NPR’s Michele Norris encourages “seeking different perspectives” in keynote Symposium address on race

By Ashlyn Miller
Student Writer

For Michele Norris, finding her niche in the journalism world was not a journey with a straight path, but rather one she fondly recalls “taking many left turns.”

Norris, an Emmy-award winning journalist for National Public Radio (NPR), spoke at Parmer Hall on Thursday night as part of the 2015 Humanities Symposium, entitled “Race in America”.

Devin Mezullo-Thomas, interim director of the Center for Public Humanities, opened the evening with a warm welcome to Norris as a precursor to her lecture.

“I can’t think of a timelier subject for us to discuss this week,”said Mezzulo-Thomas. “While our society has come far, recent incidents in our nation need to compel us and show we still have much further to go.

Messiah College President Kim Phipps also welcomed Norris to the stage.

“At Messiah, we seek to prepare students for lives of service, reconciliation, and leadership. We hope to extend this to our community with our conversation tonight.”

Norris shared her journey as an up-and-coming journalist looking to make her mark by covering anything but race—or so she thought at the time.

“In the newsroom, I didn’t want to be the person always talking about race—I wanted to cover foreign policy, politics, maybe even sports,”said Norris, “But already as a journalist of color, I was often asked to talk about race.”

One of the defining moments of her career—one of her aforementioned ‘left turns’—occurred when she went out to York, Pa. to host a segment for NPR during the lead-up to the 2012 election.

Norris and her producers had chosen York because of its “unique geographic and racial diversity”, thinking it would be a good setting to host a conversation amongst a panel of locals discussing the implications of the historic election.

Though she thought the group started out with simple questions, her interview with the citizens of York well exceeded her expectations.

“It was magical radio because people had an honest conversation about a difficult topic,”said Norris.

After the show in York, she was convinced she should go back on her previous convictions and write about race.

However, the progress for Norris’book was slowed as she searched for a direction; for whose story she should tell. It was only through hearing the unknown stories of her parents’experience with racial prejudice following her father’s death that she knew she had a direction for her book.

She then spent significant time digging into the past to uncover details on her father’s injury from a shot fired by a white police officer in 1946, and the story of her grandmother who traveled from town to town doing costumed advertising for the Aunt Jemima Pancake Company.

In addition to her completed book, The Grace of Silence, Norris’ musings on race helped to spur her to create the Race Card project, a written challenge where participants submit a thought—either by mail on a postcard or at theracecardproject.com—on their experience with race, summed up in six words.

Norris took time to share a collection of postings, while imparting some advice on the news media:

“It is so easy to find a media diet that confirms what you believe. Seek a different perspective, and use your ears,”said Norris, “There is grace in silence, but there is courage in listening.”

Norris ended her lecture with one more piece of advice for the audience, directed to Messiah students in particular:

“Be curious, travel and keep a journal. Never trust anyone who thinks they know everything. A full sponge absorbs nothing new,”said Norris.

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