Justice Begins with Imagination (Ruha Benjamin)

Show Description

According to Ruha Benjamin, we’re living inside someone else’s imagination. An imagination that  limits our ability to build a more just, liberated world. So, how do we take back our agency and begin to seed something different? Baratunde talks with Princeton professor and founding director of the Just Data Lab, Ruha Benjamin to find out.

Show Notes & Actions

Show Transcript

Ruha Benjamin  0:01

We can talk about the hardware and software all day, but social technologies like trust, like mutuality, we have to invest as much intellectual and emotional energy into honing those, building those, practicing those. It doesn't come natural. And so part of what we are doing is trying to prototype new relationships amongst ourselves. Our tagline within the lab is be careful with each other so we can be dangerous together.

Baratunde Thurston  0:32

Welcome to How To Citizen with Baratunde, a podcast that reimagine citizen as a verb, not a legal status. This season is all about how we practice democracy. What can we get rid of? What can we invent and how do we change the culture of democracy itself? We're leaving the theoretical clouds and hitting the ground with inspiring examples of people and institutions that are showing us new ways to govern ourselves.

I first came across the name Ruha Benjamin, such a great sounding name, during the peak of my rebellion against technology and my realization that it was causing a lot of harm.

It was the fall of 2018. I was living in New York City and working out of a place called the Data and Society Research Institute, which is about what it sounds like. They're focused on the impact of data-centric technologies on society and how they affect people, especially those in marginalized communities. Ruha was coming through to talk about her new book, Race After Technology, a book that was saying out loud and in print a lot of the things that I'd also been feeling and thinking and saying. In particular, she coined this phrase, the New Jim Code. I mean, come on now. I'm a sucker for wordplay. That's amazing. And this is basically her definition of the New Jim Code: using technology to reflect or even reproduce existing inequalities while concealing that by promoting the tech with the language of progress and objectivity that masks the fact that it's built on the discrimination from a previous era. I cheered when I saw that because it echoed my own statements around the time that we might find the civil rights battles of the future harder to win because they'd be encoded in this technocentric language of progress and fairness and equality. But the systems will actually make us more oppressed by literally codifying discrimination in the data. In tech that's based on our unjust past. We'd write history into our futures and not in a good way.

So Ruha was saying all that and so much more. When I saw her three years later at SXSW in 2022, she was moderating a panel on a virtual and augmented reality experience that beautifully honored the life of Breonna Taylor. Sadly, we know about Breonna because the Louisville Metro Police shot and killed her in the summer of 2020. In this case, technology was being used to help a family and a community remember Breonna's life, not just her death, and ultimately help them heal. Ruha was helping show a different and more positive experience of technology and its impact. Along with bringing community connection and facilitation to the front of her fight for justice, Ruha is echoing that same joy and warmth that adrienne maree brown brought us at the start of this season, and her work connects to the way we think about citizen as a verb here at the show.

Our four pillars: show up and participate, invest in relationships, understand power and value the collective are things she practices, not just preaches, especially on relationships and power. She does much of that practice as founding director of the Just Data Lab at Princeton, where she also teaches. The lab is focused on rethinking and retooling the relationship between stories and statistics, power and technology, data and justice. They invite community-based organizations to partner with them on building technologies that meet their needs. From mapping the work of companies engaged in immigrant surveillance and developing tools for formerly incarcerated small business owners to creating playbooks about black maternal mental health and resources for tenants facing eviction. And that's just naming a few. I consider Ruha to be a kindred spirit. And it's so cool to finally have her on the show. Now, we got together in front of a live irl audience in New York in September, 2022. It was part of a conference and festival called Unfinished. I've been hosting that event for three years straight because it's so well aligned with what we do here at How To Citizen. This gathering is predicated on interpreting the project of America, the possibilities of technology, even democracy itself, as well as unfinished. Especially in this moment where both democracy and technology feel like they're on the precipice of something. Something great or something terrible. While at Unfinished, Ruha and I sat down for a special live taping of How To Citizen, which you'll hear right after we pay for this podcast with an ad break.

Yes, yes. Smatterings of applause are encouraged. Encouraged. Thank you. We are here. First context on the podcast, which I assume you all listen to religiously, but there may be one person who's never heard of podcasting and hasn't gotten around to the billion that exist in the world. The premise of our show is that we interpret the word citizen as a verb, and we see it as an opportunity to include people in the process as opposed to this noun that divides us from one another, separating people across imaginary lines. And so I'm sitting here with you Ruha, because of your book. And I was out here yelling in these internet streets about the bias baked into the system, and they're making us new digital slaves and first, why I got to be a black box? Why can't it just be another obfuscated box? Why I got to be black? So I feel like you got to read Ruha. You got to read Ruha. Yeah. So I came across Race After Technology, the New Jim Code after having already read the New Jim Crow many years prior. And I would love to know to start us off, how you are weaving of medicine and technology and technological systems with ideas of power and ultimately liberation, which we'll get to.

Ruha Benjamin  6:49


Baratunde Thurston  6:50

Where does that come from for you?

Ruha Benjamin  6:51

Yes. So many origin stories. First of all, hi everyone. Good to see you. I'm so thrilled to be in conversation with Baratunde whose work I read when I first started teaching as a young assistant professor at BU, and it was the first and only book that had me cackling on the airplane. Everyone around me was mad because I was reading this and just loved how incisive, how brilliant, how you use humor to get us to open our hearts and our minds. So thank you so much.

Baratunde Thurston  7:21

Well, thank you. She's referring to How To Be Black.

Ruha Benjamin  7:23


Baratunde Thurston  7:24

Which if you haven't bought, you're a racist.

Ruha Benjamin  7:26


Baratunde Thurston  7:27

It's just the marketing science. It's not...

Ruha Benjamin  7:29


Baratunde Thurston  7:30

I'm not accusing you. I'm labeling you.

Ruha Benjamin  7:34

Exactly. So I have been a huge fan of Baratunde's work for a long time. So many origin stories. When someone asks you how did you start? And also I'll try to just distill perhaps two quick personal experiences or times in my life that have led me to this work. One is as a youngin growing up in Los Angeles, imagine little seven or eight year old Ruha in the back of her grandma's gold Chrysler cruising down Crenshaw Boulevard.

Baratunde Thurston  8:03

Ruha, got you all in check.

Ruha Benjamin  8:04

Exactly. And how many times have I heard that?

Baratunde Thurston  8:07

Oh one. I'm the original. I'm the first.

Ruha Benjamin  8:11

And just being a wide-eyed young kid and passing by this one moment, passing by a group of boys from my school lined up against the fence, very close to my house being patted down very aggressively and shamefully and just catching their eye as I'm in the backseat and seeing that very overt form of policing that wasn't just meant to shame them and control them, but it felt like a message to all of us about where we belonged and what we could expect. And that was reinforced and amplified in many, many different ways. Most notably just the everyday audible experience of police helicopters rumbling overhead in Los Angeles. You know as a resident. And just the literal wall shaking in my grandma's house at periodic intervals. So I think of us as being in police occupied neighborhoods.

And so as a young mother then I remember times putting my boys to sleep in that same house and the lights of the helicopters shining in and waking them up. And so this very physical presence of policing, then realizing that, oh, there are other less visible, less audible ways in which surveillance technologies are being deployed that perhaps are even more dangerous because I can't point to them, because I can't see them. And so it sort of led me to look behind the screen, look at things that are out of sight, but are nevertheless classifying people, controlling our lives in very harmful ways. And so there's this experience of just being someone who understands what it is like to be watched and not seen that has led to this work.

The other origin story comes from being a young mother, I had my sons in my twenties and living in Atlanta, Georgia at the time. And with my first son realizing what the experience was probably going to be like with childbirth and the overly medicalized approach to childbirth in this country. And understanding that there are different schools of childbirth. There's the conventional obstetrics medicalized approach to childbirth that we're familiar with and that I binge-watched when I was pregnant with the birth story. And just understanding what I could expect if I had my child in the hospital, which is that the schedules of other people would proceed mine, that I could expect various technologies that I may not necessarily need that can be lifesaving in some situations, but have become normalized.

And for those who don't know, the experience of black women in particular in our healthcare settings and childbirth in particular is astronomically worse than everyone else. But I learned about midwifery, a different approach, where you can either have your child in a hospital, a birth center at home with the accompaniment of doulas and midwives, birth workers. And the experience is much, much different. Centers the woman or birthing person. Centers our autonomy, our dignity. Is based on respect and mutuality and trust. And that's what I chose to do. And that's when I became critical of both authoritative forms of knowledge, whatever sciences or medicine that is, but also the other forms of expertise that exist and that are often sort of marginalized and discounted in the form, in this case of child berthing knowledge. And also became critical of the overabundance of technology in our lives that we may not necessarily need.

But that just gives you a sense of my critical take on when things are being sold to us as a straightforward good without thinking carefully about how they're actually being experienced.

Baratunde Thurston  12:07

Would you describe this as your critical race theory?

Ruha Benjamin  12:15

Yes. Yes, I would, Baratunde. Yes, I would.

Baratunde Thurston  12:18

Don't worry. We'll bleep that out before we put it in the feed. Because I want the people of Georgia to Able to hear this.

Ruha Benjamin  12:24

Exactly. Exactly.

Baratunde Thurston  12:26

Midwifery is actually a good and unexpected segue. I'd like to spend the bulk of the remainder of our time in this word seeds and then wifeing new ideas of design justice, of freedom, of thriving, of liberation. One effort that you've undertaken is to create the IDA B. WELLS Just Data Lab at Princeton. What is that?

Ruha Benjamin  12:51

Yeah, I'm happy to talk about that because that means we get to talk about my students.

Baratunde Thurston  12:56


Ruha Benjamin  12:56

Which is where a lot of my optimism, hope, and energy comes from, is getting to hang out with 18 to 22 year olds all day who are both critical and creative in their approaches. And so Ida B. Wells, I named it after Ida B. Wells because...

Baratunde Thurston  13:13

And now an explainer Tunde.

If you're not familiar, Ida B. Wells was a civil rights leader, suffragette and investigative journalist who lived from 1862 to 1931. She's best known for her work documenting racial terror lynchings in the United States. And her most famous work is the Red Record, an historic effort to quantify lynchings in the US after slavery.

Ruha Benjamin  13:42

I named it after Ida B. Wells for many reasons. But one very personal reason is that her grandson was my dissertation advisor, Dr. Troy Duster. And so I've felt a kinship with her family and that legacy because he's the one who brought me into this field of the sociology of science, knowledge and medicine. And so as a tribute to that legacy, and also because she used both statistics and stories to shine a light on what is ailing us and the forms of violence and injustice. And it's that combination, those different tools that we need. The data, but the data itself is not going to save us because people can tell all kinds of stories about data to justify all kinds of things. And so it's that marrying of the narrative with the statistics that she modeled so brilliantly in the Red Record and that I wanted to use as a beacon for my own students.

So these are students who aren't necessarily in my classes. Some of them are, they come from many different disciplines. From the STEM side, humanities, social sciences. But they share a underlying desire to engage in what we call tech justice. And so thinking about technology not just as hardware or software, but taking the stories as seriously as we do the software. So we have artists up in there. We have people who didn't necessarily take a single computer science class, but who are bringing a different skillset and approach. And one of the ways that we've structured the lab is that we collaborate with community-based organizations.

Baratunde Thurston  15:23

This is insanity. What are you describing? This is so reasonable and humane and consensual.

Ruha Benjamin  15:31

I know. Exactly. We don't just-

Baratunde Thurston  15:31

That is not the technology that so many of us have been exactly subjected to.

Ruha Benjamin  15:35


Baratunde Thurston  15:36

In an autocratic way. Literally as subjects to someone else's will. And so you're describing really all those words, this consensual, respectful relationship where it is a feature, not a bug, that someone who isn't a computer programmer is involved in the programming.

Ruha Benjamin  15:53

Exactly. Exactly.

Baratunde Thurston  15:54

Because non-programmers are going to be living with these technologies.

Ruha Benjamin  15:57


Baratunde Thurston  15:58

So what sorts of critical and creative work have been prototyped and researched in this lab?

Ruha Benjamin  16:04

So as I was saying, we take our marching orders from the organizations that we collaborate with. Rather than study them or bring ideas to them, we ask what would help you as an organizer? What would help you as an organization do your work better?

Baratunde Thurston  16:20

Silicon Valley, are you listening? You don't have to pre-bake the solution. You could just ask.

Ruha Benjamin  16:27

Talk to those who are most impacted, whether we have a team working on housing justice, we have a team working on workers' rights. We have a team working on maternal mortality, and they collaborate with organizations all over the country, some in Canada and elsewhere. But again, so getting the questions from the source. And so when we think about design justice, we think about collaboration. Most corners of our world, if you go to NSF, National Science Foundation and get a grant, they'll tell you, you better have a community organization involved. But oftentimes we're involving them much later in the process. And sometimes it's window dressing, sometimes it's theatrical in terms of showing that you have this community support rather than starting at the very, very beginning and find out what questions should we be asking as researchers as a lab, and get the questions and get the insights from the start, let that be directed by our partners.

And so if you go to and go to the projects tab, you'll see a wide range of projects that have come out of it, whether it's dealing with police surveillance, oftentimes we're casting the light back on power, going back to how to citizen. Rather than studying the most vulnerable who are trying to navigate hostile systems, we say, who's creating this vulnerability? Who's creating this risk? Let's actually point our digital lens and collect data and shine a light on upstream what's creating these problems?

Baratunde Thurston  18:02

So I'm going back to the pictures you initially painted of these brothers with their hands up on the wall being subject to an ill system. And I'm imagining a world where your lab is talking to them and working backwards up the stream, what have been some of the results? And at least feedback, especially from the community members, from being much more involved in creating their own solutions.

Ruha Benjamin  18:29

And so one example of the organizations that we have learned from is called STOP LAP D Spying Coalition. You may have heard of them.

Baratunde Thurston  18:41

Very subtle name.

Ruha Benjamin  18:41


Baratunde Thurston  18:42

I don't know if I know what they're about.

Ruha Benjamin  18:44

Yes, exactly. The STOP LAPD Spying Coalition. And so they have modeled for us in their advocacy, in their research is they base their own advocacy and organizing on talking to community members first. So they created a survey with a whole range of questions about what it feels like to be watched and all of the different ways that people might not know what surveillance means. They might not know what predictive policing means, but when you break it down and say, has X, Y, and Z, have you experienced this? Have people in your family experienced this? Has this happened to you? Then that is an abundance of knowledge that might not necessarily have the latest jargon and lingo attached to it, but it's a form of deep experiential knowledge upon which then their organizing and their advocacy work has been built. And they have been so successful in actually beginning to change some of the policies, putting more ator on certain predictive policing practices in la. But that has been based on actually listening to people. Right?

Baratunde Thurston  19:43

It's so basic.

Ruha Benjamin  19:44


Baratunde Thurston  19:45

But it's also what I resonate with about that is how does it make you feel?

Ruha Benjamin  19:50


Baratunde Thurston  19:50

What is it like to live like this? And I think we can be very abstracted away from other people's experiences when there's statistics and a word surveillance is not a deeply emotional word.

Ruha Benjamin  20:01


Baratunde Thurston  20:01

But not trusting, We know that feeling and we don't like that feeling.

Ruha Benjamin  20:06


Baratunde Thurston  20:07

And I'm just imagining some of the other words from my own experience, that if we could build deeper sympathies and empathies around the shared emotion, we don't want to project that onto other people. It's something that we wouldn't want to experience ourselves.

Ruha Benjamin  20:18


Baratunde Thurston  20:19 


Ruha Benjamin  20:20


Baratunde Thurston  20:21

Anything else you want to brag on from your Just Data students before our move on?

Ruha Benjamin  20:25

No, I would just really encourage, part of it is just as much about the process as the endpoints, the projects or the outputs, we call them outputs that you can find. And so a lot of this has to do with creating new forms of relationships because we can talk about the hardware and software all day, but social technologies like trust, like mutuality, we have to invest as much intellectual and emotional energy into honing those, building those, practicing those. It doesn't come natural. We have to actually-

Baratunde Thurston  20:58

It's hard to put a price on it.

Ruha Benjamin  20:59


Baratunde Thurston  21:00

You can't trade it, so [inaudible 00:21:01].

Ruha Benjamin  21:01

You can't. You can't. No. And so there's not as much investment in it. And so part of what we are doing is trying to prototype new relationships amongst ourselves. Our tagline within the lab is be careful with each other so we can be dangerous together. So this is a way of treating one another.

Baratunde Thurston  21:21

That sounds Wakandan.

Ruha Benjamin  21:23

Okay. All right now. Because for me it's important because I have seen from the outside so many really noble undertakings where the end just justifies the mean. Where when you actually are spending time with people, we're not treating each other in the ways that we want the world to mirror back to us.

Baratunde Thurston  21:44

So what's a practical example or implementation of how internally you are careful with each other Whereas another institution focused on output may not be?

Ruha Benjamin  21:54

Yes. So there's two, one is sort of, might seem less grand, but it's really respecting each other's time and commitments. So if we say we're going to do something at a certain time, don't just be respectful to me as the director, but I want you to have the same regard and respect for each other's time. So that's just a everyday type of thing. But even sort of bigger picture beyond the lab for all of us to consider is to think about we're in this moment of this really flourishing of abolitionist thought and imagination. So it's this twin process we're trying to bring down and we're trying to grow. We're trying to plant these seeds.

And so part of that is being critical of the way that punishment and policing has infected not just the obvious police, but so many of our institutions are punitive. Healthcare is punitive. I've heard nurses say that if a patient is non-compliant, they're supposed to call in the police or do X, Y, and Z. School we know is super punitive. And so if we're critical of that, but in our own relationships with each other, we are punitive. We punish each other for all kinds of things in ways that can be passive aggressive or just aggressive aggressive. And so I remember some years back being on this traveling caravan with some wonderful colleagues going through South Africa. And one of the people on our traveling bus was the Angela Davis, and she was standing in front-

Baratunde Thurston  23:26

Bubble bread.

Ruha Benjamin  23:29

I know. She was standing in front of an auditorium full of students in Cape Town, and there was a question, what do we do question. We're so excited. What do we do? She was like, well, we can't be critical of policing out there if we're punitive in our relationships in here. Here we have to start modeling. We have to start prefiguring the world we want in how we treat one another. And so that's part of the ethos to think about how do we show up when people are not looking? When there's no lights, no camera, behind closed doors. Because if it's all just for the show and we're not really practicing those new values, that ethos, then I don't think we have a strong foundation on which to erect these structures that we imagine we want.

Baratunde Thurston  24:18

So in the lab itself, what does that look like then? Do you not punish people at all? Do you punish people for punishing people?

Ruha Benjamin  24:26

There's accountability versus punishment. I think that's two very different things. And that's part of when we think about the abolitionist approach, it's not a free for all. We don't just do things and there's no consequence. But it's really about thinking about when someone does something that violates a norm or it's not respectful. If we really want that action to change, then we have to approach it in a way that fosters, that invites that change. Punishment doesn't change people's behavior. And so really thinking about when we had situations, I mean, we created the lab at the beginning of COVID, which means people's lives are upside down and we want them to focus on work and research? I don't care how important it is. You have a whole life. You have parents dying, you have siblings who are sick.

And so part of bringing this ethos inside the lab is to say, we are whole people. We are students sometimes. We're professors. We're not our jobs. And so it's trying to build in that approach to put work in its place. And so I think we can appreciate that in our own, beyond what I'm talking about and thinking about the role of work and getting things done, but also realizing that we are living in an extraordinary moment in which we're all hurting. We're all grieving. And so we shouldn't simply just put our emotions at the door. We should find a way to metabolize it in the way that we work and organize ourselves.

Baratunde Thurston  26:00

Metabolizing and whole person reminds me of the day I first saw you in person. SXSW 2022, you were leading a discussion about an immersive art experience called Breonna's Garden, which was erected to, I think, honor the whole person.

Ruha Benjamin  26:21


Baratunde Thurston  26:21

That was Breonna Taylor.

Ruha Benjamin  26:22


Baratunde Thurston  26:22

Who many of us only know as a victim of gun violence, of police violence, of the state, of no-knock warrants, of black lives not mattering.

Ruha Benjamin  26:30


Baratunde Thurston  26:32

And so to briefly summarize, this is an AR experience, a VR experience now that the family was a part of building that has volumetric capture of Breonna's sister, the voice of her boyfriend. You can drop this garden in the room right now. You can install it from the app store, and you encounter flowers that have voiced memos embedded in them. So as you touch a flower, you hear a message from someone who was moved by Breonna, whether they knew her or not.

Ruha Benjamin  27:04


Baratunde Thurston  27:04

There's voices from all over the world. Most beautifully and non hideously, there's no Nazi graffiti in this space. There's no hate spewing. This is a curated experience.

Ruha Benjamin  27:17

Very curated.

Baratunde Thurston  27:18

It's a moderated space.

Ruha Benjamin  27:18


Baratunde Thurston  27:19

And so I saw you moderating this conversation, and I wonder how did you get connected to that project and what did that mean to you as far as a seed And an imagination of how we might be using technologies in a way that cares for, allows us to care for each other and create the systems we want to live in?

Ruha Benjamin  27:41

Yes. So first of all, you described it so beautifully.

Baratunde Thurston  27:47

It moved me. It still moves me to think about it.

Ruha Benjamin  27:48

I think if Breonna's family did not co-create this, was not part of it from the beginning, was not asked permission for this to be created, I wouldn't have come near it with a 10-foot pole. Even though I respected the lead designer, the team, to me, it was absolutely crucial that this was their wish, that they had input at every stage and that in its circulation in the world, that a family member is present at all of the [inaudible 00:28:26]. Yes.

Baratunde Thurston  28:26


Ruha Benjamin  28:27

So I will say I knew the lead designer on this and how careful she was-

Baratunde Thurston  28:36

Lady Phoenix?

Ruha Benjamin  28:37

The lady Phoenix in approaching the family be. And her motivation was that she noticed that in the aftermath of Breonna's murder, that there was no place online, which is how, especially young people, there's no separation. Your life is online that they could grieve or express themselves. They were being harassed and sent death threats and getting all of these messages. And so the seed for her was what if we could create a space for the family to express themselves, their love, their care, their grief around this? And that was where Breonna's Garden was firstborn. But she went and said, is this something that you would want?

Baratunde Thurston  29:20

Again, asking.

Ruha Benjamin  29:21

Asking permission. And if they had said no, she wouldn't have done it.

Baratunde Thurston  29:24


Ruha Benjamin  29:24

No matter how... Now it's won all these awards, it's getting all this attention. But that was not the purpose. The purpose was for the family to have a space. And what happened, as you described, is that it has become a space for so many people, not only to express their emotions around Breonna, but their own unprocessed grief at all of the loss that people have experienced over the last two years. So it's really become this model for how we can curate and shape and design different values and create spaces intentionally for healing and for solidarity. And so yes, that is the story of how I was pulled in, and I think why I was, because I'm so critical of technology. So they were like, if we can get her to like this, man, we must be doing something good. So it was like, okay, Ruha's on the panel, so.

Baratunde Thurston  30:19

We're good.

Ruha Benjamin  30:19

We're good, we're good.

Baratunde Thurston  30:20

So I went to that panel and I installed the app from the audience and I popped it up in my hotel room later that night. I wept a lot just hearing other people. And I left my own message about losing my mother to colon cancer at a pretty young age of 65 years old. I ended up going months later, it's May-ish and we had these twin foolish tragedies self-inflicted in the US in Buffalo with the mass shooting at the Tops Food Market and Uvalde at the school. And I was at my end with the whole thing, just America.

Ruha Benjamin  31:01


Baratunde Thurston  31:01

I'm like, I'm out here How To Citizen, blah, blah. Done, whatever. Do your thing.

Ruha Benjamin  31:06


Baratunde Thurston  31:07

I felt a bit broken.

Ruha Benjamin  31:08


Baratunde Thurston  31:08

And I found myself in DC where I'm from, and I went to the AFAM Museum and a friend works there and I said to her, "Look, I need to be uplifted." I get that the problems are problematic. Problem's going to problem.

Ruha Benjamin  31:23


Baratunde Thurston  31:23

My heart is broken in pieces.

Ruha Benjamin  31:25


Baratunde Thurston  31:26

So I'm going to skip the basement of the museum.

Ruha Benjamin  31:28


Baratunde Thurston  31:28

Which is all about the origin.

Ruha Benjamin  31:29

Which will break you more.

Baratunde Thurston  31:30

The slave trade and Belgium and the ships and the East India company.

Ruha Benjamin  31:34


Baratunde Thurston  31:34

I'm like, can you take me to a higher level?

Ruha Benjamin  31:37


Baratunde Thurston  31:37

Literally, can we climb the mountain together?

Ruha Benjamin  31:39


Baratunde Thurston  31:40

And she showed me a few of the dark things just to reconnect.

Ruha Benjamin  31:44


Baratunde Thurston  31:44

But one of the most beautiful things she showed me is that Breonna's in the museum.

Ruha Benjamin  31:48


Baratunde Thurston  31:49

There's this beautiful portrait. And I popped open my phone and I put Breonna next to Breonna.

Ruha Benjamin  31:56


Baratunde Thurston  31:56

In the museum. And she had never heard this curator had, and so she saw this thing, she's like, oh, my God. And it just felt like my heart was healed a little bit, just having her in her own garden.

Ruha Benjamin  32:08


Baratunde Thurston  32:08

Represented in analog art and digital art.

Ruha Benjamin  32:11

I love that.

Baratunde Thurston  32:12

Augmenting our reality was something more beautiful than what the reality I was experiencing at the time.

Ruha Benjamin  32:16

Oh, totally.

Baratunde Thurston  32:17

So yeah, powerful stuff.

Ruha Benjamin  32:19

Powerful stuff. And if I would be miss if I didn't say, again, echoing Lady Phoenix, that the purpose for the whole team there is not to remember Breonna for her pain, but for her purpose. As we know, she was training to be a nurse. She was working at the front lines of COVID. And so for the team and the family, she's carrying on her work of healing and doing this for all of us.

Baratunde Thurston  32:49

Yes, which I experienced directly.

Ruha Benjamin  32:51


Baratunde Thurston  32:51


After the break, how re-imagining our social technologies can help us grow the world we want.

You have this book coming out, Viral Justice, which is filled with tales of more seeds that we might cultivate and water and grow into a garden that we would be happy to inhabit in terms of the way we structure our society. Can you share a bit more of the seeds that you're excited about, especially as they relate to our ability to self-govern? Yes. And maybe with that intersection of technology and science as well.

Ruha Benjamin  33:36

Yes. Absolutely. So I'll try to just give you two or three seeds. Literal seeds. I mean, the beginning is literally getting our hands dirty in terms of working with the earth. There's a man named Ron Finley in my neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Baratunde Thurston  33:56


Ruha Benjamin (33:57):


Baratunde Thurston  33:58

The gorilla gardener.

Ruha Benjamin  33:58

The gorilla gardener. The gangsta gardener.

Baratunde Thurston  33:59

Gangsta gardener, yeah.

Ruha Benjamin  34:01

And so part of it is him just realizing the food insecurity, the food deserts and the hole that takes on our health. And so he looked at these parkways that are all over LA, the little patch of grass between people's homes and the streets and said, what if we just created urban gardens? And when he first started, the city cited him.

Baratunde Thurston  34:22

Right. Illegal.

Ruha Benjamin  34:23

Again, policing. There they go again.

Baratunde Thurston  34:25

How dare you try to feed people.

Ruha Benjamin  34:25

There they go again.

Baratunde Thurston  34:27


Ruha Benjamin  34:27

And so people organized with him and not only pushed that back, but this has flourished this whole over, I think 20 urban gardens now using not just the parkways, but all different kinds of spaces. And so it's one of those literal examples of not working in your backyard, but working in your front yard and just starting to create what we need more of. And so thinking about that as a inspiration for all of the different ways we can get our hands dirty and just work right where we are. Definitely advocating for big structural policy changes. Not taking away from that, but not waiting for that either.

Baratunde Thurston  35:04


Ruha Benjamin  35:04

And so the book ends, so if it starts with Finley, it ends with a group in Seattle called the Seattle Solidarity Budget, which over the last couple of years has managed by bringing together over 200 different organizations throughout the city working on all kinds of things, from indigenous rights to environmental justice, to healthcare, to housing, to education. All of them have come together and have managed to slowly start reducing the policing budget and investing in all of these different things that actually make us safe. And so part of it is this coalition and it's thinking about what do we have in common? We might have these different lanes that we're in things we really, really care about, but there's this bigger umbrella that's about thinking about budgets as they say our moral documents, getting back to the data and understanding that the numbers that is values in those numbers, not just economic values, but our social values are reflected in those numbers. And so they say, if you look at the city budget, those are our values where we're putting the money. And so they've managed over time working in town hall meetings and Zoom meetings you can attend and see how they have brought this coalition together and are having success in shifting the values literally of this entire city. And they provide a great model for me of viral justice.

Baratunde Thurston  36:27 

Do you have any insight into how they are handling some of the backlash to these moments? There was a peak of people's budgets and participatory budgeting and shifting, reallocating resources away from policing into more community healing.

Ruha Benjamin  36:42


Baratunde Thurston  36:43

Which got shortened somewhat unfortunately at times to defund the police.

Ruha Benjamin  36:46


Baratunde Thurston  36:46

Because there was another side to that argument. Now that graffiti's up and crime's up and encampments are up, and some people who might have been along for the ride are no longer.

Ruha Benjamin  36:55


Baratunde Thurston  36:56

How is the Solidarity Budget Group there? How are they dealing with that?

Ruha Benjamin  37:00

Yeah. I can't speak exactly to how they might be dealing with the backlash in Seattle specifically, but what I've seen as effective is people taking seriously this co-paganda, these narratives about rising crime and taking issue with policing as a solution for crime, which it's not because with inflated police budgets, the so-called crime rates, those things aren't correlating, but also asking what do we want to invest in and taking issue with all of these scare narratives around that. And so there's a number of people both in terms of social media pushback, but on the ground, taking seriously the stories that are being told about our cities and about why people are houseless or why people are precarious and getting to the root of the problem without thinking that policing are ever going to be a solution to any of these.

Baratunde Thurston  37:56

Do you have moments of surrender or total exhaustion, and if so, how have you pushed through them or moved beyond them or have you?

Ruha Benjamin  38:11

Yes. So I'm an introvert as my friends know, and so I am very careful to refuel as a matter of survival. And so that has to do with me personally, but it also has to do with thinking about when I'm working in groups and collectives in terms of whether it's student groups or community groups, balancing the play and the policy. We have to have that joy as much as we do the anger. And so I think just integrating that has helped me sort of chug along the little engine that could. And I think, as I said, working with young people and feeling like I can't give them this gloom and doom diagnosis of what's ailing us without offering with the other hand, this is what we can do about it. This is how people are already doing things about it.

So for me as an educator, especially at a place like Princeton where they're groomed to think of themselves as the solution to all of the problems, create an app for that, create a new business for that. My mantra is find out who's already working on that. Listen to them, collaborate with them, learn from them. Don't think of yourself as, and so that actually is an antidote for burnout and depression because you are working with people.

Baratunde Thurston  39:31

You don't have to do this by yourself.

Ruha Benjamin  39:33

You should not do this by yourself because that is another hubris, burnout and hubris, you're not supposed to be doing all of that.

Baratunde Thurston  39:43

Why are you trying to fix the whole society?

Ruha Benjamin  39:44


Baratunde Thurston  39:45

You can't create one by yourself.

Ruha Benjamin  39:46

Sit down. Yes.

Baratunde Thurston  39:51

If two of you want to throw in a question or a comment, this is the time to shoot your hand up with... No, I see one. Anybody else want to get in the queue? Two. Okay, then let's hear from you. Let's hear a name, a geospatial reference as far as where you reside as specific or general as you'd like, and then your remark, please.

Bruce Strauss  40:12

My name is Bruce Strauss. I live in New Jersey about 40 minutes away from Princeton. I have a website called It's a holistic look at life. Now talking about, let's say racism, which I call ending mistreatment discrimination and hatred towards those who are a different nationality, different religion, different race, different ethnicity, and different sexual orientation. There's aspects to that that I have never heard discussed. See, the person each of us talks to more than anyone else is oneself. There are things in life that affect the person. Affect that person means you have certain thoughts about certain things that have an impact on your life. So a racist basically has anti thoughts that's reinforced by a few other things. I don't want to keep it going too long, but to me, getting to people and there's a process to get to people when they're younger so that they can understand aspects like that so that if somebody reads or sees or hears something, they can withstand it because they understand what could happen within their own mind.

Baratunde Thurston  41:27

I accept your submission of a comment. There was not a question mark at the end of it, I don't think, but I want to thank you. We're at such a limited time.

Bruce Strauss  41:36

Well, the question is what do you think of that, each of you?

Baratunde Thurston  41:41

I don't know, man. Yeah, you shared a lot, but I was having a little hard time tracking and getting to people younger and relationship with self feel like two very important pieces of the puzzle. As I mentioned in our principles to start with, having a connection with yourself is very important. And I think on that score, it's important before you go out into the world. I think a lot of young people actually feel a ton of pressure right now to have positions and stances and press conference ready statements about all kinds of complicated things that they might be new to. And so I'd like to apply some counter pressure or relief that says it's okay not to know. I heard something on this stage earlier today that the highest form of wisdom is total uncertainty. And I was like, oh, that's an ego check right there in terms of the value of hubris that Ruha was just talking about. So it's related to your operation and to your premise. We can talk more later about it, but thank you so much for the offering. I appreciate you. There was one more.

Unknown Speaker  42:46

Do I need a mic for the-

Baratunde Thurston  42:47

Yes you do, because we're...

Ruha Benjamin  42:49

It's behind you.

Unknown Speaker  42:51

Oh great.

Baratunde Thurston  42:51

Yeah, they're surrounding. You're being surveilled.

Unknown Speaker  42:53

Super quick question. Dr. Benjamin have been following your work. So, so impressive. What would you like to be doing that you're not doing right now?

Baratunde Thurston  43:02

And you can't say sleeping.

Ruha Benjamin  43:09

Introverting? No. Well, in addition to Viral Justice, I just finished another short book that'll be out in a year or two on imagination. And so it's called Imagination: a Manifesto. And I would love to build out this space of creativity, not just with students but with artists and to really do some world building with colleagues and with people who I respect. And so it would be taking this in a more creative way and putting into practice some of the ideas that I'm working on that Imagination book. Thank you.

Baratunde Thurston  43:42

I want to follow up on that one. So imagining new worlds and practicing imagination, something that we do naturally as children and get trained out of us as we grow. Do you have any brief hacks, approaches, tools to just get us to flex our imagination muscles more?

Ruha Benjamin  44:03

Yeah, that's chapter five. It's called the Imagination Incubator. So there are lots of prompts and activities and things because it is a muscle, it's something that we have to practice, especially in collectives because then our imagination gets challenged. So the key sort of thread in the book is that imagination isn't a straightforward good. We are in many ways living in a eugenics imagination, a techno utopian imagination. We're living in imagination not of our own design. And so imaginations can be corrupting and limiting. And so part of it is when we work in groups, then we can see the edges of our own imagination. We can try to broaden the imagination in which all of us can flourish, but we can also see the ways that our imagination is infected with these really old, deep-seeded ideas about human hierarchy and superiority and inferiority. And so the goal is to take imagination seriously as a terrain of struggle.

So when I say creativity, I don't just mean the literal arts, I mean all of the ways in which we are creators. We shouldn't simply submit to the designs that we are inhabiting and we don't have to wait to be billionaires to be able to create something new. I'm a student of Octavia Butler. When you go and you look at her papers at the Huntington Library, one of the things you see in her own notes before you even think about her work, that's public, her stories and so on, you see her notes to herself in the margins of her notebooks where she's building her own life. She's saying, I will be a New York Times bestseller. I will have millions of people. This is when she was riding the bus to work at a potato chip factory. And so part of it is her, on the one hand, really thinking about her own agency and her own life, but it's also that you see her studying scholarship, you see her making notes about the headlines, medical sociology, and so she ends up writing these stories, but it's based on a deep research and understanding.

So understanding the porousness across these different fields that we're gathered here in and to take agency back away from these over-determined ideas about power and inequality that we inhabit, that infect our institutions and beginning to seed something different now. Yesterday.

Baratunde Thurston  46:28

Seed something like justice?

Ruha Benjamin  46:31

Justice and joy.

Baratunde Thurston  46:33

And joy. Oh, I want to keep talking, but we can't. Take justice and joy with you. Spread it. Thank you so much, Ruha Benjamin.

It should be pretty obvious that Ruha and I share a point of view and I just find her to be healing and grounded and even humble in how she practices what she preaches. Even as a Princeton University professor who moderates panels at SXSW, I find her work to be so relevant because technology's increasingly relevant to our experience of democracy. And I want a democracy that we also build with people and not for them because the one we're inside right now was built for and by a very small group of people.

When Ruha says that we've been living inside someone else's imagination, she's right. We've been living inside this eugenics imagination and we have to reimagine ourselves out of it democratically and technologically so we can live inside something better. I'm not just talking about widgets and databases and code, I'm talking about social technologies that define how we interact with each other and even how we envision and understand what democracy is, who it serves and how we experience it.

Ruha, she's all about prototyping new relationships with technology, with the community, with our colleagues, and that investment in relationships, that understanding of how those relationships relate to power, they're two of the core principles of how to citizen. And when it comes to the progress we're trying to make in our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our families, Ruha stresses that it's as much about the process as it is about the outcomes. Because if the ways we are working to improve things don't feel good or loving, how can we be sure we're headed in the right direction? Maybe by taking our lead from Ruha and working to be careful with each other, we can be dangerous together against these systems too.

I really hope you check out Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, along with Ruha's latest book, Viral Justice, how We Grow the World We Won. It's full of great examples of how we can bring democracy and collective decision making to our use of technology and to our imaginations of the world we can live in. And if you'd like to take a stroll through Breonna's Garden, I highly recommend it. Download the AR experience for free in the app store or head over to and check out the creator Lady Phoenix's work on Instagram. She's @yesladyphoenix.

In the show notes, we always have actions you can take after listening to each episode. We give you options to go inwards and feel into the material to become more knowledgeable or to get involved with others to make an impact. For this episode, we've provided a suggestion for internal reflection that reminds us how witnessing others' protective acts like standing up for each other can have large ripple effects. We've also shared two book recommendations from Ruha, The New Jim Crow and Rest is Resistance. You can find links to both these books and many more from past episodes at And if you're in the US, we've found several ways you can plug into your community with your existing skills and volunteer. These groups take the guesswork out of how to get involved on issues you care about. Don't wait. Sign up for something and meet your neighbors.

If you take any of these actions, please brag about it online and use the #howtocitizen. Also, tag our Instagram, How To Citizen. I am always online and I really do see your messages so send them. You can also visit our website,, which has all of our shows, full transcripts, actions, and more. Finally, see this episode show notes for resources, actions, and more ways to connect.

How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of iHeartRadio podcasts and Row Home Productions. Our executive producers are me, Baratunde Thurston and Elizabeth Stewart. Our lead producer is Allie Graham. Our associate producer is Danya AbdelHameid. Alex Lewis is our managing producer, and John Myers is our executive editor and Mix Engineer. Original music by Andrew Eapen with additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Joelle Smith from iHeartRadio and Layla Bina.

Next time on How to Citizen: building relationships with the people we're looking to help is vital. But what if you feel so at odds with the people in your community that you can barely talk, let alone work together? And what if you also think they are out to destroy you?

Tim Phillips  51:41

Deepening identity-based polarization is happening in this country. The good news is a lot of that is built on a lot of false perceptions of the other side. And so for example, on several big issues, Democrats and Republicans misperceive the position of the other by 50%, and then you ask how much you think the other side dehumanizes you. It's off by 50%. And so what's happening is these meta misperceptions are adding fuel to how we think about the other side in this country.

Baratunde Thurston  52:13

Conflict resolution expert Tim Phillips tells us how to be in community with people we really disagree with, and the risks of letting our growing nationwide division persist.

RowHome Productions.


Go Deeper

Share Some Feedback

Let us know your thoughts about the episode. What did you learn or what surprised you or challenged you?

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Spread The Word

Share what you’ve learned. Knowledge is power! Tag #howtocitizen so we can reshare!