Karen Attiah Is the 'Warrior of Diversity' Channeling Journalism Into Activism
We spoke with Nigerian-Ghanaian journalist, Karen Attiah, about the importance of elevating African narratives in mainstream media.
This feature is in conjunction with our inaugural list—“OkayAfrica’s 100 Women”—where we take a look at the women making an impact on the African continent and in the diaspora.
Check out the biggest names in culture to young up-and-comers in "OkayAfrica's 100 Women" list here.
Loaded with weighty nuances on international development, politics, race relations and new media, Karen Attiah’s work has galvanized audiences across the nation, the African continent and the diaspora, to engage in meaningful conversations and discover opportunities to participate in change in their communities. Attiah is the global opinions editor at the Washington Post and has worked as a freelance reporter for the Associated Press, Huffington Post, Sahara Reporters and several other notable news outlets. She has a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University.
Attiah flirted with the idea of becoming a lawyer as a teenager. And a real appreciation for the profession she so diligently practices today, came in the latter part of pursuing a bachelor’s in communication studies at Northwestern University. But one thing that’s remained constant through the years, bringing an extra measure of production to the work she does, is her identity, both as the daughter of immigrants and as a woman.
Attiah was born in Desoto, Texas to a Nigerian-Ghanaian mother and Ghanaian father. The chances of running into someone that looked like her in the small suburb of Dallas were low. All the same, Attiah relished every moment of growing up there. She recalls raiding her father’s library at the age of 8, just to waddle around with a stock of theories, proving she would one day become the successful lawyer, doctor or engineer that almost every African parent dreams of. When school was out for the summer, Attiah and her family would set out for the homeland, where she’d then spend weeks catching up with family and indulging in all things Ghanaian.
Attiah was one of three girls in her graduating high school class: “There was a lot of pressure to deliver and to perform well. If we had basketball games, we all had to make sure we stayed healthy and kept our grades up because we couldn’t afford to lose someone on the team otherwise we wouldn’t have a season.”
The D.C.-based journalist often speaks of her craft as more than just fact finding. In this age of technology, it is a vehicle for digital activism and collaboration between storytellers everywhere. In 2008, a fresh graduate, Attiah began working out this idea as a Fulbright scholar. For a year, she studied and reported on the role that radio played in Ghana’s 2008 elections. She says she really enjoyed watching how Ghanaian journalists work and admired how resilient they were.
In more recent years, she’s weaved this idea into her dissections of controversial topics—including the lack of hashtag awareness on social media for northeastern Nigeria’s starving population, how Western media can adequately report on violent extremism in northeastern Nigeria when the nation’s leadership needs to do a better job of monitoring what’s going on, why the U.S. continues to deem Tanzania as a beacon of transparency despite the government’s attempts to muffle the media, and looking into what’s going on with Ethiopia’s Zone 9 bloggers.
In an effort to answer some of these questions, Attiah has teamed up with local journalists and free speech activists.
She shares the results on one occasion:
“We ran an op-ed and video about Feyisa Lilesa, the Ethiopian Olympic runner, who made the protest sign in Rio. And we allowed him to tell his story about why he did it, how he was feeling about the safety of his family, and he spoke in his native language, Oromo. The response was huge. I didn’t realize how much he meant to the Oromo community and how much people could relate to him even though he was a celebrity. Some people told me just hearing Oromo on a mainstream media outlet made them cry. At that moment, it was beyond me and it was just extremely gratifying to know that we were doing good.”
Though Attiah says that sometimes it can be toxic to be a women of color in online news (because internet trolls), as a mentor, she still encourages young women from the continent and diaspora to assume the role of “warriors for diversity” in the global media landscape. For her, it comes down to this, “It’s my purpose and who else is going to counter that flat, one-dimensional narrative that I don’t like?”
But for now, something’s definitely being done right and Attiah would love to see more of it. “One thing that the continent is good at is hashtag levity, which captures the attention of the entire world,” Attiah says. “When straight up hilarious hashtags like #IfAfricaWasASchool come up, I think it’s a smart and light-hearted way of talking about geopolitical issues we have and educating the rest of the world.”
Here’s to hearing more from the Siyanda Moutsiwas, Ophebia Quist-Arctons and Tolu Ogunlesis of our time.