*Editor’s note: 5/09/22: Reporter/Anchor Nichole Berlie works from Chicago, not Boston as originally reported.
Omaha native Symone Sanders joins the one-name celebrity club with the May 7 debut of her MSNBC-Peacock news-commentary show, “Symone.” This latest career turn for the fast-rising star puts her in good company with Black women from Nebraska making media waves.
Sanders, 32, broke onto the Beltway scene in 2016 as national press secretary for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. That led to posts with the national Democratic Party and TV talking-head panelist gigs. Then she became a senior adviser to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign before being chief spokesperson for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Leveraging her fame, she released a book, “No, You Shut Up: Speaking Truth to Power and Reclaiming America.”
Last fall, Sanders became the youngest Omaha Press Club Face on the Barroom Floor honoree. Then new MSNBC president Rashida Jones lured her away from the White House as an anchor and host.
“I always say I’ve never asked for anything that I did not know I could do,” Sanders said.
She describes her whirlwind ride as “impactful, exhilarating, blessed.” Hosting her own show realizes a dream nurtured as a girl in Omaha, where she imagined herself as fictional newswoman Donna Burns.
“I could name on one hand the Black women I saw on television. Now we can name a lot more people who are taking up space.”
She feels in good hands with Jones at the helm.
“I really appreciate Rashida’s vision. A lot of folks talk about diversity, equity, meeting people where they are, but few walk the walk, and I think Rashida is the embodiment of walking the walk. She has a bold, fresh vision. She understands where this industry is right now but also where it’s going. If you want to reach people super tuned into news and politics but also paying attention to other things happening in our world and society, you have to have lanes, you have to have diversity of thought and perspective. Rashida gets it.”
Just as national figures Gwen Ifill, Carole Simpson, Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King paved the way in communications-media, Sanders appreciates the impact of Nebraskans. Her family has a legacy relationship with The Omaha Star, which has been run by women since Mildred Brown founded it in 1938. Sanders’ mother, Terri Sanders, sold ads for the paper and is its current publisher.
“My mother is one of my greatest forces of inspiration,” Sanders said by phone during a break prepping for her show.
Sanders has her own ties to the paper. “The Star is the first place I cut my writing chops. Margeurita Washington [Brown’s successor] gave me a weekly column when I was in college.”
When Sanders missed filing a few columns, she got some important advice.
“Miss Washington said you need to be consistent when you write because you have something to say and people are paying attention. That was one of the first times someone encouraged me to put my words down on paper and share them with the world. Now as I’m preparing for my show and thinking about the words we’re going to say and the kind of conversations we’re going to have, I feel emboldened. I have Miss Washington’s reminder in my head that the words we say have power, words matter, they carry weight.”
Bertha Calloway became the first Black woman to be featured on regular daytime TV in Omaha in 1971 before founding the Great Plains Black History Museum. Urban One chair Cathy Hughes, another Omahan, paved the way nationally. “Cathy Hughes broke down doors, barriers for so many people in media,” Sanders said. “She really blazed her own trail. She did all the things people told her could not be done.”
Lincoln native Nichole Berlie is a TV reporter-anchor for NewsNation based in Chicago. Omaha natives Gabrielle Union (TV, movies), Yolonda Ross (“The Chi”), Amber Ruffin (NBC), Brittany Jones-Cooper (Yahoo) and Victoria Benning (Washington Post) are formidable personalities and creatives.
“I have extremely great role models in my hometown community,” Sanders said.
The Creighton University business management grad brings something different to the mix.
“I’m not a breaking news or Capitol Hill journalist like some of my colleagues. I am someone who has a perspective, who’s been around politics and news and culture for a very long time. I’m a millennial Black woman from the Midwest. I’ve worked at the highest echelon of politics across the Democratic Party spectrum. I’m excited to bring all that experience and to give my insights around various conversations.”
She believes her background connects her to voices outside the mainstream.
“I’m proud of my Midwest roots and I’m bringing those roots to MSNBC and Peacock,” she said. “There is a diverse story of our nation to tell. I want to highlight things beyond the Beltway. So often in Washington we get caught up in the conversations we’re having in our bubble. The news is not just what’s happening in Washington, D.C., or New York or L.A., it’s what’s happening in Omaha, Chicago, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, Salt Lake City. I want to reach those nonpolitical group chats.”
In media as in life, first impressions count.
“How I introduce myself to people those first few days will be very important. It’s something we are thinking strategically about,” she said. “I am interested in making sure every week we are trying to illuminate points — everything from what’s happening at the White House and on Capitol Hill to the midterms, but also entertainment and culture. Often times I think the perspective and diversity of young voices in this country is missing in our political discourse.”
Sanders looks to shatter artificial boundaries.
“Politics and culture are swimming in the same stream nowadays,” Sanders said, adding she wants to cover and contextualize it all, from the Oscars and Grammys, to Kanye West and Trump to a revival of the opera “X” about Malcolm X.
She notes her generation is interested in pressing issues. “The oldest millennials have families, own businesses, care about the economy, taxes, gas prices, climate change, but also what’s happening in their communities with voting and crime,” she said. “Young people need to be a part of these conversations, and I’m excited to help elevate their voices.”
Like her book, her show looks to amplify the historically disenfranchised.
“I think it is no small thing the preamble of the Constitution says ‘We the people in order to form a more perfect union.’ I have a whole chapter about power – who has it, how to get it, how to get more of it,” Sanders said. “The founding ‘we’ were white landowners. We are now living in a society, an America, a world with an ever-expanding we. So expanded that a little Black girl from Nebraska can host a show on a major cable channel and streaming platform. The ever-expanding we are putting themselves directly in the middle of what’s happening, staking their claim that their voices do matter.”
As her own voice and fame rise, a favorite meme keeps things real: “I remember the days I prayed for the things I have now.” Said Sanders, “That is something I always keep in my head. No matter how far I go, I remember I’m a person of faith. That’s what keeps me grounded.”
She’s mindful of the opportunities open to her not open to Black women before her.
“I didn’t used to be here. There’s no guarantee I’ll be where I’m at,” she said. “Two things I can be certain of: being grateful and continuing to do the work. Being authentic, it was what got me here, but also doing the work. People broke down barriers so I could be a bald, pretty Black girl with bedazzled nails with her own TV show. It wasn’t always like this. Hopefully, more people will come after me.”
The bold, vivacious Sanders felt anything but after her father’s 2017 death following a stroke.
“It forced me inward, and while I was still out doing things, I was depressed. It was a fight to get out of bed every day and go to work.”
The intervention of a friend and a mentor led her to seek counseling and reorder her priorities.
“I think that mindset shifted me,” she said. “I can have all the things I’ve worked for, but what is it really worth if you don’t have anybody to go home to at the end of the day. Life is short and you’ve got to love the people you love and do the things you love. I now choose myself and my happiness rather than barrel into work. I’m getting married this summer to a really amazing man I met three years ago as I came out of that depression.”
Audiences will get the best version of Symone.
“They’re going to get a little fun and funny — they’re going to learn something they didn’t know before,” she said. “I’m walking into this show excited, clear-eyed, grounded and just very sure of who I am and what I’m doing. I wish my father was here today to see everything happening to experience it with me.”
Tune in to “Symone” on Saturdays and Sundays on MSNBC and Mondays and Tuesdays on Peacock.