Award-winning investigative reporter, best-selling author, and trailblazer, Kim Barker, headlined the 3rd annual, Mount Ida College “Inspiration Nation” program on Tuesday, April 4, anchoring a day of dialogue and learning including several opportunities to showcase student work.
Barker’s candor and direct approach connected with those in attendance, who were enthralled with her tales of her tenacity, her career path and her very personal experiences in Afghanistan as South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, where her desire to do more and be more, propelled her to take a risk and put herself out there in the international realm of journalism, in which she had no experience.
It came down to “raising my hand,” she said. While working at the Tribune, a job that she enjoyed, she noticed there were few women reporters in the international realm. When they were looking to send people to South Asia, she marched in and said “I’m single, I’m childless, I’m expendable,” thus, sending the message that she was ready and willing to take the leap and go overseas. This is when her five-year journey began and her life and career changed indelibly due to the new and truly foreign experiences that she faced each day in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Southeast Asian locations.
Offering the audience tenets to follow including to “Embrace Who You Are,” she urged the students to pursue something outside their comfort zone and to try different things. Using her experience as an embedded female reporter, in an area that was often inhospitable to women, she highlighted that personal danger wasn’t always the root of failure, rather, there were times that she was simply unprepared for the task at hand. Failure and set back only made her more successful the next time. She built off of her already strong-willed personality, which she earned during her childhood in Montana, where she had to leverage her strong will in order to be taken seriously.
While being adventurous appears appealing to many, she also gave the sage advice to truly get to know the people you work with, spot potential dangers, and “plan your escape route.” And while, that may appear to more relevant in the world of international reporting in a war zone, the message is applicable to even “Main Street America” where you never know what may happen, especially if you become complacent in your own role, your own skills and the risks around you.
Taking questions from the audience, she relayed that her experience in Asia has made her more patient and calm. She felt being a woman was, surprisingly, an advantage. “I had access to the women, something the men could not do and I had access to the powerful men who were curious about a woman in my role.”
Barker’s humor and edge kept the tone light, despite the subject matter, suggesting a key to success is to get Tina Fey to play you in a movie. Fey had read a review of Barker’s book “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” in which the reviewer mentioned it would be a perfect role for Tina Fey – and Fey thought so too.
Barker concluded by urging everyone to be open to the world, to explore, to expand and to listen to other points of view. When asked if she would go back to Afghanistan she said it was hard to leave. “I felt very alive. That’s what you feel when you’re so close to death and it’s intoxicating to watch history unfold.”