What does it mean to speak up and hold power to account? We interviewed Baratunde Thurston to find out. Thurston is an Emmy nominated host, producer, Obama White House advisor, and New York Times bestselling author of How To Be Black. This conversation was moderated by Founding Chicago Chief Member Nneka Jones Tapia.

Q. What are the four pillars for “how to citizen,” and how do they inspire us to use our voices more intentionally?

BT: Pillar one is realizing that to citizen is to participate. We show up — physically, emotionally, rhetorically. We join in society by being in it. Pillar two is that we relate to others. We recognize the value of relationships and the interconnectedness of us. There is no me without you. We're inspired very much by Valerie Cower, a religious leader and activist, author of See No Stranger, in which she says a stranger is just a part of me I do not yet know. This theory is at the heart of being a citizen. Pillar three is to understand power, and not be afraid of it. Don't assume you don't have power. We have this narrative, especially in the West and within the US that there are people with power “over there,” and we are over here just hoping to get the scraps. But it’s not “they,” it’s “we.” And there are layers to the power we have access to. We should become literate in it. And pillar four, critically, is that we apply all of this work for the good of the many — not for the few, or for yourself. These four pillars are not sequential, they're integrated. They’re all rooted in this idea that others are deserving of that which you expect for yourself. If we recognize our intrinsic interconnectedness, there is no “other.” Helping others is actually helping yourself.

Q. What advice would you give people who are just now trying to find their voice, and finding a way to express their values and opinions on social justice for the first time?

BT: My first advice is to breathe. This is a terrifying moment and we should acknowledge that terror. Next, you need to have patience. If this summer is the moment where it became abundantly clear to you that things are abundantly off in this country, there’s a lot of catching up to do. There will be nervousness about saying the wrong thing, or virtue signaling. Those are good things to question. Start with learning and listening. Speaking first is not always advised. There were a lot of organizations that instantly said all the things that a PR firm told them were the right things to say, and then they embarrassed themselves, because they didn't do anything in the arenas where they actually had power first. Like supporting their own Black employees.

So before you or your company says #BlackLivesMatter, show me your board. Show me your advisors. Show me the companies you're investing in. Show me who you use to market your product. Show me who you will listen to when you make your product, and then demonstrate that Black lives matter. Hashtags are great, but it's an awkward first step if you haven't tended to your own garden. Take the time to craft statements that are actually based in your study, authenticity, and experience. You shouldn't be saying things because you know they're the right things to say — you should be saying things because they actually feel true to you. And I want to see people invested in the outcomes as well — not as charity, but as of members of society with all of us.

Q. How can we further manage this fear of saying the wrong thing?

BT: You have to brace for inevitable error, and the scrutiny and hyper judgment that's going to come. That is just a taste of what those who you are trying to ally yourselves with have been living with for hundreds of years. It's uncomfortable, right? Feels like you're being judged? Welcome to the club. We've got space for all. There is no VIP section. I have experienced this too, because we all have power in some context. I am Black, but I was born into this bearded, penis-genitalled body. I have increasing numbers of audience and reach. And that comes with a certain interpretation in the world, which says I have value, and that my words are worth listening to. It's okay to acknowledge that and not be stalled by that or use it as an excuse. You can’t say, “Oh, because I’m a man,” or, “Because I’m white, I don’t want to say anything, because I might get it wrong.” You’re gonna get it wrong. I've been getting it wrong. I was born into a world which made sure I got it wrong. So the wrong is done. Let's try to do more right.

My last piece of advice is don't waste too much time feeling bad about privilege. It's cool. It's a fact. You got it. I got it. So what are we going to do? You don't see Superman moping around saying, “Oh man, I got this flight privilege. Look at all those people down there on the ground. I guess I should just go shrink myself.” That’s absurd. The question is, how are you going to use this ability to fly? It serves no one to feel bad about the power you have. Serve people with the power you have. As long as you've studied enough and you are honest about why you're trying to do or say anything, then it is incumbent upon you to use that power to citizen. Otherwise, why are you in this world with other people? What's the point?

Chief members can listen to our full conversation with Baratunde Thurston here.

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Originally Published: September 8, 2020