There. That got your attention? Well, that is Baratunde Thurston for you. A fast thinking, funny, multi-versed black activist that is easy on the eye, but deadly in the wielding of his favorite weapons: facts, wrapped in irony and vitriol. He is a tough believer in the inclusive power of citizens, the collective force of people standing up peacefully, but firmly, for what is good and right. His message to the media, marketing and communication professionals and to owners of businesses small and tall, is delivered with style, a twinkle in the eye, an ounce of pathos, and… squarely in the teeth.
How to be black
Baratunde Thurston was one of the star-writers for the satiric magazine “The Onion”. He quickly stood out of the pack with his ability to get his points through in hard and complex conversations. His vast knowledge on a multitude of social, historic, societal, economic and technical matters mixed well with his positive vibe, his blend of humor, intriguing depth and solid compassion. He was an adviser for Obama, produced the Daily Show, wrote a stellar book on “How to be black”, deconstructing in a very comprehensive way the racial politics in America. Reading that book, as a middle aged white European man, whacked me off my socks. Baratunde is Emmy-nominated, and hosts now his podcast “How To Citizen with Baratunde”. He received the Social Impact Award earlier this year.
Don’t focus on the negative
Thurston is tired of the avalanche of mostly and overwhelmingly negative messages that he was receiving every time something happened: from his friends, his white friends, the media. Way too much concentration on passive negativity. Way too much attention focused on problems in the world. He thinks just looking at problems, turning them around, nurturing them, only makes them bigger and uglier. He observes a blatant lack of focus on people working to alleviate or fix , or deal with this problems. Just pointing out a problem, and sit and wait until something gets done, is depressing, demeaning, dis-empowering. He finds it tiring, futile, exhausting and -frankly- sad.
How to citizen, in 4 steps.
Baratunde Thurston thinks citizenship is action. It starts from within, and it spreads around. That reminds me of a conversation I had with Nicolas Faret, Chief Digital Officer Group Randstad France: “There is no better place to change the world for good than starting with yourself. With being the best leader you possibly can. Offer choices and chances. Let people blossom. Show them their actions matter, for the team, the company, and -why not- the world. Change starts from within. It’s our responsibility”.
Thurston identifies 4 clear steps: First, get out of your bed, out of your comfort zone, show up and participate. Take it into your hands. Matter. Make a difference. Change. It’s active, it’s do-stuff. Secondly: invest in the people around you. Forge and build relationships of trust. You, and the others: you can’t do this alone, you need a family, a team, a tribe. You need to lead by example. You need this fragile relational exercise: it’s what living, working, activating together is about. It is about trust. About changing things together. Side by side, shoulder by shoulder. .
Thirdly: earn, claim, discover your power. As an individual, as a group. Understand your power, and what it can do and change if you use it. For good, and bad. Don’t be ashamed of it, just use it well, to perfection, smart and with a heart. Fourthly: focus on things that matter for the many, not the few. Shift, make, bend for the benefit of the many and not just the few. Thurston wants to clean the word “power”, educate people in its meaning and in its use. A philosophy of Power literacy. No less. Thurston wants to recognize collective power through individual action, reinterpreting the word “citizen” as a verb, a call for civic action everybody can/should do.
And you? What will you do?
Baratunde Thurston talked about racism, insurrection, and digital exploitation. He called on brands and businesses to claim and exercise their collective power as societal players. Businesses and brands need to invest in a wide range of people, from different backgrounds, and on all levels: up, down and through the organization. They need to look beyond the products they offer. What do they stand for? Why do they matter? How will they make a difference? For what cause? They need to invest in places that have been divested from. Creating new ways of doing business, smarter hiring, better retaining employees, telling stories that matter. Using the power, for good.
You are what you can dream
Baratunde highlighted the importance of using our dreams, our creativity and our imaginations to create a better society. We live in a world of illusion, let’s create something better: “SXSW isn’t real, it’s an illusion. Money, the Federal Reserve. It’s only real, because we believe in it. That’s what makes it happen. Our believes. Without that, there is nothing. … As marketers, makers and community builders, we conjure up realities all the time, so let’s conjure up a new one that benefits all of us, not just a minority.“
And that calls for standing your ground, and be faithful to your very values: “If you are against human trafficking, you should be against the trafficking of human data, in any way. We did not create the internet for it to be controlled by a handful of companies. Companies, that are nothing without our data, mind you. “
Thurston wants the “holders of power” to use that power for good. “Individual choices, team choices, tribe choices… choice by choice, is how we, as a society, will make wider, wilder change. A greater ‘me’ equals a greater ‘we’’. That is where it starts.”