Teen celebrity journalist and UN Women advocate Anya Thakur, the first Indian teen to launch a UN Women campaign to educate and empower women and girls worldwide, in conversation with Columbia University’s Andrew Wang, a journalist, scholar-activist who adds new meanings to the words and a lifelong learner.
As Andrew Wang writes to me, he is “riding the subway downtown, scrunched between a baby carriage and a man with his legs spread apart.”
Wang believes he has a compelling story, but easily opens up about how he is not immune to sleeping “through classes and [procrastinating] on papers just like everyone else.”
Writing is what helps him deal with his emotions and honestly confront his origins and the social forces acting upon our lives.
“How did a Chinese boy become an African-American studies major? How did you become a UN Women advocate out of Texas?” he muses. “Our lives sound absurd, really. But at the same time, here we are. And I want to keep thinking about that as long as I live. That, to me, is the robustness of life.”
Wang is passionate about the power of words to build genuine connections and excited about the future of scholar-activism in the hands of students and educators. I’m equally excited to share this story, one of the power of words to stretch across the page and worm their way into our minds and finally color our thoughts and perspectives and inspire us to make a real-world change.
“Thanks so much. For everything,” he said. “I’ve seen your work with the LATimes and it’s incredible.”
Wang’s poignant story is likewise incredible. He is now studying sociology and African-American studies and working to “communicate emotions, foster listening, and inspire deeply” and democratize the nascent power of knowledge for justice by expressing the hardest ideas in a way that makes them approachable and to combat discrimination.
“Sometimes I think of my mother, who is intelligent beyond measure, but didn’t get to attend university,” Wang said to me. “Can she hear about the ideas I’m wrestling with and feel like she can offer her thoughts?”
What follows below is my exclusive, unedited interview with Andrew Wang for LinkedIn to inspire young leaders and impart a message of the vitality of education, activism and action.
Q: Now more than ever, people are feeling empowered to share their voices and make a change. How can journalism further truth and justice?
A: Justice depends on truth, and good journalism depends on both these things. Everyone’s a writer with a think-piece, and my gut tells me that’s a good thing: truth itself depends on diversity. No matter how hard I try, there’s just no way that I’m going to be knowledgeable about everything that goes on in this world.
Diversity — whether on Twitter or in The New York Times — gives us the chance to solve more problems.
Here is the challenge: with so many voices, who is the truth-seeker and who is the charlatan? That’s where journalism must step up. Journalism will have failed if all it does is spread information. Instead, it must decipher. It must filter out noise — the fake news, the dog-whistle — and get us closer to truth. That is, truth for all, by all.
Q: What does it mean to you to be a scholar-activist?
A: The first time I felt like a scholar-activist was in high school. This was when our world lost Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and countless other unarmed black men at the end of the policeman’s barrel. As an Asian-American, I didn’t have to worry about this happening to me, but I felt so utterly useless. So I began reading about policing and racism, and participated in discussions long after black death stopped trending. In the end, I helped produced a series of plays on police brutality, and it felt like knowledge and justice had come together.
Today, that title is undeserved. A scholar-activist is someone who finds a way to bring scholarly work and activism together. Knowledge for the sake of justice, if you will. Sometimes I really struggle with this idea. Great ideas don’t always lead to social justice. I can think of a few incredible thinkers who don’t think of justice as making the world better for the oppressed: Plato, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Nozick. I love studying them, but the world they imagine might not be good for everybody.
Still, there’s plenty of hope. For example, ethnic studies departments across the country do scholar-activism quite well. They recognize that many of the lenses we use to study society are contaminated by virulent strains of ego, and that scholar-activism is more possible once the mind is decolonized. I’m working on that.
Q: How do you work to democratize knowledge?
A: Knowledge is nascent power. That is to say, it must evolve before it is useful. I am a student at an Ivy League university, so society is going to think I’m knowledgeable. But the truth is that I’m an ignoramus until I can make sense of it for and with others.
Let’s say I read a book. Does the world change when I finish it? If it did, we should all dedicate the rest of our lives toward reading discourses on inequality. When I write the essay? Not quite.
Only when I can explain the hardest ideas in the easiest ways does knowledge become democratized.
So that’s what I’m trying to do. I’ll start with an idea. And then I’ll take it to its intellectual limit, with all its complexities, contradictions, and highfalutin jargon. But at the end of the day, I’ve got to bring it back. I’ve got to make it familiar again.
Sometimes I think of my mother, who is intelligent beyond measure, but didn’t get to attend university.
Can she hear about the ideas I’m wrestling with and feel like she can offer her thoughts? If not, then maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.
You often hear “knowledge is power,” but let’s be more specific. There’s knowledge that serves the interests of the powerful, and knowledge that gives voice to the oppressed. If we want the latter, then we’ve got to democratize knowledge somehow.
If we fail, we become the king who sits upon an iron throne atop the ivory tower, knower of all but ruler of nothing.
Q: What’s the most meaningful story or piece of journalism you’ve read and how did it impact you?
A: The Atlantic’s April 2018 issue, KING. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, and the issue honors his life half a century after the fact. The magazine features some amazing Black intellectuals like Eve L. Ewing, who argues that King saw more in education than desegregation, or William J. Barber II who suggests “A New Poor People’s Campaign” to finish off what Reconstruction failed to do. And of course, there are excerpts from King’s oeuvre. In fact, I’d consider him the scholar-activist that I’ll never be. When he wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963, he used the philosophy of the Catholic priest St. Thomas Aquinas to eviscerate segregation statutes. King said that because an unjust law is “not rooted in eternal law and natural law,” it is illegitimate and can be defied. That idea, to me, is the beating heart of civil disobedience.
Moreover, the April 2018 issue actually has a deep personal meaning to me. When I was a freshman in college, I was incredibly unhappy. It was hard to make friends, I stopped doing things I loved, and I had all but lost the intellectual drive that sustains me today. Out of desperation, I wrote a long letter to Vann Newkirk II, a politics and culture writer for The Atlantic whom I liked. The letter basically said, please, tell me what I can do. Vann replied with a laundry list of things that I could do, and encouraged me to transfer schools. I printed his email out and tacked it to my wall as motivation. The next year, I moved to New York, and he came to my school to give a talk.
When I met him, I couldn’t hold back my tears. He told me to wait, and left the auditorium. He came back with a magazine in his hand with the words KING scrawled across the top. Vann had been the editor, and at the time, this was the only copy out in the world. He told me not to sell it to the New York Times before the world saw it, and I agreed. I didn’t get a single minute of sleep that night, and it felt like things were finally starting to look right again.
I think there’s a tear stain on page 28, so it’s not in great condition for resale.