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Championing a Common Cause

MILA_HI_RES

Illustration by Peter Strain

Mila Atmos ’96, SIPA’05 doesn’t buy the narrative that our country is polarized.


As the host of Future Hindsight, a weekly podcast about improving our democracy, Atmos has spent the last three and a half years immersed in conversations on divisive topics such as climate, class, racism and politics.

“What I’ve learned is that most people are committed to being good humans to each other in a way that I think is not obvious right now,” she says. “Which is not to say that we don’t disagree. Of course we disagree.

“But I think that if you’re willing to have conversations with people one-on-one and be open-minded, there is a lot of common hope for a future that is good for all of us,” Atmos says. “People talk all the time about how we must find common ground — and I don’t think that we have common ground. I think that’s a false departure point. I think we have a common destination, and that’s much easier to talk about.”

For Atmos, the way to that common destination is through civic engagement and responsibility; inspiring that commitment in her listeners is what drives her work with Future Hindsight. The show features “citizen changemakers” — a term Atmos coined to describe people “who are deeply invested in and dedicated to improving the everyday experience of our society.” She likes to go deep on a topic, building entire seasons around a single theme and inviting guests who can speak to different facets of it. Her last season, on racism in America, explored critical race theory, race-conscious parenting, equity in health care, state-sponsored segregation and implicit teacher bias.

The show’s DNA is fundamentally optimistic; Atmos brings a mix of practicality and idealism that suits the show’s aim. She likes to end conversations by asking guests what makes them hopeful for the future of democracy, and often solicits ways that listeners can go out and immediately contribute to a cause.

Atmos is quick to acknowledge that being an engaged citizen is a broad concept. But in a way, that’s the point. She wants to make the idea of participation accessible, and to awaken listeners to the spectrum of ways they can engage. “Invest in something that directly affects your community,” she says. “If you’re somebody who goes to the dog park a lot, then be involved in the decisions being made around the dog park. Or, say you’re interested in getting people to vote. Then volunteer for the League of Women Voters.

“It can be something small; it doesn’t have to be big,” she adds. “But it should be something that enriches not just the life of your community, but also your own life. If it’s just another boring meeting that you have to attend, it will mean nothing.”

Atmos wants to make the idea of participation accessible, and awaken listeners to the spectrum of ways they can engage. “Invest in something that directly affects your community,” she says.

Creating Future Hindsight was Atmos’s own way to make a difference. In 2016, she found herself disheartened at the public discourse around the election: the media’s approach to covering the candidates “like a horse race,” and how people seemed more interested in memes than in meaningful conversation. In the aftermath, she began thinking “about ways that we as a society could take back the discourse and strengthen the social contract.”

“I felt like this was something where we have the power to change it, we have the fortitude to do it, if we only want to,” Atmos says. “I wanted to be in people’s ears, in their living rooms. I wanted people to have a conversation about buying in.” Her inaugural episode in January 2018 featured Bernard Harcourt, the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and professor of political science, who said something that has stayed with her — that many people believe issues in the public sphere sort of invisibly work themselves out, but nothing could be further from the truth. “If you are not making your opinion part of the discourse, making your view part of what people should be discussing, then somebody else is filling that [role],” Atmos says.

Atmos, who was born in Indonesia and grew up in Germany, took a nontraditional route to her seat behind the mic. She was working on Wall Street trading Asian equities when she saw the planes crash on 9-11; the experience prompted deeper reflection. “I thought, what am I doing here, with zero consequence beyond making money? Do I want to be doing this for the rest of my life?” The pull of public service drew her to SIPA, where she studied international security policy. Later, she worked for Sesame Street, helping to get a country-specific version of the show off the ground in Indonesia.

Atmos had never considered podcasting before Future Hindsight. She’d stopped working when her second son was born in 2007, and at the time it hadn’t occurred to her that she would go back to work, let alone start her own venture. “It sounds cheesy, but it felt like a calling to start the podcast, to have a conversation about our civic life,” she says, adding that NPR’s Hidden Brain was an inspiration. “It uncovers the way our brain works, the way we make decisions. And I thought Future Hindsight could uncover the way our society works in ways that are not obvious to us.

“When I first started asking people to be on the podcast I was always so surprised and thankful when they said yes,” Atmos says with a laugh. “At some point [my producer] said, ‘I can really tell that you’re becoming a more seasoned interviewer. In the beginning, it always just sounded like you were in awe of them.’ I didn’t know that came across!”

She credits the College for encouraging the curiosity and open-mindedness she brings to her interviews. “What I really learned at Columbia is to love learning — learning for learning’s sake. It made me be this person who was always open to changing my mind. And I learned that specifically in the Core, by reading new things, books that maybe made you think about things differently.”

In 2020, Atmos and her team released 48 episodes. “With the pandemic and so much that was canceled in people’s lives, all of a sudden, guests were available to participate in a way they weren’t before,” Atmos says. “It’s the kind of thing where I thought, ‘Did we really do that?’” She’s already in the midst of her second season this year, dedicated to conversations with different authors.

Looking ahead, it seems only fair to ask Atmos what she frequently asks of her guests: What makes her hopeful for the future of our democracy?

“The truth is, a lot of people are civically engaged right now,” Atmos says. “We had record voter turnout in the middle of the pandemic, and that says a lot about who we are as a people, as Americans. I think there is a lot of faith in building a life together as a society.

“Another big takeaway that’s making me hopeful — people are willing to do the small things and the big things. And even if it’s imperfect, or we feel frustration when things aren’t moving fast enough, it’s all valuable.”