“IN SYMONE WE TRUST”
SYMONE D. SANDERS-TOWNSEND
Multifaceted Author, Conversationalist, Strategist, Fashionista and host of Symone on MSNBC and
Peacock sits down with Monarch to discuss her journey, passions, and responsibility to the culture and
By: Bianca Chardei
MONARCH: Thank you so much for joining us. Let’s dive right in. I must know where your drive originates from and a brief history of who you are.
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: First of all, I’m very excited to be here. I love Monarch. So thank you for wanting to chat with me. I mean, where does the drive come from? I am from a town in Nebraska, North Omaha, and ever since I was young, I’ve always been involved. My mother was very involved in the community. She’s a serial entrepreneur, as I like to say. For 16 years, she owned her own business. She was a seamstress, a wedding coordinator, and an event planner. So all kinds of folks would be coming to our house to see Ms. Terry so she could hem their pants and do whatever. She was always out in the community, out at various events, and she would take us with her. I think my sister and I just got a good glimpse early on about being in the community, being out and about—the difference that it can make when you are engaged and involved. I think it all just stemmed from there.
MONARCH: I’m going to ask the question I think our readers want to know. Omaha, Nebraska…so how did this happen?
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: Yes, there are Black people in Nebraska. You all know Malcolm X was from Nebraska.
MONARCH: I do know Malcolm X was from Nebraska, but there are not many of us melanated people there. So what is life like in Nebraska?
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: Life in Nebraska—North Omaha, where I’m from—is very similar to any other town or city in America. It’s like a Chicago, or a Minneapolis, or even a Philadelphia. There are lots of Black people in Omaha specifically. Malcolm X is from Omaha and so is Cathy Hughes, founder of the Urban One radio network, who was born and bred down the street. Her father was the first and only Black man who was licensed as an tax accountant. He did the books for many of the early Black businesses in North Omaha, and one of those Black businesses was my grandparents’ beauty supply store. My grandparents owned the first Black beauty supply store in Nebraska, and they ran it out of their basement in their home in North Omaha, a couple blocks down from where I grew up. So there is a rich history of entrepreneurship, of grit, of just people who come from North Omaha and go on to do great and amazing things. Gabrielle Union is also from North Omaha. There are a number of us out here doing the thing.
MONARCH: So in North Omaha, you really got a firsthand education on entrepreneurship and community. Can you remember what age you were when your love affair with politics began?
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: My foundation is in North Omaha, and it was there that I got my interest in politics. I was a member of an organization called Girls Incorporated, and they had a program called She Votes—that’s how I learned about the political process. It was at Girls Incorporated that I learned about media literacy in their media literacy program. It’s where I first wrote, edited, and produced a PSA. We actually won an award for that. It was in North Omaha that I cut my chops in writing with the Omaha Star newspaper, the oldest Black woman-owned newspaper in the state, of which my mother is now the publisher.
So it is a community where I learned to organize and where I got my first political job. When they tried to recall the mayor, I volunteered on the mayor’s effort to beat the recall. There I met two gentlemen who owned their own consulting firm. They were flown in to help organize North and South Omaha, the predominantly African American and Latino parts of the city. I ended up working with them while I was in college. That’s where I got the bulk of my early political experience.
MONARCH: Omaha sounds like the South to me—the values of community, togetherness, fellowship and even the family component. It sounds like it meant a lot to you being from Omaha, Nebraska, especially with such a tight-knit African American community made up primarily of entrepreneurs.
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: The thing that I always heard from people is that you have to get good grades so you can graduate, go to a good school, get a good job, and move. The whole message was to move out of your community. So when I graduated from high school, I ended up going to school in Omaha, at Creighton University. There was a burgeoning class of young Black professionals in the city as well as an influx of folks who went to Jackson State, TSU, and Tuskegee getting dropped in the middle of the snow in Omaha, Nebraska. Then there was a list released that placed Omaha as one of the top ten places to live, work, and raise a family. But when you looked at it specifically for Black people, the numbers were very different. There was a chasm.
So we put together a number of other young Black professionals and started the young Black professionals movement in Omaha, changing the narrative. The goal for us was, let’s get the knowledge, build, and do what we can. I’m very, very grateful for having stayed as long as I did. I go back often obviously. It is a community that, in my opinion, is like no other, but I’m biased.
MONARCH: Even as a young girl, you’ve always been interested in politics. When did you realize, “This looks like my first real political job. I’ve arrived”?
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: I don’t think I ever realized that. When I got a television show, I was like “Oh wow, somebody going to let me talk, and we’re going to put my name on it. That’s amazing.” I never thought about it like “Oh, I’ve made it.” My first political job, if you will, was working with Chris Smith and Robert West in their firm. But obviously my first big political job was working for Senator Sanders as his national press secretary in 2016, which was an amazing ride. When I left that campaign, I started my own consulting firm, where I worked with political candidates, but I also had an opportunity to work with organizations and corporations, which was really exciting.
I became a professional fellow as I like to say. I was at Harvard in their fellowship program at the Kennedy School. I taught a class at USC in their fellowship program. Then I made a decision to go back on the campaign trail in 2019, and that’s when I joined President Biden’s campaign. It’s been a whirlwind, and what I am most excited about is that I have had a lot of experiences in a short amount of time for somebody who is my age.
MONARCH: I’ve seen you on multiple shows of course, including your own, and sometimes that back-and-forth banter can get a little heated. How do you keep your cool?
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: I am fortunate that I don’t have to argue. But when I was a commentator on another network, we would regularly be a part of segments and conversations where it was like we were debating. It’s not like we got to a point.
We were debating the people and their values, specifically, not overarching issues, with two sides to everything but there are some subjects, like racism—in my opinion, there are not two sides to racism. It’s unacceptable,
I always used to think about “Well, first of all, I want to keep my job.” And the second thing I used to think about is that I always wanted to keep the bar high and substantive, and that’s what I think about now. There’s a difference between being the calm commentator or someone who is the guest because you are participating in a conversation that someone else has decided to have. As the host of my show, I am deciding what the conversation will be. I am the facilitator, and as a facilitator, you have to think not just of your perspective but the perspectives that may not agree with you and what you want people to get from this conversation.
MONARCH: I like that you’re controlling the narrative.
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: Yes, and it’s been far too long that people that look like us didn’t have the opportunity to do that. I am grateful. Monarch is a magazine that is what I like to call the FUBU model—for us, by us—and I am grateful to be in a network where the president of MSNBC is a Black woman, Rashida Jones. Ms. Rashida Jones valued my voice, and it is Rashida Jones who is the reason I have a television show and the opportunity to sit on the various panels on other people’s shows and share my analysis and my insight and converse. Representation in front of and behind the camera, representation in the pages of the articles, but also representation in the business office is very, very important—but not just any representation, substantive representation.
MONARCH: I love it. So let’s go back to your show. Tell us about the road to Symone. I know that you’ve always had your voice, and you’ve been seriously intentional and completely unapologetic about your voice. But has it always been your goal to have your own show? Tell us that process. How did that go?
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: I would say I found my voice some time ago. I’m a middle child, so I’ve always had to be a little outspoken. But I did struggle with finding my voice. As a young person, I pretended to be a news reporter. My news reporter name was Donna Burns. I don’t know who Donna Burns worked for or what network she was with, but I would grab whatever I had—a spoon, a pen—and I would say, “This is Donna Burns reporting live, and I am here in the kitchen speaking with etc., etc. It is amazing that now I don’t have to pretend to be Donna Burns, a buttoned-up news journalist. I am Symone Sanders Townsend, and we’re going to talk with the kind of conversation that we will have on my show about various topics. But if breaking news pops up, Donna Burns can and will show up.
MONARCH: Do you have any difficulties with getting the powers that be on board, the people that it takes to make this project happen? And with you being the youngest, have your predecessors been welcoming to you?
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: I have been fortunate to have a lot of support from across the network, from across both MSNBC and NBC.
MONARCH: You have a very distinct look. How do you incorporate fashion, style, and beauty into your segments?
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: I care about what I have on. On my personal Instagram, my personal TikTok, I’ll do my outfit reels because people are always asking what I am wearing. Obviously I love the nails. And so sometimes I do beauty segments, but the way that we broaden a number of the things that we talk about is by doing culture.
The culture is in the Regroup—that’s where we do our conversations about the tea that’s percolating in the group chat. So the Regroup could be about the Super Bowl, about R. Kelly just getting sentenced, or those ugly red boots that all the celebrities are being given on Instagram.
MONARCH: So what’s trending…
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: Exactly, what is trending. Sometimes what’s trending is the nails. But I do care about fashion. Sometimes we have opportunities, like when I spoke to Lori Harvey; it was because of a partnership she was doing with Black Beauty Roster, so I spoke with Lori Harvey and one of the founders of Black Beauty Roster. The work that Black Beauty Roster is doing is amazing. I try to incorporate things that people care about, but the news is not just what the federal government is doing. The news is what is happening in various industries all across the country. The news is essentially what we cobble together and decide to put on television that week.
MONARCH: Is there a guest or subject matter that you are absolutely opposed to? You’re like, this is not happening on my show, not on my watch.
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: White supremacists. We will not have white supremacists on the show. You are a member of the Links Incorporated. The role of this Black organization and any African American organization’s education of young Blacks is to educate them on how they can use their voices in politics, having the conversation prior about controlling your narrative and accessibility to topics. And people who look like us have a voice and are champions of the community.
My mother was a Link, and I came in through the Omaha chapter of the Links. I’m very grateful to the ladies of the Links Incorporated. It is truly an amazing organization. The Links are linked in friendship and connected in service. As a service organization, we do a lot of fundraising, but we also work with young women specifically. At the chapter in Omaha that I was in and the chapter in DC that I participate in now, we each head up a partnership with a local high school. It is very important for successful women of color to pour into young Black women and support what they are doing. There are a lot of members in the Links who are also members of other organizations. They’re members of Jack and Jill. They’re members of the Divine Nine. It is incumbent upon all of us, regardless of what organization you are a member of, to understand that what is happening in the world, in America, and in politics is directly connected and directly affects us all. It is not enough for folks to do their service project and then go home.
MONARCH: I like the power of having circles of sisterhood and a tribe that shows up for you when you can’t show up for yourself. On another note, I have to touch on something that is honestly not that shocking to me, but I would love to get your opinion.
Recently text messages from a Fox News host revealed that the host did not believe the election fraud claims made in 2020 by the Trump Administration, yet they continued to support the claims. What are your thoughts on this, and what effect do you believe this will have on journalism moving forward?
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: Dominion is a company that produces voting machines, and Dominion is suing Fox News Corporation for defamation; we have covered this on my show. Defamation suits against news companies are notoriously very hard to win because news companies are often are covered by the First Amendment. Dominion’s statement was specifically about the fact that “Dominion is a strong believer in the First Amendment and its protections. As long-settled law makes clear, the First Amendment does not shield broadcasters that knowingly or recklessly spread lies.” So how do you prove defamation? How do you prove that they are lying? It’s insane.
MONARCH: That’s got to be hard. That’s very important. So where can our readers stay in contact with you outside of your show?
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: You can find me on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram at Symonedsanders. You can follow the show at SymoneMSNBC on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. And stay tuned. You know we try to bring you all the fun. I am with Know Your Values and Forbes. Forbes is hosting a 30/50 summit in Abu Dhabi, and it culminates on International Women’s Day in March. I’ll be at the summit. I’m getting some content for my show, and I’ll be interviewing some really amazing folks.
MONARCH: I’m so excited for your future. Thank you so much for your time.
SYMONE SANDERS TOWNSEND: Thank you to Monarch, and I will see you all soon.