Baratunde Thurston on Staying Civically Engaged During a Pandemic

The activist-comedian comes to SXSW Online with some tips

Baratunde Thurston
Baratunde Thurston (Photo by Erik Carter)

Baratunde Thurston wants you to know how to citizen. The New York Times bestselling author of How to Be Black – also a noted TED speaker, onetime advisor to the Obama administration, and former producer for The Daily Show – now hosts the podcast How to Citizen With Baratunde. His mission statement? For people to recognize the collective power they have through individual action, reinterpreting the word "citizen" as a verb representative of civic action that we all have the capacity to do.

But what does being able to citizen mean in the age of COVID-19, a time defined by isolation and physical distance? "The first step is being very clear about what it means to citizen," Thurston tells the Chronicle. "It means showing up. It means investing in relationships with other people. It means understanding our power." The emphasis on the potential we have working with one another is a major point of concentration for Thurston. "We do all this for the benefit of the many, not just a few," he says.

Thurston recognizes that the opportunities to have a positive impact on each other and our communities haven't gone away because of the pandemic; rather, we've adapted to new ways to look out for one another. "We observe physical distances," he explains. "We wash our hands. We wear masks, even if our governors tell us we don't have to. They're wrong. We get vaccinated when it's our turn to do so. We spread good information, not false information, which is not information, it's propaganda."

Most important is the acknowledgment that the pandemic is something that has affected every single one of us. Thurston urges that "we recognize more than any specific action that we take, that we're not out of this until we're all out of this."

Thurston especially admires the grassroots efforts of communities to help their neighbors, citing a community fridge operation that started in Brooklyn and has since grown into a nationwide campaign. "It's been great for people who feel like 'I wanna do something,'" Thurston says. "I can't make a vaccine like Dolly Parton can, apparently. I can't accelerate science to that degree. I can't wave a magic wand and give stimulus checks to everybody ... but what I can do is, I can clean this fridge, even if I don't have any extra food. I can stock it. I can join a WhatsApp to help organize the maintenance of it. It's so on-the-ground in the literal sense."

Ultimately, Thurston hopes we can actively work toward empathy and understanding by focusing our attention past fend-for-yourself attitudes and shitty politicians, with one infamous Texan mentioned in particular. "Texas is ground zero for a lot of nonsense and beauty in this country right now. You have to suffer through Ted Cruz. And I really wouldn't wish that on anybody. Like, even Ted Cruz I wouldn't wish Ted Cruz on because I have enough compassion to not want something so horrible for a fellow human being." That compassion is what Thurston wants us to carry with us amidst an era of so much contention and hostility: "It doesn't make us weak to meet other people and to help other people in need. It makes us stronger."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

SXSW 2021, SXSW Online, Baratunde Thurston, How to Be Black, How to Citizen With Baratunde

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