Mi-Ai Parrish is the managing director of Arizona State University Media Enterprise and the inaugural Sue Clark-Johnson Professor of Media Innovation and Leadership at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is the former president and publisher of USA TODAY NETWORK Arizona, the Arizona Republic, the Kansas City Star and the Idaho Statesman. Before speaking at a Zócalo/ASU Center on the Future of War event, “Can Women’s Movements Save the World?,” co-sponsored by the ASU Global Human Rights Hub, Parrish spoke in the green room about writing her first article, the photos hanging on her dryer, and her best leadership advice.
On your social profiles, you identify as a “vampire slayer”—is that a Buffy reference?
It is a Buffy reference, and I’m a Buffy fan. It came from a couple of years ago when a legislator ended up being voted out of the legislature in Arizona during the #MeToo movement. I had written a column that helped propel that to happen, and friends of mine at the legislature said that they were calling me the vampire slayer, and it stuck.
I’m a mission-driven person, and journalism is my mission. Holding the powerful accountable is one of the key issues and purposes of journalism, so the idea of being a vampire slayer is close to my heart.
Where do you think you get your sense of mission from?
I'm descended from strong women. My mother came here not knowing any English, by herself, as a war refugee. My aunt is a lifelong women's rights advocate who was put on a death list by a military dictator for advocating for democracy. My grandmother was a great woman of faith who, after the Second World War, was in a cholera epidemic, and she took in dozens and dozens of orphans who had nowhere else to go, and that orphanage is still there today. So I was always raised with a profound respect for the First Amendment—for freedom of religion, for freedom of speech, for freedom of the press, for freedom to assemble peaceably, and to have redress of grievances.
Did you always see yourself becoming a journalist?
No. When I was in high school only the boys were on the newspaper—and that wasn’t that long ago. I was on the yearbook, which is where the other girls were. But I wandered into a cattle call with my roommate for the newspaper [at the University of Maryland], and I just fell in love. I loved the idea of a sort of a backstage pass to life. I was mostly curious—nosy, I guess—and I liked to know how things worked.
The first story I did was about complaints against campus police with police dogs. I just remember coming back, and being like, OK, this is my jam.
What is hanging on your refrigerator?
Nothing is hanging on my refrigerator because my husband hates clutter! Though sticking to the sides of the dryer are pictures and hand-written notes. I am a relentless handwritten-note-print-out-the-pictures-and-put-them-in-frames kind of person.
What are some of your favorite pictures or notes up there now?
I love candid moments. I was a photographer early on, so I’m kind of known for being annoying and wanting to document everything. The camera phone is my favorite thing—best invention ever. You can take a million pictures, and then like a dork, I’ll print them out on old-school paper. So, they’re moments that I love… an anniversary trip to the beach. Taking my nephew on his first pony ride, that’s one of them. There's one from a hike to the Grand Canyon with my sister. Family memories.
You’re the older sibling in your family. Do you feel that you embody any older sister stereotypes?
I’m totally the older sister. In Korean culture, there's a specific word for older sister—unnie—and there's a whole culture behind being the older sister in a family. So I’m also a very Korean big sister.
Where was your favorite place to go growing up in Maryland?
There is a park in Glen Echo, Maryland, that has this old carousel that's been restored. That was my favorite spot when I was a kid, and it's next to the Clara Barton house. I was also a dorky kid who loved powerful women role models. So I spend a lot of time at the Clara Barton house and the carousel park nearby. I actually went to the carousel the last time I went to Maryland.
What’s your favorite gift you’ve ever received?
I like beautiful paper, like beautiful cards. I have a fairly extensive stationery collection. It was a big enough deal that when I left the Arizona Republic, they had everyone write these handwritten notes for me. That would definitely be my favorite gift. It had so much thought, and was so personal to me because I would always write thank-you notes to folks in the organization.
What’s your best leadership advice?
I am proud of taking a risk on people, and helping them succeed. So: Don't be afraid to lift others up and help them succeed. You'll be better for it. I actually co-teach now with someone [Julia Wallace] who taught me that a million years ago.
What's the last thing that inspired you?
Michele Norris from NPR—who is wonderful, I love her—retweeted this picture of a little girl whose parents have had her dress up as African American female heroes. They take a picture every day, and this one was Gwen Ifill who was also wonderful, wonderful friend. So it was just seeing this little girl celebrating Black History Month and her parents encouraging that and giving her female role models like Gwen.