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Accidental Activists: How Debra Messing & Mandana Dayani Are Harnessing Their Power for Change with a New Podcast

by MARA FREEDMAN

Friends for many years, Debra Messing and Mandana Dayani both recently realized that they were “accidental activists.” Debra, best known for Will & Grace, and Mandana, who you might remember from The Rachel Zoe Project, both became vocal as our country was becoming more divided. Mandana has since left the world of fashion, and gone on to create I am a voter, the nonpartisan movement that aims to create a cultural shift around voting and civic engagement by unifying around a central truth: our democracy works best when we all participate. Debra is also a founding member.

The two teamed up to highlight what we at the Sunday Paper call Architects of Change, and what they call Dissenters. In their podcast, The Dissenters, they find out why activists like Shannon Watts, Glennon Doyle, Hillary Clinton, Jane Fonda, Congressman Adam Schiff, and more made the choice to challenge the status quo, stand up to injustice or make a difference in their communities. We spoke with Debra and Mandana to learn more.

1. How did you both come to realize you were activists, and what does that word mean to you?

Debra: I remember my family being the target of antisemitism when I was young, and it was a very painful and formative experience for me. Sine then, I have always been committed to fighting for fairness and against any prejudice I see. And I think my entire life led me to Will & Grace. Having the opportunity to be a part of something that changed hearts and minds across the world, and to work as the Global Health Ambassador for PSI to advocate for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention, is really how I gained my voice. And ultimately, I believe the platform that it provided me is a privilege that I have always wanted to use to shine a light on causes and issues.

Mandana: I came to this country as a religious refugee and have spent my entire life grateful for the opportunity and safety it has provided to me and my family. I also think I have always been so aware that the difference between my family and so many others, is mostly just luck. And so my whole life, I have felt a sense of responsibly to give back to those who may have just experienced less luck in their lives. My earliest memories of activism began in 4th grade but I really came into this role full-time when I began building I am a voter. with the other incredible women behind it. I just finally felt like I was finally exactly where I was supposed to be.

2. Who was a guest for each of you that surprised you the most about their story and why?

Every single conversation completely blew us away. Each of these Dissenters has shown so much courage, determination, and leadership. We’re both such curious nerds and we are never afraid to ask what others might fear are “dumb” questions. For us, learning is such a critical part of community building. Our conversation with our first Dissenter, Glennon Doyle (the Love Warrior), really set the tone for the rest of the episodes because we discussed the importance of anger, how to be brave, what it means to be an activist and why women will always lead the way. Our second Dissenter, Amanda Nguyen (the Civil Rights Astronaut), is a Harvard student who helped pass 30 laws to protect 80 million people and was just nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. These people are just incredible! We are the megafans of these heroes. And we are telling these stories through that lens – as vulnerable, grateful, geeky, starstruck hosts.

3. The name of your podcast is inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsberg's famous words "I Dissent." Why does this powerful statement of standing up for beliefs mean so much to the both of you?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the ultimate hero for both of us and her iconic “I Dissent” slogan has been a huge inspiration for us. She has paved the way for so many women and has been fighting her whole life for the rights of others. The idea of dissent is basically saying “No, I will not have this. There is a better way and I am here to build it.” It means standing up for your beliefs or those who may not be able to stand up for themselves. Or just expressing an opinion that challenges the status quo. Ultimately, we created this show to engage, inform and empower more people. Over the course of our activism, we have both met countless people who were afraid to pursue their passion because they didn’t know where to begin or doubted their ability to create meaningful impact. By telling these stories, we want to show how others how they can dissent and hopefully motivate them to pursue their passion and purpose.

4. How have the recent events of racial unrest influenced your beliefs on how we can become "accidental activists”?

Glennon Doyle actually said it best on our first episode: “Activism is not something we turn over to a group of people. The most important activism happens at the bus stop. At the dinner table. On the phone with your mom. That’s the stuff that changes the fabric of the country.” We are now experiencing and honoring the dissent in our country. We are joining protests, calling our elected officials, donating money, listening, and acknowledging that we all have room to grow. We are learning how much we have left to learn and we are honoring the experiences and voices of others. We are holding people accountable for their actions and mistreatment of others. This is activism.

5. How can those who don't consider themselves activists make a difference?

We don’t think most activists even consider themselves activists! We all have a voice and our voices matter. Change happens at the dinner table. It happens when you open your heart to the experiences of others. It happens when you honor the thing that keeps you up at night – the voice that tells you that you need to do more. It happens when you stand up to injustice or when you advocate for someone who is treated unfairly. And it happens when you vote. Vote in local elections. Vote in state elections. Vote in federal elections. Text VOTER to 26797 to confirm your registration and to receive all election reminders and polling locations through I am a voter. 

6. If there was one takeaway you would like listeners to take from the podcast, what would it be?

Don’t let fear stand in the way of chasing your passion! Every single one of us has the power and ability to create tremendous change. So just take the first step! Research something you are passionate about, join a movement, ask questions….just begin! This is how we both found our purpose, met our people and finally began to feel like we are exactly where we’re supposed to be.


This interview was featured in the July 26th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

MARA FREEDMAN

Mara Freedman runs a social media agency, Storyd Media, and is proud to be a part of The Sunday Paper.

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