NPR's Michel Martin On Race Conversation, On Trust, And On 'Going There'

NPR's Michel Martin. (Photo Credit: Stephen Voss/NPR)
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by Tony Ganzer, ideastream

Especially in an election year, it’s not a secret that sometimes conversations and topics can get uncomfortable, or…very difficult to navigate.

MARTIN: “Often anything that is worth doing can be hard, can be tricky.”

That’s NPR’s Michel Martin, the host of Weekend All Things Considered. She’s in Cleveland to host an event on one of those sometimes tricky subjects: race.  For many months ideastream and NPR have collaborated to figure out what Martin calls a good, and constructive evening…

MARTIN: “…by good and constructive I don’t necessarily mean comfortable for everybody, but by definition if people choose to participate in an event like this, then they understand that they’re there because they want to hear something, they want to grow, they want to reach out, they want to be part of something.”

Many of you have already signed up to attend the event with conversation, storytelling and performance, and it’s already sold-out. 

But I did recently speak with Michel Martin about the event and about the topic of race, which can sometimes put people on a back-foot even before a dialog is opened:

MARTIN: “For centuries in this country, let’s just be honest, certain people controlled the conversation, right?  Taking the long view of it, certain people had a right to decide how other people were viewed, how other people were discussed, that they weren’t even people.  And then things changed to the point where the object of the conversation became the subject, and they get to talk, too. They get to decide how they are viewed. They get to sort of set the terms of the conversation.  For some people that’s very upsetting, and also it is true that some people feel chased out of the conversation. I mean, the fact is, some people are very eager to talk about these issues, and some people are not at all eager to talk about these issues.  And let’s just be honest, Tony, some people don’t have to talk about it, because they don’t think it effects their lives, or they’re perfectly comfortable with the way things are, or they just find it difficult to do. I mean we see this actually you know sometimes there are conversations that happen on Facebook, right, with people that you are voluntarily associated with that kind of take a sticky direction, and people withdraw.  But our task is to take a subject that I think we all agree we need to talk about, and make it something we can talk about.  And that’s what we’re going to do.”

GANZER: “You know, people feeling uncomfortable, or feeling attacked, feeling vulnerable talking about race, how do we know that this conversation is helping or hurting in the short view—if we take it just at this present, human to human, are we ready for this?”

MARTIN: “I feel we have to trust our audience and we have to trust the people who support NPR and WCPN.  These are people who trust us to bring them the news.  These are people who live in this community and recognize that some things need to be talked about.  I don’t feel that as a journalist you can really take ownership of the result.  You can only take ownership of the process. You can only create the environment where you can do your job, and other people have to take it from there. I frankly think that really is, in a way, our main job as journalists, is to bring people together in some way or another, not in the sense of making them do something, or pushing them in a certain direction, but creating a gathering place when there otherwise is not one.”

GANZER: “I think one of the tough things, and you know this of course, but when you bring up certain aspects of the race discussion—white privilege, for example; reparations, for example—people immediately get polarized, or they kind of withdraw.  And they don’t want to go there, they don’t feel maybe prepared, or they feel attacked in way that they don’t have franchise in the conversation, or they don’t want to take too much franchise in the conversation.  Do you have tactics that you use to try to get to those places when people really are not in a place they’re used to, or maybe prepared to go?”

MARTIN: “Really all of the things we’re talking about are ‘people living together problems,’ right? And one of the things I think that we all recognize is that there are certain things that are helpful, and certain things that are not helpful.  I don’t think that it’s helpful to start a conversation by labeling people, or by assigning them identities.  I think what is helpful is to let people to tell their own stories, as they understand them, themselves.  I think it’s helpful to bring facts to the table to the degree there are facts to bring.  But I think that we are most successful, when we can allow each other or help each other to see each other as people. Now that is not to diminish the role, or even to take a position on the role, of systems, right?  But what are systems but people acting together in groups in certain ways?  So the degree to which we can unpack all that for people, and help each other to see each other and listen to each other’s stories, and listen to each other’s information, I think that is the task.  You know I’m not under any illusions, and never have been—we’ve been doing these ‘Going There’ events for three years now, this is our third year of doing these events.  And some of these have been some fairly tense situations, I mean our first event was in Ferguson, Missouri.  It was three weeks after Michael Brown was killed, and after all the events that everyone now knows so well. We were invited by the community, and by our member station there in St. Louis, to come together to assist with having a community conversation.  And it was a very hot evening, it was standing room only, and everybody stayed through the whole conversation.  And when other people heard that we were having that conversation, more people came.  And it was uncomfortable for some people.  But we subsequently had another conversation a couple of months later, and it was again standing room only.”

GANZER: “What does having this conversation about race in Cleveland mean, maybe, that sets it apart from Ferguson? We have had the shooting of Tamir Rice, the case of 137-shots and the trial of Michael Brelo—but these cases have prompted mostly peaceful protest, a lot of soul-searching.  But we haven’t seen unrest, or anger that we’ve seen in other communities.  Do you think that lays a different backdrop for this conversation in Cleveland?”

MARTIN: “It does. It also, for some people though, it creates less urgency.  It’s interesting how when people come out into the streets people understand that as a crisis.  But other people will say, ‘why do I need to come out into the streets for you to listen to me?’ So I think that we should not be misled to believe that because people haven’t chosen to take to the streets in a certain way, it doesn’t mean that they don’t experience grief, pain, and a sense of urgency.  I think it is important though to show a willingness to have these conversations when there isn’t a crisis that is perceived by everybody to be a crisis.  I think it’s a great thing, I mean I think it’s really great, and I’m excited that WCPN and ideastream is excited about having this conversation…”

GANZER: “...and the conversation has already started on social media, the hashtag OwningRace, and you’re already getting comments from people, very pointed comments.”

MARTIN: “They are, they are.  I’ve been really interested to see so far just how many people just want to share, they just want to say these are my ideas.  And they are really powerful, and very moving, and people are saying things like ‘well these are the experiences that I grew up with, and ‘this is what educated me about these issues,’ or ‘these are the things I’m experiencing.’ And look we recognize that this is in part a subset of the community.  These are people who are already connected to us in some way, they’re connected to NPR, see us as a trusted source.  But I’ve been really impressed so far, the willingness of people to share, the willingness to be open.”

Michel Martin is host of NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered.  She’s hosting tomorrow night the sold-out event on race called Going There, sponsored by NPR and ideastream. 

You can stream it on Facebook Live starting at 7pm.

 

 

 

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