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Journalism Program Explores Black Students’ Experiences

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The Nation recently launched a student journalism program that provides training and mentoring opportunities for Black student journalists while giving them a platform to document the lived experiences of Black students on campus.

Under the direction of Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry of the Anna Julia Cooper (AJC) Center at Wake Forest University and Dr. Sherri Williams at American University, 10 “Black On Campus” student participants will attend workshops and conferences that enhance their journalistic capabilities in pitching stories, developing sources and producing long-term projects, among other skills.

Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry

“This project is giving these students an opportunity to tell these stories without having to fight with editors, without having to prove the newsworthiness of Black people and our experiences,” said Williams, co-director of the program and assistant professor in race, media and communication at American University. “I hope that the stories these students produce really show people that there is a layered, nuanced and complex experience that Black students are having on college campuses today, and there’s not one singular or homogenous experience that they’re having.”

Williams said the program is particularly important because the “default” narrative of the college experience is often that of a middle-class White college student.

To fully show the “multiplicity of [the Black] experience,” students in the program come from places such as Arizona, Atlanta, Louisiana, Washington, D.C. and New York City.

Undergraduate and graduate participants were chosen in January and virtually meet with Harris-Perry and Williams every Sunday. They discuss their reporting projects for The Nation and learn how the editing process works.

Students are learning how to pitch a story idea and how to write a solid lede and nut graf – a story’s beginning – “so that when they do get out into the field and it is time for them to compete, they do have more skills,” Williams said.

Additional trainings for the students revolve around how to develop an idea, turn it into a full story, interview various individuals, develop sources, identify key questions for interviews and mine data that will help tell their stories in unique and complex ways to bring attention to issues on their campuses that have not gotten much attention from national media, Williams said.

The students will have additional travel opportunities to Washington, D.C. and New York City to attend The Nation’s Student Journalism Conference at The New School. They recently attended the “Know Her Truths” conference hosted by Harris-Perry’s AJC Center in March.

While there, the student journalists served as social media correspondents, interviewing conference attendees and writing about the event, which focused on how women of color are changing oppressive and suppressive systems through their activism and scholarship.

In addition to attending a two-hour session with a data distributions specialist from the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the students participated in an intensive day-long investigative training session with the Ida B. Wells Society, a nonprofit journalism organization founded by a group of Black investigative journalists: Nikole Hannah-Jones of New York Times Magazine, Topher Sanders of ProPublica, Ron Nixon of the New York Times and Corey Johnson of the Tampa Bay Times.

Coming off the heels of the conference, Alexis Gravely, a student at the University of Virginia, said her experience in the program has been amazing. As a student reporter in the wake of the marches and protests in Charlottesville, she said she thought the program was an important opportunity for her to develop her journalism skills.

The biggest takeaways for Gravely have been learning about pitching stories to editors, developing and maintaining relationships with sources and filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, she said.

When she met her Black On Campus peers in March, she said, “We all clicked immediately. It was like we have known each other forever.”

As mentors, Williams and Harris-Perry “have been great,” Gravely said. “I enjoy listening to how they approach a story, because on the [virtual] calls, they’re listening to all of our stories and they’re giving all of us tips.”

She recalled an instance when the directors suggested that a good way to gather questions for an interview is to ask other sources what they would like to say to the person.

“So, just those little things here and there in what they say and what they do and how they approach journalism has been really helpful,” Gravely said. “It’s just been an honor getting to learn from them.”

DeAsia Sutgrey, a University of Kansas sophomore, said the program has increased her confidence as a writer.

“Meeting other Black women journalists who are interested in topics that I’m interested in and are dedicated to telling the truth of Black women and their stories was very encouraging to me,” she said, “and it really boosted my confidence in pitching certain stories dedicated to Black women and Black people, and just writing about them in general.”

As one of a few Black reporters in her school’s newsroom, Sutgrey’s project for The Nation has reaffirmed that her “work is important, that our stories are important, as well,” she said.

After sharing concerns about the lack of diversity at her journalism school, Sutgrey said, Williams told her that sometimes people in the newsroom will not share her gender and race. She has since learned that collaboration with newsroom peers is essential for raising more awareness for diverse stories.

“I think I’m going to have to make better use of collaborating with those White colleagues,” she said.

Williams said that the more than 100 applications received for Black On Campus indicated two things to her.

First, there are Black people and Black students in the pipeline who are “interested and waiting to jump into the field of journalism,” which refutes the statement often given by news editors and producers that they “just can’t find any” qualified Black prospects for internships or fellowships.

Second, Williams said, “Black students are having some experiences that they are ready to share.”

In Williams’ own observations of racial incidents at American and following the racial incidents in Charlottesville last summer, she and Harris-Perry, decided that it would be a good idea to produce nuanced stories about what it is like to be a Black college student – including Black and queer or Black and first-generation, for example – on campuses today.

Williams said another impetus for Black On Campus was an earlier project with Harris-Perry titled “Squad Care.” In that project, students explored and wrote stories about how people can collectively care for one another “as a squad” in the face of the increasing commodification of self-care.

Wanting to work with students again in a similar fashion, but with a stronger news angle that tapped into the lived experience of the students, Williams and Harris-Perry brought the idea for Black On Campus to The Nation, where Harris-Perry said she “first found a national platform.”

“It is where I first wrote a monthly column, learned to marshall evidence, handle criticism, hone an argument, make a deadline and build a voice over time.  I will always consider The Nation my media home base,” she said in announcing Black On Campus. “It is a privilege and I am thrilled to work with a cohort of talented young writers to ensure it can be a launching pad for their contributions.”

Now, the Black On Campus participants will explore topics including Black employment and the ways the wealth gap and rising tuition disadvantages Black students pursuing a higher education; Black mental health care; Black women’s leadership on campus and how sexual assault affects Black college women.

“What I’ve seen is that these are young people who have a strong understanding and grasp of their history and the history of their people in this country and a strong commitment to documenting what is happening to Black people today,” Williams said. “These are not stories that we typically see, but these are stories and experiences that are important and they deserve to be documented.”

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at tiffany@diverseeducation.com. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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