Practicing Journalism, Preserving History

From a young age, inner city young people know they cannot depend on major newspapers, television stations or radio to cover their accomplishments. The television trucks show up only when an act of extreme violence takes place. The reporters never interview the class valedictorian or a young person whose art work won an award. These young people know that if they want to read accurate descriptions of their communities, they will have to write them.
For more than a decade, I have worked with young people as publisher of the Residents’ Journal, a magazine for and by low-income adults and young people in Chicago. In 1996, I was hired to launch Residents’ Journal as an independent news source for the city’s public housing tenants. Two years later, we started the Urban Youth International Journalism Program (UYIJP) to work with young people from public housing.
At the time, both programs were funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Chicago Housing Authority. But in 1999, we broke away, formed our own not-for-profit organization named We The People Media, and secured foundation funding to keep our mission going. Since then, both programs have won national awards, trained hundreds of young people as well as adults, changed public policy, and informed a community that lacks access to media outlets.
I scaled a steep learning curve during the first years of my tenure. My background as a journalist, college instructor, high school teacher and English major did little to prepare me for running a not-for-profit organization. In particular, I had to gain an understanding of what it takes to operate a successful youth journalism program in low-income neighborhoods, where we had to address the poverty of families, the prevalence of violence in neighborhoods, and the demolition of homes. But whenever I doubted whether the effort was worth it, I thought of the young people who had graduated from UYIJP.
One incident in particular taught me how powerful youth journalism programs can be. In 2000, a coalition of thousands of young people marched to downtown Chicago to protest cuts to the summer jobs program. The chief spokesperson for the protest was Quintana Woodridge, a participant in the first class of the UYIJP who had graduated from high school and started working for a community-based advocacy organization.
As one of the lead organizers for the event, Quintana developed a comprehensive media strategy for the march, telling each group of marchers to pick a spokesperson in case a reporter approached them. The next day, in the Chicago Sun Times article about the march, I saw quotes from Quintana as well as from Shelaina Bradley, who was a current student in the program. Shelaina was marching with fellow students at her alternative school. When I saw her the next day in class, I asked Shelaina why her peers chose her as their spokesperson. She explained that the other students told her, “You know how to talk to the media.” I was never prouder.
UYIJP and Housing Development
The wrecking ball began slamming into the Chicago’s public housing developments in 2000. Most of the former tenants ended up deeper on Chicago’s South Side, in other segregated, low-income communities with conditions that are horizontal versions of the public housing high-rises. The drug dealers and customers who had been based in public housing for decades simply relocated, often to the same areas to which the former residents moved.
The residents’ new neighborhoods worsen as the recession deepens, unemployment expands, and foreclosures sink moderate-income homeowners as well as tenants of foreclosed property owners. The City of Chicago promised to replace the demolished public housing developments with mixed-income communities, but construction is far behind schedule. Just a few hundred units have been built. For many of our young people, this means that they are separated from their former neighbors, people that are as close to them as their siblings.
We decided to change the UYIJP along with the changing situation of our families. For one thing, we decided to bring the program to the communities. Previously, we’d hold classes at a central location. But the participants’ parents explained that the cost of sending their kids downtown was a burden. Also, they were worried about their children’s safety during the journey. The parents have good cause for concern. So far this school year, 36 Chicago Public Schools students have been killed, mostly in gang-related shoot-outs on the city’s streets. To address these concerns, we began dispatching our teachers to schools, community centers and churches.
We had always recruited professional journalists as teachers. Now we needed journalists who were comfortable traveling around the city and meeting with the kids in their neighborhood institutions.
As a new not-for-profit, we also had to modify our programs to deal with the fact that we no longer had access to federal dollars. Special grants from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development allowed us to take the kids on trips to Washington DC and overseas to Ghana and Israel. That had been a powerful incentive for the young people to participate. Now we needed a new incentive.
We decided that the right thing to do was to begin paying the kids for their work. On the adult side of Residents’ Journal, we had a policy that the publication would be run like any other professional newsroom. Freelance reporters got paid by the published word at rates that were even with similarly sized publications. We decided to pay young people the same way.
Paying young people for their articles gives them work experience, helps with their family’s tight budgets, and underscores the program’s main lessons—that young peoples’ intellectual contributions are valuable. The young people’s articles are published in a special four-page section of every issue of Residents’ Journal. Whether they are producing videos or print, the young people are getting training that isn’t available in their schools or neighborhoods. They are also producing news articles, documentary films and radio for an audience that rarely gets positive portraits of its young people. Like many of our colleagues, the UYIJP regularly collaborates with other youth media projects around the country.
Youth Media Can Form Community and Create History
In a lonely building on an empty lot on the South Side of Chicago, a group of former residents of the Ida B. Wells public housing department gather every week to practice journalism. Many of them have experienced turbulence in their lives, and many continue to face challenges of poverty, drug abuse and worse in their own families. Journalism is a way to maintain the support network they depend on, and to exorcise the demons that harass them. For them, reporting, interviewing, researching, writing and editing are not just about generating news. They are tools to preserve memories and uphold the bonds of community.
The young people’s articles in Residents’ Journal help former residents help old friends stay in touch in their new neighborhoods. Since the paper is distributed throughout the city’s neighborhoods, the journal has helped former tenants reconnect and reminisce as a community. As a result, Residents’ Journal has become a virtual community for the tens of thousands of families who relocated after their public housing developments were torn down.
The journal is also a way for young people to write history, applying the rigor of journalism to their personal experience. In the most recent edition of Residents’ Journal, one youth reporter investigated the effects of the public housing demolitions on families. Another wrote about food deserts, the term for neighborhoods that lack access to good quality produce. Marcus Lane wrote about a policy that restricts students from traveling to other schools to see sports games. The article originated with Marcus’ disappointment at not being able to see his friends on his high school basketball team play a rival. Marcus talked to school officials, who explained that they developed the policy after several shootings took place after games, and to other young people and to learn their opinions on the ban. His instructor helped him craft a coherent narrative to inform the reader. Taken together, the articles are records of the lives of marginalized, African American and Latino young people from low-income families. Their stories are unavailable anywhere else but the few youth media programs and resources in Chicago.
The UYIJP and other youth media programs are doing more than providing kids with a means of self-expression. These programs train young people to participate in journalism, one of the most important institutions in a democratic system, and teach them skills to help them engage with schools, teachers, bosses, colleagues and the media. Just as important, their work counters the prevailing wisdom that young people—especially those in struggling communities—are illiterate, apathetic and indolent. Instead, youth journalism shows that young people are covering the important stories of their lives and communities, preserving history in the way media should.
Ethan Michaeli is the executive director of We The People Media. Ethan is the founder of Residents’ Journal and the UYIJP. Ethan was formerly an investigative reporter for the Chicago Daily Defender and is a current part-time faculty member in the Journalism Department of Columbia College-Chicago. He is the author of “Another Exodus,” an essay published in “Black Zion: African American Encounters with Judaism” (Oxford University Press), and has written for The Nation, the Chicago Tribune, In These Times and Ethan is a 1989 graduate of the University of Chicago with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature.
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Two years ago, by former tenants of the Ida B. Wells public housing development created The Other Side of the Fence, an anthology of articles and photographs of Ida B. Wells shortly before the development was demolished. A piece from this anthology is included below.
The Wells
The Wells is a place of many different flavors
Plenty of drowning souls that could all use a savior
Like every community it has its ups and downs
A place where you’ll see many a smile turned upside down
It used to be a place that I thought was full of danger
But now that I’ve been here awhile I’ve made some friends out of strangers
There were times that the feet and fists of others tried to hurt me
It’s part of an everyday fight for survival where they show no mercy
Leases get terminated here for non compliance
And the media would have you believe that everyone here is violent
Though it’s not a tourist attraction like Wisconsin Dells
When it’s gone we will never forget the Wells
The little things like hurting my knee when I was riding my bike and fell
To when I got hit by a car and my cousin ran to tell
It may not mean much to others, but to us it’s a landmark
Things like the writing on the walls could even be viewed as art
A lot of our friends and family are gone from the Wells most of them have moved
The day is on the way that we’ll wake up and the Wells will be new and improved
When that day comes we’ll be ready for a new start
But know without a doubt, the Wells will always hold a special place in our heart