Michele Norris shares details of her Race Card Project at SXSW

By Andrew Lapin

AUSTIN, Texas — Former All Things Considered co-host Michele Norris discussed details of her Race Card Project during a March 9 panel at the South by Southwest Interactive conference.

The project, which began during a 2010 book tour promoting her memoir The Grace of Silence, is a conversational tool in which Norris facilitates an ongoing dialogue about race. She distributes physical “race cards” to participants, who are asked to write their thoughts on race in six words or fewer and mail the cards back to Norris (whose parents were both U.S. postal workers). Norris then compiles the responses onto a website.

Norris

Norris

Norris initiated the project as she was traveling the country to promote her book and found herself discussing highly charged moments of her family’s history in front of audiences. She developed the technique as she sought ways to “lubricate the conversation” about race, she said during the panel.

Norris talked about the project during a packed panel discussion on using digital storytelling techniques to affect change. When she took a hiatus from her ATC co-hosting job during the 2012 presidential campaign, Norris focused on developing the Race Card Project. She has continued to work on it since returning to NPR in February as a special correspondent.

“Success for me at first was measured by the first postcard that came in,” Norris said on the panel. “I did a little happy dance.” As the submissions became more frequent, she was especially gratified when participants began talking about race in the “public square” — expressing thoughts that were “often something they’ve never said out loud.”

Asking strangers to engage in a sensitive topic like race can be a challenge, but Norris’s professional affiliation with NPR helped participants trust her with their responses. “At NPR we’re cloaked in trust from our audience. It is a very trusted organization,” she said.

As the project began to pick up steam online, Norris saw different community conversations begin to take hold. She discovered a May 2012 YouTube video from Michigan-based engineering company Cascade Engineering that showed the business incorporating the ideas of her project into its workplace culture. She has also begun pursuing partnerships with colleges and nonprofits: The Race Card Project will launch its first university partnership, with the University of Michigan, on March 12.

The entire 40,000-strong student body at the Ann Arbor campus will be asked to fill out cards as part of a campus-wide theme semester on race, Norris told Current after the panel. She will collaborate with local NPR affiliate Michigan Radio to promote the project. She also plans to bring the project to the University of Oregon in the fall, Norris said.

She will also appear in occasional segments on NPR’s Morning Edition with Steve Inskeep to spotlight unusual stories on race that don’t make it to the headlines.

“When we do have a national conversation about race, it is often around moments of crisis,” Norris told Current, referring to the February 2012 shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. One of the goals of the project, Norris said, is to allow different conversations to take place that aren’t provoked by negative headlines.

Questions, comments, tips? lapin@current.org
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