Interview with Baratunde Thurston, Creator & Host, How to Citizen 

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Photo by Erik Carter

Interviewed By Claire-Solène Becka, Operations Coordinator, Design Museum Everywhere 

Baratunde Thurston is an Emmy-nominated, multi platform storyteller and producer operating at the intersection of race, tech, democracy, and climate. He is the host of the PBS television series America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston, creator and host of How To Citizen with Baratunde which Apple named one of its favorite podcasts of 2020, and a founding partner of the new media startup Puck. 

Claire-Solène: How do you practice citizenship? How could you design a routine to citizen? 

Baratunde: There are many elements to my citizen practice, and it’s constantly evolving. Some basics I practice are to acknowledge the people in whatever space I’m in. That means eye contact, greetings, and generally paying attention. At the city level, I explore local media where I live and support with my money and attention. I vote. I learn about the communities I live in. I compost. I’m generally careful and conscious in how I choose to use my voice. We can citizen – I prefer “citizen” as a verb – at many different levels: with ourselves, in our households, neighborhoods, companies, sports teams, workplaces, cities, states, regions, nations, and (for now just one) planet. Everyone’s routine citizen practice can be different, but I’d recommend starting that design with the four pillars of How To Citizen we came up with for the podcast. They are: show up and participate; invest in relationships with yourself, others, and the planet around you; understand power; and use all this to benefit the collective. There’s infinite possibilities in each of these for each of us. Ask yourself how each pillar might apply to your role in a particular community, then try it out. If it feels good, do it again, and again, and pretty soon you’ve got a routine.

CB: One of the pillars of How to Citizen is participation: how would you recommend designing one’s own participation? What might it look like, depending on individual values?

BT: A lot of folks think “civic engagement” or civic participation involves public office, either voting or running. Those are important, but they represent the vast minority of the ways we can show up for each other and participate in society. My first recommendation is for you to assume you have a role to play. That’s it. Just think to yourself, “I’m partially responsible for what’s going on in my community, and for changing it.” Taking personal ownership in your mind is a step toward claiming some of that power which is supposed to belong to the people.

Another recommendation is to align your participation with what you’re good at or interested in. If you hate plants and soil – first of all, that’s really sad – but if you hate plants and soil maybe don’t start your participation by joining the community garden. If you’re into sports, start or join a local league. If you’re good at throwing events, volunteer for the events committee of a local organization. Showing up and participating isn’t about becoming a different person; it’s about bringing who you are to the community you’re part of.

CB: How can we design systems so that people feel like they can use their power, another of How to Citizen’s pillars?

BT: We can start by stopping the rhetoric that says there are “powerful people” and “powerless people.” While it’s true that we have massive concentrations of wealth and certain types of influence in our world, I think it’s destructive for us to internalize this notion that some of us have power and others don’t. One of the most important lessons I learned in making this podcast was from Eric Liu at Citizen University who reminded me that we all have power, in many forms, and we can shift it, generate it, build it. Any system redesign should be premised on the people being literate in our own power and its different forms: gathering, sharing ideas, spending money, paying attention, just to name a few.

A simple exercise I recommend is to ask yourself: how do I have power? Then consider it in different contexts from the very personal to the most global. You might realize you have financial power in every purchase and with your decision of where to bank. You might realize you have moral power when you work with others to boycott an organization. You might realize you have cultural power when you get your company to change its language around hiring or that you have modest physical power when you work with neighbors to dig out someone’s car from the snow.

We must design systems to make power visible, mapping the flows of money, influence, people, and we must design them to remind people that we have the power to change all these. After all, we created them.

CB: What does a BIPOC perspective on designing participation show us?

BT: What comes to mind is that in the history of the U.S., it’s often excluded Black people who have rallied to make this country live up to its documented ideals. By some measures, we appeared to be powerless, not even considered human, and yet we generated power collectively to overthrow a monstrous system of exploitation and violence and pull the country (and all its inhabitants including white ones) toward something more just. As we reckon with the magnitude of the climate crisis, we are realizing that the regenerative agricultural practices of Indigenous people we displaced and tried to destroy are essential to our collective survival. Those are a few historical perspectives on BIPOC participation in a system.

CB: How can you prevent participation burnout?

BT: This is connected to your previous question. I also think we can learn from BIPOC folks that the design of participation in a civic system needs to be joyful, positive, and encouraging, not simply obligatory or fear-based. I think of the songs, dances, cookouts that have been part of various movements for liberation. We don’t get people to act merely by threat, by reminding them of all the terrible things that will happen if they don’t act. That can work, but it’s not sustainable, and it’s not enjoyable. I think about the emails and text messages I get from the Democratic Party, and it’s horrible. They are universally threatening and desperate in tone. They are hostage-taking in spirit. It’s like someone in the Democratic Party saw the National Lampoon cover which said “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog,” and
built an entire fundraising ecosystem on that premise. If I don’t give three dollars, America is going to die. This is a fast track to burnout. We prevent burnout by offering diverse ways to participate just like a trainer helps us work different muscle groups. We prevent burnout by building in rest because no one can run hard all the time. And we prevent burnout by designing the participation in a way that makes people feel good so they actually want to participate.

CB: Do you consider yourself a storyteller? How would you describe the role of storytellers in our community?

BT: Yes I do. Storytellers make sense of reality for us. We translate. We explain. We help process emotions. Most of what we experience in life isn’t raw, tangible, reality. We experience a story of reality. We read about it. See it on a screen. Hear someone tell us about it. And we trust those narrators so much we build our lives around their stories. Those stories are things like “the U.S. dollar has value” and “Black men are violent” and “rich people have more value than poor people.” Reality is largely a set of collective stories we’ve bought into. So much of the division we’re experiencing in the world is a battle of stories. That’s a bit destabilizing on one hand, but it’s also empowering because we can craft new stories and draw people into them and create new realities that serve our collective well-being better than the stories we inherited.

CB: You’ve spoken about how you created How to Citizen—why did you choose a podcast as your storytelling medium?

BT: To be honest, I chose podcasting because no one I pitched in the television world would make the show. Podcasting was initially plan B. Then I remembered what I loved about audio in general and podcasting in particular. It’s an intimate medium that creates a one on one connection between the show and the listener. It’s a form of story we can experience while we do other things like laundry and walking and commuting. It’s high resolution enough to create an emotional bond yet low resolution enough to leave something to the listener’s imagination, namely the image. For How To Citizen, podcasting has been a perfect launch pad. It’s a book that doesn’t have to end, and it’s one we can co-author with our listeners.


CB: How would you describe the role of designers in shaping communities?

BT: Designers have a lot of power in shaping communities. They can determine the literal physical constraints of life, how we move about our shared spaces, how much light we have access to. This is true of virtual communities just as much. Designers can drop us into an abyss or create experiences that welcome us lovingly into community. A designer’s powers can be used for good or ill depending on how well the designer works with the community they are trying to shape. Is that shaping consensual or imposed by the needs of a few? Is that shaping open to change after the community has had experience in it?


CB: How can we design our education system to better teach people how to citizen?

BT: Oh there are books on this I haven’t even heard of, but I’ve seen some things I think can help. I’m on the board of an organization called which uses entrepreneurship to help overlooked and underestimated kids engage with their educations. It’s communal and participatory and dynamic. Kids we arrest and deport and fear come up with their own businesses, work together to figure out the product, marketing, and financials. They build skills and community. It’s beautiful to see kids we consider liabilities start to see themselves as assets. There are many programs that do some version of this. But our educational system overall does not. BUILD should be the default, not a special program. We need to teach our kids (and ourselves) power.

We need to design education in a way that has the students shaping the curriculum and practicing what they are learning. But to do that we have to actually want to teach people how to citizen. That’s a big assumption in your question. When I see states restricting voting, restricting books, restricting history lessons, restricting the acknowledgment of our LGBTQ+ neighbors, I see people afraid of a world in which the people really do have the power. They are so afraid of losing the story they were raised on, they will deny a new story that could work even better for them and others. So to better teach how to citizen, we have to let go of that fear of the new story.


Photo by Mathieu Young

From Design Museum Magazine Issue 023