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Farai Chideya

Christopher Myers

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 10/27/2004

Multimedia journalist and political activist Farai Chideya is no stranger to Baltimore. She grew up in the Forest Park area of Northwest Baltimore and graduated from Western High School in 1986 before going off to Harvard University. Since graduating in 1990, Chideya has taken her efforts nationwide and accumulated an impressive list of accomplishments, including founding the award winning PopandPolitics.com, an online journal of news and opinion, being named one of AlterNetís New Media Heroes, and being named to Newsweekís ďCentury ClubĒ of 100 people to watch in 1997. Currently, she hosts Your Call, a news-driven call-in show on San Francisco National Public Radio affiliate KALW. One late October morning, as the presidential election draws near, Chideya takes a call in New York to talk about her newest endeavor, a book published earlier this month by Soft Skull Press, titled Trust: Reaching the 100 Million Missing Voters.

 

City Paper: So who are these 100 million lost voters?

Farai Chideya: The first thing and biggest thing is lower income. After that, a lot of other factorsópeople who are younger, less educated, and people of color.

 

CP: You write that the American people need to trust the government in order for these lost voters to be reached. Why?

FC: You canít trust the government unless you are the government. And the only way to be the government is to vote.

 

CP: Can you explain that?

FC: Basically, democracy is supposed to be by the people and for the people. So if you donít have a government thatís actually by the people, it probably wonít be for the people. Now we have a government thatís kind of by half of the people. So weíre getting what we should expect by that kind of input. So the idea is that you donít contribute to making the government, youíre not going to get that much from it. You can contribute by voting, engaging in dialogue, letter writing, e-mailing, going to elected officialsí offices, protesting, and of course by giving money. And in some ways local government is more important because it has more to do with your day-to-day life.

 

CP: Where does the 100 million number come from?

FC: It just comes from basically looking at Census numbers. Itís based on the trends of the past, which state that half of the American people donít vote.

 

CP: In the preface of your book, you write, ďevery day we see evidence that America is falling apart.Ē How do you see America falling apart?

FC: Well, this could be a long answer, but Iíll try to keep it short. If you go back to the fundamental idea of no taxation without representation, which is what American government is built on, people in America donít like to pay taxes because we donít get good services. But if you look at polls, people want services. They want education, health care, roads. The thing is, Americaís infrastructure, whether itís health care, roads, or schools, is falling apart. And you have two choicesóeither fix the government so that it can do its jobóitís not like everything needs to be done by the government, but government has a roleóor you go to this kind of social Darwinism and itís every man for himself. Thatís kind of where weíre headed. And itís one thing to just say itís every man for himself, but we claim that we have a government for the people. Really, itís becoming more dog eat dog.

 

CP: How do you compare America with a country like Canada, where the citizens are more heavily taxed, yet the ghettos look like . . .

FC: Suburbs? We want everything, but we donít want to pay for it. America has a cult of the free-market economy. We believe that private enterprise will fix everything, but there are some things that businesses donít fix. Look at the flu shot. Itís not a big moneymaker for companies, and therefore there are people who are going to die this winter because the government didnít want to play a more hands-on role.

 

CP: Some people have said of the upcoming election that theyíre going to be voting for the lesser of two evils.

FC: Thatís OK for now, but in order to fix the deep problems we have we need to reform the whole system. President Bush has done such a terrible job that people are happy to vote for the lesser of two evils. And itís not that [John] Kerry is a bad politician, but heís a lifetime politician. Heís used to making compromises, not speaking his mind, and not taking risks. And we need someone who will take risks, in the long term.

 

CP: You say in your book that the true number of unemployed people is not reported. For example, the unemployment numbers donít include so-called discouraged workers, who have been unemployed for so long they have stopped looking for work. Why is the count of unemployed people in America allowed to be continually skewed?

FC: Because it makes us feel better about ourselves. In New York half of black men donít have a steady job. And Iím sure in Baltimore itís probably the same thing. It puts a lot of pressure on African-American families, too.

Itís interesting, the Oakland Tribune is running a series on black marriage, and part of the question is, are black marriage rates so bad because of the economic factors, or is it also social factors? And I think itís both. Itís partly a combination of the fact that, right now, black women are more likely to be college educated, more likely to have steady jobs, and yet, at home, there was a study that showed that black working women were more traditional at homeódoing more housework and stuffóand the researchers thought it was because black women didnít want to upstage black men.

Weíre trying to pretend that nothingís changed. And I think that the hardest thing is the pretending. People put a lot of energy into playing roles, and that distracts us from looking at whatís really going on.

 

CP: Why are people, especially black people, so fed up with voting?

FC: In a lot of black communities, you see politicians come and go, and thereís garbage on the streets, the schools are still terrible, there are no banks, no hospitals in black communities. So people are fed up with the lack of change. I think a lot of things that have to happen have to start on the neighborhood level. I believe in political change through voting, but I also think that grass-roots change makes the most difference in your daily life.

 

CP: But if people donít feel empowered enough to vote, how can we change things?

FC: Itís kind of an old saying, [but] each one reach one and teach one. I mean, there are a lot of organizations doing good work, but we shouldóall of us who are engaged with the issuesóshould talk to the people who we know and love and make politics real.

You have to have the will to make your voice heard. And maybe thatís not the way it should be, but thatís the way it is. Youíve just got to go back and say, ďLook, you messed me over last time, but Iím back and Iím not going away.Ē

 

CP: Does the hip-hop generation fit into all of this, with recent marketing campaigns like P. Diddyís ďVote or DieĒ?

FC: By marketing through hip-hop, people are speaking to younger Americans in their own language. However, you canít just have a rally and call it being politically engaged. You have to actually learn something about the political process. And thatís where Iím afraid that these organizations are not willing to take the next step and just tell people, ďLook, you have to educate yourself.Ē If you can spit rhymes for every rapper from Sugar Hill Gang to Kanye [West], you can remember a politicianís voting record.

 

CP: Your name is so beautiful. Where did it come from and what does it mean?

FC: Well, my dad was from Zimbabwe. The first name means ďbringer of happiness,Ē and the last name means ďone who likes to fight.Ē I just think all names mean something, so you might as well go with it.

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