Air Waves

Air Waves

At a time when interviewers are as likely to interrupt and shout as to listen, it’s a relief to hear Khalilah Brown-Dean’s level, warm voice on the airwaves. “I hate shows where people are overtalking each other,” says the newly minted Connecticut Public Radio talk show host. “I feel these are the moments for me to slow down, to listen deeply, and to listen in a way that doesn’t say, ‘I’m waiting for the opportunity to kind of one-up you, or I’m waiting for the opportunity to prove my point.’ I’m just waiting for the lesson in what you’re saying.”

The title of Brown-Dean’s show, Disrupted, might suggest otherwise. But the disruptions that interest Brown-Dean are the ones outside the studio: how women are balancing work and family during the pandemic, what it’s like to be a Black police officer in 2020, the movement to elect more Black women at “every level of government,” the ongoing push for equal rights for gay members of the military.

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The Quinnipiac University political scientist, who honed her radio skills as a guest on Connecticut Public’s The Wheelhouse for six years and on Philadelphia’s WURD before that, appears on Zoom from the corner of a pretty blue room with a vase of cheerful flowers on a small white dresser beside her. Disrupted, too, takes an optimistic stance. The print layout of the show’s name emphasizes “UP” in the middle of the word. “The world is tough, and it’s heavy, and it often feels overwhelming,” Brown-Dean says. “I don’t want this to be a show where you listen to it and you think, ‘Oh my goodness, the sky is falling.’ I want you to listen to it and think about: Who are the people that are holding up the sky? What are the action steps that we can take? And where’s the hope in all of this?”

One case in point: an episode titled “2020 Is a ‘Mental Health Tsunami’” that aired on October 28. While addressing several stressors of this year, including the pandemic, the election and ongoing systemic racism, Brown-Dean also pressed her three expert guests to discuss how listeners can respond to the rising levels of frustration, fear and anger reported by an ongoing American Psychological Association study. Disrupted, in other words, is a teaching opportunity.

In that sense, Brown-Dean’s job as host resembles her job in the classroom at Quinnipiac, where this semester she’s teaching an upper-level seminar called “Power, Politics and Punishment” and a course titled “American Political Movements.” “I model the show the same way I think about my classroom,” she says, “this idea that it should be an exchange of ideas, that we can learn from each other and challenge each other, but we don’t have to sacrifice rigor or civility to do it.”

A deep well of colleagues nationwide means Brown-Dean can bring prominent guests to a local program. For example, fellow political scientist Maya Rockeymoore Cummings—former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party and currently a consultant, author and commentator—joined the show to talk about the legacy of her late husband, Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings. At other times, Brown-Dean dreams beyond her existing contacts. Then, she says with a smile, producers Daniela Luna and Catie Talarski bring her back to Earth and help craft an episode that works.

For a show on activism in sports, for example, Brown-Dean wanted to interview globetrotting tennis star Naomi Osaka. “And they sort of said, ‘Sure, because in between playing these championship tennis matches… she’s going to come talk to you,’” Brown-Dean recounts with a smile. Instead, the producers helped her put together a show with WNBA standout A’Ja Wilson and sports history professor Amira Rose Davis, a former athlete herself, to talk about women athletes who, despite more “fragile” job security and lower salaries than their male counterparts, take on activist roles “because they feel they have a platform, and they want to use it for good.” That episode airs this week on December 9 and re-airs on December 13. In the end, Brown-Dean says, she often finds that talking with less famous people who are “right in the center of what’s happening” makes for a more interesting program.

In addition to hosting Disrupted and teaching at Quinnipiac, Brown-Dean also serves as the university’s senior director for “inclusive excellence” and is finishing a book—due out next May—titled Protesting Vulnerability, a project that began even before last spring’s wave of demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd. As if that weren’t enough, she’s also finishing a term as chair of the board for The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. Since the start of the pandemic, CFGNH has disbursed nearly $3 million in rapid response grants to local organizations big and small via a joint committee with United Way of Greater New Haven, with more grants coming.

All of this work feels interconnected, Brown-Dean says. “For me, it is a tremendous blessing to be able to be in a position to not feel helpless, to feel hope, to see people who are on the front lines in ways that we often take for granted, and to think about with this opportunity, with this platform, what do you do?”

It’s a busy life, but Brown-Dean is just getting started. “We’ll sleep down the road,” she says. “Right now there’s work to be done.”

Connecticut Public Radio, 90.5 FM
Wed & Sun 2pm

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image, featuring Khalilah Brown-Dean, photographed by Victoria Will for Connecticut Public.

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