This is what success looks like: Five years after MLK50 was born, the team stands for a photo in front of the I Am A Man mural on Main Street. From left: reporter Carrington J. Tatum, reporter Jacob Steimer, digital editor Stephanie Wilson, founding editor and publisher Wendi C. Thomas, executive editor Adrienne Johnson Martin and visuals editor Andrea Morales. Photo by Alex MacLeod for MLK50

Dear Professor Bildner, 

I hope this finds you doing well. You probably don’t remember me, but in spring 2016, I took your social entrepreneurship class at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. 

I had a big idea and you, the CEO of a global venture philanthropy firm “supporting early stage, high impact social enterprises,” seemed like a great person to help me pull it off. 

My idea was MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a free news product in a low-wealth community where the folks who stood most to benefit from independent journalism were also the least equipped to pay for it. 

I still have all the assignments – my theory of change, a list of what MLK50’s core values would be, and even a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats).

What I remember most from that class is this: You told me that MLK50 was “not viable.” 

Today, MLK50 turned 5. I’m delighted to tell you that you were wrong. Remarkably wrong. Stunningly wrong. 

Jim – can I call you Jim? I feel like I should call you Jim – I’ve wanted to write to you so many times over the years. (Instead, I just tweeted about you.) 

I thought of you when I hired my first employee and my fifth. When we moved into our offices at Memphis Music Initiative. When we got our first national grant from the Surdna Foundation, and when we got our eighth and most recent from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation.

When MLK50 won a national award for rookie reporter Carrington J. Tatum’s work covering the Byhalia Pipeline. When I learned that the Black organizers who fought off an oil pipeline met because they read an MLK50 story about the environmental hazard headed toward their neighborhood.

Justin J. Pearson, a co-founder of the grassroots Memphis Community Against the Pipeline organization, leads a march from the National Civil Rights Museum to Memphis City Hall against the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline. Developers pulled the project in July. Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

You came to mind when in conjunction with ProPublica, we investigated the unconscionable debt collection practices of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare that dragged hundreds of patients into court for debts they couldn’t afford to pay. A “humbled” Methodist announced sweeping reforms, including making its financial assistance policy more generous and raising the pay of its lowest-paid employees to at least $15 an hour.

Because of this work, more than 5,300 defendants had nearly $12 million in medical debt erased.

Because of MLK50, there are thousands of people who will never be sued by Methodist, who will never have their credit ruined, who will never be pushed into bankruptcy, who will never see their hopes to buy a home dashed simply because they had the misfortune to be sick and poor at the same time. 

 Marilyn Boyd worked as a housekeeper at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital, earning $12.25 an hour. She owed the hospital more than $23,000. That debt was canceled just weeks after an MLK50: Justice Through Journalism-ProPublica investigation into the hospital system’s predatory collections practices. Andrea Morales for MLK50

One of those people is Marilyn Boyd, who worked for Methodist as a housekeeper. She owed more than $23,000 and only made $12.15 an hour.  I got to tell her that her debt was gone. If I close my eyes, I can see her face: Disbelief, followed by joy, followed by tears. 

That was my proudest moment as a journalist, as a human – and if I’d listened to you, it wouldn’t have happened.

If I’d listened to you, I would not have experienced the absolute joy of building MLK50 with and learning from photojournalist Andrea Morales, MLK50’s visuals editor.

I would never have gotten to collaborate with reporter and fellow policy nerd Jacob Steimer. Charting the organization’s future with executive editor Adrienne Johnson Martin and digital editor Stephanie Wilson, and watching Andrea Hart work her fundraising magic – I would have robbed myself of some of the richest professional experiences in my life. 

But Jim, I didn’t just think of you when I was proving you wrong. I thought of you when things weren’t going well. 

Your words flooded my brain on June 25, 2019, when the founder of a massive venture philanthropy effort to save local journalism told me that MLK50 was “too risky” to support. 

(I remember the exact day because while I was listening to him, my dad was having a heart attack – which I would have known except I kept declining my sister’s calls. My dad is fine, by the way. And this organization did end up supporting us.) 

Every time a grant application was rejected, when I couldn’t seem to make a dent in my to-do list, when stories didn’t quite come together like we’d envisioned, I thought: Maybe Jim was right.

I mean, you were the Harvard professor, you invested in successful startups, you picked winners – and you said it wouldn’t work. 

And I was just … Well, me. A decent journalist, but I’d never worked on either coast or at a fancy paper. I’d never started a business (although I did start a very successful if short-lived race relations initiative). 

I never dreamed of sitting in an Ivy League classroom, much less Harvard (and certainly not on the prestigious Nieman fellowship, although I did get an amazing journalism education at Butler University.)

You’re an older white man, so I don’t expect you to get this, but it is hard to be a Black woman with ambition, to shrug off the heaviness of doubt, to steady yourself after someone who has been deemed an expert says your idea won’t work.

My imposter syndrome seized your words and giddily called my chronic depression and struggling self-esteem. Together, they made a “Not Viable” mixtape. Every time I had a particularly bad day at work, they put it on repeat. Cranked it up. The noise – and to be sure, it was noise – was deafening. 

So I made something to interrupt the noise. 

On scrawled notes taped to my computer monitor, homemade signs around my office, bathroom mirror Post-Its that miraculously hang on despite the steam, and my “Truth” Pinterest board (378 pins and counting), I encouraged myself.

They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds. If you haven’t felt like quitting, your dreams aren’t big enough. Speak what you seek until you see what you’ve said. I can and I will. Watch me. They told me I couldn’t. That’s why I did. Everything is hard before it is easy. We can do this, AND WE WILL.

Most days, I recite a modified version of Edgar Albert Guest’s “It Couldn’t Be Done.” (I put an s in front of all the references to he.) I keep Donald Lawrence’s “Encourage Yourself” on repeat.

In the end, your words became motivation, and for that, I thank you. Or, as the kids would say: Haters make you greater.

MLK50 founder Wendi C. Thomas and MLK50 supporter Leanne Kleinmann toast to the team’s first year and coverage of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 2018. 

From time to time, I get a call from someone who wants to launch their own nonprofit newsroom. I give it to them straight – you will work harder for yourself than you ever have in your life. 

I tell them not to make my mistakes: Raise as much money as you can before you launch. If you’re a journalist, find someone who is passionate about the business side (and vice versa). Launching alone can be a very lonely endeavor, so if you want to go far, find someone to go with you. 

But I encourage them to try. The Bible says that the power of life and death is in the tongue. I try to speak life over their dreams, aspirations, goals and visions. I’m lucky enough to have had countless supporters along the way, and I hope to invest in others the way so many have invested in me.

To be fair, Harvard didn’t hire you to correct centuries of misogynoir that helps explain why, according to one recent study, Black women founders receive a tiny share of venture capital. I understand why you didn’t see my idea as viable. There’s no guarantee we’ll make it another five years, although the odds are good. 

But if I could offer some food for thought, it would be this: When in doubt, bet on Black.

Thriving, in abundance and limitless,

Wendi 

P.S. We’re raising $5,000 to mark MLK50’s fifth anniversary. Please consider making a donation today


Wendi C. Thomas is the founding editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at wendicthomas@mlk50.com.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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