Editor’s Note: In August 2018, Reader’s Digest Editor-in-Chief Bruce Kelley sat down with ABC’s Good Morning America co-anchor and Nicest Places in America guest judge Robin Roberts to talk about Nicest Places, how optimism is a muscle, and starting a tradition of kindness in your family. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and space.
BRUCE KELLEY: What made you so excited to be part of Nicest Places?
ROBIN ROBERTS: Nicest is a way to wave the flag and say, “Don’t give up hope, folks! There are a lot of good, sweet, thoughtful people in America.” There’s a lot of talk of division in this country. It’s great to show that that’s not the whole story and to create ambassadors all across the country. In the two hours of Good Morning America, we have to give you a broad sense of what’s going on and sometimes I like for it to have more of the up, as opposed to the conflict. I’m really honored we are a part of it and can tell the stories of these places.
My parents instilled in their four children, and I’m the youngest of four, that being of service to others—that was it, that was the Roberts creed. My mother went to Howard University on a $100 Scripps-Howard Scholarship, and it was her community that raised money to help her get on the train and go off to school. My parents remember how it took a community to help them, and so they instilled that in their children. And Nicest Places is an extension of that. If there was an underlying theme that I saw in all the entries, it was faith, family and friends. Places may look different, but we’re all the same in what is important to us.
KELLEY: If you were talking to a friend about Nicest Places, what would you say to them?
ROBERTS: There is hope in the world and it exists all around us—in some of the smallest and biggest places you could imagine. If my faith had been wavering, and thankfully it had not, it would have been restored with this search. Especially going down to Knoxville to meet Yassin. On the surface if someone said, “Here’s an immigrant, refugee, Muslim who is not only accepted but embraced in Knoxville, Tennessee,” people would look at you sideways. But having been there and seen for myself the pure joy, I want Yassin’s and the other finalists to be little seeds to plant around the country that let everybody know: Nice is not weak. Nice is not a four-letter word.
KELLEY: I’ve read your mom’s book, My Story, My Song, and she is unbelievably articulate about what the kindness and welcoming meant to her and to your family as you moved around a lot.
ROBERTS: I come from a military family, as a proud military brat who moved all around the country and the world. And often being the new kid when everybody else had been going to school together since they were in the first grade—well, imagine. Here comes this awkward, tall, gangly girl bounding in. I remember Loretta Wembley befriended me in high school. Nobody else would talk to me.
I was in the ninth grade, going into high school in Pass Christian, Mississippi, “The Pass.” Here my father had just retired from the military and plunked down into this small town where everybody had known each other since birth, and Loretta just befriended me. Everybody else followed suit because they liked her. I never forgot that.
KELLEY: Have you always been so focused on the way people relate to each other?
ROBERTS: When we lived in Ismir, Turkey, we didn’t live on a military base—my parents made us live in an apartment, with Turkish neighbors, so you had to learn the language and the customs. And the impact it had on me as a small child, saying, “Oh, it’s not just America. There’s a whole big world out there.” And every place we moved, there was always that person or family that would make us feel welcome.
And my parents were the same. On Thanksgiving, my parents would always have a service person who couldn’t make it home at our table. I would be like, “Is that a cousin?” I am grateful that they exposed us to that. I think it’s a little difficult now because we’re on our mobile devices, we don’t talk—I wonder, when a new person moves in, does somebody in the neighborhood go by?
KELLEY: I can see that in the places you liked the most. For example, you were also partial to a very different kind of place: North Evergreen, which is a street in the middle of Burbank, California, in the middle of massive Los Angeles County.
ROBERTS: Exactly! The people on North Evergreen make you feel like you’ve found this one area where the neighbors have bonded even though you’re in this big city. Whether we live in New York or Timbuktu, I think all of us are just raising our hand and saying, “Notice me.” For a street like this to find a way to help people feel connected to something—it’s just so important.
KELLEY: Do you have any advice for Americans who want their communities to be more unified, to just have more fun and trust each other more—to be nicer?
ROBERTS: I’d change the old adage from “Treat people the way you’d like to be treated” to “Treat people like you’d want your mother to be treated.” We’re all capable of it. It’s innate that we want to help each other. There is more good in us than we acknowledge. I’ve said this many times and I’ll say it again, optimism is a muscle, it gets stronger with use.
I’m in the habit of being an optimist. And it is a habit. At the same time, I don’t want people who haven’t been in that habit to get discouraged. To think, “Well, I just can’t do it.” Why not? Families will say to me, “Well, you have this generation of people in your family who have helped, these wonderful examples. But I haven’t had that.” And I challenge them. I say, “It started somewhere in my family. Why not start it in yours? Why don’t you be that point that generations in your family line will go, ‘Hey, remember who started it for us. We can do that.’”
KELLEY: Keying in on that, given the civility crisis, the meanness that many people say is worse right now, what would you tell parents to tell their children about how to be that person in your family?
ROBERTS: My mom would say to me before I left the house, “Robin Rene, you know the difference between right and wrong.” No grandiose statement, just “you know the difference between right and wrong.” And so I would be out with my friends, confronting a situation where I knew what we were about to do was wrong, and I would go, “I have to go home because I know the difference between right and wrong.” Thanks, Mom! I think parents need to know that less is more. Just instill in your child values.
We keep saying that we’re just a generation away, a generation away from this that and the other, but I do think we are a generation away from true acceptance of each other. I don’t like the word tolerance. Don’t tolerate me. Accept me. Accept that we’re different. Accept that we do have similarities as well. The difference with kids is that their parents came up and will tolerate someone and think that’s a good thing. And the kids say, “No, it’s about acceptance, not tolerance.”
KELLEY: You visited Knoxville. Did you get a sense of why Yassin’s Falafel House won?
ROBERTS: You feel it as soon as you walk through those doors. Yassin has just—pure joy. He makes everyone feel included. You have people in Knoxville who may
have been fed a certain narrative about immigrants, but Yassin changes the narrative. They see that he’s as hardworking as they are and wants what’s best for Knoxville.
KELLEY: Some people will be surprised that a restaurant could be the Nicest Place in America.
ROBERTS: It’s not about how many falafels Yassin can sell. He’s gotten so much from Knoxville in such a short time that this is him giving back by shining a light on his hometown. You don’t have to be born somewhere for it to become a part of who you are. This man—he bleeds Tennessee orange!
You could understand if Yassin had a chip on his shoulder, given his background as a refugee from Syria who was imprisoned. But he’s just the opposite. It doesn’t matter what faith you are, what color, what religion, on down the line, you see it in his eyes and feel it as soon as you walk through those doors. When we were there for lunch hour, I’m looking around and everyone is feeling comfortable. I asked people, “Why do you come here?” And they said it’s not just because it’s good food. They feel good about themselves! And to know that’s probably the first time some of them have met a Muslim or seen a refugee or even an immigrant, and they get to know him, and it’s absolute joy being in his presence.
KELLEY: It has to go both ways. One person like Yassin can’t generate a relationship like that by themselves.
ROBERTS: No they can’t. This story is two-fold. Kudos to the people of Knoxville as well as Yassin. You have to remember, it’s a really kickin’ college town so you already have an influence of different cultures on the University of Tennessee campus. And their great proactive mayor, Madeline, Rogero, also has embraced the creativity of the city, has encouraged people to be inclusive by her example. Plus Yassin himself is very excited for Knoxville! That tells you something true about how you don’t have to be born somewhere. A place becomes part of who you are and the pride is just the same as somebody who was born there.
KELLEY: You’ve lived in a lot of different places. Did you nominate any place yourself?
I knew that as a judge I couldn’t nominate it, but my hometown of Pass Christian is the nicest place in the whole wide world. And we’re even stronger and more united than we were before Katrina. It really bonds a community, going through a tragedy like that. You just roll up your sleeves and find out who your neighbors are real fast.
I was born in Alabama, reared in Mississippi, went to college in Louisiana, I’ve worked in Nashville and Atlanta—I’m a GRIT, a girl raised in the south. And there is something about that southern culture—I love the Pass. And after Katrina, people there actually adapted.
KELLEY: Communities going through things together makes for strong bonds.
ROBERTS: I was really drawn to the story of Katy, Texas, one of the Nicest finalists. Because I can relate. They went through Harvey.
KELLEY: There are so many submissions that describe a place that’s thriving despite something really tough happening— storms, a police shooting, etcetera. And you have a quote you often come back to: “Hard times do not discriminate.”
ROBERTS: People can feel like they’re immune from hardship—that there’s this chosen few who have a perfect life. No. Hard times can find and do find all of us. There’s none of us that get out of this life without some time feeling a sense of loss, whether it’s about our health, a loved one, our marriage, our job. But that’s not the tragedy. The tragedy is if we don’t figure out why this was put in our path and what lesson we’re supposed to learn from it and share from this setback.
KELLEY: Did you see places in the judging that demonstrate what you’re talking about?
ROBERTS: How about the library in Baltimore, Enoch Pratt? I love that story. You know how many libraries are shutting down across the country? But at Pratt you have a homeless gentleman talking about that library as a safe haven where he could work on his resume. Baltimore has the stigma of crime and tough things happening there. But then you have this amazing library!
And I love how you don’t get fined if you don’t turn your book back in. Now that’s nice!
KELLEY: Given the media landscape now—the narrative is we’re a divided country and there’s a lot of negative news—where do these local stories of people working through things together fit into coverage?
ROBERTS: Everything that really matters is local. And for people to be able to read and hear about places like these and go, “Well, you know there’s this place in our town that’s doing great things,” or to say, “We need a place like that in our town.” I did a story about a 92-year-old woman in Harlem who’s still practicing as a doctor. It was a simple piece. Melissa Friedman is the doctor and her grandfather was a slave who moved in New York in the 1800s. And she went to Howard, got her medical degree, and we showed her still practicing medicine, traveling on the subway, she even goes to the opera. We got so much reaction from that piece! People said, “Thank you, something nice—we need more of that!”
I’m not shying away from what’s going on in Washington and politics and all the racial issues we have in this country, which need to be addressed. I just think storytelling is very important, whether it’s what’s going on in Washington or in the Nicest Place in America.
KELLEY: At a time we are having a conversation about who’s welcome here and who isn’t. I see Yassin’s story as a community redefining what the American dream looks like.
ROBERTS: Had he received this recognition five years ago or five years in the future, it’d still be a great story. But the fact that he’s receiving this recognition now makes an important point today.
KELLEY: What do you think the point is?
ROBERTS: We have more in common than not. The point is that we all got here some kind of way. America—it’s the melting pot. We get away from remembering that and our heritage and being proud of our heritage.
Let me ask you, why did you want to do the Nicest Places?
KELLEY: Reader’s Digest is a non-political magazine at a time when everything in the media is going one way or the other. Outlets feel like they have to choose sides. And I didn’t want to choose. I have readers all over the political spectrum and what they have in common is they love kindness. That is at the core: We can put stories about “acts of kindness” on our cover and they sell off the newsstand. And so I thought we could focus on niceness and kindness as a way to show communities that are not falling into the narrative of division. It was a way for us to be topical without being political.
ROBERTS: That’s well said. I have as many people saying I’m to the right as who say I’m to the left—I love that. Neutral sounds like you’re weak or something, but it’s not.
KELLEY: Do you have any final words for our audience?
ROBERTS: I’m just so grateful to everyone who placed a nomination. I’m so grateful that we’re doing something like this. Being very proud about being in the news business and knowing the stories that need to be told, I’m glad that these stories are front and center. You know what? These are normally back of the book stories, but no you guys are saying, “No no no no no no no, this is our lead, baby.”
Next, get to know our winner for Nicest Places in America, Yassin’s Falafel House.