The Moment NPR's Kenya Young Found Her Calling
WORDS: JACQUELINE LARA
What do you do when you find yourself rising on a career path that no longer makes you happy? Kenya Young risked it all to pursue her calling, even if it meant being older than her bosses.
Before she joined National Public Radio as a producer and editor in 2007, Kenya Young was plotting how to leave corporate America behind and start anew with her husband and two toddlers in tow. “Look,” she tells mater mea from NPR’s new office in Washington, D.C. “If I have to leave my children, and if I’m going to go back to work, then I’m going to do what I know I love, and that’s journalism.”
That love—and her enthusiasm for seeking the unknown—has helped her produce captivating stories for NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country. Young, who was recently promoted to supervising editor on Morning Edition in September 2014, has been a producer on several NPR programs, including News & Notes, Day To Day, Weekend All Things Considered, Tell Me More, and Talk of The Nation. She’s been part of election coverage teams, the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and live coverage of the Sandy Hook school shootings and the Boston Marathon bombing.
For all her achievements—including being wife to art educator Everett and mother of two boys Lance and Bryce (11 and 8 respectively)—Young says she couldn’t have obtained her coveted career without her village. “I had mentors at work speak up for me, and they weren’t afraid to dish out tough love.” she explains. “And I would not be where I am in this company without my husband’s and family’s support.”
Young spoke with mater mea about her unconventional career path, her perspective on whether women can have it all, and her advice to working moms.
Tell us how you got your start in journalism.
I minored in journalism with a focus on print at the University of Notre Dame, but ended up working as a film publicist for Rogers & Cowan straight out of college. After five years, I was tired of celebrities and entertainment, so I began temping in the financial industry. I was thriving and working full-time at Jackson National Life Insurance Company. I had just gotten married, and was going to grad school at University of Boulder, Colorado for journalism, but then I got pregnant. The drive between Boulder and Denver was too much, so I quit grad school in my last trimester. I was 29 when Lance was born in September 2003, and three months later we moved to Los Angeles, California for more family support. It was our first child, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I needed my momma!
Oddly enough, it’s motherhood that brought me back to journalism. I was home for 18 months with my first son when I discovered I was pregnant again. (Laughs) About a year after my second son was born, I was back in grad school for broadcast journalism at Cal State Northridge, and fell in love with radio during an internship at Clear Channel’s KOST 103.5 FM’s Mark and Kim Morning Show. When I walked into that studio I said, “Oh my God, this is it.” I absolutely felt it. Then, thanks to a homework assignment to listen to NPR for 30 minutes a day, I learned of its internship program. I applied, and secured a position with News & Notes. As a mother of two in my 30s with more than 10 years corporate work, I wasn’t the typical intern.
How did you use your unconventional background to your advantage?
NPR West is a significantly smaller office, but at that time  there were two full shows run out of there and half of Morning Edition. There were lots of older adults in the building, and not a lot of interns. NPR West was also unique at that time in that many of the hosts were female, some were mothers, and the majority of staff on News & Notes were black. I was on a show with Farai Chideya and other smart, like-minded people that it didn’t bother me that I was older than my executive producer. (Laughs) I didn’t have to be a millennial or teen or college student, and it actually worked in my favor not to be. There was something to be said about my prior work experience. It was the ramp up year for the 2008 elections, and News & Notes needed an elections coordinator. I seized the opportunity, and was hired on for this role.
Oddly enough, it’s motherhood that brought me back to journalism.
If you had to describe yourself in one word what would it be, and how has that characteristic separated you from the pack?
Efficient. That’s the only way I’m able to get by on any given day. (Laughs) I’m efficient when it comes to my work, and I’m efficient when it comes to my home. People always ask me, “How do you do it?” when they see me taking on all these projects. Here’s what I say: “I do what I do because I love doing it. I’m a producer, and I’m not just a producer at work. I’m a producer of all things.” I produce a series on youth unemployment, I produce a huge newsmaker interview or a beautiful music interview…those same skills, I use with almost everything in my life. This includes Mocha Moms, Inc., the school carnival, PTA, and ridiculous birthday parties. (Laughs)
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
The schedule—I work really odd shifts. And also never completely unplugging. It’s a horrible habit, but I usually sleep with my phone under my pillow or on the nightstand. The first thing I do when I wake up is check my phone for how many emails I have—if it’s 28, I think, “Cool, it’s a regular news day.” If it’s 133, I say, “What the heck happened last night?” and immediately turn on CNN. I really love what I do, and think Morning Edition does great work, so it’s hard to not give more than what I already do quite honestly. It’s a challenge for me to say, “You have a family, it’s time to go home.” I have to censor myself from how much work I want to do.
What advice would you give to working moms?
Know your value, speak up more, and learn the rules of negotiation. This is a skill, and as women, we need to ask for more when it comes to promotions and offers. If your parents didn’t teach you these skills, seek out mentors and resources.
You've described yourself as a “kids’ ADHD conqueror.” Can you tell us about your experience with ADHD?
My oldest son is ADHD Inattentive and my youngest son is ADHD Hyperactive. I surely haven’t figured out or conquered ADHD, but I am an advocate for my kids, and that’s part of the conquering. One son takes medication, but I saw that it wasn’t working for the other, so I said, “We’re not going to do this anymore. We’re going to have to figure out other ways to get him through [this].” I’ve got amazing support for them at their schools, which makes a huge difference, but I fought for that. At their previous school, they were getting labeled and it was a toxic environment, so we yanked them out of there. I stand up for them. We haven’t mastered being parents of kids with ADHD, and sometimes it drives me crazy, and they drive me crazy, but we’re getting there. (Laughs)
What’s the toughest thing about raising two sons?
Definitely raising them to be sensitive and compassionate young boys without being too soft. I have a child who is highly sensitive and emotional, and does cry about a lot of stuff. There’s a fine line between saying, “Stop crying so much” [and] saying, “It’s okay to cry.” That’s really difficult. But, I do tell them “I need you to be a strong black man. You hold your head high. You keep your shoulders up. Don’t let me see you slouch because someone told you something that hurt your feelings. You are a proud black boy in this country, and you will not let anyone take that away from you.”
What is your hope for your sons?
This has changed so much over the years, especially as we’ve learned more about them and their strengths and challenges. My hope is that they become productive members of society, figure out their calling, and remain joyful and loving.
Jacqueline Lara resides in Silver Spring, Maryland with her husband and two young sons. As a PR consultant, she develops messaging and conducts media relations for nonprofits, artists, and entrepreneurs. Lara also explores creative processes and blogs about the intersection of art and business.