The first time I met Norman Lear many years ago, I knew immediately I had found a kindred spirit, 50-something-year age difference and all.
What emerged from a scheduled half-hour meeting in his office was a three-hour passionate conversation about young people and civic engagement, the power of media and storytelling to change hearts and minds, social justice, and probably some embarrassing know-it-all tidbits from my 20-something self, who was a bit of a well-meaning bull in a china shop in those days. The next day, he called to ask me to come to work for him, effective immediately. And thus began my journey learning from—and having adventures with—the greatest master teacher I never expected to have.
In 1999, when President Bill Clinton bestowed upon Norman the nation’s highest cultural honor, the National Medal of the Arts, he summarized Norman’s impact in a beautifully accurate and succinct way: “Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.” When I watch his TV shows today, I am routinely stunned by their contemporary relevance, which amazes me even more as I contemplate how insanely ahead of their time these stories and themes must have been 30 and 40 years ago. Through his TV shows—All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and so many others—America faced up to its worst truths about inequality, homophobia, racism, sexism, and a host of other isms.
But his imprint is also found in quieter, smaller moments—in his empowering of others who share a commitment to social justice and the power of storytelling to pave the path. These are moments that don’t come with awards or public recognition, but they reveal so much more about why and how his legacy continues. His authenticity, generosity of spirit, and quiet mentorship of so many people are qualities and achievements as worth emulating as his award-winning stories.
About ten years ago, when I mentioned how profoundly Studs Terkel’s 1974 portrait of the working class in America, Working, had inspired me, Norman called Studs on the spot and put us on speaker phone together in his office to share ideas. When I spent the better part of a year making a documentary about Walmart’s devastation of small-town America, Norman called me regularly while I was out on the road—always wanting to know about the lives of the people who were most affected. When I produced a small documentary TV show about a chemical plant poisoning a community of people, he quietly funded an expanded investigation to create something bigger. There are so many stories like these for me, and for the many other people in his life. This is the Norman Lear I know and love—a man who is so authentically who he really is that it’s impossible to separate his entertainment storytelling and cultural legacy from his personhood.
In his own groundbreaking TV work, he says he wasn’t trying to do anything to change the world, or to advocate for a specific social issue, or to intentionally do anything other than to reflect the culture as it really was—and, most importantly, to entertain. That may be true, but to understand Norman as a person is to understand his sincere, earnest sense of humanity and his underlying commitment to shape a world in which we should all want to exist—a world that’s just and equal and diverse and colorful. And in understanding this, we understand him as a producer and a storyteller, because his entertainment reflects every bit of his personal identity. It is this quality, I have come to think, that distinguishes storytelling that can shape and change the world—storytelling that manages to penetrate so deeply into the culture and the fabric of who we are as people. It is not only what the story shows us, but the distinction is the passionate, authentic commitment from the people creating and supporting the story to bring it to life.
Norman’s kind of changemakers want and need to create, share, and produce untold stories so much that they will fight against prevailing forces that believe—in every generation—that some stories, and some people, are too “risky” or that the marketplace won’t tolerate them; this is code for institutional racism or sexism and fear of “otherness,” of course. Yes, there may be financial rewards and public accolades for the work, but I—with a confessed earnestness about this topic that might rival Norman’s—don’t believe those were the lead ideas motivating him during his boldest hours. Norman’s commitment fueled his fight against TV network executives of the 1970s and ‘80s who didn’t want to discuss abortion or gay people or to skewer racism—to successfully win battles with Hollywood decision-makers who worried that showing a black woman and a white man as a married couple would be explosive. His commitment emboldened him to not only create and fight for these portrayals, but to infuse enough lightness and humanity into the stories to help America talk and share, and start to chip away at walls of intolerance.
Connecting people through a shared cultural experience, using those moments to shine a light on the lives and voices and perspectives that aren’t always reflected, sparking conversations—this is the power and joy and potential of storytelling. Norman Lear created the mold, but he didn’t break it behind him. Graciously, generously, and with sparkling moments of levity, he gifted it to us to continue the journey.
Caty Borum Chattoo is Co-Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact and Executive in Residence at American University’s School of Communication in Washington, D.C., and a media and documentary researcher, strategist, and producer.