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Broadcaster Michele Norris Talks Frankly About Race and Culture in President's Lecture

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Former Peabody Award-winning broadcaster Michele Norris began her President's Lecture at Old Dominion University Feb. 2 with a warning. "We're going to talk about race and identity tonight," she said. "Let's just say that out loud."

After a pause, Norris added with a smile: "And no one left the room," bringing laughter and applause from the crowd of nearly 500.

Norris, who for eight years was co-host of the National Public Radio newsmagazine "All Things Considered" before launching herself into high-profile projects that have probed America's racial divide, said a diverse University campus like Old Dominion is the perfect place for citizens to immerse themselves in issues of race and culture.

"Reach out. Make friends. Talk with people from different experiences as yourself," Norris challenged the audience of students, faculty and administration and members of the community. "You'll never have a better chance."

In her poignant, hour-long address, Norris spoke of her own experience as an African-American woman whose family, growing up, avoided race discussions. After the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Norris, who visited ODU as the President's Task Force on Inclusive Excellence speaker, said family members began to share their stories.

"I was shaped by the weight of my parents' silence. Secrets in my own family had been purposefully kept from me," Norris said.

For example, her father never informed his children or his wife that he had been shot by a police officer while trying to exercise his right to vote. Her grandmother helped send her grandchildren to university with money she earned playing the racially stereotyped character Aunt Jemima in appearances across the Midwest.

After the election of President Obama, "they decided to share these stories with us. It helped me understand a bit of history," Norris said. Recollections from those conversations appeared in her first book, "The Grace of Silence: A Memoir."

While on sabbatical from "All Things Considered," Norris created "The Race Card Project," asking everyday citizens to think about their experiences, hopes, dreams, concerns or observations about race and identity. She asked that those thoughts be distilled in one, six-word sentence, and written on postcards.

Since the project launched, thousands of postcards have been sent to Norris from around the world.

During her President's Lecture address, Norris read the thought-provoking, sometimes jarring six-word statements on race that people have written on postcards.

"This is a taproot that gets me into places that we couldn't get into previously," Norris said. "If you look at the posts on the Race Card Project website, it's like peering over the fence into other people's lives, in an America that is so divided."

Before coming to NPR, Norris was a correspondent for ABC News, a post she held from 1993 to 2002. As a contributing correspondent for the "Closer Look" segments on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, Norris reported extensively on education, inner city issues, the nation's drug problem and poverty. Norris also reported for the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.

Norris attended the University of Wisconsin, where she majored in electrical engineering, and graduated from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where she studied journalism. She lives in Washington, D.C. and is married to Broderick Johnson. She has two young children and a stepson who attends college in California.

Old Dominion University's President's Lecture Series serves as a marketplace for ideas, featuring fascinating personalities who share their knowledge, experience, opinions and accomplishments. Discussing timely topics, the series puts diversity first, showcasing authors, educators, business innovators and political figures.

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