Anand Giridharadas + Whitney Kimball Coe
The Call to Community in a Changed World
Anand Giridharadas is a journalist and writer. He is a former columnist and foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a visiting scholar at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. He is the author of India Calling, The True American, and Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.
Whitney Kimball Coe is the director for national programs and coordinator of the National Rural Assembly at the Center for Rural Strategies. She writes for the Center's blog, "The Daily Yonder."
Krista Tippett, host: No challenge before us is more important and more potentially life-giving than that we come to see and know our fellow citizens, our neighbors who’ve become strangers. My guests today are two people stitching relationship across the ruptures that have made politics such thin veneers over human dramas of power and frailty, of fear and hope. Whitney Kimball Coe is a leader of the Rural Assembly and the Center for Rural Strategies, from her home in East Tennessee. Anand Giridharadas is a renowned journalist, most recently with The New York Times. Both in their mid-30s, they are weavers for a new generation of common life in a changed world.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Anand Giridharadas: When I think about what Whitney’s talking about, the word that comes to me is “commitment.” And I think what’s happened to us is that we’re not committed to each other as a people, so it’s almost like we are in this situation where any disappointment that we encounter in our fellow citizens is like a reason to break up. And part of commitment as a citizen is embracing other people’s dysfunction, and embracing other people’s incompleteness, because you know you have your own. And we’ve ended up in resistance to each other.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Yeah, absolutely. I agree so much with that. And then I think sometimes, too, we have this blind spot where we think we need to be addressing these big, global issues, and we forget what is ours to do in the moment. What is yours to do does not necessarily have to be to bridge all divides across the country. What is yours to do could just be right in front of you. And in a small place, that is so much easier to see, sometimes.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Ms. Tippett: They could not have two more different or more quintessentially American stories. Whitney Kimball Coe grew up in the small town of Athens, Tennessee. Anand Giridharadas grew up of Indian immigrant parents in Cleveland. I sat down with Whitney and Anand at the Obama Foundation’s inaugural summit in Chicago. They were both powerful speakers in the opening session.
Ms. Tippett: I want to start where I always start my conversations, whoever I’m with, to ask about the religious or spiritual background of your childhood, however you would start to talk about that. And Whitney, I want to start with you.
Ms. Kimball Coe: Well, I come from a pretty typical religious background from — in the rural South. My mother is Methodist, and her father was a Methodist minister, and his father was a Methodist minister, and his father was a Methodist minister, and all the way back to Ireland. So I grew up going to church every Sunday and every Wednesday for choir practice, and I’m sure that laid the foundation for what I currently feel is just a practice of showing up in community.
Ms. Tippett: Anand, so the call to come home — your story, the story of your family, actually, begins with the opposite, equally vigorous human impulse: to go elsewhere. You’ve said, “My father crossed an ocean carrying seven dollars and his parents’ prayers.” What was, then, the religious or spiritual background of your childhood in Ohio?
Mr. Giridharadas: So I would say probably all of my grandparents are pretty religious, Hindu. They all live in — live or lived, in India. I think my parents probably don’t believe in 95% of what their parents believed, in any of the specifics. And then by the time it got to me, I kind of don’t believe in that at all.
And I’ll just share one funny story around this, when I got outflanked last week, or a couple weeks ago. So it was Diwali, and my mom sent me a text, like, “Make sure you light a candle today.” And I was thinking to myself, “Well, I’m not really gonna do that, because I don’t believe in this holiday, and I’m not in this religion, and why would I do that?” And so I kind of won that one. My wife was a little bit confused about why it was so important to me not to do this. And then I go to pick my son up from school the other day, and they’re like, “So” — they update the parents on what they did to the two-year-olds — “Well, we had a great day. We had crayons, we had this and that. And we celebrated Diwali and explained to everybody what it is.” And I was like, “You just can’t win. You just — you can’t win.”
So it’s a losing battle to be spiritual-free, but here I am, on your show. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] A word that you use, actually, a fair amount, is the word “magic.” You actually ended up retracing your parents’ steps in the other direction, actually following a call to go home, to the home your parents left; to India. And you say that there you found a “magical” story, the surge of hope and opportunity as the third world became the developing world. And then, yesterday, you took some language from Lou Reed: “We live in an age of magic and loss.” Describe that, what you’re seeing and what that language means for you there.
Mr. Giridharadas: I think when I’m using “magic” in that way, it’s maybe the energy that for other people goes into Sunday and Wednesday, for me goes into thinking about the fact that we — it can’t be that we’re all just here to do a job and commute and raise a kid the same way everybody else does, and that’s it, and that there are greater possibilities for what occurs between people than people normally have the energy to achieve, but that we can do more together than we do. And so I think I kind of have a civic spirituality.
And part of why I’m a writer is, I just think there is all this magic in the ordinariness of people and just how they think about their lives and their conflicts and their hypocrisies. I write a lot about hypocrisy, in a way, but not out of contempt for people but out of love for people, because if you’ve ever — if you own a mirror, you know a lot about hypocrisy. And so that’s what interests me in other people, and the way in which we do have these elevated ideals, but it’s very hard to live up to them, and people try.
Ms. Tippett: And actually, what you’re living into is this everyday, age-old magic — not shiny magic like what technology makes possible, but the language you used, of “staying within sight and sound of each other” and what happens when you do that.
Ms. Kimball Coe: I was trying to remember where I found that quote to begin with, “staying within sight and sound of each other,” but it’s been kind of like a mantra that runs through my head these days. It’s kind of what drives my life, living in Athens, living in a small, rural town. It’s how I’m able to cope with the divisiveness that I see globally, and then nationally. And then, even locally, it trickles down. The pain and suffering of this divisiveness is affecting all of us.
And the more I spend time with people, the less I hurt. So when I’m able to sit with people at a supper, or we have a Monday contemplative sit, actually, at St. Paul’s, and I do that, when I go to the art center in my town and work on a community theater production, anytime I’m actually engaged in an activity or creating something with other people, I hurt less. And I’m hopeful that they do too. So that’s “sight and sound” for me.
Ms. Tippett: Anand, when you talk about the magic and the loss, it’s — some very simple ways to start to talk about that are the magic of what automation, automization, and globalization make possible, on the upside. But Whitney, your part of the country, and small towns in general, and the rural world in general, here and elsewhere is — to be very simplistic — on the losing side of automization and globalization. You said something yesterday that — you said, “We can’t counter and control the forces of automization and globalization, but we can control ourselves.” That just so struck me, because in the context of what we’re learning about our brains — how many forces actually are working against us — controlling ourselves, especially when we’re vulnerable, that’s also a form of magic, of ordinary magic.
Ms. Kimball Coe: I guess that’s true, but at the same time, I’m finding that for me, a response means that it’s a thoughtful action and a practice. And if it’s something that you are practicing like you practice to play an instrument well, if you can practice how you are going to respond in these situations on a regular basis, then you’re going to be more likely to do them more automatically. It doesn’t have to be magic; it can be a learned response.
And that’s not to say we need to accept the forces that are tearing our communities down; globalization, automation, are good in some ways, but they’re also really harming my community. But having a response that is more about leaning into connection when there’s disconnection, leaning into creation when there’s deconstruction happening — that can become a practice.
Ms. Tippett: I wanted to ask you about that, that language of “practice,” because that really is also a — that is a — something that neuroscience is telling us: that what we practice, we become. And it goes for behaviors, as well. It’s interesting language, I think. The “practice of community” is what you talk about. And I — actually, I want to read this blog post you wrote about going to yoga with your daughter.
Ms. Kimball Coe: OK. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] That also makes you 21st-century person, right? Because — well, I do yoga too. That’s probably why I love this.
“She doesn’t know that she is part of creating something everywhere she goes. Just her presence and her participation in this room is a life-giving force. Her round, confident face and eager blue eyes tell us that we are creating something wonderful in this room.
I wonder if there will come a time when those eyes will dim a little bit, and she will look around and ask me why we chose to live in Athens. If she follows in my footsteps, her dissatisfaction will begin around middle school and reach a fever pitch by her senior year. She’ll apply to colleges in metro areas only, and she’ll declare her interest in international studies.
And maybe like me, she’ll arrive in the big city and discover a kind of loneliness that hurts so badly it brings you to your knees. Maybe not. But if she does, that loneliness will fuel that flame inside her, and she’ll start to reexamine her memories of our yoga nights at Art & Frame. She’ll look back on us, gathered there, surrounded by Betty Grater paintings and Julie’s monster mermaids and decide she wants that experience again, for herself and for the people she loves so much.
Or, maybe she’ll never question why we are so devoted to this small, yet imperfect town.”
When you think about the practice of community, what is involved in that on a daily level?
Ms. Kimball Coe: Well, just thinking back about that essay I wrote — it’s called “Yoga Nights at Art & Frame,” and Art & Frame is just a little shop on our main street, and it’s serving as the space for yoga. And none of us have really nice Lululemon clothes or — I think that’s the name of that brand —
Ms. Tippett: Which you did have, though, when you were in college. [laughs]
Ms. Kimball Coe: Which I did have in college.
Mr. Giridharadas: I like how you didn’t admit that up front.
Ms. Kimball Coe: It’s a lot cheaper, now, to live in Athens and just go to Art & Frame. And our yoga teacher is also a SETHRA bus driver, and SETHRA is our social services bus, takes people to where they need to go; so he also happens to teach yoga. And so there are those of us who would like to experience a yoga class, so what do we do? We just make it happen. And I think that takes a drive, and that takes a little extra work to make it happen. The Art & Frame shop is just an old building. There are no mirrors around it. We’re just surrounded by paintings from local artists that have been framed on the walls. So I decided to take Lucy, my seven-year-old, to these yoga nights, because I wanted her to see that just because we don’t live in a big city where there are a million opportunities to do yoga in really nice studios — we can do it here.
And I think that’s how we do our work in Athens, and I think that’s how rural people in general do their work, is, they just get into this habit of creating. If they feel like they’re missing something, then let’s create it, and let’s do it in a way that is reflective of our needs and who we are as a people.
The hardest thing for me sometimes about staying in community is when I sense the despair of the world growing. It does trickle down, and I see it in my own community around addiction and around homelessness. When that kind of despair feels so overwhelming, I think, “I have the means, if I wanted to, to get up and leave and go create a life that — where I don’t have to be a part of that, in particular.” But then I watch a film like the one I just watched in a previous session, here at the Obama Summit, about the opioid addiction. And I see these three women in this film who are leading an effort to connect with their community members, to pull them out of addiction or, at least, to hold their hands as they try to get out of addiction. And that kind of relationship is a meaning-filled relationship. That is what nourishes my spirit, is being in close contact with people in that way. And we get to do that every day, in some way, in a small town.
[music: “Sept With Smith” by Talkdemonic]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, exploring the call to community in a changed world, with journalist Anand Giridharadas and Whitney Kimball Coe of the Rural Assembly. We’re at the Obama Foundation’s inaugural summit in Chicago.
[music: “Sept With Smith” by Talkdemonic]
Ms. Tippett: The question, “Where are you from?” was a question that begins a story, Anand, that is at the center of your book, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, and beautiful TED talk you gave about that. It really struck me, getting ready to have this conversation with the two of you, that that question was right in the middle of that story.
Mr. Giridharadas: It is, and I’m gonna actually, in a very compressed way, tell you — I just realized the other day that that question, “Where are you from?” has just always been with me and a part of my life. And I have three versions of it that are very interesting and different, and I’m gonna do them really fast.
Version one actually happened in India. I’ve been asked it all my life, but when I moved — so I moved to India after college, where I’d never lived, to basically annul all of my parents’ hard work in trying to emigrate to America.
So really, the ultimate rebellion. And in India, people would be like, “Where are you from?” And I’d be like, “Cleveland, Ohio.” And they — obviously, very, very unsatisfied with that, so they’d be like, “No, but where are you” — wink — “where are you really from?” And they want — so I was like, “Well, my parents grew up in Bombay.” “That’s not — where are they ethnically from?” And finally we’d keep going, and they would get ethnic ancestral villages, and they would be satisfied.
Then this book, The True American, is like the opposite side of that, which is the immigrant — not me, in this case, but an immigrant I was writing about who gets shot in the face by a white supremacist after 9/11, and the only thing he heard from the shooter, right before he got shot, was, “Where are you from?” And he said, “Excuse me?” And because he said “Excuse me” — those two words — in his accent, the white supremacist in his twisted logic knew, “Yes, I’m correct, this is someone I should shoot.”
And then the third one, that complicates and comes close to what I’m so moved by in Whitney’s story is, this guy came to our house, an older, white manager of an electronics store, to install a stove. And he was installing the stove, and he’s standing in my living room, and yet again, this question comes up, “Where are you from?” And he says it to me, standing in my house in Brooklyn, delivering a stove.
Now this is a third meaning of the question, and we all know what the guy is after. And in the most uncharitable but honest interpretation of the situation, he’s like, “Why are you brown?” Like, “What’s up with your brownness? Where are you from?” He wasn’t looking for “Ohio.” But in this moment, for some reason, I tried another thing, and I said, “I’m originally from Cleveland” — glazed-over look — “but — born in Cleveland, but originally from India. My family is Indian.” Clearly, he got what he wanted. And then, in this awkward, un-P.C., lovely way, he’s like, “I thought so. You know, my brother married an Indian woman. And our family was not a great family, but when she came into our family, it kind of fixed everything. And she’s the light of our whole family. And I thought you might…” And it was actually a really transformative moment for me.
By any reading of “woke” America’s standards, the guy was wrong. You don’t ask a brown guy, in his living room in Brooklyn, where he’s from. But when I somehow, for whatever random reason, decided to move past the small thing and see what was there, what was actually there was a guy who had not been raised to have this conversation, trying to basically tell me, “I really like the country that you seem to me to be ancestrally from, because it saved my dysfunctional family.”
And I think about that conversation a lot, because I think we actually don’t know, statistically, how often, when people like him make that attempt, how often would it go the racist way, and how often are they trying to do what he was trying to do? And so when we talk about connecting across these boundaries in America, I think a lot about how do we have more of those moments without people like me having to answer — show our papers in our living room, and yet, get the juice that I got out of going there?
Ms. Tippett: I think what you’re speaking to is this middle ground that we hardly know how to — this human ground that we hardly know how to inhabit with each other, which has something to do with just getting an impulse to control our immediate responses, but also just being willing to be surprised.
Mr. Giridharadas: There’s this concept that some economists talk about, about the barbell economy. There’s no middle anymore. There’s super-rich people, and there’s the mass of the poor, and the middle class is dying. And I don’t know the numbers, but I suspect there’s a lot more people there who are just invisible to this conversation. I think — I’m talking about a group of people who I think are not “swing voters” in the sense of elections, but are swing voters between a kind of politics of hate and a politics of love. And what I really fear, frankly, thinking of myself as someone who is part of — closer to that politics of love worldview or that inclusion worldview, is, I think we’re terrible at even attempting to win over those people in the middle.
When I think about what Whitney’s talking about, the word that comes to me is “commitment.” It’s not just that you came home or that you — you’re committed to your home, and you’re committed to it in a way that to me, almost sounds more like the way people talk about marriage. You’re not there because you know it’s gonna be good; you’re willing to be there even if it’s not great. And I think what’s happened to us is that we’re not committed to each other as a people, so it’s almost like we are in this kind of situation where any disappointment that we encounter in our fellow citizens is like a reason to break up, and any deviation from deeply fulfilling each other as fellow citizens is like a tragedy. And part of commitment as a citizen is embracing other people’s dysfunction, and embracing other people’s incompleteness, because you know you have your own. And we’ve ended up in resistance to each other.
Ms. Kimball Coe: Yeah, absolutely. I agree so much with that. And at the local level, that resistance can sometimes be a resistance to living in community in a committed way, in a humble way, where you are recognizing that you, yourself, have your own dysfunctions and weaknesses. And then I think sometimes too, we are — we have this blind spot where we think we need to be addressing these big, global issues, and we forget what is ours to do in the moment. What is yours to do does not necessarily have to be to bridge all divides across the country. It doesn’t have to be to end the opioid epidemic. What is yours to do could just be right in front of you. And in a small place, that is so much easier to see, sometimes: that just one action, or one point of connection, can strengthen your humility and commitment to the space around you.
[music: “Wavy Glass” by Podington Bear]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Whitney Kimball Coe and Anand Giridharadas at civilconversationsproject.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Wavy Glass” by Podington Bear]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with Anand Giridharadas and Whitney Kimball Coe. She directs national programs for the Center for Rural Strategies, from her home in East Tennessee. He is a journalist, most recently with The New York Times, and an author of powerful books and TED talks. I see the two of them as weavers from very different histories and places in our life together, of common life for a changed world. We spoke at the Obama Foundation’s inaugural summit in Chicago.
Ms. Tippett: Anand and I are both in the media, and we do things that are somewhat divergent from what we learned, but we’re still part of this. And I wonder, when you read newspapers, if you do — everybody doesn’t, anymore — or when you read news, or hear news, or hear the story of our time, the official story of our time as it gets told — what is missing, for you, in terms of the story of our time that is being lived in Athens, Tennessee?
Ms. Kimball Coe: Well, the newspaper I read is a daily newspaper. It’s in my local community, and I read the obituaries first, and that’s a common practice for us. And then, if I’m reading The New York Times online, I’m intrigued by the flyover picture that gets told of, especially, rural communities. There’s not a whole lot of embedded journalists at the moment who are, I think, spending the real time it’s gonna take to tell the nuanced, complex story of historical trauma in rural communities. So when I read those more mainstream newspapers, I’m struck by how that complexity is not there. I also see a lack of human connection, but I’m looking for that all the time. I’m practiced at looking for that.
Ms. Tippett: I was just looking at my notes — there’s something you — yeah, I think, for example, that the language of “flyover,” and even the language of “Rust Belt,” is so demeaning that — we think that’s OK. We thought that was OK all through the election, to talk about places people come from and love as the “Rust Belt.” And there’s something where you were writing — a piece you wrote in New America. This was just an alternative, right? You were talking about being with 50 other rural leaders and colleagues from 17 states, working in health, education, energy, and investment. And you say, “We came from Indian Country, the Black Belt, Appalachia, the Delta, the Midwest, and the Colonias” — what’s that?
Ms. Kimball Coe: Those are unincorporated townships along the Texas-Mexico border.
Ms. Tippett: “The Colonias along the border.”
Ms. Kimball Coe: Those are all part of rural America. And I think people often think of rural America as this monolith that’s white, poor, angry, racist, bigoted, all those things; in fact, when I was invited to speak at this, it was suggested that I address some of those stereotypes. But that exhausts me, the idea of having to be the apologist for “rural.” That’s not what I want to do. And part of my talk yesterday, I wanted to make sure I highlighted that rural America is this incredibly diverse place that includes all those beautiful spaces that all have different issues at the forefront of their minds, but a lot of them are the same too.
Ms. Tippett: I want to talk about the elites, which — I think we were kind of wandering into that space. How do you define the “elites”? And this is a global phenomenon. This is this new way of talking about a chasm.
Mr. Giridharadas: I think there’s a — you could define it any number of ways, many of which have nothing new to them; so there’s financial elites, there’s educated elites, there’s landed elites, or whatever. But I think what’s new and interesting in our time is a global phenomenon that I think about as people — that you can get into it through money, or through education, or through raw intellectual ability or artistic talent. There’s different ways in. I think what defines it is: a group of people better connected to each other than to anywhere. And in places like Athens, and most of the surface area of the world, actually, all these amazing changes didn’t actually change most people’s possibilities. It’s amazing, all that we’ve invented without actually changing most people’s bottom line. The bottom half of Americans, on average, has not earned a dollar more over the last 35 years.
Ms. Tippett: So what’s been missing for me, and especially since the election, is any acknowledgment of complicity, our complicity — the elites, they are us. I speak for myself — that feeling at home, being — not feeling absolutely on the losing side of all of this change, all the ways you describe it; also, if you’re paid by the year and not the hour, if no one you know uses meth, if you live near a Whole Foods.
Mr. Giridharadas: What’s so interesting — I was talking some weeks ago with a writer friend of mine, Katherine Boo, and some of you may know her incredible book on India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. And we were talking about when there is injustice in the world, when there’s inequality, when there are haves and have nots, the journalists can train their attention on one of two different places. And the obvious place to go is the kind of drama and color of the people who are on the wrong end of that distribution. And by the way, those people don’t have PR agencies. They’re not gonna sue you. They’re usually very nice, and open, and happy to tell their story. So there’s this weird way in which a lot of us writers, when we see a power divide, really chronicle the wrong end of it. We’re not actually covering the choices that are made to allow people to live like this.
The more interesting story is the ways in which good people preside over indecent decisions. To take one example: in theory, no one in this room could provide one philosophical justification for any public school in America having a different level of per-student funding than any other public school. Does anybody here — raise your hand if you want to give me any kind of philosophical justification for it. Right. I thought so. But has anybody fought that issue?
Ms. Tippett: Right, and if we don’t claim this, as you say, if we don’t call ourselves out, just by way of naming — telling truth, we can’t reckon with that. We can’t hold those questions.
Mr. Giridharadas: I think it’s just understanding that the world isn’t as it is by natural forces, as one of the speakers said yesterday. The world is engineered. And the hopeful thing about that is, it is actually not that complicated to engineer differently. And a lot of the things that have made the world more kind, decent, and fair are kind of boring, simple, technical, and magnificent.
The 40-hour workweek — it’s like, how boring. What could be more boring than a 40-hour workweek? Do you know what that — actually just think for a second of what that did to people’s lives, the races to the bottom that that prevented. And I think part of it is that if you’ve grown up in what I call the “age of markets,” which is the last 30, 40 years, you actually don’t know the story of how we made the world more decent.
Ms. Tippett: And Whitney, how does this whole — the notion of elites and the conversation, to the extent that there is one about that — how does that land in your world, or in your ears?
Ms. Kimball Coe: Well, there are different levels of how it plays out on the ground. But then in terms of rural advocacy and rural policy, I think there’s a case to be made around bridging rural interests with urban interests, because we’re both — our futures are so tied together. So I feel like, in fact, I’m kind of a transient person; I go back and forth to conferences like this, certainly, but to D.C. And the only way that I feel like break down those elite barriers is for both of those sides to come together in conversation about specifics.
Ms. Tippett: You’re a bridge person, right? You have a leg in both worlds.
Ms. Kimball Coe: I think so. I think I do. I have been wondering, how am I gonna go home after this and top this experience, in a way, and reclaim my space in a smaller place? But I’m sure I’ll pick it right back up.
It really is all about — human connection is figuring out how to find out — to be curious about other people’s stories. And I think these categories of elite and not are sometimes false and red herrings, and they keep us from just really looking at the people in front of us, and our situations as they are, and they keep us from finding those bridges to one another.
Ms. Tippett: And there is also a hard edge to these discussions, these interrelated discussions now, even where the “elite” piece comes in, people who say there’s so much injustice, and we’ve been neglecting our inner cities forever, and people have been vulnerable and endangered there forever, and those children not growing up with the care or the dreams they deserve. And then, suddenly, we’re paying so much attention to white communities that forever have been the beneficiaries and now, in fact, are suffering from some policies and structures that started out to essentially punish black people. And this argument goes that history is long, and these were privileged places, and now that privilege has been taken away, and it’s just hard knocks.
Ms. Kimball Coe: Back to that film that I watched in this last session about the opioid addiction — this is a really risky thing for me to say, but I just feel like I’m only one pill away from being that person. It’s like we’re all actually very close to the edge. No matter how secure we think we are, we’re not. There is no guarantee that you will not suffer. There is no guarantee that you will not eventually be on the losing side of a policy, so what can you do now to start digging in and seeing how you can — not avoid it for yourself, but just change that, reform the system? I think we are all just so close to that line, and we’ve got to live with the tension of knowing that one day we may be here, and one day, we may be on the other side.
Mr. Giridharadas: I think one of the things I’m thinking about is — thinking about a place like Athens, or any number of rural spaces, I think the most dangerous, exciting possibility in American politics has always been the possibility that mostly-white, rural communities would actually come into coalition with black communities with whom, actually, there is an enormous amount of overlapping interests. And I think it would actually lead us to a very different conversation than we’ve had, because we’ve — it almost seems like right now, we’re optimizing for having the most divisive conversation we could possibly have, and there are so many things —
Ms. Tippett: We’re in all these repetitive patterns.
Mr. Giridharadas: When I go talk to people — I’ll tell you a boring issue that just comes up all the time, everywhere you go, when you talk to real people in this country, which is the fluctuation of hours and of work. If you just go to any store, and you actually overhear what people are talking about when they work in the store, with each other, or any restaurant, it’s hours shifting, week to week. It’s not getting enough hours. It’s people employing you 29 hours, so they don’t have to give you health care. It’s hours, hours, hours. If I was a smart politician in America, which I will never be, for reasons of both of those words, I think I would go after that, because people really don’t care about their race and religion when they’re being exercised and animated by that issue. But I think we have such unimaginative leaders who are so bad at turning — you’ve talked about “anger is what pain looks like in public” — who are so bad at anticipating pain before it has frothed into anger.
Ms. Tippett: Could you imagine that conversation, that move?
Ms. Kimball Coe: I certainly would love to have a conversation about leadership and what — how we better democratize leadership. There are people out there who are doing incredible pieces of work and could be that person who stitched together the country, and I happen to think they might even be coming from rural America, but maybe their voices haven’t got the platform yet to be heard, because they don’t have broadband access or — there are reasons why we haven’t lifted up those leaders who are unknown at the moment. We’re just not hearing good leadership that’s around bridge-building, that’s around leaning into tough conversations in a grace-filled and humble way. There are not that many people out there who are just really exciting us enough to stitch together these ideas.
Mr. Giridharadas: If I can make a point about leaders, I think we also look for stock characters. We’re not very imaginative. So if I think about who are interesting bridge figures — like a white cop from Queens or Staten Island who lives in New York City, chooses to live in New York City, is comfortable living with 8 million people, a quarter of whom are foreign-born, but is white and understands what it means to live in America, being white, in a time when white privilege is in decline, and can speak to white people who are pissed about that and also can say, “At the end of the day, it’s really awesome to live in a city of 8 million people from all over the world.”
But are we running white politicians from Queens? Are we running black, industrial, laid-off workers from Indiana? I don’t really see them. We run a lot of stock characters who then just confirm these tribes. This country is full of people who scramble the tribe. This is a country full of people who hate illegal immigrants and are married to them.
[music: “Kerala” by Bonobo]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, exploring the call to community in a changed world, with journalist Anand Giridharadas, and Whitney Kimball Coe of the Rural Assembly. We’re at the Obama Foundation’s inaugural summit in Chicago.
[music: “Kerala” by Bonobo]
Ms. Tippett: Anand, you told this story yesterday, about the starfish and the Grinch. Would you just tell that briefly?
Mr. Giridharadas: So there’s this very popular parable that is doing the rounds. I actually don’t know who the original author of this is. If you look on the internet, there are many claimants. But the story is that two friends are walking on the beach and see thousands of starfish, and one friend picks up a few of these starfish and throws them back into the ocean to save them, and the other is looking at these thousands and thousands of starfish and said, “What difference does it make?” And the thrower says, “It makes a difference to that one,” as he perfectly tosses one back.
And the story is popular in our age because it’s a story about, I think, making the small little doable change that you can make, not asking the questions that I think the Grinch — the guy asking “What difference does it make?” — was perhaps getting at, but silenced by the storyteller, or censored by the storyteller. And I think the Grinch was maybe getting at the questions of why are the starfish being beached? What’s happening to these starfish? Why are they ending up here?
And so what often happens is that we look at problems like — “All these kids who are not getting to graduation — that is so terrible, so terrible. Let’s do a little Citibank charter school, and we will give them some nice gowns for the graduation, and we’ll do photos. It’ll be on the website.”
And that charter school is real, and those kids are real, and they do graduate, and it’s not worse than not doing it, but it is a way of not looking at foreclosures. It’s a way of not looking at redlining. Because those kids are probably not waking up, being like, “OK, I better not graduate, so I can maintain these national statistics.” They want to graduate. Something’s coming between them and graduating. Something is beaching the starfish.
Ms. Tippett: Something that struck me when you told the story, at the beginning of this summit, is, we think the Grinch is not acting. But maybe the Grinch is just getting started with his questions.
Mr. Giridharadas: So autobiographical, isn’t it?
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] It’s autobiographical. But it’s also…
Mr. Giridharadas: You and me are the Grinches with our questions.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] That’s right. Well, it’s a wonderful way to think about us as a people right now, and also just dwelling with these big, hard, tangly questions. But also, it made me think, also, as the person who grew up in a small town in Oklahoma. And I have to say, I left, and I stayed away. And that’s been on my mind and my heart this year.
But that the Grinch just starting to ask his questions is also — would be a way to think about — how do we create that space to let people get to a good place that we have to create together, at their pace, or at a different pace? I don’t know.
Ms. Kimball Coe: Certainly, in my community it’s a slower pace, so I feel like I do have the space to measure a response, in a way. I’m always thinking about how do I show up? How do I show up in the world and in my community and beyond, and am I going to show up with an open mind, an open heart, and with curiosity? Or am I going to go in, guns blazing, looking for a high for my ego, and see if I can nail this interview right now, in a way? And it’s such a freeing way to live, if you can approach all of these interactions from a more open, curious perspective. That’s where I am, these days — “How am I bringing myself into a space?”
Mr. Giridharadas: We live in an age that loves the solution. One of the things you experience, when you’re a writer in this age who tries to partake in an age-old tradition of writing as criticism, as holding up a mirror, not as ten-point planning, is that you get shamed for not offering solutions. The number of times I’ve been at a cocktail party — I also, maybe, go to too many cocktail parties — but cornered by someone who’s like, “It’s all fine and good, the way you’ve exposed this problem, but what’s your plan?”
When we actually relax our need for solutions, I think we create space for two things, one of which you just talked about, which is curiosity, when you can actually, instead of saying, “How do you solve this?” — if you like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work or are provoked by it, instead of being like, “OK, what’s your plan?” — let’s start some curiosity. What does he make you curious about? If you’re white, what does he make you — now that you’re unsettled or angry or agreeing or whatever, what are you left curious about?
And second, this idea of creating space for criticism, and understanding that criticism, too, is generative, to go back to that word you started with. And we’ve really — James Baldwin was generative. If you don’t think James Baldwin was generative, you’re missing the sociology of how a society works.
Ms. Tippett: I actually — we have to finish, but I actually want to read something you said here yesterday, in Chicago. “It is hardly the fault of the rest of us that those wielding unearned privilege bristle at surrendering it. But it is our problem. The burden of citizenship is committing to your fellow citizens and accepting that what is not your fault may be your problem.”
As we close, I just want to ask each of you, right now what makes you despair, and what gives you hope?
Ms. Kimball Coe: I’m despairing and both hopeful because of our children. And I’m thinking of children everywhere, but in rural communities, we’re deeply worried for our children. They’re facing a lot of hurdles and a lot of disparities. But they are also our hope, and they’re potentially our homecomers, the people who will come home and bring back all that knowledge that they got elsewhere and marry it with the knowledge that they were brought up on. And that is the hope for our communities, so I think our children are both of those things.
Ms. Tippett: Anand?
Mr. Giridharadas: I think the despair is that we’ve fallen not just out of love, but out of interest with each other. I actually think more and more of us love “our” America, but don’t necessarily love America or Americans. We love the ones we love. We love the ones who love us. It’s kind of become like a bad college relationship. We’re a country peopled by these rowdy, restless gamblers who tried to make it work, and I think we have lost our way. But I think if we can remember that the whole enterprise here is simply to try to make it work — that’s the experiment. That’s it. That’s how you get the “A.” We’re not trying to make it work to create wealth. We’re not trying to make it work to create innovation. We’re not trying to make it work to restore some illusory, lost greatness. We’re trying to make it work to make it work — and if we can make this work, it perhaps suggests that the world is not one as a world, but the world is actually one here, in America. What a great, great thing to try.
Ms. Tippett: I’m really grateful that you’re both in the world, and it’s a real honor to be in this conversation with you, and thank you all for coming.
Ms. Kimball Coe: Thank you.
[music: “Maedchen” by Metavari]
Ms. Tippett: Whitney Kimball Coe is the director of national programs, and coordinator of the National Rural Assembly, at the Center for Rural Strategies. Her piece about her local yoga class with her daughter and other writings can be found on the Center for Rural Strategies’ blog, The Daily Yonder. Anand Giridharadas is the author of two books, India Calling and The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas. I also highly recommend his two TED talks. And you can watch both of their presentations at the Obama Foundation Summit at obama.org.
[music: “Maedchen” by Metavari]
Staff: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Malka Fenyvesi, Erinn Farrell, Jill Gnos, Laurén Dørdal, and Gisell Calderón.
Ms. Tippett: Special thanks this week to the wonderful Obama Foundation team, especially Logan McClure, Hilary Cohen, Kavya Shankar, Brendan Sullivan, Chris Malloy, Neil Mehta, Rachel Reynolds, and Michael Strautmanis.
And this week, we also say farewell with deep gratitude to Trent Gilliss, our friend and a founding force of the On Being Project.
[music: “Mako” by Emancipator]
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
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