

Suzanne: It was a great movement. Those bracelets, I remember as well. They really did find ways to engage kids and people from all walks of life and make — I don’t know if you ever did the marches that they would do down Fifth Avenue to Plaza at the UN. Those were really inspiring. It was the same feeling you have if you go out on the streets to protest today as part of the Women’s March or the Black Lives Matter protests, that energy. You’re all together. You’re chanting. It’s a huge release. Getting a little flavor of that for a kid, for some people, and I think I’m one of them, ends up being something very powerful that you are drawn to try to come back to at different points in your life.

Zibby: As you navigated through your career decisions, was there any one point that you feel like looking back led you to where you are? Is there any job you took or anything where there were two forks in the road and you went this way and that’s how you ended up here and how you ended up at a nonprofit at this stage?

Suzanne: I had a corporate career. I was at McKinsey and then Bertelsmann Media and The Wall Street Journal and learned a lot. I really enjoyed it. I still have friends and colleagues from each of those stages who I’ve remained close with. Then there was a certain point where, in my head, I was doing that to gain skills that I thought I ultimately wanted to use in another arena, in something that was more human rights or public service oriented. There was kind of a turning point where I left The Wall Street Journal and went to Human Rights Watch to become the COO which was really using my management skills. It was kind of a breaking point to decide, if I’m saying this is why I’ve taken the time to be in the private sector and it’s for another purpose, I need to make good on that. If I stay here too long, that might really fall away. I might end up with a very different career than what I thought I was embarking on.

Zibby: How did your having kids fit into any of this?

Suzanne: I have two kids who are teenagers. It’s been amazing but also challenging. When I had my son, I was actually fired when I was on maternity leave. It was a complete shock and really unsettling. I was very career oriented. Then suddenly, there I was back at home. I thought my maternity leave was going to end after three months. It went on for a while. I had to find a new job. I experienced firsthand these very real conflicts. My boss was sort of forthright. He was like, “You weren’t here, and so we reconfigured this and that.” I said, “Would this have happened if I hadn’t gone on maternity leave?” He’s like, “Oh, no, definitely not. You were doing a great job.” That was quite eye-opening. Then I would say the other piece that was a little unusual was during the first term of the Obama administration. My kids were very young. My son was in kindergarten. My daughter had just started nursery school. I was offered a position. I wanted to join the administration. I was hoping to be placed at the UN in New York.

Instead, I was offered a position in Washington, and so I commuted for a year when the kids were very little. That was very tough. I was constantly coming and going. It was a lot for my husband to deal with. We were very lucky that we had a great nanny. We also had a neighbor downstairs who conveniently was willing to be a helper in the early mornings to get the kids off to school at seven AM. That was kind of miraculous. Then I did work a day or two from New York at the end of the week. It was a real high-wire act that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend anyone do. It was something that was very important to me. Then after that year, my husband got a fellowship in Washington, so the family moved to Washington. We spent a wonderful year there. It’s tough because the years when you’re career-building coincide very often with the years when your kids are young. There can be some real challenges and dilemmas. I think a lot of women would not have ever contemplated commuting with kids so young. We made it work, but it wasn’t easy.

Zibby: Wow. Your ending up at PEN, did any of it have to do with your love of books? Do you love books? If so, what do you love to read?

Suzanne: I do. I’m a huge reader. I actually read mostly nonfiction. I like historical biography. I like to read about US foreign policy. I love diplomatic memoirs. My husband is a historian. He reviews a lot of books. We have a constant flow of new books into the house. In that sense, it was very natural for me. I knew a lot of writers. I felt like I had some connection to their concerns and the debates that take place within the literary and intellectual community. What I hadn’t really done is worked with writers. In my job, especially with our board, I work very closely with writers. It’s been a great pleasure because they’re just such interesting people. I’ve been really fortunate with all of our board leadership that they’ve been wonderful to work with and so insightful and fun. Every lunch and meeting and encounter is a little bit richer and more unpredictable than what you might have with somebody who is a human rights expert or a policy expert.

Zibby: What are you going to read tonight? Do you read before bed? When do you read?

Suzanne: We’re talking the day before the election, so it may be a little hard to peel myself away from the — I’m actually trying to get through Nick Lemann’s article in the New Yorker about what’s next for the republican party because I’m very curious about that. That’s what’s on my nightstand right now.

Zibby: Nice. Yes, this will come out later, but as we’re recording, it’s the day before the election. I almost can’t even believe that we’re finally here. I felt like it would almost never come. It was like, we’re only eighty-three days away or something. I’m like, what? Now here we are.

Suzanne: By the time this comes out, we will know a lot more about the future of this country.

Zibby: Perhaps, or perhaps not. Who knows? These things sometimes drag on. We’ll see what happens. We’ll see. So what’s coming next for you? What are you looking forward to in this crazy time of life that we’re all living through without planning being immediately accessible to us all?

Suzanne: For us, organizationally, it will be a significant pivot no matter how the election comes out. Having worked on free expression for many years and then over the last four years, an intensification of our work here in the US because of these divisions over campus free speech, attacks on press freedom, this challenge to the truth — we’ve been doing a lot of work over the last few months on the rise in disinformation and how to inoculate people through disinformation-defense training and really spreading the word about what to anticipate with this election so that people are less vulnerable to conspiracy theories. That’s been a huge focus. All of that work will continue in different ways. It’s figuring out what the new paradigm is going to be like. I feel very certain that the challenges that have led up to the last four years and that we’ve lived through over the last four years do not evaporate no matter what happens tomorrow. I think some of the ways in which we need to engage must evolve.

We’ve done a lot of work at PEN America across the country really mobilizing over the last four years recognizing it’s just not enough to do this work in New York or Washington or Los Angeles. We have chapters in Detroit; Dallas; Austin; Birmingham; Greensboro, North Carolina. Talking with those people about how we mend this fractured society, how we can use the power of the written word, of great literature, the stature of writers to commence a process of coming together, I’m hoping a lot of people feel that’s necessary. That’s going to be a big focus for us over the next few months. Then there’s just also the human level of getting through the pandemic. I live in New York City. We lived through this in a very tough way in the spring. I know you’ve been very hard hit personally. I think we’re tired of it, but we’re also extremely leery and really thinking through how we sustain ourselves, and the human connections in particular. I’ve realized I’m an extrovert and I really miss seeing people. This has been hard for me. I need to probably come up with a plan for how to get through the winter. The summer was a lot better with ways of being together out of doors.

Zibby: I’m a little nervous about the winter coming. These first cold days that we’ve had are really worrying me. No kid playdates. How do you take a walk? and all these things that are the keys to my sanity. I guess we’ll just have to see, particularly here. Who knows? Lots of question marks. I have to say, I was so lucky to have been invited to the PEN gala last year back when galas were a thing. I felt like a kid in a candy store because everywhere you turned you were bumping into amazing authors. I didn’t even recognize, I’m sure, three quarters of them, which is the crazy thing about authors. You can sit and read for days or weeks, somebody’s work, and then pass them crossing the street and not even realize. It was so amazing to just be in that environment. To have so many authors support an organization is really unique and amazing. Then you were so nice to let me cohost the Brit Bennett PEN America Virtual Authors’ Night. I’m excited to do more of those. PEN’s just been this nice bright light in all the darkness that we have these days.

Suzanne: It’s nice to hear you say that. We obviously can’t do the huge gala with all the finery of the Natural History Museum this year. It’s sad because it’s a great party. It’s a lot of people’s favorite party of the year. We really miss it. We’re doing a virtual version that will be at the beginning of December. We’ve got Patti Smith. Actually, Bono is coming. Not entirely public, but I’ll let your audience in on the secret in the hope that that news will be out by the time this podcast is released. We just announced last week we’re giving an award to Darnella Frazier who is the seventeen-year-old girl who picked up her cell phone camera and recorded the murder of George Floyd and then posted it on her Facebook. The rest really is history. She performed that catalytic act. We have an award that every year goes to recognize somebody’s courage in the exercise of free expression. She just felt to us like a perfect recipient. We’re also giving that award — we have two recipients this year. The other is Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch who was the US Ambassador to Ukraine who faced this withering scorn from the White House when she spoke up about interference with US policy on Ukraine.

Two very powerful women, totally different. We’re extremely excited to recognize them. Darnella in particular has not really spoken publicly about this. It’s going to be, nonetheless, a special event. I also invite your listeners to check out — you did that wonderful event with Brit Bennett. We have many other Authors’ Evenings that are these intimate, small-scale, really interactive give and takes. It’s not like your typical webinar when, as an audience member, you’re just in receive mode. Maybe you’re lucky enough to put a question in the chat. You can actually, with our events, have a bit of a dialogue with a famous author, whoever it may be. We had Bob Woodward. We’ve got Susan Glasser and Peter Baker. We’re going to do one with Isabel Wilkerson. I encourage people to check out our website and join us for these events. They’re really a ball for book lovers at this time when so many of the book parties and readings and things that we normally enjoy are off-limits.

Zibby: If you need a moderator for Isabel Wilkerson, if that’s available, let me know. I’m kidding. Anyway, congratulations on your book, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All. This is really fantastic. I am wearing red to match your cover today.

Suzanne: Thank you so much. I appreciate the color coordination. It’s great to see you.

Zibby: Great to see you too.

Suzanne: Happy election day. Happy winter arriving. I feel for you. I share the same feelings about the walks and the ways that we’ve stayed sane, but we’ll find some new ones. It’s going to work out. We’ll be okay.

Zibby: Lots of hot chocolate.

Suzanne: Yes. We’re attracted to the same creature comforts, it sounds like.

Zibby: Exactly, yes. Bye, Suzanne. Thanks so much.

Suzanne: Thanks a lot. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Suzanne Nossel, DARE TO SPEAK