Listen: 20160712 PKG: Toni obit (Yuen)

MPR’s Laura Yuen profiles MPR journalist Toni Randolph, who passed away on July 3rd, 2016. As a longtime journalist and MPR news editor, Randolph left an indeiable positive impact, especially in her commitment to public media diversity and mentorship.


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SPEAKER: Funeral services for long time Minnesota Public Radio News journalist Toni Randolph will be held this morning in Minneapolis. Toni was a reporter, newscaster, and editor here for 13 years. Friends and family will remember a humble, selfless woman who was always there for them, no matter what she was battling privately. Laura Yuen reports.

LAURA YUEN: One tough part about coming to terms with Toni's passing is that in hindsight, the signs of her sickness were there. A couple of years ago, she cropped her hair short, or so many of us thought. Her hair was silver and radiant and showed off her beautiful face. Sheletta Brundidge was one of about 20 people who gathered over the weekend to remember Toni.

SHELETTA BRUNDIDGE: We thought she cut her hair because she was trying to be sassy. And I was like, oh, look at your little sassy haircut. Look at you, girl. You're looking good. She was like, oh, girl, thank you.

LAURA YEUN: Like many of Toni's friends and colleagues, Brundidge learned only after Toni died that her dear friend had cancer. She was just 53. That hairstyle so many people mistook for a makeover, well, that was actually the result of hair loss from chemotherapy. Friends can beat themselves up over having missed the clues, but Brundidge says she doesn't feel sad.

SHELETTA BRUNDIDGE: I'm not upset with her. I'm just inspired by the way she lived her life even in the face of adversity. When she got to her job and when she got to church and when she got around people, she got it together.

LAURA YEUN: As remarkable as it was for Toni to keep her pain private, it would be unjust to dwell only on her illness. So let me tell you about the impact she had here at MPR News. Over the last several years, Toni's job was editor for new audiences. She was in charge of bringing more racially diverse listeners to the dial. She also became an honest broker between a mostly white newsroom and communities of color. Former NPR managing director of news Chris Worthington created the position for Toni.

He remembers the time he invited a community advocate who had complaints about how the newsroom covered a racially charged incident. After a testy meeting with the woman, Worthington says Toni followed him into his office. He thought Toni was going to cheer him up and tell him that the meeting was productive.

CHRIS WORTHINGTON: And she closed the door and she sort of shook her head and she looked at me and she said, well, that didn't go well at all, did it? And it didn't. So she really wanted me to know that the coverage was-- we missed it and that I should make no mistake in thinking that it was really OK because in the eyes of the people who want to be listened to, it wasn't OK.

LAURA YEUN: Toni, who was African-American, grew up in the '70s in a predominantly white suburb of Buffalo, New York. As a child, she watched her mother push for equal educational opportunities for her three children. Toni's younger brother Marvin says his sister continued that kind of advocacy as she pave the way for other people, especially journalists of color, who needed a fair shot in the broadcast business.

MARVIN: She wanted to let us know, you can do these type things anyway, and you just have to have some exposure. And if that's your passion, you know, follow it. And that's how my mother raised us and that's how my sister carried herself going forward.

LAURA YEUN: Toni mentored countless young people. Through NPR's Young Reporters Project, Toni empowered teens and college-aged journalists to get their own stories on the air. These are just some of the fresh voices you heard because of her.

ELIZABETH ZARLENGA: I'm Elizabeth Zarlenga, Minnesota Public Radio News.

MAYA TONGJIANG: Maya Tongjiang, Minnesota Public Radio News.

JOSHUA CRESPO: I'm Joshua Crespo, Minnesota Public Radio News.

DANA STANLEY: I'm Dana Stanley, Minnesota--

LAURA YEUN: Another is Simone Casarez. She's now a college sophomore majoring in journalism. She says she was a painfully shy 14-year-old when Toni took her under her wing. And as a friend and mentor, she helped build Casarez's confidence. Casarez says the two often talked about music, including their adoration for Nina Simone.

SIMON CASAREZ: There's a song called To Be Young, Gifted And Black.


Young, gifted, and black, oh, what a lovely, precious dream.

SIMON CASAREZ: I feel like if you listen to that, that's the essence of Toni. Like, she was so driven to make sure that us young people, that we did well in life and that we had everything we needed to succeed. If I could, like, have one more thing to say to her, I would be, like, thank you, like, so much for stepping in and really, like, making an impact on my life.

LAURA YEUN: And for a woman who spent decades of her career behind the mic, maybe Toni Randolph's biggest legacy is how she left the journalism world better and broader than how she found it. Laura Yeun, Minnesota Public Radio News, St. Paul.

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