Editor’s note: Students in ThreeSixty Journalism’s Rookie Journalist Camp in June spent time writing a Q-and-A story about guest speakers who visited camp. Check ThreeSixty.stthomas.edu for more of these profiles, as well as student blogs.
“If I hadn’t witnessed for myself all these different voices and people who have certain perspectives about the world, I wouldn’t be the journalist I am today.”
Doualy Xaykaothao is a woman of a thousand stories.
Xaykaothao (pronounced “sigh-kow-tao), a correspondent for Minnesota Public Radio who covers race and culture, has been around the world reporting on many topics, including protests in South Korea, inequality in Nepal, an earthquake in Japan and the government of her home country of Laos.
Xaykaothao, who was born in Vientiane, Laos, and raised in France and Texas, attended college in upstate New York, where she specialized in television, radio, political science and ethnic studies. As a Hmong reporter in the U.S., she is a pioneer. She’s been a journalist in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Portland and Dallas, as well as in Asia for a decade.
When Xaykaothao spoke in June at ThreeSixty Journalism, she was animated, optimistic and passionate. She focused her conversation on what led her into a career in journalism, her life as a reporter and how her experiences have impacted her. And she shared a lot of stories.
Q: How did your experiences in different environments have an impact on issues you’ve reported?
Xaykaothao: Huge. Huge impact. If I never went overseas, just for me speaking personally, If I did not see for myself the kind of things that were happening where I reported from, I would not be as good as I am, and I don’t say that with an ego.
… For me, when you hear the perspective of someone else, when you go to a country and you hear people talk about America, it’s very different from hearing people talking about America in America, in the U.S. … If I hadn’t witnessed for myself all these different voices and people who have certain perspectives about the world, I wouldn’t be the journalist I am today.
… It’s a tough balance to make, but I absolutely believe that you have to get out of your comfort zone, basically. That’s the bottom line of this story. If you live in a particular neighborhood, get the hell out. Go and find out what it’s like to be over here and over there, and then come back and say, “Hey, you know what? I’ve learned a thing or two, and let’s at least hear from this person. I may not agree with this person, but I want to know where they’re coming from.” For me, my experience overseas helped me to really come back and appreciate what we have in the U.S.
Q: What events or thoughts led you to become a reporter?
Xaykaothao: For me, it was my mother not speaking English.
… My mom was just laid off from a company in north Texas. … She had worked there for 10 years. They laid her off – she says it’s because she got carpal tunnel from using a particular scissor for ten years. They said, “No, no, no. It’s just arthritis.”
She can’t fight it. She doesn’t know how to fight it. She doesn’t know how to address this legally … The point is, she can’t fight for herself, she can’t say, “Well, you know, it’s because I used this particular scissors for 10 years and this is what happened.” And she had to go only to the company doctors and their clinic, so of course they’re going to say it’s not carpal tunnel, right? So she’s got no benefits, she’s out of a job.
That’s so real for so many people in this country, right? They’re denied certain things, and how does that happen? So it was my own mom’s inability to be able to get access to certain things.
… I get to where I am today out of struggle. Out of being denied certain things.
Q: In your bio, we read that you studied political science and African-American studies. How did that help you with your skills being a reporter?
Xaykaothao: … I was the first Asian American student to receive a scholarship from the Dallas chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. Montell Williams handed me a $1,000 check from the group. Why? Because even as a young reporter, I knew the importance of reporting about minorities and those who didn’t look like me.
You don’t have to be the same skin color, but if you can take the time to try to figure out where somebody else is coming from, then you are a little bit better off than the reporter next to you who doesn’t get, for example, where a Somali-American family came from. Who isn’t going to be disrespectful about certain things when they go into some place to try to interview someone.
I guess what I’m saying is that, those African-American studies courses, those political science courses, whatever classes they were, as important as they were, at the end of the day, it was about my friendships with people around me, who didn’t look like me.
… Our history, as people of color, goes back decades. And it is your duty as a person of color to get back into that history and to see where these relationships connected and how these communities come together.
This transcript has been edited to length and content.