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Faces of NPR: Keith Woods

Keith Woods, Chief Diversity Officer
Stephen Voss
Stephen Voss
Keith Woods, Chief Diversity Officer

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. Today we feature Keith Woods, Chief Diversity Officer.

The Basics:

Name: Keith Woods

Title: Chief Diversity Officer

Twitter Handle: @KeithWoods

Where you're from: New Orleans, Louisiana

Where are you from?

I was born in New Orleans and lived there until I was 35 years old and moved to Florida. I went to Dillard University for undergrad and then Tulane for graduate school.

As the chief diversity officer, what is your number one goal?

Well, it's not a single goal. What I've been trying to do since I've been at NPR is to help create an organization where matters of diversity are everyday work for everybody, where we're constantly trying to grow the diversity of our staff to match the country in the moment. And that we're trying to make content that both speaks to these diverse audiences, but also speaks authentically and knowledgeably with and about people.

So with that, how do you measure your success?

Well, I'll give you a kind of an easy example of that. When we organizationally really tried to focus on the diversity of staff, we worked for years to try to get a rule in the organization that said that every finalist pool had to have racial, ethnic, gender diversity and every hiring committee had to have the same. By the time that rule became a rule in January 2020, the practice at NPR was well-established. So you want to have an organization in which the things that we value are not driven by rules, but by the culture and the practice of the organization. So success to me is when things happen because we value them and not because there are rules. We are talking about these issues not because there's a crisis, but because it's the way that we live as an organization and I feel everything from STAR [Start Talking About Race sessions] and what Whitney Maddox has done with STAR, to those hiring committees and the hiring practices of the organization are evidence of success in some of those spaces.

How do you keep up with this constantly changing landscape? How do you stay up to date and make sure you're making sure you're staying inclusive in order to lead an inclusive organization?

Well, I have to remember for myself that I am both working in this space and living in this space at the same time. So, you know, I try to read widely, listen deeply, but also be in a constant conversation with myself about my own growth and openness to change as I have learned new things myself, along with everybody else in society. So anything that I am not, I have to learn something about. And then I have to make sure that I'm living my values and that I have my own sense of the world, before I start trying to train and teach somebody else about these things. So it's a matter of just trying to stay informed, and every time I get a hint of something new that I don't know, I try to dig in a little bit and learn it. But, you know, I think it's important to always say that I'm on my own path. I have my own learning and growing to do in this space, and I may have expertise in a lot of things, but I'm also an absolute novice in a lot of other spaces. And I've just got to keep learning.

So who teaches you?

It ranges. I would say, it's learning from what I'm reading. It's learning from what I'm watching. It's learning from what I'm actively seeking to know. But I also had some of the most remarkable conversations with people one on one, with friends and colleagues. I'm thinking in particular, for example, of Andrea Mares Flores-Marquez who befriended me early in her time at NPR, and we sat down and had some great discussions about gender identity that made me a better person as a result of it. The thing is that you can't rely on a single way of learning anything. I wouldn't want people to need to know me to understand Black men, but I'd be very happy to sit down, as Andrea was with me, and go deep with somebody about something if they're already on the path of learning themselves.

NPR HQ with his wife Denise, Cheryl Thompson and Sara Richards.
/ Courtesy of Keith Woods
Courtesy of Keith Woods
NPR HQ with his wife Denise, Cheryl Thompson and Sara Richards.

So how much of that do you think is our responsibility? Like, some things we're taught in school and education, or by talking to people. But at what point do you go out and seek the information?

I think our responsibility as human beings is, in the moment that you know that you don't know, to learn. It's to seek. I don't think any of us can be held accountable for things that we didn't know. And our responsibility is to continuously learn. And I would say that that's generally our responsibility as humans in a society. But if you're in the business of telling other people's stories in an organization for which that is the core purpose, you have an additional level of responsibility to seek knowledge out, not just accept it when it comes your way, to test the limits of what you know and try to learn more. And like I said, my curiosity drives a lot of that. My passion for making the world a better place for my children and my grandchildren drives some of that, and I'm just also curious and interested in the world that I'm occupying. So some of it I just learn because it's interesting to learn.

In your role as chief diversity officer, you don't really ever get to turn it off, because you're always going to be a Black man. You're at work enforcing diversity. You leave work and you see Black people being killed by police and the injustices. So how do you maintain a level head and also keep your emotions separate while at work, so that you're not reacting to situations, but moving out of logic?

You know, it's funny, I was just talking about this with a Member station earlier today. First of all, I don't want to turn it off. I think you modulate how you live in this space so that every day, every issue isn't going to raise your blood pressure or send you spiraling into the depths of depression because of the society that we live in. I think you have to have balancing truths in your life. So I have a family that I love. I've got reasons to want to be around them that have nothing to do with the work that I do. And as I said, I read, I've got a book going all the time. I'm trying to hit a book a week this year. It's a hard goal but I'm aiming at it, and I try to read for entertainment. I probably watch way too much TV and stream way too much streaming stuff, but a lot of that is escaping, trying to get outside of the stress and tension of the things that are going on. As I told you, I like to get out into the water and kayaking, or get out into the air in nature in some way, to just provide balance. But then you know, if there's something going on right now in the state of Florida – and there always is – around these issues, it's not just work. You know, if they're not going to teach children about gender identity, then that's my grandchildren that are not being taught. And this isn't just about the work. It's about life. And I've got to stay engaged for those reasons.

So do you ever feel overwhelmed?

Do I ever not? is a better question.

Okay, do you ever not?

I mean, one benefit to having this be the work is that when those things happen, the big and small things happen, I can wrestle with them while I'm at work, and I can make progress on things while I'm at work. I can feel like I'm making a difference in this important thing while I'm at work, and so it doesn't all stay inside of me. It's not all incoming and nothing going out, and I think for any of us, it's really important to be able to to get it out of you, a lot of the poison that you have to kind of ingest. And then maybe spend a little bit less time doomscrolling on Twitter and just ingesting more for the sake of ingesting more. I think you handle what you can handle, and in my case, a lot of that can be handled at work and turned into training and turned into leading. And then, you know, make sure you got something else going.

/ Courtesy of Keith Woods
Courtesy of Keith Woods

What is the most fulfilling part of your job?

I feel like for the last nearly 30 years, I have been trying to find a new way to say the same thing. Because the truths of equality and fairness, equity, those aren't brand new ideas that require brand new thoughts. And so a lot of the work is in trying to find a way to say it. And if you're a writer, and I regard myself as a writer, it's the same pursuit. I mean, literally trying to find a way to say the thing in a way that's satisfying. So when I feel some of my best moments in the work, it's when I've figured out how to say something in a way that somebody hears it and acts. And that can be very satisfying.

James Baldwin said something very similar to that.

Probably cribbed it from Baldwin. But he is a hero.

What do you like to write about?

Mostly I like to write about life. I'm a passionate personal essay advocate. And, you know, Holly Morris and I actually taught a couple of courses at NPR over the last year and a half, and I taught an online course at Poynter for ten years on personal essay writing, because I think that, first of all, it's your truth. You can write your truth. And if it's a personal essay, you are the expert in that story. You are the best source for that story. And my joy in writing is finding wonderful ways to say things and do what any writer aspires to, which is to move the people who are reading.

How did you decide to pivot into DEI?

Well, I mean, I've been doing DEI since I was throwing newspapers in New Orleans at 16 years old. I've been paying attention to this stuff for a minute. And I'm only being a little facetious when I say that, because I would literally read a newspaper while I was out delivering it and noted the inequities in coverage of my city way back then. So it's not a new notion for me. And I ran my first seminar on coverage of race at the Times-Picayune in 1989 while I was still an editor there. So it wasn't really a pivot in that way. I did DEI, and that's why I was hired at Poynter to come in and do that work as a member of the ethics faculty and marry the ideas of journalism, ethics and diversity.

Then I was consulting with NPR as the dean at Poynter, doing a short stint helping NPR launch a diversity council with the then-CEO, Vivian Schiller. And at the end of that consulting stint, which was six visits over the course of three months, Vivian invited me to come to NPR as the VP of Diversity. And what convinced me to do it, which was very clever on Vivian's part, was when she said, "Well, you've been teaching people how to do this now for the last 15 years. How about coming to NPR and proving that it can be done?" And then she threw in the added bonus, because she knew exactly what I was aiming for, and said, "You say you want to have impact. Well, there are 250 Member stations representing every state in the United States. So you could leave Poynter where you're talking to 16 people at a time, and come to NPR and speak to the country."

So did you prove your point?

You know, that's a life pursuit. I would say to you that NPR today is one of the few organizations in this country that I know of – and I'm not being overly patriotic to the company when I say this – but we are the one in a few organizations where you can say that DEI lives deeply in the muscle and skeleton of this organization. It isn't something that's been overlaid on top of it. And I'll just say this because I think it's so important to say: It is incredibly fragile, and because very few people in journalism have been in a place where they've actually had some measure of accomplishment in this work, it's hard to remember how fragile any kind of success in this work can be. But it is less fragile when it's culture and habit and values driving the work, than when it's initiatives and committees and rules that are driving the work.

And let me just give you a simple example of that. So there are three people at NPR with "diversity" in their titles. That's me, Jasmine Richmond and Whitney Maddox. But there is so much work happening in DEI at NPR that does not primarily involve any of us. There's the DEI Audience Hub, created by people whose jobs are not in DEI at NPR. That brings together a tremendous number of people all the time to talk about the diversity of our audience. It's not their primary job, but it's because we hired people for whom that was a passion and then they acted on it, and they acted on it in a part of the organization that was open to them doing it. And you see that in just about every department in the organization. That's a healthy DEI situation, when you don't require the one person or, in this case, the three people with the word in their titles to carry out the work.

Who inspires and motivates you? Who is somebody that you look up to?

I've been inspired over all my adult life by writers and thinkers in the space who I've read and followed. You mentioned Baldwin. Baldwin is huge in my life. The book "The Price of the Ticket" is like a sacred document in my home. And so I've found a lot of the language and even the lyricism that inspires me in a lot of that work. And really in my day to day, everybody from John Lansing who kind of came into NPR and stood in front and started clearing a path for this work in a way that nobody had done before him at that position, to Whitney, who comes along two years ago and just rocks the organization. You know, I can go up and down NPR and talk about people. Felix Contreras in Programming who I've known well before NPR, but who's been doing the work, and I've watched him find his stride in this work after years of pressing. I find inspiration all around the organization, and everywhere that I feel like I've had a chance to teach, I've also taken the opportunity to learn. You talked to Gene Demby at one point and, you know, we had a wonderful little moment in my time at NPR when I was his editor, and the kind of thinking that he was bringing to that work challenged me. And I think any time I leave the day having felt that that happened, it's a really good day. A really good day.

I love those moments.

Let me name one more person. Karen Brown Dunlap, who was my boss at Poynter for all 15 years that I was there, and the first manager I ever worked for who was miles ahead of me in my own work, and who was a truth teller who challenged me to get over myself so many times when we worked together, and who ultimately put me on the path that led to my success at Poynter. Also, and she wouldn't want to think about it this way, it led me to leave Poynter and come to NPR. A brilliant thinker and leader, and I owe her a lot in the things that I've learned over time.

I want to know how much of what you practice at work overlaps with being a dad.

That's a good question. Well, there is a thing that I teach. It's called the Arc of the Conversation, and it's about how we talk about these difficult issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, identity, and so on. I created the root of that training in 1995 when I was at Poynter working and doing volunteer work in the community in St. Petersburg. The crux of the teaching is recognizing how important questions are in conversations across differences, and how easily people misunderstand one another when they are coming from different places and making assumptions about one another in the discussion. Well, the important part of that teaching is that you're able to stop, and instead of making a statement, ask a question. And one evening, my son comes home. He's late from when he was supposed to come back. He's fairly new to driving and I'm worried sick ... and of course, when a parent is worried sick, they are also incredibly angry, and if you come back healthy, they will kill you for making them worry. And I was in that kind of mood when he got home and just let him have it. You know, how could you? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And he says, "Dad, you're supposed to ask questions," because he's been sitting in every last one of my trainings before then. "You're supposed to ask questions. I was almost run off the road by an 18-wheeler on the interstate and it was raining and I was scared to death." And he kind of goes on a little bit. And of course, I just feel smaller and smaller with every word he says.

And so in the years that I've been teaching this since then, I tell people all the time that this could make you a better person. My goal in training people isn't to make them better people. You cannot, with any kind of humility, believe you have the ability to do that. But the work has the opportunity to make you a better person. And I learned that lesson not in a classroom or with journalists, but at home with my son. And they've been a part of this work. Whether my daughter was sitting with me at basketball games when I was a sportswriter and my son is sitting with me in the community meeting when we're talking about this with a group of St. Petersburg residents, there's very little space between the work and my role as a husband, as a father and brother, as an uncle, all of the various roles that I occupy. And so I kind of learn what I can learn in the work and turn it over to my personal life, and the other way around, to try to stay human in this work and never get to a place where it's disconnected in any kind of way from the most important things. And for me, that's my kids and my family.

Keith Woods, his wife Denise and their family.
/ Courtesy of Keith Woods
Courtesy of Keith Woods
Keith Woods, his wife Denise and their family.

I love that he made you practice what you preach, because I always say that to my dad.

You know, I'll just tell you this quick story. It is neither here nor there. But when "The Help" came out, I don't know if it was the movie or if it was the book. I don't remember which. And I came home railing about this because it was going to be another one of these white savior stories. I knew it. I'd seen it a thousand times before. And just going on and on and on about how I am not going to read this book, I am not going to watch that movie, they won't get a dollar of my money, and I'm just going on and on. He says, "Dad, don't you tell people that they should learn before they judge?" So now I've got to buy the book and I've got to read the book. It affirms everything, of course, that I was afraid it was going to do. But once again, I mean, and as has been the case many times now, that's a voice I hear when I'm just ready to shut it down and turn it off. Damn if I didn't go to see Avatar knowing that it was going to turn out the way that it did. But you know, my son is saying, you got to at least go and see for yourself. He has been one of the particular ones that calls me on it, because again, when I first got to St. Petersburg, I was my child care. I was a single parent. He was at work with me all the time. He was at play with me all the time. If I was running a workshop in the community, he would sit in the back doing his homework.

What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?

It's an easy one, actually. There's a guy named James Carey – who is not the Jim Carrey that people might think – he used to be the dean of the journalism school at Columbia, and he was also on the National Advisory Board for Poynter when I was the dean. And completely unsolicited, he came to my office during one of their meetings at Poynter, and he said, "You know, I've learned a lot over the years, but the one thing that I learned as a dean is that the role of the dean is to arrange victories for the faculty." And actually it was a leadership lesson, and, you know, it was specific to being dean at the time, but the message was a leadership message, that your role as a leader is to humble yourself for the sake of the people you lead, not to accomplish things on your own, for your own sake.

And philosophically, I mean, just to just mix it up here, that is the lesson of the Tao Te Ching, which is a piece of Eastern spirituality that I have found to be incredibly valuable through my adult life. It's the same message about the role of the teacher. It is not to teach. It is not to convince people of something else. It is to be what you need to be for the people. That you're leading and the return will come. Right? I mean, you find that same message in faith. Give it and you will receive it. But James Carey put it in a way that I hadn't thought about, and it completely framed how I have been as a leader since then. What do I need to do to make it possible for someone else to succeed? Because ultimately that's my success. Just like, you know, a good editor knows your job is not to stand in front. It's to help the person whose work you're working with to be great. And that's your reward.

So that's what you'll get in return, the other person being great?

Well, there are far bigger things that you get in return than the satisfaction of seeing something done well. But that's up to the individual. I'm trying to accomplish something in life and I tell people all the time, I'm not too hung up on how it happens, just that it does. And if that means that the writer I'm editing succeeds and the message gets out, or the person I'm leading succeeds and the message gets out – I am totally neutral on the method, as long as the end is achieved. NPR is talking to the country and to the world. I am at NPR because of that. The only reason I came to the organization is what's on the other end of our work, and if something that I said to somebody who works on All Things Considered creates that end, that's the reward.

Very humble of you. So you're really good at identifying talent. Like you hired Whitney, and that's probably the best thing that has happened to NPR. So I want to know, how do you identify talent and how do you identify who is good? What are you looking for?

It is truth, not humility, when I say this: You get really good people to help you choose, and then you trust them. I've been involved in hiring a good number of people over the last four or five years. The only time I think that I failed to identify the right talent was the time I ignored the advice of my committee. That was the last time I ignored the advice of my committee. Every hire that I have made or that I've been a part of since then, I have relied heavily on the people I had around me to advise. So there isn't a single person, Whitney included, who I can take sole credit for. You know, Whitney can take credit for herself. If you could have heard some of the things that people were saying after that interview, you'd know. But the committee that delivered Whitney to us, we had a kick-ass committee. And as I said, you listen to them and trust them when they tell you what to do. I'm much more suspicious of people who say that they can do it by themselves, because then you just replicate yourself, typically, and that might not always be a good thing.

Edited by Kelsey Page

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Sommer Hill
Sommer Hill (she/her) is the social media senior associate for NPR Extra. She started with NPR in May 2021. Her primary responsibilities include managing the social media accounts for NPR Extra, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and TikTok, as well as managing the NPR Extra blog.