Michele Norris, an award-winning journalist, author and podcast host, spoke on race, cultural identity and inclusion during Monday’s General Session of PRSA’s ICON 2023 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn.
“I feel like we are fellow journeymen because I am a storyteller and story collector just like you,” she told attendees, noting that her focus today was primarily on the importance of gathering people’s stories through the lens of The Race Card Project.
The Washington Post Opinions columnist and former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” began her keynote address by asking audience members to take a moment of silence to imagine a bridge that’s important to you, that you have crossed in your life, adding that she would be talking about bridges, left turns and the division we’re facing in the world today.
Norris started The Race Card Project in 2010 as a way to make it easier for people to engage in conversation about a topic that was often complex and difficult.
The premise was to write a response to this prompt on a supplied postcard and mail it back: “Race. Your Story. Six Words. Please Send.”
Norris initially distributed 200 postcards and left them behind on her book tour, and people took the exercise to heart, and many participated — 35% wrote a response and sent the cards back to her, which is a good return with direct mail, she noted, adding that both of her parents were former postal workers.
The project is now also online and has vast digital archives. Over 500,000 responses have been recorded to date from every U.S. state and 100 countries as people share their experiences, triumphs, sorrows, memories or anthems — thoughts about race, cultural identity and an evolving America expressed in just six words. A book based on the project is out in January.
Norris chose six words because it’s approachable and you can easily tell a story with six words, she said.
She offered that this brevity is helpful for any complicated narrative: “If you have something difficult to write, if you can bring it down to one sentence — six words — you can tackle it.”
During the moving 45-minute General Session, Norris shared some of the cards that she had received over the past 13 years:
• “The invisible Arab until Sept. 12th.”
• “Hated for being a white cop.”
• “Feeling uncomfortable in my own skin.”
• “My father was racist. I am not!”
She explained what you could see and feel through the messages — some words were crossed out, some were capitalized or underlined, and others were bolded or indicated heavier penmanship, while others had a lighter or more delicate script depending on how the words made the person feel.
“None of us are any one thing,” Norris said, likening the project to social endocrinology and trees that, when cut down, will show rings that will tell a story.
Creating a sense of belonging
Norris said that PR professionals are also storytellers and story collectors.
“The most important skill is helping people row in the same direction,” she said. “Be the kind of bridge that can help move people and organizations forward.”
Norris concluded her talk by urging the audience to actively embrace one another’s perspectives, fostering genuine understanding through attentive listening and the exploration of differing points of view.
“We are changed by each encounter we have and each new person we meet,” she said. “Do you have it in you to be that one person that can create a sense of belonging for someone — to make them feel seen, heard and valued?”
Amy Jacques is the managing editor of Strategies & Tactics.
[Photo credit: Jim Cowsert/Grapevine Photo]
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