TRNN and Just Media teamed up this year to launch the POWER Fellowship, an in-depth summer training program for young, emerging journalists working to report stories from a critical perspective on policing and incarceration. On Sept. 6, 2023, at the TRNN studio in Baltimore, TRNN and Just Media cohosted a live event to celebrate the work of POWER Fellows Tinashe Chingarande and Ahmari Anthony, and to discuss the importance of finding and training the next generation of journalists.
Ahmari Anthony (she/her), born in Pittsburgh and residing in Washington, DC, is a school social worker and freelance journalist with a background in journalism, English, and macro social work from Howard University. As a POWER fellow, Ahmari is committed to confronting the school-to-prison pipeline, advocating for restorative justice, and spotlighting the injustices and flaws of the criminal legal system. She also seeks to further develop her trauma reporting, writing, and editor communication skills.
A writer deeply engaged with history, politics, culture, and identity, Tinashe Chingarande (she/her) is committed to analyzing the multifaceted impacts of the criminal justice system in our 21st-century society, aiming to reveal the complex dynamics of punishment and evasion within the system as she refines her reporting skills throughout her fellowship. As a POWER fellow, Tinashe is eager to bring to light stories about who faces punishment, who escapes it, and the reasons behind these realities. Her fellowship journey will include honing skills in interviewing, source building, trauma reporting, writing, and story pitching.
Just Media is a national hub supporting emerging storytellers to cover the justice issues that define our generation. In the current moment, we’re seeing years of grassroots power-building coming to a head — with the uprisings, movements to defund and abolish carceral systems, voting rights restoration for 100,000s of formerly incarcerated people, referendums on DAs, and more.
Pre-Production: John Duda, Tatyana Monnay
Studio Production: David Hebden, Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino, Kayla Rivara
John Duda: Hello. Welcome everybody. My name is John Duda. I am the executive director here at The Real News Network. And thank you everyone for coming out tonight to celebrate our first ever cohort of POWER Fellows. Really exciting to be able to welcome you all here and to welcome our fellows. It’s been something we were really excited to do this summer, and you’re going to hear a lot more about it tonight.
But I do want to tell you a little bit about us. We are a media organization that’s dedicated to challenging the status quo in journalism. And for us, that doesn’t just mean what gets said in the media, it’s who gets to say it, who is allowed to say it, who gets a platform, who gets the mentorship, who gets the power to tell their stories? And which communities are those stories informed by and told for? Across all of our work, these are the kinds of questions we’re always asking. It’s one of our core commitments as a newsroom.
And that’s why we started the POWER Fellowship this summer, which was done with the support of the Scripps Howard Fund, as well as a few really generous individual donors. And I hope, with more support, we can do it again next year as well.
To go a little bit deeper into why we got this program off the ground, I don’t need to tell you sitting here in Baltimore that we have a system of mass incarceration and policing that is, well, first of all, shameful, historically unprecedentedly shameful, but also deeply, deeply racialized. You can’t even begin to understand the system without understanding how anti-Blackness, for instance, is wired into it, both in terms of its long history, but also in terms of its current structure and operation.
So for us, thinking about reporting on this, thinking about making media about this, we want to make sure that the voices that are getting a chance to tell the stories that matter about this system are connected to the communities that are most impacted by it. It’s pretty simple, but it’s not really the way our media system tends to operate.
And that means we’ve got to disrupt the status quo. We’ve got to figure out who’s getting opportunities and build something that gives opportunities to people who aren’t getting them. We’ve got to get people the mentorship, we’ve got to get people the support they need to actually be able to build careers as journalists who can come to the table with the critical perspective that you only get when you feel these issues in your bones.
And we also knew that, as a relatively small newsroom, it seems like we’re chasing 10,000 stories every week or sometimes every day, and pulling our hair out over the latest fire to put out and the latest thing to get up online. We knew that we wouldn’t, on our own, have the ability or the capacity to dedicate ourselves to this project with the level of intention, an intentional pedagogy, an intentional support that it deserved, which is why we were so, so excited with the POWER Fellowship to be able to team up with the amazing folks at Just Media.
This was a match that made this project possible, and I could stand up here, I could tell you all about how awesome they are, and how cool their mission is, and how wonderful they are to work with. But lucky for you, I’m actually just going to be able to turn it over to Tatyana Monnay, who is the program manager at Just Media, who can tell you all about their work, why it matters, and introduce tonight’s panel of fellows. So welcome, Tatyana, to The Real News Network [applause].
Tatyana Monnay: Like John said, my name is Tatyana Monnay. I am a program manager for Just Media. Just Media, we are a national non-profit where our mission is really to tell a new story around prisons, policing, criminal justice reform. How we do that is we do that through our fellowship programs. We support writers, we connect with organizers throughout the country to hear more about their stories, hear more about the things that they’re working on from the ground up. One big thing at Just Media that is really important that we try to instill in our writers is that their identities, their perspectives are an aid to their reporting rather than telling them to push it down in the name of objectivity.
So tonight we are going to be hearing from some of our great POWER Fellows, Tinashe and Ahmari, and we’ll be hearing about their reporting projects this summer and some of the great stories that they were able to tell this summer in Baltimore. And yeah, thank you so much to The Real News Network for being a great publishing partner. We’re so happy that we were able to do this and align our two missions so seamlessly. And thank you to our amazing host, Max Alvarez, for moderating this discussion. It’s going to be great. So thank you all for being here [applause]. And with that, we can welcome up our amazing panel.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right, thank you so much, Tatyana. Let’s give it up for Tatyana, everyone [applause]. And thank you to John, our executive director here at The Real News Network. Let’s get it up for John [applause]. Thank you to our incredible Real News crew who are recording this and will be editing it. Let’s give it up for the crew [applause]. And let’s give a big round of applause for our two amazing fellows, Tinashe and Ahmari [applause].
So before we get going, I was wondering if I could ask y’all to just pick up the mics real quick and introduce yourselves to the good audience. Tell us a bit about yourself up front, and then we’ll get into discussing more about how you got into journalism, what the fellowship was like, the stories, the incredible stories you both put together. But first, let’s start off by introducing yourselves to everybody.
Tinashe Chingarande: Well, like Max said, I’m Tinashe. I’m originally from Zimbabwe, and I am freshly graduated from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism with my Master’s in Journalism. And essentially I am a person trying to find their place in the world, trying to find purpose, and exploring identity and the anecdotes and the stories that people tell through identity is one of those things that I really try to pursue. So yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome.
Tinashe Chingarande: Thanks.
Ahmari Anthony: Hi everyone. I’m Ahmari. I am originally from Pittsburgh, but I’ve been living in DC full-time for two years now, on and off for about six. I also just graduated in May from Howard. I actually got my Master’s in Social Work, but my undergrad degree was in journalism. And I guess I am a writer first. Sometimes I struggle with the term “journalist” for reasons I guess we’ll talk about. But I’m a writer. Now, I work as a school social worker, a macro school social worker. So that’s all community organizing, advocacy, some of those larger systemic things. And I like to read. I like reading and tea. That’s me.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh yeah. Well, Ahmari, Tinashe, it is so exciting to get a chance to sit down with you both and have this conversation to get to know more about you both, as I said, your paths into journalism. I imagine a lot of folks who are out there watching this now or in the future, there are going to be a lot of folks who are thinking about getting into journalism. Maybe they’re just getting started and they’re looking for answers. So we’re going to put ourselves back in their shoes and say, okay, based on what you’ve learned putting together these incredible pieces for this fellowship, what can we offer people in that position? And let’s talk more about the stories themselves.
First and foremost, I just wanted to also, once again, thank and welcome everyone for coming here to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here, and it’s so wonderful to welcome you all here, and to have this discussion for everyone who’s watching it in the future as well.
So as Tatyana and John said, we here at The Real News have been incredibly honored and excited to be a partner with Just Media as part of this POWER Fellowship, the first year cohort. And so thank you both for being the first cohort, and apologies if we were figuring some stuff out in the process. But it’s been so cool to watch how this project has developed from the first time we all met over Zoom, to hearing about the progress y’all were making, to now seeing some of this great work published at The Real News Network, which everyone should go read. And you can find them on our website, share them with everyone you know. It’s really, really cool and exciting stuff that I want to talk to you all about.
But as I said, before we get there, I want to get to know a little more about you both, and you mentioned some details in those bios and I’m like, ooh, I want to hear more about that. And I bet people listening want to hear more about that. So I was wondering if we could start by building on the points that John and Tatyana mentioned about how the kind of work that we do means that we need as many different kinds of people doing it as possible, and covering as many different stories and experiences as possible. And what that means is that if you’re watching this and you think a journalist is someone else, but not me, a journalist can be anybody. And so I wanted to ask how you all became journalists, or what was your path into this world of journalism and where does journalism fit in the rest of the pursuits that you do? So Tinashe, let’s start with you.
Tinashe Chingarande: Like many journalists, my path into the field was quite unconventional. So I went to college in Missouri as an opera major, and I have immigrant parents who that wouldn’t have flown with, and so I switched to comms. And the summer before my senior year, I needed to get an internship, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I interned at a local magazine and covered local arts, culture, entertainment. And I realized through that internship that it’s not necessarily that my passion was to be a musician or to be a journalist or any kind of person, but I really am passionate about telling stories. And I realized that the written form is something that comes so natural to me. It’s like second nature, and it just feels more spiritual to me. And so –
Maximillian Alvarez: Wait, wait. Say more about that [laughs].
Tinashe Chingarande: I feel like to be able to put words on paper and truly communicate how you see something and how you feel something affirms who you are as a human being. And I feel like it solidifies your positioning on earth, it breeds life into your life, for lack of a better phrase, because I feel like oftentimes we walk around the world existing as labels, and I think that writing sometimes helps to enliven us. And so when I realized that storytelling is what I’m passionate about and writing is the form of storytelling I like the most, I went ahead with it and went to grad school for journalism and graduated, and now I’m in the workforce.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Ahmari, what about you?
Ahmari Anthony: I think that the place that I always pinpoint as the start of my journalist journey was the summer going into my junior year of high school, or maybe it was my senior year. It doesn’t matter which time it was. But I know that it was a summer, and I had been writing for a long time. I had been writing a lot and reading a lot and becoming politicized by going to different spoken word events back home, and writing and reading a lot of poetry, a lot of fiction about things that were going on in my community that I felt really resonated with me. Things as a woman, as a Black person, all of those things, understanding my sexuality at that age. And so my mom had been talking to me a lot about how she was tired of me rambling to her for hours and hours on end [Alvarez laughs] about the criminal justice system and this and that.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wait, so you guys were literally that meme of the mom on the couch [Alvarez and Anthony laugh].
Ahmari Anthony: Yeah. And my poor dad and my little siblings. So my mom really wanted to direct my creative energy and my passion for writing as I was starting to apply for colleges. And so she was like, you should look for something a little bit more lucrative than being an English major. And I didn’t know much about journalism at the time, but my mom knew someone who knew someone else who was spreading the word about this camp that was going on in Pittsburgh. And it was put on by the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, which is our local chapter of the NABJ, or the National Association of Black Journalists.
So I joined that camp. It was a week-long intensive camp at Point Park University. It was intensive, and they completely meant that. We stayed in the dorms, we worked from 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM, sometimes later on nights when we had deadlines. And we got broken up into teams. So there was the print team, there was the audio team, they did a radio show, and then there was the TV team. And so all of us had to put out our own newspaper, our own hour-long TV show, and then our own hour-long radio show by the end of a week.
So there were maybe 20 of us. So that required everyone writing at least three stories. And again, I had never done journalism writing before, so it was really intimidating and overwhelming at first. But I remember at the end of that experience that I got an award, and it was called the One Shot Award, and it was like someone who can turn in a draft and say what they mean, in that way that you were talking about where it’s just like you are able to communicate exactly what you heard and exactly what you mean the first time. And that really made me feel like this could be a good path for me.
So after that, when I was applying to colleges, I did a lot of HBCUs, and I only looked for places that had communication schools. I ended up at Howard School, The Cathy Hughes School of Communications. That was an amazing experience. And I wrote for The Hilltop there. I got to be an editor for The Hilltop there. And the rest is history. I’ve been hopping around at different fellowships and freelancing ever since then.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. So I’m trying not to go full podcast mode because there’s so many questions that I want to ask you both after that. If I can give myself just one before we talk about the fellowship, and I promise we will – Don’t worry, Tatyana, I’m getting there.
But before we get there, I just wanted to ask what did the world of journalism look like to you? Because I’m trying to think about when I was your age – God, I sound like an old fart. But when I was coming out of high school, going into college, what did journalism mean to me? What did I associate with that word? Because it meant a manner of things. We grew up conservative, so we had Fox News on. It’s not journalism, but I associated it with journalism. I associated the format on television and the anchors behind the desk and the names on the newspapers. It was still largely a pre-digital conception of what journalism means and who a journalist is. A lot has changed since then. That was like what, 2005? So yeah, the internet existed, but I didn’t get my news there.
Now everyone gets their news there. So I’m just curious, as you’re finding your own ways into journalism, what did the world of journalism look like to you from the outside before you got in, and where did you feel you could fit in or where you felt there were gaps that needed to be filled?
Tinashe Chingarande: So for me, I think entering journalism was a rude awakening for me [Alvarez laughs], because I grew up watching Black anchors. So Isha Sesay on CNN was a common fixture in our household. I read a lot of Black writers, reading Black writers who wrote for newspapers and their opinion columns and stuff like that. And so entering the field, I didn’t realize how much it’s white [Alvarez and Chingarande laugh] and how very, for lack of a better term, white boys clubby it is. And so that rude awakening motivated me to even stand stronger in what I believe in and in my positioning as a Black woman journalist, because I realized that it’s so important for other people to be able to consume the kind of media I did, because my view of journalism was very monolithic in what today people would call, I guess, a diverse way. So yeah.
Ahmari Anthony: I think for me, growing up, I was always really attached to Time magazine and Reader’s Digest for some reason. I used to spend hours and hours and hours stacking up the Reader’s Digest and going back years and reading them. But then when I went to that journalism camp, they started us with hours of lectures about the history of Black journalism and what it’s done for this country and things like that. Being from Pittsburgh and you have the Pittsburgh Courier and the Double V Campaign, the introduction that I got to journalism was what people of color can do when we have the opportunity to tell our stories about what’s going on in our community. So that was the perspective that I had.
And then going to Howard’s communication school, it was the same thing. Learning about people like Ida B. Wells and getting to understand about the massive network of Black newspapers and magazines, having people from Jet and Ebony and Essence come talk to us every single week. It just seemed normal to me. And then I started trying to get an internship and I realized as we toured newsrooms and got internships that that’s not what the world looked like anymore.
And I think also in our age group, we were at that time where a lot of places like Black magazines and newspapers were losing funding, closing their doors. So then places that I had dreamed about all through high school wanting to work at, I found out don’t exist anymore, or they’ve been consolidated into the local city paper. So there’s still some people there, but it’s not really what it once was. And so that was something that discouraged me a little bit.
But being able to still be close to those networks of Black writers or networks of women’s writers, it taught me the importance of still being able to commune with like-minded people and what we can do when we pull our resources to make publications that have that ideology grounded. Even if it doesn’t look like an entirely Black newspaper anymore, I don’t think that’s as common, but the ideology is still something that exists in a lot of publications that have been popping up, or places like Just Media that don’t have a physical space, but have a network of writers around all working towards the same thing. So I think that that was something that I’ve learned over time.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. I think that’s beautifully put. Again, we’re recording this in early September 2023, and I’d be remiss after talking about newspapers in Pittsburgh if I didn’t shout out our colleagues on strike at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who have been on strike since October of 2022, and shame on the Block family who owned the paper and refused to bargain in good faith.
But that kind of stuff, obviously as someone in this industry as well, really depresses me and infuriates me, but also hearing your stories gives me hope. And I think I feel the same way about journalism as I felt when I was in academia, even though I’m not there anymore. And I know academia and higher education gets a lot of crap. People are always saying, oh, what are they indoctrinating our kids with? Or West Virginia University is having its staff gutted right now. Higher education is always under attack.
But I would say then, as I would say now about journalism, is this place is too important to leave to these people. This is an institution worth fighting for, even if we’ve got to crawl our asses in through the basement window like we’re here now and we’ve got to fight on our hands.
And I want to talk about that in the context of the fellowship. Because with all that in y’all’s background, and yeah, I imagine folks, again, watching or listening to this, they’ll be coming from similar or very different situations. But the point is that you can be part of this world too. And fellowships like the POWER Fellowship, organizations like Just Media, will help you. And the stories that you want to tell do deserve to be told and shared. And we at outlets like The Real News want to share them. So it’s an important ecosystem to maintain.
So let’s talk about the fellowship itself. Let’s talk about what it is and lift the hood for people watching. What was it like to apply for the fellowship, get admitted, meet your fellows, and what have y’all been working on these past few months? How did you go through the process of targeting the stories that you wanted to focus on, developing the stories, researching them, interviewing people, changing the story? Talk us through the process, because there’s so much about it that I’m sure can be helpful, if not interesting, for people out there watching.
Tinashe Chingarande: So my foray into this fellowship started off with Tatyana, who is my former program mate, telling me to apply for it [laughs]. And this happened towards the end of the spring semester. I was not really applying for jobs, and so I thought, let me do this for the summer.
And one of the main reasons why I ended up applying, and thankfully I got in later on, was because I feel like legacy media has been the narrative of the American experience. And I’ve seen firsthand how detrimental it can be to communities that are marginalized. And so given that I thought it was really important for me to lend my voice to publications that want to ford putting the voices of the voiceless towards the front. And so that inspired me to apply for the fellowship, and that also inspired a lot of the work that I did.
And so the reporting I did had to do with education and how the declining literacy amongst Black kids could affect activism in the future. And it’s an issue I’m desperately passionate about because I think, anecdotally, we talk about how we don’t read as much anymore, but we also don’t talk about how detrimental that is for the way we think. And I think that for people’s ability to think and to have this conscience, for that to be attacked is super dangerous because you won’t be able to stand up to oppressive systems. And more than ever, we are seeing the cards that were being dealt as a society getting worse and worse. And if we do not have the power of knowledge to back us, then what will we become as a community? And I know, anecdotally, people joke about we’re getting into this dystopian time and it’s going to be Armageddon, but it quite literally could also become Armageddon [laughs].
Maximillian Alvarez: It’s like, okay, unless, it’s feeling like less of a joke [laughs].
Tinashe Chingarande: Exactly. And so I thought it was super important for me to lend my talents and my voice to this mission that The Real News Network and Just Media had, because it’s so important to tell these kinds of stories.
Maximillian Alvarez: And there’s even the great way you articulated what writing does for you as a vehicle to articulate yourself, to put the soup in your head into physical form and play with that form and learn more about who you are as you’re writing. I identify with that a lot. That’s how I’ve related to writing for my entire life.
But the reverse is also true, like you said. So if you don’t have the reading, if you don’t have that engagement with that world, you also lose that articulateness of your own self. You don’t have that same ability to think through or work out the things that you can work out in reading and writing. So we lose a bit of ourselves by not engaging in that world as well. I thought that was really beautifully put.
Tinashe Chingarande: And I think that’s also important, because I remember one of the interviews I did for my stories was with a teacher who teaches in Baltimore, and they were talking about how curricula does not address change makers in the Black community, specifically the Baltimore Black community. And they were talking about how it’s so detrimental, because these kids grow up, and they don’t know that there were people before them who could enact the kind of change that these kids now want as adults. And so I feel like to be able to pull from that history and put it in the forefront gives communities hope and a sense that you can do this because this is within your lineage.
Maximillian Alvarez: And as you rightly mention in your piece, because it’s the frame of everything, we are living through a moment where curricula are actively being erased. And so it’s like those figures in the past are disappearing if there’s no one there to remember them. God, again, I can keep talking to y’all for hours. But what about you [Ahmari]? Talk us through the process of applying to the fellowship, getting it, developing the story, anything else you want to highlight.
Ahmari Anthony: So I was actually able to do a fellowship with Just Media in 2020. So I was one of the Uprising Fellows then. And when I did Uprising Fellowship, that was the summer that everything happened, and we were virtual. And my story ended up being about Pittsburgh and the horrible conditions in Allegheny County Jail and lots of human rights violations that were going on, particularly with anyone who was incarcerated who had mental health issues, any type of developmental disabilities, anything like that.
And so once I did that story, I had stayed up on what Just Media was doing, and I was always following the page, reading other fellow stuff as more programs came on. And this one really, really spoke to me because the time that I visited Baltimore, different times that I visited while I’ve lived in DC, Baltimore has reminded me so much of home. It’s a working class town with large populations of immigrants, people of color, and it was something that talking about those same issues in a city like this, in a city that’s also been misportrayed in media in the past, really spoke to me.
So I ended up applying for the fellowship, and we had to write lots of essays in our application about what we think about the criminal justice system and also what story ideas that we had. And so over time, that eventually changed and morphed. And one thing I really loved about the fellowship was our vision sheet at the beginning that we did, that really helped me feel like any pitch that I did was intentionally aligned with the type of work that we were trying to do. And it really made me think outside of the box of who I should be interviewing, how I should go about telling this story, how I can get creative.
And so initially I had been kind of bouncing around two ideas. I was really passionate about doing something historical about Baltimore because, again, I wanted to learn more about this city and why it resonated so deeply with me. But then also I had the idea for this story of a meta piece about storytelling, and that ended up being the one that came to fruition. And it’s funny, because I don’t know why I didn’t expect a piece about storytelling in Baltimore to not have Baltimore history in it. But the more interviews that I did, the more that I naturally learned about the city, the culture, the people, everything.
And so I really liked being able to go through that process and go back, and we did profiles on each other. I thought that was really fun. It was like this conversation, me and Tinashe got to sit and talk about how we got to this work, why we like doing it, what were our thoughts at the time of how the fellowship was going. And then we had our Q&As, and that was also kind of this conversation, where we get to sit and talk to someone for an hour and a half about what they think about this topic and their experiences in Baltimore.
And then we got to the final piece, the biggest thing that I took away from the fellowship in producing that was being able to have someone like Tatyana and Rjaa be very hands-on with us about editing and really pushing us so hard when it came to interviewing, when it came to thinking about why we’re saying the things that we’re saying or how we can say them better to get people to understand. And also weaving in the evidence of the things that you’re talking about when we talk about: curricula being attacked, or when we talk about why these concepts are so important, being able to go back and have your editors say, okay, what is the evidence? What has happened that we know of? And how can we show that to people who don’t know? So I really loved being able to have a fellowship that valued those things and knew how to integrate it so that anyone who touches our pieces can learn something new about what’s gone wrong in the past and then the people who are working to change it or fix it in the future.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, let’s tug on that thread a little bit more, because I want to also really lift up and celebrate the great tutoring work and mentoring work that the folks at Just Media do, and talk about what you were just talking about, about how that helped you develop as a journalist. So Tinashe, I wanted to also bring you in here if you had any thoughts on that as well. What was it like for both of you to work with the great folks at Just Media? Raja, Tatyana, the whole crew there. And for, again, folks out there watching who are maybe trying to cut their teeth as freelancers, they know they want to write, but they don’t know a lot about the process. What does a fellowship like this help you develop as an emerging journalist? Or what questions that maybe you were always afraid to ask does it help you answer?
Tinashe Chingarande: So for me, my biggest lesson was the importance of knowing that you have an audience that you’re writing for. Because I think for me personally, when you’re writing, you’re in solitude. When you’re researching, you’re researching in solitude, you interview these people alone. And so when you finally put pen to paper, you forget that there’s other people reading. And so the way I would write, I would write in a way that I would love to read, and then I would turn in 2,000 word drafts [laughs].
Maximillian Alvarez: Relatable [laughs].
Tinashe Chingarande: And would have to sit on a Zoom call with Tatyana and Rjaa and try to make a case for them to not cut parts that I thought were super, super important.
But then also I thought it was such a beautiful lesson because I had to think about where we are as a society with the way we read, and we read online. And so you want to grab people by the first swipe that they do on their phone. And so I can’t afford to write like I’m writing a 10,000 page novel.
And so additionally, I also think that thinking about audience and the way I was edited, it helped me think about the kinds of context I give in stories and what needs to be given more context than other things. Because I think that as someone who would’ve researched on the topic, it’s really easy to assume that your audience would know this. And also making assumptions about the kind of people who read those stories. It’s very easy to forget that not only are you telling a story, but you’re also teaching someone something new. And so it’s important to give them as much of a wholesome picture as you can.
Ahmari Anthony: Tinashe said everything perfectly [Alvarez laughs], nothing to add. I want to double the part about the 2,000 word drafts. I was a little bit worse than that, but I think that I learned the same lesson.
Tinashe Chingarande: Tatyana broke our hearts [all laugh].
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, it’s tough for me because I am both the you and the Tatyana in this situation because as an editor, I now am doing the… How do I say, not the hacking. Lovingly cut down on the editing side of things. But as a writer, every time, even now when I submit a draft, I just sent a 15,000 word off to a magazine that asked me for a 5,000 word draft, and I’m like, don’t you dare kill my babies. Keep all of them in there. Every word is important. So I deeply sympathize, and also sympathize with Tatyana.
We’ve got a few more minutes here, but I want to make sure that we put a spotlight on the pieces that we just published of yours, because again, they’re going to be more, we’re going to link to all of them that are up by the time that this interview is posted. So anyone watching or listening should go to The Real News Network website. Through the links there, you can read these great reports that Tinashe and Ahmari have been putting out with the help of everyone at Just Media. But just this week we published the first two in this series. They were both incredible. They involved a lot of Q&A with really fascinating people.
So Tinashe published “’There is an attack on Black literacy’: Why education and activism go together,” an interview with Justin Hansford, who is a movement lawyer and executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University’s School of Law. It was a really fascinating interview.
And as Ahmari said, today, we published the piece titled “Keeping the griot tradition alive in Baltimore.” Janice Curtis Greene, former president of the National Association of Black Storytellers, is the subject of this piece.
And both of these, they’re such interesting people, and the conversations that y’all had with them were so interesting. So tell us about those. I want folks to hear from your mouths how these pieces develop, what they’re about, and why you’re proud of them. Hopefully you’re proud of them. You should be. We’re proud to publish them.
Tinashe Chingarande: So just like Ahmari, I’m an avid reader, and I grew up reading ever since I was a kid. And so that thirst for knowledge is something I’m super passionate about. And lately, I’ve been reading a lot about the Black Panthers and trying to understand how they came to be, why they came to be, and how they function, and how the Black Panthers… I don’t want to say fell apart, but how they were attacked into oblivion.
And so with that, one of the things that stood out the most to me was their liberation schools. Because when people talk about the Black Panthers, they talk about their militancy and they talk about the food programs, but they rarely talk about the fact that they had four-year-old kids writing letters to jailed panthers. People rarely talk about how kids were reading about Kwame Nkrumah, Marcus Garvey, all these people who were literal icons in the Black Liberation movement globally. And so when it came to thinking about the kind of story I wanted to do, I really wanted to hone in on that tradition of how Black liberation movements have used education as a weapon and as a tool.
And naturally, I wanted to talk to an activist who exists in that space. And so after some googling, Justin Hansford came up. Justin Hansford, like you already said, is the executive director at the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at the Howard School of Law. And additionally, his come up started as one of the lawyers who offered support to Mike Brown’s family in 2014. And he was part of a team that presented a report to the United Nations talking about the atrocities of police brutality that happen in America. And his work has since evolved to address reparations, and he’s part of a permanent forum at the United Nations that is trying to look at what mechanisms can be put in place to provide reparations for Black people in America, but also to provide some kind of justice to Black people around the world in Africa and the Caribbean and on all other continents.
My conversation with him was so illuminating. It was super fun because, first of all, I just got to geek out with him about many different concepts. And obviously the interview that people are going to read is very heavily edited and has been cut down as well because it was two hours worth of talking [laughs]. And unlike the first story that I turned in that was 2,000 words, this one was a good 13 pages.
And so one of the things that really stood out to me about that interview was that as much as we talk about education being super important for literacy, I think that sometimes it can get diluted into thinking that it’s the only thing needed for activism. And one of the things that Justin said was that even when we were illiterate, we still fought the powers. And I thought that was so powerful to say that. Activism is much more complicated than it seems on the outside. And as much as the education is an important tool, we still have the power regardless.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah, beautifully put.
Ahmari Anthony: So my story, or my Q&A, was with Janice Curtis Greene. And like you said, she was a former president of NABS, which is the National Association of Black Storytellers. But I found her originally because she was actually designated the official Griot of Maryland recently. And so that encompassed this fellowship that she got that allowed her to put a lot of different programs into place for The Griots’ Circle of Maryland, which is the local chapter. And also a lot of people don’t know that their national organization was started here in Baltimore. So I had talked with her as well as a couple of other elders in their organization.
And I really liked talking to her because the day that I caught her, she was coming out of an early mass service. And so she was talking to me a little bit about it and telling me about the history of Black Catholicism in Baltimore, and how her church is one of the oldest ones, one of the oldest Black churches in the country when it comes to Catholic churches. And so we talked about that for 45 minutes, and then we actually got into storytelling.
And I thought that that was a perfect way to start our interview because, again, one, you talk to someone who is a wealth of knowledge about local history and is able to tell you so much about these little things about the culture that most people wouldn’t know, things that make your city special and unique. But then also when you have people talk to you about their daily experiences like that, and she walks me through what going to a mass service is like, and all the different churches that she’s visited in the city, and how each one is unique, and each one has a unique congregation that comes and has these different practices and traditions and why she preferred one over the other things that she noticed at one over the other. That, to me, is a perfect example of that type of storytelling and history keeping that I was looking to encapsulate in this piece.
So we talked a lot about her experience with NABS and what the organization means to her and what the experience is like to go to a national conference and have those things like drum circles and being able to tell folk tales and all of those things, and how they weave together the historical stories with the fictional things that we all know and grew up on. What was just so beautiful about doing this piece is stories that… She’s so much older than me, she’s an elder, so being able to hear that she’s been telling stories that I grew up on, longer than my parents are even alive, it really was nice to be able to hear how those things morph and change over time and the purpose of why we tell them.
And so initially I had asked her a lot about what type of work that she did in carceral spaces, but I noticed that she didn’t really differentiate between what they do in carceral spaces, what they do in schools, what they do in other communities. And she talked about how really the stories just change. Because it’s all similar struggles, but you’re trying to give people different things when you tell a story every time. And so she talked a little bit about how there’s people in senior centers that need just as much hope and support as people who have been locked away in prison for years, and how there’s a similarity between those experiences. And so I really loved being able to walk through her methodology of how she tells a story.
And it really taught me a lot as a journalist, because I learned through doing this piece as a whole that art is storytelling, and storytelling is an art, if that makes sense. And so being able to hear how she’s someone who gets up on a stage, tells stories live in full dress, she has all these objects that she brings, it’s an experience. And so it started to make me think about how I can create journalistic pieces that immerse people in that same way.
And so it was a real challenge to try to capture her personality and her liveliness when we have to get a story under a certain number of words. And we have this big, amazing, long conversation where I feel like I’m getting a direct channeled message from the ancestors talking to her, and then I have to chop that down. But I think that I still did my best, and I really loved every single second of that conversation with her. Even what she shared about her own personal experiences. She talked about two of her sons who have both since passed away, and how she was able to use storytelling as a way to heal those wounds and why she thinks that storytelling, not just to heal personal wounds, but also to heal cultural wounds that we have, is so critical.
And that’s how we got back to the larger idea of Black storytelling, is she’s explaining how telling these… I mean Anansi is the first one that comes to mind for a lot of people. So telling Anansi stories, talking about tricksters, talking about his capability to get in and out of every situation is something that’s so important to be passed down because historically, since Black people have been brought to this country, a new situation pops up all the time. And it can be dangerous, it can be life-threatening, or it can even just be something small like a microaggression.
But you have to find a way to get around it and still be able to persevere and come out on top, and why it’s important to maintain those same stories. Or when you have something as deep as losing a child, how you even go about finding the words for a pain like that and for an experience like that, but why it is so necessary to do it. Because like you said, if you don’t read, you aren’t able to understand your own experiences. Sometimes not being able to hear that other people have gone through the same things or even imagined the same things that you have can make you shrink those things within yourself. And so I got to talk about all of that with her, and it was a really amazing – Tinashe used the word spiritual. It was spiritual, it was emotional, it was historical. There were just so many dimensions to that conversation. So I hope that the piece captures that.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, from my perspective, it does. And I just wanted to say how much I sympathize and empathize with the predicaments that it puts you in, because I feel this all the time. It never goes away because we care about these stories, and we want people to hear them in their fullness like we have gotten to. Because when we hear them, we’re like, God, that was such an incredible conversation. If I could just get people to listen to the whole thing, they’ll feel the way that I did. They’ll hear all the great stories that this person just told me, which is why I am so stubborn with the interviews I do with Working People. And I’ll do an hour, hour and a half, even two hours because I think it’s still worth preserving in its fullness.
And so that’s what I was going to say is that I think one thing that I have learned to help me deal with the process of having to have all this incredible material and cut it down to 1,500 words, it feels like an affront to the people I interviewed. I guess the way I learned to be okay with it was there are different mediums to harness, right? Audio, full interview, I want to get people interested with the text piece, and I know that the vast majority of people have a short attention span with these things. So my goal is to get them sucked in enough and interested enough that they go and want to listen to the full audio interview or something like that. But it’s not lost forever, I guess is what I’m saying. And we’re doing our best to work with the different media that we have, which is what you both have done beautifully with your pieces. And I hope that you do preserve at least the transcript of the full interviews and keep them somewhere so that we can preserve these great stories in their fullness for our generation and beyond. So our generation, my generation, your generation, we’re not [laughs]… Sorry, don’t worry, I’m old.
But also speaking of two-hour conversations, I could clearly keep talking to y’all for two more hours, but I know we got to wrap this up, and I wanted y’all to have the last words. So first, I just wanted to, once again, thank you for doing all this incredible work. It’s been an honor to see how the projects have developed. I love getting to work with Just Media, and I hope that more people apply to their fellowship programs and take advantage of their great resources. Because as you all have shown, they’re really worth taking advantage of, and they can help you produce really, really great stuff. So just wanted to thank y’all for being a part of that, letting us be part of it, letting us share your work with the world.
But yeah, I want y’all to close us out and have the final word. I just wanted to hear from y’all about what comes next for you individually, for these stories? Do you want to follow up on them, or do you have other stories that this fellowship has made you want to pursue? And do you have any final thoughts you want to share with people out there who, again, may be thinking about applying to that fellowship or getting into journalism? Anything that you want to leave people with from your experience with this fellowship?
Tinashe Chingarande: So for me, I’m going to continue a lot of this work in the sense of, it’s no secret that the world we’re living in is attacking storytellers in all shapes, forms, etc, etc, etc. Whether it’s music, whether it’s writing, whether it’s film, whether it’s art. And so I think it’s super important for me to continue uplifting the art and the practice of storytelling because we make sense of who we are by telling stories. So naturally so, I want to continue writing about the activist space and what it means to fight for a cause, what it means to be brave enough to stand up to the Goliath that is our oppressive governance and what that looks like: the losses, the gains, the emotional toll, even the spiritual commitments some of these people put into this work. I really want to continue talking about that.
And for future fellows, I think one thing that I would say is to dig within your heart and write from there, because I think that the most powerful stories are the ones that come from a place within us that is so passionate and really yearning to say something. And I think that what a lot of people have to say is super important. And so leaning in on that is what you should do.
Ahmari Anthony: I think for me, there’s so much that I would love to follow up on when it comes to my story. I think a lot of the organizations that I was able to speak with, the Chesapeake Conjure Society, I’d love to learn more about them and the work that they do, especially because I think it’s so important to talk about. I think in journalism we don’t talk enough about emotions and spirit and those things that really do influence people’s lives so deeply. So being able to write a story about them, I think, would be amazing.
The historical photography project, I hope that everyone learns a little bit about that in my story, and I hope that there’s a way, a will somewhere that will bring that back, because I think it was so powerful. So I think that being able to follow up with any of those organizations. Also the Growing Griots program. I think that working with youth is so important. In the story I got to talk a lot about youth, but I’d love to have the opportunity to talk to them directly and really understand how they feel like these things are impacting them, being able to learn these stories and feeling empowered by being able to tell them in their own ways.
And then I think, in that same vein, my daytime job is being a school social worker. And so after talking to Janice Curtis Greene and hearing her tell about those experiences of sitting around a group of kids and telling a story, I was actually able to start an initiative at my school where we do read-alouds of folktales, of African-American folk tales. And we’ve only been doing it for a week or so, but we’ve gotten a really good response from our kids, and I’ve been able to learn so much about what they do and don’t know about their history just through doing that. And I think that that’s one thing that the story really kind of inspired me to bring into my real life is being able to do what I can to preserve those things.
And in Tinashe’s story, you talk about the difference between an activist and an organizer. And I think that being able to report and talk to these folks encouraged me to want to be an activist in my own little way. I hope that with movement journalism, that’s always what people take away from a story, is what can I do in my community to bring this to life if I enjoy this? Or what can I do in my community to change this if this is something that’s threatening to me or other people? So I think that that’s something that I really was able to take away.
And then for any emerging journalists who are thinking about doing this fellowship, I think you said it perfectly. Look for the story that’s inside of your heart. I think look for the things that politicize, radicalize, really stir you up. Because there’s so much power in your own story and speaking to your own experiences. If you remember the things that brought you to this work and you tell those stories, that’s almost a guaranteed way of bringing someone else into this work. So finding more ways to depict what you’ve experienced and draw the path that led you to where you are is another way to keep making the circle of movement journalists bigger.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and one quick tiny follow up, just because we were talking about this right before we got started, and I only ask it because it really brings us full circle back to the point of fellowships like these and the importance of voices like yours, is that Ahmari, you were even talking about how difficult it was to get young people on the record and what you learned from that experience. I was wondering if we could close on what you wanted to share about that.
Ahmari Anthony: I think that when it comes to, like you said, fellowships like this, we spend a lot of time in journalism, especially in mainstream journalism, talking about marginalized communities, whether that’s working people, whether that’s people of color, whether that’s immigrants, whether that’s young people. And in mainstream media, we don’t often get the opportunity to interview those folks. And so I know with young people, especially with doing movement journalism, we talk a lot about what the future of this country or this society looks like, and then we have no record of the people who are making that come to fruition.
We have a record of all the adults who are telling them what to do, who are creating these programs for them, who are getting thousands upon thousands of dollars in funding to do things for kids, and we have no idea how they actually feel about it, or how they actually feel about the world they’re growing up in, and what they do want to keep and what they don’t.
And so I think that that’s something that I really want to work on more as I’m moving forward as a journalist. I think that there’s so many great journalists who are doing that work when it comes to doing bilingual journalism and trying to find different ways of presenting stories so that people with different abilities can read them and share them and contribute to them. And there’s so many crowdsourced, audience-focused journalistic projects happening now, and I think that those things have to be more targeted when it comes to specific communities that we’re trying to empower.
And for me, that will always be young people because I think about the future of this world so much, and we talk about the idea that we’re approaching this Armageddon and things are becoming pointless and hopeless. These kids are coming into the world and that’s all that they hear, and I want to know how they feel about that, and I want to know if they believe that. And I want to know, if they don’t, what they’re going to do to change those things.
Maximillian Alvarez: Let’s give it up for Ahmari and Tinashe [applause]!