The ABC news veteran shared his inspiring story during a keynote fireside chat at last week’s virtual RISE National Summit on Social Determinants of Health.
John Quiñones has connected with audiences around the world as a broadcast journalist, author, motivational speaker, and creator and host of What Would You Do?, a hidden camera ethical dilemma newsmagazine that has made him “the face of doing the right thing” to millions of fans.
But the journey to success for the seven-time Emmy Award winner was a long and arduous one, he told moderator Kevin Moore, vice president, policy – health and human services, UnitedHealthcare Community & State, during last week’s summit.
Born and raised in a low-income area of San Antonio, Texas, Quiñones began his education in the first grade without speaking any English. He developed a strong work ethic early on and when he was 13-years-old took a job as a shoe shiner. But after his father was laid-off, Quiñones and his family were forced to move to find work. Alongside his father, Quiñones picked cherries for 75 cents a bucket in Michigan and eventually tomatoes in Ohio. “I learned the value of family coming together in times of difficulty,” he said.
One morning, Quiñones recalled, he had his , knees in the cold ground and miles of tomatoes ahead, when his father asked him if he wanted to do that kind of work for the rest of his life or if he would rather get a college education. From that moment forward, Quiñones knew he wanted more.
With the dream of becoming a journalist, he spoke with his teachers and school counselors for guidance, but they suggested he be more realistic and recommended he pursue woodshop or auto mechanics. But Quiñones knew his teachers and counselors judged him on the color of his skin and sound of his accent instead of talent and determination. So, with the encouragement of his mother, he took extra courses through Upward Bound, a federally funded educational program, to prepare for his college education.
Quiñones said he got his foot in the door as an intern at a radio station and continued to push forward in his career. “You just can’t take no for an answer,” he explained. With resiliency and a relentless passion, Quiñones built a television news career of more than 30 years with ABC.
Overcoming poverty and racism
Growing up in poverty and a segregated city was extremely difficult, noted Quiñones, but he credits the struggles he and his family faced with racism and poverty for his ability to connect with people as a reporter and TV host. “You never forget the poverty and how tough it was. You never forget the comments that were made to you,” he said. “The stories of those less fortunate resonate.”
The barriers people of color continue to face due to racism remains a major systemic problem, but Quiñones said he is inspired and encouraged by the actions younger generations have taken to fight for equality. The white community plays a critical role, he explained, to not just serve as allies but as advocates and activists as well. “We can’t just talk the talk; it’s time we walk the walk.” It is more important than ever to reach out and inspire the young rather than judge a person simply on appearance, he said.
Although his success has provided a very different life, Quiñones said he will never lose appreciation for the little things or forget where he came from,. And he still lives by the advice he was once given years ago: “When you’re on the elevator to success and you get to the top floor, don’t forget to send it back down for the next person,” he said.
Quiñones will return as a keynote speaker for the virtual event, RISE National 2020 on June 29-30, where he will deliver yet another inspiring message about reaching one’s highest potential.