In my first week of journalism school, students were divided and put on different buses to explore various boroughs of New York. I ended up on the Bronx bus, which annoyed me; I was born and raised there. What, I thought, could I learn?
We got to the first neighborhood, one I knew well. I had walked its streets many times, laughing with friends, getting chips from its bodegas. Over the bus’ public address system, the guide told us how dangerous it was and how a student had been mugged there so we should be careful. We passed the church where my family had gathered joyfully just weeks before, celebrating my uncle’s wedding. The priest there has a brother in the Mafia, the guide said, pointing at the church as we rolled by. He laughed as he talked about the ways he said the priest had benefited from criminal activities.
This kind of chatter went on as we traveled, story after story, his version of a colorful, quirky travelog of streets where I had family, memories and connection. By the end of the tour, I was near tears. I wrote a letter to the dean, telling him what I’d been through. He met with me, a look of bemusement on his face. Nothing happened after that.
That experience shaped my time at J-school. I spent the rest of the year almost exclusively writing stories about the Bronx. I had to redeem my community, revealing in my work the people and the places I knew. In fact, that experience shaped my journalistic career. I had witnessed the ways bias is instilled — at a place in the business of training journalists — and it ignited my desire to reclaim the narrative, to add context and humanity to the lives of low-wealth people, Black people, underrepresented people, all people. That experience led me to MLK50.
I was reminded of those early days in J-school, as I edited The Parkway Village story written by MLK50’s housing and development reporter Jacob Steimer. Jacob’s story explores how that community has been affected by white flight, when not just white neighbors left but resources, too.
Something else happened, too: “The long-time Black residents who spoke with MLK50 complained that local television news stopped mentioning Parkway Village in anything besides crime stories.” A 2007 editorial in the Commercial Appeal described the neighborhood as “moribund.”
The media picked up the narrative, perhaps without context and certainly without considering the consequences. It’s not wrong to tell what happened, but if the role of journalism is to inform, it’s just as important to tell why something happened, to explore how we got here. Every story we write lasts far longer than it takes to write it.
Jacob’s story shows there’s more to the story of Parkway Village. And the people who live there now are determined to tell it and to rewrite the narrative.
As it turned out, that bus trip through my community gave me a lifelong lesson.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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