More than two and a half years after WVIK originally planned to host award-winning journalist Michele Norris in the Quad Cities, the day is finally here.

On Wednesday, Oct. 19 at the RiverCenter in Davenport at 6 p.m., WVIK’s “Intelligent Conversations” will welcome the Peabody Award-winning journalist and longtime “All Things Considered” host. Norris, 61, will deliver a keynote address followed by a 7 p.m. question-and-answer session moderated by LaDrina Wilson, CEO of the Quad Cities Chamber.

The WVIK event was originally scheduled for March 26, 2020 and was postponed several times due to COVID. The Augustana College public radio station is the QC’s NPR affiliate.

“It feels almost miraculous that this event is finally, actually happening — and in person!” station manager Jared Johnson said Tuesday by e-mail.

WVIK veteran Jared Johnson became station manager in January 2022.

“When we first started talking about bringing Michele Norris to the Quad Cities in 2019, we hadn’t even heard of COVID-19 and had no idea the racial reckoning that would sweep across our country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. I think in so many ways this event is even more poignant today than it would have been back in March of 2020. Our attendees have experienced so much since many of them first purchased their tickets!”

Norris is founder of The Race Card Project, and executive director of The Bridge, The Aspen Institute’s new program on race, identity, connectivity, and inclusion. For more than a decade (until 2012), she served as a host of NPR’s All Things Considered, where she interviewed world leaders, American presidents, Nobel laureates, leading thinkers, and groundbreaking artists.

Since COVID closures in March 2020, issues around race and identity have deepened and become more complex, Norris said Tuesday.

“We are all equally vulnerable, but the pandemic revealed all kinds of economic and social stratifications,” she said, noting the Memorial Day 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers added to that.

Pugilistic politics

“The increasingly pugilistic politics that we see and the memory wars the country is engaged in – how we remember our history, teach our history and talk about our history – and even with all of that, our inbox is as robust as it’s ever been,” Norris said.

People don’t just fight or complain, but come to ask questions. “They come to understand what other people are saying,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are trying to figure out life as lived by somebody else and how to figure out how to have a conversation’s that not a screaming match.”

Michele Norris, then host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” speaks during a live taping of “Meet the Press” at NBC April 12, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet the Press)

Norris has seen the nation become so much more divided since COVID, when the global pandemic should have unified us.

“I hoped that it would have brought people together,” she said. “Everyone in the entire world was going through something at once. And we were all forced to stay inside and perhaps be more introspective about life. Life is fragile and we all depend on each other.

“I hoped that it might lead to – not necessarily a ‘Kumbaya’ moment, but a moment of reflection,” Norris said.

Several social dynamics have contributed to bitter divisions today, including demographic and technological changes.

“Also economic tumult,” Norris said. “This is the first time in a long time where the next generation will not live as well as their parents. The first time kindergarteners now, many of them will matriculate into jobs that don’t even exist today.”

On top of everything, a big driver of this are people who are deeply invested in dividing people for gain of one kind or another, she said.

“There is an industry of division, I’m not saying is new, but have new tools to ply their trade more effectively,” Norris said. At the same time, there is also a realization that we need to give young people new skills.

“One of the greatest skills they will need is how to lead people who don’t agree with each other,” she said. “And lead people who don’t look like each other.”

Working to boost diversity

In the wake of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, many companies, nonprofits and other organizations have made moves to improve diversity, equity and inclusion.

Minneapolis police stand outside the department’s 3rd Precinct on May 27, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune via AP, File)

“At the same time, a lot of people experience racial fatigue – I’m tired of this,” Norris said. “Race fatigue is a real thing, so it’s a challenge to keep people at the table and have those necessary conversations.”

“Discourse has become more complicated and prickly,” she said. “You see people saying things and doing things that were not part of polite discourse just a short time ago.”

Other NPR stations, colleges and churches are engaged in similar “Hidden Conversations” that WVIK did, led by LaDrina Wilson.

LaDrina Wilson of Davenport is the CEO of the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce.

“In many cases, the most interesting conversations about race and identity and belonging and difference are the ones you never hear,” Norris said. “They’re not taking place in the newsroom.”

“They’re taking place on the side of a soccer field or on a Saturday morning with two people who don’t agree with each other at all, who are cheering for little kids who are leaning to play soccer,” she said.

Her work through the Race Card Project doesn’t offer any easy solutions, but diagnoses the problems.

“I get to listen to lots of people say out loud things that they wouldn’t normally express in public,” Norris said.

People in her hometown of Minneapolis are doing this work, because it affects productivity and quality of life.

“It affects what happens in a campus or a school, if people are always in a pugilistic stance,” Norris said. “So stakeholders in these communities are often doing this difficult, prickly work. In doing so, you have to include people who are normally left out of the conversation.”

Being truly diverse

Most DEI programs don’t include white people, “and that’s a mistake,” she said. “If we really want to achieve diversity, people who are in the at-present majority culture have to be part of that conversation. And people you don’t agree with have to be part of that conversation.”

Norris tells people that it’s worth it to engage with people who you don’t agree with.

“That’s hard to do,” she said. “It is important work and it’s probably as important as it’s ever been now.”

Norris grew up eight blocks from where George Floyd was killed (near the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue).

Damik Bryant, brother of Daunte Wright, center, and friends release balloons outside of the Warren E. Burger Federal Building after former Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Kueng, Tou Thao, and Thomas Lane were found guilty of depriving George Floyd of his right to medical care on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Christian Monterrosa)

“That’s home turf,” she said. “When I go home, I will make a point of going back to visit that part of town. People still migrate there. They’re still trying to process what we saw in those nine minutes.

“Also, Minneapolis has had two high-profile shootings since then,” Norris said. “The issues of policing are pretty raw, and they revealed a lot of deeper issues about as city that used to be so tolerant.”

Derek Chauvin (the Minneapolis officer directly responsible for Floyd’s death) this past July was sentenced to 21 years in prison, with roughly 17 incarcerated and five under supervised release, that will be served concurrently with his state criminal sentence.

Minneapolis is a very different place from where Norris grew up, and it’s a reminder that it happens from small decisions over time.

After 12 years of listening to people with the Race Card Project, she will share lessons she’s learned on Wednesday night.

No easy solutions

“To encourage people to create spaces of listening and communication in their own lives,” Norris said. “This is really difficult, and I never offer easy or pat solutions, because I don’t think they exist.”

“I do know it’s harder to hate people up close,” she said, quoting Michelle Obama. “If we don’t figure out how to create a space where people have different points of view, and yet flourish together – this is a land of plenty.

“There truly is enough for everyone, if we are generous of our heart and generous in terms of our curiosity, to understand someone else’s life,” Norris said.

On Oct. 19 at the RiverCenter (136 E. 3rd St., Davenport), doors open at 5 p.m. Appetizers, desserts, coffee, and cash bar will be available. General admission is $40; admission with student ID is $20, and a reserved table of eight is $280.

To purchase tickets, click HERE; they also will be available at the door. You can hear past “Hidden Conversations” HERE.