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What Would You Do?: Diversity Forum keynote speaker John Quiñones advocates for empathy even when no one’s watching

Host of hidden camera show “What Would You Do?” John Quiñones gave the keynote address at UW-Madison’s 2019 Diversity Forum Tuesday, sharing his journey as a TV reporter and encouraging everyone to be active bystanders. 

Host of hidden camera show “What Would You Do?” John Quiñones gave the keynote address at UW-Madison’s 2019 Diversity Forum Tuesday, sharing his journey as a TV reporter and encouraging everyone to be active bystanders. 

Image By: Dana Brandt

UW-Madison Diversity Forum keynote speaker John Quiñones said he created the hidden camera series “What Would You Do” to “hold up a mirror” to American society.

No matter what walk of life people come from, they face ethical dilemmas every day, Quiñones said during his speech Tuesday morning — the question is what these people do when they think no one is watching. 

“What do you do with that opportunity to right a wrong? Do you sound the alarm, lend a helping hand or do you just mind your own business and walk away?” Quiñones said. “We should be saying to ourselves, ‘In my heart, I know that I could have done something,’ and that should be all the reasoning you need to step in and do the right thing because silence is complicity.”

Situations on Quiñones’ hit ABC show range from “what would you do if you saw someone stealing a bike?” to “what would you do if you saw someone fall down on the sidewalk?” Quiñones and the show’s team further complicate the situations, however, by changing the race, gender, social class or other identifying factors of the subject, often leading to different results that expose people’s biases. 

The key to being an “active bystander” — someone who steps in during these situations — is putting yourself in the victim’s shoes, Quiñones said. 

“In some ways it's easier for some of us who have been there,” he said. “After all these years of doing the show, I've found that time and again the people who step in and get involved and come to the rescue are the folks who themselves have been the targets of racism or bullying or gay-bashing or spousal abuse. They sound the alarm because they know what it's like, how painful it can be.” 

Many moments in real life reflect the ethical dilemmas of “What Would You Do?” minus the hidden cameras, he said. 

Quiñones shared a story from his own life, when a woman told him he was in the wrong boarding line at an airport and added, “The announcement was made in English. We speak English in America.”

Quiñones confronted the woman on the airplane and suggested she would be a perfect candidate for his show and told the crowd “that's why we do the show, because the country needs it now more than ever.”

He grew up in San Antonio, where his family has lived for seven generations — “I didn't cross the border, the border crossed me,” he said — and his parents didn’t complete their education but encouraged their son with his. 

Quiñones wanted to be a TV reporter since age 12, inspired by Geraldo Rivera, but many teachers and counselors tried to direct him to careers in woodshop or auto-mechanics — careers he didn’t disparage, but weren’t his dream. 

“My own teachers and my own counselors in my public school would do what people do on that show 'What Would You Do?' every Friday night,” Quiñones said. “They judged me by the color of my skin and the accent in my voice.”

Quiñones’ first TV reporting job was in Chicago for CBS, and it allowed him the opportunity to report on an issue he wanted to explore for a while: illegal immigration — and as a Hispanic journalist, he was able to report the story in a way other journalists couldn’t. 

Quiñones traveled to Mexico and went undercover as someone trying to cross the border illegally, detailing the dangerous process. After he successfully crossed, he continued posing as an undocumented immigrant back in Chicago while working at a restaurant. The restaurant’s owner was withholding pay from undocumented workers by threating to turn them in. 

After the story aired, the government shut down the restaurant and arrested the owner. The undocumented workers received their money and temporary visas while they worked on their residency — and Quiñones received his first of seven Emmys. 

“You talk about the value of diversity, those are the kinds of stories that I could tell better than anyone,” he said.

As Quiñones moved on to “What Would You Do?” stories on the show have also had large impacts on the people in them. 

When the show conducted the “fallen person on the sidewalk” experiment with someone who appeared to be an alcoholic homeless man, 88 people walked by. However, a woman with a disability who has been homeless herself stopped to wait with the man until someone got him help, since she didn’t have a cell phone to call 9-1-1 herself. 

Viewers were touched by this act of kindness by the woman, Linda Hamilton, so they started an online donation page and raised $10,000 for her, Quiñones said. 

Quiñones ended his speech by telling everyone to remember the actions of Linda Hamilton.

“[Character is] not what we do when everyone's watching — that's easy,” he said. “It's what we do even when no one is watching. It's all about — as Spike Lee would say — doing the right thing.”

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