I was five or six and recall being in a laundromat, but mom believes it was at a grocery store. The alleged transgression is forgotten by us both, but each remembers her towering over me index finger wagging demanding, “Who do you think you are?” I replied, “John Jioni Palmer.”
Four decades later I am still that boy, but also much more. I am a son, husband, father and eldest grandchild; storyteller, chef, leader and coach—to name a few. Each day I breathe, I endeavor to be my best at who I am, while also nurturing the desire to explore and develop new ways of being and doing.
A Unique Lens
Freshman year I took a multidisciplinary course called “LA In Transition.” Over the quarter, we examined the past, present and future of Los Angeles. Each week a different professor offered a view of the city through a unique lens.
That class altered me inside out. I saw cities for more than assorted neighborhoods of denizens, but places full of rich textures. I began to see the connection between phenomena—how my environment shaped me and me it. Binary thinking gave way to adroit analysis, as I pondered how the intersectionality of economics, race, gender, psychological and spiritual among others influence individual behavior—my own included—and collective action in a particular milieu.
Today, it seems so simple, but at the time, it was a profoundly new way of problem solving. That course in particular, but the overall arch of my studies at UCLA stoked my interests in understanding the many threads that when woven together, shape how people behave. It is the paradigm undergirding me both personally and professionally. Whether covering New Orleans post Katrina, coalition building on Capitol Hill, developing retirement security policy for the Obama Administration or coaching employees, recognizing the factors at play is vital.
Each day I breathe, I endeavor to be my best at who I am, while also nurturing the desire to explore and develop new ways of being and doing.
The fabric of my life laces a pattern that tells a different story depending on the thread examined. The only child of a single-mother, who dropped out of college to get married, nodded off during meals exhausted from working two jobs to pay for Catholic school and little league. Against the backdrop of the crack wars and the dawn of the Hip Hop age, I watched mom attend school intermittently for 10-years, finally receiving her bachelor’s degree when I was a college freshman and a Masters of Social Work four years later.
I am the son of a father, who didn’t meet his own until he was 22 after growing up physically abused by his step, who quit college to “become a man” in the Vietnam-era Army. The next 25 years he traveled the globe seeing his only son thrice. He married four times in a quarter century, but obtained his bachelors, law degree and a Masters of Social Work in his 30s.
Additionally, I was raised by a Nigerian stepdad whose father died in the Biafran War. As his son, I was immersed in Igbo culture and the richness of the African Diaspora from spiritual expressions to culinary traditions.
Each vignette tells a separate story about my parents but also about me. Their imprinting—positively and negatively—lay the foundational narratives. Understanding my career trajectory is also vital.
On June 28th, 1999, I walked into Newsday’s sprawling newsroom a summer intern. Days earlier mom and I left our hometown of Berkeley, California in my used white Ford Escort traversing our nation from ocean to ocean. Eight and a half years later would leave a Congressional Correspondent having covered power politics at the highest level.
But that first week I remember most. I wrote more stories about fatal car accidents and obituaries than I thought possible. Many were departed souls younger than my own. I cried every night, for them and their families, and from self-doubt. I questioned if I had the fortitude and temperament to handle the emotional rigor, or if I could compete with the other interns and their Ivy League pedigrees.
I chose to persevere, in part because I was more afraid to fail, but also because I was given a chance that others, dead and alive, would not. That week is not one I would want to relive but I am thankful I did. It serves a powerful reminder of my call to give voice to the voiceless and to seize each opportunity.