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Rethinking Power With Aarti Shahani’s New Podcast

There’s formal power, the kind you can get by winning an election or being appointed CEO of a company, and then there’s also informal power, the kind that can be asserted on your own.

Aarti Shahani thinks power sits deep inside each one of us.  It can be like a volcano, dormant most of the time, but brimming with energy.

“That kind of power is in everyone,” said Shahani,  a former KQED and NPR reporter. “It just depends on how — and when — you let yourself erupt.”

Shahani’s new podcast, Art of Power focuses on interviews about what power means to different kinds of leaders, from elected officials to artists and community organizers, and how they’ve been able to tap into it, to create change in the world.

Art of Power, is Aarti Shahani’s new podcast (Image courtesy of WBEZ Chicago)

Shahani’s understanding of power, and who wields it, was shaped by her youth as an undocumented kid, and the daughter of working-class Indian immigrants. When her father faced deportation as a teenager, it changed her life.

She became a fighter, a community organizer, and eventually, a journalist. “I’ve gotten to experience what it’s like to vie for power when you’re excluded [by design],” Shahani said. “I spent a lot of my young life being part of the ‘powerless.’ The obsession with the practice of power, started very much out of family necessity and survival.”

She spent her twenties as an activist, meeting a lot of jailhouse lawyers, and in her thirties, she said she was curious to meet the architects of artificial intelligence. As she said, these tech powers are “temperamentally very different from jailhouse lawyers. But what they share is intensity.”

Later on, as NPR’s Silicon Valley correspondent, Shahani frequently alerted listeners to mega breaches and hacks, reminding them to change their passwords, among other things. “I lovingly, but comedically refer to that chapter of my life as being the Indian IT lady,” laughed Shahani.

‘It’s unfortunate that my way into the industry was playing into stereotypes that people around me had,’ Shahani told KQED.(Photo courtesy of Aarti Shahani) (Courtesy of Aarti Shahani)

“It’s unfortunate that my way into the industry was playing into stereotypes that people around me had,” Shahani said. “I felt like when I first came into news, I was hiding who I was because I felt like I am only going to make it in this competitive industry if I whitewash myself.”

Shahani was in the room when Elon Musk introduced the self-driving Tesla. During her time as a Silicon Valley reporter she had access to many big names. “My access to power, capital P, exploded and I just became a student of how it functions,” she said.

Shahani decided to share more of her own personal story in 2019,  publishing Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares. The book is a memoir about the saga her family endured when her father’s electronics store was caught up in a sting targeting members of the Colombian Cali Cartel in the mid-1990s. Her father found himself facing deportation orders under a Clinton-era law that expanded the definition of deportable offenses for longtime green card holders.

After publishing the book, she said some South Asian Americans have asked her, “‘how did you feel writing about the skeletons in your family’s closet, the dirty laundry?’ Part of the burden of being a ‘model minority’ is that you have to be a model,” she said. “You’re not supposed to talk about family problems.” However, with so few examples of what modern migrants experience in the deportation system, she wanted to use her own story, “I just felt like, let me just do a true case study,” she said.

On her podcast, Shahani pushes her guests to talk about the ways their path to power may be unconventional, or unexpected. During one episode, she asked Surgeon General Vivek Murthy about his winding journey to becoming the nation’s top doctor.

Murthy told her about a moment as a college student when he was helping with HIV/AIDS education in India, standing in front of a group of students at an assembly.

“I felt this energy sort of rising like off my spine,” Murthy told Shahani. “It felt like this surreal but incredibly powerful moment of deep connection,” he said. He came out of that experience with a clearer sense of what he wanted to experience in life. “I want to work on things where I feel such a sense of flow that I feel like the universe is conspiring to help me and to guide me,” Murthy said.

Shahani believes every human who achieves extraordinary things has some sort of deep primal,  emotional, or spiritual drive. But this moment in her interview with Murthy left her shaken. “Here we’ve got the top dog in medicine talking about his spiritual awakening. And I’m like, ‘Thank you. Now, I think I actually understand you.’ I’m proud that we have a show where people are delving deeper into themselves,” she said.

Another episode of Art of Power features  Carol Moseley-Braun, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. “Look at the possibilities, not the limitations, because if you look at the limitations, you will not try anything new,” Moseley-Braun told Shahani, “you’ll intimidate yourself and you’ll tell yourself no. And that is not how the world changes.”

Moseley-Braun explained both what it takes to be the first — what it takes to break a glass ceiling, as well as “how it will cut you,” Shahani said.

Through her show, Shahani wants her audience to rethink deeply engrained concepts of power. She’s starting by taking to task the American myth of ‘picking yourself up by the bootstraps.’

Using her own position as a reference point, Shahani asks, “What does the conversation, about entrepreneurship look like when it’s hosted by the white guy who comes from a well-to-do family versus when it’s hosted by the woman of color who comes from a poor family?”

She said when someone tells her, “‘I just built this thing out of my parents garage,’ I don’t think, ‘Oh wow, you just bootstrapped it all by yourself,’ I think, ‘Oh, your parents had a garage. What else do they have that they gave you?'”

Copyright 2021 KQED