Portland Chapter Member: Dmae Roberts

Dmae Roberts is a two-time Peabody Award-winning radio artist/writer whose work airs regularly on NPR. Her work is often autobiographical and cross-cultural and is informed by her biracial identity. Her Peabody award-winning documentary, “Mei Mei: A Daughter’s Song,” is a harrowing account of her mother’s childhood in Taiwan during World War II.  Dmae won a second Peabody for the documentary “Crossing East,” the first Asian American history series on public radio. She received the Dr. Suzanne Ahn Civil Rights and Social Justice Award from the Asian American Journalists Association and was selected as a United States Artists (USA) Fellow. Dmae is a regular columnist for the Asian Reporter and hosts a weekly arts show in Portland, Ore., called “Stage & Studio.” Her essay “Finding the Poetry” was published in a book of essays called “Reality Radio.” She is working on her memoir, “Lady Buddha and the Temple of Ma.” Dmae is on Twitter: @dmaeroberts.


What’s your life’s motto?
I don’t know that I have one. I’ve worked since I was 14 years old during summers in farm fields and all through college in canneries and mills to support myself. My driving theme, though, has been to have work that means something and somehow make the world better in even a small way. … It was important to me have work I loved and not focus only on the financial aspects but find the passion.

Why did you become a journalist? What inspired you?
I was a theater major in college and saved up money after the first two years of school to travel the world both to Asia and Europe. When I returned I decided to focus on my writing and get a degree in journalism at the University of Oregon so I could make a living doing something other than manual labor. That’s when I happened upon KLCC, a community radio station in Eugene. I fell in love with producing creative art pieces for public radio. I found that creating radio movies puts powerful images, emotions and scenes in your imagination in a way no other medium can do. …

In 2003-06, I endeavored to produce the first Asian American history series on public radio, “Crossing East.” That project took
three years to raise nearly $400,000 and to produce eight hours of documentaries with 50 scholars, producers and artists. The series ran on 230 public radio stations and won my second Peabody Award.

Because of the success of “Crossing East,” the Asian American Journalists Association awarded me the Dr. Suzanne Ahn Award for Civil Rights and Social Justice, and I received a $50,000 fellowship from United States Artists (USA) that allowed me time
to take a sabbatical.

That led to a realization I needed to write my memoir, expanding the personal stories that began with Mei Mei and to bring my mom’s stories full circle after her death in 2002.

What are the challenges and rewards of the work you do as a freelancer?
At this time, I’m looking at what I want to do with the rest of my life. I feel like I’ve entered my third chapter and I don’t want to just chase after project after project. … It’s still a process for me of balancing a meaningful life with work that supports me
financially. …

I can’t save the entire world, but I like to think that the work I’ve done to create some awareness of Asian American, multicultural and the underserved voices in America has had meaning and some impact. I’m now looking at getting back into grant writing to get new projects that will excite me that I haven’t done before.

Why is diversity important? What role does AAJA play, and what should it play?
Because of my interracial family’s experience with racism, diversity and issues of race, culture and inequity have been a driving force of my work.

I don’t think you can remind people too much or continue the dialogue often enough. AAJA is crucial in reminding mainstream media about the lack of Asian and Asian American voices and viewpoints. I’m proud of the media advisory AAJA sends out, especially the recent one regarding the Jeremy Lin coverage. It’s sad that in 2012 that it was needed. That’s why we must be diligent and not forget that progress is a slow road. We are not post-racial and given my experience, I doubt we ever will
arrive at a time when all races and cultures will have equal status.

What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?
Don’t depend on any one profession, skill set or talent. Develop all your abilities and passions. Learn as many different media and writing styles as possible. Multimedia, social media and online applications are changing all forms of journalism. Long form is out. Short form developed over multiple platforms seems to be the way it’s going for radio, television and print. …

Finally, I know that young people have economic debt I could never have imagined when I went to college. But don’t lose sight of the meaningful life. … Look within to your passions and what drives you as a human being. Seek out work you value that pays the rent but also feeds your heart and soul.

Learn more about other AAJA members profiled for AAPI Month.