MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, we turn to a different group of people who are trying to make a difference. The online journal 'The Root," which showcases diverse African-American perspectives on politics and culture, just released its fourth annual list of the 100 most important black influencers between the ages of 25 and 45. Now, this list included some people we know rather well, including NPR's own Audie Cornish, who's co-host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and Gene Demby and Matt Thompson of the Code Switch blog team.
But there are also religious leaders, community activists and others who may not be household names yet. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Donna Byrd, the publisher of TheRoot.com. And she's with us in our Washington, D.C., studios to talk about The Root 100. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
DONNA BYRD: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: There are some famous, obviously, influential people on the list- like the outgoing NAACP leader, Ben Jealous; entertainer Beyonce Knowles; her husband, Jay-Z; the athlete LeBron James. But I'd like to ask you to name one or two people on the list who you see as just breaking out on the national scene, people who we might be talking about a lot in the future.
BYRD: I think there are a number of people on the list - in fact, we have 51 sort of new, up-and-coming people on the list this year. We have Ryan Kugler, who's the director of "Fruitvale Station." This was his first directing...
MARTIN: First feature film.
BYRD: Yes, first feature film, and he's done an outstanding job. We think we're going to see more from him in the future. We have Nina Turner, who's up in Ohio, running for secretary of state; Aja Brown, the young mayor of Compton. And I think we're going to continue to see things from Benjamin Crump. He's really taken on the issue of the Trayvon's Law. And I think over...
MARTIN: He represented the parents of Trayvon Martin. I mean, many people who - if they're not quite sure where they heard that name - is, he was very much visible. He was not officially a party to the case, in the sense that this was a criminal matter; but he represented the parents and was very, very outspoken as a spokesperson for them and their point of view.
BYRD: That's exactly right. That's exactly right. We also have people in the science field. We have Christine St. John Hendon(ph), who is a biomedical engineer. She's working on the cure for heart disease, and is doing some outstanding work that's been recognized across the country. We have people in the arts - Patina Miller; you may know her name.
MARTIN: She was on the program.
BYRD: Exactly. She just won best actress for her Tony - I mean, I'm sorry - a Tony award for Best Actress in her performance in "Pippin." We have just a wide range of people.
MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit more about that. But each of the people mentioned in the list is given scores for things like media mentions, Internet mentions, Twitter followers. And attributes like influence, reach and substance are also given precise numerical scores - to the decimal point. I just want to ask you about that. I mean, we all know that people can buy Twitter followers. So I'm wondering why - is that really an appropriate metric of influence? And also the question of substance - how do you address something like substance?
BYRD: So we do a number of things. I mean, as you mentioned, we have this algorithm that looks at the number of Google, the number of LEXIS - as you - LEXI-NEXIS mentions, as you just mentioned. The number of Twitter followers does make a difference. When you look at the black community and the influence of Twitter, whether you get the people from buying them - most of the Twitter followers are not bought - but you look at what Twitter's doing in our community, and how much influence it has. We really thought that that was an important metric to include.
MARTIN: It is interesting that African-Americans are more likely to use Twitter than whites are.
MARTIN: And I'm interested in if you have some thoughts about why that is.
BYRD: You know, we've been asked - we use Twitter quite a bit, and we have found that people like to have the interaction with their - with celebrities. They see it as access to celebrities, and they can have a back-and-forth conversation with them. I think there's something about feeling like the community is even smaller, and you have access to individuals that you might not otherwise have access to. And it's a quick opportunity to mobilize people around particular issues. And I think this issue of access, mobilization - I think those two things actually have quite a bit of influence on why it means - why it's important in our community.
MARTIN: The list is very heavy on celebrities. I mean, it is - and it's also very heavy on media people.
MARTIN: And I was wondering about that. I mean, you do have some scientists and a few business people in here. But I just wonder, given that, you know, The Root's mission is not just to reflect and describe, but also - if you don't mind my saying - to kind of motivate and inspire. Have you thought about that? I mean, there are a lot of people who feel that African-Americans have been steered very much in the direction of entertainment and sports...
MARTIN: And that those have been avenues of achievement, in part, because others were closed off...
MARTIN: And they are now dominant. And so - they are dominant. And I just wondered if you've given some thought to what message you're sending by kind of reinforcing a hierarchy that already exists, rather than promoting a new one. And I know you're a small staff, and you only have the resources that you have, and this is nomination driven. But have you thought about that - perhaps promoting more people? You do have some people in the STEM fields; like, you have Kimberly Bryant, for example, who's founder of an organization that introduces young, black women to computer programming and entrepreneurship. But have you thought about that, what I'm talking about here?
BYRD: We actually have quite a bit of discussion, as a team, about this. It's one of the things that's very important to us - to make sure that we have some balance between those individuals that are typically recognized as celebrities and influencers in our community, and the people that might not always be in the front pages, if you will, and may not be household names. So we do spend quite a bit of time. It's typically factored into the criteria of substance. I mentioned the Google, LEXIS and Twitter scores, but we also have substance, which is a more subjective criteria; where the editorial staff looks at, what has this person done in the last year?
And we really look at, have they achieved something in the last year? Have they contributed something to their community? And if the answer is no - they may have done something two years ago or five years ago - and the answer is no for this particular year, they're not on the list.
MARTIN: What about somebody like Jay-Z, then, for example. What would be the - what is it that he's done for the community, as it were, that you feel warrants...
MARTIN: ...his inclusion. Certainly, he's well-known. Certainly, he's a very successful business person.
MARTIN: But give me an example of why you feel he's done something for the community.
BYRD: So interestingly enough, we don't have Jay-Z - I mean, his influence scores are certainly high from a music standpoint, but we really looked at Jay-Z as a businessman and what he's done over the last year in business, specifically. We were looking at his - the fact that he launched the Roc Nation Sports agency; and that he is really forging new relationships in the corporate world with how to use celebrities, and how to really build businesses and brands around these celebrities. So we really looked at him more as a businessman than we did the music celebrity.
MARTIN: But in that instance, is he doing something for the community or for himself? I'm not being critical.
MARTIN: I assure you of this. But I'm asking you, what does it mean to do something for the community as opposed to oneself?
BYRD: Right. You know, in terms of what he's doing for the community, we step back and say, OK. This man has taken this platform that he's had, and he's beginning to build businesses. He's employing people. He's inspiring young people to think about other things - other things besides just the music industry. How do you begin to build other businesses and franchises? He has - you know, he did take on a little bit - with regard to the Zimmerman trial - he and his wife did attend one of the rallies around that. He's using his - he's starting to use his platform for other things than just music, if you will.
MARTIN: Well, one of the reasons I mention him, of course, is that there was this interesting dialogue, which you covered very extensively on The Root, of his criticism by the kind of icon of the civil rights and artistic community...
MARTIN: ...Harry Belafonte, who calls to account a number of contemporary celebrities, feeling that they don't do enough. And that, of course, that's a matter of opinion. Finally, before we let you go, what do you think is the benefit, or the value, of a list like this? I mean, some people think it's kind of ego-stroking and obviously, it's ego-stroking for the people who are on it...
MARTIN: ...And it's, like, a good way to showcase people you like anyway. What do you think the broader value of a list like this is?
BYRD: Do you know, we - there are a couple of things. I go around the country, and I'm talking all the time. I hear people talk about The Root 100, and I have people say, you know what? This list gives me - shows me people that I can be like, I can aspire to be like. And they're not - since we don't just have celebrities, we have other people - they're looking at the business people, like Neal Sales-Griffin, they're looking at these scientist that I mentioned before. They're looking at all these other individuals and they're saying, you know what? I can aspire to be like this person. It also showcases, from a broader perspective, the talent that exists in the African-American community.
MARTIN: Why aren't you on it? Being a publisher of an online publication. That's no small thing. Self-dealing, OK. Ethical dilemma.
BYRD: (Laughter) Exactly. (Laughter)
MARTIN: Donna Byrd is publisher of The Root. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Thank you so much for joining us.
BYRD: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: And before they made the list, several members of The Root 100 were our guests on TELL ME MORE. Check out those interviews on our website. Just go to the program page at NPR.org, and select TELL ME MORE. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Tune in for more talk tomorrow.
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