While #SaveStudentNewsrooms trended across the country this week, a project to train, nurture and develop a new generation of black journalistic voices was well under way.
Black on Campus, a joint effort led by media professors at American University and Wake Forest and the journal The Nation, is designed for participants to develop professional skills as they document the experiences of black college students and report on issues of national consequence to a black college student audience.
Students will produce solo and joint pieces that will appear in the online and print versions of The Nation.
The project is led by Melissa Harris-Perry — the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest, where also serves as founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center — and Dr. Sherri Williams — an assistant professor in race, media, and communication at American University.
“One thing that we try to do besides giving them the basic technical skills and some of those old-school journalism skills,” Williams said in an interview with College Media Network, “is we also try to share some of our experiences with them that we had working in newsrooms and with national news outlets and share with them some of our experiences so that they can learn from them, and so that they can be better.”
The Black on Campus initiative grew out of a journalism program that Williams and Perry worked on with ELLE.com during the last academic year, an opportunity for Wake Forest University undergraduate students to create content focused on women and girls of color and get national exposure on a website known for its coverage of culture, fashion, pop culture, and politics.
The two leaders turned to The Nation for their latest idea and opened the program to students from across the country, which made securing one of the final spots highly competitive. Williams says the partnership with The Nation made a lot of sense.
“They are a publication that has already demonstrated a commitment to developing young journalist voices, she said. “They already have their institute for younger journalists and a series of fellowships and internships. They already have their national college media conference, and it’s going to be in New York in June, so this is a publication that already has the commitment to fostering the voices and the skills of young journalists.”
The Black on Campus team will be attending that June conference — held at The New School in NYC — and will travel to Washington, D.C. and Wake Forest University as part of the program.
Williams very much wants the students in the program to focus on the experience of being a black student on campus in 2018 America.
“We know that in the past five to ten years there have been seismic cultural and political shifts on college campuses. Student activism is something we’ve seen rise exponentially on college campuses across the country. What we have seen in media so far are these flash points but not really these layered stories that tell us what leads up to this.”
It’s those layered, complex nuances that Williams hopes the students will be able to bring out in their stories, mainly through the techniques and experience that she and Perry will relate to the budding young storytellers.
“They can not only fuse their journalism skills but also their lived experience to create these stories that are complexed, layered, and really get to the heart of what it is like to be a black college student in America today,” she said. Williams hopes the students “will uncover some of the systemic imbalances and cracks and fractures that lead black students to feel unwelcome and to have a totally different experience than their white counterparts on campus and in the classroom.”
When asked about the journalism education specifically and whether outside programs like Black on Campus are essential for students hoping to break into media companies, Williams’ response was measured.
“Students can always learn more. This is a business and I think a lot of people get into storytelling thinking about the transformative ways that stories can not only transform the lives of individuals but also how stories and narratives can have an impact on policies and practices and institutions. But at the end of it is a business and there are some things about this business that can never be taught.”
And it’s those un-teachable experiences that the Black on Campus program’s ambitious agenda seems well on the way to delivering.
Here’s the Black on Campus team for 2018:
Deja Dennis: Xavier University of Louisiana
Deasia Sutgrey: University of Kansas
Savannah West: Clark Atlanta University
Lauren Lumpkin: American University
Candace King: University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Alexis Gravely: University of Virginia
Devan Cole: The George Washington University
Noëlle Lilly: Walter Cronkite School of Journalism (Arizona State University)
Aaron Coleman: New York University
Brianna Reddick: Wake Forest University