Very few people will be the subject of such controversy
or the source of so much debate
as Utrice Leid. The New York City activist
introduced new ideas to African-American thought
, created the idea of the "Battle for the Mind
", and became General Manager of one of the largest community radio stations
in the world within a matter of years. This extraordinary woman came from humble beginnings.
Utrice Leid was born in Prince's Town, Trinidad and Tobago to a salesman father and a homemaker mother. She later described to her radio listeners the long talks she and her siblings would have with her father Claude. He would ask them to ponder over the question, "What is going to be your statement in life?." This was not an inquiry into their future professions, but rather what purpose their entire lives would serve.
Leid came to the United States at the age of eighteen, prepared to start college. However, when she was being interviewed, her interviewer, whom she described as a "blithering idiot", suggested instead she start over as a freshman in high school. She views this as the beginning of her activism, since she believes that the woman failed to see beyond her color and to her impressive academic record. She attended Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, where she became active in local black power groups. She then began to volunteer at radio station WBAI.
WBAI opened up new doors to Leid. She became active in the labor movement, becoming the worker's shop steward and devoting much of her airtime as host of the popular Talkback program to worker's rights and illegal immigrants seeking work in the United States.
In 2000, she was notified by the new Pacifica National Board, which controlled WBAI at the time. WBAI station manager Valerie VanIsler would be removed from her post. Leid accepted the position, not knowing the chaos that would soon ensue. In what became to be known as The Christmas Coup, on December 23, 2000, Utrice Leid officially became the station manager at 1:00 am. She changed the locks to the station and created a list of workers that would be allowed to enter the station. Not on that list were two workers that had been fired by the board the previous evening, the popular hosts of The Morning Show, Bernard White and Sharan Harper.
WBAI's large, active listening base was thrown into a virtual civil war. Some viewed Lied as a person seeking to change the political content of the progressive station. Others viewed her as a welcome change to the contentious management at the station that some viewed as cliquish. She was practically unanimously condemned by both groups in March 2001, when she interrupted an interview with Rep. Major Owens (D-NY) on the program Building Bridges, which focused on the firing and bannings of White and Harper. She claimed she interrupted the program because it was her job to make sure only the truth was told over the airwaves. She was unanimously applauded, however, on September 11, 2001, when she kept the station on the air despite the fact that the station is located only blocks from the World Trade Center.
She left the station in December 2002, to accept a position at the national level. When the National Board that appointed her fell out of power after a listener’s lawsuit, she resigned her post. She is currently working for the New York City Parks Department.
Whether you regard her as a traitor or a visionary, one cannot deny the contributions Leid has made to society. On her radio program, she proposed her philosophy of “The Battle for the Mind.” It was based upon the idea that the mind is colonized by outside forces, including the media and society, and one is cowed into thinking what they deem acceptable. She always encouraged people to think for themselves, something I think we can all agree with.