In November 2020, communications professor Theon Hill was accepted into the Civil Society Fellowship, a partnership of the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate organization, and the Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C. and Aspen, Colo. The program seeks solutions to complex problems in the U.S. through collaboration among scholars diverse in gender, geography, race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, ideology and political affiliation. The fellowship involves participating in five in-person seminars, starting this November, in Aspen, Israel-Palestine, and Amsterdam. In addition to engaging with the writings of Plato, Socrates, and Martin Luther King Jr, fellows will work on a business or organizational venture that addresses a problem in his or her community. Hill plans to partner with business owners of color in Aurora, Ill., where he lives, to increase their market share and investment from government and community sources. As he prepares for the fellowship’s first seminar in Aspen, the Record spoke with Hill about his expectations for the program.
In the past, you’ve researched the role of radical rhetoric as a form of civic engagement and done a lot of speaking in political contexts and on figures such as James Baldwin and Kenneth Burke. Does radical or political speech have a place in this intentionally apolitical fellowship?
I wouldn’t say the fellowship is apolitical; I would say it’s nonpartisan. It’s not that politics have no place in it. It’s that we’re not letting our differences divide us and lead us to demonize one another. As part of the application, [the Fellowship’s Advisory Committee] required us to write a several-page document about our views on various social issues, so we haven’t hidden those [views]. For me, it’s an opportunity to engage with people who disagree with me on various issues, and to find public policy, private sector and community-based solutions to some of the issues that face underserved, underrepresented, and marginalized communities.
How do you expect that to look on a practical level, engaging people with a wider variety of political beliefs, some of which may be different than yours?
I don’t see it being any different from what I might do in a day at work here at Wheaton College or in my surrounding community. I had a conversation a couple weeks ago with two [other Fellows]; one works for Koch industries, and the other was on [New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio’s reelection campaign. We knew certain issues we disagreed on, mainly immigration issues, but we were still concerned about the same outcome. We might prefer different solutions to undocumented immigration, but we all want the issue addressed in a just manner. If we can start with that common goal, we can resolve some of our differences along the way. And we’re not threatened by a different solution being [definitive].
Out of the conversations you’ve been having with fellows, have there been any insights so far that have been especially meaningful to you?
In our shared concern for what’s going on in society and culture, it’s been nice to hear other people say, “You’re not crazy. We see the same problems you see.” Some of those problems are dominance of certain logic, certain forms of hate rhetoric and certain forms of discrimination. It’s nice to be in a community where everyone shares your concerns, even if we have different solutions to them.
Tell us about your planned venture with Aurora business owners of color.
Any effort to achieve racial equality has to start with economic empowerment. This is why A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin back in the 1960s developed the Freedom Budget. Jay-Z also says this in “The Story of O.J.,” and [hip hop group] Wu-Tang Clan says it in “C.R.E.A.M.,” so this concept is well documented, from the activist to the hip hop artist.
Today, business people of color are consistently left out of competitive city contracts and private contracts that serve as the basis for economic empowerment in communities. My venture asks, ‘“How can we leverage our collective power as racialized minorities to allow [business owners of color] to be more competitive for city contracts and private sector contracts that expand their economic footprint in the community?”
And what will that look like, harnessing that community power?
This is a rough draft of a vision, but I’m asking, “What does it look like for us to have a 21st-century Green Book?” The 20th-century Green Book served African American communities by providing a detailed guide on which business establishments were safe for Black people to visit during their travels to the South — places like Bolton, Mississippi, where my family would travel every year when my father was growing up. And the book spotlighted Black-owned businesses for the community to support.
What does it look like for us to translate that historical necessity, due to the legacy of white supremacy, into a 21st-century priority for economic empowerment? To say, “These are the Black-owned businesses, the Latino/Latina-owned businesses, the Asian-American businesses that we want to support and direct our business to. These are the pest control, home repair and flooring companies we want to give our business to”?
Thus far, I’ve been meeting with these businesses [in Aurora] to understand their unique needs and their goals for growth. We want to make sure we’re not imposing visions on them but partnering with them as allies. In these meetings, I’ve gotten a greater sense of where these Black business owners are trying to grow, the barriers they’re experiencing and where I, as someone who studies political communication, may be able to partner with them and help them expand their businesses.
Tell me about the businesses you’ve met with so far.
One I have a deep love for is called Leave Me Bee. Mr. Tito Dunn has a pest control business and is serving the Aurora community well. He is a dear friend. But he’s faced the reality that he has five trucks in his business and is working twice as hard as any other pest control business in Aurora. But as a Black man he’s not getting the same opportunities. So he’s asking, “What does it look like for me to pursue expansion, to deepen my network?” He’ll come over to my house, and we’ll talk about some of his goals. Then I share thoughts about how to engage local officials, how to pursue grant proposals and how to capture growth opportunities as the community continues to expand.
That’s awesome. Any other businesses that you’ve met with?
Mr. Dunn’s business has been my primary point of contact, but he has introduced me to other minority business owners, and we’re starting to build relationships. We’re in the infant stages of these connections as the Fellowship hasn’t officially begun, but I’m trying to map out my goals for this opportunity as it relates to my local community.
Anything else that you think is important to add?
I think it’s going to be a wonderful opportunity because it’s going to give us [more than] a local perspective. They’re taking us around the world, to Israel-Palestine, to Amsterdam, to study community-based leadership in different locales. I’m excited about the international perspective of the fellowship.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
Wheaton College, IL