What the Great Gwen Ifill Meant to Black Women

LUCAS JACKSON / REUTERS
LUCAS JACKSON / REUTERS

How Gwen Ifill gave me career advice that I’ve never forgotten—and that I’ve used as a measuring stick for myself ever since.

When most people lament larger-than-life legends that 2016 snatched from us too soon, they focus on names like Prince and David Bowie, figures so unrivaled in their contributions that collective mourning over their passing seemed to be among the few things to unite us during a divisive year.

But for those of us working in media, particularly those of us who are women of color, learning of Gwen Ifill’s passing was like losing Marian Anderson, Nina Simone, and Billie Holliday in the same day. Her contributions were that enormous, her shoes that big to fill, and her influence that far-reaching.

Much has already been written about Gwen’s extraordinary career. A few highlights include: moderating two vice-presidential debates, being part of the first all-female anchor team, and on Wednesday she would have been the first African American to receive the Columbia Journalism School’s John Chancellor Award.

But I want to take a moment to explain what she meant to some of us beyond her résumé.

Gwen was one of the greatest journalists working, but her contributions were not limited to her reporting.

She spoke openly of the racism she endured early in her career, and endure she did, ultimately climbing the ladder in our profession, and with every rung opening doors in media that all black women working today have walked through, myself included.

Her trailblazing extended beyond race. When women of color finally began securing on-air opportunities, many fit a certain mold early on. They were often lighter skinned, or had more Eurocentric features. Consider news legends Sue Simmons, Carole Simpson, and Dana Tyler—all stellar journalists in their own right whom I admire immensely. Their appearances, however, appealed to white standards of beauty. Gwen’s skin color, and trademark short do’ and the enormous acclaim she enjoyed, sent a message to all of us who aspired to follow in her footsteps that we could succeed based on the quality of our work and our work alone—even if we didn’t have fair skin or a tiny nose. (I have neither.)

But perhaps her greatest contribution was in showing us that you could maintain a career rooted in work with integrity. In an age when all of us working in this field feel pressure to worry about how many clicks or tweets something we write or say will get, we always knew Gwen was ultimately worried about things like truth and accuracy. Though our industry and the world changed—into one in which the Kardashians were deemed 60 Minutes worthy, and a reality-show host deemed president-elect—her standards never did change. Neither did the quality of her journalism. I know I am not the only person who felt that on those days that people poked at our profession like a piñata—often with good reason, particularly this election year—she was one of the beacons of light that made us proud, but also helped keep us accountable.

Though I didn’t know Gwen well, she showed me a measure of kindness throughout my career that was not only a hallmark of her character but a testament to her generosity of spirit. I first met her shortly after I had begun appearing on television. I told her how much I admired her. She could not have been more gracious, took the time to chat, and I finally mustered up the courage to ask her if she had any career advice.

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SOURCE: The Daily Beast – Keli Goff