This op-ed originally appeared on Poynter on March 21, 2023.
Journalism wasn’t a word I knew growing up in Florida. It wasn’t a job people had in my neighborhood. Even when I started working as an assignment editor for my local TV station, my mom used to tell people I ran the teleprompter. A teleprompter was a tangible object. How a journalist gathered the news and shared it on television was not. To my mom, work was physical labor, and working a piece of equipment was something she could understand.
After 40 years in this industry, 33 at NBC, I am now the NBCUniversal News Group’s executive vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion.
DEI is hard. It should be about opportunities and about access. Access is helping some get through the door one way, and others in through a different entry point. Access needs to be a multipronged approach.
I have faced many barriers to access. I was the youngest of five children to a mother who worked as a maid. She encouraged us to get an education, to work hard, but she also didn’t know what the world could hold for us. She had grown up stepping to the side when a white person passed us on the sidewalk, never looking them in the eye.
In high school, college wasn’t on my mind. No one in my family had ever graduated college. I worked at Church’s Chicken, cutting up whole birds using a circular saw, then frying them while dealing with customers in the drive-thru. I thought I was going to be the manager of Church’s. This was my future — until I almost cut off my arm and thought, “There must be something else.” The next week, I went to see my school guidance counselor.
Since I couldn’t afford to attend college out of state, my mom suggested the University of Florida in Gainesville, four hours away from our home in Palm Beach County. My third day on campus, I started volunteering at the college radio station for no credit. I loved doing the sports report during morning drive time and riding my bike to city hall to cover council meetings.
I spent all of my time working for free at the station. My grades suffered. I lost my college work study. I became homeless for a bit. I was fired from my paying job with the University of Florida basketball team and lived off damaged canned goods because I knew someone who worked at Winn-Dixie.
My dean told me I’d never graduate from the University of Florida or get a job in journalism. People could interpret his words as a way to weed out someone who looked like me — I was the only Black person in my journalism classes. But I saw it as an opportunity to course correct: I may have been more interested in doing the actual work of journalism, but I had to do the work required to get my degree first.
Eventually, I graduated. I sent out 45 resume tapes that first year and didn’t get a single call back. When I finally did get my first job, it was through someone in my network — connections made it happen. At that moment I thought, “But what about people who don’t have any connections?”
People always say it matters who you know. But these days, I’m more interested in asking my team, “Who do we need to know who can help others?”
Our free journalism training program, NBCU Academy, is all about access. One of my career goals is to inspire people to open doors for others from a wide range of characteristics, no matter their gender, race, geography, socio-economic background or perspective. We have committed to a variety of lessons that are often learned on the job so that people who take them are more successful once they step into the role.
We offer professional development livestreams, video tips on boosting your media skills, a free course on the fundamentals of journalism and articles that challenge how reporters can be more inclusive in their coverage. We have a fellowship for documentary filmmakers and a two-year embed program to get hands-on journalism experience. We are building a pipeline into newsrooms by offering funding, resources and training for voices in historically underrepresented communities across our 45 partner schools.
In the world of DEI, companies can fall into the trap of celebrating numbers. Early in my career, I was often the “one and only.” Leadership pointed to me as a sign the company was serious about diversity. But I knew that I wasn’t the first qualified candidate. The challenge for companies is ensuring I would be one of many.
Diversity may be the principle that gets the most attention, but equity and inclusion — meaning who has access to the room and who has a voice once they’re in that room — are often the toughest to achieve and sustain. That’s why, to me, the more important “D” is development: How are we helping individuals grow and feel proud of their work?
It wasn’t an easy road for me — and it won’t be easy for many who relate to my story. Helping people attain access isn’t just my job; it’s my moral responsibility.
This is why NBCU Academy offers the “Next Level Summit” — a virtual learning and development engagement program that allows unprecedented access to our experts, storytellers, recruiters, and media and tech innovators. We launched the summit last year and March 22 marks our third summit. Nearly 4,000 people at different stages of their careers have joined our sessions.
Access starts with making sure people from every community know that a career in journalism — and a ramp to other opportunities in media, marketing and technology — is available to them. Then it’s up to us, as leaders of organizations, to support and cultivate newsrooms that inspire DEI.