C. Nicole Mason is the president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University, and host of the radio show & podcast Making Space. Before taking part in “Why Don’t Women’s Votes Put More Women in Power?,” the second event in the When Women Vote series presented by Zócalo and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Mason visited the virtual green room to talk about teaching in a pandemic, her hidden talent, and swimming in her own lane.
What do you wake up to?
I wake up to quiet and a nice cup of coffee. And then I cruise in my house and make my way to my home office, which is where everybody is these days, and sit down and do a little reflection, a moment of quiet, thinking about my day and the direction of it, before I dive in.
I have 10-year-old twins, so I only get about 20 minutes after I wake up before they’re activated and the dogs are barking, so it’s my little slice of heaven before chaos breaks out.
What would you say is your hidden talent?
My hidden talent is that I’m really handy. Nobody suspects that of me. So if something needs to be fixed, hammered, hung … I’ve laid a floor. I’ve installed a backsplash in a kitchen. For me, it’s about being a problem-solver and trying to figure things out. It translates to my everyday world, because I’m always thinking about how to fix something and make it better.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a few things, because in addition to my work [at IWPR], I also I teach a course on race, gender, and incarceration. So I’m re-reading a couple of books right now, Women Behind Bars and The New Jim Crow. I don’t want some student to ask me, “Like, you know, on page 31, it says, blah, blah, blah,” and I’m, like, “What?”
Right you're teaching at Georgetown.
Yes. To be teaching that class in this historical, political, social moment is really just amazing, for me but also for the students because there’s a lot of processing and connecting the dots, and they’re all so sharp and bright. And being able to provide that space is really magical.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
This piece of advice was in a New York Times Magazine article. I was at a personal crossroads a few years ago, and the advice in the article, given to a swimmer at Stanford—her coach told her to swim in her own lane. She was a really good swimmer, but she kept coming in second place, and she asked why. And he said, “Well, the problem with you is that while you’re swimming, you stop to look around at the other guy, instead of staying on your own path. And if you do that, you’ll win.” I’ve internalized this piece of advice, my north star, when I’m thinking about my own work and my own journey, and that it’s different from my colleagues or other people. It keeps me grounded and focused.
What surprises you most about your life right now?
That it’s as dynamic as it is. We’re in this moment of extreme transition and confusion, and there’s so much distraction going on, but despite all of that I feel very clear in terms of my focus and my purpose. So I really believe and feel like I’m doing the right work at the right time for a cause bigger than myself. So that feels good. I feel really aligned.
Which historical figure would you most like to meet and why?
A few people in different moments. It would be really cool to meet Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. They were so clear and focused in mission and vision and also had so much to lose—I mean literally their lives, in terms of their work. I would love to just hear the stories they would share. It would also be really cool to meet Lorraine Hansberry or Zora Neale Hurston, really great writers who were capturing Black women’s experience in America at a time when that wasn’t happening.
What was the last movie that you saw?
I have to be honest: Trolls World Tour. My son likes animated movies, so I’ve seen it, like, three times.
Did you like it?
The first time, I was zoned out. The second time we watched it, I was tuned in. The main troll is from Pop Troll Island, and she gets told this story of how everyone’s so kind there and so great. But she goes to this island that’s Funk Troll Island. Which is really people of color. And they say, “Well, the story you’ve heard about pop isn’t right, in fact, pop stole all our music.” And she’s really shaken, because she had been told this narrative about who she was and all the good she’d done in the world, but in fact she’d caused harm. But she leaned into the history, and it became a more complicated history. That’s a lesson for all of us about the power of narratives to shape our point of view, and what happens when that narrative conflicts with other peoples’ narratives, and how you reconcile the two.
What was the last thing that inspired you?
The mobilization around George Floyd’s murder. I live in Washington, D.C., and I took my children to the protests, and I was really inspired by the diversity of people, the clarity of focus about why they were there, and the outpouring of generosity. There was free food, water … It was just a lot of care in the space that I didn’t really see reflected in the media reports. Everyone was super careful with each other. Everyone wore masks. They asked: Do you need anything? In the midst of all this chaos and rhetoric, that was really inspiring to me and inspiring for my children to see as well.