Before we took a break the week of March 6, we published a story, both important and poignant, about the death of Jessica James, a FedEx warehouse worker killed on the job by the forklift she was driving.
As the largest employer in Memphis, FedEx is important for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism to hold accountable; we are committed to reporting on and exploring the lives of the company’s workers. It’s key to the fulfillment of our mission.
There was something else to notice about that story — it was written by our founder Wendi C. Thomas.
Why, you might ask, is that significant? It signals a shift in Wendi’s role, one she’s wanted to make for a while.
“I’ve spent virtually all of the last 2.5 years focused on raising money and organizational operations and it’s paid off,” she says. “But all the while, I’ve been itching to get closer to the journalism, and while I’m not all the way back, I’m much, much closer than I’ve been in a long while.”
She’s closer because our staff has grown. Wendi wanted to return to almost full-time reporting by June 2024, but with the addition of chief strategy officer Andrea Hart and development director Lupita Parra, she can get to her first love sooner.
She’s learned, she says, to be a nonprofit executive director, but in her heart, she’s always been a reporter. “My skills as a journalist are what qualified me to start MLK50, but my experience as a reporter and longtime Memphian are my biggest assets to the organization. I’ve been a working journalist for 30 years, but the stories I’m most proud of, I wrote while at MLK50.”
Jessica James’ story adds to that list because Wendi has built a newsroom that allows for the kind of in-depth storytelling and reporting this story required. Too often, she says, workplace deaths like Jessica’s go unexplored after the initial headlines.
“The demands on journalists in most newsrooms keeps them from doing much more than copying pieces of the police report and press releases and maybe interviewing a grieving relative,” Wendi said.
“The harder job is the digging. The hard work is finding people who knew and loved Jessica and finding people who knew what it was to work alongside Jessica and can speak to the conditions at the FedEx World Hub.
“But that’s what Jessica deserves.”
I can tell you, as her editor, Wendi worked on this story around her work as an executive, her personal life, in spare moments, in times when she should have rested. She was determined to tell it because, she says, FedEx is “the giant in every room in Memphis.” And not everyone wants to take on a giant. But we believe that’s what journalists are for.
In the end, Wendi says, she thought about the workers and their safety.
“What became clear to me through the reporting is that it was a choice not to provide workers with safe equipment. Time and time again, FedEx’s systems – such as they were – that might have protected Jessica failed, with the most tragic results.
“But if a company chose to be negligent, a company can choose to be responsible. And I guess that’s the good news: There doesn’t have to be another Jessica.”
FedEx has made some changes and so, perhaps, that will be true. The other good news is Wendi is already thinking about what’s next.
“I always want to tell stories that others either won’t tell, or can’t tell in the way the MLK50 team does. I’m wired to look out for those who are being mistreated, overlooked, the unintended (or intended) victims of bad policy.
“I’m inclined to accountability journalism and stories that have the potential to have a meaningful impact for a large number of people. Of course, I welcome ideas and tips for stories. I can be reached on all the social platforms, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
You are our partners in holding power accountable, and so, I encourage you to reach out to Wendi or anyone on the team. We don’t want to tell more stories like Jessica’s. But our team, newly strengthened, a bit more rested, is here when they come up.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at email@example.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.