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"Changemaker" Panelists Reflect on Race, Culture, and Their Own Challenges and Successes

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Sylvia Burwell, Eric Liu, Susan Rice, Maria Elena Salinas, Ibram Kendi
Sylvia Burwell, Eric Liu, Susan Rice, Maria Elena Salinas, and Ibram Kendi

As part of American University’s ongoing Crucial Conversations series, the School of International Service and the Office of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence sponsored an event on March 5 entitled “Changemakers in a Changing World: Lessons for the Next Generation.”

Moderated by AU president Sylvia M. Burwell, the discussion featured panelists Susan E. Rice, former national security advisor and ambassador to the United Nations; Ibram Kendi, professor and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center; Eric Liu, founder and CEO of Citizen University; and broadcast journalist Maria Elena Salinas. 

The diverse group of panelists shared intimate stories and recalled the personal challenges that shaped their lives, including those related to race and culture. 

A tone of personal reflection present throughout the event was set with the first question Burwell posed: Where would your 18-year-old self predict you would be at this point, and how have you followed or strayed from that path?

The teenage career paths ranged from starter for the New York Yankees (Eric Liu’s youthful ambition) to United States senator (Susan Rice’s goal). While some stayed relatively close to their early interests and others strayed far, a common thread among the panelists was summarized by Liu: The value of listening to “that inner voice of intrinsic motivation.” For Liu, wanting to “serve and be useful” ultimately led him away from professional sports to positions like speechwriter for the Clinton administration.  

Panelists also contemplated how race and culture had an impact on their family lives, their careers, and their ambitions. 

Salinas noted that when she began working in Spanish-language media early on in her career, she felt at home while encountering some surprises.

“I knew that I was reporting to a community that I was also a part of, and I felt that I understood,” Salinas said. “However, it was an eye-opener for me to see just how much necessity there was. There was thirst for information in the Latino community.” 

She recalled reporting on a Los Angeles election in which there was a Latinx candidate—a rarity at the time. Eagerly anticipating how excited the community would be to vote, she was stunned to discover that in actuality very few people were planning to vote at all. 

“Latinos weren’t voting because they felt disenfranchised,” she explained, “But if they didn’t vote, they would never have representation.” This early experience helped shape the desire to empower the Latinx community that she said became her mission and passion.

Rice shared that she grew up in a significantly different environment than her parents: Her father was born in segregated South Carolina, her mother was the child of Jamaican immigrants who settled in Portland, Maine, where they were “black in an extremely white environment.” Meanwhile, Rice grew up in “comfortable circumstances” with high expectations related to education. She was also born in Washington, DC, which was majority African-American at the time, but attended predominately white schools.

She spoke of the dichotomy of being both “privileged and fortunate” in terms of support and expectations while facing prejudice from others. Rice described the challenge of having to fight to believe in herself while dealing with the judgments of others as a “theme throughout my personal and professional life.” Over the years, she gained the confidence to live the lessons taught by her parents.

“If people are going to be bigoted because you’re black, or because you’re female, or because you’re young,” she said, “let that be their problem. Don’t let it get in your head.”

In addition to discussing their personal experiences, the panelists answered questions from the crowd. One question, from an AU graduate student, focused on the definitions of being a changemaker and building resilience. Rice noted how the two concepts are intrinsically connected. 

“Resilience is something that’s vitally important, but it’s one of those things that can’t be taught. It comes out of experience,” Rice said. “Yet it’s absolutely critical to making change and having an impact.” 

Kendi, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of love and faith in the journey to resilience: Love for what you do, love for the people you’re fighting for, and faith that you can power through and that there is “a brighter day on the other side.”

Regarding the word “changemaker,” in addition to the concept of changing your environment, Kendi stressed the importance of changing yourself. 

Being a changemaker means “constantly looking in the mirror. Constantly self-reflecting. Constantly self-critiquing,” he said. “You may stop growing physically, but you should never stop growing intellectually and conceptually, and you should never believe that you know it all.”