Getting to know Maria Hinojosa

NPR and PBS journalist to present keynote address for Day of Discovery & Dialogue Feb. 24


Award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa will be the keynote speaker at the campus-wide Day of Discovery & Dialogue, to be held Feb. 24-25 at Washington University in St. Louis.

Her talk, titled “Inclusion: Finding New Ways of Thinking, Inspiring Action,” will take place at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24, in the Eric P. Newman Education Center on the Medical Campus. The event is open to members of the Washington University community, and advance registration is requested.

Hinojosa is anchor and executive producer of National Public Radio’s “Latino USA,” the network’s only national Latino news and culture weekly program; and executive producer of “America by the Numbers” on PBS. Here, she shares some thoughts on diversity, inclusion and “invisibility” in underrepresented communities.

You have a real passion for the issues of inclusion and diversity. How has your own personal experience framed your perspective? What is the guiding philosophy you hope to convey to others?

When I was younger, the issue of invisibility was really core to me. I felt entirely invisible — my family, my story. As a Mexican immigrant family in Chicago, I never saw myself or our story being told or portrayed. So for many years it was really about kind of saying, “We’re here, see us.” And while that still remains at the core of the issue, because I do hear that from my students in Chicago — majority Latino students and other students of color — that they still feel invisible, in many ways right now in this country there’s kind of a feeling of, “Oh, we’re going to do the right thing and make you feel visible.” But that’s not what we need right now in the United States of America.

What’s happening is that the demographics are so impressive and changing so much that this isn’t about making a community feel visible; this is about the whole United States kind of waking up and looking at who we are with clear glasses, and understanding that it really has become an urgent conversation. Frankly, I think there’s a void where we are not having a smart, engaging conversation about who we really are, and in that void it’s become a highly politicized conversation. On the positive side, that it is making us all look at ourselves and ask, “Who are we and who do we want to be?” And that is a much more profound, complex and deeper question and issue than how to make communities “feel visible.” This is a moment in history when we all need to understand and be a part of this conversation.

What is the most unexpected insight you’ve gained through your role as a journalist?

My job is all about giving voice to all opinions. I know that sounds broad, but what I love most about being a journalist is that it allows me to be continually enlightened about the complexity of these issues of diversity and inclusion. They are really deep, so it’s important not to make broad generalizations, or to say that we understand them.

I meet so many different types of people in my work, and I’ve come to believe that in the United States, if we could all find a way to live with uncertainty without it breeding fear, and to not put people in boxes …  Wow, that would be amazing. And believe me, I don’t want to diminish people’s fears. I understand. I was fearful myself having lived through 9/11, and I understand fear. But if that’s who we could become, a country that understands that we are all inimitably complex and we bring that into our experience in this country, and we own our voices and we can talk about this and we can agree to disagree but not hate each other, that would be a wonderful thing for our future.

You have many opportunities to speak with audiences across the country and around the world. What inspired you to join us for our Day of Discovery & Dialogue and what do you hope attendees take away from the experience?

I’ve been to Washington University before, and I love the campus so I welcomed the opportunity to come back. I also think anyone who is engaged in these issues of diversity and inclusion understands the importance of St. Louis as a city that, for good or bad, has changed American history. I hope that I am able to encourage audience members to own their voice and their narrative. By owning one’s own narrative, one’s own story, we are allowed to actually become more engaged in our democracy.

I’m a democracy junkie, which means more than just wanting everyone to vote (which of course I do). To me, democracy spans the spectrum from voting, to participating in school boards, to getting out on the street engaging at every level. So I hope the Washington University students in particular understand that they are the most powerful people in the United States of America right now. Some of my students look at me like, “What is she saying?” And I say, “Yes, you are holding the future of this country in your hands.” They talk about how they’ve learned that in the 1960s the hippies changed everything. Right now we’re living through the same thing, and it’s the millennials. And so I’m all about helping students to understand what a historic role they can play in our country, and in that sense I’m especially excited to be with you in St. Louis very soon.

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