When it comes to career paths, Alison Stewart prefers jungle gyms to ladders.
“Instead of ‘climbing the ladder’ and going straight up through the ranks, you zig zag your way up, like on a jungle gym” says Stewart, referencing Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller, ‘Lean In.’ “I could never explain it before. I just kept getting good offers at places, so I took them.”
After zig zagging from MTV to CBS to ABC to MSNBC to PBS, Stewart’s latest incarnation is as author. ‘First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School,’ her inaugural book, was released earlier this month. Both her parents graduated from the Washington, D.C. school.
Stewart began working on ‘Dunbar’ in 2006, while at MSNBC. Five years later, she left her job as cohost of PBS’s ‘Need to Know’ to focus fulltime on the book, and to care for her ailing parents. They later died.
“I always wanted to write a book,” says Stewart, 47, a Brown alum. “I had been offered a ‘Hey, I was at MTV, then at the networks, what did I see?’ deal, and maybe I’ll write that book someday, but I wanted to dig into something that would have some kind of lasting value beyond being entertaining.”
Stewart found herself in a race against time, since many of the early Dunbar grads were in their 80s and 90s. She recorded their memories of the legendary school, which in its prime produced the first black member of a presidential Cabinet, the first black general of the U.S. Army and the first black federal judge.
“I loved talking to people, going into their homes, spending hours with them,” says Stewart, who often traveled by bus from New York and crashed on friends’ couches to minimize expenses. “The research was my favorite part. You discover things. It’s a little bit art, a little bit archeology.”
The writing process, however, was an altogether different experience. “It was a lot lonelier than I expected,” says Stewart, who is married to Bill Wolff, VP of MSNBC primetime and executive producer of “The Rachel Maddow Show.” They have a five-year-old son, Isaac.
“I had to go from being part of a TV show I really liked, to having very little human contact. I hung out with my kid a lot. I took guitar classes. I had to be a lot more proactive about being with other moms — I was ‘class mom’ for two years in preschool.”
Once the manuscript was finished, she convinced President Clinton to write a blurb. “I just wrote him a letter and asked. It was that simple,” she says. “I sent it right before he was going to speak at Howard’s commencement [in May], so I thought he might be interested.”
Writing ‘Dunbar’ made Stewart even more acutely aware of the issue of racial stereotyping, she says, which was underscored in the Trayvon Martin case.
“We, as a country, don’t know enough about each other’s histories and culture,” she says. “Once upon a time, you could understand the ignorance. You really could spend your life and not run into a person of another race. Now, there is no excuse, even if it’s only on a computer screen.”
Still, Stewart disputes the notion of ‘color blindness.’
“People should bring who they are, ethnically and racially, to the conversation. As a black woman, that’s part of who I am.”
After she finishes her publicity tour for ‘Dunbar,’ Stewart says she wants to return to a full-time media gig, ideally a live mid-day news program on TV or radio. She’d also like to see her book adapted into a TV series or film.
“My husband says we could call it ‘Friday Night Blacks,’” she says, tongue firmly in cheek.
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