Symone Sanders was deeply upset in May when the graphic video surfaced of Ahmaud Arbery being shot while jogging, and she made sure her boss, Joe Biden, saw it. Weeks later, it was Sanders who told Biden about the explosive video of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd's neck.
"Again?" Biden asked in disbelief. Sanders responded, she recalled in an interview, "Again. Again. This literally just happened again."
The brutal video touched off a national reckoning and demonstrations across the country. And it threw Sanders, 30, into a unique, high-pressure role as the highest-profile African-American staffer in Biden's inner circle, tapped to explain — or justify — his record on race to sometimes-skeptical Black activists even while advising him privately on how to navigate the moment.
The campaign deploys her to marquee shows like "Fox News Sunday" to make the case for Biden. She has been dispatched to reassure voters when Biden makes tone-deaf comments. Internally, she advises Biden on a wide range of issues, including his response when a crisis erupts in the country's rapidly shifting racial justice landscape.
But as a bridge between Biden and Black activists, Sanders sometimes finds herself taking shots from all sides. Biden, after all, is trying to harness the energy from the massive street protests while rejecting the protesters' most visible demands, such as defunding the police.
Some civil rights leaders grumble that Sanders hasn't done much to get Biden to meet the moment. Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, which advocates for women of color in politics, has criticized Biden for not reaching out enough to voters of color.
"You have millions and millions of people — some who supported other candidates in a large primary, and others who have been protesting in the streets — and the general sentiment among Democrats is for transformational change," Allison said. "The moment doesn't call for a justification. It requires us to move into a new phase."
But if outsiders want Sanders to be more of an agitator, insiders sometimes want her to be less of one.
"If there's a place where I think sometimes she still is learning, it's that her role now is not to be a full-time activist," said Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., a Biden ally who closely coordinates with the campaign. "It is to figure out a pathway to accomplish the goals within the system. Sometimes I remind her that you can't govern if you can't win."
Yet Sanders' fans says she's been indispensable to the presumptive nominee. She reached out to Floyd's lawyer to determine how Biden could best offer his condolences after his death — and sobbed as she listened in on Biden's call to the family.
She has briefed the Congressional Black Caucus at delicate moments, including as Biden denied an accusation of sexual assault by former Senate staffer Tara Reade, according to participants in that conversation. She sits on Biden's criminal justice task force, which is developing his policies on the volatile issue.
Sanders has pushed the campaign to be wary of language that frustrates Black activists, for example urging staffers to avoid the term "white working class," according to a person familiar with the discussions.
"She's in every meeting," Richmond said. "There are not any decisions being made behind her back. She's in the room. She participates with decisions."
And Sanders' role will only become more important as the Trump campaign ramps up its effort to use Biden's sometimes tone-deaf comments on race to peel off some of his support from Black voters.
For now, Sanders is offering advice as Biden makes the most important decision of his campaign: whom to choose as his running mate. She helped orchestrate a conversation between Biden and prominent Black women pushing him to choose an African-American running mate, according to two people on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal campaign dynamics.
"I'm privileged to say I've been let into the circle to do this work," Sanders said.
Pressure from all sides
Breaking into Biden's inner circle was never straightforward. When Sanders joined the campaign in spring 2019 as a senior adviser, she drew sharp criticism from liberal activists baffled that a young, outspoken Black woman, and a former top aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would lend her voice and charisma to a centrist Democratic politician.
It was no easier inside the campaign. Sanders quickly discovered that she was excluded from the daily 8:30 a.m. phone call among Biden's top strategists, where major decisions were often made.
Of his senior aides, Sanders was by far the youngest — born two years after Biden abandoned the first of his three presidential campaigns — as well as the only one new to Biden's orbit and the only African American. Sanders complained to Anita Dunn, one of Biden's top aides and close confidantes, and Dunn immediately added her to the daily call.
Now the campaign frames that incident as evidence of Sanders' value. "It was a perfect example of why you want somebody like Symone on the campaign," Dunn said. "She didn't wait to be invited."
But the balancing act never ends. Sanders has developed ways of deflecting questions about whether she embraces Biden's views, for example. "He might not get it right 110 percent of the time," Sanders said at a recent event, deploying a straw man she often uses — after all, no one can be expected to agree 110% of the time, and that avoids the issue of just how much she does differ with her boss.
"It is my job to advocate for and protect his position," Sanders said in the interview. "It is my job to communicate his position to other folks and explain to them why his position is actually the best position if we want to beat Donald Trump."
Clearly that's not satisfactory to many liberal Black leaders, four of whom declined to discuss her on the record for this article. Several cited recent Biden senior hires who are Black, saying they'd become more familiar with Karine Jean-Pierre and Ashley Allison, who have broad portfolios that include reaching out to Black voters.
Rashad Robinson, executive director of the Color of Change Coalition, a racial justice group, told Vogue in April, "I have not felt the effects of Symone's presence. It has not translated for us."
Internally, Sanders has also developed tools to be sure she's taken seriously. When overruled on a key decision, she makes a point of acknowledging that her idea is not carrying the day — but restates her position nonetheless, to ensure it does not get lost.
"It's helpful because sometimes conversations start in one place and then go off in other directions," Dunn said. "And sometimes it has the effect of bringing people back to what the core issue is. And sometimes it is just, Symone has made her position clear."
Swift rise in Washington
Despite her activist aura, Sanders has always sought a role in mainstream politics, and her rapid rise follows a steep arc more typically seen from white men in Washington, though she comes from North Omaha, Neb., with no family connection to politics.
As a student and leader at a local nonprofit, Sanders introduced former President Bill Clinton at a fundraising luncheon by age 16. She became Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign spokeswoman by 25. She became a paid commentator on CNN and was granted an at-large seat in the Democratic National Committee by 26. She had a book deal by 28.
And this year, at 30, in addition to being a senior staff member to the presumptive Democratic nominee, she released her book, which is titled "No, You Shut Up: Speaking Truth to Power and Reclaiming America," a rallying cry for young women trying to navigate politics based on her own experiences. (The book, Sanders said, was largely written before she started working on the campaign.)
A virtual party to celebrate the book's launch last month was hosted by a quartet of female power brokers: Barack Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett, Democratic operative Hilary Rosen, Recode co-founder Kara Swisher and Washington fixer Tammy Haddad.
During the event, Sanders described her broad goal thusly: "I want to be a powerful person." She added, "Why? Because powerful people can help change things."