Faces of NPR HBCU Edition: Ayesha Rascoe
Faces Of NPR showcases the people behind NPR--from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. This month is special – we are featuring HBCU alum at NPR for Black History Month. The final Faces of NPR HBCU Edition goes to Ayesha Rascoe, White House Correspondent and Howard University Alum.
Name: Ayesha Rascoe
Title: White House Correspondent
HBCU: Howard University
Twitter Handle: @AyeshaRascoe
Where you're from: Durham, NC
You've covered three different presidents. What has been the most interesting part and the most rewarding?
The most amazing part for me had just been getting the opportunity to do it. I always wanted to be a journalist, since middle school. And pretty much every journalism opportunity that I ever could take, I did. But I never saw myself at the White House. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I never saw myself doing that.
I recognize now that when I first started out and was working at Reuters, news assistants would help out in what they call the "White House pool." So basically you do those things that the White House reporters don't want to do, like sitting in a van all day. But, I really liked it, and it was a big deal. And it was a big deal to my family to say I rode in the motorcade with the President, but I never thought that I could be a "real" White House reporter.
I really have been able to cover three White Houses, and I've been able to ride on Air Force One, and ask questions, and cover two impeachments. And to be in that space has been an enormous blessing and an enormous honor.
Also, my ultimate goal is always to tell stories that matter to people, and to allow people to tell their stories. And so being at the White House and being able to go out and talk to people and allow them to tell their stories or give a new outlook on things — that's what I am most happy about.
Wow, that's amazing. I'm sure you're so proud of yourself and your family is so proud of you, too. Has politics always been your beat, or are you just now getting into this?
It has not always been my beat. I mean, in a way. I've been based in D.C. my whole professional career, pretty much. So being in D.C., I've always covered policy. I've not always covered strictly politics, though, and that makes a difference.
I covered energy policy for many, many years. So that's what I got my start doing, for Reuters. I covered the BP oil spill and the rise of hydraulic fracturing, LNG exports and the Shell gas boom. And I covered how policy affected what was going to happen at the gas pump, what was going to happen with companies who use these energy sources, the kind of cars you drive, climate... all of those things.
I got into covering the White House after I covered energy and environmental legal issues. But I spent many years covering policy in D.C.: covering the Hill, covering what was happening at the White House related to energy.
I always say, if you can cover policy, like Congress and the agencies, the White House follows the same principles.
That makes sense. How do you think Howard prepared you for these moments?
Well, you know, first I got to say, you a Howard grad?
OK, HU HU!
So first I got to say, you know, a lot of people may read this and they may think, "oh, Howard people, you are so stuck up, you think you're all that." And the fact is, we do. We do. But we can back it up. At Howard, I just learned so much about life. You know, I was raised in North Carolina, so for me, when I came to Howard, I hadn't been to a city. Sometimes I would go during the summers, but I hadn't lived long term in a city, and I had very sheltered teenage years. I didn't have friends. I wasn't going places. I wasn't doing anything. So Howard was really a culture shock for me.
What I learned, though, was there are all sorts of Black people. We are not monolithic. If you ever doubted the fact that Black people live many and varied and human lives, at Howard you see how different people's lives can be and the different points of views.
I also learned about the importance of knowing history and context. I also learned about the importance of coming correct — because at Howard, you cannot half step. They will come for you with the quickness. So I learned that If you're going to do something, you need to do it correctly. You need to come at it properly and with integrity because there is somebody ready to call you out.
I also learned a lot about journalism because I was Editor in Chief of The Hilltop. The Hilltop was my life. I learned about how you tell stories and the importance of the way we tell stories.
I learned about managing people and how you can't play with people's money. No matter how little, how small the amount of money is, it means something to somebody. I had a professor who was over the journalism department, Professor Phillip Dixon, and he said, "No matter what you do, you cannot play with people's money." And I have taken that with me my entire life.
So those are just some of the things that I learned and, you know, friendships that I made. There was a lot that I learned from Howard.
What made you decide to go to Howard?
Like I said, I grew up mostly in Durham, North Carolina, and so I wanted to get away from home. I wanted to go out of state, and that was my goal in life. I was ready to go and get out of the house and I wanted to go to the city. I had always grown up in the South, but I felt in my heart that I really wasn't a country girl. I was really meant to be in the city. Which is funny now because like, I'm not very "city", but I just wanted to get away.
I always knew that to me, Howard was just such a high profile school — it is the Mecca. But I had never been. I had applied. I got in, but I'd never been. And so I got my mom and her best friend and my little sister, and they took me up to Howard. And to put this how far back this was, this was during the D.C. sniper time. My mom was already afraid to send me to DC. So then she was like, "I don't think we need to go up there because that sniper is up there." And I was like, "No mama, we can go, we trust in the Lord, He will keep up safe." So I convinced her, because she was trying to call the trip off. But we went up there anyway, and it was kind of a rainy, cloudy day, but I stood on The Yard. I probably saw them Deltas: it was a Friday, they were out there on the yard doing their stroll, and I just saw the people, I saw the energy, and I was like, "Oh, this is where I want to be."
I was intimidated, but I was just like, "Oh, I gotta go here. This is where I want to be. This is it." And the rest is history.
The rest is history. I love it. It sounds like when you got to Howard, it felt like home. Is that similar to how you felt when you got to NPR? Or was it a little different?
Well, you know, when I got to Howard, I was young and new. And when I got to NPR, I had a long career at Reuters that was really like my home. Because I grew up there, I went there right after college, and I was there for a decade.
So when I got into NPR, I knew who I was more and I had more of a sense of what I wanted to do. What surprised me about NPR was just like, NPR has like this very nice culture. You know, people talk about it, but they do have a nice culture, which is different from what I've experienced in other places. They gave me a balloon, and you get a free cookie on the last day of your first week. They had all these trainings, and it was just a very welcoming place, people were very nice.
And so I will say that over time, I felt like people welcomed me, especially the audience. They really embraced me early on, in a way that amazed me. Working for a wire service is not really necessarily about your name. But then when you work in radio and work for NPR, people really feel like they know you, and people really feel a connection to you. And so for me, that's been one of the things that made me feel so welcome, is that the people really embraced me. The audience really embraced me.
What do you think is something that you could get at NPR that you couldn't get anywhere else?
At NPR, you get a steep history and a bond and a loyalty that I don't think you get anywhere else from the audience and from the people that work here. I took this from Domenico Montanaro, who I work with. He pointed out: People carry around NPR totebags and bumper stickers and walk around with NPR t-shirts. That doesn't happen with other news organizations. People really rep for NPR. There is a pride that comes with being at NPR.
There is a love and affection for NPR that I think that you don't necessarily find in other places. And then that's also built, like I said, from the audience who are so loyal, and they want to have the totebags and the socks and the quilt. It means something. And the people at NPR take it very seriously. They take this work very seriously.
How did you think that they were going to respond to you versus how they actually did?
So I didn't really listen to NPR before I got to NPR. This is the truth. I knew NPR was a very great place and that they were very respected. But I didn't really listen to them that much. So honestly — and I think this is probably the best thing for me — I didn't really think too much about what the audience of NPR was.
I was just like, "OK, you hired me, Thank you, Jesus! I am going to come in. I'm going to do my work. I'm just put on the White House. You got a podcast? I'll talk on the podcast. You have questions? I will answer them." That's the way I approached it, because I really didn't have a sense of what the audience might have been expecting. And so it wasn't until people started reacting to the sound of my voice that I started realizing there's some people who are noticing that maybe I don't sound like everyone else. But I didn't know that when I started, and I think that was very good because I didn't get a complex about it and I was just like doing me.
Yes, there have been some haters, but the vast majority of the responses that I have gotten at NPR from the audience have been really, really good, really, really kind, and really warm. And so that has meant the world to me, that I have felt like I was accepted as I am.
I'm really happy that they responded well to you. What has been your favorite story to date?
Two of my favorite stories about the White House that I did and I've talked about a lot are looking at President Trump's tweets about Black people and then looking at President Trump's tweets about lawmakers of color. Those were very long analytical pieces, and I felt like I was able to add something you couldn't find in other places that really looked at the way Trump talks about people and the significance of it. Those are the serious ones.
And this one was also serious. I did it more recently, and I really loved it. I did it for It's Been A Minute. I did something on the Black hair experience, which is an exhibit in D.C. and other places, but an exhibit on just Black hair. And we went and we talked to people about how long they've stayed in salons, and their favorite hairstyles, and what they want people to know about Black hair. I was able to talk about growing up and getting my hair done every day and getting a relaxer, and just kind of the complexities of Black hair, in a joyful way. I loved being able to tell that story, to show a part of myself and show something that a lot of people found very familiar. And even people who didn't find it familiar. I had people write me like, "I'm a bald-headed white man, but I really love that story about Black hair."
But another story that I did was fun: I went to Japan with Trump, and while I was there, I covered the World Sumo Championship. And it was amazing. I got to see the sumo wrestlers, and we were in there and you had the people screaming, and it was just like the sound of it, like, I just had so much fun. I loved that. Being able to do that in Japan, going to the sumo wrestling competition, it was basically like their Super Bowl that we got to go to. It was amazing. So it wasn't a big story. But I loved that. I always think of it. It was one of my favorite things to do.
That sounds really cool. You know, the Black hair piece was actually so beautiful.
How would you describe your journey?
That's a loaded question. This is what I do want to say – my journey has not been a straight path. And I've actually been thinking about it a lot lately. Because I think that people may look at me and they may go, "You've done all of this. You knew all along didn't you?" And, no, I did not. I want to be very clear. No, I did not.
I started out in journalism. I always wanted to do it. There were times when I was really adrift. I didn't know what I was going to do next. There were times where I thought about leaving journalism to maybe do communications earlier on in my career. I applied for jobs, but nobody hired me. So that's how I ended up staying.
Truth be told, I didn't know what journalism had for me. There was a time when I was thinking: "I don't know if this is a good fit for me. Did I make the right choice? Maybe I should think about some other things." There were some things that I believed about myself that probably weren't true. I was better at things than I realized. And then there were other things that I was just growing at. Sometimes you don't know what you offer can be of benefit, and you don't know the value of what you offer. And so here I am at 36, and I'm still figuring out what I offer and what I'm good at.
So for those people out there who may not have a five-point plan, who may not have it all figured out – let me tell you, I am you, and you are me. You don't have to have it all figured out. And sometimes, as cliche as it sounds, you have to figure out how you can bring yourself to a space in a way that can help and lift everyone around you. And so if you can find that space where, "I am being myself and bringing my passions and what I'm good at, and then I'm able to use that and bring that to everybody else in a way that lifts them," then you got something there. And so that's been my journey, and I'm still figuring it out.
So I do what I do for the people that don't know what they gone do next. That's who I rock with.
I'm actually just really curious to know, do your kids listen to you? What do they think about hearing you on the radio?
They do see me sometimes. They know that I'm at the White House and they will say, "My mom is at the White House." They see me on TV sometimes, too.
I would ask my son, do you know what I do? He said, "Well, you talk about stuff, and then you talk about it some more, and you talk about Trump." That's pretty much what I do.
They've been on the radio. I think they do think it's normal, because they've been on It's Been A Minute. They made guest appearances on The NPR Politics Podcast. They do like to hear themselves on the radio. And so I think they think that's kind of normal.
And they really liked when we did 'take your kid to work' day. They loved it. And so they're always asking to go back to NPR. And they also saw Sesame Street that same year on Tiny Desk. So they associate NPR with like, "Oh, so can I go back to your job and see Bert and Ernie and see Sesame Street?" So they just feel like NPR is like a wonderland. I do it for them. They are my joy. And my husband. They are my joy. It's great.
They probably think you have the coolest job in the world.