After spending years as a TV news figure, British journalist Isha Sesay felt ready to try her hand at a different medium. She wanted to explore the level of intimacy that’s possible between a listener and a host through podcasts and dissect the different connotations behind “activism,” a term that has taken on a more loaded meaning in recent years, depending on whom you ask.
The former CNN anchor launched The Accidental Activist on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Amazon Music on March 25 with a goal of pinpointing the moments that led cultural icons to commit to activism when their day jobs didn’t call for it.
Sesay sits down with comedian and actress Amanda Seales, actor Forest Whitaker, actress Alyssa Milano, comedian Margaret Cho, writer Baratunde Thurston, and more for the 10-part series. In roughly 45-minute episodes, she covers topics ranging from racial equity and gun control to mental health and peace and development, her own reflections on her guests’ responses spliced throughout the interviews.
“I thought podcasts would be a great way to bring a subject which can be quite intense to a listener in a way that felt basically the opposite of heavy-handed and could be engaging, and they could dip in and out of,” she told Global Citizen.
In the inaugural episode of the show, Sesay and Seales joke like old girlfriends, commiserating over being teased as young girls for their use of language.
Sesay asks every guest on the show when they accidentally fell into activism. Seales’ moment occurred when a clip of her challenging Caitlyn Jenner went viral, and to Sesay’s surprise, she is quick to reject identifying as an activist due to the oversaturation of the term in the social media age.
If you need a little spiciness on this Saturday, I’ve got just the thing for you😄Listen to my conversation with @amandaseales about her upbringing, her activism, and that infamous dinner on my new podcast THE ACCIDENTAL ACTIVIST. No one shuts this woman down! pic.twitter.com/QxLPmRTiSA— Isha Sesay (@IshaSesay) March 26, 2022
“After talking to all these people, I'm more and more committed to embracing the term, but also just taking away this understanding that activism really is about a commitment to an issue and a commitment to doing the work to benefit not yourself but others, a sense of trying to benefit a community wherever that community may be, near or far,” Sesay said.
The show presents an opportunity for audiences to see each guest through a different lens, highlighting their childhoods, turning points, and how they landed in their current positions.
Sesay said she invited several celebrities onto the podcast because they carry a certain level of visibility. It was important for Sesay to choose guests who demonstrated that an issue touched them enough to adjust course and use their platform for change, which she argues can happen to anyone, regardless of status.
"You don't have to be born into the world of activism,” Sesay said. "You don't have to be part of the Martin Luther King family. You don't have to be part of the Kennedy family. You could be an ordinary person going about your life, and something could spark you. And no matter where you are, have an impact.”
Like her guests, activism unexpectedly became a focal point for Sesay in 2014 — reporting on the #BringBackOurGirls movement sparked by the Boko Haram abduction of 276 girls from Nigeria set her on a different path. Being of Sierra Leonean descent, the situation resonated with her, and her Peabody Award-winning coverage prompted the journalist to leave CNN to start the nonprofit organization W.E. Can Lead, focused on empowering African girls.
"It's not for everyone, and it doesn't have to be the way you get into making a difference,” Sesay said of the organization, which has had to pause operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I don't see that as the holy grail."
Sesay is now also a UN Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund and the CEO of the digital media company OkayMedia.
Sesay and Seales discussed the challenge of finding a single cause to commit to fighting for when endless issues remain to be addressed.
“She [Seales] says, find what you're so passionate about. Then, even at your most tired, even at your most fed up, it would move you to action,” Sesay said. “It would move you from the sofa. Even when you don't think you've got anything left in the tank. It is that issue that you would dig deep to use your energy to push forward. This is something that I'm trying to learn now in terms of saying it's OK not to be at the center of every battle that involves women and girls because you just can't be.”
In the second episode of the show, Milano encourages people to speak out and mobilize around the issues they have the bandwidth to support. She opened up about her “accidental activist” moment as a teenager when she kissed a boy with AIDS on the Phil Donahue Show to break down the misconception that the disease could be transmitted through casual contact.
In recent years, the actress helped amplify the #MeToo movement in the mainstream and rallied support for gun control. She said she’s never been able to separate activism from her acting career.
Milano told Sesay that it’s important to remain curious, and not be too attached to achieving a specific result through activism, because the fruits of one’s labor might not be felt immediately.
“You also need to trust your own voice. If everybody does a little bit, the collective momentum can move mountains,” Sesay said. “So the first thing is, find your passion, figure out what it is, do the homework to understand what the issue is, and then get involved at the level that you can get involved in. And there's nothing that's too big or too small because honestly, the collective result is what will shift the issue.”
Sesay is still figuring out how to strike a balance between her commitment to activism and finding time for herself. She, too, feels the pressure of not doing enough.
“We can be our own worst critics,” Sesay said. “I'm like, you should be doing more, you should be more vocal, you should be posting more, you should be writing more op-eds, you should be making more TV appearances. Maybe you take a beat today, and then you come back at it tomorrow, and that's OK. That's not you failing.”
Sesay encourages others to find their own entry points to activism, whether that’s sharing information, fundraising, or marching in a protest. She hopes that the non-prescriptive, light, engaging, and “fun” episodes of The Accidental Activist push others to think more about their social impact.
“They're meant to just inspire you to do the work of thinking about where can I make a difference?” she said. “I think people will be surprised by what they learn about the guests and also surprised by how this opens up a whole area of thought for them around activism.”
Listen to The Accidental Activist wherever you get your favorite podcasts.