When Roz Abrams started out in the early 1980s as a young broadcast journalist, she was mentored by the likes of pioneer Belva Davis, the first black television and radio journalist on the West Coast.
As a result, Abrams went on to scale great heights in the broadcast field, including working at CNN as a reporter-anchor at its inception, becoming the first African-American female journalist to join WABC-TV, as well as being the second anchorwoman of color in the New York City television market, among other achievements.
Today the broadcast veteran is retired at 65 and spends her days as a mentor and philanthropist—both her ways of repaying the help she received on the way up the career ladder, she told The Root during a recent interview.
Abrams was on hand Wednesday to speak at Queens Gateway to Health Sciences Secondary School in Queens, N.Y., which kicked off the fifth annual Back to School With the HistoryMakers program. The HistoryMakers, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization, helps to raise awareness about the achievements of African Americans around the country.
“I’m a HistoryMaker, and one of the things that they insist upon is that we go out into the community once a year for the Back to School program and reach out to the kids, explain to them that I did well because I received help from giants, and that my shoulders are available to them for whatever they want to do,” she said before the program. “I also tell them it’s hard work.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan chaired the nationwide volunteer program involving more than 400 black leaders in an effort to touch the lives of students in 61 cities and 30 states. Participants included former New York State Comptroller and civic leader H. Carl McCall, Atlanta-based celebrity chef Daryl Shular, New York State Supreme Court Judge Debra James and Florence LaRue, a member of the popular 1960s group the Fifth Dimension.
According to recent statistics, most students at Gateway are already on the road to achievement. Last year students at the mostly black school of 804 students boasted rates of 92.2 percent for graduation and 89.8 percent for college enrollment.
Abrams, wearing a black dress and a shimmering multicolored jacket, spoke before a packed auditorium of 11th- and 12th-graders. She regaled them with tales of her assignments, from interviewing celebrities like Oprah Winfrey to covering nuclear disasters.
She also used journalism exercises to test their critical-thinking skills. One scenario involved a television journalist who received a tip about an Ebola vaccine that results in death. Should the reporter, sworn to secrecy by the tipster, run with the story or investigate it and then air it? Most students decided it should be investigated first.
“It’s important to think before you act and speak,” she told students after the exercise. “Just because someone tells you something doesn’t make it so. The homework you do now is just the beginning. There are no shortcuts to success. You have to be committed to doing the best job.”
Among those who heard her message were Taylor Edwards, 17, the 12th-grade student body president, and Kareem Moore, an 11th-grader in the New York City Public Schools’ college-readiness program Urban Ambassadors. Both reside in Queens.
“I learned that her experiences really made her who she is,” said Taylor, who is considering attending an HBCU or the University of Buffalo to study to become a guidance counselor. “She made it interesting, like, ‘Wow, you went through that?’ It’s amazing. I might want to do that. She was inspiring.”
Kareem, 16, said Abrams helped to highlight the diversity of professions open to students. He hopes to go on to medical school to become an anesthesiologist. “I enjoyed her talk,” he said. “In this school, we focus on the medical program, but she showed a different perspective. You can lean towards law or the media and still be part of the medical program.”
When Abrams isn’t busy with the HistoryMakers, the resident of Westchester County, N.Y., who grew up in Lansing, Mich., stays active as a tutor and philanthropist. In 2011 she agreed to underwrite full-tuition scholarships at the City University of New York’s CUNY Graduate School of Journalism for one student each year for 10 years. Recipients, called Roz Abrams Scholars, are selected with an eye toward diversifying journalism.
“I literally give out scholarships because there are so many kids today who cannot afford to go to college,” she told The Root. “I give scholarships to CUNY in my name for my legacy. I did well, I love the business and I want to make sure that 10 more get in there, even though the business is changing.”
Julieanna Richardson, founder and executive director of the HistoryMakers, said it’s important for young people to hear success stories like Abrams’. “The description of the journey is as important as the journey itself,” she said. “Young people need to see themselves in other people’s stories. We’re trying to broaden the reference of African-American achievement. We want to show there are thousands of trailblazers, and this program is one way to do that.”
Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root. The New York-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.