This past January, after moving back to MN from Arizona, I began working as a freelance journalist again, working with the Twin Cities Daily Planet and The UpTake, organizations I had already established working relationships with. It was a starting point. It was not that I was completely prepared to do this work. Despite having worked as a journalist for years prior, this decision to pursue this work meant more. I was pivoting pretty swiftly off the community organizing track I had been on and success or failure with the TCDP and The UpTake would be an important sign of whether or not I should keep pursuing journalism, despite years of doing journalism prior (and, even, at one point giving up on journalism).
My focus in this work has been on the stories and issues important to communities of color. I’ve tried to center their narratives and center those communities as the focus of my reporting. Instead of doing journalism from a me vs. them or me +/ them perspective, which I think is common to the field, I’ve tried to step more into my own self (as a person of color who is sometimes white-passing, depending on who is judging) and tried to build this work with these communities, rather than as an outsider.
At the same time, I’m a permanent student. Aside from a gap year between undergrad and grad school, I’ve been in school since 4 years old. I’ve always hated summer vacation. And I tend to live my life by semester.
As the semester has come to an end, and so has an intense amount of writing, I thought it would be appropriate to step back and analyze what I have done this semester and ask myself “how have I sustained the voices of people on the margins?” and how have I learned more about both my journalism practice and my journalism research focus (and myself in that)? My old mentor has always said “If it’s not worth evaluating, it’s not worth doing.”
I’ve written a number of different types of work this semester: a three part analysis of the state legislature’s work to decrease Minnesota’s racial and economic disparities, my first investigative piece, a straight news article on housing and several shorter articles (1000 words or less) related to the Minnesota political scene. Overwhelmingly, my focus has been on centering people of color and the narratives of people of color. I have also learned so much as a journalist. I was never trained as a journalist in a classroom. My training happened in the streets, my training happened because I put myself into situations where I had to learn how to do the thing I needed to learn. It means that sometimes my writing process, my journalism process, is messy. It means sometimes my head, my heart, and my hand are not in sync with each other. It means I’ve needed to learn patience with myself. It also means having to learn to trust myself and my journalism instincts at the same time that I develop that instinct.
Overall, I think my journalism practice, over the last several months, has been successful. I feel I can call myself a journalist now in ways that I could not have in the past even when I was doing journalism for so many years on-and-off. I’m excited to move forward and even more excited to look back and understand the impact of from whence I came to where I am going. Because of this past semester’s work as a freelance journalist, the successes I had and the challenges I faced, I’ve decided to make freelance journalism my permanent career, with the hopes of eventually working as a news producer for an organizations I build.
This is not an exhaustive list of everything I wrote this year, but it is an exhaustive list of everything that A) was part of my efforts to do journalism of color and B) impacted me or my journalism practice.
As a note: Just in the past few weeks, I finished several pieces I began during the academic semester. I’ve included them here due to their import.
(Three-part series below)
I have been incredibly lucky this past semester that I have been working with editors who A) trust me to report on issues related to communities of color and focus my reporting practice on sustaining and elevating the voices of people of color and B) are able to guide me when needed. I’ve been able to report on issues I am comfortable speaking about and exploring, because I understand them even as complicated though they may be, like housing, elections, and state policy and policy-making, but I’ve grown leaps and bounds through my exploration of housing and housing injustice in the Twin Cities.
I also recently questioned myself this semester, not my commitment to this work which I am proud to say has remained unwavering, but definitely my capacity to do this work. The investigative piece on Glendale and MPHA, my first investigative piece, is the single most difficult thing I have ever had to write, equal to my graduate thesis in my fear of it. My research for the article required my analysis of hundreds (if not thousands) of emails from the City of Minneapolis, Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA), the Prospect Park Neighborhood Association, and the Defend Glendale organizing group. It also required dozens of interviews. All but three of those interviews were with residents of the Glendale Townhomes, Minneapolis last public housing complex. Not only were those interviews a challenge as many of the residents were fearful of speaking on-the-record, but most of the residents were refugees or recent immigrants to the the USA and thus English was not their first language or even their second language. As well, it required me to spend a considerable amount of time with the residents as I worked to gain their trust, which was required as I worked to dig deeper into the story.
I became more and more anxious as we got closer to publishing that I did something wrong, that I had missed something, that MPHA would complain and point something out I had missed and the article would fall apart and I would be humiliated and the organization destroyed.
Moreso, I worried that residents would read the article—they gathered as a community to review it after it was read and translated to them—and would think I had misunderstood their stories, had not elevated their truths, had mis-spoken in some way.
There was not any word of that article I did not toil over. I was my editor’s backseat editor, any time a sentence was changed, I would go in and review it to make sure the edits did not change what I had meant. Every word was important to me and every single word in that article was chosen intentionally.
It was a terrifying experience writing that article. I could feel who I was as a journalist shifting, but I could also feel the core of who I am shifting in ways I am A) still discovering and B) very protective of.
I did not sleep the night before we published. I kept checking my email over and over again waiting for the organization to release the article. And after we published, I waited all day for the residents to get back to me. It took me a week to realize MPHA was not going to release some sort of scathing indictment of my journalism.
Lead organizer Ladan Yusuf called me right before the community met to read the article and then review it. It was the single most nerve-wracking 45 minutes of my professional life. And the minutes after that were some of the most thrilling.
I don’t believe in non-biased journalism. I think that journalists, including myself, should strive to be accurate and truthful. I also think that independent journalists like myself should strive to sustain and elevate the voices of those who are marginalized, to share truths least often shared in the mainstream news. I do not think we should strive for some false equivalency of non-bias as if injustice is just as important as seeing the fight for justice in our newspapers and news media.
Throughout this semester, I have strived to not only make sure the stories I report on are meaningful to marginalized communities and from those communities, I have also worked to make sure those communities’ voices are core to the work I do. For each article, I wanted to make sure the majority of my primary sources were low-income people of color and my secondary sources originated from people and communities of color. This is an intentional decision of mine and something I feel I was mostly successful in doing. I also think it illustrates dynamics of power and oppression in ways that could not otherwise be seen by doing otherwise.
I am addicted to news. When I drive, I listen to Minnesota/National Public Radio. I read the news (in-print and online) every morning, at night, and throughout the day, every day. I watch the nightly news on our local channels and on CNN. One of the habits I have developed just this semester, as I continue to learn and grow in this work, was to not only read the news in order to be an engaged citizen, but to read the news and analyze the perspectives I felt missing from coverage and the questions I felt still remained as I sought to understand what angles I could take on specific stories.
I have also become more and more aware of how to use language that sustains the voices of people from marginalized communities, that does not strip them of their agency, capacity, or power to create meaningful change. For example, this morning I was working on a piece about the fight to save Lowry Grove. I try and make sure the residents have the last word as I write this article. I can still challenge them, by noting the difficulties they face and holding them accountable to their work and systems, but I can also make sure they have the last word, that people understand they are the ones we should be paying attention to.
It’s honestly been such a learning process this semester. I feel like who I am as a journalist has grown in ways I could never have expected, in ways I never could have seen myself growing. I never saw myself as an investigative journalist before this semester, but it turns out that is where my heart lies. And while I have always been a multi-media journalist, I’ve been really enjoying how I can use words creatively to get the point across and get people’s attention. I do, however, want to start building in more multi-media reporting: infographics, short audio and video clips, maybe starting my own monthly podcast to explore this idea of journalism of color. I feel really excited for the journalism I have coming up and the opportunities I have the opportunity to pursue. I’m grateful for the chance to be this thing I always dreamt of. And even more grateful to see that who I am and what I do means something to people.