Looking through the lens of social change

Juan Williams wanted to be a journalist since he was a child, but thought it was just a kid’s dream.

His single mother, a garment worker in lower Manhattan, used to bring Williams newspapers off the subway as a little boy.

"What I wanted to do was to be a newspaper writer, but there were no black newspaper writers. I didn’t know that was possible."

Now Williams, at 50 years old, has explored the realm of journalism working in print, television and radio.

Arriving in Portland after interviewing Colin Powell in Washington, D.C., Williams spent some time being the interviewed instead of being the interviewer.

An observant personality, Williams exudes a sense of confidence and calmness.

Williams’ visit to Portland State University this week was a demonstration of the ongoing education he said his profession allows him.

In his lecture on Martin Luther King Jr., he spoke with confidence and education, rarely glancing at the sheet of paper on his podium. Instead he looked at the audience and spoke from the heart: about himself, about King, the future of race in the United States and the role of media and race.

"There’s a confused haze that hangs over our everyday lives when it comes to race in America," Williams said.

He compared modern news media to a sleeping pill. "They have no notion there’s a larger society out there. You would have no idea America has any immigrants."

He spoke of the books he’s written, all of which focus on the idea of telling people about the tremendous change that has taken place in American society concerning race.

What drives Williams is trying to understand how race plays a role in society, the history of how social change occurs and trying to put it together.

"Maybe I’m trying to put it together for myself," he said.

He spoke not only of King, but also of how his role as a journalist has been largely affected by his past and his childhood in Brooklyn.

"The world I was coming into was a world that was going through tremendous change in terms of race, in terms of the role of women in America and in society."

He mentioned the effect of growing up in a world with Malcolm X in Harlem and growing up during the time of King.

"We all write about ourselves, we all write about personal history and sometimes writing coaches actually tell you, write about what you live because you know that story best," Williams said.

"All of that swirl is around me in the sense of change and the sense of potential and opportunity. Arguments over integration in schools, the potential for seeing tremendous change in every aspect of life, all of that is the kind of panorama that captured my attention, captured me as a young person. I said, you know, this is what the story is of America and life."

He said what he loves about his job as a journalist is the ongoing education it allows him.

"One of the gifts writers gets," he said, "is we have a license to continue to learn."

Williams said that his role as a journalist today began when he was a child and became a reality when he received a scholarship to a prep school in upstate New York. He became an editor for the student paper and did small pieces for a small New York papers. He went to college and at the end of first year applied for an internship at a newspaper in Philadelphia for an afternoon daily called The Philadelphia Bulletin. He didn’t put his age or picture in the application because it was only for seniors and graduate students.

They hired him anyway and he ended up working there two to three days a week during the school year.

Since then, Williams has developed a keen understanding of the role of race in America. Living and working in Washington, D.C, he is fully integrated into Washington politics. He mentioned his interview with Secretary of State Colin Powell for NPR on Tuesday.

He spoke to him of the tsunami and the impact it had had personally on Powell.

As a journalist he said that if you could help people see the truth of the way we live, who has opportunity, who doesn’t have opportunity, who has power and how power is exercised to whose benefit, that would be fabulous.

"That’s what I like to do," Williams said, "That’s what I hope I do with my journalism."