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In the early months of the pandemic, Wilmer Valderrama noticed a growing display of mistreatment and negativity towards essential workers. The actor remembers having a “sobering” conversation with a local grocery store worker about the escalation in aggression from customers as supplies began to run low.
“She was seeing a very different character trait, a very different energy from their regular neighborhood customers,” Valderrama tells The Hollywood Reporter. “When they’d tell customers they were out [of supplies], they would get aggravated or throw things and take out their frustrations on these grocery store workers.”
Now a year and a half into the pandemic, the 41-year-old NCIS actor and activist will amplify the stories of frontline workers via his new podcast Essential Voices with Wilmer Valderrama on iHeart Radio. The series, which is a part of iHeartMedia’s My Cultura and produced by WV Entertainment and Clamor, launches July 27 with new episodes each Tuesday.
Joined by co-host MR Raquel, Valderrama will share intimate conversations with people on the frontlines of food service, transportation, child-care and other systems where workers’ voices are often overlooked. The show will be split into two parts — first the conversation with an essential worker and then a roundtable discussion featuring guests who are a mix of activists and politically active celebrities, such as Amy Turk, Jon & Vinny, Nithya Raman, Yvonne Mariajimenez, Adrianna Alejandre, and Dr. Nadine Burke Harris.
Speaking with THR ahead of the podcast’s launch, Valderrama explains how his latest project can uplift a group of workers whose vital roles have existed long before the pandemic and how their stories can spark social and political change.
Last spring, you launched an Instagram Live series called 6 Feet Apart and connected with frontline workers. 16 months into this pandemic, why do you want to continue those conversations with a podcast series?
I don’t think we understand the level of stress that our essential workers are going through. I just thought it was such an urgent conversation to be had because these essential workers kept us afloat and kept us safe at home… You hear on the news “Thank you to the essential workers.” But nobody’s really heard how they really feel about what they were called on to do, something that they never asked for, they never trained for. And they’ve been essential to us for so long. People have just recently realized how vital and critical some of these services are. We’re beyond the thank you’s for your service. There is a year and a half of trauma that essential workers have gone through. In my very sobering conversations I’ve had on the show, that was very evident that it’s taken a toll and they’re still not out of it.
As an activist yourself, how has your past work — such as your non-profit organization Harness (co-founded with America Ferrera and Ryan Piers Williams) or being politically involved on immigrant rights issues — aided with the preparation and work that went into this series?
I’ve been doing a lot of work over the last 17 years in the immigrant community, the farmers’ community, the native community, the undocumented community. I have been exposed to their raw stories. I was exposed to the heart of the essential workers throughout the pandemic that I felt that my job was not to give my opinion, my job was to amplify. That’s ultimately what I felt like this show was about. It’s not about me and, and I never wanted it to be ever about that. I had a very important conversation with iHeart Radio about what’s important as they launch their new initiatives and everybody wants to expand Latinx voices. But I also thought this goes beyond our community. This is multiple communities that are on the line. I felt that this is one way our Latinx community can connect all the other communities as they all relate to one thing, which is we have been essentially taking jobs that often are assumed that magically get done. There are so many people of that community that I’ve been proud to stand beside. My father is an Uber driver… I have a lot of friends and family who are essential workers. I have seen their pain, seen the misunderstanding, seen a very fractured infrastructure that’s supposed to look out for their ability to voice discomfort. Some of these jobs don’t have HR, don’t have real hours or unions.
How will the series highlight necessary changes and aid needed by frontline workers?
Beyond being grateful, we haven’t had a conversation about how to pay it forward and how to pay it back. The idea of the show was to say okay, you’ve met them before. You’ve never heard from them. What we try to do is have conversations that are disarming but also help to understand the person behind the job, and how it was before and now during the pandemic. We then pivot the conversation to thought leaders and industry leaders that understand deficiencies in different fields to have a very comprehensive conversation about “What now?”
I started thinking about how can we offer solutions that are community-based and how can we as a community become the leaders to hopefully form some type of solution that cannot be ignored on a local or national level. I’ll be honest with you. We’ve had a lot of tears on this podcast. I’ve heard a lot of stories that have made me now more than ever passionate to lobby for propositions, to lobby for legislation. The show woke up a very different human. I am not an artist on this podcast. I’m a fellow neighbor, a fellow community member asking questions that I never had before. I hope that through these conversations, people understand and will want to call their congressman or want to donate to an organization to help. Or at the very least, honestly, have somebody be like ‘I’m going to tip an extra $10.’ There are so many different ways in how we can make everyone feel respected, honored, and thought about.
What impact have these conversations had on you personally?
There were some really eye-opening and life-changing conversations that happened on this podcast where I heard from individuals that have been doing jobs that you often think, oh, well, they’re equipped to withhold that kind of trauma. They’re passionate to be a paramedic, they see it every day, so I’m assuming they’re desensitized to it. But this pandemic, and their inability to protect themselves during a time where they show up for others, whether it’s helping a woman give birth or a car accident… There are now levels of stress around how do they protect themselves from COVID? How do they protect themselves from being exposed? Ultimately there’s a number of them that were dying to COVID because they just couldn’t protect themselves. There are many who worked multiple jobs, like a paramedic who had to work three jobs in New York. They are saving lives. How are they not taken care of? So those things really changed my heart and changed my life. I was talking to the paramedics and asking them, “Do you have what you need?” You say thank you for showing up but they’re never asked “How are things? How are your benefits? How are you taking care of yourself?”
Humane questions that are important to ask, absolutely, but not many people think to ask.
That’s right. We ask those here. One of our first questions, when I talk to our essential voices, is “What did you do for you today?” I want to hear them, what’s their morning routine. How do they mentally prep to put on the uniform. I love hearing those things because you never know what happens before they clock in and what it takes or what other job they’re coming from before they clock into that essential job.
What message do you hope this podcast offers to those who listen?
The biggest sentiment for me is for all of us to realize that we have more things in common with each other than differences. And at a time where we needed all of these communities and even further, all these communities of color that showed up for us in the pandemic, to never forget their contribution… I know for a fact that my daughter will know that she was born during a pandemic and that there were incredible essential nurses and doctors who made sure that she was safe and that her mommy made it through in a safe and healthy way… This is one way to historically continue to change, how we appreciate, how we take care of one another. Also, the understanding that it’s important to really ask one another, “How are you really.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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