Melissa Harris-Perry, a writer, professor, television host, political commentator, and former MSNBC host, will be visiting Madison on Wednesday, March 1, to be the keynote speaker at the 2023 La Follette Forum: All Policy is Implementation at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center.
“I watched a couple of talks from the 2022 [La Follette Forum] event. I’m really looking forward to coming to Madison. I feel like the news cycle moves so fast these days, and I’m kind of trying to make sure that whatever I’m talking about is going to address what is going on,” Harris-Perry tells Madison365. Harris-Perry is currently the host and managing editor of The Takeaway, a daily public radio broadcast that features critical conversations about world, national, and regional news. Producing station WNYC announced last week that the show will end in June.
“Undoubtedly, I’m going to address questions of economic and racial justice and the press and trying to think about sort of the intersection between economic justice, racial justice, the role of the media in the broader sense,” Harris-Perry says.
The Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s graduate public policy school, will be host of the annual forum that will bring together leaders across sectors and levels of government to discuss collaborating effectively to deliver high-quality public services.
“I’m always most interested in the things that are on the table as ideas … so what constitutes an idea that we take seriously versus those things that just either aren’t in our worldview, or that really aren’t even possible? So what should be and what is possible … and so I guess I’m trying to think through that in the context of the big themes of this event,” Harris-Perry says.
Harris-Perry has traveled the United States (and the world) quite a bit during her career. The only states she hasn’t been to are Alaska and North and South Dakota, she says. She’s been to Wisconsin numerous times, including Madison, and has plenty of ties here.
“I’ve been to Madison a couple of times. I’ve been to the university a few times because I’m a political scientist, obviously, and Madison has an incredible political science program. I have walked up that [Bascom] hill in Madison,” Harris-Perry laughs. “My youngest daughter was born in the Milwaukee area …in Waukesha. And my high school boyfriend [fullback William Henderson] played for the Green Bay Packers for about a decade and won a Super Bowl with them. So I’ve been to Green Bay a couple of times. So I’m no stranger to Wisconsin!”
Harris-Perry serves as the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University where she teaches courses on American politics and elections at the intersections of race, place, and gender. She grew up on a southern college campus in the ’70s and was influenced heavily by both her mom and dad.
“My father is retired now and he’s in his 80s, but he was the first dean of African American Affairs at the University of Virginia. So I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the 1970s, the youngest of five children, because my dad was living and working in Charlottesville to be the first dean of African American Affairs,” Harris-Perry remembers. “And even though I’m the youngest of five, I’m the only one who also went into the academy, kind of followed my dad in terms of becoming a professor.”
So while her dad was African American, grew up in the Jim Crow south, went to a historically black college and university (HBCU), and was very much into the Civil Rights Movement, her mom was a white woman who grew up the fourth of five children in Latter Day Saints family in Spokane, Washington, and graduated from Brigham Young University in 1984.
“My upbringing was in the 70s in Virginia with a white mother from the Pacific Northwest, and a father who grew up in Jim Crow south and so I guess in a lot of ways that helps to understand a lot about who I am,” Harris-Perry says. “I’m fascinated by people. I’m interested in things that are different. I really do genuinely find people quite fascinating.”
Harris-Perry went to college at Wake Forest University where she now teaches.
“My college advisor was Maya Angelou and I started working for Maya Angelou opening her fan mail in 1992. And, of course, if you kind of can remember back that far, January of 1993, was when she gave the inaugural address for Bill Clinton. So I was 18 years old opening fan mail for the inaugural poet. It was ridiculous how incredible that experience was.”
Harris-Perry would go on to earn her Ph.D. at Duke University. Her first academic job was teaching at the University of Chicago and she lived in Hyde Park from 1999-2006.
“This, of course, was a time when this young guy named Barack Obama ran first for the U.S. House and lost and then ran for and won the U.S. Senate seat. I lived three blocks from Barack Obama during that time,” she remembers. “Mrs. Obama was working on campus, so I had an opportunity to work with her a little bit. So in a very odd way, I ended up being colleagues with the guy who becomes the first Black president.
“So I guess what I want to say is that some of what I’ve done in my life was on purpose and some of it is I’m 18 and I’m opening Maya Angelou’s mail, or I’m 28 and living down the street from Barack Obama who becomes president,” she adds, smiling. “Each of those pieces ends up contributing to what becomes both my scholarly life and my media life.”
From 2012-2016, she hosted the television show “Melissa Harris-Perry” on MSNBC, where she facilitated discussions on everything from the complicated history of mass incarceration to the gendered and racialized politics of climate change. Through her shows and through her speaking engagements, she often finds herself on white liberal campuses – like Madison – talking about race relations and equity issues in cities that have nation-leading racial disparities.
“Maybe this comes from my family background, but I do try to look at all people with the softest eyes that I can which is to say to be as forgiving of our inadequacies because I acknowledge my own and that I do think that most people, even those with my vehemently disagree, are typically not evil or bad,” she says.
“I guess for me, I’m always more willing to take the risk that people are good people and get my feelings hurt or get my institution hurt,” Harris-Perry continues. “One thing I will say in the context of being a teacher is I don’t find that anyone learns well when they feel attacked and what I endeavor to do in teaching and what I endeavor to do in media work is to open up multiple kinds of spaces. So I think sometimes people deserve and need to be in a closed space … they deserve places that belong to them.”
But we also have to have lots of spaces where we do encounter each other, she adds.
“I think my biggest fear for who we are socially-politically right now, is that we’ve taken our closed spaces and we’ve made them the only place that we live. So we don’t hear any other news source,” Harris-Perry says. “I’m not against private spaces. I am terrified of when private spaces are the only kind of space we encounter. So for me, the problem of a Madison or Wake Forest or of any other place full of good-hearted people who are basically the same is that you just don’t know what you don’t know until you engage with people who are different.
“And you know, for me, the goal isn’t to say you’re evil for not having had those engagements. And you’re not evil if you’re a person who doesn’t want to go engage people who are different than you. But, gosh, life is a lot less interesting.”
Beyond the hearts of people and their willingness to truly work towards equity, there is the question of structures and structural change, Harris-Perry adds.
“Structural change, I think is a different issue. And there I think we do have a right and a necessity to push a little harder,” Harris-Perry says. “It is the great insight of the founders that having a good king isn’t enough. The point wasn’t like, ‘let’s go get a better monarch.’ It was you just can’t have a monarch. It has to be the consent of the government. It has to be a big, messy democratic process. It has to be as many voices in as possible. People have to have a say. And so I think for me, the insight that we keep bringing to institutions is it is never enough to have a good oligarch or a good boss. Right? Great bosses are great, but you still need a union.
“A good president is great, but you still have to have an election in four years. What we got to do is keep building systems that are not for when we have a great leader, but for the idea that like everybody has to be constrained by rule of law, by elections, by consent of the government.”
Harris-Perry is the founder and president of the Anna Julia Cooper Center, an independent organization with a mission to advance justice and alleviate harm for women and girls of color in American higher education. She is viewed by many as a pioneer in her career field and a role model for many young women in her classrooms and well beyond.
“My most intimate relationships are in the framework of being a teacher. I don’t teach for the end-of-the-semester evaluation, right? That’s not necessarily what I’m looking for,” she says. “I teach with the goal of 10 years from now the difference I might make in a young person’s life — when I get the email or the phone call from a student who’s like, ‘oh, my gosh, I just got it!’ or, “I remember you had us read this book, and I wasn’t quite sure what you were talking about. But like, I just got it!’
“Sometimes it will give me great joy seeing what students are doing now. I had a student who is now a staff writer for Rolling Stone and I read her writing and I can see her growth and so in a certain way, I have these very intimate mentoring relationships with my many students who are taking my class and who I get to see grow, not just in the course of a semester, but over the course of their 20s sometimes – I’m getting old now – some of their 30s and 40s.”
There are a lot of people she is in conversation with that she doesn’t even know she’s in conversation with, she adds.
“I’m talking into a microphone or I’m talking to a dark room with an audience into a TV screen or a Zoom call. I love running into somebody who says, ‘Five years ago, I heard you speak at a conference and it made me decide to go do my Ph.D.’ Or sometimes I’ll hear from people who will say, ‘I never saw somebody on TV who was wearing dreadlocks or wearing braids [like you] and it made me feel like I could do that.’
“I guess all of the people who were the most powerful role models to me in my life were just very much themselves, and I could see them being themselves and that gave me a lot of courage to be as much myself as I could be,” she adds. “So I think that’s always my goal is trying to be vulnerable with people. I try to tell them when I make mistakes. If I’m excited about something I go ahead and let my enthusiasm show in the hopes that that will then make them feel like they can be themselves.”
The La Follette Forum will be held Wednesday, March 1, 9 a.m., at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. It is free and open to the public. To register, click here.