Humorous and serious, Ifill inspires at MLK symposium

Jake Fromm/Daily
Journalist Gwen Ifill speaks in Hill Auditorium during a symposium in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King today. Buy this photo

BY JAMES LEE
For the Daily
Published January 18, 2010

"The key is to be who you are, wherever you are."

This was the message Gwen Ifill, managing editor of PBS's "Washington Week" and co-anchor of the "The NewsHour," told the standing room-only crowd at Hill Auditorium today. Ifill delivered the keynote speech for the University’s 24th annual symposium honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As Ifill approached the podium, most of the audience rose to its feet to applaud her. With a smile she frequently flashed throughout her speech, Ifill jokingly asked the audience to "save the standing (ovation) for the end; really, I'll be ready for it."

Ifill's humor permeated a lecture focused on the importance of raising expectations for children, especially for youth in minority communities. She described herself as fortunate to have lived in a household with high expectations, in contrast to the "havoc that could be wreaked in Black families with low expectations."

Ifill said the goals she set for herself and the belief in the positive value of her African-American heritage helped her respond constructively to discrimination she has experienced in her life.

During her time in the news industry, Ifill said she experienced many instances of racism, adding that having pride in her racial identity helped her move past incidents like when she found a note with a racial slur on her desk.

She credited the same pride with motivating her to challenge editors when they proposed making certain editorial changes that could have portrayed African-Americans in a biased or stereotypical way.

Ifill also spoke about the need to change what she perceived as America's current discomfort with openly discussing racial issues.

"My favorite moments come when there is only one Black person in the room and (someone refers to that person as), 'the guy with the blue blazer, in the back...,' and you say, 'the Black guy?’” Ifill said. “Stating the obvious is perfectly fine, unless the obvious happens to be about race."

In her speech, Ifill said this kind of restricted dialogue dilutes efforts to raise expectations.

“We don't want to knock down walls and break glass ceilings only to discover that our sons and daughters don't want to walk through,” she said. “So many of our sons and daughters buy into the limits imposed by race, no matter what race they happen to be.”

Ifill said though the historic election of a black president is cause for celebration, there is still a lot of work to be done to maintain and fulfill high expectations for mutual racial respect. She added that living up to such expectations "is the real, and the best way to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.”

Many audience members addressed the notion of maintaining high expectations during the question-and-answer session that followed Ifill’s speech.

A high school freshman visiting from Urban Prep Academy For Young Men— a Chicago charter school for African-American boys — asked Ifill for "words of wisdom" for young men surrounded by crime.

"Resist the easy answers," Ifill responded, also encouraging the young man to write down his story as it happened in order to share it with future generations.

First year Social Work student Maurice Murray said he found the exchange between the high school student and Ifill relevant to his studies.

"I just felt like that (aspect of the presentation) was very applied, very on-the-ground," Murray said of the challenges that urban African-American men face.

School of Music, Theater & Dance freshman Alejandro Quintanilla said he enjoyed the speech but that it was “a lot to take in.”

"At one point, it seemed like (Ifill) was talking about taking things little by little; she was focused on changing things step-by-step," he said.