UB Distinguished Speakers Series: Heather McGhee

New York Times Bestselling Author of "The Sum of Us"

portrait of heather mcghee.

February 28, 2024
7 p.m.

Center for the Arts
Mainstage Theatre

Tickets: $25, $35, $45
$5 UB Student tickets available at UBCFA Ticket Office


What if, in the middle of your live TV appearance, someone asked for advice on overcoming racial prejudice? For Heather McGhee, the response was natural: she helped. The viral exchange, now viewed over 10 million times, also inspired her to kick off a cross-country journey throughout America, where she explored what we lose when we buy into the “zero-sum” paradigm—the idea that progress for some, comes at the expense of others. Her deeply personal experiences come together in “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.” An analysis of how we arrived at this divided nation, “The Sum of Us” illuminates how racism is at the root of some of our most vexing public problems, from collapsing infrastructure to rising student debt. But at the heart of the book are humble stories of people yearning to be a part of a better America, including white supremacy’s collateral victims: white people themselves. Hailed as “illuminating and hopeful,” the critically acclaimed book spent ten weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and was longlisted for the National Book Award and the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. McGhee adapted the book into a Spotify podcast series, produced by Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company.

To date, The Sum of Us” has been endorsed by the likes of Ibram X. Kendi, #1 New York Times bestselling author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert, and Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, who calls it a “must read.” It has also been dubbed “The book that should change how progressives talk about race” (New York Times) and “Required reading to move the country forward…” (Chicago Tribune). “The Sum of Us” was named one of the Washington Post and TIME’s Must-Read Books of 2021, and the Best Business Book of the Year by Porchlight.

“The Sum of Us: Adapted for Young Readers,” based on her New York Times bestseller, brings McGhee’s crucial message of solidarity to a new generation of leaders, thinkers and activists. In a starred review, Booklist said, “After challenging readers to rethink their understanding of race, she concludes with strategies on how communities can prosper together.” Kirkus called it “of great value to anyone who values straight-to-the-point, thorough writing on race in America” in a starred review.

For nearly two decades, McGhee helped build the non-partisan “think and do” tank Demos, serving four years as president. Under her leadership, Demos moved their original idea for “debt-free college” into the center of the 2016 presidential debate, argued before the Supreme Court to protect voting rights in January 2018, and provided expert testimony to congressional committees, including a Supreme Court confirmation hearing. As an executive, McGhee led Demos’ own racial equity organizational transformation, resulting in a doubling of the organization’s racial diversity and growth across all measures of organizational impact. In 2018, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz also asked McGhee to advise the company as it designed an anti-bias training for 250,000 employees in the wake of the unjust arrest of two Black men in a Philadelphia store. McGhee wrote a report with recommendations for how Starbucks could apply a racial equity lens to their businesses, and how other companies both large and small can benefit from doing the same.