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Faces of NPR: Neda Ulaby

Neda Ulaby.
Doby Photography
Doby Photography
Neda Ulaby.

Faces Of NPR showcase 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 week, we feature Neda Ulaby, the Art Correspondent at NPR.

The Basics:

Name: Neda Ulaby

Twitter Handle: @Ulabeast

Job Title: Art Correspondent

Where You're From: Amman, Jordan

What do you do for NPR?

I am an Arts Correspondent. I cover Arts and Culture for National Public Radio.

How long have you been at NPR?

My official anniversary was almost 21 years ago but I actually started almost 22 years ago as a temp.

I'm hearing that a lot of people started as temps and stayed forever.

Sommer, the best people started as temps.

What has kept you:

Fear, paralysis, no one else will love me.

I always say you haven't really worked at NPR until you've worked in 2 buildings, you've worked overnight or a catastrophe, or been laid off at least once. AND final thing, you've worked for a show that no longer exists.

But the real reason I stayed for 20 years was my second job on the arts desk. I started as a temporary production assistant and the minute I walked into that space, I was home. I've been home ever since.

What made you feel at home?

When I first got to NPR, my first two bosses were not college graduates. They're two of the smartest people I've ever met. I think that used to be more true of newsrooms generally that amazing, idiosyncratic people could find their way into journalism without necessarily having gone to college. I think that's changed pretty much across the board. But NPR at the time was a much funkier place. My boss had been a Black Panther. I had an editor who was legally blind. We were still cutting audio tape with razor blades in those days and she did it by feel and by ears. Just watching her cut tape was amazing. People were passionate and odd, dysfunctional sometimes — but they loved what they did and cared about it deeply. I landed in a place I had been preparing for my whole life.

How did that preparation look?

Oh, like spending a lot of time reading nerdy books in public libraries. Watching American Stages on PBS instead of Laverne and Shirley like a normal child in the 70s. I would get these books that were like "great American plays of 1952" and that was the kind of stuff I liked to read when I was a little kid. It was all prep. With that said, if someone had said to me, "You know what, we got a really good job being a production assistant on the science desk," I would've been like, "LET ME BONE UP."

A little bit about your background — you said that your mother is a U.S. citizen but your father is from Syria.

I was born in Amman, Jordan, in 1970, to my father, a Syrian national, and my mother, a white girl from a military base in El Paso, Texas. And I didn't actually find out until I was [almost] 30 that my father wasn't my biological father. I grew up in a Muslim/Catholic/Arab/Irish melange. When I was born, a war was happening, so we moved from Jordan to Syria, from Syria to Beirut, and then another war so we moved to Lawrence, Kansas. All of our friends were Arabs and Iranians who were also there because there was a university there. I was surrounded by immigrants like my father and the immigrants in our family. I grew up in a very immigrant community.

How was your experience coming out to your parents?

The first girlfriend that I ever brought home was such a sweetie pie, she was irresistible. You couldn't not want to be around her. She was my gay ambassador.

AIDS had just destroyed so many families with gay people in them, at the time many parents were still kind of like, "You can't have kids, can you? You can't live a normal life, can you?" This means you're condemned to a terrible outsider existence. Some of my mother's hesitations were not about the moral depravity of my "choice." It was that she didn't want me to not have full civil rights, which gay people at the time didn't have. She didn't want me to be gay bashed in the streets, which felt like a much more common and scary thing. It's not like it doesn't happen now — it happens — but at the time, walking down the street, holding hands with your girlfriend, it didn't matter where you were, it could be NYC, and outside of certain neighborhoods, you were just asking for negative attention.

How do you feel like NPR has supported you with your experience as a person in the LGBTQ+ community?

One of the things I love is that it's been a place that pushed and challenged itself. It's a company that had the first first female solo woman hosting a show. It's a place where I've always been very proud to work here. As soon as I got to NPR when I was 29, there was a real Lavender Mafia. And by Mafia I'm making us sound so much more important and dangerous. It was like middle aged people in Birkenstock's, both men and women, that was the Lavender Mafia. They gathered me in and they made me feel safe.

The newspaper I worked for in Chicago, someone had attacked it a few years before I started working there. They came and vandalized it. Some homophobic assailant. On one hand, LGBT rights have changed so much since those days, but things like the Pulse nightclub still happen. Trans kids are still being discriminated against and targeted in ways that are really upsetting. The sense of outrage does feel familiar to me and I'm a fan of it. I'm a big fan of that rage. As journalists we have to be thoughtful about the platforms and the ways we express our outrage, the ways in which we're going to do it, the responsibilities we have to the places where we work. I worked for an LGBT newspaper where my mission was to serve my community, and for NPR where the mission is different and I respect the mission of both of those places.

Do you channel your rage in the art you seek to cover?

I think I'm talking about rage a lot because I'm working on a piece right now about a radical feminist filmmaker who made a movie called 'Born in Flames' in 1983. Which is a masterpiece of intersectionality, which is a word that did exist back then but people certainly didn't use it. And I've been talking about rage a lot with a lot of people in the context of this piece. I think that it's kind of hard to not have rage if you're tapped into the human experience.

Did you think you'd be where you are now? If not, where did you think you'd be?

I probably thought I'd be serving drinks at a lesbian bar in NYC at 18 years old. And writing a novel, a much edgier experience than I have right now which is with my adorable dog and helping my mom who's having some health issues. You know, a very bourgeois and normal life, but it's also not, because I get to talk to artists all the time and I get to talk to people like you who are entering their careers with the shiniest auras around them and the brightest eyes. It's a real privilege. Every day I feel so lucky and you just made me feel a little luckier.

If NPR was a person, what would you say to them?

Are you single? Because I am!

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sommer Hill (she/her) is a social media associate for NPR Extra. She started with NPR in May 2021. Her primary responsibilities include managing the social media accounts for NPR Extra as well as creating blog posts for NPR.org. In her time at NPR, Hill has worked on many projects including the Tiny Desk Contest, the How I Built This Summit, creating a resource page for Juneteenth material, participating in the 'What Juneteenth Means To Me' video and contributing to WOC/POC meetings.