The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective “woke” as “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.” Urban Dictionary, the online encyclopedia of snark, calls it “a state of perceived intellectual superiority one gains by reading the Huffington Post.” “Woke” has become a catchall phrase of ally-ship and ideological agreement for progressive organizations like Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March.
Last spring, five Princeton undergraduates founded Woke Wednesdays, a podcast dedicated to issues of race on Ivy League campuses and across America. They were all freshmen at the time: William Pugh, Kadence Mitchell, Nathan Poland, Micaela Keller, and Matt Oakland. Episodes from their inaugural season included “Blackness in the Context of the Ivy League,” “The Use of the N-Word,” and “The (Un)necessary Distinction: African-American vs. Black.” A little more than two months after starting the podcast, Princeton’s dean of undergraduate students selected Woke Wednesdays as one of the most innovative student projects on campus.
Princeton already has a radio station, two student newspapers, three political publications, a debate society started by Aaron Burr and James Madison, and a magazine dedicated to issues of race. Why start a podcast? “We were definitely ambitious as freshmen,” admitted Pugh, the current president of the group. One reason to start a new venture was to avoid the partisan affiliations most campus publications had. “A lot of them were polarizing in the sense that they were very obviously political, or they were very obviously partisan in what they chose to cover and how they chose to speak,” Pugh said. (Woke Wednesdays’ logo is purple: a combination of red and blue.)
Pugh sat in Princeton’s brand-new music building, a convenient stop between his appointments on a Wednesday evening. Upon arriving, he had apologized for his tardiness, even though he was less than two minutes late. The slate-tinted lights of the music building turned his thin black mustache into a shadow on his upper lip, and his trim khakis and patterned socks marked him as a one of Princeton’s future Beltway insiders. Pugh has already spent a summer interning for an Illinois state senator, is a member of Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, and has experience in public speaking and community outreach.
Discussions on Woke Wednesdays do not devolve into the name-calling and straw men of cable news; Pugh has made it clear that the program is dedicated to informed discussions that present multiple sides of an issue. The episode about the n-word started with a history report on the etymology and history of the word from Pugh, then transitioned into a twenty-minute discussion about a highly emotional topic, but the group managed to avoid the affronted tone and absolutism of cable news. “I have a problem with us allowing the word to be used in some cases, and then being offended when it’s used by someone else,” Pugh said in the episode.
Although Pugh enjoyed working as a medical researcher in high school, he decided that was not the life for him soon after he matriculated at Princeton. “I have a desire to work in the realm of law and social justice,” he said. “If I had to pick between looking at cells until 2 a.m., or learning more about, or reading a book related to, race or politics or philosophy—I would much rather do that than look at cells.” His dream is to practice civil rights law. The founding members of Woke Wednesdays all plan to attend law school in the future, and all but one plan to major in the departments of Politics or Public Policy at Princeton. (Pugh has recently explored studying philosophy instead of political theory, but the two fields are closely related at Princeton.)
Pugh prefers to start new initiatives, rather than to follow an established organization, he said, because it gives him greater latitude to innovate. “Whether it be starting a DJ-ing business, a lawn-care business, or a men’s fashion business, all of which I’ve done throughout my life, I have found value in trying new things, taking risks, kind of not being constrained by what others predetermine is the right way of doing things.” That desire to take risks and go around established organizations drove him to start Woke Wednesdays, and he credits it with part of the podcast’s success.
As he spoke, Pugh sat down in front of a Steinway baby grand and tested the keys. The paint on the walls still smelled fresh. He decided that he could give the piano a shot, since the opportunity was right there. Pugh has not played piano regularly since third grade, and he was obviously unpracticed—he only used his right hand. “Ode to Joy” was the single song he could play from memory. “That was the only thing I actually taught myself, so that’s probably why it stuck.”