Free Press Chief of Staff Misty Perez Truedson is the embodiment of compassion.
This is not hyperbole. Misty, who started at Free Press in 2008, has worn many hats at the organization — but care and empathy have guided her from the get-go. She’s played a crucial role in shaping Free Press’ supportive culture — and its emphasis on racial equity and justice.
I spoke to my friend and colleague in honor of Free Press’ 20th anniversary to reflect on her trajectory and influence.
Helping to bring the internet to everyone
What inspired you to join Free Press?
I was at a training for supervisors of grassroots organizers at the Midwest Academy. This was in 2007. I met Kimberly Longey and Josh Silver, two of the founders of Free Press. The more they talked about Free Press, the more I was like, whoa, you can change the media, you can actually work on media policy. Every night that we were there, I would go back to my room and dive through the mountains of Free Press website content that described how to change the media. It was captivating to me.
What inspired me to join Free Press was that the media impacts everything I care about: my people, my community, the social and political issues I care about. As a lifelong organizer and advocate, and someone engaged in human services throughout my life, I repeatedly saw misrepresentation everywhere I looked. I repeatedly saw the media repeating harmful narratives and images and portrayals of both the people and the issues that I cared about.
When I realized you could do something about that, it grabbed my attention so strongly that I then spent the next year following Free Press, and just getting further and further involved to the point where I was like, oh, I want to do this work.
It’s a really beautiful origin story. Tell me about your original role at the organization and the kind of work you did in that capacity.
My first role at Free Press was as an internet campaign coordinator. The funny part of that is, I lived in a town without internet access. I was charged with running a campaign at the time called Internet for Everyone where we were going across the country and listening to what folks had to say about their internet access, touching on everything from affordability to choice to what people valued about the internet.
That was in 2008, where one of the slogans was “the internet’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity,” which feels silly to say in 2023. We went to New Mexico and North Carolina and Los Angeles, and we were hearing from everybody just what a necessity the internet was, and then had to make that case to members of Congress and policymakers and President Obama. That was a real focus of the work, which was just so impactful. Looking back, I’m like, wow, we’ve come so far from needing to make that case in such a short amount of time.
You see that in President Biden’s recent declaration that broadband is an absolute necessity.
Yes. Net Neutrality was also a core part of my initial portfolio of work at Free Press. It was this very nuanced technical term that the public hadn’t fully grasped at the time. They knew we needed the internet. We were also sort of layering on the importance of Net Neutrality and the need for a free and open internet. We were feeding the understanding of that in the media-reform and media-justice movements and in communities more broadly.
It’s all such important work and again, we can see the fruits of it now. I know you’ve worn a few different hats at Free Press. Could you talk a bit about your trajectory?
I came in during a real expansion period in the organization. I was initially one of maybe two or three organizers. We were working in three areas: the internet, media ownership and movement building. I spent a couple of years focused on the internet campaign and getting a sense of who our allies in this field were. We had 1,000 members in our Save the Internet coalition. We engaged hundreds of organizations and hundreds of people in the Internet for Everyone campaign.
From there, we started to look at the issues that we were working on in terms of internet, media ownership, public media and journalism. As our issues started to unfurl, so did our capacity and our need for organizers who could float a bit back and forth but who could also devote the expertise and the knowledge necessary to organize around those issues.
After I was the internet campaign coordinator, I became the advocacy and organizing manager. I had a background in organizing on reproductive justice and health issues and on domestic and sexual violence issues. For me, engaging community members in the work that we were doing on a federal level and in key states was just so exciting. We were doing the conferences, we were organizing hearings where we brought FCC commissioners all across the country, we were engaging with community members to learn from them and to inform them on how to shape public policy through sharing their stories.
We showed how you can connect decision-makers with the public to hear firsthand from their constituents, what’s impacting them. Now I was looking at questions like, how are we organizing and advocating across all the issues that we work on? How are we doing that in a coherent and cohesive way? What are our goals? I remember that being one of my big questions when I first came into this work. I know we’re going to do these big splashy campaigns, but what do we want out of them? What are we trying to achieve?
The National Conference for Media Reform was one of our largest-scale organizing efforts. It showcased the expertise and brilliance of people working in the media and in media justice. At that time, one of our slogans was “if you care about X, you should also care about the media.” Whether you love that slogan or not, it was true: Anything that people cared about could relate back to the power of the media.
It was just so rewarding to see people find a political home through NCMR. The conference was that catapult for many Free Pressers, for many Free Press alums and for many of the members who have been with us for 20 years.
I’ll give you a short aside: There’s a parent at my kids’ school who was one of our early volunteers, and she still follows our work. She had this initial engagement with Free Press and never lost touch with us. So many of our activists and members have that story. And it’s just beautiful. It speaks to the kind of engagement we’ve cultivated.
You know, everybody talks internally about the culture of Free Press, and just what a brilliant and caring and kind community of staff we are. I think that extends to our communities we build externally.
Absolutely — I’ve heard so many powerful stories like that.
Yes — and as the managing director, I got to continue to ask that question. What’s our goal? What are we trying to achieve? What impact do we want to have on people’s lives? We had to make that tangible. It’s easy to get lost in the richness of the expertise and the policy and research pieces. I felt it was my job to ask, what are we trying to do? How are we going to work in a coordinated and strategic way across all of our issues? I had moved out of the external work and into the internal work of how our structures and systems and people work.
For me, a long-held value is racial equity and racial justice. Because everything that we do is inextricably connected to race; we can’t deny that. Taking on the internally focused role of managing director had me looking at how we were embracing racial equity within our organizational practices, within our programmatic and policy work, and within the ways we engage with one another. I’m focused on that and on building a foundational knowledge within our staff around what we’re working toward. That work obviously takes time.
When I became the chief of staff I got to devote my attention to the incredible people who make up this organization and the capacity and the resources it takes to do this work.
The fight for racial justice and liberation
I’m so glad you brought up racial equity and racial justice. As you know, race has always been very connected to Free Press’ work, but we’ve made a much more conscious shift in the last several years to really foreground the fight for racial justice in everything we do. That shift has also corresponded to an increased emphasis on racial justice internally. What was your role in this evolution?
I’m committed to building a multiracial organization that embodies equity and inclusion and acts with rigor, integrity and support of our collective liberation. That is the commitment I spend my life’s energy on and it takes many forms. I facilitate the hiring processes, I oversee the structures we put in place so we can build together as a team. I’m always thinking about how we hold that longer view about what we’re striving for. There are choice points in everything we do. That’s what I’m grounded in every day.
I’ve reshaped our compensation program with colleagues and with outside counsel. We’ve reshaped our performance-evaluation system to ensure it’s actually helping our staff grow and meet their needs. We’ve reshaped our hiring process to be more equitable and inclusive and to ensure that we’re building more diverse applicant pools. In some of those big pieces within my role as the chief of staff, I always want to bring our values to life. I always want to make sure we’re advancing our staff’s personal and collective development around racial justice and racial equity.
You were talking about values at a couple of points. That brings to mind what an incredibly compassionate culture we have at Free Press. You’ve had a big hand in shaping that culture, especially in your capacity first as managing director and now as chief of staff. Could you talk about some of that culture work?
When we’re in the hiring process and people ask us what the culture at Free Press is like, I tend to sit back and listen to what the rest of the hiring committee has to say. And I hear exactly what you just said. We have an incredible group of humans, every last one of them. At Free Press we’re going to be kind to each other, we’re going to hold each other in unconditional high regard.
That comes from the organization’s foundational values and culture, as well as who we attract: people who are brilliant and compassionate and caring, people who are self-reflective and aware, and people who are committed to growth and learning and equity and justice.
One time there was a staff member who was going through a particularly difficult time outside of work, and they told me that all of this learning that we’ve brought in house made them better able to cope. It made them better able to connect with people through struggle, through challenge. That was really moving to me. It shows how compassion begets compassion.
Leading during the pandemic
Compassion is truly the first word that comes to my mind when I think about you. Your empathy is just so limitless, and it’s guided your approach in so many ways. I’d love to hear about both the biggest challenges and the biggest rewards that you’ve experienced in your time at Free Press.
I think the biggest challenge was this period of COVID. It was a huge challenge to lead an organization and staff through a period of such incredible uncertainty and fear and trauma and pain. When it started we were still in the Trump years. We were experiencing a daily onslaught of racialized harm, and just outrageous policy positions and xenophobia and homophobia and transphobia. It was painful to see the staff suffer both individually and collectively. From the Trump administration to COVID it was just fear upon fear upon fear.
We weren’t just victims to the Trump administration; we stood in our own power collectively, as movements coming together, which was beautiful to witness. But it was painful. Then to come off of that with just a little bit of a reprieve only to face an insurrection. Those were hard years for the organization and for people throughout the country. It was hard to watch people turn not toward each other but against one another.
And the pandemic brought such isolation. It was incredibly challenging to lead during the pandemic while living through it.
I had developed really deep daily meditation and somatic practices that I am grateful to Free Press for because this is also the kind of organization where you’re encouraged to invest in yourself and your own personal growth and development. I leaned so heavily on those practices to be able to show up for work in a leader-full way. I also leaned so heavily on the compassion of the organization and the benefits that we offer to our team to say, oh, yeah, as a parent to two kids, I have to be able to take care of myself and my children too. We engaged people throughout the organization to both name what they needed during that period, and to find ways to access it and support it.
It was challenging, and it was also some of the most beautiful transformation work that happened in such a short period of time. Especially during that first year of the pandemic, so many old practices and systems just melted away, because they either didn’t serve us anymore, or we were able to say, oh, I don’t want to be like that; I want to live like that.
That was one of the most rewarding parts: to see our team — especially when the shutdown was announced — go into emergency planning mode, and be able to deliver such concrete things for our staff. And then to watch all of the leaders within the organization say, here’s how we’re going to reshape our work around this. Here’s how we’re going to pull things off the shelf that this crisis actually opens a path for, like getting billions for broadband.
The things we were able to do to support our staff and to advance major policy during the last three years was remarkable. That was the most inspiring thing for me.
It really is extraordinary to think of this all happening in this time of immense trauma and fear. You started off your Free Press work as an organizer, and that was a role that you held pre-Free Press. Does that organizing mindset still come into play for you in your current role?
Oh, my goodness, yes. Once an organizer, always an organizer. A lot of my work growing up as a teenager was in human services and direct-service provision. I worked with children with developmental disabilities, adults with developmental disabilities, everything from overnight respite care to summer camps to occupational therapy. I did that work for a good three to five years and went on to pursue two degrees in human services and counseling and one in psychology because I thought I was on a path toward human services and counseling.
That led me into domestic and sexual violence advocacy work. I did a lot of work with youth who were either living in homes where domestic violence was an issue or who were survivors of domestic or sexual violence. I also did a lot of educational work within the schools with groups around healthy relationships, healthy body images. A lot of educational work was used as an intervention to break the cycles of violence and foster healthy relationships.
From there I went into state-based policy with Planned Parenthood around reproductive justice and health and sex education. We worked to pass the buffer-zone law in Massachusetts, and the emergency contraception bill. All of that involved both education and organizing, and the media was always a part of it. It was deeply held within a human-services framework for me, because that’s what I thought I’d go on to do. In my master’s program, while I was working at Free Press, I also studied economic development and planning — like, what do we need for communities to thrive?
At Free Press, I got to work on federal policy, which obviously has core education and organizing pieces. And now finding myself as the chief of staff, and a somatic coach, I’m bringing together the organizing aspects with healing and somatic work.
That’s what my path has always been about: how we collectively take care of ourselves in ways that are aligned with our values, and how we build a just society.