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Tracking shades of change; Journalist, pundit, activist. At the age of 29, Baltimore-bred Farai Chideya is all these things -- and in a hurry to be much more.

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The cab stops at the studio of WAMU radio and out pops a young woman dressed in black. As an icy wind whips her shoulder-length braids across her face, she hoists a backpack over one shoulder and does a quickstep for the door.

Farai Chideya is in a hurry, as usual.

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In the next 10 minutes, she meets a host of radio types, checks her voice-mail back in New York, makes small talk over the madness of book tours -- "I wish I could say something totally new every time, but I can't really manage it," she says, chuckling -- and dons headphones for an hourlong interview on a nationally syndicated radio talk show.

Through it all, the Baltimore native stays cool.

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Chideya has written two books, contributes to Newsweek, Vibe and MTV, and works full-time for ABC News, among other media outlets. National audiences frequently see her commenting on political and cultural issues. She has been called a spokeswoman for her generation and been named one of Newsweek's 100 people to watch approaching the year 2000.

Oh, and she is 29 years old.

With the pace of a speed-walker and the speech of an auctioneer, it's perhaps not surprising that she's already managed to get so much done. But she also is engaging and an avid listener. She melds the passion of an activist and the skills of a journalist as she gathers and tells stories about youth, race and culture.

Out of all this has come her new book, "The Color of Our Future," which hit bookstores last month. In it, Chideya offers a new way to consider race: through the eyes of young people who are ready to accept a continually changing, multiethnic America.

By 2050, most Americans will be people of color, something that's already a fact of life in such cities as Los Angeles, New York and Baltimore. Chideya points out that many young people have never experienced an America in which race means just black and white, so they mix with people of different races and mixed races pretty easily. Yet most are sure they'll experience discrimination in their lives.

Researching the book over the last three years, Chideya talked to dozens of young people from all over, including all-white Delphi, Ind.; diverse Oakland, Calif.; and mostly Latino El Paso, Texas. They brought her into their graduation parties, churches and classrooms and showed her their future.

"Youth really do symbolize change in this generation," she says. From them, Chideya learned "We're not living in one America. We live in subdivisions of that thing called America, so it's no wonder we don't get along. ... We're going to have to put some very hard work into this if we're going to make it work.

"It's not just like, 'OK, everybody sit back and enjoy the ride.' It's like, 'Pick up an oar and start rowing.' "

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After her radio interview, Chideya chats at a Mexican restaurant, tapping her feet to Latin music and immersing herself in some of the country's most weighty issues.

* On segregation: "If you see an all-black area, it's like 'Oh, that's segregated!' but if you see an all-white community it's like, 'That's the heartland.' We don't even think about it in the same terms."

* On the African diaspora: "People are always like 'Black is black!' but ... black is not black. Black is many things. Zimbabweans don't relate to Americans as the same, and we're not."

* On political activism among young people: "We need to vote. ... We need to plug in a little bit more. So many of my friends don't watch the news. They don't care. Their favorite thing is, 'My mom saw you on TV.' So it's a demographic thing."

But then she wanders into less serious topics. She laughs at the racial undertones of a new video on MTV and the incongruity of Spike Lee living in a "$7 million townhouse on the Upper East Side" -- a mostly white New York City neighborhood -- while his films focus on black social problems.

The smiling, breezy Chideya seems bemused by the attention she gets for sharing her opinions. She doesn't take herself too seriously.

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"Maybe I should start a telemarketing firm," she says, munching chips and salsa. " 'Hi, this is Farai Chideya. If you want to know what's on the minds of young people, send me a dollar. This call will only cost you 99 cents per minute!' "

Refreshing though Chideya's humility is, her media success was not a fluke.

The older of two daughters of a Baltimore-bred, Peace Corps-volunteering mom and an intellectual Zimbabwean father, she was reading by age 3.

"My parents always encouraged me," she says. "It was sort of like, 'Try for anything and see was happens. You never know.' "

She grew up in Baltimore's all-black Forest Park, went through the program for gifted students at Harford Heights Elementary and, by the 1980s, was navigating the racial waters of Western High School. Blacks, working-class whites and Jewish kids shared classrooms but rarely mixed socially.

But Chideya was different. By no prior design, she ended up with a racially eclectic social group -- even in Baltimore, which she calls "very segregated." Her best friends in high school were a white girl with leftist parents and a first-generation Chinese-American.

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During her college days at Harvard, she unconsciously attracted a similarly diverse group of friends -- and began to realize it might be more than a fluke. "Maybe being friends with people of different races is part of the way I choose to live," she writes. "There's no better way to lead life than to try to see the fullness and the richness of many people's existence."

This may be why Chideya's views on issues from race to politics hit home with so many.

At Harvard, she wrote movie reviews for the campus weekly and got an internship at the Boston office of Newsweek, where she worked after graduation. She went to MTV News, did political analysis for CNN during the 1996 presidential election and became national affairs editor for Vibe, a popular hip-hop magazine.

In between, she wrote "Don't Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African-Americans," a book now in its eighth printing.

What can't she do?

"I speak really bad French, and I hate making mistakes," she says. "I'm like, 'How could I make that mistake?' I'm totally embarrassed all the time."

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And, she admits, there are times when she is less than confident beneath her seemingly unflappable appearance and is not keen on promoting herself as an expert.

"Something I want to make clear is: I am not a spokesman for my generation. I don't think anybody is. I think you have to be your own spokesman."

All the attention on her, she says, partly reflects laziness in the media, who "don't pay attention to young people in general, so when they find one they like, they're like, 'OK, this works for me.' "

Though she swears she wants to "do something a little bit more mellow," Chideya still has a slew of goals on the horizon.

She plans to produce a documentary on the world's black diaspora. She wants to write another book, a career guide for young people. Someday, she'd like to open a one-stop community center for day care, after-school tutoring and job skills -- perhaps in Baltimore -- because "the mentality oftentimes is save the kids, forget the parents."

She yearns to travel to Asia and Latin America. And she is determined to learn Spanish in the next few years because, though she could hire translators, she wants to hear the news straight from the sources.

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This is quintessential Chideya. Why should she rely on someone else to make sense of the world for her when she can get the scoop for herself?

"My mother invested me with the sense that my ideas matter," she says. "And I've always believed her -- whether or not it's true."

Pub Date: 03/07/99


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