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'How To Citizen With Baratunde' Podcast Offers Lessons On Fulfilling Civic Duties

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Voting is a fundamental element of democracy, perhaps our most profound civic duty. But the writer Baratunde Thurston, host of the podcast "How To Citizen with Baratunde," says voting alone is not enough. He says we need to citizen. He uses the word as a verb. My co-host Audie Cornish began her conversation with Thurston by asking him to describe what that means.

BARATUNDE THURSTON: I mean to try to reclaim the word, to reimagine it. I think we've had a very narrow definition of citizen as a legal status, as some privilege you're born into rather than a set of actions, a way to be, things to do that involve really participating in society. So if we interpret it as a verb - I'm big on grammar (laughter) if you can't tell - then it gives a lot more room for people to join in. And I think it makes our society better.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: There is plenty of activism out there right now.

THURSTON: Yes.

CORNISH: And to the point where people who are not activists feel like it's a lot of noise and feel like it's a vicious partisanship that goes...

THURSTON: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Back and forth. So...

THURSTON: So...

CORNISH: Where does what you're arguing come into play?

THURSTON: So this is not, you know, my/our definition of to citizen. What this show is about isn't about partisan activism, though that is a subset of what it can mean to citizen. Showing up doesn't have to mean door-knocking for a specific candidate or for a ballot initiative. It can mean going to a community meeting. It can mean volunteering. We've had people who are working on food supply issues in the midst of COVID setting up community refrigerators so that people can eat. I don't know that hyper-local efforts to feed your neighbors and yourself would fall under the domain of partisan activism. I certainly hope not.

CORNISH: Yeah.

THURSTON: And that's the expansive definition that we're going for. Look; I'm a liberal. I'm a progressive. I lean hard to the left on most things. But I want to live in a society where we can engage with people who lean in multiple directions in a peaceful, constructive and communal way.

CORNISH: Yeah, I think there's also been a long-time discussion about the so-called decline of civic engagement.

THURSTON: (Laughter) Well, there's nothing that leads to a decline more than calling it civic engagement. Like, that is just...

CORNISH: (Laughter) You think it's a branding issue?

THURSTON: (Laughter) That is definitely part of the challenge. It screams whitepaper that I'm not going to read. So we had someone on the show. Her name is Tonika Johnson. She's out of the city of Chicago. And what Tonika did is this project called the Folded Map Project. She's an artist first and foremost, and she found that dividing line between north and south in the very segregated and very beautiful city of Chicago. And she encouraged people, she enabled people, to find their map twins - people who have a South Side address that's mirrored on the north. She first took pictures of their homes, but then she brought the people out of their homes to meet each other and engage directly with each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HOW TO CITIZEN WITH BARATUNDE")

TONIKA JOHNSON: Every Chicagoan jokes about the fact that when you take our red line train, you notice the color shift. It goes from Black on the South Side to white on the North Side. And so I really wanted us to, like, as Chicagoans, interrupt how we've normalized it, you know, for them to understand how it impacts our social network. And I wanted people to start thinking about their distant neighbors, regardless of the neighborhood, as family.

THURSTON: Now, what is that? That is art. That is civic engagement. That is seeing the best in us. That is creating an excuse to build a bridge as opposed to building a wall. But to call that just civic engagement, I think, misses the depth and the richness of - and the beauty of the art that she brought to something as dry and as academic, too often, as housing discrimination and government policy and redlining, which are all terms that do not necessarily attract most people to a conversation.

CORNISH: I tried to think, what kind of mind would gravitate towards this...

THURSTON: (Laughter).

CORNISH: ...Towards this idea? And then I learned this story about your mother and this assignment that she would give you. She gave this to you when you were 9 years old, which - I think people need to know how old you were to understand the significance of this story. What was the assignment?

THURSTON: The assignment was along the lines of, I think it's going to be up to you to come up with a system that we live under after democracy and/or capitalism has failed.

CORNISH: Now, did this happen after a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or, like, what is the scenario...

THURSTON: I think it happened...

CORNISH: ...In which she turns to you and says...

THURSTON: Yeah. Yeah.

CORNISH: ...My son, you will need to come up with a system of government...

THURSTON: (Laughter).

CORNISH: ...That could follow democracy and/or capitalism.

THURSTON: Yeah, my mom was a real one and that came, I'm pretty sure...

CORNISH: (Laughter) What did she do for a living?

THURSTON: It came after she asked me to take the garbage out. Like, it was just a list of chores to her.

CORNISH: Fair. Fair.

THURSTON: My mother - she survived for a living. She found a way to love herself in a nation designed to hate and even destroy her as a Black woman. To earn money and to help power me and my sister through this world, she ultimately became a computer programmer for the federal government. We grew up in Washington, D.C., and, you know, it's a lot of Black people who power this nation in a literal sense. So she never graduated from college. She didn't have a computer science degree. She climbed up through, you know, cooking meals for neighbors and paralegal work and secretarial work, but she kept applying herself, kept studying. I, in fact, remember going with her to classes at night when I was in school. So we're both in school. And she's going to Montgomery Community College and learning more about computer networking.

CORNISH: So she's raising her citizens.

THURSTON: Yeah. Yeah.

CORNISH: She's giving you these kinds of assignments.

THURSTON: Yeah.

CORNISH: And what are you taking away from it? Like, what are you thinking about it in the moment?

THURSTON: I think, you know, in the exact moment, I'm like, that's a big assignment, Ma. Like...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

THURSTON: What's up? Like - but she had a very high bar.

CORNISH: Keeping your mom in mind, you also give homework assignments. And for us going forward, what are some assignments, so to speak, that you think we should keep in mind?

THURSTON: We've given out over 40 assignments with the show, and they're opportunities to act and contribute. We don't really call them assignments, kind of had that burden associated with it. But I think we all have opportunities to do things other than scream into our pillows at night after the nightmarish consumption of cable news right before bedtime. One of those is to ask a question of ourselves. Don't go signing a petition first. Ask yourself - and this is a question that we - was inspired by Angela Lang of an organization out of Milwaukee called BLOC. What does it look like for your community to thrive? And it's not a question to, like, instantly tweet out. It's one to sit with. What does it look like for your community to thrive? Make a list of the things you've done to help other people, not just yourself, not just your immediate family, other people in the community. You're citizening (ph) when you do all those things.

CORNISH: Well, Baratunde Thurston, you've convinced me that citizen can be a verb. I like it.

THURSTON: Yes.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

THURSTON: Just billions of other people left.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Baratunde Thurston is the executive producer and host of the podcast "How to Citizen with Baratunde."

Thanks so much.

THURSTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.