Baratunde Thurston: How To Citizen

Dec 4, 2020

About The Episode

This year's election saw historic voter turnout. But in a divided democracy, how else can we commit to our civic duties? This hour, Baratunde Thurston joins Manoush with ideas on how to citizen.

About Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston is an Emmy-nominated writer, comedian, and political commentator. He's the executive producer and host of two podcasts: How To Citizen with Baratunde and We're Having A Moment.

Thurston is also the creator and host of the weekly pandemic show, Live On Lockdown. Previously, Thurston worked as the director of digital for The Onion and supervising producer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. He serves on the boards of BUILD and the Brooklyn Public Library.

He holds a BA in Philosophy from Harvard University.

Featured Speakers

Valarie Kaur: 3 Lessons of Revolutionary Love in a Time of Rage

Civil rights activist and lawyer Valarie Kaur says, in our divided democracy, love can be a revolutionary act. She recounts the lessons she learned facing hate crimes against her Sikh community.

Eric Liu: How to Revive your Belief in Democracy

According to writer Eric Liu, we have to actively work to hold onto democracy. He created Civic Saturdays as a way to rekindle the spirit—and belief—of democratic citizenship.

Jamila Raqib: The Secret to Effective Nonviolent Resistance

It's been a big year for protests. But demonstrations are not the only non-violent option for creating change. Jamila Raqib shares some creative alternatives that are equally, if not more, effective.

Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison: The Trauma of Systematic Racism is Killing Black Women. A First Step Towards Change

The American public health system is failing Black women. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison offer one unexpectedly radical call to action: coming together to walk.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And it has been a year of thinking how our actions affect our neighbors, a year of realizing that many of our systems do little for the most vulnerable among us and here in the U.S., a year when the population further splintered over what it means to be an American. And so how do we talk about all this stuff without alienating each other? How do we move forward collectively? And what is our civic duty in the 21st century? These are big questions. And so on the show today, we're going to explore ideas about How To Citizen with Baratunde Thurston. He's been working on and thinking about this topic for years. And he recently came out with a new podcast series appropriately called How To Citizen. Baratunde, can you please introduce yourself?

BARATUNDE THURSTON: Hi. I'm Baratunde Thurston, and it's so exciting to be here.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) OK, so clearly the tone that you use already - we should tell people you are a writer, a comedian, a political commentator. And you also like to turn the noun citizen into a verb. In fact, that is the name of your new podcast. How did this happen, Baratunde?

THURSTON: Grammar hacking. You know, language is meant to be bent, so let us bend it toward our own ends. This happened out of a sense inside of me, deep inside of me - a frustration with news in so many ways, the stories that we are told by our news about how terrible everything is all the time. And I knew that there were people working to respond to all these great challenges that we weren't hearing from. And I knew that there was more that I could do besides scream into my pillow at night...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

THURSTON: ...That I was not being asked to do.

ZOMORODI: You applied a lot of that thinking to your TED Talk, which is called "How To Deconstruct Racism, One Headline At A Time." We're going to talk about it later. But for this episode of the show, we actually asked you to guide us through some of your favorite TED Talks because I didn't realize that there are so many TED speakers who have actually been incredibly influential on you and in the making of your podcast.

THURSTON: Yeah, they all ask something of us. And I think they demand a response that is not always easy to rise to but I think is worth trying. So all of these folks have some amount of faith in other human beings, which I think I just need to constantly reinvest in for myself, for my own mental health and survival. And so these are my guides, my coaches, my clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose crew.

ZOMORODI: OK. So let's go ahead and start with the first talk you brought us, which is from the lawyer and civil rights activist Valarie Kaur. Tell us about Valarie and her talk, which is called "Revolutionary Love (ph)." And I have to point out, generally, anything called revolutionary love is not something that I would click on. I'm a little - as a Gen X-er, I just would be like, oh, please.

THURSTON: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: But this is an unbelievable talk, so tell us about it.

THURSTON: Valarie is an unbelievable person. She is a, yes, lawyer, yes, civil rights activist. I think of Valarie primarily as a spiritual leader at this stage. And I do not practice the religion she does. She is of the Sikh faith - S-I-K-H - but her lessons apply to us all. And I picked Valarie as the opening voice in the podcast series, the How To Citizen podcast. I wanted her to offer a spiritual invocation to the whole idea of what it means to citizen as a verb. And that means to commit to each other.

ZOMORODI: And as you mentioned, this talk is really about Valarie's background as a Sikh woman - S-I-K-H woman - and the lessons that she learned as a kid about deciding to face hate with love. And also, you know, it is kind of shocking that she had to learn these lessons at such a young age and had to face really terrible hate crimes against her community after 9/11, right?

THURSTON: Yeah. So Valarie's talk and love and the role of it - this is not that sentimental, emotional love. This is the love of commitment that we make to ourselves and each other in a project of coexistence. And I think in a project of self-government, it is kind of required. So I came across Valarie about four years ago. After the 2016 election, I saw this video clip of her on the Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VALARIE KAUR: I know that there will be moments, whether on the streets or in the schoolyard, where my son will be seen as foreign, as suspect, as a terrorist.

THURSTON: I found something beautiful on the book of faces, and it was this video clip of a young woman standing in some kind of - felt like it was a church. And she asked all of us - demanded, I think, of us - to ask, what if the darkness that we're feeling is not the darkness of the tomb...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAUR: But the darkness of the womb?

(APPLAUSE)

KAUR: What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind us now? What if they're whispering in our ear today, tonight, you are brave? What if this is our nation's great transition?

(APPLAUSE)

KAUR: What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Push.

THURSTON: Birth is painful and dark and messy and loud, depending on the circumstances. So maybe this can lead to something better. And that was the sort of faith I needed to keep pushing through. And I was really moved to tears. And I know a lot of my friends were, as well. So Valarie is a powerful person. And this idea of loving ourselves and loving others and loving even our opponents is a big demand, but I think it has a big payoff.

ZOMORODI: And, of course, Valarie - after 9/11, she focused her activism on civil rights, social justice and fighting hate crimes. And then she became a mom. She had a son. And there's this quote where she says, "I have to reckon with the fact that my son is growing up in a country more dangerous for him than the one I was given." And it makes you wonder, like, Baratunde, how is love the answer to all this hate?

THURSTON: Yeah. So Valarie has this, like, love trifecta - love triangle? I don't know.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

THURSTON: It's three types of love that she calls on us to practice. And that's what makes them revolutionary. It's the layers of love cake. On one layer, we need to love ourselves. And I think there are many of us born into a world designed to undermine, destroy, minimize and even hate us where self-love is a revolutionary act already. My mother was born into this world not designed for her and, in fact, designed to do the opposite, to be inhospitable to her. And she found a way to love herself. And it's one of the greatest gifts she demonstrated for me as this child of a Black woman - that we can love ourselves, and she can love herself. So that's that's one layer of love that Valeriya offers up. The other is to love others.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KAUR: In order to love others, see no stranger. We can train our eyes to look upon strangers on the street, on the subway, on the screen and say in our minds, brother, sister, aunt, uncle. When we say this, what we are saying is, you are a part of me I do not yet know. I choose to wonder about you. Number three, in order to love our opponents, tend the wound. Tending to the wound is not healing them. Only they can do that. Just tending to it allows us to see our opponents, the terrorists, the fanatic, the demagogue. They've been radicalized by cultures and policies that we together can change.

THURSTON: Opponents is a very deliberate word choice by Valarie...

ZOMORODI: Right.

THURSTON: ...As opposed to enemies. She thinks of enemies as a more permanent state of affairs, irredeemable, you know, mortal in its consequence. Opponents - that's a shifting - you can be my ally here and my opponent there. And so loving your opponents - to humanize them. Valarie said something so beautiful when we had her on the show. She said, I learned there's no monsters in this world. There's just hurt people. There's a space that I feel in myself when I choose to love another, when I choose to see their wound, as opposed to just the manifestation of that wound and how that pain is used to lash out, potentially, even at me.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

THURSTON: I think about another speaker, another person I've gotten to know over the years who's also in the TED canon, Shaka Senghor. He was the first person I ever heard utter the phrase, hurt people hurt people.

ZOMORODI: He's been on the show, actually.

THURSTON: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: He's an amazing guy.

THURSTON: Of course he has. Of course he has. So this is, like, a family reunion here with you.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

THURSTON: So yeah. So to empathize and identify with the idea of hurt and pain and to acknowledge that I have played a role in probably someone else's life where I was the opponent - to extend that to others, that's when it makes sense to me, and it's not just this masochistic endeavor.

ZOMORODI: I mean, as you said, that is hard to do. My impulse is not to necessarily be angry at people who I think have dangerous perspectives, but it's to, like, try and get as far away from them as I possibly can.

THURSTON: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: But you're saying that's not citizening (ph), doesn't help the situation. It's just retreating back into your bubble.

THURSTON: I think I'm saying something a little softer than that. I think there is a spectrum of opposition to any of us. And there's true danger in this world. I'm not showing up at Proud Boys events...

ZOMORODI: No.

THURSTON: ...You know, just trying to love on them, right? That's that dangerous situation. That's physically dangerous and emotionally dangerous. So this is not an argument for a blanket engagement. We've got to choose to invest in relationships that continue to serve us. And I think at scale, at the macro level, this country can continue to serve us. I'm not willing to write off the experiment altogether, but on a one-on-one basis, there are certainly people who you will know. You listening to this right now will know, that's just too much right now. I can't do that right now. I'm not just in a healthy and safe position to engage. And that's OK, too. But for the overall project to work, all of us cannot choose that for every person who's anywhere on the opposition spectrum. This is incumbent on all of us. You know, it takes two, right? It takes two to make a thing go right.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

THURSTON: It takes two to make it out of sight - DJ Rob Base, EZ Rock. So, you know, a relationship takes two. And both parties, whether you're talking about a parent-child, lovers or a national-level discourse, both sides have to still remain committed to the relationship. I'm committed. And I want to encourage others to recommit.

ZOMORODI: We'll be back in a minute with Baratunde Thurston to talk about what it can look like to recommit to democracy. On the show today, How To Citizen. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, ideas on how to be a better citizen. Or as Baratunde Thurston, our friend, writer, comedian, political commentator and guide through this hour puts it, How To Citizen because for a lot of us right now, we're realizing that we can't take democracy for granted. And, Baratunde, that is a lesson that you feel like the next speaker really brought to you, right?

THURSTON: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: Eric Liu - or as I like to call him, Mr. Democracy. He says you have to organize to hold on to democracy. He's the creator of Civic Saturdays, which is when thousands of people get together. They talk about civics. They connect the idea of democracy to issues that are actually happening around them. And Eric's talk is called "How To Revive Your Belief In Democracy" - so very on theme. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ERIC LIU: I bring you greetings from the 52nd freest nation on Earth. As an American, it irritates me that my nation keeps sinking in the annual rankings published by Freedom House. I'm the son of immigrants. My parents were born in China during war and revolution, went to Taiwan and then came to the United States, which means all my life, I've been acutely aware just how fragile an inheritance freedom truly is. That's why I spend my time teaching, preaching and practicing democracy.

ZOMORODI: Do you remember when you first heard about Eric Liu, Baratunde?

THURSTON: Yeah, I had been talking about this project of How To Citizen for years in some form, and I saw his talk at TED about making civics sexy again and these Civic Saturdays events and sermons, all this kind of religious faith language.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

THURSTON: But the faith was not in an all-seeing, all-knowing deity. It was in very fallible human beings and our institutions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LIU: I define civic religion as a system of shared beliefs and collective practices by which the members of a self-governing community choose to live like citizens. Now, when I say citizen here, I'm not referring to papers or passports. I'm talking about a deeper, broader ethical conception of being a contributor to community, a member of the body. To speak of civic religion as religion is not poetic license. That's because democracy is one of the most faith-fueled human activities there is. Democracy works only when enough of us believe democracy works. Its legitimacy comes not from the outer frame of constitutional rules but from the inner workings of civic spirit.

ZOMORODI: It's fascinating to me because as a secular person, I grew up with no religion. And so immediately saying, you know, that you have to believe in it suggests dogma to me, actually. But I'm guessing you're going to say that that's not what Eric's all about.

THURSTON: Where I fully agree with Eric is on the faith part. You know, the greatest threat to our democracy is our blind faith in it. We have an assumption that it's just going to be there for us because it's been there. And it is the belief in it that powers it. It's also the lazy belief in it...

ZOMORODI: Yes.

THURSTON: ...That can undermine it. And so it's not just faith. You got to do stuff, too. We have to act and live those beliefs and put that faith to work in each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LIU: When you come to a Civic Saturday and are invited to discuss a question like, who are you responsible for? - or what are you willing to risk or to give up for your community? When that happens, something moves. You are moved. You start telling your story. You start actually seeing one another. You realize that homelessness, gun violence, gentrification, terrible traffic, fake news - these things aren't someone else's problem. They are the aggregation of your own habits and omissions. Society becomes how you behave.

ZOMORODI: Oh, man. That last line - society becomes how you behave. Woo, exactly. But, you know, I think it's harder and harder to see that if I do one thing - I don't flip someone the bird in traffic - how on earth is that nurturing democracy?

THURSTON: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: On the other hand, there's something really beautiful and nurturing about that idea that our fates are intertwined with those around us, and society is what we make of it.

THURSTON: Yeah, it's - we used to have spaces in our society that allowed us to do what Eric talked about - to see each other. We had the proverbial bowling leagues. And we had church. And we had block parties and neighborhood associations.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

THURSTON: And I think one of the tragedies of our current version of America is that we don't do those things anymore. Folks are broke. Even when they have employment, it's not enough. And when we are faced with what I would describe as barbaric levels of civilization and common investment in infrastructure and health care and living wages, people don't have time bowling (laughter).

ZOMORODI: Right. Right. No.

THURSTON: And when we have attacks on the common institutions of information, for example, that removes a space for mutual visibility. So we live in a system which has encouraged that divestment at scale. And we're in the symptoms and the consequences of that deeper disease, I think.

ZOMORODI: And when you put it that way, I mean, it's a little bit terrifying 'cause what it means is that this project could fail. And yet Eric maintains this real optimism about it. Eric was actually on NPR on Morning Edition on the day of the presidential election, talking about how the U.S. is basically a big experiment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LIU: What's amazing and exciting and should be empowering to so many of us right now is that we are attempting something for the first time in human history. And that is to make Earth's first mass multiracial democratic republic. No other country has tried to nail all four of those marks. Other societies have done one or two or three. But to be at a mass scale truly multiracial, to have a culture of democracy and to have representative government in a republic - to have all that work at once would be a freaking miracle. And one of the great things about this time, as painful and broken as so much is, is that we have a shot right now to prove whether this is possible.

ZOMORODI: There are days where I do not think it's possible. What do you think, Baratunde?

THURSTON: (Laughter) I think it's a very hard project we're on. And as far as civilizations go, we're still pretty young. So I really appreciate the honesty of saying we haven't succeeded yet. I think we are so good at mythmaking about our greatness and our uniqueness and our specialness that we forget we're not there yet. A big number of us can say, like, we used to be so great. How could you say that when half the population couldn't even vote? When are you starting the clock?

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

THURSTON: So there's a lot to do. There's value to the honesty that we haven't really done it yet. And there's motivation to the idea that we might get there. And I think we have to be motivated by the pursuit, not just the arrival - that we've gotten a little bit better, that we've reckoned with some of the more painful things, knowing there's a laundry list of stuff we still haven't dared to really face honestly. And if we get closer, that's still good.

ZOMORODI: So this year, we saw the biggest protests in the U.S. since the civil rights movement and, you know, so many emotions awakening - anger, frustration, acknowledgement that you have to work for a democracy. And I think that's kind of a good segue to the next speaker who you've chosen to talk about, who is Jamila Raqib. She is the executive director of a place called the Albert Einstein Institution, which does research into nonviolent action.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JAMILA RAQIB: For the past 13 years, I've been teaching people in some of the most difficult situations around the world how they can use nonviolent struggle to conduct conflict. Most people associate...

ZOMORODI: So tell us about Jamila and why you chose her talk, "The Secret To Effective Nonviolent Resistance."

THURSTON: So I was hosting a TED television program for PBS. And Jamila kind of pours me in my tracks. She talked about the power of nonviolence not as a weakness but as a strength, not as something that people without resources employ but people with better strategies deploy. And she balanced that picture a bit and started making me think like, oh, what if we invested in these other ways? And is it possible that many of the changes we've experienced in the world, which we are taught are a response of great wars - but in between, a lot of societal change happens not at the end of the barrel of a gun. And so what is your theory of change? How does that really happen?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RAQIB: The idea that nonviolent struggle is equivalent to street protests is a real problem, because although protests can be a great way to show that people want change, on their own, they don't actually create change, at least change that is fundamental. Powerful opponents are not going to give people what they want just because they ask nicely or even not so nicely. Nonviolent struggle works by destroying an opponent not physically but by identifying the institutions that an opponent needs to survive and then denying them those sources of power. Nonviolent activists can neutralize the military by causing soldiers to defect. They can disrupt the economy through strikes and boycotts. And they can challenge government propaganda by creating alternative media. There are a variety of methods that can be used to do this. My colleague and mentor Gene Sharp has identified 198 methods of nonviolent action, and protest is only one.

ZOMORODI: So, Baratunde, this is a very important point for her - that there are 198 methods of nonviolent action. What are other ones that you have seen this year, or maybe even advocated for, other than marching in the streets?

THURSTON: Yeah, and I want to reiterate something Jamila said - that protests alone don't result in fundamental change. There's a criticism of protest movements that is, I think, a little thin, which is, how do you expect to change anything? You're just out in the streets. But I give a lot of credit to the people who organize protests for galvanizing masses of people to come together to make a statement. That's a really big deal. To sustain it was an even bigger deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Black lives matter.

THURSTON: You know, seeing the sophistication of people on the ground, people's budget movements happening from the West Coast to the east and everywhere in between making visible how our money's being spent - just that act alone. I thought I knew a lot about the whole citizen game and the social justice game. I did not know in my own new city of Los Angeles, we spend 54% of our city's budget on the police. So that level of storytelling, information sharing, organizing - it's about power and exercising it and wielding it and wrestling over it peacefully but with intensity and using all the tools that we have. And so Jamila opened my eyes more formally to a whole set of tools.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RAQIB: Nonviolent struggle is just as complex as military warfare, if not more. Its participants must be well-trained and have clear objectives, and its leaders must have a strategy of how to achieve those objectives. The technique of war has been developed over thousands of years, with massive resources and some of our best minds dedicated to understanding and improving how it works. Meanwhile, nonviolent struggle is rarely systematically studied. And even though the number is growing, there are still only a few dozen people in the world who are teaching it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: It's interesting to hear her say that there are only a few dozen people in the world teaching nonviolence study because I think of - you know, the civil rights movement really did teach those tenants, the emphasis on training, on boycotts, on civil disobedience. And now I've been hearing of a lot of mutual aid organizations using digital tools like Slack to get organized. Do you think that, actually, nonviolence is being taught right now in just a way that maybe we don't recognize it? Or do we need to get to a place where it is being taught much more and more explicitly?

THURSTON: I think that is a beautiful assessment. And I love your interpretation of what nonviolence is and what teaching is. I think it is being taught. I think it's being practiced, certainly. I'm reminded of our outgoing president's rally in Tulsa. And the reservations line and those tickets were allegedly and, I think, plausibly purchased by K-pop stans, by TikTok kids.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Right.

THURSTON: I mean, that is a creative, strategic, nonviolent action. They didn't physically show up to confront people. They hacked the system. They found other means to exercise their will and to affect the real world. And it was hilarious. It was hilarious.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Yeah. And ultimately, some people claimed that it was one of the reasons why that big room was pretty empty because those tickets had been reserved by people who were not supporting the president. Baratunde, I mean, you mentioned digital organizing, but the other thing that we saw this year was looting.

THURSTON: Yeah, yeah.

ZOMORODI: And, you know, some people would say I shouldn't even be using the term looting. But, you know, we did see stores destroyed in flames and in protest. And there's a debate going on right now about whether looting is indeed violence or another form of protest. And I wonder what you make of that debate, given what we've heard from Jamila Raqib.

THURSTON: Yeah, I mean, I think I have a very simple answer on that one. I do think looting is violence. It is physical destruction, and we can observe it. That's violence. I think the deeper question is, does it negate the largely nonviolent efforts of those who have gathered in peaceable assembly? My answer to that is no. It's a very tense moment. People have been locked up for the whole year, relatively speaking, in their homes, locked out of their bank accounts, relatively speaking, in terms of the ability to earn, fearful of everyone around them who might actually kill them because we don't know that much about this disease. And then in this era of alleged sacrifice, we recognize that some communities are more exposed and dying harder than others. And in the midst of that, to see on camera an officer of the law, who's supposed to protect and serve, slowly murder one of us, as did Derek Chauvin to George Floyd.

That's a lot for people to hold inside. So all of these things happened, right? And I'm not denying that some people who believe Black Lives Matter also broke some windows. I'm also not denying that some provocative folks showed up to try to undermine that. And I'm not denying that the police made it worse in many, many cases. It was a combustible situation, and they threw fuel and fire on it in so many ways. So what does that all mean? It means this stuff is hard, and it's messy. And the overwhelming majority of the folks who showed up did so with peaceful intention and peaceful action. And I don't think, you know, a few incidents should undermine that.

ZOMORODI: I think a lot of what you're saying really reminds me of what Valarie said about tending to your opponent's wounds, really trying to understand what the source of the action is. And that's been a big waking-up situation for me this year for sure. Like, it's - I think in some ways, seeing the violence made me understand just how deep the hurt was. And so...

THURSTON: That's beautiful. There was another story, you know, out of some of these moments in the movement of 2020 where we saw beautiful, viral imagery. I remember one of a group of Black protesters, a line of police officers, and a white protester steps in between. The symbolism of that, of putting your more valued life in this society, by these measures, in between mine and those who might threaten it - that is showing up. That is participating in a beautiful way. That is committing. That is revolutionary love.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: When we come back, more with Baratunde Thurston on how we can participate in and show up for democracy. On the show today, How To Citizen. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, ideas about how to be a better citizen. Our guide for this hour is writer, comedian and political commentator Baratunde Thurston. And the next talk he has brought to us is about how a simple act like walking can be a civic act. This talk is from the founders of GirlTrek, an organization dedicated to promoting health for Black women and girls through walking.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VANESSA GARRISON: I am Vanessa, daughter of Annette, daughter of Olympia, daughter of Melvina, daughter of Katie, born 1878, Parish County, La.

ZOMORODI: And Vanessa Garrison and Morgan Dixon start their talk introducing themselves and the long line of mothers that they come from.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

T MORGAN DIXON: And my name is Morgan, daughter of Carol, daughter of Letha, daughter of Willie, daughter of Sarah, born 1849 in Bardstown, Ky.

THURSTON: Morgan and Vanessa are forces of nature. These women came on that stage with such power, with such deep knowledge and love of self, they made it clear TED was lucky to have them - without arrogance, though, just confidence and ownership of their being.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GARRISON: We call the names and rituals of our ancestors into this room today because from them, we receive a powerful blueprint for survival - strategies and tactics for healing carried across oceans by African women, passed down to generations of Black women in America who used those skills to navigate institutions of slavery and state sponsored discrimination in order that we might stand on this stage. We walk in the footsteps of those women, our foremothers, legends like Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, from whom we learned the power of organizing after she would almost single-handedly register 60,000 voters in Jim Crow, Mississippi.

THURSTON: The message that they shared, it reminded me of the journey of my older sister and of my mother, these Black women in my life who this world was not designed for. And they have claimed it.

ZOMORODI: Yeah, and it's interesting what they do. Morgan and Vanessa tie that story of Black women to a really big issue - how the American health care system is failing Black women.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

DIXON: Black women are dying at alarming rates. And I used to be a classroom teacher. And I was at South Atlanta High School. And I remember standing in front of my classroom, and I remember a statistic that half of Black girls will get diabetes unless diet and levels of activity change, half of the girls in my classroom. And so I started taking girls hiking, which is why we're called GirlTrek. But Vanessa was like, that is not going to move the dial on the health crisis. It's cute. So what we thought is if we could rally a million of their mothers - 82% of Black women are over a healthy weight right now. Fifty-three percent of us are obese. But the number that I cannot get out of my head is that every single day in America, 137 Black women die from a preventable disease, heart disease. That's every 11 minutes. One hundred and thirty seven is more than gun violence, cigarette smoking and HIV combined every day. It is roughly the amount of people that were on my plane from New Jersey to Vancouver. Can you imagine that? A plane filled with Black women crashing to the ground every day, and no one is talking about it.

ZOMORODI: You mentioned that this talk reminded you of your sister and your mom, but - so I'm assuming that this was an issue that you were already familiar with when you heard Morgan and Vanessa's talk.

THURSTON: Absolutely. You know, they remind me of my mother. We went on a lot of bike trips, you know, in our household as kids. We went camping. We went hiking. I hiked with my mom. So she set a great model. I think what Morgan and Vanessa remind me of is that trauma lives in the body. And when you think about the traumas that have been heaped on Black women through this nation's history, it's incredible that they're here at all, that we're here at all. That is a huge accomplishment. And that trauma and that pain can manifest in health outcomes. So we got to walk through and process this trauma in a way that is healthy and constructive and productive and healing because the pain finds an outlet one way or the other.

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GARRISON: For Black women whose bodies are buckling under the weight of systems never designed to support them, GirlTrek is a lifeline. August 16, 2015, Danita Kimball, a member of GirlTrek in Detroit, received the news that too many Black mothers have received. Her son Norman, 23 years old, a father of two, was gunned down while on an afternoon drive. Imagine the grief that overcomes your body in that moment, the immobilizing fear. Now, know this - that just days after laying her son to rest, Anita Kimball posted online, I don't know what to do or how to move forward, but my sisters keep telling me I need to walk, so I will. And then just days after that, I got my steps in today for my baby Norm. It felt good to be out there, to walk.

ZOMORODI: Baratunde, explain to us why Morgan and Vanessa's answer to this health crisis is to walk and why that is such a surprising or even radical call to action.

THURSTON: I think one is that the walk is in community. These are organized walks. These are groups of women coming together to walk. So that's already a civic act right there. It's a community act. You are seen by each other. You're not alone anymore. And it flies in the face of the forced individualism of our society, which says things like army of one. And so I think it's an act of collective strength and power to encourage people to come together for their health. I think there's power in the life affirmation to move your body. The body is a beautiful gift, and to use it is to celebrate that life and to choose what happens to your body. So much of this history of women and in particular Black women, you don't get a choice what happens to your body. A man chooses that. A state chooses that. A government chooses that for you. So I think of it as deeply life affirming to claim your life and your body.

ZOMORODI: You know, I'm so glad that you've been telling us a little more about you. And, you know, usually, we start these episodes - if the person has given a talk themselves, we ask them about their talk. But we wanted to save yours to the end. And, Baratunde, I love how you started your talk. Just like Vanessa and Morgan, you started with your name.

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THURSTON: My parents gave me an extraordinary name - Baratunde Rafiq Thurston. Now, Baratunde is based on a Yoruba name from Nigeria. But we're not Nigerian.

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THURSTON: That's just how Black my mama was.

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THURSTON: Get this boy the Blackest name possible. What does the book say?

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THURSTON: Rafiq is an Arabic name, but we are not Arabs. My mom just wanted me to have difficulty boarding planes in the 21st century.

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THURSTON: She foresaw America's turn toward nativism. She was a Black futurist.

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THURSTON: Thurston is a British name, but we are not British. Shout out to the multigenerational, dehumanizing economic institution of American chattel slavery, though. Also, Thurston makes for a great Starbucks name, really expedites the process.

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THURSTON: My mother was a Renaissance woman. Arnita Lorraine Thurston was a computer programmer, former domestic worker, survivor of sexual assault, an artist and an activist. She prepared me for this world with lessons in Black history, in martial arts, in urban farming. And then she sent me in the seventh grade...

ZOMORODI: You mentioned her name before, but I'll say it again - Arnita Lorraine Thurston. We've talked a little bit about her, but can you tell us more about the role she played in your ideas about being a citizen? And I hope it's OK to mention that, very sadly, you lost her at a relatively early age, at the age of 65.

THURSTON: Yes, yes, we did. Colon cancer. Yeah, my mother was a powerful being. And I feel very fortunate that she was the one that brought me into this world and helped guide me through it for so many years. My mother was born in 1940, a very different time for what it meant to be Black, what it meant to be a woman in the United States. There was no welcome mat for her. There were no scholarships for her. There was no affirmative action for her, no legacy placement for her. There was just an expectation of worthlessness, of noncontribution. And so the lessons she taught were heavily implicit because I got to look at her life and see, like, who is this mountain-biking, tofu-eating, community-gardening, organizing, computer-programming, British-comedy-loving, Agatha-Christie-reading, Buddhist temple-visiting woman?

ZOMORODI: She sounds so cool.

THURSTON: Not like any other parent. So she was her own person. She evolved herself. I mean, she was a hurt person. She grew up being abused. She experienced violence in the streets. She brought violence into her household but recognized and learned that's not the way. That's huge. She was a parent who acknowledged her mistakes. That is so hard. That is so hard for people to do. And I think she's a model in that way - multitalented, multifaceted person who allowed herself to discover those things that were in her despite most of the world being so incurious about her. So I want her as a bit of a model because I think she is what we collectively can be. We need to grow. We need to look at our histories and our traumas and our pains and acknowledge them and not fear that the mere acknowledgment will destroy us.

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THURSTON: I am here because I was loved and invested in and protected and lucky because I went to the right schools. I'm semifamous, mostly happy, meditate twice a day, and yet I walk around in fear because I know that someone seeing me as a threat can become a threat to my life. And I am tired. I am tired of carrying this invisible burden of other people's fears. And many of us are. And we shouldn't have to because we can change this because we can change the action, which changes the story, which changes the system. Systems are just collective stories we all buy into. When we change them, we write a better reality for us all to be a part of. I am asking us to use our power to choose. I am asking us to level up.

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ZOMORODI: Your mom changed the story. And, you know, you're saying we need to level up, as you put it. Talk to me about leveling up, Baratunde. How do I know if I'm doing it?

THURSTON: I'm getting emotional, just hearing that again. I went to such a deep, vulnerable place for that talk. I think the leveling up is a combination of so much of what we've been talking about, Manoush. It is to do what Valarie asked of us - to see no stranger, even when it feels in the short term like the obvious and easy thing to do is to see some of ourselves in them, as well. When we extend that humanity to others, we deepen the humanity in ourselves. To do the dirt we've done as a species, we have to turn other human beings into monsters. We have to detach some essential part of ourselves from another part of ourselves to survive it because there's a part of us that could not withstand it, so we unplug that part of us. I'm asking us to reconnect that. Leveling up is letting go of the story that no longer serves us and embracing the bigger one that can.

ZOMORODI: You gave your talk in 2019. Here we are a year and a half later, and we are coming out of a presidential election that was divisive. It was drawn out, but it also had historic voting numbers. And, you know, I think for a lot of people, that's big, that people were coming back to that very basic civic duty of voting every two or four years. But do you think that there's more that's actually happening here? I was actually at a socially distanced dinner party for someone turning 80 years old. And one of their sons said, I hope that those schoolbooks that you have on your shelves about civics are dusted off and become used again. And I thought, huh, I wonder if we are in a place where the idea of civics is on the rebound.

THURSTON: No, I think it's on the rebound. We have a lot going on. And we want someone to help. And we hope that the people we elect are going to do that. But we haven't treated them as if they work for us. And I think we can't check out, and we can't just blindly trust or let go in that sense. We can't opt out. There are people who have thought, I don't want to be political. Everything is, though. Maybe you don't want to call it that. But there is a version of the world you would prefer to live in. And the way you achieve that, in part, is through contending for power in our system, which is political. And if you're not engaged in it, someone else is. And they may not be engaged on your behalf. People have this idea of civics as this course and as these hard actions. You have to go to a specific meeting of a city council. You have to sign a petition. You to register to vote and keep your papers in order. And it's some of that. It's some external, multiparty stuff with other people in the real world. But there's also an internal compass setting to citizen. So we have to stay committed.

ZOMORODI: That's Baratunde Thurston. He's a writer, comedian and political commentator. He was our guide today on this episode, How To Citizen, which is the name of his podcast. Go check it out. You can see Baratunde's full talk, which is called "How To Deconstruct Racism, One Headline At A Time" and see all the talks mentioned on this episode at ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

Thank you so much for listening this week. Our TED Radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Farrah Safari. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.