The People Who Helped Shape CPB’s Pat Harrison’s ‘True Self’

April 6, 2016

Pat Harrison, CEO and President, Corporation for Public Broadcasting,

This article was originally published by America's Promise Alliance at and is reposted here with permission.


By Eva Harder

When Patricia de Stacy Harrison finished first grade, her teacher copied a Shakespeare quote in her graduation book: “To thine own self be true.”

“[But I’ve learned] you have to spend a lifetime shaping your own true self,” Harrison said.

In Harrison’s lifetime, she’s been an entrepreneur, co-chair of the Republican National Committee, a State Department official, and the author of two books on women and leadership. And, for more than 10 years now, she’s been the president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the country’s leading funder of public radio and television.

Under Harrison’s leadership, CPB launched American Graduate: Let's Make It Happen, a public media initiative to build community capacity to increase high school graduation rates.

Through national and local reporting, the five-year-old initiative has helped people learn more about why students drop out of high school and about what works to keep them in school. It’s brought community leaders and educators together at town halls and public forums and offered free, digital resources like PBS Kids and PBS Learning Media to young people, teachers and parents.

Today, more than 100 stations nationwide are working with more than 1,500 local partners in 48 states to reach the GradNation goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020. On April 20, Harrison will receive the Promise of America award for the impact of her work on countless young people.

‘Every child needs a champion’

Harrison has worked hard to help people understand the real reason many young people drop out of high school: They don’t have enough support from caring adults.

“Through our documentaries, films, news reports and town hall meetings, we have been able to change the perception of the ‘dropout,’” she said, from a loser to a young person “struggling to stay in school with no one in their corner.”

CPB regularly features “American Graduate Champions,” or caring adults who influence young people in their communities every day. “Every child needs a champion in his or her life,” Harrison said.

Growing up, Harrison had a number of champions in her own life, including her mother, “who always encouraged me to do more, be more, take risks, have fun,” and her grandfather, “who expressed such a joy in living no matter how old he became.”

One of the most influential caring adults in her life wasn’t a person—it was a whole city. “In many ways, the Brooklyn of my youth was a composite of a caring adult,” she said.

From the candy store owner to a next-door neighbor, Harrison says she always had a pair of eyes on her, helping her stay out of trouble. And just as they were watching her, she was watching them.

“Along the way, I had so many mentors who shaped who I am by virtue of who they were,” she said. “All I had to do was watch, observe and learn.”

Youth, discover your moral compass.

When Harrison thinks about today’s youth, she sees a lot of potential.

“This generation has all the tools of communication and access to learning and knowledge at their fingertips,” she said. “No matter who they are or their economic circumstances, technology, with all of its inherent dangers, can level the playing field.” 

She believes in the optimism of youth and cautions adults not to limit young people or discourage them from achieving their dreams. “It is so exciting to be around young people who see no limits—until we put them in their way.”

She also has a bit of advice for young people themselves.

“Keep your eyes open. Read everything—especially those publications and online missives with which you disagree,” she said. “Find out everything you can about yourself and discover your moral compass. Take the compass everywhere you go and no matter where you wind up, you won’t be lost.”

In other words? To thine own self be true.