Being the ‘lone person in the room’ and how public media can help

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Many will recall that in 2009, when President Obama was in office, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his own home by a local police officer, Sgt. James Crowley. The officer was responding to a neighbor’s 911 report of a man breaking and entering the residence.


The event drew international media controversy and culminated in Obama inviting both parties to the White House to make amends over a beer, later called the “Beer Summit.” This made a major impact on many in the Black community, and of course, it hit home for me — Henry Louis Gates is my cousin.

Here we are, 11 years later, in the throes of evident and systemic racism, but the outcry looks much different than it did back in 2009. As the current Board Chair of Lehigh Valley Public Media (home of PBS39 and WLVR News), it feels important that I stress how public media can help in this movement and how I got involved to begin with.

I was an electrical engineer making integrated circuits at Lucent Technologies and got a call from HR. As a result of that call, I became involved in a number of distance-learning symposiums with PBS39 and later was asked to sit on their board of directors. That was two decades ago.

I was excited to be on the board because I wanted to understand the technology that went into broadcasting a program, to support education and, of course, to meet Big Bird. But that was just how it started. I now consider the entire staff at Lehigh Valley Public Media my extended family. On a call just a few weeks ago, against the backdrop of George Floyd’s death and many reporters covering the myriad protests held in this region, I shared my story with the staff.

I have never been one with words, or someone who has spoken up about my experiences. In fact, it’s easier and less painful to try and ignore most of the inappropriate, unjust and racist experiences I’ve lived through over the years. That’s because I’m used to being the lone person in the room. I was the only African American in a workforce of 500 engineers, at most community events and even on this board of directors, so on issues of racism, silence was the best defense.

When you’re the lone person in the room, you get used to being silent. You get used to speaking up only when there are others around to provide support. That’s what I believe is happening now. The country is again throwing its arms in the air as it did 11 years ago when Henry Louis Gates was arrested, and decades before, but now there are more people willing to actively support those who feel alone.

No matter where we come from, though, we are all biased. We all have a little voice in our heads that sways how we react or don’t react to real-life experiences. I’m an engineer, so I try to factor in my bias ahead of time, similar to a “measurement error.” If we can stop those thoughts in their tracks and catch our bias before it blocks reality, then we can start to break down the walls that have been put up between our communities for years.

News organizations, especially those in public media, can tell truthful stories from many different voices. I’m proud to serve on the board for Lehigh Valley Public Media, whose staff of reporters consists of many of these diverse voices telling stories from unique and unheard perspectives.

Obama’s “Beer Summit” set a good example for how much impact extending an olive branch to your neighbors can have. The event also helped to spark conversation across the country by bringing trustworthy news to communities and hard-pressed people of color seeking change.

As Lehigh Valley Public Media’s CEO Tim Fallon always proclaims, “Our value is that we are a megaphone; we can use our platforms to help us reach our community near and far, free of cost and free of economic barriers.”

Continuing to fight for fair and trustworthy journalism, especially in the public media sector, is sure to educate, enlighten and teach our neighbors to be better listeners, more thoughtful advocates and one day hopefully to have a “Beer Summit” of their own.

Steven Thompson has spent most of his career working in the manufacturing and service areas of the communications industry. He has worked for AT&T, Lucent Technologies and Verizon Communications and has a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering and computer engineering from Brown University as well as a Master of Science degree in electrical engineering from Penn State University. Steven is a licensed Professional Engineer in Pennsylvania and a certified Project Management Professional. In addition to being Vice President of Finance at Delane Consulting and Talent Management, he is also the President of the Board of Directors of Lehigh Valley Public Media and serves on the Executive Board of Minsi Trails Council, Scouting BSA.

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