There’s always a backstory.
That’s one thing I’ve learned from a lifetime in journalism. Whenever something significant or unusual happens, there are usually larger forces at work. It’s a journalist’s job to ferret out these forces and illuminate the backstories behind the headlines. The backstory is usually where the ultimate truth resides.
Take Oprah Winfrey’s commencement speech Sunday at Colorado College, which caps an interesting, challenging year for the small, overachieving institution in our midst, and a fascinating backstory that the whole town can benefit from.
Success! An email has been sent to with a link to confirm list signup.
Error! There was an error processing your request.
Her speech is one of many cairns in a ongoing effort by CC to become a more inclusive school, and, perhaps, a beacon of inclusivity in our community. Hers follows speeches by several other prominent African Americans at the school this year, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author and activist who won the National Book Award for “Between the World and Me” and who also writes storylines for Black Panther and Captain America comic books. His visit came on the heels of a talk by Shaun King, writer and civil rights activist and a driving force behind Black Lives Matters, and before that Ron Stallworth, the former Colorado Springs police officer and author of the book that inspired Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning movie, “BlacKkKlansman.”
The string of speeches is no accident. Oprah, Coates, King and Stallworth all came to the campus during a very deliberate anti-racism, pro-inclusivity campaign that was launched by the school last fall.
The initiative came in response to racist emails that were sent out to the student body boasting of the superiority of whites and the economies of majority-white countries.
“The pain and damage resulting from last year’s anonymous anti-black, racist, trans-antagonistic email made it very clear that we have a lot of work to do to be the community that we aspire to be,” President Jill Tiefenthaler told faculty, alumni and students.
She didn’t mince words. “An important step to becoming an anti-racist campus is acknowledging that racism exists right here. We can’t address racism if we don’t talk about it. We can’t be an equitable and inclusive community if we aren’t honest that we are not there yet, and that making progress is an active and ongoing process of engagement.”
CC brought in consultants, launched a study and added professors to help diversify the curriculum.
The Class of 2019 even adopted as its motto a statement uttered by Black Panther Party activist Angela Davis: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”
Of course it’s one thing to invite speakers like Oprah, hire inclusivity experts, do special classes. It’s another thing to daily make people of different backgrounds and stories feel comfortable in our schools and city.
Some CC students complained to me that the school’s anti-racism efforts are all very structural and academic, and that on the ground, minority students still feel pretty isolated.
But I give credit this year to CC for starting more conversations about race, for widening our horizons. The specifics of what these speakers have to say I think we can all take to heart, even in a privileged, elite place like CC (full disclosure: I’m an alum). At the very least, such visits prod us to think outside our boxes.
"When we have an event at CC, people sometimes think of it in terms of a venue -- but it's more than that," said Steven Hayward, chair of the English Department and director of the school's Journalism Institute. "It's the institution itself and what the college stands for, and stands behind. We bring to Colorado Springs visitors who are part of the national conversation in order to foster a community-wide anti-racist conversation."
When King was here in February, I had a chance to sit down with him for an hour, talking about journalism, race, polarization, and his effort to revive Frederick Douglass’ seminal newspaper, The North Star. The conversation made me wish for more such conversations, and beyond that, more such friendships. One of his best observations, I thought, was that it’s easy to ignore or misunderstand people on two levels — “when you’re not in relationship with them, and with the way stories are told, if you don’t know their names or their humanity.”
Those of us from different cultures and different viewpoints, we need to know each other better. We need to have more face-to-face conversations. It’s not enough, King told me, just to sit back and say we’re not racist or we’re post-racist, we have to be actively inclusive, have to actively intersect and become friends with people outside our own insular cultures.
“Colorado is a complex place,” King bluntly told his audience at the college. “Clearly it’s not perfect, this campus is not perfect. But there are brilliant beautiful things going on on this campus. Some brilliant beautiful things going on in Colorado. But there is some equally problematic things going on here as well. And I think that’s indicative of our country.”
With our divisiveness and the rise of hate speech and hate crimes, King believes we’re at a dip in the development of human moral behavior and it will require concentrated action to get out of it.
“We’re at a problematic point in the life of our country. It’s not a partisan statement. It’s not even a political statement. We confuse the steady improvement of technology with the steady improvement of humans.”
So how do we get past this divisive moment to someplace better? How does CC do this better, how does Colorado Springs, with its often monotone culture, do this better?
“Change is hard but it comes best out of relationships,” King believes in his gut. “The people I’ve gotten the best work done with are people that have become my friends. I’m talking about real friends.”
King, who has a million Twitter followers, tells a funny story about a high school orientation he went to in New York. He heard people 5 feet from him whispering, “there’s @shaunking.”
“They still see me as my social media handle even in person,” said King.
“It was an awakening moment. Social media has changed the way we see and think about each other. And some of what is ailing us in the age of social media is we have redefined friendships to a heart emoji on your Instagram page.”
He reminded me of one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s best quotes: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“My life has changed when I have had friends who are deeply different than me. For the first 34 years of my life, most of my friends were black and heterosexual. I started feeling like I was not honestly living that quote out.”
By and large, King said that, like most of us, he primarily fought for people in his small little circle. But then, because of that King quote, he purposefully started developing meaningful friendships outside his circle. “I’m Christian, but over the past six years, some of deepest friendships have been developed with devout Muslims — so when the Muslim ban was announced, I took it personally. Why? Because it affected friends.
“When you have friendships with people who are not like you it will cause you to have a deeper sensitivity to their pain and their issues.”
“Most of the time we are ignorant to our own privilege,” were King’s parting words.
“Some of us have a whole toolbox full of privilege. Some of us only have a little screwdriver. Whatever tool you have, use it to empower the people who don’t have it. It’s our job and our duty to constantly say, “How am I using the privilege that I have to bring other people along, put people in front of me, to give other people access.”
“And keep on doing it,” he urged.
A little more justice anywhere improves justice everywhere.