Michele Norris at ComNet17
Michele Norris is one of America’s most respected voices in journalism. The former anchor of NPR’s All Things Considered, founder of the Peabody Award-Winning The Race Card Project, and author of The Grace of Silence, Michele is leading the conversation about race in America today.
She sat down with Network CEO Sean Gibbons at ComNet17 Miami Beach to discuss why you need to be able to distill your story down to six words, the difference between post-racial and post-racist, and how to make sense of the moment we’re in.
Good morning. It’s my pleasure to be here today surrounded by all of you as leaders in philanthropy in the non-profit sector who are making a difference in communities throughout the country. I’m Charles Hokanson. I’m the Senior Vice President for Florida Committee Engagement at the Helios Education Foundation. Helios is one foundation that is in two states. Our mission is to enrich the lives of individuals in both of those states by creating opportunities for success in post-secondary education. We understand that post-secondary education is not solely a result of courses taken on a university campus. Actually, post-secondary success starts with a high quality, early learning environment that prepares a child to learn from the first day of kindergarten, surrounds that child with a college growing culture throughout middle and high school. Ultimately it ensures that she enjoys an academic journey that is both challenging and motivational.
Regrettably, here in 2017, the environment I just described is not accessible to every student in every community. Regrettably in 2017 we still deal with issues of inequality that perpetuate education gaps starting very early in life. Too often these gaps are exaggerated, particularly among our minority students and underserved students. Our primary guest today is an accomplished journalist who has explored the topic of minorities in America, among other impactful issues. Michele Norris’ journalistic career spans decades. Her by-line has appeared in the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, among others. In addition to reporting on the tragedy of 9/11, for which she won an Emmy Award, Michele has interviewed numerous presidents and global leaders. She joined NPR’s evening news program, All Things Considered, in 2002, becoming NPR’s first African American female host. In 2010 Michele began The Race Card Project in collaboration with NPR, a body of work for which she won Peabody Award in 2014.
Michele has also reflected upon her own family legacy in the book, The Grace of Silence. This morning Michele is not the interviewer, but the interviewee. So, she will be joined in stage by Sean Gibbons, our CEO of The Communications Network. Please join me in welcoming both Michele and Sean.
Thank you. How are you? Can I give you a hug? I need one.
Great to see you. I had to come up with tissue after listening to Clarence speak.
So I guess I should ask you, again, how are you feeling?
Yes. So, let’s do well by our friend.
You have had an extraordinary career. We’ve known each other for quite a while. Let’s talk about something tough.
Okay. I’m not afraid of that.
I run something called The Race Card Project, so …
That’s fair enough. Let’s start with a word. It’s a word you have written about. It’s a word you have thought about. It’s a word that you wrestle with today and, my guess is, tomorrow and for quite some time to come. The word is race. I’m just gonna let you have a run at it.
Okay. May I give a word of thanks first?
How honored I am to be in this room and in front of this group, in particular to take on this subject at this moment in America. Thank you very much for allowing me.
You honor us.
Thank you. This space, so the word race. First, we have to separate the word race from the word racism. Often when we talk about race, there’s a certain toxicity attached to it, because of racism. If you decouple those words, you are able to examine race sometimes as an element in everyday life.
“…we have to separate the word race from the word racism. Often when we talk about race, there’s a certain toxicity attached to it, because of racism. If you decouple those words, you are able to examine race sometimes as an element in everyday life.”
Race … Sociologists will describe race as this highly adaptive system created by humans that evolves over time, usually to accrue power to one group of people, and to deny it to another group of people. That’s big and that’s wordy and you can find that in textbooks. Race is something that is much closer to the ground for most of us. It describes this room. This room has a racial element to it. There’s a racial component to this room. It describes history in American life. There’s a racial component to most of history in American life.
I have come to do something that maybe puts me in bad order with some people. I look for how race impacts almost everything in American life. People will say, “Wait. Why are you always looking for race under every rock? Why are you so focused on race?” Because it’s often there. It’s a bit like the weather. You check the weather in the morning. If the weather is bad, you know that you need an umbrella, right? You know that you need to maybe put a raincoat over your shoulder when you head out the door. If it’s in Miami and you know it’s humid, you’re not even going to try to leave your hair down, you know? It’s just not gonna work, right? You just go with it. If it’s a beautiful day and it’s 70 degrees outside and the air is crisp. It’s not because the weather isn’t there. It’s just that it’s not evident.
“Race is something that is much closer to the ground for most of us… It describes history in American life. There’s a racial component to most of history in American life.”
I think of race as somewhat similar. The winds may not be blowing at hurricane force impact, but it’s often there and if you’re willing to lean in and understand its impacts, you will understand America in a fuller way. You will understand your own community in a fuller way. I think you will be much more muscular as a communicator, as a storyteller or as really anything you do, if you’re willing to understand its role in American life, in American history, and in your own interpersonal journey.
You founded The Race Card Project and you and I have talked about this offline. You went in with one thought or idea and it confounded your expectations. Can you explain to folks what happened, what you’ve encountered.
I created The Race Card Project in 2010. I had written a book about my family’s very complex racial legacy.
Which you all should read.
Yes, you should.
In the run up to the election of Barack Obama my family was going through a period of historic indigestion. I don’t know if that was happening at your own dinner tables but people were suddenly talking about things they didn’t talk about. My father’s from Birmingham, Alabama. I knew the deal. I knew that he had lived in the segregated south. I spent every summer of my youth there. They would send me down to Alabama every summer. They didn’t talk a lot about what life was like in the Jim Crow south. My mother’s from Minneapolis, from Minnesota actually, originally from Duluth and then Alexandria and Minneapolis. Minnesota had its own story to tell around segregation but they didn’t talk about it.
Suddenly with the election of Barack Obama they were talking about it all the time. “Pass the peas. Let me tell you what happened to me in 1967.”
I wound up writing a book about some of the things I learned. When I wrote this book I went out into the country and I knew I was going to be talking about race. Sean, I was afraid. I thought that race was this thing that no one ever wanted to talk about. I was on a 35 city book tour and I was so afraid that I would face audiences where people would fold their arms and cross their legs and just get sort of crunched up in a way that I thought people often did. Oh, why are we talking about this?
I thought I had to lubricate the conversation in some way, and, I was also interested in learning what was going on around America. People at that point were talking about America entering a post-racial space. You can’t even say that word now without a bit of a side eye, right? But, at that time, everyone was talking about how American had become post-racial. I wanted to explore race in a way that allowed me to get to it very close to the ground again as I was traveling the country.
The idea was that we created this exercise where we asked people to think about the word race. Big word. Difficult word. Complicated word. You only get one sentence to express your views, your thoughts, your anthem, your lament, your triumph, whatever it was, one sentence. To make sure that people weren’t Faulknerian and wrote some big, long 50 word sentence that was really a paragraph, we said you only get six words. I did it because I thought no one wanted to talk about race. I’m willing to admit that I was wrong.
“The idea was that we created this exercise where we asked people to think about the word race. Big word. Difficult word. Complicated word. You only get one sentence to express your views, your thoughts, your anthem, your lament, your triumph, whatever it was, one sentence.”
You are a professional storyteller.
I hope you all know this, Michele has had one of the most remarkable careers. She’s written for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, do I have that right? Obviously NPR. We met at ABC News and the Washington Bureau quite some time ago.
Your gift, your tremendous talent is telling stories. Yet, you confine those stories to six words, why? With The Race Card Project you confine it to six words.
With The Race Card Project, I mean, it forces you to really put a fine point on it. When we created The Race Card Project they were originally postcards. Now most of the submissions come in online. People go to the website or people use it in their communities. I now work at the Aspen Institute and The Race Card Project is the fuel behind this project called The Bridge, where we try to bring people together. My team is here, Melissa Bear, Amrit Dillon. We try to engage people to talk across difference. We use those stories that come in The Race Card Project because they’re candid. They are raw. They help us see the things that people talk about on their kitchen tables, “White not allowed to be proud.” “I’m only Asian when it’s convenient.” “Black children cost less to adopt.” “You know, my mother hated my dark skin.”
I worked in radio for ten years and I never heard anyone say anything close to that behind a microphone yet people were willing, on a post card, in the glow of their computer, on their iPhone or their Samsung device send in these stories.
Then when we ask them to send in back stories, anything else, explain your six words, they would send in essays and photos. The reason that it’s so potent, I think, is that it forces you to just think about I only get six words. What’s the elemental thing that I want to say?
That opens the door. That’s the crack that lets the light in for the people to go on and tell more of their story. As a storyteller I realize that behind the microphone or even when I went out in the world I was never getting to these stories. These were so personal. These were things that, often times, people sent us stories that they’ve never said out loud.
We have one case, a family in Santa Cruz where three different members of the family have all sent in race cards. It’s all about life in a blended family. They don’t even know that the other members had all sent in cards. Or a husband and a wife, he’s Iranian and she’s white American. They both talk about how their lives changed after 9/11 when suddenly he was viewed as someone who was “otherized” in a very significant way. They hadn’t even told each other but they decided to tell us the story. Through that lens and through that prism we understand America in a very different way. This thing that we’re not supposed to talk about I realized people do want to talk about it. Once we can get people to open up now we want to use that as a way to engage people across difference. You can understand what life is lived like by someone else. That’s the difficult thing.
We just heard Dr. [Clarence B.] Jones talk about the segregated south, which was really the segregated America. We talk about the segregated south but the north was just as segregated. At that point there were laws and customs that kept people so far apart from each other that it felt like there was a moat that was 100 miles wide and a wall that was 100 miles tall that kept us from seeing each other because that’s what segregation … That’s the template that segregation set. We don’t have that template anymore. We have all these devices that allegedly allow us to see inside each other’s lives. We have reality TV programs that, you know, allow us a bird’s eye view into someone’s home.
We still don’t see each other. We still don’t understand what life is like on different sides of an issue. I hope, in some way, that this project has some social utility to allow people to not agree with each other necessarily, but at least understand why someone has that perspective. Why they settled on that particular point of view, which I don’t understand, but I’m at least going to try to understand how they got to that.
Can I spill the beans on what we’re gonna try to do later? Okay.
So for all of you Michele has graciously agreed that over the next year or two or more, we’re still figuring this all out, The Network is going to collaborate with the folks at The Bridge to try to bring some conversations together involving all of you so that we, as a sector, as a field can get better at understanding this issue. This, I guess, is going to segue into a question: We may be doing some harm, unintentionally. There’s a lot of ideas out there. We had a conversation with a gentleman named Trabian Shorters who lives here in Miami. He taught me an idea I wasn’t super familiar with, which is deficit framing. A lot of the stories we hear about race are negative. They are perpetuated by all of us. I guess my question to you would be, are we in fact, these good folks in the room who woke up today and do every day to make the world a slightly better place in really meaningful ways, are we part of the problem?
I’d like to think you’re part of the solution.
Because communications is key. It’s not the only thing. Dialogue won’t get us to a better place alone. To get to a better place we need to have robust dialogue and we need to figure out how to have strategic strategies around. Strategic communication is important. Sometimes just the small things, creating an avenue for communication, making a space where people can tell their stories, modeling in important ways. We have to think about the prism through which we look at these issues, the questions we ask and even the framing of the questions. So, why is it so difficult for black children to learn? Why do we have a school to prison pipeline?
Social science tells us that sometimes just framing the question in that way or even talking about the school to prison pipeline, even for people who very much want to attack and interrogate this issue, for the general public what that does is reminds them of a threat as opposed to making them think about a solution.
Even framing it in that way, just talking about these issues has a deleterious effect, has an opposite effect that we want to have.
We have to remember that often we’re looking at these issues through a majority lens. A majority lens, right now, is a white lens. We’re thinking about these issues. We have to step back and think about how we approach these issues, how you ask these questions. If you take an issue like the school to prison pipeline, for instance, or the problems with educating children of color, and you frame it in a different way and you think about it as lost potential you’ve totally flipped the script then. You’re walking through a slightly different door that allows for a different kind of communication strategy that allows for a different set of protocols for trying to attack that.
“Strategic communication is important. Sometimes just the small things, creating an avenue for communication, making a space where people can tell their stories, modeling in important ways.”
Communications is sometimes as simple as how are we presenting the issue? What door are we walking through as we try to understand the issue? Framing, George Lakoff has done a lot of work around this, framing is so important. If you wind up framing the issue the wrong way or in a very pinched way you wind up double downing on the very problem that you’re trying to solve.
So, we’ve got some work ahead of us. Who’s in?
So, I’m gonna come back to the six words because I continue to be fascinated about this. I know we chatted earlier. Do you want to tell the Don Graham story? I feel like … The Don Graham … Do I have that right?
Oh, yeah. Why I settled on six words?
There are a few reasons. One, I knew that there were lots of exercises around six words and it was a frame that people understood. They did six words Minneapolis in my home town. Six word Sports is a concept that was well understood. It was all over the media. I knew that people would understand it. I had also lived this personally. I had a college professor who early on, and I still write like this, told me that in order to write something complicated you have to reduce it to one sentence. If you can’t reduce it to one sentence you really don’t understand the subject matter at hand. You are really not ready to attack the story.
I learned this in a very particular way when I worked in the newsroom at the Washington Post. Don Graham, who at that time was the publisher, would walk around the newsroom in this ratty, blue Mr. Rogers-like sweater. It was wonderful.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a newsroom since where someone would leave their office in the tower everyday and walk through the newsroom. He would wander the newsroom and he would … If you were writing for the front page he’d want to chat you up a little bit.
You could talk your way off the front page if you were too parenthetical. “It’s kind of about this and then there’s this person.” Okay, he’d go back and tell Ben Bradley or Len Downey, “She didn’t have that. You might not want to put that story on the front page of the paper.” If you could reduce it to something that was very pithy, very elemental. You’re writing about two people who entered congress at the same time and now they’re both vying for the speaker ship. It’s a classic Can and Abel tale. Oh, you get that, right?
I learned how to do that as a strategic, it was basically strategic communications, right? It also helped me just wrestle the story to the ground so that I really understood it. I knew that six word idea had power.
That’s not where you started. I hope you’ll share it the way we talked about it a little earlier, which is most of us here probably fell in love with the idea of communicating maybe through writing when we first learned to pick up a pen and draw our letters or whatever it might be. Tell me about when you first fell in love with stories or found yourself on this path.
I believe that much of what we learn in life, the important lessons in life come from the tables that you sit at in your childhood. So much of the important lessons in life are learned at the dining room table, at the formica table in the kitchen, at the counter or at your grandma’s table. I’m from a big, loud, black family. Whether we were in Minnesota where people are “Minnesota Nice” but really loud when they get around the dinner table, or in Alabama where people were just loud and ruckus and told stories. I was surrounded by robust storytellers, people who had a lot to say. It was not a quiet dinner table.
I was raised by parents who loved words. My parents did not go to college. That is … I am so sorry that they didn’t, because I think they would have had so much more to offer the world than they were able to because of the opportunities for them were relatively pinched because of the time that they lived in.
They didn’t go to college and yet they were two of the smartest people I’ve ever known. They surrounded our home with books. I don’t know if you remember the book of the month club? Books would arrive every month. My parents were postal workers. They still do this in whatever city you live in, but there was the dead books sale at the post office. This was before the age of Amazon so I can only imagine what this sale would be like today. For books that didn’t get where they were going they just collected them. Books take up a lot of space so the main post office in Minneapolis every year had this amazing book sale where brand new books were five cents, ten cents. We got a new set of encyclopedias every year because we would go and they were there at the book sale.
They subscribed to The New York Times at a time when people didn’t do that necessarily in the Midwest. They actually didn’t subscribe, they went to Shinders in Minneapolis. If there’s anybody here from Minneapolis that remembers Shinders, the bookstore/newspaper stand in downtown Minneapolis? They would buy the Sunday paper and then they’d dine out on that all week. My dad would take the sports and business section. My mom would attack the book section. As a kid I loved stories. My mom would tell you that I always had my nose in a book. I always kept journals, those silly little journals that had the little lock and key that never worked and your sisters would go in your room with a bobby pin and open it up and read all about your crushes and how you were crushed in life.
My mom says I would go around the neighborhood and I would write stories about our neighbors. Now I understand what this meant. We were the first black family. Our neighborhood was integrated because we integrated it. We were the first black family. Every family’s whose house touched ours immediately put their house up for sale. The people who stayed, stayed mainly because they had to. At that point the word was out that Negros were coming. Their housing values plummeted. They couldn’t sell their house even if they wanted to and if they did they would sell it as a loss. So they stayed and integration was sort of forced upon them. Over time I had deep friendships with them. My parents developed deep friendships. When I was young it was a really tense period and I was knocking door to door on the Westig’s and the O’Malley’s door and Bowman’s. I’d write stories about them and then I’d sell them to my neighbors. So, “I wrote this story about you. I’d like to sell it to you.” It’s kind of like extortion, right? There’s no way you’re not going to go and find five cents to give to this kid. That, I guess is where it started.
I’m gonna tell my wife to make sure we have some money around the house.
Or tell your girls to start writing stories.
That’s a great idea. Zoe and Lily, I’ll get to you later.
You wrote a piece recently that moved me. I actually sent you a note just after I read it. It just dropped me to the floor. It was incredible. I’ve sent it out to you guys in the app. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, please when you get on the plane or you’re heading home and you find a few minutes … I know life is busy, but Michele wrote the cover story for National Geographic, about a year ago now, to help celebrate the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I read this piece, and I know that you all have listened to Michele, she’s been in your car, she’s been in your living room, but I always think of you, first and foremost, as the most beautiful writer.
The way that you think and express yourself is just extraordinary. After absorbing it and taking such deep pleasure in it, my thought was, “How the hell did she do that?” So, how the hell did you do that?
National Geographic wanted to write a piece for the opening of the museum. If you haven’t gotten to Washington to see the museum make your way there. You need to plan because getting the tickets is really, really hard. They’ve made it easier and it’s streamlined now. You just have to know in advance.
The idea was that it would take a long time for people to get to Washington who didn’t live in DC. The idea was to bring the museum to them through the pages of a magazine. The difficult thing was, what do you write about? What 5-6 artifacts do you choose to focus on to tell?
But you chose artifacts.
I did. I decided to tell it through artifacts but also through the curators and their journey to find the artifacts and understand those artifacts. That’s the way I decided to tell the story was to pick certain artifacts and then their journey on the way to the museum. SO there was sort of a frame there.
It’s worth noting, the museum had almost nothing when Lonnie [Bunch] got started.
It was the first time a museum ever opened, a Smithsonian Museum, opened without an existing collection. This was …
Think about that.
… They knew that this history … This history did not exist. It had been collected, to some degree. The lunch counter from the Woolworth sit in’s in North Carolina is at the American History Museum. There are certain pieces of it. The Tuskegee Airmen’s airplane was at the Museum, the Air and Space Museum. This is a history that had not been valued so curators had not gone out and really captured some of this at the Smithsonian in a very intentional way. It existed in smaller museums throughout the country, but they felt that since the National Mall is where the world comes to understand America.
Lonnie believed that you can’t understand America, and I happen to agree with him. When he said this I always feel like a silent “Amen”. I want to utter a silent Amen. He says you cannot understand America unless you also understand the role of race in America. If you were trying to understand America and you’re not looking at the role of race in the creation of this great country … And in every step, every milestone, race has some element. He wanted to capture that, not to rub America’s noses in this difficult history, but to understand both the toil and the triumph that is captured when you look at this.
He believed that this history was out there to be gathered in the form of artifacts and oral history. The artifacts, they existed in people’s closets and in their basements and in the trunk in their attic. He traveled the country for a few years before he opened this. He would have his own version of Antiques Road Show. People would … He didn’t call it that but he would basically say, “Bring out your artifacts.” People would come and bring incredible, incredible things. That’s how they built the museum.
Then as word got out people would call. One of the stories that I told was Nat Turner’s bible. The Nat Turner rebellion took place in South Hampton, Virginia. He was very religious. In fact, he thought a solar eclipse much like the one we just saw in August, was what … He interpreted it as a sign from God. That set him on his course to plan this rebellion. The bible that he kept with him in a breast pocket existed all these years. A woman, Wendy Porter, had called the museum and she called over and over and over again and couldn’t get through. They were trying to field these calls but it was sometimes difficult to get back to everybody.
There was not a lot of stuff when they started. Yeah, there was no … You guys think of it now as a building. There was no building.
No. They were …
They were in the FAA building.
They were in different buildings. They actually weren’t all together. Rex Ellis, a curator who got his start at the Williamsburg, Living Museum in Williamsburg, was walking down the hall. He is someone who drinks a lot of Diet Coke. When you see him he often has those big slurpee things of Diet Coke, like the huge …
Big Gulp, yes. He was walking down the hall and he just heard someone talking about, “There’s this woman who keeps calling about Nat Turner’s bible.” He said he spilled it all over himself, what, what? He went back and got her number and called her. It turned out he grew up not very far from her. Sometimes it’s pre-ordained, sometimes history just finds the right conservator. He was going home to see his family and he decided to make a stop. They had the bible wrapped up in a tea towel that was in their closet and discovered.
This is a wonderful origin story. The bible had been … When he was executed it had been placed in a drawer in the South Hampton Courthouse and over time given to the family, Francis family of one of the few people that actually survived the rebellion. Over years it had sat in a parlor displayed on a piano. Then over time it moved from family member to family member. At one point Wendy, as a young girl, had taken it to school for show and tell in a Jansport backpack. “This is Nat Turner’s, this is my mother’s spatula and this is my father’s this. This is Nat Turner’s bible.” The teacher, understanding history, said, “Oh honey, let me take that.” Called her family and said you really ought to do something with this.
It wound up in a safe deposit box. It was placed in a safe deposit box at a bank that was robbed twice and they didn’t make it inside the safe deposit boxes so it was okay. Finally worked its way … Oh but there was one more stop. She actually took it, she long felt that it should have a home. She took it to the actual Antiques Road Show.
The PBS show?
The PBS show. She actually brought it and, “This is Nat Turner’s bible.” They weren’t interested. They had no interest at all. She dug up the pictures and sent them to me. I don’t know if they weren’t interested or if they were like, “Whoa. That’s kind of deep for Friday night. I’m not sure that we want to touch that.” It wasn’t clear why they decided to back away from it but they did.
Years later when the story continues, just last weekend there was a reunion. It turns out that the descendants of Nat Turner and the descendants of the Francis family live in the same area. She is the PTA captain with one of the descendants of the Nat Turner family. They just had a reunion.
Out of view, it wasn’t widely covered. I think it was in the South Hampton County paper. She called me to tell me that they were coming together. I believe that these kinds of stories are all around us. That’s what … You could be like Antiques Road Show, “I’m not touching that. Too controversial.” But, boy, if you lean into it you learn so much more about who we are as Americans and how we can find connections to each other.
So all the folks in this room work in communications for good. I think we’re all trying to make sense of this moment that we’re in and to make sense of this time that we’re in, this new era where things are going past us at 1,000 miles per house and new devices and new technologies are emerging that are allowing us to leap across oceans at the speed of light. Incredible. You have spent your career in newspapers, in radio, television–what do you make of all of this? The moment that we’re in now, that could be loaded if you want to go at that, be my guest. Or, just trying to get out into this really crowded information age that we all live in. How do you do it?
You just have to sort and siphon and figure things out. Yes, we have a lot of communications coming at us at all different … Communications coming at us at all different angles. There are things that concern me about that. I’ve been a journalist for a long time. I think it has had, there’s some negative effects and there’s some positive effects on journalism. You have to feed the beast all the time now. You know? Not only do you have to write on deadline, you have to file for the website and you have to send out something on Twitter or Facebook or Snapchat, to show that you’re in the moment, which cuts into the time that you have to be analytical, to actually … The nature of your reporting has changed and the nature of your communication has changed.
As a consumer, we used to worry that the golden age of journalism was behind us. I think we’re living in the golden age of journalism. Look at what’s happening at The Washington Post and The New York Times. They’re in an arm race to cover what’s going on in Washington DC. I think that we are seeing a very robust and important moment in American journalism. Yet, for consumers, I always say that it’s a little bit like your media diet. You have to pay attention to it just like your actual diet. If you’re getting most of your news online, how deep are you reading? How much of that is actually aggregated for you? These algorithms, they pay attention to what you like and then they start to feed you what you like. Then you are just reading only the things that affirm or confirm what you actually believe. If you’re reading online it’s a little bit like … I always say it’s like snacking on Cheetos. You actually need some protein in your diet. You can find that at NPR. That’s for real. You need to make sure that you’re actually reading in depth.
“I think we’re living in the golden age of journalism. Look at what’s happening at The Washington Post and The New York Times. They’re in an arm race to cover what’s going on in Washington DC. I think that we are seeing a very robust and important moment in American journalism. Yet, for consumers, I always say that it’s a little bit like your media diet. You have to pay attention to it just like your actual diet. If you’re getting most of your news online, how deep are you reading?”
In terms of the way we communicate with each other, I think it makes the job for communicators, again, there are positive and negative effects. You can reach a lot of people quite easily. You can reach them in an intimate space because you can reach them through Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat and things like that. At the same time, it’s hard to control the message because stories become anaerobic. We now know that there’s fake news is a thing. I don’t like the terms “fake news” because if it’s fake it’s not actually news so I would say manipulated communication, instead of fake news. People are manipulating the way we communicate with each other. We were infiltrated–we now know by Russia, who created all kinds of fake accounts. They understood, on this issue of race, they understood us around race, in some ways, better than we understood ourselves. They understood that it was a divisive issue. They understood that it could be used as a wedge issue. They did that quite effectively in the last election.
If you look at the events of the last week, you have to just cast a more careful eye and a broader eye. I’ll use this week as an example with the Take a Knee protest and the news that flowed out of that. You saw people burning their tickets and burning their jerseys. This real debate that was playing out in communities. One community couldn’t understand, why would you do this to dishonor the American flag? Another community couldn’t understand, why don’t you understand that when we leave the field, we are seen as men of color and when we drive off the parking lot in our very fancy sports cars, no one sees us as athletes? They just see us as black men and therefore we’re targets. Our sons are targets. Our relatives are targets. You saw this debate.
“I don’t like the terms ‘fake news’ because if it’s fake it’s not actually news so I would say manipulated communication, instead of fake news. People are manipulating the way we communicate with each other.”
It was a week where I thought, America, they are just not talking to each other. It’s such a week of negativity around race. Then last night something lands in my inbox sent to me by like six different people with the US Air Force Commander. I land here because it shows the power of communication. A lieutenant general at the U.S. Air Force Academy called everyone in because there was an incident there. I don’t know how many of you saw this. There was some cadets at the prep school, the academy, an awful slur was painted on some of their dorm rooms, you know, “N word. Go home.” He pulled everyone in and he was not quite Louis Gossett in an Officer and a Gentleman, but he was pretty close. He just said, “If you do not know how to treat people with respect and dignity this is not the place for you. Get out of here. This is the way were gonna do things here.” We sat down … Apparently they had people come together and talk about Charlottesville. They had people come together and talk about Ferguson.
He is using his role, again, strategic communications. I’m not gonna be afraid of this. We’re gonna lean into this. I am going to say that I value diversity, that the military is stronger because of it. Interesting, because that’s not where the military always was. My father served in a very integrated, very segregated military. He was not treated as a full citizen. He says, “This is the military that we have today. This is the rules of engagement in my office.”
Those stories are out there, if you can find them. Again, it’s hard. You have to be careful because the torrent that comes at you can somehow set the tone for the way that we communicate. You have to set an inner compass for what’s important to you. I think as communicators, I believe that you all have such an important role in this moment, such an important role. We have to figure out how to listen to each other. We have to figure out how to create pathways for communication. You all have the ability to model this within your own organizations and the stories that you tell. It’s so important right now to walk with dispatch, to walk with courage, to walk with intent around these issues, to take risks but also to … I run something called The Race Card Project. I hope that all of you have a grace card in your back pocket. If you decide to engage around these issues, at some point someone is going to offend you. At some point someone, as my mother says, someone’s gonna step on your corns, and it’s not gonna feel good.
You have to decide, in that moment, if you shut it down or if you pull … Okay, I’m gonna give you the grace card today. We’re gonna figure out how we can continue to stay engaged with each other even though you really make me mad. Even though together as we try and take this journey, we’re gonna face actual peril. When you talk about race, there is actual peril. Bad things can happen to you. Careers are changed if you say the wrong thing, right? You can be pilloried. Black Twitter is real thing. They’ll come at your hard. That can … Companies sometimes back away from things. Individuals back away from things. Decide that you’re going to continue to lean into that despite the peril. Again, it requires that inner compass. I’m gonna continue to do this because I know it’s right. I’m gonna be careful about the way I communicate. I might mis-step sometimes but, you know what? My heart is in the right place and I’m doing this because I believe I’m doing the right thing and I want to honor you by hearing your story even if I don’t agree with it.
“I think as communicators, I believe that you all have such an important role in this moment, such an important role. We have to figure out how to listen to each other. We have to figure out how to create pathways for communication… It’s so important right now to walk with dispatch, to walk with courage, to walk with intent around these issues, to take risks…”
We’re gonna take questions in one quick second. You and I were having lunch a couple months ago and you said something and you’ve actually said it to me a couple times since which is that … I’m gonna put words in your mouth, but, some of the most woke people are some of the biggest perpetrators of the problem.
You know …
Sean Gibbons: Woke people.
The hardest people to awaken are the ones who think they’re woke.
Thank you. That’s what you said. It sounds better when she says it.
It’s kind of true. You think that you’ve already checked that box or you’re doing the good work. All of us need to be introspective, every single one of us. I have learned so many lessons in the work that I do around the Race Card Project. My team, we’ve learned so many lessons in the work that we do at The Bridge. It is, as the name suggests, we try to bring people together to talk across difference, to talk across the difficult stuff. It’s like playing with fire. Sometimes, you know, sometimes you make missteps. Again, we just have to say we’re in this for the right reason and we’re gonna figure out how to stay at the table, despite that.
Sometimes if you feel like you’re in the right space, because of that you’re less introspective. You’re less willing to think about, okay, what is my lens here? Again, this notion that we have to look in the spaces that we exist. If you were working in an organization and you know your mission is strong and you know that your heart is in the right place, and yet your management structure overwhelmingly represents the at present majority culture. Yet, your administrators are largely people of color. That didn’t happen by accident. How did you get to that space? Are you comfortable with that?
You have to constantly ask. You have to constantly do a personal inventory around these issues. You become stronger communicators when you’re willing to do that. You have a stronger story to tell when you’re willing to do that but it’s really hard. It’s really hard to do. It requires that you see things that you might not like in yourself. You have to recognize that even if you’re ordering your steps in the right way, you might not cast your lens wide enough to really fully understand the perspective of people who need your help, could use your help or could actually honor them by just listening to their story. That’s often where it begins.
“If you were working in an organization and you know your mission is strong and you know that your heart is in the right place, and yet your management structure overwhelmingly represents the at present majority culture. Yet, your administrators are largely people of color. That didn’t happen by accident. How did you get to that space? Are you comfortable with that?”
Questions… We’re gonna go to those right now. Get some hands raised. Anybody out there. While were waiting for hands to raise, up in the front, Sande. The mics coming to you. I apologize in advance because this might tick you off.
I’m about to push a button, I am. I’m sorry. Michele’s best friend. You shared with me, just a moment ago today is the day that she passed.
No, today’s her birthday.
Today’s her birthday.
Okay. I $#%&*! it up. I know you miss her.
I miss her terribly. I miss her terribly.
If you were having a chat with Gwen today and not me and we didn’t have a whole bunch of people in the room and she said, “What’s going on?” What would you tell her?
Okay, so, you did press a button. Gwen is my best friend. It’s hard for me to talk about her as past tense. She’s godmother to my kids. She’s maid of honor at my wedding. For thirty years we have always lived five blocks from each other. We were always close enough because we traveled a lot. She moved, I moved. I moved, she moved.
If she were still here we would be talking all the time. We talked several times a day. We stayed in the business, crazy business of journalism. I think we kept each other in the business because we could call each other, “Girl… I’m having a TV day today.” We talked constantly, all day long. We would be having robust conversations about what’s going on in this moment. I think her legacy is that she always asked the tough questions.
I think if you saw the last … She did two Vice Presidential debates. She’s done several debates. The last debate she did was in Milwaukee this year with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. What most people didn’t know was that in the middle of that she was going through chemo. She looked great. She was still dedicated to the work. I think about the question she asked that evening. Usually when we talk about race it’s a conversation that’s by, for or about people of color, right?
That’s the way it’s framed so often in American culture. She said, “You know. We need to talk about white people tonight.” She basically said that. When we talk about race it’s usually this kind of conversation but, let’s talk about white people. You could hear people in the audience … I was in the room because I traveled to Milwaukee with her. You could hear people in the audience like “Ahh.” You want to talk about white people? Well, hello. You check a box too. You know. When you fill out the census it’s not like you’re unraced. The creation of the racial paradigm is a total human construct with very real consequences. When we talk about race it usually means we’re gonna talk about the at present minority culture. I keep saying “at present” because the future is arriving ahead of schedule. Things are changing very quickly. In some places those words don’t even apply. If you live in certain places in Texas or California … I mean, we need new terms.
She had bravery around these issues. If you remember when she was moderating the debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards. She asked a question that neither one of them were prepared for. She asked about AIDS in America and that black women were in the bullseye of the epidemic, at that point, and still today. They were just befuddled. They had no … This was not in my briefing book. I have no answer. She put that issue on the table for everyone to think about. She leaves a beacon for us to follow and something for us to think about, in terms of the courage of having these kinds of conversations. I believe that, in that sense, she is still very much with us.
It’s a pleasure to be here. Hello.
Would you stand up. I’m sorry, Sande. I don’t mean to put you on the spot but I know who you are. Maybe other folks don’t. Just stand up and tell your name.
Hello. Sande Smith, Cal Wellness. I’m wondering about race trainings, right. People come into your office, they give you a training on race, how to talk about the issues. They leave, there you are. Do they work? Do they really make a difference in how people interact with one another? Are they positive? Are they negative? How could they be helpful?
Sandy, thank you for your question. I think there’s a broad spectrum. Diversity training is something that often people view as an “Eat your peas” exercise. Oh, we have to do the diversity training. Now you do it online and they measure that you actually get to the bottom and you have to get the certificate. You get the certificate but really there’s an email that goes back to the HR department that says that you actually finished your training. If you don’t finish the training you get dinged, “You didn’t do your diversity training.” They range in spectrum. Some of them are hands on where people actually come in.
It’s hard for me to assess whether they work. Some work really well. Some don’t. The larger question that I have about that … Now with the work that we do at The Bridge, we do this kind of work. We don’t call it diversity training but we work with organizations. We work with churches. We work with businesses. We work with municipalities and school systems. The thing that we try to do is create a space where we can kickstart the conversation by bringing people together so that they can talk across difference. We always talk about a long tail. There has to be a strategy for a long tail. It cannot be a one time event where you bring people together. If it’s really effective it means you’re sort of dredging things up. It means you’re putting things out there that people are thinking about. If you don’t have a long tail then everyone goes back and you haven’t really worked through everything.
One of the things I know from journalism, for instance, is if you have the benefit of doing a long term story one of the things I learned, and it was humbling to me, I learned this early on in journalism. I always appreciated being able to do long form journalism because if you go out and interview someone, the stories that you are told … Your notebooks at the beginning, you wind up … They’re minimally useful to you. The longer time that you spend with someone, by the third of fourth or the fifth notebook, then you’re starting to really get the story.
People are very aspirational at the starting. They’ll tell you the story that they think they need to hear themselves. This takes time. To do it just once, usually is not enough. If you really are trying to build an open and inclusive culture you have to create a way to honor that, to celebrate that, to interrogate and examine that. You can’t do that on Tuesday afternoon between 3-4. There is just not enough time to do that. I’m afraid to provide any kind of marking or analysis of these programs because they’re so vast and broad in spectrum. The thing that I do know, they work best if they don’t happen … That they happen over time and it is a much more deliberative process and there’s sort of a long term strategy and a long term goal.
We’re gonna take one more question because we’re a little over time guys. While the mic is getting ready are there questions? I see some hands. There we are.
Millie Hawk Daniel
Hi. I’m Millie Hawk Daniel from Policy Link.
I’m the Vice President of Communications at Policy Link. I wanted to just ask the question, Michele, you’ve talked a lot about courage. As I go to conferences around the country, including this one, I’ve had white people ask me about talking about race. At one conference a few years ago somebody asked, “Is it okay for me to talk about race?” I’ve had people say they don’t know how to do it. Everything you’ve said today I totally agree with. I know we’re short of time. What would you say to people who, all of us, not just white people but black people and everybody, as kind of a parting word or six words maybe, to talk about what … Not only is it okay but it’s absolutely necessary. If we, as communicators, can’t model that, we should be able to. I’ve said different things to different people at different times. I would love to know how you would answer the questions about who talks about race, how they do it and why it’s important?
So, Millie, thank you very much for the question. When someone asks you if it’s okay to talk about race the answer is yes, it is okay and yes, it is necessary. Again, another thing that landed in my inbox this week is Gregg Popovich.
The San Antonio Spurs.
He has obviously, on the down low, been studying critical race theory because he like laid it down. He said something that is so important, as did the lieutenant commander at the US Air Force Academy. It is important that we talk about these issues, not once, but that we continue to talk about these issues. Talk alone won’t get us there, but talk will help us understand each other. It is everybody’s work. It’s everybody’s opportunity. It’s not just the work, it’s the opportunity to understand the world that we live in. Again, it’s reframing, not that it’s work. It’s the opportunity to do this important kind of work. If we can get to the point where we see it as an opportunity instead of just the drudgery, the work, the burden of taking about race, then I think we can actually move to a slightly different space around these issues.
“My six words. ‘Still more work to be done’.”
I’m not gonna say that it’s never been more important. But I know that it is as important as it could possibly be in this moment. You all have such an important role in America right now, in framing the way that we talk around this and so many other issues, climate change, so many things. On the issue of race, I think we can do the next generation a great service by changing the way that we think about this. Race is difficult to talk about in part because we keep saying it’s difficult to talk about. If we change the frame on that, yeah, it might be difficult but race is an opportunity for us to understand each other. If we can change the framing around that and create a space where we can actually have these conversations.
Millie asked my six words. “Still more work to be done.”
We don’t live in a post-racial society. I don’t even know why we would want to. I hope that within my lifetime and maybe my children’s lifetime, we will see a post-racist society. Those are two different things. Race does not have to be a toxic issue. It describes … We are in Miami. I always do this when I go to college campuses, think about where we are. We are in Miami. We are at the Fontainebleau Hotel. Let’s be real. For a long time people who looked like me would have a hard time walking through the front door of an institution like this. If you look in the room that you’re sitting in, literally look around. Look to your right and look to your left. There are women in this room. There are people of color in this room. This is not something that you can ever take for granted in America because within my lifetime, and I am not that old, this is not something you can take for granted. This would be highly unusual. Cops would be called if you saw a room with this kind of competition, in a state like Florida. Let’s be real.
“We don’t live in a post-racial society. I don’t even know why we would want to. I hope that within my lifetime and maybe my children’s lifetime, we will see a post-racist society. Those are two different things. Race does not have to be a toxic issue.”
Don’t take it for granted. Honor it by recognizing the work of people like Clarence Jones and the litany of soldiers and saints that he mentioned when he was at this podium. They fought for us to sit in rooms like this. They used their voices. He worked for a great man that told us that silence is part of the problem. That’s what the letter from the Birmingham Jail was all about. Clarence was the person who took the little scraps of paper out of the jail to make sure that letter go to all of us so that we can read and examine and honor it all of these years later.
You were given voices. Use those voices. You were also given these, ears. God, I think gave us two of them and one of these because listening is so important.
That would be a great place to close but it is not where I want to close. I am going to take the privilege of the last question.
I hope you’ve gotten a sense of what a beautiful, remarkable, thoughtful human being is sitting beside me. She’s one of my favorite people. We’ve known each other for quite some time. I’m gonna give a quick aside because I want to thank you and you haven’t let me. I’ve tried a few times.
When I was very young, probably 24-25, I was going to a job at CNN. I was leaving ABC News. Michele took me out to a very fancy restaurant that I could not afford. I think it was The Iron Gate. We sat outside. She pulled out a box and she handed it to me and she said, “You will need this.” She said it with her Michele Norris voice, “You will need this.” I open it up. It was stationary with my name on it. She gave me my name. She said, “You will use this because this will help you.” Then she wrote a series of letters. She was just extraordinary. Thank you.
You’re welcome. What can I say, I’m the daughter of postal workers.
That’s what it was all about! It was about selling stamps! There we go!
My question is, I want to leave us on a really hopeful note. This has been, I think, a hopeful conversation.
What brings you joy? What makes you happy?
My kids. My kids bring me joy. I have three of them. Watching them grow and go out into the world brings me the greatest joy possible. My husband brings me great joy. I love him like my next breath. My garden brings me joy. This work brings me joy. As difficult as it is, there’s a lot of indigestion. The inbox, there’s a lot of angst in the inbox but there’s also epiphanies and reunions and the fact that people give us their trust. That gives me great joy. I feel so honored to be alive and present at this moment, you know, in the universe. I am eternally optimistic. Maybe it’s part of my DNA and growing up in Minnesota. Despite, these are troubling times. I wake up quite often, what happened? Where are we? What? There’s a sense of vertigo. Yet, my inner compass, the meter, that little needle, tends to move toward joy and hope. I’m fortunate in that.
Michele Norris. Thank you for the gift of your time and your wisdom.