A Q&A with Ben Jealous, former NAACP head turned tech investor

The visiting scholar discusses the social innovation class he is teaching, plus why it’s key to focus on local civil rights victories and the need to take a long view of history.

A person standing with arms crossed, in a courtyard next to a metal railing aside glass windows.
Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP, is a visiting scholar in the Annenberg School for Communication, the School of Social Policy & Practice, and Wharton. He is teaching a class on social innovation, part of SP2’s Nonprofit Leadership program.

Ben Jealous has accomplished a great deal in his 47 years. The former—and youngest ever—head of the NAACP managed the Mississippi’s Jackson Advocate, a Black community newspaper that was firebombed four times in the 1980s and ‘90s. He helped Barack Obama get elected and re-elected. He’s worked to change the dialogue around mass incarceration, and more recently he was the Democratic nominee for governor of Maryland. Also, he’s invested in two dozen technologies companies seeking to have a positive social impact, including a new app called Citizen. 

Now his expertise and experience have come to Penn, where Jealous is a visiting scholar in the Annenberg School for Communication, School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), and the Wharton School. This semester, he’s co-teaching a graduate course with managing director of SP2’s Center for Social Impact Strategy, Ariel Schwartz, called Social Innovation, part of the school’s  Nonprofit Leadership program.   

“I’m excited to be teaching at the school that’s my 103-year-old grandmother’s alma mater,” he says, of his maternal grandmother, Mamie Todd, who graduated from SP2 in 1953. “For me, being here at Penn is a great convergence of many things. I’ve been a nonprofit leader for a long time, but my quiet, consistent passion for two decades has been rebuilding media to empower local communities.” 

Penn Today talked with Jealous about his newest project, an app called Citizen, plus what he thinks of today’s political climate and why he’s hopeful about the future. 

Can we start off by discussing your class? What’s it all about? 

Social Innovation draws from my life as a community organizer, community journalist, civil rights leader, and social impact tech investor. The aim is to teach students about how to change the world through advocacy, through nonprofit-service delivery, through creating rapidly scaling social impact tech ventures. It’s fun. It’s a great class. Ariel is a great co-teacher, and we’re currently designing another course called Tech for Good, which will go deeper into how today’s leaders can use technology to scale social impact strategies.

Let’s get into some of those experiences you mention. How did you get involved with the NAACP? 

I became president at 35, in 2008. I had started organizing when I was 14, 15 with the Jesse Jackson campaign, and for me this was the culmination of 20 years as a community organizer and community journalist. When I was appointed, the media was quick to harp on the fact that I was not in the traditional mold because I was neither a politician nor preacher. I just kind of laughed because I was standing next to Julian Bond, who was literally a protege of W.E.B. Du Bois. Like them, my principal training was as an organizer and writer. 

At that time Bond, as NAACP board chairman, seemed keen on expanding the organization’s purview beyond race equality to civil rights more broadly. Where did you fall in all of this? 

I had made a name for myself as an organizer and reporter for a front-line black community newspaper. But I was also pro marriage equality. Julian Bond had quietly identified that last piece as his litmus test for determining who was merely a ‘race person’ and who was absolutely a ‘civil rights person.’ It was controversial at the time. But it was no coincidence that the three finalists—a Baptist preacher from Dallas, a politician from Jacksonville, Florida, and myself—were all pro marriage equality. Julian wasn’t going to let you get that far if you weren’t.

What eventually distinguished you from the others? 

Julian had been the first African American nominated for vice president of the United States. He was only going to allow someone to become president of the NAACP if that person was for Barack Obama. This was 2008. Of the three, I was the only one who was for Obama. In fact, I had been in Springfield with him when he announced his candidacy for president, and together with two friends I raised about $12 million to help him win the primary. That last point was important to Julian because he knew we had to rapidly increase our fundraising. 

You’ve been away from the NAACP for some time now. What do you see as your legacy? 

I was president of the NAACP for five-and-a-half years, from the middle of 2008 to the end of 2013. So, one part of that legacy involved being Obama’s ally, helping to elect and re-elect him, helping him pass almost every major piece of domestic legislation in his first term. 

Second was raising a generation of young activists in the fight to right wrongs suffered by individuals at the hands of the justice system. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we saw so many kids who had come of age in the NAACP movement go seamlessly into the Black Lives Matter movement. We had just spent their teenage years fighting for people like Troy Davis and the Scott sisters and Trayvon Martin.

The third thing was the fight around mass incarnation. When I came on board, the country really hadn’t accepted the need to fight mass incarceration. For the NAACP, there was a discomfort in acknowledging the urgent need to deal with the unintended consequences of public-safety legislation passed in the 1990s. It resurfaced the pain of old debates. Some of us had fought for those bills; some of us had fought against them. Ultimately, we were able to agree that they were devastating our communities. 

And the final piece was getting us more urgently focused on state legislation. The front line in the battle for civil rights in this country has been at the state level for some time. However, progressives remain disproportionally focused on federal victories, even as they become more elusive and at great expense to local communities, which depend on progressives to deliver real victories. 

Your underlying message seems to be broad empowerment. Citizen, your new app, aligns fairly clearly with this idea. 

I’m excited about Citizen for the same reason the NAACP leaders a century ago were excited about electrification and the proliferation of streetlights. People, where they live their lives, are often struggling with palpable vulnerability. What they need is to be able to see around corners and down the street so they know what to avoid and where they can help. Citizen puts this in your pocket. 

It’s very different from those apps that crowdsource suspicion. It starts with a call to 9-1-1. We employ a team of former journalists and former first responders who filter through the noise for actual threats. We never put a suspicious person report, but what you will see are missing persons, fires, acts of violence, robberies, and the occasional dangerous animal. Then we geocode it to where you are and if you’re on the scene you can live-broadcast what you’re seeing to inform your community.

You were a national surrogate for Bernie Sanders in 2016. In 2018, you ran for governor of Maryland. You’ve been in the public eye and part of national politics for a long time. What do you think of the current political climate?  

As somebody who is both a son of the American Revolution and a fifth-generation member of the NAACP, I take a long view of history, and that long view gives me hope in this moment, both in terms of what’s hard and what’s exciting. Politics is similar to the natural world in some ways, one of which is that it’s usually darkest before dawn. 

If you step up on the balcony of history and look at this moment across the decades and centuries, you would expect there to be a great struggle now. The group that has had a numerical majority is about to lose it definitively and will have to find at least one other group to partner with demographically to succeed democratically. Like an organism that before it dies fights most viciously, the group that has had disproportionate power for the perpetuity of this country to date would be fighting viciously. That’s what we see in our midst. 

Despite that—and what compounds the hope—is a rising generation that has finally gotten to a place where they’ve found solidarity in voting their situation as well as their aspiration. What’s often missed in American politics is a myopic focus on our aspirations and a failure to recognize the need to bond across racial lines based on a common situation. The problems of student debt, low wages for workers, massive and rapidly rising class inequalities have inspired a generation of Americans to come together across every historical line of division, and it gives me great hope. I see hope in both the darkness and light of this moment.