Divining Provenance

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Roman Mars [00:00:55] Just a quick note, today’s episode contains some descriptions of violence. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Priceless cultural artifacts have been plundered and sold for hundreds of years. You can find these relics in museums and in private collections. But in 2014, researchers discovered that looters had a new tool in the trade of stolen antiquities: Facebook. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:01:24] Secret Facebook groups with as many as 100,000 members are devoted to the selling and buying of cultural artifacts. Their items can go for thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. 

Roman Mars [00:01:36] Producer Zeina Dowidar. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:01:38] A study of the Facebook listings found that nearly a third of the artifacts were stolen from conflict zones. International treaties such as the 1970 UNESCO’s Convention criminalize the purchase and sale of looted treasures. But even so, at the time, none of this was technically against Facebook’s guidelines. 

Roman Mars [00:01:58] And Facebook isn’t the only place with a market for trafficked antiquities. Do a search on eBay using the vague buzzwords of the industry–words like Mesopotamian or Byzantine–and you can come up with all sorts of listings too. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:02:13] Here are just a few. “Near Eastern Mesopotamian Terracotta Plaque: $750.” “Circa Mesopotamian Finely Carved Black Stone Bull: $623.” “Museum Quality Original Ancient Plaque Relief of Ishtar, the Mesopotamian Goddess: $3,000.” It’s hard to know whether or not these specific items were looted from the Middle East, but we do know this–one of the organizations responsible for the pillaged artifacts floating around the Internet is ISIS. 

Roman Mars [00:02:46] Zeina and her team on the Kerning Cultures podcast tells stories about the Middle East and North Africa. And what they reported for an episode in the latest season of their show is a comprehensive inside look at how one country struggled to retain its cultural heritage amid a brutal conflict. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:03:04] The Syrian war has resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties, and not to mention hundreds of billions in damages. And that battle has played out on land considered to be the cradle of civilization. 

Amr Al-Azm [00:03:17] I can tell you that every Syrian literally today lives either on top of an archeological site, right next door to an archeological site, or within a stone’s throw of an archeological site. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:03:29] This is Amr Al-Azm. He’s a Syrian archeologist. He’s currently a professor of Middle Eastern history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio. But before moving to the states, he worked in Damascus. How did you first become interested in archeology? Do you sort of remember the time when you began to become fascinated with it? 

Amr Al-Azm [00:03:52] Yes, I do because it had nothing to do with me. My mom wanted to be an archeologist by trade. And so, as a child, I would be constantly dragged around to every possible museum, archeological site, anything to make sure I was, you know, kind of soaking it all in. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:04:09] Amr did soak it all in. He went on to do excavations all across Syria. So, when the war started back in 2011, Amr felt like he needed to do his part to protect the country’s cultural heritage. 

Roman Mars [00:04:22] For most of the war, foreign reporters, human rights monitors, and cultural heritage organizations had very little access inside the country. But Amr had local connections. So, he co-founded an emergency initiative called Day After. The group was a sort of impromptu detective squad made up of archeologists, several of them former students and colleagues from his teaching days in Damascus. 

Amr Al-Azm [00:04:45] So they would go out and try to record and document damage to the local cultural heritage sites, local museums, whatever they can visit. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:04:57] The group would take notes and photos of the damaged sites and report back to Amr. I had a chance to speak with one of the people he recruited for Day After–a man named Adnan Al Mohamed. We interviewed him in Arabic and had an actor voice his lines in English. 

Adnan Al Mohamed [00:05:14] He was my university professor, and he taught me that artifacts are not just all things from the past, but they are part of us. Even his lectures were different. He used to stand on the table and speak about how amazing historical artifacts are and how valuable they are. 

Amr Al-Azm [00:05:33] Yes. Yes, I did. Well, you know, there’s a kind of a reason for some of this in that, you know, this is the late ’90s and early 2000s, and we had very little resources to teach our students with. So often I would have to try to be very creative in trying to help students visualize whatever it is I was describing. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:05:58] And clearly–at least for Adnan–it worked. Amr’s lessons stuck with him all these years later. When he joined the emergency initiative, Adnan was living in Manbij, a city in the north of Syria. At the start of the war, he said there wasn’t much of a threat to the sites he was monitoring, which were mostly on the outskirts of the city. 

Adnan Al Mohamed [00:06:20] But everything changed when ISIS came. 

Roman Mars [00:06:25] ISIS took control of Manbij in 2014. Almost overnight, Adnan’s job became extremely dangerous. 

Adnan Al Mohamed [00:06:34] The day the ISIS convoy came to our area, there were about seven tanks and five or six 4×4 cars with ISIS fighters inside. I watched as they arrived in my village and took someone from the village to show them around. We started to feel that even something as simple as taking photos of artifacts was dangerous. We didn’t know who we were dealing with because they were all different nationalities. It was scary. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:07:06] ISIS destroyed a lot–even did it for show at times. But they also knew that they needed to be savvy. Running a de facto caliphate is costly. It required a lot of equipment and manpower. So, among the first things ISIS realized when they started taking over Syrian cities and towns was that there was money to be made in looting and exporting antiquities. 

Amr Al-Azm [00:07:28] They see cultural heritage as a resource. And so, as a resource, like any other resource, it gets put under diwan al rikaz, and it then becomes something to exploit. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:07:41] Diwan al rikaz was ISIS’s Ministry for Resource Management. Amr explained to us that that’s where they set up their clearinghouse, which basically controlled the trafficking and sale of artifacts. ISIS would sell the stolen items at auctions in the northern city of Raqqa. 

Amr Al-Azm [00:07:56] Everything. Everything. Mosaics, glass, statues, reliefs, Palmerine reliefs from Palmyra, coins, artifacts, anything. Anything and everything. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:08:09] Within a year, it became a really profitable operation for ISIS. Artifacts could sell to foreign buyers for as much as $35,000 a piece. As ISIS made more and more money, the scope of the mission for Adnan’s detective group grew. Now his job went beyond surveying sites. He was also being asked to document how these antiquities were leaving Syria. 

Roman Mars [00:08:32] Adnan would visit sites pillaged by ISIS and take pictures, smuggling the files back home on a memory card that he kept tucked away in his jacket. He was paid a couple hundred dollars a month by Amr’s organization to document the ISIS antique trade, but the risk he was taking was massive. 

Adnan Al Mohamed [00:08:52] Sometimes I went to Manbij twice a week. And beheadings were common. I always saw them beheading young people. Everybody was pale, and you could see the fear in their faces. I didn’t think I would survive ISIS, so I wanted to share this information with someone who could use it in the media or in academia. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:09:16] Adnan would be in ISIS controlled territory for a week or two at a time, driving his motorbike into the center of Raqqa, where he’d witness those antique auctions up close. When he had what he needed, he’d head north, wearing a black leather jacket, taking a route through ISIS checkpoints on the way out. 

Adnan Al Mohamed [00:09:35] ISIS liked the color of black. I was keen to blend in as much as possible–with the right length beard and hair–because they were closely monitoring how we looked. They would take anybody who looked different out of their car and interrogate them. It was all routine questions. And I started to figure out the pattern of what happens at these checkpoints. I made my sentences short and to the point. The more you say, the more chance you would make a mistake. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:10:05] Once he was past the checkpoints, Adnan would drive up to a town called Jarablus, right on the border with Turkey. He’d managed to get a hold of a Turkish SIM card, and from there Adnan could pick up enough signal to send the pictures he’d taken to his wife, who had moved to Turkey with his three children. Adnan’s wife would then relay the report to Amr, who would be waiting for it back in the states. 

Amr Al-Azm [00:10:27] And I think the worst time for me was when I knew that one of my guys was inside, basically gathering information, and I would be waiting for his transmission–waiting for, like, literally sometimes two or three weeks for him to get out again safely. And then I would know he’s safe, and I could then breathe.

Roman Mars [00:10:47] Adnan would send pictures of ISIS excavation sites or reports on a conversation he had with a local dealer–all details about how exactly the ISIS trafficking operation worked. But while he was undercover, there was nothing he could actually do to put an end to the trafficking. 

Adnan Al Mohamed [00:11:08] When I held artifacts, I was in agony because I knew they would leave Syria sooner or later. I would just take photos of them. That’s the most I could do, hoping that one day they would find their way back. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:11:26] ISIS’s looting and trafficking operation is the most destructive crime against Syrian cultural heritage that the country has seen in generations. But it isn’t the whole picture. Amr told us that most of the cultural heritage trafficked out of Syria in the last ten years was done by regular people, who lost their jobs and turned to trafficking because there was nothing else left. 

Amr Al-Azm [00:11:47] The looting starts in 2012, and I think a lot of it was what we refer to as “subsistence looting.” This is people who have lost their livelihoods. They assume in their minds that there’s buried treasure all over the place. Every Syrian knows someone whose uncle from their great grandfather’s side from his second wife whilst digging in their courtyard, basement, or something, came across a buried pot of gold. So, there’s this kind of urban myth almost, you know, that there’s this gold somewhere. So, people start to dig around and look for it. And like I said, many people live near or on top of archeological sites, so they know that there’s stuff in the ground and it’s not difficult for them to find it. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:12:34] Instead of prosecuting people for stealing a resource they were using to fund their war, ISIS went in the other direction. They decided to manage these looted items–encouraged it even–by taking a 20% cut on all sales from private citizens. A lot of these transactions would happen after the item had made it safely across the border to Turkey. There at auctions, dealers and buyers from all over the world joined to bid on these stolen goods. Some were from nearby countries in the Middle East, but others would travel from further afield. For example, there was this one well-known buyer Amr spent ages unsuccessfully trying to track down. 

Amr Al-Azm [00:13:14] She was a German lady who literally regularly came down to southern Turkey. She would set up shop there, and then she would have people bring goods up through the kind of border, smuggling to where she is. And then they would show her the wares, she would buy what she wants, and then they would get shipped out to her. 

Roman Mars [00:13:37] And looters were becoming savvy themselves. According to Adnan, artifacts that would fetch only tens or hundreds of dollars in Syria could be sold for thousands of dollars in secret Facebook groups. The local smuggling networks would reach out to Adnan, asking how much he thought an item could go for and to check its authenticity. Quickly, the internet was full of listings. 

Mark Altaweel [00:14:01] I would guess probably a lot are not legit, but the problem is there’s no way to prove that. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:14:05] This is Mark Altaweel, Vice Dean at the University College London. And as part of his research, he tracks the trade of antiquities coming from the Middle East. 

Mark Altaweel [00:14:15] Maybe about five or six years ago, I remember looking at eBay. I saw, I think, something that looked like cuneiform tablet. And these things are coming out of a country where we know cuneiform tablet is written in a specific ancient language usually. And it usually comes from only a few places–usually Syria or Iraq, maybe Turkey or Iran. So, it’s most likely become one of those countries. And seeing something like that means it was very likely to be an illegal sale. So, it should have thrown red flags. So, my reaction is, like, “Why is it so easy?”

Roman Mars [00:14:42] For researchers like Mark, it’s really difficult to track how many illegal antiques there are for sale at any given moment in Europe or the U.S. From the outside looking in, the market for this stuff is full of loopholes. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:14:55] But let me try to simplify. For an antique item to be sold legally in the U.S. or in Europe, it needs to have what they call “provenance.” That is essentially a kind of sales history to prove that it hasn’t been taken from its country of origin after 1970. 1970 because that’s when the U.N. brought in this rule that basically said any cultural items that leave their country of origin from now on are considered illegal loot. But anything that was already out of the country is fine. It’s too late to try and do anything about those items. 

Amr Al-Azm [00:15:28] Let’s say I’m a dealer, okay? And I acquire this item. The only way I can claim that it’s legal is if I can demonstrate that this was somehow acquired prior to 1970–then anything that happens to it beyond that is legal. But if you want to talk about ethical–no, it’s not legal. It was looted. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:15:55] This is one of those loopholes that we were talking about because according to Amr, it’s often left up to the dealers and buyers to check provenance for themselves. 

Amr Al-Azm [00:16:04] Different countries have different ways of determining what is considered to be due diligence. And that is part of the problem. Right now, you as a buyer and seller are supposed to do your due diligence. Just as you make sure the object is authentic. Everybody does their due diligence on authenticity because nobody wants to buy a fake. “Oh, we put a lot of effort and time into that. But when it comes to provenance, we get a little sketchy, we get a little hazy.” I mean, I’ve seen provenance like, “The seller swears that they’ve had it in their family.” Swear? What do you mean “swears”? Really? 

Mark Altaweel [00:16:45] So you have to be really stupid to get caught. And if you look at the number of convictions from the antiquities laws that exist in the UK, for instance, it’s very few; in one hand, you can count the number of convictions. So, the people I know who have been caught have been caught because they were ignorant of the law. That means that the laws are not strong. It means that the burden of proof is often on people like me or others who are trying to find people who are stealing these things–and that’s not the way it should be, in my opinion. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:17:13] Our team got in touch with dozens more people selling antiques from the Middle East on eBay. Barely any of them responded, and only one was willing to talk to us in a recorded interview. 

Ciara Peterson [00:17:24] Hello? 

Alex Atack [00:17:25] Oh, hi. Is that Ciara? 

Ciara Peterson [00:17:27] Yeah. Ciara speaking.

Zeina Dowidar [00:17:30] This is my colleague, Alex, speaking with a seller named Ciara based in the UK. She had a listing for an ancient Mesopotamian seal stamp on eBay for 220 British Pounds, along with thousands of other items. She told us that roughly 20% of the items she sells are from the Middle East. And she said that she buys most of them from job lots. That is buying a big batch of items from an auction house or private seller in bulk. 

Alex Atack [00:17:56] So, like, something we’ve been hearing a bit about is provenance, especially when it comes to items from the Middle East. And so, when you buy something from a job lot, does it come with provenance or…? 

Ciara Peterson [00:18:10] No, not always. No. I mean, it rarely happens that we have something with provenance. 

Alex Atack [00:18:19] Oh, it rarely happens. 

Ciara Peterson [00:18:21] Especially with job lots because it’s just, like, a collection of things, maybe from a collector, a house clearance, or something like this. So, they don’t necessarily come with something that’s attached to a person or where it’s come from. 

Alex Atack [00:18:37] Oh, interesting. So, you kind of don’t really have any idea about where it came from before you had it? 

Ciara Peterson [00:18:44] No, no. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:18:46] She told us that when she buys an item that doesn’t have provenance and she doesn’t know much about where it came from, she’ll bring an expert in to take a look. But that’s mostly to make sure it’s not fake–not to make sure it’s legal. 

Alex Atack [00:18:58] I guess, I mean, I don’t want to sound rude. I’m just asking, like, how do you sort of know that the items that you’re selling have been in the UK for a long enough time that they haven’t been trafficked from, let’s say, Syria recently during the war? 

Ciara Peterson [00:19:14] Honestly, there’s truly not really a way to know because I get all of my items from auction houses. So, I mean, it would be them that would have to have that responsibility of knowing that information. I don’t know that information. I don’t know where the auction house got it from, so there’s no way for me to know. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:19:39] We’re not saying that Ciara was selling items that were illegally trafficked into the UK or that her items had false provenance. As Mark said, there’s really no way of knowing if any one item is legal or illegal when the due diligence falls only on the seller. We reached out to eBay and live auctioneers to ask about their policies on illegal or looted artifacts. Live auctioneers told us that anybody selling items on their platform has to do their due diligence to make sure that what they’re selling is legal. Essentially, it’s up to the seller. They said they have a zero-tolerance policy on listing anything that’s suspected to be stolen. But when we asked if they take an active role in making sure the items sold on their websites are illegal, they didn’t give us an answer. 

Roman Mars [00:20:23] eBay said, quote, “The sale of illicit antiques and artifacts is prohibited on eBay in line with UK and international laws and regulations. We work closely with authorities such as UNESCO, Interpol, and the European Commission to provide a safe and secure online marketplace that prevents illegal trade while enabling the legal sale of antiquities. All sellers on eBay are required to comply with our artifact policy. We have automatic block filters that prevent listings of any items which breach our policies. And we also have teams continuously monitoring the site to identify and remove any prohibited listings. We also take strong enforcement action against sellers who violate these policies, which can include temporary bans and permanent suspensions.” 

Zeina Dowidar [00:21:08] And as for Facebook, Amr told us that Facebook updated its community standards in June 2020 to ban the sale and exchange of cultural heritage items. But he said the rules aren’t widely enforced. Amr is still tracking dozens of buy-and-sell antiquities groups. 

Roman Mars [00:21:27] For Amr and Mark, they really only see one solution to clean this industry up. Punish the people buying the looted items. 

Amr Al-Azm [00:21:35] This is the supply and demand end. And remember, the supply side is driven by demand. So, you know, we often focus on the supply side because that’s the, in some ways, easier side to blame. “Well, you know, you’re destroying your heritage, you’re looting it. We’re trying to save it, etc.” How about you try and convince your people not to buy looted antiquities? How about you basically clean up the trade? How about you make it illegal–so illegal–so grievous that if you are caught with a trafficked item from a conflict zone like Syria, that you will go to jail for 30, 40, 50 years. You know, then I guarantee you there will be no more demand, or the demand will drop to such a level that basically people won’t do it anymore. You’re not doing anyone a favor by buying this item. You’re only, you know, pleasing yourself. The best place for this item is to stay where it came from. 

Zeina Dowidar [00:22:34] And as for Adnan, after spending more than a year secretly traveling in and out of ISIS controlled territory, he eventually left Syria for Turkey to be with his family. At first, he didn’t even speak the language. He found himself working in restaurants until he could get back on track. Adnan was willing to risk his life to protect his country’s cultural heritage, even with the odds stacked against him. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. 

Adnan Al Mohamed [00:23:02] It was the worst part of my life. But I’m proud of what we did. I felt like I was on a patriotic mission–like I was doing something big. 

Roman Mars [00:23:22] 99% Invisible was produced and edited this week by Zeina Dowidar, Alex Atack, and Jayson De Leon. Fact checking by Graham Hacia. Mix and tech production by Martín Gonzalez. Music by director of sound Swan Real. Voiceovers were performed by Abdullah Al Assil. Special thanks to Dana Ballout, Nadeen Shaker, Tamara Juburi, Amr Al Azm, Adnan Al Mohammed, Rozhen Kamal Mohammed-Amin, Mark Altaweel, Ciara Peterson, Alice Fordham, and Salman Ahad Khan. This episode was made in collaboration with Kerning Cultures – that’s kerning with a K – you can hear their latest excellent season of that excellent show wherever you find podcasts. Up next, I’ll tell you about a real good podcast called Real Good, stay tuned… This show is sponsored by BetterHelp. When you’re at your best, you can do great things. But sometimes life gets you bogged down, and you may feel overwhelmed or like you’re not showing up the way you want to. Working with a therapist can help you get closer to the best version of you. You don’t need to wait for a crisis to benefit from therapy. A great therapist can save the day before the day needs to be saved. If you’re thinking about giving therapy a try, BetterHelp is a great option. It’s convenient, flexible, affordable, and entirely online. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist, and switch therapists any time at no additional charge. You want to live a more empowered life; therapy can get you there. Visit betterhealth.com/invisible today to get 10% off your first month. That’s betterhelp.com/invisible. Many of today’s occupations didn’t really exist a decade ago. Driverless car engineers, cryptocurrency analysts, podcasters–if I’m being honest. From Etsy seller to emoji translator, new opportunities to build a career are popping up every day. And Squarespace is the ultimate tool for professionals to build a site to market their brand and sell anything. Features like Squarespace Analytics allow you to use insights to grow your business. The appointment scheduling feature allows you to add online booking and scheduling to your Squarespace website. With the video studio app feature, you can create and share Pro-Level videos. Squarespace even offers a member area feature, where you can sell access to gated content, like videos, online courses, or newsletters. All the modern tools you need for the new jobs of today. Head to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial, and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. Hey, everyone. This is a sponsored segment about a sponsored podcast, which happens to be sponsored by a bank. So, it is capitalism all the way down. However, one of the main reasons I wanted to do this interview was because the co-host of the podcast is Faith Salie. She’s a contributor to CBS Sunday Morning and a regular panelist for Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. But I first got to know her in the mid 2000s on her nightly public radio show, Fair Game, which I had a great fondness for. Faith’s current podcast is called Real Good from U.S. Bank, and she co-hosts it with the chief diversity officer of U.S. Bank, Greg Cunningham, who refers to himself as an “accidental banker.” And when I spoke with them both about their show, you could tell that Greg was a man on a mission. 

Greg Cunningham [00:26:54] For me at least, the purpose of the podcast was to sort of break down these barriers to trust. I mean, particularly in communities of color, you know, there’s a well-earned history of mistrust. I mean, the banking industry has earned it, right? And so, so much of it was about bringing these people, these stories, these tangible examples of how we were putting our money where our mouth was–that we weren’t just making these big pronouncements like other companies were making in the wake of George Floyd’s murder–but we were actually doing the work. And we were actually being really transparent about the outcomes that were happening as a result of the investments we were making, and it wasn’t just about a bunch of activity. And that we wanted to be really transparent about the progress and let the public hold us accountable to making progress. And it was all of that. It was all of us really being truthful about our why. Like, it wasn’t just about the “what” of the work we were doing, it was why we were doing it, why it was important, and who we were doing it with. 

Roman Mars [00:27:57] So that’s the perspective of someone who works for the bank, who’s from that community, who was trying to get the word out. But Faith, you are not coming from that world. You’re a writer–a storyteller. What do you get out of these conversations, and what do you hope other people will get out of it? 

Faith Salie [00:28:13] You know, as a storyteller and a writer, I had this amazing gift of primarily being a listener and a learner, right? My mind has been blown over the three seasons of talking with Greg and the people we’ve gotten a chance to talk to together, Greg. 

Greg Cunningham [00:28:33] Yeah. 

Faith Salie [00:28:34] This is what I’ve heard. Greg, you can tell me if you agree with this. Over and over, these Black leaders–these Black changemakers–are expressing that not only are they representing themselves, but they are representing their people, people of color. And a lot of them feel like, they say, that they only get this one chance–that the ability to fail or stumble is, frankly, a privilege that has not been open to everybody. And over and over, I also hear that there is an absolute commitment to giving back to community in a way that I haven’t heard from other types of folks, right? And Greg, you can hear me being very careful with my language because I am saying, “Here’s what I’ve learned from interviewing Black people,” and it feels a little uncomfortable. 

Greg Cunningham [00:29:25] But I don’t want you to ever feel like you need to be careful in choosing your words because I think that’s the beauty of what the show is about. 

Faith Salie [00:29:32] Me too. 

Greg Cunningham [00:29:33] Because it is about those moments, Faith, of discomfort. And, you know, you and I have talked about this so many times–none of us learn from a place of comfort. You don’t grow from a place of comfort. You can only grow from that discomfort. But what’s important about it is–over the course of these three seasons–we’ve established such an incredible relationship that’s grounded in trust. As I said before, we give each other that grace. 

Roman Mars [00:30:00] Let’s talk a little bit about who you talk to on the show. The episode you sent me was about Houston White, who is an entrepreneur from Minneapolis, who has this whole vision for a mixed use residential commercial district in his neighborhood on the North Side. What is it about him, his story, and the story of the other interviewees on the show that compels you? 

Greg Cunningham [00:30:22] I want to talk to people that I think have a vision and have a story that is inspiring–somebody whose story is so human that there’s something in it that everybody can relate to. You mentioned Houston White, and I think about what’s so inspiring about Houston, in addition to the stories, is this notion of how he wants to bring culture and capacity together to stay true to the authenticity of these neighborhoods and the culture of the neighborhoods. It’s unbelievable what he’s done with this block in north Minneapolis. And he’s going to continue to build this community that I think is something that the rest of the country is going to want to replicate. I think that’s the stuff that is really fascinating to me is people who just have incredibly human stories that we can all relate to. 

Roman Mars [00:31:12] Faith, is there something specific from Houston’s story that resonated with you? 

Faith Salie [00:31:15] Yeah, when Houston was talking about how he began being a businessman–to quote his favorite Jay-Z lyric–as an 11-year-old who would cut hair. And when he started explaining that hair and the line of the hair was status, and that status was currency, self-respect, and then self-empowerment. And Houston talks about how barbershops are this place where all Black American men could go and feel equal–feel respected. And then Houston talks about how he very purposefully puts the boardroom in the middle of the barbershop. 

Roman Mars [00:32:01] We actually have a clip of this because I really like how he describes this. Here’s Houston White on Real Good, talking about his boardroom table in the middle of his barbershop. 

Houston White [00:32:11] Typically, we hide things like this. You know, this is where you go in a back room to have a board meeting. But, I mean, there was a screen that said, “Welcome U.S. Bank.” And we did a whole presentation right when everything was happening in the barbershop so people could see it. Almost like an artistic installation of what really happens at the highest level of business, but we’re going to bring it right and normalize it. And folks are walking in like, “What’s going on?” And then my mom walked in. It’s the funniest thing ever. 

Greg Cunningham [00:32:45] True story. True story. And the funny part–he looks at his mom, Faith, and says, “Mama, I made it!” 

Faith Salie [00:32:51] Aww. 

Greg Cunningham [00:32:52] It was such a surreal moment. 

Faith Salie [00:32:55] My favorite moment of the whole episode with Houston is when he says to you, Greg, “Thank you for seeing me. Thank you for seeing me.” And all that’s contained in being seen, right? Literal investment, but also the investment of support, access, mentorship, and a shared vision of the community he can create. “Thank you for seeing me. “

Houston White [00:33:23] And advocacy, right? I mean, so much of, you know, those of us who have positions in these large corporations–it’s all about what are you doing with your position? What are you doing with the positions of power that you have? And I think that’s the challenge for all of us who had professional success and sit in these halls of power in these corporations. It’s “What are you doing with it?” And for me, if I wasn’t supportive of people like Houston, those deals wouldn’t get done–if I weren’t advocating for it and sort of pushing people. The only response here is “yes.” The question is how do we get to “yes”? And that means we’re going to have to do some things differently within our organization. When we talk about systems change, it’s not just external systems change. It’s also inside these walls of power–these corporations–as well. 

Roman Mars [00:34:27] To hear more stories from Faith and Greg about Black and brown entrepreneurship and equity. Subscribe to the Real Good podcast. 99% Invisible’s executive producer is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Emmett FitzGerald, Vivian Le, Joe Rosenberg, Chris Berube, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org. Stitcherrrrrrrr. SiriusXM. 



This piece was adapted for 99% Invisible with help from producer Jayson De Leon. Original episode written and produced by Zeina Dowidar and Alex Atack, and edited by Dana Ballout with additional support from Nadeen Shaker. Fact checking by Tamara Juburi and sound design by Sara Kaddouri. Special thanks to Alice Fordham and Salman Ahad Khan for their help recording interviews for this story, and to Abdullah Al Assil, who performed the voice of Adnan.

  1. Kiwi

    I can’t like this episode, or any podcast the argues for for long prison sentences.
    putting someone in prison for 30-40-50 years is a death sentence

  2. Totty

    Having harsh sentences for the buyers, attempting to stem the demand, is the same flawed idea behind the USA’s “War on Drugs”

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