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Samantha Power Read by Cecile Richards

About the Episode

Once upon a time, there was a girl who told powerful stories, and helped solve world problems. Her name is Samantha Power. Samantha was born in Ireland and moved to the United States with her mom and brother when she was 9 years old. She was always interested in telling stories and explaining how the world worked so she became a journalist, first in sports and later as a war correspondent. But world events pushed her into a life of service to her adopted country. Samantha worked for President Barack Obama and eventually served as the U.S Ambassador to the United Nations.

Get to Know Cecile Richards

Cecile Richards is a national leader for women’s rights and social and economic justice, and a co-founder of Supermajority, a new organization fighting for gender equity. She is the author of New York Times bestseller Make Trouble. As President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund for 12 years, Richards worked to increase affordable access to reproductive health care and to build a healthier and safer world for women and young people. 

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Transcript

CECILE RICHARDS Once upon a time, there was a girl who told powerful stories, and helped solve world problems. Her name was Samantha.

<MUSIC CUE>

RICHARDS Samantha grew up in Dublin, Ireland—a land of lush greens and misty rains. On Thursdays, Samantha’s dad would pick her up after school for a “day out.” He’d buy her hamburgers and candy, and then they’d go to his favorite pub, Hartigan’s. 

There, he’d sit at the bar and read newspapers, talking about sports and politics with the other pub goers. Sometimes, when Samantha climbed onto the barstool next to him, he’d ask her opinion about the latest game or the day’s news.

Most of the time, though, Samantha could be found in the pub’s basement, where she read stacks of books. She loved reading about daring kid detectives like Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys who tracked down kidnappers, thieves, and bad guys.

Samantha’s dad spent a lot of time at the pub, but during the day, he worked as a dentist. Her mom was a doctor—something that was uncommon for women in Ireland in the 1970s. Samantha was so smart, her parents wondered if she might become a doctor, too.

But Samantha had other plans. One day, she’d use her voice to address the world’s biggest problems—and, like her favorite detectives, try to solve them.

<SHOW INTRO>

<THEME MUSIC>

RICHARDS I’m Cecile Richards. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us. 

This week: Samantha Power.

<END THEME MUSIC>

RICHARDS When Samantha was little, she knew that her parents loved three things: Sports, learning, and their children, Samantha and her brother Stephen. But her parents had a hard time loving each other.

Lying in bed at night, Samantha often heard them arguing in the living room. Sometimes she listened in. Sometimes she covered her ears. And sometimes she knelt beside her bed and prayed.

Still, the shouting didn’t stop.

Samantha didn’t realize it, but her father had a drinking problem. Samantha’s mother didn’t like him taking Samantha and Stephen to the pub, and she hated when he came home after having too much to drink. Samantha’s mother threatened to leave him if he didn’t get help, but he refused.

So, Samantha’s mother made a plan: She would go to the United States, and she would take the kids with her. 

RICHARDS At that time, Ireland didn’t allow married couples to get divorced—and even separating from a spouse was frowned upon. But after a heated battle in the courts, Samantha’s mother got permission to take her kids to America.

Samantha loved her father deeply, and it made her very sad to leave. But she told herself that one day, they’d return.

So, in September 1979, when Samantha was just 9 years old, she dressed in a Stars & Stripes T-shirt and boarded a plane for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

RICHARDS Adjusting to her new country was hard. Samantha traded her formal school uniform—a skirt and dress shoes—for the jeans and T-shirts that American kids wore. When her classmates made comments about her thick Dublin accent, she tried to sound more “American” by rehearsing in front of a mirror at home.

But there was one thing that Samantha took to right away—baseball. She played with the neighborhood kids, cheered for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and collected as many baseball cards as she could.

Still, Samantha missed her father. A few months after they moved, Samantha and Stephen went to visit him. One night, after going with him to the pub, he told Samantha a secret: He was going to keep them in Dublin.

RICHARDS Samantha wasn’t good at keeping secrets. On a phone call, she told her mother what her father had said. A few days later, her mother showed up on her father’s doorstep. She insisted that Samantha and Stephen leave, and even though Samantha loved her father, she did what her mother asked.

As they drove away, Samantha looked out the car’s rear window. Her father got smaller and smaller until she could no longer see him.

RICHARDS They didn’t go back to Dublin after that. Samantha wrote her father letters, and they talked on the phone. He often promised to visit.

And whenever he failed to keep his promises, Samantha would tell herself that she could not be angry with him. Although the situation was not her fault, she still felt shame. She had been the one to leave him, after all.  

A few years later, when Samantha was 14, her mother knocked on her bedroom door and entered. She’d been crying. 

“Your father has died,” she said gently. She explained that he’d gotten sick from drinking so much.

Samantha froze. It wasn’t possible. She prayed that her mother was mistaken.

When her mother left the room, Samantha burrowed under her covers, a deep chill settling into her bones.

RICHARDS It wasn’t her fault, but Samantha still blamed herself—for leaving, for not knowing he was sick, for not loving him enough.

And at that moment, out of her grief, she made a commitment to herself: She’d never not do “enough” again.

RICHARDS In high school, Samantha threw herself into sports, excelling at basketball, cross-country, and track. And after working at the school newspaper in college, she made plans to become a sports journalist.

In 1989, during her freshman year at Yale University, Samantha came back to Atlanta to work at the local CBS station’s sports department. She’d been given an assignment to take notes on a baseball game.

As she sat inside a glass booth watching the game unfold, other screens around her flashed with videos from reporters across the world. One from Beijing, China, caught her eye. Students were peacefully protesting for democracy, free speech, and free press.

Suddenly, soldiers started attacking the protestors. Giant tanks rolled down the streets, and students frantically pedaled away on bicycles. Then, the screens went blank. 

The video feed had been cut off.

It was the most shocking thing Samantha had ever seen. There she was, scribbling down notes about a baseball game while students her age in China were being attacked by their own military. With her heart racing, she asked herself: What am I doing with my life?

RICHARDS When Samantha got back to Yale, she changed her major to history and immersed herself in world news and politics. The more she studied, the more she realized she wanted to be able to do something when people rose up against oppressive governments.

She just didn’t know what that “something” was.

RICHARDS Then, in one of her internships after college, Samantha learned about a terrible conflict happening in Bosnia. Different ethnic groups were fighting each other—and innocent civilians were being killed just because of their ethnicity and religion. Samantha was horrified. 

“If I write stories about what’s happening,” she thought, “the world might do something about it.”

So at age 23, Samantha traveled to the heart of where the conflict was, learned the local language, and wrote articles for big newspapers like The Boston Globe, Washington Post, and The Economist. She hid out during noisy bombings and shellings as buildings rattled around her. And she witnessed terrible violence.

But no matter how many stories she and her colleagues wrote, it seemed like no one would intervene. 

One day, exhausted after living in war-torn Bosnia for two years, Samantha remembered a question a mentor had posed when they were tackling a problem: “What can you do?”

She had tried telling stories. Maybe it was time to find another way to address this problem.

RICHARDS In 1995, Samantha left Bosnia and returned to the U.S., where she entered law school at Harvard University. She dreamed of becoming a war crimes prosecutor at The Hague, an important international court.

But memories of her time in Bosnia haunted her. Sometimes she longed to be back in the action and felt useless having her nose in a book. At other times, she was so used to being under attack, she found herself ducking for cover in the library when a chair scraped against the floor.

In Bosnia, Samantha had witnessed genocide. Genocide is a kind of crime when innocent people are killed in large numbers just because of their religion, ethnicity, cultural background, or political beliefs. Samantha wondered what it would take to stop crimes like that—and why the U.S. government had failed to do so in the past.

She became obsessed with these questions. So, she decided to write a book about it. 

RICHARDS Samantha studied history and interviewed government officials. Five years after she started writing, her book was published. People around the world admired her work. Activists asked for her advice, professors used her book in their classes, and people invited her to speak at universities, synagogues, and events. She even won the Pulitzer Prize, one of the biggest awards for literature in the United States.

While writing her book, Samantha realized that there were many tools to stop genocide—and that even small efforts could’ve prevented many deaths. But instead, Samantha noticed that, “[d]ecent men and women chose to look away.”

So, she encouraged people to be “upstanders”—to “stand up” to injustice and help others. And she challenged herself to do the same.

RICHARDS In 2005, Samantha was surprised to see an email informing her that Barack Obama, a new U.S. Senator from Illinois, wanted to meet with her to talk about her book. 

Senator Obama had made a big speech the year before that had launched him into the national spotlight. Samantha was curious to learn more about him. After years of studying how governments could make the world better, she longed to put those ideas into practice.

They met over dinner in Washington, DC, and though their meeting was only supposed to last 45 minutes, it lasted four hours! Obama asked Samantha about her life, her childhood, and how she ended up where she was. He asked about Bosnia, and what the U.S. could do better. And he told her parts of his own story.

RICHARDS After they finished their meal, Samantha was so impressed with Obama’s optimism and vision that she decided to take a leap. “If you think I could be helpful,” she suggested, “I could come down to Washington and work with you.”

He asked what she meant, and she offered to assist with his foreign policy platform.

“Even if you don’t change the world overnight,” she said, “I will learn something, right?”

Obama smiled and gave her his email address and phone number. Soon after, he welcomed Samantha onto his team.

RICHARDS Samantha’s leap to Washington, D.C., led to many open doors and lots of lessons. It also led her to a spot on Senator Obama’s presidential campaign—and, eventually, to a man named Cass Sunstein.

Cass was an advisor for the campaign, as well as a lawyer and a professor. He and Samantha bonded over Senator Obama’s work, the Red Sox baseball team, and practically everything else.

Soon, Samantha found herself falling for Cass. But she was also nervous.

Despite her growing professional success, Samantha had personal struggles she didn’t always talk about. 

For years, she had suffered from intense anxiety attacks. They came upon her suddenly, and when they did, she couldn’t catch her breath.

RICHARDS No doctor could figure out what was wrong. But one day, she took a friend’s advice and talked to a therapist. With their help, she realized something important: The “lungers,” as she called her anxiety attacks, often got worse when she was in a relationship with someone—and grew even worse the closer she got to that person.

Samantha thought about her father. She realized her greatest fear was losing someone she loved. So, instead, she had pushed people away.

This time, though, was different. Instead of running away from Cass, she told him about her father and her fears. 

Cass listened to her deeply and said, “You should know I will not let you ruin this.”

And just like that, something in Samantha lifted. Her anxiety attacks stopped.  “This is a man completely in my corner,” she wrote in her journal.

In July 2007, Cass and Samantha got married in Ireland surrounded by cheering friends and family. And a few months later, Barack Obama was elected the first Black president of the United States.

RICHARDS Once he was elected, President Obama hired Samantha to work on the National Security Council. There, Samantha tried to make her voice heard. But many ideas she had were shot down. Her attempts to fight for human rights were often deemed unrealistic.

She felt stuck and sought advice from a mentor, who said, “Go where they ain’t.”

“All around the world, . . . suffering was occurring in forgotten places,” Samantha realized. With a small amount of effort, she could help people — even if it didn’t make headline news.

So Samantha started choosing new goals that might not be on the President’s radar, but were still important. She helped more refugees come to the United States. She formed an Atrocities Prevention Board to prevent genocide. And once, she even stayed up all night to help President Obama write his Nobel Prize speech.

RICHARDS Within a few years, Samantha’s influence grew. During his second term, President Obama selected Samantha to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. The United Nations, or the UN, is a group of world leaders that was created after World War II to solve problems and prevent wars.

An immigrant to the United States, Samantha was proud to represent her country at the U.N. and all over the world.

She continued to speak out to prevent genocide, protect human rights, and advocate for equality. She went to where the problems were, and she relied on her skills as a reporter to learn about people’s stories and share them with diplomats, governments, and the broader public. 

During the height of the Ebola pandemic, she took a trip to West Africa to raise awareness about people’s needs—and to show the world that this disease was something they could fight. She went to Cameroon, Chad, and Nigeria to find out more about local terrorist attacks and what the international community could do. And she personally met with 191 U.N. Ambassadors from other countries to learn about their stories, challenges, and dreams.

Sometimes, Cass worried about Samantha, as she often traveled to dangerous places. But no matter what, he supported her. And every time she left, he told her the same thing: “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”

RICHARDS The stories Samantha shared didn’t always convince everyone at the U.N. and the White House to act in the way she’d hoped. In fact, she often thought deeply about her mistakes and her government’s missteps.

But Samantha also believed in making small changes that might, one day, lead to bigger ones. And so she kept working—to free political prisoners, to fight against discrimination, and to help the most vulnerable.

Samantha finished her term at the U.N. in 2017 and moved to Massachusetts, where she now lives with Cass and their two kids, Declan and Rían. She teaches at Harvard and continues to advocate for refugees, immigrants, and other “forgotten people and places.” 

And she still believes that one person can make a big difference.

“People who care, act, and refuse to give up may not change the world,” she said, “but they can change many individual worlds.”

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