As a two-time Emmy Award winning producer with NBC, Kerri Forrest traveled the world as part of the presidential press contingent during President Bush’s administration. Along the way she also helped launch MSNBC, the network’s cable news station. A couple of years ago Forrest decided to leave the political hot-box of Washington, to return to the place she truly loves. Now back home in Charleston, Forrest spends her spare time mentoring children and in community service, and the arts.
Q: You’ve had quite an extensive career, with what some would call a meteoric rise. Not bad for a kid from James Island.
I worked for MSNBC from 1996-2005. I helped launch the network and started out as a researcher/booker in our daytime booking unit and then I moved on from there to a number of the political talk shows. Then I jumped into White House producing for the last four years of President Bush’s administration, as an NBC producer. I loved my job back then.
Q: What brought you back home?
Seven years ago, coming back to visit friends and family I started to realize that Charleston had truly become a cosmopolitan city. I thought, “It actually has a pace. And it has great music. And it has fantastic food. And there’s an art scene. I actually could find myself living here.”
Q: How did you first develop some consciousness of South Carolina being different? When did that idea come into your thought process?
It’s interesting. I think South Carolinians are very proud people. And I think it’s just inherent. It’s funny; in D.C. all of the South Carolinians have their little Palmetto sticker on their car. Being from South Carolina has always been about history. I’m from Charleston. I’ve always been proud of being a South Carolinian because my family has a very strong heritage here and we’ve never been afraid of it.
Q: Race and racial relations always seems to be a big part of what happens in South Carolina. What changes in race have you seen over your lifetime? Was race part of your decision to move away or to come back?
I was really fortunate. Race was never an issue that I can recall. It was never an overt problem growing up. I never felt like I was different and cast aside because of the color of my skin. My parents never made me feel like I was different and I couldn’t do something because of the color of my skin. So I never got that sense of, “I can’t go here, I can’t do that, I can’t participate.” And I really credit my parents for that. I think because of that, that barrier was never in front of me and I was able to do all of the things that I did. I refused to allow that to be a barrier.
Q: Beyond education, what in your mind, does South Carolina need to do for the entire state to become world class?
I’ll tell you one thing that I have noticed and has really weighed on me since I have moved back. There are two types of segregation. There’s overt segregation and there’s subconscious segregation. Laws are in place to put down overt segregation and we’re still fighting some of that today. Btu what I think concerns me more is this subconscious segregation that “we can’t do that,” or “we can’t hang out there,” or “we can’t go there,” or “we can’t achieve this, unless someone gives us permission to do it.” And the reverse of it is “they don’t come here, so we shouldn’t worry about them. “ A lot of people move down from the north and love Charleston and automatically get separated into these two groups or social circles and very rarely do they ever mix, which I find fascinating.
Q: You mean the racial social circles?
Yes. I never had that problem in D.C. It may exist in D.C. but my social circle was a melting pot. We were all bonded more so on what our careers were. Here, it still breaks down in a number of ways on race. So I will go to a number of places and I’m the only black person there and I can’t figure it out. That’s probably been the most disturbing thing about moving back to Charleston.
Q: I read an article that was sort of a psychological survey and they asked people questions, in your case, of the following terms that could be used to describe you; American, Southern, woman, or black, or South Carolinian, which would you put first?
First, American; second, black; third, South Carolinian; fourth, woman.
Q: I think it’s stunning that race is not at the top of the list. It’s encouraging.
I had a really great conversation with a Frenchman whom I did some work with last year and he said, ‘America more than anywhere else gets all caught up in these labels about race and you’re all Americans.’ He’s right.
What is your advice to a young person who aspires to do what you have done?
First thing is “No Fear.” Want to do it. Go do it. What’s the worst that can happen? If you fail, you go and try something else. Second thing I say is, when you get there, help someone get there too.
About this series
This is the 15th in a series of interviews for Envision S.C., an initiative where some of the state’s brightest thinkers share their perspectives to inspire South Carolina to become world class in technology, education and business. It is sponsored by the College of Charleston with the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, newspapers, TV stations and other groups. Interviews are by Phil Noble.
Hometown: James Island
Education: B.A. Biological Sciences, minor Communication, Clemson; M.A. Interactive Journalism, American University
Occupation: Owner, social/creative, director of Institutional Advancement, American College of the Building Arts Other Notables: Two-time Emmy Award winning producer (NBC News); Joan S. Barone Award for Excellence in Washington- Based National Affairs and Public Policy Broadcasting; Board Member, Charleston Area YWCA