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Faces of NPR: Whitney Maddox

Whitney Maddox, Inaugural Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager
NPR
Whitney Maddox, Inaugural Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager

Faces Of NPR showcases the people behind NPR--from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. This week, we feature Whitney Maddox, Inaugural Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager.

The Basics:

Name: Whitney M. Maddox

Instagram Handle: whitneym.maddox

Job Title: Inaugural Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager

Where you're From: Oakman, Alabama

How is diversity work different within academia than within media?

Student advocacy is alive and well on college campuses because they know their dollars are what keeps the doors open. The students at Georgetown University didn't wait around for administrators to figure out what they needed, but instead they spoke up and held sit-ins and protested. So much of my work in my 10+ years was listening to them, advising them and working with colleagues to find solutions and ways to be proactive. Since joining NPR in February, I've tried to unpack the policies, practices and thinking that dictates what we do, how we do it and why we do it. There's a need in both academia --and in media-- to examine its White foundation and imagine something different, something more inclusive. Another difference is that the students at Georgetown could afford to take more risks and make demands of the university and they knew it. At NPR, I'm working with colleagues who have their careers and their livelihood to consider. While the risks are different and more life-changing for them, it doesn't mean that they should be silent. So I have found myself trying to empower colleagues to speak up about what they need in order to feel a sense of belonging.

How has the response been from NPR employees since you started?

Oh my gosh. Amazing! From being the Spark & Impact awardee this year, to having hundreds of staff members come to STAR [Start Talking About Race sessions], to staff members embracing me and my style and the way that I show up, to women of color in my second month showing up and telling me about their experiences so that I can elevate them to leadership and create commitments to them - it's been amazing! I can't think of another way that I could have been more embraced. Staff have been arms wide open to my ideas and my work. And I know that has made me work harder. I know that has made me speak louder. I know that has made me even more passionate about this work. So thank you to them.

What have you concluded about NPR's stance and the employees' stance on diversity?

I would say we're still very focused on bringing diverse people into the workplace. Which is good, but for many departments, that's where they're stopping. They're not thinking about once people are hired, what do you do now? How are you creating an inclusive workplace, an equitable workplace? I've tried to shift people's thinking to consider what they need to do before they start recruiting. Have you thought about how they're going to experience this work environment that you have set up? Is the culture of your department toxic and only going to make it hard for them to succeed or make them leave in six months? Are you recognizing how your predominately White department operates and how that is not going to be inclusive to a Person of Color? So a lot of the work that I've been trying to do is getting people thinking about that, before the person walks in the door. Oftentimes, we try to solve these issues once the person is hired and starts voicing concerns about how they're being treated by their colleagues. We have to be proactive and not reactive. Intentional and not accidental.

So what advice do you give people? If the space isn't very inclusive, how can you get them to start thinking to be inclusive?

Leaders should come to Chief Diversity Officer Keith Woods and me and have a conversation about the issues that they're facing in their department. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to a noninclusive workplace. It requires having a clear understanding of the problems, gaps and status-quo thinking that permeates. Another easy thing to do is look at your team and identify who they are and what they bring to the table. If you have a team of people who look the same or come from similar backgrounds it's likely that their ideas and concerns will look the same also. So one of the first questions I ask leadership is who's on your team? And after they've identified who's on their team, I have them identify who they need on their team. I want leaders to think in terms of maximizing and leveraging the talent and breath of difference that they have in their organizations. To celebrate that and crave it when they don't have it. Lastly, another way to be more inclusive is to be specific. It's OK to say, 'We need more Black staff, we need more younger staff'? Be specific about who you're trying to recruit and retain versus just saying, 'We need more diverse staff.' And then be intentional about learning the issues that, for instance, Black staff face in the workplace. There's so much research already out there about those issues. This is not anything new. And so much of my work is reminding people there are resources for them and that Keith and I are here. You don't have to figure it out by yourself.

How do you think that we can ensure that we keep these practices running long term, and it's not just while Whitney is focusing on us?

In the signature of my email I remind staff that "the work of diversity, equity and inclusion is not just my job, it's yours too." That's how we ensure that this work continues, when everyone is invested and sees why their job is intimately connected to the work of DEI. A part of my role is showing folks across NPR, whether they're a journalist or work in development, how they can be intentional about creating an equitable working environment. Keith and I have also worked alongside the leadership team to continue to shift how they approach their work. I also try my best not to just do, but to show and teach. I'm hopeful that we've started something special at NPR with the consistent conversations we've been having about race in STAR and unpacking team cultures.

It's no secret that this work is taxing emotionally, mentally. How do you protect yourself? How do you keep yourself so lively, so positive, so happy?

Prayer. I am a praying woman. Any major decision that I am about to make, including in the workplace, I take it to God. The work of DEI can easily feel overwhelming and too big, and so I need my relationship with God because it reminds me that He's bigger than any problem I face. I also try to be intentional about the words that are coming out of my mouth, that I am uplifting people and not tearing them down. And I think that's important, not just in DEI, but how I show up as a human being. Something else that I am intentional about doing is being myself everywhere I go. I take care of myself by speaking my mind, by letting my personality roam and honoring what's on my heart. I'm grateful that I work in a place that has empowered me to do me because that's my self-care.

What surprised you most about NPR?

Before I started working here, I always had a respect for the top-notch journalism and thoughtfulness it seemed folks put forth. And now that I'm working here, I get to see first-hand how incredibly smart and talented every person in this organization is. Colleagues are not only thoughtful about the journalism, but thoughtful in wanting to get DEI right. Thoughtful in wanting to create environments where their staff members can flourish. The number of people at all ranks who have come to me and said, 'I had this interaction. I don't feel good about it. I think I may have caused some harm. What can I do about it?' For me, that makes my job easier. But it also reassures me that whatever work I'm trying to do, that I have real allies. I have people who are not going to just show up and just put out news, but say, 'How is the way I show up affecting everybody around me? How is what I'm saying affecting everybody around me?' So it has been so beautiful to see people who are taking a step back and saying, 'I can do more. I can be better. Whitney, can you help me do that?'

And I'm sure that's also affirming and rewarding, knowing that what you say and what you do is actually on people's minds as they move forward.

Can I add to that, Sommer? A conversation that I had yesterday with someone was about this very comment that you just made. They were asking me how they can create change when they don't have any direct reports and don't set the goals for the team. They were saying, 'You seem to have done that. You have people who are not your direct reports listening to you and have them following the things that you say. How can I do that?' And so we talked about the power of influence. If you are dedicated to your work even when it's hard, if people see that you are trying to be fair and equitable, and that you have a vision for yourself and how you show up and live your life, people will buy into that. I really wanted to say that. For the people who feel like even in the space of DEI, how can I take something that's so taxing, that's so big, that's so heavy, that's so exhausting, and make change? I guarantee you it can happen if you remember that the words that you say and how you show up have great influence with the people around you.

Is this a job you've always wanted to do?

No!

Oh, really? Tell me more.

I went to undergrad at Alabama State University (shout out to HBCU) and got my communications degree. Then I went to Georgetown and got two Masters in communications and technology and journalism because I wanted to start a media company. I wanted to be the next Oprah Winfrey!

Whitney, I did not know that.

Yes, and that's still the plan. But, you know, back to God. You talk about not knowing all that He has in store. When I started doing the work of DEI at Georgetown it was because colleagues around me were saying you should really pursue this. You have a natural heart and passion for this work. So if you had asked me in undergrad if I thought I would be here the answer would have been absolutely not. I would have said, what is DEI in the first place? So to now be doing this work years later, it has been one of the biggest surprises of my life. But I'm so grateful that I'm here because I know I'm going to be able to use everything I am learning now and really create a company that is inclusive.

Where did you grow up?

In Alabama.

What part of Alabama?

Oakman. It is a small town. One red light. We had one elementary school and one high school. I knew for a fact that I needed more. Most of my family lives in Alabama and I go back as much as I can. But no, a small town was not my thing.

Do you have siblings?

I do! There are five of us. I'm the second oldest. Here's an insider, the STAR logo includes a cardinal and that's in memory of our oldest brother Michael. That cardinal reminds me that I don't walk alone in this work. I proudly carry him with me.

STAR - Start Talking About Race
/ NPR
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NPR
STAR - Start Talking About Race

So that's why you were able to do a small town, because you had a big family entertaining you.

You know you have to play your role when you have siblings. I'm definitely the over-protective, loud and funny sibling. If my siblings saw me at work, they would be like, 'Oh, you act the same at work.'

What sparked you and what kept your spark lit?

I love that question. What sparked me? It was my first semester of my freshman year, and there was a week every day that I prayed for God to take my life. And I mean every single day for a week straight. I wanted to go to sleep in my dorm bed and not wake up the next day. And the reason was because I wasn't sure about my path. I was in college, but I didn't feel inspired by the classes that I was taking. At that point, I was majoring in theatre. I didn't have a plan or a vision for my life. For somebody like me, that's so critical to who I am and how I show up in the world.

At the end of that week, I remember waking up and sitting on my bed in tears because God had not answered my prayer. I was yelling and screaming at God, 'Why haven't you answered my prayer?' And it was as clear as day, this voice: 'Because I have more work for you to do.' I will never forget that moment. I'm telling you, in times now when the work is hard, when life is hard, I think about those words: 'I have more work for you to do.' And if it was real for me back in undergrad, I know it's real for me now, and it will be real for me in the future. That experience lit a fire in me. Not just my heart, but my spirit. And that's honestly a part of why I try to show up every day and be authentic because I remember the moments when I didn't want to be here. So if God spared me because there was something else for me to do, not only do I have a responsibility to live, but I have a responsibility to inspire other people to want to do the same.


Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for sharing that. And moreso, I'm so thankful that he did not answer those prayers.

I'm telling you, yes. And I hope somebody reads this and it inspires them to keep living. Just to see what tomorrow may bring. You never know what people are going through.

What advice do you have for young people who either want to get into this space or are feeling the same thing as you – they don't know exactly what direction they want to go, but they need a little bit of guidance. What do you say to them?

I would say three things: The first is to look inward. Sit down in a quiet place and reflect on what you do with little effort. Where does your mind naturally go when you have free time? I noticed that I naturally ask a lot of questions, and love to have deep conversations with people. Ask your family and friends to help you identify things that should be on your list. The second thing I would say is to start asking yourself who you want to be instead of what you want to do. Since we were little we've been asked what we want to do when we grow up and so we've been conditioned to think we have to monetize our passions. It's okay to aspire to be before you aspire to do (goes back to that inward work). Lastly, explore what gets you angry. Is there an injustice that you wished you could solve? Nothing fuels change like anger.

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